Death On The Nile (16.5.2023)

The old man was in bed at the time. He had already dozed off moments earlier from the gentle purring of his Mrs’ snores. A dream had taken him to a world of fiords and crystal clear water and above them, stunning gorges showing off autumn colours and white waterfalls. The purring from the Mrs was calming and comforting, quite unlike the guttural sounds she made during the day. Her covid coughs were showing signs of abating earlier in the week, giving false hope that her mood would improve and that her complaints about being homesick would dissipate. “You know I don’t like leaving home for more than two weeks,” she complained that morning. The old man understood that perfectly well. Every holiday they had together that exceeded two weeks was unfailingly met with plummeting morale and fading interest about places to visit and things to do once she started voicing her disdain for “outside food” and her preference for her own cooking. “I miss my own bed,” she said. The old man shuddered. Missing her own bed and pillows was always a precursor to an abrupt disinterest in doing anything together.

A sea lion’s bark startled the old man and ended his dream.

“Khaw, khaw, kragh!”

“Kra, khhhh, krghh,” the Mrs spluttered and seemed eager to spit out her bloated lungs.

She choked on her own batch of saliva that had collected at the base of her tongue and muttered some indiscernible words that sounded coarse. She let out a loud sigh in the dark, a signal the old man knew not to disregard.

“I’ll get you some water,” he said whilst his eyes adjusted to the darkness and the Mrs’ head began to form a clearer image. Her torso and busty curves were totally invisible, buried in the mountain of thick, fluffy, expensive comforters and quilt.

He turned back to his bedside table and inched his hand forward towards the solid table lamp. Unlike the one at home, this one was heavy and sat firmly and securely. There was no risk of him toppling it to its side, but the habit of being careful had formed over many years and he flicked the switch with great care in the dark. A bright white light spread from the lamp and lit up his side of the room whilst throwing shadows that seemed to dance and move in the halation. His head felt foggy, affected by blocked ears and a slight chill in his body. Quick to dismiss any thoughts of being sick, he got up and filled the Mrs’ cup with tap water. Mind over matter. If you think you’re sick, you’ll be sick. He told himself not to be sick.

He had the chills a week earlier, when they were still in Wellington. They had just got back from a stunning holiday in Queenstown where he was finally convinced the world had to be created by a great artist. His puny mind lacked the capacity to theorise if there was one God or a team of gods that was responsible for such grand creations, but the natural landscapes and the richness of colours and shapes left him agog and bewildered that nature’s incomparable tool bag of palettes and brushes, chisels and hammers could produce such an astounding array of formations and sceneries. The chills he had lasted an afternoon. After a less than satisfactory lunch at Little Penang – their second visit in a week – he complained to the Mrs that the Hokkien Char was too salty and even the sliver of Char Koay Teow from her plate was overwhelmed by the amount of salt. They ate very little that afternoon, and having decided the left-overs would be their dinner, they asked for a take-away box at a cost of fifty cents. On the way back to their hotel, he asked the Mrs to stop by a chemist to get some Panadol for his fever. He sunned himself on a bench but the afternoon sun in windy Wellington did nothing to help warm him up. His reflection on the display window diverted his eyes away from the stack of Oral-B boxes and his eyes instead rested on a hapless old man huddled in his own arms and crouched in a heap like a sick droopy-eyed chook. He didn’t have the energy to chastise himself for comparing himself to a sick chook. Once they got back to the hotel, the old couple did not exchange any words. For him, all that mattered was a long hot shower and a dose of pills. The following day, his fever had subsided and he was as good as gold. Four days later, they arrived in Christchurch.

They were greeted by a cold driving rain and a foreboding grey sky, a grey that was matched by the miserable buildings left in ruins by the 2011 earthquakes. There was a revival of sorts but the pace of progress was decidedly slow. The city’s cathedral was still hoarded up and the weather only made it feel more miserable. The old man’s childhood friend, Law Choong Chet, was there to greet them at the airport. He was the sunshine that beamed warmth and love when everywhere else was cold and forbidding in sync. They were classmates in school for three years, yet when Choong Chet left in 1972, he left without a goodbye. It wasn’t customary to say goodbye to school friends in those days. The friends and their spouses had lunch that afternoon in a chic end of town. They travelled in a Ferrari-red Tesla; the engine of it was so incredibly smooth and silent the old man quietly marvelled at it.

The following morning, the Mrs suddenly exhibited signs of a fever and developed a nagging cough that subsequently got louder and frequent. The old couple’s son had just joined them having also arrived from Wellington. Choong Chet and his wife Karen were out attending prior engagements. The old couple’s son insisted his mother did a RAT test. The mother said “don’t be silly, it’s just a cough,” but she obediently allowed the son to attend to her. The two red lines that appeared were unexpected. “You’ve got covid, mum,” the son said, as he moved a yard further away from his mother. There was no question that they had to break the awful news to their hosts. In Wellington, they were discussing what gifts to bring to their hosts but never did they consider that they would be bringing the coronavirus to them. Choong Chet didn’t care and Karen blamed it on their son who had been unwell the week before when she too came down with symptoms the following day.

The old man said to his son he felt awkward despite his friend’s nonchalance about catching covid from the Mrs. “No, ba,” the son said, observing that his father should feel rotten. A fish is still fresh and welcomed on the first and second day, maybe even ok on the third day. “You’re like a fifth day fish, definitely off and smelly.”

The old man propped himself higher against a pile of new pillows in his bed. His phone lit up from an incoming message. The long crypto winter had meant he no longer checked on crypto prices during the night, but that was a lie he had told his friends. His eyes were soon combing through the crypto board, but the colour was predominantly red. He sighed and almost forgot to check the WhatsApp messages. The message had come in at 11.18 pm, Christchurch time. The old man’s hands turned cold, not from the wintry conditions outside, but it was as if his heart had stopped and the blood in his veins had frozen in permafrost. His reflection on the window pane showed how quickly he had aged as he read the message. His hoary hair had turned mostly white and the lines on his forehead had etched deeply and permanently, adding more scars to his already disfigured pock-marked face, a face now wrecked with pain and confusion. How can this happen? He let out a deathly scream inside his head, a blood-curdling shriek at the gods that allowed it to happen. This is so wrong! We come into this world, work our guts out, do the best for ourselves and for our family and just when we are ready to bask in perpetual sunshine and immerse ourselves in a well-deserved respite of joy and rest, our life is ruthlessly and abruptly cut short. He read the message again and again, initially in disbelief and later in shock and horror. He pulled at his hair which was coming down in bundles around his ears and teased a few wayward strands away from his mouth.

Hello everyone, I am Joanna, daughter of Dr Lum Wei Wah sending this message on behalf of the Lum family. It is with great sadness for me to announce that my father passed away yesterday during his trip to Egypt, most likely due to a heart attack. We know that he is safely in God’s hands and God has allowed him to see the most wondrous sights in his last moments where he enjoyed the most. We will update you further on funeral services.

Wei Wah’s death reverberated in the old man’s mind throughout the remaining days of his holiday in New Zealand. A doctor, a learned man, he would have been alert to his own health issues if any, and he would surely have the best means to look after himself. Yet, he succumbed to the vagaries of life and the uncertain candle in the wind. What do we do, we lesser human beings? He was not only tall, dark and handsome, he was also someone special, incredibly smart, generous and kind. In his army fatigues, he looked remarkably fit and strong. His sculpted body, the toned muscular frame and display of agility and strength gave no hint of his impending demise. It was clear he loved life and life loved him. It was said he died during a diving mishap, likely in the Red Sea but could he have met his death on the Nile? No one would ever expect death to appear during their happiest moments. Blessed with three brilliant children and a brilliant wife, his great leap in front of the Pyramids of Giza celebrating his love for life will leave a lasting memory to those who knew him. Rest in eternal peace, brother Wei Wah. May your legacy be as great and long as the great pyramids. Wei Wah’s story appeared in the Urghhling Brothers of the Marsh, in the chapter titled The Venerable Sickly General.

A Feud Before The Fiord

Random TSA checks aren’t random. “I’m 99% of the time randomly pulled up at the airport,” the old man said. “Why?” he asked the fubsy woman in uniform. Her answer? “It’s random,” the officer said sweetly with a fake smile that revealed a set of uneven teeth, denying that he was being purposely picked. His Mrs had warned him earlier in the cab about his scruffy bandit looks. “For goodness’ sake, just cut off your hair and shave your beard!” she said firmly and glared at him with cold snake eyes and seethed dragon breath that would have melted butter. The fubsy officer’s busy eyes scanned at the old man, from top to bottom, stopping at his crotch area, making him self conscious of his bulge there that had grown against his brain’s wishes. “Why me?” he asked again. “You’re the next to walk through,” she said, disarming him with her smiling eyes and explained that it wasn’t personal.

“Where are you from?” the old man asked the officer.

“Taiwan,” the fubsy woman said, her skin colour seemingly more brown the more his eyes rested on her face. After dabbing the contents of his backpack with a scanner, she checked her screen before giving him the clearance to go. The Mrs had just joined him after being delayed by a couple of officers. “Now, she knows how I feel,” the old man said to the officer who had allowed him to go. “She too will have to get used to being stopped all the time now,” he explained. The buzzer went off and flashed red lights as she stepped past the screen door. They made her take off her shoes. Still, the buzzer screamed. So, they made her check her pockets. “It’s my titanium hips,” she said but they didn’t listen to her as they shepherded her into the X-ray booth and forced her to surrender with her arms raised high and legs spread apart. If only I could make her do that, the old man thought, pitying himself for lacking such authority.

In Wellington, the odd couple went to the ballet. Celebrating their 70th anniversary, the Royal New Zealand Ballet, supported by the New Zealand Symphony Orchestra, premiered Shakespeare’s most loved love story, Romeo & Juliet. Despite the long-standing feud between the Capulet and Montague families of Verona, it is love at first sight for both Romeo and Juliet; neither realising until it is too late – they have already kissed – that their families are sworn enemies. The next morning, Juliet’s nurse passes a message to Romeo to meet her in the church and marry her if he truly loves her. After the secret wedding, as Romeo and his two buddies leave the church, they meet members of the Capulet family. A sword fight breaks out between the feuding parties and results in the death of Romeo’s good friend, Mercutio, who curses the senseless feud as he dies. Enraged by Mercutio’s death, Romeo does the one thing he knows he cannot do – it wouldn’t be a ballet otherwise – avenges his friend’s death and is banished from Verona, on pain of death. That night, the young couple consummates their secret marriage before Romeo prepares to flee Verona. Juliet accepts a plan to take a poison that will render her dead for 42 hours. Romeo does not get the message about this plan because the friar is suddenly quarantined in a house due to the plague. It is not known how Romeo knew to find Juliet in her tomb but he finds her dead and kills himself with poison that he happens to have. Juliet wakes up soon after and finding her husband’s body there, she stabs herself fatally with his dagger rather than live without him.

The old man shed a tear and choked in his own saliva despite knowing the story well. He explained to his Mrs he was overwhelmed by the amazing dancers and the choreography, not that he was a hopeless romantic. But, he was secretly admiring Romeo’s good luck to have found a woman who loved him so much she chose death rather than a life without him. “That’s true love,” he said to his Mrs. “That’s just a love story,” she said before adding that it must have been Prokofiev’s music that tugged at his heart strings as she busily dabbed her red eyes with an already damp tissue. Prokofiev feuded with the Kirov Ballet, they wanted to remain true to Shakespeare but Prokofiev insisted on a happy ending and sought out a more willing collaborator in the Bolshoi who were happy to premiere his version of the two young lovers living a completely happy and loving life forever. But, despite his best efforts, the Bolshoi later changed their stance and so audiences today have to endure the pain of the lovers and leave the theatre with heavy hearts. But for the old couple, given a programme booklet which cost $10 by a young lady seated behind them whose booklet they borrowed during the first interval, they left Wellington in awe of the people’s friendliness and generosity. The young lady had heard The Mrs’ story of their attempt to buy one but the card payment failed to go through and the man at the counter would not accept Aussie dollars even though they were worth more than their local currency. So, the young lady went out during the second interval and came back with one for the old couple. Where else would you find such a caring person who would bother to do that for a stranger?

