He boarded the bus at Johore Bahru and settled down to the sixteen-mile ride to Singapore City. As it left the Customs shed at the Johore end, and entered the Causeway – the built up road that linked the mainland to Singapore island across a three-quarter mile strait – he heard the opening section of the Emperor Concerto.
“This is not a farewell gift, mind you,” Jim said. “You’re going to the University but you’re not much more than an hour’s ride from us. We can still meet almost as often as we have up to now.” Jim always took the initiative; he merely allowed himself passively to be led. Half the time he wondered why they bothered about him at all. None of the other Europeans did. He didn’t have anything like the money that qualified him for acceptance in more sophisticated circles. Although they were new to Singapore Jim and Christine looked as if they would be the usual type: people who lived in Singapore for a time to be sure, but who never see the people somehow. They were geographically here, but they carried a mental England wherever they went. People could be in a place and yet not be in a place. But they returned home and wrote ‘colourful’ books about the place, nevertheless. Locale, exotic locale was everything. Exotic –
“Dear Jim,” he wrote, “I know you will be very surprised to receive this letter after such a long silence on my part. I will not be so foolhardy as to even suggest that I have a reasonable excuse. I am anxious however to meet you and Christine again. I am coming down to Singapore next Friday evening, so I hope I can call at your place about eight. Yours, Thurai.” They could not pronounce his full name Thuraisingham. Jim always gave the final syllable more value than it receives.
Was the tone of his letter right? Did the apology border on the abject? He was of course sorry he had become aloof when they wanted to continue being friends. But he didn’t want to grovel before them. On the other hand he didn’t want to sound overly hearty. He felt irritated to seek out the mean between these two extremes and the result was that he was often nervy and gauche in their company.
Like at the dinner. He either used the wrong knife at table or drank from the wrong glass, or tried desperately to seem perfectly at ease when they spoke about what was latest in London (though he had never been there). Coffee was worse. He was handed his in such an absurdly tiny cup that the conversation that preceded it. “Milk?…Er-yes please…Sugar?…two” (guessing wildly; it turned out to be too much) could not be justified as anything but long accepted ritual. He swallowed his coffee in one gulp and felt like striding out then when they went on and on about Sir Laurence and John Osborne and looked to him every now and then for a contribution. Or else when they left him out of a conversation for a moment, he felt a bleakness that was not quite resentment welling up inside him which he never succeeded in quelling completely.
Jim and Christine, like many new arrivals from England, were making a determined effort to be more “democratic” than their compatriots. They kept inviting him to drinks, to arty discussions, to dinner, to play-readings. He went, at first wonderingly elated but –
“Thurai, would you read Rex,” Jim said. “Christine you can be Isabel. I’ll be Lockhart and Adela – Adela you’re Marion. John you’ll have to sit this one out. All clear? Okay, Adela it’s your speech.”
Adela wore tight cheongsams. Thuraisingham could hardly keep his eyes off the extent of thigh that was revealed by the side slit in her dress as she sat. But her accent. Her careful tones, desperately keyed to catch the English nuances, failed miserably to establish any mood. As they bent over their copies of the play he watched Jim and Christine for their reaction. They remained inscrutable.
He himself was even worse. Rex was supposed to be the typical dashing young Englishman, fast cares, flying hair, breezy manner and all that.
“Let’s see to drinks before we get on with the next act,” Jim was saying. He certainly was a trier.
“I don’t want to read Rex anymore,” Thuraisingham suddenly burst out.
“Well, would you like Lockhart then?”
“No. I just – just don’t want to read, that’s all. It’s crazy! Look at us here. Me with my Indian accent, trying to pass for the dashing Englishman, and – and – “
Silence. Christine broke it. “But I think you read very well, Thurai.” She paused, not knowing what else to say. Christine had a clear milk-white complexion and quite a figure. Jim was lucky to be able to go to bed with her.
Jim was hurt, he knew it. He said quietly, “You read better than many English people we know. Now let’s get on shall we?”
