The four of them were wearing light-reflecting vests, each holding a corner of bright orange canvas sagging with a body – dead or alive I did not know.
They paused to align their bearings then hurried towards me with refreshed haste. The route to safety was precarious. A downpour two days ago had washed off another chunk of the gorge wall and the bridge had to be replaced with a makeshift one that had arrived three days late. Instructions had to be given loud and clear before rescuers made their way onto the bridge and then to a helicopter hovering overhead bearing empty hammock on a tag line. There was no turning back or second takes; the floodwater thundering beneath the bridge would drown all conversation. A moment of doubt or a mistimed step could cut down a life or condemn an already faltering one. The only option was to get to the other side.
The temperature drop was swift with rising wind and the constant helicopter downwash. The sky started to crowd, the clouds stealing more and more precious light to sundown. The generator-powered lights, cranes and bulldozers would soon be overwhelmed by utter darkness in a landscape of half-submerged zinc roofs and mangled streetlamps and the burden of unfinished work. The stench of rotting corpses would rise through the wetness in the morning, getting stronger the next morning and the next.
I received a message that I had to get back to the camp in Cibinong. It was a thirty-minute trip from the disaster zone. I had not paid any attention to the medic team closing in on the latest victim with their medical trappings: gauze and drips and syringes. But I could not help knowing that the victim was dead as their muffled voices dropped, the rustle of canvas as each one of them slumped back into themselves.
My feet hit terra firma: levelled and fine, compacted volcanic soil. There were tents pitched in the common compound of a hamlet. Polaroids of faces of the dead, their belongings and macabre remains were serial-numbered and tacked onto two notice boards. The cork board on one of them was coming loose from too many thumbtack marks and the beginnings of a termite colony. The smell of chemical antiseptic and biological rot hovered over the camp in a dull, invisible fog.
“He’s over there!” A volunteer nurse caught up and ran next to me with a clipboard and a box of gloves and bandages. She was a pretty girl; I could not decide if she was local or Filipino. Her young face told me she had a big heart, but its lines told me she was running on empty.
I was running on air. Faces around me were at first somewhat sympathetic, but then they loomed closer; worry and fear were loud and round in their eyes and faces. These were displaced victims stripped of their homes and families, rescuers and volunteers; it was hard telling their faces apart from those of the dead and the dying hovering among them.
“He wouldn’t talk to anyone but you,” said a disembodied voice. The pretty nurse was no longer by my side.
I almost slipped as I skidded to a halt next to a stack of old rattan chairs. Standing on them were the bare feet of a man just over his prime. My eyes traced the outline of his back, the loose skin hanging off his shoulder blades, the curve of his upper arms to his neck, then rough, thick rope perhaps for tethering boats, looped into a noose. The rope connected to a main branch in a series of artful-looking knots, as if they were done by a sailor or a soldier. The only light was from a kerosene lamp held between the tree roots. His shadow was undefined on the ground, its outline broken by the shadow of leaves and branches.
“You’ve come,” he said. I knew that voice.
“Let’s talk. I’m sure there’s a way.” Sweat gathered on my upper lip.
“There’s no way. My wife’s dead.” His voice was muted by tears, even shame.
“I’m sure you have other family.”
“A daughter,” he said. “She’s dead too.”
The man kicked the chairs to the ground. I leapt and embraced his legs, tiptoeing as much as I could. I screamed for help, but no one heard a sound. The camp seemed so far from me; it seemed to diminish until it was only a distant cluster of faint lights. Inch by inch, the ball of my feet sunk into the ground, then my ankles and calves.
The next thing I knew I was looking up at the wall of my bedroom in my Tanjong Pagar shop house; the amber reading light was a soft halo over my bed head and a Paul Theroux paperback was splayed open face down on the floor, stress lines on the spine. The first sounds of the morning, of a large vehicle, perhaps a bus, flitted past my window. The cover of my bolster was damp. In a daze, I went to the fan and clicked the speed to three, climbed back into bed and switched off the light. I lay in bed with a hand over my chest, meditating on calmer, more mundane things until my heart slowed down and I fell asleep.