Sunday, July 15, 2007

The Holiday (continued)


In the elevator, she pressed ‘44’, and then stood back. Soft music started to play.
“Neat,” he said quietly.
They watched the lights advance through the teens.
“How is your ear?” she asked, touching her own ear. He glanced at the mirror beside him.
“It’s looking a bit red, isn’t it?” Hugh observed.
“Maybe you have an infection. I will call our family doctor from the suite as soon as we’re inside.”
“Thanks. I’m not feeling too hot. What about you?”
She was standing on one leg. “I’m okay. Hungry though. Can’t believe we’re suddenly back here. I think I’m going to miss that rickety old cabin that was about to fall in the sea.”
“Me too.”

When they stepped inside the penthouse suite, Hugh’s eyes were drawn to the view. The suite was in the corner of the building, with views in two directions over the city. He immediately went outside, while she opened a drawer, found a little black book, and dialed the family doctor.
She joined him on the balcony.
“So what do you think of Singapore?”
“It’s beautiful. And you’re it’s beautiful princess.”
“Oh c’mon. The doctor is on his way.”
“Thanks Stella.”
“It’s a fine old city Singapore is,” she said, the city lights dancing in her eyes, the pale blue electric light tinting her features. “They have fines for everything here. From jaywalking, to chewing gum.”
“Chewing gum? You can’t be serious.”
“The gum caused some problems on the MRT.”
“What’s that?”
“Mass Rapid Transit. People left gum on the floor and it caused a lot of disruptions so they banned it. Homosexuals can get 10 years here, and if you’re caught with drugs you’ll be executed.”
“I’d love to know what they do to dirty old grandfathers who abuse little girls.”
“They can’t do much if it happens in another country, hence my grandfather’s frequent overseas trips with me in tow. But here they police very strictly.”
“Only in theory.”
“Not at all. 40-something people have been executed already, quite a few of them thanks to Mr Hai Ping Lee.”
“He’s a lawyer?”
She glanced about, and her voice changed to a whisper: “Yes, he’s a sort of district attorney. But very high up in the corridors of power, as I think you discovered today. Come, let’s go inside, I want to hear when the doctor arrives. Wait! Before we go inside I want you to know that we are probably being watched. I can’t say for sure but I think they have cameras and bugs right through the suite.”
“Are you for real?”
“Unfortunately. So watch what you say, and if you want to do something, we’d better do it in the dark.” She squeezed his wrist.

Stepping into the lounge she picked the remote off the glass table, and out of habit turned on the television. But there was a single image, a poster essentially, on the interactive channel, Channel 1: Tune in to Singapore News At 12:00 daily.
Under this picture though, was a strip of revolving data. It carried details of the cities that had been destroyed, 21 in all, with casualties around the world estimated at around 147 million. There were some reports of what was referred to as ‘atmospheric ignitions’. Flocks of birds were being incinerated in the air; some scientists were attributing this to radiation, others to solar radiation that was no longer being conducted around the Earth by a cohesive magnetic field. Then there were reports of flooding, and incredible figures for refugees and those made homeless.
Stella saw that Hugh was sitting on the edge of the white leather seat, reading every word that passed along the bottom of the screen.
She left the room and returned later with two cups of tea, and a newspaper under her arms.
“It’s old, two days old, but you might find it interesting.”
He took it from her, The STRAIT TIMES.
The headlines on the front page:

SINGAPORE VS THE SEA. The article said that resources had been approved for the construction of massive dykes, and that Dutch engineers were working around the clock to prepare plans and lay the ground work.
‘It says Sentosa island is 65% underwater already,” Hugh commented after a few minutes.
“That’s nearby,” Stella said softly.
“There was a knock at the door.”

“Good evening. I am doctor Wang Bing. I believe there’s something wrong with your ear?”
“Yes. Please have a look at Stella’s foot first,” Hugh said.
She sat on the couch and Hugh kneeled at her feet and unwrapped the bandage, which was a little dirty, and had a large stain of dry blood on it.
“I’ve seen these before. This has been treated very well. I can give you a disinfectant, but I want you to leave the bandages off, they have served their purpose, we must now allow the wound to breathe. Don’t walk around outside, or inside for that matter, or wear any shoes or socks for at least a day or so. The tissue looks healthy; it must be allowed to heal now on its own time.” Stella nodded.
Hugh smiled at her, obviously also very pleased.
The doctor stood beside Hugh, placing an object against Hugh’s left ear, and turning on the light.
“Hmmm. You’ve got an infection.”
“How bad is it?”
“It’s bad. You’ll probably lose the hearing in that ear. We are going to have to operate I’m afraid.”
“Is there another alternative?”
“I can put you on a course of very strong antibiotics. I’ll have to heat treat your ear as it is very wet. But each day we delay the infection could spread.”
“Why would you operate though?”
“To remove the infected tissues, and sterilize the area.”
“Oh my God,” Stella said, her face the picture of shock and panic.
“Are you in any pain?” the doctor asked.
“Some, yes,” Hugh admitted.
“You would prefer not to operate?”
“If you operate my ear will still be bloody. I think we need to get it dry for starters, and then see how the tissue is doing.”
The doctor cleared his throat. “We can do that, but the infection is an unknown variable. I am going to take a sample of your blood, and that way we can determine your immune response. I’m also going to take a swab of your ear content.”
Stella and Hugh were very still as the doctor performed these tasks.
“Doctor, can I ask you to take a blood sample from her too, and run a complete range of tests on both samples. Malaria, HIV, everything.”
The doctor frowned at this. “Stella?”
She nodded.
He opened his black bag and in Hugh’s case, painlessly withdrew a sample of blood. Stella made a small “Sssk,” sucking noise, as the jab evidently penetrated futher into her softer skin.
The doctor apologized gently to her, then stood up.
“Very well, I will send your medicine by courier; you should have it first thing tomorrow morning. And when I have the report from the lab, I will call you at the number here. Is that in order?”
Both nodded. He gave a small bow.

