‘True Friendship’ by J.C. Martin (Malaysia)

Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

“The sea is never always calm,
The sky, sometimes, not blue,
But nothing on Earth can ever change
The friendship we hold true!”

I remember fighting back tears when I wrote this poem in my best friend’s yearbook. It was the last day of school, but the first day of the rest of our lives.

Slowly, Aisha read my little verse with glistening eyes. Finally, she whispered, “It’s beautiful! Thank you!” She looked almost embarrassed when she returned my yearbook where, beneath her picture, Aisha had merely drawn a heart, with the words “Best friends 4ever!” framed within it.

“I wish I had your gift of words, May. What I wrote for you is just so boring and cheesy by comparison!”

I merely waved a hand dismissively, and shrugged the compliment off. At that time, being the ‘brain’ of the class meant that I was uncomfortable with anyone singling me out for what I considered my ‘geekiness’.

“You draw a beautiful heart, though,” I replied lamely, admiring how the drawing twinkled in the sun, thanks to Aisha’s use of her favourite glitter pen.

There was a moment of contemplative silence, then:

“Promise me you’ll come visit during the holidays, May.”

“Of course, Aisha. As long as you promise to come visit me in London!” Even as I said this, we both knew that would never happen. Her parents ran a small mobile fruits stall, a motorised tricycle laden with whatever the tiny orchard in Aisha’s home village could provide: bananas, mangoes, papayas, rambutans, and, if they were lucky, any wild durians Aisha’s father happened to come across in the jungle. Every morning at dawn, the fruits were piled onto the motorcycle, and Aisha’s father would drive an hour to the nearest town to hawk his produce.

There was no way she could afford the plane ticket to England.

Although neither of us mentioned it, we both knew we were destined to walk different paths from now on; I had secured a place at a prestigious British university, and I have dreams of settling down abroad. Aisha, on the other hand, could not afford higher education. She would be helping her parents with their fruits stall and orchard, and maybe, just maybe, save enough eventually for a course at a local college.

Somewhere at the back of my young mind, I feared what the distance would do to our friendship, one borne from years of hanging around together, gossiping over a shared bowl of ais kacang, bemoaning fledgling love affairs under the shade of the old tree in the school field.

The toot of a car horn signalled the arrival of my ride home.

“Do you want a lift?” I asked Aisha.

“Nah, I’ll walk home. Besides, you have got a lot of packing to do.”

We embraced tearfully, drawing out our farewell, not wanting to let one another go, but Aisha finally pulls away.

“Heh, go now, or you’ll miss your flight!”

That was ten years ago.

Today, I sit by the window of my London apartment, flipping through my old yearbook, smiling as the old memories come flooding back. I found it in a musty corner while clearing out the store room, underneath a pile of moth-eaten university textbooks I will most likely never use again, but which the hoarder in me refused to throw away. Beside it, in a battered old shoe box, were the letters Aisha had sent me. I have kept each and every one of them.

Seized by a longing for some nostalgic reminiscing, I decided to take leave of the housework, made myself a cup of tea, and settled down on my window seat. Lifting the dented lid off the shoe box, I removed the stack of letters, each one written on flowery, girly paper in various shades of pastel. The heady perfume that used to infuse the pages is now but a faint, almost imperceptible, bittersweet reminder of what used to be. Aisha’s neat handwriting, round and cherubic as the girl herself, smiled at me from the yellowing pages. Ever the obsessive tidiness freak, I had filed the mail in chronological order.

The first one was dated only a week after I arrived in the United Kingdom, all those years ago:

“Hey, May! I hope you’ve settled down OK in London. Getting culture shock yet? Have you met the Queen?…”

The second one came a couple of months after the first:

“Merry X’mas! Thanks for writing back! I’m glad to know you’re having fun! Hahaha, I would have liked to see you getting hit by that snowball! I’ve never even seen snow…”

The third was almost a year later:

“Happy birthday! Don’t worry about the late reply, I’m just glad you wrote back! I was getting worried! I still haven’t gotten a computer, so can’t e-mail you, I’m afraid. No house phone yet, either, let alone hand phone! I’m sure if I had any of these, it would be so much quicker and more convenient to keep in contact…”

More than a year after that:

“I hope you’re well. I haven’t heard from you in ages! But I guess you’re busy studying. It’s your final year now, right? I’ve pretty much given up on ever going to college… too expensive…”

The last letter from Aisha dates back more than four years, right before I moved from a small rented studio flat, to this, a penthouse apartment, my pride and joy, my first rung on the property ladder, a result of years of scrimping, saving, long hours at work, and a little help from my parents’ slush fund.

I realised that I had never sent Aisha my forwarding address.

“Me again! Have you graduated yet? You must have! So what are you doing now? Working? Or are you doing postgraduate stuff? I need updates!  Never got a reply from you for my last two letters… you still alive??”

