I have viewed earthlings as urghhlings ever since the early 1970's when I read about people eating the raw brains of screaming monkeys. Two decades later when served live oysters in Adelaide, instead of being repulsed by eating a living thing while it was still alive, I discovered to my horror that I actually relished these living bivalves. The realisation that I am also an urghhling has muted my abhorrence of such despicable cruelty to living things.
Exactly six months after I wrote ‘It’s Nifty To NFT It’, my sentiments have totally changed. The Bitcoin price then was USD41,911, today I feel jubilant if it rises above the 20K mark. Not so long ago, a Bored Ape NFT would fetch in excess of a million bucks, today, you’d be lucky to sell yours for USD100K. As prices plummeted, Bill Gates came out to say that the NFT market relies totally on the “Greater fool theory’. If the chap is right, I’d be a fool to have any faith in NFTs. So, it’s kinda silly to keep talking about it, right?
“What is it anyway, this NFT?” a friend asked in a deadpan voice. He suggested the ‘F’ in NFT should mean the swear word, considering many people would have lost over 70% of their investments. “We have No eFfing Time for such nonsense,” he said, quite cleverly. So, it looks increasingly futile to NFT the many paintings I have collected in my photo gallery from visits to the Hermitage museum. It seemed like a great idea to convert them into digital assets that will be collectable and therefore valuable in the future. Most things can be tokenised and be of value. Whilst money and currencies are fungible, there are assets that aren’t fungible, such as digital art and music. They are one-offs and cannot be easily replaced.
“That’s just bonkers to think anyone would part with their money for a thing they can’t feel or touch,” said my friend. He can’t understand that an experience can be felt, even if it is not physical.
“Besides, you can sell or rent it out to a virtual museum in the metaverse,” I said.
I had also planned to convert a painting of my mother into an NFT. I had even prepared the notes for it. In my heart, her portrait will not only exist in the physical form, but will also exist in the digital realm. What better way to honour her then to ‘teleport’ her to the metaverse? How would the 99-year-old feel about the idea that she will exist forever in both physical and digital forms?
Of all virtues, filial piety is the first 百善孝為先
The concept of filial piety for the Chinese stems from the great sage, Confucius. The key
word is 養/养, pinyin: yǎng, which means ‘feed’, or ‘raise’. It is therefore not surprising that food is a symbol often used to depict our love and respect for our elders, through feeding and looking after their needs when they need our support and care most.
Anne Koh’s painting of ‘Niang’ or mother fully captures the spirit of obedience, respect, care and love for her elder. Niang is visibly content and happy with the durian (a thorny fruit from SE Asia) in her hand. Her effort to hide her smile and contain her appreciation, whilst showing off the durian which she obviously is enjoying, emanates from typical Chinese culture of behaving with appropriate decorum given her hierarchical status as Matriarch of her family. The formality of receiving food from her children who are not present in the painting is a strong symbol of filial piety, parental care on the one hand and of the ‘debt’ towards their elders on the other.
It also looks increasingly likely that I will have to abandon my plans to NFT The Mrs’ painting of Third Son. If it is silly to NFT his music, it must be also silly to NFT the painting of him deep in thought and expressive outpouring with his cello.
The lost years of the pandemic is aptly depicted by The Mrs’ painting of Third Son’s journey as a musician. Some of his early childhood music still echoes in the house. ‘Song of the Wind’ and ‘May Song’ linger in the hearts and minds of the remaining residents of the house where the tyranny of time and harshness of distance can do no damage to the fond memories that forever reside there. On the bottom right corner of the painting, a snippet of Third Son’s notes in his diary reveals his love for the cello and his yearning for his absent father who was away in Sydney for long periods due to demands from his work. The young boy’s wish was to sit on his father’s shoulders and play his cello. On the left of that are the busts of the cellist’s favourite composers, whose music today form the cello’s greatest repertoire. Beethoven, Elgar, Shostakovich, Dvorak and Brahms, just to name a few. Even John Williams is there, but mostly for his Star Wars music which has been an enduring legacy of his fervent love for music. Picasso’s Old Guitarist, terribly hunched and haggard, bears no connection to Third Son but is there to depict the harsh desperation that Covid lockdowns had unleashed on the music world where musicians and other artists were bled of work opportunities. The Mrs aptly described the starkness between a vibrant life and suffering by using the image of a healthy tree-top to depict a fake normalcy of a healthy society but below it, the sad desperate truth is outed by a scene of devastation and direness unleashed by the bleached-white spikes of a Sars-CoV-2 virus on miserable orchestral players, some masked, others sombre and gloomy.
It’s not just that NFTs add value to art. It’s that art is a way to add value to any NFT.
Who is Balaji Srinivasan? A hero, a genius, to me. Still quite a young chap, the Stanford University engineering alumni has won some notable awards such as the MIT Technology Review’s ‘Innovators Under 35’ Award and a Wall Street Journal Innovation Award. He sees a future where those who belong to a new country or state will require an NFT to ‘sign-on’ or a passport to enter a world where only they can enjoy an extra layer of the world where those without cannot see or experience. That NFT allows you to belong to an integrated community that is physically distributed but digitally connected in one place, in other words, a network state.
A network state is a social network with a moral innovation, a sense of national consciousness, a recognised founder, a capacity for collective action, an in-person level of civility, an integrated cryptocurrency, a consensual government limited by a social smart contract, an archipelago of crowdfunded physical territories, a virtual capital, and an on-chain census that proves a large enough population, income, and real-estate footprint to attain a measure of diplomatic recognition.
So, I stand with arms akimbo and wonder which direction I should take. Is it nifty to NFT it? Or is it really silly to? I am so rugged up with layers and layers of thick winter clothes in the house, that I appear to have no neck to speak of. “Why don’t you turn on the heater?” Third Son asked me on a video chat.
Perhaps The Mrs said it best, “Dear, just remember that money has a way of burning a hole in your pocket.” I shrugged my shoulders and this time, even I felt neckless and feckless as she ended our conversation with words that still reverberate chaotically in my ear drums.
My Hongkonger friend shredded me into pieces in front of ninety of our childhood schoolmates last Sunday evening. All over a joke. So, not a single bloke laughed at it. That is how easy it is to kill a joke. By shooting the guy who said it. Publicly. Be scathing, treat the joker like he is a joke. Or, better still, reprimand him like he is a child, show him utmost disrespect. Ignore the fact that he is as old, if not as experienced as any of the sexagenerians witnessing the discourse.
The joke was about a British woman who lost her case after she tried to sue the NHS for botching her husband’s eye operation. “Me and me ‘usband Fred ‘ave ‘ad bangin’ sex till ‘e went ta ‘ospital and ‘ad ‘is operation, now ‘e’s not interested ‘n me and it’s all down to them twats,” she complained to the magistrate. The surgeon who performed the operation gave evidence and said “All we did was removed Fred’s cataracts.” Had I been laughing at her fat and ugly body, then fair enough, it would have been only right that someone told me off for laughing at someone’s misfortune. But, the joke was about our perception of life. How with clear sight, we will look at something or someone totally differently. Notwithstanding the fact that the joke was accompanied by a photo of a rather obese woman wearing a sleeveless body-hugging fishnet dress that left nothing to our imagination about the grossly large body deformed by heavy amorphous blubber overhanging perilously from her pale-coloured sagging breasts. Her bright red stockings which were rolled up to just above her knees failed abjectly to distract our eyes from the star-shaped black patch sewn onto the fishnet which fortunately hid what I suspected were rather swollen nipples.
“What is your point of forwarding the article?” he asked. I was cognisant that he did not use the word ‘joke’. Words are so easily abused to distort facts. A joke is a joke is a joke. But, call it an article, and it is no longer a joke.
“It’s such a bad joke! You knew Edgar just had his cataracts done,” he said, raising his voice.
Edgar Poe, according to a self-confession a few days later, was quite anxious about his cataract surgery. I have many siblings who had theirs done, without fuss. My parents and father-in-law also had theirs done, without any calamity. I was unaware that Edgar was feeling at a knife’s edge over his operation. But, he had already shared another joke about an eye operation earlier the same day, so I knew he had gotten over his anxiety and was well on his way to a full recovery. His joke was funnier, the cartoon had the eye patient’s hands fully bandaged up rather than his eyes. A caption explained that this was to prevent him from using his phone to text his friends.
“It is a bad joke,” chimed another close friend, “and it is badly timed,” he added.
“It is about caring among brothers in this group,” the Hongkonger continued, more boldly, sensing support from other friends.
“A badly timed joke is a very bad joke,” he surmised.
“You guys are so uptight. Chill. You’re incredibly serious and hot under the collar. I’m so sorry that you find it hard to laugh,” I replied.
“I wonder if you’re even smiling at all. Breathe! So sorry that you’ve lost your sense of humour,” I said dryly, and tried to put him on the defensive.
“Not at the expense of others,” he said with an air of superiority.
We all know whoever sounds the more chivalrous and the more considerate will be judged the better character. Yes, he may have sounded more caring, but was he really? He didn’t care to hurt my feelings!
“Anyway it’s Sunday night. I’m going to enjoy a nice movie. I am sorry that you have such a dramatic issue with a joke. Anyway, please take a long walk, breathe in some fresh air, and find something to make yourself laugh. Good night, bro,” I said, as I walked away into the night. If I had a tail, it would be down between my legs.
Seneca was right all those years ago. Nourish our minds, refresh ourselves with fresh air and deep breathing. Take long walks and solve our problems along the way. But, is this one a problem? Should I be bothered by my childhood friend’s rather unsubtle remarks? Chiding me for posting a bad joke, criticising me for not caring for a fellow friend’s sensitivities, posting an ‘article’ at the expense of another – these are all severe judgements against my character. Take a walk, breathe, think, stay calm, and don’t react. I reminded myself of an old saying I learned recently, if we want a good day, get it from ourselves. Don’t make things worse, Marcus Aurelius’ words also came into my head.
If you want some good, get it from yourself.
Epictetus, Discourses, 1.29.4
I was in the bathroom doing all the routine tasks just before bed when I received a barrage of text messages from another childhood friend. I do understand why I am often the target for criticisms or maybe even scorn. Maybe through my writings, they see me as a parvenu. A somewhat less deserving, less qualified person who has suddenly walked into their social circle. They accuse me of being indecorous but I am just being myself, different and perhaps indifferent to some extent. Sometimes, I think all they want from me is to be as lifeless as a coffin, and as predictable as a tomb. I gnashed a smile at the mirror.
“You should delete your joke. Please do not send jokes about cataracts,” my good friend continued to urge me.
“Cataract operation is such a common thing for people of our age. It’s nothing big deal and Edgar’s was done a few days ago now. Totally successful, so I’m shocked by this need for us to tiptoe about and be extra considerate,” I replied. Edgar posted a joke this morning too. If he can joke about his eye operation, it means he’s fine. “So please don’t tell me I’m being inconsiderate or unthinking!” I protested. Don’t make things worse, I reminded myself. But equally, they shouldn’t make things worse also. Again, they treat an old man of 63-years with three grown-up sons like a child. You should do this. You should not do that. He is a good friend, he means well, I told myself. Otherwise, he would have criticised me publicly too. Tear me into pieces and feed me to the vultures? That he did not do. So, he’s alright. Besides, our conscience is personal, it does not abide by public opinion. I know I meant no harm – a joke after all, if taken the proper way, can only be harmless. I should continue to ignore nebulous concepts like politically correct statements that are tailored to please the populists who divide rather than unite us. So, I abandoned my plans to go to bed and put back on my day clothes that Murray had infused his body smell with. I stepped into the cold dark night which was missing the moon. Breathe. Enjoy the calm of the night, I told myself. By the time I got back from a long walk, I was thankful for my friends. They are just being themselves, true with me. At least we do not engage in small talks. You know, the sweet nothings that are empty of meaning and thin on honesty.
Amongst all the people I know, there is no one who has changed my life more than Murray. And Murray isn’t even a human being, although often I suspect he is one, or at least an alien. Murray came to us when he was just weeks old. A puppy from Murray Bridge. He never ceases to amaze me when so many around me cannot understand me (or refuse to). Murray has a knack of knowing what I’ll do next before the thought even crosses my mind. By alien, I mean his predictive power, as if he is wired with an algorithm that suggests an intelligence far greater than mine.
How has he changed my life? Well, he has made me physically fitter! Together, we have walked hundreds and hundreds of kms. When once upon a time, I would robotically drive my car to a letter box up the street or to the local deli round the corner, it is perfunctory for me today to simply put on my walking shoes and take a walk instead.
How else has he changed me? Well, he has taught me to breath more deeply and that has enabled me to deliberate on important matters with a refreshed mind. So, I think my decision-making has improved. Long walks are great for us to find an equilibrium – a balance in our mental faculties – and to declutter our minds so that we can think more strategically. Nourish our minds with clean fresh air and we will surely solve our problems along the way. From Murray, I also observed that obstacles on the path become the way. If there is dog shit on the path, we sidestep it. If there is a puddle of water, we step over it. If the gate is shut, we find another route. Similarly, if a friend is rude, I forgive him. If he is unfairly picking on me, I simply smile. If he is hurtful, I practise forgiveness. If he is kind, I remind myself to be as well. If I find a mistake, I learn from it.
