Thursday, 9 March 2017
Over the years as a freelance trainer I have taught English to perhaps a few thousand people. Now, this is the person who taught me English - Mrs Mary Shanti Dairiam. She is one of the people who has made all this possible.
Apart from having been my English teacher, she is also one of the nicest people anyone could ever have the privilege of knowing. The thing about Mrs Dariam is that she didn't just teach me English - she also taught me what life was about.
Thank you, Mrs Dairiam.
Sunday, 5 March 2017
Nobody is ever prepared for that inevitable moment when the end comes. Though we might have seen it coming for quite some time, when the end actually embraces us in its trembling embrace, the moment is never what we thought it would be. I just never thought this would apply to the closing of a hotel.
In the past seven years or so, I’ve been doing a lot of work for a client in Pasir Gudang, Johor. Almost invariably, the client would put me up at the Selesa Hotel. For the past twenty years or so the Selesa has been Pasir Gudang’s premier hotel. In fact, it is the only decent hotel that serves the Pasir Gudang area. Come 15 March 2017 it will be closing its doors to the public for good.
As I am unfamiliar with the star-rating system for hotels, I have no idea how many stars I would give the Selesa. Let’s just say the Selesa occupies a space somewhere between The Sheraton Imperial (where the bath towel is even more expensive than my weekend sports watch) and the no-frills hotels that bear two-syllable Chinese names we usually find in smaller towns (where the thinning bath towels are so tiny that I can hardly wrap them around my waist).
I have met many who have stayed at the Selesa. More often than not, the general consensus is that it hardly lives up to its name. I suppose in its early days the Selesa might have been a nice place to stay (one of my childhood friends was even the General Manager once). But I suppose financial difficulties, challenging maintenance issues and poor design finally took its toll. Once in a while, much to my consternation, I have found the occasional cockroach crawling up my headboard and a toilet or two that just refused to flush properly no matter what I did. However, to the Management’s credit, a maintenance guy would always come along within in a few minutes to fix the problem. Still, in the case of a non-flushing toilet, embarrassment was always part of the deal.
Despite all this, I have grown very fond of the hotel. Yes, hospitality professionals are trained to serve you well. But my experience tells me that things at the Selesa were something else - for me, at least. At the standard 5-star hotel, for instance, I could never shake the feeling that the polish and smiles of the staff were just their training kicking in. At the Selesa, however, I have never needed any vigorous convincing to believe that the staff treated me more like a friend than just another guest. Of course, having had more than 600 room-nights over the past seven years at the hotel has had something to do with this.
Yes, there have been cockroaches. Yes, there have been toilets that wouldn’t flush. Yes, there have been occasions when the lifts would fail (sometimes with me in it). But their coffee house still serves the best mee goreng mamak in the country – even better than the one at the mamak stall in Kampung Jawa, Melaka. And while everybody else gets two sachets of Nescafe for their room every day, I get four. Oh, and there’s also that bit about me getting only the biggest, cleanest, and fluffiest bath towels whenever I stayed at the hotel.
I’m not saying that the Selesa has the mystique and history of the former Majestic Kuala Lumpur, the former Station Hotel of Ipoh or the former E&O Hotel of Penang. Anyone with an IQ above 50 would be able to tell the difference between these hotels and the Selesa. What I’m saying is that over the years I have developed a soft spot for the hotel.
Let’s say money was not an issue and the Raffles were to open right next to the Selesa, would I still choose to stay at the Selesa? I would still choose the Selesa in a heartbeat. Of course, this is all academic now. Come 15 March, the Selesa will be no more.
And when I checked-out of the Selesa for the last time yesterday, the staff and I parted ways with hugs instead of handshakes. No, there were no tears. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.
Saturday, 12 September 2015
Let’s face it. Realistically, some things we can never have – at least, not in this lifetime. Yes, positive thinking is powerful stuff. But even positive thinking has its limits.
Take the Rolex Milsub (reference numbers 5513 and 5517), for example. To say the Milsub is a nice watch is not much different from saying that Angelina Jolie is only a so-so girl. No one ought to be able to say things like that and not deserve to die by the delivery of a well-timed Steven Seagal iriminage to the throat. Yes, Milsubs (military Submariner) are unbelievably beautiful watches.
