In the dusty bedroom of her Georgetown apartment, Hannah Cho sits on the edge of her bed, mobile phone in hand, unable to believe the voice from the other end of the line. "Excuse… me?"
"I'm sorry, we've checked already. There - there doesn't seem to be a mistake," wavers the receptionist. "Ma'am - I don't mean to be rude, but - are you sure you've dialled the right centre?"
She double-checks the phone screen, checks against the number pinned to the fridge, checks against the handwritten note sandwiched inside her planner. "I know I have. What's going on?"
"Ma'am, I'm checking our records now, just give me a minute to clear things up."
She waits, impatiently tapping her fingers against the edge of the bedframe. Over the phone, there is the sound of tapping keys. Then the voice speaks again. "Huh. Okay."
"What is it?"
"There's never been a Beatrice Cho. The guestbook's got your name, ma'am, but your, uh, mother, never stayed here. As far as we know, the room you gave has been empty since last October."
"This can't be real. What's going on? Is this some sort of joke?"
"Believe me, Mrs. Cho, we are as puzzled as you are. Maybe we could-"
She ends the call, not wanting to hear any more. Part of her - a rational, sensible, tired part - wants her to drive to the nursing home as soon as she can, in her nightgown and slippers if need be. But another part of her, growing more reasonable by the minute, makes her gently place the keys in her hand back into her purse. The growing knowledge - conviction, even - that Mother has inexplicably and entirely disappeared.
She knows this because she woke up in the morning, rubbed her eyes, pulled back the curtains, and began to go to the shower when she noticed a curious change in the framed picture on her bedside table. It had always been there, a framed shot of her family on holiday, put there as a memento years ago, when she'd bought the apartment for herself. It was one of the first things Hannah had seen in the morning every day when she awoke, which was why she immediately noticed the marked lack of her mother in the frame. In her place, a patch of blank sky.
It wasn't just the one framed photograph - a quick thumbing-through of her phone's photos told Hannah as much. And it wasn't just her image, either - curiously, even her name had been expunged, replaced by little more than blank space.
And, presently, a quick call to the home confirms her suspicion that even the memory of Mother has ceased to exist. Overnight, Mother appears to have erased herself, purged from both the printed form and the mind.
Several calls later, Hannah rubs her temples, takes up her phone, and dials a final number. It rings twice before it is picked up.
"Pa, I have - there's been a problem."
"Of course there is. You'd never call otherwise."
"It's about Mother."
There is a pause, as the two voices regard each other. The silence rebounds between them, as radio waves off cell towers.
"Your… mother?" Voice uncertain. The receptionist's was like this too, but steadier.
"My mother. Your wife."
"Mmm." A rustling sound - she imagines his weight shifting, resting his chin on his hand, perhaps, with the cordless telephone in his other. "After all this time you call, you ask about her."
"I'm sorry, I never called earlier, there just - it just didn't come up." Not entirely the truth, but it will suffice. They've had nothing in common to talk about, regardless. "Something's happened to her, pa. This is serious."
"Your… mother, huh?"
"She's gone missing. All of her. Not just her, but her traces, too…"
She can almost hear him wrinkle his eyebrows on the other end of the line. "That's an odd thing to say about - about - your mother."
"You used to call her Beatrice - don't you remember her? Anything at all?"
"Are you sure you're okay, girl? You sound… out of it. Like you just woke up from a dream."
That settles it, then. "You know, I just might have. Sorry to have bothered you, pa." She's gone, really, truly gone, and I'm the only one left who remembers.
Hannah bites her lip, and ends the call.
Without knowing why, she takes out her journal again. It is a simple affair, red, bound in faux-leather, memos from clients and phone numbers and passwords both written on and sandwiched between the pages. And notes for Mother - groceries to buy, appointments to make, doctors and clinics and little, personal reminders, too. Like a negative-space portrait of the person that once was. Afterthoughts, errands for a phantom.
Six months ago, Hannah Cho drove her mother to the nursing home for the very last time.
Her mother's possessions were few. Clothing, shoes, and a bag of toiletries sit in a duffel bag in the rear seat. And the small bag of clay. It would be unthinkable for her mother to live without her art, even at her age. Especially at her age, when her faculties are so few, art might be all that she has left.
The road there was smooth and familiar. They'd driven down it many times before, of course - but this time, she would return alone. Yet she felt nothing special, nothing different - nothing, in fact, to indicate that this would be a finality of any sort - and the Nissan rumbled down the road all the same.
Mother had been silent, placidly regarding the buildings as they glided past. Jalan Kebun Bunga. Nattukkottai Temple. Was that a look of blank recognition on her face, or was it confusion? After all, while Mother had known of the move for weeks, months - Hannah had spent each and every day explaining it to her in as patient a tone as she could muster - did she know it now? Ridiculous question, she thought. Mother's forgetful, not stupid. But then what was this feeling, welling in the base of her stomach all morning? She couldn't quite gather the words for it, but it's like - like she's driving a dog to the pound.
