Thirty years after the pandemic swept through the country swiftly and cruelly, forcing a state of emergency in the whole of Malaysia and the evacuation of the entire population, I found myself back in Kuala Lumpur. Good, old KL.
It wasn’t the city I remembered. That one had flash floods in the middle of the day after a heavy downpour and horrible jams immediately thereafter. It had double-parkers, tailgaters, and very little sense of polite civility. That one was also warm, chaotic, colourful. The people were divided by politics and religion but united on the streets and at dinner tables. It was imperfect but it was home. At least for the first 25 years of my life.
And now, here I was in KL. A very different KL than the one I had left in 2020. A new government, new leadership, new laws. Together with the rest of the Southeast Asian countries, it now made up the Greater Indochina Confederation under the single rule of the Chinese empire—a new world order after the fall of Asia during the pandemic.
What was once the Kuala Lumpur Twin Towers was now double columns of dark grey ugliness wrapped up in vines and roots. The parks and fountains beneath entangled in even more jungle and bush.
The Tuanku Abdul Rahman Road, which always came alive nearing the Muslim Eid festivities with bursts of colourful fabric, loud music, and moving bodies, looked like a sterile boulevard that stretched from Chow Kit Road all the way to the Independent Square. It served as the main thoroughfare through the sorry city with Big Brother cameras everywhere.
The 100-meter flagpole that used to fly the Malaysian flag at full mast in the square had long collapsed in what was viewed as a symbolic fall of the nation now. In its place was a bronze wall of names erected in memory of the frontliners who had battled the spread of the virus—and died—trying to flatten the curve.
It took years before the United Nations and the World Health Organisation were convinced enough to declare the abandoned and neglected country a safe place to live again. The Chinese government had channelled resources and investments from their One Belt One Road initiative to developing the fallen nations of Southeast Asia but the rebuilding process had only began a few years earlier. It was slow, painful, and expensive.
I was among the first of the constantly-vaccinated hundreds who had chosen to return home to resume the lives that were so suddenly disrupted decades ago. Returning was like picking up shards of glass from across the floor, piecing them together in whatever crooked form it could hold. It was a process of healing, some said, wanting to put a past together. It was more painful than hopeful. There were broken pieces, sure, but many more were missing.
Many didn’t want to return to Malaysia under this new rule. I only did it because I needed to find my one missing piece. I spent days looking for it standing in front of the bronze wall of memory, reading every line of name that was etched onto the panels. I thought I might see Aiden’s name there.
“Maybe Papa survived the disaster, Ma,” my daughter Khadeja said, “Just like you.”
I looked at her, the spitting image of her father, right down to the sharp nose and slanted eyes. Nothing Malay about this girl except in name. Maybe she would fare better here under the new Chinese government with a name change to Katie Lim.
I shook my head. “If he did, he would have looked for me… for you.”
Outside the city centre, the jungle encroached upon civil life mercilessly. It would take decades more to clean up the mess caused by neglect and abandonment. Whether the government coffers for redevelopment would trickle down to these areas was another matter.
We drove towards what used to be Bangsar, a swanky neighbourhood in the old days, under a heavy crown cover of tropical trees gone wild, its powerful roots lifting up the ground from beneath the tarmac. The studio Aiden and I rented in that first year of our married life together was still standing but overgrown with trees and vines that seemed to choke the life and our memories out of it. The rest of the neighbourhood was equal parts ghost town and wild jungle.
I stood back, trying to remember how the studio looked that day from many years ago. I had been indoors, practising Debussy’s Clair de Lune on my beat-up Challen. Those dulcet tones gave way to the deafening emergency alarms ringing out from the streets that day. In my haste to see what the commotion was about, I’d forgotten to grab my phone.
I had run out into the street, disoriented. Men in personal protective equipment — those PPE suits — and police in armour with weapons in their hands were ushering the entire neighbourhood into Black Marias parked in the middle of the road.
A man grabbed my shoulder and shoved me roughly into one of them. But when he saw my rounded belly, his voice turned gentler, “Sorry, ma’am. I didn’t realise…” He guided me to another truck, one that was filled with children, mothers, and young women with bulging tummies just like me.
At the airport, it was equally chaotic. Someone swabbed me, recorded my name, and asked me to wait. When my number was called, I was ushered into a plane with a newly-issued Commonwealth Nations travel permit. Only when we landed, many hours later, did I realise I was in London.
I found my phone exactly where I’d left it—on the ivory keys, now yellowed with age, of the higher octaves. It was covered in dirt and grime accumulated over the thirty years of human absence.
I picked it up, removed the chip, and inserted it into my new phone. A few taps and scenes of my past life unraveled from the memory bytes captured decades ago.
Here was Aiden, his laughing eyes looking up at me as I held the device in my hands. Aiden with his tousled hair, crooked teeth, and dimpled cheeks, laughing at me. I’d taken the video the morning of the Emergency, just before he left for his afternoon shift at the hospital.
His fingers were dancing lightly on my bulging belly, tracing circles around my navel. I grabbed his hands urgently. “I wish you didn’t have to go to work today.”
“Dr. Gan says he expects cases to rise even more, he needs me to be around. Besides, it’s good for my career, love.”
