It was a trip down memory lane. A back pedal of 44 years to vignettes of childhood memories still as clear and sharp as the most vibrant hues in an orchid garden. My Singapore, 1970.
‘14 Malcolm Road,’ I said, to Mr Taxi-man. He was a local, sixty plus, he’d know the old parts of town.
‘Where Mao-cumm? What Mao-cumm?’ he squawked, his brow knitted into a deep furrow.
‘Tanglin Club,’ instructed The H, and off we sped.
‘Here’s Tanglin Club,’ said Mr Taxi-man. It was new and shiny. And members only.
‘You want stop?’
‘No,’ I said. ‘Botanical Gardens.’
We drove on. In silence. For a bit.
‘Is Mao-cum wroad off Stevens?’ said Mr Taxi-man, excited by his recall.
‘Yes,’ I said. We pulled away from the traffic - off to lush suburbia.
Yet when I got there, Malcolm Road was back to front and upside down, facing the wrong way and not what it was.
Everything was at the back of the front. Simply. I wasn’t the child of six anymore. The child who’d thought she’d died and turned into a princess when she first woke up in the enormous bedroom with its high whirring ceiling fans and the constant squeaky click of gravity defying chitchats chasing each other above. The tiled bathroom so wide my sister and I could soap ourselves and slide back and forth from side to side until our Amah told us to stop.
The same Amah who picked our clothes up off the floor and took it upon herself to remove my willow and soak its carefully procured crustiness in a red plastic bowl in the servant’s quarters behind the house.
The servant’s quarters where Chin Foo the cook was woken from his afternoon nap on our first day when my sister rang the bell in the living room to order a coke. We didn’t know. We were just little girls from the land of milk and honey and quarter acre sections.
Chin Foo explained the house rules as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes and tied his white draw-string pants. We were to help ourselves when he napped from the kitchen’s huge cupboards. He kept the fruit bowl full of rambutans for us and rolled peanut brownies so firm we ate them pre-baking. Dear sweet Chin Foo nugget-ed his hair black. He had a glorious mole on his chin and often stroked the three long hairs cascading from it. He had an infectious laugh and few teeth, only wearing his best set when serving guests.
Chin Foo ate pale blue duck eggs and a bowl of rice for breakfast. He scolded the Amah when she cooked her pongy soy sum with garlic in a wok on his porch and held her grandson’s bare bum over the open drains alongside. The same Amah who changed the channel to screechy Chinese sitcoms, as soon as mum and dad went out.
Why are child hood memories of place and dimension always skew whiff?
I stood in front of two gated houses. 13 and 15. I snapped a photo of each on my phone feeling a little foolish. Trying not to get flustered. Where was 14? The address I remembered was 33?
The H was patient. As always. ‘She’s trying to find the house she lived in when she was a little girl, her father worked for the New Zealand High Commission,’ he told Mr Taxi-man.
The houses were still white-washed plaster, but every single one in the street was picked out in uniform black lacquer, ours had been teal green. Back then. They all had new additions, playhouses, toys in the yard. They weren’t the dignified houses of imported pseudo diplomats. No one was tending the drive.
My childhood garden had been swept immaculate by Masum, the Malay gardener. Fragrant frangipanis bordered huge expanses of cow-grass, good for running and rolling. On one side of the lofty porte-cochere, Dad tried to coax orchids in clay pots to flower, their sad roots hung exposed in defiance. I think he managed one or two.
Where was the slope we used to zoom down on our bikes into the end of our looped driveway, with someone always on the lookout for approaching cars? One day I got my thrills on the American boy’s bike from next door. But I wasn’t good with ape-hangers. I got the speed wobbles coming into the straight, slammed on the front brake, flew through the air and tattooed the experience forever pink and shiny on the points of my elbows.
‘That used to be jungle. Now motorway,’ offered the taxi driver.
It did too. Not a place we ventured into. It was full of the thick tangle of vines and snakes. Like the one brown serpent that crossed the road and slunk into the dining room beside our table for two, as we tucked into Chin Foo’s hand cut chips. Of course we screamed and stood on our chairs and Chin Foo came running, as did Masum who ended the poisonous snake’s life with a flick of bamboo and threw it back where it came after we’d had an eyeful.
