Wednesday, August 24, 2011

That's What Friends Are For

Here’s the thing about being single: it’s all fun, frivolity and sunshine when you’re with your friends bar-hopping, eating out, settling down at the movies, and gossiping into the night. But when the chips are down, you know who the people most important in your life are when you’re laid low with an illness.

It crept up on us quietly like, to use Saffy’s immortal phrase, a pervert in a change-room. One minute, we were happily dashing about Orchard Road in the morning, inhaling a rojak in the evening, and the next, we were having a close and very personal encounter with the insides of a toilet bowl.

“Saffy, please hurry!” Amanda moaned as she leaned against the bathroom door. From behind it, we could hear Saffy retching while crying.

“God, it’s awful!” she wailed. “How did this happen?”

Amanda’s chest heaved as she threw open the bathroom door and rushed in, pushed Saffy aside and threw up.

“Oww,” Saffy said feebly as she curled up into a ball on the bathroom floor.

A warning gurgle in my stomach made me leave my place in the queue and I waddled hurriedly to the toilet in the maid’s bathroom at the back of the flat where I crouched, my head feverish and pounding with pain, and praying to die soon.

No one came to rescue us. Sharyn said stoutly over the phone that she was looking after her 75 year old post-stroke mother and she wasn’t going to risk it. Saffy’s boyfriend Bradley was away on a business trip. Our maid Ah Chuan said she had three houses to clean, but said she would leave us some soup at the door. Even Pooch, my beloved adopted mongrel dog, had been banished to our neighbour Lydia Kumarasamy.

From her bed, Amanda called me on the handphone and said that the way we were being treated, we might as well have leprosy, to which Saffy said, via conference call, that she wished she had leprosy because at least then maybe her head would drop off and stop hurting so much.

This all took place at 10 pm on a Saturday evening, a full three hours after our fateful encounter with that rojak. At 10.05pm, our stomachs turned over. Which is how we found ourselves sitting on the loo amidst thunderous explosions and toxic fumes and feeling even more sorry for ourselves.

We would take turns in the two toilets, crawling out of bed, one after the other, and then crawling back in, utterly defeated. At one stage, Saffy could be heard to moan, “How is it possible that it’s still coming out of me? I only had a few bites of rojak!”

“You had two plates, Saffy!” Amanda croaked.

“Oh, shut up, Amanda!”

Much later, when it was all over, Amanda said it was a miracle of sheer good luck that she’d remembered to stock up on toilet paper the day before at Cold Storage. “What if we’d run out? Can you imagine?” she wondered to the world at large.

Saffy said she’d never felt more alone in her life. And when Pooch returned to the flat, I scooped him up and hugged him tightly.

Of course, the whole sorry episode had two important consequences. One was that as soon as she could walk again in a straight line, Amanda marched down to the rojak stall and told the poor bewildered auntie that if any of us got sick ever again, she would feel the full force of a Harvard law degree. We’ve been getting free rojak ever since.

The second is that Saffy has been ruthlessly editing some friends out of her life. “Not even a phone call or a text message!” she said, her bosom trembling, as she deleted numbers from her handphone. “I could be dead for all they knew or cared! And to think I actually gave them two hundred bucks for their wedding angpow! Do you think I could ask for the money back?” she wondered.

Amanda said to me it was a good thing we’d all been sick together, otherwise our phone numbers would probably have been deleted as well. “Can you imagine?” she asked for the second time.

Saffy says it just goes to show that, when you come right down to it, despite the stats on Facebook, you can really only have a handful of good friends. They’re the ones who leave you chicken soup at the door. Or the ones who will happily dog sit for you. And they’re especially the ones who will move aside so that you can share the toilet bowl.

Lost in Translation

A few mornings ago, I woke to the sound of our part time maid Ah Chuan screaming at Saffy. It says something about how immune I was to the whole thing that I flipped over and went back to sleep for another ten minutes.

When I finally dragged myself out of bed and into the living room, I found Ah Chuan standing over Saffy waving her arms and shouting at the top of her voice in Hokkien. Saffy nodded and smiled reassuringly at Ah Chuan.

“Really?” said Saffy, who doesn’t speak a word of Hokkien. “That’s so interesting! Oh there, you are, Jason. What’s she saying?”

“Why are you asking me?” I said. “My Hokkien is as good as your’s!”

“The way she’s yelling, you’d think I’d just peed in her soup, or something!” Saffy said cheerfully and shouted back at Ah Chuan, “Would you like some coffee?”

Ah Chuan came to us highly recommended by one of the secretaries in my office who’d heard that I was desperately in need of someone to clean my flat. Though I’d only just moved in with Saffy and Amanda, it became clear very quickly that none of us knew how to clean. The first day Ah Chuan showed up on our doorstep, she immediately started screaming at the top of her voice and scared us half to death.

Saffy ran to her room and rang the police, while I retreated to the kitchen and eyed the knife rack. We should have taken our cue from my beloved adopted mongrel dog Pooch who immediately flipped over onto his back and, with a shaggy wag of his tail, invited Ah Chuan to rub his belly.

Thank God, Amanda arrived just in time to translate. “She’s saying that we’re all too thin and that we should be eating more and did we, uhm, oh yeah, did we want her to make us soup when she comes to clean?”

“Why is she yelling at us?” Saffy shouted from behind her locked bedroom door.

“That’s just the way she talks.”

“Really?” Saffy asked, poking her head out. “My God, if this is her being pleasant, what’s she like when she’s mad?”

“She’ll be whispering, I imagine,” Amanda said. “That’s when we should all be very scared.”

