An MRT station, Singapore. Photo: Getty Images

Three days in Singapore

Writer and actress Michelle Langstone reflects on loneliness on a trip to Singapore. 

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Three days in Singapore as a step-down converter from the bougainvillea-stained Greek holiday that has left my voltage too high. Three days in Singapore, an idea from my parents who recommend it, speaking in unison about noodles and Raffles, who book me into a fancy hotel as a surprise. Three days in Singapore to break up the long flights home, to wash some underwear in the sink and look through my phone at the photos I took on an island that now feels imagined.

I step out of the freezing airport air into a thick wet day that is just waking up and already beading with sweat, but properly, prettily – like a tropical advertisement running 24/7 on an expensive flat screen TV. The man who picks me up wears a sharp hat and looks like the captain of a ship. He hands me water and we drive in silence across seamless motorways, past shining buildings and clean streets, and gardens that look as if they’ve been drugged they are so still and so meek with order.

Because I’m early – too early for my room, too early even for breakfast – I leave my bags and go for a walk. The gleaming streets leading away from the hotel are endless, anonymous, and I trudge along in sandals that smack the concrete with a noise that seems indecent for the hour. I sweat, my clothes droop, and it’s this sodden mess making its way down the roads, past shop fronts and empty lanes, that gets lost somehow, about a hundred metres from the hotel. I sit on a bench like a wet shadow, like grainy footage captured on a CCTV camera. I probably am on camera. Everywhere I look the perfection seems suspicious, as if paused, waiting for some miscreant to behave badly. Out of this paved and perfect shopping district will pounce officers of the law to take me away, this unclean sweating woman, making the streets grimy just by breathing.

Marina Bay Sands Singapore (Photo by Zhu Hongzhi on Unsplash)

I use up all my remaining phone data finding my way back to the hotel, where the concierge takes pity on me and lets me into my room early. The windows are huge, and the view out to the tourism that ticks over like a clock or a bomb, is endless. There’s a ship in the sky, stranded on top of two towers, and I stare at it for ages, because I can’t make sense of what it’s doing there. Near it, I can see the famous gardens I’ve read about on the plane, in the travel magazine slicked with oil from other people’s fingers. That’s where I’ll go later, I think. Being among plants and flowers will be the antidote to this sense of disembodiment. Every now and then I jump out of my skin, as I feel an elevator come to a stop halfway down my shins, like it’s stuck between floors. I have a ghost lift going up and down inside me. I am disoriented, more than slightly sad, and even worse, I have jet lag.

In the shower, I am attacked by jets of water and one stream hits me right in the vulva like a punch and I hate it. It’s too efficient, this water, too industrious, and I get out quick and stand shivering on the bath mat; a dog, a child, a wet idiot. The bathroom is bigger than my room in my flat at home. There’s a huge hexagonal window in an alcove with a bath, and it juts out from the side of the building like a hernia bulging from skin. I sit in the empty bath, wrapped in eleven metres of starched towelling, and stare at the view, and the rain that has begun to fall. It’s like that scene in The Matrix where the camera pulls back to reveal all the pods with all the marinating bodies plugged in. I want to check the back of my neck for sockets. I feel so alien, so space-aged. From my glass eye, Singapore is a dystopian wet dream.

At breakfast, I travel the globe with my white china plate and my hunger. I move anti-clockwise across Europe, with food stations carefully marked with the names of countries on thick cream cards. France, beside a crepe station and a man wearing a jaunty neck scarf; Italy, where there are three kinds of pasta available even though it’s 7am; Germany where there are only a few sausages left. I roam across Asia and inspect Thai food, Vietnamese rice paper rolls gummy and sticking together, Indonesian curries sluggish under heat lamps, and tureens of miso, buckwheat noodles and green tea pickles at the Japanese station. There is food for every visitor, from every place they are visiting from. Overwhelmed, I rebel and eat a bagel in America, slick with caper-infected cream cheese. It’s too much, this Small World of cuisine – there are too many choices and too much waste. I sit at a little table in the corner and watch the hotel guests come and go, as boiling hot coffee brings me alive, and for a time the elevator in my torso stands still.

Because I am alone I go against all learned advice and have a nap after breakfast. When I wake up it is 5pm, the lights of the city are coming on, and my mouth is a desert. This mistake will cost me later, and I know it, but I drag myself downstairs and out onto the streets with a paper map that is quickly damp and make my way to Raffles Hotel, where the spirit of my parents dictates the movements of my body. I buy a Singapore Sling and shell peanuts from the bowl in front of me. I take a photo of my feet, dangling from a high stool above the discarded peanut shells below and text “Made it!” to my dad. The famous drink in my hands is too sweet, but I gulp it down and tell myself it’s delicious because I love my parents, and I feel their happy young ghosts all around me.

