Veteran ST editor's tales of love, life and loss

Author Alan John recounts how his first wedding anniversary was ruined in the opening column of his book, Good Grief!

Dinner for two, therapy for four
20 November, 1982

"Dinner for two at 8.30. And it's our wedding anniversary," I said. "So could you have a dozen carnations brought to our table after dinner?"

"Of course Sir," they said.

First anniversaries, I had learnt somewhere between reading the great love stories and seeing countless movies, were the special-est in the world.

Nothing could go wrong. After all, this was the restaurant with the award-winning advertisement. It promised romantic décor, soft lights, soothing music, impeccable service and fabulous food.

And for us, it was extra-special for one more reason: It was in the hotel where I had proposed to her the year before and she, between sips of her vodka-lime, had said yes.

But all the romance in the world must take a back seat if your spouse happens to be a newspaper reporter.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

At five o'clock she tells me she has to go to Serangoon Road to do a story on the Deepavali scene.

It's my day off, so I wait at home. If you think being a newsman myself makes the waiting any easier, let me tell you it doesn't.

At 8.30pm I call the restaurant and say over-optimistically that we will be there at nine. She finishes work at 9.15pm and we arrive at 10.

They are very pleasant. They smile and lead us to a very nice table in an alcove, which we share with one other couple.

Not five minutes there and a hostess comes by to say there is a phone call for me at the counter, a certain John de Souza on the line. How on earth does he know we're here, I mutter to myself, heading for the phone. This was supposed to be a secret.

"Uncle!" he cries. "What happened to you both, uncle!" (John calls everybody uncle or auntie. I work with him, I'm not his uncle.) It turns out that when we hadn't shown up earlier, the restaurant called the office, the telephone operator assumed that the "Mr John" they wanted must be John de Souza and called him.

John, who is not married, thought somebody was being funny making wedding anniversary dinner reservations for him, with carnations and all.

Then it occurred to him that they might be looking for me. He tried calling us - and this was well before anyone had a mobile phone - and when he could not locate either of us, he was sure something nasty had happened.

I assure him that Mrs J and I are both alive and well, thank him and return to our table.

Only to notice that the couple next to us speak rather loudly. The big middle-aged European man is telling his Chinese companion about all the places he has been and how he made his money. She nods and smiles a lot.

We pay little attention to them as we study the menu and order. Mrs J decides on lobster bisque and lamb; I order oysters and tenderloin steak with goose liver.

The drinks arrive. The band plays in the distance and, in the flickering glow of the tall pink candles on our table, she looks into my eyes and I gaze into hers.

I have to stop myself from saying that this is just like in the movies. But I am aware of how good I feel now, compared with earlier in the evening.

We clink our glasses, whisper a toast and…

The conversation from the next table intrudes, loud and clear.

"And how long have you been separated?" she asks.

"Eleven years," he replies.

"And you have never…?"

"Nope. Never got involved seriously with another woman since. I've known other women, but I just never wanted to settle down again."

"Did you hear that!" I ask Mrs J.

"What?" she pretends. "Don't listen to them, talk to me."

"I wasn't listening to them, they're talking too darned loudly!"

"Okay, okay. There's no need to get upset." And she distracts me by recalling all the good things that have happened to us over the past year.

The service is very good. The soup and oysters arrive and they are lovely.

The main course is served and looks sumptuous. It is excellent.

"And what about you," he says.

"Oh well," she says, "when I found out that he was seeing other women, that was it. I told him I would stay in the same house as him but that's all. But he wouldn't accept that, and so we split up."

"Oh that's too bad."

"We had lots of problems. My mother-in-law. I could never do anything to please her. She would find fault with everything I did, I was miserable!"

"Oh that's bad, that's bad."

Glaring at them across our table has no effect so it's time to resort to drastic measures.

I lean over, grab Mrs J in a Rudolph Valentino hold and plant a gigantic smackeroo on her, hoping they'll get the message that there are still some people in the world who are married and enjoying it.

It has no effect.

"If you ask me," he says, "I say anybody who gets married before 30 should be very, very careful."

This is unreal, I tell myself, sinking under the table. This is like a bad script for a bad comedy.

The waiter arrives, as graciously as ever, and asks so, so pleasantly if we would like dessert.

I ask if I could have a word.

He is aghast when I tell him we can no longer celebrate our wedding anniversary and attend a group therapy session at the same time.

Forty-five seconds later, he is at our table, flustered and saying: "We've got you a new table Sir, this way please."

And he adds, genuinely apologetic: "We're so sorry about that, Sir. But we really can't tell what our guests will talk about."

We are barely seated at our new table when somebody puts a box of red and white carnations in my hands and I thrust it at her, barking: "There! They're for you!"

Alas and alack. The moment is gone.

The group of swaying violinists play and play, and the chocolate mousse is exceptionally good, but neither helps.

The moment is lost forever.

Sometime the next day she tells me the last thing I'd said before falling off to sleep that night.

"Next year, we're going to Komala Vilas."

Good Grief! is on sale at $22 at all major bookstores and www.stpressbooks.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 31, 2016, with the headline 'Veteran ST editor's tales of love, life and loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe