An uneventful flight. And the urghhling is thankful for that. He has always feared the sea. It means he fears flying too, since planes do crash into oceans. He prefers the aisle seats, apart from the extra leg room, they are also further from the windows. But, his was a late booking and he ends up with a window seat instead. He avoids looking down at the vast expanse of bright blue water. The flight from Adelaide has been an hour and 45 minutes so far. As the plane descends from heaven, his sense of mortality becomes acute again. It is a known fact we are most vulnerable at take-offs and landings.
“Right, I shan’t think about this, let my mind wander instead. Forget about my impending demise.”
“ Sydney, with its harbour and Opera House has much to gloat about.” He focuses on the iconic architectural wonder on the blue harbour instead, taking his mind away from his childhood fear.
His old hometown looks grey with its buildings, a lot less than glamorous. Tall glass towers cast long shadows on old but ornate structures. The night clouds have almost arrived, lopping off the top of Centrepoint Tower from the Westfield building. He left the city in ‘86, a young bloke with a young wife and three adorable sons. A rosy exciting future beckoned, a commercial world in which any success was possible, all that was required was hard work, talent and discipline. Or so he thought.
Young blokes don’t realise life isn’t like that. Sure, his new boss had said “you’re set like jelly” after the job interview. He was leaving the big smoke which had delivered him everything that any 27 year-old man would consider to be a good start to life.
He was thankful for the University of NSW.
There, he got his degree. A bachelor degree in Commerce (Merit) which led to a secure well-paid job as the accountant of a paper box factory. In those days, any office job that came with a company car was a well paid job. The urghhling said to emphasise on the “merit” bit of his qualification. Only ten graduates out of that big faculty got that special mention, including his future wife. There, he found her. Her eyes smiled at him the first time they met. A beautiful woman. An intelligent woman. A strong woman. She said he was a good man. Reliable. Reliable, that’s all. The only criterion that mattered? She didn’t want him. They would mock her, laugh at her, she was years older, she said.
“You’re too different, English educated, ignorant of Chinese literature, I’m too old for you”, she resisted.
“Let’s not care about how people think.” I persuaded her.
“I am not that much younger.” “So long as we are happy, we’re not here to please others” he appealed to her with gusto. He implored her to reconsider.
It was 11.30 pm, in her kitchen. Quite spartan, one that uni students were used to. The broken venetian blind hung lopsided, hiding the full moon. A well-used stove, ingrained with black burnt stains that Mr Sheen failed to get rid of, despite the claims on tv. A small Westinghouse fridge, another fallen Aussie icon. Quite a bare fridge, his eyes could only scan a glass bottle of milk that the milko delivered two days earlier, a tub of butter, some carrots and oranges but no left overs. His nostrils were fooled by the faint trace of fried garlic.
“Go home. It’s late” she said, not noticing that he was hungry.
“Please, give us a chance”. “Live our own lives, for ourselves. We can never please everybody.”
He hugged her, a long hug. But, it was not a goodbye hug. He willed his love for her to travel from his heart to hers. His arms enveloped her, transmitting his deep feelings for her. “Life will be good with me. You’ll see.” he promised her.
Eighteen months later, they were married. A simple wedding. A banquet for twelve, not for twelve tables.
On the morning of their wedding day, he sat on the toilet seat in their Coogee flat, feeling like a king whilst Eleanor, their best friend, fussed over the bride’s make-up. His younger sister, Sue, busily ticked the check-list as items were laid on the mattress. In those days, newlyweds fresh from university did not bother about bridal beds, they simply joined their single mattresses together.
Bridal gown, $350, off the rack from a bridal house in Singapore. No alterations required, she was skinny. All white, to prove her virginal status. A size so petite the mind cannot now fathom how it was possible to squeeze a voluptuous body into.
Bridal headpiece, made of white silk roses on a band embellished with iridescent rhinestones, a gift from the bridal house.
The hand bouquet was a last minute purchase, because the urghhling had forgotten that was a necessary accessory for a bride. Thank you, Sue. I think we forgot to express our appreciation.
A pair of three inch high silver shoes. They were not worn often; a case of fashion over function, they encouraged the growth of calluses on her big toes.
A gold ring, 24 carat. “Must be 24 carat.” Ma said.
A string of pearls. Not South Sea ones, of course. In the end, it got crossed out of the list; they decided against the pearls. If one cannot afford a bridal bed, one cannot afford non-necessities.
“Don’t forget the bridal bouquet!”, Sue shouted as he swept his bride off her feet. There were four flights of stairs to carry her down to their silver Mitsubishi Colt. The urghhling, tall and dark, looked quite smart in his black suit, blue tartan tie and brown shoes. “A colourless man with colourful taste” quipped a friend once. He was not due for a haircut for another month, so he turned up in an untidy “Bruce Lee” hairstyle. Quite a skinny man, his excuse was he came from a poor family and he abstained from meat for three years after their wonderful maid, Yung Jia, killed his pet hen.
The urghhling was skinny but strong. After all, his father named him “ forever strong”. As if he needed to prove it, he effortlessly carried his bride down those four flights of stairs. He plonked her on the front passenger seat of their car, with casual ease. He paused briefly to admire the showroom shine of his Colt, the effort of that morning’s elbow grease work. “Buckle up” he told the two bridesmaids at the back. “We are gonna get to our wedding on time!”
Bridge Street, near Martin Place cannot be the right place for a wedding, it is the heart of banking in Sydney, therefore soulless. “Why on earth would a marriage celebrant conduct a wedding there?” The Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages was situated there. “Never mind, at least it is within walking distance to Sydney’s Opera House, and the Botanical Gardens.”
