Done. They Are From South Sudan

The early morning promised the whole day would be a scorcher. It was not quite half past seven yet but the old man could already feel the sting of the golden rays from the clear blue sky. The gully winds failed to turn up in the night, leaving the old man certain of one thing that laid ahead; a tortuous day with no reprieve from the blazing sun.

He was thankful he didn’t make any rash promises to his absent neighbours about fixing the ongoing weed problems in their garden. Although he felt capable of surmounting the challenge himself, he had second thoughts that his nebulous idea to pour concrete over the weeds would stop them from spreading on the strip of land once and for all. The useless land sat some three feet above the garden on top of the retaining wall that bordered the neighbour’s property on the higher side and a bank of rainwater tanks on the lower side. Pred, their back neighbour, who owned a professional garden landscaping business said they didn’t have the resources to help. A Sri Lankan who arrived in Adelaide just a few years earlier, Pred was already adept at being vague when he had to be. Sounding more and more ocker, his Aussie drawl must have been acquired by many a visit to the local pub in Norwood, just a stone’s throw away. Instead of saying the task was too challenging even for his company, he merely promised to get a contact number of someone from another business that could help.

“You’ll be right, mate. I’ll getcha the blouck’s number,” he said. Aussies don’t say bloke, they say blouck.

With a heavily cropped haircut mostly covered by a red baseball cap and a set of pearly white teeth that wouldn’t be hidden behind smiling brown thick lips, I could tell the dark-skinned man was at least three decades younger than the old man. The old man’s Mrs adored Pred’s five-year-old son. Danny was no ordinary boy, even at his age. Chirpy and bright, the boy was often seen leaning over the back fence looking at his neighbour’s activities.

“Why do you always come out in your pyjamas?” the nosy parker asked The Mrs.

“Hello! What’s your name?” she asked.

“My name is Danny! D A N N Y,” he replied.

Not knowing what shyness was, he introduced himself to The Mrs. “We are your new neighbours,” he said.

“I’m going to school this year,” he said in his loud chirpy voice. His big round eyes lit up with excitement as he began to imagine what life in school would be like.

“I’ll have lots of friends… we will play cricket and basketball everyday!”

“Did you have a good Christmas?” The Mrs asked.

“Yes. I got three presents.”

“Did you like your presents?”

“No. I wanted a truck but dad gave me a puzzle instead.”

“Oh, you’ll have to pray harder next time, ok?”

“I will. I have already started!” the little boy exclaimed before quickly asking The Mrs if she would like to meet his grandma.

“Sure, I would like that,” she said.

“Grandma, grandma!” his young voice sounded with urgency over the fence, loud and sharp. It then trailed off into a string of foreign words that the old woman did not understand.

“Hello there,” his grandma said, as her face appeared from below the fence. “Danny tells me you want to see me.”

“Yes, he wanted to introduce his family to me,” The Mrs replied. One by one, their heads popped up from their side of the fence and that was how they all met The Mrs. In her pyjamas.

Danny, his grandma and Hunter, a male Rhodesian Ridgeback. Hunter’s forebears are great lion hunters.

A few weeks passed but Pred did not give the old man the blouck’s number. But, just when the old man had given up on another empty promise, he stopped combing through his contact list on his phone for gardeners and landscapers when he heard Pred’s voice shouting from the back.

“Hellooo. Hellooo there. Anyone home?”

The old man could see Pred’s head over the fence as he stepped out of his house. From that distance, the only thing really stood out was Pred’s set of white teeth. The old man’s vision had always been poor. Bespectacled since his teens, he never did any ‘rough’ sports like jiu-jitsu or basketball. Although the epiretinal membrane on his left eye had not deteriorated, the news from Professor Weng Chan was not good. The old man’s visit to the Pennington Eye Clinic a few days ago was a downer for him since.

“Your cataracts are more obvious,” the professor said.

“But it’s not urgent. We can do that any time.” He smiled to reassure the old man and wished him Happy Chinese New Year.

Gong Xi Fa Cai,” the old man replied. His new year’s greetings did not address the concepts of happiness and good health. Typically Asian, it was all about congratulating someone for their prosperity.

The casualness in the professor’s voice was reassuring. No need to worry. The old man beamed a fake smile to hide his anxiety. He admired his eye doctor; how intelligent one must be to be a professor at such a young age. Efficient and effective, he did not dilly-dally and make small talk. The celerity of his actions showed him to be very distinguished and successful.

Another loss for Malaysia. The old man lamented quietly at the brain drain his motherland continued to suffer due to the ugly politics of racial discrimination and religious fanaticism. Whenever the ruling class favours nepotism and corruption on a grand scale, the fabric of society will surely decay over time. Those who are fortunate enough to leave will leave or at least have everything in place for a quick exit strategy. A friend recently posted a Youtube video by James Jani who espoused his blinkers-on opinion about Crypto (including Bitcoin) being the world’s greatest scam. “Bitcoin is a ponzi,” he said.

“No, fiat money is a ponzi scheme,” the old man replied, adding spite in his tone to show the level of his annoyance at online influencers who promote fake news through wilful intent or gross ignorance.

James Jani is a white Englishman who doesn’t understand how desperate people in other less fortunate countries are; they are the unbanked, without banking facilities, or without affordable banking facilities. If his country’s currency were to debase at 75-99% per annum, such as Lebanon’s, Venezuela’s or Argentina’s, would he say those fiat currencies are ponzi? What would he do then? And if his country were to be at war and his countrymen had to flee as refugees, what savings and assets would he take with him? What could he take with him that would not be easily seized from him?

“G’day, Pred,” the old man greeted his neighbour, teleporting himself back to the present.

“How ya goin’?” the new Aussie replied with his new drawl.

“I found ya some bloucks, as I said I would,” he said.

“If ya like, they can start right away.”

Half an hour later, Deng was at the gates. Deng came with two other mates. A big and tall bloke, he had a very Chinese sounding name but he was all black. African black, to be precise. I immediately thought of Deng Xiaoping, China’s one time great leader who opened up the country’s economy to the global market. The speed of modernisation and technological innovation in a single generation had led to the rise of another superpower. The Deng in front of the old man was no Chinese though. The size of his thick neck showed how strong he was.

“How did you guys flee your country?” the old man asked.

“With difficulty!” Deng replied.

“I hope you didn’t lose everything,” I said.

“We lost a lot, but luckily we got some Bitcoin just in time.”

James Jani, where are you? I thought to myself as I drifted to the metaverse.

“I can show you how to fight off a lion,” Deng told the old man.

His speed and agility surprised the old man. In a blink of an eye, he was crouched low, as if ready to strike with his spear. There was no spear in his hand, of course, just an imaginary one.

“See the pointy end of the spear?” he asked.

“Lions are afraid of the sharp point,” he explained.

“They won’t attack you if you aim at their eyes.”

“The lion will scrape the ground with its paws vigorously and create a dust cloud to make itself invisible. Be careful, this is not the time to run!” Deng continued teaching the old man.

“If you turn your back and run, you’re dead,” he warned.

“What should I do then?” the old man asked.

“Keep waving your spear sideways; make sure the lion knows you’re ready to strike.”

Simple advice. Just appear to be strong and brave.

“Appear weak when you are strong, and strong when you are weak.”  

Sun Tzu, The Art of War

Deng and his two cohorts did not just appear to be strong and brave. They were strong and brave! In the four hours that they braved the searing summer heat, they transformed the strip of thick overgrown bushes and weeds into a barren path of pebbles. No weeds anymore!

Deng, compacting the soil with dolomite gravel.
Before and after, four hours apart.

They arrived from South Sudan three years ago. I remember reading about their misery and the bloody massacres with guns and machetes and that young kids were kidnapped at gun point after their parents were murdered; how the girls were forced into prostitution or taken as ‘wives’; how little boys were made into child soldiers and brainwashed into fighting their own people. Many were victims of ritualised killings for the pleasure of the rebels. I hadn’t heard of Juba, their capital or bothered to look at the map to find where the country was located in Africa. I read with sadness about their wretched lives and their constant fear of being attacked and tortured, and how women had their lips cut off if they did not obey their cruel ‘husbands’ and the agony and horror of forced female genital mutilation without anaesthesia. No knife? Never mind, they used scissors, glass, sharpened rocks, and fingernails even.

“Why do they practise FGM?” I asked the old man. “Is it a religious requirement?”

“Those parts are said to be unclean; girls should be clean,” Deng said as the old man looked at him with mouth agape.

Coincidentally, the old man watched the movie ‘Machine Gun Preacher’ that night. He picked it not because he had read the movie’s plot but simply chose it because he saw the main actor was Gerard Butler. Movies starring Butler, Liam Neeson, Jason Statham and Keanu Reeves always got his nod.

“Why, I asked?”

I need not have asked. I knew him well enough to know he was a sucker for action-packed movies.

It wasn’t until the end of the movie that the old man discovered it was based on a true story about a violent ex-con who turned to God when he was at the most dire moment of his life. Sam Childers found God and almost immediately his life miraculously turned wonderfully good after a hurricane demolished his town. The destruction in and around his neighbourhood led him to start a business as a builder/roofer. Business boomed and soon God was calling on him to build a church for everyone, not just for the good people but for the bad ones too. As if that was not enough to satisfy God’s plan for him, he flew to Africa to save the young kids of South Sudan. He sacrificed all he had, including selling his business when he could not raise any more money to build and run an orphanage in Nimule. Sam and his wife Lynn founded and still operate Angels of East Africa today.

If your child or your family member was abducted, and if I said to you I could bring your child home, does it matter how I bring them home?

Sam Childers

Agape About Agape

The old man listened, mouth agape with cynicism as he listened to a friend’s story about unconditional love. It felt far-fetched to him that there can be agape love in this world. There are biblical examples of this highest form of love, of course, but he thought they were just stories told in faraway lands over two thousand years ago. Even God has shown His love can be conditional, he thought to himself as the friend’s euphonious voice got increasingly higher-pitched and his busy hands gesticulated wildly. He learned at age seven in catechism class that there were sticks and carrots involved in religion. If he wanted to avoid purgatory in hell, he had to obey God and be a good boy. The young boy understood even then that it was quite the norm in life for people in authority to adopt the carrot and stick methodology to induce proper behaviour. In his Malay class, the ‘stick’ the teacher resorted to was pulling and twisting his students’ nipples to demand full attention during his lessons. An example of a ‘carrot’ was his brother offering kopilui to the local policeman when he was caught cycling with a faulty dynamo after sunset. Everyone in their community referred to a bribe as kopilui, in broken Malay for kopi duit (coffee money). It was in adulthood that the young boy discovered kopilui was also payable to reduce one’s sentence in purgatory through “indulgences” paid to the Catholic Church prior to the Reformation wars. The catechism class teacher taught the young boy in Std 1 that God’s carrot for everyone was a promised trip to heaven after death. Paradise forever. Perfect days for eternity – no surprises, no shocks, no disappointments, no stormy weather, no calamity, nothing interesting to write home about except maybe the wonderful candy stores that sprout out magically in every corner handing out heavenly sweet lollies, all free of charge for the residents in heaven. Every day would be perfect, perfectly calm, perfectly the same and therefore predictable. Boring, the young boy said to himself. But, if he were to do bad things, his sins would be known to the all-knowing God and oh-my-god, you would pee in your pants if the wrath of almighty God descended on you. God carried a big stick. The teacher had already told the boy he was born a sinner in an earlier class. All he had to do to save himself from hell was believe and trust God. “Confess your sins,” the teacher said. The young boy said it was a silly thing to do, to confess to the priest what God already knew. Why tell someone so that that someone can tell God what he already knew? “God’s love is unconditional. He had already sent his Son to die for our sins,” the teacher continued. So either way, the young boy felt everyone would be saved. Otherwise, Jesus would have died for nothing and that wouldn’t be right. The all-knowing God would not, could not make such a silly mistake. Gotta trust God, He wouldn’t dangle a carrot and not give it to me. It was logical to believe that God, although known to be vengeful and wrathful and often raged against his enemies, would ultimately show compassion and demonstrate his capacity to love us, his children, unconditionally. Good or bad, kind or evil, filial or disobedient, sorry or not, happy or sad, we will have our carrot, unconditionally. That is agape love. No wonder the old man looked at me, mouth agape.

Apparently, agape love is not promoted only in Christianity. A Greek word, agape is the purest form of love, sacrificial and willingly given without any expectations and it wouldn’t be withheld under any conditions. The love of God for man is said to be agape. The boy’s teacher said so. “God won’t punish us because Jesus already took that punishment.” How unfair, the young boy said to himself at the time. It was just the night before when his mother sent him to bed hungry for a misdeed that was done by a friend who lived next door. Why did ma punish me, I’m the innocent one? He remembered asking God as his tummy complained loudly. The other religions talked about unconditional love too, although “bhakti” in Hinduism, the world’s oldest religion by far, is more concerned about unconditional devotion of a devotee whereas Buddhism, without a deity, expresses unconditional love as loving-kindness and compassion for all living things.

