The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stony sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?
W. B. Yeats, The Second Coming

The word from on high is that the city is bloated with people. This is not news. Nonetheless, it appears in The Syonan Times as if it is the first time the thought has been had by anyone. There follows the injunction that all refugees are to leave the city. The army, the Japanese army, will give the Chinese and Malaysians flooding the city until the 14th of March, after which anyone remaining will be 'severely punished.'

Li reads this allowed and raises two elegant eyebrows. With Iris at her feet, she can hardly say it, but then, there is no need. Una thinks, as Li surely has, of the people caught looting the desiccated shops. Their heads on poles flanking the streets. Severely punished. How long ago had they learned that what that really meant was brutally executed?

The looting, needless to say, is no longer an issue. The funny thing is that this is the opportunity they have been waiting for. Una sends Iris to see where Puck has got to. He's probably fine – the rascal has long since proved himself nigh indestructible, but the recollection of Akela in pieces in the street is enough to make her doubtful. Iris goes.

Una says, 'You should go with them. Take Iris.'

'Go where?' says Li, elegant eyebrows rising still higher. 'You think it's true about the Peninsula? That it's better living there now?'

'Wouldn't anywhere be better?'

'You've heard the stories,' says Li. 'No one made an honourable arrangement with Malaya. What do you think? Will they call ahead? Say that the Chinese and Malaysians they didn't ask for are coming home but since they have an understanding with the army not to be raped or pillaged could the Japanese army in the Peninsula observe the same?'

Una does not think so. She knows Li knows this. They have all heard the stories, after all. Impossible not to. Of the rape, the looting and desecration of villages…For days, weeks after the siege on Singapore began they lived in terror it would be them next. There are still women living in their attics, Una knows. She doesn't blame them. These women have no Puck. Una is well aware that Li, Iris and herself only dared leave the attic because they do have Puck, T and Puck screams blue and bloody murder at the approaching guard.

'We haven't heard stories like that in a long time,' says Una. This is nonsense and they both know it but anywhere has to be better than Syonan-to for living. Firmly Una believes and truly. Believing it breaks the still-beating fragments of her heart. 'And from there – from there you could get to China, do you think?'

She watches Li considering it. Evaluating the pros, cons, risks they will have to take. 'You must come too,' she says.

'No,' says Una. 'I can't.'

Li's eyebrows have already vanished into her hairline. She tilts her head, myna fashion as she studies Una. 'The school?' she wants to know. 'They have many teachers. You must – '

'No,' says Una, before Li can finish. 'Not the school. Carl. Someone must…'

'Someone must be here.' Li nods. 'In case he comes back. You'll find him?'

'I'll try. And Puck. We can't leave Puck.'

Li shakes her head, No, but she does it in understanding. Una sees it flicker shooting-star-fast across her face. Another day, another time, they would have laughed over this. Oh, how they would have laughed at the idea that there would come a day when the world revolved around Puck, exasperating, impossible monkey. But Carl loves – loved? – Puck, and Carl is gone, so until he comes back Una and Li must love Puck for him. She thinks vaguely, heretically, that if she keeps Puck in peanuts, or at any rate in cornbread, keeps him alive and well and chattering, chess-playing and impossible, Carl will come back. Must come back, because he loves Puck, and Puck loves him, and he is only cleaving to Una and Li until a better option is presented to him. Until Carl comes in and sweeps him off his feet, laughing and grinning, blue eye sparkling.

'Mama?' says Iris, wandering in to the room. She has Puck awkwardly in her arms, and he struggles for freedom. 'Mama? Are we going somewhere?'

They tell Iris they are going to safety, and she chatters at them as they make ready to depart. Li is careful in her packing, taking only what she thinks she can carry.

'I won't have you,' she says into Una's hair when Iris is distracted by one of Puck's card-tricks. It's an old pack of Carl's that Una dates to the last war and Puck gets good use out of them now. He sits on the floor, hopelessly underfoot, building houses and playing patience, now and then making Iris laugh. Occasionally Una or Li joins her.

'You'll keep her safe,' says Una. 'It will be better away from here.'

Li hums. They do not talk about the sentries; the bowing and the courtesy, the way they brandish naked bayonets at the Chinese who dare the city. About the heat of the sun Li and Iris weathered to be registered and counted, again, and again…the times they have come home heat-stricken and dehydrated. Anything must be better.

