Saera nekad menjadi jururawat peribadi kepada Aunty Rosnah; ibu Faris yang sedang koma. Sebenarnya tidaklah sesukar mana pun menjadi jururawat peribadi di rumah agam itu. Namun, sikap Faris yang penuh syak wasangka dan sering mendesaknya membuatkan hidup dia haru-biru. Kedatangan Mia Sara, anak kecil Faris dan kepulangan Zafran ke tanah air, mula mengubah tanggapan Faris terhadap Saera. Namun, sifat cengilnya tetap menyukarkan Saera. Berlandaskan alasan khuatir Zafran dikecewakan lagi, Faris mula tidak menyenangi hubungan baik antara Saera dan Zafran. “Saya cuma minta awak jangan main-mainkan perasaan Zafran. Awak tahu kan dia pernah dikecewakan dulu,” ingati Faris kepada Saera. Sifat waspada Faris terhadap Saera mula berubah sehinggakan dia sendiri tidak mampu mentaksir perasaan sendiri. Apatah lagi tatkala melihatkan keakraban anaknya, Mia Sara bersama Saera. Hati yang keras mula mencair. Taman yang sepi, kini kembali berbunga. Tapi, mengapa semakin dekat Faris menghampiri, semakin jauh Saera pergi?
Kedatangan Mia Sara, anak kecil Faris dan kepulangan Zafran ke tanah air, mula mengubah tanggapan Faris terhadap Saera. Namun, sifat cengilnya tetap menyukarkan Saera. Berlandaskan alasan khuatir Zafran dikecewakan lagi, Faris mula tidak menyenangi hubungan baik antara Saera dan Zafran. “Saya cuma minta awak jangan main-mainkan perasaan Zafran. Awak tahu kan dia pernah dikecewakan dulu,” ingati Faris kepada Saera.Sifat waspada Faris terhadap Saera mula berubah sehinggakan dia sendiri tidak mampu mentaksir perasaan sendiri. Apatah lagi tatkala melihatkan keakraban anaknya, Mia Sara bersama Saera. Hati yang keras mula mencair. Taman yang sepi, kini kembali berbunga. Tapi, mengapa semakin dekat Faris menghampiri, semakin jauh Saera pergi?
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Amy’s father, and Reggie later, called her by a pet name. Both chose the image of a small, inquiring animal. Kitten was Reggie’s name for her, and Little Squirrel her father had called her as a child. Not a squirrel, said her mother sharply, hiding her fear in a hint of scorn. Not a squirrel but an actress. Or a chameleon who took on the colour about, changing with each shaft of light, each reflection and each day. She observed Amy with brooding anxiety in her level eyes. She saw something in her that should not have been there, something to be disapproved of, something to be curbed. Amy had a compressed and sensual energy; her face did not hide, it reflected, throwing up the perplexities of emotion into violet eyes.
There was nothing of fashionable beauty sculptured in her face, her features were pert, determined as her wilful hair, resentful of imprisonment. Her beauty was vitality and an awareness of her own unspoken essence; she was a woman whom men observed. Her lips followed her face in its full snubbed curve. She was restless, she was bright. The Sidleys were known in Somerset, born and dying in untroubled succession in the same great rambling house upon their large estate; Cranage, it was called. Mr Sidley was a puritan given to the gravity of local politics, a famous eccentric in the area who refused to take a gun to game, so pacifist were his principles. Mrs Sidley solicited prudence and good causes. She was a stern-faced woman who played the piano and would have rendered occasionally the gaiety of a waltz, if not for her husband’s frown.
There was rigidity in the house. It waited about the tall, silent outlines of Mrs Sidley and Mr Sidley’s smoking chair. Silence and industry was their motto; Amy felt herself no child of theirs. Sarah Jenkins’s house was her spiritual home. The Jenkins’s estate bordered the Sidleys’. Sarah’s parents were young and their home alive with parties. There were always clothes and more clothes to try on or rejoice over, charades and chocolate from London. Or when they were younger, lumps of peppermint toffee, supplied surreptitiously by Sarah’s brother, Frank. This toffee was often archaically dusty from long confinement in a pocket, but was picked clean and devoured in a dark attic beneath old rafters. There, the three of them and Amy’s younger brother, Rob, played amongst old furniture and silk-lined trunks, cracked mirrors and broken vases. Far below, nanny and governess rushed, searching for their charges. They were not heard. Beyond humdrum existence in make-believe, Amy glittered within a transparent world.
But besides the realm of fantasy beneath those musty rafters, there were also Frank Jenkins’s eyes. They followed her in a way that was difficult to ignore. He was rough and bold and kicked his sister on the shins, but between himself and Amy there existed a silence. Across it she observed the passing years, noting his awkward spurts of growth, the odour of manhood seeping suddenly from him, the hairs that thickened on his wrist and shadowed his upper lip. There was a strange, unfocused light in his eyes now sometimes when he stared at her. It embarrassed as it excited her, it made her look away. Frank Jenkins lounged and laughed, looking at her quizzically, leaning against an apple tree in the orchard of his home.
It was the summer before he left for university. Frank exuded a pent-up fire, his eyes upon her, burning her. Away from him she felt them still, pushing through to a secret core in herself where no one else had been. As if in some way she was naked before him. At this thought she could not heed the vigilance of her mother. ‘If a girl’s mind is not pure and cannot shrink from evil, may God help her!’ Mrs Sidley regularly admonished. ‘For then the wisest safeguards parents and friends may provide will never be sufficient to secure her from danger.’ For Mrs Sidley, safety was chastity. Her words were backed by the task of guarding an innocence Amy seemed born without. Her thoughts slid easily back to Frank and that strange light in his eyes. She wondered what it would be like to be forced to be naked before him by some accident of fate.
There was a lake where they boated each summer. They took a picnic that day, Amy and Frank, Sarah and Rob and cousins of the Jenkinses. They pushed the boats out on to the still lake. Amy shared one with Frank, who rowed off before anyone could join them.
‘You must take Rob or George,’ Sarah shouted. Frank scowled as her crowded boat drew level and prepared to discharge cousin George, who planted a fat foot in each boat. There was a clash of oars, the sky swayed as they were all tipped into the lake. Amy screamed and thrashed, weeds wrapped about her, the weight of her skirts pulled her down. Suddenly Frank was behind her, grasping her to him, his cheek against hers as he swam. They were not far from the shore, soon he dragged her to her feet. Her thin muslin dress clung wetly, her breasts pushed blatantly through, nipples exposed. She watched his eyes upon them, forced to let him look for as long as he desired. She did not turn away. Beneath her embarrassment something terrible and bold held her rooted to the spot. Frank leaned forward to pick a weed from her neck, and his fingers brushed her. Then he shook his hair like a wet dog and water showered her again.
A few days later Frank was gone. She could not say she missed him, but she felt deprived, as if something vital to herself had been snatched away. She was left with a restlessness that nothing stilled. It was at a hunt ball the following year that Amy first met Reggie Redmore. She had been twenty the week before; Reggie was thirty-five. He stood across a crowded ballroom, his legs planted wide in self-assurance, his face warmed by drink and the blood that flowed freely in his veins. He had a broad, prosperous, well-oiled look whose scent was cigars, pomade and leather. His features were generous in a loose, florid way. He knew how to draw an audience, his voice was expansive; he had the gift of the gab. But people of intellect rejected him, however polite their demeanour. A crudeness of manner repelled the very men he wished to cultivate and soon he turned scornfully against them. To compensate, he exaggerated his geniality, roughness and bonhomie. He was a man who would later turn to fat, to the appearance of a well stuffed ram, but when Amy first saw him his thick neck and fair hair appeared romantically Grecian; to her he was a handsome man. Occasionally, as he talked, his eyes became still within his jovial face with the cunning of an animal. It was beyond Amy to judge with insight then. She had love waiting ripely within her, and no one on whom to place it.
‘Who is he?’ asked Amy, observing Reggie from behind a feathered fan, its soft plumes brushing her face. The dancers whirled past her, the violin soared. ‘Only a friend of a distant cousin,’ Sarah replied, adjusting a ruby brooch. ‘A very distant cousin and one who’s always in need of charity. At first we suspected Mr Redmore might also have a similar need. But thank goodness, he came only to deliver a letter from a friend of Papa’s in the colonies. He stayed on for the hunting and cut quite a figure, as you would have seen if you’d joined us and not been indisposed. It’s a pity he’s so old.’ ‘Old?’ Amy echoed. ‘I suppose he is, but he looks different from everyone else.’ The room and its male occupants faded about him; he demanded all her attention.
