By Angie Ho Guyoton
There is an unusual frenzy of stirrings in our household today. The servants are carrying out their tasks with a fervency that I have never seen – the entire house is sparkling clean: the furniture dusted and wiped down; the swimming pool cleared of dead leaves, and the gardens immaculately landscaped. The moment I climb down the freshly polished marble stairs, I can discern the aroma of steaming buns and baking cakes from the kitchen: a sumptuous delicacy that Ah Poh-ma and Yati have started preparing, apparently, since early morning.
I make my way to the study, my favourite cozy pad, second only to my bedroom. The walls of the study are covered with bookshelves, decked with hardcovers, paperbacks, magazines and a few pieces of Dad's antique collection. This is where I spend my time pouring over my novels and writing my journal on Dad's Chinese Yingmu antique table, with Dad's authorisation of course. I am careful not to scratch or stain the precious table. This is also the only piece of furniture off limits to the servants, only I am responsible for clearing and cleaning it. A long rosewood frame, three-thirds the length of the room, partitions the study from our huge living room. The living room opens out to the terrace and the gardens; this is where my parents entertain their guests.
I place today's newspaper onto the pile of haphazardly stacked books on my favourite table and pop my head over the rosewood frame to see my parents deep in conversation, and dressed as if they were having an audience with the President. It must have been a feat for Mum to coax Dad out of his habitual golfing outfit of polo shirts and slacks, to don a linen long-sleeved shirt with matching trousers. Mum herself exudes elegance in her custom-made silk cheongsam and her perfectly coiffed hair. She has put on make-up, like she usually does, only this time I thought it was a tad heavy handed, and the fact that she is wearing her jade bangle goes to show that we are, expecting someone very important.
When Mum catches sight of me, she immediately orders me to change into something more presentable, and tells me to please clear my pile of stuff out of sight. Her guests are coming to admire Dad's antique collection, not my mess, she says, and they will be here any minute now. And when she realises that I have forgotten to bring down the red velvet box from her room as she has instructed, she throws her hands in the air and rolls her eyes to register her disapproval of my absent-mindedness. She then precipitates up the stairs, into her room and emerges hugging the rectangular box, looking pleased. In fact, she is transformed into her jolly self like when she had won money at mahjong. Mum gingerly descends the stairs and places the box on top of the Yingmu table. She then opens the box. By now, Dad has joined us and he is peering over Mum's shoulder to see what she is on about.
"Oh no dear, not my Ming jar. Is it really necessary?" Dad says as Mum removes a covering to reveal a slender-necked, wide-rimmed, blue-and-white and pear-shaped porcelain jar, its body covered with a blue dragon: Dad's most treasured possession - an inheritance from his beloved grandfather. This jar is passed down from Dad's ancestors through the generations and I will be the next in line to inherit it. I don't give two hoots about it to be honest. I much prefer to have the Yingmu table.
"Of course it is necessary. Shirley Yoke comes from a wealthy family and we have to display our riches as well. Besides, it is a courtesy gesture to her. It puts us on the same standing."
"I thought you said her wealth was from her husband," Dad mumbles.
"And yours from Dad," I add. I dart as the box cover flies past my left ear and hits the rosewood frame.
"My frame," cries Dad.
"Don't you dare," seethes Mum.
She scolds us, or rather me, to mind our words in front of the guests. She then carries the jar into the living room and places it on the coffee table, right in the center of our four leather sofa sets.
"I really don't think it's a good idea," Dad protests, interlocking his fingers and squeezing both his palms together, a gesture that indicates his rousing anxiety. "What if someone knocks it over; I will be shattered too," Dad pleads.
"This is the reason for their visit. They want to see your Ming jar, so it has to be prominent," Mum says.
"How do they know about my Ming jar?" Dad asks, puzzled. I, on the other hand, am not surprised, given Mum's propensity for boasting.
"Because I told Shirley Yoke so," says Mum, "she told me that her husband collects Ming Dynasty antique, and I said, what a coincidence my husband as well. They should meet each other them. So, that's the whole purpose for today's tea at our place."
I can see that Dad is uneasy about showing off the jar, and he tells Mum so, but Mum will hear nothing of it. I go to Dad's defence like I always do but Mum is intractable. Then Dad relents by suggesting that we keep the jar in its box and only take it out when the guests are here. Mum ponders over this. The tension is defused when Ah Poh-ma sticks her head into the living room to say that the snacks and pastries are ready for tasting. After Mum has left for the kitchen, I take the jar and plod it back into its box and close the cover. Dad looks on with a nervous smile. Then our gardener Lum-sok appears at the main door and announces the arrival of our guests.
