Two years ago, when Li Ling, the kids and I moved out of my parents house in Bukit Timah to our own flat in Pasir Ris, it was hardest on Gorby.
Ling and I had the benefit of time, foreknowledge, active hands in the process. Blooby, Gorby’s sister, had by then retreated to a familiar sedentary life of eat, sleep, and the occasional lizard, dragged in leaving a trail of blood, body parts strewn across the terrazzo floor.
But Gorby was still Mr Bukit Timah. We would spot him prancing around the actual Bukit Timah Road, near the Tessarina Apartments and Tan Chong Motors, a full two-hundred metres from our house. Unlike us, Gorby had two channels of entry/exit: regular sidewalk when pesky humans weren’t around, or the wide drain when we were.
Once Gorby went missing for a full eighteen hours. It was his first full night out. We grew anxious. When he returned the next morning, smelling of stale beer and garbage, I saw my younger self in him, remembering my own adolescent nights of too many Graveyards at Zouk, slobbering up the driveway after stumbling out of the cab.
Ling and I eventually figured out that Gorby must have gotten locked in the Tessarina’s rubbish room. Was it love that distracted him that night? While I appreciate stray cat challenges everywhere, a part of me still, father to son, regrets that we snipped him, that we stopped him from living a full life. Perhaps then not only his spirit, but his blood, would still be around.
There is some irony in the fact that Gorby, such a wonderful longkang cat, was not himself allowed some gutter sex, to father another longkang cat. On that note, please resist the use of “Singapore Special”, yet another in our globalising society’s subconscious efforts to eradicate Malayan colloquialisms in favour of bland, anglophilic universalisms. “Longkang cat” is much nicer, much more befitting of the samseng swagger of Gorby and his ilk.
Then there was the six month period when Gorby morphed into some Arnie-type Terminator, protecting my parents’ house from the marauding feline invaders. It was the only time his fur has ever grown stiff, his entire habitus electrified like a cartoon cat, one uni-shaped ball of energy.
Ling saw all this but I never did cos I’m too much of a chicken. Just the shrieks alone, when the cats ripped into each other as poor Ling screamed for them to stop, would give me nightmares. I would wait in bed for them to return, and then mutter something about the need to keep Gorby in at night. Ling would somehow manage in one breath to both admonish and cheer her boy, the protector.
In the weeks leading up to the move, I spoke more to Gorby. “Go! Leave the house! Enjoy the great outdoors while you can!” I like to think that he heeded my advice, that he roamed the neighbourhood while he could.
But nothing, not even salmon treats or Cheetos puffs, can really prepare you for the unknown. And so when Ling and I moved Blooby and Gorby to our eleventh-storey flat, it was paradise for one, prison the other. Blooby quickly settled in to her new, sheltered routine. True, her favourite lizards are less common here. But on the flip side she doesn’t have to worry about my younger sister, who loved scaring her, or my two nieces, whose shrill voices unintentionally scared her, or the countless visitors my semi-retired father would have trooping around “her” space. Blooby has become so decadently comfortable in Pasir Ris that she has ballooned and we have since put her on a strict diet.
Gorby, however, always seemed to have this quizzical look on his face in Pasir Ris. Where is the bigger playground? Where are the birds and squirrels? Why am I stuck so high? Where are you going when you step through those closing doors? How do I get back down to earth? OK, Mama & Papi, the joke’s over. When can we go back home?
I still feel bad for shrinking Gorby’s universe from one square kilometre to one Singaporean flat (and its balconies). There’s nothing wrong with the flat, of course. Singapore has some of the best in the world, Ling and I are loving every minute of it—and will be through the next hundred and fifty years of mortgage payments.
But Gorby, through no fault of his own, was spoiled. Should I be happy that Gorby spent his youth roaming, paws to earth as his ancestors might have? Or sad that he was forced through this emotional rollercoaster, his last days lived as another digit in the Singaporean high-rise matrix?
