By Willie Cheng
Beatrice never expected that this by-now routine visit to the Mount Elizabeth Hospital would upend her sedate life.
With practised ease, she tiptoed into the Daffodil suite toward the still figure resting on the bed, ignoring the sweet, noxious odour overpowering the omnipresent smell of hospital antiseptic. The patient's eyes were closed, her shaven head and back slumped against the tilted mattress. Beatrice leaned forward and whispered, "Hello-o, Annie."
Annie's drooping eyelids lifted. With a faint smile and raspy voice, she said, "Thank you for coming, Bea…"
Beatrice held Annie's limp arm and stroked it with loving fingers. No words were needed to express the bond they had developed from caring for the same man over the last eight years.
Looking at Beatrice with the same deep affection, Annie said, "I have a special favour to ask of you."
"You know I would do anything for you."
"Good. I want you to… to take over…"
"Take over what?" Beatrice gently prodded.
"Take over my life… Jackson… Juliana …"
Beatrice's jaw slackened, and her heart skipped a beat as she sought to process what she thought Annie was proposing. Her boss had trained her to clarify ambiguous statements by restating them as questions in plain and direct language. "Yo-you want me to marry your husband? And be mother … stepmother … to your daughter?"
"Yes. I don't have much time left. The cancer has spre—"
"The cancer has spread to your brain."
Annie winced. With a waned smile, she said, "Not yet. It has spread from the cervix to my liver and lungs. I'll be gone before it reaches my head. For now, I'm thinking clearly. More clearly than ever before. When you face death, you think very clearly… You're the best person for Jackson."
"Annie, I'm nothing more than a personal assistant to Jackson. A glorified secretary. That's very different from being a wife."
"You can be. You look after him very well in the office as his PA. I look after him at home. He's spent more time at work than at home. More time with you than with me."
Beatrice shook her head defensively.
"Don't get me wrong. I don't resent it," Annie said in the supportive, encouraging tone that she often used with Beatrice. "In fact, I appreciate it. You've been wonderful for Jackson – and me. I trust you. Jackson trusts you … and you love him."
How could Annie know? When she first joined Luxious Fashions, Beatrice had just broken up with her fiancé of five years and was indeed smitten by Jackson. Who would not be? At six feet two, Jackson's slim and toned physique, coupled with those expressive eyes and strong jawline, would have qualified him to be a male model if he had so wished. But it was his confidence and charisma that made him a fitting chief executive of a fashion house. While there was no shortage of women and opportunities in the fashion industry, Jackson was very much a faithful and loving husband, and not available. Two months after she joined, Beatrice decided to focus on her work and be the best secretary she could be. She must have done well because Jackson asked her to be his PA a year later. That was eight years ago. Being romantically involved with Jackson had not crossed her mind since.
She could only protest. "How can you say that? He's my boss. I do like him very much… but love?"
"He's easy to love. I fell in love with him the first day I met him. And you love him too. I can see it in your eyes." Beatrice felt Annie's eyes boring into her. "But you hold yourself back – because of me, I know. That's why I trust you."
"I've no time to be a wife. I've to look after my aged father."
"You need a life beyond that. Bring your father to our house. We have an army of helpers to take care of him."
Scrambling to compose herself, Beatrice said, "Why are you saying all this?"
"I'm doing this for all of us. Jackson needs a woman. Always has. Juliana needs a mother. I would rather it be you than anyone else."
Her mind racing, searching for the correct response, Beatrice said, "This is madness. Why are we discussing this? It's not your decision or mine. It's Jackson's."
"I've spoken to him about it."
Beatrice's eyes widened. "You have?"
"Yes, last night."
"What did he say?"
"He said he didn't want to talk or think about a wife after me. It was inappropriate. You know Jackson. He just wants to be the faithful, grieving husband for now."
This is getting complicated. Beatrice could not decide if she should be relieved or concerned.
"So, that closes it. He doesn't want to marry again. No further discussion necessary."
"No, he will want to marry again. You know Jackson. He's careless and disorganised. You take care of his needs in the office. I do it at home. After me, someone else has to plan and organise his personal life. Someone who loves him and whom he loves."
But will he love me? Instead, she said, "He doesn't love me."
