Goodbye, old friend

Death of an ex-classmate makes me reflect on the nature of our relationship over the years

A former classmate and friend died recently. I did not visit him when he was in hospital, during his last days when he was on life support. I did not go to his wake after his death and I did not go to his funeral.

Although we were classmates in pre-university, we did not keep in touch and were reaquainted only in the 2000s, when he joined my two regular friends - also former classmates - for zi char meals in various corners of Singapore once or twice a month.

He was an architect turned businessman and by the time we got together again, he had already suffered a major business loss in Malaysia amounting to several million dollars.

He did not file for bankruptcy and I did not know why his creditors were not after him, although I was sure he must have paid up a fair bit of his debts.

He moved into a three-room HDB flat in the west with his wife and two children, both of whom were scholarship holders. He did not work and would spend his days at a coffee stall in the market near his block, drinking beer with the new friends he made there.

Every time we met, he could eat only very little and one of my two kakis, who was a good friend of his, would buy him a couple of bottles of beer and cigarettes. He was a heavy smoker.

He was small in build and always wore a shirt and a pair of khaki shorts, which was held up by a tightened belt. He kept a beard, which did not help to make him look less unkempt.

He was a proud man and told me more than once about the building he designed in Shenton Way which, if you were on a boat in the waters off the area, you would be able to appreciate its distinctive architectural design.

But I was repulsed by his unkempt appearance - I who claim to be attracted to the bohemian lifestyle - and I did not like the fact that he kept looking back on his glorious days.

He told me how he had sailed down the Riviera and lived it up in five-star hotels.

I liked it, though, when he spoke of his son and daughter. They were filial children and never complained about their father's reversal of fortune.

He came from a wealthy family. His father, who died a few years before him, was a successful businessman and his sister is an influential figure in the arts community.

Once, another former classmate introduced us to a hotel waitress who was a Chinese national. We both liked her. She was attractive and could play the guzheng. We had lunch together and afterwards, the classmate who had introduced us, gave him $200 to take her shopping in Orchard Road.

I dated the girl the following week and found out that he had taken her to a Chinese ensemble recital. But my friendship with the girl developed and he faded into the background. Among my kakis, though, he always insisted that she liked him.

If he was a small fish in the ocean, I was not that much bigger, and soon after, the girl ended up becoming the mistress of a wealthy older man who set her up in a $2,000-a-month apartment and gave her a monthly allowance.

When her mother visited from China, the girl made me the substitute boyfriend - the wealthy man did not bother to meet the older woman - and we had dinner at her tastefully furnished apartment. We lost touch after that.

My former classmate, meanwhile, suddenly decided he would be an artist.

He started painting furiously and, in a year or so, held a sale at his father's new house. The house was fancy, with the kind of stone walls favoured by Ernesto Bedmar, the go-to designer for Singapore's rich, and was in a fancy district.

I was there with several of my former classmates. I tried to be generous and paid $500 for a worthless piece of work, which I regretted afterwards.

"Look at this house," a more cynical former classmate said. "Do you think he needs our support?"

There were also a couple of fairly well-known civil servants there, invited by his sister. Wisely, they bought the smaller works.

When I met my artist friend some time afterwards, he said he had given up painting. He had gone to the framer, he told me, and had boasted about how even top civil servants paid for his works.

The framer, in his blunt way, told him: "But do you ever consider that it's because they wanted to give face to your sister?"

Early last year, he developed a growth on his tongue. Initially, he refused to let it be checked by a doctor. It was his daughter who finally dragged him to see one. A biopsy found the growth to be cancerous. He was hospitalised and had a slice of his tongue surgically removed.

When he got well, he continued going to the coffee stall and did not stop smoking or drinking. Recently, the cancer returned and spread to other parts of the body. And that was how he died.

I have no excuse for not visiting him in the hospital or attending his funeral wake. I just didn't want to go and I don't know why.

This story first appeared in The Straits Times on March 2, 2013

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