61. Kopitiam

The world has moved on.

The sound of the silence being broken by the clatter of ceramic cups being set upon cream-colored saucers and the occasional flipping of the newspaper page had long been replaced by the sounds of automobile engines whirring, buses blaring their horns, and the sounds of pedestrians – walking, talking, shouting – outside the kopitiam.

The world has gone mad, that’s more like it, Lim thought.

The third successor of the family business closed his eyes and took in a deep breath. Maybe this time when he opened his eyes, the noise would be gone and the world would set itself in order.

He expelled his breath and opened his eyes, and saw that nothing has changed.

“Boss! Another coffee!” called the elderly man seated in front of the table fan. He was probably seventy, old enough to have all the time in the world, but not old enough to have his children spend the time with him. The old man had come here every morning almost religiously – first as a greying businessman starting off his day, then as a fresh retiree looking to catch up with old friends, and now nothing more than a relic of the past: full of memories and experiences, but of no practical use to the busy, busy world out there.

Lim turned to his son, who had been seated by the wall, engrossed in his mobile phone.

“Son, get the man another coffee,” he said.

The young man glanced up at him with disinterested eyes, then lazily – reluctantly – got off his chair and went into the back room. Things hadn’t been the same ever since Lim rejected his idea to go to university. “Everything you need is here,” Lim had told (or scolded? He couldn’t remember) his son, “A job, a steady income, a future. Why waste our money on things we don’t need?”

The Lim family had owned this lot for almost a hundred years. Before there had been television or air-conditioners or buildings that reached up into the sky, this building and the land it stood on had been their family’s property. From time to time, some well-dressed man would come in and try to talk Lim into selling the place over to some big corporation, but he had turned down every one of them. The money they offered could feed him, his children, and even his children’s children; but to own the shop meant that they could feed the family for a hundred generations more. Where were they to go, without the kopitiam? What were they supposed to do?

His son emerged from the back room with the elderly man’s coffee in hand. As the coffee was set upon the old wooden table, Lim thought he caught sadness in the young man’s eyes. No, not sadness – despair.

“What are we to do without the kopitiam?” his son had said (or shouted), incredulous, “Move on! Find something else to do! Anything that isn’t sitting in a dingy old coffee shop doing the same thing day after day, month after month, year after year! There’s enough money there to let us do whatever we want, and you’re happy to continue doing what you’ve been doing all your life?”

Move on. After a pause, the young man said, “The world is changing, pa. We cannot continue living like it’s the 60s.”

Lim’s reverie was broken when his son dropped the coins for the coffee into the copper tin, and then went back to his seat by the wall to resume his activities on his mobile phone.

It was quiet inside the kopitiam as the world raged on around it. Lim pulled open a drawer and saw the letter inside, exactly how he had left it for more than a week now. It was a lot of money, he thought. More zeroes than he had ever seen, or will ever see in his life.

“Son,” he called, and the young man looked up with a weariness in his eyes that had come fifty years too early, “Come here.”

He got up from his chair and dragged his feet over to where his father sat. Lim took one last look at the letter before closing the drawer.

The world has moved on.

Perhaps it was time for him to move on as well.

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