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.
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.
“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.