The RNZB with the NZSO, performing Romeo & Juliet

After the feud at Verona, the old couple, sometimes also known as the odd couple, took off for Queenstown. They wanted to see for themselves the beauty that the South Island of New Zealand was famous for. Some of the awesome scenes in the Lord of the Rings were filmed near Queenstown, e.g. Te Anau and Glenorchy. “Why is Milford Sound called a sound when it is a fiord?” the old man asked their coach driver, Adrian. Adrian started work that morning at 7, so he merely growled an indiscernible sound that kind of sounded like who cares. Just call it by its Maori name, Piopiotahi, the old man told himself. The day before they set out to see the fiord, the couple caught a local bus from Queenstown to Arrowtown. The bee card bus fare for the hour’s journey was just a dollar! It was a dollar from the airport to their hotel in town also. It was cold and wet in Arrowtown. Arriving at five minutes before three, they were alarmed to be shooed out of the Thai restaurant despite the ‘We Are Open’ sign on the door. “But you are open,” the Mrs said to the Thai proprietress.

“Only till twree,” the Thai woman said. Her permed hair made her look older than her age, or maybe it was her business that aged her.

“Sorry, maybe you come back at sex,” she said, as she lifted her hand to check the time on her gold watch.

“Please, we will eat very quickly,” the Mrs pressed for a positive answer.

“No, no, it’s twree already,” the Thai woman said.

“Maybe we cook you your lunch and you sit outside to eat,” she compromised.

“No! It’s too cold out here!” the Mrs said.

“Let’s go,” the old man said, tugging at his wife’s hand.

“Don’t rush me, I’ll fall!”

So, the old man walked away from the Thai restaurant, his faster pace widening the distance from his grumpy and hungry wife. The sky turned greyer and started spitting bigger raindrops at them. The old man skipped up a few stone steps and looked up at the sky. His roving eyes spotted a sign that said Mantra and in smaller fonts below it, fine Indian cuisine.

“Doe!” he called his wife loudly, to let her know where he was headed.

It was just past the hour by then and despite knowing the restaurant was officially closed, he knocked at the door and was surprised it was left unlocked.

“Hello, are you open?” he stupidly asked a youngish Indian man who was fastidiously setting a table.

The waiter looked up but did not say a word before re-focusing his eyes on the fork as he placed it exactly inch-perfect on the table where it belonged.

“Hi, can we come in for lunch?” the old man asked again.

As if he had just decided to re-open his restaurant, the Indian man said, “Yes, of course, Sir!”

Guru Prasad turned out to be the owner of the joint. He turned on his charm and became the perfect host and had a long conversation with the Mrs whilst the old man combed through a thick menu. The Mrs soon forgot the old man was there and assumed her sovereignty over the dark-skinned chap with super white teeth. She had forgotten her hunger and cold hands as she delved into subjects about yoga and paintings, her pet topics of conversation. “Mantra means chan,” Guru said. The Mrs was bragging about her yoga knowledge and wanted to know if mantra had any yoga meaning. “It means chan,” Guru repeated.

“Chan?” the old man asked Guru, trying to help the Mrs understand the word.

“Yes, chan,” the Indian man repeated, his voice did not betray his growing impatience. “You know, chan for praying,” he added. In Sanskrit, the two words manas and tra literally mean a tool for the mind, to reach a higher place of divine grace. We want our customers to experience this through our exquisite flavours and quality service.

“Ah, chant!” the old man said, his voice raised in delight and his face shone with self satisfaction. The couple’s faces shone with more delight during their meal. The mango lasi was a pleasant starter to tease their already willing appetite. After having satisfied themselves with the ‘forever favourite’ the Mantra butter chicken served with basmati rice and the Nilgiri king prawns – a South Indian dish from Kerala, the Mrs asked for some naan to complement the generous servings after which the couple leaned back and stretched out their legs to relieve their heavy stomachs, totally pleased by the occasion. She had stopped complaining about the long walks they had been taking because she knew she had been over-eating. Pleased with her titanium hips, she was already a new woman, sure-footed, more spritely and less complaining, the improved version a vast upgrade from her old bones. A vast improvement on her old self, more importantly, said the old man to himself. The old man let the taste linger in his palate as he immersed in the afterglow of the grounded spinach, mint and coriander, green chilli along with coconut and secret spices. Mantra’s curries lifted the spirit of the diners and the quality of the food and generous servings reflected their spiritual mantra that bow to their customers with folded hands.

Guru (far right) with his chefs, Sunil and Baliram.

Queenstown proved that whoever created the world was a mighty talented artist. Rain or shine, hot or cold, bright or dreary, it didn’t matter. Painted with the vastest array of colours, a palette that showed no limits and an imagination that was peerless, this place was heaven on earth to the couple. Everything was sculpted and every imperfection turned up to be in fact, perfection. It was said the early settlers made their wealth off the sheep’s back and then they struck gold when Jack Tewa, a sheep-shearer found gold by the river’s bank. The true gold they found was on full display, neither coated in mud nor buried deep in basalt. Their natural environment was more beautiful and rich than all the assays of gold in the world. The gold rush soon attracted people from everywhere, including the Chinese. How news got to China fascinated the old man. It goes to show, you can’t keep a good thing a secret. With a couple of hours to use up before the bus arrived, the Mrs found her own way to the local museum and by the time she left it, the sun had retired into the darkness and the heavy grey clouds had descended and disappeared into the river. “Where were you?” the Mrs asked the old man, for once without a tinge of annoyance that he had abandoned her in search of beauty for his phone camera. She was pleased with her tale at the bus stop. Even the mozzies could not upset her mood. The old man was slapping and crushing them, oblivious of breaking some buddhist command about thou shall not kill, not even caterpillars or flies. His thought turned to the practising buddhist friends, many of whom were schoolmates in a previous life. What did they say about killing the coronavirus? It turned out the Mrs would by some strange twist in fate, be part of the town’s history. She had found a mistake in the museum’s glossary for their display of artefacts of early Chinese settlers. A name was incorrectly spelt, and to show respect for the dead, she felt compelled to right the wrong and pulled a couple of women with authority from unseen rooms to the public viewing area. “See, it should be a Y, not a T. His name was Yuan, you know, like the Chinese dollar,” her booming voice would have reverberated throughout the building.

Beautiful Arrowtown, where they found gold in 1862

The next day, the couple was up early even before the sun rose from its long sleep. See, she had told him not to waste their money! Why pay $60 for a room with a lake view when they will be out the whole day? It was still dark and feeling the icy cold, they knew the mercury had struggled all night to remain over zero. They got to the bus stop and were horrified that they were the only two people waiting for the bus. “Shit, are you sure we are in the right place?” the woman asked, in her usual tone of disbelief and distrust. The day before she had told him he was no longer the reliable man she married. She could have been blind and still felt safe when she was a pretty little thing in his arms. “Now I have to constantly check that you’re not wrong again,” she said without humour and without tact. Luckily for the old man, he was not at the wrong bus stop. They just happened to be the only ones at the first pick-up point. By the time the bus was full, they had used up forty minutes of the day. “Stupid shit system,” Adrian, said, throwing the manifest onto the dashboard. The old couple could see his real person, sitting on the first row, to the left of him. Wow, a narky bloke who didn’t want to be at work, the old man thought. But, the coach driver suddenly spoke on the PA system. His public voice changed his personality to one who was bubbly and chirpy. He told us about the day that laid in wait for us and assured us we would all have a great time. “Those who had ordered lunch, come see me when we arrive,” he said.

“Will it be fush and chups?” the old man asked, pretending to sound like a local. Adrian remained deaf or mute.

“Hi everyone, we will be getting off the coach in a short while. Those who are eager to try the frish Alpine water, please do be careful at the water’s edge,” he said. “See how the vigitation changes here, see to your lift and to your right, the Remarkables are now covered in bierch,” he continued, before the old man interrupted him. “Do you mean beech or birch, Adrian?” The remarkable Adrian didn’t reply, he was already in his own world caressing the sides of the mountain and zig-zagging the Devil’s Steps well past the speed limit. Remember to call him remarkable and you won’t forget the name of these mountains, he taught his passengers earlier. As the coach rolled gently to a halt by the side of a pristine stream that was showing the frish gifts from the overnight rain, he told us this was a stop for maybe sex or seeven minutes.

Eglinton Valley and Mirror Lakes on the way to Piopiotahi (Milford Sound)

On the boat, the old man said “G’day” to a woman of grit and substance. Her teenage daughter showed no interest in the old man, lost in her own world, transported far away by a pair of white Earpods. She smiled with her lips but her distant eyes showed her disinterest in her surroundings. The woman, from Te Anau, was a dairy farmer who rose at four every morning, hours before the lazy sun would make its appearance. “How many heads do you have?” the old man asked, relishing in the thought that the number would be a reliable indicator of her wealth.

“Four thousand,” she said, unaware that he was busily calculating her balance sheet as they immersed each other in light conversation.

“Is it true the cows are always pregnant,” the old man marvelled at the lucky bulls that numbered about sexty, she said.

“No, they have a few months off after they calved,” she said, “so, about five to sex months, they do not produce milk.”

“Is it true the male calves are quickly sold off as veal? How do you know if it’s a heifer?”

“Well, you ought to know the answer,” she said, making her two callused hands into two big round balls. Farmers are incredibly resilient, at times having to battle whatever force or pain the weather throws at them.

Many minutes had passed and the old man revisited the matter of the lucky sexty bulls.

“I am just curious, but how do they cope having to impregnate thousands of females in a small window of time?” he asked sheepishly. He knew that sheep had to be sheared just before winter set in so that the cold would encourage them to feed more eagerly, thereby fattening the females to improve their fertility in time for the spring slaughter.

“Oh, we make the bulls mount on wooden replicas, and collect their fluids in cylinders. A drop is enough to make a cow pregnant,” she said.

To all the women in this story, there is a Maori word for them. Mana Wahine, respect the prestige of women.

Clockwise from top left: Beethoven’s Emperor at the NZSO concert in Wellington. Overnight snow in Queenstown. A view of Walter Peak from Lake Wakatipu. The Mrs, mana wahine, boarding the TSS Earnslaw. A bite of the Fergburger double beef and double cheese burger, but the Swiss cheese were paper thin.

The Simpleton In Wellington

They had just got back from another sumptuous meal at the restaurant down Greenhill Road the old man fondly nicknamed “my private kitchen’. A rigid time-keeper, he was fully aware he was behind the schedule he had set for himself. His travel bags should have been packed before dinner. In another four and a half hours, he would have to be awake again for the 4 am taxi. So, he decided to simply limit his things to fit a cabin bag. The less he had to pack, the less he had to think about what to bring and what not to bring. Three spare undies, a couple of t-shirts, pyjamas, two pairs of socks (going overseas, and therefore must be matching ones), and two pairs of pants in case there was an ‘accident’. Old men tend to have the urge to pee as soon as the thought of peeing crossed their mind and the urge somehow brings about an urgency. The urge leads to an emergency which ends with an urgency. That’s how we get from urge to urgency, that’s how words are formed; he was sure of that. The last item he threw into his cabin bag was a bundle of masks, even though it was undeniable that masks did not stop infection and there was a recent published scoping review that discussed the need to reconsider mask mandates – it focused on the toxicity of chronic carbon dioxide exposure associated with face mask use, particularly in pregnant women, children and adolescents.

Earlier in the week, a vigilant sibling had urged all their family members to take the fourth booster shot and continue to wear masks. The old man said her stance did not consider that the risks of vaccine side effects and health issues from prolonged mask-wearing outweighed the benefits ever since the symptoms from Covid had become mild for the majority of people around the world.

“If you want to risk it, you can. But for our mother’s sake, I would have thought we should mask and keep her protected from catching it,” the vigilant sibling said.

“On second thoughts, I shouldn’t be taking turns looking after ma since I risk catching it if you don’t wear a mask and don’t take the jab,” she added, as if he was the only person in the whole town who could infect their mother. Do it or else. Another ultimatum from her.

“Have you not looked at the recent studies that concluded that masking presents more detrimental effects on wearers due to the high intake of carbon dioxide over extended periods?” he asked.

Instead of asking him for the source of the scientific study, another sibling waded in.

“I’m definitely not a conspiracy believer. I cannot imagine that the majority of scientists and medical experts are keeping their mouths shut. My observation is that you can’t even keep one person’s mouth shut,” she said.

Ouch, another loaded sarcasm. But, the old man didn’t keep his trap shut. As a kid, he was bullied by those two siblings. They ganged up on him even in adulthood, as if they had that preordained right to ostracise him, to issue a pre-emptive strike to silence him and tell him he doesn’t belong.