I coined the word urghhlings when I wrote about ugly earthlings. In the early 70s, I read in a newspaper article people in Hong Kong enjoying a meal of raw brains straight from the open skulls of screeching monkeys. I remember witnessing a roadside vendor outside the Chowrasta Market in Penang ripping off the skin of live frogs before chopping them into pieces with his cleaver. In a cooking programme on SBS, a proud restaurateur in China spoke proudly of her chef whose knife skills and wok skills were applauded by diners who were in awe of how he gutted, scaled and deep-fried the fish in a matter of a minute or so. The camera focused on the poor fish, its glistening sad eyes staring blankly into the camera as its mouth struggled with desperation, gasping for air as it laid on a plate, fried to perfection from tail to cheeks. A dog is a man’s best friend. So, all the more reason that I can’t forget the video of a vile woman who stomped on a puppy with her stilettos. Recently, a friend posted a TikTok clip of a Cambodian woman munching on live tarantulas dipped in sweet chilli sauce. She could not stop mmmm, mmmm, mmmm’ing during her meal, tearing each apart one at a time, some with her hands and others with her teeth, all the while savouring the remains of spiders in her obnoxious mouth. God, should cruel people be shown unconditional love too? Would not that leave you agape too should agape love be given to such undeserving people?

“It is nigh on impossible to witness unconditional love, is it not?” the old man asked.

“We are just the unlucky ones,” I said.

“I don’t think there is anyone capable of giving unconditional love,” he said. “Sad, but it’s true.”

“There has to be,” I replied.

He got me thinking. My mind wandered off, desperately hoping to come up with a name, any name, that might prove him wrong.

“Can you make me a cup of tea?” he asked.

Apart from the monotonous sound of running water from the aquarium, the room was quiet. The old man broke the silence with a raspy weak voice, a reminder of a terrible cough he had weeks earlier.

“Are you there?” he asked again.

“Hey, can I get a cup of tea?” he asked, sounding annoyed.

I was pulling my hair, sitting on my sofa, opposite him. The afternoon sun was weakening, its rays less intrusive, visibly withdrawing from the family room. Soon, it will cool down enough for me to brave the summer heat and step out into the garden. There are always chores to do, chook poo to sweep, fish to feed, weeds to pull, rose bushes to prune, plants to water. But, I couldn’t stop pulling my hair. The more I think, the harder I pull. No, I can’t afford to pull my hair, not at this age. I’m losing hair fast as it is.

“Stop! I can’t think,” I said aloud.

“Of course, you can’t,” he said smugly, as he scratched at a spot near his butthole.

I did not bother to explain. It wasn’t that I couldn’t come up with a person who is capable of agape love, but I didn’t feel I needed to explain to him why I needed to prevent further hair loss.

Pulling my hair out over this just isn’t worth it.

“Sorry, did you say you wanted tea?” I asked. He waited till I looked at him to nod.

As I waited for the water to boil, I thought of The Mrs. “If there is anyone on earth capable of unconditional love, it has to be a mother,” I said to the old man. The Mrs’ love for our three kids was pure and unwavering. An ambitious young career-minded woman, she even sacrificed her career as a qualified accountant to become a stay-at-home mother. That speaks volumes of the power of a mother’s love. We lived on a single income – mine – that supported seven people in our household, us and her elderly parents. I was the head of the family but she was the heart. The heartbeat in the home, giving life to all of us. My family would not have functioned as a unit without her. She made sure there were hot meals for us, every day. Delicious, home-cooked meals, varied and memorable. “So that they will always remember to come home,” she said. For sure, she demonstrated unconditional love for our kids, always….except when one of them went to a music lesson with an empty violin case because he forgot to pack the violin inside the case or when another asked for help with his homework in the middle of the night because he forgot to get it done after watching Seinfeld, or when two of them cried on stage because they found the first time on stage too scary. Her love was always unconditional until something flared up that caused her to stress.

“What about The Mrs’ love for you?” the old man asked.

“Is her love not unconditional?”

“You know, for better, for worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness or in health?” he added, the sarcasm in his voice deliberately obvious.

“How strong do you want your tea?” I asked, jiggling the teabag a few more times than I normally would, and evading his question.

I did not feel obliged to tell him about The Mrs’ love for me.

We watched Operation Red Snake last night. Together. A rare occurrence, that. Normally, she would have headed straight to her sanctuary after dinner. Upstairs in her bedroom with the door closed gives her peace and serenity – for her, a universe away from the violent movies I normally watch. Operation Red Snake is a film about women fighting ISIS alongside Kurdish forces. But, The Mrs could not bear to watch and she started to get restless. The beginning of the story was too graphic for her. The impending violence and the promised terror was enough for her to reach out for another handful of Ferrero Rocher balls. I glanced at the coffee table and saw there were already a few scrunched up golden foil wrappings. “You’ll complain tomorrow I didn’t stop you from over-eating,” I said with incredible prescience.

The Yazidis men who refused to renounce their belief in the Christian God were killed right in front of our eyes. The Mrs winced. I winced too, not because of the violence. I recoiled from the confronting images that agape love for their God brought them. Love of the purest form, demonstrated by their preparedness to die for their belief, being encapsulated by terror and bloodshed. Raw, barbaric but real. An assault on our senses that was too soon after a heavy meal. When the Yazidi girl was sold as a sex slave and then raped by her new master, The Mrs said, “Enough is enough! If you want me to sit here and watch a movie with you, then it has to be a comedy!” Unconditional love maybe but a very conditional requirement to sit with me. So, we watched Dog instead.

Dog was supposed to be a comedy but it made The Mrs cry. The last scenes were difficult to watch. I was surprised The Mrs did not reprimand me for choosing the comedy. It was raw, barbaric but real. Lulu, the retired military dog, was being processed to be euthanised. A war hero with a purple heart, she had served the US Army Rangers with distinction, saving many of the soldiers’ lives and contributing to many ‘kills’. I discovered that up until November 2000, military dogs were put down after they had served the army. Their use-by-dates generally last for about ten to twelve years. Dogs are the most loyal friends – unquestioning, supportive, trusting, protective and unwavering. “The best at demonstrating agape love, and they don’t ever withhold their love!” I said to The Mrs after the movie. But, they were treated as equipment, abandoned in the battlefield or euthanised even if they were purple heart recipients once they were injured in combat or slow due to age. “So much for loyalty and love, we humans cannot even reciprocate with kindness and gratitude,” The Mrs said, her face contorted with phantom pain. Understandably, these combat dogs come home exhausted, wounded and emotionally scarred with PTSD. They aren’t playful or sociable and may well be dangerous in our society having been trained to sniff out drugs and roadside bombs, and kill the Taliban and others. Where is the agape love for these wonderful loyal friends of ours?

Murray insists on sharing my pillow.

“We were in Melbourne last month,” the old man said. Talk about being mouth agape at Agape! I was captivated by his story and was almost disbelieving that such a blatant thing could happen in our society. “We were aghast at that Greek restaurant we went to in Richmond,” the old man continued.

“They didn’t tell us they had run out of the wine we ordered but kept serving a similar wine from the same wine region,” he said.

“Didn’t you test the wine first?” I asked with incredulity.

There are rules to follow before wine is served in a restaurant. The bottle’s label should be shown to the person who ordered the wine, to check that the correct wine is being served. Only then should the bottle be opened – at the table and not before – so that we can check for defects like a damaged cork.

Why didn’t you ask to see the label?” I asked again.

“I didn’t want to appear like I know a lot about wines, ” the old man said coyly.

“But, my curiosity got the better of me later, and upon checking the wine label, I was horrified at their dishonesty,” the old man said.

“What did you do?” I asked, my curiosity piqued.

“We didn’t want to cause a scene, all I said was ‘You should have told us,’”the old man whispered.

“So, I sat there, mouth agape at the Agape restaurant’s stealth in brand switching.”

Old Feuds In The Fjords

Their house is eerily quiet once more. The rowdy conversations and arguments, the booming guffaws from the boys and the constant din from the TV now a distant memory. Droplets of Shiraz spilled from the 2016 Basket Press lay caked on the edge of the dining table – missed by The Mrs – offering real proof that she is no longer hawk-eyed and insufferable at small indiscretions such as him leaving crumbs on the table or him being blind to the clump of hair collecting at the drain hole cover in the shower cubicle. By ‘him’ I mean the old man, who sits with back curled up like a letter ‘c’ waiting for his son to serve him some steak. He ought to know how to fix his posture and why. It would not surprise me one bit if the old man complained of a bad back or neck pain. There was enough talk about yoga poses and the merits of stretching over the years. I find it a contradiction, him telling me he practises Ba Duan Qigong, the eight brocades. The endearing oohs and the aahs as the pink ribeye was being carved up from the bone of tomahawk steaks was ample reward for their eldest son whose culinary skills were always thought to be non-existent. In the background, the rhythmic ‘tok-tok-tok-tok’ of the Thai mortar and pestle, krok and sak, promised another delicious serving of sohm tahm. Sounds of Christmas still echoed in his head as they sang ‘Happy Birthday’ to their guest, Mr. Laurs, former teacher and much cherished mentor to the boys.

Perfect Tomahawks. Photo by Mr. Laurs
Happy Birthday Mr. Laurs, the boys’ former teacher and much cherished mentor.

Looking at the old man’s demeanour, it felt like his whole life was sucked out of his body by the jet engines of the B737 as the plane took off from the runway. He wasn’t there, of course, at the runway to watch the plane take off. He wasn’t even there at the airport. He didn’t want to cry in public, so he bade them – his twin sons – farewell and closed the front door of their house. He leaned his back on the door and closed his eyes until he could hear the old Rav 4 leave their driveway. The eldest son drove them to the airport. His flat was closer to home and there was no risk of him crying. “You take Murray along too,” the old man said moments earlier. “I’ll clear the table,” he said, quickly turning away after hugging them tightly. The hugs were brief – he didn’t want them to smell him. Old people smell bad. Like the smell of dead skin. He didn’t believe in scented soap but that’s all he used these days after being told he smelt like an old man. Never mind the chemicals, I need the fragrance!

The fragrance unfortunately didn’t last. A son scrunched up his nose as he parted from his father’s arms, maybe from an allergy to the pollen in the air, maybe not. It didn’t matter to him. He knew he smelt bad, like an old man. Murray didn’t want to leave. He stood on his hind legs and clung on to the old man’s thigh and wouldn’t let go. Murray presumably didn’t mind the old man’s body odour and he obviously loved licking the back of his hands. His Mrs said, “That’s because you don’t clean your hands properly and he can still smell the steak you had.”

“C’mon Murray, you have to go home,” the old man said. He gave the dog a big goodbye hug. Murray wouldn’t complain about his bad smell. The miniature poodle quickly jumped onto his lap and used his paw to pull the old man’s arm closer to embrace him. “We are late, Murray! Let’s go!” the eldest son said, dragging his dog away. “Whose dog is it really?” I asked. Neither father nor son replied. A sore point I gathered and wisely dropped the subject.

The following day, I dropped by to see how he was. I have known the old man for what now feels like an eternity. Despite my frequent suggestions that a morning shower is good for him and good for those around him who suffer from his BO, he doesn’t flinch when I tell him he stinks like a salted fish. Look at him now. His luminous green t-shirt, wet with sweat, clinging to his thin frame and not helping to hide his belly bulge. He is not your typical beer drinker, so I guess his football belly was the price for his indulgence in peanuts. He had just got back into the house from the back garden. His hair, tied up in a bun, seemed greyer by the day. I could smell him even from where I sat. His poor wife has to suffer unnecessarily. “Why don’t you take a shower now?” I asked. He looked up, gave me a frown and moved his mouth to speak. He brought his lips back together, the choice to remain silent a wise one, as I was ready to argue about the merits of taking a shower in the morning.

“You smell like a salted fish today,” I said.

He shifted his butt to relieve the pressure on his bony bum. “I’ve done a lot this morning!” he said, offering a silly defence for his body odour. He began to rattle off from his list of chores.

“Feed chooks, done
Scoop up pond debris, done
Clean pond filter, done
Hand-water back garden, done
Dispose of fallen fruit, done
Pick watercress for chooks, done
Make coffee, done.”

“Whilst you’re at it, make me one please,” I replied. He is a stubborn old man and he knows it too. Often the object of scorn from friends, he has grown accustomed to their mockery. For me, it feels absurd that he should allow himself to be targeted so frequently by his so-called friends, but he has a hide as thick as a rhino’s. They don’t seem to hurt his self-esteem at all.

“How do you do it?” I asked. “How come you’re unfazed by their constant derision?”

He told me he learned it from Epictetus, the Greek philosopher. We don’t control the situation, but we control what we think about it. We can’t control common opinion but we control our own opinion. We should not be bothered by what we can’t control. What we can control are our reasoned choices, desires, opinion – our mind and our will. We should endeavour to gather knowledge so that our choices are made correctly and supported by good reasoning.

