“...Sometimes I suspect that what had really happened was that we became more resigned, more cynical, raised our pain thresholds as we lowered our expectations. All in all, settled for less.” ― Emma Donoghue. (Permission granted)
On Dec. 26, 2004, a massive 9.3-magnitude earthquake struck the Indian Ocean just west of the northern tip of Aceh, Sumatra.
The epicenter of the quake was located some 160 kilometres farther west, but the tremor sent devastating tsunami waves across the region, reaching as far as Africa’s eastern coast.
The tsunami killed some 230,000 people in 14 countries along the rim of the Indian Ocean. Of these, 170,000 were Achenese residents.
To put the deaths in perspective, more people died in Aceh that day than the (then) living population of Oxford or Cambridge, or Cheltenham.
Manor House, April 2007.
If there’s one thing the tsunami taught me, sex is not a panacea for grief. Sex is no comfort, no consolation, it’s merely a rumble in the jungle.
There have always been men in my life, since my mother deserted Daddy and absconded with the butler. The sodding butler, for God’s sake. Hmm. A step-up in class for him, though.
Daddy must have despaired that I’d grow-up, have children, and become a dutiful wife. Until Richard came along. Daddy liked his no-nonsense attitude.
That was enough.
Those were the days — and nights. Swinging seventies. Silver Jubilee, and Santana. It seemed I had the world at my feet.
Oh for the gift of hindsight.
Hitching up with Richard was flawed — like my ill-fitting engagement ring. And his fault we emigrated from our haven in England to Sumatra — sodding Aceh of all places. Dirty, despicable place, full of gawking Muslims. What have they got to be cheery about? — I can’t even set foot outside our Manor without wearing a head scarf and a long dress.
And Charles my cousin, twice-removed if my memory is not befuddled, shares the blame. His fault for accompanying my delightful daughter, Angelique, to my Christmas reunion, along with his latest squeeze — ostensibly his fiancée — to mock me for rejecting his proposal back then.
I need a vodka tonic right now. Yes. Before breakfast. Is that alright? Don’t grimace, old girl, you’ll crack my mirror. Enough of that. What has happened has happened, and I wasn’t to blame.
The tsunami took care of that.
Aceh, Boxing Day, 2004.
I hadn’t realised the enemy was armed and ready to strike. Our HQ was the Manor House, a splendid example of Indonesian architecture, set back on high ground with an overwhelming view of the valley beyond. We were sitting in the sunroom overlooking our grounds that extended to a fortified wall — akin to the Great Wall of China, sufficient to keep out nosy natives.
A nice day for bridge...
‘Three no trumps,’ I declared, looking hard at Delcie, my partner — we roped in Richard and Hannah, the young maid, (both reluctant novices) after breakfast to make up the four. Up a few hundred rupiah, and when I made the contract — I had no doubt — another rubber to us. I blew a cloud of smoke in Richard’s direction. ‘It’s your call.’
He shook his head, scowled. ‘No bid.’
No bid from Delcie and then the same from Hannah completed the auction.
Richard led the queen of clubs...
A foreboding rumble in the air and the sunroom window exploded, showering us with glass spikes.
What the fuck..?
Hannah screamed, Richard fell off his chair like a spineless raw recruit, and Delcie’s face turned white. She was shaking as water poured in, and I dragged them with me as we half stumbled, half waded back to the safety of the stairs and refuge above.
‘Bollocks,’ I said as I helped Delcie and Hannah climb up. ‘It was an easy make.’
My attempt to make light of it failed. A frown crossed her forehead — a shallow crease — and she gulped like a freshly caught salmon.
‘Steady on, old girl... Everyone’s okay. Hannah will be safe in her room.’
Her frown deepened. ‘Where’s Richard?’
I pointed to the landing below. ‘Downstairs. He can take care of himself. Bit wet behind the ears, that’s all.’
A strangled shout from down there, and Richard’s head popped into sight. His hair was dripping wet and his eyes bulged like cannonballs. ‘Look out the bloody window, man. Look out the bloody window.’
I straightened my shoulders. Stiff upper-lip, lad, Richard’s overreacting. Yet one glance at Delcie’s contorted face and my composure crumbled. A million thoughts raced through my mind as I seized her hand, and we dashed into the nearest bedroom to gaze on the horror outside.
‘Oh. My. God,’ whispered Delcie, her voice cracking like dry wood. ‘Angelique’s out there.’
Iron rods clamped my chest. Angelique... And my Celia, damn it. Where the hell were they?
Delcie was out of it — shell-shocked. I took several deep breaths, eased her into a nearby chair, and leapt back to the window to stare transfixed. It just wasn’t happening. It couldn’t be. A muted movie reeled in my head as the horror unfolded. The maelstrom stretched to the horizon; and closer, below, pounding waves thundered past our grounds into maize fields — into fucking maize fields! All I could see was a minor breach in our wall and floodwater downstairs, our only casualties. I took a deep breath. We’d missed being totally engulfed by a whisker. Christ. A fucking whisker!
Thank. You. God.
My relief was fleeting. The valley beyond our sanctuary was pumped to the brim with swirling floodwater, misshapen palms, corrugated tin roofs, and wrecked fishing boats. I watched distorted shapes whirling amongst the debris. Pack animals, pigs, ponies — and people.
Into The Valley Of Death...
Tennyson’s poem filled my mind, ghoulishly fitting somehow. Bobbing brown bodies, arms held aloft as if beseeching Allah. Hundreds… Maybe fucking thousands.
Bollocks. Too many to count.
A creak behind me, I turned. Delcie, with a bedraggled Richard, her eyes blotched red, his face devoid of colour. All as one, we stared out of the window in total bewilderment — and disbelief — until Delcie spoke.
I’m going downstairs to phone her.’
‘You can’t,’ said Richard. ‘Apart from water up to our armpits down there, there’s no transmission. I’ve already tried.’
Delcie’s head slumped, her shoulders shuddered, and a ribbon of tears rolled down her cheeks. ‘Oh, no. Please tell me she’s safe... Please?’
I glanced at Richard and shook my head.
He turned away.
Three months on, how could I rewind time, rewind that fateful day? Erase the scene from my mind. But I couldn’t. Angelique was strolling (so I imagined) through the harbour market hand in hand with Charles’s beau, searching out our luncheon at the market stalls — a live lobster, freshly caught crabs, hand-picked vegetables and fruits — when the tsunami wave struck. Without warning, apart from an awful stillness and an eerie sound keening in the wind, before our world shattered.
Our luncheon was lost — if only it was merely that. So were they — our loved ones; their bodies never recovered. We never recovered, either. Even though we scavenged along the shore, along the harbour remnants, along the many alleyways in town looking for any clue where our lost ones had gone, we never found anything.
Crucifying — not knowing. Would Angelique ever walk back into my life again? I’m here, safe. She had the rest of her life beckoning — a blossoming career, marriage to a suitable beau, children for me to cosset when she visited, and always had her doting father providing support. Richard was the perfect role model — whatever other faults he had. As to Celia, not my cup of tea. Too simpering and shallow. But on our walks, Charles would mutter to himself, as if she was with him, and I sensed he felt her loss more deeply than he showed.
Still not my cup of tea, though.
Before long, Richard withdrew. Soon he blamed me, eyes wide with hate. I sought solace in the Manor with only memories of my daughter, but the high walls that protected us against the tsunami couldn’t protect me from his barbed arrows with poisoned tips hurled at my heart. ‘Your fault, your fault, your fault being Lady of the Manor, insisting on an exotic luncheon.’
I shook my head in response. Many times. Tears flowed down my colourless cheeks; my pleas rebounded off silent ears. How could I explain? How could I rewind time? How could I bring our daughter — the one precious gift we had — back to life?
‘You cannot explain?’ he growled, the emphasis on “explain”. ‘Delcie cannot explain,’ he mocked, shifting the emphasis. ‘Delcie cannot explain.’ He jibed, ‘pray tell me who can explain?’
The spirits haunted him, I think. Not me, maybe I couldn’t connect — even my daughter deserted me. Many nights at first, Richard woke up screaming, as though they were there. He gazed up at the dancing shadows on the ceiling, cast from the moonlight filtering through the window, and I imagined them whispering, Why didn’t you save us, Papa?
Time didn’t heal. Months passed. I lost him to the spirits. Layer upon layer of our life together peeling away, until he became an empty shell; a caricature of the man I once loved. In the end, I moved into Angelique’s bedroom — it gave me some comfort, but the change became a catalyst to the beginning of a secondary phase.
It was at a time when Richard’s anger abated — the fire in his eyes dulled, like dying embers in a soulless black grate — but his ebbing heralded in a new trial.
