Phew, So Few.

The old man’s eyes looked sad. Oftentimes, he wore an expressionless face with shifty and slanty eyes that made him unattractive. It could be said his voice was monotonous and stodgy. The content of his conversation was usually out of topic or delivered late, after others had switched to other matters of interest. It hinted of a rather slow thinker, perhaps. I have observed him for a long time and my conclusion, made recently, was that he was a gangly awkward fellow who was prone to trip himself with his own foot. At the optometrist a few days ago, he found his hooded eyes hugely embarrassing when the young and gorgeous-looking woman had to lift and spread apart the excess skin from above and below his eyes in order to examine them. The angry tips of his eyebrows were turning white and faint, as if they were being slowly erased by time. His hair, once thick and wiry, had turned hoary and dry. They hung well past his shoulders, somewhat accentuated with faint wavy curls. The receding hairline used to worry him but with each passing year, there was growing acceptance that his ageing process could no longer be slowed, despite cutting-edge science that promises ageing can be reversed. Looking at the creases on his forehead triggered in my mind a word association with an iron. There had to be a way of smoothing them, surely.


One look at a man’s face tells you whether he’s prospering or suffering

Shi Naian, Shuihu Zhuan, Chapter 24

He told me about an incident he experienced many weeks ago. The winter had been long and severe and the sunbeams had failed to break through the clouds for days. But, that day the sun decided to work a bit harder and chased away the freezing winds from the south. The azure sky was still and constant, as the rain clouds floated away like butterflies in the sky. He was walking his dog in a field adjacent to a reserve when he came across a family of noisy parakeets. On that beautiful moment, he closed his eyes and listened to the wind blow. It was just a gentle whisper which did not have the energy to free any hair from the loosely tied bun on his head. Many minutes passed before his dog returned to nudge at his legs after a game of chasey with some bigger dogs. He saw a strange halation of light at the edge of the field furthest from him when he opened his eyes. In his left eye, a short burst of floaters that behaved like bubbles released from a straw clouded his vision briefly. He quickly dismissed it from his mind after the sharp reminder seared his head warning him that such an occurrence warranted an urgent call to his eye specialist. The Greek doctor whose rather long name was impossible to remember let alone spell had warned the old man that sudden floaters in his left eye could indicate that the retinal tear had worsened. He hugged his dog for instant comfort and decided to inspect what had caused the halation he saw earlier.

At the edge of the reserve, the old man came across a patch of ground that was in dire need of attention by the park ranger. Unkempt and thick, the long grass there seemed to summon him to draw closer. He did not let his guard down even though he knew there would be no brown snakes loitering in the middle of winter. He pretended to scare his dog with his sibilant whispers.

 “Murray, it’sssss not s-s-s-ssssafe here. Watch out for s-s-s-ssssnakessss….S-s-s-sshhhh, can you hear the hisssss? Ssh-shh-ss-s-shall you check that grass-s-s-s-sy patch there?” he said softly. 

The good thing about his dog was he’s not afraid of pretend-snakes. The other good thing about his dog was he would never treat the old man like used tissue paper. “The more you know humans, the more you love dogs,” he said to me, as if he had just invented the phrase.

Rain or shine, night or day, hungry or full, his dog loved him. A love that was as unconditional as the story of the Corinthians in the good book. 

The  dog barked enthusiastically like he had found treasure. The centre of his attention was a round dark hole in the ground. Just like his dog, the old man was on all fours as he edged his body nearer the hole. It was as big as a manhole except it was missing its round cover. Its verge had been baked hard over the years, a mixture of mud, cement and stones. A millipede sprung shut and pretended to be dead in one of the cracks as four paws rushed past it. The old man pushed his glasses firmly onto the bridge of his nose as he peered into the dark cavity.

“Hello-o-o-o, hello-o-o, hello-o-o” he said loudly, enjoying the reply of a distant echo. 

He blinked a few times to adjust his eyes to the darkness down there but he could not find the bottom. The smell of faint putrescence reminded the old man of his aquarium when it was overdue of a water change. Maybe there’s rotten vegetation down there; he hoped it wasn’t the smell of an unfortunate animal that had fallen in and made it its own burial ground. He covered his nose with a handkerchief that was scented with cheap perfume and quickly distanced himself from the odoriferous place.

The old man had many fears – of heights and of the sea. Why the sea? Simply because, being a poor swimmer, his biggest phobia was to die like Jack, in The Titanic. For years and years, he refused to entertain the idea of going on a cruise until the year when he won a free holiday to Alaska. He never liked it but his excuse was that he missed out on watching the FIFA Wold Cup that year. The Americans did not care to screen any live matches on the boat.

It caused him great anxiety even to drive up Greenhill Road to the charming hill towns nestled in places like Summertown, Piccadilly and Hahndorf. Strangely, he loved to use the enduring nature of the sea and the hills and their predictability when he was a young teenage boy writing love letters to his girlfriend(s).

My darling, I miss you so much.

The autumn leaves may be dying outside but in my heart, my love for you is an eternal spring. The hills are alive with the sound of your sweet voice. I shall hold you close, and never ever let you go. You do know, don’t you, that you will forever melt my heart, my darling and I will be forever yours. My love for you is like the sea, always returning to the shore. It is impossible, my darling, to stop thinking of you. You’re the pearl of my life and I am your oyster, my darling, I will keep you safe in my arms, like the oyster’s shell does for its pearl. Darling, you’re the whole world to me.

