Out of the Ordinary
Updated: Feb 9, 2022
This is 2012
In an alumni gathering
Ken finds his old school mates absurdly bizarre
yet far too ordinary and common at the same time
He conjectures why some people rapturously yearn for the End of the World
but are petrified by the prospect of personal death…
AFTER hanging up, James stares briefly at the phone in his palm. It sits heavily, as if weighed down by the guilt of having conveyed multiple lies but failed to get its owner out of yet another high school alumni dinner.
The same junior old farts will get together to boast about achievements — most of them fictitious, the rest irrelevant or uninteresting — throw names, compare medical indices, exchange investment insights, recall ‘fun old days’ from twilight memories enhanced with illusive details, laugh harder about how ‘silly’ they once were, competing to having been the absolutely most stupid once upon a time, when life was simply wonderful.
When Eva’s name flashed on his new smart phone, he gritted his teeth and resolved to lie. Caller ID display has removed the last vestige of suspense in answering telephone. She’s the lifetime Chair of the unofficial alumni association. Her certifiable social passion is arguably the only reason for the association’s continual existence.
‘Double-O-Seven, Eva ah!’ Only his secondary school mates still use his juvenile nickname, another reason to get rid of them.
‘Hi Eva. What a surprise. What’s up?’ He said as if reading from prepared notes, obviously not good at pretending surprise.
‘The annual dinner, of course! You’re the only one who hasn’t replied.’
‘Oh dear, that time of the year again? Reply to what?’
‘The group e-mail we sent, weeks ago.’
James wondered who we includes.
‘Don’t think I’ve got it. Must have been junked.’ He felt perfectly comfortable with the fib, even a little proud. He wasn’t hurting anyone, just trying to rescue himself from an evening with mates who should have been long lost, if not for Eva.
‘You’ve changed your e-mail?’
‘You had no problem in previous years.’
What the hell is this, an interrogation? Eva has always been a soft bully, and ostentatiously clever — a born lawyer. As her legal practice thrives, her attitude problems harden. What do you know about computers? he felt like saying. ‘The setting maybe different,’ he said instead.
‘I see. Not trying to avoid us, are you?’
‘Haha, funny. When is it?’ Feigning eagerness is a good preparation for retreat.
‘The fourteenth. Nearly two weeks before Christmas. Nobody can claim conflicts with shopping schedule. We’re doing something different this year, eating molecule!’ She said eating molecule with hushed excitement.
‘Molecules? How many?’
‘Aiya, professor, don’t be such a blockhead lah! Molecule is big in the States and France. Food of the future, healthy and cool, also very technology. You’ll like it. We’ll see you and Amy, okay?’
Eva has grown more blunt with age, no longer bothering to disguise verbal bulldozings with unfunny jokes or niceties. James rolled his eyes. Americans and French sharing the same gastronomical interest in molecules will surely turn Eva molecular.
He inhaled. ‘Amy’s busy that day.’
‘You know your wife’s schedule by heart? What a model husband! I should have married you instead. Be my bachelor for a few hours then. Say yes please! It won’t be the same without you!’
James thought, Thank God you didn’t! Eva was the first in the group to get married, and the first to divorce, barging in and out of marriage as if a raiding campaign. Her husband reportedly gave her everything she demanded just to get out. Eva took the insult and money gracefully.
Petite and cute like a Japanese voodoo doll, Eva’s far from ugly. James and her were kind of close in their younger days. They often did things together without calling it a date. He rarely said no to her because he didn’t know how to. But they had never been a couple. He enjoyed her company uncomfortably, but had never fancied her naked even during the tormenting years of puberty. He liked her in an unsatisfactory and confused manner. Her lively persona was invigorating and attractive — still is. Unfortunately, she knows that too well herself, and has overdriven her charisma to the point of exhaustion. With age and distance, he now sees a mishap of east-meets-west in her. Confident and assertive on the surface, unsure deep down, she craves endless endorsement of the way she is, while trying constantly to become something she isn’t.
Does she fancy him, on the other hand, especially after all these years? That’s a mystery he doesn’t dare resolve. Her brutal flirtations annoy, intrigue, embarrass, and flatter him. At these reunion parties, they — Eva and him — give a shimmering impression that ‘something’s still going on’ between them — wink wink. He’s aware that the semi-intentional misunderstanding, though initiated by Eva, wouldn’t stand without his collaboration. Maybe his IQ-zero male vanity finds suggestive attention from women irresistible, even a woman like Eva, especially a woman like Eva, especially in front of the old boys. No doubt they whisper behind his back. They itch to know what it’s like to have a hazardous lover like Eva. To those who obliquely enquired, he’d answer Me? Eva? Are you nuts?
It’s time to end that silly game.
‘I may be out of town…’ He gave another try, perfunctorily, mumbling.
‘Maybe? Still not fixed? Make change lah. No matter what, you must come! Everyone looks forward to seeing you once a year. I never understand why an anti-social fossil like you can be so popular. We may be the only high school alumni in the world still getting together every year. That itself is worth preserving, no? Come on, once a year! I’ll ask my secretary to send you the details again. Check your junk box just in case. Okay? Pleeese! Say hi to Amy. Gotta go, see ya!’
Flatteries, insults, misplaced righteousness, all in one.
Alas, it works.
He despises himself for having submitted to Eva Lau’s flirty bullying so easily again. Looking at the positive side, however, it serves to highlight his easy going personality. Perhaps that’s why everyone likes him? That can’t be true though. Neither is he anti-social. He loves shooting the breeze over a glass of wine or tea with a small group of friends. She’s so full of shit.
She’s right about the gathering being unusual though, and only once a year. What the heck.
