Monday, December 26, 2016

An Act of Will

It can’t have escaped anyone’s attention that this is a really bad year to be a celebrity. You can’t scroll through Facebook anymore without suddenly gasping: “My God, So-and-so is dead!” And this is not one of those cases where the response is: “Really? I didn’t know he/she was still alive!” These are healthy people you just saw in a concert, or in a movie, or recently read an interview about. They were, in other words, people whom you simply do not expect to die any time soon.
            Which is why it’s all such a shock when someone like Prince drops dead for no good reason at all.
            “Well, no good reason that you know about,” Amanda pointed out to me recently.
            I gave the matter some thought. “Yes, that’s true. Though, I wonder why that autopsy is taking so long. On TV, you find out almost immediately.”
            “Probably those toxicology reports take longer in real life,” replied Amanda, Harvard graduate and life-long addict of CSI Every City.
            From the comfy depths of the sofa, Saffy looked up from perving through her latest issue of Men’s Health. “What I don’t get is why he didn’t leave a will! I mean, who does that?”
            “You don’t have a will,” Amanda pointed out.
            From a horizontal position, Saffy’s bosom inflated like life-rafts. “Yes, but that’s because I don’t have a bazillion dollars. Prince does. Or did.”
            I will never understand people who don’t have wills. My probate lecturer in law school used to say that people who die without wills should be severely punished. And when someone in the class pointed out that being dead probably counts as a severe punishment already, Professor O’Donovan sniffed and said, “Not nearly enough! Those poor surviving family members!”
            And when I started practicing law, my very first file involved a family that had been fighting over their father’s estate for the past twenty years because the old man had died without leaving a will. That file was such a reliable cash-cow for the firm.
            “So, who’s in your will, Amanda?” Saffy asked innocently.
            Amanda blinked. “Uhm, my family.”
            “Uh huh. So, are we in it?”
            “Why would you be in it?”
            Saffy struggled up and propped herself on her elbows. “Well, you just said ‘family’. We’re your family!”
            Amanda lifted a perfectly manicured eyebrow. “Not in the technical sense, you’re not.”
            As Saffy later complained to Sharyn over lunch at Golden Shoe, you really don’t know who your friends are till a time of crisis. “Honestly!” she exclaimed, pointing a fork stabbed with rojak. “Who is there to console her every time she’s had a bad date? Who holds her hair back when she’s throwing up in the loo from food poisoning? Who, I ask you!”
            “Aiyoh, me, lor! Dat time she break up with John and she so sad, so she eat that rojak at my place, remember? All night, I help her in the toilet. Wah, damn suay, ah, I tell you! I just re-grout the tile, some more!”
            Saffy paused and stared hard at the ceiling. “Oh, yeah. That was you.”
            “Abuden?” Sharyn said stoutly. She radiated with the kind of goodness Mother Teresa would have immediately recognized.
            Saffy regrouped. “Which just proves my point! You’ve been so good to Amanda, you’d think you would inherit her entire fortune, and not her good for nothing relatives!”
            “Like her mother, you mean?” Sharyn asked. “The woman who gave birth to her?”
            “You can be so annoying, you know that, Shazz?”
            Meanwhile, across town, Amanda was having lunch with me at the Tiong Bahru Markets.
            “You don’t think Saffy’s serious about being in my will, do you?” she asked while attempting to delicately cut a chwee kway without splattering orange-coloured oil all over her Dolce & Gabbana dress. “Honestly, how are we supposed to eat these things with toothpicks?”
            “It’s a compliment really,” I said. “She considers you her family.”
            Amanda paused and looked up at me. “You are so annoying when you say stuff like that!”
            “What, it’s true! I am closer to you both than most of my family. Which is why I’ve left each of you a little something in my will! But don’t tell Saffy. I want it to be a surprise!”
            Amanda frowned. “That is really weird, what you just said!”
            I shrugged.
            “I don’t want you to leave me anything,” she went on. “Because I don’t want you to die!”
            “Well, me neither, but if it does happen, I want you to have something to remember me by and…wait, why are you crying? Oh, crap, please don’t…Seriously, stop…”

