Authors: Kevin Kwan
“Nicholas Young! Is everything all right?”
He ran up to her and breathlessly blurted out, “My parents are fighting! They want to kill each other, and my mother wants to take me away!”
“Calm down, calm down. No one is going to take you away,” Mrs. Khoo said soothingly, putting her arms around him. The tension that had been bottled up all evening came out, and he began sobbing uncontrollably.
Half an hour later, as he sat on a barstool in the upstairs library, enjoying a vanilla root beer float with Colin, Philip and Eleanor Young arrived at the Khoo residence. He could hear their polite tones as they talked to Winifred Khoo in the drawing room downstairs.
“Naturally, our boy overreacted. I think his imagination got away with him.” He could hear his mother laughing, speaking in that English accent of hers that she put on whenever she was talking to Westerners.
“All the same, I think he should probably just spend the night here,” Winifred Khoo said.
Just then, another car could be heard pulling up the front driveway. Colin turned on the television, which flickered a security-camera screen that revealed a stately black Mercedes 600 Pullman limousine arriving at the front door. A tall uniformed Gurkha jumped out and opened the passenger door.
“It's your Ah Ma!” Colin said excitedly, as the boys rushed to the banister to peek at what was going on downstairs.
Su Yi entered the house, with two Thai lady's maids trailing behind her, and Nick's nanny, Ling Jeh, suddenly also appeared, clutching three big boxes of mooncakes. Nick figured that Ling Jeh must have alerted his grandmother to what had happened at his house. Even though she now worked for his parents, her ultimate loyalty was always to Su Yi.
Su Yi, wearing her trademark tinted glasses, was dressed in a chic rose-colored linen pantsuit with a ruffled high-necked blouse, looking as if she had just come from addressing the UN General Assembly. “I must apologize for inconveniencing you like this,” he heard his grandmother say to Winifred Khoo in perfect English. Nick had no idea his grandmother could speak English so well. He saw his parents standing off to the side with stunned, chastened looks on their faces.
Ling Jeh handed Winifred the towering stack of square tin boxes.
“My goodness, the famous mooncakes from Tyersall Park! This is much too generous of you!” Winifred said.
“Not at all. I am so appreciative of your calling me. Now, where's Nicky?” his grandmother asked. Nick and Colin ran back into the library, pretending they had heard nothing until they were summoned downstairs by Colin's nanny.
“Nicky, there you are!” his grandmother said. She put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Now, say thank you to Mrs. Khoo.”
“Thanks, Mrs. Khoo. Good night, Colin,” he said with a grin, as his grandmother guided him out the front door and into the Mercedes. She climbed in after him, and Ling Jeh also got in, sitting on the folding seat in the middle row of the stretch limousine with the Thai lady's maids. As the car door was about to shut, his father came rushing out. “Mummy, are you taking Nicky toâ”
“Wah mai chup!”
Su Yi said sharply in Hokkien, turning away from her son as the guard shut the door firmly.
As the car pulled out of the Khoo residence, he asked his grandmother in Cantonese, “Are we going to your house?”
“Yes, I am taking you to Tyersall Park.”
“How long can I stay there?”
“For as long as you want.”
“Will Dad and Mum come to see me?”
“Only if they can learn to behave themselves,” Su Yi replied. His grandmother reached her arm out, drawing him closer, and he remembered being surprised by the gesture, by the softness of her body as he leaned against her while the car rocked gently back and forth as it navigated down the dark leafy lanes.
And now in a flash Nick found himself on that same dark lane again, more than two decades later, with Colin at the wheel of his Porsche. As the car wound along Tyersall Avenue, Nick felt like he knew every curve and bump of the roadâthe sudden dip that put them eye level with the gnarled ancient tree trunks, the dense overhang of foliage that kept it cool even on the hottest day. He must have walked or cycled down this narrow lane a thousand times as a kid. He realized for the first time that he was excited to be home again, and that the hurt he had felt over the past few years was fading. Without quite realizing it, he had already forgiven his grandmother.
The car pulled up to the familiar gates of Tyersall Park, and Colin breezily announced to the approaching guard, “I'm delivering Nicholas Young.”
The yellow-turbaned Gurkha peered in the front window of the car at the both of them and said, “I'm sorry, but we're not expecting any more visitors tonight.”
“We're not visitors. This is Nicholas Young right here. This is his grandmother's house,” Colin insisted.
Nick leaned toward the driver's seat, trying to get a better look at the guard. He didn't recognize the manâhe must have started working for Tyersall Park after his last visit. “Hey, I don't think we've met before. I'm Nickâthey are expecting my arrival up at the house.”
