Excerpts from Singular Acts of Endearment
By Desmond Kon
The poem that got distributed was 'Casualty', which seemed an insensitive title, as if Heaney's dying was a casualty of war or something. It has the connotations of that other dastardly phrase, "collateral damage". But we could see why Prof chose it – "coffin after coffin" appeared somewhere, there was a cathedral, and the speaker had missed a funeral. I guess there was a dark irony that surfaced reading it in the wake of the author's own dying. To the light, a student added, invoking Dylan Thomas. And in a quick retort, Prof said: "You mean 'dying of the light'."
Heaney's grandfather liked the digging. So does Ah Gong, all the years of his life, from pot to pot, quite literally so. At the end of life's tenure, perhaps all we do is this sudden and desperate excavation, as if we're trying to unearth some part of us that got lost in all the toil and all the years. I asked Ah Gong once what he was looking for. He was in a neighbour's garden, scratching up something else to tend to. And nature always spoils enough to give us something to do. Nature is a huge responsibility, like everything else. Ah Gong didn't respond. He continued looking around, pulling aside foliage to check the soil, the stem, the leaves. Maybe he didn't hear me. Maybe he thought I was just asking another silly question. Or maybe he was being evasive because he didn't really know what it was he was trying to recover.
After class that night, I put on my headphones and played Sinead O'Connor. It was that strange album, Theology, that came so late in her career of showy controversy. I alternated between the Dublin Sessions and London Sessions, but it was the same song. The song was 'We People Who Are Darker Than Blue'.
I think Ah Gong is losing it. He wants to build a garden in our home. Auntie was swift. She drew up from behind Ah Gong, and cupped her hands over his mouth, and in a deep voice, dismissed him completely. "He's been acting odd recently," she said, squinting her eyes, her Elizabeth Arden Red Door thick and hovering. I should have known the moment she waved her finger at Ah Gong, and told him to check out the large painting in the second room on the left. She pulled out a fifty from her clutch, which she pulled out from a mess in her Hamptons weekend tote. She told Jeremiah and me to run down to Macdonald's to buy ourselves anything we wanted, and a vanilla milkshake for her.
"But we just came from there," I said, thinking the suggestion ridiculous. My aunt's jaw dropped, her face sullen, and she raised one brow as if to suggest I was being silly and childish. She turned the doorknob, and led me by my shoulder outside the door. Both my shoes had turned on their sides, and they lay beside the doormat. The doormat was made of thick straw. It was plain, with no words like "Welcome" or "Home Sweet Home" painted on. The paint on the threshold was coming off in large flakes. I noticed this, as I slipped my toes midway into my shoes and shuffled towards the already open elevator.
I brought my book with me. It was Kundera's The Art of the Novel. Prof told me to read it. He said it's a classic, and will help me get past trying to control my writing, to put reins on my storytelling. The narratological mechanisms in my head need loosening, Prof said. "They're like bolts. Put some grease around the edges. Unscrew them completely. Throw out the wheels to your training bike, and run into the wind. The story will find its own legs. Or it won't, but you would have managed to say something. Whether it's important or not is quite irrelevant. Our job as human beings is just to speak, to give expression to desire and experience and history and imagination."
It all happened in the four-room in Woodlands. This was a four-room Auntie was showing a prospective tenant, and Auntie welcomed us to tour a day in the life of a property agent. Our cousin was talking about the old army camp on Keat Hong Road being demolished, and what a waste that was. That even old military bases should be considered for conservation. Not just school buildings, or churches and temples. And Ah Gong spoke from his wheelchair. He went on for a half hour, a veritable monologue about how long it's been since he's made a trip to a plant nursery. Then he talked about building a garden in our home.
Auntie likes the word realtor better, as if using the rarely used version makes her feel more self-important. Even at her worst, I like my aunt. She scarcely apologizes for anything, unless she's truly hurt someone else's feelings. This I think is a credible and respectable ethos to hold onto. It isn't spectacular imagination but it's like a square box. Manageable and something easy to hold onto.
She's going to give Ah Gong a pep talk. It'll be a vexing exhortation about having manners in public, and she'll use that lecturing tone the way she talks about proper fiscal management. It's not the way to talk to your father, that's what I think. And Ah Gong wasn't saying anything quite so ridiculous. So, he misses going out, he misses nature. So, he wants more life at home. I don't see any wrongness in a desire for the past, and a desire to wander back into it.
Micah is in my bedroom. Jeremiah has gone out to get curry puffs and spring rolls from Old Chang Kee for us. Micah wants me to listen to 'Ordinary People' by Asher Book. He's reminiscing about a trip to Sungei Buloh a few years back. He talked about walking from one bird observatory to the next. You need to find these pockets of nature to get away from the city concrete. Sungei Buloh has serious marshes and mangroves. Even coconut groves. He loves how untamed everything seems in the wild even though this is a wetland reserve we're talking about.