‘Just old.’ Sarah pulled a face. ‘He’s in the Foreign Service. He was invalided home a year ago and is soon to return abroad. No woman would want to live where he does. It’s no wonder he’s still a bachelor.’ ‘Then introduce me,’ Amy whispered, giggling at Sarah’s horror. But speech dried in her mouth when Reggie asked for a dance. She moved without speaking in his arms and he made little effort to break a silence more replete than mundane words.
‘Are you from these parts, Mr Redmore?’ It was all she could say, so low she was forced to repeat it. He inclined his head to hear better, and his eyes met and held her own. She noticed the whiteness of his teeth behind a clipped moustache. His nose was crooked as if it might once have been broken, there was already grey in his thick fair hair. ‘I’m near enough from here,’ Reggie smiled. ‘I’m from Cornwall. But I’ve lived mostly abroad, I joined the Navy as a lad. I could tell you more about Sarawak than Cornwall now, sad as that may be. Will you save another dance for me?’ he asked as the music ended.
He returned to talk with a group of men. Amy heard the names of strange places slip easily from his lips. He had seen the pyramids of Egypt, Ming tombs in China and slaves on American sugar plantations. He had worked for the white Rajah of Sarawak. He enjoyed the attention, he liked to impress, but his experiences flowed from him without pretence; they were true, there was no doubt. He took Amy further from the dull red soil of Somerset than her escape through endless novels. Men grouped about him and pressed him for facts of trade in silk or tea, for tales of daring and disaster on exotic-sounding seas. In the middle of their solid country life, he was as flamboyant as the lacquer-red Chinese brocade he had brought Sarah and her mother.
Reggie stood before a marble mantelpiece beneath a tall gilt mirror which looked down on the dancers and reflected to Amy the back of his head. His eyes sorted through the young women there, appraising each ripe, firm piece of flesh, but always returned to Amy. They rested on her motionless, pale as sky or glass. Expression was everywhere in Reggie’s face, but never in his eyes. They filled her with strange feelings. It was as if something dark and naked in her opened and unfolded. She did know then that this was not love. What uncoiled within her was a taste that could never be lost. She returned Reggie’s gaze, she danced with him again. Beneath the beating of her heart, deliberate as her stare, that sinuous opening within her grew ever wider, ever deeper, ever darker. What lay exposed between them then was like contamination. The dissipation she sensed in Reggie was like the sweet, rotting scent of some carnivorous flower that draws in and consumes its prey. He recognised her at a glance within that crowded room. He showed her to herself.
She woke at night or never slept. Outside, the windswept trees seemed as feverish as herself. From the beginning, without words, something seemed established between them. Sarah was not approving, Reggie’s age to her mind could not be overcome. ‘You’re mad, quite mad,’ she admonished. ‘How can you be in love with him?’ She shook her head to lose the thought. ‘Well I am, that’s all,’ Amy answered, but could find no other words to explain her strange obsession. She sat before a looking-glass and smoothed back thick coils of hair. The sun in a shaft enclosed her as if mesmerised by her will. Sarah looked at her in awe, her commonsense almost shameful before the daring Amy showed. She entered with reluctance into the conspiracy Amy demanded so as to stay within a close orbit of Reggie. She engineered occasions, verified excuses and sometimes told outright lies. The Sidleys were innocent of their daughter’s purpose or the sly light in Reggie’s eye. ‘You’re inviting trouble, nothing more,’ Sarah said after a tennis match in which Amy and Reggie Redmore had beaten Sarah and a visitor. The court filled up with another quartet, Sarah and Amy poured lemonade into glasses for spectators.
‘Don’t be so silly,’ Amy scolded, turning her back on Sarah. ‘Are you sure Mr Redmore is in love with you?’ Sarah inquired. ‘Has he said anything yet?’ ‘No, but he will,’ Amy decided, her smile untouchable. Soon Sarah saw them, apart from the crowd yet near enough for decorum, sipping at glasses of chilled lemonade, Amy graceful in white muslin. There was something Sarah could not describe that made her immediately recoil from Mr Redmore. She could not understand why Amy had lost her head to such an unsuitable man.
‘It’s some time since I played a game of tennis,’ Reggie said. ‘I have to admit you’ve exhausted me.’ He laughed, his eyes suggestive of experiences private to themselves. There was nothing he said or did that overstepped propriety in an open way. Amy smiled and then, as no one was near to hear her audacity, she asked, ‘Have you seen the mynah birds in the summerhouse?’
They walked the few steps to the summerhouse, still in view of people. There were ways to find themselves alone even within a crowd. There had been an afternoon of boating upon the lake in which they found themselves together, lost upon an island. There were woods in which the search for berries divided people easily. But throughout their courtship they barely touched. Reggie behaved as a gentleman, his control persuasive and commanding. He knew what he wanted, he manipulated Amy to a situation for his own advantage.
There was the musty smell of earth and old wood in the summerhouse and the odour of the birds, their feathers black and glossy, stalking about their perches restlessly within an enormous cage. A wall of shuttered windows gave a sudden privacy. Amy walked up to the cage and cooed to the birds. They looked at her silently from grim little eyes. ‘They’re being perverse, they won’t talk.’ She turned to face Reggie, who seemed to fill the delicate structure with his tall, muscular frame.
‘I’d rather talk with you,’ he smiled. ‘We could sit on that seat over there.’ They were shielded from view. The voices of the tennis crowd, the slap of balls, the clink of glass were the noises of another world. He was close to her on the seat, closer than decency allowed. His knee was partly covered by the muslin of her dress. She stared at the darkness of his trouser leg beneath the flimsy fold. At times she felt she could not wait to feel his touch upon her. Once, he had taken her hand as if to pull her to him, then released her abruptly again. He seemed to watch her, observing the fire he had lighted burn its way within her, and made no move. It drove her to distraction. If Frank had stirred vague dreams, the violence Reggie unleashed seemed to fill her with depravity. The need for his touch was as painful as a bodily affliction; she was exhausted by waiting for a relief that never came. She was aware in herself of a brazenness, different from the feelings of a girl like Sarah. The genteel refinements of cultivated love for romance or convenience, so appropriate to their age and status, were not a world Amy seemed to know. To her it was a distant land; she spoke a different language, a language never mentioned. She observed the pull of Reggie’s coat upon his shoulders, the swagger of his stride. Beside him she was close to his breathing and the short, curling hairs on his neck. She was no more than the shape he gave her, obedient to his will. Within her the intensity of feelings grew, waiting. Waiting.
‘Amy,’ he turned suddenly to her, taking her hand, his face close as when they had danced. He had not called her by her name before. ‘You know what I wish to ask, do you not?’ She shook her head as if mystified, and yet she had hoped when they entered the summerhouse, that he would clarify his feelings at last. His voice sounded unreal, his breath touched her face. ‘Marry me, Amy. Say you will. I have not your father’s consent yet. I wished to ask you first.’ Her hand lay in his; as he spoke he raised it to his mouth. ‘People may remark upon the difference in our ages, but you mustn’t let it worry you. I’ll make you happy.’
‘I’m already so happy,’ Amy whispered. ‘People may say what they like, I won’t listen to a word.’ She was brilliant with love, aware of nothing but the moment, selected by her wilfully to alter destiny. The words she had practised so often in dreams to accept his imaginary proposal she could not now remember. She laughed in confusion as he took her suddenly in his arms. He gripped her tightly, his body pressed to her, his lips upon her neck. Over his shoulder she saw the birds staring curiously, heads to one side.
‘How now, me beauties?’ The bird’s throat moved but the voice was that of the gardener. The other bird responded with a peal of laughter. The sound filled the summerhouse. Amy tightened her grip upon Reggie and offered him her mouth. The monstrous laughter rattled about them, and she closed her eyes, unheeding. She had made her choice, although no reason could explain it.
Reggie acted quickly then. He did not waste a further day. He approached her father formally. In her room above her father’s study, Amy waited for the storm to break. It was as if she could feel his shock reverberate through the house. She was summoned at once after Reggie had gone.
‘Have you taken all leave of your senses, Miss? Have you no shame?’ Mr Sidley shook with rage, his nails pressured blue about a paperweight. She feared he might throw it at her. ‘Mr Redmore has acted with propriety and I with decorum, Papa. There is no reason for talk of shame.’ She held her head up until he lowered his eyes on the excuse of rearranging a paper.
