Dinner Conversations

 

Until the age of thirteen he lived with his grandparents and their daughter – his father's elder sister – and her husband and only son, in a tiny three-room apartment that no longer exists. Until the age of thirteen he saw his parents only on weekends and in the weekday evenings, when they would visit to have dinner and then leave before ten p.m.

It was not that he felt like an orphan or adopted: it was very clear that his parents were alive and well and that his Catholic aunt and her stoic husband were not surrogate parents nor even guardians, but fellow residents, or subjects, under the roof of his grandparent's apartment; all children, of a sort. There was no way of measuring their way of life against any other. It was not a household lacking in love, he supposes, but neither was it one suffused with affection. Instead, what he felt most vividly was the perennial sunset glow of his grandparents' attention. They were the true adults, in comparison with whom the grownups of his parents' generation seemed hesitant, impatient and above all else, preoccupied. His parents seemed to have better things to do outside their daily visits which more often than not were taken up with making sure the homework was done, and then leaving him to the shrill but not unkind background natter of his aunt, who – in the face of the evidence – insisted to him and his cousin, her son SP, that she was a Virgin. This confused their vocabulary for many years.

Until he was nine he was an only child, and so his cousin SP, two years younger. was a sort of brother throughout their entire childhood together – although somehow it was always very clear that they were not in fact brothers. They did not look anywhere alike, and they had different surnames, but they ended up going to the same schools, all the way from kindergarten to junior college, good schools. They played Batman and Robin, Lone Ranger and Tonto, Brave Shaolin Bodyguards, Spiderman and Spiderman, climbed furniture and wreaked havoc. SP was a favourite of his father, who shared his rotund constitution, love of food, sense of humour and his grandmother's Cantonese tongue. His father's nickname for him was "Fat Frog". In contrast, he was the pale, thin, school-bullied, bookish son who read at the dinner table instead of bantering with the family as they did, and earned no memorable nicknames of his own. They were probably as close (and certainly as similarly brought up) as non-siblings could be, living and growing up in the same household, until he turned thirteen and it was decided that he could now move in with his parents in their own apartment, miles away in a different neighbourhood, to occupy his very own room. He saw little of SP after that, and they lost that childhood sibling bond almost immediately, as college and work life accelerated distances.

Tonight at SP's wedding banquet he hears from a relative of a relative of a relative that SP is about to become a Magistrate. SP took up the Law degree he turned down at 19, went on to practice it and in his own way found adventure and success. The banquet hall is full of legal eagles and others whom he suppose are SP's clients. They are a small family so there are very few relatives, and they see no familiar faces beyond their tiny circle of immediate family: his mother and her two brothers, each with one son to their name. The younger brother is his father; the eldest, his uncle, has seen SP and his bride at the tea ceremony in the morning, says she is very pretty, and Pakistani Muslim. He has never met her. Over the years of his adult relationship with SP, time and again every opportunity to meet up has been thwarted by some circumstance or other, most frequently work at the office. A lawyer's life; a writer's life; few intersections.

His elder uncle’s son KT whom he have not seen in years and who grew up apart from them is there, on his fourth glass of red wine. KT is in the distribution business, and travels on occasion. What is he doing, KT asks. He's seen his name in the papers in the past. Some of that stuff, he answers, some travelling, appearances, editing. More book projects as well? Yes, as you say. It is easier to discuss his sister, who is absent, and doing unequivocally well. They all agree that she is in a good position, a financial controller for a global MNC and based now in England. They all agree it is a difficult job to attain, particularly for a Singaporean. KT orders another glass of red. His girlfriend, who remains nameless, tells off KT’s mother, his aunt, in punctuated Chinese, about the rising cost of living and the burden of property prices on young couples today, who must wait for their public housing apartments to get married, and who must be married to qualify for housing.

The jazz quartet plays old numbers. The bride and groom are announced, and saunter in to polite applause; she is poised and stunning in a red chiffon dress, and a total stranger whose name he struggles to remember. His elder uncle (who now reminds him of his bookish, passive nine-year-old self) is afraid of having nothing to say to his dinner companions and so has swapped tables with his parents, giving up his place of honour as the eldest sibling of his aunt's family at the head table. His father does his best to strike up conversation with the bride's grandfather. The groom’s parents, his aunt and her husband look dazed and dark, as if they'd bought tickets for a street opera and found themselves in the middle of a cabaret. There is very little laughter in the room.

They bring them dinner in pre-portioned single servings; there is to be none of the communal tucking-in and carving up that characterises the traditional Chinese wedding banquet table. The wine and champagne are French; the head table, where the bride's family sits, does not drink, for religious reasons. His elder uncle tells him between courses that the bride's mother is a deeply religious person, yet gave her consent for her good Muslim daughter to marry a non-Muslim man. His aunt however, is less than ecstatic about the match. It occurs to him that it might be a question of race and skin-colour rather than religion; she has never been shy about her prejudices, despite (or because of) her own union to a Peranakan man who looks like he has a strong dash of Indian blood in his veins -- something he remembers to have been a source of family chatter since decades past. His aunt is more frail than he remembers, and in mismatched, uncomfortable high-heel shoes she did not know how to shop for or wear. Her domestic help is a dolled up young thing chattering into her mobile all night long. He wonders if her son or daughter-in-law offered to help her prepare herself for the wedding; or if she had refused their help. She and her husband sit across from the bride's parents silently all night, not speaking a word, tasting their food as if at a funeral.

The MC announces the groom on-stage, cautions that he has been forbidden from saying anything remotely embarrassing or even funny, and does not. They hear nothing of the couple's history; it appears they are hosts who have thrown a banquet because it is the expected thing, and then they can get on with their lives. The groom makes a virtue of brevity in his thank you speech. The bride says nothing. They circulate the room separately, and then together, photographer in tow. When they get to their table, the host asks if the food is good, and says to try the champagne because it is very good. Pictures are taken. The groom does not introduce his bride, who says nothing, nor does she offer a hand. The wedding party moves to the next table, and the band plays Sway.

When dinner winds down he approaches the stage and thanks the singer in the little jazz quartet, who is sincerely grateful. Although they are not the most memorable of bands, they have played hours on end, to little applause, and their music is at least a thing of genuine warmth. The groom asks his parents to find their own way home; his parents offer them a lift as they have done many times over the years, as the only ones in the family with a car. In the lobby of the 5-star hotel where the banquet is being held, his aunt takes off the white stiletto heels, one size too large, that she has been wearing all night, and changes into old worn loafers from a plastic bag.