I can ask Mr PC to marry me (again) today. I can also wish my friend Scott a very happy birthday (married with two kids, he is just 9, or is it 10 years old). Today is Leap Year, the one time every four years that February has 29 days. I know exactly what I was up to last time round. I probably thought about all of the above at some point but mostly I remember very clearly that Mr PC had the day off work because something was being fixed in the flat. I was working at home as always, writing that novel that was never and will never be published (whispers: it was rubbish). The cats were probably being adorable and Jonah was definitely at school. It was Wednesday.
Throughout this diary I have referred to our son as ‘SM’, SmallMonkey. He was seven when I started writing this; I wanted to keep him secret. Well you can’t hide forever, especially not when you’re getting taller, older. So he’s not SM any more he’s Jonah, and today he turns 11.
But 2015 was a funny old year, with a different flavour of discussions. Not adult, not yet – there’s still a petulant twang to the voice and a big lower lip. He’s not reading War and Peace (yet) and he’s not splitting the atom, although he likes a good science project. He’s our Only, and he often feels the weight of that, for whatever reason. He does make me laugh (mostly in a good way), but this was not a year of hilarious anecodotes. Have we just had a growth year? Or are we going backwards?
School’s busy. Evenings are hectic and often end in homework sulks, belligerent demands for toast, ice cream, nachos, never mind what we actually have in stock. From me there are shouted commands (TIDY, SHOWER, TEETH, BED!) and mornings have the same code (SHOES, BAG, BUS!) – this isn’t family chatter, this is boot camp. And don’t get me started on the high school debates.
How long until the XBox? Can we skip tennis? Sleep over? Tonight? Why not? Ditch homework / piano / chores? Can the entire condo have pizza? Why not? Can everyone have lunch here? Can he have lunch there? Why do we have to do that? Can’t we watch a film? Why is it too old? Half the class has seen it. Yes they have. Well their mums must be wrong. Why are we having fish? Who in the house likes ginger? Can he leave it? Why temples, why not the mall? Why does he have to do swimming, football, rugby, tennis, swimming, football, rugby, football, tennis? Can we have pudding on the sofa? Can he have more food? Less food? Better food? Why can’t he have a phone?
With this kind of debating prowess he will surely build legacies; communities; cities.
Never mind. They’re all at it, and within all of this can be found the flashes of kindness and genuine moral standing that anyone who knows Jonah will know he possesses. When homework is forgotten an email is swiftly tapped out to the teacher, sweetly phrased with apologies and constructive ideas. I am sad one day, and, placing a kind paw on my arm, he suggests a Grandpa Skype (it always works for him, he says). He comes back from a neighbour very full. What did he eat? He says, Mum it was all German, and I was the only kid who tried anything, I felt so sorry for her, so I kept eating whatever she offered.
I always have an ear out for howlers but this year has been rather thin on the ground. I’ve copied down three, all in the last few weeks, that sum him up:
We were having a little chat about Death, as you do.
‘Do you know that you’re going to die?’ he asks.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘From the moment you’re born, it’s the one certainty.’
‘But do we know exactly when? And how do we know what happens after we’ve died? For instance a guy – say he’s called Steve or something – dies and then maybe he gets transported into my body. Because you can’t just lie there all day in the dark when you’re dead, can you? Maybe it’s like sleeping and you can’t feel anything? Wish I could work it out.’
Muddy-faced after PE, Jonah is challenged by the head of the girl bulllies:
Her: ‘Ugh! What happened to your face?’
Him: ‘I’ve been playing rugby, what’s your excuse?’
Heading back to class after a guitar lesson at school.
Teacher: ‘Where are you going next?’
Him: ‘Sri Lanka’
Happy birthday, you big monkey (and in the Year of the Monkey too, your year). Keep up with the comebacks and don’t fret the BigEverAfter.
It still amazes me that simply by sitting down for 14 hours (12 without a headwind), we can transport ourselves from one planet to another. Well OK, to another country, but when you’re changing seasons as well as cultures, you might as well be arriving on a different planet.
