Dance With White Clouds
Dance With White Clouds
Published in 2001 by Asia 2000, Hong Kong
This novel is centered round what may be life’s most fundamental question: Given that we only have a certain number of years to live, how should we best spend our time?
Dance With White Clouds plots the life of a man who leaves the family he loves and the successful business he has built to pursue a new life. In doing so, he remarries, acquires another family and builds another life as a successful business man – one which, ironically, is not so different from his previous one. The result is truly a timeless fable, down to the time-honoured way of opening the story with “Once upon a time, there was an old man . . . ”
“This is an excellent book. It’s reminiscent of a short story by Chekov – it has the same gentleness, the same striking but unostentatious detail and the same quiet humour”
– Taipei Times
❧ EXCERPT FROM CHAPTER * ❧
UNABLE TO SLEEP that night, the old man lay on his bed looking out of the window at the darkness. He could see part of the old banyan tree, whose small leaves were moon-struck and unreal, imprinted on the silk of the night. It was quite easy to believe why the banyan was considered a holy tree in many parts of Asia. It possessed such a sturdy presence, a strong spirit. In the past year since he had lived in this house, he had grown to love that tree, with its massive trunk, its thick canopy of intensely green leaves, its brown tassels of branch-rootlets hanging down like a sagacious beard to the ground. Every time he left the house, or came back, and every time he went to the window of his room, he would cast a look at the banyan. It was always there, like a reliable, intimate presence. On sunny days, looking up beneath its shade, it almost seemed capable of sailing away, at one with the floating clouds, but it was after a heavy downpour that it was especially lovely, fresh and bejewelled with rain, the water making music dripping down. Some mornings, he could see small birds hopping about its branches.
So one year had passed, a year of quiet, undemanding days, so that time gave an impression of being suspended. Or perhaps it was he himself, who was in a state of suspension, with nothing to do, balancing easily like a free-floating balloon. He loved the languor, and if there was a new thing that he had learned that year, it was idleness. He learned the great art of doing nothing. One would imagine that it would be the easiest thing in the world to learn, but it wasn’t.
At first, he could not adjust himself to the spaciousness of the days, the lack of tempo when the hours dragged. He felt useless, felt that he needed to get some real work done. But he learned, getting rid of the guilt, the restlessness, the constant itch to be busy. Now, he welcomed the slowness of each day, which sang itself, glowed of itself, illumined by time.
And yet, here he was, planning to give it all up!
His new life, barely begun a year ago when he had run away, was about to change in one swift stroke. For that night, before going to bed, he had proposed to the Widow Lee.
Now he lay awake, contemplating the train of events which had led him to take this momentous step. The moonlit night outside seemed to cast a spell on the banyan, and it in turn held him in a trance, so that it was difficult to focus his thoughts, to retrace the recent past. He watched the moon tincturing the leaves with magic.
It was not a wild and impetuous force, which had made him propose marriage but rather deliberate and practical consideration. At least, that was what he would like to think. He had always prided himself on being a rational and reasonable man. And yet, that night, the old man found it difficult to run glibly through all the reasons for his action.
It was as though the moon-bathed banyan mocked his claim to rationality. There simply was no such thing as reason, it seemed to tell him; it was some mysterious force, which truly governed his actions. In other words, he really did not know why he was doing it. But, which is the truth? Perhaps neither, or both.
As far as the old man knew, he was enjoying his new life. It had not grown stale for him. He wasn’t restless anymore, wasn’t bored. He certainly wasn’t a man who was lost, so why go searching for another way?
Why make such a drastic, new turning?
Actually, the suggestion had come from an extraneous source. Not the moonlight, nor the banyan drenched in it. The agent was Mrs Chan.
About a month before, he had gone to the Chan’s home for dinner. His recollection of the dinner party itself was hazy. There was another couple there, a Mr and Mrs Lim. He was a mathematics teacher from the Primary School, a broad, square-faced man with a thin, long-faced wife. Both wore glasses. The old man remembered that only his host and he were drinking the Chinese wine. Mr Lim said he never imbibed, perhaps he feared jumbling up the intricate figures and complex equations in his brain, the old man thought. Anyway, it was Mr Lim who had remarked, upon learning that the old man was lodging with the Widow Lee, that the older boy, Kok Meng, was a pupil of his. He commented that the boy was bright and conscientious.
The old man himself added that he was very impressed with both the widow’s sons. He heaped praises on them.
It was then that Mrs Chan said “All well and good. But it’s a great pity.”
They had all looked at her, but she left it in the air, going back to cracking melon seeds between her teeth. Dinner was over, the table cleared, and Little Golden Sister was washing up in the kitchen. They were sitting around the table, drinking Chinese tea. Mr Chan and Mr Lim were smoking. It appeared that nicotine fumes were relatively innocuous to mathematical formulae and concepts. The women tackled a plateful of black melon seeds, and each had a heap of split shells on the table before them. Mrs Chan’s was the bigger heap.
