It looks like I am locked in for a week's tour of New Zealand in March, followed by a week in Germany in April (in which mrs budak is planning an assault on the country's fashion warehouses) and a bout in Bangkok in between. Believe me when I say it's no fun. Every trip (nay, every day) ends in a pile-up of transcriptions, drafts and translocations of memories that linger for months.
Ack!! I return from Bangkok on a Friday and fly off to Cologne on the same weekend! Well, it's still much better than a back-to-back trip in 2001 where I packed two sets of luggages, carried one set to Hanoi, flew back to Singapore early in the morning, rushed home to feed the fish, grabbed the other set and headed off to the airport again.
I have to go up to KL on Sunday. By bus and back. Bah!
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For some reason, the book Catch-22 has never appealed to me. I could never get beyond the first chapter. The writing style is probably too smart-alecky for my dumb-downed duck. But the term seems to fit in the following conversation I had last week:
"You have been married for six years. Isn't it about time...?"
"We don't have time. Our work and jobs are tenuous. Look at how often I have to travel on short notice."
"If both of you are busy, I can always stay with you to take care of.... in such matters, one doesn't speak of not being able to... even just one will be nice. It's doesn't matter if it's a boy or... won't you be lonely?"
Now, a not-entirely hypothetical alternative:
"You have been married for six years....."
"We just don't want to have children."
"But that's what everybody does! There is no such thing as don't want.....
"We just don't want to have children. Why must this choice be forced upon us?"
"It's not a choice! It's a must. What will everybody think if they know of this?"
"Fuck what they think."
"You'll surely change your mind later on."
[repeat conversation ad nauseum ad infinitum, or at least until the scene switches to an emotional drama of unspeakable dimensions]
Another not-entirely hypothetical alternative:
"You have been married for six years....."
"Yes, and I also had a certain operation....."
"What!? Tell me this isn't true!"
". . . . "
"No! You must undo the operation!"
"No, and in any case, reversibility has a very low chance of success."
"All my hopes and life........!"
- - - - - - - - -
Notwithstanding my intrinsic reasons against the state, why am I deemed fit to be a father, especially when I am still a child?
"When you go abroad, does anybody accompany you?"
"Will there be someone to pick you up at the airport?"
[Repeat conversation once every so often]
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This Lunar New Year, I shall resolve not to give face, yield sulky silence to nosy parkers and endeavour to be a prickly as a duck could possibly be. Deo adiuvant...
The monkey shall also have free reign over the duck's domain (including an ancient Malay-English dictionary and his collection of monkey duck porn) in return for a pitiance (probably some peanuts, since these legumes are supposedly worth their weight in gold nowadays) and a semblance of decorum upon our (probably ill-fated) return. Her task is merely to feed and water the cat, and scrape Angel's wet and crumbly poo from the litter box with a teaspoon. She is not advised to feed the fish or dip her prehensile tail into the water, as her constant state of hyper-excitability is likely to result in an overly severe inundation of flakes and fur. She is also advised to watch out for the crunchy remains of aquatic arthropods which are remarkably well-camouflaged on our dark green floor.
For the monkey's brief 2nd lesson:
Kuching = cat Air mata kuching = drink made from cat eyes :P Cat semen = the male sexual cells of a feline :P
Please translate the following: Saya suka kuching. Kuching sangat comel dan pandai menangkap si monyet-monyet nakal.
The last leg was the longest. Unlike earlier eras, the checkpoint at Johor Baru was a breeze; the counters even had little posters indicating that you should not have to wait more than 30 seconds for your passport to be checked and stamped (in any case, mine took less than ten).
The Woodlands side, however, seem to have been redesigned with the sole purpose of prolonging both the vehicle lines and human queues for as long as bureacratically possible. Inhuman detours and random roadblocks are now traced for all vehicles, while the number of passport counters open seem to demonstrate just how much unused space there is in the massive checkpoint building (which from far looks like a cross between a badly designed fort and an evil transformer city with high towers and jutting concrete arms).