The obstacle on the path becomes the way.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 5.20
“How old is your dog?” a Chinese lady asked me in Hazelwood Park. “I should unleash my dog so they play together,” she said. Dog owners are somehow friendly to one another. Hers was also a poodle mix. For a long while, I had kept telling people Murray was two and a half years old. The Mrs’ sister said it can’t be, time does not stand still. As it turned out, she was right and I was wrong. Well…not by much. Murray will in fact be four years old this September. The Chinese lady suddenly rattled off in Mandarin that was laced with a strong Beijing accent. “Ni de kou hen kuai, 你的狗跑的很快” she said, having noticed that her dog could not catch Murray. Yes, Murray is a fast runner, a lot quicker. Besides, he darts and weaves like a soccer player. No one can catch him. At times he would venture to the opposite end of the park, sniffing and peeing at strategic trees and bushes. When I see he is far enough, I would bolt as fast as I could away from him. Yet, he would be right at my heels in no time. Yes, he is that fast!
Dog owners are friendly and courteous to one another, this is true. Yet, it has not escaped my attention that it is only the women with their dogs that are friendly and talkative. The men would at best simply nod their heads as they walk past, but not so for the women. They must engage in small talk. The small talks I have had are seldom interesting but what a woman said to me the other day made me wonder a lot. She was about my age, perhaps a few years younger. Well-spoken and well-dressed, she sounded sophisticated and intelligent. Her accent suggested upper class British elite if not aristocracy. Her dog and Murray caught on like a house on fire. They became best friends very quickly. It was her dog’s tennis ball; surprisingly, Murray knew the etiquette of not retrieving the ball during the game of ‘Fetch’ even though he was the faster of the two. The English woman would throw the ball and sometimes, I would kick it to them. Murray never once fell for my fake moves, preserving his readiness to actually run after the ball whereas the other dog time and time again was tricked by my pretend kicks to the opposite direction. All the while, the lady made small talk.
She was quite a beautiful woman, if my memory serves me correctly. She wore a low bun too, although hers was more full-bodied than mine. Mine was a mess whereas hers was neatly bundled below a stylish woollen hat. Other than that, she was dressed as if ready for horse-riding. A white shirt beneath a tight elegant black jacket with matching tight khaki riding pants held up by a dark green belt and of course, a compulsory accessory, a pair of fancy knee-height leather boots.
“So, do you come here often?” she asked. Before I had the chance to open my mouth, she added, “This is my first time here. My husband normally takes our dog for his walks,” she said. “But, he is in Melbourne for a few days, and so here I am,” she said in a sweet voice and smiled at me, her eyes met mine and lingered. I returned a sugared smile and just then, a much younger chap walked towards us and started talking loudly about the weather. I took the opportunity to say goodbye and Murray proved his obedience as he sat down for me to clip the leash to his collar. As I took the long walk home, I could not stop to wonder why a woman would tell a strange man her husband was away for a few days. Small talks can be so dangerous.
The old man looked sad. He wasn’t aware anyone was watching him. I had heard about his story from my neighbour, The Bloke. The old man is related to The Bloke through marriage. Like a potato vine, it would be hard to explain how they are connected in a few words, so I shan’t bother. As the old man sipped his cappuccino, he held the ear of the cup with his pinky finger sticking up in the air. In the old days, he would have been called a ‘sissy’; worse still, if he were in Victorian times, it would indicate to those around him that he had syphilis. Today, his extended pinky would convey that he was simply snobbish, if not a touch feminine. I could hear his stomach wamble even though he was at the next table. Maybe he was still on IF, intermittent fasting. A sun beam came through the glass window, shining on him like a spotlight. His hair was mainly hoary with the black ones fighting a losing battle. The glabella was typically that of a Chinese, clean of hair and well-defined. The light on his face had a pinky hue to it or maybe his face just had that healthy glow about it. His columella nasi was more on the red side, hinting that he had been blowing his nose, either too frequently or too harshly. I hoped he did not have Covid. He kept his hair long and had them swept behind his right ear; had it been his left ear, it would have exposed the deformity caused by a childhood accident. The sun must have been moving fast, as its beam suddenly hit my eyes and forced them to shut tightly. The phosphenes were still dancing in my mind as I tried to look away. His stubble was unusually neat but they still served their purpose and made him look rugged, if not masculine.
I gave him a fake smile as our eyes accidentally met. He misread my smile as genuine, and got up from his seat. No, no, don’t come over, I wished. I realised he was no mind reader as he walked over unsteadily, pulling up his loose blue jeans to his waist.
“Hey, how are you?” he asked. Without waiting for my answer, he mentioned how nice it was to see the sun out that morning. But, there was no chirpiness in his voice. He sounded like a dysania sufferer as he started complaining about how hard it was for him to get up off his bed most mornings. “I actually only got up early today because I was hoping to meet a friend here,” he said.
“Oh, ok, in that case, I should let you go back to your table,” I said, flashing another unwelcoming smile.
“No worries, he may not even turn up,” he replied, as he pulled out a chair on his side of my table. Gesturing him to sit, I asked if he would like a drink. To my surprise (ok, ok, to my shock, actually), he said, “Sure, why not. I’ll have another cappuccino.” A handsome waiter caught sight of my raised hand and briskly walked over.
“Can we have two cappuccinos please?” I asked, after I clicked my tongue. “And oh, can you swap this fork for me? It has some dried stuff on its tines,” I said, trying my best not to sound displeased with their tardiness.
The old man shook his head after the waiter had retreated out of view. “It’s like this everywhere; even the professionals are sub-standard these days,” he said. I nodded my head in agreement. It was a mistake. He took it as an encouragement to fire off a salvo of disparaging remarks about almost every profession under the sun. Oh, why must I endure this? My mind was working overtime as I looked for an excuse to disentangle myself from the toxic conversation. Damn. Why did I order another coffee? Otherwise, I could come up with an easy excuse to leave right now. I kept cursing myself until the handsome waiter returned with a tray containing our order.
“They are modern-day gangsters,” the old man said.
“Huh?” I asked, quite taken aback that my mind had wandered off and missed much of the man’s ranting. “Sorry, can you just say that again?” I said sheepishly.
“Gangsters. All of them,” he said, as he fidgeted in his seat; his bum failing to find a comfortable position on the chair. So, I tried to change the subject and told him a joke I had heard from a friend earlier in the week.
“Yeah, gangsters in the crypto markets too,” I said, hoping he did not catch me dozing off when he was speaking earlier. So, I continued with my joke. “Do you know what a Bitcoin investor said when I asked if he was worried about the prices falling?” The investor replied, he’s worried but he sleeps like a baby. “Wow,” I said, showing surprise. He explained, “Yeah, like a baby; I sleep for a couple of hours, then wake up, cry a lot and then sleep again for a short while but I cry a lot when I am awake again.”
The old man did not laugh. My joke fell flat on him somehow. And then, I found out why.
“It’s not funny, I am down 70%,” he said, looking decidedly a lot sadder.
Not knowing how to change the subject, I simply said, ” Talking about a baby’s cry, I learned a new word this week. Vagitus. Any idea what the origin of the word is?” I asked, wondering if it had somehow to do with a vagina.
“Anyway, I was talking about gangsters,” the old man said abruptly, looking slightly miffed. He started telling me his father’s story. By the time he finished, I was ready to leave. But, he caught the waiter’s attention and ordered two more coffees even after I said I was fine. His father was a small business owner in Penang who ventured out into coconut plantations and rubber plantations in the 50s and 60s. But, his small success caught the attention of the triads. One day, they knocked on his door and told him to follow them to a kopi-tiam (cafe) nearby. The gangsters ordered many rounds of drinks and food and left his dad there to pay for the bill. They made it clear to him that it was to be a weekly “get-together” to keep everyone happy.
Fully absorbed in his story, I said, “Bloody hell, that’s extortion!” But, that is what gangsters do. I had watched enough movies to know that. The Godfather. Scarface. Peaky Blinders. All with pretty much the same theme. From bootlegging to avoiding the Prohibition to prostitution and illegal gambling and selling drugs, but right through all that, there is always extortion.
” A gangster equals extortion,” I said in full agreement.
The old man then pulled out a sheet of A4 paper which was folded neatly into a small square. From the griffonage, he read out to me his notes from a recent meeting with his lawyer. After he finished his story, he placed his notes on the table. All I could discern from where I sat was the frequency of interrobangs used on the sheet, some large, some smaller, but all in thick and bold style. He paused and looked directly into my eyes. At that moment, I felt his sadness. The despair in his eyes seemed to reflect the eyes of a cow being herded into an abattoir. He took a deep breath and stared into space. Faintly shaking his head, he muttered something under his breath, briefly forgetting I was there. The busy twitching around his eyes and the involuntary jerky movements of his right shoulder hinted at his stress levels. Poor guy, I said silently to myself.
His story was one about a modern-day gangster. Dressed in the finest woollen suit, with matching shiny and pointy Italian fashion shoes, pure leather, of course. Well-groomed, impeccably presented, incredibly well-educated and well-spoken, and importantly, thoroughly verified and certified by one of the most prestigious institutions on the land, the Bar Association.
“Today’s gangster is a lawyer,” the old man told me.
The old man is a small business owner selling car accessories online. Almost two months ago, he received a letter from a big international law firm accusing him of intellectual infringement. The law firm claimed the old man’s business sold counterfeit floor mats by passing off them as original equipment products made by the carmaker that they represent. They claimed that the infringing conduct had caused loss and damage to the carmaker and given the flagrancy of the conduct, they were seeking a very significant award of additional damages over and above the loss of profit from the sale of said products. Amongst many other demands, the lawyer required all sorts of detailed information about the operations of the business, the customers’ information and demanded that the business send a customer recall letter to all customers requesting them to return the floor mats for a full refund and issue a public apology for those fraudulent activities. The lawyer also wanted the old man to pay for six months’ corrective advertising declaring his admission to selling counterfeit products and apologising for such conduct. Otherwise, and without further notice, the lawyer would institute proceedings in the Federal Court.
“Shit, that’s so scary! That would give me sleepless nights,” I said, displaying an insensitivity that was foreign to me. I was upset with my own thoughtlessness. Belatedly, I felt the jarring regret that I had further increased the old man’s anxiety by speaking words that had not dwelled long enough in my head. “But, you have nothing to worry about if you did not sell counterfeits,” I tried unsuccessfully to soothe his worries.
“I made a terrible mistake,” the old man said. “My own lawyer was also a gangster,” he spoke shakily.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I went to my lawyer’s office; being respectful, I dressed appropriately,” he said. “But, my lawyer was wearing an oversized cardigan and sloppy jeans. He apologised for his casual wear.” The old man had foolishly portrayed himself as a successful businessman in an expensive coat. His suede dress shoes caught the lawyer’s attention as the hard soles noisily enhanced his footsteps. “A day later, my lawyer increased his estimated fees by almost double,” the old man said.
The old man told them, very clearly and succinctly. Those floor mats were obviously advertised as after-market products, made to suit specific models of the carmaker. They were made by a family business in Sydney and branded as such, with the local company name, not the carmaker’s name. But, the law firm would not accept the facts laid out by the old man. So, he was left with no choice but to employ a local law firm to represent him. As a matter of principle, he would not be forced to make an admission of guilt that would destroy the reputation of his business, one that he had built up from the late 80s. “I didn’t do anything wrong,” the old man said. He told me he was forced to defend himself in the tort case when he had done absolutely nothing wrong. “Is that justice?” he asked. Even if he went to court and won, he would be out of pocket by many tens of thousands of dollars. “We never fully recover the legal costs, and that is only recoverable if we can get to the end of the hearing and win. Most of us will run out of money well before then,” the old man said and let out a long sigh. The carmaker’s lawyer wanted him to admit guilt and pay the settlement sum of $30,000. A simple demand to be met, an offer he can’t refuse. Or else. So simple. A carmaker client with deep pockets vs a small insignificant business. The small business owner knew he could ill afford to go to court, the court fees would cripple him. This was a simple case for the lawyer. Accept his offer, and pay him $30,000 or go to court and fight the case. Either way, he wins a big fee from a rich client. “A tort to extort,” said the old man.
How did you go broke? Two ways, gradually and then suddenly.
“Let’s take a walk,” I said. As Lucius Seneca once said, we should take a walk outdoors so that our minds are refreshed by the open air and deep breathing. Whenever we need to do anything important, take a walk. Need to call your lawyer, take a walk. Need to borrow money, take a walk. Feel like arguing with The Mrs, take a walk. Your dog needs exercise, take a walk. Feeling lethargic, take a walk. Have to be creative, take a walk. Need a good solution to your problem, take a walk. Eager to buy Bitcoin, take a walk, and after that you are still sure to buy Bitcoin, take a walk again.
It is only ideas gained from walking that have any worth.
I had always called it a coop, never a henhouse. The last coop I owned was infested with mites or lice – I didn’t bother to tell them apart, so I simply called them lice. They were blood red in colour when near but almost black from afar. Fast-moving black dots. My bad eyes did not tell me they were moving. The Mrs did. The thought of them made me itchy again. Sorry, I had to pause to satisfy that sudden urge to scratch my scalp vigorously. Somehow, the back of my neck started itching too, and then it was my face’s turn. Now, the itch has spread to my groin. I hope I don’t end up destroying another pair of undies. Ah, that felt much better.
Poor chooks. How they must have suffered. I didn’t know any better then. One day, so suddenly, the white one died. She was so beautiful I called her Snowy. At first, I assumed she had died of flu, some type of bird flu. Now, I think she may have been sucked to death by the busy lice. She was just happy to sit on the nest all day and was abnormally unbothered about being the first to get the food during feeding time. One morning I found her dead on the floor of the coop, having fallen off her nest during the night. The whiteness of her feathers had turned grey. Her previously red comb and pink face were slowly turning pale in the days before her death and when I saw her with both her legs stiff in the air, they were grey too. Death did not look pretty at all.
