Authors: Kevin Kwan
Kitty also had the attractive eastern European therapists that Colette kept on staff replaced with middle-aged Chinese women who resembled Madame Mao.
Chloe had finally fallen asleep after he had rubbed her back for half an hour, and Charlie tiptoed quietly up to his bedroom. He sat leaning against the foot of the bed, facing the floor-to-ceiling window with its panoramic view of Victoria Harbour and dialed Astrid's private line in Singapore. It rang a few times, and just as Charlie began to think he was calling too late, a sleepy-sounding Astrid picked up.
“Sorry, did I wake you up?” Charlie half whispered.
“No, I was reading. Did you just get home?”
“I've been in all night, but I was putting out a few fires.”
Charlie sighed. “No, nothing to do with her this time. Chloe had been bugging me for weeks to let her watch this movie, and I stupidly allowed her and Delphine to see it tonightâ¦
The Fault in Our Stars
“I don't know it.”
“I thought it was for kids, but trust me, it's not. It's sort of like a modern-day retelling of
“Oh no. Young love, tragic ending?”
“You have no idea. When I began to realize where it was headed, I tried turning the movie off, but the girls screamed bloody murder, so I let them keep watching. Chloe's obsessed with the guy in the film, this goofy blond kid. But then in the endâ¦oh God.”
“In the end you had two weeping girls?”
“Sobbing uncontrollably. I think Delphine's traumatized for life.”
“Charlie Wu! She's eight years old! What on earth were you thinking?” Astrid scolded.
“I know, I know. I was lazy, I saw the DVD cover and read the first two lines on the back. It looked harmless.”
“You might as well have put on
A Clockwork Orange
“I'm a bad father, Astrid. That's why I need you in my life. The girls need you. They need a good, sensible influence around.”
“Ha! I don't think my mum would agree with that statement.”
“They're going to love you, Astrid. I just know it. And they're going to love Cassian too.”
“We're going to be the Asian Brady Bunch, minus a few kids.”
“I can't wait. By the way, I had a really good meeting with Isabel's lawyers yesterday. They don't have any more objections, thank God. You know, in a strange way the stunt Isabel pulled in Singapore has worked to our advantage. Her lawyers were so afraid that I'd try to get full custody of the girls that they've withdrawn most of their demands and are willing to settle now.”
“That's the best news I've heard all week,” Astrid said, closing her eyes for a moment. Slowly but surely, she was beginning to see her life with Charlie come into focus. She pictured herself cuddled up next to him on their new bed in their beautiful new house in Shek O, far from the crowds of Hong Kong or Singapore, bathed in moonlight and listening to the waves crashing against the rocks on the cliffs far below. She could picture Chloe and Delphine watching an age-appropriate movie in the media room with their new stepbrother, Cassian, passing a big pint of gelato amongst themselves.
Charlie's voice suddenly jarred her out of her daydream. “Hey, I'm going to India tomorrow. Visiting our new factories in Bangalore, and then I have to attend this charity polo match in Jodhpur that we're sponsoring. Why don't you come for the weekend?”
“Yeah. We can stay at the Umaid Bhawan Palace. Have you ever been there? It's one of the most gorgeous palaces in the world, and the Taj group now runs it as a very exclusive hotel. Shivraj, the future maharaja, is a good friend, and I'm sure we'll be treated like royalty,” Charlie said.
“Sounds tempting, but there's no way I can leave Singapore right now with Ah Ma so sick.”
“Isn't she feeling a bit better? And didn't you say that a million relatives have descended on Tyersall Park? They're not going to miss you for two or three days.”
“It's precisely because so many relatives are in town that they'll need me. It's my duty to help entertain everyone.”
“Sorry, I realize I'm being extremely selfish. You're a total saint for your family. I just miss you so much.”
“I miss you too. I can't believe it's been more than a month since we've seen each other! But between my grandmother and everything going on with Isabel and Michael and our lovely legal teams, don't you think it's better for us to lay low and not to be seen together right now?”
“Who's going to know we're in India? I'm flying into Mumbai, you can fly straight to Jodhpur, and we'll be totally secluded at the hotel. In fact, if things go according to my plan, we're not going to ever leave our room the entire weekend.”
“If things go according to your plan? Whatever do you mean, Mr. Grey?” Astrid teased.
