We were set a task of writing a short story romance (2000 words) which included reference to a black and white photograph. I started with a photo I had found in a second hand store in Vietnam, but always thought the face gazing out of it looked Malay. I picked it up off my desk when I got back from Writers Group and the short story fell out of it. For better or worse. Here it is…A Malayan Emergency
I picked up the satin finished black and white photo from off the station platform. The patterned edges were rough in my hand and the torn paper on its back flapped loose in the warm rain.
“All aboard! All aboard.” Shouted above the hiss of the engine, the clank and bang of carriages and the sound of steel slipping over steel.
I could not look up and watch this train leave like I had seen it leave so many times before. This time he was leaving without a kiss or a wave goodbye. He had taken a seat on the other side of the carriage where I could not see him. He had stood on the carriage steps and ripped his photo from a handmade diary I had given him.
“Write here what your hopes and dreams are” I had told him last evening. “There is a photo of each of us. When this war is over we can make these dreams come true.” His mother had smiled from the kitchen but he had said nothing. Now I knew what he really thought. Ripping his photo from the diary he had flung it down at me as he boarded the train to the Highlands.
“Don’t count on me coming back” he had snapped. “These Communists will kill us all. There will be nothing left. Find someone else and be safe. You will not be safe with me.” So many times we had kissed and hugged behind the station masters office before he returned to the barracks from his leave in Kuala Lumpur. This time was different. He was silent in the rickshaw ride to the station, stalked to the train and did not touch me. Now he was vanishing in a cloud of steam and smoke, silent in the shouts of farewells and tears.
I could not look at his photo. His carefully combed hair and dark eyes were blurred in my hands. I picked up the page from which it had been ripped, also torn in anger from the handmade paper diary, now damaged by passing feet. I made my way to the gate to go home. A guard checked my papers. “Just can’t be too careful ma’am” he apologised. “Those communist bandits can turn up anywhere and everywhere.” I nodded through my tears and sniffs and took my papers back. As I walked down the ramp I glanced up at the train as if hoping he might be running back. I caught a glimpse of the red lamps turning out of sight. Then all that was left was a silent column of wet roiling grey smoke.
I made my way slowly back home. I was not wishing to draw attention to myself so kept my handkerchief balled up in my hand. But by the time I reached the front gate it was wringing wet from surreptitious wipes of my nose, disguised as attempts to deter the perspiration of a muggy day. The last place I wanted to be was home, trying to disguise swollen eyes and a short temper. But the Mayor’s Spring Ball was a duty I could not avoid and perhaps the best way to feel better about this simply horrible parting was to attend the dance.
That night the warm air was made electric with the sounds of a Bennie Coleman band. It almost worked except all the musicians were Chinese. I do not think any of us minded for they swung the night against a background hum of cicadas. I could almost forget the day and how frustrating and incomprehensible men might be. The music had me tapping my feet and I started, rather guiltily, to feel a little better.
The Mayor’s Annual Spring Ball attracted all sorts of desperate men and women. Many were desperate to impress the Mayor. Others wanted to impress the Police Commissioner. Or the most senior military officer present. But most wanted to impress the man or woman of their dreams. The trouble was most of those dreams were only being had that day. And my dream was travelling north with his back turned to me. Feeling sorry for myself I was surprised by Captain Adnan who appeared at my side, cocktail in hand. I accepted the drink, and then the dance. Here at least was one man who was not a desperate type. I was glad to dance, pressed up to him, and to allow him to forget the day. I was especially glad of the darkness of the warm night which prevented him from seeing my sadness and occasional attempt to fight back tears.
What else was a girl to do? His uniform, with its brilliant white tunic with gold and red trim and stern but colourful ribbons stretched across his chest only reflected the tanned face and the twinkle in his eye. The band picked up the pace for us and we danced until we both needed to stop. Too much abandon and the hot Malay night would spoil our ball gowns with perspiration. We took our rattan seats under the ubiquitous hanging palms and in the flickering orange shadow light thrown by the palm oil fuelled lamps. Cool drinks were delivered without asking.
“Father has been asking after you my sweet.”
“And your mother?”
“You know she is not a happy woman. Why don’t you come and see them some time. They miss you.”
“I would be surprised if they really did miss me. After all, your father said I was not welcome given what I had done.”
Captain Adnan shifted in his seat, his Sandhurst trained posture keeping him square shouldered and poised regardless of the circumstances. It was what had appealed to me when I had first met him. His self control, his sense of destiny. At a time when we were all terrified of the monsters coming to devour us he was dismissive of the communists in the jungles. His aloofness from all the ordinary things that worried us was a seductive tonic. But he was dashing and handsome and sure of himself, cut a great figure in his dress uniform and was the catch of the town. That his father was the Police Commissioner was a bonus. At least in those early days. He smiled and touched my chin, lifting my eyes to his. I was jolted by the heat in the touch.
“He was rash and he knows it. He wants you back in the family.”
I gently pushed his hand away. It was a touch that had been seen by everybody and tomorrow they would all be reporting around the tables of tea and crackers and dropped lace that we were an item again.
