Typhoon, a hero in the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood suggested I write about Nero, since there is no new hero to write about. It has been a disappointing few weeks. My project to write a book based on fellow schoolmates from our childhood is stalling. We call one another ‘brothers’. It started so well. The excitement this project created was palpable. The brotherhood from school of course, pales into insignificance when compared with the heroism of the 108 heroes of Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin story. We were after all merely kids who grew up in a very safe town environment – we did not have to survive the carnage of wars or overcome insidious plots by corrupt officials of the court or fight tigers in the forests. I stand accused of being grossly ridiculous to even try to compare the sharp vicissitudes of fortune many of these heroes of the Song dynasty suffered to the ordinary struggles we experienced in the 20th century, yet I felt sure our forefathers may have had their own heroic stories to tell, uprooting themselves early in their mostly wretched lives to seek greener pastures in faraway lands. Their quest, although without any of the virtuous deeds of the Liangshan bandits such as rebelling against corrupt officials, or staging civil unrest against the emperor’s rule, was still admirable for the sheer bravery and pioneering spirit to seek fortune in unknown lands.
In the Water Margin, I could almost feel the likes of Song Jiang’s and Lin Chong’s searing pain as they had their faces branded in Chinese characters that condemned them as criminals. Or, smell the foul breaths of Wu Song and Li Kui who were both often so drunk the former killed a tiger with his bare hands once and the latter’s wrath and maniacal violence made him a fearsome character. Often, it was taking justice into their own hands that turned these heroes into outlaws. Due to corrupt magistrates, justice was seldom properly served. “Taking justice into their own hands” meant only one thing. A bloody killing. There is the story about Inspector Lei Heng aka The Winged Tiger who cracked Bai Xiuying’s skull, spilling her brains on a street, for abusing and assaulting his feeble mother. Bai was a songstress who won favours and protection from a lustful magistrate using her beauty and sexual prowess. Also as gory was the story about Yang Xiong who upon discovering his wife had been adulterous with a monk in their own bedroom, plunged his sword into her breasts and pulled out her heart, spleen, liver, kidneys and lungs, and hung them up on a tree. Wu Song similarly ripped open Pan Jinlian’s blouse and sank his dagger into her breasts. With both hands, he removed his sister-in-law’s heart, spleen, liver, kidneys and lungs, and displayed them at his murdered brother’s altar table. Later, he fought and killed Ximen Qing, her lover, at a nearby inn. He chopped off both their heads and placed them at his brother’s memorial tablet as a gesture of respect and justice served. I swear, these gruesome murders were so palpable I could smell their blood and feel their pain. But then again, it could be just the chronic pain I am suffering that I feel.
For two weeks now, there has been no positive reply from any schoolmate for me to write their story. In a few cases, there was simply no reply. Silence. If only silence is consent. I could write about this friend whom I held in high esteem as a young boy. For me back then, he was as heroic as Superman. Nothing could defeat him or his mind, at least. He travelled fast, in his sister’s Honda N360. At the time, most of us were still negotiating the back alleys on our bicycles. My childhood best friend, I knew his idiosyncrasies well. Born with leadership qualities, he outshone me in just about anything or with anyone. The girls flocked to him like bees to honey. He could do the cha-cha as well as John Travolta. Slick. Smooth. Suave. Stylish, with 4-inch high clogs and 16-inch bell-bottoms sweeping the dance floor. I can still see him with his unbuttoned pink shirt and sharp winged collars. High fashion then, nostalgia now. He was the performer, the star, the soloist on stage. I was the stagehand, in the background, in the dark. No spotlight on me with him around. I knew his parents well. Both jolly and round. The kindest folks around me in my teens. I enjoyed many meals in their cosy home. His mum would not take no for an answer. Maybe I never said no. Her food was wonderful but not plentiful. Yet, there was always some for me. I have no doubt they treated me like a son. His mum was so concerned about the girl I was dating she went to my mother to warn me. Apparently, the girl had a “reputation”. I did not know this story till just last week. My mother would not elaborate apart from saying I was stupid. Did I use the past tense? Sorry, my mother still thinks I am “ben-ben” i.e. somewhat stupid. I still do not know whether to agree or disagree. I suppose that makes her right.
