I remember my 11th birthday very clearly. It was memorable not because I didn’t get the new bicycle I’d been nagging my parents for. Nor was it because my parents didn’t throw me a knockout birthday party with lots of delicious food with lots of fabulous presents.
If you’re having trouble tracking the double negatives here, I’m saying my 11th birthday sucked because all I got was a hastily wrapped book that I already had, and a quick drive through meal at Kentucky Fried Chicken.
This was all on account of the fact that on the morning of my birthday, my father woke up to discover that he had gout. Overnight, his right big toe had swelled to double its normal size. Half the foot had turned a bright lobster red and he sweated like a pig from the incredible pain.
“Your father has gout!” my mother announced dramatically at breakfast. “It’s from all those oyster omelets he’s been having for supper, and the bah kut teh that he so loves. I'm taking him to the hospital, so you three will have to just entertain yourselves while we’re away. I’ve left strict instructions to Nanny to cane anyone who is naughty, ok?”
On that ominous note, she swept out of the house ahead of my father who hobbled slowly after.
I remember Jack turning to me and asking, “What’s gout?”
Even at that age, I was already acknowledged as the family’s hypochondriac. I puffed up at the attention. “It’s when your uric acid level reaches dangerous levels because of foods which have a high urine count like asparagus, oily fish, shellfish, livers and stuff. It forms crystals in your joints and your foot swells up. It’s a rich man’s disease!” I added importantly.
“It’s really amazing how you know all this stuff!” my sister Michelle said in a tone that indicated this was not a compliment.
“If we ever crash on a deserted island, you’ll want me by your side,” I advised her.
Later that evening, my birthday completely forgotten, Father returned home looking slightly relieved. The doctor had given him anti-inflammatory tablets and strict dietary instructions to lay off his rich diet. For a week, he hobbled around, miserable at the thought of another meal involving plain congee and boiled chicken.
“It needs soy sauce!” he pleaded with the cook.
Cook looked implacable. “Cannot! Doctor say cannot have soy sauce. You want soy sauce, you ask your wife. She pay my wages.”
Completely unhinged by his awful lunch, my normally placid father was outraged. “And who do you think gives her the money to pay your wages in the first place?” he shouted.
Cook was unmoved. She knew Father was a pussy cat. Unlike my mother.
These memories all came rushing back when a few days ago, Amanda woke up howling in pain. There was a bit of confusion as Saffy ran out of her room clutching her passport and money and raced for the door, while yelling, “Help! Help!”
Amanda later said, as we waited our turn in the doctor’s surgery, it was all so encouraging to know that if ever there was a fire in our flat, Saffy would be safely out on the street while the rest of us left inside were reduced to a burnt crisp.
“Well, how was I to know?” Saffy said defensively. “I thought you were being murdered!”
“Why are we even here?” I said. “Clearly, it’s gout. I recognise all the symptoms!”
“It can’t be gout!” Amanda said stubbornly.
“Excuse me, your diet consists entirely of champagne, oysters, foie gras, lobsters and duck!”
“Oh God,” Amanda moaned. “This is what happens when you date a Frenchman!”
Saffy sniffed. “Yeah, and where is he now? When the chips are down, men are never around.”
“Do you need to see the doctor, too, Jason?” Saffy asked.
“It’s so unfair,” Amanda went on. “I finally meet someone I could possibly spend the rest of my life with, but at the cost of hobbling around in utter pain!”
“Surely, you don’t have to eat all that rich food all the time?” I asked.
“Hello, have you been keeping up? We’re in the initial stages of our dating. So I have to look compliant and pleasing! No man wants to date a girl who’s disagreeable about his national cuisine!”
Saffy nodded. “Yes, that is true. Sad, but true!”
“Oh, why couldn’t I just meet a nice Singaporean boy and eat mee pok all day?” Amanda moaned. “None of this would be happening! Ugh, it’s the curse of being an SPG!”
“Amen!” said Saffy as she posted a picture of Amanda’s foot on Facebook.