I had enough of scratching myself for days and days. I tried everything to kill the lice. The first obvious thing to do was to flush the coop clean with water. Then, I dusted my chooks with diatomaceous earth, the silica apparently kills the lice by drying them out. It is as cruel as dehydrating a living animal to a dry husk.
For many weeks, I sprayed poison on every crevice and watched the lice scurry out of their hiding places.
DIE! You and you and you! I found myself enjoying murdering them.
I think the lice brought up some sadistic emotions from deep within me. I was cheering enthusiastically as the lice stuttered and drowned in the poison.
More! More poison for you! Take this and this and this! I kept cheering in my head.
I realised the poison would be bad for me too. As careful as I was, I didn’t have any special protective clothing. Sure, I waited for days that were still and sunny, but the wind and the breeze had a mind of their own sometimes. Without a hazmat suit, some of the sprays were bound to reach my skin. So, I think I did the right thing by ‘my girls’ and did not shirk from protecting them the best I could.
The best I could? Did I say that?
Sorry, that was a lie. I failed to do the best I could. I did not check that the coop was secure. It was a stormy night with blustery conditions so bad it took down some big gum trees in the neighbourhood. Unfortunately, it also blew the roof of the coop’s nest off its hinges. Before I woke up the next morning, a fox had come to inspect the coop. How did it know that day would be the day the coop would not be fox-proof? My poor girls. They died a horrible death. All of them a bloody one, except for Reddy. She died of fright. There were no visible external wounds on her. Dottie fared the worst, she lost her head. Literally. She was a full grown hen, big and meaty and heavy with eggs. No, there was no temptation to prepare her for dinner. May they rest in peace.
Many months after their demise, I finally got the coop destroyed. It wasn’t that the roof wasn’t repairable, I just did not want to be reminded every day of the promise that I did not keep. I promised to look after them and to keep them safe. I promised them that one day they would earn a peaceful and safe retirement after years of giving me their eggs. A simple promise. Yet, I broke it. Unforgivable, really. So, I destroyed the coop. If I could not forgive myself, I should at least not remind myself.
That coop was a daily reminder of my failure!
As if to exculpate myself from the guilt, many months later, I embarked on a mission to build a solid coop for ‘next time’. But it must be 100% fox-proof! The Mrs seemed ready to extricate herself from the deep mourning too. It seemed fate made the decision for us. Just as she was entertaining the idea of keeping a new batch of hens, my phone rang. It was our sons’ retired music teacher from the conservatorium.
“I know of a ‘good chap’ who can build a coop for you,” Mr. L said.
“Sam is a bee-keeper; he is teaching me to be an apiarist! Do you want some honey?!” Mr. L continued joyfully.
Sam Tennikoff is a decent-looking chap, clean-shaven, remarkably courteous and amazingly fastidious about his work. He told me his name should have been spelt Tenikov, being male. The Tennikoffs took their paternal grandmother’s name to escape China during early communist rule. Being Christians, they feared persecution by the communists. Grandma Tennikoff had to flee Russia in the early 20th century, “around WW1 actually,” Sam said. Grandma fled Russia but her parents died somewhere in Russia on the journey to Ghulja in western Xinjiang. Her uncle, Ivan, was the leader of the clan. He survived. Many of the older kids also died during the journey. Grandma who was in her late teens met grandpa, Wu Vin San, a captain of the platoon that was patrolling the area.
“Wu?” I asked.
“The spelling is W U?” I asked quickly in the same breath. Sam nodded.
“Wow, is it written in Chinese with a mouth and sky?” I asked. I proceeded to write it in the air with very deliberate strokes. 吴
Sam nodded again.
“Wow, we share the same surname!” I said to the young Russian man with blue eyes.
“Your grandpa didn’t leave China too?” I asked.
“No, he died too soon,” Sam said.
“In an avalanche,” he added.
Carrying out a normal routine patrol near the mountains in Yining (Ghulja), it was said people heard some explosions and the whole platoon was buried in the resultant avalanche. They suspected the Chinese authorities killed their own soldiers as many had inter-married the Russian settlers in the area and converted to Christianity. They suspected some of the soldiers were involved in some illicit trade but the main reason was, according to some who were there, the authorities frowned on those who followed a religion. The region was a tinderbox for the local natives, the Uyghurs. The Chinese were seeing a wave of nationalism after the success of the Xinhai revolution had toppled the Qing government and the rising influx of Russians was also becoming a source of anxiety. Just a few years later, Tsar Nicholas II was assassinated, thereby giving birth to the Russian Republic. Vin San was in his mid-20’s when he died. So, grandma Tennikoff fled again but this time with four kids of her own, the youngest being Alex Wu, Sam’s father. The eldest was a daughter and then two other boys. They were amongst hundreds of refugees. To escape capture by the communists, they forged their identities with fake travel documents and hid in cargo trains to avoid being seen.
Alex Wu, by then known as Alex Tennikoff, arrived in Sydney when he was about eighteen months old. It was in 1959. Later, they moved to Adelaide. Alex’s elder siblings retained their Chinese culture as they were born in China and were old enough to remember the customs. Alex Wu lives in a pocket in Adelaide that many Russians reside in and therefore considers himself a Russian. Maternal grandma was also a Russian, to be precise a Polish-Russian. She married a Russian-Mongolian man who was an orphan raised by a Russian family.
In 1997, Ghulja was once again in the crosshair of Chinese authorities, but instead of quelling the growth of the Christian religion, the massacre in Ghulja was to put down the uprising of Muslims who were protesting for an independent Xinjiang. It led to the abolition of the East Turkestan Republic. Some of the Uyghurs fled to Afghanistan and Pakistan, but were detained by the US military and sent to Guantanamo Bay in Cuba. Whilst incarcerated there, they were subject to a human rights violation called the Frequent Flyer Program, which deprived the inmates of sleep for prolonged periods.
Sam Tennikoff was born in 1992. He speaks a bit of Russian but not even a bit of Chinese. If Olivia Newton-John was Australia’s perennial girl-next-door because of her decent looks and good manners, Sam is definitely the perennial boy-next-door. Charming, innocent-looking and sweetly polite, Sam has the bright blue eyes, a gentle voice, cheerful disposition and lovely kind smiles to break any wooden heart. A dashing young man, he is a six-footer eligible bachelor who knows all there is to know about bee-keeping and making the tastiest 100% pure honey. One day, as Sam was bulging his biceps, carrying a load of timber on his shoulder, The Mrs tapped the window pane of her kitchen and waved excitedly to catch his attention. Her enthusiastic demeanour reminded me of the time when she was still a young single woman. The Mrs recovered her poise and said she was happy to see Sam turn up for work. She wanted our project to be completed expeditiously.
My initial budget for the coop was $2,700 but by the time it was built, Sam’s bill had doubled it. But, it was worth every cent of it. It was more a shed than a coop or a barn than a cage.
Fabrication and Assembly of:
Structure 3200 W x 2100 D x 2000 H mm
Combination of Steel and Timber Framing
Steel Roof Sheeting with Insulation Underlay
Galvanised Wire Mesh Ventilation Windows with Awnings
Galvanised Wire Mesh Fox-proof Fencing & Aprons
Internal Wall Framing & Roosting Bars
Water tank with automatic water supply
Solar-powered auto open/shut door
Many weeks after the project was completed, the henhouse is still empty of hens.
“Can’t you find any girls?” one of my mates asked.
“Your henhouse isn’t so busy,” said another.
“Are you home much these days? Or do you spend more time at the henhouse?” asked a third chap.
“Oops, He has disappeared into his henhouse,” said another, who insisted that he be unnamed.
“Is he sitting quietly in his corner or is he in his henhouse?” Anonymous asked again.
“Into the henhouse he goes!” he cheered, after hearing the Nasdaq had dropped 4% overnight.
“He is crawling into his henhouse,” another said unkindly, inferring that I had lost an argument about the scam of plastic recycling.
Of course I know what they mean by a henhouse. In Chinese, a hen 鸡 (ji) sounds like 妓 (ji) prostitute, or 妓女 for a female prostitute. So a henhouse sounds like a whorehouse.
It is true that I have been reluctant to go and get some beautiful Wyandottes for now. My excuse is that it is winter anyway, and hens do not lay eggs when it is really cold. So, why waste money feeding chooks that won’t lay eggs, right? But, the inadmissible truth is that I am preparing for the day that I may be forced to move in there instead.
“Why?” a friend asked.
The share markets have crashed. We are seeing a long crypto winter. Very soon, even the real estate market here may crash. There is just nowhere to hide. What would The Mrs say if she knew how much I have squandered? What will she call me?
You’re a loser!
You’ve always been a louse!
These self-descriptive words ring loudly in my ears.
There is every likelihood that the henhouse I built is for the louse. Will The Mrs send me packing? Into the henhouse! I can hear her say so loudly. Suddenly, I felt like Gandalf the Grey who didn’t mean for many things to happen but they did anyway. I definitely didn’t mean for the lousy investments to crash or for the cashflow crisis my business is facing, but they did anyway. Sigh.
He didn’t mean for many things to happen but they did anyway.
My first impressions of Josh told me that he was not a pretentious man. He looked neither tall nor short, thin nor fat. Neither was he stylishly dressed nor posh in the way he spoke. He came across as genuine and confident. Respectful and respected. Time-tested, battle-hardened, eyes wide-opened. A man who would not offer lame excuses; in fact, a man who would not accept excuses. He was destined to fail, like the rest of his gang members. Yet, today he stands tall, flawed in his youth but in old age, spoken of in voices awed by his tenacity and drive. After knowing his story, I was reminded of Marcus Aurelius’ wise words.
If you find something very difficult to achieve yourself, don’t imagine it impossible.
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations 6.19
Joshua Paul is a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood, a group of old schoolmates with eclectic ideas, opinions and varied mix of political and religious ideologies. A diverse group of people who grew up in the same town and were schooled under the one big umbrella of Lasallian brotherhood. His wonderful story is one of grit, determination and either luck or divine intervention, depending on your belief or lack of. In trying to reflect the struggles and adventures of the heroes in my stories to that of the outlaws’ of Liangshan Marsh in the Water Margin novel, I was hard-pressed to find the one character in that epic Chinese classic that best resonates with Josh’s. I mean, he was nothing like the military man, Major Lu Da who rendered the bully, Butcher Zheng, into a crumpled mess. The bully’s crime? Extortion from a singsong girl and her frail old father. He was nothing like Lin Chong either, another military man whose fighting skills were legendary. Lin Chong, a sworn brother of Lu Da’s got into trouble with the law after he rescued his pretty wife from being raped by the play-boy adopted son of Grand Marshal Gao Qiu. Josh was also nothing like Li Kui, although both were very dark-complexioned and endowed with a solidly-built body that hinted of bovine strength. Their natural look was serious with fiery-looking roguish eyes matched with lips that refused to smile. Possessing none of Li Kui’s bad temper and bad habits such as his fondness of gambling and killing people, Josh unfortunately got into as much trouble with the law though. It is who we mix with in life that can ultimately unravel us or save us.
Perhaps I could make a case for likening Josh’s early days to Shi Qian’s who was also known as ‘The Flea on a Drum’. Shi Qian, a small-time burglar, had a knack for stealing things. In the brigands’ stories, stealing is of course, not always a bad thing. In an earlier chapter, we learned that Shi Qian was the bloke who, while stealing valuables from graves, witnessed Yang Xiong killing his adulterous wife, Pan Qiaoyun. Shi Qian was also the one who duped Xu Ning, a highly admired imperial guard instructor, into joining the gang so that they could learn from him the skills of using the hooked spear or halberd. Shi Qian firstly had to steal Xu Ning’s precious impenetrable armour which was made of gold rings coated with swan feather.
Josh was born in Nazareth, but not the Nazareth that was made famous in the best-selling book of all time. His birthplace was not the Nazareth just 90 miles from Bethlehem, Jesus’ birthplace. Yet Jesus was to touch Josh’s life and transform him into the wonderful person that he is today. Josh’s Nazareth is at the southern end of India, approximately 630 km from Chennai, an arduous and stuffy eleven-hour bus ride. India’s Nazareth was a Christian-majority town, created by missionaries, primarily through the work of Canon Arthur Margoschis (1852-1908), reputedly the ‘Father of Nazareth’. Josh’s father left Nazareth for economic reasons and when Josh was six, his elder brother brought him to Penang. Life was great for the kid in Nazareth but once he left his hometown, he had to grow up very quickly.
His dad, John Paul Ponniah, could not hold a permanent job. His income came mainly from giving private tuition in English, math and Tamil to children of business traders and hawkers but occasionally, he was asked to teach rich adults in their homes. Tall, lean and muscular, his dad stood straight and walked with an easy stride. Always seen in a white shirt and white pants, he was a handsome man with a promising future. His monthly tuition fee of $5 seldom varied unless a student had extenuating circumstances. Josh was the only non-paying student in his father’s class of maybe ten to twelve students. The classroom was where his father cooked during lessons and also served as their bedroom at night. For a short time, they catered lunch from a woman who lived on Church Street. Her tiffin carrier had five tiers, but Josh did not have fond memories of the food that was provided. On rare occasions, his father gave him 30 cents to buy a delicious meal of mee goreng and ice kachang at the esplanade. Living with his dad was not pleasant for Josh. He couldn’t handle the constant pressure from his father’s grand expectations.
“My dad visited my class teacher at least three times a year. Needless to say what happened when he found out how bad my results were,” Josh said, twitching as he hinted at the scars from the early beltings.
“I don’t remember enjoying my childhood at all, my father was a very strict man and expected me to pass all the subjects,” Josh said.