Mum met Shirley Yoke at the casino two months ago, and shortly after, they bumped into each other again at the Country Club. They became friends and regular mahjong mates, playing the game daily at the Country Club, or attending some social events in the middle of town during the weekends. Mum said that Shirley Yoke and her husband are tycoons, owing their wealth to their amassment of real estates and antiques, among others. Mum was eager to introduce Dad to her new friend but somehow they never found that opportunity. One time, Mum and Dad were invited to join Shirley Yoke and her husband on a cruise in their yacht, but that was cancelled when Shirley Yoke fell ill. Another time it was to have lunch at their bungalow, but Mr Yoke was called upon for an urgent business trip overseas at the very last minute, so that was postponed too. Mum's last two attempts to get herself invited to Shirley Yoke's place were unsuccessful as well.
I have never met Shirley Yoke, but I have seen photographs of her in a socialite magazine one evening, when I decided to take a breather from Lu Xun's The True Story of Ah Q and stepped out into the garden. Lying idly on Mum's lounge chair was a copy of the said magazine, its centre page spread opened, displaying a photograph of a group of middle-aged women at a charity ball.
One woman in a royal blue gown caught me eye: all the other women were looking at the camera, smiling sweetly or into the lens. This particular one was looking up; her head threw back, her mouth opened, as if she was having a hearty laugh or a big yawn. Her neck was long and it looked smooth.
On the next page, there was another photo of her. This time, her head was turned away from the camera and she was screaming, or laughing, with her mouth wide opened and her eyes closed.
So all the fuss finally comes to the test. Mum rushes out of the kitchen upon hearing Lum-sok's announcement and Dad becomes more nervous than ever. Then Lum-sok ushers Shirley Yoke and her husband into the living room.
"Teresa! Good afternoon."
"Shirley! Marvellous! Thank you for coming."
"Meet my husband, Richard."
"How do you do Mr Yoke?"
"Very well thank you. What a pleasure to meet you, and please call me Richard."
"Very well then, welcome Richard."
"This must be your husband?"
"Oh yes, let me introduce – David."
"Ah, finally. Good afternoon Mr Li. Nice to meet you"
"Nice to meet you too. Please, do call me David."
"Yes, call him David. And make yourselves at home."
"Well thank you."
"Did you manage to find this place easily?"
"Oh yes, we took a taxi. Our chauffer is sick and Richard and I didn't want the hassle of driving the car. So we booked a cab."
"You should have told me, I could have sent our chauffeur to drive you both here."
"That is so kind Teresa. I didn't want to bother to you."
"No bother at all."
"Don't stand on ceremony."
"Come, come, have a sit."
"Yes, make yourselves at home."
I watch from behind the openings of the rosewood frame as the four finally put an end to the pleasantries and settle down onto the soft leather sofa. On cue, Ah Poh-ma appears from the kitchen pushing a trolley lined with a pot of tea, a pot of coffee, a jug of orange juice, a jug of iced tea, a bottle of mineral water and an array of all the different kinds of buns and pastries.
Following close behind, Yati is pushing another trolley consisting of Dad's finest Chinese porcelain coffee and tea sets: small plates and cups, glasses, tiny forks and spoons and knives, little bowls of white and brown sugar, a small pot of honey, a jar of milk, slices of cut lemon, and some white silk napkins. Once the tedious task of finding out who wants what and what to serve to whom, Ah Poh-ma and Yati retreat back into the kitchen.
From behind the rosewood frame, through a square opening, I have a clear view of Shirley Yoke and her husband. Shirley Yoke is tanned and lean and looks a good few years younger than Mum. I must say she is beautiful in person, although her makeup is too thick for my liking and her neck is not that smooth after all. She has a certain charm that puts everyone around her at ease. Her eyes are swift and alert, darting in all directions; nothing escapes her, even my spying presence behind the rosewood frame, which I'm sure she detected but makes no mention of to her company.
Richard Yoke, on the hand, exudes a charisma that spells intelligence and from a good up bringing. When he speaks, there's friendliness and eloquence. He seems like a learned man, and is very sure of himself. Unlike his wife, his manners are less crass: more refined, even feminine in some ways. Fair and stocky, he looks more like the pampered, well-fed wife, whereas Shirley Yoke, obviously, is the one who wears the pants and in command.
I can see that both Mum and Dad are smitten by Richard Yoke. By now, Dad has loosened up, so at ease that he is actually enjoying the chatter between Mum and Shirley Yoke:
"Teresa, your silk cheongsam! It is so gorgeous."
"It's nothing compared to your dress." Mum giggles in reply.
"It was made by the best dressmaker in town." Dad joins in.
Then scanning the array of pastry, Shirley Yoke remarks that she feels like a queen and that Mum is spoiling her. Richard Yoke then whispers something into Dad's ear and they both burst out laughing. Soon, the both of them are immersed in their own chitchat.
