Autumn In Summertown

The Bloke rushed out of his gleaming red car. For once, he didn’t park it properly. He was atypically in a rush. Atypically, because he prides himself in being punctual and very rarely is there a need for him to rush. The front right tyre protruded from the freshly painted white line that separates the parking bay from the rest of the road. The space was a trifle too small, only big enough for a small car and way too small for an eight-seater. A meticulous bloke, he does everything properly and expertly. Not a single thing is ever where it does not belong. Every key is labelled and tagged as if he feared dementia would set in any day and he would forget what they were for. I imagine his undies are labeled and tagged too, a different colour for each day of the week. A golf fanatic, he wears designer golf clothing only. Everywhere, even to the Town Hall for a concert. I imagine his walk-in wardrobe is as well-presented as a boutique store’s showroom. Well, at least as big and shiny anyway. Every shirt impeccably ironed and folded, every trousers dry-cleaned and steam-pressed. Every old tie he used to wear proudly hung in coordinated colours to remind him of his hey-day as a jet-setting entrepreneur. I imagine his wardrobe is sprayed with a eucalyptus spray; the fresh, invigorating fragrance of the Aussie bush a world away from the musty, mouldy and stale room I am used to. I imagine he would shudder every time he walks into my messy and disorganised house. Everything is not where they should be. My hair, especially. I never used to drop hair unlike The Mrs. “Get a hair-cut,” she would nag me almost every day. “Your hair is everywhere,” she exclaimed again just now. Our iRobot conked out in less than a year. Mimi, our Xiaomi robot frequently stalls, clogged with long hoary hair. “Yours, of course,” she would decisively declare. Life is unfair. When she used to drop hair, there was never any commotion. Never a snide remark. Never a complaint. It was well understood that hair naturally drops. Today, it is clear gravity should not apply to my hair.

The Bloke doesn’t ever let his guard down. But, he let his guard down the other night after a superb meal at my place. I know The Mrs may one day read this, so if I begin to heap praise here, please understand why. The Mrs had cooked a fantastic dinner for The Bloke and his wife, The Lady. Without fuss, I should add. Cooking comes easy for her. Somehow, she can miraculously come up with a feast effortlessly. It is true. You won’t see her slave in the kitchen for hours but when dinner time arrives, abracadabra, all I have to do is set the table, and an array of the most delectable meal will appear in front of our eyes. Any dish with lots of belly pork drowned in thick, sweet dark sauce is a superb dish for The Bloke. The Mrs added some slivers of dried cuttlefish to the tianmianjiang or sweet bean sauce, and it was this extra depth in the taste that made him rave about how much better it was than his wife’s version of the dark soy belly pork. It was unusual to see him loosen his lips. We all know never to disparage someone’s cooking, especially the one who cooks our meal every day! Maybe I poured him too much wine. Plied with the best red wine from my wine fridge, he relaxed too much. Loose lips sink ships! I sent him a message by telepathy. Don’t drink any more of my expensive wine! The telepathy did not work. He kept drinking more and more of my expensive wine whilst comparing and analysing the dish. “Ah, yes. See the cuttlefish?” he said, as he picked up a thread of it with the serving chopsticks. His wife sat there across the table, agog, not knowing what to say. The Lady simply disagreed. “No, I add dried cuttlefish too,” she said. “No, I add enough tianmianjiang too,” she defended her ego. “No, I melt the fat too, on a slow flame,” she argued.

Maybe The Bloke did not let his guard down at all. Maybe, he is just being honest with me. Despite what he said years ago that in-laws by marriage aren’t family, he may have recently changed his mind. Our wives are sisters. So, The Lady is my sister-in-law. The Bloke is my sister-in-law’s husband. For The Bloke to consider me as not part of his family, I think, is legally right. In Punjabi, he is my saandhu. Quite different from soondhu. As a kid, I was often called a soondhu, which I suspect is a derogatory word for “idiot”. A Tamil friend just told me soondhu means “bum”, and soondhu naroot means “root your bum”. But, last night, The Bloke told me I am family. The elation I felt was exhilarating, even at my age. I suppose being accepted and embraced as a family member is special, for any age. So, he did not let his guard down when he told me he could so easily transform my house into “the best house”. He was merely treating me as a close family member, telling me the truth. I was expecting him to come up with some clever interior design ideas. Something creative. Something fresh, an artistic revelation. A bold statement needs a bold idea. With bated breath, I leaned forward to the edge of my chair. I wanted mine to be the “the best house”. “I hope it won’t cost me an arm and a leg,” I said, already almost ready to spend the thousands I have not got. “Just listen,” The Lady said. “I have the same idea too,” she added smugly, as she sipped the expensive wine.

It was really so simple. All The Bloke told me to do was hire a Skip bin and get rid of every single item in the house that I have never used in the last three years. Just get rid of the clutter. But, it is the idea of letting go that is difficult. Dump the samurai swords and the other dust collectors, the pretend antiques? What about the threadbare sofa in my office that serves as a laundry basket-cum-book shelf for my music sheets and The Mrs’ art and some of her long-forgotten clothes. What about my collection of The Strad magazines? Years and years of them. Should I throw away the panel of ‘Four Seasons’ made of mother of pearl, a wedding present from my parents? They line a wall, a precious gift taking up precious space from which The Mrs would love to hang her own paintings? Should I dump the boxes of masks now that the mask mandate has been cancelled? Dare I venture to the kitchen and assume the empty jam jars and the rarely used pots and pans are “excess to requirement”? What about the chipped cups and stained plates that are consigned to just occupying shelf space? Bin them together with the crystal glasses and champagne glasses that we do not bother to use for cleaning them requires extra care and delicate hands? What about the $200 hand hammered wok that The Mrs won’t use? As for our old clothes, where do I begin? I mean, they aren’t old but rarely worn. They don’t fit, not because we have put on weight, but because the fashion then was loose-fit rather than slim-fit. What about the suits with Italian-sounding labels that are not Italian made and the scores of business shirts and trousers that were fashionable in the 80s? “Oh, they were long gone,” The Mrs revealed. “Oh, I suppose I did not miss them after all,” I said, missing the euphoric days. I still see the 80s as my most successful years. The era when I carved out a career, bought my first house and created three human beings out of pleasure. The Mrs’ words kept ringing in my head. Those days were “long gone“.

