But helpless Pieces of the Game He plays Upon this Chequer-board of Nights and Days; Hither and thither moves, and checks, and slays; And one by one back in the Closet lays. – Omar Khayyam, The Rubaiyat

I WRITE this on August 9, Singapore’s national day. A thought unbidden from the deep recesses, as it often does in an idle moment of reflection, fleets past, a memory from a time bygone half a century ago, reminding me it was the birthday of a friend from that time.

The mind is like that, sometimes dredging up random things from far and away, making you stop and think of what has happened to someone who was close to you once, and with whom you had a real connection. But who you have had no contact with for decades.

In times like that, you resort to a modern convenience called Google. I had googled his name before, but it came up with a blank. This time when I did the same, there were results. Oh, good I told myself, maybe I can track him down just for fun.

But it was too late. The headline said it all: Dr Zahari gave 40 years to UK health service. Gave – it was in the past tense. He became a doctor – uncharacteristic, I thought, as that was not his interest in school.

I read on. Could it really be him? From Temerloh. Yes, he was from there; his father was the state assemblyman there in the 1970s. I remembered we used to talk politics in those days. The picture showed a resemblance to him.

He studied at Brunel University. I had vague memories of him going there. I had not seen him after I finished Form 6 at MBS Kuala Lumpur, where we had met for the first time in 1970. He was not a medical doctor but had a doctorate in clinical psychology and was a practicing psychoanalyst, the article said. Yes, that was more his style.

The confirmation came in a moving tribute to him written by his daughter. There it was, the date of his birth, August 9, 1952, the same year as me. He would have been 69 if he was alive. He died of Covid-19 complications after being intubated, with his family around him at London’s University College Hospital on February 7, 2021, five months ago.

I know of friends of friends who have died of Covid-19, but this was the first time it involved a friend I knew personally. It came as a bit of a shock, even though it was far away and I had not met or spoken to him for over 50 years. The clutches of Covid-19 were near.

He had given some 40 years of his life to the British health service, as the headline said. He moved to London in 1978. He married a British girl and they had three children.

His daughter wrote in the tribute: “Everyone says this, especially at times like these, but my dad really was the most generous, loving, and gentle man you’d ever meet. He was the best dad that Rory and I (and Scruff!) could have had and the best husband to my mum: deeply caring with a mischievous, playful sense of humour that Rory and I have both inherited. He was open-minded and he gave us the ability to see love in small kindnesses…”

Yes, that was him – gentle, soft-spoken, idealistic, politically aware, caring, intelligent, sensitive, kind, and a wicked (I mean that kindly) turn of phrase and sense of humour. I really would have loved to get in touch with him again.

Life is very fragile in the best of times, but more so in these times of Covid-19 – truly here today, gone tomorrow. I don’t know if my friend took the vaccine or not, but I trust that as a man of science, he would have. That he would have taken the vaccine and still died is not a statement on vaccine efficacy – that’s chance.

In life as in death he was an outlier, a good one in life, for he was a rare breed of person who truly did not believe in power or money and eschewed both in favour of a good life. In death he was unfortunate to have died of Covid-19, an outlier because if he took the vaccine the chances were tiny, less than 1% of those vaccinated, who became seriously ill and even less for those who died.

For those of you who have not taken the vaccines yet, I implore you, please do so and very significantly increase your chances of survival. I would still like to raise a few more glasses of red wine with some of you before we all cross over to the next unknown world.

For all of us, especially the older ones among us, Covid-19 is taking some of us away more quickly than we would otherwise go. Perhaps it is time for us to make that connection again before it is too late to renew it. I know I will, now.

It’s ironic that we have to wait for Covid-19 to retreat before we do that, but next time, if there is time for a next time, we will know better, won’t we? – The Vibes, August 10, 2021

In memory of Zahari Awang Ngah, who passed away in London in February this year of Covid-19