With zero hero in the midst, I am asked to write about Nero instead. Why Nero, I asked. “Oh, he fiddled whilst Rome burned, of course,” Typhoon said. Apparently, this was just a myth. Ancient Rome was a slum full of poor quality housing. Wooden houses burned easily. Some 70% of the city was destroyed in a great fire during Nero’s reign in the first century. But, we know the violin was not invented until the early 16th century, according to recorded history anyway. The oldest violin is made by Amati of Cremona, around 1565. Ok, maybe Nero fiddled on a viol instead. The viol has two C-shaped sound holes instead of the F-holes of the violin. It has six or seven strings instead of the four strings. But, Nero could not have played on a viol, because it was invented some 1500 years later! It later dawned on me that perhaps Typhoon was being sarcastic. To say that Nero played music whilst his city burned has a second meaning. It describes decadence, detachment from reality or worse, decay and disregard for his people’s suffering. Rome was in moral decline. Nero was reviled for his excessive indulgence in pleasure, debauchery and luxury. Conspiracy theorists believed he ordered the fire started, to grab land for his Golden Palace and pleasure gardens. Maybe he wanted an excuse to persecute the Christians and kill off the then obscure religious sect.
According to Typhoon, Nero was like a hero to the Roman commoners though in fact he was a cruel leader. He was a stepson of Claudius and became Emperor at age 17, attaining heroic status at a very young age. He was devoted to poetry, art and music, he fiddled the lyre, obviously he didn’t “lyred” the fiddle whilst Rome burned. He even participated in the Olympics and won every contest he participated in. In the chariot race, he was thrown from his chariot and yet was crowned winner on the basis that he would have won had he completed the race. What a hero!
At age 31, he fled Rome and committed suicide after he learned that the Roman elites had tried him in absentia and condemned him to death for being public enemy number one. Strange that, he almost got away with uxoricide and matricide for which he was never charged. From hero to zero, that was Nero.
Did Typhoon imply that I was out of touch with reality? Fiddling with my violin whilst friends were wrecked with economic hardship? At a time of huge suffering during a pandemic, how dare I bother them about writing their stories? There are more urgent matters to tackle, warring against a virus and putting food on the table as The Cook needs to do daily. Too many matters to think of than worry about giving me stories to retell. Blue Eyes has been back to Edmonton and then back again to the blue waters of Panama. Four Eyes, suddenly with factional wars to quell in his workplace. The Mayor, running for re-election, recruiting pretty young girls to wave his banners. Prez running around like a chook without its head, garnering support for the hawkers and the needy in his township. Lord Guan, that towering hero of the brotherhood, still wishing to escape to Hong Kong where a white pleasure yacht full of flowing champagne and a bevy of young beauties is parked on a once fragrant harbour awaiting his arrival. Besides, there is climate change to worry about. Look at the billions of syringes, vaccine vials, face masks, plastic food packaging being dumped daily.