School was boring for young Josh. The boy had his priorities all wrong, he was more preoccupied with the paltry sum of ten cents for his pocket money. Usually, he had to save up the money for a few days before he could afford to order from the canteen. The proud boy would not be seen in the queue for the free food either. During school recess, he would watch the others eat. One day, a foreign-looking boy with blue eyes and long curly eyelashes bought him a coconut candy. A candy bar all for himself! The joy the boy gave Josh was so foreign it made a lasting impression on him.
“Thank you, Richard Lim or Blue Eyes, as we call him,” Josh said with a fondness in his heart.
“My escapades running from home started when I was 9 years old,” Josh said, his voice turning serious.
“One evening when I was in Std 4, I decided to leave my father for good,” he continued.
He took a ferry to Butterworth and then walked on the railway tracks towards Kuala Lumpur. Hitching a train ride without a ticket, he pretended to sleep or locked himself in the toilet whenever he saw the ticket inspector approach the carriage. He did this repeatedly till he reached Kampar railway station in Perak. At Kampar, he begged for money unsuccessfully from many people until one kind man stopped to help. Josh still remembers the man’s name as Subramaniam.
Subramaniam brought him to his house and after providing a meal to the hungry boy, he surrendered the well-fed boy to the local police station. When questioned by the police officers, he told them his name was Joseph so that he couldn’t be traced back to his strict father. By that time, the angst-ridden father had placed an advertisement in the local newspaper about his son’s disappearance.
The police did not know what to do with Josh, so they transferred him to Selibin Boys’ Home. There, he made several attempts to run away but after repeated warnings, the wardens finally sent him to Asrama Sentosa, another boys’ home in Kuala Lumpur. During the May 13 riots, Josh spent some nervous days there. He impressed the warden who made him the gatekeeper. The gatekeeper’s duty was to open the gate for visitors and government officers. This arrangement was fine for some time till he got fed up. So, he packed his bags and escaped but was caught a few days later walking alone in the middle of the night on the railway track heading towards Penang.
After severe interrogations, the obstinate boy told the truth and confessed to the authorities that his real name was Joshua. He was brought to the juvenile court in Kuala Lumpur (KL) and handed over to his rather angry yet relieved father. After missing STD 4 and 5, Josh was surprisingly allowed back to his school, St Xavier’s Institution. The teacher was Louise Barbossa, an excellent teacher who made Josh feel accepted. Josh’s poor grades did not make his father happy so he was again routinely caned. His father’s resolve finally broke one day and he handed Josh to the welfare home. How does a father give up on a son? What goes through a man’s mind before reaching such a sad decision? Surrendering one’s child, denying him of love and security, admitting failure, giving up on a loved one? What does a son feel upon such abandonment by his own father? Guilt? Remorse? Anger? Cynicism? Hatred?
“Did his act break the bonds of trust and love forever?” I asked.
“Were you permanently damaged?” I asked again.
Josh remained glum. Sullen in his own thoughts. The welfare home sealed his fate that year when they sent him to the Paya Terubong Boys’ Home. This home was different from all the other homes that Josh had been to. The guys there were hardcore gangsters, thieves, and robbers but surprisingly they were mostly Josh’s age, about 14 or 15. Many of them were just ‘doing time’, waiting to be transferred to their final destination, Henry Gurney’s School in Malacca. Josh recognised immediately that his life had changed forever. His dad had forsaken him – found him too hard to handle and beyond saving. He knew he was on his own. He knew that to survive, he had to be brave, tough and decisive. Josh lived in that home whilst attending Form 2 at Scotland Secondary School.
Form 3, like all his other years in school, was boring for Josh. So, he asked his dad to arrange a one-way ticket for him to return to India. Josh packed all his belongings including his precious stamp collection and set off for Nazareth. He boarded the Rajula, a vessel that plied between Singapore and Nagapatinam in South India. The journey took six nights and seven days. The Rajula was not your luxurious cruise liner. Many passengers, including Josh, had to literally run to secure a place to sleep on the deck as soon as the gate was opened. During those days, the customs guys in India were very strict. Almost every item brought in by the passengers was taxed. Whatever they did not tax, they stole. So, Josh was dispossessed of all the gifts for his mother and other relatives that were entrusted to him by his dad.
Nazareth was a small dusty place of no more than a few thousand people. The town was hard to keep clean since it did not rain for most of the year. For a good five months, Josh enjoyed the simple life with his mother, especially her delicious food. Very soft-spoken, considerate and kind, Kirubai Paul was a housewife, a simple woman from a village not far from Nazareth. There was only one entry and exit point for all vehicles into and out of the town. An artist could paint Nazareth quite accurately with one police station, a very old post office and about a hundred small shops scattered all along the main dusty road. Make it very very dusty. The St John Cathedral tower would probably be the tourist attraction. For reasons unknown to Josh, the schools there were well known all over the south of India. Just before the expiry of his re-entry permit to Malaysia, Josh decided he wanted to return to Penang. His dad promptly sent him a second-class berth ticket which meant he did not have to sleep on the deck again.
Life in Penang was even more miserable for Josh; his mother’s delicious food had become just a memory, with only roti chanai and lousy tiffin carrier food to look forward to each day. By then sixteen years of age, he had become more argumentative, more stubborn, and less amiable. John Paul Ponniah, a domineering man who could not hold his temper well, was unpredictable and filled with anger at life. The two did not get on well at all. After a heated argument with his father, Josh was told to return to school or find a job. Josh decided he would not return to school. He started work as a salesman in a bookstore in Chowrasta Market. His wages was a meagre $80 a month plus ten cents for tea break which was always spent on a cigarette and a Hacks lolly to mask the tobacco smell. After work, his life was his life to live and his father had no say in the matter even though the old man was well aware of the bad company Josh was keeping with gangsters who menaced Lines Road and its neighbourhood.
“I was so naïve and ignorant of the danger by getting involved with the wrong company,” Josh said.
“Dad was right, I could have been easily killed during the gang fights, and there were plenty of fights!” Josh admitted, without any prodding from me.
“It was the mercies of God that saved me,” Josh said, finally revealing to me his faith in God.
Soon, it was time to leave Penang for good. His father’s income as a tuition teacher had dropped drastically due to the change in the school syllabus from English to Malay. Through a friend, John Paul had found a better job for Josh, in a book store in a quiet town called Kuala Lipis. Work meant starting at five every morning, selling newspapers on a train as the book store was in the railway station. Gopal, the store owner, never had a smile on his face. A mean boss, Gopal did not look after his employees or showed any consideration for them. So, most of them, in turn, did not look after Gopal’s interests. Josh copied the others and the teenager started to put his hand in the till for his breakfasts and other expenses. Oftentimes the shop would be left to the young employee to manage. Not a brilliant idea, boss! Within a few month, Josh was sacked.
“Not a brilliant idea indeed,” Josh confessed that stealing did not pay. Not knowing what to do next, he went to the only church he knew to pray, the Pentecostal Church in KL.
Within a month of staying in the church, he found employment in a carton factory in Petaling Jaya but his joy of finding employment at age eighteen came to a screeching halt as his work permit was not approved. In those days, if you were an Indian citizen with a red identity card, you had to have a work permit to work in Malaysia. Having exhausted all avenues to find employment, he sought help from a rich uncle in Malacca. Uncle Isaac was a good man who owned several rubber estates in the surrounding areas.
“But my aunt was a lunatic,” Josh said.
“She had this crazy idea that I had gone to take over my uncle’s estates, and accused me of all sorts of things,” Josh said.
Josh frequently cried himself to sleep because of her wild accusations. His uncle by then had no choice but to send him back to Penang. He drove Josh to the railway station, bought him a train ticket to Butterworth and shoved an ink-smudged letter into his trouser pocket. “Only for your father to read,” he said to the boy. But, Josh sneaked out of the train and went back to the church in KL.
A parishioner found Josh a good job cleaning swimming pools three hours a day. His monthly pay was $100. During this time, Josh found some new Malay friends who were living in Kampong Pandan. One of them was a popular Malay cyclist, Mokhtar Yousuff. He influenced Josh to become a serious cyclist as a way of getting his Malaysian citizenship. Josh participated in several races but never won any medals. Within two years, he lost his job at the swimming pool. Money was scarce, so he went without food on some days. It was at this juncture that Josh’s life was to change dramatically again. He received a letter from his father who had migrated to Singapore to seek employment there. Josh sold his only property then, a Raleigh bicycle for $100 and headed to Singapore to join his father.
Josh found freedom in Singapore. He had plenty of money for movies, cigarettes and good food. But, he found the factory jobs there boring. Very boring. One of those casual jobs was working for a shipyard contractor for $25 per day. Maybe it was from boredom that Josh stole watches, binoculars, calculators, anything that could be stolen from the ships’ crew. One day, a friend stole a video cassette and not owning a VCR player, he gave it to Josh. To Josh’s shock and amazement, it was a blue film. When the friend asked him what movie it was, Josh said it was a Mickey Mouse cartoon. To his surprise, he discovered many Sri Lankans, Bangladeshis and Thai nationals were willing to pay $5 per “screening”. So, Josh finally showed some entrepreneurial flair and borrowed a HDB flat to use as his “movie theatre”. Pretty soon he was raking in thousands of dollars. After many such screenings, the police were soon aware of his illegal activities and had hatched a plan to nab him. Realising the danger he was in, he quickly sold the rented television and the VCR player to a gullible third party. That night, Josh left everything behind and caught a bus for KL. His next plan was bigger again. He was going to Italy.
Josh and Eric, a Singaporean friend, bought two return tickets to Italy on Aeroflot. On the first night in Rome, Josh lost all his money to a conman. Without any money left, he sought help from Eric’s friend in Milan who very kindly gave him a hundred pounds. Eric left for Germany to look for work but within three weeks, he quit and returned to KL. Josh stayed on and found employment in a transport company. He was paid 50-60 lira per day. Within a few months, he had so much money he went holidaying on the island of Lipari. It was on the journey to Lipari that Josh found a cute girl named Loredana. They fell in love. It was also in Lipari that he befriended a psychologist by the name of Wolfgang Link. Till this day, they remain good friends.
Milano became his home for the next twelve months. Influenced by his new boss, Josh began to smoke hashish, marijuana, heroin and cocaine. As he had overstayed his visa, he decided to burn his passport and reported it as lost, but kept a copy of his re-entry permit to Malaysia. Just a week before he was due to leave for Malaysia, his apartment was busted by the police for organising a drug and booze party. Josh was arrested by the Milan police, but he managed to get bail after spending a few hours in the lock-up.
Finally, the day arrived for Josh to leave Milan for good. The sobbing Loredana held him tightly at the airport, and would not let go.
“Why did you not stay instead?” I asked.
“Here was a great chance to make a new life with the beautiful Italian lass,” I pressed further.
Instead, Josh made a terrible mistake that day to go back to the same seven friends in Singapore and because of the heavy usage of marijuana, he had become completely delusional. Less than seven months later, his life was in shambles. A misunderstanding took place among the old friends. Hallucinating and imagining he was going to be set upon by the friends, Josh lashed out and a fight broke out. Majid, an Indian Muslim friend, took out a knife and stabbed Josh. The stab needed several stitches to his abdomen. When Josh woke up from his deep slumber, he felt great remorse and a huge disappointment in himself. He gave up on drugs that same day. He had finally woken up. He realised those people were not his friends but his enemies. He parted company with them and promised himself never to walk their path again. That year was 1983. The year he gave his heart back to Jesus and God gave him a new life. Josh felt he was finally delivered. Except for Majid, Vijaan and Rajan, none of those other friends survived. Raju was hanged in Singapore prison for trafficking heroin. Rama died of a heart attack. Raja died of an overdose, and Ah Lam died in a motorbike accident.
“How are those who remain?” I asked.
“Rajan still treats the Changi prison as his second home and Vijaan is suffering from diabetes,” Josh said.
I found myself in a hole, so I stopped digging.
Having left those fellows for good, Josh was determined to succeed, having found employment as a contract worker with a tower crane company. His daily salary was $30 but he made the wrong choice again, supplying illegal Indian workers to a palm oil factory in Pandan Gardens. He lost the contract and became jobless once more. In November 1985, he met Raj, a rich commercial art dealer. Raj had kindly stopped his Volvo at the causeway for Josh who was hitching a ride in the middle of the night after renewing his visa at the border. It was a chore he had to do fortnightly for the eight years living in Singapore. Raj introduced Josh to the world of fine art reproductions from China. In just two weeks, Josh sold all the remaining paintings that Raj had. It was a good deal for Josh, as he got to keep half the proceeds. Like most things in life, good things do not last long. Raj had already decided to close his business and migrate to America. Josh was left with no paintings to sell but he had pocketed several thousand dollars. Not knowing where to source those art reproductions, Josh gambled and picked Hong Kong as a likely source. Choosing to stay in Kowloon Mansion in Tsim Sha Tsui also proved a good guess. Josh found commercial paintings were being sold everywhere there. In his first two years, Josh made about fifty thousand dollars as his paintings sold like hot cakes. Looking at life through the lens of Christ suddenly felt rosy – he bought his first property in KL. It was at this time he was introduced to an art historian and lecturer from the National University of Singapore, the much respected TK Sabapathy.
TK Sabapathy talked Josh into holding a major art exhibition in Singapore, the first of its kind. Josh solely organised and funded the major Indian art exhibition. As the curator, he bore all responsibilities and all expenses including purchasing all the art works that TK Sabapathy selected from the nine Indian artists from Chennai, Mumbai, New Delhi, Kolkatta and Manipal. His 1991 event at the Singapore Museum was called ‘Joy and Despair’. It was more despair than joy. ‘Joy and Despair’ was a failure. TK Sabapathy, a committee member of the Singapore Art Gallery, convinced them to buy three of the works for about $35,000 but it took them over a year to pay Josh. Dr Earl Loo, a very good man, bought one work for the La Salle School of Art.
