by Michelle Chan
It was Valentine’s Day. Gilbert’s hand trembled a little as he helped pass a love letter under the desk. It was the one day of the year when exchanges of quick smiles from students made the teachers look askance. Nicely wrapped gifts with crumpled ribbons were hidden in bags crammed with books or in the shadows of desk drawers. Many held their breath dreading spot checks and waited eagerly for the recess bell to ring.
Gilbert was one of them. He reached into his desk drawer and found his mother’s old pickle jar still hidden safely behind a stack of text books. Mrs Tang was explaining a new mathematical formula, but her words were mere wind breezing pass his ears. He was too nervous and slightly tired to pay attention in class today. He spent the whole of last night making what he believed to be the most sincere and hopefully romantic gift for Lily. He thought of buying a pair of earrings or Now That’s What I Call Music! 35 audio cassette, but neither would best express how he felt about her. Hence, he chose to fold 99 tiny paper stars to fit into a jar that he took from his mother’s kitchen cabinet.
He checked his watch, five more minutes to go. He tilted his head to one side to steal a glance at Lily. She sat a few rows in front of him. The sight of her ponytail sent his heart thundering in his chest. He had never felt this nervous before, not even when he was competing at the state chess tournament.
They had been in the same class since their first year of secondary school. They were never close friends, but they worked well together when paired up in projects, and they understood each other’s witty jokes. She was one of the prettiest girls in school, and also the president of the Science Club; while he was a lanky, awkward boy with patched shoes who excelled at mathematics. Every year they competed fiercely to be the top student in class. But in this final year, Gilbert wanted more than being a worthy opponent to Lily, he wished to win her affection. He knew she had a sentimental heart, and was certain she would like his jar of paper stars.
Gilbert was still daydreaming when his classmates started ejecting from their seats. He looked up, and Lily was gone. He wrapped the jar with a thin exercise book and ran out looking for her. After a ten-minute desperate search, he found her sitting alone on the stairs leading to the science labs. As he approached her, his heart sank when he saw her staring admiringly into a small, red satin box. Suddenly, he felt wary and uncertain, maybe even ashamed of his choice of gift. How could an old jar with a scratched up lid compete with a shiny, silky box?
She greeted him with her double dimpled smile. “What do you have there?” asked Lily with utmost curiosity. For all the years she had known him, Gilbert had shied away from anything related to Valentine’s Day.
“It’s nothing.” He pulled the exercise book tighter around it.
“Don’t be shy. Let me see it.” Lily put the satin box aside and took the jar from him. “Oh my, I didn’t know people still do this. You made them?”
Gilbert nodded, panicking in silence.
Lily held the jar carefully, like having a baby bird resting on her palms. She tilted her head from side to side, examining the content with intense interest. “Yellow is a good colour.”
I know. I chose it because it’s your favourite, thought Gilbert.
“There must be a lot of them in there.”
“99 to be exact.”
“Aah, the auspicious 99, forever or everlasting.” She smiled. “Whoever she is, I’m sure she’ll like it. Who won’t like a love letter written in stars?” She handed the jar back to him and picked up the satin box again.
Gilbert felt defeated. Whatever it was in the box, he knew she would much prefer it than his jar of paper stars. He wrapped the jar with the exercise book again and walked away. When he reached home that afternoon, he tossed it into the rubbish can outside the main gate. Out of sight, out of mind.
The next morning, the garbage truck came. Mokthar, one of the waste collectors opened the can lid and saw a jar of paper stars beaming brightly at him under the dull grey sky. He salvaged the jar and brought it home. He placed it on the floor next to where his eight year-old daughter, Jamilah slept. “Here’s your window to the night sky,” he said.
They shared a house with sixteen other people. The landlord put up partitions to create more rooms to generate more rental returns. They were one of the unlucky tenants to have a windowless room. However, with the jar of yellow paper stars, Jamilah slept better at night. It was her priceless possession. On nights when sleep eluded her father, she would place the jar next to him on the floor and said, “It will lead you to dreamland.”
Eventually, Mokthar earned enough money to move his family into a nicer home with windows in every room. Jamilah still kept the jar next to her every night, but its glow seemed to have dimmed over the past year. So when her classmate, Siaw Ching was mourning the loss of her mother, she decided to pass the jar on to her. “It helped me through my darkest time. It will help you too,” Jamilah told her friend.