Having not experienced a winter since 2011, popping out of the rabbit hole from boiling hot Singers into a dark and icy London morning was alien and magical. While SM pinched his fingers to keep warm as we pushed our luggage towards the Heathrow Express at 6.30am, I did a happy little shuffle, so glad to be back for the season, revelling in the cold against my skin (maybe regretting packing our coats deep within the bags, but ah well, lesson learned).
Alright. Now you’re going to tell me it was the warmest Christmas since 1248, but for us it was baltic, a shock to our systems. I bought a better jacket on day one, and proper socks, Grandpa took SM to buy gloves. We wore scarves and woollen hats, got dressed to go to bed, blasted out the heaters in every home we stayed in, kept the electric blankets on for as long as we could, and it was lovely – properly festive, sense-tingling and sparkly, with dark black nights, soft winter sunrises and a real use for mulled wine.
I’ve always championed a warm Christmas, because when you think about it, half the world can’t help having one, so we might as well accept them. Out of the other half, around 70 per cent probably think that it’s wrong to have Christmas in the tropics, and the remaining 30 per cent of us quite enjoy the blow-up snowmen bobbing against hot blue skies, curry dinners on the beach and celebratory dips in hot oceans wearing Santa hats. (For some people, you don’t need a hot sea to do this – the cousins went for a mad Christmas Day dip in sub-temperature seas, the chilly weirdos.)
Still, after four tropical Christmases on the trot, it was nice to have a proper wintry backdrop for the tinsel, to be dashing about under stormy* winds and fetching bags of goodies in and out of cars with the weather whipping rolls of wrap and scattering rain over our shopping. This is the proper way of burning off all those deeply bad foods trolleyed out in spades: meats soaked in naughty fats with sausages and spuds, fruity puddings and cakes, crisps, nuts, wine, stocking treats, and chocolates enjoyed at a slow pace with no fear of anything melting into the foil.
A London Christmas involves the same chores, visits and drinks as always but with a more thoughtful attitude to things like dress (tights and coats) and time of day (8am to 3pm and that’s it) than in sultry Singapore. In London, sparkles are reflected in colder puddles, heating is inside not out. Stuffed into a packed hire car, setting off for the wild west, I got SM to count Christmas trees in windows just as we’d always done when we were small (scoring a lamentable seven, distracted by the joys of high class snacking from posh service stations: never had THOSE in the oldene days.)
Put me in our Cornish cottage at this time of year and I am retro happy, sitting at my desk in the upstairs double room, transported back to the ghosts of Christmas past – legwarmers, rainbow jumpers, Wham! topping the charts and that first ever boyfriend Christmas card curling slightly in my happy hand.
These days, walks on the beach with cousins become double-layered: two sets of cousins from two generations, with us now falling behind and them now running up ahead, bobble-hatted and wet-ankled.
And these days it’s me tip-toeing into the smaller back bedroom, stashing a fat stocking at the foot of a bed and sneaking backwards, already two tired hours into the big day and covered in bits of tape and glitter from the snowstorm of wrapping, and just a few short hours before SM heaves his treat-laden stocking into our bedroom, just as we did with our own parents for so many years. To have Grandpa and Auntie in on it too – special, wondrous and well worth the night-time sit across many lands and seas to get to them.
We’re planning next Christmas already, no doubt a hot one, though I might try and recreate the chill as I’m beginning to think it does work a bit better. To start the planning now is a good way of padding out the holes in our hearts, gaps created when we make that long return sit to pop out once again in palm tree land, where the lights are still on the tree that we left behind some two weeks before. Traces of fat stocking debris leading up the hallway to a small back bedroom in this other world of ours tell us that it wasn’t all a dream, and grey monsoon skies outside are doing a fair job of helping me merge the planets so the distance is not quite so wide.
Happy New Year one and all, whichever planet you’re on.
