By Carol Major
I am here in Malaysia with Hugh. I know we will fight. This is because he is the son of the last British Advisor in the State of Kedah and I am the daughter of a Glaswegian house painter, that upstairs downstairs thing. My mother was in service, the small humiliations of using the back door and wearing a silly white cap. And don’t get me started on colonialism, although Hugh says I’m mistaken. It wasn’t like that at all.
We are having breakfast on the veranda of an airport motel in Kuala Lumpur. Hugh wears a seersucker jacket and cream trousers, as if he has stepped out of a novel by Evelyn Waugh. Women float by in the heat, lovely in pastel dupattas with a single jewel dripping under their chins. Another appears in a dark niqab, showing only her eyes. So this is the costumed world Hugh expects me to inhabit now. The in-flight screen on Malaysian Airlines had offered an Islamic prayer following the demonstration on safety procedures. I am mindful of the culture and have brought trousers, scarves and one long dress.
Hugh places a battered photo album on the table. He told me the trip was about finding his boyhood home. He was born, the only child to aging parents, in Malaya, as it was known at the time. Both are now dead and he says he wants to find some consistent thread in his life. He was seven years old when he left his birthplace, nine months before the formal recognition of independence, and still sees that moment playing out before his eyes—the formal line-up of servants, the solemn shaking of hands, and later the moving truck capsizing in the jungle, his family belongings scattered over the road.
‘It was such a total loss of a world,’ he told me. ‘As if all I had known had been destroyed with no witness. That’s why you have to come. I need another observer and can think of no one better than you.’
He has given up tobacco but uses a Vape Pen; it reminds me of a hookah, the pale steam rising. ‘Mentaloon,’ he says, handing me a postcard wedged into the album’s spine. In his mouth the word sounds like strings plucked on a harp. There in my hand is his boyhood home, palm trees standing sentry, a commanding portico jutting into a circular drive. He tells me he remembers the marble floors, cool in the heat, the fans whirring above, and pushes the rest of the album forward. The photos are held on black pages with mounting corners. In one he is a small child in bare feet wearing khaki shorts and holding an ancient Arab matchlock gun. In another he is wearing baggy Chinese trousers and standing on a lawn.
‘I haven’t been able to find the house on a map,’ he says as I study the pictures. ‘But I do recall the smell of mud.’ He pauses, emotion trembling then checked. ‘I believe,’ he begins again. ‘I believe if I can locate father’s offices near the city centre I’ll be able to trace my way back to the house. I used to go with him sometimes. It was a full procession then. We rode in a Daimler Conquest, the Union Jack and State of Kedah flags flying on the bonnet, police outriders in front.
‘Which city?’ I ask, refusing to be drawn into this scene and also wondering which hotel he has booked. I’m tired after arriving late last night and sleeping in a cement room that reminded me of the early 70s in Queensland: tiled floors, small high windows in the shower area and insects clinging to the screens. I live in Australia now.
‘Alor Setar, but we shan’t stay there. I’ve booked rooms in a seaside villa to the south. It’s closer.’
‘Closer to what?’
‘Memories,’ he replies.
Back in the cement hotel room I Google this seaside villa, download maps to my phone and draw one of my own, so that all bases are covered should we lose Wi-Fi connection. Then I hurry to meet Hugh at the car rental office. I find him in a nearby shop. He is carrying an old-fashioned compass and so busy looking at it that he crashes into a display rack of nuts. Packets fall on the floor, with him looking surprised to find himself among people talking on mobile phones and traffic buzzing outside. I suggest we buy some of the nuts and a few cans of passion fruit drink. We’ll need something to see us through the six-hour drive north.
The exit to the KI Highway is lined with celebratory banners showing the aging Sultan of Kedah and current king. Hari Merdeka, the annual marking of the end of British rule, is only weeks away. Hugh tells me that since gaining independence in 1957, State Sultans have taken five-year turns being the country’s monarch. ‘They are the upholders of Malay tradition in a multi-ethnic society,’ he says. ‘Father loved their culture and studied it in depth.’