Doreen and James were witnesses to the wedding. Doreen had not learned about make-up yet. So, she turned up with big blue patches of make-up around her bulging black eyes. With her long Farrah Fawcett permed hair, she looked lovely next to her husband, James, a young man with a thick frame and a wide white smile that was unspoilt by coffee. His stolid mannerism was always reassuring. Quite a short man, he looked like he belonged to a different wedding party in his brown suit and grey leather shoes. The men did not think about colour coordination, they were lucky enough to own a suit. The women did, though. All four turned up in white! Eleanor, with short, thick permed hair, wore the whitest dress. These minor details mattered not to the bridegroom. His bride was there.
“You may kiss the bride”, the marriage celebrant said with authority. It sounded strange to the urghhling but he wasn’t about to debate the right or wrong of a stranger allowing him to kiss his wife. His wife! Wow. Did he realise what he had signed up to? The responsibilities? Whether in sickness or in health? Forever, till death do they part? Mere words? A promise carved in the heart? Can you love someone forever? Unconditionally?
Too late to deliberate. The marriage document was unhesitatingly signed. Man and wife. It was time to celebrate, not hesitate.
“Sue, what does our check list say after the ceremony?” the happy bridegroom asked.
No plans for the afternoon. No plans for the future. Just live, happily. Hopefully.
It was a Saturday. Early autumn in Sydney meant blue sky days and cool nights. Perfect for a wedding posse to walk the short walk to the harbour. A nun in a brown habit went up to the newly weds and wished them a happy future together. She wore a genuine kind smile. A good omen for the bride and groom. Along the way, cars honked and passers-by waved, hooted and shouted blessings. No wedding plan could have delivered such happy spontaneity.
The wedding dinner was held in a Double Bay restaurant. No prizes for guessing it was a Chinese restaurant. They could not afford a “western meal” in the early ‘80’s. They knew what a “western meal” meant, that it was unaffordable. The urghhling was a “chinaman” anyway, meaning he loved his rice and noodles. Nine guests, a table for twelve. Sue is family, not considered a guest. The urghhling was strange like that. Doreen turned up with the same blue eyeshadow, hand in hand with James who was still in the brown suit. Behind them were Richard and Cindy. Coo, coo, the lovebirds, whose 60th birthday party was the reason why the urghhling and The Mrs are in the plane. “Flying. Oh, don’t think about the flight. Back to the past.” Originally, they could only fill a table for nine. But, an odd number would not make an auspicious occasion. And so, they stretched the guest list and added three more. None asked openly why it was such a small wedding party.
“All our friends had to go back to their home countries after uni, they weren’t allowed to stay.” The Mrs reasoned out loudly in her mind.
“His parents and other siblings couldn’t come. Some lived too far away, for others, it’s their busy time of the year”.
“Her elderly parents couldn’t come, it’d be too daunting for them to travel on their own”. The urghhling reinforced with a good reason.
“She is adopted, no siblings.”
Anyway, no one asked. The excuses were not verbalised.
A strange thing happened after the wedding dinner. All the guests followed the newlyweds home. Home was a two bedroom flat on the high side of Rainbow Street, not far from Coogee Beach. A cream coloured apartment block, a popular colour in the 70’s. Off a steep road, into a steeper driveway. Not a friendly place for older folk with stiff, painful joints. A creamy box amongst hundreds of boxes, in fact when you look up at it from the street. But, it is all about the location. Location, location, location. To buy well in Sydney, one must have water views. The urghhling was sure he bought well. They could see a glimpse of Botany Bay in the distance if they perched on their toes on the edge of the bathtub. It didn’t matter that the lounge was too tiny to fit all twelve of them, some outstretched legs could rest on the mosaic tiles of the narrow balcony once the aluminium sliding door was opened. It didn’t matter that you could see a couple making love on their balcony opposite, or overhear a heated argument across the courtyard, or watch the busy actions of a young Asian woman cleaning herself behind a frosted window. Live and let live. It didn’t matter to the guests that the night was their first night as a married couple. It didn’t matter that they overstayed till way past midnight. When morning arrived, the parted mattresses was a telltale sign of frantic activities after the tired guests left.
Either with relief that they had landed safely, or perhaps that she was still by his side, he squeezed The Mrs’s arm as the plane glided down the runway with hardly a bump. Amazing. How we can bring a 200-tonne flying machine down from 30,000 feet and land it exactly when and where we want it. Yet, no one in the plane applauded the pilot for such an awesome feat.
Amazing. The urghhling and The Mrs, still together, after 35 tumultuous years. He casts a glance at her. She had her eyes shut, both palms resting on the page she was reading, forming an unusual bookmark. Eyes shut, resting. A usual pose for someone who is always tired. He is suddenly consumed by remorse. He failed her. She, the mirror of the tough journey they had endured since their franchise business folded. The same remorse he felt when he overheard her crying in bed one night. A victim of his failed business, she was disappointed, disillusioned, disoriented, dishevelled, destroyed by the test of time. Once a strong, proud woman, she was almost a shrivelled husk, empty of the promise and beauty that was hers to claim. He hears his old promise ringing loudly in his head, “Life will be good with me. You’ll see.” The Mrs opens her eyes, awakened by the impatient jostling of fellow passengers leaving their seats. Someone, in a few rows behind, was speaking loudly into his phone in a foreign language. She glances at the urghhling but fails to notice he had been crying.