I found myself alone in Phillip Island to wait for the penguins in 2016
The Lost Man
Every human has the insatiable need to take revenge. To hate someone, they must be worthy of notice. No one hates me because I am no princess. Despite that, the books I have read promised me that my husband would be a knight coming in shining armour. At twenty-two, I had not read a Mills and Boon.
I remembered Aunty Mui again. She was sitting on a swivel chair, in front of her was a large computer, instead of a vanity mirror, like all dames would have. The moment I entered, she turned around and said to me, in an opening statement, “I have lost him for good.”
Aunty Mui was a writer, I thought that she was referring to one of the characters in her story. So naturally, I did not take her seriously. I looked at the computer, it was on, and I could see that there was a draft on the screen. Aunty Mui was already seventy, being able to type on a PC meant that she was highly educated.
I found a chair and I sat down on the rattan. But before I could settle myself in, Aunty Mui asked if I were comfortable, and if I needed a pillow. And then before I could respond, she pulled out a cushion from under her table and passed it to me. The cushion was soft. I put it on top of my legs rather than behind my back.
Then I kept quiet, waiting for her next order. She did not switch off her PC, the screen was bright, it was obvious that the browser was waiting for her to input further bytes. Then she took quite a while before she rearranged the position of her mouse on her mouse pad, and finally putting it away.
I felt strangely welcomed. Aunty Mui had decided to meet me in person. She had been communicating with me virtually. And I had begun to equate her with the Empress in one of the Chinese dramas. Now was the only time that I could be close to her. Aunty Mui has two dogs and three cats, so it was not easy for her to give me any consideration, least of all, time.
The old lady has never mentioned about any man to me before, so that was a subject that took me completely off guard. A man?! Aunty Mui was not the glamorous type. She wore only loose shirts and long pants, never skirts or dresses. And she kept her grey hair short above her ears. In short, Aunty Mui doesn’t bother about her looks. And I respect Aunty Mui because she was simple and intelligent. Never would I have imagined her harbouring a lover either in her thoughts or deeds.
So, who was this “him”? A relative? An ex-colleague? A former staff? A stranger in the lift?
I gave her time. And I merely sat there, waiting for her to give me further information. I did not want to make her feel like I was probing, although I was very tempted for a quick answer. This was certainly very intriguing.
Her bedroom door opened, Sandy her helper poked her head into the room, “Excuse me, ma’am, barley juice for two?” as she was talking, she came in, standing right in front of me she asked,
“Do you want sugar?” “Warm or cold?”
I gave her my preference.
And then I turned to Aunty Mui, “Do you want me to put up a missing person advertisement for you, Aunty Mui?”
“No!” she shouted immediately, “Of course not!” I had never seen Aunty Mui so vehement before, so naturally I apologised straight away. I wasn’t in the wrong. It was the most logical suggestion, based on what she had just told me.
“Then what can I do for you, Aunty Mui?”
She kept quiet, her eyes looking at me with hatred that I couldn’t fathom. I quickly looked down, avoiding her stare. I must have offended her greatly. My stupid cleverness!
And then knock knock, even though the door wasn’t shut. Sandy came in this time holding a tray with two cups of fresh barley. She put one on Aunty Mui’s computer table, and another cup on the little table in front of me.
I said thank you, and then I kept quiet, waiting for Aunty Mui’s order.
“Look what you have done!” Aunty Mui said.
“Err .... I ....” I haven’t done anything since I last saw Aunty Mui, apart from buying the August Wheat stock over the counter. It is a company that sells frozen food products.
“I thought I specifically told you not to go into the stock market.” She announced.
How did she know?
“Sorry Aunty Mui,” I replied. I had to say something, even though I wasn’t feeling sorry.
But inside me I was getting annoyed. What has this got to do with her? I was using my own money to buy the shares, as far as my bank statements tell me, I have not been borrowing from Aunty Mui.
“You have been using my resources to buy some shares, I was told,” she said.
I was shocked, “Using your resources?! How could it be?” “What resources of yours have I been using??” I asked.
“You have been communicating with Jackson!” she replied.
Then Aunty Mui got up from her chair, now swung towards me, and removed my cup from me. I still haven’t drunk the barley juice.