Tugged inside a high-rental shopping mall, it looks like a ritzy frozen meat warehouse. The receptionist, donning a tin foil jacket, eyes shadowed pitch black, ushers James to the mini-banquet room. The gathering opened with cash bar at 4:30. It’s now nearly six. At the door, a monitor displays SWSC Alumni Association Annual Dinner Gathering 2012 (Ms Eva Lau) in three different colours.
The tinfoil girl pushes open the door with corporate gusto, smilingly invites James to enter. There’s an unintentional challenge in her hospitable gesture: Get in there, I dare you. She reminds him of the Addams Family. ‘Thank you,’ he returns an uncle-like smile. A gush of even colder air from the room escapes while they exchange courtesy.
The room’s generously lit, yet paradoxically dim, with a faint bluish glow. The walls are lined with glossy stainless steel panels. James has never been to a morgue, but is sure it would look something like this, perhaps a bit more down-to-earth, and not teeming with semi-animated souls chatting with a drink in hand. They form groups of threes and fours, dressed similarly according to gender, distributed in equidistance from each other. Images bounce endlessly across the walls.
He sees himself among them, wearing a grey woollen jacket and grey linen pants, unaware that two shades of grey don’t automatically match. His Bugs Bunny front teeth give the impression of a suppressed smile and infinite magnanimity, belying a lazily cynical side. He loves to debate, but never argues. When a discussion goes nowhere, he would simply submit — yeah, you’re right — and move on. To keen learners, he’s a good teacher. To students who increasingly see themselves as university clients and the professors as syllabus stewards, he has no qualms in disposing of them with a bare-minimum pass.
‘About time, Professor!’ Hyper-friendly Missisippi Wong, one S missing, greets him over-heartily.
On the first day of secondary school, they were required by the English teacher to adopt a Christian name. As most parents were not of much help, many kids turned to the Bible — an expedient source of inspiration in the Church-run institution — and became Teresa Chan and Peter Wong and Thomas Cheung… One kid came across the Book of Job and picked God’s picnic pal Satan. The teacher rejected his choice and gave him the name Job instead. Funkier ones turned to pop music and Geography. A girl took the name from a lively number by the Classics IV — Spooky little girl like you… — and became Spooky Wan. Nobody — including the English teacher — knew that Spooky is not an appropriate name for a young lady.
James, with the family name Bong, styled himself after the popular secret agent who was never secretive. Missisippi wanted to sound majestic and American, but missed one S when copying down the long name. By the time he noticed years later, it was already in his official identity card. So he let the typo stay, and accepted being unique.
‘Sorry, tied up in a presentation.’ Thanks to this event, James is now a chronic liar. ‘What happened to your hair?’
Missisippi’s hair has been shaved on one side. The other half is overgrown, dyed blue at the tip. The asymmetry is astounding, but James’ immediate reaction is sympathy.
‘Haha’ — Missisippi contrived a chuckle — ‘In my business. I’d look weird with normal hair. Don’t be such a dinosaur, man!’ James isn’t sure which business Missisippi’s in these days. He had been involved with the garment trade, real estate, health food, and, very briefly, movie-making which bankrupted him officially. After disappearing for a few years, Missisippi remerged, still missing one S, lively as ever, offering chart-reading investment advice. Last year, he teamed up with a relatively young woman in her thirties — highly talented according to him — to deal art. Perhaps that’s the reason for the drastic hair style.
‘Did you have normal hair?’
‘A little. But my head eventually grew out of it. Time to reform.’
‘How you doing anyways? Can’t believe it’s been a whole year.’
‘I know. So much has happened in Hong Kong. Exciting times.’
James smiles politely. This could lead to a political discussion, the last thing he wants with Missisippi. Fortunately, Eva flutters over to his rescue.
He flinches dramatically: ‘Shh… it’s a secret.’
She leans forward to his left, martini raised high, hot pink pinky sticking way out. She presses her reinforced breasts against him, fumigating him with jasmine concentrate.
She then shifts to his right for an instant replay.
James has never got the knack of air kissing; to him, it’s an inimitable alien custom. Eva cups his hand with her free one, looking emphatically pleased: ‘So so so pleased that you’ve come.’
‘Me too,’ James mumbles.
Eva’s fully colour-coordinated: hot pink nails on smooth pampered hands subtly cursed with age-swollen knuckles; a pink qipao with a huge floral pattern — red, pink, and green — the kind worn by Parisian models. On petite Eva, it has the loopy effect of a Chinese pretending to be a European pretending to be Chinese.
‘Nice qipao.’ He isn’t lying this time. It’s beautiful, notwithstanding the confusing effects on Eva.
‘Like it?’ She spins three-sixty degrees. Her hair, too long for her age, is tied up into a bun, pierced by a pair of silvery chopsticks.
‘Yeah, where’d you get it?’
‘That’s a secret!’ She crinkles her nose, looking proactively cute.
‘Looks like you haven’t seen each other since the last world war,’ Missisippi interjects teasingly.
‘No, we haven’t!’ whines Eva, still holding James’ hand. ‘I had to beg him to come even to this party.’ She then sticks her tongue out at James. He strains a tender smile at her childish expression. In social occasions like this, Eva’s gentle and soft. Does that mean she’s actually aware of her own personality downside? James wonders.
A few steps away, Ken’s having an animated discussion with Darwin Wong and Professor Michael Cheung who loves to recount his wonderful year — strictly speaking seven months — teaching as visiting scholar at Yale. Michael and James work at the same university, but rarely see each other. Michael teaches education. James is a lecturer in computer science.
Ken is James’ only regular friend from this group. They get together for long chats over dinner or after-work drinks at least four to five times a year. After speaking with Eva on the phone, James had called Ken.
