Day 6

30 Days Of Art With NAC: The Window by Theophilus Kwek

To inspire and uplift readers as the country emerges from the Covid-19 circuit brTo inspire and uplift readers as the country emerges from the Covid-19 circuit breaker, The Straits Times, supported by the National Arts Council as part of the #SGCultureAnywhere campaign, has commissioned 30 works by local writers and artists on the pandemic and what it will be like when all this is over

ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

Zero waited by her window as the air became raw with the noise of engines, and looked up to see plumes of red-and-white smoke billowing toward the horizon. This was her favourite part of the Parade: hearing the wave of sound wash over the city, so loud it seemed to drown out thought. From her Bukit Ho Swee flat, she had a clear - but not unaffordable - view of the flypast, and if she looked out again later in the evening, might even see the fireworks bleaching the night sky above Marina Bay.

Framed by the windows of the block opposite, families were gathering in front of glowing TV sets: parents clapping toddlers' hands in time with the singalong, and teenagers on their phones, pretending to ignore the excitement. To the untrained eye, some looked nearly identical. Only she knew that even now, with the same scene broadcast in every living room, each one had their own idea of the country they were celebrating. They all imagined a different "Singapore" to any of the others.

She would take credit for that. For months, she had successfully lulled the city into believing that they were fighting an unknown disease, creating the perfect conditions to hasten the spread of three common, but deadly illnesses in her arsenal. The first, Panic, was easy. It flared up like an old infection, and almost immediately caused an itch that sent everyone to the shops. The second, Prejudice, was more subtle. You couldn't normally tell if someone had it, but it showed up as a verbal tic when they tried to explain, for instance, why some seemed more susceptible to the disease than others.

A third ailment, Pride, was already endemic. You could see the symptoms in the first weeks of the outbreak when people began crowing about how well the city had done in fighting the disease. As the numbers continued to rise, they found a way to talk about those numbers as if they were in some far-flung place, not the same community they inhabited. Even now, as the tanks rolled on-screen, Pride threatened to make a comeback. It had a way of spreading quickly on festive occasions, and could be exceptionally contagious.

Truth be told, all this had gone more smoothly than she expected. There were points when she thought her plans would be ruined, like when places of worship opened their doors to the homeless, a startling moment of generosity that made her think they'd developed an immunity to Panic. Or right after the disease took hold in the migrants' dormitories, when people rushed to support charities delivering food to facilities on the very fringes of the island.

Yet these were few and far between, singular acts of kindness that never really gained momentum. She suspected that they, too, were reactions to the disease, the body responding in strange ways to the shock of attack. In any case, resistance to common illnesses was at an all-time low. All she did was persuade her neighbours that these were less malign than the virus out there. Most forgave themselves easily, for letting these maladies have the upper hand as they busied themselves with the crisis.

Another National Day song blared from her speakers, joining with the tinny voices wafting down her corridor. On the surface - and sometimes, she thought, even deep down - she was not so different from her neighbours. Except this year, any apparent similarity was a little further from the truth. The illnesses she had spread would make them think of their own, first, when they thought of "Singapore". For each of them, the city had become a crowd resembling only their image of themselves.

She found herself smiling at the thought. She knew she was good at what she did, they didn't call her "Patient Zero" for nothing. But she wouldn't count her chickens, either. This city could surprise her, even at the best of times; it had a strange knack for pulling together despite her best efforts, and deep reserves of decency she hardly knew about. The fight was hardly over, but she would be prepared. Still smiling, she went back inside, then turned and shut the window firmly behind her.

•Theophilus Kwek, 26, has four poetry collections, including Moving House, which will be out later this month. As an extrovert, some things he has missed during the circuit breaker are the ambient noises of coffee shops and laughing naturally with someone else.

• To read the other works in this series online, go to str.sg/30Days. For more local digital arts offerings, go to a-list.sg to appreciate #SGCulture Anywhere

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 15, 2020, with the headline 'The Window by Theophilus Kwek '. Print Edition | Subscribe