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Authors: Lynette Silver

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BOOK: In the Mouth of the Tiger
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‘How am I involved?' I asked.

‘Let me tell the girl what we have arranged,' Mother snapped, shooting a glance at Mr Aubrey. ‘Nona, Mr Aubrey has offered to help us establish a hairdressing salon in his building in Kuala Lumpur. A lot of details need to be settled, but it does mean we will be able to live like a family again. Madam Tanya will help me run the salon, and you will work there as an apprentice. It will give you security and a career. You will even have a share in the business.'

‘All depending on what you decide,' Mr Aubrey interposed. ‘You need to think about this very carefully, Nona. It is a big commitment, and I am sure you will want to discuss it with your advisers.'

‘What's to discuss? What's to discuss?' Mother cried, opening her arms theatrically. ‘This is the best thing that has ever happened to our family. Nona will be seeing Mr Mayhew tomorrow and he will tell her how lucky we are.' She turned to Madam Tanya. ‘Is this not the best thing that has ever happened to us?'

Madam Tanya smiled enigmatically. ‘I'm not sure Nona sees it the way we do, Madam. Perhaps that convent of hers has given her ideas above her station. Perhaps Nona thinks it is below her to be an apprentice hairdresser.'

I shook my head. ‘It seems a good idea,' I said a little uncertainly. In truth I was horrified at the thought of leaving the Convent. I hated living with the Ulrichs, but I was almost happy at school. After a slow start I had begun to make friends, and I had developed a great deal of affection and respect for my tutor, Sister Felice.

‘I think it important Nona discusses her decision with Mr Mayhew . . .' Mr Aubrey began, but Mother interrupted him again.

‘I will make sure Nona makes the right decision,' she said sharply. ‘It is not for Mr Mayhew to run her life. Nona is my daughter and I know what is best for her.'

Mr Aubrey was not used to being interrupted and he made this clear by rising abruptly. ‘Perhaps we should talk tomorrow,' he said, ‘when we know if this business is to proceed or not.' He had no particular accent but his voice did have a curious, flat quality that made me think that he was not English. Armenian, or perhaps Persian. My school had such a mix of students that one became quite expert at detecting people's backgrounds, however hard they tried to hide them.

‘Oh, do what you like,' Mother exclaimed impatiently. She turned her shoulder on Mr Aubrey like an angry child. Then turned back, her eyes suddenly wide and pleading. ‘Don't go back on all we have agreed to, Eugene,' she said, her head tilted slightly to one side. ‘It is so important to me that we become partners in this venture. Come and sit down with me.'

Of course I'd seen Mother do it before: her little-child-deprived-of-atoy act. Most men were putty in her hands but Mr Aubrey stuck to his guns. ‘Perhaps we could talk again tomorrow, after Nona has made her decision,' he suggested. ‘A sherry in the Palm Court about eight?' And then he touched his hat and was gone.

Madam Tanya was the first to speak. ‘So you see how important you are, Nona?' she said bitterly. ‘If you don't want to come to KL with us, we might not be able to go at all.'

‘Shhh . . .' Mother said, holding up her hand. ‘It is not Nona's fault. Come and sit beside me, child.' She patted the chair vacated by Mr Aubrey. I moved seats with trepidation. For some reason I could not fathom, the famous Julia charm was to be turned on me.

And what charm it was! We retired to Mother's room where she unpacked some trinkets for me from her trip, presenting each one – a paper fan, hair ribbons, a tortoiseshell comb – as if they were treasures from Far Cathay. We had cocktails in the Palm Court Bar, and then Mother invited me to stay for dinner, dismissing my protests about being underdressed with an imperious wave of her arm: ‘You are young enough to look wonderful in anything, Nona. Take advantage of it while you can!' Over dinner, she told funny stories about her fellow passengers on the cruise. She had met Mr
Aubrey the first night at sea, en route to Surabaya, and they had apparently been inseparable from then on. The idea of a salon had blossomed during the voyage, and cables had flashed between the ship, Mr Aubrey's solicitors in KL, and Mayhew, Jones & Tan. Mr Aubrey owned a building in the heart of KL, the Tamarind Tower, and was trying to turn it into the city's centre for
haute couture
. There were already dress shops, jewellers, a gift shop – but no ladies' hairdresser. Madam Tanya had trained as a hairdresser at the Trade School in Ipoh, and so the idea had been born.