‘It is too bad of you, Amy. You’ve had good offers already and refused. This Redmore, we know nothing of him. He’s misled you for his purpose. He’s unsuitable in every way. And what about his age?’ His voice was unsteady, he cleared his throat. He spoke to her stony face. Nothing seemed to change her.
‘Would you have me marry someone I did not love, Papa?’ She tossed her head to incite him. ‘Bah!’ Mr Sidley exploded and took a step forward in rage. ‘Go to your room until I say you can leave.’ ‘I shall marry only Mr Redmore,’ she repeated as she closed the door.
Some part of herself felt sorry for her parents. Reggie was a man without background, without money and fifteen years older than herself. An adventurer, her father fumed, whose life was tied to lands whose preposterous names their mouths could barely shape, whose heaving seas and pagan saints, whose naked populations of dust and sweat and dirt were good only for a shudder or a story, for a painted vase or a bale of silk. And yet, in one unthinkable stroke, that whole unknown universe rose up in insolence to threaten them. But nothing could dissuade her, something corroded her that consumed all need for obedience.
Upstairs she grew calm. She refused to eat or speak, lying in bed with her face to the wall as if sick in the last prostrations. She lost weight and grew frail in a couple of days. Determination added fierceness to her. ‘There must be another way to make her change her mind,’ Mrs Sidley sobbed until her husband strode into her daughter’s room and ordered her to eat.
‘Redmore will be gone by tomorrow if he knows what’s good for him,’ Mr Sidley shouted. Amy started up in shock. She breathed fire, she breathed soul, and when her father was gone she composed herself for death. The letter she wrote and left on the tallboy for her parents, swam in easy, flowery words from her without the anguish of a backbone. As the sky churned with a coming storm, she set off that night to the lake near their home, harnessing the drama of the elements conveniently to her own. She made sure they heard her leave. Their alarmed voices pursued her and she was dragged from the water, just as she had calculated, before she could sink below the surface. ‘The minx,’ she heard her father say. ‘If it has come to this we are left with no choice. But I’ll be damned if I help that bounder feather his nest at the expense of Amy. He’ll not get what he expects in the way of a marriage settlement from me. I must look to her protection.’
Amy opened her eyes. It seemed only right to let them know she lived, now that she had got her way. Over these days of drama, Reggie stood back in watchful silence, content to see the machinery he had started work its way to a final order. An order of his making, to his best advantage. She remembered their wedding as she would a funeral; long faces and some sobs. Except for herself, the gaiety had the brittleness of thin icing on a cake. They married with haste, for Reggie, recovered from whatever had been wrong with him, had received a new posting. He had been promoted to Acting Resident in a small town up country on the Malay coast in the state of Sungei Ujong. It took her some time to get her tongue around the name, to enunciate it properly.
Reality was stranger than the imagining of exotic lands. Exotic, Amy found, was a word to be used only in ignorance or retrospect. There was nothing exotic in tropical living. Each day was a battle with a weariness that seemed to soak deeper and deeper, making pap of body and mind. Sungei Ujong was hot and silent with the intensity of cunning. The dull red soil of Somerset, the cool hills and hedgerows of hawthorn soon became a constant mirage filling her mind. They disembarked from the ship at Singapore, but did not stay long in the town. From the first moment her senses reeled at the kaleidoscope of colours, the perennial sunblaze and bright-winged birds. When she left the bustling city with its shops and botanical gardens, with its balls and social events, its neat villas and spreading lawns, she did not realise she left the last bastion of Britishness. Left it in the millinery department of Spicer’s and Robinson’s and the promenade of showy equipages that each evening revolved with their memsahibs slowly round the esplanade; left it in their cool room in the Hotel d’Europe.
People shook their head at the mention of Sungei Ujong, an area of tigers, crocodiles, rogue elephants and savages. Some had never heard of it. They looked at Reggie askance for taking a woman there. It was not even on the coast, where steamers from Singapore brought human contact and supplies. ‘Nonsense,’ said Reggie. ‘She’ll be all right. We’ve a bungalow, a cook and an amah.’
They journeyed to Malacca on a cargo ship crammed with coolies seeking their fortunes in Perak. They could not sleep. Their cabin was a hot and dirty hole of eighty eight degrees, tenanted by cockroaches and rats, but Malacca raised their spirits. The Portuguese town of St Francis Xavier, with its ruined cathedral on a hill and a race of half-breeds, still exuded the atmosphere of fables, dreamy and antiquated. They pushed on in an untrustworthy launch, crawling slowly along a palm-fringed shore until they met the Linggi River. Here they entered a world Amy came to know too well.
Spreading for miles from the mouth of the river was the slimy shade of mangrove swamps, trees sitting at low tide like nesting birds on the tortured cradles of their roots. They formed, said Reggie, huge breeding grounds for alligators and mosquitoes. He was cheerful about these things, happy to point out all he could; he had lived in similar parts before. Amy listened in silence, wishing she was better prepared. To her it seemed the great knitted roots of the mangrove trees closed in like a cage about them.
The journey up-river followed endless bends. The heat in the tiny boat destroyed even the terror of alligators plunging into the turbid river, breaking the silence about them. At times they left the boat and took to paths hacked through vegetation that only waited to close behind them, to cut off any hope of retreat. However much Amy minimised her clothing the residue of boots and corsets, puffs and frills impeded motion, health and comfort. She tottered on or sank back, half-expiring, her limbs swollen and sore from the bites of endless mosquitoes. Nothing on the journey was helped by the fact that Reggie had admitted upon reaching Singapore that his promotion was not as Acting Resident, but only as assistant to the Resident. This surprise, in the midst of so much that was strange, was dulled of impact. So great was the explosion of colour and light, horror and joy that absorbed her every moment, it was struggle enough to merely survive.
Serambang, the capital of Sungei Ujong, was a dusty village with a few Chinese shops. Its import was opium, its export tin. The Residency and its dependent houses were on a hill defaced by tin diggings. The pony pulling their buggy grew lame and refused the last mile and they had to walk in the fierce noon sun. Amy stopped on the path ascending the hill and stared in disbelief. She swallowed hard to suppress her shock. Reggie appeared unmoved before the scene; he had lived too long with improvisations. ‘I suppose those must be the servants’ quarters?’ Amy suggested, looking about for a house she could recognise as her own. There were some brilliant flowers and a lawn divided by a tennis net, but no sign of a solid house, only a group of flimsy huts.
‘No, my Kitten, those are our quarters. This is our new home.’ Reggie began to laugh at Amy’s expression. Faced at last by reality, she could no longer hide distress and Reggie’s laughter cut her deeply. Before her was a rickety wooden structure with an attap roof and wide verandahs, like the sketches of a native longhouse she had seen once in a magazine. It was raised off the ground upon stilts and ascended to by a ladder-like stair. ‘There is no front door,’ she said weakly at last. ‘Oh Reggie, it’s not possible.’ ‘Cheer up, Kitten, it’s not so bad.’ Reggie grinned. Amy felt a sudden hatred for him.
‘There’s a door of sorts at the top of those steps,’ Reggie continued hurriedly. ‘You’d have a tiger in your front parlour if the house wasn’t raised up high on those stilts. It’s well suited to the climate, cool and not uncomfortable. Take heart,’ he said more kindly, seeing her dejection. At his change in tone tears filled her eyes and she thought she might faint with exhaustion; they had travelled sixty terrible miles in thirty-three hours. ‘Tigers?’ she repeated. ‘Well, I suppose after all those crocodiles I shall learn to cope with tigers.’ She tried to smile. ‘That’s my girl,’ said Reggie loudly.
He took her arm and helped her forward to the steep stairs before the house. Amy stumbled from the blazing heat into its cool dark rooms that first morning with both horror and gratefulness. It was beyond her to imagine that here she would live, yet after the journey of the last few days any destination was an achievement. There was a bath and then rest and the Resident’s wife bustling kindly about directing a crowd of native servants that Amy dauntingly realised she must soon learn to command herself. As she closed her eyes to sleep, she prayed that a house like those in Singapore still waited somewhere for her. There, in spite of windows without glass, verandahs and the eternal punkahs, there were still plaster and tiles and stone porticoes, and doors of familiar identity.
