I was supposed to meet Jan in a hayshed by the fireplace for drinks three nights ago. We would be spending a ‘night at the farm’ but I wasn’t sure if Jan would be there. It sounded romantic, this short getaway in the Adelaide Hills. It conjured up in my mind a rather wonderful escape from the daily humdrum of my life, worsened tenfold by the pandemic. Although a mere twenty minutes from home, to reach Woodside, a quaint town in the hills, I would need to summon enough courage to traverse the winding country road called Greenhill Road. Why courage, one may ask. Well, although the scenic road is not very steep, it does offer many opportunities for an acrophobic sufferer to look down the cliffs and scare himself. The driver of the second vehicle in our party was quite upset with me later. “What took you so long?! We were going well below the speed limit!” he bellowed. Unbeknownst to me, I was so slow I held up traffic quite badly all the way along the single-track country road. I was similarly slow back in 1977 in my first year in Adelaide. Then, a new wide-eyed arrival from exotic Penang Island, everything and everyone were different. Driving on the freeway from Mt Barker to Adelaide on a pitchblack night, negotiating a rather devilish bend known as The Devil’s Elbow, I was scared witless when a cop car waved at me to stop. I did not know about racial profiling, but I assumed I was being hollered up because of my Asian looks. It couldn’t have been my driving – I was being so careful and slow. As it turned out, I was slow. Too slow. The traffic police told me to drive faster or he would fine me for obstructing the road! “You’re driving abnormally slowly without a good reason,” he explained in a strong ocker accent. In those days, anyone without a Malaysian accent was speaking Strine to me. Talk about unnecessary added pressure. Had I known that acrophobia was a good enough reason to drive at half the maximum speed, I would have argued my case. Instead, I behaved like a subservient student. “Yes Sir, I will be faster. No Sir, I shan’t hog the road.” My parents were sitting at the back of the car. Pa, who was visibly annoyed by the cop, could not understand why I would be told off for driving carefully on a steep winding road that the authorities did not see fit to install some road lights along it. At the time, I thought my parents were old. Pa was 60 and ma was 54. Teenagers can be so unkind.
It was a gorgeous Spring day to be out in the hills. A mere half an hour from the CBD, Woodside in South Australia is as rural and romantic as the vineyards and sunflower fields of Tuscany. This well-kept secret is right at my doorstep – why have I instead harboured the dream of one day enjoying the warm glow of the Tuscan sun? To get there requires an arduous 24 hours of air travel and killing time in airport lounges. The dominant colour was green apart from the white and brown barks of gum trees. It will be another three months before the whole place turns reddish brown and parched dry. A rather kind light breeze carried the scent of the Eucalyptus trees all over the hills to the verdant valley below us. The vast expanse of a myriad shades of green was captivating as was the autumnal red and gold a few months earlier. The sweet minty fragrance was as calming as the now familiar smells of camphor and menthol of Tiger Balm, the ointment The Mrs uses nightly. I used to recoil from the aroma of the balm, it gave me a bloated sensation. Ever since I sustained the painful symptoms of adhesive capsulitis from my first AstraZeneca jab eleven weeks ago, I too have been using Tiger Balm to soothe my frozen shoulder. Now I love the scents of the recuperative balm, although the reprieve from the pain is only temporary.