The Bloke is a very exact kind of bloke. Everything must be exactly right, even if it meant we let the salt and pepper lobster go cold as he manoeuvred the dish left to right, and right to left, to get the best angle with the best lighting. Or sear another piece of ribeye steak to replace the one that was a bit rare for his photo. Or pour the wine again, but this time more slowly so that the wine swirls in the glass. Or redecorate the plate of noodles so that it does not look like a crumpled mess, and with each passing second, the food gets colder! Yet, that day, he parked his 8-seater car at an angle from the kerb. It had to be something magical to make a meticulous bloke less meticulous. And it was. Autumn. At its finest, in Summertown.

Mt Lofty Botanical Gardens. Photo by Anne Koh

“Summertown is thirteen minutes from our place,” The Bloke told me with exact precision. A quaint village with a population of less than a hundred, up in the Adelaide Hills just behind us. Being in the foothills, we get a lot more than the fair share of rain and a lot less of the sun. “The sun is out,” The Lady said whilst munching on a piece of crunchy roast pork from the Vietnamese broken rice combo which does not contain any broken rice, an absurd and the most blatant example of false and misleading advertising that has gone unpunished for a very long time. In autumnal morns and dreary wintry arvos, it is important that we acknowledge the sun when it chooses to come out and play. Winter is long and bleak here, so any glimpse of the sun from hereon needs to be celebrated. Summertown is a historical town, once heralded the “food bowl” of South Australia. It got its name from being the summer attraction for the city folk to seek reprieve from the summer heat. Temperatures are usually 3-5 degrees cooler, making the vegetation greener in spring, browner in summer and golden and redder in autumn. Occasionally it will snow, making the land white.

Summertown, May 2022. Photo by Anne Koh.

As soon as The Bloke drove into the carpark of Mt Lofty Botanical Gardens, I could sense the excitement level rise in his gleaming red car. The Lady held her breath as her eyes followed his finger which was pointing at the colours that suddenly presented themselves from a distance. She gasped. He whistled. The ‘ooohs and aaahs’ that emanated from the couple momentarily to me seemed to be describing their love-making, but of course, it was the sound of their love for nature’s colours. “Nature is the best artist, said The Lady, herself a well-known artist. I offered to find a better spot to park, so they rushed away by themselves into the garden which resembled a painting that Nature had produced. They were too quick for The Mrs, who decided to rest in the car and loudly worry about our dog instead. We had left Murray at home by himself a few hours earlier, so The Mrs felt we ought to be home by then. Lunch at the Barristers Block winery was a sumptuous affair with free-flowing wine all provided free-of-charge by Jan Allen, the founder and Managing Director. Jan very kindly sacrificed her day off and came to party with us at her cellar door, which she made exclusive for our use. Thanks, Jan! We are definitely fans of Jan’s.

Summertown, May 2022. Photo by PW Koh.

Mushrooms have long had the connotation of being known as psychedelic drugs. Maybe The Lady and The Bloke had inadvertently kicked some magic mushrooms as they rushed down the meadow to soak in the beauty of the landscape in front of them. Was it the vapours or the dust from the psylocybin growing everywhere there that gave them that hallucinogenic effect that afternoon? They were visibly “high” when they returned to the car. Positively alive, almost euphoric and ecstatic with nature’s paintings, they seemed charged with electric ions and the whole car reverberated with their serotonin and uncontrollable laughter. By contrast, The Mrs was sleepy and dull or maybe dulled by my presence.

So, I thought it was an opportune moment for me to ask her, “When you first saw me, was it my beautiful body or my intellect that attracted you?”

“I still like your sense of humour,” she replied.

I promised myself that would be the last time I am misled by her sleepy look. When did I become the man who wears the pants at home but the pants are picked by her from K-Mart? Little things add up. To be a good husband, I knew a long time ago I have to do many good things in life for her, usually small deeds which on their own aren’t significant. But, it is not that little burst of light over shade or that little brush mark or a dollop of colour or a brilliant stroke of a palette knife by an artist that makes a painting come alive. It is everything little thing and every decision that the artist chose that makes it into a work of art. Similarly, I am not afraid to make mistakes or make choices in life. We make very many of them in life. Each one may be small, or may be unimportant, but together, they are what made me who I am. Someone will say joyously, “Yes, you’re a big mistake!”

Well-being is realised by small steps, but is truly no small thing.

Socrates (?)

A magic mushroom? It was magical, nevertheless. Photo by HK Ng

I happened to watch the movie Before Sunset a few nights ago. When I realised it is a sequel to Before Sunrise, I watched that too. A simple love story, the movie was about two people who crossed paths in a train and they impulsively decided to spend one day together in Vienna. Nine years later, they met in Paris and tried to find out how life would have panned out for them had they acted on their mutual feelings for each other following their wonderful time together in Vienna. It then crossed my mind that an equally powerful story could be written for a married couple who many years later asked each other how better life would have been had they not acted on their feelings back then. The following morning, I looked at The Bloke and The Lady and realised how theirs has been a truly wonderful love story. For them, their love story is a gift that keeps giving more and more. Magic mushrooms, anyone?

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