Life’s Little Joys
The finest and best restaurant on Koh Tao is a cosy little place called Mama’s. The eponymous Mama is a middle-aged blob of a woman, chubby and churlish, who makes the best chicken soup you may ever set spoon to in your entire life. Her husband is Yeh, a chuckle-faced and kind-eyed man with a gentle and honest smile, and Yeh sits at the front desk of the restaurant like a little Buddha statue, greeting customers and chatting with them, gossiping, taking orders, learning new things (which he loves) and telling old stories.
Mama and Yeh have a son called April, a hyperactive 16-year-old with some sort of nuclear fission plant set deep inside his body, who bustles about here and there all over the place, serving food, bussing tables, mopping floors, sweeping doorsteps, smacking out mats, changing lightbulbs, making faces at babies, doing the dishes, filleting the fish, from time to time putting on his favourite apron and his big silly French chef’s hat and assisting with the cooking, more often taking out the rubbish, and in his downtime he learns to play the guitar and practises his handstands and flips. In this way the perfect division of labour is perfected: Yeh cannot cook and doesn’t particularly enjoy standing: he is seated at the front of house. Mama can’t speak English and would only insult people if she could: she is back of house. And April can’t sit still and nor has he ever really tried: he is the labour.
There is harmony here, or at least there would be if Mama could ever go an entire hour, busy or lazy or otherwise, without throwing a tantrum over the curry paste or smashing a poorly-garnished plate against a wall or lobbing a substandard rice pudding out the window or hurling a wooden spoon across the restaurant floor.
Mama’s violence is so constant that I am sure Yeh has developed some kind of sixth sense for it, and on at least one occasion I have seen him duck at the precise moment a live crab comes flying out from the kitchen behind him, whistling over his head, kissing his hair and disturbing his newspaper on the desk, before smashing into a table on the other side of the restaurant and cracking open on the floor. For much of the violence seems to be directed Yehwards while he sits meekly at his desk, staring straight ahead into space and enduring the assault quietly with a soft but not sarcastic smile on his lips and a steady self-denying patience I have only ever seen in Buddhist monks and set-upon Asian husbands. And eventually Mama shouts herself hoarse or throws out a shoulder, and she runs out of breath and enthusiasm, and she fumes away outside for a cigarette, and for at least another hour the crisis has passed.
Once a month Yeh and Mama take the ferry over to the mainland to buy dry stock and take a couple of days off, and when they come back you will see Yeh wobbling his way back across the island to his restaurant beneath several crates of dried herbs and sauces and condiments, while Mama waddles along behind him with a fresh haircut and quite unnatural-looking eyebrows, carrying precisely nothing apart from an ice cream cone which she waves about in her hand as she loudly berates Yeh for not carrying fast or well enough. And every month when they come back, Mama is wearing a fresh new T-shirt, presumably bought for her as a present by Yeh, which is crisp-coloured and clean and invariably says something along the lines of ‘blow job is better than no job’ or ‘out and proud of it!’ or ‘if you don’t wax then neither will I’ or with a photo of one of those wet floor signs you see in malls and airports which says ‘Caution: Menopause’.
In the days that follow, Mama regrets the end of their holiday and resents having to cook again, and she is in a particularly astringent mood and a foul one too, and she rails against the world in general and Yeh in particular and she burns and blisters, and she shouts and screams and cries, and she waves her hands above her head and throws things across the room, all the time wearing her ‘Caution: Menopause’ T-shirt, and Yeh sits meekly at his desk all the time, staring straight ahead into space and enduring the assault quietly with a soft but not sarcastic smile on his lips and a steady self-denying patience I have only ever seen in Buddhist monks and set-upon Asian husbands.
Cover by Gemma Clarke