Ether

Ether

A Story by Philip Muls
"

Let It Happen

"

My taxi got stuck in the evening traffic on Singapore’s Orchard Road so I gave the cabbie a solid tip and proceeded on foot. Slightly out of breath, I walked up the stairs of the Raffles Hotel and into its famous Long Bar. My friend Arthur was sitting with a cold Tiger Beer in hand and talking animatedly into his phone.


I sat down and ordered a Singapore Sling which by the way was first created in this very bar in 1915. I grinned at Arthur who gesticulated that he was trying to finish up his call. I looked around and took in the wonderful ambience of the place. Named after the founder of Singapore, Sir Stamford Raffles and immortalized in the novels of Rudyard Kipling and Somerset Maugham, the Raffles Hotel just breathes heritage. The elegant stateliness of the old mansion with its British Colonial style furnishings makes it more legend than a hotel.


We were seated in low rattan sofas on dark hardwood flooring and from the high ceiling, authentic Diehl fans produced a soft humming noise while their blades cut through the air. The walls were filled with displays of globes and telescopes. We were looking out through shuttered French windows onto a wide veranda with teak lounge chairs. The sound of crickets chirping in the cool night outside made the tropical mood complete.


Arthur is a large, bald man and as usual, he was dressed like he just came back from a week in the outback. He moved to Singapore a year ago with his wife and three children after a four-year stint in the moist heat of Chennai, India. Addicted to expat life, the couple has sworn never to return to their roots in cold, wet Belgium, which is also my home country. Arthur and I go back a long way and feel at ease with each other, without the need for a lot of words.


Our plan was to head out to the Esplanade in Marina Bay near the mouth of the Singapore River, where Australian rock band Tame Impala were scheduled to do a live gig. On an impulse, I had bought the tickets online that morning at twice the face value because Arthur and I both love the band’s psychedelic sound which blends rock with dreamy melodies.


The band’s off-the-wall personality is reflected in their name which refers to an impala, an African antelope known for its typical nervousness and capable of jumping up to three meters in the air when startled. Tame Impala then points to the one unvexed specimen grazing the savanna, which lets you come closer and make real contact. Pretty cool name for a crew of talented musicians who project a maturity beyond their young age.


As if brought on by my thinking, I heard a TV voice saying: “Although very weak, she will attend tonight’s performance of Tame Impala by special invitation of the band.”


My interest triggered, I looked up at the large LCD screen above the bar and recognized the portrait of Michelle, the young girl who recently became the nation’s symbol of suffering and hope. Everyone knows her as the sweet seventeen-year- old which has been on the waiting list for a heart transplant for four months now.


The entire population of South-East Asia has been following her story ever since she collapsed on stage on national television. That fateful evening, Michelle was performing a violin solo as the Singapore nominee for the widely popular Asian Youth Orchestra competition for best classical performer under eighteen.


When she had entered the stage, she walked with confidence, head up high. Her long black hair framed her delicate face and she radiated the sophistication that came with a privileged and classical upbringing.   


The image of the elegant soloist in black evening dress giving her very best to Paganini’s Caprice No. 4 and then suddenly passing out on the podium has been burned in the collective memory of millions of viewers.


When it happened, it had taken a long twenty seconds before the entire orchestra finally stopped playing and then there was nothing but an eerie silence. A general awareness took hold of the audience that this was not just the harmless fainting of a young woman under the glaring heat of spotlights. A few drops of blood had poured from her nostrils and a TV camera zoomed in before the editor decided this was too intrusive. The camera moved to take on a more discrete angle but the close-up of the blood on the wooden floor remained fixed on the audience’s retinas.


The seriousness of her condition was soon confirmed by a doctor in the audience who established heart failure as a diagnosis and gestured that emergency transportation was needed ASAP. The audience held its breath, fearful of losing a talented young soul representing the best of the nation.


TV stations continued their live broadcasting while Michelle was evacuated by helicopter to the Singapore National Heart Centre with ever more viewers tuning in throughout Asia as the word spread. Several international news crews including CNN and CNBC, who had been covering Singapore’s parliamentary elections, switched focus and followed in her wake. They set up camp right across the hospital’s front entrance and made sure also the Western world became aware of Michelle’s affliction.