‘Of course I’m going! It’s becoming my favourite source of inspiration.’ Ken confirmed. He calls himself a writer and detached people watcher.
They greet with a nod.
The party room is big by Hong Kong standard. Two long tables, each with twelve settings, take up only half the space.
Sissy and Henry — her first and last boyfriend cum first-and-most-definitely-last husband — always migrate to the furthest corner in a party room like this as if guided by instinct, and stay near the fire exit. Their committed-at-first-sight relationship gives the impression of karmic duty rather than romance. Even their respective handicaps seem to have been tailor-made from past life. Henry was infamously and openly stinky, and had earned the much deserved sobriquet Henry the Skunk at a young age. Back then, only very rich and modern folks had heard of deodorants, and he wasn’t one of them. Sissy, sweet and petite with bright astonished eyes and short dark hair neatly cropped at the fringe, is anosmic by birth. Every school mate present tonight had at one time or another wondered from a distance whether their steadfast love affair would have been possible without Sissy’s olfactory defect. As it happened, they slotted in love as soon as they set eyes on each other in Form One. They eventually went to the same university, got married as soon as they graduated, and qualified as chartered accountants on the same day.
Since meeting each other, they have not attended any social function alone. They have produced three bespectacled children in quick succession — all winners of scholastic awards at an early age. Theirs is a textbook marriage which drives professional counsellors mad, and out of business. Evidently, they have grasped the meaning of life. Right now, they are sharing important insights with the only other couple from this group, Abraham and Delilah, making them really worried, pale from apprehension.
‘You haven’t had a colonoscopy?!’ exclaims Henry, seriously as is his wont. ‘Seriously, you two, even if you don’t care for yourself, you have to think about each other and the little ones,’
He has at least doubled in size since secondary school, a sign of serious felicity. He has gained weight all over, except at the skull which remains the same size with notably less hair. The few dozen surviving strands lay snugly against the shiny scalp as if drawn on with a fine drafting pen. With a marriage like his, appearance is irrelevant. Not caring about it could in fact be taken as a security oath to the wife.
‘What should we do then?’ Delilah clasps her hands tightly together, staring anxiously at Henry, nearly standing on tiptoe. She’s about the same height as Sissy, coming roughly to tall Henry’s armpit level. Luckily, his hallmark miasma has long been smothered by aluminium-based chemicals, now easily affordable and widely available.
‘When was your last checkup?’ Sissy turns to Abraham. Annual checkups and car maintenance are unquestionably masculine duties. It’s Abraham who owes an answer.
‘Ooo, years ago…’
‘Years ago?’ Henry and Sissy cry out in unison.
‘Do you have Three Highs?’ Henry asks.
‘Three Highs?’ Abraham has heard of Three Highs. Everybody talks about it. Blood pressure is one of them, but he can’t recall the other two. Delilah looks at him with concern and accusation, perhaps a little disappointment as well. She’s starting to realise what a thoughtless man she has married.
‘Blood pressure, sugar, and cholesterol,’ Henry can’t believe an explanation is required. ‘They tell us a lot about our health in general. Seriously, at our age, you should check them very regularly, once a month if possible. Once every three months at least. Some people monitor blood pressure daily, even a few times per day.’
‘We kind of feel quite normal, you see, no sign of anything wrong. We hike, as you know. Delilah also does pilates once a week,’ Abraham defends meekly.
‘Ha,’ Henry can no longer hide his incredulity. ‘Seriously, my friend, killers don’t have symptoms. At nine o’clock, you feel perfect, coming out from the gym. At nine-o-one, you could be dead. Why do you think they call it drop-dead, huh?’
‘Last year, my uncle in Vancouver went home from jogging and died outside his front door, keys in hand. He was seventy something though, nearly eighty, I think,’ recalls Delilah.
‘See? A blood uncle?’
‘My mum’s brother.’
‘Oh dear, not to scare you, there could be genetic connections. Check up as soon as you can, seriously!’
Abraham begins to feel the gravity of the situation. ‘How did I overlook such an important issue of life and death?’ he wonders, eyes stoney and breath shallow.
‘How’s your period?’ Sissy asks Delilah in a low voice, nearly shy.
‘Still on and off until last year. Now mostly off.’
‘Then check your cancer index too, and pay attention to your breasts. Women our age can’t be too careful, Delilah. Our bodies are going through a lot.’
Delilah nods pensively, then asks anxiously: ‘Where should I go check?’ Abraham has been temporarily forgotten.
‘The Sanatorium has a few set menus. A bit expensive but you can always pick a la carte. I wouldn’t recommend that though. Be really thorough the first time. What’s money without health?’
‘How much are you talking about?’ Asks Abraham nervously. Delilah gives him a reprimanding look.
‘Around twenty grand. All sorts of miscellaneous will add up to another grand or two,’ says Henry. ‘It’s worth it, seriously. Are you insured?’
A waiter stops by briefly. All their glasses are full of lime soda, so he walks on.
‘We have company insurance. Not sure if it covers checkups though. It’d be sixty thousand for the two of us…’ For once, Abraham feels his blood pressure rising, and his heart pounding much harder than usual.
‘You better check.’ Delilah commands softly, more accepting than accusing now.
‘I will, as soon as we get home.’ Abraham smiles apologetically.
The Three Musketeers is a self-conferred nickname known only to its members. As time wore on, their real names have been forgotten by many alumni. They dutifully attend every annual dinner, but hardly speak to anyone but each other. They are currently stretching imagination, reinventing teenage adventures, competing to have been the most obnoxious through the same dusty episodes of yore.
