I have a good husband, she would say for no good reason other than her old man bothered to stock up on noodles and mushrooms during the pandemic. He stocked up on canned foods, sacks and sacks of Laucke bread flour and all sorts of beans too – “for the protein,” he said. “Inflation is coming,” he added with a confident ring in his voice. But he packed them into brown boxes like a professional packer that he was and stashed them in the garage, never to be seen again. She, of course, could not find them and soon forgot that they were there and went out and bought some more for her kitchen. Her booming voice sang out from the sitting room where she had plonked her body heavily on the green leather sofa an hour or so earlier. The weather had turned for the worse once the sun decided to call it quits after lunch and banished the blue sky from reappearing. Northerly winds tried occasionally to break up the thick layers of grey clouds but it was clear their best efforts would be in vain. The Mrs reached for her heavy blood-red velvet blanket which in an earlier existence served as a window curtain in their house in Highbury. “Don’t let me ever see you again,” she said. No longer placid and weak, she told her best friend on the phone that was what she said to the person they were talking about. “I’m old,” she continued, “I don’t want toxic people around me anymore.” She wanted to be like spring water, clean and refreshing and always good. Her best friend’s svelte voice could be heard from the speaker phone but only every now and then since no one could dominate the booming voice. He imagined she was habitually scrunching her nose as she laughed and said pretty much the same about her husband. His food provisions had to outlast the pandemic too.
The Mrs shifted her position on the sofa to alleviate the soreness on her left thigh. The incessant chatter drowned out the gentle trickling of a mini waterfall in the pond outside. Missed also were the distant chirps of frolicking lorikeets and a lone dog’s complaints to the world. A magpie screeched at something, so loudly it made the old man look out of the window. It had gone still. The tall and skinny Lilli Pilly, once upon a time a standard, and an assortment of plants offering a predominantly green colour presented a foliage of varying shapes and sizes against a backdrop of federation red bricks looked like a painting on canvas; nothing moved, not even a fern leaf. A quaint antique pot sat on a Roman pedestal. A couple of qilin bought from a temple in Bali for $20 rested on a rock behind the pond. They looked centuries old even in the 80s and were the cause of the old man’s angst at the airport in Bali, detained on the suspicion that he stole some Balinese treasure. But, it wasn’t them or their little courtyard that mesmerised the old man that day. When something was always in front of him, he no longer saw it. What pricked his attention was the unusual stillness. The wind had given up. Maybe it was resting to gather pace and come back with a vengeance. The foothills of the Mt Lofty ranges were famous for their gully winds but the stubborn clouds, heavy with moisture and cold air, weren’t moving away despite the imminent arrival of the evening. “Your hubby is such a good man,” the booming voice disturbed the peace and brought the old man back to the room. She only praised other men, how typical. He shut his laptop, turned off the big screen and stepped out into the garden. Freedom, in another world.
The old man came back into the house less than an hour later, having done his usual chores in the garden; rain or shine they had to be done. He fed the chooks and whilst they squeezed up against one another in a corner of the run, he cleaned the coop and scraped up poo that littered the ground. Every step he took was a careful one, mindful of the poo as a soldier would, of IEDs, landing on one would earn the bellows from The Mrs. He was chuffed that afternoon. The sick chook had suddenly recovered when all hopes had been dashed. It had not eaten for three days and he was sure it would not last another night. His friend, Ban Leong, had suggested onions. “As a kid, I saw my dear old grandma give her sick hen red onions,” he said. “One whole onion?” the old man asked.”Yes, open her beak and push the onion in,” Ban Leong replied. The Mrs said he was mistaken and she was, of course, right. The old man agreed, there was no way to stuff a chook with a whole onion! Ban Leong called back and said, “Sorry! Sorry! It’s garlic! Smash the garlic first!”
“You weigh like a piece of paper,” The Mrs said as she shoved more garlic down its throat. She had tried apple slices and apple cider on the first day and epsom salts on the second. The chook did what appeared to be death throes and gurgled in garlic juice but not only did it fail to repulse the woman from force-feeding it with the revolting garlic, it got its eyes poked by a long fingernail as her finger slipped from the beak that was being prised open. “If all else fails, at least we will have a well-marinated chook for supper,” said the old man as he straightened his back and stretched his arms in a salute to the sky. The Mrs looked at him abhorrently. She recoiled from the man she had lived with for forty two years, whose passion was clumsy and whose intelligence, artificially portrayed during their courtship years, grossly underwhelmed her. She could never tell if he was joking. It wasn’t that she had a poor sense of humour. He had often said she had a low threshold for jokes, laughing at anything and everything said in a Mork & Mindy show or a Benny Hill sketch. She found his jokes or more correctly, his attempts at making jokes, flat or distasteful. Perhaps it was his poor delivery. His siblings were the same, if presented with a funny conspiracy theory, they would bombard him with a string of counter-arguments or alternative ‘facts’ or worse, give him the silent treatment. This of course was what had made him emotionally unbalanced. Often misunderstood and the target of scorn and mockery, when he whinged about it, his friends accused him of fishing for sympathy. The old man said,”It’s a can of worms, popularity has never been a goal so who cares, right? He risked sounding callous and cold but he no longer cared. He realised he had made too many enemies in his lifetime, enemies of happiness.