Christmas was simply a fortnight of non-stop celebrations. The family had been deprived of a full reunion for three years, due to the pandemic. “The kids did come back in September, but just briefly.”

“Not everyone was home then, seokuku (youngest aunty on paternal side) and her hubby were away,” the Mrs added.

“Kids?” I asked. The old man forgets that those boys of his aren’t kids anymore. In fact, they aren’t even boys anymore. I wondered quietly what they should be called, in woke times like now. “Non-binary people are hard to please for people our age,” I said. Is a person with a ‘long dong’ man, or woman or both? They can be something in between, or they can be transgender or not. People can get in trouble for suggesting mothers must be women and fathers must be male. Not so long ago, it was obvious that a person who has a womb is a woman. Not any more! “This will be a long-standing feud for years to come,” the old man said.

“Talking about feuds… how was Christmas for you?” I asked.

“What do you mean?” he asked, pretending not to understand my question.

“You know,” I said.

“You had a long feud with your neighbours – the Iranians, right?” I continued to probe.

“Oh, that idiot!” he said. Ali, a respectable scientist in the community, was also a successful plantation owner. But he had a few rather annoying quirks as a neighbour. “Oh, he was a rather interesting character,” the old man said. One day, he hired a lorry to cart some rubbish from his property but he lost control of the vehicle and smashed into his brick fence.

“I was busy serving a customer in my shop but he kept talking on the phone, yep, yep yep, yep, yep. You have to pay for it, you have insurance, I don’t.” he said. He sounded genuinely believing his own logic. Short and dark-skinned, he was polite and friendly face-to-face but behind a computer screen or phone, he was a rude and unreasonable man. Of all the things he was stressed about, it was his receding hairline that he should have fixed.

“NO, I WON’T CLAIM FROM MY INSURANCE,” the old man bellowed. He mentioned a few times there would be an excess amount to be paid and the claim would affect his ratings. “My no-claim bonus will be gone and future premiums will be higher, blah blah blah blah.”

But, Ali was deaf to the old man’s protestations. “You pay!” he shouted, unaware of the spray of saliva he had left on his phone.


“I… hello, hello!” the old man replied before realising the Iranian had left to huff and puff somewhere else.

…….and their feud lasted many years after that.

When Ali’s pride and joy, a 30-foot palm tree, shed its fronds, miraculously, they always fell on the old man’s side of the fence. Always, the wind sided with Ali. For years and years, the old man was so pissed off that it somehow ended up as his job to drag the heavy palm leaves out to the verge. One day, as he was dragging a leaf out whilst venting his spleen and showing off his unrestrained usage of vulgar Chinese words, he saw Ali pulling a fruit-laden branch of his mandarin fruit tree fully over to his side and tying it up so that it remained within his boundary. The old man had enjoyed his neighbour’s mandarins on a few occasions and knew how sweet they were. Ali knew the rules. What’s on your side is yours and what’s on my side is mine. From that day onwards, the old man would simply toss the palm leaves over the fence. They are all yours, Ali.

“Didn’t you have a long feud with a back neighbour too?” I asked.

“Ah, don’t remind me of that guy!” he said.

Trevor died many years ago. A lab analyst, he was unaware his laboratory in the University of Adelaide was full of asbestos in the walls. He died of mesothelioma just a few weeks after the two neighbours had agreed to shake hands and end their feud.

“What did you guys fight about?” I asked.

“Honestly, I don’t remember!” the old man said.

“Whatever it was, it must have been something really unimportant then.”

“Oh yeah, it may have been about the brick shed of his at the rear of his yard,” the old man said, suddenly remembering the grievances of old. The stonewall was at a scary angle, as if the wall could at any time fall on to our side.

“I kept telling him, ‘My Mrs spends a lot of time in our garden right here,'” the old man said, pointing to where he stood.

“It’s supposed to be therapeutic in the garden, you know, listening to the birds sing, feeling the caress of the gentle breeze…”

“But, My Mrs couldn’t relax knowing that the wall could suddenly come down and fall on her head. The bloke would not listen to my complaints,” the old man continued.

“I don’t have money,” the sickly neighbour said. Eyes sunken, gums inflamed and the loss of jaw bone as visible as the loss of teeth, his shocking appearance softened the old man’s belligerent stance. The man had major medical and dental problems – a goitre on his neck heavy like udders, he was shirtless as he tried to clear some debris from the fallen roof of his shed. His rib bones were pushing hard at the scaly bag of skin that covered his hairless chest.

“He was just all skin and bones,” the old man told me.

“You want to fix this, you can with your money,” he said, as he gasped for air.

Sadly, he gasped for air for the last time not long after. RIP, Trevor.

The old man could not remember how Chromecast set his TV to show beautiful scenic images from all over the world when it was on ambient mode. “Google must have done it for me,” he said, making no sense at all. We were enjoying a cold beer together during the New Year’s Day public holiday when a jaw-dropping scenery appeared on his big screen. The heavenly white mountains in the background were perfectly captured in the picture as well as in their reflection on the vast expanse of blue water in front. “Awesome! These must be fjords in Alaska,” the old man said, his voice more jubilant than earlier in the afternoon after the cricket match in Sydney was washed out.

“I must go!” he said, the urge to see some fjords close up suddenly firing up in his mind. These images ought to be treated like the best marketing tool for the tourism industry. Not a word spoken, not a penny spent. A beautiful picture sells itself without a thousand words written about it.

A week later, he had made up his mind. “We are going,” he said. “My Mrs said ok!”

They will visit New Zealand in a few months’ time. The Land of the Long White Cloud, aptly named by early maoris who saw the islands sprawl out like strands of cloud across the horizon, was always so close and readily accessible that the old couple had forever told themselves they would one day visit it but never did.

“Yeah, North Island for about a week, then Christchurch and Queenstown after that.”

“Nice! I hear Queenstown is beautiful!”

“The fjords are near there, right?” I asked.

“Don’t miss Middle Earth,” I said, revealing my interest in the Hobbits and the Lord of the Rings stories.

“I won’t!”

“That’s in the North Island. For sure, we will spend some time in Hobbiton,” he said.

“You bet,” he said, giving me a clumsy high five whilst stepping on a well-gnawed tennis ball and almost falling over the coffee table in the process.

Steady there, old chap, we aren’t young anymore to high five each other.

The truth is sometimes best left unsaid. I left him to rub his sore ankle for a moment. He got some old well-past-the-use-by-date Five Photos Brand Tienchi ointment from a book shelf next to his sofa chair. “This is really effective for sprains,” he said as he sparingly dabbed a bit of it on his ankle. It smelt surprisingly soothing, summoning childhood memories of old white-haired Master Lao Tan who used to teach Tai Chi to the older kids near Wearne Brothers Motors in Penang.

“Tan-pek saved my life, you know,” the old man said. This was his story to me.

Tan-pek was always in his impeccably ironed white shirt and matching white trousers. A dapper man, with pure white hair, white strong eyebrows, sparse and long white beard, and long untidy white fluffy ear hair too. He could have been easily cast as the Shou of the Fu Lu Shou, if he held a staff and a gourd containing the elixir of life. The God of Longevity lived up to his legend, for me at least. I was not quite twelve when during the month of the hungry ghosts, I woke up early one morning and in a trance-like manner, went cycling in the cul-de-sac outside my house on Scotland Close in Penang. Instead of cycling, something told me to sit on my bike and be stationary for as long as possible. Suddenly gravity took over and I hit the ground, with the middle of my head. For about seven days I was bedridden, feverish and lost all appetite. My world started spinning, and as the days passed, the spinning got faster and faster until I had to grab the sides of my bed to avoid falling off it. The wound on my head wasn’t visibly alarming but it scared me when I felt it with my index finger. Softer than tofu, its texture was more like douhua. My mum’s frantic visits to the sinsehs were in vain. We tried assorted bitter herbs mixed with bitter powder, but nothing relieved me of the vertigo-like symptoms. In desperation, my mum flagged down Tan-pek who was on his way back to his office at Wearne Brothers from lunch. He didn’t even go upstairs to look at my injury. After listening intently to my mum’s description of my condition, he gave her his script; he told her I would need to complete three dosages to be fully cured. Three bowls, no less! I couldn’t, I simply couldn’t, but I did finish two bowls in two days. The infrequent tremors in my brain today do give me some regret in not taking that third dosage.

The non-FDA concoction consisted of one baby mud crab, its shell must still be soft. One small rice bowl of a young boy’s fresh warm urine, my own, of course! Pound the live baby crab (so sorry, crab), slowly add warm urine to the paste until it is of a porridge consistency.


Consume above crab gruel completely, do not waste any, scrape any leftovers that could be stuck to the bowl. Crushing a live crab is cruel, so eat it all, innards, lungs, eyes, soft shell, legs, the lot, don’t waste a life.

No Dill, No Deal

The old man sat hunched in his office, suddenly all alone again. I have often reminded him about correcting his posture but my new year’s resolution will be steadfast this time. I shan’t bother offering my opinion about anything anymore to anyone. “It’s silly to,” I told myself. Besides, it’s sheer audacity to think I know better or think I am wiser to advise someone.

2023 arrived quickly and last night I had to scramble my thoughts wildly to come up with a new resolution for the new year. The old man agreed.

“We can’t go into a new year without a new deal with ourselves,” he said.

“No dill, no deal,” I replied, echoing the words I had heard over lunch on Christmas Day.

The old man’s youngest sister, Lil Sis, whilst serving a platter of Australian rock lobsters, said to him exactly those words after he told her he had forgotten to bring the promised dill from his garden to garnish her lobsters.

“No dill, no deal. You’re not getting any lobster today.”

She looked disapprovingly at her brother. Too often, he disappointed them with his forgetfulness. I can’t tell if it was his eagerness to please or if he thought his readiness to say yes to any request made him less annoying to people around him. Whatever it was, I had told him many times over the years to write things down, either mentally or in a little notebook.

“Youse don’t want to disappoint anybody, especially those who are important to youse,” I said.

“If youse say you’re gonna do somethin’, youse better make damn sure youse do, otherwise there will be hell to pay for!”

No dill? No deal.

The futility of offering him advice or reminders had finally woken me. Hence, the new year’s resolution. Nobody appreciates free advice! Why did it not dawn on me sooner that he would have cringed every time I offered an unsolicited opinion? No wonder he is unpopular with his friends! He is exactly the same, opinionated and thinks he always has something useful to say about everything! I remember a friend told him recently to just go and play his violin somewhere else when he was noisily commenting about Malaysian politics of which he knows very little. To be fair, he was just asking about aspects of the Malaysian Constitution but when people are tensed about the political situation in their country, the last thing they want to have around is a noisy empty barrel that serves no useful purpose.

No dill, no deal.

These words have haunted me since Christmas. We have been making deals ever since we were kids. To let his kids earn the occasional pocket money, the old man used to give them easy chores like washing the car or helping out in his car accessory store if a staff member called in sick on a Saturday. Similarly, in his teens, he worked in his father’s dry-cleaning shop after school every afternoon. The deal? A Mamak kari, usually chicken curry or beef rendang but never kambing. He found the smell of goat revolting. He made deals with his next door neighbour too and kept the secret of how to acquire handpicked fish from Swatow Lane Aquarium shop without paying for them. The neighbour, Ah Teik, a boy the same age as the old man went to the same school but was never in the same class. Street smart, I think he was streets ahead of the old man and showed him the realities of life outside his house. Life on the outside was exciting and ‘full of possibilities’, unlike the stuffiness and absence of liberties at home. Ah Teik had googly eyes reminiscent of Bart Simpson, big, round and bulging. “No, it’s not stealing them,” Ah Teik reassured his neighbour. “We are just setting them free.” The two boys simply hung around the aquariums all afternoon, attracted to the fish like lollies would to most other kids, leaving their hand prints on the glass as they excitedly pointed to the various specimens they admired. The green nets hanging on the side of the racks were ready tools for their mission. Ah Teik scooped up the most beautiful and healthiest (most active) fish their eyes had zeroed in like radar detectors whilst his neighbour kept watch like a sniper for any staff or customer intruding into their territory. When it was safe to do so, he released the meticulously selected fish into the drains in the shop. All the drains lead to one destination – the main drain outside the shop. After that, it was simply a matter of patience as they waited by the drain a little short distance from the shop for the fish to make their way there. “Rescuing fish from drains isn’t stealing,” Ah Teik said convincingly. “It’s saving them from a certain death,” he added. Oh, they did steal one thing from the shop though – a plastic bag to carry the fish home, but plastic in those days was a fantastic invention, it won praise not condemnation.