She chastised herself. Such thoughts, even at your age. The old Nissan rattled, as if in response.
"Where are we going?" asked Mother suddenly, as if jolted from her daze. "Shopping, is it?"
"No, mother. We're-"
"-why are my things in the back? Where are we going?"
"Mother, we're going to the home. The one you said you liked? With the nice rooms?"
"Oh. That's nice." She fell silent. Then, after a while, "Am I coming back?"
Hannah bit her lip. She considered saying, "No, not this time." Or "We discussed this already." Or even, "It's up to you, mother. If you don't feel like it right now, I understand. We can head back."
Instead, what she said was: "Don't worry. It's just for a few weeks, to see if you like it, okay?"
Mother didn't reply. This wasn't the first time Hannah had lied to her; in all likelihood, she would forget this, as she had done before. A white lie, a remedy to ease Mother's addled mind, if only until she forgot again. Objectively, she wasn't doing any wrong. But then why the feeling in her gut then? Like guilt with a hook through its chest.
Illogical - she shouldn't be feeling that way. The move had been Mother's idea as much as her own. The pamphlets she read cautioned them against such a thing, that one should let the patient rest at home, in a familiar environment, surrounded by old sounds and old faces, to maintain the facade of the usual as far as possible. But Mother was never usual. She was always on the run, always on the edge. In her twilight years, she was bewildered by familiarity. The walls of her house terrified her. Perhaps she found herself confronted, surrounded by reminders of her past, a past that taunted her and jeered her in her aged, decrepit state.
And so Mother had called her that night for the fifth time that week, almost sobbing into the receiver, "Hannah, Hannah - I'm lost, I'm lost!" In the morning, she found her absent-mindedly rolling a ball of clay between her hands. As always, she did not remember a thing. She listened as Hannah told her about the phone call, the panic in her eyes rising to match the exasperation in her daughter's voice. Her daughter sputtered, finished, looked away, almost ashamed of her anger. Then Mother spoke, quietly:
"You don't want me to stay here?"
She could not discern the tone of Mother's voice. "I never said anything like that - what gives you the idea that I want you to go?"
Mother continued toying with the clay. "It's okay. I don't want to stay here any more, either."
They discussed it over the next few weeks. Mother would call in her few moments of lucidity, and Hannah would go over solutions, compromises, pros and cons over the phone, giving an apologetic nod to her colleagues. At least they were understanding. Perhaps more so than herself. At one point, Amirul had approached her after work, and offered her to take the next two weeks off. She grudgingly obliged.
Mother could not tolerate having anyone inside her own house. Not out of pettiness, or an obstinate sense of independence, no. But she was possessive. She'd bought the bungalow with the last big sale she'd made - a pottery collection at an auction in Kuala Lumpur - and it was hers, hers alone to keep. So taking care of her, or hiring a full-time nurse, was right out of the question. So was asking Pa. He'd left them all behind by then, had been for years nothing more than a close acquaintance and pleasantries at the end of a long car trip. That left the possibility of housing her in Hannah's downtown apartment. But it was far too small for Mother's liking, and the din of the city kept her awake so. Thus, bit by bit, they'd touched on the subject of the nursing home. It was a possibility Hannah dreaded - would Mother miss home? would she be safe? - but Mother never complained. Perhaps deep down, she wanted to be away, to surround herself not with her daughter and the familiar beige-paint walls of the bungalow, but with anonymous uniforms and whitewashed halls and sterile smiles. Perhaps when that, too, became familiar, she would ask to be brought back home. Hannah smiled at the light irony.
A tap on her shoulder. "Where are we going, dear?" asked Mother.
It was easier for her to say it, this time. "To the home, mother. It'll only be for a few weeks." If she says it often enough, it will cease to become a lie, not just for Mother, but for the both of them. Maybe that would be a good thing.
Her fingers grip the steering wheel as she swerved into the driveway. Maybe a day will come when even I forget that Mother is sick, she thought to herself. Then Mother's sickness will, like the self-consuming snake, undo itself, lose itself inside its own folds of oblivion. Maybe that would be a good thing, too.
In the June of 1973, in a small cramped bedroom on the second floor of a small cramped shophouse, Beatrice Cho gave her daughter a piece of lined note paper with a handwritten telephone number. For emergencies only, it read.
"What kind of emergencies?" she asked.
"You'll know it when it happens," replied her mother.
"Why, mommy? When what happens?"
"When I won't be around to help you any more, dear." And as a child enters the woods for the first time, so did Hannah first learn of the possibility of death.