"Of course, he does. Not in a romantic way… yet. Your love for each other is platonic. It's not gone further… because you never gave him a chance. You kept your distance. I know you. I know my husband. If you continue keeping your distance, he'll marry the next woman that… that turns him on… you know what I mean. I want that woman to be you."
"What did he say about me?"
"Jackson likes you very much. He had never thought of you as a wife. He could… but he didn't want to discuss it. I asked him to think about it, as I'm asking you to think about it. Can you?"
Beatrice kept quiet. She did not know what else to say.
"I know this is very sudden," said Annie. "I would die happy if I knew you would be taking care of Jackson and Juliana. It would be the answer to my prayers."
A nurse pushed in a patient-round trolley. "It's time for your medicine, dear."
"In a minute," Annie said to the nurse. She turned to Beatrice. "You go home and take care of your father. For now, can you think about it? Can you… please… for me… for us? Come tomorrow, and we'll speak further?"
Beatrice, light-headed and flushed, could only nod her head. She bent over, kissed Annie on the forehead, and murmured, "I love you… rest well now." She hastened from the room and hospital, a thousand thoughts and emotions spinning in her head and heart.
They never had that follow-up talk.
Late that night, Annie sank into a coma. Jackson sought life-sustaining treatments, but Annie had signed an Advance Medical Directive, and the doctors said their hands were tied. She had made her wishes clear when she first fell ill: "I don't want to be a vegetable and be a burden to all of you. When the time comes, let me go to the Lord in peace."
And Annie went to the Lord after nine days, never regaining consciousness. Jackson was by her bedside throughout. Beatrice made sure of that, cancelling and postponing his appointments, and diverting decisions to his lieutenants in Luxious Fashion.
Her predicament was the imminent takeover of The Time Boutique, a luxury watch retailer. Jackson was crucial to the final negotiations, but he was in no state of mind to even provide directions. Raju, director of corporate development, assured her, "A delay may not be bad. Their asking price is too high for a distressed company. And they're not critical to have in our portfolio. Let's see if their threat of another strong bidder in the wings is true."
When Annie had breathed her last, a weary Jackson asked Beatrice if she could make the funeral arrangements. With no experience in such matters, Beatrice enlisted the help of Mary-Anne, the company's human resources director, who had recently done so for her own father's funeral. Mary-Anne remarked it was just as well that Jackson was not making the arrangements himself. "Funeral services can be predatory. Demand is inelastic, and a grieving relative is an easy mark."
Jackson wanted to hold the wake at home instead of a funeral parlour. "This is where she lived. This is the home she built. This is where we send her off." Olivia, Luxious' chief operating officer, arranged for the installation of tentage and décor to convert the garden and living room into an oasis for relatives and friends coming to see Annie off. Sasha, the head housekeeper, commandeered the household staff to ensure that the wake hospitality went smoothly throughout the five days.
The day after Annie's body was cremated, they were back in the office. There was a backlog of decisions, calls and meetings awaiting Jackson.
Even as she dived into the work, Beatrice would catch herself playing back her conversation with Annie and wondering what Jackson thought of Annie's proposition. She knew Annie had asked him to marry her. But did Jackson know Annie had likewise asked her? And if so, did he know of her response to Annie?
During the wake and now in the office, Beatrice would periodically search Jackson's face for clues – when she thought he was not aware of her looking – as to what he might think of Annie's suggestion. There were fleeting moments when she felt he glanced at her when he thought she was not looking. Or was it just her imagination? Apart from those instances, he treated her no differently than before.
If anything, he seemed even more distracted than usual. It was understandable, she rationalised. He was fixated on taking over The Time Boutique. He placed greater significance on the transaction than Raju had. Luxious had grown mainly by buying up other companies. As a result, the company expanded its product lines from women's apparel to menswear, cosmetics, watches and jewellery. It had been more than a year since the last acquisition, so it was pressing for Jackson that this deal went through.
For all his shortcomings in administration and operations, Jackson was savvy at identifying and closing business deals. Beatrice had always admired Jackson's ability to compartmentalise situations, taking a laser-like focus on the matter at hand. But his current focus on the business was driving her crazy. Was it just his usual poker face, or did he not care about the void Annie had left? More importantly, had he not given any thought to Annie's bizarre request?
A fortnight after his return to the office, Jackson said to her, "I think we've cleared most of the backlog. The Time Boutique deal is now settled. I'm sorry you've had to work non-stop and resort to eating takeaways. Let me make it up to you. Shall we catch a leisurely dinner tomorrow night?"