Friday, December 23, 2016

Food For Thought

So there we were in one of the many fancy restaurants that seem to be sprouting up in Singapore every time you sneeze. You know the ones…they charge you $300 per person, serve you seven courses of tiny portions of pretty food, and two minutes after you’ve had dinner, you’re at your local tze-char joint on Serangoon Avenue 2 munching on a plate of beef hor fun because you’re still famished.
            The third dish had just arrived on a huge white plate, big enough to hide your face behind in case you spotted the paparazzi behind the potted fern – a small scallop wallowing in a pool of green sauce and carefully decorated with blue and yellow flower petals.
            “This is the chef’s signature dish,” our waiter began helpfully, but then he started mumbling, in Malay-accented French, the rest of the ingredients.
            When he ended triumphantly with “…and finished with an aniseed brot!”, Amanda smiled at him politely and murmured, “Wonderful, thank you!”
            Meanwhile, Saffy was positioning her iPhone over the dish. “The light in here is so bad, it’s almost impossible to take a nice picture. By the way, did you understand a word of what he just said?”
            “What’s an aniseed brot?” I asked.
            “I think he meant broth,” Amanda told me quietly as she inspected her dish.
            Saffy looked up. “You see, that’s what I don’t get about these restaurants. Why torture us with broth? Why can’t you just say soup? And why is everything finished with something?”
            The fourth person at our table piped up. “Aiyoh, you all, ah,” said Sharyn. “Why must eat so atas food? This scallop so small, confirm afterward I still hungry, one!”
            Amanda cut delicately into her scallop and took a bite. She closed her eyes and smiled beatifically. “Oh my God, it’s so good!”
            Sharyn looked at me. When we’d first arrived at the table and she’d glanced at the menu, her eyes had grown bug-eyed. “Hah?” Even at a fierce whisper, her voice, honed by years of shouting at her husband and children, reverberated around the dining room. “Tree hundred and fee-ty dollar plus plus? So, four hundred. For seven course? Sixty dollar per course? Siow, ah?”
            “Can you please lower your voice?” Amanda had pleaded. “Anyway, tonight it’s my treat. I just got a very nice bonus!”
            “Next time, you got bonus, you just give me the cash, can?”
            And now, Sharyn glanced around the table, her critical eye finally settling on her sixty dollar after taxes scallop.
            Saffy had finished her dish in a single scoop of the spoon, and already, she was busy Instagraming what she just ate.
            “Isn’t this just amazing?” Amanda swooned. “I could eat like this every day!”
            Sharyn snorted audibly. I didn’t dare look at her.
            What surprised me was how long the meal took, especially since most of the dishes were barely more than two bites each. We sat down at 7.30pm and we didn’t leave till three hours later.
            “I feel like I’ve just been in a time warp,” Saffy said as we emerged into the still evening heat. “How did that meal take three hours? It’s not as if we ate a whole cow!”
            “You eat whole cow lagi cheaper, ah!” Sharyn whispered to me.
            “I’m still hungry, though!” I complained.
            Amanda looked astonished. “How is that possible?”
            “Well, excuse me, but every dish we had was the size of a thumbnail!”
I was, of course, exaggerating – when I’m hungry, my hormones are completely out of whack – but not by much. Saffy was right. Looking back on our meal, we had a tiny cup of custard, a small round of thin steak, little mounds of vegetables strewn with flowers, lots of colourful dots of sauces, and a tiny cut of fish. I’d already forgotten what we had for dessert – all I could remember was a lot of smoke billowing from a huge bowl.
“Yah, I oh-so still hungry. Come, we go to Old Airport Road and have rojak!”
Saffy’s bosom inflated. “Oooh, that’s such a good idea! I want the carrot cake!”
“I wonder if the oyster omelette guy is still open!”
“Should be still open, lah! If not, we go to my place. I have Bengawan Solo and curry puff!”
“You’re seriously still hungry?” Amanda demanded.
“Thank you for the lovely dinner, Amanda!” Saffy cooed, suddenly remembering her manners. “Ooh, look, there’s a taxi! Quick, get it, Shazz!”
Sharyn was already by the curb. She bent into the open window to talk to the driver. She turned back and shouted, “Ay, he say still open!”
“How can you all still be hungry?!”


