Friday, 24 January 2020

Cantabile

by Louis Tong Hak Tien

sweet wine

This estate in Singapore is fifty years old, it looms in the north-east like the spirit of Malays who first lived here as farmers. In the following decades came the English teachers, who left behind their ghosts, then the voice of the pilots appeared and mysteriously vanished. Some said the pilots’ union has been belligerent, and the pilots have to be taught a lesson. John isn’t old enough to know the truth.
Tugged in a corner of the estate is the patch of open greenery called Neram Park, where women gossip and dogs roam after dinner. Not this evening. A large crowd settled on the lawn with straw mats and picnic baskets, even before sunset. Semi-lit in the evening, the anniversary concert is held. All performers, including John and Mary’s daughter Jo, are residents of the estate. Jo’s singing has caught the attention of Jenny, the lady in church. John’s family has been in the estate ten years, long enough to feel this is home, but not long enough to sense the pathos of the place.  
"S, E, L, E, T, A, R, .... The parks are green and the streets are wide,...” In the middle register, Jo’s voice is liquid like a flute. Then, without straining, the sound becomes pure and sweet, murmurous and cascading.
“There's nowhere else,... nowhere I would call home." The notes rush into the high range of her vocal register, where they hover like angels in the palace of the dominant D chord. Then they resolve to the G major, where the audiences are contented babies sleeping in their bassinets. Jo sings the song once, then leads the audience to sing it twice, slower on the first run. The words tug at the heartstrings.
A lady with a hair like a lion stands in front of John, looking at the stage. When she sways, her hair swings like a pendulum. John steps to the right. She moves right. John side-steps to the left like a crab. She shuffles left too. John is convinced they are dancing the foxtrot.
"How did this girl sing like that?" Someone exclaims.
           "I am so proud of my girl," says Mary.
"So this is how it sounds, more beautiful than how I imagine it," says John, a little out of sorts, spell-bound. Someone in the park takes a step back, and she almost trips over a bag.
"Let us call to the stage Professor Bernard, the composer of this song," the MC says.
A man wearing Bermuda shorts walks up the stage from the side, assisted by a lady, smiling like he has won the Grammy.
"Jo, please come closer here. I am grateful to the Seletar Hill Residence Committee for showcasing my composition, Karen for writing the lyrics to the song, Jenny for playing the piano, and last but not least, Jo for singing it. You are all angels."
After the loud applause, when the Seletar band takes the stage, Jo walks to John and Mary and sits with them.
A lone fluffy dog walks between the parked cars, his tail wagging. He discovers his owner, who is sitting on a little stool, eating a hotdog. At the rear of the audience cheering for the performers are two policemen, their faces illuminated by the ornamental lights hung on the trees.
***
  Half an hour later.
            "John," Professor Bernard looks up, backstage.
            "Bernard, just come to say thanks."
            "Don't do it again," Bernard says. "I can't imagine why you plan this."
Remember, he is not a willing accomplice. He’d lost the game of cribbage, so he helped you in your scheme. "She's seventeen,” you say, as if that explains everything. "Your daughter was seventeen once."
           "God, don't bring my daughter into this," Bernard says. "Real coward you are. You wrote the Seletar song, so you should have asked Jo to sing it. The lengths you took to cover this up."
           "I am a father trying to do his best," you say.
            "What use is this grand scheme of deception?" Bernard asks. "This game of cloak and dagger includes not speaking to me in public for two months?"
            "Jo is a smart girl," you say. "She will find out otherwise, and then she won't have anything to do with it."
           "Girls. You can't expect them to be close to you if they grow up learning not to bother you," Bernard sighs. "They'll stay away, seeing how busy you are, how passionate you are with your work."
"What do you mean?" You fume. You know exactly what Bernard is saying. You have wondered yourself about the day when you lie stiff and cold in a box and Jo is called to give a eulogy. What would she say? What do you two have in common? You don’t want to be remembered as an ATM. You don’t want to be the designated driver. To approve all the stayovers at her friends, or give consent for a camp.
"Ask yourself. How many weekends have you gone away for conferences?" Bernard took you away from your reverie with this question.
Thanks Mr. Empathy. You couldn't help all that. You cannot change the past. "She is happiest singing," you say. "That much I know." Music, she has such a natural affinity for it, nailing the vocal audition to the School of the Arts. And then all those concerts. Music can be the bridge between the two of you. But she will not touch the song if she knows who wrote it. She will think, how embarrassing, like holding hands with my father while shopping in the mall.
Earlier, when Jo passed the mic back to the MC, she turned and smiled at you. You had wondered then, if she knew.



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