The old man was out celebrating last night. He told me at sixty-four, he is celebrating life every day. “Any excuse will do,” he said with a twinkle in his eye. Despite the obvious decline in his appearance, he was behaving quite childishly at the end of his dinner party at Himeji in Grote Street, just a stone’s throw from Adelaide Chinatown’s two large pailou, the very traditional-looking Chinese arch gateway. He rested his head on both hands, each hand holding each side of his face to pose for a birthday photo. In his mind he might have thought he looked cute or cheeky, purposefully tilting his head slightly to the right to mimic his natural pose as seen in his childhood photos. He didn’t care if his Mrs thought he was acting childish again. “Act your age,” she would often say to him. He told me he had never been sixty-four and therefore should be excused for not knowing how he should behave at sixty-four. But, when I showed him the photo, his face winced as if he had cut his foot open.
He later told me that was exactly what happened to him when he ventured to the edge of the raging brown river some ten yards from the rear boundary of his childhood home at 10 Scotland Close, Penang. He was maybe eight or nine years old at the time. Stretching himself to the maximum height on his toes next to the fenced yard where the chicken coop stood at the furthest corner of his back garden, he could see a dead animal’s carcass slowly floating downstream towards his direction, and against his common sense, he quickly made his way down the gentle slope to the river bank about four feet below where he stood to take a closer look. The fence was incomplete for some unknown reason. The small gap between the fence and the ground was enough for a small boy to crawl through. A few weeks later, a massive python would find its way through the same gap and feast on one or perhaps two of the chooks. The bright yellow sulphur that his dad spread along the perimeter of the chook fence obviously didn’t work. The river bank was a stretch of public land that was unattended, unmanaged and therefore unused. A riverfront house should be highly prized, offering great feng shui with the moving water of the river giving “chi” – the life force energy further enhanced by the nearby giant stands of bamboo dancing in the wind. No matter what manic force a storm threw at them, no matter how frightening the sounds of wailing, swishing and creaking bamboo were to the young boy, he never witnessed any bamboo crashing down from their lofty heights. “Well, they are a grass specie, no wind can blow grass down, right?” the old man said, momentarily bringing me back to the present. He gulped down another cup of sake before leaning away from me. He was still telling me his story but I could feel he had already left the room. His voice sounded near as he spoke but his mind seemed somewhere else. The bamboo looked majestic at over fifty feet tall and stood proudly together providing shade and protection as a windbreak. But, often when the sun set and the angry winds and black clouds arrived, they turned manic and scary like monsters in the dark, screeching and wailing at the wind, fighting the storm with their flailing thin frames and wild erratic movements.
As the little boy walked closer to the edge of the foul-smelling water, he became afraid and wished he had not venture out of his sanctuary. The lalang was still as if waiting to pounce and cut him with their super sharp edges. The boy had learned years earlier that lalang can be as sharp as knives, having sliced his thumb whilst playing with a blade of the grass. The air was heavy and humid, the boy’s effort to get there had made a dark damp patch on the back of his blue t-shirt. He had never wandered beyond their backyard before. Brought up to only know cleanliness, this unkempt zone was foreign to him. Overgrown lalang hid an old path from view – suddenly he thought they could also hide snakes and wild animals too. There were all sorts of rubbish being strewn along that stretch of land. Plastic bags still clean and bright in their pink and white indicated they were recently rendered as rubbish. Those soiled and wet showed their age. Behind the neighbour’s boundary, a pile of garden refuse stank, attracting a horde of busy flies. The odoriferous water’s edge almost made the boy turn back but he took one step too many and his thongs got stuck in the mud. Unknowingly, the next step he took with his right foot was without his slipper. That was never found, buried in the mud forever. It was during the month of the Hungry Ghosts, and therefore unsurprisingly, he stepped right onto a sharp piece of brown glass which was likely part of a beer bottle. What did the little boy get from an open wound, lots of blood spurting out of his big toe, muddy conditions and dirty river water? Red iodine and pus somehow was the usual combination of things to expect when the hungry ghosts appear every July.
