By Daren Shiau
It all went downhill after I bought a TV for my daughter's room.
It wasn't a particularly big TV – just a 21-inch set I picked up from Carrefour on offer. I did it all up for her. If you go into her room, you'll understand what I mean – there's a console in the corner on which the TV sits. Stacked neatly above the TV are three boxes – a modem for Starhub cable, a DVD player and a video recorder. She was "all set up", as the Americans would say.
Originally, all she wanted was a TV. She complained that I was always watching the news. Whereas she wanted to watch whatever else it is that teenagers prefer. My daughter is eighteen. Slim, beautiful and a spitting image of her mother. I seldom refuse anything she asks for, if I can afford it. Plus I was not about to give up the living room TV to her. I am a retired English teacher. There are few things I need, but I have to have two half boiled eggs and coffee in the morning, newspapers and a TV.
Laura started to keep to herself around the time she started Sec. Four. She spoke on the phone a lot more and was often late coming home. I thought that the TV would keep her at home where I could keep an eye on her. I knew that she was going out with boys on weekends and I didn't mind them talking on the phone on school days so long as she did her school work properly.
I did hint to her to ask her "good friends", the ones who always called, to come over to study if she wanted to. I could cook them pasta and retreat to my room to listen to my CDs or out to the balcony for a smoke or a brandy. I prided myself in not being a stodgy father, so I didn't think she'd mind.
And she didn't.
It took her a little getting used to though. She started by having them send her to the door when they went out. The first one I saw sent her back close to 3 A.M. on the eve of a public holiday. He looked decent, even slightly boring. He called me "uncle" the moment he saw me, which I must admit I liked. But they broke up after about six weeks. After some months of not seeing anyone, Laura was accompanied home one evening by a young man who rode a scooter. At least it's not a motorcycle, was my first thought. But, still, I worried for her safety.
Some nights he would come over with DVDs and they'd watch them in her room. I didn't like them closing her door except when they were studying. Laura knew that, and always kept her door slightly ajar. I could see their heads when I was walking by her room to the kitchen for a glass of water. But sometimes when they were supposed to have been studying, they would be very quiet. The discussions would stop. Or suddenly, the TV would come on. Sometimes I heard giggles.
I cherish my privacy so I was not one to test the knob of her door to see if it was locked or to make excuses to enter, even though I sometimes did want to pass them cut fruit or coffee. I knew Laura would be annoyed by that.
I often wondered what my wife would say to Laura if she were still here. I'm still not sure but she would definitely handle all of this better than I am doing right now.
I barely remember when I began to show my unhappiness for this state of affairs. One evening, he came out of her room and his hair was in a mess like he had been sleeping. I peeked in and saw that they had books on the bed but Laura was lying down with her head on the pillow. I couldn't tell if she watching TV (which was on) or if her eyes were closed. They had switched on the air con. Jeremy – that was his name – emerged from the kitchen with a carton of orange juice and a packet of dried mangoes. I was especially upset that he didn't greet me as he passed.
"They are young – better in your house than in some park or in a hotel right?" Wong, my regular breakfast partner, asked. I could tell he was trying to tred carefully.
"That's precisely the problem – it's my house. I dislike the fact that they're like that under my roof. Enjoying themselves – Aircon, food, even a TV. Young people are so lucky. Everything is there.."
I put down my chopsticks noisily.
What I didn't say was that it troubled me to imagine the boy sleeping with my daughter and that I was responsible for making it all comfortable for them. My baby – there's a big Garfield cushion on her bed I bought her from Taipei and bookmarks pasted on her wall – being seduced by a young man who was as much at the mercy of the rages of puberty as she was.
"Have a talk with her, lah," Wong encouraged. "She's a smart girl – she'll understand."
After tossing the idea in my head for awhile, I decided to speak with him instead.
I waited several weeks for the right moment. On the pretext of asking her to buy washing detergent, I sent Laura out of the house.
"What kind do you want?" she asked at the gate after she had locked it from the corridor.
"The one we always use."
Jeremy didn't seem at all surprised when I asked him to join me for a drink. I brought a few cans of beer out from the fridge.
"So, how's school?"
"Not bad," was his quick but uninformative reply.
I realised as I looked at him up close that he had light brown eyes, and I wondered for a moment if that was what Laura was attracted to about him.
"Watching any DVDs today?" I motioned towards the TV.
Jeremy nodded and sauntered into Laura's room. He emerged with three slim boxes. Typical Hollywood fare, which I didn't care too much for.
"What do you like, Mr Ngoh?" Jeremy asked as he cracked a can I had offered to him.
"Oh... there's quite a bit." I scratched the back of my ear absently, surprised that he had asked. "I like most of Kurosawa's early stuff. And some of the new directors from Taiwan and China." I intentionally left out the names.
"I see," he said as he drank slowly. "Does Laura like them too?"
I didn't know the answer to that question but it pleased me that he cared to find out, or seemed to care.
When I didn't reply, he asked further if I had any DVDs in the house of what I liked. I had an old Alain Resnais video but I wasn't sure if it was still working.
I clicked the surface of my beer can, squeezing it lightly until it formed a dent. Excusing myself to bring the chicken out of the freezer to thaw, I took the opportunity to dig around the storeroom for the video. I found it behind some shoeboxes but it looked mildly mouldy and I didn't want to risk spoiling Laura's video player.
"Why don't you guys join me to watch one or two Film Fest films? It's on next month, I think." And then afterwards we could have supper at the coffeeshop opposite Shaw Towers, I thought to myself. There was a Hokkien mee stall that was supposed to be quite good.
"OK – I've never attended the Arts Fest before," Jeremy replied firmly.
I secretly liked the idea. The three of us would watch something together and we could talk about it after that. Better than if I passed them a tape or DVD and let them watch it on that damn TV in her room. I was glad that I had forgotten to mention to Jeremy the Fassbinder box set I had just ordered through Amazon. It was still in a sealed carton in my room under the stack of unopened mail.
Jeremy told me that there was an English Premier League match on that night. Manchester United and some other team.
I declined to join him and went out to the corridor to wait for my daughter. I lit a cigarette and brought my hollow Tiger can along as an ash tray.QLRS Vol. 5 No. 1 Oct 2005