The Mrs and I arrived at our destination pleasantly relaxed in a ready-to-party mood, satiated with the fresh countryside air and aromatic scents of the Eucalypt forest. The driver of the second vehicle, Chris, my younger brother-in-law, had also calmed down and was no longer punctuating his sentences with wild hand gesticulations. He flashed me a smile and immediately, I knew the holiday would be one to enjoy. The occupants of his car all wore sweet smiles, especially ma, our family’s matriarchal figure. I knew, for sure, the holiday would be memorable as she heaved herself out of the car without a complaint, with eyes made beady by droopy eyelids shining excitedly like those of a pregnant woman’s. It reminded me of the time when I dropped The Mrs off at the Women’s and Children’s Hospital at Paddington. Her laughing eyes too were sparkling with the excitement of a mother who was about to see her first child for the first time. Chris and I each won a $200 Great State Experiences voucher. These vouchers were provided by SA Tourism to help the local tourism industry get back on their feet after the pandemic-induced lockdowns had crippled many businesses in the sector. This was the second time I had won free money from the State government’s ballot. The first one I let expire without helping any struggling tour operator. My conscience had bothered me and I promised myself I would not repeat the offensive oversight. Chris wanted a riverboat holiday but I was more persuasive, so we booked six of us for this ‘Night at the Farm’ at the Barristers Block Winery.
As part of the package, the first attraction was a 5-course ‘Spring plates’ lunch with wine pairings. We were immediately shown our table on a lawn area overlooking the vineyards that seemed to stretch at a gentle incline all the way up to the sky. I was already impressed by the warmth of their welcome and the lack of distrust by the staff. There was no insistence that we had to leave our credit cards with them for ‘safe-keeping’ or the need to prove our identities first before they poured us their arrival drink, a 2021 Poetic Justice Sparkling Blush. With names like Barristers Block and Poetic Justice, it was easy for us to decide that the place was probably owned by a Silk or two. Lunch was great. Yes, I have just that one word to describe it. It is high culinary art, designed to steep our senses with the finest tastes and smells and impress our eyes with the most pleasing visual presentations. A degustation, no less, by a high calibre chef with each dish nicely matched with a wine that complements the flavours and textures. So, in many respects, I succumbed to the sin of gluttony that afternoon. I was a very willing participant who unreservedly satisfied his desires for the most wicked of tastes and sensations from the morsels of rich meats and tantalising wines served in front of him. Charlotte, the bubbly and attractive waitress assigned to us was superb with her friendliness and prompt attention to our needs. She rattled off her wealth of knowledge of her wines like an oenologist who is also an expert linguist. I regret I did not record down the beautiful words she used to describe the wines.
- Northern Territory Barramundi Brandade with 2020 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Riesling
- Western Australian pan fried scallops with 2020 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Chardonnay
- Duck breast salad with 2019 Barristers Block Adelaide Hills Pinot Noir
- 12-hour braised beef short rib pie with 2016 Barristers Block Wrattonbully Cabernet Sauvignon
- Artisan petite four chocolate selection with 2019 Barristers Block Wrattonbully Sparkling Shiraz
Lunch lasted three hours, not because ma chewed her food ever so slowly but also because we wanted the pleasures of the experience of fine food and wines to last longer. Seeing we were one of the last guests remaining, we decided not to delay the staff from their other chores. We checked into our villa about half an hour late. Ma was feeling drowsy and mildly inebriated. I reminded myself not to divulge to my other siblings that I had not stopped her from enjoying her drinks during lunch. They will be sure to use the recent news that even the Queen’s doctors had told her to give up her nightly martini. It had been my main argument against their will to deprive ma of one of her very few pleasures left in life. Ma’s not a big drinker, not even a nightly one. What can be so wrong about a little bit of alcohol once in a while? She is her most chirpiest self when she is clinking glasses with us during dinner on a weekend. Ma was in top form that day. Most of us needed time off to recharge our batteries (no, I do not mean for our phones) but ma was raring to go once she recovered from her brief stupor. Whilst some younger members of the holiday group rested, a sister and I took ma to what we believed was a horse-riding session. We didn’t think our 99-year-old mother would be able to get up a horse. We were right but she was braver than the little girl in the queue to pat it. Unlike the girl, Ma did not flinch or hesitate to get near the horse.
