And truth be told, I do think I am used to the solitude. Even with my only daughter and child gone, I still keep busy, tracking the stock market, having tea with my former colleagues, tending to my plants and doing my morning qigong. The Chinese aunties from the neighbourhood had initially been amused when I first joined them at the park but with my regularity and earnestness they seem quite fond of me now.
Then there are the visits from my nephew Kenny to look forward to. He is the youngest son of my sister who lives in Kuala Lumpur. He drops in once a fortnight with biscuits and fruits and indulges me in my reminiscences. Kenny works as a hairstylist in what I imagine to be a swanky salon downtown and once a month, he trims my hair. Kenny has always had a good eye for the aesthetic things in life, even as a child, when he won art competitions and helped his mother choose curtain fabric and cushion covers.
Kenny does not say it explicitly but I have concluded that he finds Singapore too ugly for his fine sense of the aesthetic. He has long litany of pet peeves: food courts which leave a smell of cooked food in your clothes, rude people who do not say “you’re welcome” when thanked, diners who leave prawn shells on the table, women with garish highlights in badly permed hair? GROSS, he’d exclaim with disdain. I will not be surprised if one day Kenny too, will get restless with his lot here and seek greener pastures elsewhere.
But for now I appreciate my nephew’s kindness. He listens patiently when I ramble on about Art-deco Katong mansions now levelled, or chuckle over the travails of the nightsoil man or recount the dubious hygiene practices of itinerant hawkers. I am sure some of these anecdotes do not agree with his sensibility but still he maintains a pleasant smile.
One weekday evening, after watching an episode of a Chinese soap opera with me and declaring it the most insipid thing he had ever seen (especially when one had to make the extra effort of reading subtitles), Kenny started telling me what Jasmine had said about her decision to migrate.
Perhaps it was because of Kenny’s loyalty that it was months after his cousin’s departure before this was broached. The two were not very close but as children, Jasmine was always the one to stand by him when relatives teased him or when I was too insistent that he step outdoors to join the boys in some sport. Perhaps out of these old loyalties, he did not want to betray any confidences earlier.
On the other hand, things may not have been as calculated as that and it was simply the drama series on TV, an extended family saga, that triggered Kenny’s thoughts. It is possible that he was not waiting for an opportunity to raise the subject.
For most part, his story about the tension between myself and Jasmine struck too familiar a chord although I had already tucked much of it in a far-away recess of the mind. But according to Kenny’s version, the unhappiness escalated into a terrible fight and I eventually resorted to emotional blackmail to prevent her from leaving and having a life of her own.
In fact, it appeared that for years, I was a grumpy, inflexible authoritarian who was part of an obsolete patriarchy, who ruled over his daughter’s life with a suffocatingly tight leash. I was, as it turns out, one of the main reasons why emigration was attractive.
It was a moment I will remember for a while, as time seemed to grind to some slow stop. I could see myself sitting in my sofa as if I was a mere witness to the exchange - observing an old man with his calm hands on his lap, listening to a pale, delicate boy in a boat-necked tee-shirt. How similar his elegant brows were to Jasmine’s, I noticed.
No matter how much I claimed I understood my daughter’s temper, or had grown accustomed to her fiery outbursts, this was nothing I had anticipated. Yet strangely enough I could too easily imagine her voice articulating those very words, could readily hear her voice, pouring her frustration into the ears of a ready listener somewhere.
The TV, I remember, was playing some glib advertisement encouraging senior citizens to lead a healthy life. Happy, white-haired folks from all four ethnic groups were kicking a football around, or tending to grandchildren or taking ballroom dancing lessons. It was almost surreal.
“You alright, uncle?”
“Oh, I’m fine,” I said with a small laugh. “I am just thinking about what you said. It’s food for thought.”
“You had no idea at all? I am sorry if I surprised you with -” Kenny did not complete his sentence.
I didn’t respond to this. Instead I got up to switch off the television and told Kenny I was tired as it was nearly ten. I usually go to bed at half past ten. Kenny picked up his bright haversack.
“Were you really such a strict disciplinarian when Jas was younger?”
“I was the school discipline master but I never brought any of that back home,” I demurred. “Jasmine may have felt otherwise though? Perhaps I should have paid her more attention, and not left it all to your Auntie.”
We fell into an awkward silence at the door. “You know,” I offered as parting words, “deep down inside, Jasmine is really a good person.”
I spend some mornings, after the qigong classes, walking along sunlit avenues in my estate. On these brisk walks, I recall where the exact shoreline was and I often retrace it. I imagine I am even walking on water, especially on really humid days when the air feels heavy. I fear I will carry such secret knowledge to the grave and I think: if no one records, inherits or remembers, can one say it ever existed?
But I remember Jasmine’s stories, a little too lucidly perhaps. Sometimes I wish I could meet her erstwhile boss, that allegedly ill-intentioned political animal, just for the opportunity to check out what lies beneath the benign, moustached mien that Jasmine once pointed out in a photograph.
Even if I do meet him, I am not sure what I want to hear. Do I want to know how pressing were the other factors that pushed her to go? Or if my daughter is capable of objective truth? Or if any narrative is ever reliable?
It is almost ten when I finish my walks. On Tuesdays and Saturdays, I join some of my former male colleagues for a cup of coffee in Katong. We used to routinely have nasi lemak or laksa with these gatherings but these days, we are more health-conscious and scrupulously avoid meals laden with coconut milk.
These days, we also find ourselves comparing notes about our children and their increased mobility. Going abroad for work or studies is so much more common nowadays, we observe. Peng, the youngest of our group, a Mathematics teacher who retired last year, say he appreciates the fact that his children are thoughtful and give him and his missus regular cash tokens. Filial piety, we cluck in approval.
Those of us in the group who have grandchildren speak lovingly of them. It keeps them occupied and fills the house with happy sounds, although babysitting can be a tiring activity too. When asked about Jasmine, I declare that as long as my daughter is fulfilling her ambitions and has a happy, wholesome life, I am content; I cannot ask for more.
One of the regulars, Yusoff, who taught Malay and Physical Education and who has a dozen grandchildren at least, tells me I should consider joining my daughter in Canada. I gently dismiss it, assuring him that I value my independence. I don’t even need any financial contribution from her since I can get by on my pension. Besides, she may need it more in Vancouver where costs of living are higher, I say.
I think I would not like the dry air in Canada anyway. Once on a visit to Sydney, Australia, years ago, my dry skin started to flake all over the place. As we walked in the busy streets, I shed pieces of me all over my clothes and into the astringent Australian air.
I remember my wife laughing in the hotel room, forcing her bottle of moisturizer on me, even though I balked at its feminine floral odour, and Jasmine, almost ten then, jumping up and down on the bed with such wild abandon, like some gleeful monkey. “Lizard-man! Daddy’s turned into Lizard-man!” she chanted. There are many such moments like these which return to me effortlessly. They linger, like the scent of a salt breeze lingering on long-reclaimed land.
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QLRS Vol. 1 No. 1 Oct 2001