I met his father only once when I arrived at London Airport with just enough money for a telephone call and an egg salad sandwich. I’d been backpacking around Europe and the money I expected to be at an American Express office hadn’t arrived. It’s what we did before ATMs and credit cards: planted funds to be available at certain dates, although sometimes the money came in late or someone had lost the paperwork.
Hugh came to my rescue in the interim and deposited me in the airy upstairs bedroom of his father’s house. The memory is filled with green lawns, morning sunlight and an elderly man with formal manners who was concerned fresh flowers hadn’t been placed in my room.
On the evening that followed Hugh took me to an opera at Prince Alfred Hall where he kept glancing at me as I watched the performance. Was it to see if I was impressed? It felt like something else, as if I’d been placed in a scene in which I was supposed to take a role, lines that I should utter but had forgotten.
I first met Hugh when I was fifteen. My family had immigrated to Canada by then and Hugh had come to Toronto to earn a university degree, something to do with a grandfather who had been a professor of literature at Trinity College—yes, we have a Trinity College at the University of Toronto too. Hugh arrived with all the Raj-like affectations: the vowels, the manners and mode of dress. He met my sister first. She’d won a scholarship and they were both fish out water—him because the hunting jackets and pipe were considered laughable by the flared jeans set, and my sister because most of the other students had come via a private school education, not the east end of Kingston Road: car yards, thrift stores, kids hanging round smoke shops, that kind of thing.
Hugh was enchanted with my sister, but she had a boyfriend and so, in turn, introduced him to me, still in high school at the time. Hugh invited me to dinner, sending a limousine to collect me from my apartment block and be delivered to Three Small Rooms in Toronto’s Windsor Arms Hotel. I remember a gothic archway and following a maître d’ with a ramrod back. The restaurant was at the bottom of wide stone steps, almost like entering a medieval chamber, maroon walls and amber lamps. Hugh was sitting at a corner table and took a telephone call soon after my arrival. The telephone itself was brought to the table. I don’t know how it was done, as we didn’t have wireless phone connections then. Perhaps he organised one of his university friends to ring so there would be this performance, which made him look important and appear older than seventeen. He ordered me curry when the waiter returned, common now but exotic then, and watched as I tried to cope with the heat on my tongue.
My mother was wary. ‘He’s gentry. They like to slum it for a lark.’ I felt out of my depth as well, although random outings followed. On one occasion Hugh surprised me by turning up at the door of Coin, Stamp and Antique News, where I had a summer job as a clerk. This time it was to take me to lunch at the Imperial Room at the Royal York Hotel. A safety pin was holding the broken strap in my sling-back shoe. I was carrying my lunch in a paper bag. Another time it was a Halloween outing to Casa Loma, a Camelot fantasy built in the late 1800s by a romantic businessman. There were candles, Chinese fans and a Houdini vanishing act—and all the time Hugh watching me.
He turns to watch me now as I take in Malaysia’s rolling hills, braided with row upon row of oil palms, and points to the places where virgin jungle still survives. ‘When I was a boy I used to lie awake at nightfall listening to the cough of tigers in the distance and the call to prayers singing across rice paddies.’ His eyes hold mine as if this is another thing I’m supposed to remember. But I am thinking of the servants who waited on that small boy, servants who didn’t go to sleep in huge mansions with twirling fans and the clink of crystal glasses. Years ago, he gave me a DVD of Brideshead Revisited, told me this was his world. But my attention was captured by the Indian boy who hauled suitcases and washed the white trousers of young men who didn’t give a second thought to where they sat.
