“Ding! Seventeenth Floor,” the elevator announces in its cloying robotic voice, after having skipped all the inauspicious numbers in Chinese and Western superstitions.
“Excuse me,” I force through the sombre crowd, most of them absorbed in their phones, unwilling to move, oblivious to my impatient elbows.
Every time I step into the lobby of the female geriatric ward, I feel instantly depressed by the morbidity in the air. Come to think of it, 17th is actually 14th, after adjusting for the missing 4th, 13th and 14th floors. They can fool numerology but not structural reality, or the embedded curse.
I nod to the duty nurse in passing, again. She’s starting to look curious. I’ve been coming in and going out every ten minutes today. I head straight to Room 1704. For some reason, they have not deleted inauspicious room numbers as well. For the past four days, the room’s been fully occupied by the same six patients. Four of them, including Ah Mah, are semi-comatose, similarly hooked up to waste collection bags and monitors.
The other two are conscious. One has an oxygen mask which she puts on and takes off incessantly. The other mumbles to herself a lot, mostly belligerent monologues. Ironically, both don’t seem to have visitors.
A collective whiff greets me at the door: drugs, urine, faeces, the raw stench of old age and sickness, sanitised death. The late afternoon sun has cast beautiful golden shadows between their beds.
Ah Mah’s immobile form, covered by a blanket, breathing noisily, mouth slightly open, eyes closed, sunken, is becoming familiar and surreal after four days. Is her condition steady? Greyish flakes of dried saliva have formed around her mouth. I wet some tissues with the drinking bottle and wipe carefully, hoping her desiccated lips will soak it up. I glance at my watch, but immediately feel guilty for noting that only two minutes have passed — eight more to go.