They had been sworn bros, BFF — best friends forever — at secondary school, but promptly went each other’s own way upon graduation at a speed which shocked and saddened the three of them. The irony is that they still look remarkably similar, more similar than many blood siblings: slightly puffy, probably from eating too much spam and sausage ‘like a king’ at breakfast. Their heads are slightly downcast, with eyes rolled upwards questioningly to demonstrate suppressed cynicism when they look at people. Their mouths slant at an acute angle when they smile, always bitterly, even on the happiest occasion. They carry soft bellies folded over man-made leather belts, forcing outgrown jackets of coarse wool to stay unbuttoned. They all have lightly pixellated hair, brownish from faded dyestuff. They even smell alike — not pungent like Henry once was, but a faint musty decay, like a recently decommissioned brewery.
They hardly get together, though their lives still have plenty in common. Once a year, they meet here to remember a colourful teenage, a shared pinnacle of their lives, and exchange sarcastic comments on how ridiculously overpriced and pointlessly pretentious these dinners are.
Right now, they’re whispering low and giggling loud, appearing to be the merriest bunch in the room, remembering this time or that time when they played tricks on the girls or cut class to read Playboy Magazine in the park, smoking Good Companion cigarettes.
‘Remember that time I put a stink bomb under her chair?’
Forty something years ago…
‘Oh yeah, fuck that was stinky!’
‘She thought she pooped her skirt, and froze!’
‘Remember that time I sprinkled itchy powder on her seat?’
‘Of course! That was vicious. Fucking vicious man.’
‘Don’t look! She’ll know we’re talking about her!’
Ha ha ha!
‘You see,’ says Michael Cheung with authoritative passion. ‘The biggest problem with education is exam.’
Modern academics promote their beliefs to attract media attention, community following, and research grants. Michael Cheung’s ideological postulation — exams are the root of all evil — is well-liked by students and wearied parents.
‘Centuries of exams,’ he continues, ‘have etched the idea deep in the Chinese social psyche. Kids study only to pass exams. Parents build their lives around them. At the end of one examination, all they see is the next one. That’s why they’re not innovative like Westerners. Exams are obsolete — a burden, even a curse.’
Ken has heard Michael’s popular take on TV, and occasionally read about it in the newspaper, but is still listening carefully. On points which he doesn’t quite agree with, he simply stretches his eyes wider to make a mental note, and twitches his lips a little. Darwin, on the other hand, nods attentively, making ‘hmm…hmm’ sounds to track his progressive enlightenment. His body tenses up with eager agreement.
‘Chinese not innovative?’ Ken finally interjects, eyes as wide as they could stretch. ‘The list of Chinese innovations from ancient times to now is probably longer than the rest of the world’s combined.’
Darwin jerks his head around to goggle at Ken.
‘From steam engine to airplane to vaccination to satellites to Apple to Google to Facebook to… you know, the list goes on, you won’t find a single Chinese name. There must be a reason, right?’ Professor Cheung expertly substantiates his claim.
‘Hmm…’ Darwin nods, then looks at Ken smugly as if he himself had just made a stunning move to checkmate Ken. What do you say to that, huh?
Ken drains the rest of his wine, then says: ‘You’re focusing on a very short and exceptional period in history, founded on colonialism and imperialism. I don’t see its relationship with exams.’
‘Again?’ Darwin utters his first multi-syllable word tonight.
‘What do you mean again?’ Ken says, slightly impatient, not sure if Darwin wants him to repeat, or is questioning his choice of blame. Darwin just stares on in blank silence.
‘We live in a period shaped by colonials new and old. They control the theatre, and have overwhelming say in who gets to go on stage. But that’s a big topic for another occasion,’ Ken clarifies for Darwin’s sake before returning to his main point. ‘What I want to say is that taking a longer timeline, China had been a leader in innovation for many centuries while exams played large in the background. But the country had gone through numerous cycles of prosperity, complacency, decline and reincarnation in its long life. Always had, always will. During the last downhill run, it crashed into the industrial revolution, resulting in a century of turmoil and —’
‘But the century of humiliation is long over! Yet we are still only copycats, regurgitating, not innovating.’ Michael has a readymade retort.
A waiter comes by to take Ken’s empty glass. He looks a well-trained child labour. ‘Would this gentleman want another drink?’
‘Me? Oh yeah. This gentleman would like another glass of your best and absolute cheapest red wine, filled up if possible,’ Ken gives a big cheeky grin.
The kid looks concerned. ‘Sorry, Sir, we only have two house wines, Carbon-net, and Mar-Lo. Do you want to see the wine list?’
‘That’s fine. Just kidding. Sorry. Merlot please.’
The waiter nods with theatric elegance and walks away triumphantly with his wine order.
Michael Cheung has been holding the same glass of wine all evening in his palm. It looks warm. ‘Let’s return to the present. Can’t live in history forever. What about now? What about the future?’
‘Everything now and in the future is an extension of history, isn’t it? To pretend otherwise is unrealistic.’ Ken wants to say stupid, or devious, but the word unrealistic comes out diplomatically. ‘Some people want to black out or whitewash inconvenient periods to reinvent themselves, that’s all.’
Michael gives a shrug which may be taken as provisional agreement or open-minded dismissal.
Ken carries on: ‘Only a little more than sixty years ago, China was on the verge of death. Average life expectancy was thirty-something. Literacy had dropped to just ten/fifteen percent. The bounce-back in the past few decades has been miraculous, and far from over. It takes determination, execution, and political innovation—’
‘And luck,’ Michael adds.
‘Sure. No doubt. Like all things. But luck can only do so much for a giant like China. Anyway, the country is now out of ICU, ready to get back on stage. But the stage has been set by others a hundred years ago. They are the designer, operator, judge and arbiter, bailiff and audience. We can only smile toothily backstage, craning for opportunities. Given that, China has made remarkable progress in aerospace and telecommunication and infrastructure, don’t know if you follow these news…’
‘I do, sort of.’
