Last night, the old man volunteered to sleep over at his mother’s house. The grand dame is 99. She needs to be looked after even though she reckons she is still lucid and able to tend to her own needs. Her children no longer argue with her about that – they simply take turns to spend time with her. “A mother would never spurn her children spending time with her, right?” the old man asked me. A silly question that did not earn a reply. So, I remained silent. He appeared to be sniffling and swallowing with difficulty, as if he had a fishing hook stuck in his throat. He looked far from his chirpy self.
“Are you not well, mate?” I asked.
He looked confused and didn’t know what to say. Lost for words, he seemed to have reverted to the old days of keeping quiet and letting his Mrs dominate the conversations, she being the life of any party. He promised me he would speak up and express himself clearly when he reached 60. This is unusual, I thought to myself. I have not seen him behave like a zombie for years. Sitting there ashen-faced, lost in his own world with lifeless eyes that look blankly into space, he twiddled his fingers and left his mouth slightly open like a fly trap. Suddenly, it dawned on me – Richard Koo, a friend in Sydney had just shared news that he had just been tested positive and promptly listed his symptoms. “I had shivers, high temperature, brain fog, cramps, chesty coughs, headache, chest tightness, weakness, and my mouth tasted terrible!” Brain fog! I screamed in my head. The old man must have Covid, I decided before excusing myself to use the loo as a good reason for leaving the room. “I am positive I tested negative,” he said, confusing me temporarily when I returned to sit in the adjacent room. “Anyway, why do we bother with a RAT?” he asked. “The results are unreliable and it costs money to buy a test kit, do you think the average bloke would bother?” I agreed with him. No one in their right mind would pay to do a test and then to forgo his wages and risk losing his job to someone else if he was positive.
“I slept in my mother’s house last night and must have caught a chill,” he said.
“Why? Did you and your Mrs fight again? You promised me you’d be stoic and shut your mouth.”
“Nah, I had to go look after my mother,” he said.
“The spare room was stuffy and musty.”
“It was foul! I couldn’t breathe and suddenly I felt sick,” he complained.
He conjured in my mind a picture of a dank room filled with junk from yesteryears that had not seen the sun’s beam for decades. Stone-walls ravaged by salt damp and collapsing cornices of ceiling weighed down by mould and untold years of gravitational force. The aluminium sliding window remained stuck to its rail, caked in dust and corpses of blowflies that struggled in vain to penetrate the glass. “Your mum’s house? I thought you guys have money to fix such things,” I judged.
“No, no, nothing like that,” he dismissed my conclusion that their mother lives in a run-down dilapidated building.
But, it turns out I wasn’t too wrong about the collection of junk in the room. A bedroom, with a solitary bulb emitting a weak halation of light that won’t reach the corners of the room, turned into a store-room is doubly criminal, I thought. One, it is unhealthy and wasteful of prime living space and two, junk should be binned, not stored to make the house look like a junkyard. But, these points did not cross the old man’s mind at all. Instead, he told me he felt elated to be “home” once more. The last time he slept in his parents’ home was in Penang in December 1980, just before he got married. “Crikey,” he said. “That’s forty odd years ago,” he added. I had always assumed he was good at simple arithmetic, so it was shocking that he could not immediately tell me the exact number. Their mid-century furniture still adorned the old sandstone Federation-style bungalow. The gentle pastel lilac headboard that his head rested on somehow soothed him, bringing childhood memories of an insomniac’s nights counting sheep and if that did not work, relieving himself with his hand to sap away his youthful hormone-packed energy. Over the years, the same furniture in the house went from trendy to classic to out-dated to problematic junk but now they are back in fashion. The books on the shelves are still the same ones he saw in their Scotland Close house except they are coated with a thicker layer of dust and the pages have turned yellow. The big photos that used to be prominently displayed in his childhood home are still displayed here. But these aren’t photos of a British monarch or a European-looking Jesus Christ or a smiling Virgin Mary looking downwards from the sky to grace their house. “These are precious,” he said with a tinge of love in his voice. There is a big photo of his father on his own and another one of his mother. There is also one of their family – everyone was there bar one. It was often the same child – the youngest daughter – who missed out on these ‘official’ portraits for whatever reason. A small photo of his parents framed by the kind of timber no longer used today to frame pictures sits proudly on the bedhead screaming to be seen but is often missed. Hardly anyone walks into the bedroom. It’s a no-go zone these days, “lest you be accused of stealing from her,” he warned me. “Dementia makes a person delusional and suspicious,” I said.