And that was that. Since that day, every Thursday, Ah Chuan will show up at the flat at 7.30 am. She takes one look at the mess and then starts yelling. She seems to save the worst for Saffy which, according to a very put out Amanda, means that Saffy is her favourite.

“She says you’re too thin and wants to know why you are still single!” Amanda translated in the second week, after a particularly virulent stream from Ah Chuan.

Saffy’s impressive bosom inflated. “Oh my God, she thinks I’m thin? I love this woman! Thank you very much!” she shouted back at Ah Chuan under the assumption that if you say something loud enough, the other person will understand everything you say, and that’s been pretty much the volume of their conversations ever since.

The fact that Ah Chuan’s can’t speak a word of English and Saffy’s Hokkien is limited to swear words she picks up from the courier man at her office doesn’t seem to bother either of them. Every so often, Amanda will translate, but by and large, they seem to get on like a house on fire.

“I’m surprised the neighbours haven’t called the police on us yet,” Amanda said the other day while Saffy and Ah Chuan yelled pleasantries at one another. “It almost sounds like someone is being killed!”

Saffy was showing Ah Chuan some photos she’d taken during a weekend trip she’d taken in Bali with her new boyfriend Brad. “Isn’t he cute?” she sang in a note that technically only dogs should have been able to hear.

Ah Chuan bellowed back something. Saffy looked at Amanda who sighed.

“She says he’s puny and she wants to know why he looks like an angmoh.”

“His mother is German!” Saffy shrieked happily, but you could tell from Ah Chuan’s expression that Saffy was much too good for the likes of Bradley who couldn’t even claim full Chinese ancestry. And as if to prove her point, her only comment – “Ridiculous!” – was delivered several octaves lower. Saffy glowed at all the attention she was getting.

Saffy later said there are moments when she literally believes that she was switched at birth and that Ah Chuan is her real mother to which Amanda said that it’s exactly the sort of inflammatory statement that gets people disinherited.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Father Figure

Every night, before I go to bed, I turn off my handphone. For some reason, this drives people insane.

“Alamak, why you off your handphone?” Sharyn once scolded me. “What if I’m trying to call you?”

“Why would you call me at 2am? I’m sleeping!”

“If emergency, how?”

“Call Saffy, she’s your best friend!”

Amanda says she wouldn’t be able to sleep if her phone was off. “I’d always be wondering if someone was trying to reach me!”

I’m not keen at all on the whole ‘I-must-be-contactable-at-all-times’ schtick. It’s not as if I’m the President of the United States. What’s the emergency?

So, a few mornings ago, just as we were all sitting down to breakfast, the home phone rang. It was my mother calling from a hospital in London.

“Oh, darling,” she sniffed. “It’s your father. He coughed up blood last night!”

My legs suddenly gave way and I had to sit down on the sofa.

“They spent hours doing up a whole set of tests,” she went on, her clear voice sounding like it was coming from the next room. “Then at about 10pm, they told us that they’d lost the test results!”

My jaw dropped. I’d still not said a word.

“This is what a first world medical health system looks like,” my mother sighed. “It’s no wonder Mrs Lee flew straight back to Singapore after she had her stroke in London!”

I finally managed to find my voice. “Why didn’t you call, Ma?”

“Oh, it was so late here in London and really, what could you have done? We wanted to be sure before we worried you children. Anyway, your father seems OK, now. They’ve run another set of tests and I told the doctor that if he lost the results again, I’m going to go all Wendi Murdoch on him. He looked so wonderfully scared as he scuttled off towards the lab!”

“I love your mother!” Saffy declared when I’d clicked off the phone and told them what had happened. “How do you lose a test result? A folder doesn’t just get up off the desk and wander off!”

“Are you OK?” Amanda asked.

I said I was, but, of course, I wasn’t.

You spend your whole life thinking your parents are always going to be always healthy, always opinionated, always strong. Always there. And then, one morning, just as you sit down to breakfast, you get a phone call and your whole world changes.

My sister rang from Hawaii where she was having a holiday and bawled for five expensive long distance minutes before she could speak. “If Daddy dies on me, I’m going to kill him!” she wailed. “He’s got to give me away at my wedding!”

I paused. “You’re getting married?”

“Well, not immediately, but one day! And I want him to walk me down the aisle and not my stepfather!”

“Mother’s having an affair?” I yelled.

From the depths of the sofa, Saffy sat up straight.

“Oh, you are silly. I’m just saying. But I wouldn’t be in the least bit surprised if she remarried. She’s very eligible!” Michelle hiccupped through her tears.

“The women in your family are so practical!” Amanda observed later. I shrugged and flipped another page in the family album that I’d just pulled down from the top shelf of my library.

There I was aged five being swung high in the air by my father. And there he was in our garden watching me wrestle with Prince, our stupid German Shepherd. Sitting with me at the dining table as he helped me with my maths homework, him staring intently at my notebook while I peered at the camera. A dinner to celebrate Michelle’s Judo black belt. At Jack’s stage debut as the pumpkin in his school production of ‘Cinderella’. Picking me up from school in his new maroon Jaguar. At my high school graduation looking so pleased as if I’d just discovered the cure for cancer. I was taller than him by then. At my university graduation – his hairline now noticeably receded and snowy. At the airport, waving as I got on the plane for Singapore.

All in the past.

Last night, just before we turned in, Amanda took my handphone from me and walked towards her bedroom.

“Hey, where you are going with that?” I said.

“I’ll keep hold of it during the night,” she said. “No point you changing the habit of a lifetime now. I’m sure everything is ok, but I’ll keep it on for you. Just in case,” she paused and just as she closed her door, she whispered, “Good night.”