Barramundi, Calamari and Verdi

What pandemic? What lockdown? I was in the Adelaide Town Hall last night, attending a special preview performance of Verdi’s Requiem, and the whole place was buzzing with people. “Are you a VIP?” a pretty usher asked me. Well, I no longer felt important after that. “This section is reserved for VIPs only,” she continued to hurt my ego. I smiled, said “yes” and walked right past her. I knew she would not have the audacity to check the veracity of my answer. So, why even bother to ask, right? Don’t they know VIPs do not like to be asked if they are important? We damn well know we are! A special preview event for invitees only but due to the actual concert being sold out tonight, they decided to open up the rest of the hall for sixty paying guests. We are very lucky to live in this part of Australia. What pandemic? Life has been pretty normal apart from two very brief lockdowns. We have lived with zero cases and zero deaths from Covid-19 for much of this year. Live with the virus? Why, we here live normally without it. Alright, it has not been so “normal”. I get it. It is mandatory here to wear masks too and I am so used to social distancing that big crowds do worry me. That said, last night was the first time this year that I had no uneasiness about shaking hands and hugging people.

I will be 63 next month, yet there were still so many tasks that required my attention before I could leave home for the concert last night. “When will it slow down for me?” I asked myself. There were the three chooks to feed and their poo to sweep; the nine fish to feed and their poo to scoop from the pond. There was the adorable puppy to bond with. Yes, not play with or look after but a close bonding with my best pal. He is virtually glued to me. If he could talk, he will say I am his shadow. Before the chores were done, I went inside the house to check if The Mrs was getting ready. Surreptitiously, for it is dangerous to be perceived to be hurrying her. Retirees somehow lose their punctuality. She was so efficient and time-poor she was always on time. Not anymore! Secretly, I am envious of her freedom to do as she pleases, say what she likes and lose any sense of time. “No need to rush,” she will say. Rushing to get ready for the concert, I borrowed a rather “expensive-looking” jacket from my youngest son’s wardrobe. Knowing this son, it won’t just look expensive. The jacket has been hanging in there for many years. That, I am well aware of. “Such a waste,” I convinced myself it ought not be wasted. Fashion changes – it was a present from his aunt, The Mrs’ sister from eight years ago (at least). I have seen him wore it once. Never mind. He won’t know if I borrowed it, I decided. The Mrs said I should not tie up my hair. She said long hair suits the jacket. Wow. For years, she had grumbled how ridiculous I look with long hair.

I had not ventured out at night for a long while except occasionally to my favourite local restaurant, The Empress. Honestly, they do make feel like the emperor, so important do they make me feel. Besides, they never ask if I’m a VIP! What pandemic? The roads last night were full of cars, all jammed up snarling and blowing fumes. Electric cars can’t come quick enough. Yet, the governments here insist on levying a road user tax for EV’s. Go figure. I used to think Aussies are smart. After circling the Town Hall three times, I dropped off The Mrs right at the front of the hall, as she commanded unnecessarily. I know her so well words are no longer required. You’d think by now she would know I already know what she wants. There would be no free parking, I decided. Normally, my luck would deliver me a vacant car space when I needed one. After another futile round of hunting for a free parking bay (the thriftiness learned by all Penang people), I drove into a carpark nearest the venue, unaware of the stress it would cause me later.

I paused to admire my jacket in the reflection on the Town Hall glass door before I sauntered in, feeling like a young Bruce Lee. It is a phenomenon I should examine one day – how good clothes make us feel good, and how special clothes make us feel special. “Are you one of the musicians?” a very pleasant young lady asked. Maybe I have a violinist’s long strong fingers but it was a strange question nonetheless. “No,” I said and beamed her a smile without showing my teeth, which my dentist had reminded two days earlier “are quite badly stained.” She just wanted extra business, I told myself and ignored the obvious response she was looking for. No, you will not whiten my teeth! Who goes around asking people if they are musicians or professional photographers? Somehow, I get asked that a lot. Even at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York once. There was an exhibition by a Japanese photographer, and one of the lady ushers excitedly asked me if I was the celebrity photographer. I think she was poised to hand me a programme for my autograph.

The Mrs immediately had to go to the loo, declining a glass of wine in the process. I pounced on a red. Wine, I mean – the waitress was a blonde. We arrived early, yet the room was already full. The night’s programme informed me there would be 70 minutes of catering and beverages. Free booze and barramundi. Party time! A waitress approached me as if I was fresh air and offered me some deep fried stuff. I am normally disinclined to partake in such unhealthy stuff, but why decline free food, right? I used my two fingers like pincers and zeroed in on the golden round ball. Lightly crumbed calamari, I assumed. “I’ll grab one more, for my wife,” I said to the vivacious girl holding the round tray of food. “Yes, I am sure she is here tonight,” she said with a twinkle in her eye. Ah, humans are all the same. She must be so used to guests wanting a quick second serve, pretending to reserve a second morsel for their absent wives. With a glass of red on my left hand and a calamari on my right hand, I stood there observing the crowd. People are nice when they believe we are all A-list guests. Suddenly, there is no class, creed or race to divide us. We are all the same. We belong to the VIPs. I think that is how the urghhlings can become better earthlings. Just treat everyone as important. Listen, we are all A-listers and the world will be a better place. A couple just in front of me were making small talk between themselves. They angled their bodies differently and created a slightly bigger distance between them. Ah, an open invitation for me to step in and make them less conspicuous. I used to dislike such functions in my early years as an accountant. Having to make small talk, smile sweetly and be watchful not to make myself sound like a fool. A bean counter must project himself as dour, grey and boring – isn’t that what an old saying suggests? Never mind, I have been comfortable in my own skin for a very long time. I have no qualms about being alone in a big room full of well-dressed patrons. I am well-dressed too. It is amazing how my son’s jacket transformed me! Anyway, the couple turned to smile at me, as if pleading for me to enlarge their circle. Some couples can’t make small talk between themselves! I was quite contented to keep to myself, observing people from a distance is a kind of voyeurism. Maybe. Anyway, I stepped forward and said hello to them. He was a good-looking Italian gentleman, a State champion once upon a time in ballroom dancing. That was how he met her, a woman from Suzhou with typical Chinese looks but her skin was deliciously smooth like silken tofu. Flat face, flat nose, small eyes on a round wide face that showed a lack of discipline with her diet. She wore a scarf that was multi-coloured with patterns that mainland Chinese love. I did not have to ask where she came from to know. Her accent later confirmed it. “Hello, I am Jing,” she introduced herself. The Mrs had just joined us and asked, “Are you Korean?” Sigh. Koreans do not wear scarves that look designed for mainland Chinese. As soon as The Mrs found out Jing was from Jiangsu Province, her inhibitions vanished and instantly, the two women were behaving like long-lost friends, chatting away in mandarin with ever increasing tempo and volume. Somehow, the mutual friendliness gave The Mrs licence to talk freely about me. I pulled the Italian man slightly away from them so that they did not appear rude. His name was Carmen -not Spanish as I believed. “Carmine-red was a very common colour for soldiers’ uniform,” he said. Red coats apparently were popular to hide the blood of wounded soldiers so that their comrades would not be demoralised.