Later she woke and stared from her pillow at an accommodation precariously open to the elements, rolled bamboo blinds the only protection against wind and rain, the glare of the sun and insects. She felt numb as she gazed about her; for Reggie she must make the best of it. She cringed as a pale, naked-looking gecko moved across the wall. Worst of all was the bathroom, a large grim room at a lower level decended to from a trap in the bedroom floor. There was a hole for drainage in one corner and a large Shanghai jar of cool water for bathing. Behind it a spider stretched enormous limbs across the inside of a window. Amy took a deep breath. There was no going back.
Across the compound in a similar house the Resident lived with the dignity and calm of those who have transcended. He had the respect of the natives and also of the Sultan of Sungei Ujong. Reggie was to assist him in the maintenance of peaceful cooperation between the local peoples and the Imperial power. The Resident’s home had a piano, ornaments, books and china, and his wife was welcoming, her table set with flowers and menu cards in Dresden holders. They dined that first evening with them, yet even with people so English Amy was shocked to discover she had unknowingly eaten stewed elephant trunk.
‘It tastes much like beef,’ shrugged the Resident’s wife, who had lived many years in strange and inaccessible places. She was a tired-eyed woman whose silence was more than exhaustion. Her old-fashioned dresses and primly tied hair showed her disapproval of the world. She looked at Amy’s fashionable curls, the endless changes of her trousseau and was quick to judge. Still, she was kind, and formalities must be upheld in verandah teas poured from silver teapots. Upheld in crystal, starched linen and lace tablecloths, hauled up jungle paths to Sungei Ujong. They were the only European wives for miles around; few men brought their women here. To Amy these social constrictions were excruciating, and there was still the continuing shock to absorb. Reggie had told her little, and she had not thought to question the conditions of Sungei Ujong in the breathlessness of the first days of marriage. It was enough that she was with him.
At first there was only terror before an uncaged, wild world. The reality of snakes and poisonous centipedes or scorpions in shoes was no figment of the imagination, but a routine of surveillance to be diligently applied. And when she was without this terror, there was the boredom of her life. She helped the Resident’s wife dispense advice and medicines to the local Malays; there was no doctor nearer than Malacca. But the sight of pustules, wounds full of maggots and children limp with fever depressed and frightened her. There was nothing to alleviate dismay. Their baggage had arrived, the wedding presents, books and pictures, and these when arranged about the house gave some semblance of identity. But nothing could cover up the archaic sanitary arrangements, nor the pungency of incredible odours that assailed her nose. The musky smell of the smooth-skinned servants who moved silent and barefoot about the house. The smell of mud and rotting fish, of ripe fruit and open drains, of bat droppings and old rattan. And everywhere the peppery dankness of the jungle and the nauseous, stinking durian, like a decomposing body. But there was also besides these the sweet scent of the pigeon orchid and the beautiful frangipani flowers, and in the evening the tang of joss sticks and the fragrance of wood fires. Her eyes, too, slowly became used to the cursed sun that at noon in a pitch of white heat drained everything of colour. She got up early for the dawn and later watched the heavy sunset streaming like blood across the sky. She filled the house with scarlet hibiscus and flaming cannas. Everything seemed made in excess here, in colour, in texture, in substance. To observe it became in the end fatiguing. She waited for the rain, for the break it brought in the sky and in emotion, but before it stopped was already tired of its relentless, uncontained pouring. The balance of things was different here, obeying an alien rhythm.
Sometimes now she sketched and painted as she had in Somerset; she was said to have a talent. She did this secretly at first, wishing to face alone this bridge to her past life. She painted a liana climbing a tree outside her window, lighting the dark greenery with its flaming blossoms. The industry of her eye and brush was little compared to the immensity of transporting with each stroke the person she had been in Somerset to the strangeness of Sungei Ujong. But it seemed at the end of the exercise that some link had been established, and yet there was only a group of crimson petals upon the page. That evening she showed it to Reggie, shyly expecting his praise. ‘I did it for you,’ she told him. She had wrapped it up carefully and watched him extract it from tissue paper. ‘It’s a pretty thing you’ve done, Kitten,’ he appraised it at arm’s length and gave a laugh. ‘I’ve a talented wife into the bargain.’ There was condescension in his voice, as if she were a child. Soon he put the picture on the table by his whisky and picked up an office report. ‘Three men killed in Serembang today in another clash of those Chinese societies.’ He took a gulp of his drink, and when he replaced it on the table the base of the glass covered part of the painting.
‘Don’t you like it? I wanted to do something for you. I thought you might hang it near you, in the office,’ she suggested. Reggie considered the painting again. He gave Amy a kiss. ‘Good idea, but the Resident won’t have that kind of stuff on the walls and it’s a bit wild for the drawing room, don’t you think? Try again, Kitten, it will give you something to do.’ He smiled and returned to his report. ‘There’s going to be more Chinese trouble in the gaming houses tomorrow, mark my words. We’d better be prepared.’ ‘Is it so bad?’ she asked.
‘It won’t be if we are vigilant,’ Reggie replied, thinking she spoke of the Chinese troubles. Amy bit her lip. She could not blame him, he might be right; her talent was meagre, but the hurt spread deeply through her. Beyond a question of dexterity it seemed a rejection of herself. And yet later the Resident’s wife, seeing the painting, praised it in delight. Accepting it from Amy, she framed and hung it upon her wall to Reggie’s great surprise. Before long, inevitably, between the heat came the fever and shivering that without warning took Amy in its grip. Her terror, so far from doctors, was not lessened by the Resident’s wife’s calm diagnosis of malaria, as if she had a cold. She was dosed with quinine and the fever fell. In the rush to follow Reggie, illness or discomfort had been as distant in her mind as was the actuality of Sungei Ujong. The only terrain of any substance then had been her relationship with Reggie. And she wondered at the naivety that could have brought her so far in every sense without a single question, living only in each moment. Yet then as now, deep within that secret part of herself, nothing had changed.
And of what Reggie gave her there was never enough. He knew how to fan a madness in her until she no longer knew herself. Until she was ashamed, for in her mind the only relief and the only reality were those hours upon their bed. She had not married in ignorance. In the fields about Cranage she had often watched the coupling of animals, but vague and poetic images of love obscured the nature of this act in marriage. It was also distorted by a whispered knowledge that men were gross in their desires. She had been advised to dread, ignore and stoically endure the carnality of love. Her mind was full of these warnings, but deeper in herself she sensed a hunger that came from no clear point. She had stood before Reggie on their wedding night without the trepidation she had expected. He observed her silently in her white nightgown. His eyes, usually so cool, held an expression she did not recognise. They reminded her of Frank. She stepped forward and offered him her mouth, surprised at herself for so boldly initiating everything she had been warned against.
‘You’re not afraid of me, Amy, are you? he asked, looking down at her. She was unsure from his tone whether the question was a reassurance or an accusation. ‘Should I be afraid,’ she asked, worried at the apparent absence of this emotion in herself. She was filled by suppressed excitement but she could find no fear.
He kissed her then, his hands moving to caress her body and spread upon her hips, pressing that part of herself to him, hard. She felt his teeth. As he kissed her he began to undress her, pulling at the nightdress and his own clothes. The gown fell about her and she was left naked and vulnerable before him, still held fast upon his mouth. He half-carried her to the big carved bed and spread her there upon it. She wished he would lower the light, but instead he drew back to observe her. The expression she saw in his face filled her with a feeling his kisses had not stirred. She was frightened then, not of him, but of what was happening to herself. She was lost, possessed by a swollen, voluptuous feeling. She closed her eyes. His hands touched her, his mouth followed over her body. He laid his naked weight upon her. She did not know what he wanted from her. She lay passive, wishing to open to him, wider, deeper, to the very core of herself until she enclosed him entirely. He began to whisper to her, do this or that. She felt no shame, nothing but obedience, the beating of her heart and the wish to follow avidly to wherever it was he led. She was surprised at the urgency of the whole thing. She had imagined a slow and dreamlike sequence without definite destination, not this race towards some destructive end.
In the light she saw his eyes were glazed and his face disfigured and knew she was aflame with the same expression. She wanted him soldered to her, so that there was no division between them, so that the crazed energy that escaped him would enter her and flow back into him. She did as he told her but was unprepared for the sudden wall of pain that arrested all the strange currents of pleasure. She tried to thrust him away, but he was pushing deep into her flesh with a violence that suffocated her. She thought it would never end, that she would die, and screamed for him to stop. And suddenly he did, falling upon her breast, obediently still. Without moving he fell asleep. She lay wide-eyed, reliving the strange experience, at one moment shameful ecstasy and at another pain. Beneath the shock her nerves were naked, her body seemed in turmoil. In spite of hurt and confusion she still desired Reggie. She wished she knew what end it was her feelings pushed her to, what her body sought to know. She tossed beside him until he roused himself and looked at her, a strange expression on his face, almost of disapproval, as at a discovery he wished he had not made. Then he laughed.