But never mind that. I am back home, from that place which I still call home, for want of a better term. Every return to its increasingly crowded streets jars my senses and offends my being with an atonal counterpoint of development and decay. The roads are filled with brand new SUVs far too large for parking lots designed for more humble cars. There are mansions with towering pillars, even a turret or two, that loom from a corroded and treeless hill that seems to beg for solace from the wind and water that will one day bring these houses tumbling down. Car repair and modification shops abound, along with specialists in mobile telephony and real estate.
In the little mousedeer of a car that I helped to purchase, I drive along rows of ill-designed shopfronts and prefabricated houses on a hill where I once fished and my duck paddled in search of Macrobrachium shrimp. The gibbons, leaf monkeys and boar that haunted this slope are no more, as are the murky pools and wooded terraces through which I ascended on an ancient pair of wheels. Back in the town by the river, I see that patches of mangroves have been cleared for no discernible purpose. Yet another old tree I have known since childhood is missing.
At night, many streets that were once lighted are now blackened with silence and neglect. Even the old newsvendor who used to open for business til 10, now closes at six, rather than face a lonely and desparing dusk. (I should give Ali, who has known me since I was a toddling duck rummaging through comics at his stall some five and twenty years ago, more credit as well; while making small talk over some newspapers, he asked 'So, how many kids do you have?' 'Not yet', was my casual answer. 'Not yet, or don't want? That's what many people in Singapore do, I hear,' he replied, with a twinkle in his eye. I gave him a cheesy duck grin in return, and paid for my newsprint over his little counter adorned with prophylactic packages bearing lurid names and bosomy females.)
The roads are also worn with disrepair, or perhaps the wear and tear brought about by heavier-than-average family cars of late. Of the church I used to grace every Sunday, there is no sign. It has moved to a grand tabernacle a few miles out of town, where the congregation can worship and gather far from the madding crowd. Back then, when my duck was propelled mainly by a pair of thin inner tubes and a cranky set of pedals, I had feared (but never dared expressed, since the building project was a veritable plan of God) the prospect that this exodus to a distant and forbidding plot would impede my ability to abide by the weekly call to fellowship. I guess it doesn't matter now, since it's more than mere geography that sunders our paths these days.
Looshi isn't working. I could either try borrowing a CDR writer or lug the damn CPU to a workshop.
I feel fat. I need a new pair of running shoes and some socks.
I can't seem to find time to make some dreadfully overdue appointments to examine my duck. The fact that it involves a DIY-job and a small, sterilised container in the predawn hours doesn't make it any better.
The lunar new year looms and with it comes the thought of the horrendous task of making arrangements to get home. It's dumb, but true. Getting to somewhere like Bangkok or even KL is far easier than finding reliable means of transport to a coastal town in Johor during the festive season. And what are we going to with Angel while if we are away during that time?
Can Dare I state outrightly that this duck is not to be emotionally compared to cousins and uncles who can boast of continental cars, sprawling properties, the pecuniary means to be the financial cornerstone of the clan and a grandchild or two? Except for my parents, I shall refuse to answer any queries about my income, my wife's income and childbearing ability, the cost of our flat, our asset portfolio (or lack thereof), year-end bonuses, promotions, better prospects, family planning and filial piety, all of which are subjects that tend to be raised upon my return before almost any other topic is broached. And that includes old 'friends'.
I shall practise my stony duck expression (a ducky frown and tightly pursed lips) whenever there is any mention of cousins, cousins of cousins, granduncles, colleagues, the son of the auntie who lives down the road, churchmates and classmates who so happen to have purchased property, acquired cars, produced children or achieved whatsoever grand status that grants bragging rights to all their acquiantances. Was it not obvious from an early age that I shunned these paths and sought satisfaction in lesser sins? And were I to commit my energies to such goals, it seems likely that even if they were to be obtained, the process would turn this being into one deserving of abhoration.
If bus tickets are sold out tomorrow at Larkin, I am turning back.