She booked a corner table at the Valentin Restaurant, where she knew the manager and could be assured of excellent service. The restaurant setting of tables with crisp linen, candles and flowers, together with the muted lighting and soft music, would ensure the needed privacy and ambience.
She pursed her lips and narrowed her eyes, trying not to fidget as Jackson spent the first hour dissecting The Time Boutique negotiations. He said Raju was right in that the delay had allowed them to call the seller's bluff, and they got a much better price than initially asked.
After the main course, Jackson said, "There's a delicate matter I would like to raise with you."
At last. Perhaps.
He drew a deep breath, gazed at her and said, "Annie … before she died … told me she wanted me to marry you."
Beatrice's heart was pounding. She said nothing. From Jackson, she had learnt that silence, strategically employed, could push the other party to keep talking and provide more information.
Jackson looked back at her with equal silence. As if a realisation came to him, he said, "Did Annie ask you too? She said she was going to… but I thought she went into a coma before she could."
So he did not know about Annie's conversation with me. Her lips parted, and the tightness in her neck lightened.
She nodded. "Wh-what do you think of what she said?"
"It made sense to me … marrying you."
"Why? You don't love me."
"Why do you say that? I do love you – in a different way, of course. Annie was my wife. I love you for what you are. You mean a lot to me. Our relationship is platonic, but it could be more… if we want. It could be romantic … if you want."
Did Annie script this for him?
"A PA is very different from a wife. You don't want a wife who's efficient at managing your appointments and paperwork."
"I do want a wife who's efficient at managing the household–" He stopped and quickly said, "I don't mean it that way. I mean… I would, of course, appreciate a wife who looks after the household well, as Annie did… and I'm sure you would. But the feelings we have for each other could be developed in a way that was not possible when Annie was still with us. She herself blessed such a union."
"But I don't love you."
"Annie said you do. You women know each other better. She said, not in a romantic way, but deep inside, you do. And that if circumstances were different, we could be much more to each other."
Annie has coached him well. But Beatrice wanted Jackson's own decision, not Annie's direction. "This sounds like a marriage of convenience. Rather than of love. I want to marry for love."
"Yes. I want love – the right kind of love – in a marriage, too. Look, before Annie and I were married, we attended a marriage preparation course. I remember the presenter saying: 'On your wedding day, you will love each other the least. You know why? Because love should grow in a marriage. If it does not, the marriage will break down.' Our love can grow."
"By that argument, you and I can marry anyone else. Shouldn't there be a baseline? A foundation of love first?"
"Yes! And we have that foundation. We are above the baseline. You love me, I love you – though not yet romantically. And it's not because we don't love each other, but because we couldn't. Now we can. And with the full blessings of Annie."
She could trust Jackson to come up with logical counterarguments to get his way. Were his arguments winning her over, or did she already want to proceed down the route Annie had plotted? Yet the doubts continued to assail her: What would her colleagues think – marrying the boss?… Some would say she slept her way to the top… Would she want to give up the job she loved and be a homemaker?… Juliana could be a real handful…
She could only manage a weak: "I don't know –"
"There you are," he said in an almost triumphant tone. "You are not saying 'no.' You are at least open to the idea. That means we have a basis to go from here."
You are not saying "no"… You are open… We have a basis… She had heard him making those same statements in business negotiations.
Jackson continued. "Look, it wouldn't be appropriate to get married tomorrow in any case. The gossip mills will go into overdrive. People might think we poisoned Annie or something. Let's spend time together outside of the office. Get to know each other outside of our professional relationship. See where our feelings lead us."
She watched him as he watched her. She had witnessed that affable, inquiring gaze several times in his intense M&A negotiations. She could never quite tell whether it was the calculating glint of a charming predator stalking his prey or the earnest plea of a potential partner seeking a favourable response.
"Am I now an acquisition target to be taken over in six months?"
He leaned back and let out a laugh, a sound she had not heard since Annie fell sick. "No, of course not," he said with a disarming beam of affection. "Certainly not an acquisition. A merger of equals, perhaps. And no timeline. Only when you are ready."
That was that. The tight vice that had clamped her heart since her first year with Luxious was finally released. The floodgates to her whole being were opened for him. She was ready, but she could wait another few months.