Thursday, December 22, 2016

Foot Fault

I’ve long believed that the stuff they teach children in school is, for the most part, completely useless. I can’t remember the last time I ever needed to use algebra. No employer has ever asked me to recite the periodic table. I’ve never needed to advise any client on the difference between a neutron or an electron, and I’ve certainly never had any use for a supply and demand graph. Ever.
            And yet, for years and years, I just sat there in one classroom after another, committing to memory, patiently like a stunned mullet, all this useless information and then spewed it all out at exams. I remember being so pleased when I finally got an ‘A’ in physics, but try asking me now what force has to do with mass and acceleration…
            I’m telling you – it was all such a complete waste of my life.
            I realized how useless my education had been the day we discovered my father had fainted in the bathroom, and we all stood around him in a complete panic, first yelling at him if he was alright, and then at one another to call the ambulance.
            Much later at the hospital, the nurse said that we should have turned Father on his side and raised one leg.
            “Really? That’s what you do?” I remember asking. “Huh. They never teach you that at school!”
            “This is why you always need to have a doctor in the family!” my mother said.
            “Or at least make sure the school teaches you intermediate medical aid!” I told her. “Fat lot of good an A in English literature did me back there in that bathroom!”
             This all came back to me the other day when Saffy found herself locked out our flat in her super-sheer nightie, and no hidden spare key. She had to creep downstairs, dash in and out of the shrubbery to get to the guardhouse where she shouted at Sheila, our rotund security guard from Kerala, to call me to come home immediately.
            She was so traumatised by the whole episode.
            “You know,” she moaned that evening at dinner, still visibly shaking from the experience, “the entire time, all I could think of was why picking locks is not on everyone’s school curriculum! Why don’t schools teach you basic important life skills like that?”
            Amanda and I stopped in mid-chew and looked at Saffy.
            “Well, it’s true!” she said, noticing our looks. “What would have been more useful to me today – being able to recite by heart that ridiculous death scene in ‘Romeo and Juliet’, or being able to pick open the lock on our front door?”
            Amanda gave the matter some thought. “If you’d said this to me a few years ago, I would have rolled my eyes and said you were being ridiculous. But I’m kind of with you on this one!”
            Saffy’s bosom inflated with the unexpected validation and support. “I know, right?” she puffed with pleasure. “And the other thing they should teach you in school is how to hotwire a car!”
            Amanda frowned. “Why would you need to know that?”
            “Well, some crazy maniac might have chased me into a car-park and I need to escape! There’s not much point being able to pick open a car door if you can’t start the damn thing to get away, is there?”
            As logical arguments go, this one was pretty much air-tight.
            “Aiyoh!” Sharyn said when we told her about our plans to revamp the educational syllabus. “You all criminal, is it? Where got teacher teach you to break in, one?”
            “Not break in, Sharyn,” Saffy said. “Pick a lock and hotwire a car for emergencies, and life and death situations!”
            “And how you expect police to know the difference?” Sharyn said, her magnified eyes peering owlishly at Saffy from behind her thick spectacles.
            “Well, all I can say is that you’d better hope you never get chased by a crazy axe-wielding murderer in a deserted car-park on a Sunday night!” said Saffy, a huge fan of violent slasher movies.
            “Aiyah, if got such thing, I oh-so cannot run, lah!” Sharyn said. She lifted her foot. “You see, I got big blister on my foot. So painful, how to run?”
            Saffy leaned in to inspect the angry red spot on Sharyn’s heel. Amanda and I pulled back.
            “Oooh, that’s horrible, Shazz!”
            Abuden? I scared go see doctor! Confirm he give me injection, one!”
            “You see?” Saffy said, straightening up. “This is another thing they should teach you in school – how to treat a foot blister!”
            “I guess it’s called medical school,” Amanda offered.