It is the same story. A woman falls for another man, the man courts her for a while, then decides to leave her. He disappears. The woman gets frantic, she looks for him everywhere but can’t find him whereupon she goes spiritual.
But that was not the last time that I saw Aunty Mui.
Having made some money from my investment, so that this morning I wore the hot pink dress to work. It was a new dress, and many people on the bus were looking at me. I felt important and that made me happy.
And I was beginning to be noticed by the customers who came into the supermarket. Also, I was beginning to remember where the grocery items were displayed. The can foods and dried goods on the shelf along the wall, the cereals, biscuits, and bread on the opposite row, and then behind the row it was the cleaning utensils the detergent. The wines and coffee were placed together I guess they were categorised as beverage. And then the dairies were on the other side of the wall. But I couldn’t understand why the freezer was stuck right in the middle of nowhere. It was a large container; customers must go round it before they move from the wine to the dairies.
The other thing also was that I was beginning to find a correlation between the August Wheat shares I bought and my visits to Aunty Mui. Whenever I have paid a visit to see her, the price of my holding moved up, sometimes by a larger margin and other times by a smaller edge. At first, I attributed it to just pure luck, then as I visited Aunty Mui more often, and the momentum of my holding appreciation began to follow, I had to admit that there was some element of relativity in it. Of course, I call this superstition.
It was not easy to gain forgiveness from someone whom you were not related to, much less on a matter on which you were responsible for. Aunty Mui had called to see me again. I knew that this time I had to make it or break it.
I already knew that she does not lock her doors. The minute I greeted her, Aunty Mui said,
“You are here only by the Grace of God,”
I muttered in agreement. That meant that she had gone into extensive prayers before she asked to see me. That also meant that she could not make up her own mind.
Then I wasted no time. Even before I sat down, I told her,
“Aunty Mui! This man has no real power. Any power he has is perceived by you. You love him, and you told yourself that he is the only man for you, and that you can’t live without him. He is riding on that and leading you astray,”
Aunty Mui did not pretend that she didn’t know whom I was referring to.
“Jackson is not Jesus!” I began. But you could find our saviour in church, in the Eucharist, and in your prayers. You cannot crystalise the Son of God!”
“Whoever said that Jackson was Jesus?” the old lady retorted.
I could not argue with her, and I was too tired to. I had been very bogged down by the bear market. I was a Catholic and I have attended Mass. Telling Aunty Mui that I no longer believe in her religion would break her heart. And I didn’t want to be seen as a rebel. Everyone is entitled to their own beliefs. It’s just that I could see where Aunty Mui was heading.
I found the rattan chair and I sat down again, waiting for my fresh barley.
Aunty Mui immediately let out a cry, “Don’t leave me!!!”
“I won’t,” I said, that was the most natural response. And I had intended to come back again. I want my August Wheat to go up. I didn’t want to provoke a recession.
“I have been praying for your safety ever since that night ....” she began.
Since that night?
“What night?” I asked.
I had never been to Aunty Mui’s house at night.
“You don’t remember? We drank red wine under the palm tree .... and we slept under the moonlight until the sun came up .... you called me Eve and I named you Adam.”
Adam and Eve had no clothes on in the Garden of Eden.
So, this confirmed it. Aunty Mui had a lover!
But I am not her lover!
I quickly said, “Excuse me, Aunty Mui. It was barley water, not red wine. The last time I came to your house, your helper Sandy served me barley water, and we never slept under the moonlight, we were indoors most of the time, in fact, all the time.”
And in case she accused me of telling lies, since I am seated in her house now, I ventured to add, “you have been watching too many movies,”
“No, it is you! Say it is you!” she shouted at me again.
“I, err, I, err, ....”
I decided not to offend her. I really needed this on-going relationship.
“Ok, yes if you say so,” I complied.
“No! Not if I say so, it is fact. And the truth is that I still love you, even after 20 years,”
“That is a long time ago, Aunty Mui,” I replied.
“Are you sure you still remember the facts?” I added.
“No, it was just two months ago,” she said, “Don’t you remember? You were sitting here on this rattan chair,” Aunty Mui gave a wicked smile.
“Oh yes, I am here for you now, Aunty Mui,” I quickly brought her back to reality whilst I still could.