“So am I looking at the next head of the pandemic research unit?”
“If I play my cards right, yes. In the meantime, you’ll have to let me go, babe,” Aiden chuckled, extricating himself from my hold.
“Okay, okay. Little Azalea here and I will be waiting for you then.”
“Oh, Azalea is it? I thought we were going with my choice!”
“But Khadeja sounds so old-fashioned, honey.”
When I went into labour three months later, far away from Malaysia and all alone, I wanted to hang on to Aiden as much as I could. I wanted him to be in all my memories even if he wasn’t present in any of them. And so, when the baby was born, I named her Khadeja, just like he wanted.
“Ma, I found Papa.” The message appeared on my phone.
There was no hint of anything else in the four words Khadeja sent me this morning.
She arranged for a driver to send me to Independent Square. I found myself standing at the bronze wall again. I’d studied the panels and read through thousands of names in the past weeks. And if Aiden’s name was there today, I was ready to accept it.
Khadeja appeared from among the crowd that was milling there. She took my hands in hers and hugged me tight. Her tears wet the fabric on my shoulder.
“He’s here, Ma…” she choked the words out. I nodded calmly, then turned to the bronze wall searching for his familiar name. Instead, she hung back a little and only then did I notice the face that I was so certain I’d never see again.
His dimples appeared when he smiled at me. His hair was tousled but greyer than before. His eyes crinkled up in a kind of happy disbelief.
I went straight into his arms as he enveloped me in a tight, yet familiar embrace. Thirty years melted away just like that as his touch let loose the memory of our last moments together all those years ago.
“Azalea it is then, sayang… and then Lily… and if after that we have another girl, I suppose you’d like to name her Rose…and the fourth one would be Poppy…,” he murmured against my bare skin, as we laid quietly in our half-made bed, continuing the earlier conversation.
“You’re mocking me.” I protested.
“No, my love, I’m just enjoying all the perks of being married to you,” he grinned before drawing me closer.
“No regrets, marrying me?” I asked coyly.
“Oh, let’s see now… I had to change my name from Aiden Lim to Aiden Abdullah, become a Muslim at the anguish of my family, not forgetting, I also had to lose a small part of my buddy down here…. Hmmm, nope, definitely no regrets,” he laughed. “Now, show me that it was worth it.”
He came inside me once more that morning, and as I watched him drive off to work, I relished knowing I had a little bit of him inside me.
Ignoring the growing crowd around me in front of the bronze wall, I hugged Aiden tighter as I clung on to that memory and carefully registered this new one, taking in his scent, the feel of his shirt on my cheek, the sound of his voice. I breathed him in like I was afraid I would lose him all over again.
Aiden loosened his embrace on me, and held me at arm’s length. Khadeja came to my side then, circling her arm around my waist.
“We’re a family at last,” I breathed out.
I saw Aiden shaking his head slightly. His hands clutched my arms like he would not let go, but his eyes were twin pools of regret.
“I’m married, Sal,” he breathed out.
I inhaled his breath, choking on those words, swallowing the bitterness.
So Aiden hadn’t waited as I had.
After just three years of searching for me through muddled-up records during the Emergency, he declared me missing, had our marriage dissolved through a presumption of death petition, went back to becoming Aiden Lim, and married Serena Gan.
Naturally, there were special privileges of being Chinese under the new Greater Indochina Confederation rule. Especially so, when you’re the son-in-law of an influential boss in the Health Ministry, Dr. Gan.
After he wed Serena, Aiden was made head of the pandemic control in the region very quickly.
That night, as I lay alone in bed, I took my phone and played the video of that perfect final morning with Aiden. I played it many times over, the light from the images flickering on the walls in the dark.
I watched as the much-younger Aiden gazed at me with those playful, loving eyes. And when my eyes grew sleepy from crying so much, I cradled the phone against my chest, and let the memories lull me to sleep.
“Do you believe we’ll ever get out of this pandemic, love?” I asked. “You mean if it will ever be over?”
“Will it, Aiden?”
“It’s hard to say, Sal. At the hospital, we don’t see the numbers declining any time soon.”
“So we might be in this for the long haul?”
“Yes, for the long haul, I think so, yes. Why? Are you afraid?”
“Very afraid, Aiden.”
“As long as we are together, we will be okay, babe.”
As long as we are together, we will be okay. His words sounded romantic at the time to the ears of a new bride and mother-to-be clinging to the promise of a future with this man. I hadn’t registered the proviso he had made.
In the final moments before I surrendered to my slumber, I made myself go back to Independent Square in my mind. Back to the bronze wall where families, spouses, and lovers, crowded for some comfort, some closure. Back to the sea of names for a glimpse of the past, to release a final longing, to move on.
And there, I forced myself to conjure his name etched in bronze.
Muhammad Aiden Lim Abdullah, 1995-2020.
Anis Rozalina Ramli is a writer based in Malaysia, where she grew up as a Malay Muslim within a multi-racial and multi-cultural society that was colourful and contrasting in turns. Her writings are inspired by childhood experiences of growing up in the exciting 70s and 80s, the urban setting of Kuala Lumpur where she worked as an adult, and the quiet solitude of rural life in Janda Baik, Pahang, where she now resides with her family.