Thursday, October 16, 2008

Death Becomes Him

A few Sunday mornings ago, my neighbour Chen knocked on my door – an act that led my flatmate, Amanda, to complain afterwards that it’s just such bad manners to show up unannounced at someone’s home. “Especially on a Sunday! I hadn’t even put on my face yet!” she said, giving her vibrant tresses an indignant shake.
My only complaint was that Chen looked annoyingly chirpy for that time of the morning. “Ay, sorry hor, but have you notice how dirty our floor is? The condo cleaner is not mopping!” she said while looking accusingly around the corridor.
I peered out and confessed that I’d not paid much attention to the state of our flooring, but now that she mentioned it, it did look a bit grubby.
“Yar loh,” Chen chirruped. “Every week, hor, I go down to management office and complain. Now they see me, they get scare! So, this week, you go down complain, can?”
I promised I would and was about to shut the door when she suddenly said, “Oh, also, hor, my father-in-law pass away yesterday!”
Which came as both a surprise and a complete shock. I’d rather liked the old man and enjoyed his company. He was always wandering around the grounds in slow shuffling steps, dressed in a scrappy t-shirt and pajama pants. That’s all he ever wore. I often passed him on my way back from walking my beloved adopted mongrel dog Pooch and we’d stop to chat for a while – him in stuttering Mandarin, me in appalling Cantonese, yet somehow we managed.
What surprised me was his death. What completely shocked me was that he’d not died earlier. As Saffy pointed out, he must have been a hundred and ten. “At least,” she added.
But what was even more shocking was how cheerful Chen seemed about the whole thing. My first reaction to the news was dismay. “Oh!” I remember gasping. “I’m so sorry!”
“No, lah!” Chen beamed, waving her hand. “Is OK! Is OK! He very old or-redi!”
“It was like we were talking about the Great Singapore Sale or something!” I said later to Saffy and Amanda. “It was all so casually cheerful!”
“I so don’t want people to talk about me like that when I’m dead,” Amanda declared.
“What I don’t understand,” Saffy said, “is why she thought it was more important to knock on our door on a Sunday morning to talk about how dirty our corridor floor was, and then so casually add that the father of her husband had died just yesterday! Shouldn’t that be the first thing you tell people?”
“That’s why people don’t like daughters-in-law!” Amanda said firmly, a statement that caused even Saffy to turn around and stare.
Which is how, a few days later, we found ourselves sweltering in our condo carpark, under a big white tent with a coffin. We carefully selected a table under a fan, but it only seemed to be moving the hot air around. Saffy, never at ease at a funeral, managed to look everywhere but the coffin at the other end of the tent.
“Someone please tell me that the old man is in a refridgerated coffin!” Amanda said after she’d scrutinized the flower arrangements and what everyone was wearing. Saffy frowned as she mentally replayed Amanda’s words and it was clear she was not liking the ending of this episode.
Just then, Sushila, another neighbour a few floors down from us, arrived and sat down with us. “Aiyoh, that poor old man!” she said, as she peered down at her cleavage peeping out from beneath her low cut dress. “I really liked him. Never understood a word he said, but we seemed to have such wonderful conversations!”
I asked about her children. “Oh, they’re fine. They’re having exams now. But hey, can I ask you guys something?” Sushila said as she leaned forward. By instinct, Saffy and Amanda leaned in.
“Do you notice anything different about me?” she asked. The girls cocked their heads and stared.
“Your hair?” Saffy asked.
“New lip gloss?” Amanda said.
“No!” Sushila whispered dramatically. “I’ve just had a boob job!”
Needless to say, three pairs of eyes shifted south to examine her breasts. “I didn’t want to get them too big, but what do you think?” Sushila asked.
Saffy later said that it had taken all her self control not to reach out to poke Sushila’s breasts. “I’ve always wanted to see what they feel like,” she explained, to which a scandalized Amanda said that she was this close to moving countries.
“We were at a funeral, for Chrissakes!” she blasphemed.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Money Talks

My mother rang me the other evening, right in the middle of “Survivor”. As a rule, I never answer the phone after 8 pm on the principle that if it’s urgent, there’s nothing I can do about it since I’m already in PJs and sipping herbal tea while watching TV. And if it’s not urgent, then why the hell should I be bothered? But this caller was persistent. The phone would ring and ring and stop. Twenty seconds later, it would ring and ring again. It was like listening to a dripping tap. It drove me up the wall. I grabbed the phone and stabbed the answer button.
“Can’t you take a hint?” I snapped. “Who the hell is this?”
“Really, is this what your expensive education has come to?” my mother began, her utterly and maddeningly serene voice floating across the continents.
“I was just…”
“Listen dear, I just wanted to check that you have put a sewing kit in your bank safe deposit box!”
“What? Sewing kit? Who is this? Is that you, Jack?”
“Oh, speaking of which,” my mother went on, “do you know where your brother is? I’ve been trying to call him for hours! He’s not picking up. And neither is your sister! What is wrong with you children? What if this was an emergency?”
“But it’s not an emergency!” I moaned. “I have no idea what you are talking about! What sewing kit? Why do I need a sewing kit?”
Mother sighed. “Because the financial markets are collapsing! Do you not read the newspapers? Really, I don’t know why your father worked so hard for so many years to send you children to such expensive boarding schools and…”
Michelle later rang to complain that as the years went by, she was more convinced than ever that we are all adopted. “I refuse to believe that I am in any way related to that woman!” she ranted.
My flatmate Saffy, on the other hand, has always been fascinated by my mother. “I’m just so amazed that she is able to find her way out of bed each morning,” she said the first time they met.
“Let alone give birth to three relatively normal children,” I’d added.
And now, the issue of the sewing kit. “What’s that all about?” Saffy wanted to know.
“It’s for when World War 3 hits and we’re running for our lives. She’s imagining that I’ll be dashing down to the bank vaults and be busy sewing gold bars into the lining of my pants,” I said.
“There’s going to be a war? When? No one told me! What does your mother know?” Saffy asked, her eyes widening and her breasts beginning to pump pneumatically.
“She’s just saying that we need to be prepared for some economic catastrophe,” I sighed. “The saddest part is that for years, she’s been hounding us all to buy little gold bars as a monetary hedge and I just don’t have the heart to tell her that my safe deposit box just has my first edition Batman comics in it!”
“That’s going to be really useful when you’re trying to barter for rice!” Saffy observed, immediately getting into the spirit of things.
Leave it to Amanda to take the nightmares of an old woman in her stride. “Oh, I totally get where your mother is coming from,” she said later that night after dinner. “I’ve got $50,000 in cash in my safe deposit box!”
Saffy coughed into her cappuccino. “What? Wait, you have a safe deposit box too?” she managed to splutter.
“I think you’re completely missing the point here, Saf,” I said gently and turned sharply to Amanda. “You have $50,000? In cash? How is that humanly possible?”
Amanda shrugged. “It’s my emergency cash fund. A few years ago, I figured that seeing as there’s still no husband on the horizon and between the two you, there might be fifty cents to go around, I figured that the only person who was going to look after me was me!”
I was still trying to wrap my head around the idea of $50,000 cash. Briefly, I tried to imagine what that must be like and what I would do if I had that much money sitting around idly in a safe deposit box. I decided that I’d probably go visit it every other day, just to keep it company.
Saffy looked wounded. “I do have more than fifty cents to my name, thank you very much!”
A few nights later, Mother rang again, this time advising me to store some cash in a Milo tin and store it under my bed. “We must change our names,” Michelle urged.