‘Maybe not in consumer products yet, but that will come soon. Watch Huawei, for example.’
‘Huawei?’ says Darwin. ‘What do they do?’
‘Kind of like Apple,’ Michael answers, then turns to Ken for verification. ‘Right?’
‘Are they listed here?’ Sensing investment opportunities, Darwin wakes from an intellectual stupor, becoming talkative.
‘Listed? No. It’s an employee-owned company. The founder retains less than two percent,’ explains Ken.
‘Not even listed?’ Darwin can hardly hide his contempt. Bullshit after all. Employee-owned company? Phooey.
‘Your Mar-Lo, Sir.’ Tinfoil boy returns with a glass of wine and payment folder on his tray. ‘Ninety-two, please.’
‘Ninety-two for a glass of house wine! That’s highway robbery, you know.’
The boy smiles awkwardly. Ken gives him a hundred. ‘Might as well keep the change. Not your fault.’
‘Thank you, Sir.’ He departs briskly, forgetting his elegance.
Ken raises his glass to eye-level. ‘Not even full.’
‘Excuse me guys,’ Darwin mumbles, and drifts off with his lukewarm lime soda which also cost ninety-two bucks, now flat.
‘You must be the best drinker in this group,’ Michael says, as if conveying a polite compliment to encourage an alcoholic.
‘Two glasses of wine all evening? You’re right though. Seems that no one else drinks here. I sometimes share a bottle for happy hour with Double-O-Seven though. Talking about him…’
James is done with Eva and Missisippi, moseying over.
Hi James. Hi Ken. Hi Michael. Our offices are ten minutes from each other yet we only meet here. Ha ha. What are you guys up to? Solving the world’s problems?
‘Professor Cheung is talking about how exams are threatening humanity, especially China.’
‘C’mon!’ Michael protests.
‘Just joking lah, professor!’
‘Of course I know about Michael’s famous exam reform proposal,’ James says. ‘But we’ve never had a chance to discuss it.’
‘Yes, ask James,’ Michael looks at Ken. ‘He runs some of the toughest courses on campus, and knows more about future thinking and hi-tech innovation than anyone else.’ Twenty-first century profs can’t intimidate students into submission with big words if they want to keep their jobs, so they flatter their audience into agreement instead. Michael’s a master at that.
‘You have many good points,’ James says, ‘but I can’t think of another viable screening mechanism to replace exams, especially for a mega community like China.’
‘But testing a student’s achievement over the past six years with one big public exam isn’t fair screening. What if the best student had a bad day? Or too nervous to perform?’
‘Talent screening has never been perfect, and never will. If a system manages to pick five good guys out of ten, it’d be pretty remarkable already,’ says James.
‘And education is supposed to prepare young people for life,’ adds Ken. ‘Shit happens in real life, far too often for my taste, but such is life, right? The rollercoaster track from birth to death is laid with all kinds of unreasonable hurdles which doesn’t recognise lousy days. School exams are just warm ups to this unpleasant reality. What about job interviews? The Olympics? Wimbledon finals? Or a life-and-death presentation to a major client?’
‘You still play tennis?’ James asks Michael.
‘Kind of passively once a week. My knees don’t like the game any more.’ Michael grimaces, then returns to Ken. ‘All I’m saying is we should reduce dependence on exams to minimise stress for young people. Stress is a big killer now, you know.’
Normally, nobody would argue against stress reduction, especially for young people.
But things are not always normal when Ken’s present. ‘I think youngsters in Hong Kong need more stress, not less,’ he says.
‘More stress?’ James asks.
Michael folds his arms and retreats to his oh-well, let’s-hear-him-out smile, looking liberal-minded, categorically non-judgemental.
‘Yes, more! Just like exam, stress is a big part of real life, a constant hum in the background. You think stuff like disappointment, frustrations, unfairness, failure, success, betrayal and so on will go away when today’s kids grow up?’
‘Did you say success?’
‘Yes. Success is more difficult to handle than defeat. Advanced stuff, I think. Not that I have any first-hand experience.’
‘True,’ agrees James.
‘And solitude,’ Ken adds emphatically, pointing a finger to the bluish ceiling above. ‘The way this world’s going, won’t hurt to learn to enjoy life alone without the company or endorsement of the loony majority.’
James laughs. ‘Like us?’
‘Like us lunatics? or like us escapees?’
‘Both, I guess.’
‘But…’ Michael wants to say something, then changes his mind. ‘Go on, go on.’
So Ken goes on: ‘I’ve heard that many parents these days will march to the principal’s office, sword and crucifix in hand, if they think their kids have been unfairly graded or penalised by a teacher. Our parents would have said: Teachers are never wrong! If you can’t take a bit of unfairness, how’re you gonna live when grown up? Now go study!’
‘Did you know my dad?’ James asks.
‘I met him once at your place, and saw through him right away,’ Ken grins. ‘Were they wrong? Getting a little taste of Homo sapiens when young is good for building character and survival spirit. Kids will learn to accept, adapt, resist, fight back, avoid, you know. Imagine this overprotected generation facing reality for the first time as an adult,’ he rolls his eyes. ‘There’ll be even more lunatics and suicides.’
‘I mostly agree with what you said,’ Michael says thoughtfully. Ken knows that pedagogues like to begin disagreements with I agree, then follow up with a but. So he waits. ‘But I think the next generation is already suffering from over-anxiety. You don’t want to overload them.’
‘My students certainly seem more jittery and nervous than before,’ James concurs. ‘Some I’d even say a little unstable. Why do you think that is?’
‘We old farts need to be more sympathetic, and stop judging young people with our values and experience,’ Michael involuntarily switches to his lecture voice. ‘Because of us, because of our generation, they now face environmental disasters, food and water problems, and a long list of genetic disorders nobody had to worry about before.’
