Abu, Guardian of Oxford Castle.

I took a picture of this cat as it was wandering around near the Mound the other day. A lady was sitting in the sun near where I stood. I asked if the cat was hers, she nodded, and told me his name was Abu (like the character in Aladdin).

The Mound is a small hill located next to Oxford Castle. I quickly looked up Oxford Castle on Wikipedia and discovered that according to the Historia Ecclesie Abbendonensis (Abingdon Chronicle), the Castle was built from 1071-1073 by the Norman baron Robert D’Oyly. My mind is fascinated with the idea that a thousand years ago, some guy chose this very site to build a moated, wooden motte-and-bailey castle. What must it have been like?

From the Oxford Castle & Prison website:

When William the Conqueror invaded England and won the Battle of Hastings in 1066, Oxford Castle was marked by the Normans as the ideal place for a motte-and-bailey castle. Norman baron Robert O’Doyly took it upon himself to build this castle. Over time, our site transformed from a castle into a prison. Today, after one millennia, Oxford Castle & Prison is a visitor attraction with a story to tell.

I’ve been in Oxford since April 2019 but have never actually visited the Castle proper. It is now closed due to the virus-that-shall-not-be-named but once it’s open, I’ll definitely bring my family along to visit this thousand-year historical site.

Family Game Night #1

I am pretty much hopeless at any game with fast-paced action; when it comes to reaction times, mine are only marginally faster than those of an Aplysia californica. That’s why I tend to gravitate towards card games (like Magic: The Gathering) as well as board games.

Recently, I bought a board game called Dungeon! in an effort to convince my kids that tabletop gaming is a worthwhile alternative to Minecraft or Fortnite. I’ve been toying with the idea of having regular family game nights on weekends. This way we get to spend time doing something fun together, instead of the more common situation nowadays where every member of the family is staring at a small screen, lost in their own virtual world.

Battle Report

Party composition:

Dad: Rogue (Halfling)
M1: Fighter (Human)
M2: Fighter (Human)
M3: Wizard (Elf)

Being a puny halfling rogue, I mostly stuck to fighting low level monsters like orcs and dire rats, leaving my 4 year-old son (M3) to take care of tougher monsters like giants and dragons. That in turn gave my daughter and elder son (M1 and M2) the freedom to smash their way through the rest of the dungeon.

We decided not to be too strict about the rules, letting M3 role the dice multiple times in order to defeat the monsters. After all, what matters is that you’re having fun while playing, and I think M3 certainly enjoyed incinerating monsters with his fireballs and lightning bolts.

Winner: M3
Game duration: 45 minutes

Farewell Old Friend

At 8.11 pm Malaysian time on Tuesday the 16th of February 2021, my friend and brother, Mohd Zulfadhli Faiq bin Baharuddin, passed away.

Zulfadhli (nickname: Butcher, ‘nombor dobi‘: B38, Sulaiman House) was my dorm mate in Form 1 in MCKK. He died a month short of his 37th birthday.

I was working on some MRI analysis scripts when I read the news in our batch’s WhatsApp group. Disbelief turned to shock, then grief, as more messages started pouring in. Even now, a few hours later, I am still trying to gather my thoughts. Because of the pandemic, the hospital has to wait until his COVID-19 test results are out before they can release his body. The doctor in me understands and accepts this, but still I rage quietly at this indignity. There’s nothing I can do about it though, so I turn to the next best thing.

I write.

My mind wanders back in time to 1997, to our first few weeks at the Prep School. I don’t remember how he got the nickname Butcher, nor do I recall why. Perhaps it was because of his size? Butcher’s always been on the large side, even though in recent years he had slimmed down considerably. All of us thought he had gone on a diet or something; God knows how wrong we were.

Despite his size, or perhaps because of it, Butcher tended to keep things to himself. He was mild-mannered; I struggle to recall any instance of him getting angry at someone else.

What I do recall was his undeniable sporting prowess. Butcher was a natural athlete, excelling in multiple sports to the extent that he was awarded Best Sportsman during our Form 1-Form 2 Carnival in 1997. As a rugby player, he was almost ‘untackleable’. He played ‘sepak takraw‘ very well, on top of football, table tennis, and volleyball. Without him, Sulaiman House would’ve languished in 4th place forever; with Butcher around, at least we had a small chance of getting 3rd place on Sports Day!

He was ever willing to lend a helping hand, offering his services as a masseur at the Prep School to friends who had injured themselves while playing sports. Knowing him, the fact that he could skip evening prep (or ‘prep malam‘ as we called it back then) was a bonus. The only thing you had to make sure was not to block his access to the cool air from the ceiling fan. Indeed, one of my batch’s popular sayings is “Butcher dan aircond/kipas berpisah tiada” i.e. you can’t separate Butcher from his place under the aircond/fan.

If you’ve ever been to a boarding school in Malaysia, you will know that every now and then, schools go through a period of mass hysteria, when students claim to experience all sorts of supernatural phenomena (see, for example, this BBC article). How is this relevant here? Well, it was during one such episode when some random person (I don’t remember who) claimed to have seen Butcher fly, or to be more precise, float a few inches off the ground. How’s that for a party trick? I even wrote about the incident years ago for our batch website (which I think still exists somewhere on the Internet).

I’m preparing this blog post just a few hours after attending a virtual ‘tahlil‘ session on Zoom with my batchmates. Many of us are in tears, myself included.

He is the first of us to go. Reminder to self: eventually, all of us will follow.

I can’t help but ask myself: how come I didn’t know about this earlier? Judging from what a few other people said during the ‘tahlil‘, I got the impression that most of us were caught by surprise. Did we fail our brother, thinking that he had lost weight because he was getting fitter, when in reality his health was slowly failing? Wallahu a’lam…Allah SWT knows best.

But then I look back at how Butcher had always conducted himself, and I wonder if this was what he had always wanted. Reserved to the point of being shy, maybe this was the way he wanted to be remembered. Not as a sick person, but as a natural athlete, a good friend, and an extremely likeable person.

Fighting back tears, I scroll back to the picture at the top of this post; there he was, wearing the traditional black ‘baju Melayu‘ reserved for MCKK cheerleaders during important sporting events, leading all of us, his friends and brothers, in a rousing rendition of the victory anthem ‘Gemilang’.

Such a perfect photo of our dear friend, if ever there was any!

“Ya Allah, ampunilah dosa sahabat kami Mohd Zulfadhli Faiq bin Baharuddin. Terimalah segala amalannya, berilah rahmatMu kepadanya, dan tempatkanlah beliau di kalangan orang-orang yang soleh.”

Damailah dirimu di sana wahai sahabat…

Innalillahi wa inna ilaihiraaji’uun.


Conversations #1

For all its downsides, the pandemic has given many of us a chance to spend more time with our families. In the monotony of our present lives, it is easy to lose track of the passage of time. But time marches on regardless. One moment, you’re cradling your newborn son in a warm blanket, and before you know it, he’s telling you all his friends’ names at school (Ronny, Ion, Shala, Reyhan, and Kitty…in that order).

I whispered to my son last night, just as he was about to go to sleep:

“Don’t grow up too fast, M.”

He thought about it for a few seconds, perhaps wondering why I didn’t want him to grow up so quickly.

“But if I drink more milk, soon I’ll be four years old right? Then five, six, and seven years old!” came the enthusiastic reply.

“Sure buddy,” I said, wiping a tear from my eye.