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Authors: Lynette Silver

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BOOK: In the Mouth of the Tiger
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Denis did not answer immediately, then gave a slight shrug. ‘Pretty good on the whole. The odd bump or two on the way, but we will always be together.'

I grinned and sat up, hugging myself with joy. The world lifted from my skinny shoulders and my heart seemed to be bursting with happiness. A thought suddenly struck me. ‘You won't die?' I asked anxiously. I don't know why the thought popped into my head. Probably because a school friend had recently died. She had been on a trip to Frasers Hill and the family car had rolled, killing them all.

Again Denis did not answer immediately. ‘I can't promise I won't die,' he said, only half-serious. ‘That's something nobody on earth can promise. But you mustn't worry about things like that because in the end it's only a game we're playing. When the game's over, we'll pour ourselves a couple of decent gin and tonics and have a good laugh about it.'

I lay back and closed my eyes. Of course it was a game, and you only lost if you took it too seriously. When I opened my eyes again Denis had got up and was turning down the lamp.

‘Goodnight, my dear,' he said gently. ‘Sleep well. And remember – don't let anyone ever frighten you again. You're much too good for that.'

I turned over in the darkness, conscious of a lovely new presence in my life, and fell into a dreamless sleep.

At breakfast the next morning Captain Ulrich lurched against me as I was serving myself from the sideboard, running his hand quickly down my thigh and across my backside. In the past I had squirmed with embarrassment when he did that, pretending not to mind his fumbling, groping hands and the way he breathed into my face, his mouth open in a lascivious smile. But today I was a different person. I was loved and cherished by a man a hundred times finer than Ulrich and his awful wife, finer than anyone I knew. I stepped back, gripped him by the shoulders, and spoke fiercely into his face. ‘Don't do that again, Captain. I don't like it and it's not right.'

For a second Captain Ulrich looked startled, then he spat – quite literally spat – into my eyes. ‘Don't talk to me like that, my fancy little lady . . .' he began, but before he could finish I kicked him hard – in the shin.
The left shin, which I knew still had an open wound from the Great War. An awful, weeping sore that refused to heal and which he exposed sometimes to the sunlight, sitting in his baggy shorts on the upstairs verandah and laughing at the repugnance I could not hide.

The pain made him double over and when he straightened, his face glittering with malice, he struck me with a closed fist on the side of my face. The world seemed to contract as I nearly fainted from the force of the blow, but I kept to my feet and stared back into his eyes.

The blow changed everything, and we both knew that immediately. I would develop a huge black eye, and if I told the Sisters at my school how I had come by it they would believe me. My mother had enrolled me at the Convent of the Holy Infant Jesus for a very good reason. Though she was Russian Orthodox she knew the value of being within the Catholic community in Penang in the 1930s. ‘The Roman Mafia', she called them, but they looked after their own, and people like Captain Ulrich, dependent on their beneficence, feared them.

So in an instant, in an exchange of looks, it was agreed. I would say nothing and Captain Ulrich would leave me strictly alone. He sat down, white-faced, blood beginning to ooze through the thick white sock on his leg, and ate his breakfast in silence. When Irma Ulrich came in she must have realised that something had changed profoundly. Instead of a sneering predator and a cowering victim she found two people being polite to each other. Two grown-ups instead of an adult and a child. I hoped she could not see the way my hands were trembling.

Irma was a different proposition to her husband. She was not a physical bully but she was just as much a predator. Her tactics were a cloying familiarity and a sly, manipulative manner that made me writhe with a mixture of embarrassment and fear. I did not quite understand why I was frightened of her but I did know that she had some plan for me that could only be to her advantage and to my detriment. Exactly what her plan was I was still to fathom, which made me all the more nervous. In my wilder moments I thought she was planning to sell me to white slavers. It may sound absurd in these enlightened days but it was not a completely fanciful notion for the time. Vulnerable white women were still being sold into slavery in the Far East in the 1930s. The papers often reported the disappearance of young European woman, particularly in China, with the almost inevitable speculation that white slavers had been involved. There was even a story current at the time
that one of the now-respectable émigré families in Penang had sold a daughter to the Chinese warlords during their escape from Russia, in exchange for cash and a safe passage to British Malaya.

