First Mud

The boys go on a hash run every fortnight, through various bits of jungle around Singapore on alternate Sundays. This is keeping it in the family for Mr Partly Cloudy, whose parents met through a regular hash run in Ipoh, Malaysia in the 1960s. He’s been enjoying a local kids’ version with Jonah, and they’ve both wanted me to come along too. ‘If you can do Bukit Brown,’ said Mr PC this week, ‘it’s not that much harder.’ I know, I know. We didn’t need a crystal ball to tell us that in this sort of weather, those might be famous last words. No matter, I’m now the proud owner of a pair of properly muddy post-hash trainers, and I’ve got vine splinters. And yes, there is satisfaction to be gained. And yep, I might even do it again. Talk about a baptism of fire, though. Or water.

You jungle-doubters, there is thick foliage here in Singapore, you just have to look for it. It helps to have a group of willing explorers happy to spend their free time trekking through the undergrowth, tying hankies around trees and bits of rope up steep slopes so that nutters like us can crash through a few hours later. The prize at the end is a back-of-the-van meal for kids and a beer tent for adults. Nice one.

It’s plain to see why the boys have been persuading me to join, but I have always had an excuse up my sleeve. This week, though, after Mr PC knocked his ribs in a game of football and began wheezing and slowing down, I decided that the only way to stop him running the course was to join in. Little did I know that my first ever hash would coincide with a whopper of a monsoon storm.

Stop a minute here and just take some time to think about what you need to do when marching through a bit of jungle. We’re told, don’t stray off the path, snakes are there. We’re told, don’t touch the tree trunks, you don’t know what’s perched on them, creeping along under them or slithering around them, and that’s before we’ve even started on the possibility of poisonous plants and huge giants crashing through undergrowth eating all the villagers. OK not that last bit, but the other stuff, definitely. Would you ever, in your stupidest moments, give a tropical trunk a full body hug, or lie down in thick jungle mud and slide your way from A to B? Course not, because that would be silly. But wet weather conspired against us and turned the course into a slipway, which meant that as cautious drops turned to full on downpour, not holding on would have been even stupider.

We all fell over, slipped along, tore our skin and got mud in our eye. Thorny vine? Give it here. Three-inch-thick mud slope? Sit right down and slide, why not? And actually, to begin with it was quite fun whacking through vines like Sylvester Stallone in First Blood, and Starskying across fallen trees in an effort to keep up. Fortyfive minutes of that, combined with comedy buckets of rain, and let me tell you I was limping along grabbing handfulls of sodden foliage wherever I could, crashing over trunks like a shot elk, pushing my shoulder into the bottom of the stranger in front as she limped wetly up an incline, in a desperate effort to just move the whole thing along. Time crawled, like us – it was all taking a wee bit longer than planned. My specs frosted over with rain; the kid in front of me noted the clouds of steam puffing up from me and Mr PC any time we paused. I began to wonder when it might get dark; if we’d ever get home. Jonah, at first a buoyant and proud guide, showing me the ropes, lost his bravado and took it in turns with me to alternate moods: one of us would nobly shout ON ON! while the other mewed about a sore foot or hurty shoe, and all the while Mr PC darted between us, helping us up and down steep banks and around spiky tree trunks. Fun for all the family.

All the normal people in our group took the short route, but Jonah chose the 5k signpost and so it was that we ended up sliding through thicker and thicker soup, wondering when the helicopters would start circling, and wishing we had opted for the home option, the one that came with telly and a nice cup of tea. I’d just been persuaded to stop sobbing for the third or fourth time when a big hoot went up from my friend up ahead, and out we popped onto the Green Corridor, an old train track and well known running trail. We ran the last 500 metres to the beer tent; Tiger never tasted so good.

I apologise to all the small children I pushed out of the way when I saw that patch of white sky as jungle gave way to clearing. I’m sorry to my friend and also to my husband for having a proper weep at that very tricky slippy bit. And most of all I’m sorry to my bottom for giving it such a very muddy afternoon when all it really wanted was to sit on the sofa at home. In the end we did a grand total of 2.4 miles. It took the best part of two hours. We forgot to pack bus cards and did not dare call a cab, so totally caked in mud were we, so we had to walk to a bus stop and pay a full ten dollars for the three of us just to go about 8 stops, standing in the pram space the whole way home, stinking slightly of mulch. A caterpillar appeared on my vest, and bits of mud fell off Mr PC’s arm every time the bus changed gear.

