Saturday, June 28, 2008

Yes, Your Majesty

Holy. Shit.

It's 10 at night and I'm still sitting at my desk at work, listening to Neutral Milk Hotel and feeling too wide-eyed to breathe. This had to be the busiest day I've EVER had. From 10 this morning, the work just didn't stop coming.

First, we were deeply embroiled in an organ trading scandal, then the brother of someone famous got sent to sleep with the fishes and finally a top religious figure popped his clogs after lunch. (Sorry this is all a bit mysterious, but it's got to be a surprise tomorrow morning, innit!) My heart's been pounding to the rhythm of my fingers as they fly over the keys, and I haven't had a mouthful of coffee all day. Since ten, I ain't had a moment to think.

Somewhere in the midst of it though, I received a call from someone Very Important.
My mobile rang in the afternoon as I was hastily pounding out a badly-spelt missive and I grabbed it without thinking and sang, "Hey!" into the receiver.

Immediately, a rough voice barked into the receiver, "I WILL TAKE QUESTIONS NOW!"
The faintly familiar stentorian, upper crust tones made me bolt from my seat and nearly drop the phone.

"What? Who is this?" I gasped, trying to sandwich it between shoulder and ear.

"WHAT?!" The woman on the end sounded deeply offended and suddenly, in a blinding flash of realisation, I placed her. The daughter of Singapore's founder and sister of the current Prime Minister. I'd never spoken to her or seen her in my life, but she had traces of her father's well-known voice in her own.

The crisp, curt tones were clearly throwbacks to her father's British vowels. As was her manner of speaking, much like waving a bothersome little fly away from her face.

"LOOK HERE, DON'T YOU THINK THIS IS THE STUPIDEST THING YOU'VE EVER HEARD?" she yelled about one of the official's statements with great authority.

I cringed in my seat, unsure of what to say. "Um..."

"COME NOW! I'M NOT AFRAID TO TELL ANYONE WHAT I THINK!" She boomed as I went scrambling for a pen and a clean page in my notebook. With the air of someone used to being listened to all her life, she rattled answers off with great speed and vim, making me pray fervently that I was not misquoting her, and thinking please GOD don't let her remember my name after this conversation is over.

The whole conversation was vaguely surreal, and I felt like I was on a fox hunt on the grounds of the Buckingham Palace with the Queen herself shouting "Pip pip! Tally Ho!" instructions with a hearty, tweedy pomp and splendour.

At one point, when, unclear of her meaning I requested that she repeat herself, she took a deep breath and bellowed at me, "MY GIRL! YOUR EDITOR TELLS ME HIS FEMALE REPORTERS ARE SMARTER THAN HIS MALE ONES, AND YOU'RE ASKING ME WHAT I MEAN?"

Um, yes Your Majesty, no, Your Majesty, of course, Your Majesty, I wanted to say, but instead, a squeak issued from my throat like air from a balloon. Despite all her barking and commanding, even though I felt a little mad at being talked down to, I also couldn't help liking the bird's spunk, her clear sense of who she was and what she wanted and her extremely forthright way of speaking her mind - the same way you come to like a crusty old aunt who expresses affection through gruffness.

Besides, the woman is a neurologist, and that is something I admire deeply.

"HAVE YOU GOT ENOUGH?" She trilled at the end of the conversation.

Yes, I did, I replied, simultaneously flummoxed, awed and annoyed.

"GOOD!" She dug deep and delivered her final edict in a hoarse proclaimation, "NOW, RUN!" and promptly hung up the phone without so much as a "goodbye" or "you're welcome".

Huh, I thought, sliding my Samsung shut, so this is how the other half lives.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

Not Mine

As a newspaper girl of sorts, I attend lots of grim, newsy events. I've been to funerals and memorials, one-room flats that are infested with bed-bugs and the diabetic elderly who cannot walk. I've had to interview mentally ill people and the poor who have clung to my arms and begged me to help them. But I've never actually cried at one of these she-bangs.

Sure, gone home and locked the door and sobbed into a tissue, feeling down and out. But not actually burst into tears in front of my newsmakers, though I've often felt like it.

Today, all that changed. I was present at a government do, straightforward enough, really, a little annual party for foster children and their foster parents to commemorate their dedication.

The fostering programme in Singapore runs such that foster parents volunteer to take in children whose own homes can't look after them and basically treat them as their own until they are sufficiently grown-up or until such time as the original family can take them back.

Many of the kids are ditched because they've got disabilities or special needs or because they've been abused or malnourished, so it's clearly not easy being a foster parent.

Hence, the thank-you celebration. It was a cheerful little thing, bouncing castles, pink candy floss, ministerial speeches and skits by the foster kids dressed in animal and plant costumes - just your run-of-the-mill heartland festivity. For some reason though, maybe because I'm hormonal as fuck this week, I just couldn't hold back the tears.

It was the sweetest event I'd ever been to. All these parents, most with grown-up kids of their own, had taken in these tiny toddlers and babies, some who couldn't walk, some who couldn't see or hear, and fed them and clothed them and loved them when their own flesh and blood couldn't or didn't want to. And on this special day, they dressed them in their best, just as if they were their own.

Little girls ran proudly about in fluffy pink dresses, their hair painstakingly combed into little brown curls with shiny barettes pressed into it. Parents toted around tots in animal costumes, too fat with furry bellies to walk.

Boys, sometimes brothers who were being fostered in pairs, walked around in matching outfits. The clean running shoes covered in little caricatures of Ultraman and Sonic the Hedgehog spoke of the care they were getting. I could imagine it, parents bringing their fosters to a shoe store and letting them choose the colours and cartoons they wanted, where before no one had cared enough to even feed them properly. The thought that someone loved hard enough to give them choices made me choked and teary.

The kids danced around on stage, boys slashing the air with cardboard swords and lightning makeup streaking their faces. And when the dance ended, they stood in a little line, fidgeting and swinging their shoulders and took turns to talk into the mic. "Thank you Daddy, for looking after me. I love you."

I welled up all over again.

In the audience, tired of sitting on her own, a little girl climbed into her foster mother's lap and twined her black patent Mary-Jane around the woman's leg. She received a cuddle in return, and a gentle adjustment of the feathered headband in her locks. No one looking at them would ever be able to tell the child was not hers.

But the worst part of the whole arrangement: some day, they have to give them away. Foster parents, I learnt, are only there for so long as the child doesn't have a better place to stay. Some stay in foster placement for years, not remembering who their real parents are, growing up in homes filled with love and warmth. Then, they have to leave.

Parents cry and ache, they tell me, but that's the way it goes. That's the price to pay for teaching one little one, or two, what is it to be loved.

And watching a mother gently lavish her disabled son's pink cheek with kisses as he closed his eyes in sheer delight, I tried to wipe my eyes with a surreptitious finger and realised if some day, I'm ever in a position to have my own little ones to love, I want at least one that is not mine.