Have yourself a merry little Christmas,
Make the yuletide gay;
From now on our troubles will be miles away.
-Martin & Blane (1942)
Three foreigners are sitting in a makeshift patio café, which is really just a paved area outside a small storefront along the river featuring a few tables with umbrellas and rickety chairs. They are huddled under the tattered red umbrella to hide from the scorching rays of the sun here, only 130 kilometers or so north of the equator. The American has just come back to the table from the payphone inside the café with a dour expression on his face.
“So, you make your call, mate?” asks the British fellow.
“Still can’t get through,” the American says, adjusting his sunglasses.
“It’s Christmas,” the Canadian says with a wave of his hand. “Everyone must be calling home.”
The three met at a business conference and have the day free because of the holiday. The sparkling city rises above them in the distance, the towers looking like steel and glass cut outs against the clear blue sky. Palm trees lining the banks of the river sway in the gentle breeze, and a battered bumboat passes with old tires hanging over the port and starboard bows. A few passengers sit under the canopy on the boat, which is heading out into Marina Bay to pass the big attraction: the statue of the Merlion.
“I’m thirty years old,” says the American, “and this is the first time I’ve missed my parents’ Christmas dinner.”
“I never had a real Christmas,” the Canadian says.
“Don’t tell me,” the Brit says with a laugh, “you were a street urchin?”
The Canadian sips his beer and looks away. “Yeah, something like that.”
The American takes a phone card from his shirt pocket and looks at it. “Damned AT&T; they’re good for nothing.”
“Try again later,” the Brit says, drinking some beer out of the shiny can.
All three are wearing shorts, flowery Hawaiian style shirts, and sandals. The Canadian leans back for a moment but can’t stand being in the sunshine and returns quickly to the shade cast by the umbrella. “Back in Montreal I’d be in a snowstorm right about now.”
“I wish I was back in New York,” the American mumbles. “My boss made me come to this stupid conference while he’s at home with his family.”
“Hey, I don’t mind being away from London,” the Brit says. “In fact, I volunteered for this trip.”
“Really?” the Canadian sits up straight. “On Christmas?”
“Certainly. It’s best not to be there with my wife’s mum visiting for a fortnight.”
“Do you get snow in London on Christmas?” the American asks the Brit.
“No Dickens Christmases in my lifetime, but I’ve been away from home a number of times on Christmas. Can’t say I know if it snowed whilst I was away or not, but I doubt it.”
The waitress comes back to the table carrying a tray with three glistening cans of Tiger Beer on it. She is extremely pretty, with long black hair and large brown eyes. The American wants to talk to her, but since the British guy has been flirting with her, he is not going to bother. The girl does look at him sideways and smiles a little. “Ah,” he thinks, “maybe she likes me.”
The girl quietly places three new cans of beer on the white iron table and turns to leave. “Thanks, love,” the Brit says as he watches her walk away. “I’ve never had an Oriental woman before.”
“Leave her alone,” the Canadian says, “she’s like fifteen.”
“No, I don’t believe so.” He turns to the Yank. “How old you think she is?”
“I couldn’t say.”
“I don’t think it matters here,” the Brit says. The others look at him. “Age, I mean; don’t they marry them off early?”
“Oh, man, you need help,” the American says.
“No, but I do have to find the loo,” the Brit says as he gets up and goes inside the café.
The Canadian watches him leave and turns to the American. “I really miss my girlfriend.”
“Yeah, this is a tough time to be away. I broke up with mine before I left.”
The Canadian looks at him sideways. “Really?”
“Because of this stupid trip. She said it was her or the trip, but I would have lost my job if I didn’t come here.”
“So instead you lost your girl?”
“That’s about the size of it.”
“Well, mine was pretty good about it. She just said to buy her something really nice.”
“What did you get her?”
“Nothing. I’ll get something in the duty free on the way home.” The Canadian lifts the beer can and says, “Wonder why they call it ‘Tiger Beer’ if this is the lion city?”
The Canadian stretches his arms and exhales. “Yeah! Singa Pura.”
“Yeah, that means Lion City.”
“So that’s why they have the Merlion out there?”
“I don’t know what that is supposed to be really. Guess we should take a bumboat tour and hear what it’s all about.”
“Yeah, I guess. Wonder what it was like when Raffles first got here.”
“Swamp land, mosquitoes as big as birds, crocs ready to bite you in half; oh, and I suppose some lions, of course.”
“Of course. Sounds lovely.”
The Canadian takes a drink and waves his hand toward the cityscape. “Well, now it’s an antiseptic paradise. Can’t even chew gum.”
“Excuse me, gentlemen.”