‘I cannot return to England,’ Charles, dressed in his trademark silk dressing gown, announced one day at breakfast — eggs, lightly poached, and plump steak cutlets purchased from the local Chinese shop — that caught me off-guard. ‘Here I stay. Final decision.’
Richard stopped buttering a piece of toast. His right eye twitched. ‘Don’t be a damn fool, man. Being here is like a living death. If I had the money…’ His voice trailed off as he glared at me, but this time without the passion to fuel his angst.
I leant over and poured more Earl Grey — mixed remnants of our tea supplies — into Charles’s bone-china cup. ‘What happened?’
Charles ignored me, stabbed a fork at his egg yolk, and condescended to regard Richard. ‘Exactly. We’re alive and Celia is not. I know she’ll wait for me here.’
‘Oh, no,’ I gasped. His fiancée had been missing for nearly six months, presumed dead, and from what he hinted — the innuendo in his tone — could he be contemplating a similar demise?
I tried to plead — I had plenty of practice. ‘Please...Charles.’
He appeared to read my mind, or at least fathom out my concern. He tensed up. ‘What’s another dead body...Delcie?’
That cutting jibe — the way he raised his tone in a derisory way when saying my name — hurt me as much as Richard’s past cavalcade of arrows.
I stifled a sob that turned to annoyance. Pointed a cracked fingernail at him. ‘That’s not fair. And you know it.’
He lowered his gaze to his plate and seemed to contemplate what to do next, but settled on using his fork to push the last remnant of steak into the setting yolk. He popped it into his mouth, and looked at me. Then at Richard.
‘I’ll pay my way,’ he said, standing up as he spoke. He picked up his teacup and cradled it like a new-born infant. ‘And don’t worry; I’ll make a will...as long as the Indonesian authorities get their act together.’
Charles sauntered off to the smoking lounge, Richard coughed, and I cleared up the table. Anything to forget what was happening to us — the survivors — all of us floundering around in a whirlpool.
Richard had emptied himself, Charles had made a decision, and now it was my turn.
I had to change.
I needed help.
When Angelique was born it was the happiest day in my life. Her dark blue eyes sparkled like Tanzanite gems, and her smile captivated me.
There were complications. Delcie couldn’t have any more children, and my cherished hope of a son faded like a morning dream. I think that was the day when regrets seeped into our marriage. If it hadn’t been for Angelique…
...Every day after it was safe to go, I trawled along what was left of the shore like a tracker dog, sniffing for a clue of their whereabouts, and hoping some miracle saved them from the tsunami. In my mind I compared it to that of Hiroshima, Japan, after it was hit by an atomic bomb during World War II.
Only the high outer walls of the House protected us from a similar fate; sometimes I wished they hadn’t.
People forget survivors have to bear a lifetime of suffering, but I couldn’t become morose or Angelique wouldn’t talk to me. She told me that. Why did Mama send us away, Papa? I miss you so much. I want to be with you and we can be happy again.
At first I blamed Delcie despite her pathetic and somewhat phony attempts to console me.
‘Richard...I’ve lost a daughter as well. How could I possibly have known…?’
Delcie’s voice trailed off into a stifled sob, but mine filled the empty space between us.
‘Granted, you didn’t know, but don’t you see that Angelique — and Celia — had no need to leave the House? Enough food, as Charles put it — and for once I agreed with him — to feed a bloody army battalion. Anyway, I’m sick of hearing your whining excuses. Enough is enough, and that’s final.’
Her voice followed me down the hall, but I locked myself in my room to contemplate whether I was destined to suffer for the rest of my natural. And so, we lived in this grey vacuum; each grey day followed by yet another. I still held her responsible, but my anger was short-lived — only flaring up when I felt down or when Angelique didn’t come to talk with me at night.
Our uneasy lives changed when Charles demanded to stay. The cheeky blighter said he’d pay his way, and I agreed — had to, really. The House is worth a few bob, even in current times, but my early retirement pension was being eaten by the modern cancerous disease — bloody inflation.
Charles is loaded, but also a skinflint when it comes to forking out for upkeep. But not for those evil-smelling Havana cigars imported from Cuba — a bloody stockpile, closeted in the downstairs khazi along with the bloody toilet tissue. He must have been born in a pile of dung.
‘How many times have I requested that you do not bloody well smoke in the dining room,’ I said, for what must have been every grey day.
And as if I didn’t know that Delcie would side with him, she came onstage like a marauding witch.
‘Richard, that’s not true. He’s only cutting his cigar.’
Charles raised a finger and smirked at me — a knowing smile that triggered off my retort.
‘Whose bloody house is it? His or mine?’
I didn’t wait for one of his snide remarks; I stormed off to my room. His presence — sniffing around Delcie like a bloody hound dog — became a burden I couldn’t bear. Both of them regarding me as if I was a malevolent outsider — the House was closing in on me. With Angelique as company I decided to escape its claustrophobic atmosphere, and we began taking long meditative walks.
On one of these trips, we met Eko.
Why Delcie married that otiose carthorse who couldn’t play bridge is beyond my comprehension. In her younger days, she radiated the same beauty as my Celia — could have captured the heart of any young man — and she had many thoroughbred suitors. I know only too well...
…The Twickenham crowd roared their approval as ’Quins ran in another try, an ideal venue to propose, especially when fuelled by half-time courage. I took hold of her left hand, rubbed my thumb across her ring finger, and gazed into her eyes.
She pressed the finger to my lips.
‘Not now, Charles. Not now.’
I persisted. ‘Wait for me...’
She nodded, but her eyes avoided my gaze, and a month later she chose Richard when I fought for Queen and country at Sandhurst — much to my regret. Yet it was not in vain. My impressive Curriculum Vita — Harrow, Cambridge, and Army rank of Major — served me well in my chosen career as a London/New York based investment broker.
We kept in touch even though Delcie retired to Sumatra with her uncouth husband — her inheritance money went a long way in those days — and she feigned delight I’d been courting Celia. Invited us to share Christmas and New Year with them and Angelique and, as I’d been carrying an Olympic torch for so long, I needed closure.
To my everlasting regret, I agreed.
Now, weeks later, I could see it coming. The tragedy had affected us all, and I wasn’t wholly surprised that Delcie and Richard’s marriage went through a bad patch. Both blaming the other for Angelique’s death. Not a word about Celia — Delcie’s mannerisms showed me she hadn’t cared much about her — much to my chagrin. Ultimately, I was drawn into the conflict when Delcie collared me after breakfast one morning.
‘What do you think, Charles?’
It was obvious she was talking about her bust-ups with Richard. I wasn’t about to tip-toe around. ‘I don’t think anything. I know Richard lost his bottle, and now he’s taking it out on you. And what about me? How do you think I feel? I’ve lost Celia, so we’re all in the same boat, old girl.’
Delcie gawped at me, as if the thought just occurred to her.
‘Well, yes, of course, Charles. It’s because I’m upset.’
‘And I’m not?’
She moved close to me. Her warm breath on my face as her fingers stroked my arm. My hairs tingled. A defining moment.
‘Don’t let us argue, Charles. I need you, believe me.’
Our eyes met, and she held my gaze.
‘I can wait,’ she said.
Sure. Like before? Could I believe her? Affairs of the heart were trickier than the most resolute of enemies.
‘I need to think,’ I said.
She broke away, and her voice went cold. ‘Of course,’ she replied.
I lasted three short days. Six months after Celia went missing; I only needed three days to lay down her ghost and to contemplate renewing my affair with Delcie. This time though, I had an inner conflict. Usurping Richard — however much I reviled him — was a dishonourable act, and I needed to make this clear to her.
If I was going to bed her, it would be on my terms.
A couple of days later, I ventured out of the Manor to catch a breath of fresh air. Being cooped up with a morose Richard and an indecisive Charles had me climbing walls to escape — and until I took control of my life I would be stuck with Angelique’s spirit pointing a finger at me. You’re to blame. You sent me to my death.
Moving on, the medics would call it. But they knew sod all. I anticipated them saying, Mrs Hill, how does it feel to lose a daughter? with the same compassion as, How does it feel to have a wisdom tooth extracted? followed by, Put those feelings behind you, accept fate, and…Blah, blah. All clever-dick theory and no empathy.
Head down, I hardly noticed my surroundings until I heard a shout.
‘Delcie...? Auntie, is it really you?’
Auntie? The intonation penetrated through the raucous sounds of market day, like an alien siren. I stopped, turned, and squinted away from the sun; pushed up my Dior’s, and stared in the direction of the voice. Accents I remember well, but this one — although sounding vaguely like someone I used to know — escaped me. It came from a tall, youngish woman — a full head above the natives; several of them carrying laden bags were gawping at her. A sideshow?
She was waving at me.
I shook my head, trying to clear the hazy recollection.
She pushed her way through the heaving throng — pack animals, Charles called them — and reached my side.
