When my mother was growing up in Ipoh, she went to the local convent school where she learnt French and home economics from the Irish nuns. To this day, she speaks French with a heavy Dublin accent, which confuses all the waiters in Paris. My sister Michelle says she was Louis Vuitton once and overheard Mother explaining to the sales assistance that her odd accent — odd because she looked neither French nor Irish — was the result of many years spent in Ulster as the au pair to a French couple.
“Ulster?” she later reported to us. “What kind of a cockamamie story is that?”
“And those LV girls bought it?”
“Hook line and sinker. They were so impressed!” Michelle told me. “One of them said Mother’s use of the subjunctive was flawless!”
I snorted. “Boy, she was angling for her commission.”
“What’s an au pair?” our brother Jack asked, proving not for the first time, that his very expensive education had been wasted on him.
“Someone who looks after children. Kind of like a nanny, but a fancy one,” Michelle said. “Like our Ma-Jie.”
Jack hesitated. “Do you think Mother looks like the sort of person who’s ever looked after a child?”
Michelle looked triumphant. “My point, exactly!”
“Oh, that was a fun tease!” Mother said to Michelle as they sailed out of the store with bags and bags. “They have such nice girls in Louis Vuitton! Not like those girls over at Gucci with their multiple tattoos and piercings!”
“It was only the one girl, Mother! And it was a tiny tattoo of a heart on the inside of her wrist! Barely noticeable!”
Mother sniffed as she led the way down the Champs Elysees. “When I was in school in the convent in Ipoh, our skirts had to be below the knee and our hair had to be shoulder length at least. Those Irish nuns were strict! We weren’t even allowed to have our ears pierced for normal ear-rings! Meanwhile, your cousin Mavis just had her tongue pierced! Can you imagine?”
Later, we all agreed that Mother had a point there about our cousin whom everyone in the family avoided on account of her foul breath and her equally overwhelming body odour. It was a subject of endless speculation by Mother and her sisters about how on earth their brother and Mavis’s mother, our Auntie Meredith, could tolerate such nonsense.
“How is she ever going to get married smelling like that?” was the frequent topic of discussion during the weekly mahjong sessions. “Which man will go near her?”
“Maybe she doesn’t like men?” Auntie Sook-Ling once suggested.
“No, that’s not possible,” Mother had replied firmly. “The gays are very fussy about their personal hygiene.”
“The gays?” Michelle later repeated to us.
“I just don’t understand why she gets all those piercings!” I said. “Just about every square inch of her has a piece of metal stuck through it! She must set off all the metal detectors in airports!”
A few days ago, Michelle rang me in a state of high excitement to say she’d bumped into Mavis on Orchard Road. “She is unrecognisable! All her piercings are gone! And she no longer smells.”
“Get out,” I said.
“She had an operation on her armpits, cut off a few glands and the smell just stopped!”
I was impressed. “That’s a thing?”
“And she found out she’d been suffering from gum disease all these years and never knew because she was scared of dentists. But the biggest news is that all her piercings are gone! She actually looks normal now! And quite pretty!”
The odd thing was that for years, Mavis had been suffering from debilitating migraines and the worse eczema. She’d gone for innumerable CT scans and seen every dermatologist on the planet, but nobody could work out what the cause was. Then one day, she was having a facial and the therapist, who also dabbled in acupuncture, suddenly asked if Mavis suffered from migraines.
Mavis sat up and pushed aside the facial steam. “Yes, how did you know?”
It turns out that several of her ear and body piercings were right on the meridian points that controlled headaches and skin. Mavis said within two days of having all her piercings removed, her migraines disappeared and her skin began clearing up. And within two months, she’d met a plastic surgeon and they were getting married after next Chinese New Year in the Maldives.
“Imagine, all those useless specialists and it was the person squeezing her blackheads who solved it!” Michelle said with admiration.
“I told you she wasn’t gay!” Mother said at mahjong.