Once the cardio team had stabilized her, it emerged that Michelle’s coronary artery was so dangerously narrowed that her heart function had dipped to just twelve per cent and her blood pressure had sunk to a near-lethal level. It was nothing short of a miracle that she had not fallen into a coma when she lost consciousness on stage. The hospital had her hooked up to the heart-lung machine which immediately started pumping blood round her body.


That had been four months ago. Michelle had regained consciousness two days after the collapse but had remained very weak ever since. From day one, she had been on the transplant list with top priority status A1, reserved for the critically ill. Any matching donor heart is offered first to a patient with that designation but while in the US and Europe the average waiting time is four months, in Singapore it is double that. Too few donor hearts are available on the island city-state and as a consequence, more than forty percent of patients do not survive the wait for a heart. This cruel statistic has been quoted in the news almost on a daily basis since Michelle’s breakdown and has triggered wide public indignation.


Obtaining a healthy matching heart for Michelle had proven impossible so far. On three occasions the South-East Asia Transplant Network came close. The first potential donor tested positive for cocaine, however, and the second showed signs of hepatitis C. The most recent donor case had raised hopes but close investigation of the living cadaver showed the victim had not only suffered a head injury but also a chest trauma with evidence of cardiac damage, so again a no go. That was three weeks ago.


Since then each day came and went without donor news and Michelle’s condition deteriorated to a point where her doctor told the public to hope for the best but expect the worst. He stated his patient had only the smallest possible window for survival with a life expectancy of less than a week without a transplant.


The image on TV now switched to Tame Impala’s lead singer who explained in Aussie-speak that the band came to know that Michelle liked their music and they had invited her to attend that night’s concert if her condition would allow. He had spoken to Michelle on the phone two days ago and she had confirmed she would love to be there.


Then Michelle’s cardiologist came on and stated that his patient’s condition was rated as extremely severe and only a last-minute donor heart could mean the difference between life and death. Yet, there were no signs that a match could be found in the coming hours. Therefore, he would respect Michelle’s wish to be present at the concert that evening and he would be there right at her side. 


The specialist spoke in a matter-of-fact tone as if this kind of thing occurred on a daily basis. And it probably did with many patients who were not in the public eye and had to suffer their fate in silence. In any case, his words sent shivers down my spine.


I looked around me in the Long Bar and absolutely everybody was motionless with eyes fixated on the screen. Clearly, my peers here were also in awe by the events unfolding and we felt strangely connected by this harsh confrontation with the fragility of life.


It was very hard to believe that science or money could not save the life of this precious young girl. Even that very morning, the CEO of Singapore Telecom had pledged their corporate jet to fly in a healthy heart from anywhere within a six-hour radius, which was the maximum time a donor heart would remain viable. But without a last-minute match, that plane would stay where it was on the tarmac of Changi International Airport. It felt as if a higher force wanted to show who ultimately had the power.


When the news anchor finally changed topics, Arthur and I discussed what to do next. We both had mixed feelings about tonight. We wanted to go to the concert because we had tickets to see one of our favorite bands play live. But the last thing we wanted was to be voyeurs, selected by fate to witness up close the very delicate situation of this young girl on the verge of dying. We both wanted to do the respectful thing but it was hard to figure out what that was.


In the end, we decided to go to the concert because we wanted to be united with other people wishing that this would end well. Maybe the massive public support would give Michelle the strength to hang on another day.  


The event hall, nicknamed the Durian as the twin structures with the thousands of spike protuberances  resemble the pungent national fruit of Singapore, was already filled to the rim when we arrived. We wrestled our way through the crowd to our designated places right in the middle of the arena. We watched in silence as up front, near the podium, an area was cleared by security and a medical team took their places.  


Michelle was brought in on a special bed, hooked up to an intimidating amount of medical equipment, just five minutes before the concert started. Her face was projected briefly on two huge screens. She looked incredibly frail and vulnerable yet somehow she managed a faint smile and waved briefly at the camera as if she wanted to say thanks for having her here. 