“Why do you keep calling me Aunty Mui?” she enquired.
A strange enquiry.
Psychology books I read told me that I should henceforth pretend that I were her lover, Jackson. So that I said,
“My dear Mui, I am here for you now, ask me for anything and I will answer you,” still waiting for my fresh barley.
But suddenly Aunty Mui sprung up, “Don’t toy with me, Geraldine Tay Swee Lian! I know who you are.”
My face fell. So, Aunty Mui was making fun of me all this while. But the thing that disturbed me was that she called me by the surname Tay. The Chinese name Swee Lian was correct, but I was Yeo. And this was not the first time that she made the mistake. Could it have been deliberate?
I did not protest, after all Aunty Mui was not young anymore, it could have been a memory lapse. So, I decided to be honest, I stated the purpose for which I was here, I asked, “Could I have some of your barley juice?”
I needed a drink to calm myself down. The lady continued with the charade.
Let me tell you why you are here, I need you find him for me,”
“I am not clairvoyant,” I put in a caveat.
“Well, then go get a crystal ball!” Aunty Mui yelled. Aunty Mui is a rich woman, and she is demanding.
“Ok, deal! Next time I come, I will bring one,” I promised the old lady, who seemed more likely to possess magical powers than I. She has three houses and a helper at her disposal, not to mention the cats and the dogs.
I continued to stay. I told myself I would not leave until I’ve had my barley. It has a correlation with my August Wheat shares.
True enough, Sandy knocked on the door, and she came in with two cups. This time she already knew my preference.
Once I finished my drink, I made a quick excuse, and left the old lady whilst she went back to her story.
Since the new pink dress got me so much attention and unexpected joy, I continued to buy more dresses. From dresses I progressed to tops, and then as I saw that earrings were also advertised, I went ahead and bought a gold pair. I told myself I shall wear that if Aunty Mui were to summon me again.
There was a man in my supermarket. Having a man in my shop was not something to be alarmed about. But this man was here four days in a row. And today was just Thursday. We are closed on Sunday, which means that the man has been here every day since Monday.
Whenever he came in, the first thing he did was to go straight to the dairies. But he didn’t pick up any items. He would use his handphone to text someone first before he took a loaf of bread. Each time he came back with a different type of bread. Sometimes fine grain wholemeal, sometimes high fibre white, and even oat soft grain. I became quite amused. Surely, he need not consult anyone before he picks out his own staple food. And as far as I was concerned, bread is bread, whichever kind. But that was not it, after he has made his selection, he would go to the freezer and pick up the butter. I observed that the butter has always been the same brand and unsalted.
Ok, he has come round again. He greeted me this morning, and he smiled. Yes, his countenance was good, and his clothing impeccable, a shirt tucked in with a belt.
“Hello,” he began. I quickly took the opportunity to ask,
“May I know why you are texting in my supermarket?”
“Huh?” “Why are you spying on me?” still smiling, the man said.
“I ... err ... oh ok, it’s just that I noticed you buying a different type of bread every time, surely you must have your own preference,” I told him the truth.
“The answer is simple. I have four people at home, and each one prefers a different kind of bread,”
“That’s awfully inconvenient, I dare say,” I replied.
“By the way, would you like to tell me which kind of bread you prefer?”
I scratched my head, “Err, actually I don’t eat bread at all,”
Then I would recommend wholemeal fine grain, it’s least harmful,”
“How would bread be harmful?” I was puzzled.
The man merely took out his wallet and credit card to place it on my tap pay device, and then without a further word, he walked out of my supermarket.
I didn’t see the man for a week. And I really regretted not having noted his name on his credit card. Now I would have to go back on my records, and it is not allowed. So far, I have not made any mistakes on the collection. And I must tell you, it is not easy. Some customers prefer to pay by foreign currencies, and I had to convert the denomination into local dollars. Not an easy task. But this made my job more challenging. I like work that is demanding.
But at the back of my mind, I was still thinking of my August Wheat shares.
I used to log into the website to check on the price of the shares every day, by now I have advanced to, twice a day – once in the morning and once in the afternoon. I am grateful for the technology which allowed me to see the price of the stock on my handphone, although they said that public data was not a good gauge. Well, if that is not a barometer, then what is?
