The Ending Could Not Be Right
By Eileen Chew
When the festivities of her birthday celebrations arrived and ended, Mrs Tan, recently widowed and growing desperately bored, decided she had to have a new project. Her two children did not want her time or money. They lived away from home, one working in the States, and the other married in England. Mrs Tan was the head of a committee that looked after the welfare of residents at an Old Age Home. She chaired two not-for-profit societies and sat on a school board. Everyone wanted her reputation and money but had no use for her time. This new project must be meaningful, life-changing and most certainly time consuming. Giving the matter some thought, Mrs Tan decided she would find a wife for her nephew William.
William came from good blood and a little old money. His father’s gene pool was crowded with officials, scholars, and occasionally military men. In his mother’s colorful family, singers, painters, merchants and sailors stayed for generations. Expected to be a success, he became one. William was the youngest President of his bank. Although a little balding, he was handsome, excelled in windsurfing and loved music. As though his successes were not enough for him, he wrote. His rich, colorful prose and elaborately artful stories won a few literary prizes. Mrs Tan once heard William’s best friend joke, “William doesn’t have hair to let down.” That was unfortunately true. William was a recluse. He spent many hours in his office and study, bowing to his desk with deeply furrowed brows. If he could not be persuaded to parties, how could he meet eligible girls?
“Brother pampers his son too much,” thought Mrs Tan when he rejected her proposal. Mrs Tan loved her elder brother but he could be a stubborn man. He said he wanted William to have the freedom to choose his own life and would not hear another word by “ you two meddlesome women.”
Mrs Tan lost her temper. “Of course he will choose his own wife! Am I forcing him to marry any girl on the street? He’s my nephew. I also love him. You think I will ruin his life? You are only saying this because thirty years ago, you cannot marry freely. Now you are doing well, you forget who brought you your fortune. If not for Sister-in-law, would you have become so successful without distractions?” The siblings parted, angry with each other. At least, Mrs Tan thought, not a wasted trip. She found out, without any effort on her part, that Sister-in-law was worrying about William’s future happiness as well.
“My dear kind sister!” Sister-in-law said, and the two women embraced, weeping copiously. “You are the only one who understands me! William is exactly like his Daddy. I don’t understand the both of them. What good is career without a family to return to?” Discreet inquires were made. It was discovered that a respectable family was anxious for their only daughter to marry. The Gohs owned a stockbroking house and had a holiday bungalow with a fashionable Melbourne address. Joanne Goh, twenty-five, an Oxford graduate, worked in her father’s firm. Her interest? Music.
“Perfect!” thought Mrs Tan. Not only was the family on similar social standing, there was something in common. This matching exercise was a natural response. Once determining that the groom had more education, income and number of opposite-sexed partners (a few sexual partners was permissible for the groom but most certainly not for the bride), the match was allowed. In the type of family to which Mrs Tan belonged, the family fortunes were matched alongside the couples. If the family assets of the groom were greater by more than a few hundred dollars, the couples would be allowed to meet. If a mismatch developed into marriage, the bewitched groom would be pitied for marrying a troublesome bride. Such misfortunes would not be allowed under the careful eye of a good matchmaker. Mrs. Tan at once called on Sister-in-law. The two women embraced and wept again. Heads joined – for two is better than one – the stratagem-devising, tactic-concocting sisters began their work. Because Mrs Goh grew orchids, the two women too sought orchid books and workshops, killing a few plants and eventually growing some. Meanwhile they never stopped their inquiries of other potential Mrs William Lees. But other girls were relegated to second, third, etcetera. Joanne Goh was the princess for Prince William! The season grew wet then dried again and at last the two women, confident of their skills, telephoned Mrs Goh. There was an orchid emergency – would she come save the poor plant? Mrs Goh came unwillingly. She was cold and her replies crushed like bricks from the sky.
“What should we have done?”
“Stay away from plants,” said Mrs Goh.
“The weather so dry lately. A bane for orchids, don’t you think?”
“Some growers can kill orchids without any help from the weather.”
Thus was the conversation until at 7.30 pm, William came home. He had been warned to be gay for an important guest. This was unnecessary. Mrs Goh saw him and became at once lively and full of charms. She tittered, laughed, and told anecdotes. She was so warm that even the dour Indonesian maid beamed like it was payday.
“Do you still play the piano?” said Mrs Goh to William in a familiar way. She did not know this fact before today but it was her manner to talk as though she had known the family for many years.
“Only when I was younger.”
“I can tell you still love music. For some, music dies away once they stop. For others, the music stays forever. You,” she said with an emphasis full of meaning, “are one of the lucky ones.”
Ode of Joy burst ringing triumphantly in Mrs Tan’s ears.
Mrs Lee exclaimed. “Mrs Goh, you are so insightful! William loves music. He loves listening to the Symphony Orchestra. I was just telling my husband we should pledge some donations for him to get some ticket discounts. Young people should save money, not spend like water, you agree?”