A surge of emotion went through the audience and her name started reverberating through the large hall. Not loud but rather like a thousand whispers converging into one, as if the joint human presence here knew exactly how to pay tribute to this sacred moment and this brave girl, hanging on to life.


Tame Impala opened with a subdued statement: “Good evening Singapore and a special welcome to Michelle. We in the band hope you will enjoy this concert tonight.”


The two large screens projected only the stage as the band performed the first three songs of their set. Gradually the crowd eased into the evening and seemed to forget about the special guest. Then suddenly the musicians stopped playing and the lead singer gently made the crowd go quiet and said, facing the hospital bed: “Michelle, you told us that Let It Happen is your favorite song and we want to dedicate it to you tonight”.


It took a moment for the crowd to take this in. The lyrics of the band’s signature song Let It Happen and its typical effervescent sound make it a spiritual, almost hallucinatory piece. Its meaning centers on accepting personal transition in a world of chaos: it does not help to resist, it takes more energy to shut it all out than it does to let it happen.


In any non-life-or-death situation, that wisdom makes perfect sense. But projected onto Michelle’s predicament, this triggered deep concern. ‘Let it happen’ as in do not resist and surrender to dying? Surely, this is not what the band meant? This was either completely inappropriate or completely right.


A murmur went through the crowd as people speculated whether Michelle wanted to give them a message here tonight. Or was this song just the personal favorite of a teenager enjoying a very special night out?


The song started and soon the crowd was overwhelmed by a massive wall of synth sound filling the music hall with an exceptional cosmic ambience and magical vocoder harmonies. 


The screens now projected the face of Michelle who seemed to be crying softly with her eyes closed. She apparently had difficulty breathing which was painful to watch. But then near the end of the song, she opened her eyes and her face lit up. She smiled and seemed at peace.


When people move together through a challenging situation into a higher emotional state, their collective awareness starts resonating at a higher frequency range. Upon seeing Michelle smile, such vibration of increased consciousness rippled through the crowd. People were confused and upset but at the same time moved beyond words and hopeful. They wanted so much to be reassured that this was a good thing, that Michelle was feeling the love and there was still time and a way to save her. 


Surely she would not just vaporize like ether in open air, although there was no denying it felt like that. 


Suddenly, the doctor next to her bed was seen taking Michelle’s pulse and shining a light into her pupils. He then gave urgent instructions to his medical team and the bed was rushed out of sight. A couple of minutes later a helicopter was heard taking off and then it was shown on the two screens, speeding away. The audience was in disarray.  


The cameras switched back to the band’s lead singer who spoke in a soft voice: “Ladies and gentlemen, we will pray for Michelle the only way we know how to.”


With that, an acoustic version of The Moment washed over the audience and people spontaneously took each other’s hands. It seemed like a very natural thing to do so I took the hand of Arthur on my right and of a young woman on my left side. We did not look at each other but just stood there until the song was over. I think each of us prayed to his or her personal God. That is the moment I will remember most of that tragic evening.


After a sleepless night, I boarded the first riverboat taking off from Clarke Quay where Singapore River starts to cut through the heart of the city. I took deep breaths of fresh morning air and felt alive. I also felt privileged and somehow wizened by the events of the evening before. I mostly wanted to be alone on the water to contemplate the meaning of what happened after Michelle was evacuated from the Esplanade concert theater. 


Yes, Michelle did pass away during her helicopter transfer to the hospital. Her weak heart finally gave up in mid-air. Nothing the doctors could do. 


And after her family had said their goodbyes, Michelle’s vital organs were harvested because she carried a donor card. 


Social media this morning showcased last night’s concert and Michelle’s presence there but most of all, they were all over the fact that five people during the night had gotten a new lease on life, one of them a seven year old Australian girl who played the violin and received one of Michelle’s lungs.


Yes, Michelle did abandon her last resistance but she did it on her own terms. And that the world will not forget.



© 2016 Philip Muls



Author's Note

Philip Muls
Reworked draft. Thanks for all reviews!

