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  • From The Shrimp People
  • Rex Shelley (bio)

"Don't look now, but there's that old bloke from Singapore," Ray muttered under his breath just before he raised the glass of Swan to his lips. Curious to see a fellow Singaporean face, I made the fatal mistake. With my reactions slowed down by two glasses, I looked over Ray's shoulder. I saw him at once. A grey-haired old man with a battered look on his face. Brown skinned, a little wrinkled, badly shaven with an eager gleam in his grey-blue eyes. A rounded, Oriental, Malay sort of nose, high cheekbones, but his eyes and large bone structure did not look Asian. He was thin. Perhaps gaunt. But one could see that, beneath the dried skin, there was once muscle in the old fellow's arms.

He caught me looking at him. I had perhaps let my look linger a little too long. He met my eyes, stared unblinking at me for a split second, and the corner of his mouth curled slightly in a smile. He started to move towards me.

"He's coming over, Ray," I said.

"Oh God." He was with us before Ray could say anything more. "Hey, Ray. Howyer mate?"

"All right, and yerself?"

"Couldn't be better. Who's your friend?"

"Oh, this is Robert. He's from Singapore—"

Before Ray could finish speaking, the old fellow interrupted.

"I thought I saw a familiar face. Pleased to meet you. I'm Joe. Joe Coombes." He shot out his hand and gave me a firm, friendly grip. "You're Serani, aren't you?"

"Yes," I replied, feeling guilty about it for some reason or other. Perhaps it was because I should have recognised him as a fellow Serani at once. Ray chipped in, "What's this Serani?" and Old Joe went into explanations about the Eurasians being called Serani and the derivation from the Malay word Nasarene, meaning Nazareth man, Christian, and all that, which I had heard and trotted out myself a million times.

"What's your surname?" The ritual had started. I winced and replied, "Machado."

"Oh! You're not from Singapore! You're a Penangite, aren't you?" [End Page 131]

"No. I'm a true-blue Singaporean. Don't smoke, and keep hair short. My father was from Penang."

"Was he the goalie? Bobby Machado?"

"No. Bobby was my uncle."

He was away now. I could see his eyes sparkle, and I knew it was coming. He would know them all. He was going to rush into it and enjoy every moment, every memory. He paused for effect.

"Let me see now…Your mother must have been a Rodrigues. Didn't Ben Machado marry Bertha?"

"No. My mother's name is Beryl."

"Of course! Beryl Rodrigues…the one with the big tits. Sorry lah. No offence intended. Just rememberin'…"

He laughed, took a gulp of his beer, and continued. I stood there, resigned. I realised now why Ray had muttered "Oh God."

"Yes. Yes, yes…Bertha married Heng, that bloody rascal. But she was a bit of a flighty thing herself. Ditched the bugger, didn't she?"

"Yes, my Auntie Bertha left Uncle Heng."

"Uncle Heng? Is that what you called him?"

"Yeah…my mother didn't like us using his Chinese name."

"Teepical, teepical…," he said in his Singapore-English way.

I felt I had to do my bit for politeness' sake. "Are you related to Anthony Coombes, who's with the fire service?"

"Yah. That's my good-for-nothing nephew. Joined the Fire Brigade against his parents' advice. Straight after his Senior Cambridge. Silly bugger. Wanted adventure he said, and where did it get him? The only bloody adventure and excitement he had was chasing Malay women down the kampong paths in Geylang. Real bugger for the girls, he was. Chased anything that moved in a sarong. Do you know him?"

"No. But I met him once at a wedding."

"Let me get you buggers a drink."

Ray shot his "Oh God" glance at me while getting drinks distracted Old Joe. But he was back at it as soon as we picked up our fresh, full...