In the monsoon season we’d run around that garden, fairy sized dervishes in nylon underpants our tongues hanging out drinking mouthfuls of rain that fell by the bucket load. We blocked deep drains and swam within them as they overflowed. Soggy nymphs without care, stirring our child sized whirl pool with hand brooms. All the while thunder rolled and lightening cracked.
Once, I offered the Prime Minister of New Zealand, Piggy Muldoon, devils on horseback in our living room. He and I were similar height. I wore my long red gingham dress, with the sheering elastic bodice and tie straps. The women folk always wore long for special occasions while the men sweated politely in collar and tie. Sweaty-pore dad used to call it.
We were at school by 8am and had to drink flavoured milk at morning tea that tasted like rotten milk powder. By 1pm we were in the Tanglin Club pool. We got out only to eat chicken satay and drink fresh lime with mum, then back in we’d go for another game of Marco Polo. I chipped a hunk out of my new front tooth on the deep sign playing MP.
After a time we caught the school bus. Once a man on a scooter, wearing a business shirt back to front as was the norm, got our attention by displaying his bits. It was not all princess-like in paradise I guess.
Dad bought a white 1970 Rover 3500 with red leather seats, for trips to Malaysia. Over the causeway we’d zoom, where a friendly customs agent joked that Dad looked like Prince Charles. We played VHS sized cassettes of the Bee Gees, but it didn’t drown out the tenseness up front. We crossed swollen rivers on open decked barges, 100s of brown wet children always greeted us. It was extra scary when you were bursting for a wee wee.
Mum started to teach herself to type on a small portable typewriter. Pitmans of course. She also started to look like she’d been crying most mornings.
There was a chauffeur too at Malcolm Road. Another lovely man servant called Maui. He drove Dad to work in a large white station wagon. A Kingswood most probably.
He also drove us to the airport ten months after we arrived. We were all crying by then.
We flew back home to a new life without the trappings. Without Dad. Another adventure. But not without our Xmas bikes, silly contraptions that collapsed in half thanks to a rough hinge and bolt system centre frame. And not without English accents and snot coloured hair.
Mr Taxi-man drove us up the road and down. I tried number 33. There was a downhill slope but I still couldn’t be sure. I didn’t take photos.
So we moved on and Mr Taxi-man cheerfully pointed out every building over 40 along the way as if to appease my disappointment and took us straight to The Botanical Gardens.
The H and I walked up the hill, cocooned in the moist 31 degree warmth to - the largest display of tropical orchids in the world – according to the brochure and the main highlight, the man at the info desk said, and paid our $5.00 entrance fee.
There are 25,000 varieties of orchids in the world. Over 1,000 species and 2,000 hybrids can be found in this carefully choreographed hillside garden. We admired hundreds of multi-coloured ornately and some more sedately crafted blooms. I digitally recorded as many as I could as we wandered in that midday tropical fuzz. No one was around except a tiny red bird that drank from a ginger plant with its curved beak. Plus a few other couples.
Rivulets of sweat ran intermittently down my spine under my loose dress, the cotton cladding at my tailbone, the only thing preventing them from reaching my ankles. Even so, the glue melted in my favourite pair of sandals and a strap popped out. No mind.
‘God was feeling kinky the day he made orchids,’ commented The H. ‘Look!’ Both of us bent over inspecting the fine fuzzy filaments on the innermost labellum one spidery beauty contained.
‘What’s it called?’ said the H.
‘Florists call it Dancing Lady I think.’ Then I checked its nameplate, ‘Golden Shower.’
Love in a warm climate. A trip down ‘Golden Shower’ lane (one of the gardens photo-op-spots - not kidding). There’s a tip for Mrs Salisbury.
Orchids have rare grace not found in other, even sweet smelling tropical blooms. And if you look at them long enough and close enough. Well do it yourself and see what happens…
We oohed and ahhed over the rarest orchids in the mist house, where a large Australian woman instructed her hubby what to point his camera at. We took shelter momentarily in the ‘Cool House’ to check out the rain forest and the green carnivorous plants.
Finally satiated we walked back down through the gardens, past odd David Hamilton type sculptures of young girls with watering cans etc, then caught a cab back to the hotel.
Sitting in the back seat in the sterile, camphor smelling air conditioning, my sweat dried and with it my desire to go back down memory lane. 250 orchids put paid to that. And The H.