Nobody ever brought me flowers except Vincent.

We were calling on the farmhouses, his folks and kin.  He was on his bike, spurting forward and stopping every now and then to wait for us.  Françoise was telling me, that Philippe had taken to heart the need of a career after she came out of hospital; that she longed to have a little house in which everything grew — daffodils, cabbages, strawberries, man, child and love.  I saw in her eyes thin smoke rising from the red chimney of her little house and turned to look for mine.  It was then that Vincent tapped me from behind and handed me the flowers he picked.  The flowers withered that afternoon.

Vincent was shy the first time I met him.  He came out of his room and embraced bonjour and backed away.  I could not even make out how he looked and left him staying shy in Paris a week later.  When I returned he was easier, and brought me those flowers; and tumbled on my lap to stay in the same snapshot with me; and tried to learn a little English.  It would never cross his mind, nor could I understand why I had come all this way to find him and let him see me off in that lonely station far away from Paris.  He tried to keep pace with the train and one merciful step almost tripped him.  The train was moving fast, soon he left me behind.

He would go on and forget what I remembered, memory withered — like flowers picked — and he was just eight.


(published on 1/4/1980 – The Thumb Biweekly)


A lazy afternoon

What do you do on a lazy afternoon?

I am staring at three fully ripe bananas.

“Shame you are not baking-inclined.  It’s such an easy recipe…”

Here I am, staring at three fully ripe bananas resting on a plate.  Not just any plate.  It’s a decorated plate from Rome.  A calf with big round eyes wiggling its tail among the tall grass, a fork and a tagine.  Hand written with the design are these scribbles : rigatoni alla Vaccinara, and round its edge, Ristorante “Cacciani”, Frascati. That is a town located 12 miles southeast of Rome, I had to Google to find out.  Turn the plate over and in permanent black ink is the year 1988.  We have another plate with a different design that says 1990.

I remember the years.  Those early years when I first landed in England, when he no longer regarded the fortnight-long overseas assignments as glamorous. His Italian colleagues still wined and dined him nevertheless, and afterwards a decorated plate for him to take home.  Those early years I struggled with cooking a proper meal.  Indeed, I came from a totally different world where house chores were for mothers and mothers alone.  Who was I to break the tradition?  So while mum was thousands of miles away, he had to come home after work to supervise in the kitchen.

A quarter of a century later, he can now look forward to a home cooked meal after a long day.  Braised oxtail?  No problem.   Just the other day, he mentioned it casually that I can do better than the Italians.  Bravo, alla Vaccinara!   Of course I am not letting it go to my head, given a choice I’ll surrender the kitchen anytime.

I have come a long way, don’t you think?   What started this reminiscence?   Right, I was staring at three fully ripe bananas.   See, although I am willing to feed us with proper meals, up to this day I still refuse to have messy fingers.   So, on this lazy afternoon, I am just sitting here and keep staring, wishing these bananas were a cake.  Someone might, just might, grant me the wish.

I read, I like, I share (5) : Lillian Hellman

“Old paint on canvas, as it ages, sometimes becomes transparent.  When that happens it is possible, in some pictures, to see the original lines : a tree will show through a woman’s dress, a child makes way for a dog, a large boat is no longer on an open sea.  That is called pentimento because the painter ‘repented’, changed his mind.  Perhaps it would be as well to say that the old conception, replaced by a later choice, is a way of seeing and then seeing again.

That is all I mean about the people in this book.  The paint has aged now and I  wanted to see what was there for me once, what is there for me now.”

—  Lillian Hellman : Pentimento


Thought of the day :

I remember I used to write down when and where I got my books.  Look here, on the inside cover – 14/12/78 Kelly & Walsh.  I don’t do it any more.

I am trying to remember.   I did watch Zinnemann’s Julia before getting the book. Pentimento.  I love the sound of the word.  It’s beautiful.  I didn’t know it is Italian.  I didn’t know its meaning.  I looked up the dictionary.  Repentance.

Are we always given the opportunity to look back?  My friend introduced me to international cinemas and literature.   In a secondhand bookshop in San Diego he pulled An Unfinished Woman down from the shelf and handed it to me.  I have read all of her books since.

Did I remember to say Thank you?

Hello goodbye

I have been looking for you.  On YouTube.   You were reading one of your poems.  It was the younger you.  Just as I remember the way you were.  Serious.  Sincere.  Then you broke into a smile when you finished.  I could almost hear the familiar laughter.  The next clip was more recent, you addressing a seminar, wearing your beret.  The topic was important, having made your point you looked tired.