They'd kept the note throughout the years. It would have been a frivolous childhood memento, and nothing more than that - especially when Hannah herself grew up and married and moved out of her mother's house. But Mother never forgot, and always kept the note, crossing out the old number and replacing it with a new one every few years. The yellowed, dog-eared note was one of the things Hannah had salvaged from the old house, its surface crisscrossed with marks from half a dozen ballpoint pens. It was running out of space: the latest number had barely managed to fit near the bottom-left corner, even in Mother's minuscule scrawl. In the thirty-seven years that the note existed, she'd never once been told who the number belonged to. Nevertheless, unwilling to throw it away, she kept it on her fridge in a kind of anticipatory dread.
Now, Hannah Cho dries her eyes and taps out this number on her screen. Miles away, in the otherwise-quiet Penang Public Library, an old Nokia buzzes to life, nearly falling off the edge of the table before being caught by a pair of deft hands and pressed to hushed lips:
"Who is this?" the voice on the line whispers. "… Beatrice? It's been too long."
"Um -" She stumbles at the sudden familiarity, hint of intimacy. "Actually, I'm her daughter."
"So you are." Then, "Beatrice told you to call me?" She doesn't ask that question as much as she states it, like a fact. Her voice is smooth, clipped, yet ragged at the edges, as if spoken from well-wrinkled lips.
"She did. May I ask, who am I speaking to?"
The voice pauses for a second, as if considering the question. "Isa. Isa Noorizan. She never told you my name, then… "
"Mother left behind a note saying to call you if anything… untoward happened," says Hannah, choosing her words carefully.
"Something bad's happened to your mother and you know nobody else who can help."
Well, then. No point hiding it. "Mother's disappeared. Completely - pictures, every mention of her. Memories, too. I - I don't think this is something the police usually work with."
She hears silence. Then, softly but harshly, "I cannot talk here. I am in a library."
There is the sound of shuffling papers, and closing books. Meanwhile, morning sunlight filters through the tinted window of Hannah's kitchen. A bird chirps. The refrigerator hums. Presently, Isa Noorizan resumes:
"You think I can help. You think just because something inexplicable has happened, that an old friend of your mother can simply provide all the answers to a world you can't understand. Like a single question that anyone - anyone that knew her - can answer."
"That wasn't what I implied…"
"If you had just followed in her footsteps -"
"So you're saying it's my fault now? Is that what you're saying?" She feels a growing defensiveness rising in her throat, bubbling behind her eyes again.
"Her art died when she retired. Then she lost her mind. Beatrice was one-of-a-kind, and she died two years ago. When she forgot for the first time- " Isa swallows, almost sounding like a dry sob. "… sorry. I let myself go. All of that was a long time ago."
"Well, I'm sorry I wasn't more involved in my mother's life," Hannah replies, her anger subsiding. "You say what she was - what she made - was lost a long time ago. But if there's any chance of finding her again, then…"
"I never say I would not help."
Simmering from the phone, the background noise is almost palpable. Hannah perceives a sense of faintly animated suspension: of old decisions weighed, of memories churning like dust. Grudges turning like gears.
At length, Isa clears her throat. "3pm, Kwok's Bakery. Be there."
The line goes dead.
When Hannah was ten, she picked up a clay figurine on the floor of her mother's studio and screamed when it twisted, bent the air around it, wriggled out of her fingers and disappeared. She went crying to Mother, who scooped her into her lap and gently nuzzled her cheek: "Shhh, shhh, it's nothing, sayang." Only when she was brought to the Hyatt years later and saw a forest unfold from a cornucopia of gilded marble did she realise that the figurine was merely a maquette, a prelude, a mere folly for Mother's idle hands. She turned to her mother with terrified, bewildered eyes, who simply stood and smiled upon her masterpiece, tears streaming down her cheeks.
That was not her world. Her world is the world of common sense, of reassuring concrete buildings and cool office air. But that was - as this is now - a world of unknowns, Mother's world, of inexplicabilities and mysteries and impossibilities. A world where sculptures spoke in more ways than one and art wove wonders, where an old woman leaves no trace but her name.
Now, across the gulf of twenty-nine years, she feels like the events of the ballroom are happening to her all over again, inside the confines of her Nissan as she drives towards her destination. A sensation of broadening. Of falling - no, of ascending, inevitably, as a balloon does, towards a mystery greater than herself. And beyond that, perhaps other things - answers, or even solace.
The thoughts fade away as the bakery pulls into view, tucked away under the overhang of a meager row of shophouses. It's a low-key affair, with a nondescript engraved signboard on the front and mosaic-tiled flooring that looks as if it hasn't been changed in decades. Pastel blue paint coats the walls, peeling in some places. The door is a metal grate. Hannah Cho has passed it by several times before on the way to Mother's house, but has never given it much thought, much less entered it. Behind the counter is, presumably, Mdm. Kwok - a plump Chinese woman seated comfortably in a wooden armchair, seemingly more interested in the soap opera playing on the small wall-mounted television than her own customers.
