14th February 2007 and I was in the grand surroundings of a stately home somewhere in the outskirts of tucked away among clusters of quaint English villages along the M25. It is a grand imposing building built in 1883 and had survived the war. It's beautifully decorated walls have been witnesses to so many interesting happenings but that day I left with one story that made my day. London
We were in the opulent surrounding of a room specially built for Queen
. The ceiling, I was told, was painted with real gold paint. It has an Oriental feel because Queen Victoria liked it but sadly never visited it. But that day in that room I met a couple with a precious story to share with me. Victoria
For all of his seventy odd years or so, he was still the perfect officer and a gentleman. She was slightly built, dressed in a suit befitting an officer's wife. Her Oriental genes saw to it that she didn't look her age although she admitted she is a few years older than him.
They met while he was serving out there in
Malaya and the nineteen year old lad from Berkshire fell hopelessly in love with the Chinese lass serving him from behind the counter. A whirlwind romance in turbulent times but they decided to get married in . She packed her belongings, said farewell to her only aunt and boarded the ship bound for the London Docks. England
There must have been many anxious moments as the ship sailed in sometimes turbulent waters matching her anxiety; the prospect of a new life in a foreign land, the thoughts of meeting her in-laws-to-be for the first time and all sorts of other 'what ifs' that intruded her thoughts during the long lonely nights in her cabin. During the day, it wasn't too bad as there were many other Chinese passengers she had befriended during the voyage.
He, in the meantime, had flown back to await the arrival of his bride-to- be from the East.
As she stepped out on to the gangway after the ship had docked, an officer in a bluish uniform rushed forward and swept her off her feet and began kissing her, ignoring her protests. Her Chinese companions too had protested, hitting him and telling him that that wasn't the 'done' thing! When he finally put her down, she breathlessly asked him who he was, as she didn't recognise him at all in this new surroundings.
The plans to get married didn't go as smoothly as the voyage; there was still much resistance from in-laws who didn't think marriage to a foreigner from out there would last.
"Today, on Valentine's Day," he said as he toasted his drink to his smiling wife, "we have proved them wrong. We are still married after more than 50 years and we have grand children. And she is still as lovely as ever," at which point I shamelessly let out a loud sob!
Last night, we were back at our weekly tazkirah and I was feeling a tad melancholic. Most of the surau mates are oldies like us; familiar faces at terawikhs, tahlils and religious discussions. There were many new comers and many young faces; students who wouldn’t miss the weekly gathering to hear the wise words of our young ustaz.
Last night, I felt almost like an invisible observer watching the goings on in that small room. I watched a friend chatting with my husband. And suddenly his head tilted a little to the direction of a familiar cheerful voice. His wife had entered the room, having arrived early from her work place to join us. During the previous weeks, this being winter, she could only make it to the gathering when we were done with our Isya prayers, and she was only in time to gently guide her husband up the stairs and across the road to their car. She has been his trusted pair of eyes during these last few years since his eyesight began to deteriorate. She edits his writings for he is a fervent and prolific writer. And that made me think, how much more we depend on each other during these autumn years. How much more we feel the need to be each other’s eyes and ears, to share more than just the odd pair of reading glasses .
So, we can only offer our syukur to Allah for blessing us with our companions. Some, like one other surau mateI have known all my life here, managed only a few years together before her husband was taken away after a sudden illness. Her picture of her young self in kebaya and kain ketat remains on her shelf next to one of her and her beloved. She accompanied him here as he needed to finish his studies. But his illness took him away. To this day, she could not face the reality of leaving the land where he is buried. Going home for good, would be like abandoning him. So, to this day she devotedly tends to his grave, pulling out the weeds and making sure it is clean. She once spoke to me about returning home for good, but I doubt it. Her love for the one who left her some twenty odd years ago, is still intact and strong. She will stay on to be with him.
Two weeks ago, she told me, she didn't even have the chance to reply him, when he uttered his final 'I love you' .