‘The jungle appears dense at the edges,’ he says now. ‘Although it is often quite open under the high canopy beyond. During World War Two the Japanese rode through the jungle on bicycles, conquering the country behind fixed British and allied lines. My father was captured in Singapore and spent the next three years as a prisoner building a railway. Mother escaped on the last evacuation ship and thought her husband dead. I came along after they were reunited.’ He turns. ‘Did I tell you that she was French Canadian, studying to be an actress, but gave it up to be with him.’
‘Yes,’ I reply. ‘You have mentioned that before.’ But now it strikes me that it was his mother’s room where I had slept all of those years ago. Later his father had developed Alzheimer’s, all memory lost.
We pass Slim River, Sungkai and Tapah. The petrol is low, so we stop at a station. In the food court sinks with soap are strategically placed to allow hand washing before and after meals. Toilets have a bidet hose. We buy Nasi Goring and boiled curried eggs. Hugh brings out the photo album again, turns to another page.
‘This is close to where father’s offices were located.’ He points to a group of dignitaries standing next to a pyramid structure: Alor Star: Centre of North Kedah White Area. (Alor Setar was once known as Alor Star.) He sees my expression and laughs. ‘It’s not what you think. White Areas were districts where the Communist insurgency was brought under control. It was quite an achievement. Separating the rural Chinese from the Communist guerillas was a key strategy in saving the country. They were given accommodation in communes, and the British Administration was able to keep tin mines and rubber plantations operating while the stoush went on.’
‘More like being herded into prisoner camps,’ I snap back. ‘The implication that Britain was saving the country and those industries for selfless ends is utter nonsense. Rubber and tin made certain people rich. Communism would have had its attractions for the rest. You shouldn’t have been in there in the first place.’
He is wounded by these words. I see it in his eyes and in the way he turns the page in the album to another photo. This time his father is standing next to General Templar, a senior British Army Officer who had fought in both World Wars and had been brought into Malaya to defeat the rebels. Members of the Malay royalty spread out to one side.
‘Surely you would concede the insurgency was resolved and without the military escalation of the War in Vietnam,’ he says. ‘The Americans could have learned a few lessons from the Brits in that regard. And you miss the real point of our presence if you focus on ideological edges and not the substance of individual lives.’
But all I can see is my own parents’ lives. My mother had supported communism. I swipe at a mosquito and reply that I concede nothing at all.
We are driving again, me holding my hand-drawn map and checking co-ordinates on my phone’s GPS. Hugh stares straight ahead. We pass limestone outcrops, mauve and hazy, each floating behind another like a Chinese watercolour.
‘Mistiness is an enduring memory,’ says Hugh and then, without warning, veers off the highway.
‘Hey!’ I shout. ‘This isn’t the turnoff!’ The car bounces along a side road, past rice paddies, past rickety shops, past families eating at outside tables. I try to get my bearings on my mobile but the connection has packed it in.
‘Don’t worry,’ says Hugh. ‘It’s a shortcut.’
‘A shortcut to where?’
The road twists and turns. Hugh takes another side road that withers into messy jungle and then a dead end. I pick up his compass, knowing at least that the sea should be to our west but the arrow spins so that east becomes west and west turns into east again. I shout at him for not staying on the main highway, for not taking the plotted route. He replies that it’s good not to be so certain, and we say little after that.
Dusk falls. We pass kampong shacks and then come to a small moat with a bridge that meets another dead end. A wall this time but at least further along there is a gate. I leave the car hoping the compass might work better on foot. Further away a mountain looms behind a shadow of rice paddies.
‘Hello, hello,’ I call into the twilight hoping someone might come to our assistance. Chickens and geese reply. I turn to see that Hugh is behind me. ‘Sh-sh-sh,’ he whispers, and in that moment, I hear it too: a call to prayer across the rice paddies, slow and repeating as the sky fades into a wash of indigo and a caretaker appears in a sarong. He smiles broadly.
He has been expecting us. We are at the villa. Hugh introduces me as an old family friend, as if I have been to Kedah a thousand times.
