Fifteen years ago, this is what the afternoon would be:
I'm in Block 65 of Marine Parade Drive, on a floor that I don't remember, in my grandparents' three-room flat. I'm carrying my school homework, a couple of Enid Blyton books, a couple of exercise books where I doodle and write random stories in. The only table is in the kitchen, so I sit on the cold marble flooring in the living room and do my work on the couch. The furnishing is polished wood and old, slightly ratty cushions. I'm scared of anyone who walks past the flat because the door is open and the only thing between me and complete strangers is the metal gate. Neighbours are very friendly and will look in to smile. At that stage, I'm too shy to smile back.
It's so quiet. If I listen hard enough, I'll hear the drone of the cars on the expressway not far away. The trees rustle downstairs in the open-air car park. The sky is so blue outside. We're near the sea, but we can't see it. My grandparents are napping in the master bedroom. If I want to, I can go into the kitchen, straight down to the metal sink near the window and open the little cabinet under it. There's a mini broom and dustpan inside. My grandma tells me to use it whenever I want to be helpful. I sweep a bit of the kitchen floor.
I go into the spare room right at the back. It's newer than the rest of the flat, built just a few years ago when Marine Parade was undergoing its first upgrade. It's my grandpa's room. He has a bed inside, a wooden cabinet that holds chess games, Go, mahjong, a few small, old board games kept from the flights on Singapore Airlines. The room smells of sour plums, which my grandpa and I love. I steal a plum from his store, kept in a little clear glass bottle. It's sour at first and then it becomes so sweet. Later on, my grandpa will probably ask who's been stealing his plums. I won't say anything. He'll replenish the store and keep it there again for me to steal from.
A neighbour looks into the flat. "Hello, Mei Mei," she says in Cantonese. She has a loud voice, it scares me. She knows everything about everyone living in Block 65. My dad calls her the unofficial CNN. A descendant of the guys who used to run from mountain to mountain carrying news. She'll pass away ten years later, and I won't know until my mum mentions it randomly one day. And then memories will come flooding back.
It's 4pm, and my grandpa wakes up. He's hungry. He goes into the kitchen and warms some rice, opens a can of black beans and fish. I love it, so I come into the kitchen to sit beside him and eat up all the black beans. My grandpa tells me that if I keep eating so many black beans, my face will turn into a black bean. I don't care. I'm happy sitting beside my gentle grandpa sharing his rice and black beans and leaning against his shoulder. Sometimes he has rice, other times he makes tea and a simple bread and butter sandwich. He'll pass away when I'm ten years old. I'll remember how sweet and indulgent he was. My mum will remember how wise and honest he was.
My grandma washes the dishes. I want to help her, but I'm not tall enough. She brings me to the living room and opens the big brown cabinet under the head of Buddha and takes out all our family photo albums. We haven't heard of digital photos yet. She shows me my mum and her sisters when they were young. I think my grandma is the most beautiful woman I've ever seen. I wind my hand around her arm and her skin is like crepe paper under my fingers, thin and fragile and so exquisite. She asks me if I've done my homework yet. I don't know how to lie, so I say no. She scolds. Years later I remember how my grandma's face used to light up when I came into the room. I remember how she walked an hour in Shenzhen to buy me a watch for a present.
And then I open my eyes from the brief rest and I'm 23 again and headache headache what causes headaches? and think, I want these memories to remain vivid forever.