"M. A. R...," I had to spell out each letter slowly that my 8-year old niece could write it down on a piece of paper for my mother, who was English illiterate.
"1 N! 1 N only!" I ended up tearing my hair on the other end of the phone and my niece fled by quickly passing the phone over to her grandma. "That is the MRT station you have to alight at, mum," I informed her after she confirmed the correct spelling. She had to attend a wake.
Ah Pak was dead.
Over the years, I met him countless times. I was only 13 years old when I first met him. He gave mum an opportunity to run a stall in the school canteen and our family's financial condition improved gradually. With that, Mum earned just enough to run the family, with not much left at the end of the month but at least it guaranteed us some stability for many years. Later mum left and ran a few stalls in a lower Primary canteen for about 5 years before the school decided to let it out for public bidding which, unsurprisingly, we lost to a corporate that bid high and rented high to potential tenants. The hopeful tenants had to quit one by one because they weren't making any profits and the school was livid. I didn't follow what happened next. Let them fucking burn. We had bigger problems to worry about as our family savings were ran to the ground.
Ah Pak came to the rescue once again and offered us a western food stall at his school canteen for the second time, which we did, struggled like crazy but manage to turn it into a profitable self employment for 8 years.
The 8 years were particularly defining for me. I had to make myself graduate from university, help out in preparation work during the weekends as well as learning and teaching my mum (who had no clue about "western food") how to sell that genre of food to hungry boys. It was also the period I got to know Jenny better. She was a university school mate and came over to help out in the kitchen once in a while then. Once she fainted over the huge rice cooker and I had to piggyback her to the main road 400m away, not before clearing a really steep slope first. Since it wasn't an operational day, the rice cooker was, fortunately, turned off and didn't turn her into Scar-Face Jen. Else I might have to marry her for gratitude.
Through the years working in Ah Pak's canteen, I grew up quickly and realise how Singapore wasn't sustainable for commoners like us to live comfortably for long. We have one generation more to go, at best, to have what we have, going by the rate we are going. It was also the time I seriously considered moving out of Singapore for the first time in 3 decades. I also cope with separation with Jen for 2 years and found those weekends helping out at the canteen without her...lonely.
Ah Pak was ever-present in the canteen. He turned his nose when he saw my weird lofty ideas that "turned his canteen into a circus." He snorted at our menu, home-made signages, scribbles on the glass and the tendency to break the 4th wall with customers. Over the 2 decades we brushed shoulders, since I was a young boy visiting mum for a free meal to an adult helping out during the weekends, we did not have a single conversation. Yet I was quietly respectful of the old man who looked out for my mum for years.
My mum had to confirm twice when she told me Ah Pak had passed away because I couldn't believe it. He was fit, scooting around in his motorcycle even in his late 70s. There wasn't a time he ever looked sick or frail despite his greying hair over the years. He looked as fit as a bull during the last 7th month ceremony held annually in the canteen that I attended. The next thing we knew, the man was as dead as a bolt at the grand age of 85. Not bad at all, Sir.
Just the day before, I came to know the boss' wife was dead too. Apparently she passed away almost a month ago but no one actually spoke about it when it happened. Awkward. Imagine having the boss walking in after a notable period of absence and calling out, "Hey boss, how was your holiday?" The chap who knew and didn't pass the message on was mean.
What made it more uncomfortable was she was not just the spouse of the boss but also our colleague since I joined the company. She disappeared from the scene some 6 months ago all of a sudden. Nobody asked what happened. It was easy to assume. She was a casual worker from the start so it wasn't anything amiss if she decided not to work again. Moreover, she had been citing she was getting old, stuff like that. So I reckoned she decided to retire.
I heard she died of a terminal illness. Cancer, to be exact. Nobody was really surprised, since she was a chain smoker. Hey, this isn't discrimination against smokers. The bloody docs said smokers die easily not me. Perhaps we were just blinded by propaganda, who knows? So you smokers better smoke more. Life is short, make it shorter. I mean, enjoy more.
What made it chilling for me personally was that when I was diagnosed with cancer, she asked me about my condition every single day. "How is your cancer?" she would go, assuming I can measure the seriousness of my infliction with a blood glucose meter, like what Sugar M was doing sometimes back. I didn't know what to say. It was depressing enough to be reminded of my problem everyday. What was worse was that I did not have a solution and was frightened like hell I would drop dead within months like she would have some years later. What happened to her could still happen to me. I'm a walking time bomb.
The only problem is that when, or if, I explode, I won't be the one getting hurt. You see those dimwits blowing up themselves or engage in some fun target shootings before upping the lorry themselves, the living and the half-dead suffer their deeds. Those retards simply die, but victims and their families suffer for a long, long time. Dying does not frighten me, but leaving my family financially incapacitated dreads me. I have not ascended them to a level I can leave anytime, in peace.
I often recall scenes of my death. Not many strangers will attend my funeral, since I have done little good to people, unlike someone like Ah Pak. I don't have many friends either. I may even have a few guys turning up to watch me burn before leaving with a wry smile. But don't ask me who. I don't watch my back and have no time for this sort of people. It won't be long before they are burnt to dust anyway. We are just playing a game of life and death, after which, we fold up the board and go home. The winner and losers are soon forgotten, inconsequential. I would imagine my daughter being really, really sad. It breaks my heart to imagine how my family tries to explain daddy is never coming back again and get her to accept the fact. We have been really close. I think she will miss me a lot. It may be better if this is just my ego. It may be better if she doesn't love me as much as I think. That way, everyone can move on better.
On the other end of the cycle, LC, Robot and M all had their babies arriving in the same month. Congratulations everyone. All of a sudden, everyone is popping babies here and there. We have arrived at the peak we experience life and death at a personal level. Family and close friends bring life to the world and sending their old folks off. It is a perspectives changing stage, no doubt.
Most of my friends would have expended around half of their lifespan or so. Many of us would be having a niggle here and there soon, or starting to get surprises from the medical reports. A few lucky or unlucky buggers, depending on how you view it, will be going on for a lot longer than the rest. I wonder if any has the time to think about their lives, on what is remaining. Perhaps they are happy to go on the way it always has been. Contentment, after all, is happiness.