‘You’ve pinpointed a fundamental problem, Michael!’ Ken interrupts the professor. ‘We’re passing on pointless despair and angst rather than constructive stress and survival skills to the next generation. Sick!’ Wine swirls agitatedly in his glass. ‘Many environmental projections are strictly speaking still only speculations, though it definitely won’t hurt to take concrete corrective actions now, by us old farts! Those who’ve done damage should be doing something about it, not sitting on their asses bullshitting all day, telling horror stories as if they had nothing to do with the mess. What do they expect the kids to do, huh? Reverse entropy? Start a revolution?
‘And all that trendy neurosis about genetics is a narrow view of what might happen to you because it happened to your parents and grandparents. If we could examine our infinitely-great-grandpas all the way back to the Stone Age, I bet you’ll discover a ton more hideous ways to get sick or die. We’re instilling fear into our children at an early age, telling them to listen neurotically for the ticking of biological time-bombs which may or may not exist because the environment and the way we live have also changed. We’re encouraging them to throw their hands up when they see the slightest sign of a disorder coming — Oh my God! My genes exploded! What can I do! Not much, buddy,’
Ken pauses for a moment before summarising. ‘We’re imposing despair — not stress — on the children. There’s a big difference. Very cruel and irresponsible if you ask me. For millennia, humans taught their kids survival skills — how to be brave and tough, come what may. Now we do the opposite to massage our conscience and wash our hands.’
‘Are you guys having a fight? Or super intellectual debate?’ Eva appears out of nowhere.
‘Ken’s just imitating himself,’ says Michael.
‘That’s impossible!’ Eva smiles her sweet smile. ‘Now, go find your name tags and sit down, please.’
‘Can’t wait to sink my teeth into molecules,’ says Ken. Eva gives him a girly punch on the arm.
‘Great discussions. We must continue some other day,’ says Michael, glad that it’s over.
‘Yes, not just once a year,’ James echoes, equally insincere.
Ken whispers to James: ‘Follow me.’ He did a little name tag swap earlier, rescuing James from the dining company of Eva and, all gods forbid, Romeo Kwan.
Romeo Kwan makes his appearance in the last minute. Little Wednesday Addams, slightly taller but only half his circumference, holds the door open while he pauses for attention. Nobody notices. He spots Eva corralling people to their seats. She’s wondering why James is sitting down with Ken on Table Two when Romeo approaches with extended arms like a friendly cartoon globe with budding human limbs, poised for air-kisses. His acoustic mwah-mwahs sound wet.
‘I’m so so so sorry. I had a meeting with Stephen. CY showed up unexpectedly in the last minute so we couldn’t get away.’ To his old classmates, he’s on first name basis with the Chief Executive and other government top dogs. ‘By the way, let me apologise in advance. Can only stay a little while. Must go to a Chamber of Commerce banquet, at least for dessert. I told my driver to wait downstairs instead of circling around the block. Doing my bit to save the environment too, haha. I promised Sir CK to be there — late of course — but — oh my God! Eva! You look fabulous, always the same, younger every year. So evergreen. What’s your secret? Wow, what a wonderful turnout? So good to see so many old friends. Time flies, I tell you. Time flies.’
As time flies, Romeo spreads his arms like featherless stumpy wings, and pauses to take a breath.
Though not outstanding in wealth or intellectual capacity, Romeo has a bit of both, plus a hyper-active nature which allows him ample presence in trade associations and public committees, making him a minor celebrity in town.
Eva listens patiently for him to finish. ‘Don’t worry big busy boy, you’re early,’ she says, coquettishly sarcastic. ‘We won’t start without you.’
‘Oh, you’re making me so guilty. I told you to go ahead without me, didn’t I? My time’s not mine, I tell ya. My life’s not mine.’ He wraps Eva’s hand with stubby undulating fingers, and rolls his eyes in exasperation. When his eyeballs come back down, they’ve changed focus: ‘What a sumptuous qipao!’ he whistles silently, scrutinising Eva’s chest.
‘Adore it!’ As his eyeballs glint adoration, they catch Peter and Frank nearby through the corner. ‘Hey, Pete! Frank! Need to talk to you guys.’ Hi Romeo. Pete and Frank work in finance and banking — useful contacts. ‘Stunning,’ Romeo lets go of Eva’s hand and concludes.
She laughs. ‘Everyone has started to sit down. You’re sitting next to me. Tell me more about how stunning I am later.’
‘Wow wow wow. I have to stay longer then. Gimme one minute. I want a word with Pete and Frank first.’
‘Hurry. I have to make a welcome speech,’ says Eva. ‘We can’t both be talking at the same time.’
James sits at the end of Table Two, next to Ken who’s next to Abraham and Delilah. The couple seems woefully pensive, separately lost in thoughts. Ken worries that an untimely domestic dispute is brewing underneath abstracted expressions, and keeps a discreet distance in case it boils over. Opposite James and Ken are Vincent, then Jill, then Henry and Sissy on chairs shifted closer together. Vincent, an entrenched bachelor, is a devout contractor. After a few decades of unquestioned devotion to timeless God, he considers himself a celestial insider. Jill is an established spinster. Having cruised dreamily upon the swell of bureaucratic seniority during these same decades, she’s now a senior prosecutor. In spite of professional success, she remains perpetually girlish and wrinkle free. Her and Vincent would have made a perfectly indifferent couple, but they hardly bother to speak to each other.
The menu lists twelve items in English, studded with French words which nobody understands. They take turns to read, nod pensively as if approving the obituary of an old friend, then pass it on mutely.
‘Twelve courses?’ James mumbles after counting, then returns his reading glasses to the shirt pocket before passing the menu to Ken.