“What do you mean by that?” Mr Chan rose to challenge his wife, when he realized his guests were too polite to do so.
“Don’t you use your head? They’re fatherless, that’s what I mean!”
Again polite silence reigned. Once more, Mr Chan rose to break it, emboldened by the wine. “That may be so, but Widow Lee is managing very well, I think.”
“You think! You think! Trouble is, you don’t really think at all!” Mrs Chan scolded. “She’s a good woman, very responsible and capable. But it’s been a hard struggle. Of course, you men do not see this. You men always seem to consider it’s a woman’s lot to suffer in this life.”
“That’s not what I said,” her husband protested.
“But that’s what you think. No use denying it to me,” she concluded.
“I agree with Mrs Chan,” the pale, bean-faced Mrs Lim volunteered. The battle of the sexes had commenced. “Widow Lee’s a brave, strong woman, but she has suffered a lot.”
The men were content to pass.
“My point is,” Mrs Chan reminded, “that the boys need a father. They need help and guidance, especially now when they’re growing up. What opportunity is there for them in the future, without a father to help them to pay for their education and so forth?”
“Mrs Chan, you know her well. Don’t they have relatives somewhere nearby?” Mrs Lim asked.
“They cannot help. They’re not well off and have responsibilities of their own.” Mrs Chan said. “What I’d like is to see her marry a good man. A steady, kind man, who can support her.”
“My dear,” Mr Chan said, “it’s none of our business.”
“Nonsense! Of course, it’s our business. We are her friends. Trouble is, you are so selfish, so spineless!”
The old man had grown almost accustomed to these goings-on between husband and wife. Each time the same predictable exchange took place, the tigress would jump on her poor husband. At first, the old man had felt sorry for the victim. In time, though, he began to suspect that the victim himself might be a willing party.
“Well?” Mrs Chan said, laying down a challenge,
“I think Widow Lee might want to be on her own. She has managed well so long by herself, and is perhaps used to her independence,” the old man offered.
“Rubbish! You men really know nothing. You see a woman on her own, and straightaway you think it’s from her own choice. She needs a man!” Mrs Chan proclaimed.
“But isn’t it true that she has turned down some offers a few years back?” Mrs Lim asked. The thin, tall woman was a keen gossip. So she pursued with avidity, “I distinctly heard about it. One of the gentlemen apparently was a well-to-do merchant from Tanjong Kalim. You must know about it, being so close to her.”
But Mrs Chan was not saying. She didn’t want to feed gossip.
Mrs Lim was not going to let her get away so easily. Like a true gossip, she would leave no stone unturned to get sustenance. So she went on the attack. “Some people,” she offered, “were saying that she shouldn’t be so choosy, with her circumstances and all. You know what I mean.”
“Well, people are stupid. They would do better to mind their own business,” Mrs Chan replied haughtily.
“True. Still, it puzzles people in the town why she let such an opportunity slip. Seeing as you know her well, I thought you might be able to supply an answer. I guess these things are secret. The Widow Lee, of course, is a secretive woman, isn’t she? It’s no wonder that even you wouldn’t know anything about it.”
And Mrs Chan was weak enough to succumb to this ploy. “Ah, Mrs Lim,” she said, “that was years ago. The time just wasn’t right. But it is now. She’s ready. Her boys are growing rapidly. She knows how to think.”
“I see,” Mrs Lim said. She considered this, while splitting a melon seed expertly between her teeth. Then, with eyes glinting behind her glasses, asked, “Do you know of a good prospect?”
Crack! Crack! The women attacked their seeds. Then, when she was sure that the old man had caught her eye, and her message, Mrs Chan announced, “Yes!”
The old man felt a cold shock running through him, but said nothing.
Mrs Lim badgered her to divulge the identity of this man, but Mrs Chan kept mum. She had already gotten the message across, and thus had discharged her duty.
Mr Chan turned to the old man, and asked indiscreetly, “You’re living in her house, old fella. Who is this man the widow’s been seeing?”
“I know nothing about it,” the old man said, and with a slightly stern look, discouraged other enquiries.
The mathematician had said nothing throughout. In fact, Mr Lim didn’t utter a single word after dinner, lost in his own equations and puzzles. Just the opposite of his wife. The old man couldn’t help wondering whether all married couples were such opposites.
Mr Chan, the meek lamb to his tigress. Mr Lim, lost in the rarefied realm of maths, while his wife ferreted out the ground for bits of choice gossip. Yes, perhaps unlike poles do attract each other.
That night, on returning home, the old man had blushed when he was greeted by the Widow Lee.
He fled upstairs to his own room almost with improper haste. Afterward, he couldn’t fall asleep for a long time.
For a month, the old man went about with an air of abstraction, lost in thought. He felt a sense of embarrassment whenever he was with the Widow Lee and took to avoiding the house. He even ate dinner out a couple of times a week. And when he was with her, as it was not completely avoidable, he maintained a new reserve, a certain shyness, and spoke no more than a few words. After a while, the widow became conscious of this, and the old man knew it. This knowledge, however, compounded his problem, so that he grew even more reserved and quiet. It got to be so that the atmosphere became quite uncomfortable. Daily, he almost ran out of the house. He knew it was ridiculous, but could not help it.