“I'm not going to tell you, but it will involve chocolate mousse, peacock feathers, and a good stopwatch.”
“Mmmm. I do love a good stopwatch.”
“Come on. It'll be fun.”
Astrid mulled it over. “Well, Michael's got Cassian this weekend, and I am supposed to represent my family at this royal wedding in Malaysia on Friday. I could maybe fly from KL after the big banquetâ”
“I'll have the plane ready and waiting for you.”
“Khaleeda, the bride, is a good friend. I know she'll cover for me. I could say I had no choice but to stay all weekend for the festivities. I was roped in.”
“And I'm at the end of my rope. I
to see you,” Charlie pleaded.
“You're such a corruptor. Even back when we lived in London during our uni days, you've always made me do bad things.”
“That's because I've always known deep down you want to be a bad girl. Admit it, you want me to fly you to India, shower you with gemstones, and make love to you all weekend in a palace.”
“Well, since you put it that wayâ¦”
CHANGI AIRPORT, SINGAPORE
As Nick pushed his luggage cart into the arrival hall of Terminal 3, he saw a familiar face holding up a sign that read
PROFESSOR NICHOLAS YOUNG, ESQ, PHD
. Most people at the airport would have figured the guy with the signâclad in a faded yellow ACS tank top, navy blue Adidas jogging pants, and flip-flopsâas some surfer bum hired to be a substitute driver and not the heir to one of Singapore's biggest fortunes.
“What are you doing here?” Nick said, hugging his best friend Colin Khoo.
“You haven't been back since 2010. I wasn't going to let you arrive without a proper greeting party,” Colin said cheerily.
“Look at you! Tan as ever and rockin' that man bun! What does your father think of this look?”
Colin grinned. “He detests it. He says I look like an opium addict, and if this was the 1970s and I arrived at Changi Airport, Lee Kuan Yew would personally come down to Immigration, grab me by the ear, drag me to the nearest Indian barbershop, and have me shaved
They took the glass elevators down to Level B2, where Colin's car was parked.
“What are you driving these days? Is this a Porsche Cayenne?” Nick asked as Colin helped him to load his luggage into the back of the SUV.
“No, this is the new 2016 Macan. It's not actually out yet until March, but they let me have this special test driver.”
“Sweet,” Nick said, opening the passenger-side door. There was a cashmere wrap on the seat.
“Oh, just throw that in the back. That's Minty's. She freezes whenever she rides up front. She sends her love, by the wayâshe's in Bhutan at her mother's resort, doing a meditation retreat.”
“Sounds nice. You didn't want to join her?”
“Nah, you know how my brain works. I'm totally ADHDâcan't meditate for the life of me. My form of meditation these days is Muay Thai boxing,” Colin said as he backed out of the parking spot at what felt like sixty miles per hour.
Trying not to flinch, Nick asked, “So it sounds like Araminta's been feeling better?”
“Umâ¦getting there,” Colin said haltingly.
“Glad to hear that. I know things have been rough lately.”
“Yeah, you know how it isâdepression comes in waves. And this miscarriage really pulled her under for a while. She's trying to be good to herself, doing all these retreats, and she's cut back on work. She's seeing a really great psychologist now, even though her parents aren't thrilled about that.”
“Yeah, Minty's dad made her doctor sign this gigantic stack of NDAs, even though you know all psychologists are already bound by a confidentiality code. But Peter Lee needed assurance that the doctor would never even admit that Minty is a client of his, or that she would ever need something as shameful as therapy.”
Nick shook his head. “It amazes me that there's still such a huge stigma about mental illness here.”
“ââStigma' implies that something exists but society is prejudiced against it. Here, everyone's in denial that it even exists!”
“Well, that explains why you're not locked up,” Nick deadpanned.
Colin punched Nick playfully. “It's so great to see you, to be able to say this stuff out loud!”
“Surely there are other people you can talk to?”
“Nobody wants to hear that Colin Khoo and Araminta Lee have any kind of problems. We're too rich to have problems. We're the golden couple, right?”
the golden couple. And I've seen the pictures to prove it!”