No dill, no deal. In their case, it was no Molly, no deal. I vaguely remember it was a Black Molly that killed their friendship or maybe it was a gorgeous black goldfish. It was a long time ago – the old man seemed unsure of his facts these days. The two boys were nine years old. One day, Ah Teik climbed over his house to the neighbour’s back rooftop balcony and secretly swapped his lousy, ugly, skinny, deformed fish for the gorgeous one with long flowy fins as graceful and with as much poise as a Russian ballerina. He knew exactly where his friend kept his prized fish, in a big oriental earthenware vat on the balcony. Immediately above the vat was a window of a bedroom whose occupants’ privacy was protected by a pair of often-closed timber venetian slats with paint flaking and peeling off, its colour more grey than the original white due to mould that thrived in the tropical moisture. Glazed in a chocolate brown colour, the vat had crude phoenix and dragon motifs and was deep enough to drown a baby or a drunken man. His Mrs’ dad, Chia Hu Sien, in fact died in a pool of water much shallower than that when she was just three years old. Thirsty from imbibing far too much alcohol, he came home late one night and decided to teeter to the family’s earthenware vat where they stored their drinking water in the rear garden. He did not make it to the vat but collapsed in the dark and drowned in a puddle of his own vomit and water left by a recent storm.

We can’t argue with nature

If it wants you to die, you die.

Wu Joonpin

Chia Hu Sien was a respected herbalist by day and a disgraced drunkard by night. The Chia family was Hakka from Taipu province in Guangdong, China. Only the learned were able to prescribe traditional herbal medicine in those days. I was told he could play the Er-hu, a Chinese two-stringed instrument. His calligraphy was good enough to be carved on shop signages in Miri town. Summing up quickly, he was an intellectual man. His elder brother was a stamp seal maker who carved names and characters from Jintian quartz. The youngest was a photographer. Think about that, intellectuals who were known for their art and photography back in the early twentieth century. They were not lowly ordinary folks. Fleeing the Japanese invasion of China in 1938, he settled in Sarawak but in under three years, he was to find himself under Japanese rule again. His drug store closed due to the war. Good excuse, but other drug stores somehow remained open. He worked for other herbalists but could not hold any job down. In a small town, everyone knew everyone and worse, they knew everyone’s farts and warts too. People would smell the stinky air and know who the culprit was. Chia was a drunkard and a bad husband. His warts and all were no secret. Often seen propelling his bicycle with alcohol flowing in his every vein in the wee hours, he was well-known for spending many a night face down on his own vomit in town. The concerned nosey-parkers would knock on the door of the family home and say, “So-and-so, your husband is found lying at where-and-where.” Humiliated, she had to walk to where-and-where to drag him home. A bad deal to marry a dill (idiot in Aussie slang).

When the old man graduated from UNSW, his first job was at the CBA, not the Commonwealth Bank of Australia but the Commercial Bank of Australia in Sydney’s Chinatown. In his mind he was a qualified accountant and when told their training programme required him to serve as a teller for a minimum of six months, he wanted to negotiate a deal. No deal. So, he left that job and forever annoyed His Mrs for abandoning a career path that would have delivered them a more cushy, low-risk lifestyle. A year later, the CBA got swallowed up by the Bank of New South Wales and became Westpac. A great deal but who knows, right? He could have been made redundant anyway. All of us are always making deals – with our parents, our siblings, our bosses and so many others. The old man said the most impactful deal he has ever done was with his spouse. For better, for worse, for richer, for poorer, in sickness and in health. Compromise, compromise, compromise. How else could you live with another person forever? It is no wonder that many marriages do not last and it is no wonder that for more and more, marriage is not in their equation. Who wants to be in a deal where one’s freedom is curtailed? Compromised. Who wants to be in a deal where everything has to be justified, every action explained, every cent accounted for, every decision must be right (or else)?

Don’t get me wrong, His Mrs certainly isn’t like that at all, at least not all the time!

“I’m joking!!” I said.

“But she won’t believe you’re joking!!”

“But, I am joking!”

“Heck, you’re on your own, no one will protect you now.”

It took me years to learn not to make silly jokes, especially jokes that are at the expense of someone else, or jokes about religion, race or politics. It’s just not worth it. We can’t even joke about sex anymore. Wokeism today is about being gender-neutral. At least don’t make the male superior. It is not alright if an orchestra has only male players or if a board of directors of a business has no female representation. Social media will see to it that the orchestra is boycotted and the products or services of the business are kicked out of the country. Look what happened to L’Occitane. Being “firmly committed” to Ukraine was not enough, they had to close their Russian shops and website, days after defending its decision to continue trading. The sudden U-turn did not leave their business unscathed by today’s wokes. Let’s pause and think again. Russia invaded Ukraine. It had nothing to do with the Russian people and Russian staff of the French cosmetic company. It had nothing to do with France. Yet, wokeism demanded every country and every business had to boycott the Russian people. L’Occitane paid a heavy price for their lack of enthusiasm to embrace today’s wokeism.

“You know what?” the old man asked me. Wokeism isn’t a modern-day phenomenon. Look at what the Buddha had to do about 2,000 years ago. He had to manifest himself in a female form. Guan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy, was actually a male! Elizabeth Vijaya, a High School friend of the old man’s explained it this way: The Supreme Atma or God comes to human beings in many forms. Shakti, the female form, is power. God is beyond gender, so God can take the form of a female to meet certain purposes for humans.

Painting of Guan Yin in the living room. A living Goddess of Mercy.

“In fact, the most important deals we make are with ourselves,” the old man told me.

Where we live, what we do, how we present ourselves, whether we practise Intermittent Fasting, diet or exercise. How we decide to invest or spend, work or retire, borrow or save are deals we make with ourselves. Austrian economists call it the time preference theory. A dollar today is worth more than one in the future. The higher the discount in the future, the higher the time preference. So, those who are willing to invest their capital today hoping to reap later rewards are said to have a low time preference.

“So, a person like me who is willing to delay his retirement, has a low time preference,” the old man explained.

“In other words, you have a low discount rate for your future income – you still think it is worth it to work,” I deduced.

“What you think you’ll earn in the future is still worth the sacrifice you put in today,” I said.

“While we retirees enjoy our day in the golf course or gather for a group outing or go travelling together, you’re slogging away working your butt off,” said another in a mocking manner.

The old man frowned but said nothing. He did not find it necessary to explain himself. There are good medical reasons to delay retirement. Keeping the mind and body active helps to maintain a sense of purpose; the feeling of participating and contributing to society is a powerful aphrodisiac that enhances our well-being.

No, dill. No deal.

Mal In Melbourne

From his Airbnb apartment on the 59th level, Port Phillip didn’t seem like a port at all. The old man with his fading eyesight initially failed to see the gantry cranes on the first morning of his arrival. He was immediately impressed with his choice of accommodation when he first walked inside the massive condo, dropping his hand luggage on the fake timber floor as he rushed to the large expanse of floor-to-ceiling glass windows to soak in the stunning 250 degree view of Melbourne. Marvel Stadium, directly in front of the tower, sits on the water’s edge and further behind it, Bolte Bridge, a skinny bridge with two skinny chimney-like structures adorning it joins two sides of land that had been separated by the Yarra River many eons ago.

“Look, that must be the Tasman Sea,” the old man said to his son, pointing to the distant blue water that caps the horizon for as far as his eyes could see, its gentle curvature offering irrefutable proof that the world is not flat.

“No Ba, that’s Port Phillip Bay,” the son replied after checking the map on his phone.

“Port Phillip?” the old man asked, absolutely sure in his mind that he would have seen a long line of container ships queueing on the water waiting for their precious cargo to be unloaded just in time to satisfy all the Christmas wishes imposed on Santa if indeed there was a port outside the window. Port Phillip is surprisingly, a rather small port for a big city like Melbourne. With only seven gantry cranes to brag of, the port showed none of the hustle and bustle of a world-class port such as Singapore where on any given day, there would be a fleet of ships anchored close to one another not far from the coast rekindling memories of a naval invasion during WW2.

On land where trees used to be significant and magnificent, it is glitzy towers and building cranes that dominate the landscape. The sky is even bluer than the water on an almost cloudless morning. Without trees, we cannot see the wind. Seemingly still and with the sun beaming down directly from above casting very little shadows, the old man was lulled into thinking it was a warm day. Knowing that Melbourne can conjure up four seasons in a day, his Mrs told him to wear an extra layer. “Just in case,” she said in an uncompromising voice. Kind and caring, she meant well. Always. Except she, being a no nonsense woman all her life, does not bother to use a kind and caring voice. “Just bring your jacket!” she said.

A brave woman, she had her teeth implants done just the day before they flew to Melbourne. “It’s ok to fly tomorrow, right?” she asked from her wheelchair, as the fat nurse pushed her down a long steep ramp to the carpark. “Don’t let go of the wheelchair,” the old man said, noticing that the nurse appeared to be rolling down the ramp with the wheelchair. “I won’t!” came the reply. As the Mrs slid into their blue CRV which had turned into an old bomb after serving them for over twenty years, Murray, the family’s dog, greeted her as if he had not seen her for an eternity. Murray was to be sent to a pet hotel that same afternoon. Unaware of their plan to abandon him in a strange place with strange people looking after strange dogs, Murray licked the Mrs’ hand with real gusto and with real compassion as if he could feel her pain from the operation. “That’s unfair to my pal,” the old man said with disdain. “He would still show his love for us even if he knew of our awful plan to put him in the pet hotel,” he said. “This dog knows about agape, his love is unconditional,” he informed me. However, Murray would see to it that their horrible plan would be totally disrupted the next morning.

As soon as they arrived at Adelaide Airport, the phone rang.

“You best come and get your dog right now,” the voice on the phone said.

“That’s impossible, we are about to board our plane,” the old man’s son said.

“Well, if you don’t come, he may die,” the voice said calmly.

“No way!” the son said.

“He isn’t happy here and he tried to bite us,” the calm voice replied.

“He isn’t eating, and he hasn’t peed or pooed since arriving.”

“You better come.”

So, the son had to abandon his flight and bring Murray home. Fortunately, the old man’s little sister had without hesitation, agreed to check on Murray, the home alone dog. The unfriendly-looking man at the Qantas desk snarled under his breath and smirked at the son. “By rights, we can’t help you and you’ll need to repurchase a new ticket but since it’s Christmas, I’ve rebooked the 2 o’clock flight for you,” he said. Suddenly, he did not look unfriendly anymore although he still didn’t wear a smile. “See, we should not judge a person by his looks,” I said to the old man.

“Melbourne is pronounced as Mal-burn, not Mal-born” the old man said. “So, it’s strange that we Aussies don’t call the movie Burn Identity, right?”

“Yeah, and the people call themselves ‘Mel-burn-nians’ not ‘Mel-born-nians’.”

“Are you all spending your Christmas holiday in Mal-burn?” I asked.

“No, we are actually here to attend the AYO concert, to support Mal,” the old man said.

“AYO?” I asked. “The Australian Youth Orchestra?” “Who’s Mal?”

“Yeah, the AYO, best youth orchestra in the world,” the old man said. “Mal is playing in the concert, so we are here to support him.”

The concert was held at the Melbourne Town Hall on a Thursday night. Melbourne is an exciting place to be. A ‘very happening’ place with lots of events all year round. The streets are packed with revellers, maybe people are out doing their Christmas shopping or just soaking in the vibrant atmosphere appreciating the newfound freedom after a prolonged lockdown during the pandemic. “Quite unusual,” the old man said. Surprisingly, it was almost a sell-out concert for a weeknight.

“How was it?” I asked.

“What? The concert?” he asked.

“Yeah, what was the standard like?”

“It was fantastic! Mal played really well.”

It was a very interesting programme. They started with a cello concerto by Saint Saëns. Camille Saint-Saëns, a French composer, wrote his first cello concerto in A minor, in 1872. The music delivered a sense of French elegance and classical grace and showed off the vast range of the cello from its thrilling heights near the bridge to rich tonal depths of the lower strings and showcased the soloist’s remarkable technical prowess and masterful control of his instrument as his busy fingers raced up and down the fingerboard in the fast passages of the concerto at a scintillating tempo. “It was very exciting!” said the old man. Unlike the norm, the work is a single movement comprising three distinct sections. The Australian-born cellist, Pei-Sian Ng, Principal Cello of the Singapore Symphony Orchestra, recently “played alongside Yo-Yo Ma in another exciting double cello concerto Violoncelles Vibrez! by Giovanni Sollima.” The programme notes mentioned that Ng performed Tan Dun’s Crouching Tiger Cello Concerto with The Festival Orchestra under the baton of the composer. The other works performed in the concert were The Meaning of Trees (world premiere) by Andrew Ford and Stravinsky’s The Firebird, with the English conductor, Matthew Coorey, bringing the orchestra to its apogee.

At the post-concert event, Mal somehow managed to get the old man and his companions inside the grand room of the Town Hall. Wine and champagne flowed freely and the seemingly unending serves of finger food kept the old man very happy. He congratulated the composer, Andrew Ford and thanked the soloist, Pei-Sian Ng for a wonderful concert. It was a night defined by great music performed beautifully with vigour and unbridled enthusiasm by a youthful group of high calibre musicians.

Long and short, high and low, define each other.

If you know beauty, then you know what’s ugly.

