The one with the bad perm

     Last night, my husband asked if I would like to go out for dinner for a change. “Let’s!” I said, before suggesting that we dressed down. I happened to know this “foodie hideout” place in the outskirts of town.

     I studiously avoided catching his eyes as we got out from the car and walked into the restaurant. This eating place was a couple of tables and chairs on a cement floor under a tin roof jutting out in the front yard of someone’s single-storey terrace house in the suburbs. Yup, unlicensed, unregulated, non-legit home restaurant business.

     My husband inhaled sharply as a middle-aged woman with a severe tight perm and wearing lacy leggings waved at me and led us to an inconspicuous table at the corner.

     Mrs Bad Perm who is the owner’s wife shouted our drinks order to someone at the back – it was a choice of either home-made herbal tea or boiled barley. “Free drinks,” she reminded me. 

     “Why you so long no come here?” she asked, in a singsong voice, and then, glancing pointedly at my better half, she continued “Your father?”  I sucked my cheeks in to stifle a giggle before answering “This is my husband.” Mrs Bad Perm slammed her order book against her opened mouth before shaking her head and apologizing profusely. 

     “What was that? Comedy central?” my husband scowled, watching Mrs Bad Perm hurrying to the kitchen. I squeezed his arm and said that it was part of the appeal in places like these. Unpretentious charm! LOL

     By the time our food was served, my husband was waxing lyrical about the freshness of the ingredients. I told him that the steamed fish couldn’t get any fresher than this. It had been happily swimming in the tank when we walked in!  We also had a dish which he assumed was braised venison in chinese herbs. Actually, it was not venison. It was — umm — monitor lizard, but … he needn’t need to know that for now.

Love in a second language

The daughter got engaged last week.

It had been a long time coming, she said, contemplating a long distance relationship that was rather long in the tooth. My husband and I rolled our eyes. 

“We,” my husband said, pointing his finger back and forth between us, “got engaged a year after we met. I wasn’t going to give your mum an opportunity to think about this and that.”

I laughed nervously. He is right, you know.

My husband and I grew up in totally different settings.

I grew up in a small family. I had two siblings and everyone went about quietly doing their own things.  On school days, we had to finish our homework before we can go out to play. We were allowed two hours of tv after dinner. Then, we were given a dose of cod liver emulsion (yukks!!) and bundled off to sleep by 9pm.  

On weekends, we had church activities and helped out with the household chores. My favourite chore was ironing clothes. To this day, I enjoy ironing. I love the repetitive rhythm of the iron gliding on cotton and the sharp scent of sunshine as steam hits the folds of a shirt. In short, I had a boring, sheltered and pampered upbringing in Snooze county.

In contrast, my husband grew up with seven siblings. It was a boisterous household. Everyone was loud and there was always too much of everything – cooking, eating, jostling, teasing and everyone talking over everybody in their effort to get heard. The distractions were incessant. They overwhelmed me.  

Like my husband and I, our daughter is going to marry into a family that is as diverse as ours. We are a small quiet Malaysian family of three.  Our daughter is our only child. In contrast, our prospective son-in-law comes from a large noisy British-Punjabi extended family.  For her, it will no doubt take alot of getting used to.

As my daughter prepares for her marriage and settles in her new life in a new country, all I can offer from my experience are these:

It’s hard to fathom what hard work being in a culturally diverse relationship is; until you are elbow deep in one. It is like being in love in a second language.

When the going’s good, you enjoy the novelty, the diversity and the differences.

When the going’s rough, it’s a minefield to tread. It is initially hard to understand what went wrong, what you did wrong and what you said wrong. But it is ok. You have to remember that marriage is more than love. It is a commitment. It is like a bird – you need both wings to fly.

And no one says it better than this quote from one of my favourite Asian writers:

‘Love’, this English word: like other English words it has tense. ‘Loved’ or ‘will love’ or ‘have loved.’…Love is time-limited thing. Not infinite….In Chinese, Love…has no tense. No past and future. Love in Chinese means a being, a situation, a circumstance. Love is existence, holding past and future.
~ Xiaolu Guo – A Concise Chinese-English Dictionary for Lovers

 

“So, what do you do?”

     In the company of strangers, my friend would say that he “works in a hospital” when asked that all important question – “So, what do you do?”  

     He will then proceed to nail that well-practised game face all evening. That blur look which gives the impression that he is anything but a doctor. 

     He tells me that it was the best lesson learnt from early in his career because if he were to reveal that he is a medical doctor, he would have to spend all evening listening to folks relating their long list of ailments – imagined or otherwise – in the hope of getting free specialist advice over dinner.

     “I can’t dish medical advice without proper diagnosis, you should know that,” he would complain later. I would obediently agree.  I mean, what else can I say? 

     Hence, whenever I am caught in similar situation, I frequently say “I am a broker” in a nonplussed way with my shark-like smile for added effect. Somehow, the word “broker” inevitably conjures images of hungry rent-seeking scheming agents. 

     Like my doctor friend, I have learnt the hard way that to hold oneself out as an private equity investor is like being doused with honey before entering a roomful of bees. You’ll be swarmed. Transformed instantly into the life of the party. A minor celebrity. Suddenly, everyone has a business proposal or knows a friend of a friend who has one. The more opportunistic ones will persuade you to take a we-fie, before asking for your personal phone number so that they can sent you the photo (of course!) and shortly after, their business proposals.