But there’s more to the Milsub than just a pretty face, though. For instance, let’s look at the 5513 (the rarer of the two) which made its debut in 1976. Though both the 5513 and the 5517 were made exclusively for the British Royal Navy, only 1,200 units of the 5513 were ever produced. On top of all that, if one ever surfaced for sale on the market today, the asking price would be a mind-blowing, dream-crushing, ego-destroying USD150,000 - or more.
|The Rolex Milsub (Military Submariner)|
Now, what’s the likelihood of someone like me finding USD150,000 lying idle around the house in this lifetime? To anyone who thinks this is a realistic possibility, please search Youtube to see what a Steven Seagal iriminage looks like. Now, ponder effect of this technique being applied on you.
But let’s say – for argument’s sake – that by some miracle I do find USD150,000 lying idly about. Would I blow it all on a Rolex Milsub? I suppose I could. But then again, I’d probably be immediately struck down by lightning for committing such an obscene extravagance. What good would the Milsub be to me then?
This is where homage watches come in. Homage watches are watches that are created as a tribute to the original. They stay as true to the spirit of the original as religiously as possible, but at the same time making it a point to retain an identity all their own.
At this point you might be asking, just how is that different from a fake/counterfeit/knock-off watch? Personally, I think it all boils down to intent. The homage watch doesn’t seek to fool anybody into thinking it’s the real thing. Its intent is solely to be a tribute to the original. The fake, on the other hand, goes all out from the get-go to make anyone and everyone believe that it is the real thing. Thus, in my books, homage watches are fine. Fake watches, on the other hand, are the horologic equivalents of silicone boobs: nice to see and (probably) hold, but after the novelty wears off, nobody ever really wants them anymore.
This brings us to a German company that produces Swiss made watches: Steinhart. Steinhart has made a niche for itself by creating homages to some of the most iconic watches in the world. In our case, the Steinhart Ocean Vintage Military Version 2 (OVM2) is a homage to the mind-blowing, dream-crushing and ego-destroying USD150,000 Rolex Milsub (specifically, the 5517 version).
The Steinhart OVM2 stays true to the spirit of the Rolex 5517 Milsub – right down to slightly domed sapphire crystal, the radium-coloured lume and minute-markers that go all the way around the rotating bezel. However, it departs from the original in that it proudly (and unmistakably) presents the Steinhart logo just below the watch’s 12 o’clock index marker. The Steinhart also sports a more modern 42mm case diameter as opposed to the 40mm of the Milsub. Finally, the Steinhart OVM2 has removable lug-pins rather that the fixed ones as found on the Milsub.
|The Steinhart OVM 2|
Naturally, the Steinhart OVM is powered by a more modern movement: the ETA2824-2. One feature of this movement is that it allows for hand-winding. This is a major nostalgic plus for me as it harks back to the days when I used to watch my grandfather wind his Rolex Oysterdate every morning. The ETA 2824-2 movement is also hackable. This means that when we adjust the time, the seconds hand stops. This allows us to synchronise the time with other watches much more easily. For a borderline OCD like me, this is a Godsend.
|Close up of the OVM 2|
In the end, the Steinhart OVM2 is NOT the Rolex Milsub. Personally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong in that. The trouble begins when we start thinking (and start wanting others to also think) that the OVM is actually a Milsub. That’s when all sorts of bad things happen. Getting the OVM2 is like finally finding a girl who is just like the girl we’ve always wanted – the one we’ve been pining for all our lives, but who has always been, and will always be out of reach. As long as we know (and accept) they are not the same people, we’re going to do just fine.
Once again, the OVM is NOT the Milsub. The aesthetic cues and (more importantly) the spirit of the OVM2 may point to the Milsub. But they are still different watches. The OVM2 is a homage to the Milsub; it does not pretend to be the Milsub.
It is what it is.
At a mere 0.29% of the price of a Milsub, the OVM2 is looking like a pretty good proposition to me. Even so, I accept that not everybody will see it this way – especially not those with USD150,000 to spend on a watch.