‘I never heard of a wife as willing as you. I’ve been told good women don’t feel like that. Come here then, Kitten. I’ll put you out of your agony. I’ll show you your true self.’ He was gentle now, kissing her, caressing her knowingly until her body was caught in a wild race with itself. Then pleasure broke through her and she cried out. She opened her eyes and looked at him. She felt drugged. He was smiling, but there was something she did not like about his smile, something that made her draw away. ‘You’re a born mistress, you know, little Kitten,’ he laughed. ‘They say a husband shouldn’t give his wife that knowledge, to keep her in her place. And I can tell you, most good women wouldn’t want to know.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ she whispered and covered herself with the sheet, ashamed. He laughed again. ‘But you’re mine and there’s much I can teach you.’ He spoke as if the thought of such corruption brought him further pleasure. She tried to find the horror her mother would demand she feel, but at his words she felt instead only new excitement.
In the weeks ahead her mother’s words did sometimes return, from some far place. ‘One must strive to rise above the animal in our nature, for our true selves to flower,’ Mrs Sidley always warned and blushed. But Amy found she wanted only to sink into that very state, the sweet, heavy languor of it filling her limbs. She wanted never to wake from it. She endured the polite society of the day only to reach each night. A ravenous, insatiable appetite seemed aroused within her. All her thoughts were centred about those moments alone with Reggie. He taught her things she would have died from shame to learn about before. But each new learning seemed only to incite her. All she knew termed as depraved she felt only as an ecstasy.
And in the heat and strangeness of Sungei Ujong, so far from society or convention, the lush raw jungle that surrounded them, sensual in vision and in smell, unfiltered and untouched, seemed to release her to herself, destroying the conditioning of a lifetime. The heat, she had heard, brought all manner of madness. There was nothing she would not do for Reggie, she learned quickly what he liked. Yet slowly she became aware that the fire that held her mesmerised in an endless voluptuous state did not permeate Reggie to the same degree. She judged it first as the boredom that must come from a life of repeated erotic experience. Experience that was new to her. Yet once, when she bent to pleasure him in the very way he had taught her to, he flung her from him suddenly in anger. ‘God, woman,’ he growled, his face flushed with contempt. ‘Have you no shame, no sense of yourself? You’re not a common whore!’
She drew away from him in consternation, flooded by the coldness of his disapproval. ‘But you yourself … You wished it before,’ she whispered in confusion, unable to discern how she had repulsed him. ‘That was before. I had had too much to drink. I had no right. Did I not apologise?’ he barked. She felt suddenly guiltily aware of her nakedness before his sullen eyes. ‘I sought only to please you. To me there seemed no shame in love between a husband and a wife,’ she said. Her throat was hard, she bit her lip to stop the tears.
‘Well, there are limits any wife can recognise. You’d better watch your appetites,’ he threatened. She turned away, unable still to determine how she had invited such a vitriolic attack. She had thought the submission she readily made would bind his love the more to her. Instead, when she lay beneath him now in those moments they were closest she felt the beginning of a distance as his passion cooled. lt was as if he sought to break the wantonness of her love for him. She did not understand that the very essence that had drawn him to her appeared, when possessed, shameful, grotesque, unexpected and dangerous in a wife. The very thing he would pay to have cheaply simulated he feared to have free in the palm of his hand.
It was their fourth month in Sungei Ujong. A boat coming up from Singapore brought them the usual long-awaited post. Before that day she had not heard of Annie Luke. They were clearing the house of bats after breakfast. Amy huddled for safety beneath a tent of netting in the lounge. One servant chased the creatures upstairs with a mop tied to a broom, another swiped them with a tennis racquet Reggie had provided. Within an hour they had killed fifteen. A boy sent by Reggie from his office across the compound arrived with her bundle of letters. She opened them quickly. Behind the bamboo blinds, beneath the squeaks and thumps of injured bats and the creaking of the fan, the landscape of her former life appeared incongruously, like reflections in old glass. She was in the breathing presence of her mother, Sarah, her father, her brother. Each addressed her in a rush then faded irretrievably. No second reading achieved resurrection. They fell dead, their touch became thick and depressing in the fierce noon sun before the dense wall of jungle. What was there she could answer that would not alarm or distress?
At last she came to the letter whose writing she had not recognised, redirected from her home address. This did not die after reading but stood up, raw and alive, almost to throttle her. It held her all day within its constriction. Only in the evening, upon the verandah, could she force herself to show Reggie Annie Luke’s letter, pushing words into her mouth.
‘Read it,’ she said bitterly. ‘I’m waiting for an explanation. It had better be a good one.’ Reggie took the letter from her.
Beyond the garden the dark jungle rose, alive with ghostly stirrings. The crickets about them rasped, a huge moth settled peacefully on her wrist. There was a moon and there were stars. It seemed Reggie had lived for a time with the woman Annie Luke. He had promised to marry her, she had borne his child. It was all in the letter she had written to Amy.
Reggie did not turn his head, there was only the creak of basketwork as he shifted in his chair. After some time he shrugged, as if rousing himself from sleep. He placed his hand upon Amy’s. The moth flew up and sought the lamp, joining the frantic circle of insects smashing at intervals against the hot glass. She looked down at his hand upon hers on the arm of the rattan chair and wondered what moist secrets it had uncovered in a life beyond her grasp. She threw it away and stared ahead, shock and humiliation mounting in her like blood beneath a tourniquet. ‘I had hoped you need never know. I made her a generous settlement, she promised to be silent,’ Reggie said at last. ‘So it is true, then?’ Amy confirmed beneath her breath. The letter lay open in Reggie’s hand. She stared at the badly formed writing.
He would have married me, I had his love but he saw your money. It was that he were after, he never had a true feeling for you. He told me, ‘She has money, Annie, she can make me rich, change my life. I’d be a fool to turn my back upon fortune and I can catch her easy. If you love me truly you’ll not get in my way.’ He told me himself. I loved him truly so I let him go. But don’t think he came to you for love. Whatever I felt for him I was never blind to the man he is, he would sell his own mother for money. I should know, you can be sure, when I look at the little baby there.
Amy felt sick. She turned away from the sight of the letter. Reggie cleared his throat. ‘You know nothing yet of life, Amy, or the needs of a man alone. I never pretended to live like a monk. I was a year at home before I met you, and I had known Annie from long before that, since I was a boy. She’s crafty, you’re not to believe half she says.’ ‘It’s not the knowing of her,’ Amy said. ‘She’s had your child. Can you not understand what that means to me, besides the other awful things she says?’
‘It is not possible to form a liaison with any woman without the danger of a child. You must know that. These accidents will happen, even if unwanted.’ He spoke without guilt or apology, his voice matter of fact, as if the fault were hers for not understanding the ways of the world. He denied her the chance to forgive. She did not answer, feeling it was a dream, that her life had not been shattered like a bit of cheap fairground glass. No explanation could erase the things that woman had said, about Reggie and his past, about the reasons he had married Amy that made nonsense of the heat of feeling that had carried her here, so far. She felt soiled now to know there had been nothing secret between herself and Reggie.
‘If your past holds more, I’d rather know it now,’ she said in new fury. He was silent for a moment. ‘There are other children, Amy.’ His voice was cold and clipped. ‘Three, or was it four? I hardly remember.’ ‘What?’ she gasped. She had never expected such an admission. ‘It was long ago, during those years in Sarawak when I worked for Charles Brooke, the White Rajah. I went out at nineteen. Brooke didn’t want the problems of white memsahibs; he encouraged native mistresses instead. We called them sleeping dictionaries. You learned the language from them as an added bonus.’ He gave a snort of laughter. ‘They bred like rabbits, there were half-caste children everywhere. I had more than one woman there and several children.’
Amy buried her face in her hands. Reggie looked at her without emotion. ‘You asked to know. I would never have told you but for this business with Annie. But perhaps it is best you face the facts about me.’ ‘I hate you, hate you,’ Amy shouted. ‘There is no need for jealousy. I couldn’t trace my own brats if I wished to. There were no obligations to those women. They were natives. When you left Sarawak, well, you simply left. It was as if they never existed.’ ‘It’s all horrid, so horrid,’ she cried. Reggie shrugged indifferently, calm upon the verandah. She disliked the way he talked.