     Ideally, a person is not defined by his job title nor judged by it because work is just one of the subsets that makes up a whole personality.  Unfortunately, we don’t live in that ideal world. Rant all you want and philosophize till you turn blue, the bottom line is this:  your answer to that seemingly casual question -“So, what do you do?” – is like the key  the real world uses to plug you on their food chain pyramid.

     Occasionally, I would answer, “I am a retiree.”  It would certainly guarantee a quick dismissal – after all who wants to hear about a has-been.  But it is an efficient way to get rid of pushy social climbers and aggressive self-promoters.  Yup, those ones who hand out business cards like Santa before dominating the conversation for the next hour; telling you how great they are, how qualified, how awesome his business is. 

     So, what do you do?

 

Calling the bluff

Yesterday, I met the owner of a manufacturing company in which we are private equity investor. 

Between mouthfuls of scalding Teochew congee, my business partner informed me that he intends to “sacrifice profit margins to continue fulfilling the value proposition that he has always held out for his customers.”  

“I think we should absorb the higher costs of production so that we can remain competitive,” he continued. I stared at him glass-eyed and all my brain could hear was yadda yadda yadda 

“Does this mean that we are going to lose money?” I finally asked

“Little bit,” he smiled; making a mini-gap between thumb and first finger for emphasis.

“How much?” 

He pulled a deep breath and said, “I think we will be down by only 80%.”

“O-n-l-y 80%?” I flinched, feeling my blood pressure hit stratosphere. “What is causing the higher production costs? Labour? Raw Materials? Machines?”

He cocked his head to one side and started rubbing his forefinger against his lips. “I should say it’s labour. Ya, definitely labour. We increased our headcount in January.”

“How many new staff and in which department?” I probed.

“Three new managers.”

“Let me get this straight. Are you saying that because of these three new managers, the company is going to shave its margins significantly? Who are these three managers? Your children? Relatives?”

“Actually, I should also say that higher costs because of more expensive raw materials. And our machines are old. We need to upgrade,” he continued, ignoring my question. 

I scrunched my nose. I could smell bullshit coming.

“How about sales? Is the company coming up with new products or getting new customers?”

He waved his hand dismissively. “Sales, you don’t worry. We know what to do.”

“How much have you sold this year?” I pressed.

“Maybe $2 million or $3 million. Very competitive market. But since you are here, I might as well tell you. Actually I am thinking that maybe we should diversify into property.  My son..I mean, one of our new managers, showed me this property development project recently.” He reached for a piece of paper in his shirt pocket and unfolded a site map of the property.

I leaned back and laughed harshly. “How are you going to pay for this project?”

“You don’t worry. We will issue new shares to finance the construction. I will cover you. 20% stake, free of charge. I hold it for you. You don’t have to declare to your Board. Trust me.”

I did a quick mental calculation. 20% stake is alot of money.  

I shook my head, incredulous that his audacity. No. 

His eyes narrowed. “People like you don’t understand business.  Investors, fund managers, analysts.. they want more, more, more. They don’t understand why we have to sacrifice something in the short term to grow better, bigger, stronger in the long term. They never run businesses before. They are not entrepreneur like me.” He ranted, jabbing himself repeatedly in the chest with his forefinger.

I waited for him to cool off and said calmly,  “We invested in your company because we believe in its prospects and your ability to deliver your profit targets within three years. So far, you have delivered 60% of the total. Let’s focus to deliver the remaining 40% on this 3rd year. After that, we will reconsider your property project idea.”

“You don’t have worry. I will not only hit the profit target this year, I will get someone to buy you out. I don’t think you understand how I run my business. I don’t want you as my investor anymore.” He glared at me.

I smiled tightly. Nothing gets a man all fired up like a good old confrontation with his ego.   Over the years, I have learnt three hard rules about private equity investing: (1) Always stay cool. Emotions sink ships. (2) Trust no one. It is harder to trust than be trusted. (3) The first offer is never the best offer.

I have no doubt he will deliver on his profit targets. But buying me out? Nah. I am calling his bluff. The private equity investment circle is small. If one leaves, you can bet the next investor would only come in at a deep discount. He will rake through the numbers with a fine-toothed comb to see if he can drive the asking price lower. As I have said, the first offer is never the best offer. That’s rule #3.

 

 

Queen of wishful thinking

I was lounging on the lazy chair playing time-wasting games on my phone when my husband returned from his morning jog. It was a sweltering 37deg C in Kuala Lumpur.

“Isn’t that like too hot to be outside, trying to outrun your equally unfit buddy around the jogging track?” I asked, eyes fixed at the screen while my fingers tapped frantically to save the wobbly avatar.

Instead of giving me some smart-assed quip, he leaned forward and wrapped his sweaty body over me. Then, he rubbed his oily stubble against my cheek. EEEEeeeooowwwww! So gross!

Attempting to move away, I misjudged the space between me and the edge of the lazy chair, rolled over and promptly fell clumsily onto the floor; with the chair tipping precariously.

Unfortunately, my husband thought that was the most hilarious sight in the world and he has not stopped reminding me of it since.