Beatrice sat waiting for Jackson at a corner table at the Chill & Thrill Bar and Bistro. She had insisted on this place for their first wedding anniversary dinner because Jackson had proposed marriage here, less than five months after that evening at Valentin Restaurant. They were married two months later, in a quiet ceremony attended by close family members and senior staff of Luxious.
Being free to explore their feelings for each other, the firm foundation of love and respect they already had soon developed into an intimacy of body and soul. For Jackson, it was especially physical. His appetite in the bedroom surprised her. She began to understand what Annie meant, that Jackson would always need a woman. But she did not mind. She was also making up for lost time. While she initially felt guilty about enjoying Jackson's romantic gestures and passionate lovemaking, she came to realise that Jackson never stopped loving Annie. His heart was large enough to love her deeply too, and she allowed herself to love him back in her own way, without feeling the need to make up for what Annie could no longer give him.
Juliana, however, remained a work in progress. She knew Juliana was a brat, but the 10-year-old was much more rebellious than expected. "You're not my mother!" was Juliana's constant refrain. She no longer called her "Aunty Beatrice" but just "Beatrice" or "Beat," which sometimes sounded like "Bitch," although Beatrice thought that "Enemy Number One" would fit better given Juliana's hostility.
Alas, Jackson was hands-off in child-rearing, she discovered. But she managed at least to get him to be the "bad guy" to lay down the rules and for her to make concessions after he had taken a tough stance. She was determined to win Juliana over with her love, but she knew abundant patience was needed.
After the wedding, Beatrice and her father moved into Jackson's mansion, now theirs – Jackson had insisted on changing the title deed to make her the joint owner. It was his way of showing his love. But you would have thought that the house belonged to the imperious Sasha. Since Annie's sickness and death, the head housekeeper had full reign of the residence and did not like that there was now a new mistress. Sasha had even ditched her traditional samfu attire for the modern pieces from Annie's wardrobe that Jackson had asked her to dispose of after the funeral.
Beatrice had had no past run-ins with Sasha. And Sasha had been very helpful and reliable during the wake. Beatrice only became aware of the undercurrents and sabotage of her authority when the other household staff informed her. When she shared these with Jackson, he related the story of his first M&A transaction: "It was actually an acquisition – we were the bigger company. But I wanted to give the other party face, so we called it a merger. I made my counterpart the Co-CEO in the merged company. But I learnt the hard way that you can't have two tigers on the mountain. So, finally, I had to move him on. I didn't make the same mistake in subsequent takeovers."
Beatrice bided her time, waiting for the opportunity to "justifiably and visibly" move Sasha on. Four months after she moved into the house, she found out that Sasha had changed her father's medication from three times to twice daily out of convenience. Beatrice kicked up a huge fuss, loudly accusing Sasha of endangering the health and life of her sick father. She gave Sasha an extra month's salary and offered another six months' bonus with a 12-month "earn-out" period. The bonus was conditional on Sasha staying away and refraining from spreading malicious gossip. As Jackson predicted, the effect was dramatic. The remaining household staff swiftly fell in line, and even her minor suggestions were treated as commandments.
Beatrice offered the head-housekeeper position to Soon Hock. At 45 years, he was a quiet but self-assured and reliable jack-of-all-trades who kept the interior and exterior of the large bungalow and grounds in order. Although he joined the household less than a year ago, Soon Hock knew his way around and got along with the rest of the staff. Soon Hock took up the offer, and after six months of probation, she confirmed him in the role.
Unfortunately, settling into the roles of wife, stepmother and housemistress had consumed much of Beatrice's time and attention. She realised too late that she should not have abandoned her PA job and the office entirely. Vivi, whom Mary-Anne and Jackson hired to replace her, was a problem. It would seem not just for her but for many others in the office, too – except Jackson.
As Jackson's PA, Beatrice kept Annie informed of Jackson's movements and ensured that Annie had priority in his schedule. This was not so with Vivi, who would not even return her messages. If Beatrice needed time with Jackson on weekdays, it had to be arranged by Jackson with Vivi.
"She's, of course, not as efficient as you," Jackson had said when Beatrice complained. "No one can replace you, honey. Also, the business has grown. More issues to handle, more meetings to be arranged. So, my calendar is more difficult to manage."