As the evening wore on, I became quite infected by Mother's enthusiasm. It seemed a great opportunity – at least for Mother and Madam Tanya. But I was still uncertain that I wanted to be any part of the scheme, and I was puzzled that my participation was regarded as so crucial. I wanted to complete my senior school year, a target Sister Felice and I had jointly agreed on.

Surely they could quite easily recruit someone else as an apprentice?

Another, more important matter was pressing on my mind. I was utterly determined to mention the business about Burnbrae that evening, and promised myself I would do so as soon as the dessert plates were taken away. I needed to make such a promise to myself because the longer I was in my mother's company, the less confident I was that I could keep my resolve.

I remember, even though it was over sixty years ago, exactly how I finally raised the subject. As the dessert plates were being collected, I turned my chair slightly towards Mother's, placed my napkin beside my plate, and clenched my hands tightly under the table. My heart was beating like a trip-hammer.

‘I have something to say, Mother.'

Mother was holding a heavy Bohemian glass wine goblet, and she put it down carefully as if she knew that what I was about to say would be a bombshell.

‘I was told – just a few days ago – that Robbie left me the Burnbrae tea plantation in his will. You know how much I loved Burnbrae, Mother. Apparently I own it. Why didn't you tell me?'

There was a moment of silence. ‘You think I try to cheat you?' she asked quietly. ‘You think I am a mother who cheats her own daughter?'

‘I don't know what to think,' I replied.

Mother's reaction was extraordinary, even for her. Her face turned bright red. Then she picked up the goblet and threw it, as hard as she could, straight at my face. By the grace of God she missed or I could have been badly hurt. I heard the glass shatter somewhere behind me, and someone screamed.

‘Who has been telling you these lies?' she shouted. ‘Who, Nona? Who? I demand you tell me who!'

I stared back at her, unable to move, unable to speak, unable even to think. She got up from the table, came round to stand in front of me, and then drew back her arm to strike me. I think it was my stillness, my refusal to defend myself or even to move, that stayed her arm.

And then she began to cry. Huge, heaving, broken sobs.

‘Look what you have done!' Madam Tanya spat at me as restaurant staff swarmed around us. ‘I hope you are satisfied, you nasty piece of work! Your mother has gone to such trouble for you and all you can do is accuse her of cheating!'

The major-domo, a tall Indian in a red-trimmed turban, helped Mother to her chair. She sat there without a word, bosom heaving, her face streaked with tears, and stared at me. I hate scenes, and as well as embarrassed I was badly shaken. The whole room was staring at us, and I was about to get up and walk out when I saw something in Mother's eyes that held me back. Guilt, and a defencelessness I had never seen before. As Mother stared at me she shook her head. Tiny little movements, left and right, with her eyes locked on mine. She was trying to tell me, through the steel curtain she had built around her over the years, that she loved me and had not intended to hurt me.

I came around the table and put my arms about her.

In the taxi on the way back to Argyll Street, we sat in the back together, perhaps closer than we had ever been in our lives. Of course, Burnbrae was not mentioned, nor the hairdressing salon. And of course I didn't have the heart to give her Irma Ulrich's neatly typed statement of account.

But Mother indicated that she was well on the way to recovery when she called to me from of the departing taxi: ‘Now, dress properly for tomorrow, Nona. Make your mother proud.'

The comment stung me into action. When I got back to my room I dug out a partly finished skirt I had been making for Tanya, laid it on the bed, and pondered the possibilities. Tanya was bigger than me, but I decided I could quite easily adapt it to my skinny frame if I shortened the hem a few inches and did a judicious bit of tucking at the waist. The material was good quality gabardine in a pale tan colour, and the more I folded and pinned the more enthusiastic I became. Soon I had the Singer out and was on my way, humming quietly to myself as the skirt took shape. I had it completely finished by midnight, and tried it on with one of my white school blouses. It looked
just right for a young lady visiting her solicitor.