Colin scoffed, remembering the infamous fashion shoot for
where he dressed up like James Bond and Araminta was painted in gold from head to toe. “Biggest mistake of my life was doing that photo shoot! I'm never going to live that down. You know, I was taking a piss at the bathroom at Paragon the other day when the guy at the next urinal suddenly looked at me and said, â
Aren't you that Golden God?'â”
Nick burst out laughing. “So did you give him your number?”
“Fuck you!” Colin replied. “Strangely enough, guess who's been a good friend to Minty lately? Kitty Pong!”
“Yes, she was the one who connected Minty to her psychologist. I think it's because Kitty's not a localâshe doesn't have the same sort of baggage that we have, and Araminta feels like she can speak frankly with her because she's completely removed from our tight little circle. She didn't go to Raffles, MGS, or SCGS,
and she's not a Churchill Club member. She hangs with that foreign billionaire crowd.”
“It's only fitting. She's Mrs. Jack Bing now.”
“Yeah, I feel a bit sorry for Bernard Tai. As much of an idiot as he used to be, he did become a good father, from what I hear. But he totally got burned by Kitty. I don't think he ever saw that Jack Bing thing coming. Hey, what ever happened to that daughter of his?”
“Colette? Hell if I know. After she had Rachel poisoned, we made sure to steer clear of her. I wanted to press charges against her, you know? But Rachel wouldn't hear of it.”
“Hmmâ¦Rachel sure is a forgiving person.”
“That she is. And that's why I'm here. I'm under specific orders to come back and make peace with Ah Ma.”
“And is that what you want to do?”
Nick paused for a moment. “I'm not sure, quite honestly. Part of me feels like all this happened a lifetime ago. Our daily lives are so removed from everything going on here. On the one hand, I can't ever forget the way Rachel was treated and how my grandmother couldn't trust me, but on the other hand, her acceptance is kind of irrelevant now.”
“Everything ends up seeming irrelevant in the face of loss,” Colin said as he sped onto East Coast Parkway. “So am I taking you straight to the house, or do you want to grab a bite first?”
“You know what, it's so late, I probably should go straight to the house. I'm sure there will be food for us there. With everyone in town, I think Ah Ching's kitchen staff must be churning out food nonstop.”
“No problem. Tyersall Park, coming right up! I'm just going to visualize a hundred sticks of satay awaiting me there. You know, not to push you in any way, but I like your grandmother. She's always been good to me. Remember how I ran away from home after my stepmonster threatened to ship me off to boarding school in Tasmania, and your grandma let us hide out in the tree house at Tyersall Park?”
“Yeah! And every morning, she would make the cook send a big basket full of breakfast goodies up to the tree,” Nick added.
“That's what I mean! All my associations with your grandma revolve around food. I'll never forget the
chee cheong fun
char siew baos
delivered on those bamboo trays, and the freshly baked
! We were feasting like kings up there! When I finally got sent home, I wanted to find any excuse I could to run away to that little tree house again. Our cook was nothing compared to yours!”
“Haha! I remember you ran away from home so many times.”
“Yep. My stepmonster made life so miserable. You only ran away once, if I remember correctly.”
Nick nodded as the memory began to unfurl in his mind, taking him back to when he was eight years oldâ¦
They had been in the middle of dinner, just the three of them. His father, mother, and him, eating in the breakfast room off the kitchen, as they did when his parents weren't entertaining guests in the formal dining room. He could even remember what they ate that night.
Bak ku teh.
He had poured too much of the rich, aromatic broth over his rice, making it too watery for his liking, but his mother had insisted he finish his bowl before she would let him redo it. She was more irritable than usualâit seemed like both his parents had been so tense for days now.
Someone came speeding up the driveway, too fast, and instead of parking by the front porch like all the guests would, the car kept going until it reached the back of the house, stopping just behind the garage. Nick looked out the window and saw Auntie Audrey, his parents' good friend, emerging from her Honda Prelude. He liked Auntie Audrey, she always made the most delicious
. Was she bringing something yummy for dessert tonight? She came bursting through the back door, and Nick saw immediately that Auntie Audrey's face was puffy and bruised, her lip bleeding. The sleeve from her blouse was torn, and she looked totally dazed.
, Audrey! What happened?” His mother gasped, as several maids came rushing into the room.
Audrey ignored her, staring instead at his father, Philip. “Look what my husband did to me! I wanted you to see what the monster did to me!”
His mother rushed to Auntie Audrey's side. “Desmond did this? Oh my dear!”
