Life for Beginners

Stories by Kenny Mah   |   Live Everything


Snow in Stockholm

I ask you if it’s snowing in Stockholm yet.

No, not at all, you answer. It’s still autumn, silly. Winter won’t come for another few weeks. No snow.

Still, it’s cold enough. I tell you to wear your layers. Pile them on. Keep warm. Drink hot coffee, cups of them. Don’t catch a chill.

I will, you say.

And I know you will. We obey each other. We are practical this way. A partner’s wisdom is always better than one’s one, when it comes to the other. Common sense is a mirror that looks the other way, and it reflects love.

Lavender pouches

You tell me you had a dream last night. In your dream, I had thrown out the lavender pouches on our bed. You were dismayed, you tell me, because you love their fragrance, and when you woke up you weren’t sure if it was a dream or not.

So you ask me if I threw out the lavender pouches.

No, I say, I did not. Here – and I lift one of our pillows up – they are. Where they have always been.

You smile and say, Thank goodness.

I would have gotten you new ones anyway, had I thrown these out.

No, you tell me, you like these just fine. They are ours.

“Because the night”

Patti Smith tells us that the night belongs to lovers. When you are tired or I am ailing, the night belongs to us watching over each other.

You have jetlag, you say. One night you turn in early; another has you staying up till early morn. Tonight I’m under the weather, I say. Fatigued. I’ll get in bed, I say, and read a book. I have A.S. Byatt’s Angels & Insects to cuddle up with.

An hour later (or two, who knows?), I open my eyes and you are beside me with your iPad in your hands. You tell me you have found a new fantasy series online to read and that I began snoring almost immediately after my head hit the pillow. Rubbish, I say. I was only resting my eyes. You shake your head.

We hold hands as you read your story and I pretend to snore (I’m only resting my eyes, honest).

This is a blessing

A year before

We rise early in the morning. It’s a working day.

I get up first and switch off the air conditioner. I head into the bathroom and squeeze toothpaste onto both of our toothbrushes. I pull you out of bed and we brush our teeth together, your eyes still half-closed, slowly waking.

I finish before you and head out to the kitchen. I take the lemons out of the fridge and cut a few slices. I drop a couple of them into your water bottle for you to bring to the office, so you can have fresh lemon-flavoured water all day.

You’ve read somewhere that drinking water infused with fresh lemon juice will help you lose weight. I had rolled my eyes when you initially told me but still I prepare your drink while you do some stretches in the living room every morning. And like clockwork, I always chuckle and say, “Don’t sprain yourself.”

We shower and then we are out of the door. I am always faster than you at getting dressed because I’m only wearing my track pants and a cardigan; maybe a cap if I can’t be bothered to do my hair. After all, you’re the one that has to go into the office, not me.

I am on chauffeur duties because I don’t have a day job. A friend gave me a notebook on my birthday which said on the cover “I’m not a bum; I’m an artist.”

Mostly I am a domestic supplies organiser (translation: groceries), home kitchen chef (I boil water and unwrap the pack of instant noodles before dropping them into the pot) and financial planner (I deposit cheques at the bank).

My friends ask me when I’m going to get a job again and I say, “We’ll see.”

There doesn’t seem to be such a hurry when I am discovering that chopping onions and waiting in line at the supermarket isn’t that horrible after all. When you are doing something for a life you are building with someone you love, it doesn’t matter whether you are sitting in a cubicle or fetching the dry cleaning. Everything makes you happy if you allow it to.

We can be content doing anything. Who knew?

A year after

We rise early in the morning. It’s a working day.

You get up first and switch off the air conditioner. You head into the bathroom and squeeze toothpaste onto both of our toothbrushes. You pull me out of bed and we brush our teeth together, my eyes still half-closed, slowly waking.

You finish before I do and head out to the kitchen. You take the lemons out of the fridge and cut a few slices. You drop a couple of them into our water bottles to bring to the office, so we can have fresh lemon-flavoured water all day.

“It’s good for you,” you say, “because you will be stuck in the office all day. It’s not healthy. Remember to drink more water.”

We shower and then we are out of the door. We leave precisely twelve minutes earlier than usual because the Smart Tunnel is closed due to heavy rains last night. You obtain this figure from some obscure calculations involving the school holidays and the humidity. I am still on driving duties because I have more experience in navigating the wilderness of morning Mat Rempits and other half-awake motorists. (Or so you say. I’m convinced you simply want to nap during the ride.)

Despite the heavier than normal traffic, we arrive only five minutes later than normal. This is what they call teamwork, I believe.

As we walk out of the car park and head to a nearby mamak stall for our breakfast, a feeling of déjà vu. This feels familiar; I recognise this moment.

Is it another mundane day in our lives? Perhaps it is. It is also a day I am grateful for, to perform these simple tasks with you and to share these small moments. I love you, in this moment, and should it pass, we would mourn it and move on; and if it doesn’t, then may we grow together, older and wiser, every year doubling in our knowledge of each other. May the wrinkles on our faces deepen and multiply, every line a witness, a memory.

Which shall pass, we won’t know. We cannot know.

But this I know. Right now. This moment. This is a blessing.


I am in my friend Sapna’s kitchen as she prepares a meal fit for Diwali. A meal made from the heart for family and friends. A meal that shines with light and love.

She tells me that in Goa, where she grew up, very little oil is used. Coconut vinegar is also called toddy there and it’s much sweeter than the acids we are used to. “It’s the Portuguese influence, you see,” she says. “In Kerala, where I was born, it’s all about fresh ingredients, very little spices and no vinegar at all. But in Goa, the Portuguese brought vinegar and food could be fermented.”

I love the stories she tells as she cooks.

The fragrance of grated coconut being toasted dry, without oil, the myriad aromas of the spices Sapna adds to the pan, one after the other; all of these smells remind me of my childhood, of the Malaccan Portuguese dishes my mom would cook. We are from different parts of the world, Sapna and I, but not that different after all.

The sizzle of vinegar poured onto fried spices; the gentle steaming of turmeric leaves so they can be folded over marinated prawns before grilling; the sporadic, muted barking of the neighbour’s dogs: how ordinary and how divine!

“I’m going to do a South Indian salad from my husband’s family next,” she says. “Well, it’s more for weddings but who can resist something so colourful and flavourful? It’s completely raw and vegetarian.”

Sapna peels the cucumber, and then dices them into cubes. She shows me the sprouted mung beans, curling and full of life. Some grated coconut, some pomegranate seeds, red and white dancing together. She grabs a handful of coriander leaves – such bright green! – and shreds them over the salad, now coming into shape. The beautiful pink of the torch ginger flower, falling like sakura snow as they are grated. She squeezes juice from a lime, sprinkles some Himalayan salt, and tosses it all together. The salad’s ready.

And all the while, she’s telling me stories of her childhood and how she first fell in love with food, really simple food, honest and delicious.

“These little things, now that I remember, make sense.”

I know what you mean, my friend. I know exactly what you mean.

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