The economic hurricane season finally arrived. The old man had been fretting ever since JPMorgan’s CEO Jamie Dimon warned of the impending disaster back in June. So, ’tis the season not of raking in whilst the sun shines but of tightening the belt and battening down the hatches whilst the cold winds blast the landscape. It didn’t seem so long ago that the sun was smiling at the old man. Business was brisk during the Covid lockdowns. Free money was being printed and handed out by governments all over the world. His business was going great guns and it felt the sun would never set, the sky would never turn dark, and the autumn leaves would not wither away. There was incessant chatter about selling his business whilst he was enjoying the busyness of business. He had learned his mistake from not selling his business just before the 2008 GFC hit. Buy low and sell high was always his mantra. His business was at its apogee – never before had it been easier to run – and all the vital signs showed a healthy business that was ripe for sale. But, in a blink of an eye, all the goodness evaporated. Now, the busyness of business was draining his vitality – the old man looked older and exhausted. The daily stretches from the eight brocades of Qigong no longer helped his posture. He looked hunched and appeared decidedly shorter, diminished by the passing of time. His gait, once as sure as a mountain goat’s, was unsteady and unsure. The years of stubbornly believing hair shampoo was a waste of money had hastened the damage to his once luscious locks of hair. Dry, unwashed and tangled, they should not belong to him. He, a businessman of some repute in his younger days, ought to portray or project a better image. His shadow seemed embarrassed and wayward.
Against the vast grey sky, the absence of golden sunlight and noisy birds cast a deathly pale over the majestic gum trees in the distance. Their leaves looked lifeless, the once shiny and vibrant green tops replaced by a dark greyish hue where even the gentle breeze that fanned the trees with cool soothing air had forsaken the land. The old man hurried back to his house, fretting at the sky for spitting at him. “The rain will be upon us again,” he said to his dog, knotting his brows with sadness. It had been raining all week as if to prove that the winter wasn’t over. The parks were soggy in most parts. His dog didn’t care but the old man tried in vain to keep his old pair of Skechers dry. He bought them some five years ago, just in time for a long European holiday that required many long walks. Lightweight and fashionable, they were his favourite shoes. “They just need a good clean,” he said to me, defending the notion that he did not need a new pair. Whilst avoiding a pile of dog shit, he inadvertently stepped into a muddy patch that was somewhat concealed by a thick growth of paspalum. “Bastard!” he cursed at the owner of the dog who didn’t ‘do the right thing’ and left the shit on the grass. The old man too had been guilty of not ‘doing the right thing’ but “it’s only when the poo is soft and runny,” he argued for his innocence.
As soon as he walked into his kitchen, he put the kettle on and waited for the water to boil. ‘Deborah’s Theme’ was streaming on the TV. He had been playing it over and over again in memory of his friend. Deborah, the eldest daughter of the owner of his favourite restaurant, died that morning. She succumbed to lung cancer after a four-month battle. “Life sucks,” he said, pointing out to me that she wasn’t ever a smoker. The room was cold. The old man realised his hands were icy cold too. The drawback of a central heating system was fully appreciated after his wife was given a Oodie for her birthday last month. Her Oodie kept her warm whilst he complained of freezing fingers. She no longer wanted the heater to be on and since the need to please her was greater than his need to keep warm, he told his fingers to get used to the new norm. The Oodie was invented by a young South Australian, Davie Fogarty, who simply made an oversized blanket to wear like a hoodie. We have all done that in our student days, right? Just ‘wear’ our blanket as we studied at our desk till the wee hours of the night. But, none of us took the next step and sewed a couple of sleeves and a hood to make our blanket into a garment. We would have been millionaires many times over, if we did! The kettle’s high-pitched whistling brought the old man back to the kitchen. He decided on E Mei green tea. Someone had given them that many many years ago. ‘First in, last out’ seemed to be the usual practice in their larder. As shopkeepers for many years, the couple religiously rotated stock on their shelves but at home, the discipline was seldom practised. The old man blamed it on the tortuous demands of a busy business. “The busyness of business sucked us dry,” he said.
The old man sat at his desk, decluttering his mind. Unlike his handphone which could delete messages and images in a split of a second, his mind seemed to take an eternity to banish bad thoughts and erase bad memories. His hands were still cold, despite the piping tea steeping in last Christmas’ present from his son’s girlfriend, a black cast iron tea pot, a replica of the one he saw in Taiwan’s national museum. His favourite teapot remained proudly displayed on a mantelpiece, an official replica of a Nambu-Tekki ironware from Iwate Prefecture. The technique used in the mid-17th century involved pouring molten iron into a sand mould filled with dots. The tiny knobbed pattern created from the dots somehow pleased him very much.
The dark rain clouds arrived as promised by the weather bureau. They pelted angry sheets of rain at the faded grey colorbond roof of his house, creating a racket so loud it drowned out ‘Deborah’s Theme’. The old man sat frozen like a scarecrow in an abandoned field. Old, irrelevant and forgotten. His icy-cold hands hung in the air inches above his laptop. He felt lost, not a word could be formed in his mind for his fingers to type. Hunched and looking haggard, he lost his shadow when the bulb in the room blew and left the room dim and grey. He stared at his laptop but the words would not come. Suddenly, his face contorted into a gnarled spasm of pain and bitterness. He pressed both shoulder blades inwards and then arched his chest closer to his lap. The masochist in him relished the sound of crepitus, unaware that cracking bones were another sign of ageing.
The awful news of his best friend’s wife had just reached him minutes earlier when he was sipping green tea whilst checking WhatsApp messages. The old man sat in the room that had grown dark once the computer had gone into screensaver mode. Like a stunned kangaroo caught by a bright light in the dark, he sat immobile as his past gathered speed, rewound and replayed in his mind, images and timelines melded haphazardly. Life was tough for everyone, but always fell short, both in time and in expectations. Caught up in the busyness of his business, he was feeling shortchanged in the busyness of life. He had only met her twice, once when she came to visit Adelaide with her husband and when he reciprocated with a visit to their city. She was much younger and much more caring to the needy, volunteering her time and energy in her church to help the poor in her community. Ravaged by cancer for the past twelve months, she gave up her fight in the afternoon, surrounded by her two sons and husband. “She’s gone. She’s gone,” cried the old man. His lips trembled involuntarily while tears formed into salty beads and stung his eyes in the process. ‘We have to go on living,’ he wrote to his friend. ‘Be strong.’
The dead will always be dead, but we have to go on living.Haruki Murakami
The old man sought solace the next morning and chose a page from The Analects. “If the superior man,” said he, “abstains for three years (to mourn the loss of a loved one), those observances will be quite lost. If for three years he abstains from music, music will be ruined.” The old man felt like Confucius was talking to him. We have to go on living. He lit three joss sticks for his friend’s wife and also for Deborah. Placing both hands together with fingers pointing to the sky, he stood upright and remained very still. The scent of the joss comforted him as he said goodbye to the recently departed. May they rest in eternal peace, he said softly.