Friday, May 30, 2008

The Kindness of A Stranger

Naj & yours truly with Auntie Nora, UK 1976
Michael & Janet taking Naj for a stroll

Some years back Pak Abu and I made a stopover in London on our return from Basel, Switzerland, after attending an international exhibition that our company had an interest in.

Both of us had good reasons for wanting to be on that familiar terrain again; Pak Abu wished to visit his alma mater, the University of Westminster, in the heart of London while I wanted to pay a courtesy call on my former landlady up north in West Hampstead.

Mrs Wilkner, the lady in question, loomed large in my life in the mid 1970s when I was a bright-eyed young wife with a baby to care for, and very far away from home.

She was kindness personified, a woman with a heart of gold who took it upon herself to ensure my infant's continued well-being, although at that time she was dealing with her own personal heartache.

Then in her 40s and still quite a looker, Mrs Wilkner was very motherly apart from being fiercely protective of my son, Naj, whom she babysat for free when I went to work.

Naj was born on a cold, wintry day in University College Hospital, Euston Square, at a time when Christmas lights adorned the streets and the department stores, and Christmas carols filled the cool evening air.

I remember the day we took him home from the hospital, and there was the 'reception committee', Mrs Wilkner and her two children, Janet and Michael, anxiously waiting to welcome the baby.

Most evenings the duo would come up to my bedsit, asking for permission to take the baby for a stroll at a nearby park. Almost always I would oblige, bundling him up in layers of blankets to fend off the cold.

Like a ritual, I would descend to Mrs Wilkner's living room in the basement, where we would have tea and biscuits and she would woefully lament her husband's 'indiscretions', as she delicately put it.

Young as I was, I knew all she needed was an ear, and I was a willing listener. All the time, this beautiful woman was the epitome of grace and my heart bled for her.

When Pak Abu and I knocked on her door that spring morning almost 30 years later, it was Mrs Wilkner herself who invited us in. She told us her husband had passed away some time back and that Janet and Michael were living on their own nearby.

We stayed awhile making small talk before departing. She showed us the backyard, now turned into a garden, with ornamental faeries and gnomes amongst the plants. Once, that backyard was just an expanse of grass, with a big tree at one corner.

Mrs Wilkner was getting on in years and looked frail. When it was time to go, I left with a heavy heart, knowing I may not have another opportunity to pay homage to this gem of a woman who left an indelible mark in my life.


hyelbaine said...

Mrs Wilkner reminds me a lot of a neighbor that I used to have while growing up in Penang. She was as what you described, "glowing" with aura and personality.

Wonder where she is now since its been more than 15 years since I've left Penang.

Cheers!!! :D

Puteri Kamaliah At-Tarawis said...

baine, you and i are among the blessed ones - to have known such fine souls.