This morning they sent a memo to say that they found a cockroach behind the shelves in one of the can foods. I panicked, and quickly hid the memo in my drawer below the cash register. Just at this moment, the man walked in,
“Good morning,” he greeted me.
“Yes, hi,” I said, composing myself.
“Listen, I was trying to look for green peas yesterday, and you don’t seem to have any,”
I didn’t know where the cockroach went, so I gave a non-committal answer,
“I am not sure if we still have green peas, yesterday a customer bought three cans, and I think we are out of stock now,” to prevent him from walking to the shelves, I added, “Why don’t I go check it out for you?”
I quickly rushed out of the cash counter and walked towards the shelves, whilst in a hurry I knocked onto the display stand with all the batteries, sweets, and stuff. The whole clip fell, and all the items splashed all over the counter as well as onto the floor. I hastened to pick them up, and the man also came forward to help me pick them up.
“Sorry,” I said, “didn’t mean to be so clumsy,”
“No issue, Geraldine,” he replied.
I have had my second cup of coffee today, so naturally I was more alert than usual.
“How did you know my name?” I asked.
He smiled, and he said, “I think you don’t look at yourself in the mirror,”
“What do you mean?” “Are you telling me that I am ugly?” I was a little annoyed, being clumsy was one of my failings.
He is rude!
“Nobody told you to help me,” my voice a little louder this time.
“Hey! You don’t have to get angry over such a small thing!” the man merely got up from his squatting position, stood up, and walked out.
I am saved! Let me check for more cockroaches and see if there were any canned green peas.
Only when I went to the toilet to freshen myself up before heading for home did I realise that I had my name tag on, and that the man saw my name on my chest.
I felt terribly ashamed of myself, and I wished that I would meet him again to offer him an apology. To cheer myself up, I went to the pop-up café by the side of the neighbouring hotel and consumed another cup of coffee, this time a double shot.
By the time I went home it was almost 9:00 pm, and I couldn’t remember where I had roamed after the booster.
After a good night’s rest, I woke up still feeling fresh, and the minute I arrived at the supermarket, I picked out the remaining can of green peas from the shelve, and I placed it prominently on the cashier counter table. This just in case the man came back again for what he missed yesterday.
My August Wheat shares fell today. I panicked, and immediately thought of Aunty Mui’s barley water. It must have been because I have not been to her house for several, I think, weeks by now. The invitation was usually sent by her, and so I thought of inviting myself.
I now remembered that I was supposed to buy a ball, specifically a crystal type, to present to her on my next visit.
But I couldn’t close the cash register at this minute. Not when it is at 11:45 am and I didn’t have an assistant.
I waited till lunch time. After I put up the sign for “Out for lunch, be back at 2:00 pm” I left the supermarket and took a Grab straight to Adrenaline Street where I knew where crystals are being sold.
The owner of the shop was just too eager to see me. He sold only crystals, of varying shapes and sizes, in all sorts of designs. I was completely fascinated, and I wanted to buy them all. Finally, I realised what I was there for, and I quickly picked a sphere. But there were several, I didn’t know if I should choose a large, medium, or small.
What size would Aunty Mui like?
“I think she would like a small,” a voice came.
I got a shock, turned around and saw a rather good looking and mature man.
“Call me Uncle John, you will see me again,” he ordered.
Oh, so he was the storekeeper.
“How much is this?” I went straight to the point.
“For you, today, it is at 134 dollars net.”
“You mean no GST?” I asked.
“If you come back tomorrow it would be with GST,” he smiled.
Without further ado I took out my purse and I paid him cash. I didn’t want him to know my name. I didn’t want to make this another area of my expenditure.
But how did he know Aunty Mui’s preference?
I called Aunty Mui. It was Sandy who picked up the phone.
“Hello, is this ma’am Geraldine?” as usual she was polite.
“Is Aunty Mui in? Can I speak to her?” I did not waste time.
“Ma’am, I am afraid so, your aunty is very sick, she has not been eating for the last two days,” she volunteered.
“Then I must come and see her,” a good excuse.
“Come anytime you like,” Sandy replied.
It was a Sunday. I didn’t usually go to church. I took a Grab and arrived at 75 Riverton Drive. Aunty Mui’s house was packed in the middle and painted in pink. I hopped off and rushed right in.