I never went to any of your readings.  But I was there at your Thesis Defence, 1984, San Diego.  We were listening in at the back of the huge hall where you faced your examiners, more nervous than you were.  One of us handed you a bouquet afterwards.   Did N drive us all the way to LA Olympics Arts Festival the next day?   It was a packed house with le Theatre du Soleil performing Shakespeare’s  Twelfth Night, in French.   You came prepared.  You had a Chinese copy, someone else had an English version.  We were mesmerized.  It was the longest standing ovation we experienced.   Happy days.

Further down memory lane I come looking for you.  We went to the movies, the three of us.  Ozu’s Tokyo story; Kurosawa’s Dodes’ ka-den; Herzog’s The enigma of Kaspar Hauser; Wenders’ Paris, Texas.  Slowly  but surely, you opened up my horizons, sharing with me your enthusiasm for the wonderful world of international cinemas.  Often at the movie there were others who would join us afterwards, for lunch or dinner.   That gathering called for a long table, and different opinions on the film we had just watched.  Voices were loud and carefree, and being listened to.

People were talking when I come looking for you in the papers.  Everyone has something to say about you.  How you have touched our lives, changed the literary scene.  I guess we all have the same idea.  We, who somehow have lost touch over the years, are remembering the good times.  We are trying to get hold of you, hold onto you.  Not wanting to let you go.    We feel it’s too soon.

I don’t know why you say goodbye and I say hello.   Au revoir is goodbye for the moment, until seeing again.   再見就是祝福的意思.

Almost Christmas

Until recent years I didn’t know  that Christmas preparations could come as early as August.   In the supermarkets  as soon as they took down the beachwear, sandals and suncream, they  put  Christmas decorations on one shelf.  Then an aisle, then two.   By October,  boxed  chocolates, biscuits and toiletries  were everywhere.  Carols playing through the loudspeakers, as though people needed reminding and Christmas spirit and cheer could be gift wrapped, bought and sold.

You’ve heard my whinge.  Now, would you like a different story?

This  was the animated story shown on Channel 4  at Christmas time, twenty four years ago.  It was then repeated three years in a row.  But not since, if I remembered correctly.

I remembered it well.  It was my first Christmas in England.  I didn’t think we had turkey, nor much celebration.  Those came later, after we started a family.  But there was this story that warmed my heart.  In those days I made notes of whatever pulled  at my heartstrings and saved them for later.

Many Christmases later,  it was still there in  the corner of my heart somewhere, so I looked for the notes.  Like many others I made in my other life, I didn’t think they would see the light of day again.  Well, here they are.  If you could spare a minute or two,  put the kettle on I’d love to share the story with you.

Almost Christmas

An October day of vanished gold  somewhere in a Swiss village,  autumn leaves are falling.  A seven year old girl is looking forward to going into the city.  She loves watching men stumbling and colliding with each other, in their hurried steps.  

In the waiting room the headache returns.  She cannot hear what the doctor is saying to her mother.  She holds her head with both hands.  That’s better.  This is already the seventh doctor they have consulted in three years.  She looks out of the window.  Late autumn, the days get dark in the early afternoon. 

“Just make these last two months as nice for her as possible.  She has till mid December.”

Her father asks her a funny question:
Imagine a fairy is here to grant you one wish.  What will that be?
She thinks for a long time.  She smiles.  She shakes her head.  That’s not possible.  Not even if a fairy is willing to try. 
What is it,  her parents urge.
To make Christmas come sooner.  To celebrate Christmas.
It is October 15th, still two more months to go.

The end of October comes.
When is Christmas, she asks.
The fog is growing thicker and settling in her lungs.


The trees go bare.

Why does Christmas have to be on December 25th?
Why not earlier?
Why not on December 14th?
Could it be on December 10th?

This year it will be early, her father promises.  Just like the way Easter  comes at a different time each year.  Sometimes in March, sometimes in April.
This year Christmas will be on December 10th.

Will everybody know?
Will the bells chime at midnight?
Will the trees be decorated and lit up?
Will carols singers go door to door?

Her father goes door to door. 
First to the Schoolmaster, to make Christmas happen.
The Parson says he understands.
The Baker says no. 
Christmas does not just happen.  Christmas has to be prepared.  People draw up lists, for grocery shopping; presents to give; cards to send. People have to get Christmas into their head.  On Christmas Eve for last minute shopping people need to have worries about missing out someone, have to collapse under the tree, weary.
No, from the business point of view, Christmas cannot be improvised.