Una hesitates over the tea bowls with their goldleaf insets and butterfly stencils, no two the same. A gift from Carl to Li at their wedding, Una recalls. Recalls too, Li's delight in them. How in her terror she sacrificed one to the fire to save them from the Japanese guard. They are rich carmine in the evening light, the gold glistering like the sun.

'You should keep them,' says Li. 'For afterwards.'

'I'm unlikely to be having anyone over for tea,' says Una.

'You think I will?' Li smiles her water lily smile. It flares to real and almost-forgot life there in the bedroom with the cases open, the camphor chests cracked open likewise and the air full of blackout and camphor wood scent.

'You forget our water restriction,' Una tells her, but Li shakes her head. She should laugh, Una thinks, but that is not what happens.

'No,' Li says, her smile tight. 'No, I am thinking that maybe there are restrictions on places outside of here.'

'Mama?' says Iris. 'Auntie? Is everything all right?' She begins examining the clothes. Unfolding them and then refolding them with imperfect, childish movements. Li comes and sits on the bed, pulls Iris on to her lap. Una joins her, reaches over Li's arms the better to stroke Iris's hair.

'Why wouldn't it be, Firecracker?'

'Because Auntie isn't taking her good dress,' says Iris. From the mouths of babes and infants, thinks Una, but she finds she cannot bear to say goodbye this evening. Not to be snubbed, Puck clambers over the open suitcase and its contents to join them. He scrabbles on to Una's shoulder, making Iris giggle.

'Auntie looks silly,' she says. This is how Una decides to remember her.

They put Iris to bed with Puck's assistance, the case for the time being forgotten on the floor. Li sings, and Una does too, because maybe this is the last time she holds this gift of a girl in her arms and rocks her to sleep. The last time she watches those almond eyes crinkle in sleep, her mouth tug upward in a somnolent smile. The last time she kisses her seven times goodnight.

It is certainly the last time she will see Iris this young. Una knows that without having to think about it. That is why, on the veranda, with the city lit up before them, she disengages the clasp to Cecilia Meredith's locket and hands it to Li. But Li gently makes a fist of Una's hand, and shakes her head.

'No,' she says. 'That was for later. When Iris is a lady.'

There are pictures enclosed; little imperfect renderings of Iris' parents wedding in the ACS chapel. Another of Una in what Iris calls her 'good day dress,' also from the occasion. There should be one of Iris with one of them, as a baby perhaps, in someone's arms. But the locket was too small to accommodate such an arrangement.

'Keep it,' says Li, needlessly. 'For afterwards. For when she is a lady and we are together. You and Carl will give it to her then.'

'And if that doesn't happen?' says Una. On the veranda, in the still of the evening, the zero 'planes low over the skyline, the question feels terrifyingly real.

'Then you will remember us,' says Li.

How to say that she could never forget? That they are her family, and her blood, her people in all the ways that matter. That somewhere they are engraved on the shrine of her heart? Li spares her the quandary. 'But I do not think,' she says now, 'that that will happen.'

They are not done with jewellery, though. When the zero-planes finally drive them inside to escape their swooping unease, Li holds out a hand and pulls Una up the stairs. Una doesn't resist. She thinks perhaps they will hover in Iris's doorway and she can file away the picture of her little girl asleep. That is not what happens.

They bypass Iris's room for the one Li shares with Carl. Used to share with Carl. Li sits at a lacquered table and fusses with the clasp to a jewellery box. It gives and the hinged sides unravel like a pulled thread, spring upwards and open outwards like a heart. A feeling, liquid and molten as heated lead rushes through Una and churns in her gut. It twists and settles there, dense and solid. It makes her neck prickle.

'Li,' she says. 'No. Please.'

Li insists. She says, 'It's not a gift. Well, not exactly. But I thought…'

She reaches for Una's hand and Una doesn't resist. She watches as Li slips a silver band over one finger. There's a blue stone at the centre, held there by four claws. She smiles, satisfied and says to Una, 'That should be yours anyway. It looks better on you. Brings out your eyes.'

'Li,' says Una, 'what happened to afterwards?' She sounds terrified. Una knows this but cannot help it.

'Afterwards is for Iris,' says Li. 'I am trying to avoid the Afterwards where Puck didn't scream enough.'

Silence, thick as grief or midnight. 'You never think,' begins Una. She doesn't finish.

Li shrugs, water-fluid by the half-light of an oil lamp. 'What I think,' says Li, 'is that I am trying to do what you would. Because you can be generous and gentle and giving. You loved me.'

'That,' says Una, 'is always easy.'

Undeterred Li says, 'Puck, then.'