I sigh as the guilt inside my heart grows. I had been too busy with my new life and career to keep in touch with my oldest friend. As I think of the little poem I wrote in Aisha’s yearbook, I smile wistfully at our childish naïveté:

Nothing on Earth can ever change / The friendship we hold true.

But our friendship has changed, hasn’t it? It has stretched itself thin over the distance and the time spent apart, and, like the glittery ink on Aisha’s letters, it is now but a faded shadow of its former sparkly self. I never went back to Malaysia as often as I would have liked, so I probably only saw Aisha for a grand total of four hours in the past decade. As we communicate less and less often, I know that, sad as it may sound, we will one day lose touch completely, and the warm fires of our childhood friendship would be forgotten, like smouldering embers shoved aside in the fireplace of our subconscious.

But something compels me to pick up my pen, just for old times’ sake. Picking up one of the ivory-coloured cards uncharacteristically strewn across my normally spotless work desk, I begin to write:

“Aisha! It’s been a while! Sooo sorry I went AWOL! Not much space to say a lot here, but as you can see from this card, I’m getting married! And you’re invited!…”

I finish the short note, and seal the invitation in a lilac envelope. I know Aisha wouldn’t be able to come all the way to London for the wedding, but I just want her to know I am thinking of her.

It is the least I can do for having neglected our friendship for so long.

***

The doorbell rings as my mother is helping me into my gown. After giving his cravat one final adjustment, my father answers the door, but I am so excited about the wedding, I pay no attention to the exchange.

When Pa returns, he holds a package in his hands.

“May, you have a present.”

“Uh-huh…” I mumble distractedly, as I struggle to get my veil to drape just right. “Just leave it in my room, Pa.”

“It’s from Malaysia.”

My busy hands stop their fussing and fluttering in mid-air. Pa hands me the rather hefty parcel, and I immediately recognise Aisha’s tubby penmanship. As Ma continues to do my hair, I open the box with trembling fingers. The brown wrapping falls away, revealing a soft velvet box of midnight blue. Inside, nestled in crushed satin, are two identical pewter goblets, the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. My name is carved in intricate cursive script on one of them, my husband-to-be’s name on the other. Pewter ware is expensive, and the craftsmanship on these goblets, with the fine engraving around its lip, is exquisite. How could Aisha afford this?

My eyes mist up with tears at the sight of what I find taped to the inside of the box. It is a photograph, taken more than ten years ago. Younger, plumper, more innocent versions of Aisha and me smile cheekily at the camera, as we squat, hand in hand, under the gnarled old tree in the school field.

Behind the photo is a message:

“Dearest May,

A THOUSAND CONGRATULATIONS!!! How I wish I could be there at your wedding! Sadly, I still can’t afford a flight ticket after all these years. Pathetic, huh? Also, Abah is very ill. Doctors say he has cancer, so I have to stay and take care of him. But I just had to get you something for your big day. Hope you like your gift!

May, I know we don’t talk as often as we did in the old days, but I want to say that I always think of you, and thank Allah everyday for our friendship. As much as we may want to think otherwise, our friendship has definitely changed, but that doesn’t mean that it isn’t as strong as before!

I’m not as good a poet as you, so please don’t laugh at my attempt! This took me hours! Here goes:

Though rivers dry and mountains go,
Though spring will soon give way to snow,
Our friendship bond shall never break,
And ‘tis a solemn vow I make.

Best Wishes & All My Love,

Aisha x”

“May,” my mother gently taps me on the shoulder. “We need to finish off.”

By this point, I am trying my best to wipe the tears from my eyes without smudging my makeup. I place the box lovingly on my vanity, and make myself a mental note:

Tomorrow, I shall sit down and write Aisha a letter. Then, I am going to arrange a brief stopover in Malaysia during our honeymoon.

No way am I going to let such a wonderful friend fall by the wayside again…

Glossary:

Abah: Malay term for father
ais kacang: Malaysian sweet dessert
durian: pungent Southeast Asian fruit with a hard, thorny shell
hand phone: mobile phone
pewter: tin alloy, popularly used in Malaysia for fine crafting
rambutan – Southeast Asian fruit with soft fleshy spines resembling hair.

Illustration by Katherine Jones

About the author:

J.C. Martin was born in Malaysia but now lives in south London in England with her fiancé and three dogs. She is currently working on a few novels that she hopes to get published. She works as a Kung Fu instructor to help fund her writing obsession.

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7 comments for “‘True Friendship’ by J.C. Martin (Malaysia)

  1. Krishna Panikker
    26/07/2011 at 10:04 am

    Believe it or not I cried after reading True Friendship.Its really very touching.

  2. ijat
    27/07/2014 at 12:41 pm

    Describe May’s character as a friend.

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