It was eight o’clock and the hotel cafe, though small, was bright with light shining through tall glass panes. I scanned the people sitting down to breakfast, all familiar faces, wondering which group I could possibly share a table with.
As I walked slowly pass the first few tables, I saw that an elderly man whom I recognized as my friend’s father, was sitting at a table for four, by himself. There was a plate of food and a filled cup on the table.
“Hello Uncle,” I said. Though we had attended church retreats in the past, and I sometimes saw him at a distance after church services, I did not know his name. He was just the father of a good friend, a man in his old age, not very tall, with froglike eyes behind gold-rimmed spectacles.
I asked, “Are you alone, Uncle?” He nodded. Could I join him? He nodded, though I don’t think he had much of a choice.
It is always easier to talk to a stranger than to someone you already know. I knew he was retired, but I didn’t know from what, though I recall his son saying it had to do with money. I found out he was 76, cooks for himself, and lives in a government-built block of flats in an estate across from where we have our church services. He walks to church on Sunday mornings because the 158 bus takes too long to arrive.
He is reading the history of China, and spoke enthusiastically about how the Song Dynasty fell apart. He has 10 grandchildren. “One more, and we can have a football team,” he said. He reminded me that we had once eaten with other church people at a quaint Chinese restaurant in Malacca at a previous retreat. “Your in-laws were there too,” he said, as if trying to jog my memory of that lunch. It was two years ago on a hot and blindingly-bright afternoon in the historic quarter of the former Portugese-Dutch colony.
When he wants to travel, he climbs aboard the Malaysian train that takes him up north to the small town of Mentakab, in the state of Pahang. The train leaves Singapore at 7 pm and arrives at 2 am. But he doesn’t mind. There’re lights, he said, all the way from the station to the hotel a short walk away and he arms himself by carrying an umbrella.
Later in the day, I met his son when we were all playing team games. I said his dad liked Chinese history. My friend said he wasn’t aware of that. But that’s the way it is. Parents don’t always keep their children up-to-date on their latest interests.
The next morning, I saw Uncle sitting alone again at the hotel cafe. It was the same old sun shining into the cafe at the same time as the day before. “Hello Uncle,” I said, stopping.
He looked up. “Join me.”
I thought, that must be one of the nicest phrases in the English language.
What are some of your favourite phrases?