Una smiles in spite of herself. 'That gets easier,' she says and is only surprised that she is not surprised to hear herself say it. Li smiles.

'Maybe it does. But the point…You would be charitable, remind me that once the Japanese dropped wreathes on the boats they sunk because honour mattered. And maybe they are driving me out of my home and maybe I hate them with the fire of all the suns in all the worlds that could or are or ever will be, but maybe that still means something.'

'So,' says Una, grasping forcibly for levity, 'your plan is to marry us? '

Li laughs her silver-fluted laughter and Una joins in. It's easy. An old, well-worn rhythm she slips into like a favourite gown.

'I would never have brought you a buffalo,' says Li. 'And then where would we be?'

'But the house would have been much neater,' says Una. Li can't argue. Una watches her try and fail.

'What I thought,' says Li, pulling them back to the reality of Trinity House in Syonan-to that once was Singapore, 'is that maybe, if Puck ever couldn't scream enough and if something went wrong…Maybe it would mean something to them. If they thought it was a wedding band. Because honour matters.'

Una pulls Li into a hug, tight, close and hard. She kisses the top of the other woman's head. 'Thank you,' she says, and it comes out much lighter than the hug. Air-light, gossamer-fine in the lamplight.

Li smiles. She contemplates Una and says of the ring with its stone the colour of but not actually lapis, 'It goes with your necklace.'

A hand drifts, stray and unthinking to the blue stone at Una's throat, the leaping Trinitarian fish. How recently Carl gave it her and how long ago it feels. A lifetime ago. An era. An epoch. An eternity, even.

'And who,' says Una, to keep Li's smile in place, water lily delicate and witching, 'shall we tell them I've married?'

Li considers this. She leans back in her chair, tilts her head in the lamplight. Says, 'What was the name of that boy that never came home?'

'Walter,' says Una effortlessly. She shakes her head and said, 'Walter Blythe. Years ago I think I could even have told that lie convincingly. Better make it someone else, Li.'

Li nods and Una watches her fingers play with the contents of the jewellery box she will not take with her. Long slender chains slip through her fingers and bracelets clatter ribald against one another. 'Perhaps,' Li says. 'What's the name of that colleague of yours?'

'I have many, Li,' says Una but it's deliberate obtuseness and they both know this. They've played like this for years, circling and swooping like mynas after guavas for answers. Li isn't fazed. She says, 'You know what I mean. The one that can speak poetry the way you do. Like a language.'

'Ah,' says Una and pretends understanding dawns. But they've known each other too long, Una and Li. So Una only shakes her head by way of answer. Says, 'You're incorrigible as ever, Miss Woodhouse.'

It's Li's turn to laugh and she doesn't miss the cue. Una wraps her ringed hand over Li's and says 'Better make it you after all, darling. I might tell that lie convincingly, if they ask. If I'm afraid enough, and it comes to that.'

'But it won't,' Li says now, and Una sees that Li isn't done with jewellery, not yet. She scrabbles in her box with its hinged compartments and brings up another ring, thicker and oblique green. She snugs that against the first one. They glint on Una's atypically encumbered pianist's fingers, the blue and green of the sea in storm weather.

'For luck,' Una says.

'For luck,' Li says, and nods. Then, unprompted, 'Now I can believe you'll be safe. Wherever you go and wherever I go. Between our gods, you'll be safe.'

'And you too,' says Una. The hand at Una's throat settles lightly against Li's own dolphins. She too still wears them. The ruby they orbit is blood-red and blood-warm to the touch. These days they are more talisman than necklace.

'Me too,' Li agrees. And of course, they'll have Iris's caul. Una will have Puck. All the luck in the world.

They choke on cornbread as the sun comes up, not anxious to waste time delaying. There are no buses, no trains, and the banana boats are fewer and farther between than ever. This is what comes of decimating the docks and wharves. Iris shares her cornbread slice with Puck, and neither Li nor Una scolds her when she ignores the collective injunction to eat her breakfast. It occurs to Una to wonder how they will ever get her to the station. Iris will never walk.

She looks across the table at Li and nods towards her. I'll come as far as the station. Li nods back her acknowledgment. Iris gives the remaining half of her cornbread to Puck. He bites into it, scowls, and, presumably furious that it is not a peanut, throws it across the room.

'Iris, darling, really,' says Una, because it is still not goodbye. Not yet.

They stop again at the door. Li has the case in hand, and Una Iris's in one of her own. In the hall, Li touches a hand, force of habit to the jade head of Kuan Yin.

