We hired a car for the weekend to travel up north to Spennymoor (near Bishop Auckland, which is near to Durham) to visit Iain's 90 year old Aunt Peggy who is very, very ill and not supposed to last for very long. It was painful to see her stricken on her bed, just skin and bones, unable to move because of very serious bed sores. She had been diagnosed with MRSA. She could barely whisper a few words and each word required so much effort and pain but she did want to communicate with us.
She asked for a drink several times, she expressed her agony over her bed sores (because the nurse had changed her position), but most of all, Peggy never forgot her manners. Despite her pain, she never forgot her concern for her visitors. She asked us, "How are you for food?" And another time she said "You don't have to stay if you have something else to do." English manners (?), courtesy (?), politeness (?) - whatever else the English are, they have manners. They may not be religious, they may be rough and tough or slick and hypocritical but they have a way of lubricating relationships within their society to make life pleasant for all.
The one heartening aspect of living in this country is: as a woman, as another being walking this earth, English people and MEN have been courteous to me. For instance, when they bump into you, they look at you and apologise, both men and women, both young and old.
They give way to you when they pass you walking down the street, they hold doors open for you AND when you do the same thing for them, they 'thank you'. In Leicester they usually say "thanks , me duck" and the youngsters normally say "Cheers".
Before I go any further, let me state I am no Anglophile, I don't look at them through rose-coloured glasses, most of the time there is not much love lost between the English and this Malay, but I'll give credit where credit is due.
Years ago, in 1974, when I came to London for the first time as a student, I encountered the English courtesy. I add the 'the' because it is particular to the English. I had just arrived at Heathrow, had got as far as Piccadilly Tube Station and was lugging my large suitcase (full of rempah, blacan,ikan bilis which my mak had packed for me) to get to Victoria Station. As usual, the station was packed and suddenly I touched this hand that was taking over the handle of my suitcase and I heard a voice asking me, "Where are you going?" I looked shocked, panic - stricken and just mumbled and pointed in the direction I was heading for! He was a well-dressed man, in suit and tie and oh my word! he was gorgeous looking (behave yourself, woman!!). So he carried my case and when he put it down at where I wanted it to be, he looked at me with his blue eyes and asked "Is this fine?" And he walked away and I stood there speechless and I didn't even thank him. He's somewhere out there, perhaps still in London and I want to give him a very,very belated thank you. That was my first introduction to a stranger and a gentleman in England.
Another time, again because of my oversized suitcase, a thuggish looking huge English bloke asked if he could help me. I dare not say no because he looked SO huge AND thuggish! I was terrified he might steal my suitcase, again full of blacan, rempah and ikan bilis!! (silly cow). He carried that tartan case up the stairs from Seven Sisters Tube station, crossed the road and deposited it right at the front door of my flat at Page Green Terrace. I thanked him profusely, he just nodded his head and smiled and walked home - perhaps to his wife and kids, perhaps to a lonely room. I felt like such a fool - an ingrate - because I harboured such suspicious thoughts of him and his motive. I knew I felt that way because he was not well-dressed, he looked working class and I behaved like a typical snobbish prat. I still feel horrible even as I am writing this. But to that Joe Blogg, I apologise most deeply and I have learned my lesson not to judge a book by its cover (something Malaysians do a lot of).
Another occasion: the doorbell of my flat at Maida Vale rang. I opened the door to this tiny looking English man, a pensioner, and he smiled sweetly and said "I think this is yours and I know you would miss it a lot" as he handed me my monthly season pass for the London Underground. It was just the first week of that month and replacing it would make a big hole in this poor student's pocket. I felt like giving him a big hug, but we Malays don't do hugs do we? We don't even shake hands with members of the opposite sex !!! But that's another story. I asked him to come in for a cup of tea. In England a cup of tea can do wonders, from easing your thirst to helping you through a grievous patch in your life. But he nicely declined because he had to take the Tube to Hammersmith which is south of the river (Thames) and I was to the north - and besides, it was getting to rush hour. It's like the distance from Setiawangsa to Puchong, or maybe even more. When I meet my Maker, I would ask if I could meet this lovely old man and share a pot of tea with him.
Why do I reminisce like this? In all the times I have been on visits home to Malaysia and Singapore, I observed how the Malays have become more religious, from their attire to the endless ceramahs on radio, TV, Masjids and Universities. The Malays are always going on about 'berbudi bahasa'. And yet Malay men AND 'hijab-ed' women as well, both young and old have left me ( a warga mas) standing with my bags on the LRT while they remained seated, sometimes pretending to sleep. They have cut the queue and pushed in front of me at cashier's counters without blinking an eyelid, they have knocked into me without saying a word of apology and they sullenly take our food orders without any 'thank you' even though we show our appreciation by thanking them! Islam Hadhari?
They first have to remember to be Malays - polite Malays like their grandfathers (grandmothers) and great-grandfathers (great-grandmothers) who were untainted by the desire to be Orang Putih celop or Arab-celup.
Thank you Peggy, for reminding me about good manners, and practising good manners. When it's time for you to go, may your journey be peaceful and know that all your beloved pet dogs who have gone before will be waiting for you. Take care, pet.