Gorby is my first BFF/ being/ loved one to have died during the COVID-19 pandemic. Not because of it, just during.
The coincidental thing, as Gorby will surely tell you when you see him in heaven, is that for two years now he’s been on a strict Stay at Home notice.
I have nicknames for my closest friends. Crowd favourites include Nickelodeon for Nicole and Bombay Sapphire or Sapphy for my elder sister. Years after they met her, some friends like Jacko knew my sister only as Sapphy. In the days after Gorby died, serendipitous Facebook conversations lifted my spirit, like one about food between Bunny, Channy and Kecoh, all of whom knew Gorby.
While each nickname is special in its own way, I have always derived the most pleasure from introducing and explaining Comrade Gorbachev Marx Homas, or Gorby.
Gorby joined our house a year after Blooby did. She is a pedigree cat, half British Blue, half Scottish Fold, given to us by a crazy cat lady: a British expat banker who was more interested in placement in a “good home” than in money. Crazy cat lady wanted to drop by to inspect my parents’ home before agreeing to let us adopt her precious “Bluebell”, named after her unique fur coat. She turned over drain covers, pointed out dangerous crevices, but finally passed the house (and us, the parents).
We didn’t dare tell her the truth: that the primary motivation for a cat was lizard and bug control. Yet I, till then a dog person, fell instantly in love with Blooby. Most of life’s simple feline pleasures, like motorboat purring, I learned through Blooby.
It soon became apparent that Blooby was extremely sparing with her love. That may very well be a father’s best euphemism. I suspect many others might simply call her a snooty b***h. Some people who have spent hours in my house have never seen or heard from Blooby. Others have faced the ignominy of a downward glance followed by a sprint away from their pollutive presence. I now believe that Blooby—or Princess Bluebell Victoria Homas to you—has a personal Dunbar’s number of three point nine.
One of the many great mysteries with children is the extent to which newborns adapt to the social structures and realities of the day, slotting in to available niches. For instance, friends pontificate that my contemplative ten-year-younger sister, the one who enjoys scaring Blooby, was forced to mature at lightspeed because Sapphy and I were such loud-mouthed buffoons.
And so it is with Gorby. With the Princess firmly entrenched at the top, rarely seen outside her chambers, Gorby quickly assumed the role of social butterfly cum court jester. Everybody loved him and he them. The early running joke was that we named him after Communists because Gorby would sleep with anybody. People who only saw their photos online might gush at Blooby. Those who actually met both almost always fell for Gorby.
The Aristocat and Commoner? Uptown Girl and Backstreet Guy? Yin and Yang? Whatever your preferred depiction of opposites, Ling and I had them in Princess Bluebell Victoria Homas and Comrade Gorbachev Marx Homas.
Another great mystery is the extent to which beings live up to their names. How, for example, has knowing that the Sanskrit “Sudhir” means resolute and bright actually affected me, my own identity and perceived destiny?
Part of me feels that Blooby and Gorby, surely two of the most intelligent beings I’ve ever known, slowly grew into the names we had given them—their names, then, serving as affirmation and validation of their earliest instincts, guide stones for the long journey ahead.
“Gor-bee? How do you spell that?” begins a typical solication at a new vet.
“Short for Gorbachev. Gorby.”
“No, with a ‘y’.”
“OK Gorby. That’s it?”
“I guess you can put Gorby Marx.”
“OK. Gorby Marx.”
“His full name, actually, is Comrade Gorbachev Marx Homas. But ya, Gorby Marx is fine.”
By this point, the questioner is either frowning at me like I’m the most self-indulgent waste of time or, more likely, smiling. For the latter group, what follows is an abbreviated explanation of the section you’ve just read. Gorby’s name describes not only him, but the three of us around him, closest to him; his name a window into our family’s soul.