‘Not much at the molecular level,’ Ken says. ‘We can always go for wonton noodles later.’
The first course puzzles everyone. Nobody makes a move. Vincent appears especially confused by the gob of white froth sitting in the centre of a fancy spoon. Tiny bubbles collapse sequentially before him in slow motion. Is this the dish? Or just a sauce? He doesn’t want to look stupid saying grace before a spoonful of plum sauce, while spring rolls are still being readied in the kitchen.
‘What’s that?’ He asks the waiter.
‘Blong Defff colloids,’ he answers in Frantonese — French with Cantonese characteristics.
‘Egg white colloids, Sir.’
‘You just… eat it?’
‘Yes, sir. Enjoy.’
Vincent thinks he’s embarrassed himself, and closes his eyes to thank God for the froth with a pouty face. When done, he eats the eggy colloid in one slippery slurp. Others have already consumed theirs while he prayed. Ken waits for him to finish licking the spoon before proposing a toast: ‘Good health, everyone.’ It propagates down the long table — good health… good health. After toasting, everyone starts enquiring after each other’s life, whether it’s been busy or not, and why.
Ken changes the subject at his end of the table: ‘The world’s ending again,’ he says, as green pasty lumps partially concealed by carefully arranged leaves are being served. On each leave is a red dot the size of a fish egg. ‘How are you guys spending the final few days?’ He directs the question to Vincent and Jill.
James is puzzled by his question, but senses a provocative conversation being set up, no doubt sharpened somewhat by low blood sugar and an irritation with the food by now.
Unexpectedly, Vincent answers eagerly with green lips. ‘We’ll be dining together on the twenty-first.’ He has stuffed the whole lump of green into his mouth. Though tiny, it’s enough to muffle his reply. Greenish juice overflows his lower lip. Ken doesn’t point to his own to alert Vincent to give his a wipe, but locks eye-contact instead to avoid staring at the spillage.
‘Who’s we?’ he asks.
‘Our Brotherhood of Dongguan Christians,’ Ken explains smugly.
‘Ah, I remember now. Yes. You’re still with the same congregation?’
‘Of course.’ He evidently thinks it a stupid question.
‘Still saving souls from Dongguan County only?’
‘That’ just a historical name. We welcome everyone from anywhere, even you.’
‘No you don’t,’ Ken assures Vincent with a wide grin.
James over-chews attentively, not wanting to get sucked into the discussion or start a parallel chat with Jill.
‘You guys plan on entering Heaven as a tour group?’ Ken asks.
‘That’s right,’ Vincent confirms, sucking teeth insouciantly. He knows Ken long enough, if not well enough. Had they lived in the Middle Ages in Europe, he would have slow-roasted Ken at the stake upwind for multiple sacrilege.
‘But this is a modern speculation of the pagan Mayan calendar, made way before the Conquistadores burnt all Mayan books and baptised the few who survived the massacres,’ Ken says, crossing the air before him with his hand like a priest.
‘What are you guys talking about?’ Jill asks, blinking guilelessly. In spite of her professional standing, she has never pretended to be intelligent. Privileged ignorance, being vacuously kawaii regardless of age and gender, is extremely popular in Hong Kong. James suddenly feels curious about what she’s like in the office.
‘End of the world, Jill,’ Ken explains, uncharacteristically patient. ‘The Mayan calendar ends on the twenty-first, finishing another b’ak’tun cycle. Some take that as a hint of the world ending.’
‘Oh that’s terrible!’ she shrieks softly.
‘What cycle?’ Henry asks. He’s been listening while offering health advice to Abraham and Delilah simultaneously.
‘b’ak’tun, whatever it means.’
Henry nods indifferently. The answer means nothing to him.
‘All calendars must end one day,’ James comments.
Ken smiles at him, then returns to Vincent. ‘Tell me: why are you guys so obsessed with End-times?’
‘Who told you we’re obsessed?’ Vincent rejects the adjective before explaining. ‘Well, if you love God, death isn’t the end. It’s instead the ultimate reunion with God and the beginning of eternal happiness — an event worth celebrating.’
‘I seem to recall that you prayed for your dad’s recovery from heart surgery — was that five six year ago? — and boasted that it worked miraculously, for a while anyway. Why did you ask God to postpone your father’s eternal happiness?’
‘That’s different!’ protests Vincent, hands raised, lips pursed, obviously exasperated.
‘Okay okay, sorry about the bad example. To be fair, non-believers seem equally excited about the Big End. But when it comes to personal death, everyone freaks out.’
‘Why do you think that is, philosopher?’ James asks, steering the conversation away from Vincent’s late father.
‘My take is that life’s like a jail, and we’re subconsciously anxious to get out.’
‘I hope the food’s better than real jail,’ James says.
‘Not if you’re on a thrifty lunch-box diet.’
‘Or this…’ James looks down at his little plate where expensive green molecules sat a minute ago.
A waiter replaces it with a saucer of little yellowish cubes covered with brown stains. ‘This is reconstituted organic chicken impregnated with a special curry extract. It goes very well with tonight’s Mar-Lo. Our wine master did the pairing.’
If the wine master indeed exists, James wonders, is it a full-time job to pair this?
Ken rearranges his napkin and mumbles: ‘Be careful with minced feather.’
‘At least we don’t have to wear uniform,’ Jill says reflectively, mostly to herself, then slips a dab of reconstituted chicken through Botoxed lips and holds it there, not chewing.
‘No?’ Ken raises one eyebrow, surprised that she’s actually with the conversation. ‘Who would voluntarily wear a tie and jacket in thirty-five-degree heat and ninety-eight percent humidity? We put on social uniforms all the time without realising or admitting.’
