Without J, I now take on the task of being observant and staying present to the immediate environment around me. Some days I imagine myself as the character in one of my favourite graphic novels, Walking Man by the late Jiro Taniguchi. A bespectacled, stocky man moves into a new neighbourhood with his wife and dog. He takes walks around the neighbourhood and in each vignette, he encounters and learns about an aspect of himself, the seasons, nature... There is scarcely any dramatic confrontation in this graphic novel that would constitute our usual understanding of a story. But it is never banal or boring. Instead, we start to pay attention to the subtlest movement or event. Perhaps if a person’s whole life was compressed into a stroll, it would be such. A romance may just be that wild rush of wind; the trials of our work life may just be the most monotonous stretch of a walk that bears the decaying stench from a nearby canal in the heavy humid air; the birth of one’s child like the moment you chance upon the most adorable kitten in the neighbourhood; while illness or bereavement may just be that one part of the walk when we feel we cannot go on -- but of course we do, until the walk brings us eventually home.
We go on because walking is motion -- it has its own momentum. The start of the COVID restrictions was also the start of my habit of taking a post-dinner walk, since there was little more one could do at that time. As there was also an outbreak of dengue all over the island then, I walked only after the sun has set and the Aedes mosquito was less likely to bite. My typical route was a 45min leisurely stroll around the neighbourhood. In those early months of COVID, the shops would be shut early and the pavement, void decks and roads were mostly deserted. And in a world that seemed to have stopped, it felt like only my body was in motion.
Walking is ultimately restorative. 2 years ago, when I was recovering from the surgeries, J would make sure we took walks 2 to 3 times a day - first along the corridors in my block of flats, and subsequently when I didn't need to be so careful, around the neighbourhood.
I like to think that these daily walks, particularly during the quiet of COVID, was a time of both mourning and restoration. It was during one of these COVID walks that I had an idea for a new comic!
I knew that Furrie and Shortie (an earlier comic series) would be coming to an end, and I would need a new distraction soon. So why not a new comic? It would be of an old lady's daily walks and the creatures she encountered in her neighbourhood - my own version of Walking Man.... Walking Auntie!
That night I got home and started immediately to sketch the characters. They didn't take much work to invent. Because I saw them everyday. The old lady. The area in Toa Payoh that our flat was in had lots of old people. They walked alone or drove their little mobility scooters. Some were wheeled in their chairs by helpers. Occasionally we would encounter an old couple, one holding on to the other - J would always remark that he wished only that we would grow old together like them...
There would be a cat (or several) on most walks. So of course there would be a cat in the comic. It would be a ghost cat. And there would be a nightjar. I have never seen one, but the one time I saw a photograph of it I remembered that it was such an odd looking frog-mouthed bird, I had to draw one. And then shrews, not rats. There are so many shrews (and rats) in Toa Payoh and the one stressful thing on my walks would be the thought of encountering a shrew or rat running across my slippered feet. Oh, and a lizard - every comic needs a villain - and lizard poop, the villain's evil posse. It would be funny.
The name OG came about during a dinner party during Phase 2 of COVID... we discussed what the acronym for the department store stood for. Everyone knew the joke - Old Girl. Once I completed the first episode, I inked the title. And it was Only Grace (OG).
Several months after I started to draw OG, I met someone who was just over the age of ninety. Let’s call her M. She gave me another perspective of Grace. Because of my work, M and I had earlier already started a very occasional correspondence, the old-fashioned way of cards and letters. She said she didn’t use a computer or a smart phone, and so she wrote in her shakey hand. Our last meeting she was on the hospital bed. She had broken her hip just before Christmas but because of her age, the doctors did not want to operate on her.
It was a Saturday. We chatted for over two hours. She told me a little about her life, about how much she loved music and going to the theatre, even when she was living in London after the war. And although she never got the hang of ballet, despite trying out lessons as a child, she loved to dance. All the way until just before COVID forced live performances to stop, she would attend monthly concerts of music from the 1960s - she took the seats at the back of the concert hall by the entrances because steps would be perilous. Yet she would stand to dance when the music took her fancy. I asked her what her favourite dance was. Her answer: the slow foxtrot and, sometimes, the quick step. She said, towards the end of our conversation, that she missed attending concerts, but there was only one thing she would have liked the chance to do: to take a boat around Singapore at night. I said if she got well we should go. Was I being cruel to say this - she looked at me with disbelief. A week later, I got the news that she was moved to a hospice and was barely conscious.
There was no wake. Right after the funeral, her ashes were taken out to sea and scattered. The funeral was attended by a small group of friends from her church and her old workplace. COVID restrictions were such that only fifty people were allowed at the Kranji funeral hall. She had made preparations for this day. As she lay in her casket she wore a beautiful pale pink cheongsum, gloves up to her elbow, an ivory fan made of lace in one hand, and her only jewlery a thick gold band on her ring finger. She looked all ready to dance the slow fox trot.
5. I bought these "Auntie" fabrics from the market beside my new flat in January 2021, during the Chinese New Year period when I was checking out my soon-to-be neighbourhood. I chanced upon these colourful fabrics and I thought how some of them would look amazing if they were made into cheongsams for Maggie Cheung in her Centrestage or In the Mood for Love roles. When I bought them I did not know what I would use them for, just that I would surely make something fun with them. When I finished drawing Only Grace in April, it felt right to use these fabrics for the book cover.
If you would like a copy, please email email@example.com. They are $40 each. I will donate all proceeds, plus top it up with an equivalent amount, to a charity for eldercare.
*To date, $2440 has already been donated from this project to the St John's Home for the Elderly.