“Hey! just that frigging one time and you make it sound as though I fall all over the place all the time”, I protested, only to have him re-enact my fall by twirling his index finger in a downward spiral. Totally juvenile!

After lunch, he asked me what I would like to do for the rest of the day —apart from falling off chairs? I pretended not to hear the last part of his question. To be honest, I wished we could what other families would normally do on weekends: Drive some place off the beaten track for interesting foods. Catch a movie. Go window shopping… instead of catching up on sleep/work/emails which was our weekend routine.

“Let’s go to the pasar malam,” I proposed, referring to the night market at the town square where one can get everything from fresh vegetables and local delicacies to clothes and fake branded handbags to traditional medicinal herbs sellers guaranteeing “the ultimate in conjugal bliss.”

I can picture him going to the pasar malam. He would probably spend his time training his eyes on the floor, trying to avoid puddles of water formed by melting ice dripping off the makeshift fish stalls; or covering his nose at the rancid smell of food rotting in the nearby stagnant drains; or shielding his eyes against the burning diesel fumes coming from generators used to light up the stalls at night. And the crowds…shoulder to shoulder … intruding into his personal space. Arrrgghhhh! I know how much he hates that. LOL

“Sure,” he grinned.

“Seriously?” This was too good to be true.

“This evening?” I asked again, making sure that I was hearing the right thing.

“Yup. But first, you must do that roll-from-the-chair-onto-the-floor trick for me again”

“And I am the queen of wishful thinking,” I sighed.

 

Flash fiction – The Attic

     “What time are we going up to the attic?” I asked over breakfast.

     “Huh?” Percival regarded me suspiciously.

     “Don’t play stupid. You promised.” I shot my boyfriend the look

     “I was drunk. It is unfair to hold a drunk man to a promise.”

      “Wasn’t it you who said that a promise is a promise, no matter what?” I smiled.

     He lowered his eyes and stared at his fingers for a long time. Finally, he walked to one of the drawers and took out a bunch of keys. He chose the one with a small porcelain rose and walked up to the attic.

     He flicked the light switch.

     I gasped.

     A sepia photo of a lady in a heavily embroidered baju panjang stared at me.  Her white hair was gathered in a bun at the top of her head and clasped with hairpins of sparkling gems.  

     A chill pricked my neck.

     I saw the resemblance rightaway…the prominent jaw, the high hairline and the V-shaped dip at the centre of the broad forehead.

     Below the photo was a rich brown teak mantelpiece. On it stood an exquisite jade green Straits Chinese jar.  It had a phoenix and a pink peony on the front. On its lid was a crouching qilin, the mystical hooved chimera creature regarded as the Chinese unicorn.

     I touched the jar. It was cold.  

     Percival cleared his throat and said, “my mum sleeps in there.”

     I pulled my hand back and looked around the room. An antique writing desk stood to my right. It was made of mahogany with designs from the Edwardian era. I gently slid the roll-top. Inside were dried-up watercolour half-pans and sable brushes, sketches of flowers and unfinished artwork. I ran my fingers along the textured grains of cold-pressed paper.  An ache tugged my heart.  I closed the roll-top and stepped away.

     I turned at the smiling photo and ornate jar, clasped my hands and bowed deeply.

     Percival stood at the door. He looked sad and distant. I took his hand and led him out, gently closing the door behind us.

**

     “Percival showed me his mum’s resting place.”  I squinted for Bibi’s reaction as I squeezed lemons over anchovy fillets.

     Instead, the housekeeper continued prodding the pork roast in the oven, pretending not to hear me.

     “He looks like her,” I continued, noting her silence.

     She closed the oven door and lifted her arms backwards to stretch her back. Then, she opened the cupboards in quick succession.

     “What are you looking for?” I asked.

     She turned to look at me quizzically. “I forgot.”

     I laughed.

     “So are you going to tell me something about her?” I stuck my tongue markedly inside my right cheek.

     She sighed. “I think it’s better if Sir talks to you about his mother.”

     “I thought you were her primary care-giver?”

     “Yes. But I still think it’s only proper that you hear it from Sir,” she answered. 

     I looked at her wistfully.  “I have a feeling he doesn’t want to talk about her.” 

     She knitted her brows in a pained look and walked out of the kitchen.

     “Hey, where are you going? You haven’t answered my question!” I shouted.

     “Ask him yourself,” she waved the back of her hand at me impatiently, like she was swapping flies.

     Then, she stopped, half-turned her head to my direction. “Her name was Rosemary.”

**

     Last night I dreamt of Rosemary Fredericks, again.

     Her eyes were bulging in horror. There was blood spouting from all parts of her body.  She was screaming and struggling as giant tendrils engulfed her body. Then, she grabbed me and pulled me down with her.  

     I jolted as my shoulder was shaken violently.  Percival was peering anxiously at me.  I could not move my arms and legs. My lips were parched. My body bathed in cold sweat.  This was freaking me out. Same nightmare in two nights.

**

     Today was Bibi’s day off.  I opened the drawer to look for the key with the porcelain rose token. It was not there.

     I went into Percival’s study to look for it.

     “C’mon Rosemary, you have to help me here. Show me the attic key, please,” I muttered under my breath, as I tried the drawers at Percival’s desk. 

     Something caught my eye as I was leaving the study.  