“90 % of all the artworks bought for the event are still in my possession,” Josh said.
“Hopefully, I will sell them to some serious art collectors in India one day,” the ever hopeful Josh said softly.
Josh couldn’t continue residing in Singapore with a two-week visa forever, so he applied for a business visa as an art gallery owner, but his application failed. In 1997, at the peak of the Asian Financial Crisis, Josh returned to KL with his savings all tied up in the remaining paintings. Joshua Art Gallery closed after three years due to poor sales. As the money noose tightened around his neck, Josh became more and more desperate. Whilst struggling with his financial disaster, he received news that his mother was in her last days of her life. He went back to India to see her one more time. His mother managed to whisper three words to him.
“Are you alright?” she asked.
Josh could not stay long to comfort his mother, and upon arriving home in KL, he heard the news that she had passed away.
It was on that last night with his mother that Josh decided to move on, from being an art dealer to a dealer in law books. He opened his law books bookshop in 2001, selling law books, custom made trolley bags, souvenirs & legal caricatures. It was a very difficult job to relocate from a 1,700 sq ft gallery to a 200 sq ft store at Wisma Denmark. There’s no turning back, I have to make this little book shop work! With no experience and no money, Josh said to himself. In 2004, his father died. Josh fell on hard times again. To help make ends meet, he contrived a plan to pass off copies of some legal prints from London as originals. His conscience as a born-again Christian bothered him so much that he quickly stopped the fraudulent activity. He called the printer in Brickfields to stop and had him shred all the prints in front of his eyes.
I must move quickly when the clouds move.
The commercial courts were shifted to Sultan Abdul Samad Building. So, Josh moved his shop also. He found an empty lot at the Straits Trading Building and continued running his business there till 2007. That’s the year when the floods came and destroyed a lot of his stock including some original works of famous Malaysians and some very old documents dating to the 17th century. Well, the flood was a blessing in disguise, for when the income tax officers came knocking at his door, they saw that all the documents and computers were destroyed. There was no further investigation after that.
The new High Court was relocated to Jalan Duta in 2007. Realising that his business would not sustain without lawyers around, Josh got a lawyer friend, Sanjeev Kumar, to draft a letter to the law minister Dato Nazri. The letter worked. Dato Nazri made sure Josh got a shop at the new building. Joshua Legal Art Gallery has been in operation for twenty two years with a branch in Kota Kinabalu. Josh is glad he no longer suffers the roller coaster rides that was much of his early life. Happily married, he is close to his two sons and a daughter and no longer looks at the rearview mirror with guilt and remorse. His grit and determination to drag himself out of the dungeon of misery and crime should serve as a source of inspiration for those with ‘woe is me’ and defeatist attitudes. Josh’s story is a truly inspirational one of turning darkness to light, agony to charity, failure to success, and above all, crime and punishment to salvation. Joshua Paul is indeed a worthy addition to the Urghhlings Marsh Brotherhood.
Comforted by these words from the hymn ‘He Abides’, Josh asked to share them.
Once my heart was full of sin, Once I had no peace within, Till I heard how Jesus died upon the tree; Then I fell down at His feet, And there came a peace so sweet, Now the Comforter abides with me.
Last week, my sister-in-law and her hubby were busy running around like headless chooks, looking to buy the perfect pearl for their niece as a wedding present. The Lady owns a beautiful South Seas pearl which she used to wear often. It suddenly dawned on me that I have not seen her wear it for a long time. Maybe she knows they are rare these days and therefore, so highly prized it should be kept under lock and key. Maybe she has decided it should be reserved for his eyes only; after all, a pearl can mean a person or thing of great rarity and beauty, a precious gem, by definition. It is a symbol of wisdom gained through worldly experience. Buddhists believe that unlike the pearls in a pearl necklace which are held together by a string – the ‘soul,’ which passes through all the pearls in a series of rebirths connects them all. Life continues after death. Successive existences, although separate, are all connected. Some believe a pearl offers its wearer protection and good luck. A pearl is undoubtedly a natural beauty. Lustrous, sometimes perfectly round, sometimes spherical, no matter the colour, be it a pure white or a bluish-grey or black, for me, it brings out the feminine qualities of a woman. Fertility and purity. Formed inside an oyster from an irritant that somehow found its way into the bivalves, it evokes in me a sense of irony that a speck of sand, a worthless irritant, can transform into a stunning precious gem in a living thing.
But, the irony will be quickly forgotten when you admire the pearl that you are holding in your hand. It is nature’s wondrous creation, a magical transformation from what was rather ordinary into a rare beauty. They remind me of two people in a loving embrace. The pearl, a perfect creation of natural beauty, exists peacefully and grows perfectly inside the sanctuary which the shell, her hero, provides her with. With a shell so safe and hard, her oyster is her everything, her world. It will eventually sacrifice its life for her to become the jewel she was always meant to be. Nestled inside its womb-like fortress, nourished and protected, the pearl is the oyster’s everything, his creation, his true love. A naturally-occurring gem that is formed inside a living creature, the pearl and its oyster is a beautiful story of a union between two parties, as precious and poignant between mother and child, as loving and loyal between husband and wife or indeed as romantic and sensuous between two lovers.
The Lady and The Bloke told me they spent a week looking for one in South Australia, but to no avail. “You can’t find one in Burnside? What about in the city?” I asked disbelievingly. Burnside is a blue-ribbon suburb where every second car seems to be a Merc or Beemer. Surely, the well-dressed scions of old-money society here know to appreciate the beauty of pearls!
“Nope,” The Lady simply said.
“Buy it online?” I suggested.
“Nope,” she said again. Hmmm, a woman of few words in the absence of a glass of good wine, I said to myself.
“We have to see it and appreciate its beauty with our eyes before we buy a pearl,” The Bloke explained.
I guess I revealed to him I have never bought one and would not know how to pick one. I was not aware of the inadequacies of the internet when it comes to buying a pearl.
“He has never bought me one,” The Mrs said, emphasising the truth which I tried to hide.
Earlier in the week, the couple finally bought a beautiful pearl. “A specimen of the highest quality,” The Bloke said in a hushed tone, as if he was afraid of being overheard, forgetting there were just the four of us in their house. “Show! Show!” The Mrs said excitedly to her sister. The Lady rolled her eyes like how my dog would but uttered not a single word as her sister pestered her to show her the pearl. The Lady was normally a person of few words, but after dinner, a coded term for after many glasses of our best reds, she was prone to turn into a talkative person, one who liked to ‘lecture’ a puppy, in fact. Murray had somehow formed a habit of biting at their exquisite French door after his meals at their house next door. So, when Murray wanted to play his new game which I called ‘bite their glass door’, The Lady began her litany of lectures about the etiquette of good behaviour after being well-fed.
But, The Lady did not produce the pearl for her sister to admire. “No, I had to get my niece in Perth to buy it,” she said. “There is a Kailis store in Perth, the one here closed down,” she explained. So much for needing to see it first, I thought. “It’s perfectly round and it is much bigger than mine,” The Lady said, apparently reading my mind. “We should celebrate,” she said. The Bloke was quick to agree. He had just got off the phone. “We will enjoy a sumptuous barbeque at my friend’s place tomorrow!” he said.
His friend’s place turned out to be a winery we visited in January 2020, just days before the pandemic changed the world. That summer saw a savage spell of bushfires that ravaged many wineries in Australia. The 2019 vintage as a result was a small one. Monteperle Wines luckily was unscathed that summer and continues to produce their best wines today. I remember arriving at the gates of the winery in 2020 and was gob-smacked by the heavenly prettiness of the 26-hectare estate. Monteperle’s logo and name, for me, hinted at the biblical twelve gates making up the sun as the gateway to heaven. Each of the twelve gates were made from a single pearl and as our car rolled to a halt at the gate, The Bloke stopped the engine to let us soak in the beauty of the land in silence. “This is truly a pearl in heaven,” I said, not realising I had spoken loudly. I still had the same feelings as the first time. Yeah, there is no need for me to fulfil my dream to visit Tuscany. Although not under the Tuscan sun, this place does not lack its romanticism and magic. “It is so very pretty,” The Mrs said, oozing with positivity and charm. It was summer the last time we were there. The rolling hills were no longer mocha in colour, but the distant gum trees still appeared grey rather than green. The gum leaves, freshly dropped by the cold air of late autumn nights, rested listlessly on the ground that was sodden with overnight rain. Suddenly, they danced playfully together in the air as a gust of wind lifted them from their late morning stupor. The Bloke cranked up the engine of his Discovery and the car slowly inched forward over the path of crushed river pebbles, its tyres crunching loudly on the stones as we made our way towards the glassed building. “Ah, I can see Wenyu 文宇 lighting the barbie,” The Bloke said, referring to his friend by his Chinese name.
On their Gods Hill Road vineyard, four varieties of vines are still cultivated by Monteperle. Grenache, Shiraz, Mataro and Cabernet Sauvignon. The GSM, a multi-award winner, was their flagship for 2018 and 2019, but I was eyeing their shiraz. Munching at a succulent lamb cutlet, I listened to Louis intently as he described the quality of their shiraz, especially the ones from Block 6. At $195 a bottle, they are a steal, considering they are the same Syrah that Penfolds used to procure for their Grange production pre-2017, i.e. before Louis and his associates acquired Monteperle Winery from Max, an old cobber who built his immense wealth from making and selling silos to South Australian farmers. A bottle of Penfolds Grange these days will easily fetch $1,000. I still have my Grange collection of 1996, 1997 and 1998 vintage, bought with the view to crack them open at any of my son’s weddings. I am still waiting, lads – but I cannot guarantee I can resist the temptation for much longer!
“The 2023 vintage will be the best in fifty years,” Louis said. A viticulturist, he spoke like an oenologist also, as he talked about the best wines and the best wine-making regions in the world and why the shiraz from Block 6 is considered the best shiraz. Tuscany, Rioja, Napa Valley, Bordeaux and of course, Barossa Valley are the apogee of wine-making by his standards. Originally from China, it did not surprise me that Louis also spoke very highly of the wines from Ningxia and Shanxi.
Satiated and contented after the lamb cutlets, my no-longer-hungry eyes drifted past the wall of glass window and honed in on the playful leaves outside. Their energetic display of gorgeous browns, reds and yellows caught my attention as they danced to the rhythm and intensity of the wind. Louis’ booming voice brought me back to the room. A persuasive man and highly intelligent in the way he organised his thoughts, he enraptured The Mrs, even though the topic was a potentially disruptive one. Strangely and uncharacteristically, The Mrs had this need to engage herself in current world politics. Louis held everyone’s attention in the room and his words were mostly accompanied by nodding heads. Wearing a stubborn crease on his forehead, he had a prosperous nose and a genuine smile. A man with a towering figure, his physical presence forced me to give him my full attention. His eyebrows were faint and almost non-existing. If his face were a painting, I would have said the artist forgot to finish his brows. A cloud laden with rainwater moved abruptly into the sun’s path and momentarily blocked its rays from beating down on the land. The blue sky that was decorated with puffy white clouds changed to an angry grey right in front of my eyes. It reminded me of The Mrs whose mood can change equally drastically when she is painting. Last weekend, she ruthlessly scrubbed out the painstakingly and perhaps lovingly painted strands of white hair from Caravaggio’s head. The atmosphere changed and it felt like the temperature dropped a few degrees suddenly. I need more wine to warm up! Louis seemingly read my mind and opened a second bottle of his lovely GSM. As he was topping up our Riedel glasses, and unmindful of his Mona Lisa smile, he proposed a toast. “To health, happiness and peace,” we echoed, as we clinked our glasses.
After the wonderful lunch of the best cuts of lamb cutlets, ribeye steaks and spicy sausages sourced from some friendly local farmers, I asked Louis to show us where Block 6 was. I wanted to see why it was reputed to produce the best shiraz in the world. The arcane world of wine-making had roused my curiosity. The vines had turned golden as they would at this time of the year and they resembled a pot of gold under the rainbow that suddenly beamed in the sky. From a distance they looked the same, just an expanse of rich golden and mocha colours but a closer look aided by a detailed explanation from our host revealed why the microclimate of Block 6 was different from Block 5 and 7. Their Syrah vines thrived in all three blocks but the topography and location of Block 6 delivered favourable temperature, humidity and even wind effects that were ideal for those vines. Whether the land got more or less sun and whether it was the morning sun or late afternoon sun had a big bearing on the quality of the wine also. Even though our eyes could not delineate the differences, every slope, every different hillock and every slight variation to the soil type offered different benefits to the vines. I could not stop admiring the effulgence of the land, the lustre of the golden landscape was as captivating and intoxicating as the nacreous lustre and iridescence of a perfect pearl. I turned around and realised the others had left me a fair distance behind. In that brief but wonderful moment, I experienced a paroxysm of laughter. It was sudden, unstoppable and thoroughly divine. Immersed in happiness and a strange sense of peace, I walked quickly to rejoin the group. Was it the wine I had that day or was it the pearl in Monteperle I found?