“Yes,” said Mrs Goh and patted Mrs Lee’s bald knee. “That is exactly what I told my daughter Joanne. She never misses a performance but that girl - always alone.”
“What a coincidence! William also goes alone!”
“Perhaps you two can go together sometimes,” said Mrs Goh and smiled serenely at William.
Mrs Goh was not one to waste time. A week later, she invited William and the two sisters to dinner and the Vienna Boys Choir concert. It was an extraordinary feat: the free and for-sale tickets were snapped up months ago. Happily, Mrs Tan’s and Mrs Lee’s headaches and worried nerves had all been for nothing.
“Hello! I’ve seen you a few times,” said William to Joanne when they met at dinner.
“Yes,” said Joanne. She spoke slowly as though employing special emphasis. “Like me, always alone.”
Worry melted into joy. Love at first sight. What beautiful music to the ears!
Days after the chaperoned date, Mrs. Tan telephoned her nephew. “How do you like Joanne? I mean as a girlfriend, what do you think?”
William paused. “I knew you weren’t open to homosexuality. So, you fancy her?”
“What? Don’t joke. You two get on well that day. So you’ll ask her out again?”
“We meet at the concert hall most of the time,”
“I mean on a date like what other young people do,”
“I’m going to tell you something, just don’t tell Mom yet.”
“What?” There was no reply. “All right! I promise I won’t tell,” said Mrs. Tan. “I’ve never heard of a thirty year old being childish.” Grumbling, she almost missed William’s shocking revelation, “I don’t want to marry. I like my life the way it is now, surrounded by work, music and windsurfing. I think it’s a proper life. I don’t want children. And I don’t want to have to pretend a good marriage.”
“That is not true! You want to be single and lonely in your golden years?”
“This is the first time I’ve heard someone use ‘golden years’ in a conversation.”
“You may be feeling like that now, but loneliness will set in later. What to do when there is no one to argue, ask an opinion, or discuss about a decision? Who will take care of you when you get old and infirm?”
“I thought you were going to push Happiness and Love,”
“Eternal happiness in Buddha. Love is transient,” said Mrs Tan as automatically as a Pavlov dog salivating at a bell.
“So there’s no difference from my being alone with Lucky the Dog? Don’t you at least rehearse!”
“I don’t need to rehearse. I speak from my heart. I didn’t say you couldn’t live without a person. A dog offers a different companionship. Besides, bestiality is ill-advised,” said Mrs Tan and crackled loudly at her own joke.
“Don’t be vulgar, Aunty.”
“Let’s talk seriously. No harm in making new friends.”
“Come on, Aunty. I’m going to have to produce results, right?”
“I’m only helping you fulfill your piety duty. Opportunities knock only once. There might be hundreds of other girls but no one will be as suitable for as Joanne. You think about it.”
For a while, William brooded. But that was not long. A week later, Mrs Tan’s telephone rang. “Sister!” gasped Sister-in-law. “I have never seen him happier! Even more so than when he won those silly prizes!”
The couple got along well and it seemed a natural progression when William announced they were going for a holiday. But Mrs Tan despaired: no use in making a match if those two intended all along to muddy their family names! Mrs Tan marched into William’s office and demanded, “Only the two of you?”
“The holiday?” William said. “Joanne’s friend Mei is coming. You remember Mei?” Mrs Tan remembered the sweet girl. She was the cellist in the Orchestra and who always gave free tickets to the couple. “I will have a room to myself. Joanne and Mei will share a room.” William turned a shade darker. Mrs Tan, shamed, reported to Sister-in-law with pride. “What a rare young man,” said Mrs Tan, “to blush at the idea of sharing a room with his future bride!”
“They are planning something,” said Mr Lee as he stood with his sister at the patio, watching the couple pull away to yet another concert. This was the first time the siblings had spoken since their quarrel. That Brother spoke first indicated his apology.
“Marriage, brother,” sighed Mrs Tan. “Brother, they are in love,” she said to him gently as though speaking to an aged invalid in the Home. Brother, she thought, like any other parent, cannot bear to see his fledglings leave the family nest.
“In love, my foot! Are you blind? They don’t chat on the telephone, they don’t call each other ‘You,’ ‘He,’ or ‘She,’ but by their proper names; they don’t pick up each other’s mannerism; they don’t even snatch time to be alone. They don’t meet after work and spend all weekends in front of the family, holding hands, mooning into each others’ eyes like one of those Taiwanese dramas. They look like they are acting. Something is up. You just wait and watch what happens next!”
Mrs Tan’s sweetness turned rancid. “Only your passion is real! We are all acting!”
Her brother’s face stiffened as though in pain. He turned, leaving her to fume alone in the darkened driveway. She had vowed never to mention his affair and he provoked her into breaking her promise. “He thinks only he is right. Everyone else is ruining his son!”