I might go back next time. I will have to think about it. I liked the crowd, the theory of it all and the beer. I do admit to feeling brilliant at the end, with that pleasing muscle ache a few hours later that lets you know you’ve actually done something with your body. Where would you ever see jungle like this if you didn’t follow such trails? I think the people who set the routes are amazing, and I love how they do it, and yes, it is organised, and yes, it is good fun. So I’ll be back for some more Rambo fun shortly. If it rains, though, you know where to find me: #sofaplease



Bukit Brown for beginners

Several tours are recommended if you live on the Red Dot. Today’s tour of Bukit Brown cemetery had been on my list for a long time – especially as the whole place is currently being cut up to make way for a big road, with ancestors being dislodged and moved to stacked vertical resting places (or worse, but we won’t think about that).
‘Whoohh,’ said my Mandarin teacher last night when I told her of this morning’s trip, ‘is it still there?’ And when I replied that it was, she said with a note of suspicion: ‘Er, we don’t really go to cemeteries very often.’
I know what she means, it’s not an obvious choice for a fun day out, but when you think about all the famous cemeteries of the world (Highgate cemetery in London with Karl Marx, Pere-Lachaise cemetery in Paris with Jim Morrison) then the prospect of a guided tour around some tombstones becomes a perfectly sensible suggestion.
And that’s why we found ourselves on a morning ramble, my friend and I, threading our way through thickets and brambles with 16 other guests, crashing to scare off potential snakes while our leader, herself a relative of some Bukit Brown residents, gamely pushed giant morning cobwebs out of our way (meanwhile my friend apologised to anyone we stepped on by accident).
It’s because we are tour guides that we were invited on the morning tour today, although you can always go round yourselves (and there were people dog-walking, horse-riding and scootering). Isn’t it always a bonus to have someone guide you, though? And not just to chase off the spiders.
Some might say you actually need a tour guide here, because Bukit Brown is a proper adventure – a thick, bushy maze of partially obscured graves scattered over several hillsides. In these hallowed acres lie whole families, grouped war victims, famous local personalities. The person showing us around is also a guide at the Sun Yat Sen Nanyang Memorial Hall, and it was invaluable to have her help decode the traditional Chinese lettering and point the way around the woody place. We found tombstones tucked deep in brambles. Other graves had been tidied up, untangled, so you could clearly see the stark geometric art deco carving, the orange brickwork and Victoriana tiles. Some were exposed all on their own by the road, others placed neatly side by side or dotted one over the other up and down the sides of the hills, backed with sweeping armchair-shaped walls and guarded by stone gods, creatures, figures.
Many had little rocks placed on top, some trapping a slip of paper. Don’t move them, we were told, this is a visitor’s way of telling the ancestors, I’m here – I’ve come to see you. I did a little Google of this when I got home and it seems it’s a Jewish tradition too. Some say it means the relative is anchored in place. Whatever the reason the stones looked reverential, thoughtful, an earthy equivalent to the cut flowers you see in western graveyards.
You’d need a hard heart not to have been moved by our visit but it wasn’t an entirely solemn morning at all, quite the opposite. Our guide lead her long-trousered chatty crocodile with energy: ‘This way!’ she would shout, suddenly off-roading to the left beneath a hanging curtain of lianas, with us scrambling along behind in a cloud of Deet.
She saved the best til last – the biggest grave in Bukit Brown. After a vertical stomp the jungle opens up to a clearing with the most enormous Chinese armchair-shaped memorial. This grave belongs to prominent businessman Ong Sam Leong, who clearly did very well for himself. Once surrounded by a fish-filled moat, the tomb covers 600 square metres, has its own skate-rink sized forecourt of beautiful tiles, and is guarded by stone lions and mossy soldiers. Most graves have their own earth stone deity off to one side – not this one: this one has an entire earth god tomb all to itself.
What a morning, one of the best tours I’ve experienced since moving here: fun, exciting, and very precious to be able to see the stones before the threatened eight-lane highway swallows them up. You can take yourself off to Bukit Brown; driving is best, and there are parking spots along the roads. There’s an unopened MRT station, but who knows when that will come into play (or if we ever actually want it to). Or you can hop in a cab and get dropped off for a stroll.
When I see my Chinese teacher next week I will recommend she pops by and says hello, before the ancestors melt away into history.
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About a Boy

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.

Previous SM birthdays have been celebrated with anecdotes like this and this.

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.

