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.