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Featured Review

Great story. Reminded me of an encounter I had as a teenager with Singapore Slings. You said it is a draft but the structure does not need any changes. Feel free to obsess over the details of grammar if you like, I have found that is a good way to kill time.

Posted 1 Year Ago


3 of 3 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Funny feedback!



Reviews

I don't know how to express the beauty of this other than to fix the error I made in not checking the donor card when I applied for a new license. This is so loving and magical and real and surreal.

Posted 10 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

I agree with Laura. A well written and descriptive piece of work

Posted 10 Months Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Well even being a draft, it was a hell of a good draft!
Productive writting.. good structure.
I like the way you introduced all the scenes, not too little not too much. Enough to let the reader fill in the gaps and enjoy the details you give without getting lost in the story.
Its always great to follow your work.


I hope to see more from you.
Thank you

100/100


Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you for the kind feedback Laura. Kind regards Philip
honestly lovely work my dear! you said a draft yet it is well structured and the detail is amazing I myself have never been to the place you speak of yet I felt as if I was there, which is the key to a great story. I only have one suggestion since you use such great vocabulary, you may need to create a dictionary at the end for younger readers who may not understand what the word means. Overall fantastic work.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you!
A facinating, captivating tale!
Bravo!!!
Terry

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

This is a compelling story, but I think you can tell it better. I have trouble seeing what is happening. There's a lot of description, but I don't feel like I'm there. Does that make sense?

For example the paragraph "A murmur went through the crowd as people speculated whether Michelle wanted to give them a message here tonight. Or was this song just the personal favorite of a teenager enjoying a very special night out?"

Could you make the reader feel the murmur more instead of just stating there was one? Perhaps a description of how the murmur made the hairs stand up on the back of your neck, or you could feel the slight breath of wind as the entire crowd whispered together? Little things like that. Don't state what happened, make the reader feel what happened--your first paragraph does it well. Do that more!

I hope that makes sense! As I said, really liked the concept--especially the little message at the end!

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thanks Viola. You are right, I could make it more personal still. Kind regards Philip
Fantastic! Very intelligent writing and I like the cultural nuance. Some aspects remind me a little of books in the style of "Taipan". I really enjoyed this.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you, thanks for reading
Your writing is good, but you're telling the story in the narrator's voice. And that's not what first person is. Replacing he and his with I and my doesn't magically turn telling into showing. It places the narrator on stage alone, talking to the reader in a voice that they can't hear. There is a huge difference between "person" defined by which personal pronoun you use, and viewpoint.

Were you telling this aloud, your reader would know how you speak the dialog, and that matters a great deal. I can say the same words using a different emotional content and reverse the meaning. When you read something like, "You really are a b*****d, Jack," how do you read it? As deadly insult? As high praise? Change the way you speak it and both are possible, as is every shade between. But so is a doctor reading a DNA report.

And placing, "He said with a snarl," as a tag doesn't fix the problem, because if the reader chose the wrong inflection as they read it, they have to stop and correct, something they don't like to do. That's why, on the page, we need to place the reader into the mental state the protagonist is in, and give them reason to "hear" the line in the voice THEY would have used were they living the scene as the protagonist.

Look at the opening as a reader will:
- - - - - - -
My taxi got stuck in the evening traffic on Singapore’s Orchard Road so I gave the cabbie a solid tip and proceeded on foot. Slightly out of breath, I walked up the stairs of the Raffles Hotel and into its famous Long Bar. My friend Arthur was sitting with a cold Tiger Beer in hand and talking animatedly into his phone.
- - - - - -
This isn't the protagonist living the scene, it's the narrator giving a synopsis of events. So it reads like a report. Does a reader care that someone they don't yet know got stuck in traffic and decided to walk? His giving a nice tip might be thought of as character development, but given that we don't know his objective—his scene goal—or how far he waked—and how he felt about that—why do we care? Movement isn't action. And if a given line doesn't move the plot, set the scene, or develop character meaningfully, it serves only to slow the narrative and delay the arrival of the actual story.

