The Blue Bench (Part 4)
By Sofian Boe Abdul Rahman
What? No Tea and Scones?
Embun pulled the curtain aside ever so slightly. She discreetly studied the man who sat at the garden bench of the holiday cottage’s immaculate lawn. He looked to be in his late fifties – maybe two or three years older than her mother.
Dressed only in an olive green tee-shirt and a faded pair of jeans, the man looked conspicuously under-dressed considering the late afternoon chill of Cameron Highlands. He wasn’t especially large, but the years had put on a few obvious inches around his waist. By the way he sat, Embun could tell the man was no slouch. In his younger days he must have been quite athletic – perhaps some sort of boxer or martial artist. Even then, Embun didn’t feel he was a dangerous man. If at all, she felt an inexplicable fondness for the middle-aged man with the ponytail who sat there in the lawn looking like a fresh graduate nervously waiting for his first job interview.
“That’s him, Abang… ” Embun whispered to her husband.
“That’s him. Encik Azhar, you know, Ibu’s boyfriend from her London days.”
Embun’s husband took a closer look at the stranger from behind the slightly parted curtains and remarked, “Hmmm… geriatric men shouldn’t wear ponytails. It makes them look silly. Besides, Ibu never said he was her boyfriend.”
“Don’t be daft, Abang. Have you never seen the look in Ibu’s eyes when she mentions his name?”
“Whatever, dear. But I still think that ponytail makes him look silly. He must be pushing sixty already”
“I think I’ll send over some tea and scones to him while he waits for Ibu.”
“Go ahead, dear. But I think he looks more the teh tarik and roti canai type to me.”
When he noticed Embun, Azhar stood to acknowledge her presence. He looked at her and gave her a smile. His has the gentlest eyes she had ever seen. But they were also the saddest. She could not help but feel that his eyes had once seen the utter beauty of heaven. But she was also certain that they had plumbed the depth of hell for what must have been the longest time. In spite of all that, above all, his eyes had a stillness that somehow made her feel safe – absolutely and unequivocally safe.
“I thought you’d appreciate some tea and scones while you waited for Ibu, Encik Azhar.”
“That would be nice, young lady. Thank you.”
His English accent was unmistakable. Even given his hairstyle of choice and the less than fashionable attire, she felt that there was more to Azhar – much more than he was letting on.
“And, young lady, it would be nice if you didn’t call me Encik. It sounds a tad too formal. It makes me sound like I’m your boss, which I assure you, I most certainly am not.”
She looked him in those gentle eyes and replied, “OK. Should I call you Uncle Azhar instead?”
“That would be very nice”
As she turned to walk away, she heard him speak to her. He could not hide the hesitation in his voice as much as he would have liked to.
“Would… would you care to join me for a spot of tea, young lady?”
She was hoping he’d ask.
“Yes, I think I might just do that… but only if you would stop calling me young lady. Do we have a deal? The name is Embun. Sarah’s one and only daughter“
After a slight pause, Azhar replied, “We have a deal, Embun. And do ask your husband if he’d care to join us, too.”
“Yes. That young man who was checking me out from behind the curtains just now”
Embun felt a blush coming on, but calmly replied, “Nah. He doesn’t like tea and scones. He’s more a teh tarik and roti canai man… “
“Very well, then”
Talking to the man was easy. It was as if they had known each other all their lives, as if he had been there all those years while she was growing up. At first, Embun found it scary that this was so. But she so enjoyed talking to him that her fears melted away with every sentence, with every question they exchanged.
She knew immediately that she liked the man. Strangely, it was almost as if she had liked him even long before they had met. Talking with him was like being in a sweet, soothing dream that shrunk her fears and insecurities into manageable bite-sized pieces of cotton candy. Embun couldn’t remember ever feeling as safe and as accepted as in those minutes that she spent with him.
The dream was shattered when she noticed Azhar stiffen slightly. The cup and saucer trembled in his shaking hands. Without saying a word, Azhar looked over her shoulder towards the main door of the holiday cottage and rose to his feet.
Almost on cue, the door opened. It was Sarah.
The pain that had tormented Azhar since forever seemed to lift and disappear into the clouds above. Embun struggled with a gush of joy she could not explain – a joy that somehow made her feel like a traitor. After all, Azhar could well have been the reason her father left all those years ago.
For the longest time, Sarah and Azhar just stood there looking at each other. It was as if all the years they had been apart was slowly being erased so that they could start all over again. She was still the most beautiful woman in the entire world; he was still her samurai who would gladly lay down his life to make all her dreams come true.
Despite her misgivings, Embun nudged Azhar gently in the ribs with a teaspoon and whispered, “Don’t just stand there, you silly man. Go there and get her.”
Azhar stood so close to Sarah that their lips almost touched. He trembled as he fought the urge to take her into her arms and melt into her body forever. Lost deep within her light brown eyes, Azhar relived every dream, every fantasy he had had of her while they were apart – years of missing her condensed into a few precious seconds. He didn’t care if he never made it back. He was where he belonged. He was finally home.