“Don't touch me!” Audrey cried out as she crumpled to the floor.
His father stood up from the table. “Nicky, upstairs now!”
!” his father shouted.
Ling Jeh rushed to Nick's side and steered him out of the dining room.
“What is happening? Is Auntie Audrey okay?” Nick asked worriedly.
“Don't worry about her, let's go to your room. I'll play dominoes with you,” his nanny replied in her soothing Cantonese as she rushed him up the stairs.
They sat there in his bedroom for about fifteen minutes. Ling Jeh had laid out the dominoes, but he was too distracted by the sounds coming from downstairs. He could hear muffled shouts and a woman weeping. Was it his mum or Auntie Audrey? He ran out to the landing and overheard Auntie Audrey shouting, “Just because you are Youngs, you think you can go around fucking anyone you want?”
He couldn't believe his ears. He had never heard an adult use the f word like that. What did this mean?
“Nicky, come back into the room at once!” Ling Jeh yelled, pulling him back into his bedroom. She shut the door tightly and began rushing around, hurriedly shutting the jalousie windows and turning on the air conditioner. Suddenly the familiar
sound of an old taxi could be heard laboring up the steep driveway. Nick rushed to the veranda and leaning out he could see that it was Uncle DesmondâAuntie Audrey's husbandâstumbling out of the taxi. His father came outside, and he could hear the both of them arguing in the dark, Uncle Desmond pleading, “She's lying! It's all lies, I'm telling you!” while his father murmured something and then suddenly, forcefully, raised his voice. “Not in my house.
NOT IN MY HOUSE
At some point he must have fallen asleep. He woke up, not knowing what time it was. Ling Jeh had left the room, and the air conditioner had been turned off but the jalousie windows were still closed. It felt stiflingly hot. He cracked open the door carefully and saw across the hallway the line of light underneath the door to his parents' bedroom. Did he dare leave his room? Or would they be shouting at each other again? He didn't want to hear them fightingâhe knew he wasn't supposed to hear them. He was feeling thirsty, so he walked out to the landing where there was a refrigerator that was always stocked with ice and a jug of water. As he opened the fridge and stood in front of it, feeling the cool draft against his body, he heard sobs coming from his parents' bedroom. Creeping over to their door, he could hear his mother suddenly scream, “Don't you dare! Don't you dare! You'll see your name splashed over the front pages tomorrow.”
“Lower your voice!” his father shouted back angrily.
“I'm going to ruin your precious name, I tell you! What I've had to put up with all these years from your family! I'm going to run. I'll run off with Nicky to America and you'll never see him again!”
“I'll kill you if you take my son!”
Nicky could feel his heart pounding. He had never heard his parents this angry before. He rushed into his bedroom, stripped off his pajamas, and threw on a T-shirt and his soccer shorts. He took out all the
money he had saved in his little metal safe boxâ$790âand grabbed his silver flashlight, tucking it into the waistband of his shorts. He went out the door leading onto the veranda, where a large guava tree arched over the second floor. He grasped hold of one of the thick branches, swung onto the tree trunk, and quickly shimmied down to the ground, as he had done hundreds of times.
Jumping onto his ten-speed bicycle, he raced out of the garage and down Tudor Close. He could hear the Alsatians at his neighbor's house begin to bark, and it made him cycle even faster. He sped down the long slope of Harlyn Road until he reached Berrima Road. At the second house on the right, he stopped in front of the tall steel electronic gate and looked around. The concrete fence had glass spikes at the top, but he wondered whether he could still climb it, holding on to the edges and propelling himself quickly enough that he wouldn't get cut. He was still out of breath from his escape. A Malay guard came out of the sentry box next to the gate, astonished to see a boy standing there at two in the morning.
“What do you want, boy?”
It was the night guard who didn't know him. “I need to see Colin. Can you tell him Nicky is here?”
The guard looked momentarily perplexed, but then he went into his sentry box and got on the phone. A few minutes later, Nick could see lights come on in the house, and the metal gate began to slide open with a quiet clang. As Nick walked down the driveway toward the house, the porch lights came on and the front door opened. Colin's British grandmother, Winifred Khoo, who always reminded him of a plumper version of Margaret Thatcher, stood at the doorway in a quilted peach silk robe.