* apologies to those who suffered in the real storms Up North. You would probably all have preferred a tropical one this year
Dear SmallMonkey has the half-empty gene direct from my control panel, and his WorstCaseScenarios (WCSs) are quite astounding. It’s the end of the summer hols and tucking-up time earlier tonight was fraught with hazards forecast for the week to come:
• Playground bullies would jump out of lockers and wrestle small children to the ground
• The new teachers would pick kids out to stand on the desks and recite nonsense
• The Haze would infiltrate the lungs of half the class, who would then be rushed to hospital by very slow ambulance driven in fact by a scary clown
• The bus driver on his return journey would not collect SM from school
OK so I might have made up points 2 and 3, but we discussed the very real last point at length, especially as it was a new fear that hadn’t been voiced all summer, and mostly because the possibilities for disaster, according to SM, were endless. We agreed he could pack his [non-working] phone so that he could text or WhatsApp me if the worst really did happen.
“Where should I wait if they forget me?”
“At Junior Reception. But it won’t happen.”
“What will I say?”
“That the stinking bus has driven off without you. But that won’t happen.”
“Which Reception again?”
“You’ve been doing this for three years. It won’t happen.”
“But if it does you can get to me in, what, 15 minutes, can’t you?”
A little bit longer, actually, but he really didn’t need to know that.
If only I had enjoyed school more myself I could have painted lively pictures across that dark bedroom of the promise of playful and enthusiastic lessons the next day, of fun on the rugby pitch and hilarity in the lunch hall. Instead I played a slow and calm card, discussing favourite dinner options for after school and spending time attaching a funky new Boba Fett Lego keyring to the dreaded packed schoolbag, itself freshly locked and loaded for the numerous missions of the brand new term.
This time last year – when SM was a brand new student heading off to what was then a brand new school – I went bonkers in the kitchen and learnt how to make macaroons. Tomorrow I’ll have the office as my distraction, but I will be very early to that bus stop at 4.05pm, and my phone will be on and turned up loud all day.
So sorry, let me just dry that off for you. Why yes, yes he is mine. No, those two are not. Yes, they are full of energy today. Yes, we are still on holiday, indeed, week EIGHT, yes! No that’s not vodka it’s water – with ice and lemon, yes. Yes, they are bit close to the edge, but they seem to have gone deaf over the holidays, it’s funny. Mmm, yes, they probably WILL slip and crack something in a minute, very slippy tiles. Especially after a few of these waters.
– Yes, he can’t wait to go to school, sweet thing, well to be honest he doesn’t have a huge say in it does he? I’ve already booked the bus and I’m ready to go a bit deaf myself when he’s got a funny tummy on Morning No. 1. Keeps fondling his scouts summer project: “Collecting Something”. He did bottle tops and we’ve quite a haul. Mainly beer.
– Oh I know, I’m so amazed I managed to get them outside, usually stuck to the electrics, aren’t they? Like getting Blu-Tac out of a ponytail. We’re doing cold turkey next weekend, honesttogoodness I wish I’d never bought any of those things. Not one of those gadgets flammable, either, we’ve tried.
– OH THEY REALLY ARE A WEE BIT LOUD, AREN’T THEY, YES. See what I mean? Quite, quite deaf. Apologies.
– Ah no, I’m not pregnant, just rather round, but yes, this sort of sundress really is so comfy when you’ve just had eight weeks of picnics!
– Well, off we go, better get them all inside, before one of them breaks something! None of the bedroom doors in this condo lock from the outside, do they? No, Thought not.
Does anyone know what I’m talking about when I mention the “Herald of Free Enterprise”? It was a ferry, and it capsized in the 1980s, killing a lot of people. Shortly after the event I found Mum standing in the kitchen sobbing as she listened to a news report. ‘It’s the children,’ was all she could manage to say.
It was the same when my uncle died suddenly, a decade later. Dad told me and I went to find Mum and comfort her. Again I found her in the kitchen crying (she was career-driven but also domestic, so perhaps the kitchen was her comfort spot or maybe it just kept her busy). Again all she said was: ‘It’s the children…’ (meaning my three youngish cousins).
One of my ex partners exists, he used to tell me, because his father was one of the first reporters (or THE first one, depending on reports) on the scene after the Aberfan Disaster of the 1960s. I’m not putting any links up here, if you’re not aware of all these awful sad stories then all you really need to know is the keyword: children. There is something about a disaster on a major scale that involves any young loss of life, or affects children in some way – especially when those young lives can be easily relatable to your own – that makes the event just so much sadder for adults (any adult, you don’t have to have a child yourself). The weight is palpable.
