Jowell Tan

When the doorbell rang that Thursday at noon, I was ready. I had spent the morning buying all your favourite foods — I didn't know what you would like that day, so I just bought them all. The dining table was filled with plates of char siew bao, tau huay, nasi lemak, chee cheong fun, and chwee kueh. I had showered and put on that dress you liked so much. I watched from the living room window overlooking the carpark as the vehicle carrying you approached. The slamming of the car door rang all the way up to my ears. I did a final check in front of the mirror — all good. The doorbell rang. I was ready.

When I opened the door and saw you, my first thought was Thank God, it's really you. I hadn't noticed the two men flanking you, or the handcuffs around your wrists. I only saw you: Your brown eyes, your long eyelashes, that scar on your chin from when you fell off your bicycle as a child. You were skinnier, but it was still you. You were real.

I immediately hugged you, and that was when my eyes began to register the cuffs, the ill-fitting clothes, and the two uniformed policemen standing behind you. I'd forgotten my manners. Immediately I released you, patting down my hair and adjusting my dress. "Please, come in," I said, standing aside for the three of you to enter. The two policemen started walking around the flat, peering into every room, inspecting every piece of furniture. We were standing side by side, watching them go about their business.

"Hi, Mummy," you said.

"Hello, darling."

"You bought so much food!"

"All your favourites, you can choose which one you want. Excuse me, is that a tattoo?"

"Might as well, right?"

"Don't think I won't scold you in front of these policemen. It's not even a nice tattoo!"

One of the men came up to us.

"Good afternoon madam. Sorry about that — we had to make a quick check of the premises before we could proceed. It's all good now."

"Can you take the handcuffs off please? He's my son, he's not going to run."

"Sorry madam, we can't do that."

"He knows better than to run — he'll get a spanking from me if he does. Right, darling?"

"It's okay, Ma — I can eat like this. Don't waste time arguing with the policeman, okay?" You were already half-dragging me to the dining table. "I'm hungry!"

"Fine. But only because you're hungry."

"Ma, there's no way I can finish all this. Officers, do you want some?"

The two policemen looked at each other, neither knowing what the protocol was for this situation. "Don't worry about us — you just go ahead and eat."

"Okay then, I'll get my mom to bag up the leftovers later. No sense wasting good food." Your gaze darted around the dining table, rubbing your hands together. It was just like when you were seven years old again, eating everything up with your eyes before a single morsel had touched your lips. You settled on the tau huay, struggling to open the lid of the plastic container.

"You see! He can't even open the container. Please take off the handcuffs!"

"No need, no need! See, I opened it already!" You dove right in. As usual, you chopped up and stirred the chunks of bean curd into smaller pieces before eating. I watched you silently, unable to speak from having too many things to say.

"You should eat too, Ma — it's really a lot." You pushed the nasi lemak in front of me. You always looked out for me, when it should have been the other way round. I opened the styrofoam packet and started eating too.

"Mmm, this tau huay is so good. Was this from Auntie Meng? I don't think she's still doing this right?"

"She's still selling! She told me to say hello to you."

"It's been such a long time, and she still remembers me? Help me say hello back to her when you see her again, okay?"

We didn't talk much — you inhaled the char siew bao, ripped through the chwee kueh. There was barely any room for talking. I just continued watching you, eating ferociously with both hands. Were they not feeding you well? Were you being bullied, your food portions stolen by the other inmates? Was that why you were so skinny? You were never good at defending yourself. I tried to think of what to tell you about first — your cousin graduating at the end of the year, or your old school across the road being demolished to make way for new HDB blocks.

There were so many things that happened while you were away. So many things that you had missed.

I wanted to make conversation just to hear your voice. But it no longer seemed important. Here and now, seeing you sitting across from me, happy and smiling, that was what I wanted to remember. I would keep that image of you with me forever.

You ended up eating everything I bought, even the nasi lemak that you said was for me. You sighed with satisfaction. "I haven't had all this stuff for so long! Thanks, Ma — you're the best!" Leaning back on the chair, you surveyed the damage. "Shit, I ate everything. Sorry, officers!" You flashed them that cheeky grin you always did, when you said you were sorry but you were actually not. I hadn't seen that smile of yours in years. I knew it'd be a long time before I would see it again. It seemed inappropriate to cry, so I flicked away the tears forming at my eyes, willing them to stop. There would be time for the tears to flow freely later, after they had left.

I asked the officers if they could help us take a photo. Again, they were unsure what to do. "Please", I pleaded, "just me and my son — just one photo. You don't even have to take off the cuffs." I handed them my phone, then ran back to the dining table, clearing up the takeaway containers and the specks of food. I pulled out a chair.

"Here, you sit. That way we can be the same height."

