He has been back for a week but I have not seen him until today.
“You’ve lost weight.” That was the first thing I noticed. And his shining eyes. Africa agrees with him.
He stared at me for a second before giving me hug. I hugged him back.
– – –
We didn’t keep in touch very often in the two years he was away. An email maybe once in a few months, the odd phone call during raya. The internet connectivity where he was at can be labelled as ‘pathetic’, which improved to ‘bloody slow’ towards the end of his tenure.
I did however got a postcard of Mount Kilimanjaro and I usually make it a point to write him brief notes every other month. We pretty much left things unsaid, which was how we both preferred it to be.
– – –
“Are you going back there?” He told me about a new offer he received, still in Africa.
“I don’t know. They gave me a month to consider.”
He then showed me some entries in his journal. I cried reading them. The wonders and the painful scenes he had seen and experienced, the ones he didn’t mention in our irregular correspondence.
“You are going back there,” I simply announced, looking up from his journal.
He kept silent. After a few seconds, he rose from the bench where we sat and walked slowly. I followed, his journal I held close to my chest.
Walking in silence, we reached the end of the man-made lake and he suddenly stopped.
“Kopi?” We both smiled.
– – –
“I went to the original Hai Peng kopitiam in Kemaman just last month. I think you’d like that place. The owner was there, having kopi with his mate, even posed for photos.”
We were at the usual coffee place, still empty at dusk. It will start to fill up in an hour or two, but right that moment, we had the place to ourselves. It was almost like old times.
We exchanged more stories, and I avoided mentioning about the new job offer. I got home a half hour later wondering if I should have told him my own little news and why I didn’t.
– – –
He was not entirely surprised when I told him the next day.
“I knew you were up to something. After all that you’ve done here, it was just a matter of time lah.”
“It’s a year-long gig. The term starts in September.”
It was July last year when I decided to apply for the fellowship, although I never thought I would be accepted. It took me a whole month to work up the courage to break the news to everyone, and another month to convince myself things would turn out alright.
“You still worry too much,” he said in between spoonfuls of nasi lemak.
“I know, and I have more grey hair to prove it.”
“You’re supposed to be the spontaneous one, who would drive to the nearest beach alone just because you feel like it.”
I had to laugh at that. “I am getting too old for that kind of stuff. 31. Although I’m not as old as you..”
“Hah! Tolong sikit. It’s all in the mind, ok.”
Lunch is always a merry affair.
– – –
He is accepting the new offer, not exactly a surprise to me.
“With you gone, I might as well go back there.” That was unexpected.
“What do you mean?”
We were back at the coffee place, after dinner with a group of friends. When he didn’t answer, I let the matter slide. I am just as closed as he is, I know how hard it is to open up to people.
“I was planning to spend more time with you this year. You can blame it on guilt, for not being here last year. I would have came back, you know, if you had asked me to. And I was looking forward to having you around for a bit.”
He was being honest. I’m glad he told me.
“I had a feeling you would have, but I couldn’t do it. It wouldn’t be fair. I have my family and friends here while you are there alone trying to make a difference. Which you did. And I’m really proud of that. Of you.”
He smiled wryly.
“We’re such egoistical people! Yeah, you too, kid,” he added when I looked shocked.
I shook my head. “You’re right, as usual.”
“Tau tak pa.”
“I never make things easy for myself, why should I let you get away with it lightly?”
His eyes shone brightly as he reached for my hand.
“I wouldn’t have it any other way, kid.”