It may be too much to ask for Christmas for a single child.
Her father loses heart.
The fields are white with snow.

On the morning of November 29th, Christmas decoration goes up in the Baker’s shop window.  People shake their heads.  They know this can happen in November in big cities.  But no, not in the village.   The Baker tells  everyone about  the girl’s wish.  People listen.  They understand and they go home to tell their families.  The Butcher follows suit; the booksellers; the radio shop; the chemist; the Co-op…

On November 30th, the Parson talks to the Mayor.  There is a lot to talk about.  The Church’s regulations, the law, the special services….  They invite the villagers to a meeting, to decide When Christmas will be.

The girl stays in bed. 
She has trouble breathing.

Many believe it’s feasible.
But someone disagrees.  Christmas has to be held onto.  It cannot be moved.
All the men speak at once, raise their voices, stop listening.
Changing the mind is a sign of weakness.
No women have spoken, until then —
Why not just move Christmas Eve to December 10th and celebrate Christmas as usual?
They look at each other.  Heads nod.  Consensus murmur.

Preparations are in full swing.  Trumpeters start practising; school children are being told; even Santa arrives early in the grotto.

December 10th dawns.
It is a warm and windy day.
Warm like spring.

As the day grows dark, trumpets begin to blow.
The trees light up.
Bells ring out.
Some people are not ready,  presents still unwrapped; turkeys in the freezer.
But the desire for Christmas is there in the air.

What is it that makes Christmas?
What we make of it.
When is Christmas?
Whenever we want.
Or never. 

The times they are a-changing

Thirty years ago, you wouldn’t find our house on Google Maps even if you knew the postcode.  Of course!  Google was not there yet  either.  But seriously, the strip of land where our house now stands was part of our neighbour’s garden.  You couldn’t miss their big white house when you came into this far end of the village.  It has been standing majestically in the shade of three larch trees at the corner of a T-junction next to the primary school for over a hundred years.  Originally it was known as The School House, presumably providing lodging for the headmaster in days gone by?

Kay bought the white house in 1955 and raised a family.  Everything grew – fruit and vegetables in her garden orchard at the back where the pond was; roses and exotic plants which she could sing out the Latin names; and her family.  She had three children and planted a cherry blossom for each after they were born.  Peter was the youngest and the only son.  When he was ready for his own, Kay gifted him 1/3 acre of the land to build his home.

Brick by brick, it was a labour of love.  Peter  finished his house in two years, grew a land of roses and called it Roselea.  Being next door to mum he could always hop over to borrow some sugar, or have the Sunday roast together.  After his baby girl’s first Christmas, he planted the tree in the garden.  Soon their second girl arrived.  All was going well until his wife fell ill.  Sadly it was MS.  She gradually lost her mobility and could not go upstairs.  He converted the garage into their bedroom.  He built her a raised flowerbed so that she could carry on gardening in her wheelchair. 

The garden was still meticulous when we were house-hunting and came to view the property.  Once we got through the main door, there was a single unmade bed on either side, a Barbie hidden underneath on the left.   Behind the door of the lounge stood a wardrobe with overflowing drawers ajar.  The top of the kitchen cupboards was cramped with a load of cereal boxes lining up.  Apparently they didn’t follow the advice of ‘How to best sell your house’ and fill the rooms with the aroma of freshly baked bread and brewed coffee.   We were invited to have a cup of tea and a piece of cake.

We had no objection to the fencing off of a 10-foot square where one of the cherry blossoms was.  It was Peter’s tree.  Kay wouldn’t want to lose it too, now that her son had to move away, to a bungalow he built with extra wide corridors for the wheelchair.   She kept throwing marrows and courgettes over the fence, and leaving bags of potatoes at our door.   Like she used to.  When age crept on her, reluctantly she had to move in with her daughter.

The white house was taken up by a couple from London.  They immediately pulled down the old conservatory and erected a new one; pulled out all the rose bushes and exotic plants.  The flowerbeds were gravelled.  While they were renovating the interior, they also sent off planning application to build a house on the land of the garden orchard.  They got the go ahead and beat a hasty retreat to Spain after making a fast buck on the property.

The next pair came from Kent.  They never wanted to know the glorious days of the white house and its garden, with colourful blossoms and bountiful fruits.   The trees were all taken out, even the cherry blossoms, Peter’s cherry blossom.    They put down new turf, a patio, a barbecue and a swimming pool but not their roots.  This is their holiday home.