“All professionals belong to their professional bodies and can be struck off if they don’t toe the official line. Some have in fact been banned from practising or shadow banned by social media,” he said.

“Thank God we still have our ABC,” she replied, showing her faith in God and the ABC.

“The ABC is government-funded, so what do you think? They are still independent?” he asked, hoping that she would drop the subject as he wanted to keep it to the one issue – to mask or not to mask. It is fair to leave it to the individual to decide but the vigilant sibling had just given an ultimatum. We cannot change the subject yet!

“ABC never criticises the government?” she continued asking. He bit his tongue and refrained from saying the obvious. Of course they do but only in matters that they are allowed to criticise!

“It’s not that wearing a mask is useless, it’s how you use it,” countered one intellectual sibling.

“Well, how we wear it determines the effectiveness but isn’t it odd for us to breathe in carbon dioxide trapped behind our masks for extended periods when we ought to be breathing in oxygen? That point alone is enough to question how good that is to our health, does it not?” the old man asked the intellectual sibling nervously. He knew he would be inviting further criticisms or mockery about his simple way of looking at things.

“You just have to learn to wear your mask properly,” the vigilant sibling said.

“No harm in being careful,” said another.

“Too much of carbon dioxide kills. Haha,” laughed the vigilant sibling.

“During the worst period of Covid, I found it hard to breathe for extended periods with a mask. So, I had to cheat to relieve myself from the stale air. My biology knowledge is very basic. Our body breathes in oxygen and breathes out carbon dioxide. Too much of the latter can kill us or at least damage our brain. Stats show masked kids in school had learning difficulties and impaired memory,” he said, knowing that sounding like a simpleton would please his siblings. They would be rubbing their hands with glee, enjoying the chance to belittle him again.

“One lesson I learned from a wise man during negotiations on a contract is that you try to reduce risk while recognising that you can’t reduce all risks to zero. That’s why there is an insurance industry. We buy insurance as a precaution. Taking care of our health and being considerate for the people close to us is not much of a burden,” the intellectual sibling said.

“Insurance requires the application of actuarial science. I’m just a simple person who lacks such knowledge and ability. But common sense tells me the risk of breathing in carbon dioxide is worse for my health than the risk of catching Covid, symptoms of which are mild or asymptomatic for many currently,” the old man said.

“Anyway, I know I don’t have the ability to convince any of you, so let’s just agree to disagree,” he said, ending their conversation.

At the Sydney International Airport, the old man was visibly thrilled to see a sign that said “International Departures”. Finally, he and The Mrs were about to travel overseas again after a three year hiatus due to the pandemic. The airport glittered with modern-day gold. The world’s best brands were there in that vast temple of consumerism. Old people have little need for those kinds of expensive branded stuff, so the old man who had an hour to kill watched the people go by instead. People had no time for people, they were too preoccupied with the glitter in front of them. The place was chock-a-block full of willing consumers. Being on holiday changes our behaviour, we become more willing to spend, even in shops that don’t allow us to bargain. Supposedly duty free, Arnott’s Tim Tams were dearer there than in Erindale Foodland, in a blue-ribbon suburb not known for bargains. So, duty free isn’t free of price gouging. The people didn’t care. They were on holiday! They were also not wearing masks. In the throngs of thousands, only a handful of people did, more often than not, the elderly.

In the plane, a handful more people had their masks on. Strange that. In the shops which were chockas, they felt safe enough not to worry about masks but inside a plane, they felt the sudden need to protect themselves; maybe they no longer had the glittering consumer goods to distract them. The old man found it annoying that the bloke two rows behind them coughed loudly and frequently and from the sounds of it, without covering his mouth. They were not muffled or restrained but coughed out with reckless abandon. So soon after a pandemic, there were those who had already forgotten about good hygiene and the merits of social distancing. A chap next to them sneezed but he did it into his hands. Did we not learn to sneeze into our elbows?

A prim lady with gold-rimmed glasses on the opposite aisle of the 737-800 took off her mask to dig into the gummy chicken pieces buried by thick gooey brown mushroom sauce. She did not touch the white soggy jasmine rice but she finished the Chardonnay which was clearly a treat to her. The old man guessed she would ask for tea, and was quite chuffed to be right. It was a good half an hour by the time she put her mask back on. Surely, that was plenty of time for any coronavirus in the recycled stale air to find their way into her nostrils.

The plane pierced through thick clouds on its way down to 5,000 feet. “We are landing soon, Doe,” the old man nudged at his Mrs, using their term of endearment reserved for each other. “Your breath stinks,” she replied, uncurling her back like the white Chinchilla she used to keep during her uni days. The plane groaned noisily at the clouds and shook off the bumpiness with a few sudden shudders. Soft and snuggly like cotton fluffs to look at from a distance, those clouds were hard and stubborn to a darting projectile of aluminium, kevlar and glass composites. The captain landed the plane with hardly a bump, the old man observed, the miracle of such a feat never escaped his appreciation and gratitude.

Wellington didn’t greet them well. Detained at customs for too long because there were only two machines that scanned the luggages for illicit goods, The Mrs said it could only get better from then on as she stepped outside the airport. She was right. By the second day, the two visitors were totally charmed by the people. Coming from friendly places such as Penang and Adelaide, it was a surprise for them to find even friendlier and more helpful people in Wellington. One tall man in a business suit with long strides even back-tracked some five yards to again point the elderly couple in the direction of their lunch appointment at Crab Shack. It did not matter to him that the sky was spitting raindrops at his nice suit. A bloke directing a private helicopter into Shed 6 at Queens Wharf stopped and offered them a photo opportunity. A shout-out to Wayne of Wellington Helicopters, thank you! Where else on earth would you find such friendliness? The most precious thing we own is time and these people gladly give theirs to strangers. Giving our time is the best gift of all.

Imagining themselves as the mega wealthy in the miniseries Succession, the prop was right but their attire fooled no one.

The Gallipoli exhibition at Te Papa Museum was a poignant few hours for them to reflect on the horrendous suffering and the costly sacrifices made in the name of the King George V. That the Anzacs left their homes to fight a distant war that was nobody’s business but the Turks was not lost on the old man. The Turks who were defending their country from Allied invaders wanted to remain neutral in WW1. The Ottoman king refused the Allied request to expel German naval missions and for that, they were dragged into the war. Was it not a crime against humanity that those young soldiers who had barely lived their lives or enjoyed their time on earth were sent to their deaths in such a botched up fiasco? Winston Churchill was the mastermind of the campaign. Did he do enough to redeem himself in WW2? Lest we forget but it seemed too many had already forgotten. The drums of war are again beating loudly and almost daily in the West, led by the US and obediently followed by the Brits and the Aussies. “These warmongers should be forced to come and visit this exhibition,” the old man said to his Mrs. Lest they forget.

At the Gallipoli exhibition in Te Papa Museum
The Peacemaker by Chris Booth at the Botanical Gardens offered a relief.

There can be peace between human beings; we have this choice.

Chris Booth, The Peacemaker 1991

Peace between human beings. Is that even possible, the old man asked, secretly telling himself peace among siblings is already difficult. Even after the World Health Organisation ended the global emergency status for COVID-19 on 5th May 2023, his vigilant sibling sent a link showing the number of Covid cases and deaths in Australia. “Covid is not history, it is still with us. I still want to be take precautions, for ma’s sake. It’s a small sacrifice,” she said. Somehow, she was still disturbed by the weekly deaths of some 3,500 around the world from Covid. Was she ever so frightened of the common flu that killed hundreds of thousands every year?

Covid is history. We ought to celebrate! Not so long ago, we all thought the world as we knew it had ended. The elderly couple said they needed to take a short rest. “It’s less than four hours to Romeo & Juliet!” he said with excitement. The last ballet they attended was by the Mariinsky dancers in St Petersburg, so this will be another highlight for the simpleton in Wellington.

He Knew. What’s New?

He knew my every intention, even before I had formed them in my mind. How was that even possible? He knew my next move, the next task I needed to do or where I had to go. He knew the rain would come soon or that it would be wet outside. Somehow he knew without being told as if he had a secret cable that tapped into every synapse in my brain. Instantly, he impressed me. Initially, I didn’t believe he had those powers. Intuitively, I felt he was special. No one else had ever understood me so well in such a short time. We left most things unspoken yet the unsaid was clearly understood. We never argued or found each other distasteful. He was the most uncomplaining of all, not once did he show a disdain for anything I did wrong to him or his annoyance for anything I forgot to do for him. I’d never raised my voice or barked at him for any reason. I’d never yelled at him, not even when he farted right in front of me. He taught me to be truly free and not be curbed by social norms. After all, if we were alone in a room, would we need to restrain a burp or a fart? No. So, why should we restrain ourselves from our bodily urges such as a scratch on the crotch or relieve a bloated tummy just because someone else was next to us? Instead, I changed my behaviour and discarded long-held social etiquette. It did not matter to him. He knew it perfectly well to let nature do what nature does best; that it was alright to let our body do what it needed to do. As I peed, I let off a long fart. I was embarrassed by it, even though I was alone in the bathroom. It was far too early in the morning to smell a fart that was reminiscent of mud drying in a water hole and of rancid lamb fat. I let out a nervous retch that left a nasty taste in my mouth. I would be performing in a concert that night and a tinge of nervousness was beginning to upset my tummy.

It would not surprise me if he knew of the demise of the newspaper although we still subscribed to the Weekend Australian. Call me old-fashioned, but I would not read an e-book or an audio book. A book had to be printed on paper so that I could hold it. Likewise, The Mrs needed to do her crossword puzzles on paper – the main reason for our decades-long subscription. When I was a kid, my mother sold old newspapers to an Indian man for perhaps as much as ten cents per kati (600g approximately). She kept towers of them in the belief she would read them one day but the day never came. It was right that she sold them instead, otherwise the towers would have multiplied and teetered before collapsing in a heap. We had long practised recycling. Old newspapers were used as toilet paper when we ran out of the soft kind. My brother lined his bird cage and rabbit cage with them whereas my parents lined their shop display cabinets with paper too. As uni students in Sydney, we lined our drawers and cupboards with old newspapers in the crappy stinky flat in Kingsford and changed them with more current newspapers when cockroaches left too many black droppings on them. Call me old-fashioned but don’t call me irresponsible to the environment, thin strips of old newspaper were still being added to our compost bins recently.

He and I shared the same bed whenever he visited. Yeah, he was a frequent guest but our home was not his permanent abode. He knew he could come and go as he pleased. I was happier when he came than when he left. It wasn’t really a bed that we shared; I called it a bed but it was an inflatable mattress that was never inflated. My bad back preferred a hard surface and that was a good enough reason to leave the sinking marital bed, the bed, not the marriage. The Mrs resolutely accused me of being dirty, and then accused him of being dirty, so I had no choice in the matter and abandoned the bed anyway. But, he knew about her enough to accept that she was overly preoccupied about bedroom hygiene. He did not complain at all, not even when he found it uncomfortable to have stepped on me once in the dark. “If you sleep on the floor, you risk being stepped on in the dark,” she said. That’s fair enough. She was right, as usual. A light sleeper, he interrupted my sleep more often than my weak bladder did. But he knew I was beginning to be annoyed. So, he soon stopped demanding hugs and kisses during the night. I found his licks from his wet tongue most unwelcoming, endearing they might have been. The Mrs never showed such enthusiastic love for me, she complained about my bad breath. She was right, of course; his breath was bad also, and it was bad enough for me to end it. That morning, he was awake even before the cock crowed but he remained still on his side of the mattress and watched the dew vanish from the window pane as the sun rose higher and threw more warmth into the room. As I stirred from my slumber, the lovely dream in my mind ended abruptly. No matter how hard I tried to summon it back, it would not return to give me that proper happy ending. I sat up and heaved myself off the carpet. It struck me as odd that somehow I ended up sleeping away from the mattress. But nature called and I had to get up without further delay. Before I was fully upright with my sparrow thin legs hardly supporting my weight, he was already enthusiastically greeting The Mrs with a kiss and telling her to wake up. His body language was so obvious that she felt touched by his effervescence and somewhat delirious welcome. He knew how to please her. It was something I should have learned all those years ago.