It is now used primarily as a store-room for Ma’s now old unused yards and yards of fabrics bought with great purposes in mind and an assortment of replicas of antiques wrapped in really old newspaper and protected from dust by greying plastic bags. The news in the old newspaper would probably be more interesting than the fake antiques, although these artefacts are probably worthy of being valued as antiques today. The colour was never vibrant even when the photo was newly developed but the passing years were still kinder to the photo than to the couple in it. They would have been in their early fifties when the photo was taken. Back then they looked old, so old he was forever worried they might pass away when he was overseas, but now, they looked so young. So much younger than the old man whose eyes could not be peeled away from it. The couple married young, he was 24, six years older than her. They had dreams to make a good life for themselves. He had tenacity, drive and a strong ambition to be successful in the new country which he had begun to call ‘home’. They worked hard, lived within their means, and never complained about their humble beginnings. Spartan and owning very little, he survived a Japanese torture cell for being wrongly accused as a communist sympathiser. He explained to the interrogators that he did not know the man that he was with, he knew him as a chess player and that was all they did – played chess at the roadside kerb before being arrested. “Don’t explain, it doesn’t help,” I said. Giving excuses and coming up with justifications do not help, no one will listen.
She escaped the attention of the Japanese soldiers and the clutches of the Kempetei. Before the war was over, parenthood gave them a new meaning to life. They worked hard, built a business and invested in coconut and rubber plantations. They laughed, cried, fought, quarrelled, but stuck together through thick and thin. There were good times and there were bad times. But throughout the business cycles, they believed in education. All eight children were sent overseas for tertiary education and to pursue their own dreams – a mighty feat that was not common in the 60s and 70s. He retired at 60, heeding the warning signs of a stroke that paralysed his left side for a few months. His spirituality was heightened and he sought solace and answers up a hill in Penang. A good friend, Arumugam, a chettiar, lent him his bungalow for a few months, ex-gratia, since the Indian millionaire owed him some favours. In the photo, he wore his trademark loving smile and looked smart in his brown suit and brown hat. He died in 2007 but lives on in the old man’s mind. His Ma oozed sophistication, he reckoned her body-hugging cheongsam would have tantalised a few men in their neighbourhood. She is still beautiful today – I have a photo of her taken last week to prove that.
“It was a great feeling, like a home-coming,” he said. Somehow, the chance to sleep in his mother’s home awoken long-harboured feelings of filial piety and transported the old man to his youthful past. Everything in there took him ‘home’ to his childhood. The furniture, the photos, the rosewood dining suite and elaborately carved lounge suite all played their part but it was the smell of familiarity – the smell of old things and old people – his parents – that seized his emotions and made him yearn for long-gone happy and worry-free days as a kid.
“Why didn’t I go back more often?” he asked. He bit his tongue. He was about to complain that he had responsibilities as a father and husband to his own family.
“I should have slept over at least once when Pa was alive,” he moaned. He would have liked that.
“It’s alright,” I placated the old man. There is no need to feel any guilt. Birds have to fly off from their nest and so do we. “No justification is required, and there is no one to blame, not even yourself,” I added. “It is plain, don’t complain, don’t explain,” I said.
Never complain, never explain.Benjamin Disraeli, British PM. 1868, 1874-1880
“Today is a big day for Malaysia,” the old man said. Malaysians are voting for a new government. Everyone is hopeful this day will usher in a new dawn for a better tomorrow for all Malaysians. “Many of my friends will be voting for Harapan,” he said. Harapan means hope.
Cease to hope and you will cease to fearHecato of Rhodes
Both of these are projections into the future of which we have totally no control. ‘Hope and want’ lead to ‘fear and worry’. “I think it is responsibility that gives us the courage and tenacity to act, to do something that will change the outcome, hoping we get what we want is a wish for something that is out of our control. It’s rather unproductive, I think,” he said. Hope is a wish, a want, a desire. Often unrealised. Since we hope, there’s nothing to stop us from hoping for more. Unrealised hopes can wreck us! It’s useless to sit at home and hope for something to happen. “It is as frustrating as praying,” he added. Praying to God for something is akin to asking God to change his mind. If an event is set in stone by the almighty and perfect deity, why would we think our prayers or requests will change His mind? God is not fickle, He is surely not indecisive and if he needed to change his mind and change an outcome, he would be admitting that He got it wrong in the first place. That simply cannot be! His decision is final – why change something that was already perfect?
“Don’t hope,” he said to his friends. Just go out and vote! Change the outcome! Change the government!