My fear that Irma had white slavery on her mind may have been unjustified, but I knew she was planning
something
. Biding her time, just waiting for my mother to fall into one of her periods of financial distress so that she could pounce and take me as a form of security for unpaid board. And her manner towards me added to my apprehension. She was friendly in a poisonous, conniving way – winning my reluctant confidence only to crush it with a sudden, spiteful comment. Usually these comments were about my mother. ‘No letter from Mother again this morning, Nona? So long now! You must be very worried indeed.' A false, bright smile as she reached out to tweak my cheek. ‘But I'm sure she hasn't done anything . . . stupid. I'm sure we will see her come back for you one day. But the fact that your board is
weeks
overdue must be a worry . . .' And the tweak would become a painful pinch.

But this morning, surprise at the changed atmosphere seemed to rob her of her normal poise and malice. Instead of sitting close to me and spinning her web she sat on the other side of the table and watched me speculatively. Like a snake watching a mouse, readjusting its plans to a fresh set of circumstances.

‘Don't forget the Van der Staaten boys are coming over for dinner,' she said at last, breaking a silence that had begun to strain my nerves. But even this banal comment was delivered with a raising of the eyebrows, a curiously conspiratorial inflection in her high-pitched voice.

‘I won't, Irma. I'm looking forward to it.' But in truth I had completely forgotten the arrangement, and to be reminded of it on this of all special days depressed me. It was not that there was anything wrong with John and Ronnie Van der Staaten. They were pleasant, gangling young men, rather good looking as Dutch Eurasians often are, but the dinner raised the contentious issue of whether I should be mixing with people my mother would have regarded as socially beneath her. The Russian émigré community in Malaya had lost everything in the Revolution except their arrogance, which they clung to with shrill tenacity.

And their father would be there, Big Jack Van der Staaten, an awful man even if he were one of the most successful traders in the Straits Settlements.

I sighed before I could stop myself and looked up from my chilled papaya to see Irma eyeing me coldly across the table. ‘I suppose your mother would disapprove,' she said tartly. ‘Really, Nona, you Russian émigrés are all
alike. Airs and graces and no money to pay your bills. Julia should realise that the Van der Staatens are worth a hundred White Russians, for all their fancy titles. She should be grateful you've got a chance to meet the Van der Staaten boys on even terms.'

I felt a chill at her words. Surely I was far too young for Irma to be matchmaking! But even as I tried to comfort myself with the thought, it struck me that it was exactly Big Jack's style to pay Irma to further friendship between John and Ronnie and me. I may have been Russian, and an alien, and at times I thought probably illegitimate, but I was white and therefore quite a catch for a Eurasian family. Edwina Mountbatten may boast of her descent from an Algonquian Indian princess, and the ennobled children of Alexander Pushkin may trumpet their Ethiopian forebears, but in Colonial Malaya the emphasis was all on trying to be as white as possible. The whole business suddenly made me feel sick and I pushed aside my plate and got up. ‘I think I'll go for a walk before it gets too hot,' I said.

Both Ulrichs looked at me coldly. ‘Before you go, do put a compress on that eye,' Irma said sharply. ‘Tell the amah to wrap some ice in a piece of towel, and press it to your eye. We don't want you looking as if you've been in a catfight, do we?'

I straightened my back. ‘It's quite all right,' I said. I shot a glance at Captain Ulrich. ‘I just banged it on the edge of my door in the dark this morning. It will soon be better.'

It was still cool in the leafy front garden, made cooler by the tukan-ayer who was splashing water into the deep drains around the house to clear them of leaves and dust. I strolled up the short drive to Argyll Street, then turned right and started walking aimlessly towards the town. It was a busy Saturday morning, with rickshaws and cars passing in a steady stream.

The house next to the Ulrichs' was a ‘chummery', bachelor quarters for a group of young Englishmen employed by one of the rubber companies. A Singer Tourer and a battered Baby Austin with its hood down stood in the driveway, surrounded by a group of young men clearly preparing for a picnic at the beach. They had the short haircuts favoured by the rugger crowd, and the laughter that hung in the air was frank and unambiguous. It made me feel better immediately and I stopped within earshot, screened by the heavy ferns at the front gate. I had come to loathe the sly maliciousness at home, and I wanted to bask, even for a moment, in the cheerful good humour of the moment.