I felt the excitement grew during the day. It was such a buzz for me to get ready for the concert. My life was being micromanaged that day by the minute. Lunch had to be light and finished by one pm. The usual walk had to be brought forward by an hour and a half. So, we went for our afternoon walk at three pm. Dinner had to be early and again only a light meal was allowed. I didn’t want to be queasy and sluggish with a full tummy. At half past six, I was upstairs stripping down to enjoy a hot relaxing shower. “Wash your hair!” The Mrs yelled from the staircase. And so I did. I would have anyway. I wanted to feel like a new man. A different man. A clean man. When I stepped out of the shower cubicle, I was ready to be a musician. Heck, that sounded like music to my ears. Me, a musician. So, I put on my musician clothes, a bright white shirt and a black bow tie around my neck and lifted my whole persona with the thousand-dollar Calibre brand black suit. I performed my second concert with the local orchestra that night. “The Burnside Symphony Orchestra sounded good, much better than expected, certainly miles better than the concert we attended during Covid time,” The Mrs said. I felt chuffed. Both violin sections were stronger, the new members, most of whom were younger, gave the orchestra a quality that was lacking during Covid. I imagined that I had played my part well too. During the interval, I walked to where The Mrs was sitting with a bottle of water for her. Hoping to hear some praise from her, I was instead pummelled by her ‘you should’ comments.

“You should brush your hair,” said she, as she started to use her fingers as a comb.

“Yes, you should oil it, make it shiny,” a sibling joined in.

“You should tie it into a neat bun,” The Mrs added, as she tucked some loose strands behind my ears and pulled one from out of my mouth.

Their comments were total opposites of the one I got from an attractive female Romanian violinist. She said I looked nice. So nice of her.

Unaccustomed to praise, I replied, “Thanks! You look noice too.” She was far from fubsy and her fabulous frizzy long hair complemented her piercing green eyes.

But, amateurs not only had to pay to play, we had to put up with criticisms about our looks, apparently. But, what was not so apparent was that amateurs had to help put away the chairs and dis-assemble the stage too, even before the audience had disappeared to the carpark. It was already past ten o’clock by the time I took off my black jacket to cool down, mentally admonishing myself for not having done so before embarking on hard labour. Who would have compensated me if I had torn a sleeve or burst a seam?

“Will you join us for a drink at the pub?” someone asked. No, it wasn’t the Romanian violinist. Even if she did, I would not have changed my mind. It was already late. I had to rush home. What’s new? He knew. I would rush home. For him. Murray knew all along – he’s the most important companion of mine. He is my son’s miniature poodle. I left the concert hall in a state of delirium. Music and particularly performing music to the public gave me such a buzz that suddenly every problem was of lesser relevance and every joy brought greater comfort. When I got home, Murray was pleased. He knew. What’s new?

Murray, waiting for me to finish his story.
Not blowing my horn but Dvorak Symphony No.8 was mind-blowing

Wait A Minute, It’s Minute

Aussies spend $3.6 billion a year in legal fees to divorce their partner they once announced as the love of their life and promised eternal love to. Marrying someone is a beautiful thing, until it gets ugly. Is there ever the right time to get married? The old man married too young, so said his mother at the time. He was 22 going on to be 42 in a short time.

“You’ll be tied down forever,” said the mother.

“When the kids come, you won’t have any more holidays,” said a friend.

“You haven’t yet seen the world!” proclaimed a sibling.

“There are so many fish in the sea,” advised another friend.

Nobody had a positive word to say. The best effort came from his dad. He said nothing. Phone calls were expensive back in the day. He was finishing a uni course in Sydney and home was in Penang. He rarely rang home and those at home never called. Silence meant tacit approval. That was good enough for the scrawny bloke with a tropical tan. A poor student who had basically a set of clothes and one hand-me-down jacket in his wardrobe, he didn’t ask for financial support from home and therefore received none. He had found his true love and it was no one’s business to say aye or nay. His bride did say no to him though. But, he wouldn’t take no for an answer. So, he said the only thing he knew at the time to sway her. The three words that won her over. I love you. So simple it made total sense to him. Some of his friends in school had described him as a simple boy. One of them even named him Simon. So, in their eyes, he was a simpleton, a fool, an idiot. He didn’t care what people thought of him. He joined them in the fun and rattled off the nursery rhyme. The idiot wasn’t aware of simple Simon’s misfortunes and his wife Margery’s cruelty.

Simple Simon met a pieman

Going to the fair

Says Simple Simon to the pieman

Let me taste your ware.

After they graduated from uni, they went to Singapore after accepting a job offer from a relative. But the simple man sensed that the offer wasn’t genuine and the local manager wasn’t welcoming. Silly man that he was, he ought to have understood that he was seen as a threat to the manager. Instead of playing the corporate game of stabbing each other to get to the top, he got out instead. He didn’t like Singapore. He didn’t like office politics and Sydney’s freedom and independence beckoned him to go back.

So, they went back to Sydney and promptly got married without a care in the world. Both were graduates in commerce but neither of them cared about the real world. It didn’t matter that the interest rate was 15% and rising quickly. It didn’t matter that inflation was close to double digits. Surprisingly, despite the economic downturn, both secured good employment quickly. His annual salary as a trainee accountant at the Commercial Bank was $6,700. Hers was $200 more. She enjoyed that fact more than the extra money.

I love you. That was enough to tie the knot. He was too young, they said. A greenhorn, still wet behind his ears, a nasty bitch at the bank said. A racist, the young blonde woman showed her dislike for him and tried to make his hours at work miserable. So, having left Singapore to avoid office politics, he faced the same in Sydney very quickly. The idiot should have realised that’s human nature. The ugly side of humans. The truth be told, he was wet behind the ears. He never sat the ‘love of his life’ down to discuss the serious matter of marriage and life together – for better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. The idiot did not contemplate that they could be worse off or be poorer or fall ill.

He didn’t even think about kids or how many they could afford. The kids came quickly, too quickly for him to plan. Her biggest worry at the time was to be like her mum, infertile. Instead, she was like a bunny but not of the Playboy variety. First son popped out eleven months after he popped the question of marriage. They had three kids in three years. You haven’t yet seen the world! You’re tied down forever! How many kids they should have was never discussed. How many kids could they afford was never considered. Reckless and irresponsible, words he would use today on his sons, should they do what he did. But, they aren’t like him. The twins are closing in on forty but there are no signs of any of them getting married.

There was zero discussion about who should be the primary carer for their kids. She had the bigger income yet it was she who sacrificed her career to bring up their kids. Back then the world was still unfair to men, who were deemed to assume the role of bread-winner. Who will make bread and do the cooking? Who will wash the nappies? Such questions were simply not asked. For him, it was akin to asking who should breast-feed the kids.

She did not consider the awkward but hugely important matter of their in-laws. For him, it was inconsequential since she was a ‘single child’ in her family. She was adopted by her mother who had remarried. She had a stepsister and a stepbrother but all three were adopted and were not close. For her, she was a ‘single child’ and she looked forward to belonging to a large family with many people to love her. The children in his family numbered eight strong, and she was to understand later when one by one, the majority of them would settle in Australia and that ‘strong’ did not mean many in numbers. His siblings were mostly strongly opinionated and strong in sibling rivalry.

Although he was educated in a Christian Brothers school, his upbringing was Confucian at home. Essentially, the main values were filial piety, respect for hierarchy, and duty and virtues of the superior man. She did not consider that his parents were placed at the top of the family tree and she was to later confuse his love and respect for his parents as loving her less. So, as ridiculous as it may sound, every couple contemplating marriage should ask themselves how often they would want to visit their parents. During the Bronze Age, there were few musical instruments, yet Confucius’ teachings did briefly mention music and the importance of music in one’s life, such as bringing pleasure and spiritual harmony. For the idiot, the one thing growing up at home was the availability of music. Their rediffusion set was always blaring music, Cantonese songs during the day for the workers in their laundry shop and English ones in the evening after they had left. Music was to shape his life and hers too in unimaginable ways. Their children would eventually bring them to a different world, a world of music that would open their minds and hearts to a higher spiritual joy. Music even brought them to the green room of Carnegie Hall where the simple man did the simple thing and remained tongue tied standing face to face, a yard opposite Olivia Newton-John, a siren to him in his younger days.

I live my daydreams in music

I see my life in terms of music

and music was the driving force

My discovery was the result of musical perception

Albert Einstein
The Mrs and her mother.

The topic of money never came up for the young couple. Both were like-minded in lifestyle – they weren’t spendthrifts and both cared little about material wants and did not keep abreast with changing fashions. Most matters were left unspoken, as if they were skilled in telepathy. Maybe it was unnecessary to discuss money matters. A family of five soon became a family of seven when her parents migrated to live with them, comforted in their old age that their bet was a good one – the child they adopted turned out alright – and they had a winner in her to rely on for the remainder of their lives. She did very well, always made do with the one income he brought home. So, the question of whether they should pool their incomes or have separate bank accounts never came up. What was his was theirs. Wool comes from the sheep’s back. 羊毛出在羊身上. If they bought each other presents, the money came from the one bank account so it was easier that they did not take part in the consumerism trap.

Her wisdom was there for him to see. She didn’t care about driving around for the best buys – her time was more precious and businesses needed to make money. She didn’t pick the best fruits in the grocery store – others deserved them too or maybe she knew the unblemished ones were sprayed with more chemicals.

Success is not final, failure is not fatal.

She encouraged him to go for anything he aspired to. He had a very good paying job but she never stopped him from pursuing his dreams, even to the extent of giving up his executive role as a financial controller to start his own business. The risk reward ratio should have deterred him and since it did not, the number of dependents in his family ought to have. But, the idiot risked everything and blindly walked into a life sentence of hard labour and long struggles to build a retail chain that ultimately collapsed. He took comfort from what to him was one of Marcus Aurelius’ best ideas, that there’s nothing wrong with being wrong. He wasn’t ashamed of being wrong and was always quick to change his mind if proven that there was a better way. So, he closed all the shops one by one, and made himself unpopular with those that had betted their money to invest in his dream.

She didn’t think they could last two years as a couple. They were alike in many ways but they were different in those that mattered. She needed to be welcomed or accepted by his family but he told her they didn’t matter. She needed him to stand up for her when they hurt her but he told her they didn’t matter and those that didn’t matter couldn’t hurt them. She needed to be right but he told her it was ok to be wrong. Some of his siblings were awful to her without intent because they were simply awful. Like day and night, they were opposites that could not match. She needed him to be her hero but he didn’t see a need to be a hero. So, over time, he lost his shine and she lost her knight in shining armour. But, what is ours that is truly ours? Not even our own body, since a virus can ravage it. Not even our wealth, for that can be taken from us or taxed away. Not even our money, for that can be inflated to zero. Not even our own house, for that can be burned down. Our mind is what is truly ours, so said Marcus Aurelius. Let us treat it right and let no one abuse it.

“Our problems are really minute,” he said to her. Look at what we have. A pleasant house with a pleasant garden in a pleasant suburb. There is peace and serenity in their neighbourhood unlike war-torn zones such as Bakhmut and Khartoum. We don’t know hunger and we don’t know fear. What falls on us is rain and not missiles. What blows on us is the gully wind and not fists of the enemy. What is there for us to worry about? What problems are killing us?

“Wait a minute,” she said.

Our problem?

“It is minute.”

The Mrs in the 70s.

To Pester The Pastor

They had a long weekend off last week because Jesus Christ rose from the dead. This miracle, perhaps the greatest of miracles in the history of mankind, is celebrated every year. It wasn’t that the bloke beat death that made him special. There were some before him and many more after him that did that, regaining consciousness after being pronounced dead. In the Bible, a source of information that the old man would never dare refute, Lazarus of Bethany was raised from the dead by Jesus. Why the earlier miracle was not celebrated with more fanfare and gusto is a mystery. After all, he was dead for four days before Jesus revived him. Jesus’s death lasted one day less, so there should be merit to suggest that Lazarus’ miracle should be equally celebrated with a public holiday. “But, Jesus died for us,” I reminded the old man who was sipping his coffee next to me. It was the ultimate sacrifice. To die so that all our sins are atoned and our broken faith in God is restored. Powerful stuff.

“As a kid, it horrified me that a father would or could sacrifice his own son for the greater good,” said the old man as he got up from the sofa to make himself another coffee.

“For a while, I looked at my dad with suspicion…” he continued, but his sentence was drowned out by the coffee machine as it churned noisily at the coffee beans.

