The worlds he inhabited included fantastic wonderlands to bleak barren landscapes, and the characters he was acquainted with ranged from being noble in stature and villainous in nature. He grew up with a literary diet of social novels, great-man autobiographies, Malaysian folk tales, and science fiction, faithfully consuming Shakespeare as his staple and Murakami as his vitamins. But whilst his parents scrupulously and fastidiously fed him with stories they deemed nutritious, he secretly feasted on the desserts he had hoarded since his boyhood: the fairy tales.
“Once-upon-a-time” was a funny thing, because even though the phrase was to represent only a small sliver of a person’s forever, it occupied much of his psyche. It represented for him all the things that he would not even admit to himself he longed for: epic adventures, faraway lands, and great romance.
Unbeknownst to him, his narrative would start and end not with the fanfare he thought he would have; rather, it would creep up to him quietly, and only in the moment of revelation would he feel its gentle tap on his shoulder. Once upon a time, he was trying to enjoy his breakfast that consisted of a bowl of muesli and an interesting book, but circumstances had dictated that his breakfast was not to be peaceful. These circumstances were to come in the form of his Grandpa and Grandma.
It was a late morning wrapped in laziness and tropical warmth. Grandpa was at the table on his left, leafing through the newspapers. Grandma was on his right a little distance away, deftly cutting the kangkung, or water spinach, without a chopping board. The scene was ordinary enough, but something in the air forewarned him that the setting was to be an arena for another of their sharp-tongued battles. They were having a relatively decent conversation when one party provoked the other with unkind words (and as in all the previous battles, even he himself, the sole witness in the scene, was quite uncertain who had instigated it).
The effects were immediate: words were laced with ice and fire, nasty remarks were volleyed back and forth, until his Grandma arrived at the topic of his Grandpa’s social skills – or lack thereof. The narrator includes herewith a small sample of their word war:
“Aiya, the last time Christine’s husband came over-” began Grandma.
“Wait a second, who’s Christine?” our hero asked. He was determined to be the pacifist, speaking only to ask unnecessary questions or make inane comments.
“Neh, Christine is your ah yee (aunt’s) friend lor. Anyway, her husband came over to visit. And he was chit-chatting to your grandpa. But he didn’t say anything, just nodded and smiled,” she waved her knife about as she was narrating the story to him. He saw a piece of cut kangkung slide off the knife and onto the floor.
“That’s because I was watching TV!” his Grandpa said defensively, his bushy eyebrows shooting up across his forehead in anger. But the effect was lost when he turned towards his grandson and grinned cheekily. He liked pushing Grandma’s buttons, and he knew his grandson knows it.
“When someone is talking to you, you should also talk to them! Not watch TV,” she huffed a little, clucking her tongue in disapproval.
“Well, who asked that fella to be so silly? I’m obviously only interested in the TV, I don’t want to talk to him. No common sense,” he said indignantly. But again, he grinned at his grandson as though they were sharing a private joke.
Grandma’s answer was lightning-fast, almost like she rehearses it on a daily basis.
“Silly? Silly! You are silly!” And she began her tirade with a generous number of acerbic insults that she reserved specially for him. He gladly parried all her insults with some of his own. And of course, the grandson was left trying to smooth things over by deflecting their attention to other things. “Look at the fish,” he said, pointing at the tiny aquarium containing a single fighting fish. “Look how cute the fishie is.” But to no avail, for the fish merely became another topic that fed their fiery discourse. (“You don’t even care about the fish!”; “So what? It’s your job to feed it!”)
So the battle waged on. Then mercifully, there descended upon the house the quiet and silence of a ceasefire. The two had quite worn out their verbal ammunition, and had decided to retire to their respective corners. One resumed cutting up the vegetables, the other content with flipping through the newspapers.
A sigh of relief escaped his lips when he saw his grandparents holding an unofficial truce. From experience, he knew the ceasefire wouldn’t last long, and a fresh round of biting remarks was well on the way. But he’d enjoy the silence for now. Fifty-odd years of companionship can certainly do strange things for a couple’s marriage. It required a stretch of imagination of epic proportions to imagine Grandpa and Grandma being affectionate to one another in the conventional sense of the word. He felt the familiar twinge of dejection as he thought about how his once-upon-a-time dream was marred by the reality of their constant fighting and bickering.
The clock struck twelve o’clock. “Okay now,” I told them. “It’s time to leave if we’re going to meet ah yee.”
Grandpa shuffled into the car parked outside. Grandma decided that it was the perfect moment to use the bathroom. Our protagonist got into the car as well, revving up the engine. There was a pause, as Grandma takes her time. Minutes slipped by.
Grandpa turns to him. Expecting a remark snidely alluding to grandma’s lateness, he swallowed a sigh threatening to pass through his pursed lips.
“Where’s Grandma?” was his question instead.
It was one of those strange moments when the vague feelings one has of romance and love crystallised. Suddenly, he saw how he had been misreading his Grandpa all along. Perhaps it was the genuine concern in his voice, the look of anxiety in his features, or maybe it was the way his gaze seemed to pierce through his grandson. Whatever it was, it became strikingly evident that the cheeky, taunting demeanour Grandpa put on in Grandma’s presence was just a front. Underneath all that bravado was someone who had known the security of love and companionship for most of his life, and found the prospect of its loss nothing short of absolutely terrifying. And perhaps the only way to deal with that fear is by…
“Ah, see how she always takes her own sweet time,” Grandpa grumbled when he at last spotted Grandma going down the steps. “Always so slow.”
“Ah, not like you’re so punctual all the time. Eh, and just a minute ago you were so worried about her.”
He emitted a loud huff. “Yeah right.”
His grandson smiled, finally understanding.
Grandma got into the car, and they drove off, with the sound of old-couple bickering as the unlikely musical accompaniment for their journey.
Photograph: Venus Loi