It is obvious that Richard Yoke initiates the topics of their conversations. They first talk about the mundane, and now, in between sips of tea and coffee, Richard Yoke shifts their attention to antiques. Without hesitation, Mum grabs hold of the red velvet box and opens its cover. Shirley Yoke grasps, "wow." And Richard Yoke nods his head with approval.
"May I?" He asks, and very delicately, he lifts the jar out of the box and holds it up to his face, taking his time to inspect its intricate designs.
"I have never seen such a beauty. This dragon, and its style, it is from the Ming Dynasty indeed," Richard says.
"Yes," says Dad, beaming with pride.
"Simply exquisite," Richard adds.
They linger over the jar admiringly for a while. Then Richard Yoke says that they better put it back into its box, in case it gets damaged. Dad agrees and Richard Yoke places the jar into the box and closes the cover. He then carries the box and leaves it at a side coffee table, so that it is out of the way, no risk of knocking it off the table, he says. And turning his attention to the rosewood frame, he starts asking Dad questions about it.
I withdraw to the Yingmu table as Dad and Richard Yoke come walk towards the rosewood frame.
"Well hello," Richard Yoke says to me.
"Oh, this is our son, Jason," Dad introduces. I say hello to Richard Yoke and he apologises for disturbing me and says that he wants only to have a closer look at the rosewood frame. Then he notices the Yingmu table and his face lights up.
"This is a fine piece of study table you have here. Purple elm with Burled Root wood, and look at its carved scroll feet, it must be at least 400 years old," he says, as he runs his fingers along the carved stretchers on the sides of the table. "Lucky you." Richard Yoke winks at me.
Dad says that the square Yingmu table belongs to him but he allows me to use it because he knows that I will treat it with care.
"Besides his Lu Xun book, this is his other treasure," Dad says with a laugh.
I give Richard Yoke a shy nod and push my stack of books aside so that he can have a better look at the Yingmu table. Then he catches sight of a book, picks it up and reads out its title: The True Story of Ah Q. I read this a long time ago when I was about your age. It is one of my favourites from Lu Xun." He smiles at me warmly. "Do you like it?"
"Yes, very much" I say.
"Good. Have you read his other stories?"
"No, not yet. I only come upon this one not long ago."
"And you have all the time in the world for the rest," he says sincerely.
From the living room, we hear Shirley Yoke squeal, "Oh my goodness! Look at your jade bangle. I've never seen such deep green jade before. Teresa, I am so jealous."
"No, no, no, next to your pearls, this is nothing," Mum says with obvious delight.
"Oh it is. It must be so precious."
"No, it's worth nothing."
"Can I try it on, I know I'm vain, but it's so irresistible," begs Shirley Yoke.
Mum slides off her jade bangle and hands it over to Shirley Yoke, who takes and slides it onto her left wrist. She then stretches out her hand and calls out to her husband to come look at the beautiful jade bangle. Richard Yoke jokes about his wife's birthday present hint, they all laugh and the four of them surround the middle coffee table again to have more snacks. Then all of a sudden, Shirley Yoke let out a little groan and slumps onto the sofa.
"Shirley! Are you alright," Mum asks.
"What's wrong honey," says Richard Yoke
Shirley Yoke complains of a giddy spell and nausea; she must use the washroom soon she said.
"Lately, this has been a frequent occurrence. Could you please escort my wife to the washroom while I search for her medication," Richard Yoke says to Mum and Dad.
Mum and Dad support Shirley Yoke to walk across the living room, through my cozy pad and up the marble stairs. While they are gone, Richard Yokes reaches into his jacket pocket and retrieves a tiny bottle filled with a transparent liquid. He gives it a few rigorous shakes. Then, he walks over to me and asks me to bring it to his wife while he looks in her bag for some pills.
I take the bottle and rush off to the washroom. Shirley Yoke is standing over the washbasin with Mum and Dad on either side of her. When she sees me with the bottle, she smiles. Dad supports Shirley Yoke, as Mum takes the bottle from me and opens it – a strong eucalyptus pungency fills the washroom. Shirley Yoke brings the bottle to her nostrils. Then she says she needs to sit down and Mum and Dad guide her to the cushion chair at the corner of the washroom and help her rest on it. I loiter around until Mum shoos me away. When I get down from the marble stairs, Richard Yoke is standing next to the Yingmu table.
"Oh, how is she?" he asks, when he sees me.
"Okay. I think."
Within seconds, Shirley Yoke is being ushered back to the living room. She tells her husband that she wishes to leave, that she wants to lie down in bed. When Mum offers the use of one of our guest rooms to them, they decline and apologise profusely for cutting short the visit, and especially for the trouble caused.
