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Reconnecting with old friends

Meeting former classmates after 40 years apart is bittersweet

Some call his the best char kway teow in Penang.

He is an arresting sight in Jalan Siam, an old man with the bike-kitchen, the one who thumbs his nose at gas stoves and fries his noodles over a charcoal stove, stirring the flames with a straw fan.

His stall has no tables or chairs, so foodies have to wait at the coffee shop across the road. To make sure that every plate pummels the palate with a smoky intensity, the uncle fries the kway teow only in small batches.

That means one can wait more than 45 minutes for a serving.

That was exactly what happened to me one Saturday afternoon two months ago.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CHNG CHOON HIONG

Ordinarily, I would have bolted, but I was with five of my former classmates and we had all the time in the world.

It helped that we were not ravenous. Barely two hours ago, one of them - who does a lot of business on the island - had taken us to an amazing curry pot fish head stall in Sungai Pinang, Balik Pulau.

"It's the best," Stanley assured us. "They use the freshest of fish heads - straight from the jetty to the kitchen."

He was not lying: The fish head curry was gobsmackingly piquant and delicious.

Although it took nearly an hour, the wait for our char kway teow was painless.

The five of us had so much to catch up on; it was our first outing together in 40 years.

We first knew one another as 13-year-olds, thrown together in the same class - 1L1 - in San Peng Road Lower Secondary School in a less than savoury part of Kuala Lumpur. Together with several others, we spent the next five years together, grappling with gangsters, crushes, pimples and Principles of Accounts.

We played volleyball and went to movies together. We also bickered, fought, provoked and comforted one another.

Our friendship took a hit when we left school and became adults. I came to Singapore to get a degree and start a new life. They stayed on in Kuala Lumpur and charted new courses.

For several years, we tried to meet regularly, but life, career, spouses, children and other demands became stumbling blocks.

Priorities changed, duty beckoned, new friends and relationships exerted their pull. There were good intentions, but bad follow-through and soon years passed without us making contact.

Strangely though, in the last couple of years, new life has breathed into these old ties.

Social media has been a great help. It started with saying "Happy Birthday" or liking one another's updates on Facebook, which led to a WhatsApp chat group where we shared jokes, political views and personal ups and downs. Before long, there were regular makan sessions and then this Penang expedition to Balik Pulau where we cycled and ate up a storm.

The urge to reconnect, I discovered, is common with people for whom the demands of work and family have started to ease in middle age.

Many hanker for experiences which make them happy, including spending time with people who were once important in their lives.

My colleague, cartoonist Miel, agrees. When time is starting to run out, he says, one begins to look for something deeper.

"It's about having something in common that is deeper than most, including shared memories... We're like salmon now swimming upstream; we need the struggle to reconnect with our past and be whole again."

Indeed, my friends and I have shared more than just good times.

When we were 17, we lost one of our classmates in a car accident.

By then, we were studying in different schools. My friends had wanted to paint the town red one night, but I could not join them as I was studying for my final-year examinations.

Eight of them piled into two cars. On their way home on the Federal Highway, one of the cars hit a kerb, flipped and turned turtle. The front passenger, WK, died on the spot.

His parents were inconsolable and were vocal with their recriminations.

The driver of the car was so traumatised by the accident that he became mentally unbalanced.

Once, he turned up, dishevelled and disorientated, at my grandmother's house in Cheras, looking for me.

When I tried to talk to him, he was incoherent. He saw several psychiatrists and was admitted into a mental institution, but he was never himself again. He died a couple of years later.

Although the episode haunted us and changed us, it also bonded us.

We are old friends indeed, in more ways than one.

Folk duo Simon & Garfunkel lyrically captured the essence of old chums in their 1960s hit, Old Friends: "Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears."

I cannot vouch for the others, but that line struck a chord with me that weekend in Penang.

One of my friends in the group, David, was diagnosed with Stage 4 lung cancer more than a year ago.

He fought it like a trooper and, against great odds, pummelled the cancer into remission with the help of a good surgeon.

But one week before our trip, a check-up revealed that another small tumour had sprung up in his lung.

David, however, was not going to let a small tumour get in the way of a great weekend with us.

He laughed the loudest, cycled the hardest and saw humour in so many things.

"I just want to live fully. I want to see the world and volunteer my time to help underprivileged kids. I've just registered myself to teach English and mathematics for one month to victims of the Gua Musang floods this November," said David who, thankfully, is responding well to new cancer treatment.

We gave our friend the thumbs up, tacitly telling him we would be there if the going gets tough. Deep in our hearts, we probably wondered if we would be able to face a similar crisis with the same grace and equanimity.

Our char kway teow came. We tucked in; it was worth the wait.

The lard gave it a fillip, the wok hei was glorious.

After that, we walked to nearby Macalister Road to pick four Labu Labu and Gua Musang durians.

And we went back to our homestay to plan our next trip.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on August 21, 2016, with the headline 'Reconnecting with old friends'. Print Edition | Subscribe