On Friday, several climbers on Mount Kinabalu died after an earthquake. The event hit hard one of our Singapore primary schools, which lost several 12-year-olds in the disaster, plus a guide and many others. Parents pass things on, and this week I am channeling Mum, as news reports make my eyes prickle and my heart heavy.
It’s just taken me two and a half hours to get back from dropping Dad at Changi Airport. I used public transport, and the trip should have taken about 75 minutes, but it wasn’t exactly a normal morning, so that’s not quite how it worked out.
I started at Gate 6 Departures (which is right in the middle of the Terminal 1 building), where we said goodbye and both very admirably did not cry (and I actually only looked back once). I then went from left to right looking for the station exit, failing miserably and trying even harder not to cry and as a result being unable to read any signs. By the time I’d mapped the hall, ant-like, for ten minutes, including dropping down into Arrivals and up again, I found the SkyTrain and took that to Terminal 2 where I hopped on an MRT train and sat dabbing at emerging tears, until it ground to a halt three stops later at Pasir Ris, totally the wrong end of the line. Never mind, from there I popped over the platform, blowing my nose, and stood waiting until a helpful guard pointed out that I might just as well stay on the same train until it went backwards down the route I’d just taken. So I did that, and for the next 45 minutes all was quiet (apart from the sound of rustling tissues and muffled honking), until I had to get off at Buena Vista to change to the yellow line, at which point I did the same backwards trip, going towards Harbour Front instead of Dhoby Ghaut and travelling in the wrong direction (snotty now and hiding behind a big book) to OneNorth so that I had to turn around and go not one stop but two to my final destination. Gah! At Holland Village (a place I know very well indeed, as I live there), I went into a bank for coffee instead of Starbucks, but the rest of the walk home was peaceful enough, apart from the sound of me by now properly sobbing into my Frappucino, mercifully blotted out by traffic hoots.
This is what my brain does when it’s upset, it short circuits. I won’t be surprised if I lose my keys later today, or email the wrong person or try and pay for something with my travelcard. The fact that my brain is upset is silly, because it knows – stupid, stupid brain – that it will see Dad again in three months time, but no matter how many times I tell it off for making me cry on the MRT, it insists on being utterly devastated every time we say goodbye to my father.
The thing about his visits are that they bring a sense of perspective to an otherwise frankly freaky existence. They level us all, reset the status quo. Here in ExpatVille life is lovely, but it’s not real. And it’s not forever. Dad helps us look at what we are doing, in a gentle and silent way. Of course the ten-year-old doesn’t see this and he’s always worse off, because ten-year-olds Don’t Know How Lucky They Are, Aren’t Appreciative and Would Never Get A Life Like This At Home. So a grown-up brain can (once it’s pulled itself together) tell itself that we are living this wonderful life for a short time only, we must make the most of every shiny second, and we must let Grandpa get back to the things and the people he needs to get back to, and in turn get back to our own lives, which are always put on hold (no matter how much we love pressing the Hold button) when anyone comes to town.
SmallMonkey’s brain sees a devastating short-term future of empty spare rooms, utter lack of experiment partners, only one person to read to him at night (me) instead of two (see? doesn’t know he’s born), zero amount of person to play with in swimming pool (when actually, again, there is me, but that’s a young brain for you), loss of forage partner, argument referee, weird plant explainer, patient joke-listener, school bus collector (yup, me again, but I know it’s not the same), partner in crime for leaving damp towels in beds and bits of old croissant in rucksacks, loss of bus, boat and plane buddy – all of the things that my brain agrees, after a stiff talking to, that it’s OK to do without for a while has SM’s brain howling at the moon every night, unable to right itself until Old Father Time works his very slow magic (and, maybe, a cheeky set of Match Attax cards is given at the weekend as a bribe).
