"Sir, I'm sorry if I have caused you any inconvenience."
We had left the campus ground. Earlier, the Dean had apologised for keeping me waiting for 20 minutes, citing last minute paperwork before the festive holidays and I had smiled and said 'It's ok.". Actually I was quite uncomfortable; it was unusual for the Dean of a School to apologise to an undergraduate, especially one who was asking for his help.
To my roommate and friends who were curious to see me leaving the hostel with a travelling bag and cookies, I told them that I'd be spending my Eidilfitri holidays with my friend's family. I wasn't lying; the Dean was and still is, the uncle of my friend and former colleague, Zakiah. For reasons I know best,I preferred that they didn't know.
"It's all right, " he replied. "We're going to my elder sister's house not far from here. She's staying with my two elder brothers and there're many empty rooms in the house. I'm sorry I can't take you to my own house as all my children are home for Eid and you might find it too noisy and crowded to your liking. Don't worry, my sister will be happy to have you around. You can also relax there and study for the final exams."
I listened and nodded," That sounds wonderful."
" Aliya, I hope you don't mind staying with old people? Don't worry, the house will be full of people during Eidilfitri as my brothers, sisters and their families will be back in a few days."
" It's ok. I'm happy to spend my Edilfitri with your extended family."
We reached the house, located in the outskirts of the city. It was a traditional Malay house, which had been renovated to suit present needs. It was lovely and well-maintained. The Dean entered the house and asked me to follow him to the kitchen.
" I've brought Aliya here to spend her first Eid with us. She's my student and a Muslim revert," he told his sister who was busy making butter cookies.
" Alhamdulillah. Come, make yourself at home," she said cheerfully.
And made myself at home I did. Makcik Nah and her elder brothers, Pakcik A and Pakcik B chose to live in the ancestral home which they had been born and grown up in. Life was simple. Makcik Nah did the cooking and washing. Pakcik A spent most of his days at the nearby mosque while Pakcik B preferred to relax on his favourite chair and watch people passing by. I was given the front bedroom which was reserved for guests, with a fine view of the front lawn and gate. I'd spend my days helping with housework, as well as reading at the lounge and preparing for the exams, to be held after the festive holidays. It was peaceful and relaxing. The Dean stopped over on his way home after work, chatted with his siblings and asked about my wellbeing.
"How could I help?" I entered the kitchen as Makcik Nah was preparing the dishes for iftar.
" Go and sit down. I can do it myself," she replied, treating me as a guest.
"But Makcik, let me help you." And I helped to prepare the ingredients for her to cook. Then I realised that preparing food the Malay way is slightly different from the way Chinese do ( Makcik Nah's was the first Malay kitchen I entered and helped to cook). As a result, I ended up asking awkward questions like "How do I cut this? How do you want me to chop the garlic - fine or rough?" much to Makcik Nah's amusement.
Pakcik A always brought home food from the mosque, which he only ate a little.
And during sahur, Makcik Nah would say,"Aliya, finish the food Pakcik A brought." I wasn't used to eating a heavy meal (rice, fish, chicken, egg) for sahur but to please Makcik Nah, I complied. Luckily she only cooked a little or I would have gained weight during the last few days of Ramadhan, hehehee.
Then one evening after iftar, Makcik Nah asked, "Aliya, how old are you?"
And I told her my age ( Strange, people usually thought I was younger).
" Dah ada siapa-siapa ker belum? Do you have anyone special in your life?"
I smiled. "Why are you asking, Makcik?"
Makcik Nah patted my hand. " I have a nephew who needs a wife and his young children too needs a mother. He's just divorced and is staying in Penang too. His former wife has remarried. I'm just wondering if you might be interested to get to know him."
I had to stop myself from laughing. "But Makcik, I'm a divorcee; who'd want to marry me? I've just become a Muslim and I still need people to guide me in Islam. Besides, I've never taken care of young children before apart from teaching those in primary school. Are you sure I can be a good wife to him?"
"Oh, don't worry. I can see that you are a good woman and prays to Allah daily. My nephew is a good man and good-looking with a steady income. He has a good foundation in Islamic knowledge and can guide you too. He's about your age. Just give yourself and him a chance, ok."
I was totally speechless. Makcik Nah really caught me by surprise.
"By the way, you'll meet him later. He always comes here for Eidilfitri with his children," Makcik Nah smiled at me meaningfully and left the table.
"Ahhh, Aliya.. please open the door for them," Makcik Nah called from the kitchen.
The moment I opened the door, I knew he was Makcik Nah's nephew.
(to be continued..)