There. Either play the unreal role they made him play socially, or if he protested, face insincerity.
What vexed him was that Jim and Christine were doing everything they could as well as they knew how.
But it just wasn’t right.
“Dear Thurai, your letter came as quite a surprise. Unfortunately we are going out at nine, but we shall be happy to have you for the evening before then. Jim”
He didn’t know what to make of it. Could he detect in it a trace of perfunctory duty?
The bus swung round Newton Circus and entered the outskirts of the city proper. It drove now more slowly in the increasing traffic and entered Orchard Road. They passed the Shanghai Bank.
He gave in a cheque and then sat waiting till he was called. People milled around busily. Then he saw Jim. He was speaking to a bank clerk across the counter. Thuraisingham got up, then sat down again thinking. He remembered how churlish he had been at the play-reading two years ago which was the last time they had met. In view of his neglect, Jim had every right to consider their friendship closed, at least at their former level. How would he regard him now? Thuraisingham knew the fault had been his and he wanted very much to retrieve whatever was possible.
A little uncertainly he got up and walked across. “Hullo, Jim.” Jim didn’t hear, so he spoke again. “Hullo, Jim.”
Jim turned round, there was annoyance in his face. “Hullo,” he said. There was nothing of the delighted recognition Thuraisingham had been hoping for. Jim leaned against eh counter and nodded in the direction of a Eurasian at one of the ledgers. “These bloody clerks. Can’t understand even the simplest instructions.”
Thuraisingham stood not knowing what to say. It was the way the remark was said. It may have been deserved or not, but what counted, Thuraisingham always felt, was the implied large lumping together of all the locals in the criticism. “The place is such a backwater you can’t expect any more. They’re all like this.” Me included, he thought. Give them two years, and they’ll surely change. Jim had turned to the counter and was berating the clerk. His voice had an unwonted bumptious arrogance. His two years was up. With an awkward nod Thuraisingham left him. But a few days later he was sorry he had gone away so hastily. He was sure Jim didn’t mean it.
He got off the bus at Beach Road. There was an odour of stale vegetables in the air. Didn’t mean it, hell. He walked across to a dark lane nearby, squatted on a low stool and helped himself to satay. I wish I hadn’t written that letter, wish I didn’t now have to go. It’s all a mistake.
He picked up the care which his friend Beng Hong had agreed to lend him for the evening and drove off.
They were waiting for him. “I got caught in the traffic,” he explained. He took the drink which Christine handed him.
“We’re so glad you could come,” she said, “You se, Jim’s got a post in Leeds University and we’re leaving next week.”
“Leaving? For good?”
Jim answered, “I’m afraid so.”
“it’s what he’s been dreaming about. If he doesn’t take it now, we may not get another chance. Oh I’m going to miss the lovely weather here. Days and days of sun – “
“ – and rain,” Jim said. “Don’t forget the rain.”
She laughed, “Yes, and the rain. Not the drizzly-frizzly thing we get at home, but rollicking downpours.”
Thuraisingham merely said, “Pity I didn’t write that letter sooner.”
He kept his foot pressed on the accelerator as he drove back to return the care. He was about to swing into North Bridge Road when he pulled up short at the blast of a car horn. The care into whose path he would have cut, crept slowly up and the driver looked out. An Englishman. He was about to speak. Thuraisingham, his nerves jangled by the horn blast, saw the usual bumptious voice about to begin. He decided to play the Englishman at his own game.
“Lovely new horn,” he said as casually as he could, but he was trembling.
“Yes, it’s meant for people like you,” the Englishman replied
He couldn’t keep it up as well as the Englishman and soon raised his voice to a shout. The traffic had stopped owing to an obstruction further ahead. This was Thuraisingham’s chance and he did not mean to let it go. He hurled abuse. “If you’re the kind of person that gets sent out, no wonder you’re losing this ruddy place.” His voice rose to a scream. Somehow he couldn’t stop. He had to go on to get all sorts of things said. This Englishman was not the one to receive them but it did not matter.
By Lloyd Fernando