The sweet smiles of the waitress approached me again. This time, I was not going to let her go. “Ah, barramundi for me please,” I said. “And my wife is right here,” I gestured to The Mrs who seemed in another world by then. After offering the food to The Mrs and her new best pal, the waitress said, “here, another piece for your girlfriend,” she chuckled as she waltzed away. There is a reason why I am born with two ears. One to listen to the boring man in front of me and the other to catch some of the chatter from the ladies. “He’s good looking?” “No, the father is so much more handsome! Like Gregory Peck!” The Mrs disagreed loudly with her companion. “I told my husband, in our next life, don’t flirt with me. Don’t say a single word to me. Don’t catch the same bus. Pretend you don’t know me,” she continued. “I’d rather be a pebble than marry him again,” she said. At that point, I jumped into their conversation, and offered this logic to Jing. “We have been married for over 40 years, Jing,” I started. “Ask my wife why she is still with me if I am such a lousy husband!” Luckily, I was saved by the clinking of glasses. Speech time. Phew. And then it was concert time. On the way to our seats, another usher asked me, “Are you VIP? The first four rows are for VIPS only.” I replied, “Yes, I know that.” As I was sitting down, I saw a violinist from the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra. “How are you?!” I asked excitedly. He looked at me, somewhat puzzled. “Oh, maybe you don’t remember me,” I said. “Of course, I remember you,” he said. “You’re so-and-so’s (son’s name) father,” he exclaimed. Somehow, in that split second, I lost my own identity. Maybe he recognised my son’s jacket.

Verdi’s Requiem was awesome. That is one word I seldom use. ‘Awesome’ is normally reserved for the universe. That kind of greatness. The youthful exuberance from the orchestra was especially a joy to witness. I could tell they were playing on cheap instruments, but their playing was superb and amazing for their age. The Adelaide Youth Orchestra, or ADYO gave an insight into the health of the musical world in Adelaide. I am happy to report the doom and gloom expressed a few years ago by some observers is incorrect. We have a lot to look forward to, if last night was any hint. Powered by a full orchestra and a 100-strong choir, last night’s Requiem was thrilling to witness. It was a wonderful event. The concert was awesome, the orchestra impressive and the choir magical. The soloists, simply divine. Bravo! At the interval, I went and congratulated the conductor, Keith Crellin. He looked at me blankly but shook my hand anyway. I had to mention my son’s name, as he did not recognise his jacket. “Ah, you’re his father!” Keith exclaimed. I definitely lost my own identity last night.

ADYO’s Verdi Requiem

After the concert, the sadness of the music followed me all the way back to the carpark. A requiem or mass for the dead. Why would anyone write for the dead? It is as defeatist as an artist painting about death or a landscape of rubbish in a landfill. “Who on earth would want to display it on their wall?” I asked The Mrs after she showed me her painting of rubbish last year. Her painting wasn’t rubbish of course – it was just about rubbish.

Rubbish. This painting is not rubbish, it is about rubbish.

Anyway, we had a big scare when we got to the carpark. Our ticket would not scan properly to open the entrance door to the building that was locked up at 7pm on the dot. After a long wait on the phone, the AI that was manning the phone failed to show any intelligence. In the cold, we were getting desperate and I was on the verge of calling a cab when a car turned into the driveway and the boom gate opened noisily to let it into the carpark. “Hurry up!” I hurried The Mrs to keep up with me as we quickly followed the car inside. Although the machine failed to read my ticket earlier, it did not fail to charge me $29 for the parking. With the new ticket that it spat out, we proceeded to Level 4 to our car. The Mrs was cursing under her breath as by then she was getting tired and cold. My fear was soon realised – my car was not where I thought it would be. After a short frantic search, I realised the white car in the corner was mine after all. I had been looking for her blue car instead. When we got to the boom gate, the new ticket would not open the roller door. The message read “Unreadable ticket.” “Are we in a third world country?” I asked. “Nothing seems to work tonight,” I said. It felt as if the dead had been awoken by Verdi. Luckily, I persisted and tried another boom gate instead of assuming the same ticket would be unreadable by all scanners. The boom gate opened and I stepped hard on the pedal to the metal and my car screeched out before the boom gate came back down.

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