So. It’s a new lunar year and it’s the turn of the horses out there to be prancing about, smug that 2014 is all about them. That is, unless they’re on their third or fourth cycle, in which case, chances are, they won’t be happy campers this year.
That’s the thing about the Chinese zodiac – they’re dead giveaways. If you’re trying to hide the truth about your age, and you’re an amateur liar, it’s the first thing that will give you away.
Tell someone truthfully you were born in the year of the horse, during a year of the horse, and people with just a basic grasp of the 12 times table will be able to immediately work out how old you are.
Tell someone you were born in the year of the rabbit during a year of the horse, though, and no one bothers to do the maths, and you’re safe. It’s too complicated trying to work out the sequence. Unless the person you’re talking to is a real busybody (say, your boyfriend’s mother) and squirrels away that little nugget of information for when they’re out of your sight and they whip out their smartphone.
The people in my mother’s generation were masters at the game. Once they got past the age of 24, they began lying about their age.
To this day, no one, not even my father, knows exactly how old Mother is.
“How could you not know?” my sister once said crossly to Father. “You’re married to her!”
“It’s not like I haven’t asked,” Father bleated. He’d always been a little afraid of Michelle. “All the women in her family lie about their age. Especially her mother.”
“How do you know Por-Por is lying?” I asked. I must have been six or seven at the time, and I couldn’t wait to get to ten.
“She says she’s sixty-five but once I heard her telling your sam-gu-ma that, growing up, her favourite movie star was Lillian Gish which would make her at least fifteen years older!”
Michelle’s eyes narrowed. “This is just so weird.”
Of course, the year she turned 25, Michelle had a minor nervous breakdown. “My God,” she told me. “Do you know what this means? In five years time, I’m going to be thirty! Oh, that is so not happening!”
Which is why for the next five years, if anyone asked, she said was 25. And when, after a while, that was no longer plausible, she moved cities and made new friends and told them she was 26.
“You know that you’ve just turned into our mother, right?” I told her.
“This is the one time I don’t care,” she replied primly. “I so totally get it now.”
I remembered all this a few days ago when Sharyn came over for lunch.
“Wah, I got itchy feet today,” she said the minute she’d unloaded her bags of takeaway boxes from our favourite chai-beng stall down the road. “My mudder say is a sign I want to gallop away.”
“She makes you sound like a horse, Sharyn,” Saffy said as she opened the white Styrofoam boxes.
“Yah, lah! I’m a horse, what. This is my year, you know.”
It was as if someone had sealed off all the noise in the room. Saffy froze. Amanda stopped rummaging through the pink plastic bags and looked up. My eyeballs swiveled from one person to the next. The sound of three minds doing rapid mental arithmetic was deafening.
Finally, Saffy spoke up. “Are you telling me…”
“Are you telling us that you’re…you’re forty-eight?”
Sharyn flapped her hands at Saffy. “Choi! Where got? I’m only thirty-six, ok? Wah, so suay, accuse people of being so old!”
Later, after Sharyn had left, it was all the girls could talk about.
“Is it possible?” Saffy asked. “I mean, I guess it’s possible. Her eldest son is 15, so she would have been…uhm…21 at the time. As opposed to…uhm…33, which isn’t old, but it seems so unlikely.”
Of course, Amanda was having none of it. “I’m not saying she’s not 36, but she sure doesn’t look it!”
“But she doesn’t look 48 either,” Saffy pointed out.
And then a thought that had been trying to attract both their attentions for some time now, finally managed to push through, because both girls suddenly stopped and stared at each other.
“My God,” Saffy breathed.
“She’s not a horse?” Amanda whispered.
I was confused. “What? What just happened?”
“Will you keep up? She’s lying about being a horse!” Saffy said, her bosom inflating.
I was still confused. “What? Who’s lying? Sharyn?”
“That is so sneaky!” Amanda said, her voice deep with admiration.