by Ronald JJ Wong
“It’s a nifty tie, isn’t it? A Windsor, son. Remember that. A full Windsor.”
Xiao looked into the mirror, feeling rather pleased with the man and boy on the other side of the silver; they looked like time travellers who had chanced upon the past and future versions of themselves capturing the moment in a photograph.
“Win,” Xiao replied, hesitating at “win” as he wondered if the “d” was to be enunciated. “Win-sir.” It was an obsession manufactured from embarrassment. He had once stood before a High Court judge at a public hearing, mispronouncing the Chief Justice’s name as “melon”. The judge had proceeded to lecture with rancour on the poverty of oratorical abilities that she observed of the Bar in recent times. It aggravated the whole affair that he twitched when she said “epi-tome” instead of “eh-PI-tuh-mee”. It became a well-circulated tale among the juniors, an anecdotal lesson about the particular judge albeit at his expense. Shame is arguably the best educator.
“Did you make the reservation, dear?”
“Yes, 7.30pm, for three.”
“Two gentlemen and a lady. Brilliant! We’re off!”
Xiao had no reservations about patronizing at a fine-dining restaurant or an excellent hawker institution insofar as the venue was appropriate for the circumstance. Propriety was never a trait of his family when he was growing up. Pretentious casual dining restaurants that dish out mediocrity at unjust prices were frequented, without respect to the occasion. There were as few occasions observed as there were many cultural norms not followed. The idea of celebrating one’s birthday with a family dinner and a birthday cake was somehow foreign until it was learnt that the neighbours, the Tans, often did so. There had evidently been not many neighbours before them who spoke about how one celebrated birthdays. Somehow in their world, it was a huge birthday bash or nothing at all. Xiao felt in his cheeks a flush of abashment from that thought and simultaneously the relief from the belief that he was now in a different world; one he could construct and which allows him to pull away from a karmic cycle of faux pas.
“Dad, if we celebrate Father’s Day with you, does that mean you celebrate Father’s Day with your dad?”
His wife threw a furtive glance at him before turning to her son who was sitting restlessly at the back seat of the car, pulling at his seatbelt; paternalism subrogated to the appropriate authority.
Xiao never celebrated Fathers’ Day when he was growing up. There were those greeting cards one did for art & crafts lessons in kindergarten. In secondary school, he was rarely home, and little could be recalled of how he had wasted those years; memory conceals the parts that would make life incoherent.
He remembered the time when he was convicted with a filial streak by peers in church who talked about ways to appreciate their fathers, so he attempted to cook a stew dinner based on a recipe he pulled off the Internet. On the very day he chose to cook oxtail stew, he was told by his mom (for the first time in his life) that she could not eat beef because she was a Buddhist. It all seemed incredible then, since she often (over)cooked for family dinners, stir-fried beef cubes in generic brown sauce, and her religion was as syncretic as the number of deities she had ever come across; just the eastern ones though, not the Zeus or Thor types. And then there was some misapprehension on his part about the recipe. The stew turned out flavourful and hearty. The oxtail was, however, stubbornly tough; an old ox, a severe miscalculation of time or retribution for all those lost years of absent piety. No one spoke of that day again in the family. But this family never spoke of shared histories anyway. The common language was service; silent service.
And here, his son had posed a thoroughly logical question that begged its own logical answer. But logic sleeps where unexamined conduct comforts. Children simply had a way of testing one’s logic and getting away with impunity.
Xiao answered, “yes, you’re right, son”.
Without turning to look at her, he knew his wife’s eyebrows were raised. She had been practising to raise only one eyebrow to no avail; he thanked God for that. He continued, “I’m going to see grandpa later tonight”.
He turned to his wife, whose eyebrows were evidently still up. He had figured that there was no dishonesty at all in first verbalizing a decision before actually resolving to execute it.
The car reached the lobby area where the valet driver took over. Xiao turned around to glance at his son, who had by then turned his attention to the book he had brought along. The thought drifted into Xiao’s mental horizon; that it would make little difference then if he had resolved on a decision but later renege for various reasons, which he was sure he could find eventually. Caution washed to shore the realization that his son might innocently ask him at some point about his proposed visit to his own father; but hunger silenced all thoughts and emotions. So the family proceeded into the restaurant and had a filling evening on a molecular gastronomy dinner that must have been prepared with cutting edge nanotechnology utensils, the finesse of modern fine dining.
After the meal and after coaxing his son to bed, Xiao resigned to his own bed.
“You said you were going to see your dad,” his wife’s hollowed voice echoed from the washroom with the same intonation as one of those customer service automated phone tellers. He twitched on his bed but said nothing. If he had to go, it would have to be because it was not a terrible proposition from him. At least he had not changed out into his pyjamas. And for some reason, the restaurant was exceptionally efficient for a fine dining establishment at serving the courses in rapid succession, so the night was rather pre-mature by normal standards. The circumstances were fortuitously arrayed to justify his going, a justification which he found hard to rebut.
The drive from Holland to Toa Payoh was short; perhaps too short for a dose of updates on world affairs from BBC. He sat in his car, at the car park of the HDB estate, telling himself he would at least finish listening about South Africa’s newly appointed Chief Justice before heading out; but he soon realized that that bit of news would only come on after the live commentary of the on-going Manchester City vs. Liverpool match. He carefully switched the engine off and stepped out of the car.
The corridor to the flat was dim as he remembered, as though they were an assurance of anonymity to visitors. He stood in the dark outside the flat, blankly facing the door; a child sent to stare into repentance. His parents were still awake; the exaggerated sound effects of an old Hong Kong television film seeped through the cracks in the door in bursts. Xiao pressed the doorbell. A few beats of hesitance and caution passed before the door swung open.
“Ah boy! How come you’re here? How come you didn’t say you were coming? What time is it already?” his mom chirped animatedly.
“Just drop by la,” Xiao replied in as measured a tone as he could remember how to, as he brought his pair of Crockett & Jones into the flat. His father was slouched on the couch, focusing on the television screen.
“Eaten already or not?” his father said, eyes still fixed on the television set, “want me to make you something?”
It would be prudent to steer away from the food topic, Xiao thought.
“Have you both gone for your medical check-ups?”
“I’ve gone la. Papa still don’t want to go.”
“I’ll go la. Just haven’t got the time to go.”
“Siao. You whole day sit here do nothing, so free, where got no time to go.”
“Aiyah, don’t make so much noise.”
“Aiyah, don’t know him la.”
The conversation thus concluded. Xiao reclined into the couch, staring at the television screen as everyone in the room was doing. They watched under a tacit agreement of silence, the Ten Brothers bouncing and twirling on the screens, paralyzing enemies with their uncanny looks and out-of-this-world talents. Xiao decided to stay on to watch the show to its end, since it was reaching its conclusion; he knew because he must have watched this show at least seven times through his growing up years. Then the credits rolled.
“You better go back, it’s late already,” his mom hastened.
“Yah, I think I’ll go back now.”
A warm but still quietness descended as he knelt down to tie his shoelace, which somehow refused to form a knot so he had to keep retying it several times. The heat turned louder, and his chest ached perhaps from the extended kneeling; or perhaps it was something else. Finally, he got up, stepped outside and said his goodbyes.
“Eh go for your medical check-up la.”
“Mm,” his father replied, subdued yet positive.
His mom closed the door after him. The dim corridor light channelled him towards the lift lobby, where he lingered for a moment; he stared into the corridor once again to remember that evening. Then he stepped into the lift that took him back to his world.
He took a slow drive home; the radio blared in the background, a BBC discussion about the new South African Chief Justice, about people who seemed, at that moment, so real and so foreign.