In the villa, a strange thing happened. I had keyed in the password for the wifi network for my laptop and I thought to do it for the others who were resting. When they got up, I told them I had the password with me to fix it for their devices. The Mrs said “No need, I already got mine working.” Big Sis said hers also automatically connected. Strange, isn’t it? How does a wifi network that requires a password work without the password being entered in the settings? Strange things often happen to me wherever I go. Especially in strange places. I have written many chapters on ghost stories. I told myself there won’t be one to tell here. Readers have become cynical about my ghost stories; they think I made them up. There have been recent episodes but I shan’t be sharing them. No point. When no one believes them, they think I imagined them. The villa is clean, I announced. The Mrs agreed after swiping her forefinger along the window ledge and examining it intently. “Isn’t it nice to have a maid? she lamented, obviously thinking of her sister in Kuala Lumpur who was about to engage a new maid from Indonesia. I didn’t bother to explain that my meaning of ‘clean’ had nothing to do with dust. Alright, maybe it did! “From ashes to ashes, dust to dust” does refer to the dead.
Chris returned from the big barn about a hundred meters away and informed us afternoon tea was a mere half an hour’s time. The barn reminded me of the tin sheds I used to see in rural villages (kampongs) in Malaysia. Rustic only because it is rusty. Virtually the whole building was riddled with rust. Whatever areas without rust were the absent tin walls now replaced by clear plastic sheets. The only difference here is there are no coconut trees swaying in the breeze and the air is pleasantly dry, without the energy-sapping humidity that envenomed my mood and made me into a capricious young man in the 1970s. Chris interrupted my thoughts and brought me back to the present. He said loudly, “I told them we do not need the maker to stay back and talk to us.” His wife said, “Oh how rude! Of course, we want the maker to join us for drinks!” I happened to agree with Chris and kept quiet and stayed out of trouble. The programme said we were to enjoy a pre-dinner drink at 5.30 pm with the maker in the hayshed by the fireplace followed by a pizza dinner. Who cares how their pizzas are made, I thought to myself. Who hasn’t been to a pizzeria and watched how great pizzas are made anyway? That was when my sister told me we would be meeting Jan in the hayshed for drinks.
Jan isn’t their pizza maker. Jan is the boss. Strong and strong-minded, with a big and strong personality. Jan is the winemaker. She is the maker. The maker is some powerful being who makes things and also makes things happen. She started the business and made the business into what it is today. I checked out her website. It was as she told us. She went into business with a group of men who mistook her to be an easy prey. A single woman in the 1980s. She provided the land and they, instead of providing the capital to fund the joint-venture, deliberately with-held the money to choke the business of vital cash flow. They wrongly thought she would be forced to hand over her land to them as a distressed seller. Instead, she kicked them out after a lengthy legal battle that cost her well over $400,000. A princely sum in those days during a time when interest rates were some 22% p.a. and as Treasurer Paul Keating said at the time, “This is a recession we had to have.” Jan paused silently as Chris took over the conversation and described how he struggled to meet the bank interest payments as a fresh uni graduate trying to save his first investment and not drown in a sea of debts.
“The genesis of Barristers Block? A true ‘colourful’ Australian story, grounded in the harsh realities of farming during the nineties and the six-year legal battle to save our vineyard. Thus, we affectionately named our winery Barristers Block. We’re certainly not lawyers.”Jan Allen
Jan commanded our attention at the table. Not many people can. After all, the group I was in included some rather powerful women. Ma, for instance. But, our matriarch was not interested in the conversation. It was not conducted in Chinese. So, much of what Jan said didn’t mean much to ma. She was more interested in the cheese basket and the dried fruits and nuts. Big Sis on the other hand, listened intently but was strangely quiet. The Mrs, normally the most vocal in our group and the loudest (by decibels, I mean) was also surprisingly kept in check. Maybe the topics were not her preferred subjects. The Mrs does not care much about why Pinot Noir are reds and Shiraz and Cab Sav’s may look identical yet taste so markedly different. It was very apparent quite soon though that Jan was like a long-lost friend. She had much to share with us. No holds-barred, she was as honest as the day is long or like an old Chinese saying, she made us comfortable like a soft light quilt on a wintry night. She was great company, like a bright lamp on a dark night, refreshingly interesting and entertaining with her many life stories. She may be a successful business owner now but she can’t shake off her natural self – a warm, kind and generous person. The natural thing for most people during tough times is to do whatever is necessary for self-preservation and keep the business going until it can’t go anymore. But, Jan let slip whilst she was describing the toughest moments of her life that her priorities were about keeping her staff employed. “I am paying for their mortgages,” she said.
