FAMILY TALE FROM THE MEKONG

My grandmother and grandfather were a couple who lived apart for as long as I knew them since I was a small child visiting them every summer holiday.

Legend had it that he had a brief liaison when younger. She was so hurt. She packed up her kids to live in a house she built as far away as she could on their land and single-handedly raised her family. Their lives revolved around her as the matriarch. The era was the first half of the last century.

My grandmother’s house was new and airy, set in a large coconut grove – the village’s livelhood, surrounded by the greenest rice fields. For years to come, I vividly remember as a child being woken up by the fragrance of orange blossoms wafting in from the garden. The first sound of the day was water lapping in the canal by the side of the house, coming from the force of the rising tide of the Mekong River far away.

Coconut grove, Vietnam

Some decades later, I visited the historic One Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi in sprng and immediately recognised that same fragrance from an ancient orange tree. I wished I could bottle that memory to take home.

One Pillar Pagoda, Hanoi

However, as far as I can remember my maternal family, the family home was where my grandfather resided. It was formal and beautiful, furnished with antiques, but dark and empty.

I was endlessly fascinated by my grandfather. I still remember the charming squint of his eyes. He never said very much, as though he had seen everything in life before. His daily life proved it. It was so uncluttered, so at one with nature. His wealth never showed but his position of respect in this little village did, through his very dignified demeanour and generous giving.

He cooked for himself in an outdoor open hut with a thatched roof at the back of his house. He ate squatting by the side of the canal, bowl and chopsticks in his hands. I still remember playing around him as he ate by the water in his vast garden with no neighbours within sight, birds flapping and singing under the clear tropical sky. In the rain he sat on the bench alongside the stoves in the open hut.

His meals never changed, made up of steamed rice, vegetables and a river fish casserole which he cooked in a small clay pot just for one. Then he had the daily fruits of fragrant finger bananas or custard apples from his garden. After the meal, he stepped down the wooden plank a few metres away to wash his bowl and chopsticks in the canal.

He walked everywhere; he was fit, elegantly thin and lived to the age of 92. I was told he never travelled on wheels anywhere. He visited his wife often enough; I sensed there was a quiet respect and affection in their advanced years.

He longed for their reunion after life. He had two coffins of beautiful dark wood tucked away on the side veranda of his house. In the coconut grove on the far right of the garden, two graves were already dug up side by side for years. His deep affection manifested itself.

–KIM VU

LLANFAIR BALCONY FEVER

A stunning autumn afternoon with deep blue above, uninterrupted by a speck of cloud. The balcony sits astride the garage from where I can watch the Harbour Bridge. Can’t see any climbers today – must be Covid-closed.

A Welsh accent from the labourer on the building next door. Hard-wired memory goes into overdrive. Cardiff Arms Park. Rugby. Men of Harlech! Land of my Fathers. Long place names beginning with Llan.

He comes from Newport, so not a real Welshman but a borderer.

Consciousness still streams away. How Green was my Valley. Sons of miners studying hard to escape the mine trap into which dad and forbears had fallen. End up like Taffy Jenkins teaching Latin to unresponsive cockney schoolboys. Taffy Jenkins who tried to break my nose teaching us rugby.

Under Milk Wood: “No good boyo gave me two pennies, mam, but I wouldn’t!” I like the sound of Polly Garter. Wonder what she looked like.

Singsong voices in the valleys. Ratna from Calcutta spent her first week in the Swansea in misery – thought everyone was parodying her accent.

Ancient enmity. Taffy was a Welshman, Taffy was a thief, Taffy came to my house and stole a leg of beef. I went to Taffy’s house, Taffy wasn’t there…So I took him by the left leg and threw him down the stair. No, the last bit can’t be right. Faulty memory in my hard disk.

Called in for afternoon tea. Welsh Rarebit. Yum, yum.

  • ROBIN SEN