If you know what’s right, you understand what’s wrong.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

Success Sucks

Neymar and his teammates just lost their match against Croatia. They are out of the World Cup. Success for the evergreen Luka Modrić – the hero of his team has to be the indefatigable goalkeeper Dominik Livaković who simply won’t be beaten in penalty shoot-outs. His heroics also saw Croatia beat Japan in the last 16. But, their success sucks to the losers. Japan and now Brazil have both bowed out due to losing the lottery in penalty shoot-outs. Amor fati, what chance do we have against kismet?

I did not have anymore nails to bite after watching Argentina almost lost their collective heads against the Netherlands. I lost the count of the number of yellow cards issued by the ref in the match. There was one yellow card during the penalty shoot-out too, a first for me to have witnessed. For a player to earn the ire of the referee when he is not even involved showed how much success meant to them. My cousin brother lives in Zaandam, not far from Amsterdam. But, I could not support his team because I want a fairy-tale ending for my football god, the goat (greatest of all time), the one and only true football artist on the field, the great Lionel Messi. Success for him is more important for me than to support my cousin. I asked him why they would call their country the Netherlands – it sounded like land in the netherworld. Anyway, I get to watch Messi in the semi-finals. Success for him sucks for the Dutch. It probably sucks too for the other goat contender, Cristiano Ronaldo who was known to sulked when he lost a Ballon d’Or to his nemesis. Success for someone means it sucks for someone else.

My good friend, the old man, had a busy day yesterday replying to congratulatory messages after he shared news of his son’s success in the UK. His son won a prestigious job and news of his success was published in the highly respected magazine that serves as the authoritative news medium for that particular sector. The son’s teacher subscribed to the magazine and for many years since he was a young boy, he ardently read every issue of the magazine after his teacher had finished with them. After his son had left for the UK to study under the tutelage of a great master, the old man continued with the tradition of subscribing to the magazine. A magazine that had its first issue in late 19th century and still exists today has to do many things right. Just don’t print any fake news!

“Did you ever dream of finding an article about your son in the magazine one day?” I asked.

“Keep it a secret! For years and years, I did!” he said with a chuckle.

“But, it has been so long since those dreamy days. It was just another dream that died.”

“Suddenly, he sends you this article about him in it! How did you feel?”

“Unbelievable!” he said, flashing a rare smile that revealed a chip in a front tooth. He was in his favourite sloppy joes that reminded me of his student days. It smelt of dead cells that had dropped off from an old person. Or, maybe his Mrs was right. It could have been the stench from his unwashed hair. She had nagged him again and again and again the other day. “Just don’t walk behind me,” he said to her on their way to the deli. She complained that his hair stunk worse than stale fish after she caught a whiff of the breeze.

“I am expecting a few friends any minute,” he said as he excused himself and went to brush his teeth. The oven clock ticked past 11:51 as I waited for the coffee to boil. Fancy brushing his teeth at this hour. No wonder his Mrs has so many complaints about him. I opened their fridge looking for milk but as usual, the empty space where the milk should be told me they had forgotten to replenish it again. He is lactose intolerant and doesn’t care. She cares but milk is usually the last thing on her mind. He was still clearing his throat when his friends knocked on the door. Kraaaa Phooooi. Kraaaw Phoooi. “Can you get the door for me?” he called out from the toilet.

It was unusual to see a visitor in the house. But, so many?

“Come in, come in,” I said.

“He won’t be long, he’s just in the toilet.”

“Coffee, anyone? It has to be black though,” I offered.

The motley group of friends all said yes and that kept me busy in the kitchen as the old man stepped out and took over making sure his friends felt at home.

“You must be in cloud 9, your son is so successful,” BL said.

“Correction. Sons,” the old man replied and flashed another rare smile.

“Pardon me, it’s sons ….so true!” BL said before adding, “and I ordain you a successful man, a true sifu!” BL acted like a man of the cloth as he pretended to sprinkle holy water at the old man and put his hands together in prayer.

“Success…. what is success?” the old man asked, toying with his friend.

“If we are successful but our children are not successful, then we are not considered successful,” BL said.

“So, our success depends on others?” the old man asked.

“How to determine success?” Four Eyes asked before adding,”I thought it’s meeting the goal that we set for ourselves.”

“If we set the bar too low and achieve it, is that success?” the old man asked.

“But if you set it too high, you can’t achieve it either,” AC joined in the conversation.

“Is success therefore only of merit if we achieved what was set too high?” the old man retorted.

“Can you reach the mountain peak with one step?” Four Eyes added.

“In life a line has to be drawn for everything….How high or low the line, it must be drawn,
If we cross our own line, that’s success for me,” BL said.

“If we achieve the first few goals but stumble on the final bar, is that still success?” the old man asked.

“That’s progress!” AC said.

“So, if progress didn’t lead to achieving our final goal, is that still success?” the old man continued in the same vein of questioning what is success and what it takes to be successful.

“Progress is the pathway to success,” AC replied.

“Yes but what if you fail to reach the peak you’ve set? Is that still success since you achieved many steps along the way,” the old man asked.

“One small step for man, a giant leap for mankind. Is this progress or success?” AC asked.

“That’s fake news and in some quarters it is also known as the moon landing,” the old man said, laughing by himself. Some of his friends looked at him disbelievingly, annoyed at another of his conspiracy theories.

“After so many personal experiences of ups and downs……If you stumble on your final bar, that is just bad luck!” BL said.

“Why? Does it mean we have to reach the peak to be successful?” Four Eyes countered.

“The child’s success is due to the guidance of the parents, and therefore the child’s success is the parents’ success,” BL reasoned.

“Yet I know of many achievers who get there despite their parents’ limitations,” the old man answered. It is by no means certain to give credit to the parents for their child’s success.

“That’s talent. Those with inborn qualities have the unfair advantage,” BL said.

“For most others, the parents need to do the ground work of polishing the unpolished diamond for it to shine, to reveal the child’s brilliance,” BL continued.

The old man disagreed. Surprisingly. “I somehow think the parent has nothing to do with a child’s success,” he said. “Instead, it can be dangerous if the parent is too forceful in trying to shape the child’s career. There are known cases where the child killed the tiger mother due to the undue pressure piled on the child over a sustained period,” the old man said.

“But the parent can at least provide an environment to nurture the child’s interest,” AC said before asking, “without the right setting, how can a child work, focus and excel?

“True but that doesn’t mean the child can’t find their own environment to nurture their own interests, e.g. we went to the public library to swot for our exams, right?” the old man replied.

BL agreed with AC, “the parent has the responsibility to provide a good environment for the child so that the child becomes interested in the subject or discovers a passion for learning. A child is immature and needs inspiration. It is the duty of the parents to give the child the opportunities to be exposed to macam-macam (Malay for various things). “Am I wrong?” he asked.

“You’re right, the adult should give the child space to find his own passion,” AC replied.

The old man agreed, “A child will be inspired by their own interests. So, yeah exposure to as many things is important for the child to discover his own passion.”

“Even among my siblings, there were those who discouraged their kids from pursuing music or art simply because they didn’t want their kids to become musicians or artists,” the old man said. “Maybe they thought there is no money in the arts.”

“Yeah. Expose them to as many disciplines as possible, but don’t tell them what to do,” BL agreed.

“Yes! But tell them talent will only get a person so far. The rest requires hard work, and that goes with anything,” the old man said.

“Yes, I agree, hard work is a must, no two ways about it although encouragement and support by parents are just as critical,” BL said. “When they are passionate, hard work becomes enjoyable!”

TF, who has been quietly enjoying his coffee, decided to join in the discussion. Typically, the astute wise bloke put it down all to fate. “Aiyah, it’s all written in the stars. The older I get, the more I believe that’s the way it is,” he said.

“You can chop down a thousand rainforest trees and make a million bucks. Is that success? For a few billion dollars you have to damage or alter a few ecosystems. Is that success?” he asked.

“Sweet success is a potpourri of mixed accomplishments done through multiple efforts,” CC said. He too had remained quiet during the whole conversation.

“A few wolves can alter the ecosystem – that’s success but whose success is it?” the old man asked.

“Wolves never alter an ecosystem. They only reclaim what was theirs,” TF replied.

“I won’t engage in semantics. Saving the world after it was destroyed, that’s success,” the old man said.

“Well, just give me one example of wolves altering an ecosystem,” TF asked the old man.

“Yellowstone.” the old man replied.

“An example, not a location,” TF said.

“Ok, go read about how the reintroduction of the grey wolf transformed the ecosystem and even the river systems in Yellowstone National Park,” the old man said.

“Reintroduction, re, re, re, re! Hahahahaha, sometimes you’re your worst enemy, you just shot yourself in the foot, see?” TF enjoyed his burst of laughter.

“Saving the world after it was destroyed, that’s still success,” the old man repeated.

“A successful venture may not be a meaningful accomplishment,” CC said.

“Ah, now that’s more interesting. The meaning of life always comes into it when we discuss success,” the old man said.

There was a knock on the door. The old man heaved himself from his chair, feeling every bit of his creaking bones. Things happen gradually and then suddenly. Ageing is no different. It was not so long ago that he would be sprinting across the room to get to the phone or to open the door. But, that man hasn’t been seen lately. In his place, is the old man who waddled to the door, showing signs of hip problems. JL was at the door, beaming a wide smile and narrowing his eyes with glee until they were almost shut. “Wonderful…… talented and hardworking young man with great support from his loving family ….. indeed wonderful. Well done, old man! You must be so proud,” JL congratulated the old man, having just heard the news about his son’s success.

“Thanks, mate but it’s not my achievement, so how can I be proud? I’ll convey your congrats to my son!” the old man said, as he warmly shook his friend’s hand.

“Indeed, we have been celebrating his success,” Four Eyes said.

“But, how do we measure success?” the old man asked.

“It all depends on what is important to each person ……. Everyone’s determination of success is different, to me success in being a parent is bringing up happy children with a strong sense of right and wrong and with some humility and humanity ….. as long as they are happy with their life, I’m happy for them.” JL said.

“I reckon attainment of peace and contentment is true success! Happiness is too fleeting,” the old man said.

“To some, peace and contentment is everything. Christina Onassis, at one time the richest woman in the world, was not happy and she could not see the light. Karen Carpenter, a very talented and rich singer, was also not happy. Each person’s sense of peace and contentment is different and we cannot judge them; only be happy for them ………” JL’s voice trailed away deep in his thoughts.

“The more I think about it, the happier I am for him. It was also pleasing that he remembers his first teacher. I am especially pleased to see her name in the article. She would be smiling in heaven now,” the old man said, the warmth returning to his aching body.

“Just thinking aloud…. does one need to be congratulated for being happy? The Mrs and I are very happy for him but we do not deserve these congratulations. The achievement is totally his and taking any credit for it will only diminish what he has worked so hard for,” the old man said.

“Of course, congratulations is in order, both of you laid the foundations and built them the road which has led him to this path to success,” HM said.

Daniel B also chimed in with the same sentiments. “Hi bro, kindly convey our congratulations and best wishes to your son for his next great role. Kudos to the parents who are also responsible for and important to his success.”

“Thank you, Daniel. But, don’t make me feel guilty, I am not responsible for his success. A strong supporter, yes, but that was all I did,” the old man said, adamant not to take any credit.

“Congrats to your son. Well done. Not forgetting his parents for their guidance and upbringing of their talented son. Cheers and Celebrate,” said ‘Jungleman’ Peter.

“Thanks, Jungleman. Now you’re making me feel guilty too. We were not such terrific parents in actual fact. We were far too busy to give our kids the time and attention they needed. A blessing in disguise as we never imposed our will on them. We did not repackage them into the mould that they did not want to be,” the old man continued in the same vein.

“Congratulations to you for the sacrifices you made for your son,” LCT said.

“Regrets I have a few. Sacrifices I have made many! hahahaha. I think for all the parents here, we should congratulate ourselves. The toil was hard and long and still is for some of us. For what? For our children!” the old man said.

As the party of old friends moved to make tracks to the local restaurant to celebrate the happy news, the old man said, “Success gives the winner a great feeling but it sucks for those who lost.” There is at least one loser, if not many losers for every winner. Indeed, success sucks for the majority. To attain success requires a lot of hard work, perseverance and some risk-taking. No pain, no gain. Whether we move up or down the ladder, our position is vulnerable compared with when both are feet are firmly planted on the ground.

Success is as dangerous as failure

Hope is as hollow as fear.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

A Right To Spring & The Rite Of Spring

Summer arrived this week. The pollen-laden air is already dry, bringing some discomfort to the old man who is breathing laboriously like an asthma sufferer. He is swatting at humongous blowflies that instead of fearing the sight of a human being are relishing in disturbing his peace. They are buzzing with glee at what he is holding, a lilac biodegradable bag of smelly chicken bones and pork fat that he had spat out onto his dinner plate. It is only a short walk to the green bin behind his garage that the garbo will come to collect on Thursday but he is already wheezing from the effort. The sky is a lot higher up from earth, its cheery colour of light blue absent of any threat to the laundry hanging on the creaking Hills Hoist. It is also almost absent of clouds except for a smattering of light fluffy ones that are fighting a losing battle against the sun’s domineering rays. In a distant corner, the remnants of a cloud left a faint trail, waved goodbye and disappeared. The roses are in full bloom again replacing the ones decimated during the recent storm with even more vigour and colour. The fish in the pond next door are resting and not eating after a tumultuous week of uncontrolled sex. They are a spent force leaving a messy trail of wrecked water plants in their habitat and undeniable evidence of their mating prowess – trails of thick foamy sperm and clusters of fertilised eggs which they will devour once they recover from their orgy of spawning.