The guard turned around and went back into the guardhouse for a moment. He returned with a brown paper log and began flipping through the pages. Colin turned to Nick and snickered in disbelief. “Can you believe this?”
“I'm sorry, but I don't see either of your names here, and we are under high alert at the moment. I'm afraid I'm going to have to ask you to turn around.”
“Look, is Vikram here? Can you please call Vikram?” Nick asked, beginning to lose his patience. Vikram, who headed the guard unit for the past two decades, would quickly put an end to this absurdity.
“Captain Ghale is off duty right now. He returns at eight tomorrow morning.”
“Well, call him, or call whoever the on-duty supervisor is.”
“That would be Sergeant Gurung,” the guard said, getting out his walkie-talkie. He began talking in Nepali into the device, and a few minutes later, an officer emerged from the darkness, having come from the main guardhouse up the road.
Nick recognized him immediately. “Hey, Joey, it's me, Nick! Will you tell your friend here to let us through?”
The burly guard in the starched olive fatigues walked up to the passenger-side window with a big smile. “Nicky Young! It's so good to see you! What has it been? Four, five years now?”
“I was last back in 2010. That's why your compadre over here doesn't know me.”
Sergeant Gurung leaned against the car window. “Listen, we are under specific orders here. I don't quite know how to put this, but we're not allowed to let you enter.”
Malay for “bald-headed.” For some reason, the word has also become popular as a nickname for little boys with crew cuts.
Singapore Chinese Girls' School, which we ACS boys used to call Sucking Coâuh, never mind.
Hokkien for “I couldn't give a damn.”
TYERSALL PARK, SINGAPORE
“Three, four, five,” Eddie counted as he stood by the window in the upstairs foyer, looking down the driveway. There were five cars in the motorcadeâfour, really, if you didn't count the minivan transporting all the maids bringing up the rear. Auntie Catherine and her family had just flown in from Bangkok, and Eddie was surprised there were so few cars in their convoy. In the lead was a white Mercedes S-Class with diplomatic license plates, obviously provided by the Thai embassy, but the other cars were a random assortment: a
BMW X5 SUV
behind the Benz, an Audi that looked at least five years old, and that last car, he didn't even have a clue what it wasâit was some non-European four-door sedan, something that didn't register on his list of acceptable vehicles to be seen in.
Yesterday, when he had arrived with his family from Hong Kong, his executive assistant, Stella, had arranged a fleet of six matching Carpathian Grey Range Rovers, making for an impressive entrance as the Cheng
pulled up to the front door of Tyersall Park. Today he felt almost embarrassed for Auntie Catherine and her clan. Her husband, M.C. Taksin Aakara,
was one of the descendants of King Mongkut, and Eddie remembered every detail of his last visit to Thailand when he was nineteen as if it was yesterday: The sprawling compound of historic villas set in a garden paradise on the banks of the Chao Phraya River; the way his cousins James, Matt, and Adam had three servants
that would prostrate at their feet as if they were little gods, ready to attend to their every whim; the fleet of forest green BMWs idling in the front courtyard ready to take them to the polo club, the tennis club, or any of Sukhumvit's hottest dance clubs; and Jessieanne, that sexy cousin of theirs who went down on him in the upstairs toilet of a pizza parlor in Hua Hin one night.
So why were the Aakaras pulling up in such a ragtag bunch of cars? And wait a minuteâwhat the hell was happening outside? Sanjit the butler and the entire household staffâincluding the Gurkha guardsâwere all dressed in their crisp uniforms and assembling along the front driveway! And Ah Ling and Auntie Victoria were also part of the greeting party! Fucky fuck, why hadn't they done this for his family when they arrived yesterday?
Eddie was annoyed to see that his parents had gone outside too, and he was determined that he would under no circumstances join them. Thank goodness Fiona had taken the kids to the zoo, otherwise they would surely want to be part of this idiocy and make the Aakaras feel like they were truly hot shit. He ducked out of view and hid in the service hallway, waiting for everyone to come upstairs, knowing it was always the custom at Tyersall Park for guests to be served iced longan tea in the drawing room when they first arrived. Two waiters passed by rolling cocktail trolleys filled with glassware and large silver samovars of tea, mystified by Eddie lurking in the hallway. He glared at them and hissed, “You didn't see me! I'm not here!”
When Eddie began to hear voices coming up the stairs, he ambled into the drawing room with his hands nonchalantly tucked into the pockets of his salmon-colored Rubinacci trousers. Auntie Cat was the first to arrive at the top of the grand staircase, chattering away excitedly with his mother in that distinctive convent-schoolgirl lilt of hers.
“What a surprise to see you and Malcolm out front! I thought you weren't arriving until this evening?”
“That was the plan, but Eddie managed to fly all of us down on a private jet yesterday.”