In that paragraph we move the character on stage and you mention that his friend was in the bar and on the phone. One would expect him to have a conversation if he's important enough to mention. But 1545 words go by and he has said not a word to the man. So why report that someone we know nothing about was using a phone to talk to someone unknown about things unknown?

Most of what is said in this excerpt is a synopsis of generalities and things that happened before the story opened, so it's history, not story. Why open the story to talk about what happened before it opened? If it matters, open the story there.

As yet we know nothing about the protagonist. His age is unknown. His nationality is unknown. The significance of what he's telling the reader is unknown. And of more importance, the only thing that happens till he leaves with the friend is that he arrives, sits with his friend, and sees a news item on TV. All the rest is the narrator taking about things for which the reader has no context.

Why does that matter so much? Because your reader came to you to be entertained, not treated to a lecture on history.

Unless you can make the reader care about the protagonist, and what's happening in the moment that person calls now, and do it before the end of page one. they will not turn the page. Is that fair? No. We all deserve to be rich and famous. But readers are volunteers. They arrive with mild curiosity that quickly fades. It's our job to change that curiosity to active interest. As the great Sol Stein said, “A novel is like a car—it won’t go anywhere until you turn on the engine. The “engine” of both fiction and nonfiction is the point at which the reader makes the decision not to put the book down. The engine should start in the first three pages, the closer to the top of page one the better.”

So get off stage and make something happen. Think about where the event that kicks our protagonist into overdrive comes—the inciting incident. Back up just far enough to make the reader know the protagonist and care what is going on, then: drop a body through the ceiling, set the place on fire, have a nude woman walk by, or in some way make the story MARCH. Place your protagonist in a position where they have to solve a problem or else, then make them fail and be forced to try again...and again...and again, while things go to hell around them. Be a b*****d and toss your character off a cliff and make him save himself. Then trip him, and then... In other words, get into the protagonist's "now," and drag the reader with.

Story isn't what happens. It's in the protagonist's desperate need to get their life under control, and the mental anguish and struggle that goes with it. Story is about emotion, not facts. And the emotion it's about is what you make the reader feel.

Readers don't want to learn that the protagonist feels terror. They want YOU to terrorize THEM. That's why they're with you. So leave history to the history books. Make your reader fall in love, duck punches, and battle to save the world. That's where the fun of reading lies.

And since there's no way in hell we can do that with the book report writing tricks we learned in our school days, Job one is to BECOME a fiction writer, something we are NOT when we leave our schooldays.

It requires a style of writing that's character, not author-centric. Instead of being fact-based it must be emotion-based if the reader is to care. And unlike our schooldays writing it must be focused on entertaining, not informing the reader.

And why don't we know all that when we leave school? Because the goal of our general education is to ready us for employment, not to be professional fiction writers. Training for that, as for any profession, is something only those practicing the profession need.

So keep writing, of course. But put some time aside for picking up some professional tricks. Your local library system's fiction writing section is a great resource. Search for the names Dwight Swain, Jack Bickham, or Debra Dixon on the book cover. They are pure gold.

You might want to dig around in the writing articles in my blog for a bit of an overview of the areas where you need help. They're written with the hopeful writer in mind, and based on the writings of the people I mentioned.

Hang in there, and keep on writing.

Jay Greendstein
https://jaygreenstein.wordpress.com/category/the-craft-of-writing/




Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you Jay fir the feedback. I will check out your articles. Regards Philip
Your first paragraph is stunning. I love the word choice and description. I thoroughly enjoyed it thank you. Watch for comma splices and run on sentences. The writing in the last paragraph was honestly one of the best ones I've read from you. Story line is beautiful; here's to you.

Posted 1 Year Ago


1 of 1 people found this review constructive.

Philip Muls

1 Year Ago

Thank you Theresa, glad you liked it

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Added on April 25, 2016
Last Updated on October 19, 2016
Tags: classical music, expat, tropical, concert, resistance, surrender, Tame Impala, heart transplant, Singapore

Author

Philip Muls
Philip Muls

Grimbergen, Belgium



About
Living in Europe, but travelling frequently in US and Asia. I love to combine what I experience during travel with observations and thoughts about the human condition. more..

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