Irrefutable evidence of their crazed sexual encounter.

“What happened to spring?” the old man asked his Mrs as he rinsed his hands from the kitchen sink. It certainly felt like they went from the depressing grey and cold of winter straight into summer.

“We didn’t get spring,” the Mrs said.

“We have a right to many things these days, surely we have a right to spring!” he croaked in a hoarse squeaky voice.

The winter had been long and punishing on the old couple. Both had bragged to their neighbours from KL about ‘never being sick for over twenty years.’ The Chap and His Lady arrived a couple of months earlier to experience their first spring in Adelaide. The Chap, an avid golfer whose single digit handicap made him even more driven about the game, played (or practised) golf, rain or shine. The Lady loved the spring here – she thought the wintry weather was simply perfect. Any day without the scorching sun imprinting black spots on her pink skin was a wonderful day. She was the first to succumb to the coughing, a gift from their daughter and son-in-law, both oncologists, who had arrived from Toronto to attend their graduation ceremony. The Lady proved that wearing masks did not prevent the spread of germs. The old man had long suspected the mask mandate during Covid was simply a ruse to get the people to become obedient and learn to relinquish their right to movement as they saw fit, with or without a mask. His Mrs caught the same bug from The Lady and both sisters were soon coughing like wounded frogs. The old man, a long term user of Armaforce, held the misplaced confidence that the andrographis, olive leaf and echinacea mix would continue to protect him from bacterial infections, especially after learning that doctors in Victoria were being asked to prescribe Armaforce for post-Covid treatment. He would go on to be immune to their coughing fits for two weeks before he too began to splutter violently and lose his voice.

The lingering cold air and dampness did them no favours either. By the time he was close to finding his voice again, the Mrs caught a second round of the germs. It wasn’t so bad in the daytime for some reason. But, when night came, the coughing returned with a vengeance. In their bedroom, the couple sound like frogs and toads quarrelling all night. The pent-up mixture of air and yellowish phlegm from their bruised lungs only helped to make the vibrations of their vocal cords sound dissonant and coarse. Their neighbours would not be mistaken to think those were the sounds of frogs mating. All night they took turns to disturb each other’s sleep in their attempts to spit out stubborn phlegm from the depths of their throats. “Kawwww, Phooooi!” “Kaaaaaaa, Phooooi!”

The Lady was either riddled with guilt for being generous with her germs or born with extreme kindness. She was seen plying an assortment of traditional Chinese medicines and cough syrups to her next door neighbours. When those proved to be less effective than how she ‘marketed’ them like a professional chemist, she made regular home visits to check on her patients, each time bringing concoctions of ginger, honey, turmeric and pipa fruit (loquat). Into the third week, a sudden inspiration from her produced soups containing azuki beans, mung beans and barley. She insisted that they took her liquid concoction of chuan bei and nashi pear with honey “just before you go to bed.” The old man, a long term adherent of Intermittent Fasting, could not bring himself to break his discipline by consuming the tendrilleaf fritillary bulbs late at night. “All we need is a few days of warm spring weather,” the old man. “Where is spring?” he demanded.

Two months ago, the old man’s nieces finally persuaded him to join their local orchestra, the Burnside Symphony Orchestra. Both Stephanie and Corinne have been members for a few years already. They knew their uncle would love it. Formed in 1956, the orchestra is two years older than the old man. Back in those days, the orchestra, being one of the oldest amateur orchestras in the country, attracted a lot of support. Its concerts were regularly reviewed by critics who wrote for the South Australian newspapers.

All three of them had commissioned their instruments from the same luthier in Florence, Paolo Vettori. The sound from a Paolo Vettori instrument is sensational and the fine craftsmanship shows the maker in his prime. To produce the geometry and symmetry of such beautiful scrolls and C-bouts, the spontaneity and flare can only come from a hand that has a masterful control to cut and shape with such finesse and boldness.

The old man had agreed to join his nieces earlier in the year but Covid had provided him with a good excuse to delay fronting up for rehearsals. When they prodded him again to give it a go, he said he would, “but let me see what’s in the programme.” He did not elaborate and they did not ask why that was relevant. If they are playing The Rite of Spring, then I am not joining. When his nieces left, I asked him, “So, what have you got against The Rite of Spring? I know it’s awful music to listen to – must be awful to play it too,” I said, showing off I have heard of Igor Stravinsky’s music.

“It’s not awful music!” he replied loudly, almost choking himself with his thick sputum. “It is just too difficult to play,” he said. “Too fast, too many rhythm changes and too many notes!” he added.

“Not awful?” I asked, my curiosity aroused. I had tried to listen to it many times, in the 70s, 80s and 90s. But, Stravinsky was “too modern” for me. Heavy metal music sounds tame by comparison! Manic, head-banging, dissonant and weird. “No beautiful melody,” I said, revealing my bias for classical and romantic music by the great composers, Beethoven and Rachmaninov. “It’s awful music,” I repeated. “It’s no surprise the audience in Paris rioted on the night of the premiere in 1913.”

That an audience attending a classical music concert could riot in the streets showed how bad the music was. It was actually a ballet, but no difference. Generally, audiences who know how to appreciate the fine arts think of themselves as intellectuals, highbrow and knowledgeable in high culture. It had to be the music that turned them into raging lunatics. For such “elite” people to be so outraged by the avant-garde score and Nijinky’s choreography that they turned violent in the streets and protested by throwing tomatoes at the composer, their primal emotions had to be stoked by a madman. Stravinsky broke every rule about what music should be. His music was atonal, coarse, harsh and raw. Even scary.

The old man vehemently disagreed. “In The Adoration of the Earth, when the cellos and double basses come on, the sounds conjure up Bernard Herrmann’s score for Psycho. Amazing! They all copied him!” he said. “Terrifying music that was used in Walt Disney’s Fantasia to signal the arrival of a menacing T-Rex was actually music from Glorification of the Chosen One in Part 2 of the ballet,” he added. “In Evocation of the Ancestors, you could hear the passages of the music in John Williams’ Dune Sea of Tatooine in Star Wars. It would not be wrong to say that every Hollywood composer was, in one way or another, inspired by Stravinksy’s Rite of Spring,” the old man said, whilst giving me the look that I did not know what I was talking about.

The old man had harboured a dream that one day he would join an orchestra and relive the joy he felt when playing classical music with a group of friends during his formative years in his hometown, Penang. “The last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said to Athalie who sat next to him on his first night with the BSO. Athalie Scholefield, a tutti second violin in the orchestra for some 50 years, was very welcoming and encouraging. Long retired and free to enjoy her passion for music, the old lady with short straw-like hair and a wrinkled face looked young compared to her violin. It looks ancient and in bad nick, the old man thought to himself as he inspected her instrument. Always wearing a sweet smile, the diminutive woman who is often invisible behind her music stand said, “You’ll be alright, luv.”

Who raises himself on tiptoe, stands not firm

Who strains his stride, walks not far.

Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching

The old man reminded himself not to be unfair to himself. After all, he had no expectations to play in an orchestra so soon. His dream was to play the popular adagios and romantic melodies that he loved. Easy listening music that is at the same time easy to play. But, he would apply himself to the challenge of being a worthy tutti player. Inspired by his own children, he welcomed the opportunity to work hard so that he could make good music from his violin.

“It’s not practice that makes perfect, but perfect practice that makes perfect,” he said. “I clocked in the hours, averaging two hours daily,” he told Stephanie. 

“I always say practice makes progress!” she replied.

In total, there were nine rehearsals before concert night on 30 November. The old man missed one rehearsal due to a birthday party he did not wish to miss. The first night was a disaster – he knew the music well but he could hardly play the notes. So, like any tutti player in an orchestra, if you can’t play it, just pretend you can. His fingers moved with agility, his bow cut the air like a knife cutting a birthday cake, up and down, swiftly or slowly, as willed by the conductor, but all the time, he was squeaking like a poor church mouse barely audible even to himself. The final rehearsal was also a disaster. During the day, he had been able to suppress his cough but when night came, he became tired and agitated. He miscounted in the Vaughan Williams, unable to rejoin the orchestra for a full page. He was heard spluttering loudly behind his mask, his body visibly shaking with every violent cough as the night wore on. The next morning, he said to his Mrs, “I don’t know if I should attend the concert tonight. I don’t feel I’m ready.”

“You’ll be right,” she said. “Just fake it if you’re lost,” she said, matter-of-factly, with no emotion.

Suddenly, he remembered Athalie’s words to him on the first night. You’ll be alright, luv.

Burnside Symphony Orchestra Concert Night 30/11/2022. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.

The concert was a sell-out. Everyone played to their best ability. The Mrs and The Lady were there to lend their support. Both were quite chuffed after the concert. “Not bad at all,” both chirped in unison. Reminding the sisters that they were all amateur players, the old man said pleasingly, “We were fantastic!” Suddenly, his cough had disappeared. Although wearing the now familiar light blue medical-grade disposable mask, he was hard to miss. His straight shoulder-length hair reminded me of the famous violinist, Leonidas Kavakos, whom I heard live in Prague. His nieces were glowing with excitement also as they congratulated him for taking part in the concert. “See, we said it would be fun, right?!” one of them screamed with delight. “Actually, Philip Paine was fantastic,” he said to his Mrs. The conductor of BSO was superb in holding the orchestra together. A horn player in the Adelaide Symphony Orchestra, his professionalism and strong leadership shown through the night.

BSO 30/11/2022. Brahms Double Concerto. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
BSO, take a bow. Bravo! 30/11/2022. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
Corinne, the old man, and Stephanie, with their Paolo Vettori instruments. Photo by Anne Koh.

The old man was still pumped up and a high dose of adrenalin was still rushing through his veins even after he had helped move the chairs and music stands from the stage.

“I am really pleased with my playing,” he said, beaming a huge smile behind his mask.

“Told you you’d be alright,” the Mrs said.

“Now, I can no longer say the last time I played in an orchestra was 47 years ago,” he said with a chuckle.

BSO Violin 1, Violin 2 and Viola sections. Photo by Bronwyn Parkin.
The old man with a rare smile. Photo by Anne Koh.

Don’t Mind It, It’s Only His Mind

The old man laid on the floor next to his bed, curled up like an over cooked prawn. Buried in thick layers of quilt, he would have been mostly invisible if not for the violent shaking beneath. It was already the end of spring, yet winter stubbornly lingered on, adding misery and discomfort to the aged and the sickly. The room was pitch-black, distant light from street lamps were shielded by thick heavy curtains drawn tightly. The Mrs was sound asleep on the opposite side of their massive bed, undisturbed by his loud hoarse barking that violently pierced the cold night air with such regularity that sleep was becoming elusive for him. They used to hold each other close in bed until sleep took over and let air pass between their lithe bodies. But, they were newly weds then. The distance between the old couple when they sleep could be used as a measure of the length of their long marriage, the widening gulf between them a price of familiarity and staleness that inevitably envelopes any relationship that isn’t carefully and lovingly nurtured. He had slept on the floor for over three weeks, ever since she started coughing badly. The notion that he could avoid catching her germs by sleeping further apart proved to be wrong. That germs can be airborne and spread via sneezing or coughing did not stop him from trying anyway. Her throat had behaved like an aerosol can spraying with abandon throughout the house for weeks already. Besides, it was the only chance he had to sleep with his dog at his feet. The Mrs had insisted the dog had no rights to their bed.

That same morning, his 99-year-old mother refused to leave her bed when asked if she wanted her breakfast. The clock had already chimed eleven times half an hour earlier but she asked in her Ningbo dialect, “Chi so bo chee?” Why wake up?

“What should I do?” his sister asked.

“Let her be,” the old man said. “She is entitled to do whatever she wants, at her age.”

It is worrisome when a person cannot find a reason to wake up, the old man replayed that line of thought in his mind over and over again for the rest of the day. “There is always a reason to be alive, right?” I asked him. When we were kids, we could not wait to get up quickly to rush out to play with the other kids in the neighbourhood. As school students, we were keen to wake up to get ready for school, not because we looked forward to learning, but to avoid detention if we were caught arriving late. As adults, we had so many reasons to wake up – too many reasons, actually, and when we retire, we look forward to our hobbies or holidays or grandchildren. There is always a reason to wake up. “Life finds a reason for us to wake up until it doesn’t,” the old man replied.