In a way I am glad Kay is no longer here to see the disappearing of her trees and roses.  She wouldn’t approve of it, like when we first moved here and neglected our garden.


Fingers and Thumbs   (9/7/98)

Papa and Mama
They are no gardeners
Can’t tell weeds from flowers
Papa has got
Green fingers
Stained from his garden gloves
Mama is all thumbs
Pulled out honey-suckle
Thinking they were nettles

So everything grows
Together with the roses
Especially daisies
Covering the lawn like crazy
Until Kay from next door
She can
Stand no more
With a wheel barrow
Of fork, spade and trimmer
She kindly offers
To give our garden
A make-over
At last !  
Everyone seems happy
To see the garden so tidy
Except the dandelions and the baby ash trees
Forget-me-nots and daisies
They can no longer
For as long as they please

Let go, Mum

For reasons I cannot even explain to myself, I have been lingering down memory lane these days.  Perhaps it is the hours I spent on YouTube listening to songs of yesteryear that brought me there.  Yeah, probably.   What else can it be?

My daughter has just sent off her application for culinary school.   She is nervous, “It is real now”.   Yes, my dear, the world is waiting for you out there.  So allow me to stay a little longer and cherish some precious pearly moments before I let you go.

1)  I don’t understand

Mama, please tell me
Felix is always allowed
   another sweet
   a second frizzy
   to leave the greens on his plate, crumbs
   all over the place

Why are you, Mama
   not too busy
To answer all his questions
He can always
For tea, for more TV

If, it is because
Felix lives
  not in this house
I wish I were
Living at his place

2)  Best bits

I don’t know about you
But I do love
Blue icing
  on Lizzie’s birthday cake
Chocolate flakes
   in my yoghurt corner
Crispy crust
  of my toast, also, my pizza

Since I have
  no brothers, nor sisters
I always save
Till last

3)  Just for once

Keep telling me what to do
What to put on
When to feed
Where to keep my toys
How not to raise my voice

Just for once, I’d like to
Drink my water as I please
Finish my rice
Eat my ribs
As slowly
can be

Just for once, if you’d
Telling me

4)  It’s not fair

And it made me very cross —
When Papa and Mama
  talked, I wanted to
  join in

I could not

“Say excuse me please”
“Wait till we finish”

When I was a baby, they got me to
Open up
Then when I did
They told me to
Shut up

5)  Mama is always too busy

When I am not watching
My favourite programmes on TV
I want to play Domino, or Junior Scrabble
No!  Mama is ironing, or setting the table

When I have to stop the video, or square eyes
I will have I am told
I’d like to go swimming, perhaps roller skating
No!  Mama is hoovering, and the linen needs changing

Then — 
Mama has just put her feet up in front of the telly
Would she go and fetch my jelly
No, I’d rather
Mama is catching up with the news, and she hasn’t been
Sitting down all day

6)  I can’t do that

I told Papa
Go to work
Not to worry
I’ll take Mama to the hospital
Look after her
Make sure she’s comfortable

A long wait
We have had a long day
Mama looks pale and frail
She needs a rest
A quiet space
She asks
To be left alone

I can’t do that

I have to make it clear
  “Why do I have to leave you alone

7)  Have a look

Why did you shout at me, Papa?
Can you see
My feeling
You hurt it a little bit

8)  Mama’s grey hair

I will look after you when you are old, Mama
I shall tidy up
   do your shopping
   make you a second cup
I may even cook you dinner, wash your car  —  no
No, I’ll take you

But, Mama
  Look here
It’s another
  Grey hair
You pull it out
  Or I will
Not later

9)  Don’t worry about me, Mama

I am four
Of course I am old enough
To know
Getting married is
  to hold hands and have a cuddle

When I grow up
You know
I’ll marry the one I love most

When I grow up you know,
He is the one I love most

10)  I want to be …

When I was first asked
What I’d like to do
When I am bigger
    “ At a supermarket check-out, so Mama and Papa can come to my counter”

That question came back
After a year
This time
     “ At the same place with Papa
       I’ll be a scientist too and go to work in his car”

Maybe it’s not a good idea
Perhaps, a gymnast?
I just learnt cartwheels and somersaults —
That was the thought,
Much later

Now, if you’d ask me
Well…… I just want to be
Like Mama
Staying home
Cooking dinner

That’s all folks.

This mum has to let go.  Her baby is going into the world to make a mark of her own.  She can no longer hold her hand and watch her every step.  Mum will always be there, though, if she calls…