“Sorry, I didn’t quite catch what you meant,” I said.

“It’s alright. It only affected me for a short while. I was worried that Pa would also sacrifice me for some reason. If God could do that to his own son, then so could Pa, right?”

“But, when I found out the sacrifice was only for three days, I felt relieved,” he continued.

The resurrection of God’s son was a huge relief for the kid. The old man was seven at the time when he was taught in catechism class that our Father in heaven had sacrificed his only son in order to save all of us, including those who were yet to be born. Ok, it was only a temporary sacrifice, he thought to himself, and convinced himself no father would ever have his own son killed permanently. The kid was somewhat a simpleton. His trust in his dad was restored and he never slept with an eye open after that.

“But, I never did understand why everyone of us was born a sinner except Jesus,” the old man said, making me a bit uncomfortable with the direction of our conversation.

“I mean, I was actually peeved at the gross injustice even at that young age,” he said.

“Aren’t we supposed to be innocent until proven guilty?” he asked without expecting an answer.

“When I was told I was born a sinner, I felt it was so unfair to be accused of some wrong-doing without being told specifically what I did wrong,” he said, before confiding that he actually marvelled at how the teacher knew he had peeped at the girl next door or kissed his class teacher’s photo.

Somehow, she must have known about these sins of mine to say I was a sinner!

The penny dropped when the old man learned about sex from a friend in Standard 6. He had heard the muffled sounds in the middle of the night and he had seen his father get on top of his mother on one occasion after being woken up by the creaking bed next to theirs. He and his two siblings shared a big teak bed next to their parents’ double-bed. But, someone had put a pillow over his head just as his curiosity was aroused. Ah, that must be why we are all born sinners! Our parents were all possessed about carnal knowledge. The old man told me that was his conclusion once he discovered that was how babies were made. That Jesus’ mother was a virgin when she gave birth to him had to be the reason why he was the only chap who was born free of sin.

To this day, this great miracle remains a core reason why many follow the religion. “Many years ago, a doctor friend of mine pulled me to one side and in a hushed tone asked me if I wanted to know why he converted to Christianity,” the old man said. Intrigued, I replied, “Please do tell.” The doctor, a brilliant man with a brain as accurate as a photocopy machine, said he was fully convinced about the tenets of the religion once he discovered the story about the virgin birth. The mere fact that Joseph’s sperm was able to somehow leave his body through space and accurately penetrate Mary’s egg in her fallopian tube remotely without any physical connection won the doctor over. He had studied enough about the human body to understand that such an event had to be truly miraculous. He was awestruck by such a highly improbable occurrence and the fact that it had never happened again reinforced his faith even more.

The old man said he had pointed out to the good doctor that celibacy during the time of the Essenes was the highest way of life. A couple had to have a long period of betrothal that lasted several years before they could marry. They were only permitted to have sex after the marriage, considered a ‘trial marriage’ that could last for three years. When the woman fell pregnant, the couple would then have a second marriage after which divorce was forbidden. In those days, women who followed the faith were called nuns or ‘vestal virgins’. During the long betrothal period, it was not uncommon for passionate couples to struggle with their sexual urges. If the woman fell pregnant during their betrothal period, it was said that the ‘virgin’ had conceived.

On Easter Monday, the old man was chuffed to receive a call from his good friend, John Scalzi. “Hey, can Anne and I come over for afternoon tea?” John asked on the phone. The Scalzi’s are a beautiful couple whose mere physical presence could soothe the old man’s soul. Often troubled with the vicissitudes of the challenges his business threw at him, a laughter from Anne’s eyes or a kindness from her heart was enough to calm the old man. Similarly, a hug from John or a word from him was enough to cheer him up. The Mrs met Anne first, through the couples’ boys in kindy. “The two boys attended Highbury Primary together for three years before they split up when we moved to Burnside,” the old man said. It was truly amazing that all of them, the adults and their children, have maintained that special bond together and separately over the past three and a half decades.

The leadlight terrarium made by John Scalzi for The Mrs

Whilst serving the panettone they brought, Anne said she felt exalted and reborn over the weekend after attending their annual Chrism mass at the cathedral where the bishop consecrates oil which was used throughout the year by Catholic Churches in the State for sacraments in baptisms, anointing of the sick and in ordaining priests. This mass was also for the catholic priests to renew their commitment to priesthood.

Talking about the virgin birth, Anne shared a story told by one of her friends.

“Where do we come from, Nonna?” little Sienna asked.

“Oh, we come from our parents’ genes,” little Sienna’s grandma said.

“But, grandpa said we come from apes!” little Sienna said.

“Ah, but he was talking about his side of the family,” the grandma calmly replied.

We are blessed

We are lucky and

All good things come to us

Anne Scalzi’s daily prayer for her grandchildren
John and Anne Scalzi. You won’t find better human beings than them, the old man told me.

There were many other examples of miracles in the Bible to secure the faith of the followers. The feeding of the five thousand and the feeding of the four thousand were truly momentous events that made an indelible impression in his head ever since catechism class in school. Although he could never reconciled with himself why Jesus needed two extra loaves of bread and a few extra fish to feed a thousand people less the second time, he never asked me for my opinion. I would have gladly told him the second group of people were either a lot hungrier or a lot greedier or maybe they were mostly children in the first group. There was also the controversial view that to the Essenes, ‘loaves’ meant ministers who could give sermons and hand out the communion bread and ‘fish’ were the celibate Gentiles. Instead, I asked him how he would have felt, from a shopkeeper’s perspective since he owned a few retail shops once upon a time.

“Oh, I would not have believed it,” he said. “If my staff had told me the takings on those days were bugger all, I would have accused them of putting their hands in the till,” he continued. I imagined all the shopkeepers in the area would have felt the same way. They would have driven Jesus out of the park for creating tonnes of food from a few loaves of bread and a handful of fish. No shopkeeper would have welcomed a competitor like that to destroy their livelihood. The penny suddenly dropped as to why Jesus was not a popular bloke at all.

Perhaps, the ability of Jesus to ‘walk on water’ should be the greatest miracle of all. But, as a kid, the old man was quick to dispel that story as anything remarkable. All his heroes could do that, he told me. Not only that, his favourite martial arts exponents could even fly up to tree tops and fight mortal combats whilst stepping lightly on leaves and bamboo. “Nah, walking on water wasn’t a big deal,” he quickly brushed me aside as I would to a fly.

Our conversation about miracles finished after the old man mentioned about the story of the blind man of Bethsaida. “I mean, sure it was perhaps a miracle in those days, but the true miracle is the rapid progress in medical technology,” he said. I suppose he was right. Today, it is no longer news when the blind have their sight restored, and the deaf can hear again.

“But, hey, Jesus cured the man’s blindness with his saliva,” I said to the old man. It would be wrong to belittle that wondrous event, so I felt it was right that I pointed it out to him.

At that moment, The Mrs joined in our conversation. “I should tell you about Gungung, my grandfather,” she said.

He was tall and strong, a well-built man. I remember him as an old ferocious man, whose sweat from his body represented some poisonous chi. A chauvinistic pig. A truly evil man. Bald, big face, long eyelashes and curly, pointy ears. His booming voice and ghoulish eyes together with his muscular strength, his fitness, his massive towering torso frightened me when I was a child.

Pohpoh married him a year after arriving in Miri. She said about her second husband, “I owed him lots in my last life.”

“So, I have to repay him in this life”

Pohpoh’s body was a magnet for his violence. She hid her injuries but I wasn’t a blind kid. I looked at him with eyes wide and ran as fast as I could if he ever came near me. I allowed a safe distance of ten feet. Never be near him. Never let him grab my hand or arm. Mama warned me never to be caught by Gungung.

“Run for your life!”

I did not know why, yet I did not ask. I knew my mama. There would be no explanation, a command never needed to be explained. As a child, I could only imagine that he would rearrange my vertebrae if he caught me. Today’s anger management courses would not have helped him. The pastor visited him a few times until the day when he was kicked out of the house.

“Why?!” I asked, my voice showed my distaste for violence of any sort.

Gungung was baptised as a catholic after Pohpoh had persuaded him to. The carrot to entice him to do so was the promise that the pastor would restore his sight. The pastor from St. Joseph’s church took this as a God-sent opportunity. For years, he could not convert stubborn Gungung. He blamed the devil. Hallelujah, he exclaimed. With Gungung’s failing eyesight, he suddenly saw his chance to save the man’s soul.

Father Pieter spoke Hakka fluently. His first few visits were truly embraced by Gungung. Gungung poured his worries about his loss of sight into Father Pieter’s ears. Father Pieter solemnly explained to Gungung, preacher to sinner, it was the devil that took his vision away. But I knew better. Mama had told me it was his job as a welder in Shell – a lot to do with the cheap Made-in-Japan helmet wore – that damaged his eyes.

 “Only this man, Jesus, is capable of bringing back your sight.”

“ Is there such a man?”

“ Well. Let us start with a baptism.”

The deal was agreed to and Gungung was baptised, acquiring an English name, John. To show that this was a real deal, Father Pieter presented a picture. Hanging next to Mother Mary was the new picture of Jesus. Its bland newness did not match well with Mary’s, by then aged by sunlight.

This man, Jesus, his long and wavy hair, a halo illuminating behind his head, both elbows bent at shoulder height, palms almost mirroring each other pointing upwards, looked solemnly afar.  Blood dripped from the centre of his palms. As a kid, I misunderstood him to be Mother Mary’s husband, since the picture of Jesus was given to Gungung and Mother Mary’s to Pohpoh years earlier.

Gungung started his weekly lesson on The Bible. Pohpoh called it, “Thang tao li, listen to the truth.” How Jesus died for us on the cross, and we were all born sinners and he washed our sins with his blood….”
He had to recite hymns in Hakka. “Sin moo mali ah, mun pi sin tung cza…Hail Mary, full of grace….”

He persevered. He waited for the miracle to happen. The pastor was very patient, but Gungung was slow to progress.

Months later, Gungung started to doubt this man called Jesus.

 “I’m not asking for a lot. Not to walk on water, nor divide the Red Sea, but to give me back my eyesight. God damn it!”

One fateful day, the pastor came with his rosary and Bible, deep in thought. How to crack this nut? He should change his tactic. Be firm. Yes, be very firm. He said a prayer, amen, cleared his throat. “John, you haven’t shown any improvement. What about the hymns?” he asked in a kind and gentle tone.

“What about them?” Gungung replied with a blind look.

“That is not how you talk to our Lord. Our loving Father always lends us a good listening ear.” The pastor’s voice raised in pitch sharply.

“I talk to him, of course. I ask him to give me back my sight. But…” he was cut short by the Pastor.

”John, when we come to this world, we bring with ourselves sin. Only The Lord can wash away your sin with his blood if you believe him, and pray religiously to him.” Preacher to sinner.

‘Yes… but I don’t think that man, err. What’s his name?’

“Jesus My Lord.” Fore finger pointed to forehead, shoulder to shoulder, amen.

 “Yah, Jesus, yah, does he actually listen to my prayers? I……’  Again, he was cut short.


“Ahem.” Gungung nodded.

 “John, but you have to show repentance?  Have you?  Jesus died for you on the cross. Tortured.” He stressed the word.

”For me?”

“Yes, for you.  So what you can at least do is recite the hymns for our loving Father.”

Gungung, quick to feel belittled, pestered the pastor and peppered him with a verbal assault that turned physical.

Jesus lost, Gungung won.

Mama told me the poor pastor almost cracked his head when he tumbled down the stairs before he fled. God bless him.

Carpe Diem, But No Carp

I have a good husband, she would say for no good reason other than her old man bothered to stock up on noodles and mushrooms during the pandemic. He stocked up on canned foods, sacks and sacks of Laucke bread flour and all sorts of beans too – “for the protein,” he said. “Inflation is coming,” he added with a confident ring in his voice. But he packed them into brown boxes like a professional packer that he was and stashed them in the garage, never to be seen again. She, of course, could not find them and soon forgot that they were there and went out and bought some more for her kitchen. Her booming voice sang out from the sitting room where she had plonked her body heavily on the green leather sofa an hour or so earlier. The weather had turned for the worse once the sun decided to call it quits after lunch and banished the blue sky from reappearing. Northerly winds tried occasionally to break up the thick layers of grey clouds but it was clear their best efforts would be in vain. The Mrs reached for her heavy blood-red velvet blanket which in an earlier existence served as a window curtain in their house in Highbury. “Don’t let me ever see you again,” she said. No longer placid and weak, she told her best friend on the phone that was what she said to the person they were talking about. “I’m old,” she continued, “I don’t want toxic people around me anymore.” She wanted to be like spring water, clean and refreshing and always good. Her best friend’s svelte voice could be heard from the speaker phone but only every now and then since no one could dominate the booming voice. He imagined she was habitually scrunching her nose as she laughed and said pretty much the same about her husband. His food provisions had to outlast the pandemic too.