‘Get your carcass out here, Bob!' someone shouted towards the house. ‘If we don't get a wriggle on the girls will give us up for dead and cut over to the Swimming Club! And tell Cook to hurry up with the hamper!'

I could see it in my mind's eye. Young men and pretty young girls at one of Penang's beautiful North Coast beaches. A hamper full of good food – curry puffs, triangular sandwiches filled with anchovy paste, scones wrapped in linen, and screw-top pots of jam and cream. Cold Fraser & Neave lemonade and ice-cream soda, perhaps even some of the new American Coca-Cola. I could picture myself there in the sunshine, splashing at the edge of the sea, screaming in mock panic as somebody chased me into deeper water. Or perhaps just lying under the coconut palms, staring up into the blue vault of the sky, talking and laughing. Free of worry, free of fear . . .

‘Boo!' My daydream burst as a grinning face confronted me through the ferns. One of the young men had spotted me behind the fronds and crept up on me.

‘I'm sorry,' I mumbled, turning pink with embarrassment. What an ass I must seem! I backed away hurriedly, stepping into the busy street behind me.

‘No need to apologise!' the young man grinned. ‘Anyone who looks as pretty as you do is entitled to lurk outside our front gate any time they like. Whoa there!' and an arm pulled me out of the way of a rickshaw and back onto the safety of the pavement.

I turned even pinker but did not turn and run as I would have yesterday. Something had indeed happened to me since my dream. Denis had made me see myself quite differently: not as a gangling, frightened girl but as a poised young woman. I didn't call him Denis then, of course, as I didn't know his name. In those days when I wanted to think of the man in my dream I simply conjured up his face, the timbre of his voice, the level way he looked at me. He did not need to have a name.

‘Thank you,' I said, standing as tall as I could manage and with as much dignity as I could muster. ‘But I wasn't lurking. I'd just stopped to rest a moment in the shade.'

The young man bobbed his head in a half bow, acknowledging that he no longer had me at a disadvantage, then hesitated and cleared his throat. ‘Look, I do sort of know you. You live next door, don't you? Would you think it an awful cheek if I asked you to come with us on our picnic?'

I would have given my right hand to accept the invitation but of course I couldn't. Things just didn't happen that way in Penang in the 1930s. We hadn't
been introduced and I was from the wrong social level anyway. So I shook my head with a smile. ‘I'd love to accept, but you know how it is. Things have been arranged for today.'

‘Of course. I asked just in case. But perhaps some other time?' He had carrot-coloured hair and freckles, and his eyes pleaded with mine.

‘Of course. Some other time.'

I turned on my heel and walked on down Argyll Street, my head held high and my feet hardly touching the ground. I felt like a film star, a princess. Denis had worked some magic for me that had already transformed my life, and I began to love him for it.

I wanted a talisman to remind me of Denis's visit, something small and symbolic that I could keep with me always. The obvious place to look would be the Chinese curio shops, where all sorts of things could be found and where a Straits dollar went a long way. At first, nothing I saw seemed appropriate. The man who had visited me had been dressed in quiet good taste, and I felt that something modest and understated would be appropriate. But Chinese taste ran to the flamboyant: bright red embroidered cushions, vividly coloured armlets, rings and pendants, little dolls in sequined cheongsams. I sighed in exasperation.

And then I found it, on a back shelf of Teng's Chinese Magic Curio Shop in Rope Walk. A tiny tiger carved in ivory and mounted on a black onyx base. It was small enough to keep in my purse and its symbolism was perfect: a tiger for courage, to make me remember never to be afraid.

I have kept it with me for over sixty years, and it rests now on my dressing table, guarding a little array of photographs of those I love in their tiny silver frames.

Lunch was a pleasant meal as both the Ulrichs were out for the day, and I got on well with Ahmet, who cooked
nasi goreng
for me because he knew I liked it. After lunch I went up to my room and unwrapped my talisman, placing it carefully on the night table where Denis had lit the pressure lamp.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Tiger
3.84Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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