Last and most certainly least is the name “Homas”. Ling and I have always thought that swapping last names is a somewhat archaic practice. But we’ve been open to some cheekiness for our kids. Hence Homas, the one name that Blooby and Gorby share, is a portmanteau of Ling’s last name (Ho) and my middle one (Thomas). We would have preferred using my Indian last name, tbh, but Gorby hissed at me, the only time he’s ever answered back, when I proposed “Hodaketh” and “Vadaho”.
Gorby could be terribly annoying. He would often get stuck on the roof of my parents house, and simply refuse to come down, refuse to walk back the blindingly obvious ledge he had just crossed, insist on having a mini platoon of humans shift large tables and chairs just to rescue him.
Gorby believed he was a natural born poet, and that any of his four paws could pump out decent copy if he were near a keyboard. Once he replaced an entire hour’s worth of my writing with his own lyrics. He just looked up and smiled.
A few years ago, Gorby managed to activate the Accessibility Options on my iMac so that a voice calls out every key that is pressed. Ling and I were in bed at the time. When Gorby realised the phantasmagorical ridiculousness of his brilliance, he started pouncing around the keyboard, causing the magic Designed-in-California-Made-in-China voice to mimic his steps. I couldn’t quite tell if he was trying to irritate me or educate himself.
Last week Ling was voluntarily working from home because she had just returned from a Sulawesi work trip. Her flight was full of passengers seeking to make it out of Indonesia, some coughing (worryingly). Gorby, delighted to have Mama home, stomped over her laptop and somehow managed to send an email to a Malaysian partner organisation called MYCAT.
In ten years of writing—books, papers, newspaper and magazine articles, video scripts, birthday cards for loved ones, recipes—this here, this is the first, the very first, piece I’ve written at home without any input from my Gorby.
Comrade Gorbachev took particular pride in annoying Princess Bluebell. He would sneak up from behind and jump on top of her, sparking wild fights that produced hissing and lots of fur. He would rush to cut in front of her for food or attention. And, best of all, he would creep up and wait by the litter box as she was doing her business—prissy Bloobs preferred if there was nobody in sight—and assault her before she could even fully get out, denying her a chance to clean up. I think deep down Gorby just wanted a fellow feline companion, but Blooby was having none of it.
Gorby would scratch anything for attention. In the last year this included pink wallpaper and the brown corkboard behind my computer. He would start at about two o’clock in the morning and keep going until Ling locked him in the bathroom, whose door he would scratch, or until he was shack. It sometimes felt like the Asian Gods were giving us a taste of new-parent sleep disruptions because we had disobeyed ancestral procreation orders. By the last couple of years of Gorby’s life, Ling and I would joke that the only time we could get a good night’s rest is when we were away from Singapore.
But in the five nights since Sunday evening, since my boy left us, I have not gotten one good night’s rest. I wake in the morning, glance around, and then force myself back to bed, hoping he’ll be there, rubbing his forehead on my chin or sitting pretty on my chest, the next time I open my eyes.
When Gorby was younger. And so was Ling.
A rare sibling moment
Annual torture session
“The other cat swung first,” said Ling.
Can we go home now?
Our last family photo
Comrade 1 Princess 0
Curved mirrors are more fun
This is the last ever photo I took with Gorbs.
I had returned home from India on Friday morning. We took this photo on Saturday. He left us late Sunday night. Some kind of stroke, possibly. Don’t know much more. I am glad that he was at our feet when it happened, and that his seizure was over fast, little suffering. Rushed him to vet, but couldn’t resuscitate.
Looking back, I am also glad that I got to spend those three days with him. Not sure how I’d feel if he passed when I was away.
Properly, fully, the right way. Important, I’ve learned, for those of us lucky enough to afford the time and space.
Leaves plucked from my parents’ garden, Gorby’s original stomping ground. In the jar on the right are one whisker and some fur. When Li Ling was living in Gordon’s Bay, near Cape Town, South Africa in 2013, we asked a local painter to do portraits of our two kids. She really captured Gorby’s essence.