'You ought to take her along,' says Una. 'For luck.'

'You'll need it more,' says Li, and indeed, it is very hard to argue with this.

It is intensely hot. Iris leans heavily on Una's arm and even before the North Bridge Road, she is carrying her. At North Bridge Road they draw to the side and swap, Una taking over the case, Li scooping Iris into her arms. The road is choked with people. Men, women and children, none of whom wanted to wait the Japanese Army's mandate out. Hundreds of thousands of emaciated people clawing their way back to existence and a chance at a better life. Clinging to the belief that the Mainland must be better, because what could be worse than this desiccated city, the twisted ruins of autos and trucks everywhere, telephone wires dragging in the streets like burnt black fingers? Worse than the distant memory of bread, the myth of wheat flour, the tins of food and the restricted water? Back at Trinity House there sits a tin of corned beef on the last of the shelves that Una and Li have earmarked for consumption on their reunion. In the immediate present, the smell of multitudes who long ago abandoned bathing because cooking was more important, drinking was more important, is stifling.

'Is Safety very far away, Mama?'

'It's an adventure, Firecracker,' says Li. She almost manages a smile. 'Don't you think?'

Oh, it's an adventure, and no mistake. There are no buses except the ones running to the whim of the Japanese army. This one picks them up lazily and slithers along the road to its own timetable. There is no sense of urgency or anxiety about making connections. Or if there is, it is none of the driver's concern. Una has promised to go as far as the station with her family, which is why now she is wedged with Iris and Li onto the one seat, cumulative rib-bones jutting painfully in to one another. But then, there are worse endurances, Una thinks, than proximity to one's family.

The bus shudders to a stop abreast of some local river. Carl might have a name for it. He would certainly be able to tell her what lived there. What insect it is that crawls brown and sluggish across the window. The sun crawls high into the noonday sky, and as they sit on the sweltering bus, the driver alights, strips to his skin, and bathes. Swims, even. One by one, people dare to alight and replenish bottles of water. They are still milling around the water when the driver re-emerges and starts the bus with a jarring, leaving hordes of people to scrabble back on to the bus in a hurry. But there's no rush. They're off again, snail-slow in the noonday sun. Iris falls asleep and Una envies her the luxury. Li has got her head craned towards the window. She has cleared away some of the surface grime with one hand, and is even now squinting through the glass.

'Should I wake Iris?' says Una, observing her.

'No,' says Li. 'Better she forgets.'

'And you?' asks Una. Li shrugs, awkward with Iris in her arms.

'Someone must remember,' says Li.

'In spite of everything?'

'Because of everything,' says Li. She seems to know that Una means so much more than the shells, the bombs, the long, sleepless nights.

'Fireflies and guavas,' says Li, unexpectedly, and smiling. In the muggy bus with its unwashed masses, Una cannot immediately locate the context for this observation. 'That first evening,' Li says, and it comes back. Carl and Li coming up the walk on a long-ago evening. Una was just laying the finishing touches on a tea tray. It had indeed featured guavas, and her mother's Blue Gladstone Ribbon.

'The dances,' says Una. 'The dresses you wore to them – do you remember?'

'We had such fun, in those days,' says Li. Then, getting in to the rhythm of this game, infinitely preferable to the heat and the stench of the bus, 'The flood. All those ACS children on the floor. You made them pallets – '

' – And they got in to everything,' Una says, reminiscently. 'We never did get a monsoon to rival it, again.'

'The buffalo,' they say together, and begin to laugh, until suddenly they can't. Until the image of Carl coming up the walk with a tame buffalo in his wake turns into the image of Papatee, dead on the garage floor, blood on Una's hands, needs must. Iris weeping somewhere proximate, 'Mama, you can't. I won't eat him!'

Still, their laughter wakes Iris, or perhaps that's the bus, jolting to a stop for the nth time. A journey that should be old hat is now in its fourth hour, and it isn't all because of the broken water pipes and the dents in the ground the shells left behind them.

Iris squirms to look out the window. She says, 'Mama! Auntie! That man has no clothes on! Look!'

They do not have to. The bus has stopped, and the driver is bathing again. Around them, people are shifting anxiously. Many of the children are crying. Li eyes the water, assess the bottle in her hands, and looks back out the window. One or two families are even now daring the venture.

'Here, darling,' says Una, scooping up Iris, 'you come to me.'

