Friday, 31 March 2017

A debt of gratitude (Part 1 of 2)

The old man was dressed in a simple light blue short-sleeved shirt and dark grey trousers. The white kopiah on his head seemed a bit frayed along the edges. On his right hand he carried a small packet of fish crackers while his left held a large red plastic bag, presumably containing more packets of the same.

He walked with a slight stoop as he approached our table where I was having a late supper with two friends at our favourite 24-hours mamak restaurant.

“Assalamualaikum encik,” he greeted me. “Sudi beli keropok ikang? Hok ni paling baik. Dari Kemamang.” His thick east coast accent indicated that he had come far just to peddle some produce. I was about to decline the sale when my friend Simon spoke.

“Berapa ringgit ni pakcik?”

Eight ringgit a packet was the reply.

“Pakcik ada berapa peket semuanya?” Simon continued, motioning to the large bag in the pedlar’s left hand.

The old man placed the bag on the floor and began counting its contents. He had a total of ten packs, including the one he first held in his right hand.

“Okay pakcik, saya beli semua,” Simon said.

The initial expression of surprise on the old man’s face was quickly replaced by a smile.

Simon then asked me and our other friend Suresh, how many packs of the keropok each of us wanted. Both of us replied that one was enough. Simon also wanted just one packet for himself and so requested the pedlar to place three individual packets into smaller plastic bags. For the remaining seven packets, the old man was instructed to go to the other customers in the restaurant and give them away to whomever he wishes.

The second look of surprise of the evening flashed over the old man’s face.

“Pakcik bagikan setiap meja satu bungkus, sampai habis semua,” Simon clarified. “Cakap yang ada orang sedekah. Boleh?”

Spoken like a true Muslim. Except that my friend Simon is not a Muslim and as far as I know, does not profess to any religion. Simon Yong is a third generation china-man of Hakka descent.

I have known Simon since we were in secondary school. Those days, I simply called him Ah Chye. That’s many, many years ago. We lost touch for a while after the final Form 5 exams when we chose different career paths. Throughout my adult working life, I had been posted to various states in Malaysia. A few years ago, I decided to return and settle down at my hometown of Johor Bahru. In that first few months I was back, my path was reconnected to Simon’s.

On the way home from work one evening, I had stopped by a mini-market to pick up some groceries. The man at the cash register was about my age. After totaling up my purchase, he asked if I’m new to the area because he’s not seen me before. Just moved back a few months ago, I answered. But I’m a local lad, through and through, I quickly added. If so, which school did you go to, he continued to ask. When I mentioned the name of my alma mater, he suddenly paused. He squinted his eyes and stared at my face in deep thought. I didn't feel any unease under the scrutiny. Many people say I have a very recognizable face. When he resumed speaking, the man behind the counter took a guess at my name. He was correct. It turned out that we were classmates from years long gone and have now reunited after a span of nearly thirty years. I asked him if he owned the store. Being the modest man that he is, he replied that he only works there but the store belonged to his father. I later found out that the family operates three convenience stores around town and that my friend Simon effectively owns them all because he holds the majority share. But as long as his father is still alive, Simon would say that the senior Yong is the owner.

After that day, we meet up regularly, usually over dinner or teh tarik at our favourite mamak joint. It so happened that Ah Chye and I support the same football team in the English Premier League. Later on, Simon introduced me to his friend Suresh, who is slightly younger than us but share many common interests. Except that he supports Chelsea. So when it comes to football talk, we trade friendly barbs at each other. You guys are okay, Suresh would say. “It’s the other red team supporters I cannot stand. Those devils think they are the best team ever.” Of course you have to say that, I reminded him, otherwise our good friend here would have to look for another lawyer. Suresh and Simon laughed in agreement. You see, apart from being a good friend, Suresh handles Simon’s legal affairs.

I had once asked Simon how decided upon his new western name. Is Ah Chye not glamorous enough, I joked. You remember the old TV series called The Saint, he questioned me back. The one with that handsome actor?

Yes, I do. Roger Moore.

Well, I think I’m as handsome as that actor, he continued. “So that’s why I took his name.” Now, hold on. I was puzzled. The guy’s first name is Roger. No lah, came the response… Simon Templar, the hero’s name! Oh, okay… now I get it (rolling my eyes).

So why not Roger, I asked again, just for the fun of it. The reply was just as swift. “You remember another TV series called Combat? The one where soldiers talk on the walkie-talkie and say ‘roger this’, or ‘roger that’?”

Sure, I do.

“Well, if I enter the army, I don’t want to be confused by hearing people calling out my name so many times, hahaha.” I could hardly suppress my chuckle on hearing the explanation. Of course, Simon never went to military service.

Simon made payment for the whole of the keropok pedlar's stock with two RM50 notes and told the man to keep the change.

It was our turn to be astonished when the old man responded, “Minta maaf encik. Saya dok boleh terima duit lebih ini. Saya datang nak berniaga bukan minta sedekoh. Harap encik dok kecik ati. Duit lebih tu mungkin rezeki orang laing. Terima kasih.”

He returned the RM20 change to Simon, smiled kindly at us and then left our table to distribute the remaining packets as requested.

“You are a very generous man, Simon. Your mother must have taught you well,” Suresh said.

“Actually, not my mother but my father,” Simon remarked. “He was the one who taught me to be kind and helpful to others. Because he was once helped by a very kind man... a long time ago. Have I not told you my father’s story?”

Suresh and I shook our heads.

“Okay… I’ll tell you. But let me finish my mee goreng first.”

As Simon chowed down his fried noodles, I glanced around to see how the old keropok-seller was getting along. He was actually doing something not quite different from what he had set out to do, except that now he is giving away those fish crackers for free rather than selling them. Even so, every person he approached was surprised at the gift and he had to point to our table to indicate the source of the goodwill...


KT said...

Beautiful story!

Oldstock said...

Thank you KT. I hope you'll like the 2nd part as well, to be published soon.