Wednesday, 9 September 2015
It’s probably safe to say that four out of five wristwatch owners are missing out on the joys of owing a watch. Here, I would like to share some insights into the simple pleasures of owning a watch (or watches). It doesn’t matter if you own a RM15 Mickey Mouse watch that you bought from a kiosk at the local shopping mall or a RM150K two tone vintage gold Rolex that you inherited from a rich uncle. At some level, the pleasure (believe it or not) is going to be just about the same.
In this post, I’ll start with something horologists call movement (also known as calibre). To most of us, this what we would normally call the engine of the watch – the mechanism that makes it tick. I’ll be discussing the main types of movements and what they have to offer. Hopefully, this will help you appreciate your watch a bit better and enjoy the watch even more. Who knows? This might even help you make a more informed decision for when you buy your next watch. At the very least, with this information you might just be able to surprise your watch aficionado friends the next time the subject of watches crops up.
I’ll start with the more popular (as in ubiquitous) movement. Known as quartz movements, these probably accounts for over 90% of watches out there. In quartz watches, a battery of some sort is always involved. The battery powers the watch and helps the quartz regulate the accuracy of movement.
It all began when Seiko began making the first commercially viable quartz watches back in the early 70s. The Quartz Revolution (as it is called), took the world by storm and almost killed off the mechanical watch industry. Quartz movements are popular because they are cheap, accurate, and reliable. For example, a bog standard quartz watch might gain or lose maybe 20 seconds in an entire month. A reasonably good mechanical movement, on the other hand, might gain or lose that same amount of time in a single day. On top of that, a quartz watch will most likely cost only a fraction of the price of a mechanical watch.
Switzerland, Japan and China are the biggest makers of quartz movements. They produce these by the millions and supply them to watch companies the world over. As you might expect, watches powered by a Swiss movement will usually cost more than one powered by a Japanese quartz movement. Notable quartz movements are Ronda, ESA (both Swiss) and Miyota (Japan). The RM15 Mickey Mouse watch is probably going to be powered by a no-name Chinese movement. However, China-made quartz movements are currently making tremendous inroads into the entry-level and lower mid-tier quartz watch categories.
Next, we’ll talk about mechanical movements. This is the historical and traditional way of making watches. A mechanical movement relies on energy supplied by winding a spring to power the watch. No batteries are involved. If you lay down all the parts of a mechanical movement on a table, they do absolutely nothing on their own. However, when assembled by a skilled craftsman, these parts magically come to life and move the hands of a watch with the precision the required in time-keeping. Mechanical movements will always involve the skill and experience of a craftsman. It is a science as well as an art. It always has been, it always will be. This is why watch collectors, enthusiasts and obsessives will almost always prefer a mechanical watch.
When discussing mechanical movements, there are two types we need to be to be aware of: the automatic and hand-winding. The automatic is one that harnesses the movement of your arm to power the watch. As long as the watch is in a state of motion, you are in effect, ‘charging’ the watch. This is why some call this a perpetual movement. However, leave it motionless on your desk for a few days and the watch will stop ticking. To start it again, just give the watch a few gentle shakes and it will come back to life.
By far, the most popular maker of automatic movements is ETA (owned by the Swatch group). ETA movements and modified ETA movements can be found in almost all Swiss brands. The Seiko-Epson group also produces movements that it supplies to other watch companies (for example to Tag Heuer). While still a relatively unknown, China-made mechanical movements (e.g. Tianjin Seagull) are also finding their way into some watch brands.
The thing about mechanical watches is that not all watch companies (and this is where it gets interesting) use movements mass produced by the likes of ETA or Seiko-Epson to power their watches. Some companies produce their own movements in-house. Frederique Constant and Orient are examples of watch-makers that offer in-house movements.
The hand-winding movement, on the other hand, requires energy supplied by hand-winding the crown to power the watch. Forget to wind-up the watch and you might find that it will stop ticking in the middle of your business day. Chances are these were the kind of watches our grandfathers had. I still have fond memories of my grandfather hand-winding his Rolex every morning. Today, the hand-winding movement (for some reason) is found only in higher-end modern mechanical watches. Of course, you will also find hand-winding movement in vintage (pre-1971) watches, but let’s not go there for now.
Knowing the various movements available allows us to appreciate our watches more. It also gives us an opportunity to make better informed choices in the future: making choices that go beyond the mere aesthetic appeal of a watch.
