For a very long time, the old man wished he would have the privilege one day to hear Zubin Mehta conduct live. That wish came true two nights ago in Melbourne, in the Hamer Hall. Mehta mattered enough to the old man to make the trip to Melbourne. “He’s 86 already,” the old man reasoned. “Who knows if Mehta will bother to come again,” he told his Mrs. He and his Mrs finally left the safe sanctuary of their home in South Australia and bravely faced the world outside their borders after three years of seclusion. Seclusion does funny things to people. He felt anxious breathing the stale air and carbon dioxide trapped behind his mask and was visibly avoiding people until he couldn’t anymore. In the end, he did not even bother with masking after seeing his Mrs chucking away hers.
He had prepared the trip months in advance, strong-willed with every intention to drive to Victoria and back. Naively the old man, despite his age and experience, thought he could avoid crowded places in a big exciting city such as Melbourne. He thought he could find safety from the masses in his car, avoid all forms of public transport and luxuriate in an Airbnb unit like a hermit. He had his car serviced, itinerary planned, routes mapped out and eyesight tested. That last precaution was important, but he felt he did not pass the test. Even with his new glasses on, he could not see very well. His eye doctor was pleasantly surprised that his patient could still see, despite the bad epiretinal membrane tear. The old man wasn’t so pleased – he yearned for a normal eyesight that would let him see the newborn fish in the pond or the layers of dust that hide from him and proclaim to his Mrs that he’s a lousy helper in the house chores department. During a recent violin practice, he played many wrong notes – he insisted that he could not read the notes, not that he could not play them – and as he edged closer and closer to the music, straining to read the score, he hit the music stand with his precious violin’s scroll. There and then, he felt he was not game enough to drive for nine hours straight to attend a concert.
He sighed and cursed himself for growing old. The other concern he had was the number of toilet breaks he would need in such a long journey. Could he time his stops well or could his bladder fail? How many extra pairs of pants should he pack? ‘When you’re old, never miss a chance to take a pee,’ he was once reminded by his Mrs after a minor accident. When his Mrs observed that he was over-gorging on nuts, he said he should whilst he still had teeth. Peanuts and groundnuts were his favourite snacks that his larder never lacked. Never a wasteful chap, he agreed to follow a friend’s advice, “Never waste an erection even if you’re alone.”
Ageing is kind of unkind. Onset of dementia meant the old man’s 99-year-old mother did not remember that he was a good son. On the night before his trip, he had dinner delivered by Uber Eats to her house. His Mrs had planned to cook a nice dish before leaving for her art class but the whole house was without power all day. Correction, since they were leaving the next day, the house would be without power for many days. When they returned from their short holiday, the electrician said they had multiple failures all at the same time. Rats had munched on a mess of wires above the ceiling, causing one section of the circuit board to blow. An external spotlight had collected water in the bulb and that blew another section of the safety switch. But I digress. Dinner began pleasantly enough but not before too long, the old mother began a tirade of complaints about her bad son. The litany of misdeeds shocked him. Her perception of him was not the filial son he thought he was. Shocked by her reality, he flashed a pained look on his face and turned his lips downwards in despair. Her voice was stern and increasing in decibels. Reminding himself of the futility of arguing with the aged, he hugged his mother tightly and kept repeating the same words, “Ma, don’t push me away. I am a good son. We all love you.” The most amazing transformation happened. As if he had tugged the right chord. Her maternal instincts returned and she trembled and teetered as she hugged him back, for a long time.
The taxi ride and waiting time at the airport took longer than the actual flight itself. The old man and his Mrs desperately needed the change in environment. Stuck at home just the two of them without any respite from each other, they were often gnashing their teeth. With nerves frayed and patience ebbed close to zero, the excitement of a short holiday was enough to bring a smile to his Mrs. She soon became her chirpy self and chatted incessantly with their niece who was seated next to her. The old man chose to read a novel about unfulfilled love stories of a few Japanese college students in the 70s, with two key characters ending their own lives by the time his short holiday finished.