Wah, gum ho maeng!
Catherine remarked, as a waiter approached them bearing a silver tray filled with tall glasses of iced longan tea.
Eddie studied his aunt for a moment as she sat down on a divan next to his mother, marveling at how different the sisters looked. Auntie Cat's stocky, athletic physique was enviable for a woman in her seventies, and in such contrast to his other aunties with their bony, aristocratically malnourished frames. Unfortunately, she
take after her sisters in her fashion senseâon a charitable day, Eddie might have politely described her style as “eccentric.” Today, she just looked god-awful in that boxy purple silk pantsuit, obviously tailor-made and obviously several decades old, mud-colored Clarks open-toed walking sandals, and the same pair of Sophia Loren bluish-tinted bifocals he had seen her wear for decades.
Catching sight of him, Catherine exclaimed, “My goodness, Eddie, I hardly recognized you. You look like you've lost a bit of weight!”
“Thank you for noticing, Auntie Cat! Yes, I've lost about twenty pounds in the past year.”
“Good for you! And your mother tells me you flew the whole family down yesterday?”
“Well, I was attending the World Economic Forum in Davos as an official delegate and my client Mikhail Kordochevskyâyou know, one of Russia's richest menâinsisted that I borrow his Boeing Business Jet when he heard about Ah Ma's heart attack. And you know, it's such a huge plane, I thought it was a pity that I was the only passenger. So instead of flying straight to Singapore, we made a detour to Hong Kong so I could pick up the whole family.”
Catherine turned to her sister. “You see, Alix, I don't know what you keep complaining aboutâyour son is so thoughtful!”
“Yes, very thoughtful,” Alix added, trying to block out the memory of Eddie screaming at her over the phone yesterday:
You have two hours to get everyone to Hong Kong airport or I'm leaving without you! My special friend is doing us a very special favor by lending us his very special plane, you know! And for God's sake please pack some decent clothes and jewelry this time! I don't want you to be mistaken for a Mainland tourist when I'm with you in Singapore! Last time we got such bad service at Crystal Jade Palace because of the way you looked!
“How did you all fly down?” Eddie asked, wondering what kind of private jet the Aakaras had these days.
“Well, Thai Airways was running a special just for today. If you buy three economy tickets, the fourth person flies for free. So it was quite a savings for our whole lot. But then when we got to the airport and they realized it was your uncle Taksin, they upgraded us to first class.”
Eddie couldn't believe his ears. The Aakaras never flew commercialânot since Uncle Taksin had become a special attachÃ© to the Thai Air Force back in the 1970s. Just then, Eddie spied his uncle entering the drawing room alongside his father. It had been years since he had last seen his uncle, but he appeared not to have aged one bitâhe was older than his father but looked about a decade younger. His perpetually tan face was wrinkle-free, and he still had that ramrod-straight posture and robust gait of a man accustomed to seeing and being seen. If only his dad wasn't getting so stooped, and if only he dressed more like Uncle Taksin!
Eddie had always admired his uncle's dapper style, and on visits to Bangkok during his teens, he made a point of sneaking into his uncle's closet and checking out all the labels on his clothesâno small feat when there were so many pesky servants lurking everywhere. Today Uncle Taksin was decked out in an impeccably tailored pale orange dress shirtâjudging from the Sea Island cotton it was most likely Ede & Ravenscroftâworn with a pair of navy blue chinos and a highly polished pair of monk strap loafers. Were they Gaziano & Girling or Edward Green? He would have to ask him later. And most important, what watch was Uncle Taksin sporting today? He glanced at his sleeve cuff, expecting to see a Patek, Vacheron, or Breguet, but was horrified to see an Apple Watch strapped to his wrist. Dear God, how the mighty had fallen!
Behind Taksin came his son Adam, whom Eddie didn't know all that well because he was more than a decade younger. The baby of the family, Adam was slightly built and had delicately chiseled, almost feline features. He looked like one of those Thai pop idols, and seemed to dress the part in his skinny jeans and a vintage Hawaiian shirt. Eddie was not impressed. But wait a minute, who was this sexy thing that he would definitely swipe right for? Sauntering up the stairs was a girl with alabaster skin and waist-length black hair. Here at last was someone with styleâthe girl was wearing a sleeveless ice-blue Emilia Wickstead jumpsuit, blue suede ankle boots, and casually slung on her shoulder was the sort of handbag that Eddie was sure had a three-year waiting list. This must be Adam's new wife, Princess Piya, whom his mother couldn't stop gushing about after she attended their wedding last year.