‘I’m Jane...Jane Parrington...remember?’
My mind cleared, and her profile came into focus. Not a niece, but in those days at social gatherings, any friend of her mother’s — Mary — was called Auntie this or Auntie that.
I might have sounded doubtful. ‘Ah, yes, I remember you. What a surprise. You look…well …grown up.’
Jane had close-cropped orange hair and freckles; she was wearing cargo pants and a grimy white t-shirt with NEMO in black letters emblazoned across the front. She could have been a survivor — a displaced person — than, presumably, from an Aid Agency. Aid Agencies proliferated in Sumatra, much to Richard’s mortification, spawning and spewing bottomless dollars to grateful beneficiaries. None of which benefited us — all it did was to put up the cost of living, he said.
Jane’s smile lit up her face. ‘So it is you’, she repeated, touching her face, somewhat gingerly. Her hands revealed more. Chewed fingernails, index and middle finger stained yellow. Heavy smoker?
She looked a bit wistful. Sighed. ‘You still have lovely skin. What brings you to Sumatra?’
An envious compliment? Followed by a good question. At one time, a guarantee of fine crop of fresh white grapes from our kitchen garden. Now the vine had withered.
So had I.
So had I.
So had I.
‘I live here,’ I said. ‘Surely your mother would have told you. In the Manor. That big house on the hill.’
‘Really? The Manor House? Awesome.’
Awesome? How I hate Americanisms. “No class”, Charles would say.
She babbled away, said her mother was a bit doolally, forgets stuff, blah, blah… She pointed to her T-shirt.
‘I’m with NEMO…we’re tanking in water supplies to a few remote villages…well that’s the theory, anyway. Not that it’s my job. I’m a counsellor...you know...helping people overcome the trauma.’
I sucked in a pungent breath; my nose wrinkled, and I gazed aside. Smells of rotting garbage piled high against the walkway, children screaming and running wild, helmetless riders on rusty motorbikes weaving in and out of the throng; a drum beat in the distance — a tattoo in my head. Had fate dealt me a bad hand or a trump card? Could Jane be my saviour? I discarded my initial prejudices as easily as stray thoughts.
‘How fascinating. Tell me more.’
After the initial encounter, cut short by Jane’s need to return to base camp — a corrugated roofed enclave near the harbour — we met a few times to talk about Angelique, gossip about life in England and to share her work, while I contemplated how she could help me rebuild my life. We formed links, strengthened memories, and we became — not friends, exactly — more like confidants when she listened to how I coped with losing my daughter.
Jane’s company lightened my grief, and I welcomed our meetings. One day she phoned and suggested we take tea together at a local cake shop. She sounded breathless.
‘I have something to tell you,’ she said.
She giggled. ‘Secret...but I must tell someone.’
I was intrigued. ‘Jane…you’re teasing me. I’m too old for guessing games.’
She sounded shocked. ‘Auntie, how could you say that? I only wish I looked as…well…young…as you.’
Flattery. I glossed over the innuendo that I passed for a youthful fifty-something; like my face, the silken image I showed to the outside world was far removed from the empty husk inside.
‘Jane, you’re too kind, and I’d be delighted. What time?’
At four o’clock we were seated at a white wooden table on prim-red chairs in a quiet corner of Majestyk Bakery — a spotlessly clean, Swiss-owned café — me sipping tea and her devouring a plate of assorted pastries, swilled down with bottled spring water. Jane brimmed with vitality — radiant, and her fingernails were neatly manicured, without the trace of yellow I’d noticed before.
Apart from a couple of Aid workers who were studying road maps and an elderly gentleman with a white handlebar moustache who was reading a dog-eared paperback, we were the only customers. Our small talk petered out. I carefully placed my teacup on its saucer and pursed my lips.
‘Jane, you’ve acquired a large appetite all of a sudden. I’ve never known you to eat so much.’
She giggled and wiped a few stray crumbs away. ‘That’s what I’m longing to tell you.’ She patted her stomach. ‘I’m eating for two.’
A warm glow, and then a cold chill, went through me. I’m losing touch. Why didn’t I guess? I struggled to find the right words.
‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Congratulations.’ It sounded limp, and I sought to recover. ‘I mean, that’s wonderful news. I’m so happy for you.’
Jane didn’t notice. While she bubbled away with the prospect of being a single parent — she had split-up with her partner, Adil something — my mind recalled images I’d tried to bury…
…‘Richard, there’s something I need to tell you.’
‘Oh…you mean it was a mistake?’
‘Not that. It was…wonderful.’
‘I can guess. Others can think what they like. You’re no loose woman.’
I blushed. But soon he’d notice the bump. I counted to ten, crossed my fingers, and prayed for forgiveness.
‘We should have taken precautions.’
‘Oh,’ he said. ‘You mean you’re…?’ His eyes held mine.
I hung my head; my mother’s words seemed appropriate. ‘I’m with child.’
The silence between us lingered. Richard was ten years older than me; in his youth, debonair, with an eye for a pretty girl. Handsome, charming, and I had one too many glasses of champagne. With Charles absent, I didn’t resist his advances. And he was good. Very good.
He frowned. ‘I take it, it’s mine…?’
‘…Auntie, you’re not listening.’
I snapped out of my reverie and wiped away a loose tear with a napkin. ‘Oh, so sorry, dear. Your news brought back memories of my Angelique.’
Jane must have noticed my distress. She leaned over and gripped my hand.
‘No… it was selfish of me to think of myself. How are you feeling?’
Like shit. “You’re no loose woman.” Should I … Could I confess my secret — one I’d borne for decades?
Instead, I squeezed her hand in return. Took the easy way out. ‘These last few months haven’t been easy. Richard…Charles…we’re all suffering.’
Jane nodded. ‘It will take time to heal, Auntie. Now that I’ve more time on my hands – NEMO insisted I lighten my workload — would you like me to… I know it sounds silly… but maybe I could help you?’
Could you, really? Charles would say, When an opportunity beckons, embrace it. You might never get another chance. Still, my mind dithered.
‘Counselling, you mean?’
Jane laughed. ‘Grand sounding name for a listener, but it would be a shame to waste my training.’
My eyes settled on my teacup. Empty, save for a few soggy leaves at the bottom.
Jane sounded worried. ‘If you don’t want to…’
‘No...No, it’s very kind of you. But what about the baby?’
‘I’ve thought of that. And don’t think you’ll get away lightly. I’m setting you up as a part-time babysitter.’
A small bird sprung out of the wall clock above Jane’s head and cuckooed. I smiled, loosened my grip on her hand, and picked up the last pastry.
‘I’d better get into shape, then.’
Since I met Eko outside “our” mosque, it’s been good for me. A comfort. Eko — a teenager — lost his family; both parents and three older brothers. He survived. Now he was alone and seeking answers from Allah.
Why? Why didn’t Allah save my family? Where have they gone?
Every day I grieved for Angelique, but Eko helped me to bear my loss — and when he smiled at me — through broken teeth — I knew I’d helped him.
In my mind, I had found the son I always craved and Eko had found a new father. Easy to think, but would he accept me, or would he be another burden?
Only one way to find out. I brought him into the House, much to Delcie’s surprise. She turned up her nose when I introduced him. Later, she collared me making sandwiches in the kitchen when Eko went to explore the grounds.
‘Richard, he’s a native.’
‘He’s an orphan. And he speaks English.’
No effect. She tried conciliation. ‘Why is he here?’
She tried to reason. ‘Open your eyes, Richard. There are hundreds of similar victims — and we’re not a charity.’
That pissed me off. I toyed with the bread knife, tested the serrated edge for sharpness with my thumb. ‘He’s bloody well staying with me, and that’s final.’
She spat out a reply. ‘You mean sleeping with you? It’s disgusting.’
I sighed. ‘We talk to the spirits, that’s all.’
Delcie’s voice went up an octave — into the soprano range. ‘Spirits? It’s macabre, are you crazy?’
A lingering malaise passed between us, which heralded in Charles on cue. He frowned at us but directed his words at me.
‘Did you realise there was an intruder in the grounds by the stables? If I hadn’t accosted him, we could all have been murdered in our beds.’
I pointed the knife at him. ‘What have you bloody well done?’
He brushed my comments aside. ‘Turfed the little sod out on his ear, old boy. Told him to bugger off, in so many words.’
‘What? Are you some kind of bloody idiot?’
Charles’s voice went cold. One of his eyelids twitched; a sure sign he was expecting confrontation. ‘You heard me,’ he said.
I didn’t disappoint him, but my incandescence tempered.
‘Did you realise that Eko — your intruder — is my guest? My guest, do you understand? So you can bloody well go and bring him back.’
Delcie interrupted. ‘Richard, don’t be stupid. Charles acted in good faith. How was he to know that this Eko is your toy-boy?’
