The language of friendship, at the worldwide cafe

The boys next door are leaving. I heard mumblings a few weeks back, and now it’s confirmed. Such is life in transient Singapore, where the expats come and go so fast the locals tend to see us as a steady, faceless blur.

Faceless blurs.

P saw these boys in full focus. They’re the friends he’s played with, chatted across the front balcony to, or pined after during mismatches of schedule for nearly a quarter of his young life. I wondered what, and when, to tell him.

***

In Japan, it was term time, and P was lonely for children his own age. It matters more now, this peer interaction. On the subway he learned to spot a typical Japanese school uniform from carriages away, and would hone in, single-mindedly; silent commuters looking startled, then indulgent, as he launched conversations with young audiences who rarely understood English.

When his words fell flat, he performed a trick taught him by generous Aunties and Uncles across Asia: he’d raid our supplies for a tightly-wrapped piece of blossom-flavoured candy or a few silver, dried anchovies with peanuts, and present his gift with a smile. An age-old message – the offering of food.

Japanese hospitality at Shimosagaya Guest House, Tsumago.

Japanese hospitality at Shimosagaya Guest House, Tsumago.

One girl spoke English. An elderly gentleman sat behind them, eyes crinkled into a smile above his paper mask as P made small talk with her between stations. They exchanged their ages, and played a guessing game for ours. The girl, looking anxious, pegged me at thirty, and we all giggled into our beards when P revealed my age as twenty-one.

Soon, though, she reached her station. “You made a nice friend there,” said Nanny.

“I don’t think I’ll see her again,” said P.

***

I decided I should mention our neighbour’s relocation. It was bound to crop up – best forewarn. My chance came as we worked on P’s new recipe: Just-Blueberry-Nut-Cornflake-Right-Crunch – an amalgamation of no less than three different types of breakfast cereal, now stirred into one, mind-boggling super-cereal for our morning consumption.

Kitchen dance break.

A kitchen dance break always helps ease the way for a difficult conversation.

At first he was quiet. Then: “I’m going to tape their door shut,” he decided.

“I don’t think that’s a practical suggestion.”

“Well, I’ll sneak in and change their alarm clocks and they’ll miss the plane.”

***

We carried on a few more stations after the Japanese school-girl left us, til we had to change lines. Soon we reached Oji, bought some food at a cafe and took it into the park. A group of girls were playing on the rocks by the waterwheel, and P followed and copied them until, by magic, he was part of the game – and for a while, that was that, despite the lack of common tongue.

Then P decided to share out the cake we’d bought, so I gave him spoons and paper napkins to help everyone join in. The girls rummaged through their backpacks and found some sweets to give in return, and all of a sudden it was a party, loud and boisterous, with everyone crowding in to get their share of the goodies.

Cake and friendship at Otonashi Shinsui Park, near Oji Station, Tokyo.

Cake and friendship at Otonashi Shinsui Park, near Oji Station, Tokyo.

When the park closed, we parted ways in a shower of thankyous, their Grandmother bowing so low I was afraid she’d do her knees in, my mother wondering nervously who was supposed to stop first.

Then we skipped back to the subway for our last night in Tokyo. Twenty-four hours later, we were gone.

***

“I’m going to go down into the car park and tell their taxi driver to leave without them,” P said.

He was running low on ideas, so I gave him the only one I had: “You can make sure you spend as much time playing with them as possible between now and June. Make the most of the time you’ve got left together.”

For my wisdom, I got a scowl: it was not the solution he’d wanted to hear. But the next day, he asked them over, and made them hot chocolate. And the day after that, he shared his bread at the park.

Menu: coffee, tea, sandwett or warta.

P’s Cafe Menu: coffee, tea, “sandwett” or “warta”.

This post appeared first at Journeys of the Fabulist, and was inspired by Sue Slaght, who invited me to blather at will.

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