When I run out of heroes to write about, I can always turn to Wu Yong. He is the least popular of the heroes in my Urghhling Marsh stories. To me, it is his many annoying characteristics that make him the least popular and therefore one of the most interesting to relate to. Wu Yong learned the violin in school, from Brother Michael. He attended just a lesson or two before switching to a private teacher, Mr Woon. Br Michael was an authoritarian. He ruled the school with a long cane which he hid inside the long sleeves of his dazzling white long dress. He prowled the school grounds like a tiger prowling his territory. Any straggler in school to him was like an intruder to a tiger. To be challenged and defeated. Any boy who dared defy his instructions and rules would be swiftly caned. Wu Yong did not feel comfortable learning from “Lau Hor”, nicknamed ‘the white tiger’ on account of his race, his white robes and his fierce demeanour. Wu Yong failed to turn up for the school orchestra’s rehearsals after one session. Such was his disdain (or was it fear?) for the Lasallian educator. A school is only as good as its teachers, that is true. But why did they have to be violent? Why did they exact punishment on little kids with such voracious fierceness and unrestrained fury? Did they not know violence begets violence? Wu Yong wondered how many students went on to become violent adults themselves. Wu Yong played the violin rather badly for eight years, although he was convinced he was good enough to apply for a music degree in Vienna. “I knew I would not be good enough to be a performer, but I could become a music teacher,” he reckoned. But, he was honest with himself. He knew he spent more time on the football field than in his music ‘room’ – the 6 ft x 3 ft tiled landing just in front of the toilet and bathroom. He wasn’t cut out to be a footballer, and even less as a teacher. He wanted to be a dentist instead but he failed in that too.
Wu Yong vowed to join his local district’s symphony orchestra this year. At an age where many of his peers have already retired, he knew he should pick up his German-made violin again before his eyes start failing and his fingers become too stiff to dance along the strings. He gave himself one season to hone his skills before applying to join the orchestra. “Well, it is already a new season,” I said. “Have you enrolled?” I persisted. Wu Yong got visibly upset with me. His eyebrows knitted up, his forehead wrinkles scrunched even more. His scowl menacing, his beady eyes cold like steel. I immediately knew I had struck a chord with him, pardon the pun. A raw nerve, actually. “I am suffering from a frozen shoulder,” Wu Yong said icily. “I have not been able to pick up my violin since my last practice in late July; I showed so much improvement too,” he added. Wu Yong blames his incapacity on the recent vaccine jabs he had. He had a winter flu jab on the 1st Aug and his first COVID-19 jab nine days later. He suspects the two jabs so close together had caused him untold joint pain, general muscle pain and a severe frozen shoulder. Only now does he fully understand why they call it a frozen shoulder. At rest for a short while, his shoulder would feel like a slab of meat in a freezer so cold and dead it is; and when he moves it, the pain is so severe and agonising he sometimes wishes he is dead instead. He has not had a good night sleep since the COVID-19 jab eight weeks ago. That is 56 sleeps ago! The intense and prolonged pain is making him into a gloomy and moody person which in turn is affecting his general health. Wu Yong reported to his doctor that his may be a case of “Subacromial-subdeltoid bursitis” following COVID-19 vaccination. But, his doctor casually pointed out that his frozen shoulder was on the opposite side, not immediately above the injection site. “Ok, that may mean it is not a case of SIRVA! So?” Wu Yong protested. “Just because it is not a shoulder injury related to vaccine administration does not mean my agony is not due to the vaccine, right?” Wu Yong countered, “I had no history of such prolonged joint pain, and no chronic shoulder injury.” “Is it a mere coincidence that I am in such constant agony?” he asked, still convinced the symptoms of adhesive capsulitis occurred a day or two after his vaccination. Although without any medical knowledge, he firmly believes his is a case of arthritis from a COVID-19 vaccination. As expected, his doctor dismissed Wu Yong’s amateurish diagnosis. Anyone would. Everyone did. Maybe he thinks he has stumbled onto an “eponymous disease” such as Alzheimers, Chrohn’s, Parkinson’s, Hodgkin’s, Guillain-Barré, Tourette’s syndrome. Will he call it Wu Yong’s? What is a Tourette syndrome, you ask? It involves a sufferer making uncontrolled repetitive movements such as shrugging one’s shoulders, blinking or making unwanted sounds repeatedly. An example in the brotherhood would be Blue Eyes whose uncontrolled outbursts of the various versions of “pharque” and “pharquer” make it colourful reading in our chats. If he is not careful, I fear Wu Yong will be expelled from the Urghhling Marsh brotherhood. He just isn’t cut out to be a hero. With his frozen shoulder, he can’t even repeatedly shrug his shoulders.