Hannah walks into the equally spartan interior and seats herself down at the only table - old, lacquered wood, carved straight from her childhood; they don't make them like this anymore. Already on the table are two ceramic plates, with a slice of orange cake on each.
Seated at the table is a cantankerous Malay woman, wearing a bright floral tudung around her head that, paradoxically, makes her look all the more ancient in its garishness. Her eyes, Hannah notes, are young eyes, despite the rest of her looking as if she's over sixty. They pierce into Hannah's own through a pair of horn-rimmed spectacles.
"Your mother used to love this place," observes Isa Noorizan, pushing a plate ever-so-slightly towards Hannah. "She missed it so much when she went away for her studies. This place has been in business for fifty, fifty-five years. Did you know that?"
"Mother's never brought it up," replies Hannah.
"No?" Isa sighs. "As expected. Coffee or tea?"
"It's fine, thanks. How does this place stay in business anyway? I've never seen a crowd."
Isa waves to the counter with her index finger, mouthing the words "one, please". The plump Chinese woman manages to pull away from the soap opera on the small wall-mounted TV and disappear into a back room. Isa turns around, explaining, "They only take reservations. You have to phone ahead a few days in advance. No walk-in customers here."
Isa spears a mouthful of cake on a fork and consumes it. "Oh, no. She just owes me many favours." Hannah swears that she shows a grin, but only barely, on the edges of her crinkled mouth.
"Anyway," continues Isa, "that is not your business, or what I came here for."
"My mother. Yes." Hannah thinks for a moment, chewing on a mouthful of cake. It's surprisingly good - she tastes oranges and a heavy sweetness, the fragrances somehow more robust than cloying. "If I may ask - what was Mother like?"
"She was your mother."
"Well, she never let on much about her side of the world." Hannah shrugs. "All I saw were her sculptures, and the visitors she had, and the occasional exhibitions she dragged me to. Mother never liked to talk about her past." Her voice, she realises, pricks with an unintended reticence, one that Isa picks up on with the slightest raise of an eyebrow.
"Her past is behind me. You would not know of it." A movement from the counter: Mdm. Kwok appears with a mug of steaming tea, placing it almost-grudgingly on the table with an audible clang. Isa takes a few sips, and gently places it back down on the table. "Your misgivings aside, Beatrice did a great many things. Not all of them, worth remembering."
Hannah considers a rebuttal, decides it is all the more self-damning, and instead nods to Isa to continue.
"We were just young twenty-somethings. Some of us were fresh from the war. Others were born into the remains of it. The wake of independence drove us on, towards ideals… to remake this - this country, in the manner we thought was right - " She pauses to take another sip, or to gather her thoughts - "Many fought. Your mother fought. In her own way, through her art… Even so, I do not agree with everything she did."
The words wash over Hannah in a dumb tide. She remembers the figurine in the room, the stone forest. Disorientation settles in her stomach. She looks into Hannah's eyes again, and those young, old eyes stare at her from a million miles away.
She manages to find her words. "You're trying to ask me why I want my mother to be found."
"Do you?" questions Isa. There is nary a hint of accusation in her voice. It is an open question, patiently worded, and it takes Hannah by surprise.
Hannah thinks, and imagines her mother, black-dyed hair set in little plastic curlers, skeletal hands tirelessly chipping away at a small tangled knot of clay, switching between scalpel and needle and God knows what else with a watchmaker's calculated precision, ignoring the daughter tugging at her sleeve. That same mother, at a fish market, in a hotel ballroom, and, lastly, in her house again, gnarled with age, endlessly pacing back and forth through the wide-open doors of her big house.
Try as she might, the Mother in her head remains as such - her mother. Moving in her own circles, be it the bewildering ones, in her secret world of fantastic art, or in her later years the circles she ran in her own head, inscrutable to even herself. Yet, throughout it all, still Mother nonetheless.
Isa continues. "I do not mourn her. The her I believed in has long been gone. To me, she has died many times over before this day. What is your reason to find her?"
"I know I should have one - just, any one, a concrete one but - honestly, I'm confused. And a little scared. I've never liked that feeling, you know? That feeling when something happens, and it's completely unfamiliar, beyond anything you know, and everyone keeps going on like it's the most normal thing in the world." Hannah presses her lips together, gathering the words on her tongue. "So I'm scared, and confused. But - I think it's precisely because I feel scared and confused, that I feel I need to do this." To do what, pray tell?
"To find what's been lost." She thinks for a moment. "To trace her."
She looks up at the older woman. "I'm right, aren't I? I've been putting this off for too long. I need to see this through for myself."
Isa nods, slowly.
"And you, too. That's why you called me here. Everything you've said - despite everything. You want to find her, too."
From the look on Isa's face, she feels like she's finally got the right answer.