            Saffy sniffed and said we must all write to the Ministry of Education and complain.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Planned Parenthood

My mother’s guiding philosophy in life is that you should always have a Plan B. Which is basically a back-up plan for every contingency.
            The day my sister came home from school with a report card that said she’d failed music theory – “Michelle is basically tone-deaf”, her music teacher wrote – Mother sat and listened to her wail and cry over her doomed aspirations to be a concert pianist. Finally, she said, “Well, no one is going to pay good money to listen to you mangle Chopin, so I guess that’s the end of your musical dream. You gave it a go, and that’s what’s important. Now, what’s your Plan B?”
            Michelle sniffed into her handkerchief. “I don’t have one!”
            Mother sighed. “Don’t be silly, dear. You must always have a Plan B. When my second boyfriend was suddenly shipped off to the Vietnam War and he never came home, I cried for three days. On the fourth day, I executed my Plan B.”
            Michelle stopped sniffling and stared at Mother with interest. “Her second boyfriend?” she asked me later.
            “If you must know,” Mother went on, “Plan B was your daddy, and look how well that turned out!”
            In spite of herself, Michelle was impressed. “That’s such a great life philosophy!” she told me. “You’re never surprised by anything.”
            Which is why she applauded the loudest when bomb shelters were first introduced into flats in Singapore. “It’s so incredibly sensible!” she told all her friends at her school in Boston. They must have thought Singapore was in Iraq.
            “Which is a nice change from thinking it’s in China!” she wrote to me.
            And the day I decided I no longer wanted to be a lawyer, Mother rang me all the way from Luxor where she and Father were touring the tombs of the Pharaohs. “Such a pity, dear. It was so nice to have a lawyer in the family. So, what’s your Plan B?”
            “I’m going to be a writer!” I replied.
            There was a pause on the line. “Oh dear,” Mother said finally. “I hope you’re not going to be calling me regularly for money. What’s your Plan B if writing fails?”
            I am not my mother’s son for nothing. “I’ll go back to being a lawyer.”
            “Very sensible.”
            A few days ago, my phone rang from an unidentified number. I had barely lifted the phone to my ear when I heard a hiss. “Mr Jason! It’s Sheila here! The security guard at Oleander Tower!”
            “Yes, Sheila?” I asked cautiously. “How did you get this…”
            “Miss Saffy ask me to call you! She say you must come home and….what…?” Sheila’s voice became muffled and in the background, I could vaguely make out Saffy’s voice.
            Sheila came back on. “She say you must come home immediately!”
            Let me just say there’s nothing more stressful in life than an urgent message saying you have to come home immediately.
            “Hurry!” I heard Saffy shout.
            When my taxi screeched up to the driveway, Sheila waved me through. I rolled down the window. “What’s happened?”
            “Just go up quickly!”
            I arrived at our floor to find Saffy hopping about outside our front door. “What took you so long? Oh my God!”
            “What’s the matter? Who died? Have we been robbed? What….” I finally noticed she was still in her diaphanous Victoria’s Secret nightie, her hair was rolled up in curlers, and her face was covered with a mud-mask. She looked like that mad housewife in that Stephen Chow soccer movie. The only thing missing was a cigarette dangling from her lips.
            It turns out that when Saffy came out of the bathroom that morning, she noticed a note under the front door from our neighbour saying he’d left a package outside that had been delivered to him by mistake. Saffy poked her head out the door, and as she leaned out to pick up the box, the wind shut the door behind her.
            “What were we thinking getting a stupid door that locks behind us?” she moaned as I opened the door. “I didn’t have my phone on me and I didn’t know when you guys were coming home, so I had to go downstairs – looking like this! – and get Sheila to call you. And yours is the only number I know by heart because it’s so easy! And guess who I bumped into as I came out of the lift? That gorgeous Australian guy in oh-nine-oh-five! You should have seen him jump back in shock! Oh God. I just wanted to die! I hope he didn’t recognize me under this mud-pack!”
            “Aiyoh!” Sharyn said when she heard. I swear my jaw dropped when she added, “Fail, lah, you all! Why you don’t have Plan B?”