Postcard from Zaharah: Love blooms amid adversity

Love conquers all, says an old expression. And a cliché at that too. But conquest itself is nothing if it is not a constant commitment regardless of circumstances.

I am reminded of the above when I visited Abdul Rashid and his wife, Markindah Cartledge, at their home in southeastern England recently.

We first met 30 years ago at my grand-aunty's house. It was my grand-uncle who had conducted their marriage ceremony and welcomed the then Philip Sheppard to Islam.

That was nearly 45 years ago.

Their nikah ceremony was on April 30, 1977.

But the 21-year-old groom was baffled why, unlike English marriage ceremonies, the bride he had fallen in love with after spilling a slice of chocolate gateau down her dress at a party, wasn't in the same room with him.

All of us in their living room roared with laughter.

Markindah, who is from Johor, also laughed and giggled.

That was an important day as they embarked on their journey as husband and wife.

But in spite of all the giggles and laughter, for Markindah, whom we fondly call Kak Ton, it was as if she was listening to her husband narrating someone else's stories.

For the past few years, Rashid had patiently repeated episodes of their life together as Ton had forgotten almost everything.

She clung to his arms as he did so, playfully scratching his palms as she habitually does "for hours while we watch TV" and looked up to him lovingly as he told us his stories.

Ton has been diagnosed with Alzheimer's.

Rashid said the process has, mercifully, been slowed down with medication and her driving licence has been cancelled for her own safety.

I was pleased to meet up again with the couple after receiving news that during the lockdown two years ago, Rashid had craved for nasi lemak.

Ton has not cooked his favourite dish for some time.

He also wanted to get nasi lemak in the hopes that the smell and taste would jog fond memories for his wife, who used to love cooking.

So we brought not only nasi lemak, but also rendang and kuih.

While eating the nasi lemak, Rashid regaled us with stories of how they had met at a friend's party.

After a few drinks, he staggered to the kitchen.

"There was chocolate gateau. Ton was standing and chatting to a friend.

"I was trying to take a piece of the cake and the paper plate gave way and went down her dress. I made my excuses and left," recalled Rashid, followed by much laughter from Ton, as if she was listening to this episode for the first time.

The next morning, Rashid, who dabbled in repairing cars, was summoned by his friend, who told him that the lady whose dress he had ruined wanted her car repaired.

He not only repaired her car but had also fallen in love with her.

Ton was a widow with three small children.

Her late husband, a Scotsman, had served with the British Marines in Malaysia and had brought her back to Scotland. Sadly, he died after several complications.

Ton then moved to London and worked as a seamstress at West Middlesex Hospital in London.

"Her three small children took to me instantly as they had lost their father.

"And I had a ready- made family," said Rashid.

He said his decision to marry a widow of another colour with three children estranged him from his family. She was also 12 years older than him.

He had worked as a chauffeur for the director of the Malaysian Students Department in the old building at Bryanston Square, London.

He remembers bringing in epok-epok that Ton made that was a hit with the staff there.

The lounge where we were in was full of pictures on the wall: pictures of their holidays together in Malaysia, with the grown-up children and grandchildren, and also a picture of them after performing their haj in Mecca.

A specially framed picture took pride of place on the wall.

It's a poster of their 40th anniversary when they renewed their vows.

If Ton has forgotten everything, these are the details that Rashid had meticulously jotted down to remind her:

MARRIED on April 30, 1977

14,600 days, 350,400 hours, 21,024,000 minutes

At the event, he recalled having to give a speech. That was after a speech by his best man, Bilal — their son.

To his horror, he told us, Bilal's speech was exactly like what he wanted to say and he had to improvise by saying how lucky he was to have met her.

"I met her when I was going through a bad time. And it was a turning point in my life. Ton sobbed throughout the speech. Do you remember that? You nangis! (cried)" he said turning to her.

"No, I don't remember," said Ton letting out giggles again.

"Yes, you cried. It was a happy day for us.

"I really wish you could remember because they mean so much, but to you it is as if they never happened," said Rashid, oblivious to the fact that we were sharing some of their intimate moments together.

Thankfully, Ton remains cheerful, always immaculately dressed, complete with her bling blings that she bought in Johor.

She repeats words and phrases that Rashid says and bursts into laughter.

She sometimes looks for the children in the house, thinking they are still small.

Rashid and Ton plan to visit Malaysia when possible before it is too late.

"When we go back, remember that a lot of people have gone. They have died," he told her.

"Have they?" she asked.

He has told her that many times before, but is well aware that he will have to remind her again and again.

Rashid, who had not only left his religion and family for Ton, had also taken on Ton's late's husband's family name, Cart-ledge.

"I am not going anywhere. I will be here to look after you," said Rashid whenever there was a hint of sadness on Ton's face.

Rashid's and Ton's love story had left us in the room with not a dry eye, but we left with a beautiful picture of the loving couple hugging each other at their doorsteps, waving us goodbye.

Love for this couple is not just for Valentine's Day.

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