     A piece of paper peeped from behind a photo frame which was face-side down on the side table. I turned it over and peered at the photo. It was an old black and white photo of Rosemary with a toddler on her lap. I tugged at the piece of paper.  The cardboard backing gave way, causing the glass front to slip and shatter on the floor.

     Damn!     

     My phone rang.

     Unknown number. Must be some cold caller.

     I let it ring.

     A text message beeped.

     “What are you doing in my study? Get out now!”

     Damn! I forgot the CCTV. 

     I called Percival.  “No! I will not leave until you tell me exactly what happened to your mother. Nobody wants to tell me anything.”

     “What do you want to know about her?” he replied

     “I dreamt of her twice this week. TWICE!  I WANT TO KNOW HOW SHE DIED,” I yelled.

     After a long silence, he said quietly, “You don’t have to shout at me.  You are very rude. 
 I will asked Bibi to tell you everything you want to know about mum.”

**

     The newspaper cutting was dated 20 April 2009. Eight years ago.

Socialite dies in freak accident

BY CATHERINE YEW 

20 APRIL 2009

KUALA LUMPUR, April 20:  The body of reclusive socialite Rosemary Fredericks, 72, was found yesterday lying in a pool of blood with a broken neck in her rose garden. According to house staff who had requested anonymity, Mrs Fredericks was trimming her prized white roses when her pet dog, a Golden Retriever called Matt, chased a stray cat and crashed into the wooden plant support structure; causing it to topple and collapse onto Mrs Fredericks.

Mrs Fredericks who was believed to be recovering from breast cancer, died on the spot.

     I closed my eyes and breathed sharply. 

     Taken away without a goodbye.

     Is that why she looked distressed in my dreams?

     Is her soul wandering aimlessly in the garden?

     “It was Sir’s idea to have that plant support structure,” Bibi said.

     “Who? Percival? Is that why he blames himself?”

     She nodded.

     I looked out to the front yard. “What happened to the rose garden?” 

     “Sir took a machete and slashed everything to the ground.”

###

Oops!

     “How did your workshop go?” I asked.

     “Fine.” My daughter stabbed at the silky rice rolls slathered in crispy chilli paste.

     “Doesn’t sound like Fine to me.”

     “Ma, what did you expect? I was in a room full of feminists. They discussed about destroying the shackles that taboos and rituals imposed on women. Then, they argued over the need for female archetypes. What’s an archetype anyway?”

     “A representative character.. yunno like when you think of care-giving, Florence Nightingale pops to mind,” I answered. 

     “There you go. Stereotyping. That’s exactly what they were saying — Why aren’t there strong female role models like a female version of a Superman or Ironman? Why are women always classified as care-giving and nurturing?”

     I smiled indulgently at my daughter.  

     “It is not funny, Ma.”

     “But I am sure you had fun.”  

     I picked up a punched up lump of clay. It looked oddly like a man with a hollowed out eye at the forehead and a gaping mouth. “This is interesting.”

     “This,” she grabbed the lump from me and balled it up, “was their idea of fun. You free yourself from the taboo shackles by forming them in clay and then punching them down.”

     She forced-fed the balled clay into the ashtray, stabbing its surface with impatient imprints of her index finger. 

     “What should we do after lunch?” I looked dreamily across to the shoe shop. 

     “Ma, are you not going to apologize?”

     “Whatever for?”

     “Whatever for? For signing me up for the workshop without my consent. For wasting my whole morning with a group of people I don’t like, discussing things I don’t understand. Need I go on? And don’t you dare laugh about it. It is not funny.”

     “Calm down. Look, I honestly didn’t expect it to be a feminist thing. The brochure said.. wait–”

    I fished a crumpled piece from my handbag and held it up triumphantly. I lifted up my spectacles and peered at the fine print.

     “OK. here it is.. An interactive performance workshop on invoking and reclaiming your inner goddess through story-telling and ritual magic.”

     I grinned sheepishly. “I thought that it would be fun, especially the ritual magic part.” 

     My daughter glared. “Do you know how much I hate that word – interactive?

     “Oh, c’mon. You know all those rituals and taboos, right? Like, don’t trim your fingernails at night, or whistle at dusk, or dry your clothes outside at night just in case you attract wandering female vampires.”  

     I laughed wickedly.

     She scowled and said, “And does that also include – don’t leave any food on the plate otherwise you will marry a man with pockmarks on his face? Or don’t sing in the kitchen, otherwise you will marry an old man? Ma, this is 2017, not 1917.”

     I nodded. “What those women at the workshop are saying is that these rituals and taboos are designed to keep women subservient: Do this and you will end up with an ugly husband. Do that and you will become an old spinster. These are all scare tactics.” 

     “See, you should have been the one attending it; not me. You always have an opinion about everything.  I didn’t know what they were going on about. When my turn came to say something, my mind was blank. I have never felt so stupid in my life.”

    “Anyway, I am sure you have learnt something from this workshop, right?”

     She gave me a strange look and huffed angrily. 

     “Ma, are you saying that you have been feeding me with all these superstitious rubbish to keep me in check?”

     “Hey, don’t judge me. Tell me about it when you have a daughter next time.” I grinned, recalling this same accusation I had hurled at my mother many years ago.

Flash Fiction – Dog’s breakfast

     I looked at the dish in front of me, “it looks dead.” 

