Today is our last full day in Singapore. All leaving is sad and so is this. It is as if invisible fingers had already started tying up the parcel that will become the thing we take with us. We know it will begin to fall apart after a while and will need to be reassembled in this or that not-quite-right way.
We have learned how clouds build and re-build themselves, always in the same pattern, as the sky blackens and the first peals of thunder strike distant yet close, as if they were small explosions in our bodies. We have started calculating the time between the build and the rain, without much evidence, since cloudbursts are very localised. We think one is out to get us but then it slips off somewhere. The air and its damp weight does not slip away except for the duration of the storm and, if it's a big one, the cool fresh brief period straight after.
Yesterday evening NTU colleagues met at Barrie and Pat's apartment for a drink and nibbles before heading off to Raffles Marina to the west of us for a goodbye meal. After it we walked along the marina wall, past expensive motor boats and a sleek, streamlined, brilliantly polished yacht straight out of a Bond movie. The bridge to Malaysia has its bridgehead here and you can see the far side, very close. Malaysia is just a few minutes away by car. During the day and in rush hour the bridge is crowded and slow, mostly with Malaysian workers hurrying to jobs in Singapore, now it was quiet.
There had been few people in the restaurant and there were even fewer by the marina, just a couple or two meditatively sitting or lying on dimly-lit benches. One man lay with his head in the lap of a woman delicately stroking his forehead. Silence and rest but for distant music from a radio or a sound system. A small party perhaps on one of the larger boats. Two crew in white examining the Bond yacht. Little said. Every so often the boom of heavy guns being fired in army exercises nearby but the mood of silence immediately returns, settles, flees, then settles again. Silence is framed by its opposite: the distant party, the guns, our own quiet conversation. The Raffles complex is redundantly grand inside, twin Hollywood stairs sweeping up from the atrium entrance to nowhere in particular, or so it seems. Maybe the Golf Club holds its dinners upstairs. Maybe the owners of the expensive boats lie back on their beds there watching TV in well-appointed rooms.
But now, quiet. The air is cooler than at any time so far and there is a light fresh breeze. The sea is black with small shimmering crests as the waves gently roll in. It is both beautiful and slightly desolate. If you leaned over the water it would welcome you, profound and faintly dizzying. It holds its breath a minute or two before letting your eyes drift away. We too drift away. Barrie and Pat drive us back to campus.
On our return, a call waiting on Clarissa's phone. It is Seth, Annela's son. Annela has died. Brain tumour.
Annela, always painfully thin, always transparently beautiful in her own frail, delicate slightly angular way. Her eating very simple, never substantial. Art historian, lover of music and literature, her flat full of books stacked on the floor, rising from it like toppling towers that have to be negotiated even in her bedroom as she shows us on one occasion when looking for a particular book. Annela, the subject of paintings by various artists. Friend of artists, which is how we met her in the first place, at Ana Maria Pacheco's. Estonian, her mother out in Tallinn, ageing, sickening, then coming over to London for Annela to tend in her difficult last years. Ex-husbands. Lecturing on the history of art here and there. Deeply pacifist.
All personal impressions.
Clarissa was a good friend to Annela, would visit her for conversation, continuing to do so until late, until we left for Singapore. We did not think the tumour would work so fast, believing that the inevitable process - a process of which Annela was highly aware and frightened - would take longer, that she would still be there when we returned. I remember my father telling me how his friends were vanishing one by one. He was much older than we are, of course. That sort of thing is always 'in the future' when people are still older than you. Annela was a few years older than us, but looked youthful for the same reason anyone looks youthful: animation, in the eyes, in the hands, in the intelligence and the spirit. And isn't that what beauty really is?
Clarissa weeps a while. I hold her, then she composes herself. The business of life must go on. This morning, over breakfast, we reflect a little on those who have vanished. The list does mount. In every case I feel regret. Should have done better, done more, been less caught up in my own life, that dreaming, thinking, introspective thing. Invitations not taken up, longer letters briefly replied. The charge sheet is long. Turning life, or what appears to be life, into words is itself a way of life. One becomes one's own fictions, one's own syntax.
Fiction, syntax - song itself - regularly break down but heal - almost too quickly. Fiction resumes, syntax returns to its job of holding speech together, and song, which is in any case a pattern of fractures, absorbs the fracture and turns it into further song, further pattern. The pattern survives because of what it leaves by the door - pain, astonishment, joy, love even. One casts a cold eye on death in order that warm tears might survive the weather.
You ask what is literature? This is.
We will be in Malaysia for a week and I hope to keep a Malaysian notebook going.