Love from your PC parents xxx
TinyJonah:3 weeks

Life, the Universe and Everything

This was going to be entitled Life on Mars, but then David Bowie died, so that was that. Then I thought about calling it January: I like it as a name, plus I was having a sleepless little think, just now, about how January is the weirdest of all months, a cold, long time of year full of desperate ambition, sepia retrospect, diets. Also full of birthdays: Mum’s on the 4th, SM’s on the 21st, my best friend and also my mother-in-law, on the 28th and 29th. Mum always said it was a great time of year to have a birthday because just as everyone’s Christmas was petering out with a fizzle, along came the 4th to cheer everything up. She had lots of these brave sentiments, was sometimes quite outspoken. Friends phoned to get her measured, even opinion on all sorts of things. She was on the radio, telly. I even thought about calling the other day, to go through a few Christmas ideas: stupid, like itching a leg that’s no longer there. She’d have had a lot to say over a cuppa about Bowie, and Rickman. I wish I could hear it.
January’s very weird for us this year, transported back from our old life after the holiday visit. Two whirlwind weeks in the cool and now shot back through the dark and into the light again: vast worlds apart, eight whole hours difference, and the jetlag this time round has been colossal, and the chasm between both worlds more immense than ever before.
You can call it January blues. Keep your diets, I just want to be the right way up. My new Christmas Fitbit tells me that I average four hours sleep a night: I’m Margaret Thatcher, a proper robot! This month I have mostly been using the stuffy small hours to think about my current life (I can’t say ‘new’ because it isn’t so new any more), in comparison to our old one, the one we’ve just arrived Home from. When I lie awake it makes me breathless to think of how everyone is – right at that minute – pottering about on the planet at a completely different time making tea, buying the paper, pressing ‘print’ at work, popping down into the Tube, forgetting their umbrella. How do we all function at such different times? It’s one in the morning Here – 5pm Over There. This must be why I am still awake, it’s just been tea time.
Home is now Here, where my stuff is, where my family are, but half my family are back There in OtherHome, and when we return, half my heart will always be Here. It keeps me awake. It has kept me awake tonight. I’ve given up, got up, put on the kettle and flipped open the winking white screen: lucky me, pouring it all into words when I can’t do anything else about It.
I know what I’d ask Mum about Bowie, and Rickman. I would ask her if she thought that big public deaths might sometimes offer people a safe way of spreading out whatever private grief they have, to anchor it. Especially if they’ve just had a very real death in the house themselves, like above-mentioned Best Friend, who lost her partner two short months ago. This is the current theme of the waking hours, that the dark elastic miles make it impossible to be There to help sweep up the fallout. I can only be Here, sending futile keyboard kisses across the ether, and it doesn’t really work. When the global tsunami of two very famous deaths hits the headlines one after the other, grief is unlocked and open: free for all. I would have asked Mum if she thought it sometimes helped people cushion the loss, just a little. I know, though, that of course it doesn’t, it probably just makes it all much, much worse.
Keyboard clicks verify this: my girl’s not had a good day. Nothing helps, time doesn’t help, crying probably doesn’t help, not all the cups of tea in China. Not even Chai tea, her favourite. Of course I don’t really know because I’m halfway around the world, aren’t I, and she’s far away somewhere to the left-and-up-of-me, drinking tea and crying while I hang upside down in a dark bedroom, thinking of her, and him, and them, and me and my impossibly lovely-but-tricky dual life. I think I might learn to meditate, to just be, but the sleepless phone screen is by my side and happy to tell me when things are not right in NeverLand. I’ll switch off in a minute, shut down. In my two worlds I can always escape: if I don’t like it Here, I can always go There. At least through my keyboard, if not in person.
I’m not the only existential fretter in the house. SM quite often pads down the hall late at night into our room, pale and baggy, worried about Life, The Universe and Everything. He wants to know where it all begins and where it ends, and I’m with him every sleepless step of the way because I wonder, too, how each hot black night Here draws us closer to There, pulls us nearer to dark conclusions of our own, answers to the kinds of questions that we don’t want to ask, don’t want to think about. Some people don’t get the luxury of putting on the kettle and going back to bed – when I think about this, I know I never want to arrive at that awful point. It’s unfathomable and unanswerable.
So we get up, have cocoa, he goes back to bed with a ruffle of the head, I pop online and check the news, first Here, then There. Are you OK over there? I’m here, I’m thinking of you.

Christmas on Mars

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