The old man had always believed in the power of the mind. Mind over matter, he had told himself over and over again throughout his life. He spurned taking medicines for minor ailments. He avoided antibiotics like they were a plague. “Let my own body fight the germs,” he said when a hypochondriac friend suggested he go to the doctor. The old man had not read Henry Beecher’s classic 1955 work “The Powerful Placebo” but even as a teenager, he had told himself the power of the mind should not be underestimated. Today, of course, the placebo is considered a scientific fact. We can achieve great things if our minds tell us so.

“Why would nations go to war?” he asked. I could barely hear him even though he had found his voice back that day. His normally sonorous and somewhat mellifluous voice had deserted him. “You squeak like a church mouse,” I said. He had lost it for three days and had not taken any phone calls. A quiet man by nature, he savoured the peace in the silence.

“Because their leaders tell them they will be victorious?” I queried with a great uncertainty in my voice.

He looked up with an odd tilt to his head and opened his mouth to speak. No words came out from it and he quickly closed it. When you have nothing good to say, then say nothing. I could not tell if he thought I was right or wrong. But, it seemed logical enough. We do what our minds tell us. If our minds tell us it is right, we would go to war. For those who are less convinced, the people would unleash the force of God. Vox pouli, vox Dei. The voice of the people is the voice of God.

The old man’s belief in the power of his mind took a hit this week. Nothing his mind told him had worked. His cough had not abated. He caught it from His Mrs who caught it from her sister who caught it from her son-in-law who came from Toronto to attend a graduation ceremony for radiologists and oncologists. His mind had told him he was not going to catch the germs. He was wrong. His mind told him it would not be severe when he caught it. He was also wrong. His mind told him he would not need to see a doctor. He was wrong again, although a tele-health consult wasn’t exactly ‘seeing’ the doctor. His mind told him he would not need any antibiotics. He told his doctor that and surprisingly, she agreed with him. “If that is what you want,” she said.

Despite feeling poorly, he had been practising hard for the upcoming concert with his local orchestra. It was exactly eight weeks ago when he joined the orchestra as a tutti player in the second violins. In that time, he had been secretly pleased with his progress. The concert programme, two hours in duration with the usual interval, would be worthy of a professional orchestra. “I could have been a musician,” he told me. Had he picked Vienna instead of Adelaide when he was 19, he would be a professional violinist today. “Why do you think that?” I asked. Maybe he has no idea how competitive and demanding the classical music industry is. So, he told me his story. When he picked up his violin eight weeks ago to learn the music for the concert, he could hardly play any of the notes. The changes in key signatures, the frequent variations in tempo and the fast passages were all too daunting for him. “I almost gave up, ” he confided. “I had to ask what tutti con sordini means!” So, he used the power of his mind to convince himself he would be ready for the concert. “And it is working,” he said. “Now, I can run through the semi-quavers without fear,” he added. But, I knew he was lying. I heard him practise just the other night. He did breeze through the fast passages nicely three times consecutively but when I asked him to do it one more time, “but imagine you’re playing in the concert now,” he faltered. His weak mind failed him.

The old man was born in Malaysia. Naturally, when the country reached an impasse with a result that did not produce a majority win for any of the political parties earlier this week, he was upset by the knowledge that the ex-PM who called for the early election but failed to win his own seat would remain as the caretaker PM whilst the King sorted out the mess. “So, Malaysia now has an unelected guy as their caretaker PM after the people have voted. This is not democracy,” he said. It’s so demonic he coined the word demoncracy.

“The people have voted. When there’s a stalemate with no party attaining a simple majority, the King gets to do his job,” a friend said.

“This is where it’s so wrong. Even you buy this crap, bro. The Agong doesn’t get to decide. The people do, in a democracy. The people have already decided. The party that has the highest vote can choose to form a minority government,” the old man replied.

“When in Rome, do what the Romans do. Australia may have a different system than ours which is designed after Westminster. The stalemate of not having a simple majority is unprecedented for Malaysia.
Further, our Constitution which is the highest form of law in Malaysia has defined the rules upfront. To me, there’s nothing wrong with applying due process of the rule of law. So, please, have some respect for our Constitution,” his friend said.

Instead of biting his tongue and sealing his lips, the old man continued with the discussion about what he thought was relevant given the circumstances the people were faced with.

“What does the Malaysian Constitution say? I do not think it specifically covers minority governments but that in itself does not mean minority governments are not allowed. Even the UK had minority governments before. Australia’s system is also a hand-me-down from the same colonial master; we are famous for our hung parliaments,” the old man said. Troubled by the fact that his good friend had found him disrespectful, he asked his friend to show him the clause in the Constitution that says the King must decide on which party can form a majority government, believing that nothing in the Constitution expressly excludes the formation of a minority government. A minority government can still govern as long as it has the support of the majority of the House.

Another friend advised the old man not to be angry. “I know you know a lot but you don’t know all. If I were you, I would live happily in Australia and enjoy playing your violin….. Please don’t get angry, we should be more concerned with how best to carry on living.”

The old man, surprised by that, replied, “I am not angry at all. I try to be stoic and Stoics do not get emotional so easily. I was merely engaging in discussing current affairs that are important to Malaysia but I was disturbed that an old friend would find me disrespectful of the Malaysian Constitution. At what point did I become disrespectful?”

Knowing that he had inadvertently upset a close friend, the old man was quick to apologise. “Sorry, I am wrong to misunderstand you. You said the King gets to do his job. You didn’t say he gets to decide who will be PM. Ascertaining numbers and then appointing the PM is not deciding per se because I like to believe that voters decide the outcome in a democracy. Not a single individual, not even the monarch.”

The old man looked fatigued and withdrawn. But, there would be no self-pity, although there was a moment when he looked too self-absorbed to listen to my advice. I comforted him by reminding him he always knew himself to be annoying, and “when you annoy people, what do you expect to get?” I asked. His silence emboldened me. So, I asked again.

“What do you expect, my friend? Was it not you who told me even your wife found you annoying that you can’t kill a garden snail?”

“A snail is harmless. It doesn’t kill a living thing,” his brain scrambled to justify himself.

“You may think you have no hurtful or harmful intent, but you’re useless to her when you won’t even protect the veggies in the garden!” I said, revealing my bias that even I found that annoying.

“When I was younger, I would not even dream of apologising if I felt I had done or said nothing wrong. Today, I am often the first (the quickest) to apologise. It does not matter if I believe I have done or said nothing wrong, but the fact remains that the other party is aggrieved. That alone deserves an apology,” the old man said.

“True, I suppose,” I said, finally finding a reason for a truce.

The old man continued. “I used to rationalise that we can’t control how others think or feel, if they are upset by an innocent remark, one made without any ill intentions, then so be it. But, as I grew older, I just did not want to lose any more friends or make new enemies. Peace is what I seek.”

“I hope you won’t lose this friend,” I said. “He will find it in his heart to forgive you. You guys go all the way back to 1965!”

We are like pellets of incense falling on the same altar.

Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 4.15

We are all the same, living in this world for only a very short time. Some may be taller or shorter, richer or poorer, younger or older, faster or slower, stronger or weaker. None of it matters. Measuring against one another is not only foolish, it is toxic and a waste of time. Like pellets of incense, some will fall sooner than others but we will all duly fall and turn to dust. As insignificant as dust but as equal and no different as one another.

No dust here. Painting by Anne Koh.

It’s Plain. Don’t Complain, Don’t Explain.

Last night, the old man volunteered to sleep over at his mother’s house. The grand dame is 99. She needs to be looked after even though she reckons she is still lucid and able to tend to her own needs. Her children no longer argue with her about that – they simply take turns to spend time with her. “A mother would never spurn her children spending time with her, right?” the old man asked me. A silly question that did not earn a reply. So, I remained silent. He appeared to be sniffling and swallowing with difficulty, as if he had a fishing hook stuck in his throat. He looked far from his chirpy self.

“Are you not well, mate?” I asked.

He looked confused and didn’t know what to say. Lost for words, he seemed to have reverted to the old days of keeping quiet and letting his Mrs dominate the conversations, she being the life of any party. He promised me he would speak up and express himself clearly when he reached 60. This is unusual, I thought to myself. I have not seen him behave like a zombie for years. Sitting there ashen-faced, lost in his own world with lifeless eyes that look blankly into space, he twiddled his fingers and left his mouth slightly open like a fly trap. Suddenly, it dawned on me – Richard Koo, a friend in Sydney had just shared news that he had just been tested positive and promptly listed his symptoms. “I had shivers, high temperature, brain fog, cramps, chesty coughs, headache, chest tightness, weakness, and my mouth tasted terrible!” Brain fog! I screamed in my head. The old man must have Covid, I decided before excusing myself to use the loo as a good reason for leaving the room. “I am positive I tested negative,” he said, confusing me temporarily when I returned to sit in the adjacent room. “Anyway, why do we bother with a RAT?” he asked. “The results are unreliable and it costs money to buy a test kit, do you think the average bloke would bother?” I agreed with him. No one in their right mind would pay to do a test and then to forgo his wages and risk losing his job to someone else if he was positive.

“I slept in my mother’s house last night and must have caught a chill,” he said.

“Why? Did you and your Mrs fight again? You promised me you’d be stoic and shut your mouth.”

“Nah, I had to go look after my mother,” he said.

“The spare room was stuffy and musty.”

“It was foul! I couldn’t breathe and suddenly I felt sick,” he complained.

He conjured in my mind a picture of a dank room filled with junk from yesteryears that had not seen the sun’s beam for decades. Stone-walls ravaged by salt damp and collapsing cornices of ceiling weighed down by mould and untold years of gravitational force. The aluminium sliding window remained stuck to its rail, caked in dust and corpses of blowflies that struggled in vain to penetrate the glass. “Your mum’s house? I thought you guys have money to fix such things,” I judged.

“No, no, nothing like that,” he dismissed my conclusion that their mother lives in a run-down dilapidated building.

But, it turns out I wasn’t too wrong about the collection of junk in the room. A bedroom, with a solitary bulb emitting a weak halation of light that won’t reach the corners of the room, turned into a store-room is doubly criminal, I thought. One, it is unhealthy and wasteful of prime living space and two, junk should be binned, not stored to make the house look like a junkyard. But, these points did not cross the old man’s mind at all. Instead, he told me he felt elated to be “home” once more. The last time he slept in his parents’ home was in Penang in December 1980, just before he got married. “Crikey,” he said. “That’s forty odd years ago,” he added. I had always assumed he was good at simple arithmetic, so it was shocking that he could not immediately tell me the exact number. Their mid-century furniture still adorned the old sandstone Federation-style bungalow. The gentle pastel lilac headboard that his head rested on somehow soothed him, bringing childhood memories of an insomniac’s nights counting sheep and if that did not work, relieving himself with his hand to sap away his youthful hormone-packed energy. Over the years, the same furniture in the house went from trendy to classic to out-dated to problematic junk but now they are back in fashion. The books on the shelves are still the same ones he saw in their Scotland Close house except they are coated with a thicker layer of dust and the pages have turned yellow. The big photos that used to be prominently displayed in his childhood home are still displayed here. But these aren’t photos of a British monarch or a European-looking Jesus Christ or a smiling Virgin Mary looking downwards from the sky to grace their house. “These are precious,” he said with a tinge of love in his voice. There is a big photo of his father on his own and another one of his mother. There is also one of their family – everyone was there bar one. It was often the same child – the youngest daughter – who missed out on these ‘official’ portraits for whatever reason. A small photo of his parents framed by the kind of timber no longer used today to frame pictures sits proudly on the bedhead screaming to be seen but is often missed. Hardly anyone walks into the bedroom. It’s a no-go zone these days, “lest you be accused of stealing from her,” he warned me. “Dementia makes a person delusional and suspicious,” I said.

It is now used primarily as a store-room for Ma’s now old unused yards and yards of fabrics bought with great purposes in mind and an assortment of replicas of antiques wrapped in really old newspaper and protected from dust by greying plastic bags. The news in the old newspaper would probably be more interesting than the fake antiques, although these artefacts are probably worthy of being valued as antiques today. The colour was never vibrant even when the photo was newly developed but the passing years were still kinder to the photo than to the couple in it. They would have been in their early fifties when the photo was taken. Back then they looked old, so old he was forever worried they might pass away when he was overseas, but now, they looked so young. So much younger than the old man whose eyes could not be peeled away from it. The couple married young, he was 24, six years older than her. They had dreams to make a good life for themselves. He had tenacity, drive and a strong ambition to be successful in the new country which he had begun to call ‘home’. They worked hard, lived within their means, and never complained about their humble beginnings. Spartan and owning very little, he survived a Japanese torture cell for being wrongly accused as a communist sympathiser. He explained to the interrogators that he did not know the man that he was with, he knew him as a chess player and that was all they did – played chess at the roadside kerb before being arrested. “Don’t explain, it doesn’t help,” I said. Giving excuses and coming up with justifications do not help, no one will listen.

