There is a woman in the city here walking around and conducting her day-to-day life with the memory of an argument, a screaming match, that had horrible consequences. Or rather, that ended badly; badly in the extreme. It would be wrong to ascribe the end result as a consequence of the argument. Hopefully the woman concerned could keep that last thought at bay.
The couple had been together over fifteen years. He drank a great deal, smoked like a chimney. A wild lad, though wild in the context of the art world. Not a wild, hard man.
In the usual way, even the couple’s closest friends didn’t know too much about their intimate, private life. One of the circle suggested the man, a prominent local musician, played an important role as step-father to the woman’s son from a previous relationship. The same person too who had commented on the fatherhood role suggested the man had been struggling recently with his ageing. Early/mid-fifties’ life position worsened by the booze; there was the beginning of various ailments.
The argument, the screaming match, took place in the inner city apartment the pair had bought some years before, an apartment sitting on the 24th floor of the building. Wild screaming it had been. She from one of the rooms indoors and the man eventually from the balcony.
A sudden silence arrived from the latter after the man, the woman’s partner, flipped himself over the balcony railing.
In such circumstance there might not have been any scream once the rail had been cleared. That was the likelihood.
Clearly, there had been no thought of the danger to anyone happening by on the ground beneath the balcony. (Nothing further had resulted.)
Some kind of sudden impulse involved, a sudden trigger action, whatever precursors there may have been earlier. In the months and years earlier.
The first report of the incident had not mentioned the screaming. It was a close intimate of the pair who later divulged that part of the matter.
In an unrelated event thirty-five years ago, a cousin had thrown herself down a well up in our Montenegrin village. Bacila se. Thrown herself; when in fact in a case like that Cousin Jovanka must have let herself slide down from the rim of the well.
It has surprisingly gone now from memory how the news reached us. The earliest memory of the reception was Bab’s quiet absorption of the shock. Very little was said. Some words from Bab had been expected; there had been almost none.
Jovanka had been Bab’s niece, the pair having spent a good part of Joke’s youth together and developed a fondness for each other. Memorably, Bab had defended Jovanka more than once when she thought her interests were not being taken into account by her parents and her sisters.
We were all assailed by the event ever since of course, all the particular details involved. The long climb up to the village, which would have needed well over an hour at Jovanka’s age. All the determination and settled resolve. A set of her best clothes Jovanka had taken up with her and left beside the well. Her ready burial attire. On top of the clothing was her wedding ring.
Assailed across all these years, regularly and inescapably. In night visions and waking. Jovanka’s sons and daughter had suffered how much more. The partner of the musician at the balcony in her case too.
Gnawing memory. Always there. You could not shake a fist at the horror; take the head in hands like in the Munch painting. The memory could not be dislodged. After receding in the usual way it always returned.
It was the first anniversary of the balcony jump a few weeks ago. Possibly there had been some kind of commemoration for those most nearly affected.
In the high rise living in Singapore desperate leaps from the upper storeys were common and regular. One of the neighbours in Geylang Serai said the jumpers always did it in other neighbourhoods, not their own. A strange quirk that was perhaps understandable.
Mother had fixed in her head that Jovanka had gone to her father’s well for her act; not the house where she had married. A decision that in Bab’s mind spoke loudly. There had been hardship in both houses for Jovanka, but it had been an argument with her father that had eventually precipitated her action. Another source had the other well chosen, the house of Jovanka’s husband.
In the cases of both Jovanka and the vaulting musician there had been no prior attempts. You might guess the thought of suicide had occurred for both previously. Different as the actions were, one would guess so. It was impossible to know.
There had been some sharp words, not screams, with Jovanka’s father some while before her act. The musician had apparently been wildly argumentative; arguments with the partner seem to have been regular and dramatic.
The slide; the leap. Complete emptying of mind in the moment—that most surely.
A sudden lunge in the one case and a much longer passage for our Jovanka. Fixed and unequivocal mind. Silent screams came later perhaps on both sides.
The Red Chair
As far as pavement barbers went this one was as good as any; for the Indians it was a twenty minute walk over to Guillemard. The night before there had been a queue and finally the wait was abandoned. A demanding Chinaman in the chair was wanting this, that and the other, making for a brief wait. In the second clan house further along one of the Taoist rituals was taking place, on the throne before the gods and devils a heavily tattooed former baddie-turned-savant rubber-stamping various documents and initialing others. Kids at the corner table helped themselves to soft drinks from the fridge; a couple of take-outs were delivered and the older man at the outdoor table opened four long-neck Carlsbergs, one for each of his pals. During the wait on the fussy Chinaman an unusual song was drifting across from further up the lorong. There were a group of youngsters in lableless clothes outside the last house in the row, with an acoustic guitar and some other kind of instrument. Five or six stood in the choir encouraging, We can, we can.…something, something. Can we pray for you sir? the nosey parker in the panama was asked by a chap dealing leaflets. One of the girls of the group stepped forward. No money sir. Do you need a prayer?… Prayers would certainly not be amiss along that strip. There had been no revisiting the scenes in these lorongs the last number of years. Homelessness, beggary, the hunchbacked, deformed and amputees scrounging could be better endured than the trafficking of that quarter. Weekends the lorongs and side lanes along there off Geylang Road collected scores of girls and more in the brothels, young teens predominating. Pimps were regularly prosecuted for underage girls, without any semblance of change on the street. The barber that night had not been recalled—two or three men took shifts on that site—but the chap knew his regular well enough. Aodaliyaah? Aodaliya.… Ya, the great southern land; he had remembered. Understandably the man had been struck by the usage. As usual the working girls continued with very little hang-time. Viets, Cambodians and perhaps Filipinas, one or two trannies among the rest. On this second night there were far more girls and mainly Indian foreign workers customers. Pretty young girls without any need of smiling or enticement. Rapid negotiations, off up the spiral staircase or the old dilapidated house opposite, in and out. Of course whites were rare in the barber’s chair. Six-seven minutes for four dollars. It had been an early finish at the Cyber, well before ten. The street light was fair, but the Mainland construction labourers moonlighting wore bicycle lamps strapped to their foreheads. They used a narrow-blade machine and cut-throat for shaving; a gown was provided for clients. For brushing off a foam shammy was employed like car-washers used; broom for sweeping into the canal in front. Twenty metres down the gospel group continued; across the lorong the young lads followed behind the girls. Three or four girls were always waiting; it was very brisk. The stabbing moment that evening came when one of the young pimps returned to the corner of the canal opposite the lane, close by the chair. It may have been the cruising police car earlier that had sent the lad away. Here he was coming back to his post in a casual swagger. Seeing his approach, a young dark-haired girl suddenly leapt from the red plastic chair like the one the barber had commandeered and assumed her place over at the awning where her friends waited. A bolt of electricity could not have thrown her more violently. For the evening the shop’s awning had been half-raised and the girls slowly circled there showing their legs and curves. Sporting elaborate tattoos along his forearms and sharp red-tinted hair, the pimp took the seat. From the awning the lass bent forward to the young fellow with some witticism. HaHaHa. There was no answering laughter, though the pimp received the gambit well enough. It was OK, there was no need worry, there would be no anger. In the newspaper reports of prosecutions there were mentions of pimps trying out the girls at the outset in order to rate services. Customers enquired seemingly and a serious business needed to take its business seriously.