I peeped into Aunty Mui’s room before I stepped in. She was lying on the bed, sideways, her head facing the window.
“Aunty Mui,” I whispered, not sure if she were asleep.
Aunty Mui didn’t turn around. I guess she recognised my voice.
“Don’t let your shadows darken my doorstep again!” In one go, mustering the remaining brute strength that she had.
I knew that I had provoked her by my science based and logical thinking on the last occasion. I should have known that religion is a taboo topic. I should have known that if I ever wanted to drink fresh barley again, I must not disagree with Aunty Mui on whatever she said.
Reluctantly I walked towards the bedroom door, not forgetting to say, “Sorry Aunty Mui, I will see you again.”
Aunty Mui did not respond.
With trepidation, I hugged my crystal ball and walked towards the staircase and decided it best I left and texted her later after she has cooled down.
As I was going down the stairs, I saw Sandy. We said hi to each other and then she promptly disappeared into one of the rooms, presumably the one next to Aunty Mui.
Outside Aunty Mui’s house I stood, the rain started. I attempted to take out my umbrella, but instantly saw that I had taken it out of my handbag to sun after yesterday’s downpour. The weather had been unpredictable these days.
Extremely frustrated, I muttered a curse, and then I decided that getting angry with the sky did not help. What I needed to do was to borrow an umbrella from Aunty Mui. But after the tiff, I could not bring myself to go back again.
But then I had not drunk the barley juice, which was the sole purpose of my visit. I went in again. I could ask Sandy for a glass of barley juice directly.
Sandy was afraid. She told me to see her employer again. I had no choice but to allow myself to be scolded again.
How do I neutralise her?
I decided to come clean with the old lady.
“Hi Aunty Mui, do you buy stocks and shares?” outside her bedroom I said, in a tone that I felt was audible, before I stepped in.
“Why, no,” she said, and then, “I am too old for that,” further on she said, “come on in,”
I jumped at the chance. “There is no such thing as too old,” I said, in a bid to cheer her up. Although I did realise that anyone above sixty should not be allowed to take risks, it’s bad for the heart.
“Why do you ask?” she said.
Sandy came in on time. She quenched my thirst and simultaneously drove up the price of my August Wheat.
I stopped short. I changed my mind and decided not to confess to Aunty Mui. She still didn’t know that I had bought some shares after the day she spoke to me about the lost man.
Aunty Mui and I chatted about her book and then we decided that it was still not time to publish yet.
Strange that the old lady changed her mood so suddenly. The weather must have had something to do with it. For I could hear the rain coming down heavily the raindrops splattering across the window.
I almost lost my way home this evening. Maybe that was because I went into the pop-up café again. I felt recharged every time after I had taken the double shot. Tonight, immediately after my coffee I felt that I had to see Aunty Mui urgently. The price of the August Wheat had dropped again. I decided to go to 75 Riverton Street, and paid Aunty Mui an unannounced visit. I could just ask for a glass of barley juice even without seeing the old lady.
Bolder this time, I opened the unlocked door and walked right in. I found Sandy in the kitchen, and I tapped her on the shoulder before asking, “Can I have a glass of barley juice?”
“Of course, you can, ma’am,” the girl was cooperative. And she promptly went to the jar by the side of the fridge. I saw an ant on the jar before she poured the liquid onto the pot to reheat it.
“How much barley do you add?” I asked.
“A table spoonful, and some rock sugar.”
“Oh, that means I can’t control the sugar since it’s pre-cooked,”
“Here you are, ma’am,” Sandy said.
I took over the glass, and the barley water was drowned by my double shot earlier on.
Aunty Mui was really sleeping this time. I tip-toed to her side, saw that she was breathing heavily. There was a document on her computer table, and out of curiosity I picked it up and I saw –
That was my own birth certificate!
I almost fainted.
No, this cannot be true! This must be one of Aunty Mui’s stories!
Without thinking, I took the glass of barley juice placed on the table and drank it all in one gulp forgetting that this was Aunty Mui’s barley.
I woke up from the story, then I excused myself from the sleeping lady muttering,
“Sorry Aunty Mui, I come back and see you again,” even though I knew that she could not hear me this time.