She escaped the attention of the Japanese soldiers and the clutches of the Kempetei. Before the war was over, parenthood gave them a new meaning to life. They worked hard, built a business and invested in coconut and rubber plantations. They laughed, cried, fought, quarrelled, but stuck together through thick and thin. There were good times and there were bad times. But throughout the business cycles, they believed in education. All eight children were sent overseas for tertiary education and to pursue their own dreams – a mighty feat that was not common in the 60s and 70s. He retired at 60, heeding the warning signs of a stroke that paralysed his left side for a few months. His spirituality was heightened and he sought solace and answers up a hill in Penang. A good friend, Arumugam, a chettiar, lent him his bungalow for a few months, ex-gratia, since the Indian millionaire owed him some favours. In the photo, he wore his trademark loving smile and looked smart in his brown suit and brown hat. He died in 2007 but lives on in the old man’s mind. His Ma oozed sophistication, he reckoned her body-hugging cheongsam would have tantalised a few men in their neighbourhood. She is still beautiful today – I have a photo of her taken last week to prove that.

“It was a great feeling, like a home-coming,” he said. Somehow, the chance to sleep in his mother’s home awoken long-harboured feelings of filial piety and transported the old man to his youthful past. Everything in there took him ‘home’ to his childhood. The furniture, the photos, the rosewood dining suite and elaborately carved lounge suite all played their part but it was the smell of familiarity – the smell of old things and old people – his parents – that seized his emotions and made him yearn for long-gone happy and worry-free days as a kid.

“Why didn’t I go back more often?” he asked. He bit his tongue. He was about to complain that he had responsibilities as a father and husband to his own family.

“I should have slept over at least once when Pa was alive,” he moaned. He would have liked that.

“It’s alright,” I placated the old man. There is no need to feel any guilt. Birds have to fly off from their nest and so do we. “No justification is required, and there is no one to blame, not even yourself,” I added. “It is plain, don’t complain, don’t explain,” I said.

Never complain, never explain.

Benjamin Disraeli, British PM. 1868, 1874-1880

“Today is a big day for Malaysia,” the old man said. Malaysians are voting for a new government. Everyone is hopeful this day will usher in a new dawn for a better tomorrow for all Malaysians. “Many of my friends will be voting for Harapan,” he said. Harapan means hope.

Cease to hope and you will cease to fear

Hecato of Rhodes

Both of these are projections into the future of which we have totally no control. ‘Hope and want’ lead to ‘fear and worry’. “I think it is responsibility that gives us the courage and tenacity to act, to do something that will change the outcome, hoping we get what we want is a wish for something that is out of our control. It’s rather unproductive, I think,” he said. Hope is a wish, a want, a desire. Often unrealised. Since we hope, there’s nothing to stop us from hoping for more. Unrealised hopes can wreck us! It’s useless to sit at home and hope for something to happen. “It is as frustrating as praying,” he added. Praying to God for something is akin to asking God to change his mind. If an event is set in stone by the almighty and perfect deity, why would we think our prayers or requests will change His mind? God is not fickle, He is surely not indecisive and if he needed to change his mind and change an outcome, he would be admitting that He got it wrong in the first place. That simply cannot be! His decision is final – why change something that was already perfect?

“Don’t hope,” he said to his friends. Just go out and vote! Change the outcome! Change the government!

Dementia, For Sure

The old man came by for coffee the other day. He was impressed by the coffee machine that has replaced my old moka pot. Normally, he would sit by the pond and enjoy the serenity of the sound of gentle water falling on pebbles. But, the gleaming machine caught his eyes as he wandered into the kitchen to say ‘Hi’ to The Mrs. The Mrs showed no interest in the minutiae of the workings of a coffee machine. She was only there to see if her cappuccino was ready and whether I had added enough cocoa powder to hers. The old man was asking me why I got the Delonghi and not the Breville Oracle Touch.

“You’d want to get a darker, more consistent crema that’s thicker, richer, and more complex, right?” he asked. “You told me the Breville has a dual boiler, and that means the coffee won’t be under-extracted and therefore won’t be sour and salty with a thin, barely-there finish, remember?” “I was so sure you’d go for the Breville,” he added.

“So many questions but one simple answer will tell you why,” The Mrs muttered to herself loudly enough so that the old man could hear her.

“Yeah, it’s an early Christmas pressie from our neighbour,” I said.

“The Chap is ultra generous but you just can’t pick something that is 3X the price,” The Mrs explained.

The Chap had come by earlier that morning with the gift. He normally kept his hair short, always preferring a crew cut that made him look fashionable like someone from mainland China in the 80s. But, he had just returned from a fortnight’s golfing holiday in New Zealand playing in famous courses like the Te Arai Links. His hair had grown long enough to be spiky, giving him the aura of a punk rock-star. His beaming face with its gibbous eyes and broad smile was the epitome of happiness, as if the Kiwi sunshine and fresh air he absorbed in recent weeks had given him a booster shot of happy hormones. As he unboxed the espresso machine, he rattled off all the main features of the Delonghi like a salesman in a Myer store. “See this here? For maximum efficiency, you must remember to descale it, blah-blah-blah-blah,” he continued, pushing this or that forcefully without any concern of them breaking, pressing one button or the other a bit too roughly, totally oblivious that my attention span was short. The joy of giving, I thought to myself. Could Santa actually be happier than a kid in a lolly shop, I wondered.

I said to the old man,”Wilson was wrong, you know.”

“Ask and Ye shall receive. Seek and Ye shall find,” our devout friend often said. “Don’t you agree it is truer to say, ‘Give and you’ll be happier?'” I asked. Don’t ask and don’t seek. Just give. When we ask or wish for something, we run the risk of being disappointed – usually, we don’t get what we want or who we want. Giving is easier. A sure winner. Giving brings joy to both giver and receiver. Everyone is happy. That was what The Chap taught me.

“Great coffee,” the old man said, after slurping the last drop from his cup.

“Want another one?” I offered.

“Sure, why not.”

When I handed him another cup filled with badly frothed milk, he asked, “How’s your mum?” I ignored his question, bothered by the extra water added to his coffee during the steaming and frothing process, I said, “I didn’t know frothing milk needs skill!”

“No love heart,” the old man said cynically, while making no attempt to hide his disappointment at the heavy coat of cocoa on the thin layer of froth.

How is my mum? I kept asking myself. The old man’s question disturbed me and for a moment, I forgot what I was going to do or say next. Visibly disturbed, I excused myself and left the old man to enjoy his coffee by himself.

How is my mum? She’s well, I suppose, for her age. For your age. I used to be bothered by those three words when used on me. I was annoyed when my doctor said “You’re fine, for your age.” I was equally pissed off when my optician said “Your eyes are healthy, for your age.” Ma is 99. Anyone will say she’s great, for her age.

Elegant, feminine and graceful, Ma cultivated a sophisticated poise. Maybe that is unfair. Deprived of formal education, she grew up in a coconut plantation in Bagan Datoh where her dad worked as a laundryman for the wealthy owner during British colonial rule. She never met any of the family members, not even the English lady of the manor. She was a kampong girl whose world was rather small and secluded, and the people in it were mostly ignorant and unschooled, happy to be near coconut trees and paddy fields. No, she didn’t cultivate poise, she was born refined and respectable.

Ma loves to party, even at 99. Photo by Francis Koh, Nov 2022.

Although without a formal education, Ma taught herself to read and write in Chinese. She can get by with some English words too. Ei-c-keling for ice-cream, ma-kah-way for microwave oven, pang-sai for Burnside, our suburb. After all, she has lived in Australia since 1988 and follows mainstream news ardently on TV, mainly for their weather forecasts. Prior to the advent of weather apps on mobile phones, she was our “weather girl”, the go-to authority whenever we needed the latest weather report. She doesn’t use a mobile phone, so the radio and TV are still her sources for weather updates. “Why the preoccupation with the weather?” the old man asked. “Maybe it’s to do with her involvement in the laundry business,” I suggested. Pa was also a laundryman. Firm, authoritative but considerate and kind, she has been our family’s matriarch. She was the eldest child in her family and she grew up the quickest during the war years to help support her siblings. “So, she earned some respect and recognition too amongst your cousins,” the old man deduced.

Ma was infallible, incapable of being wrong about dates, anniversaries and historical events. Her memory was like a hard disc drive or in today’s parlance, a blockchain that is forever verifiable and non-editable. She remembered everyone’s special days – our birthdays, wedding anniversaries, when we first left home, when and for how long we returned for our summer holidays, the dates and circumstances of her friends’ deaths, and so on. She was a great source of information about prices. Indeed, I do wonder if she was the only source in the whole world for grocery prices in Penang for much of the 20th century and Adelaide’s grocery prices since 1988.

But, she is succumbing to dementia. “Rather rapidly,” I said to the old man. Ma, to me, is in Stage 5 Dementia. The old man agreed. We ought to discuss how to cope with Stage 6 before she gets there. Let’s get up to speed with this. I urged a sister just a few days ago. She was still not understanding or unwilling to accept the gravity of Ma’s decline, I felt. In recent years, I had implored them not to argue with Ma (unnecessary or otherwise) – there is simply no need to prove her wrong, that the recollection of her history was inaccurate or that her accusations were unfounded or hurtful.

She is our mother. She is very old. Her mental state is declining rapidly. She can’t help it, dementia makes her confused, delusional, suspicious, even distrusting. Ma was trying to figure out how to put on her vest and jacket one night whilst preparing for bedtime. She was at it again the next morning. She kept turning her vest this way and that way and gesturing to swing the garment over her head repeatedly. “She was probably recalling how she was dressed in her childhood,” I suggested.

“It’s like a puzzle for her. Not sure why….” a sibling replied.

“Get up to speed, it’s called dementia,” I said. That was a terrible mistake.

I suggested to my sibling that a proper understanding of dementia is necessary for us so that we can care for her appropriately, with extra compassion and understanding.

“I know,” she said. “But, don’t be rude.”

“No rudeness intended. I can’t help how other people perceive words,” I replied.

“You’re assuming and telling me about Ma’s dementia. Haha. Ridiculous,” she said, her ‘haha’ sounding fake.

“’Words are the source of misunderstandings’—Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince. I love this book, simple yet enlightening,” I said, attempting in vain to explain that she misunderstood me.

“We need to exercise decorum and maintain some goodwill. Even more so when the family has to work together to care for our mum,” she continued lecturing me.

“Absolutely! For me, there was nothing derogatory about asking someone to get up to speed – used often enough in a commercial environment. As I said, no rudeness intended. But I can’t help it if others are over-sensitive or intentionally misunderstand. Words are dangerous if people wish to interpret them negatively.”

“When you tell someone “to get up to speed”, you are implying that they are a bit slow, i.e. ‘stupid’. If you fail to see that, you may be suffering the onset of dementia. No rudeness intended,” another sister joined in the fray.

The old man understood what I was saying. “Yeah, give them this scenario of a business meeting,” he suggested. “Before we start the meeting, I’m going to get you up to speed with the latest developments.”

Who would be offended by that? There is no implication of slowness or stupidity, just a suggestion to get up to speed, get informed.

“Please get up to speed with ‘Get up to speed’,” I replied to the other sibling.

A third sibling chimed in. “Piss off.”

Piss off just means, ooh, go away, I don’t need this information. That was the suggestion.

“Yeah, it’s usually quite harmless amongst friends, but it depends on the inflection or tone or intention,” I said.

The conversation was spiralling out of control. My intention was for everyone to be on the same page, so that we understand what is happening to our mother. She can’t help it if she thinks someone is stealing from her or some of us are trying to push her to a nursing home. She can’t help it if she thinks everyone is wrong and she is the only one who is right. Dementia is cruel to the patient, robbing her of her memory and sanity, rendering her child-like at times. She can be easily irritable, frustrated with her inability to communicate when words stop at the tip of her tongue or memories fade; she can be angry, slamming the table with previously unseen violence and force; often she is even delusional and suspicious of our intentions and behaviour. Why do we need to be offended by someone who is exhibiting all the symptoms of dementia? It’s dementia, for sure.

Ma’s often lazy to get up from bed in the mornings these days. I don’t blame her. Why get up and face the cold when we can snuggle in the warmth under the soft doona? “A full bladder and an empty stomach forces one to get up,” she lamented.

Last Saturday, I cooked her sar hor fun, one of her favourite Penang street foods. She took a small bite and looked at me somewhat coyly and hesitantly. Maybe with a wee bit of a pitiful look too. I don’t know why but this isn’t suitable for me,” she said, pushing away her plate. She pushed away a serving of her favourite Hakka too-kah also. Not so long ago, she requested The Mrs cook for her that signature dish; she loved the extra stickiness the gelatin of pork trotters left on her lips. We could have been easily upset. We could have felt unappreciated – that the effort we made to buy the ingredients and cook her a superb lunch was all for nothing. But, how wrong would we have been? I looked at Ma and she was simply adorable. Child-like and cute, she was waiting to be served the durian that was displayed on the middle of the table. “Where’s the ei-c-keling?” she asked.

Red roses for Ma. Photo by Anne Koh, 12 Nov 2022