The old man took the easy option and hailed a cab as they stepped out of Tullamarine Airport. A red SkyBus would have been just a third of the cab fare and maybe even saving him half the time it took. Melbourne could have easily dished out its dark angry clouds and swirling cold winds from the south. Instead, it sent out happy floating white puffs in a sky of still blue and beams of gentle sun rays to welcome the newly arrived. The cab fare to Brighton East was $100 but the old man did not even flinch at it, such was the thrill of a rare holiday. Their first stop was a lunch appointment with a dear friend whom the old man had known since 1990. It was such a joy for him to see Les and Adele that his heart strings tugged so strongly his lower lips quivered uncontrollably and his tear ducts worked overtime. He noticed Les had walked a few steps ahead to stop his raw emotions from breaking down. The friends had not met for over five years. In that time, both had aged considerably. Les had turned as bald as an unshaven Bruce Willis and as unsteady as a mountain goat on ice. Adele was her usual happy self. She cheerfully and playfully pulled the old man to one side and told him he would have melted her girlfriends’ hearts had she introduced them to him years ago. “You’re very attractive,” she jokingly said as she held his hand and posed for the camera. Tell an old man he is attractive and he will be your best friend forever. The old man reminded himself to use those lines he had learned that day on the next reunion with old friends. “I luuurve your shirt,” Adele added. “Where did you get it from?” He did not bother to tell her his RM Williams denim shirt was a gift from a sister who paid $20 for it in an op shop. ‘Op shop’ sounds better and more dignified when referred to as opportunities to get a bargain and save the environment. ‘Op shop’ is a cool way to not stigmatise oneself as an Aussie battler who resorts to buying second-hand goods from thrift shops or charity stores. Lunch was the first meal of the day for the old man, it was superbly cooked. The men had Fish of the Day, the salmon was perfectly pink and the skin was crispy. The girls had Caesar salad – for some reason, greens made the girls happy and contented. The Mrs knew they had a big dinner to go to later that night, and wisely abstained from a heavy lunch. It was all too soon that the goodbyes had to be said and the old friends hugged one another tightly and promised they would not wait another five years for their next meeting.
At the Airbnb place, the old man struggled to retrieve the keys to the unit from the locker box outside the building. His Mrs grew impatient and even the heavens began to spit at them with tiny raindrops. “Hurry or we will get drenched,” she said. “You know I can’t see well and it’s getting dark,” he said in a tiny voice, and sought understanding from her. He finally got the locker to open once he realised he had used the wrong combination code to unlock it. “I never have to ring my own phone, how should I remember the last four digits,” he reasoned with himself once they were safely in the lift. Day one of their holiday was practically over by the time they woke up from their afternoon nap to get ready for dinner.
Dinner was at Matilda 159 in South Yarra. Famous for its open flames and hot coals cooking, the set menu was disappointingly missing all that. The old man was told that their only choice was a set menu, since there would be eight of them in their party. The pre-ordered tomahawk steak, extra to the set menu, turned out to be the best dish. The ambience was cosy and elegant when they began but the rowdy table soon made it like it was their own dining room and their own private restaurant. Undoubtedly, it was fine dining at a very high standard, but the old man who was more accustomed to the street foods of Penang was unimpressed with the small morsels and his Mrs frowned at the lack of greens. But, nothing could spoil their joy. It was an evening of special reunions and a celebration of the next day’s concert with Zubin Mehta conducting. The old couple had waited three long years to finally see their twin sons again. Covid had made it impossible for any reunions until that night in South Yarra. It was certainly worth the risk of catching the virus from the big crowds and long queues to finally hug their sons again. The boys left home at 15 to study in the Queensland Conservatorium, Griffith University. For the old man, it felt like an eternity ago when after dropping them off at the airport, he returned home and stepped into their empty bedroom. He stood at the end of their bed and stared blankly at the darkness. Does the tiger roar in the jungle when its cubs grow up and leave? Does the swallow make a new nest when its young has flown away? Would a turtle stop its young from rushing into the sea? Aged 41, he was not ready to become an empty nester – eldest son was in first year uni and was hardly home. So, he cried till he ran out of tears.
The other special reunion that night was with his Mrs’ school chum and hubby. Esther, her school chum, was a really nice girl from a well-to-do family. His Mrs was born into a mediocre environment, made dire by a depressed father who resorted to alcohol to rid himself of his sorrows. His Mrs holds fond memories of Esther’s kindness and generosity. Her first chocolate with whole crunchy nuts was given to her by Esther. So was that “really big juicy Japanese apple,” so big she needed both hands to hold it in the school canteen.
