"HUNDRED AND THREE, hundred and four, hundred and five..."
Joey was determined to be the skipping rope champion in her school and was feeling elated at her progress. As she kept count under her breath, her attention momentarily fell on her grandpa sitting on the old stone bench in the garden.
"He's dreaming again, just like he always does when we're watching the ships on the horizon," she thought, careful not to lose her rhythm.
"Hundred and fifteen, hundred and sixteen, hundred and seventeen, hundred and eighteen..."
Joey loved looking at the distant ships with her grandpa whenever the two of them went on long strolls down the esplanade.
"Hundred and twenty-two, hundred and twenty-three, hundred and twenty-four, hundred and twenty-five! Now let's see Lucy try and beat that!" Satisfied with her achievement, Joey dropped the rope and ran over to the stone bench, planting her plump little buttocks down with a resounding plop and disturbing her grandpa from his reverie.
"Joey! How many times..." Grandpa spluttered and then, seeing the mock innocence on Joey's irresistible face, he smiled, though a little wearily.
"Why do you keep looking at that house, Grandpa?" Joey asked, in her sweetest voice.
This seemed to catch Grandpa off guard and, to give himself time to think of an appropriate answer, he cleared his throat with great seriousness. He put an arm around his inquisitive, eight-year-old, chubby and utterly adorable granddaughter. She was definitely the apple of his eye.
"See those beautiful roses? I was admiring them. I love roses," he said, pointing in the general direction of the rose bushes across the road.
Joey knew her grandpa was fibbing. He'd always been more interested in fruit trees than flowers. But something in his voice made her stop probing. Instead, she shrugged and ran off to try and break her own record on the rope. She remembered her mother's comment a few days ago that Grandpa was behaving oddly, giving up his comfortable rocking chair on the verandah for that cold, hard stone bench, and dreaming away for hours. He must be getting senile! Joey didn't know what "senile" meant, but she could guess that it had to do with extreme old age.
"Thirty-nine, forty, forty-one, forty-two, forty-three, forty-four..."
Grandpa's back was aching after so many hours on the stone bench. Suddenly his face lit up, like a child who has just been offered a bar of chocolate. He noticed that the roses were in bloom - red, yellow, pink and white - and the bushes had been recently pruned... because he could now see a slender figure in a white blouse and red floral sarong watering the plants, very lovingly, very gracefully.
Most elegant women had quah-chee faces - the shape of melon seeds - and if she was a nyonya (as she appeared to be by her manner of dressing), she must be using bedak sejuk*... good heavens, perhaps she was also a habitual betel-nut chewer - such a hideous indulgence, to discolour one's pearly teeth! Banish these unkind thoughts... ah, she's moving towards the gate!
Grandpa's heart began to palpitate. He must find a way to meet her, to have a good look at her at close quarters, but how? As the days passed, his thoughts grew feverish and sometimes he completely lost interest in his meals. He noticed the anxiety written all over the faces of his loved ones. "Are you all right, Grandpa?" everyone kept asking, to his utmost irritation. But he managed to keep a poker face, at the same time feeling quite guilty at finding himself in this ridiculous situation - to be in love like a forlorn puppy at his age!
Everything comes to one who waits. Grandpa remembered this from the scriptures. One afternoon, from his position on the stone bench, he saw his dream woman open the heavy front gate for the fishmonger and the butcher. She did this with such dignity and elegance! Then she beckoned them in. Grandpa's heart sank. How would it look if he went over on the pretext on wanting to buy some provisions? No, it wouldn't do: etiquette demanded that he call the vendors over and look over their wares in his own front yard...
A whole week went by. Grandpa was rewarded by the sight of his dream woman opening and closing the gate for various members of her household. She must be married! But the man could also be her brother; there was some resemblance... Oh, look, there's her fluffy Pekinese rushing out on the road, chasing after the car that has driven off!
Grandpa found himself out of the front gate in a trice, running after the dog. The woman had started in pursuit, but she was no match for the septuagenarian. He picked up the dog as it paused to urinate against the kerb, cooing reassuringly to it. As he turned to hand over his temporary charge, his gaze fell full on the woman's face. She was smiling, no doubt impressed by the old man's swiftness. She was the spitting image of Betty, his beloved late wife. In fact, she might have been Betty's twin, notwithstanding the forty-year difference, but Betty had never had any sisters...
"Beautiful dog," he said, quickly regaining his composure.
"Thank you, thank you very much... are you all right?" the vision said, expressing concern at Grandpa's laboured breathing.
"Of course! Never felt better - bit of exercise, you know!"
Grandpa walked slowly back to the old stone bench, feeling elated. A miracle had taken place! She was real... he had spoken with her... they could... anyway, they could now wave to one another across the road for a start.
*traditional skin-cooling rice powder used by some local women