“I embarrassed them by returning the ring. After all those half page advertisements they placed in the papers it was a blow to them both that I turned away. I am surprised I have not been run out of town.”
Captain Adnan laughed his easy laugh and his white teeth flashed in his dark face while those merry eyes of his smiled as well.
“They have told their friends it is something they should expect from a young woman who wants to live her own life. They point to the new apartment you have taken near the hospital and the training course you are taking at the university. They are proud you are the only woman taking those medical courses.”
“I would be very surprised if they ever spoke in those terms about me at all.”
“Well be prepared to be surprised. The Commissioner is here himself tonight and once he is done hearing from anyone who wants to petition the lifting of a speeding ticket then I am sure he would be glad to speak with you.”
“Me? Am I glad to be talking with you? Of course?”
“You know what I am speaking about. You want to go to England for three years. That is not something I can do. My studies do not permit it. You would give up going to England to please me? Or to please your parents?”
He smiled as his white gloved hand drew another cool cocktail from the tray of a lingering waiter.
“I was hoping to see you here tonight. I want to let you know that I would be prepared to give up the travel to England and my studies at the War College until your studies were finished. It is me. Not my parents. Though I speak truthfully when I say that they would love to see you.”
He eyed me over his glass that sweated rivers of water from its sides in the hot humid velvet night. My heart had lurched at this admission. He was prepared to put his career on hold for me? For my studies. This was almost too much to believe.
He held up his hand and the white glove told me to stop. “You don’t need to answer tonight. This is all rather quick, I know. But let’s dance some more. That is what we are here for tonight after all is it not?”
I could only nod. My head was in a turmoil. What was I thinking coming here to be wooed all over again by this man. He was good at it. He had all the connections and training and access to the community here. It was attractive. I could easily imagine endless days of tea parties and croquet and polite and comfortable conversation. It was what I had wanted once. Until such a short time ago when a wild man from the north had captivated me, swimming in waterfalls, exploring jungle precincts off limits, riding the front of the train in the dark, no one knowing we were there. A soldier with no rank. No station. No possibility of entering this polite world of privilege. But he had spurned me. He knew he was not welcome in this town and had travelled back to the jungle without a backward glance.
The siren moaned into life, building to a crescendo then falling, then rising again. Over and over. There had been an attack or one was imminent. The Chinese musicians faltered then stopped though the saxophone continued a muted jazz. It was not long before shadows of aides could be seen slipping through the night, hunting down their senior officers in the crowds, whispering messages to slowly nodding heads before slipping away again. Captain Adnan vanished. The Mayor could be seen near the bar conversing with the Commissioner before turning to the band, motioning them to start playing again. They struck up and as the siren started to fade Captain Adnan was back at my side.
“Not good news I am afraid. The troops being returned by train to their barracks this afternoon were attacked. Reports suggest there are no survivors.”
I was too much composed to react in front of Captain Adnan. My upbringing made sure of that. But I wanted to shriek. The mountain boy with the bare feet and laughing willingness to take risks was gone?! I excused myself and made for the hospital. That would be one place I could find out if there were truly any survivors. Captain Adnan kindly arranged a taxi with a guard who rode on the sideboard all the way to the other side of the city with me. He waved me away from the Town Hall steps. “I am proud of you my dear doctor. Call me when you have finished your rounds. ”
I rushed into the ward but it was hours before the first casualties were brought in, mostly tied to rickshaws, but some brought in by military vehicle. There were some survivors and I searched the bloody bandages and compression packs for any recognition, tending to the wounds as I went. Searching, searching, searching, heart in mouth and hoping against hope. So close to the end of this emergency which was a war by another name and to have this. He had been right after all. The Communists did get them. I should never have let him go.
The fresh calf muscle scar, pink and welling on a brown leg with downy hair caught my eye, poking out from under the hastily cast white sheet draped over a battered body. He had cut himself leaping onto a dark green pool from a stupid height but had laughed all the way down and I had laughed with him. The rock at the bottom of the pool had opened his flesh but he had laughed that off and bound himself up and we continued on as if nothing had happened. He was indestructible, my mountain man.
I crept closely to the bed, barely able to believe it might be him. His chest was bound in bloody bandages, and one side of his face was bandaged, blood and lymph leaking from his fringe and staining his pillow. He was sleeping a morphine sleep.
“Doctor, doctor, quickly, I need you here.” I turned. A nurse was signing me frantically. I nodded.
Lifting a photo of a neatly combed young man with dark eyes and heavy eyebrows from my pocket I placed it on the small table beside his bed. Then paused and gazed at his wounds and quickly checked his chart.
“Doctor, come quickly.”
I put the chart down and started to turn away. Then I saw his hand move to the table and open to reveal a bloodied black and white photo, crumpled and badly soiled. He placed it beside his photo before his hand dropped beside the bed. He was still in deep sleep.
I stumbled away from the bed with hot tears scalding my face and my heart swelling with joy. He would not get away so easily next time. The Commissioner of Police would have to find some other polite and well trained fiancé for his son.
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