‘It’s not horrid, although it is a shock for you. It’s just reality, and it was long ago.’ ‘And Annie!’ she yelled, wishing suddenly to hit him, to scratch him to bits. She remembered now how Reggie had said to her father, in a voice clothed in respect, that the allowance from her marriage settlement would not be enough to cover adequately the expense of life abroad. She remembered her father had privately fumed that he would have given ten times to another man; any parsimony was for her own protection. Her parents had been right when they saw not passion but rapacity. How could she have been such a fool?
He took her hand again. ‘You know so little of the world, of the wiles of women like that. She trapped me, you know, deliberately.’ ‘She could have got rid of the child.’ She had read such things could be done, that it was even quite common amongst working-class women, amongst women like Annie Luke. She had written she worked in a milliner’s, sewing roses onto hats. ‘She didn’t tell me until it was too late. What could I do?’ He pulled at her hand, his voice full of sorrow, his pale eyes intent.
‘That child was born a week before our wedding. I would not have married you had I known. How could you do it to me?’ She sat forward in the chair screaming out the words. ‘And what of her? She could have felt no better than I, being left like that, with your child.’ ‘Oh, Amy.’ She struggled in his grasp but eventually let him hold her, rocking her to silence. Turning her head she saw his eyes in the lamplight watched her, unmoving. She was frightened then of what more she might discover in his face, and quickly looked away.
‘Money,’ she said. ‘She wants money from me, did you read? Did you decide this with her?’ Her mind was full of suspicions. ‘She says you have paid nothing for the child since you married me. She says she will go to my parents. It would kill them. It’s blackmail.’ She screamed at him again. He was silent. She was like a wild creature that must wear itself out before it could be touched. He waited for her to quieten.
‘Tell me, did you marry me for my money? Be honest now, no lies.’ Her voice was cold; it sought to destroy. He took time in replying, sitting back in the chair. The worst was over, she was prepared to negotiate a compromise, he knew how to handle her now. He had no wish to hurt her, and certainly she had attracted him, of that there was no doubt. He began to speak as truthfully as he dared. ‘Amy, you know me now, know the man I am. Of course I liked the thought of your money, and the advantages it could bring us. But it is untrue to say I married you for money. I love you more than your money, little Kitten.’ His voice was soft. ‘You do my affection for you an injustice. I could not marry you against your will, your parents tried hard enough to dissuade you. Have I asked for anything but your affection? Have we not been happy these past months, in spite of this God-forsaken place? Annie is something from the past. Your money does not come into the matter, that’s just Annie’s bitter spite.’
‘But much of it happened after we met. You decided to leave her with a child and marry me. It’s as if you lied.’ She was not wrong; she felt a new and colder feeling listening to his explanation. His words were the tightrope between truth and lies. Her tears dried with emotions she wished she could push away.
His voice was sad when he spoke again. He saw she wished to be lightened of a burden that had fallen too suddenly, and would be relieved to agree it was not entirely his fault. And as he hoped, she lay at last, exhausted against his arm, her face blank as she listened to a boat glugging up the river.
‘We must silence her,’ Reggie murmured against her ear. A faint smell of whisky lingered with him. She stared numbly at the insects about the lamp. Behind the light the night was black, the jungle close. It stirred with the calls of nocturnal birds, inhuman as lost spirits. She let him tell her what to do. Her mind had shut down when she needed it most.
‘You have private means of your own, don’t you?’ He spoke softly. She did not know she had told him this, she was too tired to remember. ‘My salary and your allowance together barely cover expenses here. I have no means to stop Annie going to your parents.’
Amy sat up in agitation. ‘But I cannot handle that money except through my parents. They would have to know.’ She twisted her rings. How could expenses be so high in a place like this? She managed the house on what Reggie gave her, a little at a time. The allowance from her marriage settlement went straight to Reggie from her father in two half-yearly instalments. She did not know what he did with it. ‘Well,’ Reggie said slowly, ‘perhaps you could tell them I have a poor widowed cousin, whom you would like to help. They could send a regular amount to Annie. That should settle her. Money is all she wants. We must write at once, to your father and Annie.’
She hated to hear that name, dropped familiarly from his lips again and again or the satisfaction in his voice. She nodded, only wanting the thing neatly packaged now and put away from her. She seemed too tired to get out of the chair. He picked her up and carried her to bed. He called the maid, Puteh, to undress her. At the door he paused and watched the woman as she bent over Amy, her hips slim as a child’s within her sarong, showing each muscle. Then he turned abruptly back to the verandah, and sat listening to the jungle until the woman came out of Amy’s room. He signalled to her silently.
Later, he showed Amy copies of the letters to her father and Annie Luke. She had only a vague memory of writing them, for the malaria came upon her again, more virulent than before, throwing her into a nightmare world consuming days without her knowledge. At last it was over and she woke, to see beyond the mosquito net, a gecko on the wall. Puteh washed her with cool water and brought hot broth to drink. Soon Reggie appeared solicitously, his face patchy with heat and a midday drink, his smile lopsided in apprehension, as if to gauge his ground. She remembered Annie Luke and looked away. Exhaustion seemed to wash her clean of the ability to hate. What choice did she have? The stigma of divorce or returning home, thoughts that had flooded her mind, could ruin the political career of her father. She had married with stubborn perversity; she could not forget her pride. Reggie, standing hesitantly in the doorway, appeared in need of forgiveness; a furtive expression implied such things. It would be months before a reply came from her father or Annie Luke. Why should she destroy herself?
As after the last attack she was weak. She was annoyed to find, in spite of all the bitterness he had worked upon her, that she still waited for Reggie to leave his office across the compound and stride towards the house at lunchtime or for dinner. She wished she could ignore him. But Reggie was careful to be kind and loving. He had his meals on a tray in her room, he presented her with a ginger kitten, he told stories to amuse her and played numerous hands of cards.
He came into the room as the sun set one evening and she lay gazing vacantly at the sky. He bent to kiss her and placed a small box covered with a handkerchief in her hands. ‘What is it?’ she asked, excitement filling her voice before she could prevent it. ‘A special gift for a special lady,’ Reggie beamed. Amy lifted the handkerchief.
‘Oh!’ she exclaimed in delight. The last strong sun of the day flooded the room. In a tiny gauze cage was a massive blue butterfly. The sun lit it to phosphorus until its brilliance was like a gem upon the bed. ‘Look,’ Reggie sat down and opened the door of the little box, then extracted the butterfly carefully. Amy was surprised at the gentleness of his big hands. A silk thread was tied about the insect’s body, and as it flew up was pulled easily back. Reggie placed the thread in Amy’s hand, the creature alighted on her wrist to flex its fantastic wings. Amy drew a quick breath.
‘Like it?’ Reggie asked.
‘Oh, yes. But is it not cruel?’ she replied.
‘No, it has not been maimed and when you wish you may let it go. It will come to no harm for a little while. I’m happy it has pleased you.’ He leaned forward and pinched her cheek. ‘You’ll soon feel yourself, my Kitten. I want us to be as we were before. Nothing should separate us.’ It was as near as he had come to an apology. Feeling for him welled up in her as she had thought it might never again.
‘I too want it to be like before,’ she said, shy to meet his eyes. Reggie squeezed her arm. It was as if they could begin anew.
But that night, when Reggie’s hand upon her implied a different purpose, she drew back instinctively. ‘Please Reggie, I’m not better yet.’ But Reggie was insistent in his needs. She lay beneath him passively, his hands worked no more miracles. Instead his touch seemed only to shut that dark core of herself against him. She saw his eyes watching her detachedly, no longer disfigured by the strange expression that had stirred her own blood before. Something was broken, something was gone. She turned away then without desire, unable to help that one change within her, to face what she had welcomed before. She begged fatigue again.
‘Please, Reggie. Please, no,’ she whispered. Reggie smiled, turning down the corners of his mouth, shrugging affably as if untroubled.
It was a question of time, she thought. Soon she would recover feeling, health, desire. She would push down the thought of Annie Luke; all women learn such things. She remembered novels about such situations that had seemed at the time the culmination of passion and romance. In those books wise heroines bravely transcended such traumas. She too in time would do the same, if only time would wait.