It was more than that, she was sure. Five years younger than her and 10 years younger than her husband, Vivi had a figure that she flaunted with inappropriate low-cut, tight dresses in the office. She was sure that the bimbo had designs on her husband, often inserting herself into the business dinners that Jackson was more frequently having.
Even arranging their anniversary dinner had required Jackson's intervention to cancel a conflicting appointment that Vivi insisted was "critical." And Vivi even had the gall to suggest that the Chill & Thrill was too far from Jackson's last meeting place.
Jackson arrived, nearly an hour late. Beatrice's eyes were cold, and her lips pursed in fuming silence. Not seeming to notice, Jackson gave her a peck on the cheek. "Sorry, I'm late. The introductory meeting with the principals of Ravish Cosmetics took longer than we thought it would."
I'm sure Vivi deliberately scheduled it that way. That bitch!
"Of course, I understand," she said in a dour monotone, as she sought to get into the mood of the occasion. "I've gone ahead to order the same dishes we both had a year ago." She signalled the manager to start serving.
Despite the prickly start, Jackson lifted her spirits. Manifesting his usual easy charm, he spent the first part of dinner reminiscing about their courtship days. She sometimes wished those five months could have lasted forever.
With the main course over, dessert and tea were being served. She glanced at her watch and decided it was time to change the subject.
"I must say I miss the office," Beatrice said in a very casual but deliberate tone, fingering her personalised Luxious necklace.
Jackson looked at her with curious intentness, not saying a word.
The strategic silence ploy. In a slow and certain voice, she continued, "Last Monday, I attended the farewell party for Olivia at Crossings. She told me she'd invited you, but you couldn't make it."
"Yes, I had to meet the Jumabhoys, the two founders of Juma Jewels. They were keen to sell their company. It could be our next M&A."
"Oh, but Raju was at the party. Shouldn't he be with you? After all, he's your head of corporate development."
"Well, it was just an exploratory discussion. I'll update him later. Vivi said he couldn't make it. Evidently, Raju prefers to party."
"Jackson, Raju told me he didn't know about your meeting with the Jumabhoys. Vivi never told or asked him to join in."
"I suppose Vivi must have thought that Raju's preference was to go to the party at Crossings."
Beatrice neck muscles tightened. "Why are you making excuses for her? Can't you see she's monopolising you? Did Vivi go to the Jumabhoys' dinner with you?"
"Yes. Come on, honey. There's nothing between us."
You fool. She clenched but immediately loosened her fist. She must remember not to make this about her, but about him – as he had once taught her about getting the other party to change their mind.
"Of course not, darling. That's not what I meant," she said, leaning towards him. "I'm saying that she's monopolising you in the office. She's erected a virtual fence around you, keeping all your senior staff at bay. She has an unhealthy influence over you that you don't realise. She's getting you to make decisions that your trusted lieutenants disagree with. You're going to lose a lot of your good people, Jackson. You've already lost Olivia and two general managers."
"I conducted their exit interviews. They left for greener pastures."
"What else did you expect them to say when Vivi's outside your room within hearing range? If you want the real reasons for their departures, speak to them individually. Call them. They're waiting for your call… Go on."
He flinched. He glanced at his handphone lying on the table but did not pick it up. She picked it up instead, looked up Olivia's number, hit the dial button and passed it to him.
Jackson hesitated and then took the phone. "Hello, Olivia?… How are you?" Beatrice could not hear what Olivia was saying, but she could make out an agitated, high-pitch voice at the other end of the line while Jackson listened.
After he thanked Olivia for her feedback, Jackson said to Beatrice, "Gosh, what strong language from one woman about another. I didn't realise the two didn't get along."
"Jackson, it's not Olivia being cattish. Why don't you speak to the others?"
Jackson held his phone away from Beatrice.
"Jackson, it's not only those who've already left. There are others. Raju, for one."
"No, not Raju! He's been with me for over 10 years. We grew the company together."
"How many times have you seen Raju in the last month?"
Jackson did not answer. She knew she had him.
"It wasn't that he was busy. He was told that you were too busy to see him."
"I guess I've been very busy."
I bet you were. With that slut beside you, most of the time!
"Darling, several of the long-serving staff came up to me unsolicited at the party to pour out their grievances. I've had one-on-ones with some of them since. They're serious about moving on. They're just waiting for the right opportunities. You'll have an exodus."
"Who are they?"