“My God Hugh, I had no idea it was that serious. Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I wasn’t sure it wasn’t just salt or sand in my ear.”
He glanced down at the paper and looked at a list of regulations. They’d imposed a curfew of 23:00. Travelers from all countries other than the United Kingdom, Malaysia, China and the USA were now classified as unwanted/or illegal aliens. Effectively Singapore had sealed its borders.
On another page: Singapore admits 88th case of H5N1.
On the television he caught rolling test saying: China added to banned citizen list.
“That’s going to cause tension,” Stella said, sipping her tea. “Singapore’s population is mostly Chinese. Why would they do that, exclude their own people?”
“The problem is, a flood of Chinese refugees, many of them homeless after a series of super typhoons, a lot probably also sick with bird flu, is building up. Singapore’s just too small to absorb all these people. And look at China: Shanghai has been destroyed; they’re probably fearing Beijing could be next.”
“God, I had no idea it was this bad. Did you?”
“Yeah. It’s going to be a period of austerity my darling.”
“What’s that?”
“Let’s just say ordinary normal life isn’t going to be convenient. It’s going to be a lot like work with no holidays.”
He for a long time, watching the scrolling text, white writing on a red banner.
She sat beside him and he only noticed she had fallen asleep when she began to snore softly against his shoulder.

Twenty One


Sometime during the middle of the night, they kissed one another. It was feverish and furtive; she whispered to him, in his good ear: “Let’s go to the bathroom.”
In his sleep deprived state he thought of water and steam; he didn’t want to expose his ear to anything damp. He continued to kiss her, hands moving over her, until she was too turned on to resist his touch. She yielded to him completely when he inserted a hand down her shorts, two fingers into the wet tissue between her legs. Less than 1 minute later, two men were standing in the lounge, one snapping pictures, the other talking into a walkie talkie.

Shocked by the discovery, both Hugh and Stella sat on the sofa, staring blankly in front of them.
A few minutes later, Hai Ping arrived, and waved the black clad men away.
“I’m afraid you are under arrest Stella.”
“It’s my fault,” Hugh said, standing up, but looking pale and defeated.
“That may be so, do you know this girl is not even 15 years old…but nevertheless, you will not be arrested. How would we explain your lack of papers, and how you came to the apartment?”
It took a moment for Hugh to say something. “But…this is ridiculous.”
“Please, Mr. van Lewen. I will keep you informed.”
Hai Ping pointed at Hugh and said: “Stay.” He tapped his index finger at the air for emphasis. “I will call again.”
The door closed and after a few moments, the footsteps and screaming was gone.

Hugh did not think he would sleep under the circumstances, but he did. He dreamt of falling, falling out of the airplane, falling after Stella, falling alongside boats that were also falling down the mythic waterfall at the edge of the flat world.
The ringing telephone woke him. He had a headache. His ear itched.
“This is doctor Bing Chang?”
“I’m sorry, is this Wang Bing?”
“Yes, Doctor Wang Bing Chang.”
“Yes doctor?”
“I have some disturbing news. The results are preliminary of course.”
“Go on.”
“Both Stella and you, sir, have tested positive for antibodies for the…”
Hugh put a hand over his face. HIV.
He heard the doctor answering a question by a female, possibly a nurse. It sounded very chaotic in the background, many voices strained.
“I apologize. Are you there?”
“As I was saying, we believe we have detected H5N1 in your blood. Also malaria in your case. You must be admitted to hospital immediately. Stella is already here.”
“She is? I thought she was in jail, or police custody.”
“The H5N1 contagion is our highest priority. Hai Ping is well aware of that. Please stay where you are, we will send over special lab technicians. They are trained for this sort of thing. Please remain where you are, do not have contact with other people.”
“I understand.”
Hugh put down the telephone. He didn’t know how to feel. HIV or H5N1? Did this mean Stella was being released from detention to serve out a nearly certain death sentence?
Was it true or deception? Should he not run, and try to survive on his own terms? If he ran he would never see her again. Fourteen years old! If he ran he might infect hundreds more. He stayed where he was. He bit his nails, and stared at the floor. He fiddled with his bag; found a plastic bag filled with hemp.
What had Stella said: “…40-something executions…”
He quickly removed it, tore it open and flushed it down the toilet. Then he flushed the plastic bag and washed his hands. He went through both bags again. Ralph had been in the cubicle with the bags, signing documents, before Hai Ping sent him away. Where else could it have happened? Who else could have planted it?

When they arrived they wore white suits, he could see their cool eyes behind transparent plastic visors. He was given a similar suit, starting with a new set of clothes to match – overalls and socks – bright orange with distinctive black bands.
He was chaperoned to an ambulance, and driven through the empty streets. At one point he heard banging on the sides of the ambulance. The siren was turned off at this point, and he could hear the shouting of a mob. After a few moments they were moving forward again. Corridors, elevators, and finally, a hall, a mausoleum with hundreds of beds. In the far corner was Stella, on her own, and closer to the door, were around 40 people, skeleton like, coughing puss into the plastic oxygen masks attached to their mouths. There was not a single doctor or nurse inside, the doors were sealed behind him, with plenty of medical personnel observing through windows set high into the walls.

“Oh God, what’s happening to us Hugh? I’m so glad you’re here.”
“Me too. Did they treat you okay?”
“We shouldn’t have come back, should we?”
“That depends.”
“Depends? On what?”
“On whether we really have the H5N1 virus or not.” Hugh glanced at Hai Ping and Wang Bing standing together in a square of glass. Ralph walked up behind them, and gave a little wave.

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