Kevin and Suzanne Jones were enjoying a breakfast of bacon and eggs when another married couple asked if they could share the table. "Don't worry, we will be quiet," said the woman who had appeared, a sprightly 82-year-old Scot with a gentle voice.
Her name, it turned out, was Ann McLauchlan. Kevin and Suzanne from Ammanford introduced themselves to Ann and her husband Alistair with exactly the kind of small talk you might expect between strangers on a cruise. The '80s-themed holiday, which had begun two days earlier, featured entertainment from the likes of Spandau Ballet singer Tony Hadley, and was by this point somewhere near Lisbon in Portugal.
The couples exchanged questions like: "Is this your first cruise?" They spoke about their previous travels. Kevin, 58, mentioned that he had spent part of his childhood in Malaysia and that his father had died there.
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"Ann and Alistair then told us they too had lived in Malaysia when Alistair was head of a rubber plantation company," Kevin recalled. "I said I remembered a rubber plantation behind where we lived. We lived in a town called Kluang. They looked astonished as that was where they had lived."
Kevin went on to say that his father Alan was buried in a small military cemetery in the town. As he explained how Alan had died, he noticed Ann's face going white. Tears flowed from her eyes as she told Kevin she was the first person on the scene of his father's death.
Their conversation in March this year was rooted in an event more than 50 years earlier. Alan, who served in the British Army's Royal Signals unit, hailed from Swansea but was posted to Malaysia in around 1965, bringing his wife Carol and their young children Kevin, Karen and Stephen with him. The country (when it was known as Malaya) had become independent from Britain in 1957 but the British Army had retained a presence.
Although Kevin remembers little of his time in Kluang, he has fragmented but warm memories of family walks in the countryside with nets to catch butterflies, which his father collected.
In 1967 both three-year-old Kevin and two-year-old Stephen fell ill with gastroenteritis. "Apparently for a couple of weeks we were both slouched on the settee," said Kevin. "I started showing signs of improvement but my brother just didn't."
The illness claimed Stephen's life and around eight months later tragedy struck again. Alan had spent a couple of weeks on an exercise in another part of Malaysia. The 25-year-old was due to return to Kluang by overnight train but in a late change of plan he jumped into a truck of troops heading for the town. On its way the vehicle crashed and Alan fell out of the back, suffering a fatal head injury.
Only two months earlier Alan had become a father for the fourth time, to a girl called Julie. Carol, who was just 24, brought the family home to Wales shortly after her husband's death.
Kevin knew little of the dad he lost at the age of four. "I grew up without anyone in the family talking about him," he said. "I think it was a generation that didn't really talk about things [like loss], so I didn't know much about his character."
This did not stop Kevin dreaming of following his father into the army. In his role with the Royal Signals, Alan had needed technical skills like laying cables — and Kevin believes he inherited similar traits which helped him join the Royal Engineers aged 18 and serve for 22 years as an electronics technician on tours around the world.
'A coincidence like no other'
It was a Wales on Sunday newspaper advert that drew Kevin to the cruise around Spain and Portugal which would unexpectedly bring him a sense of closure. He remembers becoming emotional during that extraordinary breakfast conversation with Ann. "It still hits us now, the shock of it. It is not even a one in a billion chance."
As a young nurse in Kluang, Ann had been called to the scene of the crash but Alan's head injury was too severe for treatment. She told Kevin details he had never known, including that the army truck had collided with a timber lorry and that another soldier had died in the accident.
"She said she had thought about the situation all her life," said Kevin. "When she was at the scene she had thought, 'This young man must have a young family.' She had always wanted to speak to our family, but the military wouldn't tell her anything.
"We were all lost for words. This happened 54 years ago on the other side of the world and we had this chance meeting. We all hugged and cried a bit."
Kevin immediately felt a special connection with Ann. He and Suzanne recently visited her and Alistair at their home in Bury St Edmunds, where they shared a Malaysian curry. In another strange coincidence Ann's grandson had recently needed to use a dialysis machine made by Fresenius, the company where Kevin has worked as a medical engineer since retiring from the army.
"It feels almost like I've known Ann for 54 years," said Kevin. "Whereas I grew up not talking about my father, I've now found myself able to talk about the situation. It is a sense of relief.
"Ann said it was the same for her. She's a fantastic lady, full of love, and just talking to her it almost like we've been family all this time. It is a relief to me that my father would have had someone tending to him with that love and affection."
Ann told WalesOnline she treated other casualties from crashes in Malaysia, but Alan's death has always stayed with her. When she realised she was talking to his son, she felt the hair stand up on the back of her neck.
"It was quite incredible, a coincidence like no other," she said. "They're going to come and visit us again.
"I'm just glad to have given Kevin the information I could. It made me feel better for him. We felt like family."
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