The Bloke rushed out of his gleaming red car. For once, he didn’t park it properly. He was atypically in a rush. Atypically, because he prides himself in being punctual and very rarely is there a need for him to rush. The front right tyre protruded from the freshly painted white line that separates the parking bay from the rest of the road. The space was a trifle too small, only big enough for a small car and way too small for an eight-seater. A meticulous bloke, he does everything properly and expertly. Not a single thing is ever where it does not belong. Every key is labelled and tagged as if he feared dementia would set in any day and he would forget what they were for. I imagine his undies are labeled and tagged too, a different colour for each day of the week. A golf fanatic, he wears designer golf clothing only. Everywhere, even to the Town Hall for a concert. I imagine his walk-in wardrobe is as well-presented as a boutique store’s showroom. Well, at least as big and shiny anyway. Every shirt impeccably ironed and folded, every trousers dry-cleaned and steam-pressed. Every old tie he used to wear proudly hung in coordinated colours to remind him of his hey-day as a jet-setting entrepreneur. I imagine his wardrobe is sprayed with a eucalyptus spray; the fresh, invigorating fragrance of the Aussie bush a world away from the musty, mouldy and stale room I am used to. I imagine he would shudder every time he walks into my messy and disorganised house. Everything is not where they should be. My hair, especially. I never used to drop hair unlike The Mrs. “Get a hair-cut,” she would nag me almost every day. “Your hair is everywhere,” she exclaimed again just now. Our iRobot conked out in less than a year. Mimi, our Xiaomi robot frequently stalls, clogged with long hoary hair. “Yours, of course,” she would decisively declare. Life is unfair. When she used to drop hair, there was never any commotion. Never a snide remark. Never a complaint. It was well understood that hair naturally drops. Today, it is clear gravity should not apply to my hair.
The Bloke doesn’t ever let his guard down. But, he let his guard down the other night after a superb meal at my place. I know The Mrs may one day read this, so if I begin to heap praise here, please understand why. The Mrs had cooked a fantastic dinner for The Bloke and his wife, The Lady. Without fuss, I should add. Cooking comes easy for her. Somehow, she can miraculously come up with a feast effortlessly. It is true. You won’t see her slave in the kitchen for hours but when dinner time arrives, abracadabra, all I have to do is set the table, and an array of the most delectable meal will appear in front of our eyes. Any dish with lots of belly pork drowned in thick, sweet dark sauce is a superb dish for The Bloke. The Mrs added some slivers of dried cuttlefish to the tianmianjiang or sweet bean sauce, and it was this extra depth in the taste that made him rave about how much better it was than his wife’s version of the dark soy belly pork. It was unusual to see him loosen his lips. We all know never to disparage someone’s cooking, especially the one who cooks our meal every day! Maybe I poured him too much wine. Plied with the best red wine from my wine fridge, he relaxed too much. Loose lips sink ships! I sent him a message by telepathy. Don’t drink any more of my expensive wine! The telepathy did not work. He kept drinking more and more of my expensive wine whilst comparing and analysing the dish. “Ah, yes. See the cuttlefish?” he said, as he picked up a thread of it with the serving chopsticks. His wife sat there across the table, agog, not knowing what to say. The Lady simply disagreed. “No, I add dried cuttlefish too,” she said. “No, I add enough tianmianjiang too,” she defended her ego. “No, I melt the fat too, on a slow flame,” she argued.
Maybe The Bloke did not let his guard down at all. Maybe, he is just being honest with me. Despite what he said years ago that in-laws by marriage aren’t family, he may have recently changed his mind. Our wives are sisters. So, The Lady is my sister-in-law. The Bloke is my sister-in-law’s husband. For The Bloke to consider me as not part of his family, I think, is legally right. In Punjabi, he is my saandhu. Quite different from soondhu. As a kid, I was often called a soondhu, which I suspect is a derogatory word for “idiot”. A Tamil friend just told me soondhu means “bum”, and soondhu naroot means “root your bum”. But, last night, The Bloke told me I am family. The elation I felt was exhilarating, even at my age. I suppose being accepted and embraced as a family member is special, for any age. So, he did not let his guard down when he told me he could so easily transform my house into “the best house”. He was merely treating me as a close family member, telling me the truth. I was expecting him to come up with some clever interior design ideas. Something creative. Something fresh, an artistic revelation. A bold statement needs a bold idea. With bated breath, I leaned forward to the edge of my chair. I wanted mine to be the “the best house”. “I hope it won’t cost me an arm and a leg,” I said, already almost ready to spend the thousands I have not got. “Just listen,” The Lady said. “I have the same idea too,” she added smugly, as she sipped the expensive wine.
It was really so simple. All The Bloke told me to do was hire a Skip bin and get rid of every single item in the house that I have never used in the last three years. Just get rid of the clutter. But, it is the idea of letting go that is difficult. Dump the samurai swords and the other dust collectors, the pretend antiques? What about the threadbare sofa in my office that serves as a laundry basket-cum-book shelf for my music sheets and The Mrs’ art and some of her long-forgotten clothes. What about my collection of The Strad magazines? Years and years of them. Should I throw away the panel of ‘Four Seasons’ made of mother of pearl, a wedding present from my parents? They line a wall, a precious gift taking up precious space from which The Mrs would love to hang her own paintings? Should I dump the boxes of masks now that the mask mandate has been cancelled? Dare I venture to the kitchen and assume the empty jam jars and the rarely used pots and pans are “excess to requirement”? What about the chipped cups and stained plates that are consigned to just occupying shelf space? Bin them together with the crystal glasses and champagne glasses that we do not bother to use for cleaning them requires extra care and delicate hands? What about the $200 hand hammered wok that The Mrs won’t use? As for our old clothes, where do I begin? I mean, they aren’t old but rarely worn. They don’t fit, not because we have put on weight, but because the fashion then was loose-fit rather than slim-fit. What about the suits with Italian-sounding labels that are not Italian made and the scores of business shirts and trousers that were fashionable in the 80s? “Oh, they were long gone,” The Mrs revealed. “Oh, I suppose I did not miss them after all,” I said, missing the euphoric days. I still see the 80s as my most successful years. The era when I carved out a career, bought my first house and created three human beings out of pleasure. The Mrs’ words kept ringing in my head. Those days were “long gone“.
The Bloke is a very exact kind of bloke. Everything must be exactly right, even if it meant we let the salt and pepper lobster go cold as he manoeuvred the dish left to right, and right to left, to get the best angle with the best lighting. Or sear another piece of ribeye steak to replace the one that was a bit rare for his photo. Or pour the wine again, but this time more slowly so that the wine swirls in the glass. Or redecorate the plate of noodles so that it does not look like a crumpled mess, and with each passing second, the food gets colder! Yet, that day, he parked his 8-seater car at an angle from the kerb. It had to be something magical to make a meticulous bloke less meticulous. And it was. Autumn. At its finest, in Summertown.
“Summertown is thirteen minutes from our place,” The Bloke told me with exact precision. A quaint village with a population of less than a hundred, up in the Adelaide Hills just behind us. Being in the foothills, we get a lot more than the fair share of rain and a lot less of the sun. “The sun is out,” The Lady said whilst munching on a piece of crunchy roast pork from the Vietnamese broken rice combo which does not contain any broken rice, an absurd and the most blatant example of false and misleading advertising that has gone unpunished for a very long time. In autumnal morns and dreary wintry arvos, it is important that we acknowledge the sun when it chooses to come out and play. Winter is long and bleak here, so any glimpse of the sun from hereon needs to be celebrated. Summertown is a historical town, once heralded the “food bowl” of South Australia. It got its name from being the summer attraction for the city folk to seek reprieve from the summer heat. Temperatures are usually 3-5 degrees cooler, making the vegetation greener in spring, browner in summer and golden and redder in autumn. Occasionally it will snow, making the land white.
As soon as The Bloke drove into the carpark of Mt Lofty Botanical Gardens, I could sense the excitement level rise in his gleaming red car. The Lady held her breath as her eyes followed his finger which was pointing at the colours that suddenly presented themselves from a distance. She gasped. He whistled. The ‘ooohs and aaahs’ that emanated from the couple momentarily to me seemed to be describing their love-making, but of course, it was the sound of their love for nature’s colours. “Nature is the best artist, said The Lady, herself a well-known artist. I offered to find a better spot to park, so they rushed away by themselves into the garden which resembled a painting that Nature had produced. They were too quick for The Mrs, who decided to rest in the car and loudly worry about our dog instead. We had left Murray at home by himself a few hours earlier, so The Mrs felt we ought to be home by then. Lunch at the Barristers Block winery was a sumptuous affair with free-flowing wine all provided free-of-charge by Jan Allen, the founder and Managing Director. Jan very kindly sacrificed her day off and came to party with us at her cellar door, which she made exclusive for our use. Thanks, Jan! We are definitely fans of Jan’s.
Mushrooms have long had the connotation of being known as psychedelic drugs. Maybe The Lady and The Bloke had inadvertently kicked some magic mushrooms as they rushed down the meadow to soak in the beauty of the landscape in front of them. Was it the vapours or the dust from the psylocybin growing everywhere there that gave them that hallucinogenic effect that afternoon? They were visibly “high” when they returned to the car. Positively alive, almost euphoric and ecstatic with nature’s paintings, they seemed charged with electric ions and the whole car reverberated with their serotonin and uncontrollable laughter. By contrast, The Mrs was sleepy and dull or maybe dulled by my presence.
So, I thought it was an opportune moment for me to ask her, “When you first saw me, was it my beautiful body or my intellect that attracted you?”
“I still like your sense of humour,” she replied.
I promised myself that would be the last time I am misled by her sleepy look. When did I become the man who wears the pants at home but the pants are picked by her from K-Mart? Little things add up. To be a good husband, I knew a long time ago I have to do many good things in life for her, usually small deeds which on their own aren’t significant. But, it is not that little burst of light over shade or that little brush mark or a dollop of colour or a brilliant stroke of a palette knife by an artist that makes a painting come alive. It is everything little thing and every decision that the artist chose that makes it into a work of art. Similarly, I am not afraid to make mistakes or make choices in life. We make very many of them in life. Each one may be small, or may be unimportant, but together, they are what made me who I am. Someone will say joyously, “Yes, you’re a big mistake!”
Well-being is realised by small steps, but is truly no small thing.
I happened to watch the movie Before Sunset a few nights ago. When I realised it is a sequel to Before Sunrise, I watched that too. A simple love story, the movie was about two people who crossed paths in a train and they impulsively decided to spend one day together in Vienna. Nine years later, they met in Paris and tried to find out how life would have panned out for them had they acted on their mutual feelings for each other following their wonderful time together in Vienna. It then crossed my mind that an equally powerful story could be written for a married couple who many years later asked each other how better life would have been had they not acted on their feelings back then. The following morning, I looked at The Bloke and The Lady and realised how theirs has been a truly wonderful love story. For them, their love story is a gift that keeps giving more and more. Magic mushrooms, anyone?
The Bloke seemed far away even though I could hear him breathe. He was digging into his third Eggs Benedict in two weeks. Across the table, The Mrs, who typically must tell me what to have and when, said out loudly, “See, I told you to order the same! See how inviting it is?” A bit too loudly, as a sweet young thing a table away looked up at us. The Lady joined her sister in a chorus, “Try it, it’s really good,” as she shoved towards my face a fork crowned with a bit of English muffin and pale bacon, messily dripping a trail of golden yellow sauce on our table. Legend has it that it was a hungover Wall Street broker, Lemuel Benedict, who, whilst breakfasting at the Waldorf Hotel, ordered a buttered toast and asked for it to be topped with poached eggs, crispy bacon and hollandaise sauce. The Bloke did not look up as he challenged himself to pierce at a bigger portion of the poached egg. The two and a half years away from his Adelaide home have been kind to him, I deduced. I had not noticed any drastic physical changes in him. Still youngish-looking, his powerful sonorous voice still lands him the status of ‘Best Singer’ in our circle, our ‘Perry Como’ or more accurately our ‘Lau Tak Wah’ since his array of all-time favourites are all Mandarin songs. But, this time round, after the Covid-enforced absence, he is less inclined to sing. Our karaoke sessions, which used to be held nightly, were memorable, loud and fun. We have not sung together for more than three times in the three weeks they have been here. Maybe the last time I sang, I was off-key, lost confidence and became low key. Singing makes us happy. Yet, I can’t help but think we only sing when we are happy. Something is amiss, I thought as he shoved the final piece of muffin into his mouth. He had been looking down at his plate so much that morning that I could not help notice the alarming rate of hair thinning that was going on at the centre of his scalp. Right at that moment, I could not decide which was worse, a glabrous section on the scalp or sparse areas on the head. I looked at the sleeve of my threadbare jacket and decided on the latter.
The Bloke looked at me with sad eyes. Was he sad or sad for me, I wondered. He spoke about an old friend of his whose story would make a stoic man cry. “He is a really kind man, but much maligned and misunderstood, even by his wife,” The Bloke said. Although I did not know this ragged man in ragged clothes, I could easily sympathise with him; how even the most hardened of men could feel their sanity ebb away under a deluge of misfortune, bad timing and worst luck. When I first sang Don Mclean’s ‘Vincent’, I was still a teenager living in Penang. I had no clue that the song was about Vincent van Gogh, who I revered decades later as the greatest of all artists bar perhaps the old master, Rembrandt van Rijn. As The Bloke related the stories about his beautiful old friend to me, the lyrics of the song played loudly in my head. I imagined a destitute man with a weathered face that was lined in pain, flailing under swirling clouds in violet haze, as he tried to set himself free. With eyes that know the darkness in his soul, and when no hope was left inside his troubled mind, The Bloke advised him to let go and not cling to his losses. “But he would not listen,” The Bloke said. Just like in the song, he’s not listening still, perhaps he never will. I felt he is like a stranger that I have met, in a world that was never meant for people with beautiful souls.
“What happened to him?” I asked.
“He lost everything. Every time.” The Bloke said.
“Sounds like me,” I said before adding, “except I lost a lot, every time, not quite everything.”