The Mrs shifted her position on the sofa to alleviate the soreness on her left thigh. The incessant chatter drowned out the gentle trickling of a mini waterfall in the pond outside. Missed also were the distant chirps of frolicking lorikeets and a lone dog’s complaints to the world. A magpie screeched at something, so loudly it made the old man look out of the window. It had gone still. The tall and skinny Lilli Pilly, once upon a time a standard, and an assortment of plants offering a predominantly green colour presented a foliage of varying shapes and sizes against a backdrop of federation red bricks looked like a painting on canvas; nothing moved, not even a fern leaf. A quaint antique pot sat on a Roman pedestal. A couple of qilin bought from a temple in Bali for $20 rested on a rock behind the pond. They looked centuries old even in the 80s and were the cause of the old man’s angst at the airport in Bali, detained on the suspicion that he stole some Balinese treasure. But, it wasn’t them or their little courtyard that mesmerised the old man that day. When something was always in front of him, he no longer saw it. What pricked his attention was the unusual stillness. The wind had given up. Maybe it was resting to gather pace and come back with a vengeance. The foothills of the Mt Lofty ranges were famous for their gully winds but the stubborn clouds, heavy with moisture and cold air, weren’t moving away despite the imminent arrival of the evening. “Your hubby is such a good man,” the booming voice disturbed the peace and brought the old man back to the room. She only praised other men, how typical. He shut his laptop, turned off the big screen and stepped out into the garden. Freedom, in another world.

The Balinese artefacts got the old man detained at the airport.

The old man came back into the house less than an hour later, having done his usual chores in the garden; rain or shine they had to be done. He fed the chooks and whilst they squeezed up against one another in a corner of the run, he cleaned the coop and scraped up poo that littered the ground. Every step he took was a careful one, mindful of the poo as a soldier would, of IEDs, landing on one would earn the bellows from The Mrs. He was chuffed that afternoon. The sick chook had suddenly recovered when all hopes had been dashed. It had not eaten for three days and he was sure it would not last another night. His friend, Ban Leong, had suggested onions. “As a kid, I saw my dear old grandma give her sick hen red onions,” he said. “One whole onion?” the old man asked.”Yes, open her beak and push the onion in,” Ban Leong replied. The Mrs said he was mistaken and she was, of course, right. The old man agreed, there was no way to stuff a chook with a whole onion! Ban Leong called back and said, “Sorry! Sorry! It’s garlic! Smash the garlic first!”

“You weigh like a piece of paper,” The Mrs said as she shoved more garlic down its throat. She had tried apple slices and apple cider on the first day and epsom salts on the second. The chook did what appeared to be death throes and gurgled in garlic juice but not only did it fail to repulse the woman from force-feeding it with the revolting garlic, it got its eyes poked by a long fingernail as her finger slipped from the beak that was being prised open. “If all else fails, at least we will have a well-marinated chook for supper,” said the old man as he straightened his back and stretched his arms in a salute to the sky. The Mrs looked at him abhorrently. She recoiled from the man she had lived with for forty two years, whose passion was clumsy and whose intelligence, artificially portrayed during their courtship years, grossly underwhelmed her. She could never tell if he was joking. It wasn’t that she had a poor sense of humour. He had often said she had a low threshold for jokes, laughing at anything and everything said in a Mork & Mindy show or a Benny Hill sketch. She found his jokes or more correctly, his attempts at making jokes, flat or distasteful. Perhaps it was his poor delivery. His siblings were the same, if presented with a funny conspiracy theory, they would bombard him with a string of counter-arguments or alternative ‘facts’ or worse, give him the silent treatment. This of course was what had made him emotionally unbalanced. Often misunderstood and the target of scorn and mockery, when he whinged about it, his friends accused him of fishing for sympathy. The old man said,”It’s a can of worms, popularity has never been a goal so who cares, right? He risked sounding callous and cold but he no longer cared. He realised he had made too many enemies in his lifetime, enemies of happiness.

Don’t yearn for what we don’t have, for that is the enemy of happiness.

Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24.17

Carpe diem! Seize the day. Live in the present, for the present is a present. Buzz words from brain-numbing morning greetings that peeved the old man rushed into his cranium. His synapses sparked, some of them snapped. “Haha, to snap them is better than to have your neurones connected by spirochaetes,” Choong Chet, a doctor friend from New Zealand teased with a twinkle in his eyes. The old man hunched and bent his knees to the ground under the big oak tree at the back. It wasn’t an old oak tree but he called it that anyway, on account that he was an illiterate on arboreal matters but even in his younger days, he understood enough about the importance of trees. So, many years earlier, he had planted one to provide shade for a stranger in the future; he did not expect to be that person enjoying the shade. Genuflecting to some god in the sky, he reflected on the unpredictability of life. Carpe diem! Feeling the sharpness of the pebbles biting into his knee, he heaved and got up clumsily before tripping on a clump of red nandina which sent him waywardly crashing onto the side gate that separated the neighbour’s garden from theirs. Embarrassed by his own clumsiness, he pushed his ribcage out and heaved a big sigh. Carpe diem. It had been troubling him no end for a number of days, upsetting his equilibrium was the notion of living in the moment. How does one let go of the past if one had to lug the heavy baggage of the past? The demon in us will not simply free us. We have to free ourselves How do we consciously present ourselves in the present? Live in the now! Just be happy sounded too simple.

But, it was never simple. His friends cajoled him often. They called him NATO. No action, talk only; or maybe they meant no action, think only. He walked to the edge of the pond on his neighbour’s land and made noises of love to the goldfish and comets. He loved fish of any variety since he was a kid growing up in Penang, nothing exotic like Koi or Orandas, just the cheaper kinds like comets, black molly and neon tetra. Fish represented everything that he wasn’t and couldn’t be in the water – colourful and graceful and fast! They made it look simple but it was very difficult to be simple for him, even as a kid. He had never seen a Japanese koi; keeping those required a big pond but no one had their kind of money at home then to have big ponds. It irked him as he patted the big goldfish on its head. It had a round body mostly of golden yellow and seemingly always pregnant with a big belly, even in winter. It raced up to the water’s surface to nuzzle up against his hand. The others sensed food and got into a frenzy, splashing water and creating ripples. His neighbour’s pond was massive by comparison to the one in his courtyard; in fact big enough to keep koi. But, the carp was banned in South Australia, deemed noxious and a severe threat to the natural habitat of local fish. The old man growled under his breath but seeing he was alone, he spat out the four-letter swear word forcefully. It was another example of bureaucracy gone mad, with the upstream states and territories legalising the keeping and selling of koi but not the downstream states of the Murray River. Fish swimming downstream won’t turn back because of man made borders!

Coy about Koi, a pond without Koi.

It is very simple to be happy
But it is very difficult to be simple

Rabindranath Tagore, Nationalism

Life should not be so complicated for the old couple. Both had big egos and oversized sense of entitlements from each other, so they spurned at the chances they were given to be that special couple that they had every right to be.

He had told her the one thing that made sense to him. The only thing we control is our own mind. We wreck our lives when we let others control it. If you were being raped, you would fight tooth and nail to fend off the would-be attacker, you’d kick his balls or bite off his dick. Yet, when someone is abusing our mind, causing us emotional distress, somehow, we let them. We let them rape us, mentally. We don’t say no, we don’t ward them off.

She had told him the one thing that made sense. To her. If you’re my man, be my hero. Stand by me. Why don’t you speak up for me? Why can’t you protect me? Why do you leave me all alone?

They could have been like the main characters in the movie Silence of the Sea. With love there is trust, and no words need be spoken. He was a captain of the German army occupying a small town by the sea in the west of France. She was a beautiful single woman living with her grandpa. With her dead parents’ bedroom sequestrated for the captain’s use, she and her grandpa maintained their rage in silence despite his gentle and kind manners. Could enemies become lovers? In the whole movie, she said only a single word to him. Just as it may be silent in the great unknown, deep in the sea and we can only witness the turbulence of the waves, she appeared unresponsive and unfriendly but in her deep psyche, she had a strong connection with him and a mutual understanding that their music conveyed eloquently.

End Of An Era, No Error

The old couple stood side by side and blankly stared into the empty building. It was empty for the casual bystander or a passerby rushing somewhere to a late appointment. It was empty for a group of rowdy aboriginals who showed no sense of decorum as they staggered waywardly down the street. One stocky bloke with angry red eyes held a half empty bottle of rum in one hand and his mate, a scrawny chap with a pronounced limp was emptying something from a flagon into his wide open mouth that faced the sky. Their women were a step or two behind them, both talking and laughing loudly between themselves. They meandered down Gilbert Street towards West Terrace as if they owned the place, in a carefree and careless way; as if without a worry to prick their minds. Perhaps they were right to feel that way – they were from an ancient lineage of the true first arrivals on Terra Australis. The European claim that they discovered the continent was not only false but blatantly wrong by fifty thousand years.

But, the building wasn’t empty. The air looked hazy but it was dust that had settled for years that was finally being unsettled, swept up and sucked out of the building. A walkie stacker was parked in a corner in solitary confinement. Having moved 76 pallets of goods out in recent days, it finally justified its owner’s investment in it. An empty wooden rack stood tall and miserable next to an iron staircase, unable to promote the goods it once held with pride. A messy tangle of power cables were clumped together next to two black screens, their lights permanently switched off, their fate determined. Next stop, a skip bin to cart them for burial in a landfill, their final resting place. Jeffrey the cleaner was the only busy person inside. It was his task to rid the place of its thick layers of grime and dirt that had caked onto the surfaces of everything and in all nooks and crannies. His job was unenviable not because he was always the one to take the trash out or clean up everyone’s mess in the toilets but because he was the only one who had to do that. If the others had to clean up their own mess, they would not have been so dirty.

The old building wasn’t empty of course. The occupants had long known of the resident ghost and accepted that those of the two worlds should live together peacefully. She was a friendly ghost anyway. No one was ever harmed by her. She may have moved the chair to and fro across the rubber coil mat many a windy night, making the castor wheels go GRA GRA GRAAA in the dark but it only scared the old man into believing that ghosts exist. She may have flicked the tea cup onto the tiled floor, breaking the cup and spilling hot tea in the reception room but that only forced Robert Sicolo, the bubbly salesman, to have to mop up. She may have walked down the iron staircase like a black shadow in absolute silence and startled the packer who looked up at the most inopportune time but that didn’t kill him. She may have locked the rear roller door with its rusty and sticky latches, the manual locking mechanism previously unknown to the other occupants who were befuddled by the sudden failure of the remote control to open the door but that only wasted half an hour of everyone’s time to figure out why and when they did, they struggled to slide the iron tongues off the sides of the walls.

The old building definitely wasn’t empty even after it was emptied. A building could not be empty when it was forever filled with memories. The old man stood and watched Jeffrey from afar. His mind cast him back to eleven years earlier. He was stronger then and so worked a lot faster. Back then, he worked alone and without complaint. He did all the work by himself. The Mrs helped a little and also briefly. She had her own job to cope with. Without her, he was on his own. Day and night, night and day blended seamlessly. He answered the phones, handled the complaints, prided in negotiating the sales, always remembering to sell up and sell more to a customer. He did the data input into the computer system, created the product skus to upload them to the website. He was the picker and packer also. His personal best would remain at 56 parcels in a single day for pickup by the courier driver whose clockwork discipline was so rigid he always hooted his horn at exactly 3 pm outside the roller door. The old man’s job was far from done after the courier driver had left with a van full of goods. There were the boxes of goods received that had to be ticked off against the suppliers’ invoices and then put away in their proper compartments, all the while interrupted by the phones ringing. Sometimes, he had to apologise to the people on the other end of the telephone line for making them wait for too long to pick up the phone. More often than not, lunch was a non-event, never a highlight but a mere act of sustenance so that work could continue. When the day is done for the office workers nearby and the local rowdy aboriginals who had partied enough in the parks were making their way back to the housing trust cottages somewhere, he’d make himself a cup of coffee to keep his mind fresh. There would be at least another two to three hours’ work ahead for the old man who was young and fit then. There was the accounting and clerical work to finish before he could say the day’s work was done. Suppliers had to be paid, the inventory had to be replenished with stock purchase orders and the profit and loss statements had to be maintained. Day and night blended, and then seasons changed and sometimes also blended. Winter was long, bleak and cold, the days got shorter, darkness arrived early; from his office window on the first floor, he would pause briefly to look at the black sky pelting large drops of spit on his window pane and at the tiny cars on distant roads with their headlights on zigzagging their way across the streetscapes. Often, he caught himself admiring the occupants inside who were on their way home to their piping-hot dinners and Netflix movies. Often in the dead of the night when traffic is at its lightest and faith is at its lowest, with the wind howling and the moon hiding, the old man would pause and ponder his fate. Born in the year of the dog, he wondered how the Chinese sages of old knew the fate of those born in those years would work like dogs till the end.

