by Daniel Emlyn-Jones
8th December 1941
I remember when we first kissed, in a circle of Nibong palms in Singapore Botanic Gardens. You took my hand, and I caressed your sun-bronzed cheek. The night was hot, and I tore at my khakis, stifling and soaked through with sweat, laughing as they fell to the ground like broken shackles. Your eyes, the taste of tobacco still lingering in your mouth, and the ripe warm hardness of your body, swirled and swirled into a maelstrom whose centre dove down deep into paradise. Tears flowed from my eyes, but you told me not to weep: the night was long and the sanctuary was ours.
Later we lay on the lawn of Palm Valley, sheltered by thick darkness and the sounds of crickets. I counted shooting stars while you blew cigarette smoke across the cosmos.
“I like.” Your mouth creased into a smile as spontaneous as an opening flower, and you lay your forehead on my shoulder. “You like?”
I ran my hand onto your chest, your flesh both familiar and unfamiliar. “I like,” I replied. Between your ribs the valleys were deep, and I thought of the world beyond the garden, and the people you would have to drag around town in your rickshaw in but a few hours. I resented them, and with them I resented myself. I would also have to return to barracks and the strait jacket of the day: drilling the men, lunching with an imbecile brigadier at the club, my joy carefully hidden like a gemstone sown into the hem of my jacket.
I fell into a reverie in which Singapore was covered in jungle, just as it had been a few hundred years before, and you and I were the only inhabitants. We lived in an attap hut in the forest, feasted on wild fruits and meats, and at night lay together on the beach, the hours and the days stretching ahead like the crystal sea.
A steady hum rose above the sound of the crickets, and a few moments later the ground leapt beneath us. Repeated blasts shook the earth, and the sky over the garden glowed with distant fire. We scrambled to our feet and I frantically embraced you, my words drowned out by the echoing explosions of Japanese bombs. I then turned and sprinted in the direction of my barracks, looking back once over my shoulder as your silhouette merged into darkness.
The fall of Singapore had begun.
29th November 1941
We first met on a Saturday afternoon in late November. I had to get to Fort Canning for a tea dance, preternaturally tedious affairs but somewhat less lonely than sitting in my room reading. On these occasions I feigned boorishness in order to repel the pretty little wallflowers in search of handsome partners, and guzzled every crumb of male-male intimacy that I could. There were places, I knew, where I could have feasted resplendently (soldiers’ gossip had told me that much), but at that time my only lover was my imagination, his only caress the cold enamel of the sink in my room.
On that particular afternoon the head gasket had blown, and I was forced to walk down to the main road and hail a rickshaw. One didn’t come immediately as it would have done outside Raffles or the club, but after a few minutes I caught sight of you, a distant spot bobbing amidst tendrils of heat rising from the road. Your pace increased when you spotted me, and skilfully you swung your rickshaw so that the step to the seat was one footstep from where I stood. You guided me into the contraption as if I were a king, your smile gentle and gracious, in a face entirely unselfconscious of its own beauty. Then, like Sisyphus pulling the great boulder in Hades, a boulder he would have to drag for the rest of his days (a long time in eternity), you heaved the long wooden handles from the floor and began to walk, and then to run. How demeaning and absurd it was, a person harnessed like an animal and dragging around another human being; slavery in all but name. I caught the eye of some whites ambling along the Bukit Timah road and they greeted me conspiratorially, members of that self-satisfied club that felt better about itself by riding on the backs of the poor.
It was when we started the climb up Fort Canning hill, and your wiry frame began to heave and struggle with the burden, that I could stand it no longer. “Stop!” I shouted.
You halted and peered through the bank of vegetation behind the curb, wondering if there was a British club cunningly concealed behind the verdure. Perhaps an Indian waiter in white cotton suit was poised obediently behind a Heliconia leaf with an iced gin and tonic upon a silver tray? I got down from my farcical little throne.
“Sorry, I go faster!” You recoiled from me as I approached, and I thought with disgust of the people who would beat you like a beast of burden. I offered you a cigarette, but you refused, and in your eyes I saw your mind whirring through the myriad possible dark reasons for the attention. I raised my hands in a gesture of surrender and then clasped one to my heart, trying to show you what was within. Then, slowly, like a coaxed animal, you took the cigarette, and we went over to a nearby raintree and leant our backs against its trunk.
“Why stop?” You asked.
“Why not?” I replied, sighing smoke into dappled shafts of sunlight. I eyed the contraption. “Hard work I should think. You could probably do with a break?”
“Rickshaw work, work money, money food.”
“And British bad,” I added. How nice it was to say those words.
“British master. I servant.”
A car passed and I recognised the wife of Colonel Saunders. She gave me a little finger waggling wave and a flirty grin. She was a dreadful gossip, and I would no doubt be the scandal of the tea dance. ‘British officer seen fraternising with Chinese rickshaw coolie on curbside shock – haw haw haw!’
“Bugger it” I whispered, and tapped a knot of ash to the ground. At least I could say, when the whole ghastly business was over, that I had tried.
“What wrong?” you asked, taking off your straw hat and hanging it on a broken branch.