A silence between us; Delcie’s eyebrows rose in mock horror — or so it appeared, until Charles roared with laughter. ‘Toy-boy? Oh my giddy aunt.’
Enough. ‘Sod the bloody pair of you. I’ll go and find him, and we’ll move into the West Wing.’ I made a point of slowly sliding the breadknife back into the board, while staring at Charles. ‘Just so we’re crystal clear old boy. Eko’s my houseguest, you hear me?’
They heard me. Deafening silence followed my footsteps outside.
Stables — a misnomer for a barn never utilised; now rotting wood and tin sheets lying in untidy heaps backed up against the stone walls. The aftermath of the tsunami remained evident, despite our meagre attempts to restore the splendour. I sighed. A few gaping holes in the once-solid masonry opened an invitation to any intruder; no wonder Charles assumed Eko was one.
I made my way to the Iron Gate close by, lifted the broken padlock out of its latch, and pushed against the cool breeze. The gate creaked open on rusty hinges, another maintenance chore going unheeded.
I surveyed the scene. Slimy silt as far as the eye could see. Closer, a few forlorn grasses sprouted through piles of rubble and junk. To one side a listless pond, now overgrown with whispering rushes and reeds, a few screeching gulls swooping low as if seeking prey — but no bloody sign of human life nearby.
Eko had gone.
Bloody hell. The light faded, and I wasn’t going to risk breaking a leg clambering over God knows what. I swallowed my chagrin and tramped back to the House.
Delcie was waiting. She frowned. ‘Did you find him?’
I waved my arms. ‘Does it look like I did?’
‘I guess not. But I was concerned. He’s a youngster, the weather is turning, and it’s getting dark.’
A spark of humanity the tsunami hadn’t extinguished — or had something or someone lightened her mood? I suspected Charles but, for once, I was way off beam. I held her gaze. She hesitated at first.
‘Richard, there’s something I want to tell you.’
‘Remember Mary Parrington…?’
‘What? She’s here?’
‘I what?’ said Charles, who slid up behind her.
‘I was about to tell Richard I’d met Jane Parrington down by the market…you remember Mary, my sparring partner from Roehampton…her daughter.’
‘Ah yes,’ he said. ‘Mary, Mary, quite contrary. Not my cup of tea, though.’
Delcie arched an eyebrow. ‘Is that so? Most men found her … captivating.’
Charles smiled, gazed at me. ‘Richard should know. A hungry python, what, old boy?’
I ignored the jibe. ‘Look,’ I said. What about this Jane Parrington…What’s so bloody important?’
Delcie smiled, showed us a picture of her. Quite unlike my svelte Angelique — Jane had ginger hair, a toothy grin, and a protruding bump.
‘She’s having a baby, and I’ve said she’s welcome to stay here for a while.’
Blood rose to my cheeks. ‘What the..?’
She didn’t miss a beat. ‘I knew you’d be delighted,’ she said. ‘You have your toy-boy, and I’ll have Jane’s baby to mind.’
‘This Jane Parrington revelation, dammit. What game are you playing, Delcie?’
Her remarks about Mary was a stealth attack with a knife; between the ribs and thrust up towards my heart. What did she know?
My memory went back a couple of decades. An early season ball, before my commission. A breathless evening, full of promise...
‘Mary, you look… well, outstanding tonight.’
She breathed in deeply, knowing I was eyeing her cleavage. She fluttered a wispy handkerchief at my face and pouted.
‘You wouldn’t say that if Delcie was here.’
‘And you wouldn’t act like that’ — I mimicked her breath-taking -- ‘if Jamie was here.’
She slid closer. Her fingers touched my hand as the band played.
A slow waltz -- “Somewhere My Love”, and every curve of her body melted into my growing hardness. She felt it too.
It was enough.
...Delcie’s voice interrupted my reminiscences. ‘Something you want to tell me, Charles?’
We were sitting alone in the sunroom (now repaired and renovated) — Richard had stomped off to his room — swigging our pre-dinner gin and tonics and studying the setting sun. Peaceful, like the innocent expression on her face; head leaning to one side, eyes enquiring, a half smile on her lips — but I was not deceived.
I tried a diversionary tactic.
She was mocking me, now. Well, two could play at that game.
‘You’re so pathetic.’
She wasn’t fazed; had another slug from her glass, and brushed off my barb as if I was an annoying wasp.
‘That’s not what you said last night when you breached my chastity…again.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘If I remember correctly, it was “you’re so passionate”— or were you thinking of Mary?’
She held up her hand, her expression hardened. ‘Don’t bother with excuses. We both know it’s your dirty little secret.’
‘Look, I never…’
Delcie’s voice spat venom. ‘Never what? Never bedded her, you mean? And before you deny it, she told me all about it.’
Another revelation that stunned me. Years had passed, and we’d never breached that subject; not etiquette, and as Delcie had said, “what lays buried, stays buried”.
I swigged a gulp of gin and tasted cyanide infiltrating. ‘She’s lying.’
‘You’re all bluster, Charles.’
‘She tried to make you jealous.’
‘Ah… so you admit it, then?’
The enemy attacked me on all fronts. Richard would have crumbled under the oral assault, but I deflected her onslaught.
‘She had Jamie, but it wasn’t enough. She made a play for me, but it didn’t work.’ Delcie frowned into her empty glass. Doubt maybe? I took full advantage. ‘You know how I felt … still feel… about you — but then you went and hitched your skirts to Richard’s carriage.’
Her expression softened. She held my eyes with hers. ‘Still feel?’
I exhaled a deep breath. My mind went back to that fateful evening…
‘It felt… you know… so good to have you inside me.’
She smothered my words with her tongue; another passionate embrace and her hand moved downwards.
Power surged through my limbs, nerve ends vibrating with desire. I had to have her; had to possess her. She squirmed beneath me at my opening thrust, biting my ear, and whispering intriguing infidelity.
‘Take me again, Charles. Make me yours.’
Take me again.
Take me again.
Make me yours.
...Too hot, sweating, ragged breaths slowing. I opened my eyelids. Delcie was looking at me — a perplexed frown on her face — and my memories withered like scorched shoots. Now, time for new growth as I sought to repair the rift between us.
‘I was always yours. I asked you to wait for me, remember?’
She sighed; capitulated. ‘Like it was yesterday.’
I beckoned her closer. ‘Come here.’
She turned away, but her voice softened. ‘Give me time,’ she said.
I needed to think. When I finally retired to my room that night, I locked the door. Charles had unwittingly peeled away one of my long-held secrets, and sown some misgivings as to Mary’s real motives.
A true best friend? Or had she deceived me?
…Richard had escorted me to the Royal Regatta at Henley — I hoped he would ingratiate himself into our social class. While he and Jamie cheered on the men’s eights competing for the Grand Challenge Cup, I joined Mary who sat under a shaded oak in the Steward’s Enclosure, stirring her Pimms with a cucumber spear.
As I sank into a deckchair next to her, she poured me a glass of Duck Poo and leaned forward, a scheming smirk — I had no doubt — on her otherwise innocent face. Her fingers lightly touched my arm: conspirators in concert. I could see right through her.
‘Does Charles know?’ she asked, fluttering her eyelashes. As usual she was wearing too much make-up.
I wasn’t about to be drawn in, and fortunately the embankment crowd roared at that moment. I raised my glass for a toast, evading her question.
‘Here’s to Moseley. Richard’s wagered ten pounds on their crew.’
Mary giggled. ‘Aren’t they so gorgeous, petal?’
I spluttered through a suppressed laugh, the bubbly fizzing from my lips. ‘Wait till I tell Jamie, you witch.’
‘In that case, I’d better cast my spell on Charles.’ She winked at me. ‘I’ve heard he’s quite a stud.’
Actually, no. Charles was never a Casanova; it was sabre drawn, then a few quick thrusts. Richard, though… Ah, Richard, yes, he was more sensual — and I embraced his attentions, our trysts made easier when Charles conveniently enlisted.
‘Charles is cooped up at Sandhurst,’ I said, sipping my fizz to avoid her gaze.
From the corner of my eye I saw Mary blink several times, her mascara-laden eyelashes beating like a butterfly’s wings. It was a gesture I’d seen before — a Machiavellian trait; maybe that’s why I remembered it.
‘Where there’s a will there’s a way.’ She eased out the champagne bottle from the ice-bucket. ‘More poo, petal?’
A few weeks later, at the end of July, Mary confided in me that Charles imposed his attentions on her. This time we were at an equestrian show at Richmond. Pouring with rain — horses appeared to attract bad weather — but we ensconced ourselves on a quiet seat in a member’s marquee, sipping glasses of Chablis and toying with salmon sandwiches.