Woodside is a beautiful rural town in the Adelaide Hills wine-growing region. It is just a stone’s throw away from Lenswood, a countryside famous for its apples, cherries and pears. When you are there, you’d feel the urge to live there. The place oozes spades of romantic charm in a little corner of the world where troubles seem so far away and conflicts are as foreign as a raindrop in a desert. But, Jan tells us that is not so. In December 2019, a bushfire swept across the region and burned over 23,000 ha over many days. It would become known as the Cudlee Creek bushfire. It took just minutes for Jan’s vineyard to find 100% of its vines burnt as incredibly hot flames licked the tops of 40-foot high gum trees and fire raced at well over 100 kph down the valley from the top of the hill, devouring 84 homes, over 400 outbuildings and 292 vehicles. Just over a month later, on 2nd February 2020, the coronavirus arrived in Adelaide. Jan’s winery, Barristers Block, was under prolonged lockdowns for many months during the pandemic. Prior to Covid further traumatising Jan, her tales of woe from the fire caught the attention of our prime Minister, Scott Morrison. He promptly turned up at her door to offer her a hug and support. “Give us your top ten reds,” Scomo said to Jan during the welcome dinner for the prime ministerial travelling party at her premises. When it was time to call it a night, Scomo flashed a credit card to settle the bill, which was just over $350. Surprisingly, his card got declined. Scomo unashamedly called his wife and asked her to transfer some funds into his card. “See how down-to-earth our PM is?” Jan asked me enthusiastically without expecting a reply. “And he is so honest! He paid for the wines with his own money!” she spoke with a higher intensity in her voice. It dawned on me that this was why Scomo is so popular in Australia. His country loves him. Country folks love him. We see him as one of us, a regular, normal everyday man and honest (he pays with his own credit card) and therefore when he speaks, he speaks honestly. No matter that he picked a fight with the nation’s biggest trading partner. No matter that business lost is America’s gain. No matter he is risking our young soldiers’ lives by beating the drums of war. Hyping up conflicts. Hyping up the distant threats of war. No matter. He is one of us.
Scomo was followed weeks later by Albanese, the opposition leader and Penny Wong, the Senate leader of the Labor Party. They also visited the region destroyed by fire and sought to gain some political traction with the people. Jan had become the face of the tragedy. For her, it also meant many weeks of media frenzy. Suddenly, the world’s media was interested in what she had to say. She fretted and hated being interviewed by some of the world’s biggest news networks. “It’s free publicity!” I said. “Yes, I know! My son, Lachlan said pretty much the same thing and told me to enjoy it!” Jan said whilst screwing up her nose. I could tell she would have been a very beautiful and attractive woman in her younger days. She had it all, the blonde hair, the curls, the big smiling eyes, the sweet endearing smiles from her pink lips. The quick brain, full of words, messages, stories and ideas. She had big hands, farmers’ hands actually but they weren’t callused or scarred. Just strong. Yes, a strong woman with a strong personality and lots of colourful stories to tell. A proud honest woman with nothing to hide. She even told me her age, without me asking. Not that I needed to ask. She revealed her age by telling me “crypto is not real money.” “Not money?” I asked with a false high-pitch voice, feigning surprise. “Why do they call it currency then?” I pressed. She looked at me and did not reply. Checkmate, Jan. Older folks do not know anything about blockchain and cryptocurrency. Yet, they tend to be the loudest and surest in denouncing it. “Bitcoin is worthless!” “It does not produce any income!” I gave up many months ago trying to convince anyone about crypto. I wasn’t about to try again. Certainly not with Jan. She is smart, I think, not withstanding that she lost a lot of money in legal fees fighting a group of conmen. She is smart but if I can’t even argue the merits of crypto and DeFi to people close to me, what