When your sister murders three hundred people, you can’t help but wonder why – especially if you were one of the intended victims. Though I do forgive her, if you can believe it. I tried my best to deny the strength of family ties when everyone was still alive, but now I realise the truth of the cliché: blood does run thick. Even if poison trumps all.
It was caught on surveillance tape, so there’s no denying that Estella was the culprit. I haven’t seen the footage myself – can’t see at all in my present condition – but I can imagine it with great clarity. At the mouth of the corridor leading from the hotel ballroom to the adjoining kitchen, my sister appears. The angle of the camera makes it difficult to see her face, obscured by the enormous hairsprayed chignon atop her head, but I’d recognise those calves anywhere – peasant’s legs, our mother always jokingly called them, disproportionately bulky for Estella’s otherwise slender frame. Graceful in stilettoes, despite her country-bumpkin appendages, she glides out of one camera’s purview into another’s. My mind’s eye sees her in the kitchen now, speaking to one of the staff, who grants her immediate entry upon learning that she’s Irwan Sulinado’s granddaughter. Graciously, she offers a pretext (a mission to reassure a germ-phobic aunt, perhaps – any excuse would have served since, in Indonesia, the wealthy don’t need reasons). They allow her free passage, ‘Silakan, Ibu’ – ma’am, as you please – and let her sail on, past flaming woks and stainless-steel bins of pre-sliced meats and vegetables, fielding deferential nods from surprised and frazzled cooks. Only when they resume their duties does she strike, pulling a tiny vial from inside the high, stiff collar of her silk cheongsam and scattering its contents into the great steaming tureen of shark’s fin soup with a flick of a jade-bangled wrist.
I’m making this whole scene up, of course, except for the cheongsam: a gorgeous gold and emerald affair covered in delicate coiling vines that she’d bought years ago on vacation in Shanghai. That’s where my mind beats out the security cameras; such fine embroidery would never have registered on tape. Similarly, I bet the recording didn’t catch the resolution in her step, the hardness in her jaw, the murderous glint in her eye that also went unnoticed by all the family members and friends in attendance that night – and, to my shame, me. I’ve replayed the evening dozens of times in my head, and I’m sure of it: there was nothing out of the ordinary about her except that she was in exceptionally good spirits, which I’d attributed to her downing two flutes of champagne before the traditional first course of peach-shaped birthday buns had made their way to the banquet tables.
‘Gwendolyn. Doll,’ she’d whispered in my ear, giggling. She split a bun along its rose-tinted cleft and dark lotus-seed paste oozed out.
‘I always get a kick out of these,’ she confided. ‘Don’t you think they look like blushing butts filled with . . .’
That set me giggling too. A fine way for two women in their early thirties to behave. Truth be told, I may have drunk my champagne too quickly as well.
You’d understand why, after sharing a sisterly moment such as this, I’d be baffled that Estella would want to kill me, or any of us, or, for that matter, herself. I think that’s why I’m not as angry as I probably should be. If she’d poisoned us all and spared her own life, it would have been unforgivable. But no, she wanted us dead and she wanted herself dead, and now only I am alive. If you can call it that.
It seems like ages ago that I learned I was the only survivor. It’s hard to keep track of time in my condition, so I can’t provide an exact hour or date; but it was after I’d woken up, gasping into emptiness, and screamed and screamed and nobody came. It was after the footsteps eventually arrived and, ignoring my cries for help, someone readjusted my body, tinkered with the beeping thing at my side, and departed. It was an eternity after that – an endless cycle of being awake and terrified, of calling out in vain to whoever shifted me and rustled around my prone body, punctuated by bouts of exhausted sleep. It was even after I’d stopped calling out at all. (They couldn’t hear me. I finally came to terms with that.)
I found out what Estella had done only when two women came in and, while attending to me, began to talk to each other. I hadn’t heard voices for so long that my ears didn’t comprehend at first what they were saying. Gradually, words began to form out of the babble.
‘. . . Estella Wirono. Granddaughter of the Chinese tycoon Irwan Sulinado. Put it in the shark’s fin soup. The footage was all over the news.’
‘How many were poisoned?’
‘Around three hundred.’
‘How many survivors?’
‘A shame,’ the second voice said sorrowfully.
Then they left me to my desolation.
Estella’s apology – her dying words – made sense after that. The chaos of the evening flooded back to me: the shrieking of the first victims as they began to choke and twitch, to retch and collapse, followed by a different sort of cry – the belated realisation that one’s life is about to end. The hotel ballroom spinning madly. Guests staggering to their feet, trailing tablecloths in clenched fists. Wine glasses and plates of Peking duck crashing to the black-and-gold-carpeted floor. Gerry Sukamto trying to control unwieldy fingers long enough to dial a number on his mobile phone. Leonard’s mother convulsing on her knees, attempting to pray. Our cousin Marina crawling feebly towards one of the exits, sobbing with fear, the front of her evening gown drenched in vomit. The tiny bodies littered around the children’s table, their nannies desperately trying to wake them up.
I remember turning to my grandfather’s table and seeing the birthday boy lying limp in his chair. My step-grandmother slumped in his lap, her powdered, chubby face crushed against his crotch.
That was when I lost myself in my own shaking and heaving. My cheek hit the ground. And there was Estella, lying there as well, twitching, watching me; us watching each other. She reached for me, her arm moving across the carpet so slowly it was difficult to tell if it was moving at all. I tried to say something – what, I don’t know – but it dribbled from the corner of my lips in a weak groan.
Then she mouthed something. I didn’t understand. She mouthed it again: ‘Forgive me.’
What for? I wondered, before slipping into oblivion.
Now I know.
And as I said, I do – forgive her, I mean. I love her too much to do otherwise. But I still want to know why she did it. It’s only natural. I have little else to wonder about these days.
I didn’t anticipate it ending like this. Who would? I’ve always known I would die someday, ideally sometime after seventy, but before the point where I’d have to hire a nurse to spoonfeed me chicken congee and afterwards clean my gums with a wet rag. The grim possibility of dying young also crossed my mind from time to time: a car accident, a plane crash, a terminal illness. But this – this hovering in blackness, this stretch of in-between, alive and dead and neither – this I never dreamed possible. Yet, here I am.
Perhaps it’s just as well that I have so much time on my hands, even though I have no way of measuring its passing. And perhaps it’s also right that I have no visitors, and hence, no distractions: everyone who would have taken the trouble to look in on me regularly is dead. It’s peaceful, though. A far cry from running Bagatelle, to be sure, but this way I can devote time to contemplating what Estella did, to coming to some understanding of it. In fact, the more I dwell on my circumstances, the more I realise the importance of the task before me – the task that only I am capable of carrying out. Who knew Estella more intimately than I? Who loved her more deeply? The answer to all this, if there is one, almost certainly lies with me. And call me crazy, but I’m positive it’s crouching in plain sight, waiting to be recognised for what it is.