     Mike snorted, “Of course, it’s dead! What are you expecting it to do? Moo?”

     I shifted the overcooked vegetables around in my plate and gingerly lifted the steak on its side. It slipped off my fork and flipped over with a thud, revealing uneven leathery dry spots on the underside. Freezer burn

     Mike cleared his throat and hissed, “Can you please stop playing with your food and eat? People are watching us.”  

     I smiled mischievously at my co-worker. I tilted my head slightly to glance over my shoulder to see if people were indeed watching us.

     The place was dimly lit although it was early afternoon. Streaks of sunshine streamed intermittently through gaps in the heavy brocade curtains.

     There was one other booth that was occupied. Three men in suits, huddled over a large blueprint.

     I shook my head. I can’t see how this restaurant was going to last till the end of the year. Best to turn this old place into one of those artisanal-whatver joints which are fashionable with hipsters now. 

     “I hope you are not going to do what I think you are planning to do,” he said in a low voice, pointing his finger at the no-camera sign painted on the side of the booth.

     “Hey, can you please hold up your napkin in front of you for abit? Pretend that you are wiping your mouth,” I chuckled. 

     “We are going to be thrown out of this restaurant for this,” he protested, obediently holding up the napkin which I was going to use as a diffuser.

     I angled my small mirror against Mike’s napkin to bounce off some soft light.  I took a couple of quick shots on my smartphone before bringing it down to my lap to review. 

     “Satisfied?” Mike huffed. 

     I nodded.

     “I like you, yunno.  You are not like my husband, so grumpy whenever I want to take photos of my food,” I said sweetly. 

     I raked the garnishes off the top of my main course and made sawing motions as I sliced off a small bite.  I held it up to my nose, closed my eyes and inhaled deeply.  Then, I put it into my mouth and swirled it around my tongue.

     “This is so good,” I moaned theatrically,  “like hav —.”

     Mike coughed lightly. I opened my eyes and nearly choked on my food.

     The young chef was grinning at me. “Is everything alright, Madame?”

     “Yes, yes,” I said hurriedly, scratching my brain for a “politically correct” compliment. 

     “This…” I pointed at my dish repeatedly, “wasn’t what I expected.” 

     He looked at me anxiously.

     I stared at my dish as if to find the right words. “It’s …hmm.. interesting!” I decided, finally, in a measured tone.

     He gave a slight bow and said, “Thank you for your kind support,” before hi-fiving his way back to the kitchen.

     Mike looked at me and started laughing. “You are a bloody soft Aunty person underneath, ain’t you?”

     “No, I’m not!”

     “C’mon, say that you will give this place another chance.”

     I shook my head.

     “That bad, eh?”

     “How can you even think of serving meat with freezer burn? At least I won’t feel guilty when I sign the eviction letter. I’ll splash these photos over social media if they threaten to sue. Anyway —,” I sighed, reaching out for an empty doggy bag in my handbag, “the dog would be delighted to have this.” 

Flash fiction – The writing class

When Allen heard Mother yawned in bed, he ran to bring her breakfast which he’d made – pancakes slightly crusted at the edges and generously doused in warm maple syrup.

   “Class..what is wrong with Drew’s story?” You ask. Someone at the back mumbles.

   “I can’t hear you. C’mon we have been through this before.” You look around. “You should not start a story with …what?”

   “A wake up scene,” someone finally quips.

   “Yes, you have to start the story as close as possible to the action. Stop going round and round with I wake up. He wakes up. My mum wakes up, and stretches, and yawns…,” you shake your head and continue reading the student’s writing assignment out loud to the class.

He was hoping that Mother is in her good moods.  The piano lessons were getting tiresome.  Besides, he had promised Grandma that he would help in the garden. Allen hated working on the compost heap; but it was miles better than piano lessons.

   “Are these details really necessary?” You ask again. No answer. You walk quickly to the third row and flicks at an ear. Jason wakes up with a start.

Mother smiled when she saw the breakfast tray.  She was wearing her favourite nightshirt; the one with tiny bluebells.  She had let her hair loose, and it caught the glint of sunlight.   Allen thought how pretty Mother looked when she was not fussing over something.

He watched her intently as she put the pancake in her mouth.  She closed her eyes and chewed slowly.

“Lovely” Mother said, licking the syrup off her fingers.

Allen stared at the floor, tracing his toe along the crevice of a tile.

   You lift your arms in mock despair. “You! come out here and continue reading this.” You point to Vivian and wave the three-paged story at her. She continues to stare at the upright book in front of her. The boy sitting behind her stretches his foot and kicks her chair, causing the book to fall and reveal a handphone. 

“Is everything alright, dear?” Mother was looking at him.

Allen stiffened.

“I..I.. wa.. was.. won.. wonder.. ing.. whe.. whe.. ther.. I.. could.. could.. go.. to.. Gra.. andma’s.. to..to..day”

   Vivian deliberately reads the stammer in a singsong way.  Then she purrs:

“Take a deep breath, son.  Look at me and say it again slowly” 

   The boys at the back of the class thump their palms against their desks in appreciative glee.

“I was.. won..der..ing if I.. I.. couldgotoGrandma’stoday”

“What day is it?” Mother looked around the room and reached for her Blackberry.  “Nine messages from the office? What is going on?”

