I used to reminisce and dream about it. On festive occasions whenever my siblings and I gathered at our ancestral house, our conversation would invariably gravitate towards it.
“One day we must take a trip to see our childhood home in Kuala Pilah,” we would say, wishfully.
Busy with our lives, the years slipped by unnoticed. The trip remained an unfulfilled dream. Then early one morning, the phone rang and my elder brother’s voice at the other end of the line inquired, “Would you like to make a day trip to Kuala Pilah tomorrow?”
“Sure,” I said without hesitation.
And so one fine day, my brother, youngest sister and I, accompanied by my wife and niece, Joon, made the much-awaited trip. After more than 60 years, we wondered if the old house was still standing.
After leaving Tampin town in Negri Sembilan, we soon found ourselves on a winding road flanked by verdant hills, interspersed with oil palm and rubber plantations. At intervals we passed through small towns with just a single row of old shophouses. As the car hummed its way towards our destination, my brother was soon sharing memories of his childhood days in Kuala Pilah, while I chimed in at appropriate intervals. My youngest sister, a toddler then, had hazy recollections of her stay in Kuala Pilah, so she and the others just sat back and listened to the conversation.
“Tuanku Muhammad School!”
The sudden shout that rose from the rear seat put an abrupt end to our conversation.
We decided to make a brief stopover at the school where my brother and I had our early education, and take a walk down memory lane. As our steps took us past vacant classrooms, they rekindled nostalgic memories of our school days. After a quick tour of the school, we were all ready and eager to find our childhood home.
The car made its slow descent down a narrow bitumen road leading to the residential area where our old home was located. As my brother began calling attention to once familiar landmarks, I felt a sense of mounting excitement.
“That’s the area behind our old house,” my brother said, pointing excitedly to a spot on our left. The sight that met our eyes was greeted with a look of disappointment, accompanied by a sigh of resignation. The whole area appeared as if it had been flattened by an earthquake. Mangled metals, jagged concrete and splintered wood lay scattered in unsightly heaps.
“Take the next turning to the left,” my brother instructed Joon.
An abandoned house stood at the corner of the road. I recognised it as the place where the bachelor teachers used to stay. The bamboo hedge, entwined with floral creepers, where we sourced for our “hockey sticks” and hunted for fighting spiders was sadly missing. Two more abandoned buildings came into view.
Then we noticed three houses with curtained windows. Our hopes soared. We cruised the narrow road, but there was still no sign of the house.
Joon made a U-turn. We had almost given up hope when something jogged my memory.
“Look for 246 B,” I said excitedly.
Tired eyes scanned the small number plates posted on the doors of the three houses.
“There!” someone shouted.
We were thrilled to find our childhood home, as it was one of the only three houses which were still occupied. But as we took in the sight, we were overcome with mixed emotions. It brought back pleasant memories, but we felt a tinge of sadness when we saw its dilapidated condition.
The concrete stilts on which the wooden house stood appeared to be shorter or perhaps we had outgrown them. I wondered how we managed to crawl under the house and play masak-masak and hide-and-seek within the claustrophobic confines. As Joon brought the car to a halt, a sudden movement behind the curtains caught my attention and I snapped out of my reverie.
I approached the house and an old lady peered anxiously from behind a hastily drawn curtain.
“Auntie, we used to stay in this house, a long time ago. May we take some photos?”
“Sure, my daughter has just gone to the temple across the field.”
A young woman and her daughter hurried across the field to where we waited. After the initial introduction and pleasantries, we told her about the purpose of our visit.
She asked if we wanted to see the interior of the house, but not wanting to intrude on their privacy, we politely declined her kind offer. While my brother was busy explaining to her the changes in the physical environment, I quietly stole away to take in the surroundings.
The open verandah where we used to sit and enjoy the cool night breeze and watch the flickering glow of fireflies, was now covered with welded wire mesh. No wonder we had failed to locate the house on our first attempt.
Across the field, the low brick buildings of the labourers’ quarters had been demolished. Gone, too, were the houses on the slope behind the old hospital. The Ulu Muar Club where my father used to spend many a happy evening with his friends, playing billiard and enjoying their setengah (a mixed drink of half measure of whiskey and soda water, served over ice), was now just a pile of rubble choked with a tangled mass of vegetation.
The clump of tembusu trees that stood tall and stately in front of the club had also disappeared. I remember at dusk the quietude would be broken by an endless cacophony, as a multitude of twittering swallows sought refuge among the thick foliage.
As I gazed dejectedly at the remains of the Ulu Muar Club, I suddenly realised the morning air was strangely quiet and still. No birds sang; no leaves stirred. Time seemed to pause for a moment. However, something stirred within me, something heard a long time ago.
It was the sound of Father’s loud and infectious laughter that emanated from the club and drifted across the field to our shared bedroom. Knowing Father seldom came back empty-handed, we would struggle hard to remain awake and strain our ears for the sound of his soft footfall on flimsy floor boards.
There was usually something for our late night supper: fried bee hoon, char kway teow and our favourite sar hor fun (rice noodles). That morning, as we stood on the front lawn, my nostril tingled as I remember the distinct aroma of the delectable sar hor fun wrapped in upeh (arecanut leaf sheath) and secured with dry reed.
The front lawn which was well-manicured in those days was now covered with ankle-high grass. I remember how we used to sit on the concrete steps and watch our part-time gardener mow the grass with a wide sweep of a long, sharp scythe.
I strolled to the side lane where we used to play tops, marbles and a traditional outdoor game called kaunda kaundi. It was now overgrown with trees and shrubs.
Everywhere there were signs of neglect and disrepair. As I looked at the disconsolate scene, voices from the past floated eerily across the still morning air. I heard once again the incessant chant of “kaunda-kaundi, kaunda-kaundi” as a boy raced breathlessly towards the home base. I heard the boisterous laughter of childhood friends as they chased a tennis ball with home-made hockey sticks.
“Seen enough?” Joon’s voice from under a mango tree inquired.
Without realising it, we had been standing for hours on the sun-drenched lawn, soaking in the sunlight and the memories of our childhood home.
Old is gold is a platform for readers aged 55 and above to share their wealth of experience and take on life. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org. Published contributions will be paid, so please include your full name, IC number, address and phone number.