It is the ease with which Dad fits into our lives that makes his visits so workable. It’s not simple, fitting into another family’s way of life, no matter how close you are. What we love is how he enriches our days simply by being with us, happily and without fanfare. In his place is nothing. It is not a gap that can be filled. You know, though, it’s not like that film Enchanted, where birds perch on our deck, unfurl ribbons over the kitchen sink, tidy up all the pool towels and make up our beds (yes I know we have someone to do that, but you’re missing the point); it’s not always sugar-coated. Some mornings we’re all tired, some afternoons we’re cranky or busy, but this is daily life for you, and it just highlights my point about the loveliness of having Dad around to mull along with us. His presence makes for a little bit of the year which, for me and SM, feels so much like home.
We talked, during Dad’s trip, about how long our stay will now be. We’re coming to summer, decision-making time; the lease on our apartment is up again; I’ve a new job starting tomorrow; SM’s school is ridiculously good. Where are the exit signs? We love our privileged life but the last thought before I go to bed every single night (apart from deciding whether to switch off the aircon) is for Dad, and my sister, and the rest of my family and friends, and most times it’s about what on earth are we doing out here, and what they are all doing over there, and what timescale does this bonkers existence have? How long? I don’t have an answer.
Mr PartlyCloudy tells me to live in the now, but his brain is different to mine, calculating, planning, measuring and adjusting. Mine throws out streamers, plonks up and down the piano, paints exquisite pictures then rides over them with a ginormous tractor before unfurling a giant rainbow towel on a desert shore with a tall fruity cocktail and a floppy hat, and inventing strange and unpublishable stories for the rest of the daydream. So you can see how we don’t, sometimes, see eye to eye on things. I do like his brain, though, and mine might just have to behave for a bit.
Once, in my twenties, not long after a big relationship had ended, I had trouble getting home after work, spending about half an hour walking between two tube stops on Oxford Street, trying to decide which route to take. This was ridiculous, since I had lived in London all my life and knew the route blind, but it was the result of the same panicky brain. So I’m sorry for my poor brain today and I think I’ll stay at home and give it it the rest of the day off, allowing it to track Dad’s route home, maybe eating a bit of Easter chocolate, until SM comes home from school and needs the Grandpa gaps filled. Sweets instead of healthy snacks today, for sure.
SmallMonkey went to bed in proper tears tonight. The Festival Of Dad is at an end. Trouble with having lots of fun with Grandpa is that you always come to the horrible LastNight where you know what tomorrow’s going to bring.
Best bit of this month? Starting a fab new job (Tuesday, I cannot wait to see you).
Can whoever reads this thing bear to have another slab of holiday-drenched copy? Is it trite to bang on about all these trips out of town? Can it be possible to fit in as much travel as we are? It’s not like we’re in a huge rush to stamp the world map with drawing pins, but I have to say I’ve used up my ecological share of air miles several times in the last 20 weeks alone, and let’s not total up the 30 months since we got here.
Oh, but that road trip from KL to Ipoh last week – now I’m back and safely typing away at my air-con desk, who really cares about those long queues on the motorway and the rattled-out traffic reports that we couldn’t quite catch, no matter how much we twiddled the knobs and dials to get less static and still only really getting the word ‘jam’. Now we’re back I’ve almost forgotten the rueful wiping of hands down sweaty necks as we sat perfectly still in the 35C heat, damply steaming, listlessly pointing the air con from footwell to steering wheel and back again, winding down the window only to wind it back up again as the searing tarmac heat poured in through the open gaps, with small boy sitting alone in the back, diligently making his water last because Mr and Mrs Stupid hadn’t bought any more at the airport. Memories he’ll keep forever, whether he wants to or not.
It didn’t even seem so bad at the time, truth be told. Even though I can’t remember being in such a massively long traffic jam, or such a very hot one, just to be out there was enough, on the road, away from Sing yet again, inching steadily north and when the traffic loosened up, about five miles short of our final destination, there were the pink Ipoh hills of home, and then our own rose-tinted memories unpacked themselves all over the car, which seemed cooler and fresher the closer we got to Rosy’s. Even when the gas indicator slipped to ‘critical’, dear Mr PC kept up a jovial patter and never once let on to me that we might actually be spending even longer than we thought on the road, as we failed to get into one petrol station after another thanks to the huge queues, finally and dustily sputtering into the very last one before Ipoh. (So that’s water and petrol on the list for next time, then).