Wu Yonggang

What he did not realise was it was already sung many years earlier by Perry Como.

Can the ocean keep from rushin’ to the shore?

It’s just impossible

If I had you, could I ever want for more?

It’s just impossible

And tomorrow

Should ya ask me for the world

Somehow I’d get it

I would sell my very soul and not regret it

For to live without your love

It’s just impossible

Perry Como

The old man had not had his eyes checked during the two and a half years of the pandemic. He could tell he needed new glasses once the black notes on his music sheets started moving like active tadpoles. Not long ago, he bought a beautiful violin, one that was made specially for him in Florence. As if he deserved better, he also bought a fine well-balanced violin bow that weighed 60 grams from Pierre Guillaume, a famous modern maker. To complete him as a serious player, his youngest son gave him a highly desirable case, which he nicknamed ‘Storm Trooper’, the reason would be quite obvious once you see it. I did not have the heart to tell the old man that to be a serious player, it needed much more than those things he showed me. He seemed to have drifted somewhere far away in his mind, so I dragged him back with a loud voice.

“Come, play me something nice,” I said.

He walked closer to where I was sitting. I could smell him; he had not changed his clothes for two weeks, I could tell. They were the same tan-coloured trousers, the same black turtle-necked long-sleeved skivvy, the same black thick jacket from Target that was rain-soaked days earlier. He picked up his violin, showing pure love for it with his careful tender touch, and took an eternity to tune it.

“Practice. Practice makes perfect,” I said, scratching my left ear with my forefinger, after I heard his Ave Maria, Meditation by Bach. He was tuning his violin again, not because any of the pegs had slipped, but the sounds were a good filler for the awkward silence.

After he had re-tuned his violin back to its previous pitch, he confessed he had been practising the piece for many months. I refrained from uttering a single word to hide my disappointment in his slow progress.

After a long pause, I said, “Perfect practice makes perfect.”

He winced, betraying his expressionless face.

Paolo Vettori, maker of the old man’s violin.
Take a bow, Pierre Guillaume!
The old man’s violin case, an Accord.

The young and gorgeous-looking optometrist in Norwood had a huge dazzling diamond ring on her wedding ring finger. Not many professions these days allow such close proximity between two consenting adults in a small and dark room, the old man thought to himself. She had a very attractive face and a rather alluring voice. Her long black hair had an extra shine and it smelled good, of Argan oil, the old man decided. But, she kept the old man busy, and diverted his eyes to the machine instead. Unkindly, she kept asking him to read letters and numbers so distant they seemed to be on another planet. “Which is clearer, this or this?” she kept asking him different combinations. The more she showed him, the more confused he became and the more muddled his answers were. After scanning his eyes for cataracts and glaucoma, she gave out a nervous sigh.

“Oooh, hmmmm.”

“Is there a problem?” the old man asked.

“How long ago did you say you had the retinal tear?”

“Oh, maybe eight to ten years ago.”

“I will make an appointment for you to see the eye specialist in North Adelaide. You must call him on Monday,” she said.

Monday arrived but the old man promptly forgot to call his eye doctor. No matter, he got a call from the eye clinic instead.

“Please remember to arrive early; your appointment is at 11.30 today,” a woman said over the phone.

“What, why? Mondays are very busy days for me,” the old man said, as he tried to wriggle out of the appointment.

“The doctor has very kindly squeezed you in today despite the seventy consults he already has,” the voice on the phone sounded firm and final.

“Ok, ok. How long will it take? Can I drive back within the hour?”

“No sir. You will need someone to drive you home. He has allowed time to carry out the operation today.”

“Operation?! What operation?” “I am not going to agree to an operation! I can see!” the old man protested anxiously.

His Mrs rushed in from some corner, hitherto unnoticed. “You scaredy-cat! I will be very very angry at you if you cancel the operation!”

“Angry at me? These are my eyes!” the old man said with disdain.

North Adelaide was just a twenty minute car ride away on a late Monday morning. The eye specialist was dressed quite sloppily. “Successful people need not dress up for anyone, it seems these days,” the old man said to his wife later on their way home. The eye doctor only made his appearance towards the last minutes of the consultation of which he would have claimed full professional fees for all the work carried out by his nurses. In his notes, much of it griffonage, he wrote that the old man had a ‘very impressive” ERM in his left eye and despite that, was maintaining excellent vision with no symptoms. In layman terms, ‘impressive’ meant significant. ERM was shorthand for epiretinal membrane. The wrinkling of his retina was so severe it would normally have meant a seriously blurred and distorted vision.

“His HST is fully operculated,” the doctor’s notes read, meaning the horseshoe tear is advanced to the state where the separated flap of the retinal surface is suspended but the body appeared to have healed itself such that it seemed unlikely that it would allow fluid to seep behind the retina. The doctor was amazed by the incredible image on his screen. He wore a bemused look and with an air of incredibility in his voice said, “I have never seen such an astonishing recovery! You should be blind!” Very very few cases escape without any issues given such significant distortions and unevenness of the ERM.

“Phew, so few?” the old man said whilst thanking the gods for his good luck.

“I could have told him it was due to the NAD+ I have been taking for the past three years,” the old man said.