Bittersweet memories

A Father's Day essay for VISI

When I was small, my father would throw coins into the pool.

He would toss them in the deep end, my eyes squeezed shut, facing the washing line, twisted eucalyptus. The pavement hot with Australian sun, cement darkening with impatient drips.

“Okay, Princess. Now!”

Sometimes, there would be a thwoop and I would turn to find a cold can resting on the cement bottom, lopsidedly lolling amid my bounty: black grass jelly in sugary water, bought as a treat from the Asian supermarket near the university.

The jelly always stuck in the can. The aluminium edge scratched my tongue.

There was sunshine and laughter and salt drying on my skin, happy itches.

Dad lost his right arm in his teens, and hated swimming in public. This was our time; a private memory.

He wasn’t often home - there was a legal practice to run in Malaysia - but when he was, there was muffled cigarette smoke in the little wood-panelled granny flat he built in the backyard, rules to follow.

Adolescence, as it does, grew tortured, his absences into elongated shadows, half-noticed.

I saw loneliness in my mother’s jaw, the way she set her smile, and felt protective. Late night walks down to the river, unanswered questions about where people fit into each other’s lives.

He would return. When he was in the mood, there’d be a greasy curry on the electric stovetop, South Indian style, lamb dark and swimming in vegetable oil, a paste of curry powder and onions.

We fought and couldn’t say sorry. Instead, he might offer to make instant noodles, the flat rice sort, soup opaque with MSG, pocked with defrosted squid balls.

I rarely cooked for him; he'd never seemed to like anything I'd make.

New memories created themselves: shouts and threats and derisive laughter. We stopped knowing each other. I watched as an uneasy cloud wrapped itself around the facebrick.

Mum got sick. I flew home from university to find her on a hospital bed in the living room. Everyone came.

Rendered directionless by her cancer and grappling with inevitability, I blankly changed sheets, watered flowers that arrived hourly, sought control in the kitchen.

One rainy afternoon, I cooked a roast for 18 - chickens, a leg of pork, a leg of lamb - rubbed with salt and herbs and hope.

At the head of the table, my father prodded his plate and pronounced: “6 out of 10. The crackling could be more crispy.”

His sister’s face contorted into a laugh-sneer. I left the table to squeeze my mother’s hand.

The salt water pool filled with exhausted tears.

After the funeral we didn’t speak for months.

We live on two sides of an ocean, wide and alone. Distance ebbs and flows.

I fly back to his little Kuala Lumpur flat with apricot walls and windows that haven’t been opened for months.

I clear out a lifetime stuffed into collapsing boxes, hidden in a room with a broken blind. I find clothes that smell of my mother. We fight, terribly, for dusty aching hours; shouted litanies of blame.

We go to a little nearby coffee shop with grimy fans and blue and white tiles and sit on plastic chairs in the street, in empty parking spots wet from the monsoon.

Always the same order: clear broth, stewed with pork bones, sliced lotus root and soft peanuts, which comes in a thick china pot, tied with string. Plain rice, and a freshwater fish - whatever’s freshest that day - steamed gently, then bathed in an assam sauce, thick with tamarind and chilli, fleshy wok-fried eggplant and tender okra.

I fillet for him, so there will be no bones.

When’s the last time you had this, I ask.

I don’t know, he stares at his plate. I don’t have the fish often.

“A fish is a meal for two.”

We order sweet, thick, black local coffee, and sip forgiveness from chipped mugs. My heart brims over.