I pressed the skirt in the upstairs laundry, and hung it up in the huge mahogany clothes press, with the comfortable feeling one gets with a job well done. The task had tired me, but it had also calmed me. The thoughts that had been spinning through my mind had quieted to a gentle muzziness, and I felt I would be able to sleep. But before slipping beneath the mosquito net I lit the lamp on the bedside table and turned it down low.

Again the magic worked. Staring into the pale gold shadows above me, I felt a profound sense of comfort seeping through every fibre of my being. Again the dream-images appeared. This time, Denis and I were living in our home in Happy Valley. There was a deep verandah about the house, full of long chairs and cane tables strewn with English papers and magazines. Denis was reading, his legs propped up, with the book on his lap and one arm hanging loose on the arm of his chair. He looked across at me, a long, thoughtful look.

‘Happy?'

I had never been so happy in my life.

Chapter Three

I
woke to another glorious tropical morning, and went out into the stillness of the garden to pick frangipani for the small vase on my bedside table. The tension of the previous day had been washed away, leaving me full of energy and enthusiasm. Life was after all just a game, and you lost only if you took it seriously.

Mayhew, Jones & Tan had an impressive set of offices in the commercial heart of George Town, approached by marble steps leading up from Beach Street. Mother, Tanya and I were escorted to a cluster of comfortable chairs set about a low mahogany table in the spacious waiting room. Fans turned silently above us, and in the distance we could hear the faint clatter of typewriters.

‘Mr Mayhew will see Mrs Roberts and Madam Tanya in about ten minutes,' the receptionist said. Then she turned to me. ‘You will be waiting a little while longer, Miss Roberts. Can I get you a glass of lemonade?'

I shook my head. Surely I didn't look so childish that I needed to be bribed to be patient with a glass of lemonade? I thought I looked very grown-up in my loosely cut cream blouse and long, pleated tan skirt. I wore Robbie's last present to me pinned at my neck – a small gold brooch with a single cultured pearl at its centre.

Mother had smiled when she and Tanya called to pick me up in a taxi. ‘You look so much better, Nona. I am glad that you sometimes listen to your mother.' Then her smile had faded. ‘But for why didn't you wear this dress for me yesterday? To show how little respect you have for me?'

Mother was back to normal.

I had taken advantage of the short taxi ride to tell Mother about my visit to Dr Mahmood. I kept it simple, saying that when I had heard that we still owned Burnbrae, I had felt the need for advice and had gone to Dr Mahmood
because he had offered to see me without charge. ‘Of course I would have asked you about it, Mother,' I said. ‘But I didn't know how I could get in touch.'

Mother had not commented, and had then abruptly changed the subject. ‘So you wish to spend longer at school, Nona?' she had asked. ‘You must realise that these are hard times and we cannot all afford the luxury of not working.'

I flushed slightly. ‘I'm not afraid of hard work,' I said. ‘But I think that the better educated I am the better I will be able to get on in life.'

Tanya laughed sardonically. ‘You've never done a day's work in your life, Nona. How do you know you're not afraid of it?'

‘No squabbling, children,' Mother had said with mock severity. ‘It is too nice a day to spoil with arguments.'

Precisely ten minutes after our arrival, the receptionist collected Mother and Tanya and took them off to see Mr Mayhew. I couldn't help feeling put out that I had been relegated to second cab off the rank, but I did my best to dismiss the thought and concentrate on what I was going to say when it was my turn. I prepared a little speech in my mind. I was going to be a little reserved, I thought, perhaps even distant. I would look Mr Mayhew straight in the eye. ‘I am a little disappointed that you thought me too young to be told about Burnbrae,' I would say. ‘But that is water under the bridge. From now on, though, I expect to be consulted about
any
decisions affecting my inheritance.'

It seemed a very mature speech to me. Gently scolding, but understanding. Firm but not arrogant, and focused on the future. I decided that if Mr Mayhew saw things my way, there was no reason to mention Dr Mahmood at all.

I was basking, just a little, in the feeling that I was an heiress about to take charge of her affairs. I was also utterly determined to cancel the sale of the property, and I even prepared what I would say if Mr Mayhew pressed me on the point. ‘Then I am sorry but we must part company,' I would say, rising gracefully from my chair and offering a cool hand. ‘But I do thank you for what you have done.'

The reality was to prove very different.

BOOK: In the Mouth of the Tiger
2.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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