Mother’s face turned moody.  Allen shuffled out of Mother’s room and went to his, tears welling up in his eyes.

   “Class, has the story answered your 5Ws so far? Can you feel any tension in this story?” You rap the desk loudly for attention. The front row students nod hesitantly. 

Clacky was watching him from the shoebox.  Allen stretched across the bed and released the hatch which held the flap like a drop door.  The lizard crawled out slowly onto his hand.

“We are not going to Grandma’s today”, he cooed.

Allen brought out pancake crumbs from his pocket. The lizard flicked its tongue greedily.  Allen ran his finger along the lizard’s leathery back.  The lizard loved to be massaged this way because it always went clack! clack! clack!

   Vivian enunciates the words “loved to be massaged.”  The class erupts.  

How nice it is to be a lizard, Allen thought.  No piano lessons.

The thought of piano lessons jolted him.  He looked at the clock by his bedside. Another 15 minutes to go and that terrible woman would be here. Why? Why? Why? he cried as he punched the mattress and buried his face in the pillow.

Just then, he heard footsteps.  He put Clacky in his pocket, and propped his head on his elbow.

“What was it that you wanted to tell me, son?”  It was Mother.

“I hate piano lessons. Can I stop?” Allen was surprised how easily the words came out of his mouth.

   “Teacher, this is so boring. Can I stop?” Vivian wails. You wave at her to carry on. 

Mother looked at him strangely. “Nope! But I suggest you wash up and get ready for Miss Cheong”

Then she walked away.

“Oh.. and another thing”, she was back at his door, “Thanks for the pancakes. They were lovely. Be good!”  He heard her blow him a kiss and was gone.

   You look at the clock above the whiteboard. Five minutes to go before the end of the class. Six hours to the end of the school day. You wonder what had possessed you to accept this temporary teaching job. You should be at your desk, writing your novel. Not this. With these pubescent kids who don’t give a damn.

   “Teacher, can we do the skit instead, please..please?” a voice implores. 

   You look around the restless class. “Right. Can I have three volunteers: one to read and two to act as Allen and the piano teacher? Drew, you are the writer of this story. Please lead the skit.” 

   Drew stands up instantly. He picks Ben, and a girl who you know he fancies. She flashes a V sign as the class chant, “Mira, Mira.” 

   “Who is going to do what?” You ask. Drew says he will do the reading. He says he sucks at acting.

 

“Let’s start from the top.” Miss Cheong’s voice was frosty.

She had her hair pulled severely into a bun.  She had plucked her eyebrows and they sat stoically on her face, above her eyes like two forbidding wire arches.

“NOOO! Wrong! Wrong!” she yelled.  Allen flinched as her ruler struck his knuckle. She shoved him aside, and bore down the keyboard furiously.

“You are such a waste of my time.  I have never taught anyone so STUPID!”

Allen could feel the sobs swelling up his chest to his throat.
….         No, I mustn’t cry.
       ….          She’ll laugh at me.
                 …        She’ll call me a cry baby.

 

   Drew stops reading abruptly and looks at you. “Can I change places with Ben, teacher? He reads, I act?” You shrug your shoulder. You wonder briefly over his change of heart. Drew runs to his desk, takes out his waterbottle and runs back to the front of the class. He takes a big gulp to calm his nerve and sets it on the table, with its lid open.

 

“Eeekkk!!!” Miss Cheong leapt and wiggled her body vigorously.

Allen stared and then, remembering Clacky, reached for his pocket. His heart sank.

He ran behind Miss Cheong and started patting her.

   You gesture at Drew to stop patting the giggly Mira all over.

   Now, you wish you had read the rest of Drew’s story before agreeing to this skit. The boy is clearly getting ahead of himself and taking advantage of the situation.

She jumped in fright, startled; and swung her hand at him.  He could hear Clacky squirming wildly in fear and panic.  He took a glass of water and splashed it down her back.

   Splash!

   “You shithead!” Mira screams. Water streaming down the back of her school uniform. She grabs Drew’s shirt and shoves. He stumbles onto the floor and curls up like a ball. She starts punching his back. You rush and pull Mira away. She spits at Drew.

   Ben raises his voice above the uproar and continues reading.

“You idiot!” she screamed as the lizard fell out of her dress and onto the floor.

“Idiot! Idiot! Idiot!” she chanted as she stamped her foot repeatedly on Clacky.

   “Mr Vincent!” The Headmistress is standing at the door. She looks as though she would combust. You follow her out meekly as Ben reads the final part of the story.

Allen looked at the floor and saw the mangled mess of his best friend.

“I… I.. ha…ha..hate… you”

“I… I.. ha…ha..hate… you”, she mocked. “I AM LEAVING.”

 

 

That gnawing feeling…

     Yesterday, I was coerced to say a few words at a memorial service.

     Perhaps “coerced” is too kind a word. I was late for a memorial which I wasn’t scheduled to attend. I attended because the Big Boss called in sick.

     I arrived at the funeral parlour towards the tail-end of the memorial service; the part where friends and colleagues were expected to deliver a eulogy. All eyes were on me when the Pastor asked if anyone else would like to say a few words; someone from the office, perhaps.

     Totally unprepared, I started with the same old tired line: “I have known … have known…hmm…”

     The Pastor sitting near me piped, “Irene”

     “…Irene..for quite some time.” 