“Uncle Taksin! So good to see you! And Adamâlong time no see!” Eddie patted his cousin on the back enthusiastically. Adam turned to his wife and said, “This is Auntie Alix's eldest son, Eddie, who also lives in Hong Kong.”
“Princess Piya, it is an honor to meet you!” Bending forward, Eddie grasped her hand and bowed to give it a kiss.
Adam snorted almost imperceptibly, while Piya burst into giggles at Eddie's ridiculously overblown gesture. “Please, it's just Piya. Only the children and grandchildren of the king use any sort of formal titles. I'm just a distant relation.”
“I do believe you're being very modest. I mean, you've been given the Pearl Suite!”
“What's that?” Piya asked.
Before Eddie could answer, Adam cut in, “It's this bedroom where all the walls are inlaid with mother-of-pearl. Really remarkable.”
“Yes, it's this vast suite of rooms, perfect for families, really. My wife and three children usually stay in there when we visit,” Eddie couldn't help adding.
“Which room are you in now?” Adam asked.
“We're in the Yellow Room. It's veryâ¦cozy.”
Piya's brow furrowed. “Adam, this doesn't sound right to me. We must move in to another bedroom so Eddie and his family can have this larger suite.”
“But you're our honored royal guest! You must have the Pearl Suite. I didn't mean to imply anything with my comment. Constantine, Augustine, and Kalliste are having loads of fun sharing the same bed, and Fiona even managed to get three hours of sleep last night.”
“Oh dear, I wouldn't feel comfortable in the Pearl Suite knowing that. Adam, could you take care of this?” Piya insisted.
“Of course. I'll have a word with Ah Ling the minute I see her,” Adam replied.
Eddie smiled graciously. “You are both too kind. Now, where are your brothers? I thought the whole family was coming today. There's an eighteen-wheeler full of seafood awaiting them.”
Adam gave him a puzzled look. “Piya and I were the only ones who came down with Mum and Dad. Jimmy, as you know, is a doctor, so he can't get away from work so easily, and Mattie is on a skiing trip with his family in Verbier.”
“Ah. I was just in Switzerland too! I was at Davos, as an official delegate at the World Economic Forum.”
“Oh, I was at Davos two years ago,” Piya said.
“Really? What were you doing there?”
“I was giving a talk to
Eddie looked momentarily stunned as Adam proudly explained, “Piya's a virologist based at
in Bangkokâshe specializes in mosquito-borne viruses like malaria and dengue fever, and she's become one of the leading authorities on tropical diseases.”
Piya smiled bashfully. “Oh, Adam's exaggerating, I'm no authorityâI'm just part of the team. Now that man over there looks like he's an authority.”
Eddie turned to see Professor Oon, still in his surgical scrubs, enter the drawing room. Catherine got up from her divan and rushed up to him. “Francis! So good to see you. How is Mummy today?”
“Her vitals are stable at the moment.”
“Can we go in and see her now?”
“She's in and out of consciousness. I will let four visitors in, but two at a time and only for five minutes each.”
Alix looked at her sister. “Go on. Take Taksin, Adam, and Piya with you. I've already spent time with her this morningâ”
“I haven't seen Ah Ma yet today,” Eddie cut in. “Dr. Oon, surely one more visitor won't make any difference?”
“Okay, I'll let you go in for a few minutes after the rest have come out, but only for a few minutes. We don't want to add any more strain to her today,” the doctor said.
“Of course. I won't say a word.”
“Eddie, will you say a little prayer for Ah Ma when you're in the room with her?” Auntie Victoria suddenly asked.
“Em, sure, I can do that,” Eddie promised.
The five of them headed down the corridor to Su Yi's private quarters. The sitting room adjoining her bedroom had been transformed into a cardiac care unit, with half the room turned into a clinical prep area and the other half filled with various medical machines. Several doctors and nurses huddled over a bank of computer screens, analyzing every blip in their VVIP patient's vital signs, while Su Yi's Thai lady's maids hovered just by the doorway, ready to spring into action should their mistress bat an eyelash. The minute they saw Prince Taksin approach, they dropped to the floor, prostrating themselves. Eddie felt his gut tighten in a mixture of awe and envy as he noticed that his aunt and uncle walked right past the ladies, not even noticing the gesture.
Fucky fuck, why couldn't he have been born into that family?
While Catherine and Taksin went into Su Yi's bedroom, Eddie waited in the hallway with Adam and Piya. Taking the seat next to Piya on a velvet Ruhlmann settee, he whispered, “So, I take it you had an
Piya was momentarily confused. “I'm sorry, are your referring to Davos?”
“Yes. When you were at Davos two years ago, what kind of badge did they give you? The white one with the blue line at the bottom, or the plain white one with the hologram sticker?”
“I'm afraid I can't remember what it looked like.”