They both turn to look for the source of the accented voice coming from behind them at the next table. “Oh, hello there,” the Canadian says to a Chinese man dressed in a white shirt, dark pants, and shoes.
“I can’t help overhearing you. The Merlion is a symbol of the city like Statue of Liberty or Big Ben. Utama, the first man on this island, saw a creature that came up out of the mist in the river; it looked like a lion but had fins like a fish.”
“Oh, I get it,” the Canadian says. “Mer-lion like mer-maid.”
“Yes, exactly! You are both very far from home on Christmas,” the man says.
“Yes, we are,” the American says.
“My name is Chang. I am not a local person either. My home is in China, but I have not been there in…a long time.”
“Oh, I just came from Hong Kong,” the Canadian says.
The Chinese man nods. “I am from Beijing, but my sister and I fled to Hong Kong years ago. She left for America earlier this year, but I came here. We did not want to be around for the 1st of January.”
The Canadian glances at the American. “The turnover. Everyone I met in Hong Kong was worried about it.”
“From what I’ve read, it should be fairly smooth,” the American says.
Chang lit a cigarette and held it between his index finger and thumb away from his mouth. “Nothing is as it seems in my country, my friends. But my sister and I knew that we had to get out. We left our jobs, home, everything.”
“Where is she now?” the Canadian asks.
“New York City,” Chang replies.
“That’s where I come from,” says the American. “Is she happy there?”
“She has her doctorate and is working in a place called Macy’s selling women’s underwear, but she is glad to be out before the takeover. The Chinese army has tanks on the other side of the border.”
“Tanks? Come on? Really?” the Canadian asks.
Chang takes a smoke and nods slowly. “Yes, we saw them and remembered the last time we saw tanks was in Tiananmen Square. That’s why we left Beijing, because we know what tanks mean.”
A fellow inside the café starts yelling and the Brit races outside. “We better be going, gents.”
“What did you do?” the Canadian asks.
“I bet he wasn’t asking the girl for her phone number,” the American says.
The owner comes running out brandishing a hammer, and the Canadian turns to Chang and says, “Merry Christmas.”
The three run along the quay for a couple of blocks until the man with the hammer gives up the chase. They stand catching their breaths and the Brit says, “I just tried to give her a little peck on the cheek.”
“You’re crazy, man,” the American says.
The Canadian looks at his watch. “I’m going back to the hotel and go over some papers for tomorrow‘s meeting.”
“What about tonight?” the Brit asks.
“Tonight?” the American asks.
“You remember? The Long Bar in Raffles?” the Brit says with a finger placed on his temple.
“Oh, yes,” the Canadian nods, “to get a real Singapore Sling.”
“After that there are plenty of clubs.” The Brit slaps the Yank’s arm. “So, are you in, mate?”
“Uh, I don’t know.”
“Well, I’m going,” the Canadian says. “Don’t want to be alone on Christmas.”
“I thought you never had a Christmas?” the Yank asks.
“Yeah, but still don’t want to be alone.”
They walk silently across the street and pass a cricket field. A group of boys around ten years old are playing under the specter of the rigid skyscrapers. “Looks like fun,” the Canadian says.
“I prefer baseball,” the Yank says.
“Of course, you would.” The Brit yawns and says. “I’ve got to get back to the room for a nap.”
The American sees a payphone on the corner. “Hey, I’m going to try calling again. Catch up with you later.” He waits patiently until the other two are out of sight, watching one of the boys hit the ball way off to the other side of the perfectly maintained field. They run around joking and laughing, their white uniforms and brown limbs glistening in the sunshine. He envies them because they probably can be home for dinner in a few minutes, even if they don’t have a holiday to celebrate.
He picks up the phone and dials the access code, listening to static and pings and beeps until he hears the operator say, “AT&T.” The American almost screams in happiness but contains himself as a group of people walk past him, the men in white suits and the ladies in white dresses. They stare at him as if he is out of place, and he looks down at his bright blue and red Hawaiian shirt and realizes that he is.
Finally he hears the phone ringing on the other end. His mother picks up and says a groggy “Hello.” He realizes that it’s close to 3am on Christmas morning back home, but he knows his mother won’t mind. He pictures the tree in the living room and the turkey simmering on the dining room table later that day. He’s there sitting by the fire as a kid with his brother and sister, opening presents and joking with his father about the clothes they gave him that are either too big or small. His aunts and uncles and cousins are all there too, wrapping paper is everywhere, and empty gift boxes litter the floor; then he’s sitting with everyone in the dining room enjoying the feast and petting the dog’s head as he feeds it scraps under the table.
“Hey, Ma,” he says, wishing he were standing right next to her, “Merry Christmas.”