‘He’s such a beast. Can’t foxtrot to save his life — he trod on my foot, and it swelled up. Of course, he escorted me back to his quarters — said he had some sort of herbal balm. He was so fervent I couldn’t resist.’
My stomach fluttered. Nerves? My period was overdue. ‘You mean…?’
Mary glanced around. No one paid us any attention, but she lowered her voice. ‘We were alone. He ordered me to…well…show me. I was a bit uneasy, but I lifted the hem of my dress to remove my stockings — he appreciated my legs — and later, his hands were so…so demanding.’
‘You fucked him.’
Mary’s face reddened as though I’d slapped her. Maybe I should have, and Mary read my body language.
‘Delcie… it wasn’t like that. Anyway, you and Charles cooled it.’
My hands shook, and my stomach flipped. ‘He told you that?’
Mary eased her chair back, picked up her glass, and gulped down her wine; probably for fortitude.
‘Err … not in so many words. But you and Richard were getting close.’
I stood up, held back the tears. I wasn’t going to give her that satisfaction. ‘Mary — Charles asked me to wait for him. That’s not cooling it.’
She cringed in her seat. ‘Oh, I see. I’m so sorry...’
…A knock at my door brought me back from my memories. The handle twisted. Charles’s voice.
‘Delcie, open up. Are you all right?’
Oh, not again. I sighed; still a lot to think about. I padded across the room to the door and relaxed the chain. I peeked out through the crack. ‘Not tonight. I have a headache. See you at breakfast.’
I sensed his frustration by the way he let out a sigh. After a few moments standing like a sentry on guard duty, he turned away; even his voice, usually so positive, sounded disappointed.
‘Ah...right-ho, old girl. Good night.’
I didn’t reply, but listened to his footsteps striding down the corridor before closing the door and returning to my bed. Questions about Mary piled up inside my head. A few weeks after I married Richard, I found out she was also with child.
Jane? Yes, Jane might be able to help when she came to stay. Perhaps she had answers.
Damn Charles. And Delcie. Pair of blighters acting as if the House was theirs. I would clear the air with Delcie later, but my main concern — my top priority — was to find Eko.
Why hadn’t I purchased mobile phones for us?
Rain hammered down the day after Eko was bundled out by Charles, which left me housebound. I paced the corridors of the West Wing most of the morning hoping for a lull, only pausing to gaze out of the rain-spattered windows at the scurrying black clouds. Not far from the House stood our local mosque towering over the sodden debris — the one other building intact in our locality. How it had avoided the waves, was another miracle. I listened to the noon call to prayer emanating from a loudspeaker in a minaret spire -- the muezzin’s quavering voice full of emotion, and many men clad in dirty white tops and long, wrap-around skirts picked their way to the entrance.
Eko could be amongst them.
I stared again, trying to recognise his face. It was hopeless; the smudged glass showed distorted shapes, like flickering pictures from a worn out video camera.
I turned in frustration to hear a new call. Hannah’s announcement echoed down the corridor, but lunch could wait -- I was going out.
When Delcie saw me dressed in waterproofs and wellies, she put the serving ladle back into the uncovered tureen.
‘Richard, are you mad? It’s pelting down outside, and we’re having that “caught-chicken” dish you like so much.’
‘Delcie, I’m not mad, and if you can be bothered, it’s called Ayam Tangkap.’
She sniffed. ‘All these strange foreign names. We’re British.’
‘I second that.’ Charles pushed open the dining room door. ‘Better than turning native, old man.’
I stiffened. ‘What do you mean by that remark?’
His upper lip curled up into a sneer, mocking me. ‘You know very well. You and your houseguest.’
I clenched my fist, but Delcie stepped between us, grasped hold of Charles’s arm, and steered him to the table.
‘Don’t argue,’ she said but turned to me. ‘If Richard catches pneumonia, that’s his lookout.’
Her jibe made me think. A dose of malaria was one thing, but...‘Yes…well…it won’t come to that.’ I smelt the chicken sauce; its spicy aroma tantalised me, and my impulsiveness wavered. ‘I’ll be back soon with Eko, so bloody well save us some chow.’
Delcie shook her head, stunned disbelief, I supposed, and Charles clapped a hand against his forehead and closed his eyes, but neither said a word.
Good. Put them in their place. On the way out, I told Hannah I’d eat the chicken later.
Eko wasn't at the mosque.
I waited outside until the end of prayers. Dozens of men filtered out, a few lighting cigarettes as they passed me, but all stared at me.
Naturally, I would be a stranger to some -- most times I bypassed the mosque on my walks. Maybe they thought of me as an Aid worker, but not the person who walked hand-in-hand with Eko down to the harbour.
That’s if I could find him.
Several days passed. I went out every day to retrace my steps to the makeshift hovel where he used to live. My Indonesian faltered; only mustering a few welcoming phrases and asking for directions, but whenever I met an English-speaking native, no one knew where Eko had gone.
Where is he, Angelique?
He’s gone away, Papa.
On my return to the House, my mood varied between desolation and despondency – and unspoken tensions between us rose rapidly. Charles relished being obnoxious -- lighting up a cigar in my presence -- while Delcie laboured to keep the peace. By the end of the fourth unfruitful day of my search, I decided to face up to him at dinner.
I brushed aside my half-eaten dish -- Gulai fish curry — and plonked my knife and fork onto my plate. It was enough to make them look up. I addressed Charles.
‘What exactly did you say to Eko?’
His eyes narrowed. ‘Do you really want to know?’
Delcie intervened. ‘Charles, don’t…’
Charles waved a hand at her. ‘Richard’s entitled to answers.’ His voice sounded aloof. ‘Isn’t that right, old man?’
A vein throbbed in my neck; confrontation was close. Very close. ‘Well?’
He pointed a gravy-laden knife at me. ‘I told him to catch the next boat out of here...or else.’
I nearly burst a blood vessel. ‘Or else, what?’
‘Does it matter?’
I jumped out of my seat and thrust back the chair. ‘Yes, it bloody well does.’
Charles ignored my actions. He glanced at Delcie, put the knife back on his plate, picked up a serviette, and dabbed his lips. ‘Or I’d break his legs.’
‘My cricket bat. Chaps need protection outside the house.’
‘So you laid into him with’ -- I struggled to keep the disbelief out of my voice -- ‘a bloody cricket bat?’
‘I didn’t touch him with it. I threatened him. That’s different.’
My fingers clenched the table top; knuckles whitened as I spat out venom at my antagonist. ‘Different…?’ I released a finger, and made an obscene gesture. ‘What’s different is when I ram that bloody bat up your rear, you bastard.’
I pushed the table aside to get at him, but Delcie grabbed hold of my arm. ‘Richard…Charles, stop acting like children. Calm down, the pair of you. What’s happened has happened.’
Charles appeared to deflate, the confrontation held at bay. Likewise, I sank back on my seat, and held my face between my hands. After a few moments of reflection on Delcie’s words, I felt more composed. My breathing returned to normal, and my thoughts cleared. Eko would have taken Charles’s threat literally, and I fathomed where to seek him out — a small, but popular island close to Banda Aceh. I stood up.
‘I’m going to Sabang,’ I told them.
Good riddance to Richard. If he found his houseguest at Sabang, as far as I was concerned, they could stay there. Not that his absence improved matters with Delcie. It wasn’t fair. One moment she was up, the next, down; I couldn’t make out her mood swings. Nor get into her bed, damn it.
I even found myself taking a furtive glance or two at Hannah. Her native name escaped me, but she had a lithe body and a ready smile -- the gap between her two front teeth, surprisingly erotic.
One morning after breakfast -- I had a restless night -- I lingered in the dining room when Delcie decided to go shopping at the harbour market. Hannah, dressed in a so-called modest wrap-around that adhered to her curves, was clearing up the dishes -- an ideal opportunity.
I beckoned her over, told her to sit down. My opening gambit, predictable.
‘Hannah, we need to talk about your job here.’
She shifted in her seat, lowered her eyes. ‘Meester Charles, I not know. Madam take care me.’
I reached out a hand and brushed her fingers. ‘Yes, I agree, but I want you to do an extra job for me.’
She flinched away, eyes open wide; startled to see me smiling. ‘Meester Charles, I not know. Madam take care me.’
I sighed. Subtleness wasn’t working. Getting her to understand what I needed -- craved — was too much like hard work. ‘Okay, Hannah. You can go.’
She slid out of her seat, avoiding my gaze, and gathered up the remaining crockery. However, I was surprised to see her glance back at me. Not once, but twice; firstly, a questioning expression, and secondly, a tentative, toothy smile.
Mine anytime -- I was certain of it -- and if Delcie continued to give me a hard time, I’d turn to Hannah for my gratification.