His days, which used to be full enough, saturated enough, lost their spaciousness. Or their solidity.
Or perhaps it was truer to say that it was he himself, who had turned less substantial. It gave him an illusion, almost in a physical sense, of drifting upon a sea of white clouds, from which floated up, intermittently, the face of Widow Lee, and at times, of her children. They haunted him, while he skimmed about like a mechanical duck upon the white clouds.
It wasn’t that he found the widow fascinating.
He certainly wasn’t in love with her, whatever that means. But he was constantly trying to better focus his mind, trying to uncloud it. Why did he feel so haunted by her? There was no reason for it, no justification. Only the words of a wife of a friend, of a garrulous old tigress, that was all, and her subversive stare, but it had triggered everything. Obviously, he had had too much wine that night. Truth was, he felt drunk as a coot nowadays, even in broad daylight! Perhaps there was no more hope for him?
I really know nothing about the lady, he thought. A respectable, admirable woman, not unattractive, and who no doubt will make someone an excellent wife. And her children, such exemplary kids. Certainly, they all would make someone a fine ready-made family. But why him? Why did Mrs Chan intimate to him that he was the man? He could not understand.
He was happy enough as he was. Besides, he had had it all before: wife, children, the direct responsibility for others. Had he not run away from it all? So why retrace his steps? No, it was simply unthinkable.
Yet he thought about it, and went on thinking about it, for a whole month, smothered in clouds. There was something about her, he had to admit, like an untaken gift, which appealed to him. There was promise of good things, of easy congeniality and wholesomeness. She could make him happy. And then, the children, the precocious maturity of the boys, the solemnity, which sat in their eyes, which their fatherless years had imposed on them. He would make a good father for them. But all this entanglement, was it really what he wanted? Was it not just the thing he had run away from?
No, he considered. He had not run away from entanglement, from his family, from society, but from the routineness of his days, even the routineness of his happiness. He had desired a renewal by making a change. That was the essential premise. Also, one cannot, and should not, live without really touching other lives. There was something inherently deficient and imperfect about bachelorhood, and, for that matter, spinsterhood, and widowhood. Something unfulfilled about them. And although he had been happy, there was something incomplete about it, he thought.
He continued to grope about like a lost soul for a month and trying as hard as he might, he found that he could not reinvent the world of the previous, carefree year.
Still, his proposal came as a shock to himself. It was so sudden, in spite of everything. So unpremeditated. That evening, after dinner, he had run out of the house and spent a couple of hours walking aimlessly about the same, familiar streets, had gone on to a coffee shop and sat over two cups of tea, listlessly watching the T.V. which had been installed like a sovereign in the shop. What transpired on the screen was gibberish to him. He had left and wandered about some more, vaguely aware of the moon above, which seemed to dog his every step like an unspoken commentary of his insoluble predicament. Finally, there was nothing left to do except return home. There was hardly a soul left on the streets So he dragged himself homewards, as unwilling as a sheep to a pen.
He encountered the widow in the dining room. She was standing by the table, still attending to her ironing in spite of the late hour. Her face, lit by the light overhead, was round as the moon, with a milky radiance. There was a look in her eyes, which touched him: reposed and vulnerable, and yet unblaming. And before he knew it, he had blurted out his proposal.
Widow Lee was stupefied and could not respond verbally. Indeed, she almost seemed for a time not to notice him at all. This gave him the chance to flee.
“Please take your time,” he said quickly. “ I know it’s sudden and you must think about it.” With that, he bolted upstairs, his heart fluttering like a trapped bird’s.
And so it was that he had this long night for reflection, a night in which a stealthiness, an extraordinary quietness, was imposed on the house. He could hear his own breathing in the dark. He could hear the banyan leaves murmuring, the moon creeping over the sky.
But the die was cast. He knew that. There was no retreat. It all depended now on her answer. He knew so very little about her. But he would have to learn, if possible, to love her and cherish her. And with the sinking moon in unison, he tumbled at last into the oblivion of sleep.
THE FOLLOWING MORNING, the old man noticed that there was a little puffiness beneath the widow’s eyes. She had greeted him as usual, and served him his breakfast, but her eyes had deliberately avoided his, with a hazy, distant look about them as if they had not yet recovered the ability to focus on things nearby. She gave the impression of a person who had not yet regathered her faculties, her strength, to cope with the world at large. She came in and left the room with a terrible bashfulness.
Most probably, she had a tormented night, and broken sleep, the old man surmised. She must have decided to turn him down, but was too embarrassed to tell him so. He felt a flicker of relief, like a fish let off a hook. He breathed more easily.
However, she came into the room again and said, “Yes!” Very firmly, although she still avoided his eyes. Her cheeks were flushed pink as a schoolgirl’s.
He nodded, but did not utter a word. His fate was sealed.