The old building, after a year or so, began to be slowly filled with people. Robert Rees, a nephew from London came to help for a few months until his mum saw how hard he worked and how bad the working conditions were and pulled him back home to England. The old man’s son returned home after ten years on his own in Perth. With his arrival, the intent was clear – they had to not only make their business work but grow it quickly too. The old man was still toying with the idea of giving it all up and venturing into a totally different field. His first love in fact, that of real estate investments but since he didn’t make his millions, he couldn’t be an investor but, “hey, I could sell them!” he said aloud. The industry was ripe for brokers who could speak mandarin, the drive then was to sell to the Chinese who were flocking to Australia at the time. This was at a time when business and trade with China was important and even seen as vital to the Aussie economy. This was at a time before America turned China into an adversary and believed in the Thucydides Trap that the rising power challenged their hegemony and dominance over the world. With hindsight, the old man was thankful his son talked him out of going into the real estate game. The Chinese weren’t coming back to invest in Australia, AUKUS had seen to that and the politicians on both sides of the parliament were frantically beating the drums of war, parroting the voice of ASPI who parroted the voice of the American institutions famously referred to by their three letters. “Those who want war should send their loved ones to the frontlines first,” said the old man who spat out the four-letter word silently.

Together, father and son worked on their core values and emphasised to everyone in the building the importance to live and breathe them.

Their Core values

  1. Strong work ethic.
  2. Listen to our customers.
  3. Be humble. No egos.
  4. Always improve and innovate.
  5. Be efficient. 
  6. Build a positive team and family spirit.
  7. Always deliver more than promised.
  8. Be honest and reliable with each other and our customers.
  9. Be frugal.

A lot of memories began drowning the old man as he stood there, tears forming in his eyes stung him into wiping them away surreptitiously. He did not want the others to see an old man cry. He forced his lips to stop quivering, picked up Murray, his son’s dog, and walked away to greet Jeffrey. The cleaner who had become a good friend did not offer to shake his hand. The old man understood, having noticed his filthy hands and dusty clothes. Jeffrey wore a mask not for Covid precautions but to stop the thick clouds of dust from entering his lungs. “It’s the end of an era,” the old man said to his friend. Jeffrey did not know what to say, so he said nothing. Jeffrey had a lot on his plate that afternoon, so the old man quickly said his goodbye. “Don’t forget to send me your invoice,” said the old man unnecessarily. No one ever forgot to send their bill for work done.

Herson whose alias is Jordan of Nike fame cracked open a beer bottle for his boss. He would be their last employee recruited to worked in that building, joining them during the peak of the pandemic when lockdowns forced everyone to stay home, so they stayed home and bought stuff online causing sales to tripled. Scotty Rufnak came over and hugged the old man. Scotty whose appearance showed he was a rough-neck in his younger days, only worked for them since 2018 but there was a close attachment to the family he worked for. He went over and hugged the old man’s wife too. The old man’s mind was flooded with memories. Memories that the old building would never be empty of. He told his story to Murray, a little bit louder than a whisper, perhaps with the intention of letting the resident ghost know it as well, since she was destined to remain a key character in the history of the building.

The business began trading in the late 60s with a store in the Regent Arcade in the CBD but the old man and The Mrs were involved in the business only from March 1987 as a partner in the store located in Northpark Shopping Centre. Their partner, a bald headed petrol head soon got impatient, wanting to splurge their meagre profits on a swimming pool and a second hand Merc rather than pour more money into the business and since he couldn’t buy out the old man, he was bought out instead. In 1991 the couple opened their second store in Parabanks Shopping Centre and soon after they went into Westfield Tea Tree Plaza, Westfield Marion and Myer Centre. They began franchising in 1995. More stores were opened in South Australia; Elizabeth City Centre, Hollywood Plaza, Munno Para Shopping Centre, Westfield Arndale and Westfield Westlakes.

In the late ’90s they expanded into Sydney, franchising three stores – Westfield Burwood, Westfield Hornsby and Westfield Mount Druitt.  
By the mid 2000s the couple had opened four stores in Perth – Westfield Carousel, Morley Galleria, Midland Gate and Whitford City Shopping Centre.
In 2006 The Mrs’ “baby”, Northpark store, was relocated to Sefton Plaza and they opened their last store, the 17th, in Colonnades Shopping Centre.

The advent of online retailing into the mainstream of Australian households from 2007 saw a paradigm shift in the behaviour of consumers. The Global Financial Crisis struck in 2008 and it became apparent soon after that the concept of having their retail stores in shopping centres was no longer viable. They lost almost everything but thankfully they had started their venture into online retailing a couple of years earlier, selling on eBay. Their online sales were growing steadily and this allowed them to close unprofitable stores and consolidate. Their website was turned into an ecommerce store in 2011 and the business became a pure-play online retailer selling on their website and other platforms including eBay, Kogan, Catch, and

The Mrs walked to the old man just as he had finished telling his story to Murray and the ghost. He bent down to let Murray go back to his owner but Murray whined like a lost child. He got up on his strong hind legs and hugged the old man’s thighs. The fully grown miniature poodle at four and a half years old was becoming heavy to carry for long periods. “Down, Murray,” the old man said, barking to the dog in a voice that it understood would not get its way. The Mrs said, “I’m sorry.” She suddenly burst into tears and her body shook involuntarily as she began to sob. “Come, come, doe, don’t have to cry,” he cooed, calling her by their shared term of endearment for each other. The old couple, once upon a time quite cold to each other, suddenly became whole again as one. They hugged each other and wiped away each other’s tears. Their journeys, together and separately, had been arduous if not tortuous. Once upon a time, a young couple, they stood there old and broken. Every sinew in them had been stretched, twisted, deformed. Every telomere frayed, tangled, broken. Every cell dividing ever more slowly, and would eventually stop. Ageing is a cruel disease perhaps only the likes of Lindsay Wu and David Sinclair would one day successfully reverse.

The old man no longer cared about the elixir of life. He lacked the strength and the will to carry on. Totally exhausted in his quest to be successful, he belatedly realised the real meaning of success. It wasn’t about the numbers in the bank account or the number of houses they owned. It wasn’t about how many coins he accumulated, whether they jingled and jangled or not. It wasn’t about gold or digital gold. Success was always about peace and happiness. It was about contentment and gratitude. It wasn’t an aberration, not an error. It was the end of an era.

The old man and Murray, outside the warehouse for the last time.

The Boldness Of Baldness

The lazy sun was slow to start its work that morning. Its gentle rays usually would have slipped through the curtains by the stroke of seven. The autumnal air was suddenly evident to the old man. He was no longer awoken before sunrise by the cacophony of the lorikeets and the sardonic laughter of the kookaburras; their rowdiness stopped soon after spring turned to summer. Stirring from under a thick mess of doona, crumpled and thinned from over-use, and a mountain of yellow-stained pillows that offered proof of intense and insatiable sex from yesteryears, he suppressed a cough from an itchy throat. The birth of a new day should have been celebrated as a gift from heaven. But, instead of being in a state of happiness and gratitude, he grumbled about the need to start the day when he wasn’t feeling quite ready, under a breath that the toothpaste from the night before had not refreshed. It was as if the beauty of the new day had not dawned on him and that the world was still as gloomy and sad as when he went to bed. The inconsiderate man let out a loud long fart; he did not care if it stank the room or woke up The Mrs. Typically, his behaviour was to do as he pleased, bugger what anyone said or felt; it was obvious to me why people treated him with disdain and did not gladly suffer the fool. For a long time, he could not understand why so many others were popular or why so-and-so was feted in their last school reunion or why he was often the target of derisive remarks.

“Just look in the mirror,” I said, with a mixed purpose of entertainment and enlightenment. It was true. I enjoyed mocking him for being the annoying idiot amongst his friends but at the same time, I felt his pain for being often singled out by them and wished he would learn from his bad antics. Not only was he idiotic, he called himself an idiot too. He narrowed his already narrow eyes and squinted at the halation of light that had escaped from a gap between the curtains. “What time is it?” He asked himself before discovering the answer from his iPhone. “Crikey, the chooks must be wondering why their breakfast is late,” he said, “and they will know it’s my fault.” He did a long pee and having been disappointed with the overnight crypto prices, he yanked at his penis to shake off the last droplets of wee. It wasn’t so long ago when doing a piss sounded like a powerful jet from a cannon. He had to accept the new reality of ageing. He missed the sound of a great strong piss.

I wished he would be bold and say to himself ‘enough is enough’. Many of his friends were bold enough to be bald but not him. With a mop of hair that would be the envy of many, a mild receding hairline was enough for him to seriously consider taking the drug finasteride despite the side effects of erectile dysfunction, the embarrassment of failing to get it up when duty called or worse, the loss of interest in sex altogether. “Those who chose baldness weren’t bold,” he quipped. They were actually worried about owning a flaccid penis. How else would an annoying bloke look at his bald friends? Be bold, a man has a choice not to be bald! So, I asked him why hair was more important to him than sex. It seemed like a bad deal to me. It felt like the opposite thing to do, choosing hair over sex with a voracious appetite. Then, the penny dropped – why his friends chose baldness!

He had wondered long and hard about his unpopularity. A believer in equality of the sexes, chivalry had long died for him. Whereas his so-and-so friend still defended the ‘need’ to sacrifice a seat on a bus for the elderly and the women. “But we are the elderly!” the old man retorted. A tactless man, that was how he talked to his friends. He disagreed, “I am just a no-nonsense man,” he said with a growl. He was right though, in pointing out that so-and-so would never give up his Business Class seat in a plane in an act of chivalry.

A boss in his workplace for the majority of his adult years, he came across as unaccommodating to many of his friends. Before he became the boss running his own business, he was the State financial and accounting boss for one of the wealthiest families in Australia. It was fair to say he made all the major business decisions and the buck truly stopped at his desk. It made him a bully, of course, but he did not see that. Those around him would have felt he had undeserving authority and unfairly did not share the decision-making responsibilities that affected his family. Looking back at how he treated The Mrs (sorry, mistreated), it was no wonder she was turned off by the bully and his antics. She had no say in any of the major decisions he made for them – not even the choice of the car’s colour let alone the car.

“It’s ok,” she confided to me the other day.

“He thinks he is the boss and the head of the family, but I am the neck,” said she, as she scoffed and hid her smile with her cupped hand.

So true, I thought to myself. He forgets he cannot nod or shake his head without his neck letting him.

Richard K, a great childhood friend of his who also hailed from Penang, had a lot to say about the funny contradictions in life. The two friends reconnected in Sydney in the late 70s and for a few years were best buddies who spent every weekend together playing mahjong. The old man told me he lost so much to another couple they played with that they boasted his losses funded their annual holidays overseas. The hurt from their taunts ended his mahjong addiction and they quickly moved to Adelaide in ‘86. His official reason was so that he could spend his weekends meaningfully with his growing family rather than flaunt his time on gambling, but if the truth be told, he had to curtail his mounting losses. A hugely funny guy, Richard was the life of any party. He would rubbed his hands gleefully, hunched a little and then his face would lit up with laughing eyes and a broad smile before he delivered his stories. “Have you ever wondered why lawyers and doctors call what they do ‘practice’?” he asked. Having lost a lot of his investments in a share market rout, he told the old man he finally understood why the person who advised him on buying and selling shares was called a broker. Richard and his pretty wife, Cindy, visited the old man and his Mrs many years later. Cindy, also an ex-Penangite, was a stunning beauty reminiscent of a young Lin Ching-Hsia. Blessed with a pair of perfectly-shaped twinkling eyes capped with curly long lashes, she oozed femininity and glowed with an inner goddess of sensuality and love. Richard was always lucky, with everything (and probably with everyone) he touched.