I looked into your face, an open and honest face, not the thousand-veiled face of the British. It was a beautiful face, far beyond the scrubbed and constipated handsomeness of your typical British soldier. I began to cry, pressing my forehead into the bark of the tree as tears turned into sobs. When eventually I looked back to you, I expected to see you preparing to get as far away from the mad-dog of an Englishman as possible. Instead, tears of empathy glistened in your eyes. “It good,” you whispered, putting a hand on my shoulder. “Good cry”.
20th January 1942
I remember the last time we met before the invasion. British and Australian forces had retreated across the straits of Johore into Singapore, and the Japanese were marshalling their armies a brief water-span away on the mainland. It was clear to all but the most naïve that we would not be able to hold them off for long.
Preparations for the final defence of the island had been intense, and I hadn’t seen you for several days, but managed to get away in the early hours of one morning. I made my way to Palm Valley where you spent your nights, and quietly approached you as you slept by the Nibong. I lay down on the grass next to you, and watched the gentle rise and fall of your body, listening to the soft ebb and flow of your breath. The lines of effort and squinting against the sun were smoothed away and your skin was pale and soft in the moonlight. With a deep breath and a stretch you opened your eyes, smiling as you saw me. You then snuggled close like a babe.
“The Japs are coming,” I said as I embraced you, tears stifling me as I kissed you, wanting to become a part of you, wanting for us to be transported together to another time and another place, anything but the god-awful pig’s-ear of a present.
“You go now?” There was panic in your voice.
You shook your head. “We go. You…me…go, before Japanese here.”
“There’s nowhere to go.”
You began to weep and I held you. “When the war is over, we’ll meet here again. I promise.”
You looked into my eyes. “We meet…here…again.”
I rocked you until your breathing steadily slowed, and sleep, now the only refuge, finally reclaimed you. I then laid you down on the grass, and gently kissed your forehead.
Next to Palm Valley there stands a grove of ancient rainforest preserved by the founders of the gardens, and the trees from that area grow higher than any of the other trees in the garden. They looked so peaceful that night, their branches entwining with the stars, it was difficult to imagine that two great empires were about to clash at their feet. I prayed, probably the first true prayer I had ever uttered, and yet I didn’t know if it was to God, to the trees, to my ancestors, or to yours.
15th September 1945
The gardens haven’t changed. While we were writhing on the Nipponese rack, the Frangipanis continued to bloom, glowing sweet scent for the delight of the Japs as for the Brits. The branches of the old fig creaked in numberless breezes, and the great Kapok inched its way a little higher towards heaven. Now their emerald eyes seem to gleam ironically at me from the darkness: “What’s the matter with you?” they ask. “Surely you don’t envy us our green blood that does not flow, our branches that regrow, or our sunlit lives that feel neither love nor pain?”
Uncertainty tormented me in the Japanese prison far more than hunger that bites to the bone, or cruelty that strangles the soul, and when I arrive at Palm Valley, my heart bangs in my chest. I cannot think. I cannot feel. I cannot see you. I dash forward and stumble. I pick myself up, and glimpse your figure lying in the grass next to the Nibong. With an explosion of joy I run to you, but it is only the shadow of the moon on a furrow. I see you again, but it is only a tussock of grass. I frantically tear through the circle of Nibong, the spines gashing at my emaciated arms. I call your name, but the echo dies and there is no answer. I collapse to the ground insensible.
Hours pass and dawn comes, the shadows shrink, and the grass begins to bake. I scoop water from the lake, and slump back in the shade. A garden coolie asks me if I am alright, very politely because I’m white. I nod and he leaves. The sun sinks. It is night again, but you are not there.
In waves I then begin to feel. You are dead, you are dead, you are dead. I gasp for breath and thump the ground, but I cannot weep.
Dawn comes and the coolie brings a cup of broth and a ball of rice. There is kindness in his eyes, and I tell him that my love is dead. He doesn’t understand my words but it doesn’t matter. Many have died: mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters and lovers. You were probably murdered along with tens of thousands of other Chinese in the great massacres of 1942.
I wait for five nights and five days, and at dusk on the fifth, I finally push myself from the ground.
I return to Palm Valley every night for a month after that. I search hospitals and dormitories, streets and parks. I ask every Rickshaw coolie I see, but I know in my heart you are dead.
8th December 1991
When I return to Singapore, nearly half a century later, I hardly recognise it. Raffles and the Fullerton building are dwarfed by gargantuan skyscrapers, and non-whites finally have the dignity and self-determination they deserve. The Botanic Gardens have changed little of course, and Palm Valley is almost exactly as I remember it. I’ve got cancer now. It isn’t one of the worst kinds, but it will take me in a few years, and I want to visit this place again while I still can. There was a time when it would have been too painful, but though time doesn’t always heal, it does change things.
I lay out a rug in Palm Valley next to the Nibong, and with some effort sit down, wondering as old people tend to how I’m going to get up again. “Good a place to die as any,” I chuckle to myself. I’ve planned the visit for a while and have my medications, water bottle, and a snack ready prepared, together with certain other necessities.
The crowds steadily dwindle as the light fades, and the crickets begin their night-time singing. I lie back on the rug and watch the stars as we used to do, the whole valley, the trees and the heavens our own.
And I know you are still there. I can feel you, very close, waiting.
A Secret Paradise is not the first time Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit.
The following work by Daniel Emlyn-Jones has featured in Eastlit: