My mate Barney has just returned from a trip abroad, too. I’d been to India. He, to Singapore, where his sister works as a nurse and his two Singaporean friends Kim and Yen reside. Kim is a practising dentist; Yen, a retired physiotherapist. Both were Barney’s university buddies in Australia. I tell Barney I’m relieved to be back home, tired of living out of a suitcase. He says: “Tell me about it! I’m a little exhausted from having everybody pull my strings. For the moment, I’m done being a puppet.” It turns out that for the entire week of his visit, he’d never felt he was in charge of his own agenda. “Mind you,” he cautions me, “This is a different kind of complaint. In fact, not a complaint at all. Every one of them was so kind, I really feel I’ve been killed with kindness.” I say I know what he feels, which is a dangerous thing to tell anyone I realise, until you’ve been in their shoes, because Barney asks me immediately, “How many of your programmes have you had rearranged for you during your visit?” None, I assure him. “Then you really don’t know,” he assures me in return.
As a leading example he tells me how his sister had taken the day off work to prepare a lunch of his favourite seafood. While she was out shopping and cooking, she encouraged him to go say hi to “Poor Yen”, his retired physiotherapist buddy, who was now beginning to suffer from arthritis.
Once Barney got chatting with Yen, however, he found it difficult to extricate himself without graciously agreeing to, “stay for a little while” and share a bit of Yen’s lunch, which, by the time Yen’s dear wife could cook it meant he got back to his own sister’s place long after she’d given up waiting for him.
“So I had to explain how hard it was to refuse Yen blah blah blah,” said Barney.
That episode had barely passed when Kim insisted he come over and spend two nights at his place. “Kim was one of my closest partners in mischief and tomfoolery in our younger days, so I jumped at the opportunity for some exclusive time with him. Besides, his wife and son had both gone on a weekend jaunt to Malaysia, so this was the perfect opportunity.” That, however, was not meant to be. Two hours into his stay at Kim’s, Barney’s phone rang. It was Yen. “Don’t say no, please,” was his first entreaty. Then he proceeded to tell Barney that he (Yen) and his wife had organised a quick trip to Johor and Barney was to be their guest. “Tickets booked,” said Yen. “I’ve committed to spending a couple of days at Kim’s,” protested Barney, politely. “Tell him you’ll fulfil the obligation another time,” said Yen. “Kim won’t mind. Just give him the phone, I’ll tell him.” Barney did. “So my plans once again had been changed for me.”
As I said, I felt like a total puppet. Now I’m glad to be home, in charge of my life, sipping coffee at my leisure. Oh no ...” I look over my shoulder to see what has derailed his train of thought. It is his wife, Mrs Barney, striding purposefully towards us. “Barney,” she says brusquely, “I’m on my way to the hairdresser. You’ll have to go pick up the flowers.”
Barney tells her he thought the flowers were only going to be ready the following day. “That’s what I thought, too, but Della from the florists rang just now. You’d better get a move on.” And Barney, his strings pulled once more, jumps into action.
Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.