Why hadn’t we spent the new year with Rosy before? Phuket and Jogjakarta – previous CNY stop-offs – are not obvious choices for hong baos and lo heis, and neither is a huge bit of Malaysia, but wonky old Ipoh was an explosion of new year cheer, dozy in town but truly festive in the suburbs with house after house covered in red lanterns and glittering tinsel. On winter car trips down the A30 to Cornwall my folks would persuade us girls to ‘Spot The Christmas Trees’, and this was no different: red lights decked every doorway in the suburbs, and even Aunty Rosy’s acid-green front porch was dotted with pretty red packets that she’d hung off all the little trees outside her front door.
All those times we’d been to the temple in town to visit the Tan grandparents, light joss sticks and stand side by side in reverential silence – here we were, right at one of the most important times of year for ancestral worship. What better time for both my boys to get a chance to pay their respects, as we have done for years back in Cornwall and Marlow? Ipoh was made for CNY.
Ah, though, you can’t do things twice, not really. I know if we go back next year and do the same double-pronged trip – a whizz round Ipoh for two days of noodle-stuffing, then a sprint back down the E1 to KL past row after row of rubber trees from a page out of Where the Wild Things Are, down the mucky ribbon of road that brings you into the heart of the city until we were right in the hot heart of KL, waltzing up the fancy towers, scouring endless malls and skipping down the pungent pavements that always remind me so much of a tropical Kentish Town – I know I won’t get the same buzz of elation that made this year’s trip, because it’s the realisation that something is wonderful for the very first time that makes the thing so special.
No harm in trying though, but next year we’ll book in advance and fly – more time for noodles, less time listening to Asia-pop in a hot hire car.
#GongXiFaCai til next year
It is lunar New Year’s Eve. Tonight, Singapore is quiet as families gather together for the reunion meal at the start of the 15-day festival to bring in the new year. Out goes the horse, and we become rams, goats or sheep, depending on what consumer branding you are following. I prefer sheep, for some reason (do I follow rather than lead, a little bit? Maaaaaybe).
This is our third Chinese New Year (CNY) in Singapore and at last I feel I am starting to really get it. I get the hanging lanterns and the songs, I even know a bit of one. I understand the rituals better and I think I understand the value of working like a beast all year and then having this one almighty celebration, unlike no other I’ve had in my closed-off life. SM’s music teacher couldn’t make tonight, as she had to see family; she left him a red packet too. The school bus tonight had a golden money pot on the front and red circular ‘ears’, one on each side. SM hopped down still dressed in his Mandarin outfit and stayed dressed in his black and red silk all night – our own red lanterns and bali fish kite are hanging up outside like stockings on 24th Dec. It’s all so festive.
I am upstairs in our main bedroom, surrounded by packing cases and the boys are downstairs watching telly. Special treat for SM to stay up a bit late, even though we have a very early flight to catch tomorrow. I have hidden a hong bao each for Aunty Rosy and Jonah – the oldest and youngest in the Asian bit of our family. They’re getting red bags full of chocolate, the bit of cash in those red packets, small pot of pineapple tarts each and two little metal goats on red ribbons each (even numbers, always), plus some oranges.
It feels like Christmas, and the build-up has been exciting: music in the shops, a relaxed feel about town, and the famed pre-new year dry breezy weather as a bonus. Last weekend, Chinatown was stuffed full of red danglers, paper pineapples, sheeps and goats and people getting their shopping in – (a bit like Truro town centre around about 23 December). The roads are now empty, schools closed, companies locked down. Our school only closed this afternoon, but plenty finished earlier. Today being CNY eve, businesses and shops closed at lunch as families returned home to meet and eat. The school bus was early this morning; roads empty for my run. It’s so peaceful.
Tomorrow we hop on a flight and head to Ipoh and Aunty Rosy, and then KL – four days of peaceful gluttony before re-entering the fray. I am delighted to be immersing myself in Asian culture this time round, and only wish we’d done this year on year, instead of choosing places that had nothing to do with the festival at all. I only hope Rosy stays awake long enough in the evenings to enjoy a bite or two with us all.