A sign at the Raffles Hotel, Singapore

I go into the Singapore evening in search of noodles. I try so hard. I go into food districts, I peer into little restaurants, I sit on a bench and watch where everyone is buying their noodles from. They’re all out in courtyards crammed with tables, strangers together slurping from big bowls of goodness, and I want in, but nowhere I can see has noodles without meat. I ask politely, miming embarrassing oversized gestures, pointing at the menu, shaking my head. I just can’t find any vegetarian noodles, and after ninety minutes, shamefaced, I give up. I buy two cans of beer and a tube of Pringles from a convenience mart and traipse back to my hotel through the moist air, which feels like the unwelcome advance of a sweaty man.

There is no doubt in my mind that I am miserable; I’ve been miserable this whole trip but only now, in my aloneness, has the weight of it come to land on me. I walk past crowds that gather everywhere to eat and smile, past families with children in matching outfits, past young couples showing each other the glowing faces of their phones, and I have the distinct impression I am invisible. I think about a novel I read where its author Damon Galgut describes travel like this:

“A journey is a gesture inscribed in space, it vanishes even as it’s made. You go from one place to another place, and on to somewhere else again, and already behind you there is no trace that you were ever there. The roads you went down yesterday are full of different people now, none of them knows who you are.”

Because I am alone I have no one to turn to and ask – ‘did you see that?’ If no one can validate what you’ve seen, surely the evidence of your very existence is questionable. I lean against the mirrored glass in the elevator and let my breath cloud the surface, then recede. I perform the task of eating Pringles while I am lifted to my floor, and I watch my solemn sweaty face chew and swallow in the reproduction of human function.

Awake all through the night, I spend a lot of time figuring out the complicated system for the blinds in my room. I have a remote for the three different layers of curtains, and I raise and lower them on the glittering lights and fireworks across the bay, which are perfectly orchestrated, perfectly wonderful. I sit at the leather-topped desk and take out stationery, writing my name over and over, trying to bring myself into the room. Everything is so nice and so lavish and so lonely. I write a letter to my somewhat boyfriend, then bin it. I haven’t even told him I’m in Singapore. I haven’t spoken to him in days and I can feel the thread between us tearing fibre by fibre, like an old rope that can’t take another tugging. I want to go back to Greece, to the little island I explored with my friend, where clear water cooled my feet and beer cooled my throat.

Gardens by the Bay, Flower Dome, Singapore (Photo by Yuiizaa September on Unsplash)

At the flower gardens the next day I am a thundercloud with legs. I’d come to ground myself, to reconnect by watching things grow, and I’ve been let down in the most astronomical fashion. Yes, this place is magnificent – teeming with flowers and plants and every kind of green thing – but it’s so synthetic, so militantly manicured that I can feel the plants are terrified of putting a petal wrong. Like the clean streets and the pristine buildings, there is nothing out of place here, and because of the perfection I can’t feel anything at all. I am so angry at the control on display I want to steal the plants and show them the world outside this microclimate. I look up some of the species on my phone and have to resist showing the plants in front of me the way their relatives flourish in the wild, the way they grow when left to their own devices. It’s so sad and fake that I leave early, punishing myself further by going to a massive mall across the way to buy Christmas presents. I buy an embroidered white sundress for my niece from a man wearing a three-piece suit in a shop bigger than my whole house, and I feel something inside me die. My sandal breaks on the way back to the hotel and I limp along, eventually binning both shoes in the hotel lobby. I order room service, and hole up until my flight the next day, rereading Brideshead Revisited for the comfort of old friends, cruising TV channels and calling my sister at 2am when she’s awake in New Zealand with her new baby.

I ask for a late checkout, killing time before my afternoon flight, and when I finally exit my room two women are waiting in the corridor about five metres away. They smile at me and pretend to fiddle with their trolley as if they were doing something else, not waiting for me at all. As I round the corner I see them pounce on my door, and I think of Galgut again as I descend in the lift. It’s as if he was writing to reach me:

“…the marks of your fingers are wiped off the door, from the floor and table the bits and pieces of evidence that you might have dropped are swept up and thrown away and they never come back again. The very air closes behind you like water and soon your presence, which felt so weighty and permanent, has completely gone.”

My molecules dissolve in the heavy heat of the afternoon, and I slide into a car, and then into a plane, and just like that, I disappear.

 

Extracts from In a Strange Room by Damon Galgut


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