Don’t yearn for what we don’t have, for that is the enemy of happiness.Epictetus, Discourses, 3.24.17
Carpe diem! Seize the day. Live in the present, for the present is a present. Buzz words from brain-numbing morning greetings that peeved the old man rushed into his cranium. His synapses sparked, some of them snapped. “Haha, to snap them is better than to have your neurones connected by spirochaetes,” Choong Chet, a doctor friend from New Zealand teased with a twinkle in his eyes. The old man hunched and bent his knees to the ground under the big oak tree at the back. It wasn’t an old oak tree but he called it that anyway, on account that he was an illiterate on arboreal matters but even in his younger days, he understood enough about the importance of trees. So, many years earlier, he had planted one to provide shade for a stranger in the future; he did not expect to be that person enjoying the shade. Genuflecting to some god in the sky, he reflected on the unpredictability of life. Carpe diem! Feeling the sharpness of the pebbles biting into his knee, he heaved and got up clumsily before tripping on a clump of red nandina which sent him waywardly crashing onto the side gate that separated the neighbour’s garden from theirs. Embarrassed by his own clumsiness, he pushed his ribcage out and heaved a big sigh. Carpe diem. It had been troubling him no end for a number of days, upsetting his equilibrium was the notion of living in the moment. How does one let go of the past if one had to lug the heavy baggage of the past? The demon in us will not simply free us. We have to free ourselves How do we consciously present ourselves in the present? Live in the now! Just be happy sounded too simple.
But, it was never simple. His friends cajoled him often. They called him NATO. No action, talk only; or maybe they meant no action, think only. He walked to the edge of the pond on his neighbour’s land and made noises of love to the goldfish and comets. He loved fish of any variety since he was a kid growing up in Penang, nothing exotic like Koi or Orandas, just the cheaper kinds like comets, black molly and neon tetra. Fish represented everything that he wasn’t and couldn’t be in the water – colourful and graceful and fast! They made it look simple but it was very difficult to be simple for him, even as a kid. He had never seen a Japanese koi; keeping those required a big pond but no one had their kind of money at home then to have big ponds. It irked him as he patted the big goldfish on its head. It had a round body mostly of golden yellow and seemingly always pregnant with a big belly, even in winter. It raced up to the water’s surface to nuzzle up against his hand. The others sensed food and got into a frenzy, splashing water and creating ripples. His neighbour’s pond was massive by comparison to the one in his courtyard; in fact big enough to keep koi. But, the carp was banned in South Australia, deemed noxious and a severe threat to the natural habitat of local fish. The old man growled under his breath but seeing he was alone, he spat out the four-letter swear word forcefully. It was another example of bureaucracy gone mad, with the upstream states and territories legalising the keeping and selling of koi but not the downstream states of the Murray River. Fish swimming downstream won’t turn back because of man made borders!
It is very simple to be happyRabindranath Tagore, Nationalism
But it is very difficult to be simple
Life should not be so complicated for the old couple. Both had big egos and oversized sense of entitlements from each other, so they spurned at the chances they were given to be that special couple that they had every right to be.
He had told her the one thing that made sense to him. The only thing we control is our own mind. We wreck our lives when we let others control it. If you were being raped, you would fight tooth and nail to fend off the would-be attacker, you’d kick his balls or bite off his dick. Yet, when someone is abusing our mind, causing us emotional distress, somehow, we let them. We let them rape us, mentally. We don’t say no, we don’t ward them off.
She had told him the one thing that made sense. To her. If you’re my man, be my hero. Stand by me. Why don’t you speak up for me? Why can’t you protect me? Why do you leave me all alone?
They could have been like the main characters in the movie Silence of the Sea. With love there is trust, and no words need be spoken. He was a captain of the German army occupying a small town by the sea in the west of France. She was a beautiful single woman living with her grandpa. With her dead parents’ bedroom sequestrated for the captain’s use, she and her grandpa maintained their rage in silence despite his gentle and kind manners. Could enemies become lovers? In the whole movie, she said only a single word to him. Just as it may be silent in the great unknown, deep in the sea and we can only witness the turbulence of the waves, she appeared unresponsive and unfriendly but in her deep psyche, she had a strong connection with him and a mutual understanding that their music conveyed eloquently.