Wouldn’t I? Hmm. Or was my act just ego? Hannah must have been twenty years my junior -- give or take -- and I was acting like a rabid dog. Pathetic. Or, worse still, a wretched pervert.
Time to cool it.
A few hours later -- I’d taken a cold shower which hadn’t quenched my ardour -- when Delcie returned with a few luxuries, and we settled in our sunroom chairs sipping mid-morning tea, I asked her about Hannah. Immediately her antenna sprung up -- suspicion written on her face.
‘Why do you want to know? Is there something going on, Charles?’
Outside, seagulls flew listlessly over a swampy pond near the walls, their cries remarkably subdued. I put my teacup back on its saucer and met Delcie’s enquiring look.
‘Of course not. It’s just that she doesn’t act like she’s a native.’ It was the best I could think of, but Delcie accepted the anomaly.
She picked up the teapot and refreshed our cups. ‘I hired her because she comes from a Christian community. Her family lives near Lake Toba.’
I feigned indifference, but inside I was delighted. I wouldn’t have to worry about offending strict Sharia law. ‘Oh, I see. Where’s that?’
‘Middle of Sumatra somewhere…I’ve never visited, but she told me it’s a very big volcanic crater lake.’
Interesting. I’d plan to wangle a few days break -- take Hannah to visit her family.
Delcie killed that fantasy. ‘And don’t think I don’t know what’s going through your mind.’ She gripped my arm and squeezed. ‘Hannah’s off-limits.’
I shook off her hand and stood up. A grand gesture was necessary. ‘If you think like that all the time, no wonder our relationship is wavering.’ I stood my ground, waiting.
‘Sit down, Charles, and finish your tea. I don’t want us to argue. ‘Not now.’
My turn to be surprised. I raised an eyebrow. ‘Not now?’
Her cheeks reddened. ‘It’s a woman thing. Ladies of a certain age…you know…’
My feet shuffled as though having a mind of their own while my brain whirled through the implications. I rubbed my neck — my starched shirt collar felt hot -- and slumped back down to listen.
Delcie fiddled about in her handbag and pulled out a carton.
‘I got these herbal pills from Jane; she’s friendly with a doctor from a French Aid agency. Soya Iso-something-or-other. They slaughter hot flushes.’
I fiddled with a spoon, drawing imaginary jigsaw shapes on the tablecloth. ‘I see,’ I said. Call me naïve, but finally the coin dropped and a smile returned to my face.
‘They take a few weeks or so to kick in, and then I’ll be like a young woman again. That means’ -- she winked at me -- ‘feeling frisky as a filly.’
I perked up, all thoughts of Hannah consigned to the bin. ‘So, perhaps’ -- I pointed at the ceiling; a long shot -- ‘we could have a practice ride?’
A few moments’ hesitation, but her flushed cheeks showed otherwise. She moved closer, and I smelt her heat; a fire that demanded quenching. She reached out, touched my arm, and brushed her lips against my ear.
‘Let’s saddle up then, stud,’ she whispered.
Richard leaving — for how long only God knew — made me realise how much I missed him being around, even if he was a pain in the butt. I really couldn’t handle it, and my ongoing affair with Charles was despicable. Passable gratification (most times) was no substitute to being disloyal and deceitful to Richard, damn it.
Lying in my lover’s arms, if I thought maybe he could understand my mood swings — blinding migraines and palpitations brought on by my menopause — I was wrong. If I hoped for a deep and meaningful relationship, I was wrong. Charles didn’t care I needed more than a quickie every ten minutes. Not even time for a vodka chaser. He’d scoff at my pleas to take it gently, while pumping me to another orgasm. While my body responded, my mind felt detached. I was losing him.
Alcohol-filled days passed. Slowly. No news from Richard — or from Jane, who travelled to Medan for some overdue R&R with her colleagues. It worried me — so much so that my liaisons with Charles were like a receding tide. One evening after I rejected his demands we had an altercation at my bedroom door. I had placed the chain across, which irritated him.
‘What’s up, Delcie?’
His tone of voice meant something like “Now what? Another sodding headache?”
I opened the door a crack, saw his flushed face, and tried to calm him down. ‘I’m sorry, but can we cool it for a while?’
‘Cool it? For a while? What does that mean?’
I tried to prick his conscience. ‘I can’t just desert Richard. He’s still my husband.’
Charles clenched a fist as though he was going to strike the door and force his way in.
‘Do you think he gives a toss about you anymore? He’s probably shacked up with his…his houseguest now.’
I kept quiet. Simply stood, watching his hands clench and unclench. The stilted silence between us was breached by the imperial sound of the grandfather clock standing regally against the wall in the unlit corridor.
…His eyes dulled, his shoulders sank a little, and he turned away.
I stood still for a few more moments, listening to his fading footsteps squeaking along the wooden floor.
Away from me.
To Hannah? Bastard. He’d be finished if I caught him at it.
I slammed the door closed.
My hopes of brighter days ahead lay with Jane. Every passing week brought me closer to holding a new life in my arms, especially gratifying when I met her for afternoon pastries at Majestyk Bakery. I kept nudging her to stay with me at the House, but her work routine made it awkward -- many ad-hoc meetings and planned community visits to coordinate.
This day, though, matters took a different course. We were sitting at our usual table by the window overlooking the harbour market.
‘I’ll move in when I take maternity leave… if that’s all right with you?’ Jane said, eyeing my Danish.
I licked a piece of flaky pastry off my lips. ‘Of course it is… I can hardly wait.’
She laughed, rubbed her extended stomach. ‘Junior is also getting impatient -- I’m sure he could play rugger for England.’
Time stopped. A young couple laughed at an adjoining table, but my emotions were the opposite. I sucked in a breath; first time she’d mentioned that.
‘He? You’re having a baby boy?’
Jane nodded, picked up her cup of herbal tea, and sipped. ‘Now the secret’s out. Last week’s scan... isn’t it exciting?’
No, it’s appalling. My tears, either delight (for her) or distress (for me), I hid well. I’d always assumed a girl — just like my Angelique — but I bit my lip and forced out my congratulations.
‘Oh…wonderful news. I’m so happy for you.’
She wasn’t buying it. ‘Auntie. You’re disappointed the baby’s not a girl?’
Jane touched my arm, said softly to support me, ‘I’m sure Angelique would have liked a baby brother.’
More tears flowed down my cheeks, leaving a salty taste in my mouth. ‘Oh, goodness me, I’m such a selfish old fool.’ I dabbed a napkin on my face. ‘You understand me so well. So, so understanding.’
The cuckoo clock struck five. We both raised our heads to watch the birdie. Seemed like an omen -- déjà vu -- when my life changed for the better. I hoped this would be similar.
I wrapped my hand in hers, smiled through blurred eyelids. ‘Thank you, Jane,’ I said. ‘Thank you.’
Two nights later, I wasn’t so sure.
I caught the morning fast boat to Sabang. I guessed Eko would go to find work -- it was a favourite R&R destination for local Aid Agency workers, many of whom accompanied me on the crossing -- and it seemed a better bet than the uninhabited Pulau Banta Island.
Weh Island, as the tourists called it, catered for their pre-tsunami Western needs: diving and snorkelling through the coral reefs off unspoilt sandy beaches during the day, followed by a relaxing sundowner sipping beer or locally-brewed banana brandy at a few select hostelries.
Now, few tourists -- only laden trucks carrying building materials.
I’d packed a bag; enough for a few nights stay and I eagerly awaited this trip with rising optimism. The shuddering swell and cool salt spray felt exhilarating, and I recollected a poem by Alexander Pope -- “hope springs eternal”. This time I was convinced I’d find Eko.
At the harbour, I disembarked and hurried to a local shop for a quick breakfast of coffee and cakes — thinking I’d catch up on the local cuisine (mouth-watering noodle dishes) when I located Eko. By mid-morning I’d covered the immediate locality by foot. To go further afield I needed transport, so I flagged down an old Toyota sedan taxi that had seen better days.
The tsunami after-effects were quite apparent -- wrecked fishing boats added to an air of helplessness — although (according to the Jakarta Times) Sabang was fortunate to avoid the devastating impact that decimated the lower half of the island, mutilating swathes of mangrove plantations and damaging the fragile coral reefs’ ecosystem. My talkative taxi driver spoke pigeon English, mixed with common Acehnese phrases I recognised, and -- best of all -- he appeared eager to help me locate Eko.
We made frequent stops, but to no avail, and my initial fervour faded to despondency with every shake of the head. Where the hell is he? By mid-afternoon, incarcerated inside the tin-can with air-conditioning that sometimes stuttered open, as if having a life of its own; later, with the humid evening approaching, I decided to call it a day, return to Sabang city, and find overnight accommodation.
