Catherine, my brother’s wife, is really into wearing stuff like that. Catherine and I are the same age, something that makes us both uncomfortable’a kind of reverse envy I think. At family dinners we eye each other with surreptitious dread I could have ended up like that?
Anyway, Pinky didn’t like Catherine. Pinky always claims she’s completely non-judgmental but I know she’s not comfortable with women like Catherine who go around with designer bags and fake eyelashes. She thinks such things should be left to the guys.
‘It’s so sad your Mum had to go alone’ speaking as a mother I know that at such a time you want your children with you,’
‘I didn’t know Steve would be out of Singapore,’ I said defensively.
Catherine laughed. ‘Your brother didn’t go off on holiday like you, you know. When it comes to work he has no choice’but I really wanted to talk to you about the apartment. Now your Mum is gone you’re not going to go on staying there alone are you? It’s really too big for one person right?’
‘I’ll think about it,’ I said. I didn’t know how to say I might not be staying there alone forever’besides, I wasn’t sure if that was true.
Catherine lowered her voice to a whisper, ‘At least I’m glad that friend of yours isn’t hanging around any more. People haven’t given up on you, you know. You can still return to respectability. Don’t worry, nobody is expecting the impossible, as long as you don’t have a girlfriend nobody expects you to get a husband, we can understand how difficult it is for even decent young women to get married these days with all the girls coming in from China and Thailand and Indonesia, but there are other ways you can redeem yourself. Our church is starting a TRASH support group ‘Tough Reaction Against Sinners & Homosexuals’ here. I told them about you and they brought some flyers’’
Her church friends were watching us from a couple of tables near the door. I noticed them earlier when they asked for the demonic red threads on their table to be removed. My niece Mel was sitting with them, but my brother Steve was just leaving the room, mobile phone clamped to his ear.
‘I also wanted to talk to you about all the jewellery your mum passed you,’ Catherine said.
‘It’s just some earrings,’
‘Well’you’re not going to wear them right? I was just wondering’why don’t you let me take care of them for you?’
I probably looked as blank as I felt. I mean I understand cats need taking care of’ which made me remember a certain hungry cat back home, but not earrings.
‘You should get them valued,’ Catherine said earnestly, patiently and persistently. ‘After all you’ll be passing them on to Melissa one day, right?’ She gestured to her daughter to join us.
Mel peeled herself off her chair and came over. She was in black, as you would expect of a funeral ‘black clothes, black eyeliner, black nails’ ‘Melissa, did you say hello to Aunty Lavender?’
‘Aunty Lavender is trying to decide what to do with Nai-Nai’s jewellery,’
Mel did not seem impressed. ‘You may not want to wear them now, but they are valuable pieces and one day’’
‘You don’t have to wear them in your ears,’ I said.
Mel brightened up. ‘Kewl,’
‘Where are your piercings?’ I asked my niece. Some of the kids Pinky worked with wore pins in their brows, their noses, their lips, tongues and lower regions.
Catherine made an exasperated sound. She was probably more tired than she realised. We had been sitting around for almost twelve hours now and anybody else would have given up for the day but Catherine was a determined lady. She turned to Mel, ‘Go see if Daddy’s all right,’
‘He’s on the phone, Ma,’ Mel said. ‘Give him some space,’
I thought about calling Pinky. I missed her. If I got another chance I would tell her she could drag me to all the meetings she wanted. My late mother followed all the right rules all her life but even though she married a man, had two children and stayed away from alcohol, gambling and Afghanistan she still ended up dying alone in a hospital bed; hooked up to a ventilator and heart monitor, with nurses praying she wouldn’t go on their shift because it meant more paperwork for them. I should have been with her. But after Pinky moved out it was my Mum who told me to take a break, go on a holiday before the NUS term started.
‘Here’’ Mel pushed out her lip. ‘See? It’s closing up because Mom made me take it out’
‘It was infected,’ Catherine shook her head and shuddered. ‘Pus. There was pus. Anyway, feeling bad now for leaving your mother all alone when she needed you most isn’t going to do any good, but at least do justice to her memory’’
‘You mean donate them to something in her name.’
‘Of course not! You have no right to, I mean, it’s only right that they stay in the family. You don’t have anybody else to leave them to, so why not my Melissa right? Steve should be talking to you about this but he’s still too upset about you leaving your mum all alone to die while he was working overseas, why don’t you let me take care of everything. I have a friend who can get your mum’s jewellery evaluated, you don’t realise how important such things are’
She was probably right. I Don’t know how important things are. I hadn’t known my mother, who hadn’t known I don’t have pierced ears.
‘I got a piercing in my nose too,’ Mel said conversationally, ‘Inside. And one in my belly,’
‘Go find your father! Now!’ Mel went.
‘I’ll wait,’ I said. I had said the same thing to Pinky so many times it was automatic, ‘and see first,’
‘You can’t just sit around doing nothing’even if you refuse to admit it, you’re not getting any younger, you know!’
