The slow revolving fan was no match for the stifling Saturday afternoon heat. Beads of sweat fell upon his worn-out shirt, frayed and discoloured long ago from extended use. Shahril, a clerk at the Public Works Department by day, and keroncong bandleader extraordinaire by night, had very specific priorities in life; serviceable apparel, obviously, wasn’t one of them. That he was living in Kampung Baru of the fifties – the enclave of upwardly mobile Malays at the time – had no impact on him whatever. He had a role to play, he had responsibilities; he wasn’t about to let something as mundane as the need for presentable clothes get in the way of his conviction.
Living with his sister and her husband had many advantages. He never had to pay for room and board and there was always food on the table. The couple was one with means and always had the grace never to ask him for anything. After all, his brother-in-law was a Superintendent in the police force and his sister a headmistress – positions that were highly esteemed by the Malay community of the fifties. Nevertheless, Shahril never once took his stay at their home for granted. He always worried about outstaying his welcome. Regardless, all he needed was just another eighteen months.
As he sat in the humid living room, looking out at the newly refurbished Kampung Baru mosque, he heard his sister come into the room. Judging from the sound and rhythm of her footsteps, she was in one of her famous mess-with-me-and-you’ll-die moods. Shahril mentally prepared himself for the worst. This time, he might just have to pack his stuff and leave.
“Shahril, I’d like a word with you!” his sister boomed.
“Yes Kak Sal, is there anything I can do?”
Dressed in her figure hugging kebaya nyonya, Salbiah was a handsome woman -even at age forty two. But that day, her foul mood completely masked her beautifully sculpted face. She sat herself down across from Shahril.
“You have got to stop this madness, Shahril!” she demanded.
Shahril lowered his eyes. He knew exactly what his dear elder sister was talking about.
“Just how long do you intend to keep this up?” she continued.
“Until Mariam graduates, Kak Sal…” he replied.
Shahril had been supporting Mariam ever since she left to further her studies in London two and a half years ago. Every sen he earned, he would put aside so that he could send it to her – lock, stock and barrel – at the beginning of every month. When the money from his job at the Public Works Department proved to be inadequate, he started Orkes Keroncong Rindu Malam and started playing the nightclub circuit in and around Bukit Bintang. That helped a little, but even that was barely enough.
He had stopped taking the bus to work and instead, walked the eight kilometres from Kampung Baru to his office everyday. Similarly, after work, he would return home for a quick meal and a change of clothes only to walk another five kilometres to Bukit Bintang. He would only come home to sleep at about two in the morning and wake up at six to start the process all over again.
“Until Mariam graduates!” Salbiah bellowed, “…and what if she doesn’t come back to you, Shahril? What then?”
“She’ll come back to me, Kak Sal. I know it…”
“Shahril, I don’t want to be the one to burst our bubble, but look at you: You’re already thirty-five for God’s sake! And how old is Mariam? Nineteen? Twenty? Be realistic, man! What are the chances that she’ll be coming back to you?”
“But we made a pact before she left, Kak Sal. She’ll come back to me.” Shahril replied, almost pleading with his sister.
“Shahril, you’re my brother and I love you. I just don’t want you to end up hurt – that’s all” Salbiah explained.
At that moment, Samad the gardener entered the living room, waving an airmail letter. He handed it to Shahril with a knowing smile.
“Is that from Mariam?” Salbiah asked
“Well, aren’t you going to open it?”
“No, Kak Sal. I never read her letters in haste. It wouldn’t be right.”
Salbiah looked at her brother. Something inside her broke free and reminded her of what it was to be in love. Mariam had clearly stolen his heart and it seemed that she had no intention of returning it to him – ever.
Salbiah’s heart softened. She touched her brother lightly on his shoulder. “That’s alright, Shahril. You go do what you have to. We’ll always be here for you. But what are you going to do if she doesn’t come back, Shahril? What guarantee is there that she’ll come back to you?”
“There are no guarantees, Kak Sal. But do I stop loving her just because there aren’t any guarantees?”
“No, Shahril. I guess not…” As Salbiah left the room, she turned and added, “By the way, we’ve bought you some new clothes and a new pair of shoes. You’ll find them in your room, OK?”
“Thank you, Kak Sal…” replied Shahril, struggling to fight the tears.
Once he was alone again, Shahril gently opened Mariam’s letter. It was the most precious thing to him in the whole world.