Saturday, October 07, 2006

Peach Blossom Luck

by Kow Shih Li

The three of us sat in the fortune teller's office, an eight by ten space tucked at the back of a tailor's shop. The glass front overlooked bales of cloth in various shades of grey, blue and black. Apart from the view, it was surprisingly businesslike. I had expected at least some incense, the sundry deities or feng shui diagrams but there were none in sight.

I sat in the fabric covered chair, the type clerks used in administrative offices. Connie wassubdued and I assumed that she had stopped crying. I could not see past those oversized, opaque Jackie-O sunglasses she had on. In the car, she had cried all the way here, big sobbing breaths, between which she gasped out her account of how she had struggled to support her truant husband in his younger days. I heard for the sixth time how she had to take the bus to work so that he could use the money saved for her car to start his now successful trading business. Her crying invariably took on a slightly high pitched whine when she said, as she always did, "How could he do this to me? After all that I've done for him, how could he leave me for a twenty year old cheap trick?"

The "cheap trick", according to Datin Tai, one of our regular lunch friends, was a part time caddie at the golf club where Connie's husband plays. Pretty face and nice legs, but of course we never said that in Connie's presence.

The fortune teller cleared his throat. He was a short man in a slightly grimy Pagoda T-shirt tucked into polyester trousers that were probably made by the tailor out front. His face was smooth, shiny and impersonal. With more hair, it would have been difficult to place his age.

"Who wants to 'see' life fortune?" he said in Cantonese, nodding questioningly at Connie and me. That was the reason I was here. Connie needed a translator, and the rest of the lunch gang needed an inside account of what was soon to transpire.

I indicated Connie and told him about her predicament. I had never been very good with details and it took me less time to tell it than one of those commercials on radio.

"Datin Tai recommended you," I said, after I was done narrating the facts in what I thought was adequate detail. "You remember, Datin Tai from Damansara? She said you helped her when she had this same type of problem two years ago."

Datin Tai had told us in great detail, over a 3-hour sushi lunch, how this fortune teller had saved her husband from the clutches of a "gold-digging GRO from hell". There were readings and talismans given to hide around the home. She was convinced that her husband saw the error of his ways soon after, and even became a more successful businessman from that point onwards. Connie was skeptical but on the verge of desperation. I imagined her grasping at the talisman straws offered by Datin Tai.

The fortune teller asked for Connie's time, date and year of birth. We had come fully prepared. We had hers and her husband's printed on Connie's company letterhead paper. It was the Chinese date of birth that was required and Connie had spent two days getting her office staff run a search for a conversion calendar on the Internet.

Eighty ringgit per reading, we were told. One hundred and fifty ringgit to include a reading for Connie's husband. A ten ringgit discount for a two-in-one. Extra charges for other things. Datin Tai's talismans must have been one of those optional, cryptic other things.

On the fortune teller's table was a tray with two stacks of pre-printed forms - pink and blue. He pulled out a pink one. It had the crisscrossed Chinese character for female in one corner. I presumed the blue would be for men. The paper was neatly printed like a job application form, with blank spaces, ruled lines and little headers. The Pagoda T-shirt was the only incongruity that belied his professionalism, I thought to myself.

I wondered if Connie noticed any of this. She sat in the way she always did when we were out for tea - legs neatly crossed at the knee, hands on the handbag cradled in her lap. Today, she had her new monogrammed Louis Vuitton. "I bought it to cheer myself up," she had said on one of those days when she wore her brave, smiling face. If she had a tall glass of iced coffee in front
of her, she would have looked perfectly normal to anyone who knew her.

Connie was a good looking woman. Not beautiful or even pretty, but she had a polish to her that obscured all physical flaws. A polish honed and developed by years of carefully studying and assimilating the habits of the very rich. She wore a sheen buffed to perfection by money. Her husband was wealthy enough to have no need of the titles bestowed by local royalty, which implied that he was richer by far than Datin Tai's husband.

