Authors: Kate Furnivall
“No,” he said. But he was no good at lying.
“Jack is your best friend,” she said gently.
“No, he’s not.”
“Oh, Teddy, what was the fight about this time?”
His slight seven-year-old body slumped back in the seat, and he picked in silence at a scab on his leg. Connie gave him time, as immaculate straight lines of plantation trees slid past the window. It was Field 16, a fine stand of hundreds of young rubber saplings planted in rows thirty feet apart, the trees ten feet from each other. The Rubber Research Institute of Malaya recommended an initial planting of 240 trees to the acre, reducing to 100 trees an acre once they were grown and ready for tapping for their white flow of latex. But Nigel insisted he kept the land so well fed with fertilizer and rock phosphate that he could get away with 120 trees per acre and still produce a top-class yield.
The sun hung directly overhead, so that shadows formed in dark balls at the base of the trunks. School started for Teddy at eight o’clock in the morning and finished at one o’clock, to avoid the worst of the exhausting heat of the afternoon. In the car the air was as oppressive as Connie’s thoughts.
Listen, white lady.
The words hissed through her brain.
“Nothing lasts here.”
She hadn’t meant to say it out loud. She felt Teddy’s gaze turn to her, and he tucked his hand between the seat and her damp back, something he did only when he was worried.
“Won’t we last?” he asked.
“Of course we will, sweetheart. So will your friendship with Jack. I only meant . . .”
Oh Christ, what did she mean?
“I only meant that the tires wear out quickly on these rough roads. Cars break down easily.”
“Is that why you had the crash today? Did the car break?”
“No, darling. It was an accident caused by another nasty car, but don’t worry about it. We’ll get the dents mended and we’ll be fine. Now tell me what happened with Jack.”
“His Brewster Buffalo shot down my Fairey Battle.”
Connie’s heart sank. Her young son had spent all of last weekend building the airplane out of balsa wood with painstaking care, the tip of his tongue clamped between his small white teeth. His dogged patience amazed her. The results were sometimes a little rough and ragged at the edges, but they were all his own work and Connie was immensely proud of his sticky little fingers. Since the war in Europe started two years ago in 1939, her son had become obsessed with airplanes, his bedroom walls covered in recognition charts. He could name every aircraft in the sky the way other people named birds.
“Don’t worry, Teddy, I’ll help you build a new one.”
She pulled over to the side of the road and dropped ten cents into her son’s hand. This was one of their rituals. Each day on the journey home from school Teddy bought a slice of fruit from the roadside stall. It stood next to a small shrine that was constructed out of brightly painted stones and adorned with frangipani flowers, a small blue statue of a Hindu goddess, and a bowl of colored rice. A rat, fat and bold, sat on its haunches beside the shrine, munching on stolen rice grains.
Teddy skipped over the ruts to the fruit stall and pointed at two large slices of watermelon. She watched him chatter away to the man serving on the stall—Teddy’s command of the Malay language was far superior to her own. He seemed to absorb the strange words as readily as her pillow absorbed her strange dreams at night. He had lived here all his short life, and had no fear of this alien and exotic country. He wasn’t afraid of snakes the way she was, nor did he shiver at the thought of one of the Communist agitators in the workforce slitting Nigel’s throat in bed at night.
This year, there had been numerous labor strikes in the tin mines up at Gambang and in the gold mines at Raub, and now the unrest was spreading to the rubber plantations up and down the length of the Malay Peninsula. The demand for rubber for tires and waterproofing had increased in a steady climb ever since the war had started in Europe, and rubber had been designated priority cargo for the war effort. America and Britain were clamoring for it. Inevitably the price had skyrocketed. From five pence a pound to twelve pence a pound, and now the labor force that helped to produce it was demanding a hefty raise in their meager wages. She could see their point. It was the Chinese workers who were the troublemakers, stirring up the easygoing Malays, but Nigel assured her it would blow over eventually. It was the Japanese, not the Chinese, they should be worrying about, he said.
Connie and Teddy sat in the car together eating the red flesh of the melon, spitting the black pips out of the open windows with expert aim, a brief moment of normality in a day that was anything but normal. When she’d finished she tossed the green rind out onto the roadside and within half a minute it was covered in a shiny black coating of ants, their huge jaws capable of reducing it to nothing in the blink of an eye. This was a country in which the jungle and its voracious insects smothered and devoured everything. Especially tender-skinned white people.
She wiped her hands on her handkerchief and dabbed at Teddy’s face with it. She smiled at him. “Come on, Pilot Officer Hadley, let’s go and build you a new Fairey Battle plane.”
“I think a Blenheim will be better. It carries more bombs.”
She tweaked his chin toward her and inspected the scratch. She must remember to put antiseptic on it. If not, in a day or two she could be picking tiny white maggots out of it with tweezers.
“Very well, a Blenheim it shall be.”
She eased the car forward.
“Mummy, why are you crying?”
“I’m not crying.”
“Yes you are.”
“No, sweetheart, it’s just that my eyes are watering because I broke my sunglasses.”
“Will Daddy mind that you broke the car?”
“Don’t worry, Teddy, it can be easily mended.”
Unlike the dusty feet. Or the pair of bloodshot eyes.
Titles by Kate Furnivall
The Russian Concubine
The Red Scarf
The Girl from Junchow
The Jewel of St. Petersburg
The White Pearl