"The elder should be the one sitting."

"Are you calling me old?"

"No, I'm following tradition. Isn't that right, officers?"

They smiled — he had finally broken through their stoic defenses. One said "He's not wrong, madam. My own mother would beat me if I asked to sit." The other nodded in agreement. Faced with this overwhelming majority, I had no choice.

"Fine, I'll sit. But you had better smile properly! And you, officer, please take a nice photo. It's for the photo album."

You helped me onto the chair, then you stood on my left, behind the chair, hand — or rather hands — on my shoulder. I looked up. You were already looking ahead, smiling that big, wide smile I loved to see on you. That was the smile that I knew meant you were at our happiest.

"Okay, One, Two, Three." The phone made the shutter clicking sound. "Okay, a few more." The phone emitted the same sound with each photo taken. Each snap inching this visit ever closer to its inevitable end.

"Okay, time's up. Let's go."

You squeezed my shoulder tightly. I wished you would never let go.

We walked to the door. Before you could step out, I turned you around and gave you another hug. This time, I gripped you with all the strength I could muster, my fingers pressing deep into your skin. My face firmly pressed into your shoulder, my nose taking in your aroma. "I'll miss you, darling," pushed through my lips, loud enough for you and only you.

I felt water on my neck "Aww, dammit Ma, I almost made it without crying. Look what you've done." You, with your handcuffed hands, tried to hug me back but could only manage to pat my back with your palms. I tightened my grip, then we separated, wiping away our tears. There was a water stain on your shirt.

"Thank you, Officers."

"No problem, madam."

Then just like that, it was over.

I watched you walk down the corridor, turning out of sight around the corner. From my living room window I watched you enter the car. The sound of the engine turning rose up to reach me. My gaze followed the car drive out of the carpark and disappear around the turn.

Then I was alone again.


On Friday morning I woke up before dawn. I imagined you walking to the noose, feeling like you might never reach the end, even if it was only as short a walk as from my bed to the living room.

Looking out the window, I saw a blood-red tinge behind the trees. I willed my eyelids not to blink, hoping that in some way you would be able to see what I saw instead of your windowless walls. The sun slowly made its way up from under the horizon. I imagined the hood going over your head. The rope looping around your neck. I prayed that at this moment, you were able to see through my eyes and savour the colour of the sunrise. The rooster's crowing echoed out from the trees. I imagined your momentary weightlessness as the trapdoor opened beneath you. I fell to the ground, knees first. Gasping for air, legs kicking, hands clawing at my neck. I writhed on the floor in agony. I was taking your pain and suffering and placing them onto myself, so that your death would be quick and peaceful.

How long was I on the floor? I do not know. Maybe a minute, maybe an hour. But eventually, my body stopped thrashing. The pain melted away. I knew then that it was finished. And then I felt a different kind of pain — the kind that only comes with a sadness that is too much to contain. I clung to the floor, weeping.

Later that morning, I went to the crematorium, where a van was waiting for me. The driver gave me a document to sign, and as I did, two of the crematorium workers unloaded your body into their coffin and pushed you into the building. The driver handed me an envelope and said "Sorry for your loss," and drove away. In the envelope were photographs that the prison had taken of you, presumably for use at your funeral service. It looked horrible. I cracked a smile, patting myself on the back for insisting on taking the photos with you at the flat. My phone captured the real you so much more than these horrible pictures.

I watched the coffin containing you go into the furnace. Twenty minutes later, an attendant approached me carrying an urn. He led me to an open niche in the attached columbarium, where he placed the urn in and then covered up the niche with a marble plate with your name carved into it. He asked "Any photos you want to paste onto the marble?" and I took the photo of us from my purse.

"...This photo has you in it," he said.

"Yes, that way he'll always have his mother with him."

The attendant looked at me as if to say, 'You're a weird one, lady.'

He shrugged, stuck the photo on, and left. I stayed behind for the rest of the day, just running my fingers up and down the marble plate, the photograph, the chiseled grooves of your name. When it was finally time to go, I put a kiss in my hand and pressed it hard against the marble. I hoped you received it, wherever you were. Then I turned and walked away.


I remember when you were ten years old. You were riding your bicycle in circles at the void deck while I was sitting at the marble bench, watching. I saw that big smile of yours — that happy look on your face. As you waved and shouted for me to watch you ride, I remember thinking to myself, I couldn't imagine a world without you.

But now, I no longer need to imagine — I'm already living it.

Born, bred, and based in Singapore, Jowell Tan writes prose & poetry after hours for fun and emotional release. His nights consist of writing, rewriting, watching YouTube videos to avoid writing, and finally, writing again. Please say hello to him on Twitter and Instagram at @jwlltn.

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