     “Irene and I worked together on M & A projects.  We spent many good nights arguing over valuations, complained endlessly over unreasonable timelines and cry when deals fall through?” 

     I knitted my eyebrows and tried my best to talk about a generic occasion or setting where Irene and I would have worked together; because frankly,  I can’t for the life of me even recall working with an Irene previously.

     Someone sobbed loudly.

     I looked up and saw a lady in the front pew, carefully drying tears off a shiny new gold-coloured smartphone with a balled-up tissue.

     Not knowing what else to say, I decided to end my eulogy by offering my condolence to the family.

     When I got back to my seat, my colleague leaned towards me and whispered, “I think you have got the wrong Irene. This is Irene, the office tea lady.”

Flash fiction – The Mentor’s last stand

     “When the root is deep, there is no reason to fear the wind,” my mentor points to the tv screen.

     The tv is mounted awkwardly at the corner of the bar. It has its sound turned down; a ticker tape showing falling stock prices races across the screen. All the big companies on the stockmarket are flashing their stock prices in red. Each flash a cent down from the previous. But my mentor is calm. You can only get bargains when there is panic and fear, he reminds me.

     I draw circles in the condensed droplets impatiently. He reaches out for my flask to pour cold sake into my cup. 

     “You should take the warm drinks instead of chilled. Too much cold drink is bad for health,” he chides.

     “Surely that’s not why you want to see me for, Sir.”  I wave at the bartender to bring me a bowl of stewed daikon.

     “I have the same,” my mentor concurs, “and I would also like some yudofu. Would you like some yudofu? You used to love the hot tofu.” 

     My heart skips a beat. He remembers

     The bartender’s wife places an earthern pot in front of us and lifts the lid, releasing a thick head of briny steam. Inside the pot are four blocks of freshly made tofu bath in kombu stock. I lean forward to inhale the savoury umami flavour of the seaweed.

     My mentor scoops a tofu block and places it into my bowl. He pours soy sauce and some of his sake onto my tofu before topping it with grated ginger and chopped scallions. Carving a piece off my tofu with his spoon, he blows to cool it down slightly. He gestures me to open my mouth. The hot tofu slides in; its soft custardy texture wobbling on my tongue like creme caramel. He hands me my bowl, “Itadakimasu. Eat. We talk later”

     I steal a glance at my mentor. We had worked together for 24 years. He employed me when I was fresh out of university. He introduced me to the seedy side of global investment banking; taught me how to seduce an investor by playing to his own greed. No qualms. No conscience. No what-ifs. Every successful deal closed was a huge jump in our annual bonus pool. 

     He laughs abruptly. I find myself laughing too. Not that I know what he is laughing about. His laughter is infectious; it comes out as a guffaw more than a chuckle; an echo that rises all the way from the gut.

     He turns sharply and catches me looking at him. I blush. He retrieves a cigarette from the case, taps one end against the counter top before lighting up. A slight tilt of the head. A long slow inhale. A coy smile as warm nicotine races down to his lungs. Later, sharp rushes on exhaling before ashes are flicked impatiently readying for the next puff.

     “Let’s go out for a walk,” my mentor suggests, after we had washed down our meal with the one more flask of warm sake. Our third.

     Outside the moon hangs low in the hazy sky. Spring is here. It will soon become hot and humid. But tonight, it feels chilly. I shiver in my white linen shift dress. I untie the cashmere scarf around my neck and drape it over my shoulders. My mentor takes off his jacket and wraps me in it. I resist the urge to press his jacket against my face.

     “How is he?”

     “Look! what a perfect round moon.” I pull the front of the jacket tightly.

     “Why did you marry him?”

     “Is this why you want to meet me for? To ask me why I decided to throw down my last card?” 

     He stops suddenly and turns to me.

     What is there to tell? That I am tired of innuendos at work? Or that my on-off boyfriend had issued the ultimatum? Or..or.. that I am tired of waiting, of hoping…

     “I just reckoned it was time.” 

     My mentor grabs me around my waist. He tilts my face towards him with one hand while the other holds the small of my back. He caresses the side of my cheek and parts my lips gently.

    C’mon, let me hear you lie to me again.

   “Silly girl. Didn’t I tell you that I am trying to get a divorce?” he said

Flash fiction – An inconvenient time

   “Father wants to go home,” my sister announced flatly over the phone.

   I sat up; almost falling off as my lazy chair buckled and tilted from my sudden movement. “No he can’t.  He has a doctor’s appointment in two weeks’ time.  Besides, his wound after the surgery has yet to heal completely.”

   “But he insists on going.  He says that there is something he must do before Mother goes off on her holiday with her friends next week.”

   Oh bother! Mother and her holiday. Damn! 

   “What is it that is so important that it couldn’t wait?”  I said, a tad too loud.  The young man who was cleaning the swimming pool looked up and threw me a quizzical look.  I reddened.

   “I don’t know. I tried asking but he kept saying “you won’t understand”.  I can fly home with him this weekend but I can’t fly him back here in time for his next doctor’s appointment.  I have got an important dinner party to host.  This is most inconvenient.” My sister let out a big sob.

   I could instantly picture my sister at the other end, eyes welling in tears, smudging her carefully drawn mascara as they rolled down her taut face fashioned under the skillful hands of a popular plastic surgeon. 