Pelicans and Egret
Down in the shallows pelicans fed on the fish bait, Barry said, or ghost shrimp perhaps, John added. Later John spotted an egret sunning itself on the spit of land opposite and we came around to the corner of the clubhouse to see it. The egret held symbolic importance in Zen, Barry said, something concerning rebirth it may have been. A day or two before Barry had seen one fly over his car and perch on a branch near the creek where we had planned to sprinkle the ashes; a little augury it could have been taken.
There were more pelicans than gulls on the water; a couple of swans came over later when they thought there was some feed being offered.
Barry knew the area from the time of the old racecourse grandstand further around; a palm that had been planted at the time of the racing remained as the sole remnant now. Further around again on the point the pines that European newcomers had planted stood along the water’s edge.
A hundred metres off the road looking across the bay the sky stretched wide, the water below and the body of space between more vast still. Two container ships sat far out toward the horizon. John knew not to attempt any photographs of the scene, it was impossible. In the streets of the suburbs behind the visual field was always sharply narrowed.
From the corner of the clubhouse where we watched the egret John and Barry pointed out the joyrider out on the water speeding between the ships. The white caps they indicated were difficult to sight so far off and so low on the water. It took some while. The waves of sound carrying across the distance seemed to bear no relation to the cutting of the surface out there. It was likely a jet-ski, John thought. During the war the British had erected some kind of large artificial ears on their shores attempting to pick up any approaching German ships. (The Anglophile John again,)
A couple of chaps later told of the imminent demolition of what was the Deaf Angling Club on the right. There had been a long, unsuccessful campaign trying to save the building and on the Monday the bulldozers were due. The older clubhouse adjacent John knew from a previous investigation. With its simple fireplace and rough seating it had remained unaltered from the time of its construction fifty or sixty years before.
Prior to the sprinkling of the ashes Barry read out a couple of Bible verses he had prepared, something from John about the light after the dark passage. Baz like his cousin had read the various spiritual texts over the years. The sljivovic brought along was relished by Barry in particular and enjoyed later by the other couple of chaps concerned about the demolition.
A simple ceremony like this was fitting, for someone like Al in particular, who had never had anything to do with formalities. Expelled from the local Tech in the first form, hard drinking so many years, improvised Blues and the dope—it was difficult to think of anyone in the acquaintance so far removed. The depth of Al’s private grief over the English girl Nora in youth was only properly suggested by Baz later in the afternoon, after the ceremony at the creek. There were hidden letters Barry had found up in Alan’s flat. A voluble man like that—we had called him Yell at one point—keeping the hurt so close.
A couple of generations ago up in the ancestral village the improvised arrangements for death might have been something similar—without any officialdom of any kind, religious or other; simple words and straightforward dealing.
The weight of the plastic cylinder was unexpected; five kilograms John estimated. Pepper-like carbonised traces dotted the white and grey grain and dust.
Barry took the first turn and we two followed, the wind blowing some of the lighter granules back over the little dock and onto our shoes.
Against the dock in the shallows of the creek the bulk of the fragments made a little billowing cloud, before slowly sinking into the water. Barry had brought some flowers that he had picked somewhere, the magenta being the colour worn by the highest rank of Buddhist devotees, he said.
There had been six or seven visits to the hospitals and the home over Al’s decline. Barry had managed more and for his part John hadn’t been able to bring himself to it.
Words like images on a photographic roll were impossible. On this particular western edge of the city where only the smallest sliver of the built environment intruded the breadth of space seemed to funnel down onto the little dock and the tin clubhouse behind. No graveyard within the urban limits could have offered anything like it. The system of water, sky and air, with the birds and the sand bed of the estuary, served the purpose very well. Smoke or feathered ash might possibly have been the most appropriate release into that space, but that was a poetic nicety.
Newport Fishing Village
Australian by birth and of Montenegrin origin, after eight years living on the SE Asian Equator the virus forced Pavle Radonic’s return to his hometown. Previous work has appeared in a range of literary journals and magazines, most recently Nine Cloud Journal, Sunspot Lit, Fleas On the Dog, Panoply & Ginosko.