"I know you're my husband, but they've asked me to keep it confidential until they are ready to speak to you – by which time it would be too late. Only Raju said I could be open with you because he's had it with her. I spoke with Mary-Anne. As head of HR, she knows of the issues and some potential departures. Call her. She's also waiting for your call."
Before he could pull his phone away, she grabbed it, hit the dial button after looking up Mary-Anne's number, and gave it back. He took it and said, "Hello, Mary-Anne. Beatrice said you're expecting my call."
The conversation was more subdued this time. She could only hear Jackson saying, "I see… Can you tell me who they are… I see… I understand… Thank you."
"You want to call Raju now?"
"No, no. There's no need. I will speak to Raju in the office tomorrow. I cannot afford to lose him… I believe you…"
The tension in Beatrice's neck eased. Jackson was no longer challenging the premise that Vivi restricted access to him and was unduly influencing him.
He mumbled, "I just don't understand why Vivi would be like that?"
To get into your pants, that's why!
She said, "It's what you always say about the people aspect of M&A integration – power! She wants power. Some people are like that. What are you going to do about it?"
"What do you think I should do?"
"Terminate her. Immediately."
"Just like that?"
"Why not? She's toxic. With her around, you'll not only lose your good people; you'll eventually lose the company. Those who've left may even come back when she's gone."
"Vivi will hate me forever."
That's the idea.
"You don't have to do it yourself. Mary-Anne will initiate and take care of the counselling-out process once you give the go-ahead."
"You know, it's best to be gentle with this. We would have to compensate her quite a bit, especially if it's immediate."
A smirk flitted across her face. Jackson had accepted the conclusion and was now looking for a way to soften Vivi's hard landing. "You're the boss. Whatever you have to pay for her to leave peacefully will be less than the damage already done and would cost the company long term. Just make sure there's a long earn-out period like you taught me."
"If it's immediate, you know I can't survive without a PA."
"Don't worry. Mary-Anne said she'll share hers with you until we find you a new one."
"Yes, I'll help find a replacement. I'm probably the most qualified to do so, having been there myself. I was a good PA, wasn't I?"
He nodded with a defeated smile on his lips. "The best. You'll never find another you. Are you sure you want to do this?"
Of course. I'm not taking any chances.
"Darling, you're so compressed at the office. You won't have the time to screen and process all the candidates. Let Mary-Anne and me do it."
"Okay. Look at the time. I'm sorry, I need to go and see Ustin Miller of Ustin Creations. I'm trying to get an exclusive on their latest line of earrings and brooches. The appointment was scheduled at the last minute. He's flying off at midnight, and I can only catch him at the airport for an hour. Maybe you could come and help persuade him. You're pretty good at driving negotiation outcomes."
I learn from the best – you.
"No, you go now. I'll take care of the bill. Finish the meeting and come home soon. I've got something special waiting for you."
"I like it when you talk dirty."
The dirty talk was about Vivi.
"How's a brand-new negligee dirty?" she said with a coquettish twinkle in her eye.
He grinned and hurried off.
The next day, Mary-Anne called to inform Beatrice that Jackson had spoken to Raju and instructed her accordingly.
Beatrice sat upright on her Caesar-sized bed and pressed a remote control at her bedside table to draw the curtains and savour the gentle warmth of the morning sun as it streamed in. Today was her big day – her 10th wedding anniversary.
It was 9.10am. Her husband had left for the office while she was still asleep. He had apologised the night before for needing to go to work today, as Luxious was concluding its largest M&A deal ever with Gemina Gems. But he had promised he would be back by 5pm for their anniversary dinner.
Unlike her fifth wedding anniversary, which was a grand affair at the Shangri-La Hotel attended by the who's who of the fashion industry, she had wanted this anniversary to be an intimate one at home, with the few people closest to them. She was sad that her father, who died three years ago, could not be one of them.
Soon Hock came in almost immediately when she pressed the call button on her bedside. She told him she was ready for breakfast in bed.
Soon Hock informed her that Juliana came home at 2am. "She asked me to let her know as soon as you are awake so she can come and see you."
"Yes, only if she's still awake." Juliana was studying for a business degree at the London School of Economics. Her flight back to Singapore would have arrived just past midnight.
Five minutes later, Juliana peered in. "Mummy!" she cried out as she rushed forward to embrace Beatrice. Hugging her tightly, Juliana said, "I love you, Mummy. I missed you so much."