I could see Ah Gong's mood lift when the taxi went up the driveway at Gardens by the Bay. "This is grand," he said. He seemed like a child going to an amusement park for the first time. The remark was an honest remark – it didn't sound silly – and it betrayed how little Ah Gong had been out of the house all these years. At lunch, Ah Gong was quiet. He seemed contemplative. At some point, he mentioned how happy he was that nature finally had a place in this country's list of priorities. That at least it was a visible agenda.
Ah Gong loved the Indian Garden. He liked the banyan tree. There were six planting beds. When he realised the garden was inspired by Kolam folk art, he positively gleamed. His childhood kampong had an Indian family stay with them for a year. When they had to return to Chennai, the village threw them a farewell party. There they invited both men and women to help make a large pattern on the ground out of rice and petals. The design was intricate. It had a dragon and a phoenix, each in mid-air within their own coloured circles. Where the two circles overlapped, you could see the claws of both creatures touching. The pattern was placed at the village gate. This was to ward off ill will, the Indian couple said. There was a tamarind tree in Ah Gong's backyard which the couple left behind. It took a long time to grow, but the couple grew it for its fruit and pods. They knew how to make tamarind paste, which was good for chutney, they said.
Lots of histrionics from the couple down the pavement. The girl is calling him a faggot because he refused to carry her handbag. She's beating him on the head with it. It must be painful. It's one of those huge totes made of ostrich leather. It's shaped like the famous Birkin a few years back. One of the straps rips apart, and the bag lands on some wet mud. There goes the ostrich leather.
Our home has grown into a hostel over the years – "a boarding home for strays," I like to call it. Ah Gong called it energy renewal with a laugh. Every one to two years, there's a tenant moving out, and a new one moving in. Sometimes, it's a couple, sometimes they have two toddlers and they share one big bed. It's a liminal space, and we are its inhabitants, always seeming to be negotiating the transitions in our lives. Now, more than ever, I feel I understand what everyone might have been feeling.
After Ma and I moved back here, we've only been able to take one tenant. There was an anthropologist graduate student. There was another kid who played Minecraft everyday. There was a 50-year-old widow who lived rent-free. She was Ah Gong's companion. This was years after Tai Tai had passed on. They'd been working together at the plant nursery for years, until one day, they decided it was better having someone to wake up in the morning to than being alone. Ah Gong talks about those days with great fondness. He calls them the Nursery Days.
At school, a course-mate wants to write a play on the Holocaust. Tragedy seems to appeal to people who live in hostels. Micah says it's like guys being thrown into the army – you're holed up for the first time away from home. It makes you thankful for everything, for what little freedom you ever possessed. And that sense of gratitude turns into drive and ambition. To start something new, something exciting. "It could be learning to build a cabinet from scratch or taking up driving. Or trying to self-teach yourself an MBA." That course-mate wants to base his Nazi play on Beckett's Waiting for Godot. That means the play might be bleak, and difficult to a lay audience. He doesn't think about the audience when he draws up what to script next. "Is there going to be dark humour?" Micah asked him. Jeremiah was there too, and thumped his foot on the ground like a soldier. I tried not to giggle. Everyone in the hostel thinks this course-mate is too heady, has his head shoved up into the clouds, Micah says. But I think he's the real deal. He really cares for the craft. He thinks language cheats him of certain freedoms – that even language has its limits. His project is to try to excavate what little newness is left, and render it on the page.
Ah Gong said that fengshui was important in a garden, not just indoors. It's like a room in the open, and it still needed to pay attention to its place in the larger scheme of things, the role it had in maintaining harmony within its environment.
Ah Gong gave me a list of plants, and asked me to choose as if it were a color chart. There were clear corollaries for every shape one intended for a garden. The triangle correlated with the element of fire and the direction south. Triangles seem riskier. They instil tension and distrust, and altogether a sense of foreboding, if you ask me. If you have too much of the sharp and angular and triangular, it won't be peace you're looking for. Jeremiah would have bizarre protrusions to cut a neat outline. He's like a Power Garden – or a Lover's Garden. I'd imagine Irises, and Belladonna Lilies, dotting the garden like lit candles.
But Ah Gong wanted more of a Meditation Garden. Not so much a Retirement Garden, but one that helped him contemplate. "To ease into the natural order of things" were his exact words. The square would do the trick. In fengshui, squares are said to encourage a sense of stability and rootedness. How we're going to manage a square garden along an HDB corridor beats me. He's probably looking at setting up a row of wooden crates, double potted in a trough. It'd be nice to have a trough made of brick. It'd look sturdy but it'd be against building regulations.
I picked out plants with solid square shapes. These were called earth shapes too to connote their sense of groundedness. I chose the Rockrose and California Poppy and Boxwood. "Not all of those are good for our climate," Ah Gong said sensibly. It was something I hadn't even considered. All I'd cared about was the aesthetics of the garden, and whether it would make for good fengshui.
"Circles are good too," Ah Gong said. "Two circles next to each other will resemble the figure 8, which is good luck. Also looks like the infinity symbol. And especially good for a Meditation Garden. But the curves will contrast with the right-angle corners of the squares. So, that settles it then. We'll stick with the squares, is that all right?"QLRS Vol. 13 No. 2 Apr 2014