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February 19, 2024

Old Sugar 4

By Barbara Rendall


But when they all went inside Cookie's place, Trevor began to feel more cheerful as everyone gathered in the back room and Cookie started to think about the evening meal. To stave off immediate hunger she slapped cold cans of Coke on the table along with some bags of salty snacks from the shop for whoever wanted something. Then she fired up the wok. She was the fastest cook Trevor knew and she liked to work with a dangerously sharp chopper and a huge flame. She produced, in quick succession, some fried noodle, some vegetables, and a fish Uncle Fong had brought home from the cement plant, a New Year's gift from a fellow worker. They all clustered around the table, and Trevor thought that maybe it was better he'd ended up out here in the village after all -- it actually felt like a holiday. And he was certainly going to get better food than he would have had at his mother's.

Cookie told everyone how busy the store had been all day with people buying gifts to take to family and friends. But this evening it seemed everyone was staying home to prepare for New Year's Eve. Still, she left all the lights and lanterns on because she'd gone to all that trouble decorating, so the family might as well enjoy it. And someone might still want to buy something -- people always needed one more gift, Cookie well knew, and she enjoyed the drama and status of being the source they could run to at the last minute.

For the time being, it seemed that Trevor's relatives were no longer curious about how he had lost his job and what he was going to do with his life. Everyone was now preoccupied with the last-minute holiday details relating to cooking and cleaning. Cookie and Granny were carrying on a vigorous debate over menu items -- would they need a second fish or not? -- and cleaning procedures -- had the floors been done properly? What was better for polishing the windows, newspaper or rags?

After the meal, Trevor decided to walk down to the village square to see if anything had changed since his last visit. He needed some time by himself, and also it would put him in more of a holiday mood. And anyway, he couldn't go to sleep on the sofa until everyone else went to bed.

The silence rang in his ears as he walked through the quiet passageways between the yellow-painted walls, and under the old-fashioned street lights put there by the cultural heritage people. He knew that this wasn't really the way the village looked in the old days -- there were even baskets of bright winter flowers hanging from each lamp -- but it did look nice.

The funny sound in his ears must be the reaction to this sudden quiet after being back in the thick of family again, being shouted and pried at and bludgeoned with advice. He remembered that he had once asked his mother why people in families always yelled so much at each other, when his teacher taught them that to be quiet was to be well-behaved and civilized. His mother had just laughed dismissively at such a naive idea, and said you never get anywhere unless you dominate other people, and being loud shows your power -- only idiots didn't know that. All that dominating had been pretty continuous today, he reflected. It took a lot out of you when you weren't used to it.

He turned onto the main road that followed the West River channel and walked along next to the low stone wall. The fishy, weedy smell reminded him of all the times he'd spent here in the village as a kid. When he used to look across the water at the big green hills of mainland China, his grandmother had snapped at him, "Don't look over there! They'll shoot you!"

What a thing to tell a little kid. Why had she said that? he wondered now. He knew she loved him -- why would she want to terrify him? After that he avoided spending too much time exposed to the view of those innocent-looking hills, where only a few fishermen's shacks and police watchtowers were visible low on the shore in those days. He remembered carefully creeping along this very wall, bent low with his eyes to the ground, holding his breath and focusing on the gritty paving stones, and some adults laughing at him when they saw him. Even now the half of his body nearer China (although Macao was a region of China now since the handover, what lay across the water always seemed more China) registered a faint prickling sensation, a feeling of exposure and unease.

But as Trevor reached the end of the street and turned into the square, he suddenly experienced feelings he hadn't had in months -- surprise and delight. It was magical: someone in authority, in an extravagant or charitable impulse, had erected, in the middle of the worn old park where four roads met, an intricate, wildly beautiful Lunar New Year display. How had he not noticed it when he came into the village? Illuminated lanterns in the shapes of flowers, animals, ancient vases, trees, and clouds made up a display that filled one end of the park with colors that glowed against the dark. Usually in this place there was only a bare and crumbling waterless fountain that looked like it had been made from leftover cement from the factory down the road about forty years ago, along with some small, rounded cement benches that seemed designed for dwarves or gnomes. People rarely spent any time there because of the fumes and noise from the buses that went back and forth between Macao and the beaches farther out on the island.

Trevor had the sight all to himself -- no one was out tonight, everyone was busy preparing for the holiday. He had heard the English phrase "a feast for the eyes," and this must be what it meant, he thought. At the center of this creation was a graceful vase, taller than himself, made of thin golden fabric stretched over a fine, invisible frame and illuminated from within, like a giant lantern. A huge "branch" of pink peach blossoms rose from it and spread out above at an angle, also made of glowing silk and looking like some kind of fabulous floral snake rising against the twilight sky. All around the vase, making up the rest of the display, were giant-sized silk flowers, butterflies, birds, and fruits -- gold, geen, pink, rose, violet -- each one an intricate lantern, each a combination of warm colors different from all the others. As a painting, it would have been impressive; as a three-dimensional creation the size of a small house, it hardly seemed believable.

He stood stopped in his tracks, his mouth agape. He had never seen anything like it, certainly never at the end of his grandmother's street, waiting there for him alone, like something in a dream.

Not even in America had he seen such a beautiful thing, not in New York or Boston or Washington or San Francisco, all the places he'd managed to visit in his time there. Americans had all kinds of holidays and decorations, and yet when it came right down to it people there were sort of held-in and private about their big celebrations -- everything happened inside private homes, not in the streets. He remembered that Christmas Eve in Boston when he and the three other Asian students he was traveling with over the break discovered the muted way Westerners celebrated their holidays. After having an early meal in a little Thai restaurant, they decided to go out and walk the streets, join the throngs and see what everyone was doing, just as he and his friends always did in Macao or Hong Kong on any big holiday. They were shocked and confused when they found the wide, brightly lit downtown streets utterly empty and desolate, as if something terrible, and not Christmas, the biggest western holiday of all, had happened. A doorman at a big hotel told them that if they wanted to see crowds, they should maybe go to church, but that wasn't quite what they'd had in mind.

He looked appreciatively for a few more minutes at the feast of light and color someone had laid on for him, and for the other people who lived on or were visiting this little island. He'd been looking for a small taste of kindness, a bit of reassurance, from somewhere. Maybe this would have to do. Maybe this was what "Home Sweet Home" meant to Mrs. Molly Morehead.

Article © Barbara Rendall. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-01-24
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