"You naughty girl," said Beatrice. "You were supposed to be on vacation in Europe during your school break."
"I wanted to be home for this special occasion. But it was supposed to be a surprise. Soon Hock confessed he told you. He can't be trusted. He's so loyal to you."
"Don't blame Soon Hock. He only informed me last evening. He was afraid the noise you'd make when you came into the house in the wee hours would alarm me. There had been a few break-ins in the neighbourhood recently. But I slept more soundly, knowing I would see you this morning."
They both laughed.
"I'm sorry that you sacrificed your European holiday with your friends … and David. You had been planning it for months."
"Oh, don't worry. David also cancelled. He followed me back to Singapore. Is it okay if he comes by this afternoon? He's been wanting to meet you."
"I would love to meet him. Why don't you ask him to stay for dinner as well?"
"Thank you, Mummy. That would be great."
"You know, you're still young. There's no hurry to get hitched."
"I'm not," said Juliana. Her voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper, "But I think he's the one!"
A kitchen help came in with the breakfast trolley. Beatrice asked her to set it up in the lounge next to the master bedroom instead.
She turned to Juliana, "Join me for breakfast. We can talk about your London adventures." She lowered her voice, "And why you think he's the one."
Mother and stepdaughter regaled each other with their stories of the past year for over an hour. Soon Hock came in to inform her that Claris had arrived. "She's supervising the setup downstairs for tonight. She said she's happy to see you whenever you're ready." Juliana decided she would catch some sleep before David came over. Declining Soon Hock's suggestion for her to take a break too, Beatrice asked him to send Claris up and arrange tea for them.
Claris was Jackson's PA, the second replacement for Vivi. Beatrice had vetoed the confirmation of the first replacement – Beatrice had forgotten her name – even though Jackson said he was comfortable with her. Beatrice deemed that the PA was not taking care of him holistically, especially in prioritising his home commitments.
Claris was not an obvious choice among the dozen shortlisted candidates. About Vivi's age, she was a young widow with a three-year-old son. Her husband had died in a car accident six months before. After being out of the workforce for three years, Claris wanted to return to work to "find new purpose and feed my son." Her former boss had attested to her efficiency, professionalism and trustworthiness in glowing terms, but he was unable to hire her back. Mary-Anne had voted for a more experienced candidate, but Beatrice thought she would give Claris a chance.
After the six-month probation, Beatrice concluded that the ex-boss's testimony was spot on. Claris was near-perfect for the job. Jackson said that Claris was almost as efficient as her; he probably did not dare say "more efficient." Most of all, Claris was to Beatrice what Beatrice was to Annie: she kept Beatrice duly informed of all of Jackson's goings-on, she balanced his schedule between office and family, and Beatrice had her regular date nights with Jackson. They were aligned and coordinated in their roles in organising Jackson. Once, they debated whether Jackson was "unorganised" (never organised in the first place) or "disorganised" (messing up what was once organised). They laughingly concluded that he was both, and it was his emotional intelligence and disarming personality that saved the day for him. Claris became family in every way, working well with Luxious and the household staff, and the two women became the best of friends.
Claris came into the lounge, her face warm and cheery. They hugged.
As they sat down for tea, Claris said in a mock-authoritative voice, "I've to tell you that you're banned from going downstairs until 6 pm." Her eyes twinkled as she changed her tone to a doting one. "Olivia and her team are transforming the place. Apart from the mess you might see before they are done, we want to surprise you."
"This is not necessary. I just wanted a simple dinner for this anniversary."
"Yes, we're keeping it cosy and intimate as you wanted. And thank you for inviting me to be part of this special celebration."
"No, I want to thank you. You are family. I asked to meet you this morning because I wanted to ask something of you."
"Sure, what is it?"
"You know I shall be gone soon."
"Shhh. Let's not spoil today with such talk."
"We have to. My cancer has metastasised. The doctors say I have less than two months to live."
"Let's just enjoy this very special day today," Claris said as she reached out with both hands and clasped Beatrice's hand.
Beatrice placed her other hand over Claris'. It reminded her of how she and Annie held hands more than a decade ago. "Yes, today is special. That's why I want to ask a very special favour of you."
"You only have to say it."
"Good. I want you to take over my life…"QLRS Vol. 22 No. 2 Apr 2023