The following morning I find Hugh in the dining room in a linen suit. We sit in rosewood chairs while a beautiful woman in a turquoise headscarf serves us spiced meat, fish chapattis and crushed nuts in coconut curd rolled into bamboo leaves. I am quiet as we eat and quiet later as we travel to Alor Setar.
‘The Kedah River.’ Hugh points to the expanse of muddy water that cuts through the city, although he remembers junks along the banks when he was a boy. We keep the river to the left because this is the side it would have been on when his father returned from his city offices to Mentaloon. Soon we are able to locate the central square in the photograph, but his father’s offices have disappeared, a tourist kiosk occupying the spot. The woman at the desk has never heard of Mentaloon. She thinks we are talking about a museum down the road.
We continue to keep the muddy river to the left as the road becomes a four-lane highway. I am not hopeful of finding Mentaloon along this strip of urban sprawl and then suddenly it appears, just as the seaside villa appeared, as if it has been conjured out of Hugh’s imagination, white and glistening. Guards are positioned at either end of the circular drive. We are soon to discover that this is now the residence of the Menteri Besar, Chief Minister of Kedah, who is also the son of Mahathir Mohamad, the man who fought for Malaysia to become a country defined by Malayans. The guard can’t let us in. I surprise myself by whipping the photo album from the back seat.
‘But he used to live here!’ I open the album. ‘Look at the photos. It was once his home.’ The guard tells us we can take the car once around the circular driveway but then we must go.
When we return to our villa Hugh stops at a creek that flows into the sea. He wants to show me mudskippers. They had been his own special discovery as a child and he wonders if they can still be found at the back of Mentaloon. The mudskippers hop about, odd little fish that scramble out of the water and hop on their gills.
‘There were two worlds,’ Hugh says, crouching close to them. ‘The cool formalities of my parents and the one behind a baize-covered door at the back of the dining room. Beyond it, an arcade led through the kitchen to cook sweating over heated oil drums outside. He used to stir the sizzling oil with folded packets of Players Navy Cut cigarettes. The river lay beyond. I spent most of my time there with the brother of my Chinese amah.’ He turns to look at me. ‘I just wanted to see that part of the river again. I just wanted to see my old room.’
Hugh did get to see his old room after making contact with a historian in Penang and another who worked at the Sultan’s palace. They identified one of the young Malay men in the group photo with his father and General Templar as being a sultan and current king. Excited calls were made to government offices and a meeting arranged with the Chief Minister’s private secretary. Hugh alone would be granted a tour.
On the day he arrived the staff came out to meet him with the same warm smiles he remembered as a boy, although the baize covered door was gone and the furnishings replaced with modern tables and chairs. And he was not allowed to go down to the river, some sort of security measure in place. Still he was happy. He told me that he had bent down to touch the marble floor and it was still cool.
In that moment I suddenly remembered Hugh visiting my parents’ home shortly after he’d returned from a mad trip across Canada in a battered Citroen. It would have been around the time his mother died, although he didn’t mention that. My own mother was horrified he’d chosen to sit in a broken armchair. ‘The springs are gone,’ she whispered. ‘And him used to finer surroundings, that great house outside London.’
But as Hugh sat on those broken springs and chatted, we discovered we’d all been on the same ship some fifteen years earlier when he was travelling to meet Canadian relatives after leaving Malaya, and my mother, sister and I were on our way to join my father who had immigrated earlier to find work. Albeit Hugh had been in first class above and we’d been in stern below.
‘But still the same ship!’ he exclaimed. ‘Almost like siblings.’
The happy bewildered expression on his face was so similar to the expression he wore when he told me about the cool marble floor in Mentaloon. ‘And you have been in Malaya with me,’ he said. ‘You have been here and seen this country too.’
I realised then what I’d seen was a boy born in a country that he couldn’t claim, who’d been sent away to a boarding school in England where the weather was cold and strange. A single child whose elderly parents had died, and a world order that had shifted making it so difficult for him ever to find home again.