Of course I knew I was getting older. Part of the problem of being with Pinky was worrying about what would happen to her after I was gone. You know you’ll survive the pain of breaking up with your younger partner because by the time you reach forty or forty-five you’ve learned that heartbreak and loneliness don’t kill you. But what about your special someone ten or fifteen years younger who attaches herself to you for love’till death do you part’and finds out she’s signed on for geriatric duties? By the time you’re dead and she’s free she’ll be on the verge of old age herself and likely to end up alone. Not fair right?
I couldn’t do that to Pinky.
‘You know you should’, Catherine said. ‘’let us take care of things. We have a system, you don’t. We have reliable people, you don’t. We’re organized, you’re not,’
Just then there was a commotion near the entrance. It was past midnight by then and most of the mourners had left. I saw Pinky coming in with a whole group of people.
‘Sorry Darling, couldn’t come earlier, there was a bit of fuss at Theatreworks, one writer whose story got banned gave a talk instead, he gave it in his underwear so everybody could see he had no hidden agenda and some people got upset’
‘Because he took off his clothes?’
‘Because he didn’t take them All off. You remember Geraldine right? She was your Mum’s doctor?’ Let me just go pay respects to your Mum, I got a bottle of XO to put in her casket, yes, of course she did. Only maybe not when you were around. Gerry and I were with her when she died, you know, Gerry called me and I rushed down, sorry I didn’t to see you sooner but I had to sort out all those people trying to put words in that poor boy’s mouth that he never said,’ Catherine looked disapproving but I don’t think Pinky noticed. Or maybe she did.
‘What were you doing in the hospital? I thought only immediate family were allowed? That’s why I thought even Melissa and I better not go,’
‘I told them you sent me,’ Pinky said. ‘That’s okay right? Your Mum said to tell you, if you ever make a painting of her, pierce a hole through the canvas and stick in a earring!’
Suddenly I felt good. My mother had noticed my ears were not pierced. My mother had noticed I painted. And my mother had noticed Pinky.
‘I better find Steve,’ Catherine said, ‘Tell him even though it’s So late, more people have come,’
And they had come. The advantage of being a small community is you never really lose touch with people; it wasn’t just Pinky’all my ex’s and their partners were here, saying goodbye to my mum. We were like an extended family now; it would never occur to us to spend time relaxing together but we show up for support when times get tough. Because of experiences shared?
‘Remember how your bloody cat outed us to your mum? And all your neighbours? There was this screeching and yowling from the outside so we dashed downstairs and grabbed the cats and pulled them apart and there we were holding a cat each but I wasn’t holding Chucky and you weren’t holding Chucky, so the two of us, apart from the cats we were holding, were stark naked on the sidewalk in front of your house with people coming out to stare. Your mum said, ‘are you two naked?’ And you said ‘we got cats’.
Actually I must say my mother survived a lot.
When Catherine brought Steve over to say it was getting late and perhaps staying up to sit all night with the body was just superstition, one of the girls who came with Pinky said, ‘Hi Steve,’ Steve didn’t seem to recognize her. Usually my brother boasts he never forgets a name or face.
‘You must remember me!’ The girl persisted. ‘I’m Jazz, Sheba’s sister!’
‘It’s really getting late,’ Catherine said. ‘Is your friend drunk?’
‘Oh, I don’t drink,’ Jazz said to Catherine. She continued to Steve, ‘I thought you and Sheba were off in Hong Kong?’
There was a long moment of silence. Actually it was probably a very short moment but it felt very, very long. ‘You Were in Hong Kong,’ Catherine said to Steve.
‘I told you I was in Hong Kong. For work. For a meeting. A conference,’ Steve said.
‘With her sister?’
‘It was a coincidence. That we both happened to be there. At the same time. A great coincidence.’
‘A great coincidence,’ Catherine took a deep breath, ‘I didn’t know so many people were coming,’ She said. ‘You didn’t tell me you had so many contacts,’ I hadn’t known either. But I was glad they were there.
‘I’ll go and buy more drinks,’ Steve said.
‘Why do you people always have to stir things up?’ Catherine said. She went after him.
I knew they would work things out. Some relationships have less to do with love and partnership than a business agreement that both parties are afraid to leave.
I gave Pinky all my reasons why I didn’t see such a relationship ever working out for us. As usual she came up with a serious solution without seeming to take me seriously, ‘So we’ll adopt one of these kids. Leave her all our cash and the apartment on the condition she stays with us till we’re both off the life support system’ how about that?’
‘Throw in Nai-Nai’s earrings and I’ll do it,’ Mel said.
Pinky said, ‘We can negotiate earrings later. I’ll be wearing them for now. Except the ones she works into her canvases but as long as she makes clean holes those don’t have to stay fixed,’
The holes on the outsides of people are the ones that heal most easily. Some of us carry unseen hurts around for years, because we’re always digging at them, testing their tenderness, feeling the flinch as you get close to the nerve again.
But these holes we share also form tunnels and connections. Piercings are something we all have in common, whether we are talking about holes in body parts, hearts or consciences.
Yes, it can be difficult attending funerals as an officially single person, but it’s really not so bad. There are worse situations, like arriving at your own funeral having been officially attached all your life and having died with no real connections at all.