I settled for a single room in a home-stay resort near the beach -- and Mr. Richard Hill was made welcome. Air-con worked and an adjoining bathroom: basic, with worn towels, was adequate for my needs -- especially when Tevfik, the obliging owner, brought me a “mie jalak” noodle dish sprinkled with pieces of diced chicken that tasted sublime, and lifted my spirits again.
In bed at night, under the protective cover of a well-worn mosquito net, I contemplated my next move. Clearly, I grossly underestimated the scale of my mission; at my current rate of progress it could take weeks to scarcely skim through the populated areas. With over a hundred thousand inhabitants, a daunting task lay ahead.
That’s if Eko had travelled there.
Angelique, it’s hopeless.
Don’t give up, Papa. Pray we’ll find him.
Of course. Eko’s faith couldn’t be questioned. Surely he would seek spiritual guidance from Allah at the Grand Mosque. Wouldn’t he? I decided to commit the whole of the next day -- maybe also the following day — staking it out.
I fell into an uneasy sleep, so much so I was pacing the room before the first rays of light shone through my bedroom window. I needed to be outside the mosque by six a.m. when the Fajr prayer ended at sunrise. I extracted a page out of my notebook and scribbled a message to Tevfik — an educated émigré from Turkey — telling him I would return mid-morning, but I needn’t have bothered; he was manning the reception desk. He glanced up from a handwritten ledger, surprised to see me awake.
‘Mister Richard, you’re up early.’
His informal address was more of a question; eyebrows raised to emphasise the uncertainty. I felt obliged to answer him.
‘I’m visiting the Grand Mosque.’
Outside, the first chants of the call to prayer. He raised a finger and crooked it at me.
‘I can take you to Fajr prayer,’ he said, eyeing my smart, but casual attire, ‘but you’ll need to change into more traditional Muslim garments... long-sleeved shirt and pantaloons.’
I nodded to show that I appreciated his offer. ‘It’s very good of you, but there’s no need, I’ll be outside searching for my...’ I hesitated, ‘my… companion.’
He waited for me to clarify -- above the mantra outside, Angelique whispered “Papa, let him know”. It was enough -- and I told him about Eko.
I finished up describing Eko’s most notable features: he had shorn his head and inserted a gold ring in his right earlobe; also the tsunami’s raging torrent had ripped off the index finger on his right hand.
At that, Tevfik’s eyebrows converged like two fighting caterpillars. ‘I will seek divine guidance from Allah,’ he said with a toothy grin on his face. ‘But I will also ask around my community. After the tsunami, many young men came from Aceh seeking work -- it is possible Eko was one, Inshallah.’
God willing. I thanked him although I didn’t hold out much expectation, but it was another lead worth pursuing. I didn’t change clothes, but at first light Tevfik still accompanied me to the gates of the Grand Mosque. I sat on a cold stone bench and began my vigil, scrutinising a steady stream of males entering. Some elders simply stared at me without speaking, but younger men were more childlike, pointing and giggling at the outsider in their midst.
I acknowledged their interest by smiling, hoping after prayers, a few would be bold enough to engage with me -- if Eko was not among them, possibly someone had seen him. Much to my dismay, I didn’t spot Eko, but at sunrise the prayers ended, and many men made their way over to stare at me. I attracted an audience -- some lit cigarettes, some stood motionless. Whispering was prevalent as though I was a new species. I discarded that thought -- they must have seen many Aid Agency backpackers -- and replaced it with their natural curiosity at meeting an unusual dawn visitor, wearing an open-necked tailored shirt and laundered slacks cut to the knee. Maybe it was my hiking boots -- I catered for all eventualities.
I thought nothing of the bites as a couple of young men held my full attention. They sat on the seat beside me, and when I mentioned Eko’s name, their faces lit up; they conversed in Indonesian until one turned to me and spoke in broken English.
‘Where is he?’
The shy one said something I didn’t understand and pointed to the sea, but the other translated.
‘Oh, bloody hell. Where?’
I was answered by blank faces, head shakes, and arms gesticulating at nowhere in particular. I stood up and saw Tevfik waving to me at the edge of the crowd. My frustration must have showed because he shouldered his way to my side.
‘Need help, Mister Richard?’
‘These young men say they know Eko.’ I used the word ‘know’ because it didn’t seem like coincidence. ‘What happened to him?’
Tevfik put an arm around my shoulder. ‘Be patient…we will find him, Inshallah. Now, we take the young men for coffee and cakes.’
I looked up to glimpse Angelique. A vision dressed in white. My spirits rose again.
‘Inshallah,’ I said.
My right leg started to itch.
My fast and furious practice gallop had the skin on Delcie’s body glistening, and I felt like whipping her to new heights. I wiped a hand across my brow and thrust into her again.
Her body stiffened. ‘No…no, Charles. This is all wrong. All wrong.’
Eh? What now? I paused, and she pushed at my chest. I needed an explanation. Damn quick. It wasn’t the time for cocktails and polite conversation.
‘What the fuck are you playing at?’
Bollocks. Hot one minute, cold the next. Damn her. I rolled off her, got dressed without a murmur, and left the room.
That isolated interlude established the pattern of our ongoing relationship. When she made it transparent my approaches weren’t welcome, I desisted from visiting her bedroom -- it would only end in yet another rebuttal.
I’d lost Delcie in the beginning, Celia months ago, and now Delcie again. My mind turned to another prospect.
Delcie’s double rejection ruffled my self-esteem. At first, my daylight hours were consumed with frustration, but as the days passed my mood changed. Hannah offered a new challenge. Ironic; even thinking about a native girl made me no better than Richard, but her innocence — I assumed her virginity had not been violated — captivated me.
In England, at fifty-six, I would have been branded by the media for having a relationship with a young woman. Bollocks to them, jealous bastards, the lot. In Indonesia, no such age-barrier existed; family customs differed, and my interest in Hannah would be welcomed.
But how to convey this? Her English, poor at best -- or had she mislead me? She understood Delcie’s commands all right.
Enough introspection, I was a man of action. That night, after the House stilled to a silence of expectation, and Delcie’s light extinguished, I stood outside Hannah’s bedroom door in my silk dressing gown — an obvious statement of intent.
I knuckled my fist and knocked four times -- Beethoven’s Fifth opening allegro seemed appropriate -- stood back a step, and waited.
I heard the chain slide into the lock before the door opened. Hannah peered out -- her eyes widened, and then roamed up and down my body — no doubt she admired my bedroom attire. I inclined my head and put on my finest questioning look.
She closed the door.
I stood still for a few moments glaring at the solid two-inch wooden barrier between us. Maybe she was shy. Maybe I should have said something. Maybe — oh to hell with it, I would modify my strategy.
Next day at breakfast — my conversation with Delcie was limited to a few grunts -- I twice caught Hannah gazing at me. When I nodded, her cheeks reddened, and she turned away.
‘You seem preoccupied.’
Delcie’s voice penetrated my reverie, sliding through my anticipations like a snake.
Did she notice?
Innocent face, but her tongue explored a loose sliver of mango caught between her teeth -- a deceptive ploy?
‘I need to renew my visa,’ I said. ‘It’s a pain.’
She raised a neatly plucked eyebrow. ‘Of course,’ she said. ‘When?’
I picked up a slice of toast -- studied it as though a calendar. ‘Next week. I’ll need to go to Medan.’
An hour’s flight from Aceh; I couldn’t stomach a ten-hour bus ride -- apart from kamikaze drivers, the road was bumpy and tiring.
Delcie was now using a toothpick. ‘Perhaps…’ She paused and nodded towards the kitchen. ‘Hannah could accompany you. She’s due to visit her family.’
Her voice sounded as smooth as melted butter, but I knew better. A head-on challenge I needed to elude.
‘There’s no need.’
I picked up my serviette, dabbed my face, and wiped off a few crumbs. ‘I said there’s no need.’
She pointed the captured mango sliver at me and then dropped the toothpick onto her plate. ‘Of course, Charles.’
I would need to be careful. Very careful. I reached out for the teapot. ‘More tea?’
Delcie nodded, pushed her cup towards me.
A tentative truce.
Later, at dinner we made small talk; Delcie’s words, though, tingled with insinuation, or merely my imagination? After an uncomfortable meal -- my stomach, queasy — she rummaged in her sewing box, took out a small pink cardigan, and unravelled it.
She didn’t offer an explanation, and I didn’t ask. The air between us stilled as though in a vacuum, and I felt ill at ease -- so much so that I excused myself to go to the lounge and smoke a much-needed Havana.
‘Goodnight, Charles,’ she said to my retreating back. That night I gave Hannah’s room a wide berth.
But two nights later, I was outside her bedroom. I’d seen enough in the daylight hours; coy glances, tentative smiles, and shy nods from her -- enough to inflame my ever-growing passion. This time I tapped the door and called her name. Barely loud enough -- I hoped -- for her to hear me and not be afraid.