Do you prefer the clinical accuracy of a quartz watch? Yes, they are cheaper and more robust. But after 15 years or so, it’s likely you’re going to have to junk it: repairing it will cost more than buying a new one.
Or do you prefer the artistry, craftsmanship and romance behind a mechanical watch? Yes, they require a bit more maintenance and cost a bit more. But they also tend to last forever (when maintained well) and can be heirloom pieces to be enjoyed through generations.
In the end, the decision will largely depend on the kind of person you are and what you want in life. Quartz or mechanical? It doesn’t really matter. What does matter is that your choice in something as personal as a wristwatch ought to be as close an approximation as possible to who you are as a person.
This matters because the watch does not make the person; the person makes the watch.
Wednesday, 27 May 2015
STOP KILLING STREET PHOTOGRAPHY
Show me an enthusiast and I’ll show you an opinionated person. That’s the nature of an enthusiast. It doesn’t matter what their chosen field of endeavour might be. It doesn’t matter if they are guitar players, bicyclists, coffee lovers, cupcake makers, card-carrying party member or whatever. Enthusiasts will have strong opinions. Photographers, too, are no exception to the rule. However, before you start vigorously swinging your tripods and chasing me on the streets with the intent of doing me grievous bodily harm, let me first say that being opinionated is not necessarily a bad thing. It might be annoying, but it isn’t necessarily bad.
Here, I’ll be talking about a wildly popular genre of photography: street photography. I will try to explain what the experts think it is, why it’s so popular and how street photography might end-up killing itself. This is relevant simply because it will hopefully help us became better (street) photographers.
First let’s look at demographics. Easily sixty per cent of Malaysians live in urban and suburban areas. So, statistically speaking, if you happen to be a photography enthusiast there is a three in five chance you’d be an urban-dweller. As such, what would be the natural environment for your photographic pursuits? Yup, it would be the city streets simply because it will more convenient to you. Thus, it is likely that sixty per cent of photographers will turn out to be street photographers. There is nothing wrong with this. It’s just demographics.
Now let’s look at what the experts think street photography might be. To paraphrase the experts, street photography is any photograph taken in a public place that captures people in candid situations. So far, so good. But that’s only a starting point – a working definition.
Over the years, many have added to this. For example, street photography means never shooting the subject from the back. Street photography isn’t about shooting homeless people. Street photography is about using only natural light. Real street photographers never post-process their images. Real street photographers shoot only in black-and-white. The list goes on blah, blah, blah…
Now here comes the spanner in the works. For every single rule in street photography, there will be one that advocates its diametric opposite. It is OK to shoot the subject’s back if it conveys the desired effect. It’s OK to shoot homeless people if done tastefully. It is OK to shoot in colour because Vivian Maier also occasionally shoots in colours. It is OK not to have people in the photo of it strongly depicts the spirit of the streets. The list goes on. For every rule there is always a counter-rule. The only one remaining common ground seems to be that the photo must be taken in a public place. Then again, we don’t know how long this rule will survive.
The problem here becomes, if we take into consideration all of street photography’s rules and counter-rules, the genre becomes so nebulous that the genre ends up becoming meaningless. In theory, at least, a nude portrait (obviously posed, not candid) shot in a secluded part of the Lake gardens using a barrage of remotely triggered strobes and then extensively photoshopped to include a few Star Wars storm-troopers might just qualify as street photography. Obviously, this is a ridiculous outcome. However, it is still street photography because it has taken into account all the rules and counter-rules.
The ‘No rule is the rule’ maxim might work for Bruce Lee’s Jeet Kune Do, but for street photography, a free-for-all, no-holds-barred melee will take it back full circle to plain old photography. The ‘I-will-shoot-whatever-I-want-in any-manner-I-want-as-long-as-it-is-in-a-public-place’ school of thought might be seductive, but it should not legitimately be called street photography. Not too long ago it was simply called photography. This is why the ‘street-photography-is-whatever-I-choose-it-to be’ philosophy will be the genre’s own undoing. This anything-goes mindset will eventually obliterate the genre’s credibility. It will be shame because street photography is such a vibrant and exciting genre.