Li nods relief, and eels her way past them, off the seat into the densely packed aisle. Iris whimpers fretfully, so Una snugs her against her shoulder – uncomfortable though it is in the heat of the day – and strokes her hair. She tracks Li's progress to the water through the murky window, and tries to memorise the smell of Iris. In bygone days Una knew her for the scent of orchids and coconut lotion, but as with so much else, that belongs to another lifetime. The orchids are still there, some sort of trace memory. But she smells now of the ash that covered the city, the sun and sweat of travel, mixed with a hint of the camphor that so lately stored her clothes. The bus lurches into motion as suddenly as it had stalled, and Iris gives a terrified wail. It is one of several, and no one pays it half the mind they might have, once.

'Wait here, Firecracker,' says Una, and then she is moving, pressing and pushing her way through the careening aisle of the bus, one of so many people desperate to reclaim her family. Li is moving too, fighting her way through the moiling masses rushing for the door. They come stumbling and spilling through it, even as the bus begins to trundle away. Still Li claws her way through them, precious water in hand. Una keeps half an eye on her, using the other along with her elbows to manoeuvre her way to the door. She braces herself against the rail, sticks a hand out the door. They have been going slowly before, but now she can feel the engine revving, the momentum building. She will fall if she isn't careful. Someone – not Li – grabs hold of her, and Una has to fight the impulse to haul them in to the bus. It is right, but if she does this, then Li may yet be irrevocably lost to them. It's all right Una staying behind, notwithstanding the British bloody squeeze. Li though, Li is only another one of the many stranded Chinese. And Iris needs her mother. Perhaps she'd catch another meandering bus, but even then, the odds of reconnecting her with Iris…

Una lets whoever-it-is go with a pang, and reaches desperately for Li. Slim hands close around her wrist as the bus stumbles over the pit of a shell. With great effort, Una keeps her footing, thinks she did not spend years hauling ACS goods from docks to school for that same strength to fail her now. She pulls Li on to the bus, and they lurch, arms around each other, back towards a sobbing Iris.

'Mama,' she says, as Li regathers her daughter in her arms, 'Mama, Mama, Mama.'

'It's all right,' says Una, rejoining them. Li nods. Hums some of the Northern Cradle Song of Iris's infancy.

'I think,' says Iris, 'the bus driver is having fun.'

It is evening by the time they reach the station, long past the time of any self-respecting train. But then, the trains are long gone. The tracks are too destroyed to sustain them in any case. Instead there are a variety of open- and covered cattle cars. Iris begins to cry; she is not the only one that had expected a carriage.

Una, Li and Iris huddle under the overhang of the station nursing cornbread and sipping at their hard-won water. Li says she will try to secure a covered car. It has been a long day. At least this way, Iris will not be sunburnt on top of the rest. When, by some miracle, she succeeds, Una makes a last effort to part with her mother's locket.

'I told you,' says Li, stopping her hands, 'that's for afterwards.'

Una says, not unreasonably, 'Then how will I find you?'

Li is on the verge on answering, when small, quick hands tug at Una's skirt. 'But Auntie,' Iris says, 'you're coming too.'

'No, darling,' says Una, and pulls her tight in to a hug. Iris squirms, but otherwise does not resist.

'You have to,' says Iris, in the imperious way of young, desperate children the world over. 'We're going to Safety. We can't go to Safety without you.'

'You must,' says Una, and kisses her forehead.

'Auntie's going to find Daddy,' says Li, before Iris can start on questions. They are running out of time. People are swarming towards the carts. They have perhaps seconds before departure.

'Promise?' says Iris.

'Promise.' Una spares another kiss for Iris, and another still for Li. For good measure she squeezes those small, delicate hands that so charmed Carl, and says, 'Look after our girl.'

'Always,' Li says. Then she pulls Una in to a hug of her own. Kisses her cheek, lips cool in the too-warm, overcrowded air.

'I'll come looking for you,' says Una. 'As soon as I can. As soon as it's safe.' She feels, more than sees Li's nod, the bobbing of her pointed chin against Una's shoulder.

'I know,' Li says. Then, 'China. If we can get there – that's where we'll be.'

'I'll remember,' says Una, and tightens the hug. Iris squirms between them, envelops Una's knees in a vice.

They are out of time. Reluctantly, Li steps back, disentangles Iris, and offers one last, moon-brilliant smile.

'Take care of Puck,' Li says. 'Find Carl. Be well.'

'Go with God,' says Una.

Nicoke, no apology needed. Fanfic shouldn't be a chore. Read when you can, review when you feel moved, and I'm really glad you're enjoying this story.