I held my breath. Listened. Footfalls moved inside her room, and the door chain was engaged. The door opened a crack, and she peered out. We made eye contact, held it for a few moments; as if she was searching my soul.
‘Hello,’ I said.
She closed the door.
My mouth sagged open. I couldn’t even find the energy to swear. I had failed. I had — the door chain clinked, and then the door opened wide.
Hannah wore a white negligee; her long black hair, usually tied in a bun, hung down past her shoulders. I was transfixed; an angel.
She stepped back a couple of paces, pointed to the door. ‘Close,’ she said, turned, and moved towards her bed.
I stepped into her room. I smelt incense -- a musty odour heralding intimacy. I shut the door and followed her swaying body with my eyes. Above her bed was a picture of Jesus on the cross, a crown of thorns on his head. Symbolic, although I knew not why, except I was about to eat forbidden fruit. No going back.
I moved up to her, hardly daring to breathe. Stood close, the scent of jasmine swept into my inflamed nostrils, and her heat engulfed me. Her tiny hand searched out mine; she lifted it and held it to the swell of her left breast.
A few nights after my meeting with Jane, when I passed Hannah’s room on my way to bed, stifled moans came from inside. I pressed my ear against the door. No…no… It couldn’t be…
…squealing bed springs. Fucking bastard.
I would have kicked down the sodding door to wring his sodding neck -- and hers -- but a chime from the grandfather clock interrupted my thoughts. Hold it. That’s shoddy. Remember, he’s history, now -- my future’s with Jane and her baby. Maybe also with Richard when he comes back. I clenched my fists, eyes watering and I felt sick inside, but I wouldn’t crumble.
Not give him that satisfaction.
But I couldn’t tolerate it. Hannah would have to go — Charles, too, if he had any conscience. I set my alarm for first light, at a time when Hannah commenced duties.
My confrontation with her in the kitchen, short-lived. I made an obscene gesture with my fingers and named Charles -- her tears, sufficient confirmation of misconduct. I paid her three months’ severance pay, told her to pack her bags and leave.
Of course, Charles was overly late for a breakfast never made. His eyes had grey rings round them -- as if I needed evidence of lost sleep.
‘You’ll need to make your own,’ I said. ‘Hannah’s gone.’
He blinked at me, dazed.
‘Gone? Gone where?’
‘I sacked her.’
‘You can’t do that.’
‘I just did… and you know why.’
His downcast face reminded me of a little boy with his fingers caught in the sweetie jar. Only it wasn’t his fingers -- nor his body — but more his blatant treachery that upset me most.
He raised his head. ‘Delcie…’
My upheld hand made him pause. I wished to wave him away, away from me, away from the House. Inside, a band of pain tightened across my chest. My breath choked on hot bile, and my body shook with a gamut of emotions: anger, revulsion, disgust, and hatred.
‘We’re finished, Charles. You’ve betrayed me.’
His face reddened, but he didn’t say a word. Turned on his heel and walked out. Out of my life, I hoped.
I collapsed into my chair. The tears I’d been holding back now flowed. I picked up my serviette and pressed it against my face; held it for a long time until my mind cleared.
I needed help.
Next to the open marmalade pot was my Nokia; I shooed away a fly, picked up the phone, and dialled.
Jane answered almost at once, as if she’d been anticipating my call. Her insight appeared psychic.
‘Auntie, what’s wrong?’
‘Everything,’ I said. ‘I want…’ My voice must have sounded despondent because Jane interrupted.
‘I can take an early lunch…where do you want to meet? Majestyk’s?’
I wasn’t hungry, but my stomach also betrayed me by rumbling. ‘If it’s quiet,’ I said.
When I arrived, Jane was waiting outside the Bakery. Her bump protruded outside her t-shirt. It wouldn’t be long.
Jane linked her arm in mine. She nodded towards the door. Inside, packed full of Aid Agency staff. ‘Big pow-wow, today. I hoped we would miss the rush, but…’
‘Never mind,’ I said. ‘Where to now?’
Jane smiled. ‘I’ve requisitioned a vehicle...one of the perks of being pregnant. Shall we take a drive into what’s left of the countryside and see what turns up?’
Already she made me feel brighter. ‘Sounds like a good plan,’ I said.
The devastation south of Aceh still evident, although swampland was being drained and new houses were being constructed by an army of Aid workers — we passed dozens of Land Cruisers and trucks. Not that I really noticed -- they were merely blurred shapes we cruised past.
Jane tooted the horn at several, clapped one hand to her brow. ‘Everyone’s out to lunch today, but I remember there’s a quiet little restaurant not too far from here with a scenic view of the mountains. How does that sound?’
What does it matter?
‘Idyllic,’ I said, picking a piece of fluff off my sarong.
While we meandered around roads no more than dirt tracks, I spilled out my feelings. At first my bitterness about Charles and his betrayal tested Jane’s counselling skills. ‘How did it make you feel?’
‘Like falling down a black hole,’ I said.
Jane laughed, gave the horn a friendly toot. ‘I know that feeling. When Adil left me up the spout, my world collapsed. But not for long.’
I frowned. Was that true? She hadn’t shown any sorrow at her partner’s leaving.
Jane sensed my concern. ‘Auntie…one thing about Aid Agency work is a hell of a lot of people are worse off than you. Bad hair day, it isn’t.’
Ouch. My smile, more a grimace. I had an overdue appointment at the beauty salon; my hair, a mess. I still persisted. ‘Losing Richard was one thing, but now also Charles. I’m on my own, Jane.’
‘Auntie, soon I’ll be moving into the House -- and so will Junior. We’ll keep you occupied, believe me, and you won’t be alone.’
Hmmm. While I gave that some thought, Jane turned into a side road leading to nowhere -- until a sharp bend in the road led us uphill along a few shacks with tin roofs, and we reached our destination. We parked up alongside a mud-encrusted Jeep and two motorcycles that had both seen better days. As Jane stretched, her face tightened. She rubbed her stomach.
‘Only a twinge,’ she said.
I hoped so.
The open-air restaurant, with a wooden veranda viewing out over the far-off mountains, had a couple of unoccupied tables. At two larger ones were four aid workers, all smokers whom Jane was on nodding terms with, and four locals — also smokers — who noisily consumed their food. Luckily, our small table was away from the fumes.
‘Couldn’t have chosen better,’ I said, now far more composed after our little chat. For the moment Charles was forgotten, and my stomach was empty enough to order what looked like — from the faded photos on the laminated menu — chicken goulash.
We settled into a reflective silence, with both of us admiring the view. While we waited for our food, I took a few snapshots, the aid workers paid up and left, and the locals appeared to be deciding whether to answer a call to prayer.
With Jane relaxed into eating a seafood salad and sipping iced tea, I seized the opportunity to ask her about Mary. Her eyes closed, seemingly recalling her childhood, before she opened up.
‘Auntie, you were also a socialite, like mother.’ She smiled as if she understood I wasn’t an innocent, reached out and touched my arm. ‘Mother was... well, nowadays it would be called promiscuous. I soon cottoned on that the ’60s and ’70s were liberal times. I didn’t really know my father—Jamie died of cancer when I was two—and mother lost her sparkle. Her affairs—at one time the talk of society--vanished like morning mist.’
Jane brushed away a tear, and my thoughts turned back to Henley…
‘…Having fun, ladies?’
Jamie, hand on Richard’s shoulder and waving several five-pound notes, had the same sparkle. No wonder he and Richard had hit it off — they could have been best mates, even brothers.
Mary giggled. ‘Too many glasses of Poo, petal.’
‘Don’t forget the Pimms,’ I said.
Jamie punched the air. ‘We won loads of lovely loot. Party time.’ He gave Richard a friendly clout on the arm. ‘Isn’t that so, Dickie?’
Mary shrieked with laughter. ‘Jamie and Dickie, how amusing.’ She gave me a knowing smirk, hand aside her cheek in a dramatic whisper. ‘I hope he lives up to his name, then, Delcie.’
‘Delcie and Dickie,’ I spluttered, and both of us giggled our way into the fresh bottle of Poo.
Richard appeared to be enjoying the company — his stage-whispered, acerbic remarks about other people had us in hysterics. Mary had a gleam in her eye, and I wasn’t sure if she was taking an interest in him, but it could have been my intoxicated state…
…Jane coughed -- it sounded more like choking on a fishbone. ‘Sorry, dear,’ I said. ‘Merely reminiscing. The aftermath of the war -- baby-boom and all that in 1945. In the 60s, youngsters were free spirits, and—’
At that moment Jane arched her back and clutched her stomach. ‘Oh, my God, there’s something wrong.’ Her eyes watered. ‘Can you drive?’
Eh…what…Her alarmed look made my stomach tense up. I shook my head.