Not quite everything, but still, it was bad enough every time. Bad enough for The Mrs to be scarred for life; bad enough to lose my credibility and tarnish the aura of responsibility and dependability I had promised The Mrs. Bad enough this time to want to start again. But, suffering a big economic loss is incomparable to losing The Mrs’ trust and respect. Besides love, trust and respect were the other big pillars that made me strong, confident and relevant. Losing those was a heavy price which took years to remedy. The money I lost from making dud investments was just a temporary setback. Money lost can be earned again. In 1987, I lost what was equivalent to the value of an apartment in Coogee. I was 29, and had lots of years to fix that. Which I did. When I lost big again in 2008, I was 50. I knew I still had time to fix my losses, but I also knew that the next 10-15 years were vital to how I write the final chapters of my life. I had read somewhere that Colonel Sanders did not franchise his KFC business till he was 62, and that gave me the energy to continue with gusto. The two sharemarket crashes felt like they were my doing. The market was booming each time, until I betted big on my share portfolios. On both occasions. As soon as I did, the market crashed. Bad timing? Bad omen? The Mrs said it was my bad karma. I had so much bad luck I could crash the markets. She made me promise not to ever buy shares again or else.
“Or else?” I asked.
But, the answer was clear and I did not require a reply from her. There would be no ‘next time”. If I were to be so bold or reckless to invest again in the sharemarket, it would be the trigger for a divorce.
“What happened to your friend?” I asked The Bloke.
“Is his wife leaving him?” I asked insensitively.
“Like you, he lost most of his investments in 1987 and 2008. But he also lost big in 1997, during the Asian Financial Crisis,” The Bloke said.
“So, he avoided the stock markets like a plague, and invested in real estate instead,” he said as he sipped the last drop of cappuccino from his cup.
“Shall I get you another cup?” I asked, not wanting him to end his story too quickly. But, as is usually the case with me, I spoke too softly and too unclearly. He didn’t hear me and didn’t ask me to repeat what I said.
“He bought a townhouse in the city,” he continued.
“Off the plan. So foolish,” The Bloke said.
There had been stubborn rumours the builder will follow two other builders who were giants in the construction industry and file for bankruptcy. That morning’s news of the CEO’s sudden death had forced the company to deny those rumours again. A few weeks earlier, The Bloke’s old friend had celebrated after hearing prices for building raw materials had shot through the roof after months of supply shocks due to pandemic-related manufacturing and shipping issues. He had locked in the low price with a fixed-price contract.
“He bought it cheap two years ago, the real estate market has gone up 20-30% easily since then, and inflation has made building costs gone up even more,” The Bloke said.
But, we know never to trust builders, especially builders that are facing high costs escalations. First, they wrote to say they needed to lower the ceiling heights by 300mm on the third floor, spinning excuses that the air-cond ducting was too bulky to fit under the roof beams and the city council had height restrictions in place to prevent them from building higher. Lower the ceiling height meant lowering costs. “Yeah, I wouldn’t believe that story,” I said without industry knowledge and without evidence. The Bloke said as a compromise, they would install a bulkhead in the bedrooms with linear grilles to make it aesthetically modern instead of the ceiling grilles.
“Let me draft a letter for him,” I offered.
Later that morning, I emailed the draft to The Bloke. It went like this:
“Whilst I appreciate the attempt to remedy the loss of 12% of the ceiling height to the two bedrooms and bathrooms, the eventual loss in amenity and value of our properties is too much to accept. Your proposal to “fix” the air-conditioning ductworks by way of the bulkhead and linear grille seems to be a reasonable compromise to avoid further delays to the project, and the gesture to install extra lights to the bathrooms is also commendable but we remain unhappy with the outcome of lower ceiling heights.
In Stone v Chappel, the plaintiffs were awarded a financial compensation for the loss of amenity and enjoyment of the property as per the contractual agreement. In that case, they only lost 48mm, here we are looking at a loss of 300mm. Aside from the loss of property value, there is also the loss of amenity that is difficult to value.
This breach of contract on your part has a cost but currently, the cost is for the buyer to bear solely. We need to address this so that the outcome is a fairer compensation for us.”
But, even as I drafted the letter, I felt it would be a total waste of time, if the builder folded. Memories of my old trauma came back to haunt me. Poor guy, I would hate to be in his shoes. He would face a huge financial loss if the builder folded, but a potential lawsuit if they didn’t.
“Worse was to come for him,” The Bloke said, as he sipped his coffee from the cup I had just paid for.
“My friend owns an online business that sells after-market products for cars,” The Bloke said.
“Last week, Toyota sued him for selling counterfeit goods,” he said, as his eyes looked sadder and sadder, and his brows furrowed into a stubborn knot.
“That is sad indeed,” I said whilst thinking of how the old man would cope with another big lawsuit at the same time.
“Why did he do such a stupid thing?” I asked, and assumed he knew full well the risks of selling anything that might hint of piracy.
“No, the goods he sells are after-market goods made to suit Toyota cars,” The Bloke defended his pal. They are branded in some obscure names, certainly not Toyota, yet the car giant saw fit to flex their financial muscle and sent Clayton Utz to pursue this small business owner.
“When you’re down, you get kicked one more time,” I unhelpfully added.
“Bad luck comes in threes,” I said.
“What is the third?” I insensitively asked.
“He got scammed by Bitcoin,” The Bloke said in an almost disparaging tone.
“I told him not to be fooled by these snake oil salesmen,” The Bloke continued.
The Mrs was sitting across the table from me, so I did the only wise thing and bit my lips until they bled. It was not the place and time for me to speak. In their eyes, I had no such credentials to question let alone challenge The Bloke’s opinions about Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. He has the runs on the board. He has made a reputation for hitting massive sixes and scoring quick centuries, to borrow a cricket parlance. He has the Midas touch turning almost anything into gold whereas in The Mrs’ eyes, the only thing I am good for is my tendency to score golden ducks.
As if prompted by the current demise in the crypto market, a friend posted a 10-minute report by The Economist yesterday. A Hongkonger friend commented, “Gambling. One word to summarise Bitcoin.” So, I asked him for his one thousand word summary instead, “so that we can fully understand why you say that,” I said. The Hongkonger simply brushed me aside, stating that a thousand word thesis is not a summary. Unhappy with his dismissive reply, I hurled back at him more words.
“A thousand-word thesis is a summary compared to a book. Have you read the Bitcoin Standard by Saifedean Ammous before you made your one-word summary?”
“If not, whose works have you researched before you boldly made your one-word summary?”
“Besides, your one-word summary does not explain why Bitcoin can be viewed as a philosophy or as a useful form of money that can stop the wars that don’t end.”
“But I’m really keen to know how many hours’ research you’ve put in to make this one-word summary. The accuracy or quality of your summary may well depend on the quality of your research, right?”
“Also, it would be interesting to know what event (or events) this wager you refer to has to happen in order to win the bet.”
“Firstly when a report describes Satoshi Nakamoto as a shady character when they mean anonymous, it already hints of their negative bias.”
“Secondly, Bitcoin has not suddenly become volatile, it has always been. If you understand Metcalfe’s Law, then you’d understand why. Amazon, the world’s biggest retailer dropped 90% of its value in its nascent years. Same reason. That’s what happens in the S curve of any new technological innovation.”
“Thirdly, the Economist is dishonest, to say the least, about Bitcoin being responsible for wasteful energy consumption and equating it to a big contributor of climate change. The cartoon depicting miners using olden day trucks and chains transporting black ore is a sly way to reinforce this FUD (news or propaganda to create fear, uncertainty and doubt) about the blockchain technology. Bitcoin mining actually uses less power than all washing machines and clothes dryers combined, and they do not compete in the use of urban energy which is way too expensive for miners. About 58-63% of big miners use renewable energy and are mostly situated in deserts and places with lots of solar and hydro power. Others such as Exxon and Occidental are using their flare gas which otherwise would be energy that is simply wasted.”
“Fourthly, the report is dead wrong about Bitcoin being of no economic value as a payment system. Not surprisingly, Bill Gates echoes the same, he’s a one of the leaders of the WEF and of course they would want to spread FUD about a new money system that threatens their grip on the whole world. Proponents of fiat money are evil as they have always used their monetary power to suppress poor nations and control the masses. Fiat money funds wars!”
“Can I direct your attention to the Lightning network which sits on the Bitcoin network? Jack Maller’s Strike has already demonstrated how fast his payment system is. At the speed of light and at transactions per second bigger than PayPal and Visa and MasterCard combined, it is frictionless and therefore free. A big threat to the banks and card issuers, they signed up Shopify to integrate with tens of thousands of merchants receiving Bitcoin payments globally as US Dollars.”
“Fifthly, the underworld would not be so dumb to use Bitcoin to launder their money! Some scammers do but they are always eventually caught. Why? Because if you understand the open ledger publicly verifiable system, then you know everything is open and can be viewed and traced. It’s the permissionless and decentralised nature that the World Economic Forum WEF is afraid of. Therefore they use their organisations under their control, the IMF and central banks to spread more FUD.”
“To compare this exciting new technology to Tulips is indeed laughable! The blockchain technology will eventually be the foundation for new technologies to sit on, what is now commonly known as Web 3.0”
“The sovereign states and central banks have a self interest to suppress the price of Bitcoin by spreading FUD news so that they themselves can buy it first? Maybe!”
“If there is a 5% chance this technology will revolutionise the world, why would anyone not put 5% of their savings into it? That’s a basic thing about insurance. It is about looking at probabilities, not gambling!! And that is my summary.”
My Hongkonger friend insisted on having the last words.
“Like I said, mine was my summary of the video. I am not giving an opinion about Bitcoin.”
With no one else to talk to, I took Murray out for a walk and thought of The Bloke’s old friend along the way. Will someone sing him a hymn for being so steadfast despite all his troubles?
Benji is seven months old. Mischievous, fearless and surprisingly, faster than Murray. The two dogs were having fun in the park, frolicking, sparring and humping each other. Their obvious delirious attraction and enthusiasm for each other, chasing and licking each other on their first meeting was the kind of innocent joy that I have not felt for a very long time. Benji’s owner smiled at me as she disengaged herself from her phone and terminated her conversation with the person at the other end of the line. A telephone line will be a thing of the past in a few more years, I thought.
Elon Musk’s Neuralink will be the disruptive technology that ultimately spells the end of phone companies such as Apple and Samsung. Neuralink is poised to undergo a human trial to study the effectiveness of their brain implant as an interface with our brain. The goal is for the brain to communicate directly with our computers. Children in the future will no longer need to study the subjects we used to learn in school, since all knowledge will be available not at their fingertips but at the tips of their synapses via this implant.
As if the goal of bypassing damaged spinal nerves via his chip isn’t enough to enable quadriplegics and paraplegics to control their body movements, Elon Musk reckons his chip will one day also control the brain’s hypothalamus to control appetite and therefore morbid obesity.
“You’re the owner of the dog?” Benji’s owner asked.
A nice opening line, I reminded myself to use that in the future. She was youngish-looking and rather attractive. I should confess I find most blondes attractive. I almost stared at her, but was quick enough and turned my eyes skywards to avoid embarrassing myself. Arrested by her beauty, the balance in my universe was disturbed momentarily as I stumbled on my own words.
“Er, who, yes, he is mine,” I said absent-mindedly before realising I mis-spoke.
“Er, no. I mean, he is my son’s dog,” I corrected myself.
“His name is Murray, from Murray Bridge,” I said.
“Isn’t it strange how we end up looking after someone else’s dog?” she replied, and informed me Benji was her son’s dog.
“But, Murray is my pal, he is never an inconvenience,” I defended him.
“Besides, he treats me like I am his owner!” I added.
“He honours me like I am his owner,” I beamed with pride as I made that irrefutable fact known to her.
Murray does honour me like his owner. In his eyes, I am blameless. He was doing the downward-dog pose whenever he leapt off my lap the other day. Unusual, I thought. Later that afternoon, I found out why. He wasn’t his usual excited self when I showed him the leash and teased him, “Wanna go to the park?” His eyes did not light up, and he did not jump up to grab the leash with his teeth. Anyway, I sort-of had to drag him to the reserve across the street which he treats as his toilet. After that, we would habitually embark on an hour’s walk to anywhere he fancied. But, no. He dragged me straight home instead. “No? You don’t want to go for a walk?” I asked incredulously. It didn’t take me long to realise Murray had abdominal pain. He had his tail between his legs as he insisted we crossed the street back to the house. He did not whimper even as he suffered many bouts of diarrhea that evening. First Son asked accusingly when he came to pick up Murray, “What did you feed him?!” Murray did not accuse me, not even once. I am blameless, that is how he honours me.
Her phone rang, quite loudly, at the most inopportune time as I was about to pat Benji. As she picked up her phone and began to start another conversation, I knew our conversation had ended before I had the chance to talk about Elon Musk’s chip. Yeah, that is the nature of my conversations with beautiful strangers, from dog ownerships to neurological chips in one sentence.
Talking about owners and honouring them, I must not forget to mention the owner of the house next door to me. They normally reside in Malaysia and only visit Adelaide once in a blue moon. Infrequently here, they have unknowingly allowed me the total enjoyment of their garden without their explicit permission. Tasked with looking after their garden during their long absence which was annoyingly extended by the pandemic, I had become somewhat possessive of it. When The Lady said she knew the garden like the back of her hand, I gave myself a loud chuckle. She may think she knew it so intimately but she did not. I know her garden like the back of my hand, I corrected her sentence, without communicating it to her.