Esther’s hubby goes by the name Frank. “Don’t ask me how to spell it or pronounce it,” the old man said. “At first, I disliked Frank,” he continued. “He was the reason why my life turned into a living hell.” “Why is that?” his niece asked him the following day. Frank was a champion of honouring his principles. If it meant he had to spend time in prison to uphold them, then so be it. All told, on and off, he spent 19 nights in jail. “Do you know why?” he asked his niece, forgetting she had already asked him why. Frank went to jail so that he could open his hardware store on Saturday afternoons. In those days, shops were only allowed to open on Saturdays till noon. The trading laws were restrictive and although Australia was a land of the free, no one was free to open their shops on Saturday afternoons or Sundays. “Frank changed all that!” the old man said, venting with annoyance.
It meant he too was forced to open his shop, a price too steep to pay to remain competitive. It meant a life that was bound to his shop seven days a week. Owners of small businesses, usually the mums and dads that toiled to make a living, could not afford to pay their staff weekend penalty rates.
“Thanks to Frank, our kids grew up without spending their weekends with us,” the old man explained.
“It was a sacrifice that I had not planned on making,” he said. The old man had bought a shop for his Mrs to run, not understanding that retail laws could be changed by one stubborn man who insisted on fighting for his right to trade whenever he liked.
“I can’t imagine life today if all the shops closed on the weekends,” his niece said, effectively ending her uncle’s illogical remarks.
You can get a screw on Sunday but you can’t get a screwdriver.Darren Hinch, on the Victorian government legalising prostitution whilst enforcing no Sunday trading for hardware stores
Zubin Mehta was the first thing the old man thought of the next morning. He watched a TV doco on Mehta a few decades ago (Portrait of Zubin Mehta (1968)) and promised himself to attend one of his concerts one day. It had appeared to be another one of his broken promises but suddenly, he came across a full page advert in The Australian a few months ago promoting the AWO’s major event of the year. “They are coming to Australia,” the old man said with glee, realising he could still keep that promise to himself. “Who?” his Mrs asked. “The AWO! The Australian World Orchestra,” he explained. The orchestra is made of Aussie musicians who are based overseas or have worked overseas. The international standard for classical musicians is of course very high and those Aussies who belong to the finest orchestras or ensembles across the globe will naturally be of exceptional standard.
“They are playing an all-Strauss programme,” the old man said excitedly. “Don Juan and Ein Heldenleben, which has lots of beautiful solo violin parts,” he said. All the more that Mehta matters. After all, the maestro is famous for his interpretation of operatic music. He admitted that he wanted to become a conductor because “deep down, I wanted to conduct Richard Strauss’s tone poems.”
“Hmmm, a pity it’s not Strauss’ Don Quixote which really shows off the cello,” the old man said. “Cello solo on one half and the violin solo on the other would have been perfect,” he added but his Mrs took no notice of him. She was too accustomed to his uninformed notions about things. And as for finding a programme wanting, it is like criticising a music director’s or an artistic director’s credentials! “Just ignore me!” he quickly backed down.
The concert was spectacular. The applause was massive. The night was a great success. Who else could have brought such an air of excitement and exuberance to a concert hall? The buzz even outside the building was electrifying. One could have been mistaken to think that it was a rock concert or an Emmy’s night but of course, a casual observer would have noticed the coiffured old ladies in their elegant evening wear could only mean an extravaganza and a rare night out for the older folks. Men in well-tailored attire and high-street shoes also told the passer-by this was no ordinary show. The old couple and their two nieces did not look out-of-place as they arrived at the venue. The old man was noticeably high on energy, as if he had sucked in multiple puffs of the crowd’s energy. “What a privilege to be a part of this,” he thought to himself. A packed crowd, an adoring audience, everyone was at the edge of their seats ready for a first glimpse of the conductor as the door of the backstage opened. The hall witnessed a thunderous applause as Mehta slowly ambled with the aid of a cane to the podium and with care and effort, he stepped up to it and settled on his swivel chair. A worrying thought crossed the old man’s mind. “A swivel chair, how dangerous for an old man,” he thought as the crowd’s applause quickly surrendered to the conductor’s will. A hush enveloped the air as everyone waited to explode to the first sounds of the wonderful orchestra. Although sitting down, the maestro was undiminished in stature and was clearly in full control of the extraordinary musicians who played like a single body born to make beautiful music. Maestro Mehta dropped his baton before the music started but he would not drop his baton again once the music began. Known for his love for Strauss’ tone poems, he channeled his interpretation of the music without the music score. He possessed a phenomenal memory to remember every single note, rest bars and every musical phrasing for every single instrument with great understanding of the composer’s intentions. Mehta matters indeed.