Jill smiles sweetly and resumes her inward gaze.
Ken returns to James. ‘Let’s face it, the average guy hates the morning alarm and his stupid job no less than prisoners despise the wake-up siren and sewing duties. Plus prisoners can drop a stitch halfway when work hours end, whereas white-collar inmates dawdle way past five because the manager still looks busy, and no one else is making a move. Lunch break in Central is more rushed than Stanley Prison, and infinitely more expensive —’
‘Ha, but jailbirds don’t get to go home after work!’ Vincent interrupts with gotcha triumph in his voice.
‘Is home a big happy deal to most people anymore?’ Ken shrugs, then takes a sip of wine. ‘This city is plagued with loners; families stare at the TV rather than talk to each other,’ he puts down his glass and turns to James. ‘Numbing the mind with video games sounded like a good escape to me at first, but my friend’s thirteen-year-old is suffering from depression — believe it or not — because he can’t move up in the virtual world. He’s a cyber failure, getting nowhere in fake life, seeing a shrink to get his mind fixed. Poor kid.’
‘Crazy,’ James shakes his head, then adds an afterthought. ‘Why don’t we see more suicides then. Jailbreak!’
‘That’s the point! That’s why so many yearn for the end of the world, but fear personal death. Imagine,’ he points to his own temple. ‘If you’re born and raised in a concentration camp. After fifty years, the guards say you alone can go, congratulations, how would you feel? I bet you’d be scared to shitless. But if the gate’s thrown wide open and everyone’s rushing out, you’d join the stampede, rapturous like Vincent is right now.’
Vincent gives him the oh-well-whatever look before saying: ‘I kind of share your jail fallacy, but I am happy because there’s a destination for me when it all ends.’
‘You mean Heaven?’ Ken asks. ‘Sure. But Eternal Life is another story. A very, very, very long one.’
‘Let’s drink to the possibility of imminent discharge then,’ James grasps the opportunity to raise a toast. ‘To a rapturous winter solstice! See you guys outside, or up there somewhere.’
‘I’m going down,’ says Ken, pecking the air determinedly with a crooked index finger.
‘What discharge?’ Henry overhears James’ toast.
‘A spiritual one, Henry. Nothing that doctors can help,’ Ken says.
‘Not covered by insurance then? Haha.’
‘Peace and happiness, pals, whatever God decides should happen next week,’ says Vincent.
Jill raises her glass too. ‘Good health. No more end of the world.’
Abraham drinks the toast broodingly, not sure what it’s for. Time is breathing down his neck feverishly, roasting hackles. He will arrange for a medical checkup first thing in the morning, but the morning is far away. Many things could go wrong before sunrise. When people discover hidden cancers, there must be a finite moment after which it becomes too late, like the instant at which the last straw lands on the camel’s back. What if his last straw moment is 9:36 tonight? Getting a check up tomorrow will be many hours too late. He looks at his wife. She’s staring at him in a way he has not seen before. Is that pity? disappointment? blame? What about the kids…?
On Table One, Romeo’s long gone. His driver was waiting, engine idling illegally. Professor Cheung is explaining to the person next to him that exams are a curse for China, and that researchers at Yale have come up with ways to work less and be more creative.
Eva watches Table Two from her seat, eyes involuntarily narrowed from indignation. Did James swap the name tags? That’s so sneaky, so outrageously rude. He always seems reluctant to join. All kinds of excuses. Well, I’ll permanently delete him from the list then. Yes, I will, from my address book as well. Arsehole…
But that would be so unlike him… No, he wouldn’t do something like this, not even if he wanted to. Could it be Missisippi? He was supposed to take care of Table Two. Maybe he’s unwilling? Maybe he wants to sit next to me? She turns to look, and is surprised to find him observing her, smiling knowingly, intimately, a strand of dyed hair over one eye. He’s thinking that she must have had changed the plan to put him beside her. He winks. She smiles back.
‘Did you get the inspiration you wanted?’ James asks Ken, as dessert is being served. It’s a small piece of cheesecake, oddly ordinary. On top of it sits a common blueberry. Everyone seems surprised to see something so normal on the table.
‘Don’t know,’ Ken says, taking his eyes from the cheesecake. ‘They reveal themselves only much later, when I’ve nearly forgotten about the party. In any event —’ he leans closer to James and lowers his voice ‘— this lot is bizarrely out of the ordinary if you look closely, but paradoxically very ordinary these days, far too common in fact. What can I say about something so unexceptionally absurd? Everyday reality has transmogrified beyond my ability to portray for the time being. Fascinating, isn’t it?’
‘Ha, well put. Yeah, unreal…’
‘What about wonton noodles?’
‘Sure! There’s a good joint just two blocks away.’
‘Great. Now, where’s the coffee.’
Abraham and Delilah have already stood up, saying goodbye to everyone, ready to go.
‘We got to go,’ Abraham says to James and Ken. ‘Early Merry Christmas.’ Delilah smiles impatiently beside him.
‘No coffee?’ Ken asks.
‘We have an early appointment tomorrow. Sorry. See you next year.’
‘Yes, see you next year. Merry Christmas,’ says James.
For once, he thinks he will join again next year, provided it won’t be molecular, and the world hasn’t ended. He has enjoyed himself tonight. Perhaps he always had, without noticing or admitting. Perhaps he subconsciously wants to keep a distance from the surreality emerging from what appears to be the most banal of humdrum — a mind-boggling contradiction he couldn’t quite put his finger on until Ken pointed it out. Instead of finding it fascinating like Ken does, however, he finds this shifting phenomenon unsettling, even disturbing. Is this a symptom of mass dementia? If yes, how may it all end…?
Oh well, he dismisses the worry with a silly grin. Time will tell.