Aunty Mui had not been looking for me for more than a month, and my August Wheat fell sharply. I went back to 75 Riverton Street, but it was overwhelmingly crowded. The entire house was decorated with white wreaths, and I walked in without being noticed. The entire living room had been cleared, in the middle was a coffin. Automatically I moved up to see who was inside. To my horror I saw Aunty Mui’s frozen ashen face. She was dead!
I couldn’t stop myself from speaking loudly to the corpse in front of all the other mourners, this time decidedly repentant, and I thus began,
“Aunty Mui, I genuinely believe, and has been for some time now, that you are my real mother,”
“No, you are not my daughter, and what makes you say so?” Sandy replied.
“I saw my birth certificate,” I said.
“From where?” she asked.
“Your table, you left it open the other day when I was here,” I was honest.
“Whoever gave you permission to look at my things?” Sandy raised her voice.
“I .... err .... I .... I didn’t mean to be nosy,” I spoke like a baby.
“Is that what they teach you in law school?” Sandy was decidedly angry this time.
“No, I never went to law school,” I confessed.
“Then what were you doing in the university?” she became curious.
“I was doing accounts, but ended up as a cashier,”
“Oh,” she sounded quite disappointed.
“Sorry, Sandy,” this time I became bolder, since I had already made up my mind that Aunty Mui was my mother.
At this time, Uncle John came in, if you remember where I found him.
The man was accompanied by another man whom I already knew, Jackson.
Huh? How did they know each other?
Jackson moved up and paid his respects, bowing three times. I quickly followed suit since I have made a fool of myself. This was certainly not the time to rebind with your own mother.
I greeted the man, who has been the one responsible for asking me to buy the August Wheat. He turned to Uncle John and introduced me to a man whom I had already been acquainted without his knowledge.
“Hi Geraldine, please meet Tay Wee Loke, my dad,” then he added,
"He is one of the directors of August Wheat."
Tay Wee Loke was the name of the father on the birth certificate!
Oh My God!
At the same time, Tay, no, Uncle John came up to me.
“Look Geraldine, tell yourself that you will never have to meet this Aunty Mui of yours ever again. Not this life, not next life. Then you won’t feel miserable,”
“But .... but ....” I stammered, “Aunty Mui is my mother,”
“Yes, I know, she treats you as though you were her daughter,”
“No, she is my real mother!” I said, almost crying.
“Real mother as in biological mother?” Uncle John asked.
“Yes.” I said, sobbing.
“Who told you? She?” he said.
“Nobody told me,” I said softly.
“Have you seen the birth cert.?” he asked.
“Yes, am afraid so,” I nodded my head.
“Oh, so that explains it,” he looked strangely confident, suddenly.
“She told you about this before?” I asked.
“No, she left everything in her will to me,” the man answered.
“Oh, so that’s why you are here,” I was surprised.
“So .... that means that you are her lover, and she abandoned me because of you!” I exclaimed.
The purpose of the will was for him to do a habeas corpus!
“No mother abandons her child wilfully,” Uncle John assured me.
“Then why didn’t she see me for the past twenty years? And you know what? I am already twenty-two now,” I started sobbing.
Uncle John gave me his handkerchief.
“Do you still carry these things nowadays?” I was amused.
“Ok, you cool down for a while, let me go in and get some coffee,”
I sat amongst the mourners, and I left my mind blank. There was no music to liven up the occasion, and rightly so.
Uncle John came back with his cup.
“I thought you were going to get coffee,” I asked.
“You have been drinking barley from this house since time immemorial,” he said.
Now I would have to visit Uncle John every day to lay claim to my late mother’s estate. And I am still working at the Green Slone supermarket. The man in the supermarket who was supposed to come and collect his can of green peas never arrived. Was he the knight in shining armour?
One story I have read "The Princess and the Pea" told me that I need to get a new job to find my prince. On my last day of work at the supermarket I used my own money to pay for the can of unclaimed green peas on the cashier counter table and checked out. And then I walked slowly to the neighbouring pop-up café and did a double shot before I went to see my father again. He makes wonderful fresh barley water.
Hope you enjoyed the story you've just read. I wish to write more stories to amuse my readers!