Where to now? Personally, I think it all boils down to discipline. Yes, the anything-goes approach is seductive. But so are designer drugs, mindless spending and free sex. The way to go is perhaps to choose three or four established rules of street photography and stick to that until we’ve built a substantive body of work that feature those rules. After that, move on to other rules, maybe incorporate a counter rule or two and then build another body of work based on that. By doing this we will establish credibility for the genre, and at the same time turn it into a credible discipline – the art form that street photography deserves to be. Who knows? This might even turn street photography into a paying proposition.
I know, rules suck. However, I think we’ve established that having no rules suck even worse.
If you still want to take a swing at me with your tripod, I can usually be found shooting outside my home in Umbai, Melaka with my trusty Fuji X100.
Monday, 11 May 2015
People Will Change; Things will End
People fall in love all the time. That’s not going to change anytime soon. Another thing that doesn’t change is when people do fall in love, they tend to think (or hope) that it will last forever. Let’s think about this for a moment. Forever? Really? I mean, what are the odds of that translating itself into reality?
Are we the same person we were a year ago? Heck, are we even the same person we were thirty days ago? If we were brutally honest with ourselves, we’d know that we’ve changed in some way. These changes might be superficial, or they might even be ones that are more fundamental in nature. Regardless, change has taken place. What’s more, change will continue to happen.
It gets even scarier. If we are changing all the time, it stands to reason that our partners are also constantly changing, too. Think about that for a minute. With the passing of every minute both sides of the equation are changing. It follows that in this corner of the space-time continuum we are occupying at the moment, neither we nor our partners are the same people anymore. He is no longer the person she fell in love with - and neither is she. Seen from this perspective it is much easier to understand why couples so often moan and ask the question, “Where has the love gone?” The sad fact is they have both become different people – most of the time, through no fault of their own.
Sometimes the changes the partners undergo are small and don’t really impact the relationship. These are the lucky few. Luckier even are those that experience changes that actually bring them closer. The question now becomes, are we one of the lucky few who fall into either one of these categories? Do we seriously entertain the idea that we are one of these lucky sods? I mean, seriously, what are the odds? What make us so special?
The ‘this-love-will-last-forever’ proposition doesn’t look very realistic anymore does it?
The stink is - for most people - the changes they go through, more likely than not, will drive them apart. As people change - often in ways that are more than just superficial - their relationship will, at some point, come to an end. Whether we want it to or not is pretty much immaterial. It is just a question of when and how. Fact is, everything ends. Let’s face it, if it lives, it will someday die; if it exists, it will someday crumble. This is just the way the universe works – it’s nothing personal.
So, if everybody changes and everything ends, why should we even bother at all? There’s not much point in loving someone, is there? On the flip-side, spending our entire lives trying to find that one true love we deserve is also pretty much a dumbass thing to do, right?
Despite the doom and gloom that the statistics point to, and despite that we will crash and burn at some point, falling in love is the most beautiful thing that can happen to us on this side of paradise. Frankly, nothing comes close.
Yes, the thrill of being the CEO a global company, one that has the power to affect the lives of millions, is pretty heady stuff. Yes, making a breakthrough in quantum physics will win us the Nobel Prize and ensure our place in history. Yes, writing the best novel ever written will carve a place for us in the hearts of millions for generations to come. But how does all this fit into the scheme of things?
As a human beings, chances are all this means precious little as compared to the chance of finding ourselves in love with and being loved back by that special someone. This is the way we are. This is the way we will always be.
Yes, everybody changes. Yes, everything will end. However, this doesn’t mean we should never ever fall in love or that love is an exercise in futility. It just means that we have to understand (and accept) that love can never be a happily-ever-after proposition - regardless of what Hollywood or Bollywood has to say. Understanding and accepting that our time together is shorter than we think will give us the courage and the freedom to love more intensely and more completely than we’ve ever done before. If you think it is a hopeless situation, then I say you don’t deserve to be in love in the first place. After all, love is a zero sum game – it is all or nothing… all or nothing.
The tragedy is not that we have loved so deeply and so truly, but in the end still crashed and burned anyway. The real tragedy is that we never found the courage to love in the first place.
People will change; things will end. So be it.
Wednesday, 6 May 2015
The Blue Bench (Part 4)
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 he 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 was 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 his 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. I 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 we 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 say 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 the 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.