Mother Nature is wonderfully reliable. For countless years, the old man witnessed the seasons arriving punctually, as if pre-ordained. Come September 11, the Wisteria tree in the old man’s garden would put on a show as grand as one befitting a Royal Show. It was clockwork, precise and predictable, just like orange trees fruiting in the winter months. But, this spring, the Wisterias have not yet bloomed. They are late, as is the season. The old man’s hands were still cold and sticky like ice cubes as he looked at his ageing fingers. Increasingly, they are blotted with dark spots and scaly wrinkles; without his glasses and against direct sunlight, the wrinkly skin appear to him like sand ripples on a desert. Today is a public holiday – a national day of mourning to commemorate the passing of Queen Elizabeth. The grand old dame has finally carked it. Once she reached 90, every day was a bonus, I suppose. Funeral arrangements would have been discussed and planned years ago, eulogies pre-written, hymns and music selected, documentaries of her long reign long prepared. Still, news of her death pricked the old man. There was regret in his voice. “Ma misses out,” he said. He had wished his mother to receive a congratulatory letter from the Queen when she turns a hundred next September. Ordinary folks do not get anything from royalty. His mother was so close to getting something from the Queen! A personal letter to her, signed by the monarch. How special it would have been. Officially, according to the lunar calendar, his mother had already celebrated her 100th birthday, but westerners do not include a baby’s time in a womb when counting their age. So, at 99, she misses out. The feeling reminiscent of a cricketer missing out on a century by a single run. Painful!
“It is not true that ordinary folks do not get anything from the monarchy,” the old man corrected me. Awards and congratulatory letters were given out and occasionally, the Queen was known to have hosted tea parties for the locals.
“My son received the prestigious Queen’s Commendation for Excellence in his final year at the Royal Academy in London,” he proudly informed me. “That’s something, right?” he beamed a smile that showed an unsightly row of crooked teeth. One upper tooth with a markedly different shade of filling in the front was chipped but he had said ‘no’ a week ago to his dentist who wanted to mend it with a more matching stain to blend with the tea-stained enamel.
“Oh? I don’t recall you sharing any photos,” I said.
“Nah, no photos.”
“How is that possible?” I asked, expressing incredulity with a higher-pitch voice.
“Oh, he didn’t attend the ceremony.”
“He what?!” I let out a shriek that conveyed disappointment. “He should be delated for his rudeness!” I added. The hunger for recognition and the aspiration to be honoured is timeless. One could even go so far as to say that such a yearning is carved onto our bones. We all need to be loved, we all want to be remembered. That is the way since time immemorial. “How dare he not cherish such a distinguished achievement?” I asked.
“I am sure the Queen didn’t take offence to it. His absence would not have registered a beat in her busy life as a monarch,” he said.
But, the old man too felt his son should have been delated for his impropriety. Fancy not fronting up to receive his award from the kind old woman. The Queen had throughout her long reign set herself as a standard bearer for a lifetime of public service and always showed proper decorum and regal conduct in ruling her subjects. “Why slight her majesty with his absence?” I asked. “How could he not turn up?” The old man shrugged his shoulders and looked at me blankly. His absolute silence was accompanied by a pair of dull eyes that seemed to be floating in another world that had lost its pellucid waters. He isn’t all there, I thought to myself. If that is what ageing does to people, then I hope I won’t live till I’m so old.
The old man came back the following day and without waiting for me to invite him to come in and sit down, he marched into my house, promptly plonked himself heavily on my leather sofa and asked for a cup of tea. I gave my leather sofa a worried look, suspecting that it was he who had bent one of the metal legs many years earlier.
“My son wasn’t rude to the Queen!” he announced.
“Howzat,” I asked courteously, without any interest in his answer.
“Although the Queen had approved who got the award, it was actually presented by HRH The Duchess of Gloucester,” he said.
“Oh, I see,” I replied drily, showing not even a hint of interest in who the Duchess was or how she was related to the Queen. “It’s alright then, I suppose,” I said without looking at him, in two minds about whether to open a new box of teabags or finish the old ones.
“Maybe King Charles the Third will continue with the tradition and write your mother a letter next year,” I said whilst carefully serving him the tea he had asked for. The Ahmad Tea was from a box that showed a ‘Best before’ date of 2019/10/10 but I was sure the old man would not be so discernible to realise that.
“Ma may not think as highly of him though!” he said. “Pa certainly would not have,” he continued. “Although Pa was afraid of the communists, he was at the same time, wary of the massacres dished out by the Brits in their war against the Chinese people in Malaya in 1952,” he said. By sheer coincidence, a friend of his had shared a recently declassified report about Britain’s war for rubber and tin in Malaya that was falsely presented to the world as a war against Chinese communism.
“Hey! Stop it, before you delate your own father,” I said. I remembered his most likeable father had talked about the misdeeds of the British Empire during the two Opium Wars and the massacres during and after their occupation of India and the daylight robberies in British Raj and other colonised countries. “Together, they are now the Commonwealth but what is common is much of the wealth is now in the UK,” he said. “But, Ma liked the Queen. She was regal, graceful and always behaved with propriety,” he said. I wondered if his mother had ever been jealous of the Queen – she had everything given to her on a silver platter and the thousands of crown jewels she owned, the most famous or infamous being the Koh-i-Noor, looted from the 10-year-old boy King, Duleep Singh. The Brits like all of the West will screech and scream for Jewish art and gems stolen by the Nazis to be returned to their rightful owners yet when it comes to treasures they seized during the Empire’s heyday , they will point to signed Treaties (under the forceful persuasion of guns to the heads) and the impossibility of determining true ownership, often the rulers who owned them headed nations that no longer exist.
“Propriety? What is that?” I asked. This is the one trait about this old man that frustrates me. Often spewing irrelevance and archaic words, he is as annoying as dust on my vintage wines and fake antique wares.
“Propriety is much valued by Confucius,” the old man replied. “It’s the practice of behaving according to accepted standards and morals,” he continued. “You know, it’s like inviting a friend who is visiting, into your house or offering him a seat and a cup of fresh tea,” he said. Fresh tea! My spine froze and the hair on my neck sprung up like a meerkat caught in the middle of the night by a car’s high beam. I had behaved niggardly towards him and now he’s making me feel it! Suddenly, I felt like a blade of glass in a drought, all shrivelled up and utterly hopeless.
Without propriety, respectfulness is just wasted energy, carefulness becomes timidity, boldness becomes insubordination and frankness is just rudeness.Confucius, The Analects