Sarah touched his cheek with her fingertips. It felt sweeter than a soft evening breeze after the rain.
“How long has it been, sweetheart?” she half whispered to him, her voice so soft that he almost didn’t hear her speak.
Still helplessly lost within her eyes, he replied, “Twenty seven years, three months and…”
“… sixteen days.” continued Sarah.
Sarah took him gently by the elbow and gestured towards the small country lane that ran in front of the cottage. “Let’s go for a walk shall we?” she said.
They walked without saying a word. It wasn’t easy for either of them. After so long apart, it was difficult to find the right things to say; after so long apart, neither wanted to risk destroying the moment by speaking a badly chosen word. They walked on in silence, each step slowly washing away the dreadful past that had kept them apart.
It was not long before they found themselves in a garden close to that rustic steakhouse that had long since become synonymous with Cameron Highlands. It wasn’t exactly England, but it was close enough. Unable to find a bench of any kind, they sat on the grass, shoulder to shoulder, quietly watching the sun slowly disappear behind the distant treeline. The fading sun left the sky awash with glorious splashes of yellows, blues and reds. It was as if the sky was putting on a show just for them. Secretly, both willed for time to stop. After years of suffering the anguish of their separation, life owed them at least that.
After a fashion, talking became much easier. It was almost as easy as it had been before they lost each other. But their conversation was still peppered with stops and starts, with awkward pauses and mumbled words. Just as it was about to get awkward again, Sarah pulled out a package from her satchel. She unwrapped the cheese sandwich and handed it to him.
“Sayang, you remembered”
“Did you think I’d forget?”
Azhar shook his head.
“And I brought coffee, too. It’s just as well. You never could make a decent coffee – even back then” she teased.
With her head gently resting on his shoulder, Sarah asked, “Tell me, sweetheart. Tell me now, tell me while we’re here like this. Was there ever anyone else?”
Azhar felt as if the rest of his life would depend on what he was about to say next. Should he lie?
Could he even think of telling her a story he knew she wouldn’t believe?
He took a deep breath. “Actually, there was this Uzbek girl I once knew while I was on assignment in Tashkent…”
Instead of the anger or tears he expected to find, all he saw was Sarah looking into his eyes and smiling.
“Tell me more, sweetheart. Was she beautiful?” she asked.
“She was absolutely gorgeous…”
“And was she good in bed?”
“She’d put a porn star to shame, I tell you.”
Sarah laughed and smacked him playfully across the chest. “Oh, stop it, sweetheart! You’ve never been any good at lying. There’s never been anyone else, has there?”
Azhar shook his head. “How could there ever be?”
Sarah brushed a stray strand for hair from his forehead. At the very last second, she held back the kiss she so desperately wanted to give him. They were in Malaysia now; they were no longer on that blue bench in Regent’s Park.
“Sayang, while we’re on this road… what ever happened to Embun’s father?”
“You mean my ex-husband?”
Azhar stroked her hair and waited for her story.
“Well, there’s not much to it. He upped and left not too long after Embun was conceived. Haven’t heard from him since”
“Not even to visit Embun?”
“Don’t be. Better this way, I guess”
After a fashion, Azhar could no longer hold back what he wanted to say to her.
“Sayang, I must tell you I’m a tad disappointed.”
“Disappointed that I now have wrinkles all over my face and that my breasts have gone all droopy?”
“Don’t be silly, sayang. I’m a bit disappointed that you named your daughter Embun. Don’t you remember our promise?”
“Oh, that promise…”
“Yes, sayang. Didn’t we make a promise that if we ever had a daughter together that we’d name her Embun?”
Sarah cupped his face in her hands and wondered if he was ready. She decided that the time had come. She had waited twenty six years for this moment.
“And I have kept that promise, my darling…”
It took a while before he finally understood what she was trying to tell him. Even then, he had to be sure.
“Yes, darling. She is. God! Didn’t you have a good look at her?”
Azhar drew her close and held her as if he’d never let her go. Neither noticed the tears as they rocked slowly in each other’s arms for what seemed like forever.
Sarah and Azhar sat close to each other and watched the light disappear from the sky. When the stars first stars appeared, Sarah spoke, “But she must never know, darling… “
Sarah placed her fingers softly against his lips. “Promise me you’ll never let her know…” she pleaded.
Azhar took her hand in his, kissed her fingertips and replied, “I promise.”
It was dark when they finally made it back to the cottage. In the jealous light of the moon, he kissed her on her forehead. “Keep well, sayang. It’s time for me to go” he said in a voice that was on the verge of breaking.
Sarah didn’t say a word. She nodded once and let go of his hand.
Azhar straddled his ageing Triumph Bonneville and inserted the key into the ignition. He wondered how many more times would he have to leave his sweet, precious Sarah before he would be able to stay forever. Would he ever live to see the day when he would never have to leave her again? As he was about to gun the engine, he felt a light touch on his shoulder.
“Please stay…” said Sarah in a voice that melted Azhar’s heart.
He climbed off his machine, took her hand in his and walked with her to the cottage. After twenty seven years their dreams finally came true.