I like that this chapter brings in actual world events that helps date the story and gives it a touch of reality. Also, Yun Jin the wallflower feels lost and lonely …
In the spring of Year Four, the country was swept up in the SARS epidemic. Several densely populated cities were hard-hit and Yun Jin’s area was not spared. The number of infected people climbed steadily every day and the smell of death seemed to linger everywhere, causing everyone much fear and trepidation. Man was always so vulnerable when facing natural calamity and illnesses.
Yun Jin’s campus was no safe haven; a year two female student who had returned from visiting her boyfriend in another city had developed a high fever that was later diagnosed to be SARS. The school descended into a state of flurry and panic. Following that fright, several other students also developed high fevers and were quarantined. Everyone was uneasy.
The school adopted all measures of emergency precaution. They documented the entry and exit of students meticulously and sent people to check on the dormitories daily. The dorms were sprayed with disinfectant and temperatures were monitored closely. However, these measures failed to stem the rising paranoia.
Yun Jin’s hostel mate Xiao Wen was quarantined because she had been in contact with the SARS-infected student. Thus, only five of the girls were left in the room. Other than Yun Jin, the other four girls would clutch their phones all day as it was their only means of communication with the outside world. All of them had their parents, relatives, lovers and friends asking after them.
It wasn’t that Yun Jin wasn’t worried. However she had few friends and was seldom in contact with her relatives. She was only concerned about her mom. Her mom should have phoned her up by now yet after many days had passed, she still had not received a call. She didn’t have a handphone so she suspected that her mother’s call couldn’t successfully connect to the hostel line which was in hot demand. She kept a vigil near the phone and whenever she saw it wasn’t in use, she would hurriedly dial her mother’s new residence. However, no one ever picked up.
Yun Jin was beside herself with worry and longing for her mother. Her mother was now a homemaker, there was no plausible explanation for her constant absence. If something had happened, surely she would have been informed. She realized forlornly that she didn’t even have her uncle’s handphone number. Unsettled and despondent, Yun Jin rang up Yu Hua. However, Yu Hua’s bunk mate informed Yun Jin that Yu Hua had come down with a cough and low-grade fever and had been sent to the hospital as a precaution.
Yun Jin had never felt this helpless before. At night, the hostel phone continued to ring endlessly. Whenever someone picked up the line, she would inadvertently hold her breath, hoping that she would be summoned to receive the call. Unfortunately, this was never the case. It bothered her; had her mother forgotten about her?
In her ordinary existence, she had never noticed the difference between other common folk and herself. But now in times of woe, she discovered how pitiful her life was. No one cared about her and she had no one to care for. She felt like the proverbial island that could only stare at the vast expanse of water surrounding her, where there was no other land for many miles.
Before Yun Jin fell asleep that night, she heard a girl whine to her lover over the phone that her parents were being too naggy and forcing her to drink bitter herbal concoctions. Her throat tightened and she was overcome with emotions.
After a period, the girl finally hung up the phone. By then Yun Jin had almost fallen asleep, she with her misty eyes and stuffed nose. The piercing ringing of the phone sounded again and was picked up by an annoyed girl on the lower bunk.
“Yun Jin it’s for you!”
Yun Jin practically flew down from her upper bunk. She was just about to yell “Mom!” when she heard an unexpected voice.
“What lousy phone does your hostel have? I’ve spent almost all my handphone battery just trying to dial in.” an impatient voice greeted her.
Yun Jin pressed the receiver tightly against her ear. She didn’t realise her eyes were already wet.
At her silence, he hesitated before continuing “I just wanted to know if you are well. I was … worried about you. I don’t have any other intention … Wait, Yun Jin are you crying? What’s the matter? Don’t cry, please say something …” his voice took on an urgent tone.
Yun Jin didn’t care anymore as she sniffled nosily and allowed her tears to flow freely onto the receiver. She could only manage to choke out “Cheng Zheng …” He was her floating plank, her only lifeline.
“Tell me what’s wrong! Hey hello hello …” Yun Jin could only hear the static. She could faintly make out Cheng Zheng cursing at the phone before saying something but it was fuzzy and she could not make it out. She was just about to seek clarification when the line went dead. She hurriedly redialled and was astonished to find herself dialling his number with such ease even though she had never once called him.
The line went through and a robotic, crisp voice informed her with perfect enunciation “The number you’ve reached is temporarily unavailable. Please, try again later.”
The next morning, the first thing she did on waking was to redial his number. She hadn’t even given much thought to what she would say if she got through. All she knew was that she wanted to hear his voice.
This time however, his phone was switched off.
Yun Jin was fidgety in her two lectures. After ten, she had no more lessons scheduled for the rest of the day so she went to the administrative department to help the psychology professor key in tests scores on the computer.
After half-an-hour, the psychology lecturer couldn’t hold it in any longer and tapped her to get her attention “Yun Jin, are you feeling unwell? This script earned 81 marks not 8100. That’s off the chart!”
“Oh! I’m so sorry. I’ll change it this instant.”
More time passed and the professor returned to check on Yun Jin’s progress. He remarked with an odd expression “You sure you don’t want to head back and rest? You’ve changed his score to 18.”
Yun Jin cheeks were awash in red and she immediately went to correct her mistake. At this moment, the faculty counsellor walked into the office and said casually “How come you’re here Yun Jin? I thought someone at the school gate was asking for you.”
Yun Jin froze “Looking for me?” Then she got up quickly and tossed out “Thanks sir!” and was out the door before anyone could reply. The two staff members looked at each other puzzled “What’s with the child today? She’s never been so frantic before.”
The distance to the school gate was a long one. When she reached the firmly shut iron gates, she was so breathless that she was bent over and panting heavily. She placed one hand on her knee and the other on the iron gate as she searched all round. Indeed, there was a travel-weary Cheng Zheng on the other side.
He placed his hand on the metal contraption as well and frowned “Why were you crying last night?”
Yun Jin pat her chest to gain her breathing rhythm back and said with much difficulty “You’re crazy.”
Seeing the two kids speak across the gates, the security guard couldn’t help but shake his head at their silliness. He avoided their hopeful gaze and held up his hands in mock surrender “Don’t look at me; the school instructed that only people with a pass can enter or leave.”