“What’s wrong?” I asked him. “That!” he said, pointing to the photo of him trying to be cute. “I look so old!” He does look old, I thought to myself. His hair, as a friend said this morning, is long and unkempt. Dry, unwashed and grey. His mop of hair now sparse and unable to hide parts of his scalp, only reinforces the notion that his advancing years have gathered pace as each week passes. Half his eyebrows are disappearing, the long ends that swept upwards at a sharp slant have faded away, making him look much less angry and less fierce. More comical in fact. His new round frames, although still currently fashionable, somehow look clownish on him. The smile his upward-curving lips formed looks forced and out-of-place on his face. His thin arms are incongruous with the army-like camouflage colours on his sleeves. His biceps have shrunk until his arms look straight and pencil-thin. “Hey, you’re sixty-four, it’s ok to look old,” I said, but my attempt to comfort him only made him look sad.
“Anyway, the food tonight is so good,” I said like a good guest should. “It is my first time at the Himeji and I must say I have changed my mind about Japanese food,” he replied, showing his utter ignorance of what fine cuisine is. “Japanese food involves minimal cooking,” he continued, totally unaware that he was sounding more and more idiotic. He said ‘minimal cooking’ but in his heart I think he meant ‘very little cooking skill’. “It’s just knife skills or eating raw food!” he said softly, confirming my suspicion that he thought little of Japanese culinary skills. Another guest overheard our conversation and told him Japanese food is not just about taste and smell, but it’s also an art in many respects. The arrangement of Japanese food is also a feast for the eyes. Shapes, colours, sizes are thoughtfully put together and also complement the vessels and utensils in one’s hands. Touch and feel is also part of the dining experience. The five colours that are prevalent in Japanese food are white, black, red, green and yellow – apparently a tradition carried down since the arrival of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century. There are also the five ways of preparing food – raw, simmered, fried, steamed, roasted or grilled. Not to be outdone by the guest, I quickly added, “And of course, Japanese food is famous for its fifth taste. Apart from sweet, sour, salty or bitter, they have umami.”
“Let’s order more,” the old man said, visibly enjoying the Japanese meal. Most of his guests had already said they were full a couple of courses earlier, but he would not have it. “I’m sixty-four, let’s have more!” he shouted, over the din in the room. The fifth sense in Japanese food is often lost in western societies. The Japanese normally enjoy their meal in a quiet atmosphere, to focus on the food and also to show reverence to the chef. But, Himeji was a rowdy place. Aussies are loud when they are happy. “That’s ok, the more they laugh, the more I’ll shout,” the old man said before he too guffawed at his own remark. I think it may have been the Masumi sake he downed with too much exuberance earlier on.
“Any more parties planned?” I asked. I had lost count of the number of celebrations he had in the past two weeks. “Tonight’s party is the eighth celebration of my 64th birthday party,” the old man said. I almost did not recognise his voice, such was the sweet tenderness used in it. His face lit up with a certain smugness – a misplaced sadism – delighted at the envy of a friend who mentioned in passing that “some of us” were not in touch with the economic hardships being felt by many around the world, ‘what with the war in Europe and broken monetary system bearing down hard on financial markets and bond markets everywhere’. “Oh, I missed your sixth and seventh parties,” I said, implying that I had not made it to his invitation list. “Oh, weren’t you invited?” he asked. “I thought you were there,” he added.
His sixth party was prepared by the Thai Youtuber he befriended recently. She cooked him a special Thai meal. “A meal cooked by a celebrity!” he exclaimed. The ‘Balitong’ curry was a first for him and it sparked a memory of a time in 1969 when Balitong or Mud Creeper was a must on Friday nights with his best friend at the time. The friend was learning nunchucks at the time, the nunchaku being a weapon introduced to most of us on the big screen by Bruce Lee.
His seventh party for this year’s birthday was at the Saray Kebab House, an Iraqi joint serving Turkish food. When they got there, the owner of the restaurant was deep in conversation with a friend, one was drinking Turkish coffee, the other Turkish tea. “So, we ordered the same to start with,” the old man told me. The coffee was too strong for his Mrs, so she was given extra pieces of Turkish delight. Later, they brought her a cup of cappuccino, ‘on the house’. A mixed grill kebab dish had so much meat in it that three people and a dog could not finish it. Yeah, apparently they brought Murray along, but having missed out, I did not ask if indeed it was Murray that got to go to his party.
As we bade goodnight to one another, the old man pulled me to one side. “Thanks for sticking by me through thick and thin,” he said. I had not realised he saw me as a pillar of strength that he leaned on from time to time. I saw my own reflection in the window opposite where I was sitting and gave the old man a smile. “No worries,” I said. He ought to know I am always there for him.
Dig deep within yourself, for there is a fountain of goodness ever ready to flow if you will keep digging.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 7.59