I was initially excited by The Bloke’s enthusiasm to improve their garden’s lighting. During the lockdowns, he was stuck at home in Kuala Lumpur. So, he surfed the internet and went shopping for all sorts of gadgets for their garden there. Electronic door locks and garden lighting caught his attention. Night lights create a nice mood in any garden, and in theirs, they surely accentuate the beauty of the landscaping and choice of plants. But, horrors! The Bloke told me he had trimmed off much of the undergrowth and a lot of the young branches of shrubs that had blocked the beams of light now emitting from the newly installed spotlights. Personally, my preference is for the lights to create a mood rather than brighten the garden like a tennis court, but hey, I gotta honour the owner! He is the owner, he can very well do whatever to the garden as he pleases, and if a shrub displeases him, he has every right to just destroy its existence. I will refrain from arguing with him that the plant will suffer unnecessary trauma! But, when I discovered where he had conveniently dumped the cuttings, I felt the plants’ pain too. The Bloke had piled up the unsightly garden refuse in a back corner, unknowingly burying my precious turmeric plant that is doing poorly as the nights start to turn cold.
“Hush, honour the owner,” I reminded myself.
“Honour the owner,” I reminded The Mrs again and again weeks ago.
It is their garden. Although The Mrs and her sister get along really well, it is only proper that we respect them as the owner of the garden, and thus “we must constantly remind ourselves of that,” I said to The Mrs. But, The Mrs loves persimmons, especially the ones that are slightly astringent, oblivious of The Lady’s and The Bloke’s repeated statements that they prefer ripe ones. “We like it sweet,” they said again and again. The Mrs, somewhat hard of hearing, did not stop harvesting a handful each day. “Yum, I love these crunchy ones,” she said as she walked past her sister. The following day, the plant was totally bare of fruits. The Lady wisely harvested them all before the possums and her sister did. Honour the owner, I pretended not to know that there was a competition for persimmons that day.
The Bloke caught the bug for keyless entry systems for his house in KL a few months ago. You know the ones, biometric readers such as facial recognition, retina scans or fingerprint readers, some with built-in alarm systems. I was a little worried that he would bring a few sets for his house here also. The Federation-style house here does not lend itself to modern gadgets for the doors. I mean, have you seen the monstrosity of the Made-in-China gadgets? They are cold and hard and bulky, in contrast to the warmth and inviting looks of his beautiful timber door. Honour the owner. Honour the owner! “Do not mention they would look horrible on his door,” I reminded myself.
Honour the owner, I reminded myself again today. Crypto owners across the globe have been decimated these past weeks. The gurus I follow still front up on their Youtube channels daily, looking stoic and with brave faces and strong voices, continue to preach the goodness of Bitcoin. Some have proven their honesty by confessing they have lost huge sums of money, “equivalent to the value of a house,” George of Cryptosrus said. Luckily for me, I focus on learning about Bitcoin only, whenever they stray into ‘degen’ mode, I turn off. The most erudite Bitcoin maximalist, Michael Saylor, continues to ‘hodl’ and imagine Bitcoin becoming the only money worth anything. The young ‘degens’ harped about the Terra blockchain and its crypto coin Luna, and the stable coin it powers, TerraUSD, for many weeks. During that short time, I watched the Luna price go up from $35 to almost $120 just a few weeks ago. “High risks, high returns,” I observed without a tinge of regret of missing out. The last time I checked, the Terra blockchain has been halted, and the Luna price is worth maybe 2 cents. Phew, do I not regret missing out! Another headline boldly claims, ‘Bitcoin is dead’. But then, we have had over 400 Bitcoin obituaries in its short history. “Honour the owner,” I reminded The Mrs. There is no need to criticise their decision-making. There is no need to mock their philosophy about real money and fiat money. There is enough blood on the streets all over the world. “Will Bitcoin become worthless?” The Mrs asked. Hoping that she had not heard Warren Buffet’s attitude towards Bitcoin, I firmly said “NO!” The best investment guru of all time, the nonagenarian recently said he would not pay $25 for all the Bitcoin in the world. I did not dare share my thoughts with her. If someone can attack the UST stable coin, causing a manic panic that destroyed it in four days, much like a run on a bank that killed off the British bank Northern Rock and Bear Sterns in 2008, then that someone can also wreck much damage to the King of all crypto coins. It has not escaped my mind that there is a high probability that the IMF and central banks could easily print money at zero cost, buy Bitcoin over the counter, (OTC transactions do not affect the price) and dump the coin via the exchanges at vastly lower prices causing a rout to the crypto market. Will Bitcoin become zero? Honour the owner, do not frighten them. Do not frighten The Mrs!
The Bloke next door wants to sell his house! He made his shocking announcement over breakfast yesterday. “No! You can’t sell this house!” The Mrs screeched in pain. She briefly forgot the laws dictating property rights in Australia. It is not even remotely possible that she is one of the First Nations peoples who may have a case to traditional ownership of the land next door. “No! I won’t allow you to move from here,” she beseeched her sister, The Lady of the house. The couple looked bemused, not the least confused about their legal right to do as they please with their property. Munching at the yummy deep-fried halloumi cheese without revealing my thoughts, I wondered why the sudden decision by The Bloke. Just the other day, he sounded so pleased with his ‘resort-style’ house and garden as he proudly showed some guests around his property. “Where is the cellar?” I vaguely heard someone ask. Nope, the house has no cellar! The rumours had been rife for years that I could simply walk down their wine cellar and help myself to an orgiastic party of the best reds and whites. I mean wines here, lads, not ladies. The Lady had vetoed the idea of a cellar, citing the irrefutable reason that we are located right in the middle between the best two wine-producing regions in the world, the Barossa Valley and the McLaren Valley, a mere fifty minutes’ drive either north or south. Behind us is the Adelaide Hills, home to more top calibre vineyards. Why have a cellar when we can simply duck out for a few bottles of the best wines?” she reasoned. Even though The Lady’s original plans were to build a “cute cottage”, the eventual house design, although by no means palatial, spanned over 390 sq metres of floor space.
There are no sesterces in their pond. I know that for a fact, because I have been the one looking after it all these years. The Bloke, being professionally trained as an engineer, is the least inclined amongst the people I know to throw coins into a body of water for good luck. No, his brain is wired scientifically. Yet, I could not fathom why the sudden change of heart in deciding to offload his house in a weakening real estate market. Maybe he thinks interest rates will go much higher in the coming months and wreck all the big gains we have seen here. Maybe he is looking to please his wife and down-size to the “cute cottage” she had dreamt of for a long time. Maybe he feels the garden and the pond are demanding too much of his time and energy. No, I look after the pond, remember? Maybe he pities me. Maybe he thinks my old age is advancing too quickly and his garden will be too physically demanding for an old fella like me to cope with. Maybe he wants to divest from real estate and invest in real money instead? I told him Bitcoin is the only real money today. Fiat money is simply created by the central banks from thin air. “Isn’t Bitcoin also created from thin air, a scam?’ he challenged me a few days ago. So, I spoilt everyones’ appetite that day by harping about the merits of Bitcoin and how billions of dollars are being pumped into mining the coin. “You can’t mine what isn’t real,” I argued unconvincingly. Lacking the nous and oratory skills of a Raoul Pal or Michael Saylor, incredibly smart gurus who have converted me to study the blockchain phenomenon in more detail, and accept that the internet is going to be built on blockchain technology at an exponential rate in the coming years, I got nobody interested in what I had to say. “Bitcoin is a scam,” The Bloke repeated, and thus ended our conversation.
So, why would he sell his house, I wondered. Maybe he finds his neighbours intrusive. We are often still forgetful that they have returned from overseas and habitually cross the boundary of the house and therefore cross the boundary of civility. Well, it is not me who usually transgresses – not in the early mornings anyway, I am acutely careful in case they are walking about on their property stark naked or in their briefs. Murray, my son’s dog, must have wondered for the past weeks why I no longer allow him the pleasure of gnawing his doggie bone whilst I do my Qigong on their putting green each morning. But, The Mrs is less restrained. After all, her sister has no surprises to show her, and The Bloke doesn’t have anything extra that she hasn’t seen in a man.
Maybe The Bloke just wants to have a good time, find something exciting to do. A change is as refreshing as a holiday, they say. Sell the house. Build a new one. A better one. Maybe he wants a good day. To have a good day, do good. Any other source of joy is outside our control. But, doing good is within our control, and when we do good, we feel good.
If you want some good, get it from yourself.
Epitetus, Discourses, 1.29.4
“So tell us, why do you want to sell?” The Mrs asked in a demanding tone last night. Visibly still upset at the idea of being separated from her sister soon, The Mrs crossed the boundary by asking the question that does not entitle her to an answer many hours after the initial shock. Still despondent, she showed her unhappiness over dinner last night. I think she genuinely likes their garden. It is literally our garden of Eden, a paradise where a single apple tree can bear hundreds and hundreds of fruit – I stopped counting at four hundred and fifty. The persimmon tree gave us over three hundred. “What if the new owner is a thug? What a disaster!” she groaned. “What if they play rowdy music all day long?” “What if they smoke weed?” She fired off so many ‘what ifs’ The Bloke raised his palm to stop her. “Sister,” he said. “Do you think I want to sell?” he asked in his deep and rich voice.
The Lady had been too shocked to say a word. She loved the house and the rose garden was exactly how she imagined it to be. The U-shape design of the house was also a style she desired as soon as the seed to build her dream cottage was planted in her mind. The pond and its mini waterfalls were never part of the original plan but once she saw how they would, from the focal point of the ‘U’, draw a person’s attention in the living areas of the house towards the beautiful garden, she quickly embraced my suggestion to situate a pond there. She remained tight-lipped for many hours after The Bloke’s shocking announcement. I asked The Mrs if she had heard from her sister. She shook her head in a crest-fallen manner. The Lady’s persistent silence indicated a determined suppression of her emotions, I thought. All is not lost, she has her ways of making her husband bend to her wishes, I suggested to The Mrs. “IT IS ALL YOUR FAULT!” The Mrs said loudly and firmly, her sharp finger gesticulating wildly at me and her sharp tongue brutally tearing me into tiny bits. “You and your stupid ghost stories!” she accused me this morning even before I was fully awake. Last night, The Bloke revealed his decision to sell was due to the ‘Boogeyman’ in his house.
“And oh, in a pandemic, humans are more scary. Ghosts cannot infect us with the virus! I’d rather see a ghost than a stranger in our house in the middle of the night,” I concluded, I thought quite convincingly. The Lady had heard enough nonsense from me. She simply twitched her nose and in her usual menacing voice told me to stop talking about ghosts. Or else.
The Bloke is a trained engineer. A very intelligent man with a scientific mind and a brilliant business acumen. “He would never believe in ghosts,” I began my defence. “He believes in science! Ghosts aren’t real, even Bitcoin isn’t real to him,” I said. “Besides, I am a poor story-teller,” I added. For The Bloke to believe there are paranormal activities in his house, the stories would have to be super compelling. Sure, we Chinese celebrate the seventh month as the month of the hungry ghosts but that is simply folklore – a good story for kids to be extra careful when they venture outside their homes in the northern summer to play. “Have there been any paranormal experiences there lately?” I asked The Mrs. In fact, there have been more unexplained ‘happenings’ in our own house and she knows it. There is of course no legitimate reason to fear ghosts, if in fact they do exist. From my many experiences, they are only playful and mischievous and perhaps even more frightened than us to stumble upon our presence. I know the feeling. I have occasionally given myself a fright when I accidentally looked into the bathroom mirror. None has ever threatened me physically or shooed me away. Logically, they would deem my house to be theirs, right? Possession is nine-tenths of the law. Do we not say a person or place is possessed? “They could therefore quite convincingly argue that legally, they are the true owners of our house,” I closed my defence quite spiritedly, “Pardon the pun,” I added unwisely. “Do you know how silly you sound?” The Mrs sneered and waved me away. I knew better than to hang around when she was in that mood when her words were mostly contentious.
“What boogeyman?” I asked The Bloke. He looked at me in disbelief and must have felt I was really stupid. I was the one to confirm what his wife saw. I may have called ‘it’ “a man in white” or a “white-haired man” but it was clear to him I meant ‘ghost’. The Bloke would remain scientific throughout and call it the ‘boogeyman’ instead. The Lady had seen a strange apparition last Sunday afternoon as we partied raucously under the pergola of their house. From the corner of her eye, she was sure she saw a white-haired man in a white shirt stopped at the side gate of her front garden and suddenly disappeared. She rushed inside her house, her footsteps sounding more and more like Murray’s. She got to the front room and peered out surreptitiously from her Queen Anne window. Why surreptitiously? Who is the owner of the house? I thought to myself. Their English Baroque style curved bay window is a beautifully crafted work of exquisite timber trimmed with small decorative leadlight window panes above large simple panes of glass. There was no white-haired man to be seen anywhere. Biting her lips unintentionally, she winced from the sudden bleeding to her moist lips that were smeared with lip balm just moments earlier.
I was ruthlessly but deservedly mauled by The Mrs whilst still in bed this morning. My stupid prank to childishly but falsely confirm The Lady’s sighting of the strange man was well, stupid. No, I did not witness the apparition or ghost or whatchamacallit thingamajig. “Why did you say you did?!” The Mrs repeated for the tenth time. Yes, it felt like an interrogation and no matter how I tried to summon my intellect to come up with a clever retort, I remained silent. I was dumb to play-act and therefore dumb-founded by my own stupidity. “Telling fibs about ghosts is childish!” The Mrs kept stabbing me with her truthful words. “It is your fault if they sell their house!” she said accusingly, making her final judgement unambiguous and ominous. I knew I had to act quickly and spend more time next door lurking in their garden. Hopefully, the boogeyman will happen to see my reflection on the pond one day and that would be enough to frighten ‘it’ away.