chances do I have to change her mind? Besides, I don’t have to be right. It came to me quite suddenly one day last year whilst reading an article shared by Mak, a dear friend from primary school days, about kamma. I no longer have to challenge anyone who says I am wrong. If they think they are right, let it be. They very well could be right. Jan could be right. Crypto may prove to be not real currency one day. No more having to be right, no more having to prove myself. No more measuring ourselves against others, no more measuring others. No more “I’m not wrong, I’m Yeong” cutting retorts. It is easier to say “I’m Yeong and I can be wrong.” In fact, it’s even easier to say nothing, and that was what I did with Jan. I was completely silent even when she said “My staff told me the maximum daily withdrawal limit was $2,000 from his crypto account.” As if that is a universal fact. As if that consigns crypto as worthless. It isn’t important what others think of us. So what if they think less of us, it does not make us lesser beings. That is freedom. That is peace. That is ultimately happiness.
Just as in the great ocean
there is but one taste
— the taste of salt —
so in this Doctrine
there is but one taste —
the taste of freedom”The Buddha
I was the first one to wake up the next morning. It was before the grandfather clock struck seven times. Ma was a close second. The nonagenarian never ceases to amaze me. Where does she pack her energy in? We had to drag her to bed the night before and that was because we were all tired out from the full day’s activities. It was already past 10.30 pm anyway. She should be in bed! You can call me inane, maybe even insane. That night, I woke up only once to pee, to minimise any accidental sightings of the unknown. At my age, I have a habit of waking up three or four times during the night to pee. I can still remember the sounds a pee made. It may now be a distant memory but somehow I was proud then that I could create the loud sound of a jet powered body of water plunging into the toilet bowl, the echo from which gave the impression the source was a big long pipe. Nowadays, the plinking tiny sounds I make do not wake up The Mrs anymore. But that night I did wake her up. “Is the faucet dripping?”she asked innocently, not realising she transformed me into a dolorous wreck. In the morning, I disguised my grief and asked her in a business-like voice, “Did you open the toy cupboard in the middle of the night?” The door was definitely shut when we went to bed because I didn’t even know it was a cupboard full of toys and children’s books. I had kicked a woolly ball that must have rolled out from the cupboard on my way back from the toilet. So, I turned back and closed the cupboard door. That was the first thing I checked the next morning. Luckily, it remained shut. “Phew, no ghosts after all.” I said to myself but it did not prevent the hair on the back of my neck to stand up.
Breakfast was superb. It had not escaped my notice that Jan sent her chef Alex and vivacious Kylie to serve just the six of us. We were treated like VIPs right throughout our stay. Ma was the happiest she had been for a long time. Not a single complaint. Everything was just right for her, and therefore for everyone. It did feel like Goldilocks had finally found her perfect world. Not too hot and not too cold. Even the food they served was perfect in every way. We did not flinch, not even once. There was not a single rebuke from ma, not even at the slightly pink duck. Not even at the slightly salty bacon. Not even at the bill! After a tour of the vineyard, we decided to buy some of their wines at the cellar-door. Even though all three wine fridges are chocker with fine wines. These are good people, they deserve our support and we love their wines. Jan was great, she gave me an extra big discount. A goodbye gift perhaps. But, we will be back, Jan! We are your fans. When I got home, I rummaged through the contents of my wallet. I was sure Jan gave me her business card and I was sure I saw her jot down her personal phone number on it. I felt sure she said to give her a call and arrange a dinner at our favourite restaurant, The Empress at Toorak Gardens. It was a date. But I could not find her card. It must have been a dream. A lovely dream.