Yet, closely observing the couple, Mrs Tan reluctantly concluded her brother might be right. It worried her, but the couple did not let down their benefactor. At Joanne’s birthday dinner, in front of both families, they announced their intention to wed. Because it was only a month after their holiday together, the announcement caused a furor. Only after a doctor ascertained both were in good heath and Joanne was not pregnant did their families accept the couple’s explanation that they wanted to concentrate on their careers and that it was a good time to buy a house during this recession-struck property-market. Their birthdates were exchanged and a professional matchmaker proclaimed them an excellent match. An auspicious date was selected and wedding preparations went underway.
William limited his participation in the wedding preparations. “Just like his father, escape when he can!” laughed Mrs Lee. Fortunately, the families could count on Mei’s help.
“What do you think, Aunty?” said Joanne twirling in her white gown, in the bridal shop in front of Mrs Tan and Mrs Lee.
“Beautiful!” said Mrs Lee.
“William chose this,” said Joanne.
“My son has good taste,” said Mrs Lee, beaming, referring to his choice of bride. These days, she wept less often.
“Ma!” William groaned. Joanne, as though on cue, obediently laughed.
Mrs Tan frowned. “Joanne, did you have lunch before this?”
This provoked William’s laughter. His bride and her friend tinkled merrily along.
“Aunty, you are hungry again? Mom, I think you better buy some food for Aunty. She’s thinking about our lunch!”
“Eat anymore,” Mrs Lee chided gently, “you won’t fit into your cheongsam!”
William led his mother to the door. “Across the road there’s a pastry shop that’s very good. Why don’t you get a box for us – as an early snack?” Mei led away a shop girl, distracting her with a list of new requests. A theatre production could not have hoped for smooth scene changes like this!
“William had a meeting and Mei and I met our school friends,” said Joanne.
“Liars!” hissed Mrs Tan. “I saw you kissing Mei in William’s car! You filthy lesbian! Don’t try to tell me it’s the modern thing: I know a lover’s kiss when I see one! And you, William, you knew! What were you thinking!”
“What if,” William said, with great care, “I say that your little project to get me married was really to make me a guinea pig for Cousin Roger?” said William. “What if,” said William again, “Joanne complained that you tried to foist Roger on her. What if Mom heard us? What would she say? Let me tell you: she said we are to stay away from you.”
“It will come out they are lesbians!” She spat the last word with a shudder, jabbing William’s bride with a gem-laden index finger.
“See, Jo, how awful jealousy can be! Aunty cannot have you for Roger and she doesn’t want any one else to have her.”
“Your father will believe me!”
“You think so?” said William with casualness more suited for a discussion about the weather. “Why would Dad or Mom still believe you after all you have done for the family? Dad thinks you are becoming more and more like Grandma. You helped Grandma trick him into marrying, saying the bride under the veil was Aunty Ai-Lian, knowing he will not take a second wife. You set up Mom to see life as a series of failures, first failing to be a woman Dad loves, now failing her duty as a mother because she cannot get her son a wife without your help.”
“You are ruining your happiness!” Mrs Tan shouted but it came in a hoarse whisper.
“You already did it. I want to live quietly without disturbing anyone, or have anyone disturb me. You barge in with your campaign. Joanne and Mei saved me from you.” Suddenly, William pushed Mrs Tan on the couch. Surprised, she fell over lying there. William was strong. Pinned under his weight, his fingers pressed into the side of her neck, she wriggled in vain. Gradually, the room spun and William and Joanne began to float. She heard William giving instructions to Joanne in a low voice. “Undo her first two buttons. Flap your hankie in front of her face. Make sure you cover her face.” Then William looked up, addressing another. “Why didn’t you bring your mobile phone, Mom? Aunty almost fainted.”
“I forgot my bag. Goodness! Are you all right?” Mrs Tan heard Sister-in-law say. Mrs Tan squawked, trying to reply.
The fingers pressed harder and moving red dots spotted the room. “No, Aunty,” said William firmly. “Don’t. Joanne, can you send Aunty back home?”
“Let Mei,” said Sister-in-law hurriedly, and explained, “Joanne still has to try some more gowns.” There was fear and hurt. So, Mrs Tan thought bitterly, she believed those lies.
William instructed Mei to hold her neck. Mrs Tan was yanked up and shoved out to the door.
“Lesbians!” Mrs Tan managed to shout.
As the shop door closed, Mrs Tan heard Sister-in-law ask, “What did she say?”
“Bastian. Famous photographer,” was the reply.
That the ending could not be right gave Mrs Tan sleepless nights yet she knew she could not have hoped for a greater success. Certainly many lives were changed by her deed. William and Joanne lived happily ever after in their West Coast apartment with Mei. (The couple claimed she was their butler and made jokes about supporting local artists.) In the small household, not a crossed word was exchanged. When William left his job to write, Joanne supported him. It was a marriage of almost perfect harmony. Only once did the couple quarrel. It was serious yet none knew its cause. However William tried to apologize, for months Joanne wept and did not forgive him. Mei the butler, uncomfortable with domestic scenes, left and could not be persuaded to return. But this was all nothing. A greater happiness swelled in Joanne’s stomach: she was with child.