“Hey, old friend (Lor ba-yu in Shanghainese), why do you park your expensive cars on the driveway whilst you store all your old worthless junk in your double garage?” he asked with a cheeky smile.

“Friends who grew up together from childhood were the most precious of all our belongings,” the old man said. Not flustered by silly remarks or idiotic pranks, there was never any rancour towards one another. Words said in jest did not hurt their egos, which were always kept in check. No one was allowed to feel superior, if anyone tried, he would be swiftly brought down like a bamboo tree with a parang (Malay long knife). They were old men already but amongst themselves, they still behaved like the boys they were more than half a century earlier.

“Hey botak (baldie in Malay), lai chiak (come, eat),” said one of them to a bald-headed friend.

Botak head, come to school at half-past-eight. Teacher said,’Why you come so late?’” another sang their childhood taunt like a choir leader in his baritone voice.

The boldness of baldness indeed.

Chiak, Chiak, botak

Gone Astray, Murray Ain’t A Stray

My old pal is blind, I swear. He has two pairs of glasses, one with progressive lenses and the other, purely for reading. But, I have seen him wearing his reading glasses to cook his lunch. Other times, he would change one pair for the other, halfway through his violin practice. I reckon it makes little difference to him with either. He’s vision impaired, the poor bloke. As for me, I don’t miss much of the comings and goings around here. He blames it on old age. But, that’s bull shit. His hundred-year-old mother can see better than him. I have seen her pointing to a strand of my hair on the carpet and telling him to pick it up. She’s a bit temperamental but she ain’t blind, that’s for sure. I like her a lot. But they won’t let me go near her. Every time I rush to the front door to welcome her inside, they reckon I am too bubbly and excited and they worry I might knock the old lady down. Crikey, they think so little of me. As if I am that rough.

“You have good eyes, so of course you see the dirt more clearly,” my pal said, obviously a bit miffed that I said he is blind. Maybe he should be down on all fours; he’d be shocked at the amount of hair that’s caked onto the carpet around his desk. His Mrs, luckily for him, rarely intrudes into his space when he is working. Otherwise, she would have nagged him to death to cut his hair short. I am nothing like her. I don’t care if I find his long hair everywhere. He won’t ever get told off by me. “It’s just hair, right?” he said defensively. But to be fair to her, I can understand how annoyed she must feel, having to unclog the wash basin or tease out his hair from the shower drain or remove hair from a wet bathroom floor and wall tiles – those things have a brain of their own, so stubborn are they to get rid of. The old bloke fails miserably. I have seen him try, especially after washing his hair. That’s the other thing I can’t understand. If I were to lose that much hair after each shampoo, why would I wash them again, right? He should be certified mad. I suppose he has no choice. He gets nagged to death to wash his hair daily. The Mrs shows no mercy. She has this obsession in her mind that is like an itch; once she thinks of it, she must scratch it till it bleeds or like a pimple that she finds on her face, she must press it till it pops. But, he is a liar. I know that for a fact. He only pretends that he had washed his hair. Coming out of the bathroom, he would mess up his hair with his towel, as if he was actually drying it. The Mrs had her eyes glued to her iPad, so she fell for that trick.

Just last night, he spotted hair on the shower recess after he had attempted to dry his slithery hair without a hairdryer. It was not a pretty sight. Shaking his hair out, flipping his head upside-down, squeezing the excess water out with both hands whilst totally naked. The bloke is just so unaware. You know, when he was fluffing his hair from side to side, his appendage below was swinging like a pendulum. Ding dong! Quite appalling. I’d go into a fit and retch out dry vomit. Still totally naked, he bent down to pick up a few strands but it was easier said than done without long fingernails. I was on all fours dry heaving away as I looked up at him repeating the same action without success. His hair was like little worms skimming on the wet surface, evading his fat finger. Each time he scooped, his fat finger came up empty. The poor guy, having lost muscle mass in the past months, has legs like chopsticks. He has never looked at himself from the ground up – if he did, he surely would not have squatted naked knowing I was there on the floor outside the glass door of the cubicle looking in. He routinely squeegeed the cubicle dry after he had finished washing himself. But, man! Don’t squat in front of me when you do that.

A mad man, he ought to know better than not to wear a hat when out in the sun. Evidence of UV damaged hair can be seen quite clearly when you compare the dry hoary hair on his head with the shiny black clump below. Fair enough that he may think the layers of grime and salts from Adelaide’s hard water offer enough screen to protect his modesty but oh dear, truly, I do not exaggerate when I say the human body is one of the ugliest things on earth – the wrinkly skin clinging precariously to his bum and the now-almost-hairless scrotal sacs that hang suspended from the base of the thingy that he used to call his ‘pride and joy’ are so yucky to look at I often wonder why people were so keen to drop by nudist beaches. The sacs swinging in front of me like wind chimes on a windy day house a pair of balls that their owner described as a once-upon-a-time non-unionised factory that was capable of non-stop all-day production in a pre-matrimonial union. But, once married, the same balls were suddenly obliged to be ‘unionised’ with very strict rules of production and reproduction uncompromisingly imposed by his new bride. No ifs, no buts. Her ‘factory’ was always on strike in support of said union rules.

I am only four and half years old, so please forgive me if I sound a bit vague in this matter. I am still so pissed off that they cut off my balls without asking me for my opinion. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Murray and I am a miniature poodle. Born in the town of Murray Bridge about an hour’s drive southeast of Adelaide, my former family used to live in a country cottage near the banks of the Murray River. My mum was forever pregnant and sadly, I never got to meet most of my siblings. I do not remember my father but they say I look very much like him. Strong, macho and stocky, no dog messes with me. I hang around the parks like I am the top dog, and I believe even the alsatians and greyhounds are weaker and slower than me. Without a doubt, I am the cutest on the block. The office girls in the city said I am their poster boy. A rather hunched and podgy old woman, dressed like a pious nun in a heavy serge coat with a tortured Jesus hanging from her wobbly neck, stopped us in front of the swimming pool at Hazelwood Park a few months ago and said to my old pal I am a calendar dog. He replied, “He’s a centrefold!” She seemed taken aback and so, I growled at her. I growl at anyone who disagrees with my pal. Ask The Mrs, she knows best.

The Mrs told me the day should not talk about the night. The two have never met. So I shall remember that and only talk about what I know. The moon is not always round, so no one should expect anyone to be perfect. I say that because of the guilt I feel inside. She is a lovely person, The Mrs. She gives me whatever is in the fridge for them. No canned dog food, no cheap chubs. I get the best cuts. I know. She serves me first, well ahead of him. My old pal looked on with jealous eyes and a growling tummy as I chomped away at the Maryland and the golden pomfret. He got to choose from the dry breast meat or neck and wings. To be fair, there were lots of the pomfret left. So, don’t believe him should he whinge about how unfair she was. She adores me to bits and the sweet smile in her voice is only reserved for me. “Baby, ni th’ng wor ma? (are you sweet to me?)” she cooed and smiled adoringly. It is so easy to please her; why is it so difficult for him? All he has to do is do what I do, ask her for a scratch before bedtime – no words are necessary, just lie on your back and raise all four limbs in the air and she will lovingly give you a tummy rub. I promise you – she won’t stop until you walk away. Then, in the morning, scratch her side of the bed, lick her face to wake her up like she has won Lotto (isn’t waking up to a new day the best present we can have?) and when she opens her eyes, act like you have missed her for an eternity. So simple, right?

My old pal, to be fair to him, did try that once. I saw it. But, the man was clumsy and pathetic. Scratch the side of her bed, I said, not get up close to her and think he’s Rudolph Valentino. He was on to her like a rash, feeling her like she was a virgin, his adventurous hand knew no bounds. He put his right leg over her and was about to mount her when her eyes suddenly opened and glared at him. “Stop it! Get off me.Your mouth stinks!” said she in a tone that would instantly turn water into ice.

My guilt gnaws at me, it really does. The Mrs is the best person I have ever met. She is the only one who doesn’t treat me like a dog. I mean, who else gives me generous cuts of salmon, raw tuna and lobster meat? No one! It is true that there is always a higher mountain, yi shan hai yu yi shan gao 一山还有一山高. This morning, my old pal’s cuz in Zaandam shared news of Fifi flying business class from Hong Kong to Istanbul. The miniature long- haired dachshund was seen blissfully snuggling under blankets. But hey, I am not complaining. I get enough morsels of lobster that friends of my old pal can only be jealous of. I feel her love, I really do; and I love her too, of course. But, my old pal is the one true friend I completely trust. The others, I have growled at or scratched at or even nipped at. He is the only one I allow to shave my hair or bathe me. He washes my feet before I am allowed back into the house but I don’t mind. I quite enjoy the routine now. Despite what Google tells him, he bathes me almost daily. I trust him completely, so I let him, willingly.

My lifespan is only 14 years. We will make the most of it together.

He works too many hours. He is mostly on his bum – at work, or at play with his violin, or when he is writing his blogs. I have told him so, not in so many words. None, actually but we speak to each other all the time, body is the language we use. He got up to stretch his body. His legs are very thin. I have shown him how to do downward dog pose; it will strengthen his wrists, arms and shoulders but he needs someone else to show him some poses for his legs. At the park last weekend, he was sauntering in his white Boss shirt armed with his phone to check on crypto prices every now and then. I nudged at his thin legs to tell him not to bother. What will be will be. He gave out a silent fart. Close by, a couple walking their dog looked our way and frowned. I could tell it was his; the familiar smell of drying mud in a hole in the ground and of rancid lamb fat. He pulled the ends of his hair from out of his mouth that a breeze had caused them to misbehave.

The smell of gum leaves revived him. He felt invigorated from the burst of eucalyptus air. The cloudless sky was starting to burn, its blue turning white and glaring showing how the sun can force us to seek reprieve even from such a vast distance away. My pal sought the refuge of a tree with the thickest foliage. He wasn’t the first. A red-capped lorikeet above was quicker. It sat on a branch watching the world without the faintest worry. Its vivid plumage of black, green and white capped by a gorgeous red top advertised its readiness to mate. No, maybe not. It was already autumn. Maybe, it was broken-hearted after its young had flown off to build a life for themselves.

I had gone astray, running amok with some friends. But I am no stray. Look at me, don’t I look cute and cuddly? The Mrs’ sister said I am the handsomest dog and the smartest. My pal was in white, so it was no sweat to track him down from afar. I watched him for a long time with my cute round eyes. Humans have white in their eyes making them easy to read. I can tell from their sanpaku if they are afraid, angry or nervous. Sometimes, he shows his yin sanpaku and I feel his sadness. Don’t be sad, my pal. You have so much to be thankful for. Was it not you who told me happiness thrives where there is contentment and gratitude? His Nehru-collared white shirt stood out in the canvas of mostly green and brown but to me they are mostly grey. His sparrow legs were hidden by a pair of green Lululemon pants. A friend of his said the brand is overrated and overpriced. But, he is no fashionista nor is he trendy. I have seen the clothes he wears from photos my pal showed me yonks ago. I may be a dog but even I understand we can’t say a thing is overpriced without knowing the costs and brainpower that had gone into making it.

“Well, you save on ironing time, that’s got to be worth something!”

“And the cut lifts your body, that’s worth a lot.”

“And the feel on your skin is like the feel of a virgin. That’s worth a lot too!”

“And when you take them off you feel sad. That’s gotta be worth something too.”

“And you’ll walk like you’re worth a million bucks and that’s worth more than the coins that don’t jingle.”

He is wise, don’t you agree? Bugger the price. What is $129 if my pal feels good in them? I didn’t stray from my script. I quickly ran back to him and got up on my hind legs to hug him. Grass seeds were attracted to me, so I got off him and scratched myself in a way humans find obscene. But I cared little about what they thought. My private parts smelled funny, so I reached down and gave them a good lick.

“Are you cleaning yourself or enjoying it?” asked my pal who smirked and sounded decidedly acidic.

“Let’s go home,” said I, a red dog with the best pal. He was jealous all the way home. I knew that was something he could never do.