Siaw Ching didn’t know what to do with the jar. What kind of magic did it possess? She shook the jar hard and paused. The room remained still and quiet. Her father came to her side and took the jar into his hand.
“Where did you get this?”
“Jamilah gave it to me,” said Siaw Ching flatly. “What am I supposed to do with it?”
Her father smiled and said, “Remember how happy mummy was the night we laid on the beach star gazing?”
“Well, we rarely have a clear night sky like that in the city. So when you miss mummy, just turn to this jar. She’ll be right there with you.”
Though Siaw Ching thought that was kind of corny, she felt obligated to nod her head still. But when night came and tears threatened to flow, she found herself reaching for the jar. She bosomed it under the blanket, and it eased her into a peaceful slumber.
The jar stayed with her for half a year until she passed it on to her cousin, Johnny, who was recovering from a car accident. When he was discharged from the hospital, he decided to keep this tradition going by giving it to a cancer patient two floors down. And so the jar travelled from the the night stand of a man fighting colon cancer, to the window sill of a lonely child, to the crib of a new born baby, to the living room of an overworked single mother, to the desk of a newly certified accountant, and the journey continued.
Ten years had passed since Gilbert made that jar of paper stars. The glass jar had lost its shine, the lid had rusted in and out, and the bright yellow stars had faded over the years. But despite its physical ageing, it still possessed its magic.
The jar now sat on the vanity desk of Mama Prema, a 66-year-old retired teacher. She was given the jar by her granddaughter to help her cope with the loss of her Siamese cat, Sawadee. She didn’t really want the jar in her house, but she accepted it with reluctant gratitude. It didn’t offer the comfort it intended, but it made her love her granddaughter more.
It was Valentine’s Day. Mama Prema was having her usual early evening chit chat with her neighbours in the gazebo at the condominium garden. As they were complaining about their unromantic husbands, the new neighbour from A-8-7 walked pass and greeted them politely. The ladies nodded in return.
Mama Prema found herself sighing heavily every time she saw the woman from A-8-7. She couldn’t recall her name, but was sure she was named after a flower. She was a beautiful, young woman, but her sad eyes always overshadowed her sweet smile. Mama Prema wondered what did life do to her to embed such sorrow on that beautiful face.
Later that evening, Mama Prema left the jar in front of A-8-7 with a note saying, “Cheer up, girl. It’s Valentine’s Day. From Mama Prema of A-8-11.” She rang the doorbell and left.
The woman from A-8-7 opened the door just as Mama Prema was entering her unit. She looked at the jar suspiciously before picking it up to read the note. She smiled. She brought the jar into her bedroom and examined it under the light. She held it carefully, like having a baby bird in her palms. Suddenly, a memory stirred within her. A long forgotten past that never held much significance was slowly emerging. A boy, a very nervous boy. What was his name? Albert? Wilfred? No. It was Gilbert! The smart, adorable Gilbert. At that moment, fond memories took over her weary self, and she broke out her infectious double dimpled smile that once melted so many hearts.
Lily hadn’t felt such exhilaration for a long time. After her husband divorced her due to her inability to conceive, she fell into deep depression that left her exhausted and discouraged.
She adjusted herself on the bed, and the stars shifted in the jar, revealing a quarter of a white star. She opened the lid and poured the contents onto her bed. There were three white stars, all worn from too much unfolding and refolding. She decided to unfold them to assuage her curiosity. When all three strips of paper were opened and laid accordingly on her bed, it revealed a love letter that read:
Dear Lily, Your kind soul and generous heart make you a rare and precious jewel. Whenever I feel discouraged, a glance at your beautiful face will lift me up. No matter how today unfolds, I want you to know that you shine brighter than any star in the sky. Sincerely, Gilbert.
Tears slipped down her face as she read the letter over and over. It was a simple letter, not the most poetic or romantic, but it moved her in the most amazing way. She felt a spark lit within her, a glimmer of hope, an ounce of courage, an open path before her. Suddenly, life didn’t seem so harsh. “Wherever you are now, Gilbert, thank you,” whispered Lily.
She returned all the stars into the jar, but left the three white strips of paper out to be framed tomorrow. She put the unused razor blade back into the box it came in from and tossed it into the rubbish bin. She tore the unfinished letter to her parents to shreds and felt a great relief pour into her. She was glad this jar of paper stars reached her ten years late. It wouldn’t have meant much to the teenage Lily, but it saved her life tonight.