What have I done to myself? Is this the sum total of my life? I was 20. My List Of Potentials was long and exciting. It was a list I drafted in my teens, a summary of what I could hope to achieve in my life. That was on a cold dreary, wintry July day in Adelaide, the first winter of my life. It never crossed my mind that my whole life could be a lifetime of winter. A list of potentials that is filled with positive maybes, it promises heaven, not hell. Blue sky, not dark threatening clouds. Gardens in full bloom, not with rampaging weeds. Meandering rivers, not stormy seas. Lovely fertile chaste maidens, not divorcees with heavy baggages.
Life of course offers no guarantees. My life could have been one long winter. But no, I made sure of that. Luckily. But, no one can really make sure life will present us with what we want. I left home when I was 18. Fresh, young, naive and with the world as my oyster. See, I did say I was naive. It was Shakespeare who coined the phrase, a romantic bloke he was. The world as my oyster, a life without adversity, trauma, and threats. Everything I amass will be gold. Every advantage that comes my way will bear fruit, no opportunity will be missed and if it were missed, it would knock a second time. Why an oyster, Mr Shakespeare? The romantic writer could very well have replied that the oyster is the most admirable of all living things. Its hard calcified shell protects what is precious to it, the whole reason for its existence is to keep safe the beautiful pearl with its gorgeous lustre, unblemished thick nacre and perfect round shape. What can be more meaningful to us than to be that oyster, for that pearl?
I was a pescetarian for almost three years immediately prior to leaving home to further my studies in Adelaide. When dinner was being served on my Qantas flight, it suddenly dawned on me that being a pescetarian was going to pose a real problem for me. Aussies are beefcakes, all meat eaters. I was told they don’t drink water. Water is only for plants and cattle. Aussie blokes aren’t that, that’s for sure. They only drink beer and eat steaks. Plants are for animals. Fish? That’s too fishy, sold only in Greek fish and chips shops. That was in the 70’s. Being decisive by nature, I smiled at the middle aged Aussie stewardess with a faint trace of moustache and paper thin lips smudged carelessly with a glossy bright red lipstick. Yes, I’ll have the lamb. Thanks. What this naive boy didn’t realise was that cold lamb served in an aeroplane cannot be aromatic or delicious, and will quickly turn into chunder. Cold lamb was a disastrous choice to reintroduce myself to meat after three years of abstinence.
I landed in Jobs Paradise, found a job as a drinks waiter in a Chinese restaurant after one interview. Yes, I have lots of experience, sir. I can start anytime. I’ll be paid cash? Sure, cheques will too inconvenient, sir. I didn’t understand cash meant under the table money, well below the award rates. Never mind, I lied too, I was surprised the boss was so gullible; he couldn’t tell I was a new arrival. The only experience I had in a proper Chinese restaurant – meaning air-conditioned – was dining in a wedding party that my parents dragged me to, a few years earlier. I arrived in Adelaide on a Tuesday and started my first job as a drinks waiter three days later. As someone advised me, Aussies only drink beer, easy enough job I assured myself. Just grab whatever beer they order and pour! At the first table, all four patrons ordered “Sutthick” beer. Peering high and low inside the wine fridge, I was starting to fidget when I couldn’t find any! So sorry sir, we have run out of Sutthick beer. Will you consider Coopers Pale or Crown Lager? Not possible! It’s as laughable as a pub with no beer, they bellowed. We want to speak to your boss! The boss beckoned to me to follow him to the wine fridge. Which beer did they order? Sutthick, sir. Are you blind, son? He yanked one bottle out, plonked it into my hand and said, here! Help yourself! I was cursing myself, how did I not see them? I opened my hand and it revealed a bottle that says Southwark Bitter Beer. Southwark, why do Aussies pronounce it as Sutthick? Waitering was done with style. I have style, I assured myself. Just watch what the others do. Grab the four bottles of beer and Pilsner glasses, place them on the round tray, palm underneath it, lift it over my shoulder, walk to the table and serve. That’s the easy part, I performed it with style. Pouring the beer into a Pilsner glass whilst balancing the heavy tray needs mental focus. I forgot to remind myself when I pour with my right hand, my left hand ought not to follow the right hand’s pouring angle. Too late! Just that slightest deviation from the perfect horizontal position was enough to prove that gravity although invisible, has its way of making things fall to the ground. In this case, unfortunately for me, the half-filled Pilsner glass fell on the lap of the lady to whom I was serving. Unfortunately for her too, I suppose. What a mess.
The following year, I moved to Sydney. I was accepted into University of New South Wales (UNSW), their Commerce degree was more relevant to me than the Economics degree offered by Uni of Adelaide. I didn’t pause to question why the straight A’s I scored did not qualify me for Dentistry in Adelaide. Unbeknownst to me, my father had torn up the letter of offer from The School of Dentistry. So wise, my father. Totally sensible. It would be a depressing career to be in. Nobody wants to visit you and if they did, they would be terrified of you. You’d be the last place they would want to return to. You’re their worst conversationalist, you’d never get a word out of them. Your day is filled with fillings and crooked teeth. Quite depressing. Anyway, I was happy to join an old school friend from Penang in Sydney. He too had opted to do the same course in UNSW.
Sydney was also a paradise for job seekers. My first interview landed me a job in The Rocks Tavern, as a kitchen hand. Peeling potatoes and onions all day did not faze me. I was proud to wear the all white apron, working in the kitchen was far more interesting than serving customers. What generous tips I missed were compensated by the abundance of food available to kitchen hands. That was where I learned to love blueberry pies with almond topping. Before too long, I was given a white hat, promoted to be in charge of cottage pies. The job required me to push trays of raw cottage pies into the commercial oven and pulling them out perfectly baked when the bell rings. I wear a burn mark on my left biceps with pride. A permanent reminder of a careless moment when my arm briefly touched a hot tray one afternoon. I became a trusted hand of the sous-chef, maybe out of desperation on the night of Christmas Eve. The under-manned kitchen meant I was briefly promoted to present the biggest platter of baked snapper to a rowdy group of Christmas party revellers. The instructions from the sous-chef were clear. Hold the tray underneath with the palm of your hand. Your hand should be at the centre of the tray and hold it up just over your shoulder. Walk straight, keep your face forward. Do not talk over the platter, make sure it is always just over your shoulder! The crowd applauded as I made my entrance into the middle of the cobblestoned square. Aiyah, the sous-chef did not warn me about the cobblestones. Have you carried a platter with the biggest snapper you have ever seen with just the palm of your hand? Try, it isn’t so easy. Especially if you aren’t wearing non-slip shoes. A heavy platter that feels heavier with every step you take and slippery cobblestones can only mean one thing. CRASH! And more applause as the beautifully baked snapper and garnish dressed in Christmas colours slid off the silver platter. The giant snapper glided along the cobblestones like it was still alive. The Sous-chef simply said, do not ever do that again. No four lettered word for once. That showed his anger. Don’t just keep bowing to your audience, clean the mess up quickly!