She slept fitfully through the night and woke to the early morning. Before the window hung the gauze cage. Within it the butterfly stirred, silver and ghostly in the half-light, as if not of this earth. She watched its weary fluttering until the sun filled out its wings and the colour burned the room. She got up then and let it free, releasing it from the cage and the thread. It flew up into the still, pink sky. She watched it from the window, standing before the growing day, reborn as surely from the night as she hoped her own life was now.
Reggie had left that day after a noontime nap. He insisted on returning early to the office, to prepare for an excursion to collect rent from a village. He left and the heat felt thick upon her, she longed to wash it away. The bathroom was airless; its windows, small for privacy, looked over the servants’ quarters. At this time of day the heat stopped everyone working and drugged the mind. Bony dogs and servants slept, chickens picked about the yard. On her flesh the sluice of cold water made Amy draw breath. Looking through the wooden slats of the window she suddenly saw Reggie appear upon a path that led from the back of his office to this part of the compound, unseen from the front verandah. He scanned the house briefly but did not see her. Almost at once the woman Puteh stepped out from behind a flowering bush. Reggie stopped without surprise, as if her appearance was expected. He nodded, taking her briefly by the elbow, pushing her before him. The bush shielded them from view of the servants’ quarters. They walked back a distance until they reached a building that served sometimes as a guest house. Here they left the path, a clump of trees hiding them from sight.
She stood still, sweat forming in the small of her back. Then, pulling on a wrap, she ran back up into the bedroom, calling brusquely to the servant who dozed in the corridor to tug harder at the string that worked the fan above her bed. Obediently there came a new burst of activity and the air began to move. She threw herself upon the bed. The dent in the pillow where Reggie had slept was beside her still, a fair hair or two upon it. The odour of his pomade came to her as she stared into the fan.
She had taken no notice of the woman, a native, a servant. Little more seemed necessary than a command, a complaint or a commendation. The fan creaked on above. In the corridor outside the servant coughed and hawked. Above humiliation, she was filled suddenly with an overpowering anger that stretched beyond the woman Puteh, beyond distant Annie Luke whom she now financially supported. It stretched to fill a universe that could not contain it and returned to press her into a terrible darkness. She could neither scream nor cry. Something unbreakable transfixed her. For Annie Luke and her child, for the woman in Sarawak suckling half-caste babies at her breast, she felt suddenly now an unpredictable empathy. In animosity she had been glad to see with Reggie’s eye, to dismiss those women whom circumstance rejected. It had shut the gate upon her fears. But now she knew her own nature, she could no longer condemn or reject. Anger thumped through her until she pummelled the mattress beneath her. She realised now that what had disturbed her most on her wedding night was Reggie’s arrogant condescension. He had shown her the workings of her own body for his pleasure and use. Her own sensuality was of no matter to him. She could centre no real feelings upon Puteh. It was Reggie who aroused such fury she would have murdered him gladly as he slept, if he lay beside her still. Instead there was only a dent in the pillow and a few fair hairs upon it. ***
It was raining and he was ill. ‘I have never had malaria,’ he said in reply to her question. He spoke with pride. ‘My prevention is to take quinine at the best of times, to keep the damn plague away.’ He turned to her, his face grey with distress. ‘It’s old troubles playing up. My liver, and that damn pain in the bladder. Been with me for years, but I know what to take. You learn how to treat yourself, living in these parts.’ He directed her from where he lay in bed to the medicine cabinet, to a small bottle of pale coloured liquid she knew was not quinine. He was always interested in medicines, new treatments or patent remedies. She looked upon this as a knowledge essential to life so far from civilization. She poured out the medicine and took it to him. She did not think to question what it was he took. ‘We could send for a doctor from Malacca.’
He cut her short. ‘I never go near the scoundrels. Kill you before you can kill yourself. I always dose myself.’ He made a scornful noise and groaned again, indicating impatiently for the fan to move faster.
It was dark and airless in the room. A storm had broken with the morning and thundered upon the roof, rattling in drainpipes, cascading from gutters. The windows were closed against the deluge but a fine spray came in through cracks, soaking the perimeter of the room. A broken door banged somewhere in the house, water dripped from the ceiling into metal buckets. Amy called to the servant, and a creaking began that accelerated until the flapping of the fan was like a hysterical bird.
She huddled on a chair beside Reggie’s bed. The sheets gave off a stale odour although they had been changed that morning. Reggie’s face was rough with pain and sweat. Soon, as she expected, he asked for a brandy and soda. She went to the decanter. There was the stench from her hands of sugar of lead, a pungent liniment he insisted she rub upon his belly over that part where the pain was the worst. She poured out the brandy. He drunk it down in gulps, then lay back. The rain hammered on; the room was steamy and suffocating. Outside was the water, sluicing and beating, inside were smells of illness, damp thatch and the fetid odour from the chamber pot beneath the bed. She rang for a boy to dispose of it. Her clothes stuck to her damply and she had taken off her corset; she did not care how she looked.
Reggie turned in bed, pulling the sheets with him. ‘I was invalided home for this before, just the same but worse. I know the pattern well.’ He put out a clammy hand in comfort. ‘Not much of those drops of mine left. Better send for more from the Chinese chemist. Can’t do without them. I go through them at a great rate.’ That was the first she had heard of his association with the Chinese medicine shop. She drew back in surprise from wiping his neck with a sponge soaked in lavender water. The shop was full of strange roots, dried and unspeakable parts of animals and snakes in jars of brine. She was overcome by the thought that the mysterious liquid Reggie copiously downed might be a similar repulsive brine. It struck her then how far she had travelled from that distant ballroom in Somerset.
‘The Chinese know a thing or two our doctors don’t. I’ll give them that much.’ Reggie changed positions painfully. ‘Call Ah Seng. He knows where to get the medicine.’
‘How can you buy stuff from that place, all those snakes and horrid things?’ She shuddered. Once on a visit to the town with the Resident’s wife, she had looked inside the shop. Reggie snorted through his pain. ‘Don’t you fancy a man who drinks snake juice? It’s arsenic, Kitten, arsenic I take.’
He laughed again at her further alarm.
‘Poison?’ She was relieved about the snakes.
‘If you don’t know how to use it. But I have a tolerance, a remarkable tolerance,’ he boasted. ‘I’ve taken it for years. It’s my remedy, it’s my cure, the only thing that touches this pain. An old Chinaman put me wise, years ago in Sarawak. I can take amounts that would kill other men.’ His pride was swallowed in a groan. ‘Be a good girl, call Ah Seng.’
Later, she sat upon the verandah. The rain had eased and she felt she would die if she could not have air. A servant dried a chair and changed a cushion for her. The verandah was a pool of water, but the rain fell now in an exhausted sheet beyond the eaves, all violence gone. The muddy compound would dry smooth and hard, and crack again as soon as the sun came out. A fine spray blew in upon her; the hem of her skirt was sodden as she sat immersed in thought. She was married to a man who drank each day, with no more trepidation than he swallowed brandy, massive amounts of arsenic. He lived when others would have died.
She shivered on the damp verandah. If only they could leave. Her life was in limbo. Boredom alone might kill her in Sungei Ujong, a boredom as circumscribed as disease, so heavy she dreaded each new day. Death pervaded everything here, insinuating itself into nightmares to wake her sweating in the dark. She sensed it in the blaze of noon, waiting with the silent cunning that lies at the base of all tropical life. The stinking fruit of the durian, full of virile flesh, the bottomless swamps and brilliant flowers and the jungle, alive with eyes and vines as thick as bodies, waited for nothing but to claim her. She shivered again. If only they could leave.
Each day was endless. Her memory was bad. Happiness or pain seemed much the same. Annie Luke was something long digested. She watched Puteh come and go, accepting the woman’s slim fingers upon her own body, helping her dress, hooking a blouse, pulling tight the strings of her corset; she saw and felt without emotion. In the anger before this lethargy she had thought of sending the woman away, but she said nothing. And she said nothing to Reggie. Women like Puteh were interchangeable; soon there would be another. She blamed herself. If she had not been ill things might be different. All those dark and terrible feelings that had carried her to this place were gone. Her own body had left her stranded, cast up upon an unknown shore. She had lost direction, she had lost herself, and worst of all she had lost Reggie. And yet she felt nothing, could only stare at the thatched roof of the guest house beyond the oleanders where each afternoon beneath the hot sun, Reggie possessed the woman, Puteh. She imagined their bodies moving together, the woman’s breasts the colour of roasted coffee, her slim, dark limbs wound like vines about Reggie’s belabouring parts. One erotic image upon another pursued her without release until she saw Reggie’s head bent over his desk in his office again. Her body felt only relief to be free of Reggie’s embrace, but that she could be touched by imaginings of him with another woman seemed the most perverted punishment of all. She understood nothing any more.