    Same old, same old, I thought.  My sister is prone to dramatics to get herself out of looking after Father.

   My 78-year old father has been staying at my sister’s house in Kuala Lumpur for the last two weeks after his hip replacement operation.  After my eldest brother passed away unexpectedly, the responsibility of looking after our parents had fallen on the shoulders of my youngest sister and I.  More me than her.  Purely on logistics.  My parents’ house was a 10-minute drive from my condo compared to the three-hour flight time from my sister’s.

   “I am not free either.  I have an important conference to attend overseas next week.” I lied.  I had recently met a guy online and he had suggested that we meet up in Hong Kong for a no-strings-attached fun holiday to see if we clicked in real life.  It is going to be my first real date since my divorce three years ago. 

  I scrolled down my contact list on my phone and called my sister excitedly.  “Maybe we should call our beloved cousin Min up and ask him if he is free.” 

  “Don’t you think it’s unfair to impose on someone else?” My sister hissed

   “Nah. It’s ok. Cousins are also considered family.”  I heard my sister mumbled something to someone as I watched the pool guy power-hosed bits of algae along the ledge.  His thin wet shorts clinging to his sinewy thighs. I swore he wasn’t wearing any underwear.  He turned and caught me watching him. He chuckled as I quickly looked away.

   “I just spoke to Father.  He insists on staying home alone while Mother goes off for her holiday!  And he doesn’t want Cousin Min to accompany him at home.  Why is he being so stubborn?”

   I pinched my throbbing temple.  “Crazy old man! What if something happens to him at home? Can you imagine how irresponsible we will look?  This is madness.  Why can’t he just stay put at your house until Mother returns from her holiday?”

   “Can you send your maid to Father’s house to take care of him instead?  I mean, I am just thinking out loud here. I would have sent my maid back with Father, but yunno, I need her to help me with the party and all.”  Parties, parties, parties. My sister and her never-ending socialite parties.

   “No, I will not sent my maid over to look after Father.  She was the reason he slipped down the stairs, remember?  This is so inconvenient.  Why need to go home now?  Why at this time when everyone is so busy?  Do you think we can ask Mother to postpone her holiday to some other time?”  

    Yatie, my maid, has vowed to resign if I ever ask her to look after Father again.  It was not her fault, she argued, that he fell down the stairs.  She had asked him to wait at the landing while she rushed back up to collect his forgotten medicine.  But according to her, he decided to walk down on his own, missing a step and tumbling down the whole flight to the bottom.  According to Father, Yatie had deliberately rushed him down the stairs as she was anxious to answer her ringing handphone.  Fortunately for him, the floor at the bottom of the stairs was carpeted.

   “I have spoken to Mother,” my sister continued.  “She is as inconsiderate.  She said that her holiday had been planned since last year and if the old man insists on staying alone at home, we should just let him be.  Maybe it will teach him a lesson.”

   Frustration gripped my chest as the prospect of spending time with my new boyfriend dissipated.  “What the hell! Whatever happened to “in sickness and in health, till death do us part”?  Do you think we can persuade Cousin Min to take time off work and babysit Father?  We can pay him yunno.  I don’t think he earns much as a lowly clerk.  Maybe we can pay him alittle over his daily rate to babysit.”

   “I have a situation here,” my sister snapped.  “The problem is that Father doesn’t want Cousin Min to be with him.  He doesn’t want anyone to be with him, except us.  He didn’t even want us to inform his sisters about his surgery, remember? All of them are not supposed to know, including Cousin Min.  This is so troublesome.”

   I slumped on my seat and inhaled sharply.  “Yes, I agree.  It is a most inconvenient situation at a most inconvenient time.  I still can’t understand why he can’t stay put at your house for the next two weeks until after the doctor’s appointment.  By then, either of us would be free to bring him home.”

   “I know right? What should we do? Are we going to let him stay alone at home and pray that nothing happens to him?”

   I shook my head.  No way am I going to let Father stay home alone, especially when he is recuperating from surgery.  I cannot risk him slipping and falling again.  “I still think that Mother should postpone her holiday to another date.  After all, you and I were the ones taking turns to look after Father in the hospital after surgery; sleeping upright on that uncomfortable chair and eating the tasteless hospital food.”

   “Oh God! I still can’t understand why we couldn’t get a suite.  After all, my husband is a somebody someone, a VVIP!” My sister wailed.

   I rolled my eyes.  “Ya. ya. ya. Tell me about it! I really think you should shoot a strongly worded complaint to the hospital.  But for now, how are we going to persuade Mother to sacrifice her holiday? Hey, maybe we can persuade the Doctor to tell Father that he can’t travel at all.”

   “But that would be lying. The Doctor would definitely not want to lie to Father.”

“Maybe I can get my ex-husband’s brother to write a doctor’s letter to Father, telling him that it is not possible to travel without aggravating his surgical wound.”  I laughed nervously.

   “Your brother-in-law?  I didn’t know you had a brother-in-law who is a doctor?

   “Technically he is a Laboratory Technician.  But he likes people to think he is a doctor. I am sure he can write a medical letter which looks very authentic, complete with the doctor’s official stamp.  I don’t mind paying him twenty Ringgit for that.” I grinned.