Old hand, tenderly touched by time

Georgetown, a historical part of Penang, the destination of my outreach. I do my best to keep the routine a few times in a year, to visit old friends and old acquaintances. Fair weather, sunny and cloudy on this particular day, with taunting promises of rain in the evening.

In the mid-90s, at times my visitations took me to distant Malaysian cities and villages, of which I found much pleasure to reach out to marginalized communities in Penang. Back then, as a semi-retired relief worker, I found the travelling to be as filling as the traditional nasi padang (a small banquet of vegetable, fish and fish, all red hot spicy Minangkabau cuisine). I dislike, largely because of my training and the adrenaline rush, no, I hate, the confinement of a centre much less an office.

I move towards the many stalls that decorate the street. Gurney Drive, a popular place to feast with family and friends, though not as crowded as I remember of yesteryears. It's clean, without a doubt thanks to the municipal council and the cleanliness-conscious food vendors, however there was a time when the lack of hygiene was part of the popular culture in the street food industry.

I meet my friend, who's about 7 minutes early. He sees me, then drums his fingers on the plastic table; a feeble amusing attempt to remind me that I am not the only one who can be painfully early at meetings and reunions. Chuckling, I offer my hand. My friend shakes it, and pats me a couple of times on the shoulder.

Mat Daud, a former volunteer with a colourful history serving the drug users community, a recovering user and an experienced peer counsellor. One of those rare oddity, brimming with experience on mental health issues of drug users.

"How are you, my friend?" I ask. He grips my hand, unwilling to let go.

"You're looking fat, Zash. Good life ya?" He says, laughing. "I'll be fine when you pay for the meal." He winks. Mat Daud hasn't released my right hand.

"If you let go, perhaps I can take out my wallet?" Jesting, partly. Laughter. Followed by a warm hug. Almost like old times. I politely motion at a bearded young man, to order our drinks and a plate of rojak buah, a salad dish mixed with thick sweet peanut sauce. "How's the family?"

"Good, my sister has been asking about you. You remember ya. She's divorced, you know." Mat Daud instinctively offers me cigarette, in which I shake my head and took my kretek from the pouch. "When are you free, Zash? Come over to the house lah."

The sea breeze does nothing to reduce the intense heat and sudden increasing humidity; I'm sweating, again.

"I will, I will. In a couple of days? Can?" I ask, just as the iced coffee and food are served. Wallet out, money given, and the vendor leaves the loose change on the table. Barely noticed.

"Sure." Mat Daud, leans close as he lights his cigarette, blocking the breeze from the flame with his cupped palm. "You know right? Zakaria passed away last year." His conversational tone continues.

"I didn't know." My reply was no different.

Dying breed. Dinosaurs, him and me, treading the realm, yet unwilling to let go. Not just yet. Still loads of work, for the likes of us. However the seductive promises of extinction, of us social workers; I now feel it.

"His wife and children still stay at Sungai Ara?" I inhale the kretek smoke.

"Yeah, the same place." His reply, almost reverberating.

Then silence. Lost in that moment. Thoughts cradling the routine, of discovering that old colleagues have moved on, away from the physical realm. Time, one day will catch up with me, and despite my jokes of my immortality, the vigour of my life, this mortal body will fail me. I, like my fallen colleagues and friends, will be lost in the history of my country.

We remember the dead briefly, we sigh, then we move on.

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