"Don't worry about it," Mum says.
"That is very kind of you Teresa, but we must not impose on you any further." Richard assures Mum.
Mum protests at first, but she relents in the end.
"Then, let me get our chauffeur to drive you both home," Mum says.
After exchanging quick goodbyes, Richard Yoke, with his wife leaning on him, hasten out the door, with Mum and Dad following close behind. Mum sends for Mr Leong, our chauffeur. Moments later, I hear the car doors open, slam shut, an engine starts and the sound of gravels being crushed as the car drives along the path that leads to our iron cast gate, and the moving sound of the car fades away towards the city.
Mum and Dad return to the house and sit themselves down on the sofa.
"What a fright. Did you see her look at the washroom? I thought she was going to die," Mum says to Dad.
"Thank goodness. It's a pity it has to end this way. I was beginning to enjoy myself."
"See, I told you Shirley is an angel, and Richard is such a gentleman. Such nice people." Mum then calls out to me to join them for some tea.
"I was so busy talking that I didn't even have time to taste these cakes," Mum says, as she takes a bite.
After we have our fill, Mum instructs the servants to clear up the tables.
"I'll handle the box myself," says Dad. He walks over to the side coffee table and lifts up the box. He pauses, puzzled, removes the cover and drops the empty box in shock.
"My Ming jar," Dad exclaims, "is missing! How dare, who took,.." He summons the entire household staff and as they stand in line, Dad questions them about the Ming jar. They all deny stealing it.
"To think that all of you have been with us for more than five years, ten even, for some. How could you?" Mum accuses. She then wipes at her forehead, pauses, looks at her wrist, and screams, "my jade bangle! She still has it!" Mum and Dad look at each other; they look at me, and then turn their attention to the staff. When Dad and Mum finally face each other again, Mum crumbles onto the sofa. Dad's face turns ashen white and he slumps onto the sofa too.
Finally, Mum manages to muster up enough strength and courage to say: "Let's not jump into conclusions. Give me my mobile phone." Yati leaves the living room and returns with Mum's phone. Mum begins to dial.
"I'll ask her," Mum says, as she holds the phone to her ear. She listens for a few seconds, frowns. Then she redials the number, listens intently, and then drops her hand and announces, dumbstruck, "The number you have dialled is not in use!"
Dad buries his face in his hands. Our servants continue to stand in uneasy silence. By now, it is evident that we all know who is responsible for the fate of the Ming jar and the jade bangle.
"I'll call the Country Club." Mum punches some buttons.
"Hello Tracy, it's Teresa, may I speak with John please. Yes, it's urgent. Thank you. Hi John, it's Teresa. Not so good. I need to trace somebody, a member of our club. I know it's against the policy, but it's urgent, criminal even. I'll explain later. Thanks John. I know I can count on you. It's Shirley Yoke." Mum nibbles her fingernail as she waits. Then: "Yes, John. What? No Shirley Yoke? What about Richard Yoke." A longer pause later, "No Richard Yoke either! You are very sure?" After a long while, "Thank you John, I'll call you back." Mum hangs up.
"Bloody fraud! Dad screams, the initial shock has turned into rage.
Just then our chauffeur Mr Leong appears at the door. I am thinking that was quick, they must live just nearby, when Mum immediately interrogates Mr Leong on the whereabouts of Shirley and Richard Yoke.
"I beg your pardon Sir, Madam, I didn't send them directly to their home. They wanted me to drop them off at the main road. Said they preferred to take a taxi. I insisted on sending them home. Then the man turned angry and shouted at me to let them get off. So I did. I'm sorry Sir, Madam. But I know they managed to get a taxi easily for just when I drove off, I saw them run across the road and get into a Comfort Taxi.
"Give me the phone, I'm calling Comfort, says Mum.
"And I'll call the police," Dad adds.
After ordering everyone not to clear or touch anything, Dad dismisses the staff and telephones the police. Mum sends me up to my room before calling the taxi company.
I go to the Yingmu table and take my copy of The True Story Of Ah Q and walk up the marble stairs to my bedroom. Leaving the door open, I flop onto my bed, letting the book bounce on the bed; it then springs off the mattress.
I close my eyes and mediate. All I care about are my books and the Yingmu table. So, all is well and safe. Moments later, I hear strings of frantic conversations and nerves, and at some point, I even hear Dad's rare reproaching tone directing at Mum. I'm thinking, serve her right for being naïve and boastful.
I roll off my bed and go shut the door. Then I retrieve my book from the floor – did he really read it or was it a lie as well? As I flip through the pages, I detect some scribbles on the inside back cover:
His note ends with a smiley.QLRS Vol. 11 No. 3 Jul 2012