I turned to the fortune teller. He had started muttering, his fingers twitched. His left thumb touched each of the other fingers on the same hand in turn. The ballpoint pen in his right flew over the pink sheet, a number here, a word there. The blank spaces were filling up. Connie's fate was being calculated and summarized, like an answer to a math exam question.

I reached out and held Connie's hand. She smiled and two black rivulets appeared under her dark glasses. Her tears were making her mascara run again. A grey drop dislodged from her chin and made a tiny splash on her bag. I wriggled my fingers over my face to tell her. She said, "Oh," and "Oh, oh" when she saw the smudge on her bag. She dabbed a tissue at the bag before wiping her tears.

The fortune teller was now poring over a red-covered book with newsprint pages. It looked like a cheap dictionary. This, I recognized. It was the Tong Shu. One edition is published every year, chronicling life and fate based on the simple statistic of date and time of birth. Anyone who knew this basic information would be able to have his life laid out year by year, like a lifetime horoscope. A destiny which completely disregards all other variables and social indicators like education, upbringing, social status or geographical location. If the Tong Shu says you will marry at sixteen, it would happen irregardless of whether you were born Chinese or Icelandic. I wondered if Connie's reading would be accurate.

The fortune teller closed the book and put down his pen. There was an air of finality when he smoothed the pink form with his hands. I sat straighter, ready to do my duty. I had to make sure that Connie understood everything that he was about to say. Datin Tai had reminded me not to forget any detail. She and the rest would be all ears at our lunch tomorrow and I was to relate all the juicy bits accurately.

"I have calculated both yours and your husband's lives. Your life is quite good, actually but hard. I can see a lot of work. You must work at everything. Work for money, work for health, even work to get love husband. Nothing comes easy to you."

He went on to say that her parents had died when she was eight and described how she had to work to put herself through school. I made mental notes of everything.

"Twenty two years old, you got married. Your husband was rich and you made him richer. You bring a lot of good luck to him." I repeated everything in English.

I imagined Datin Tai asking me, "Are you sure that was what he said? Did he say she made him richer or she made him rich? I thought they were poor when they started off. You know, that story about money for the car?"

Connie was listening to me, nodding and sniffling a little at the same time. The crumpled tissues were piling up on the table. I felt sorry for her. It was strange feeling. I was more used to being envious of her perfect, wealthy life.

"Now, your husband is complicated. He is heaven born with 'dou fa wan', the peach blossom luck. The playboy luck. Throughout his whole life, he will have women coming and going but three times he will encounter real interference, serious relationship."

I repeated this. Connie said, "Three times? So what am I supposed to do? How do I change his luck, break this thing? Ask him if there is something he can give me."

After a translation delay, like a badly edited movie, the fortune teller replied, "You cannot change his luck. Only he can change if he wants to."

"But he doesn't want to. He wants to divorce my friend here and marry this other girl."

The fortune teller took off his rimless glasses, put them on the table and sighed. Up until this point, he had been talking to me. Now he looked directly at Connie. He said, "Please translate this question for your friend. 'Didn't your husband divorce his first wife to marry you?' "

We drove home in silence that afternoon.


Anonymous said...

Nice twist, Shih Li.


Anonymous said...

I like the humour in your story, Shih Li. You really have been observing those nouveau riche ladies who aspire to be part of high society, haven't you? Cheers, Zu

Anonymous said...
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Anonymous said...

Very clever twist. Well done.

Rumaizah said...

What I like about this story is that it focuses on the juicy parts only. One doesn't have to go through heaps of junks to find the interesting bits. Smooth read!

Kas said...

I liked the descriptive style. I could really picture the scene clearly. Also loved the part about wiping off the tears on the LV bag first! So typical but so real.

Ari said...

Very good. Elegant story telling.
BTW, were u @ SMSJ Kluang? If u were, and wish to renew old aquaintance, my e-mail add is