My husband Malcolm and I enter a small side room off the lift lobby of the Singapore Casket Company. It’s on a different floor to the one for the three-day wake for our daughter, Victoria. Unlike that room, this one has windows. Sun streams in. A burly man of Tamil descent, wearing overalls, stands next to a plastic bag on a table. Seeing us, he looks startled. The funeral parlour does not get many Westerners taking up one of its traditional Chinese-style funeral and cremation packages.
However, he squares his shoulders and beckons us with dignity. He nods to a box the audacious orange of a Hermes package, as if it contained some overpriced frippery, and which is next to the plastic bag. The package holds the marble urn we ordered yesterday for $162. Our work colleague, Francis Ong, helped us select it. ‘Go for middle-range. Too expensive is a waste of money,’ he had advised, his migrant-descendant frugality an offering of love. We, innocents at this business, and with family in another country, were grateful.
The package included the category, ash collection. The man in overalls is a worker from the cremation centre where the funeral was held. We realise this now, observing his practised proficiency. He removes the urn from the box and places it next to the plastic bag, which he opens. I notice that the bag sits with a certain formality on a raised plate with fiddly silver legs. The formality and the fiddliness remind me of doilies on Grandma Sheila’s chintz sofa in Oamaru. We are handed metal tongs. Why would you need tongs for ashes?
A rustle as the bag is opened, and then a rattle. I prepare for a choking swirl, or perhaps, a floating essence that rises to dance in the sunlight.
Instead, there are chunks of bones
We should have ticked ‘grinding’ in the cremation package list. I told you we were new to this business.
For Malcolm, it is yet another cruelty. He falls into a chair. He buries his head and sobs, ‘No, no, no.’
The cremation worker glances awkwardly from sobbing man to smiling woman. Yes, I am smiling. Because these remains are so clearly Her.
I reach into the bag to examine this gift. The man opens it wider for me to access. He smiles tentatively, reverently. I pull out the bones of a complete index finger. Earlier, dressing her for her last journey, I had placed a huge, turquoise ring on it. The cheap keepsake my 17-year-old so adored has protected the finger from the fierceness of the fire.
From my purse I pull out a yellow gold ring. I bought it for her when she was a toddler, for good-luck. Something told me to bring it today. I gently slip it over those three small, curved fine bones that even now, form a point.
My husband is white-faced as he sees me delve into the bones with my own fingers, caressing the curves and twists. A knot of spinal column. A tiny bit of a pelvis that will never bear children. Toes, with those nails that had been painted corpse blue at the beauty parlour the previous week on our day shopping together.
Today, all pieces of her are purest white, tinged with the pink of the tropical sunsets that she loved. Yet, after the blast heat, they could be the fossil remains of an ancient creature, not the bones of someone alive just six days ago.
Our keeper of the plastic bag wields his own tongs, sorting the bones and placing them inside the urn. He places some aside that he puts on top, at the end. I gasp. They are from her skull. There is her browbone. All mothers know the contours of their child’s forehead. They place their hands on it to soothe a fever, banish a bad dream. Even when she was older, a teenager, I would slip into her room when she was asleep, kiss that brow and whisper, ‘Mummy loves you.’
I touch this curve of a mother’s heart, my heart. Malcolm stands, leans on me. The cremation worker puts the urn in the orange box, fastens atop it a matching cardboard lid, lifts the heavy load and hands it to us. ‘Your daughter,’ he says.