By Rachel Goh
The first birthday.
It was unsurprising the parents would throw a party to commemorate the special occasion. Cake, candle, presents, singing and clapping. Even if the tot of honour wouldn’t really understand what was going on.
I just wished I wasn’t strung along for the madness, but Mum insisted I went with it. Paid me handsomely to clam up the complaints and head down to the shops for something appropriate.
“I don’t think we should be endorsing this charade,” I said, but my protests fell on deaf ears.
“Your aunt would really appreciate this. He’s her first child, after all.”
First child. I grimaced. With a grievous sigh, I complied: rising off the couch to traipse up to my room, throwing on a hoodie over my vest and wrestling into a pair of comfy jeans, before setting off. The sun blazed with an intensity that made me wish I was still in my air-conditioned living room, but the thought of my mother’s wrath overrode other thoughts.
In the shopping district, the hustle and bustle of the crowd was disorienting. I passed wordlessly rows upon rows of shops, observing glass displays with a critical eye. Nothing seemed suitable. Toys? Books? Clothes?
Those were sensible options, but my feet stopped at the front of an antique shop. A mannequin guarded the entrance to the store, dressed in a vintage dress and quirky sunglasses. Before I could stop myself, I poked my head in, curious. I love historical stuff: vintage clothing and vinyl recordings, old texts and ancient monuments, peculiar trinkets and detritus of an era before mine.
The storefront was illuminated by the afternoon sun streaming in through the glass windows; though the back was far out of the sun’s reach, it remained bright, courtesy of lighted chandeliers. I glanced around but could not immediately locate the counter or the store attendant.
Left to my own devices, I went to a nearby shelf and began examining an intricately gilded photo-frame. Unexpectedly, without a cue, a soft aria arose, filling the space in the store, pervading the musty silence. Startled, but captivated all the same, I turned around and started in the direction of the tune.
Around the corner, behind a shelf, midway into the store, was the counter where sales were rang up, and there stood the shopkeeper. The old man’s skin was a shade so pale he was likely one of those people who subscribed to the belief that prolonged exposure to the sun led to an early, ashy demise. His greasy hair, slicked back, gleamed under artificial lighting. He was fiddling with a music box, which I presumed to be the source of the celestial music.
He looked up at my approach. His smile stretched the wrinkles lining his face but it was not unkind nor did it lack warmth. “What brings you to my store, young one?”
“Oh, er, I was looking for a birthday present.”
He squinted through his pince-nez at me. “My shop’s wares will be a strange choice for a birthday gift.”
How odd. He seemed keen on chasing me out, even though I could be a paying customer. “Well, it’s a strange birthday party to begin with. It’s for my cousin’s first birthday, but…” He inclined his head in askance when I drifted off mid-word, so I went on and told him, just the bare bones of the birthday party.
“Ah,” he nodded in understanding. “Then perhaps you’ve made a suitable choice.” He noticed my eyes’ lingering on the music box in his gnarled hands. It had gone silent.
“Would you like to bequeath this to your cousin? It will sing your cousin to sleep, where your aunt is unable to.”
“It seems—expensive. I’m not sure if I have enough.” I reached into my pocket, curling my fingers around the depressing slimness of my wallet, despite my mother’s generous donations.
“In honour of your cousin,” said the old man, “you can have it at half its original price.”
“Yes. It is—after all—the child’s first birthday.”
I approached the counter. I studied the music box keenly. It was small enough to fit in a single palm, crafted from mahogany with diagonal patterns carved with gold ink. The crank was bronze and slightly burnished. It was a bit plain overall, compared to the other antiques in the store, but it was in perfect condition.
“Then I’ll take it. Ah, you don’t have to wrap it up.” I tore away the price tag, checked the amount and paid half of it, as he said. Then I tucked the box into my hoodie’s front pocket and left.
When I got home, Mum gave it a once-over before declaring that I’d outdone myself. “I didn’t think you had such good tastes.”
I grumbled, “Then why send me out to buy a present in the first place?”
My mother hadn’t heard me. “You should get your outfit ready for the occasion. Have you ironed your blazer? And put your black trousers in the wash, you’re not wearing the grey one.”
The occasion my mother had stressed over was to be held on Saturday. By then, it was already six days after my cousin’s date of birth. Relatives far and wide travelled all the way to our far-flung backwater town to attend. Everyone dressed in black, black and black. I couldn’t speak for the rest of them, but as we went through the proceedings, I was slowly withering away in my sable suit.
I was so busy sweating and cursing the sunny weather that I barely noticed it was time for the gift-giving part of the ceremony. I was the last of the cousins to go up there and unveil my gift. I retrieved the pricey music box from the depths of my pocket, opened the lid and wound it up.
The same hauntingly beautiful song suffused the humid air, awing the audience into silence. It struck me then that it was such a shame for this lovely melody to be buried six feet under, but I forced my fingers to unclench from the wood. I placed it on top of the books, toys, and clothes the baby wouldn’t read, play and wear.
I stepped back into the crowd and watched with hooded eyes as they lowered the coffin into the ground. And I whispered:
“Happy birthday, cousin.”