There were times when she could not escape, when Reggie was insistent in his need for her, when he was drunk. Then her whole being closed against him. Reggie, she sensed, was pleased with this change in their intimacy, the new frigidity in herself. It fitted his conventions of a wife better; she had found her place, he saw nothing sick about her. And suddenly now, upon the verandah, she wondered in confusion if she had not really been sick before. The feelings Reggie had unleashed within her were those no well-bred woman might feel. Everybody knew that. Why was she not happy to be free of them, to feel at last the decorous distaste society demanded a woman practice in the marriage relationship? She looked down at her hands on the wet verandah and thought of the madness that had once possessed her. Perhaps, indeed, instead of being ill she was only getting better. Perhaps she should be glad, a monster had left her body. She shivered in the damp and sneezed. If only they could leave.
But there were still more months before this happened, months of illness, boredom and frustration in which each grew more listless, like weary insects under glass, imprisoned in a vacuum. A terrible depression seized Reggie once his liver cleared. He continued to take his strange remedy in large doses every day. Amy got over her first troubled shock. He had not only survived, he was better. It seemed he knew what he was doing. She learned from Reggie that the taking of arsenic was not without its following as eccentric fashions went. It was not uncommon in England, where it was secretly used as a stimulant. And any doctor could tell of its use in a variety of illnesses. For Reggie its convenience ranged further. It helped his liver and the bladder complaint, it helped ward off malaria and treated those cursed and intimate diseases men were exposed to in a life of any full-bloodedness. It was marvellous stuff, said Reggie, not a household should be without some. When Amy was low again with malaria, he suggested she try arsenic. At first she refused, frightened. He leafed through a battered old medical book of tropical diseases to prove to her its use in malaria in conjunction with quinine. He gave it to her sparingly, a drop or two in plenty of water. She smelled and tasted nothing, and was surprised to find it helped more than quinine. But afterwards she felt depressed, apprehensive of its use. In spite of knowledge and assurance, Reggie was no doctor. What worked for him might kill her. She refused to take another dose.
As the months passed, Reggie became more and more morose. He poured out his first drink after breakfast. He raged at the climate and his work, he quarrelled with the Resident. A terrible change came over him. He turned against the Foreign Service. He said he and Amy would only rot for years in backwaters worse than Sungei Ujong; their own Resident was an example. He wished to find a new life in business, and discussed the situation with the Resident, who knew too well the character needed to survive places like Sungei Ujong. He accepted Reggie’s resignation and advised him to go to Singapore and look for something there. If nothing turned up he could buy tickets home. But things were not easy in England, the Resident demurred.
The thought that they might return to England revived the life in Amy and stirred her to domestic action. She started with the packing. She tied her hair in a different way. She painted some greater moth orchids to remind her later of the jungle. When Reggie returned, bright and cheerful, she ran to greet him eagerly. He sat her down and explained his good luck.
‘It all happened at the bar of the Singapore Club. There was this fellow Cooper-Hewitt there, on leave from Yokohama. Good kind of chap, full of tales of the place over taking Shanghai as the Paris of the East. It seems they’ve need of a secretary there, at the Yokohama United Club. Cooper-Hewitt said I was the sort they wanted. He was on the club’s committee. He telegraphed my application himself. He thought I’d be accepted. And if not, according to him there’s no place like Yokohama for opportunity or fortune.’
Reggie stood in new clothes of sophistication against the backdrop of the jungle. The verandah creaked beneath his agitation, a storm gathered in the sky. Amy stared at him. She had heard of Yokohama, a name so strange she closed her ears to it whenever it was mentioned. It was further than the end of the world, further still than China. She had an image of it clinging to the perimeter of the Earth, nearly falling off, and looked up at Reggie’s towering form in growing realisation.
‘Oh Reggie, it’s not possible. Please do let us go home. How can we go on to more strange lands and all their horrid deprivations?’ She gave a moan of sudden pain. The deadness in her cracked; she began to sob and could not stop. Reggie tried to cheer her up.
‘Yokohama is nothing like Sungei Ujong. There are shops full of things from home, fashions from Paris and a social life like nowhere else. And of course, there is money. I can see it waiting in a pile for us, if we will only claim it. We’ll be rich, Amy. We can always go home. Is it not braver first to push forward?’ His voice was soft, his eyes feverish; there was no distracting him. He looked at Amy tenderly and put his arms about her. ‘At least we shall leave Sungei Ujong. No fate could be worse than remaining.’ And with this fact Amy had to agree, using it like a compass to navigate the future. Reggie stroked her hair.
‘Poor little Kitten. I’ve put you through so much here. I promise I’ll make it up to you when we get to Yokohama.’ He took her chin in his hand and kissed her tearful face.
‘You know I’ll do anything for you, go anywhere you want. Have I not already come so far?’ she cried, grateful for his love. ‘Perhaps Yokohama will not be so bad.’ She held him to her tightly.
But there was already one more difference in their lives, she had not yet told Reggie. She had confided in the Resident’s wife, who said it must be so. Amy’s feelings were of terror and an excitement that spilt into disbelief. She did not know if she even wanted the child already within her.
We wait. Mostly in silence. Then a woman comes in. She explains that the person who’s supposed to see us is caught up somewhere else and will be very late.
“You can buy a sandwich at the shop in the other building,” she says. “Be back here in twenty minutes. Do not wander around on your own.”
“May we leave our bags here, miss?” one of the girls asks.
“Yes,” the woman says.
The other six girls act like they’ve done this before. They pull out their purses and tuck their bags under their seats. They walk out quickly. Except me. I just sit there. The duty teacher at St Agnes hadn’t packed any lunch for me. I have a few coins and three dollars, but that’s all the money that I have on me. I don’t know if it’s enough to buy anything in this place. It’s my first time out like this, on my own. I wonder if the shop in the other building sells donuts, especially sugar donuts, but I decide that it’s better if I just sit here and wait.
The woman is still here and she looks at me. I’m thinking she might ask me if I’m hungry, but she doesn’t say anything like that. I try to look like I’m okay. Like I’m not a baby that needs attending to. She continues not saying anything and then she leaves. I don’t mind. It’s like I’m invisible. I’m used to this.
I swing my legs. I hum to myself. When I’m nervous it’s the same words, maybe different melody. You know it. Number One on the right, Number Two on the left. I don’t remember their faces so much anymore but the words have carved themselves in tiny scribbled lines round and round the inside of my brain.
The girls come back with their food. Brown paper bags with translucent spots because the food inside is hot or greasy or both.
They eat quickly. Carefully. They don’t talk.
I notice that the girl on my left has turned to face me.
She has short hair, black and shiny, perfectly brushed and every strand in place. Her eyebrows are two careful arches above her eyes. Her nose is straight and sharp. Her gaze is intense and even piercing. Her skin is so pale I can see a web of red capillaries on each of her cheeks. She has just finished half her sandwich, and it looks like she’s about to start on the other half. But she’s holding it out.
“Here,” she says carefully. In a a low voice. “You can have this.”
I’m embarrassed. My face feels like I’m blushing. The other girls act like they don’t hear. They don’t even look over.
“I’m okay,” I say.
The girl has a strange look on her face. A little grimace. At first I think that she’s sneering at me. But she’s polite, considerate, and I figure that maybe she just has an unconventional way of smiling. Might be the braces on her teeth. Except she doesn’t have braces and I can see that her teeth are unnaturally white. Also, I realise that she doesn’t look me in the eye for long. I notice her gaze darting here and there and once every few seconds she will glance back at me. It feels weird, a little unsettling, but so does everything else about this place.
“Don’t be silly,” she says. “It’s a long wait. You must be starving. Just eat this. What’s the matter with you? Are you sick?”
To tell the truth, I feel a knot in my chest. It sounds crazy but I don’t know how to respond. I’m confused. Why is she offering me her food? I’m a stranger. We don’t even know each other’s names. Is this sandwich a gift, like a Christmas present? Like Uncle John giving me that hand me down magic set? Or would she expect me to pay her for the sandwich afterwards? Would I owe her? How much would it be, and how would I get the money? Just thinking about all this, I forget to breathe. And then my head hurts. I wish someone would come in and call my name so I can get on with the interview and then get sent back to St Agnes.
But the girl doesn’t give up.