The blood-dimmed tide is loosed and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
- Yeats, the Second Coming


A strange thing. The radio is on all the time. Una finds she is addicted. It chatters broadcasts at her as she goes about the house, like Puck but with more fluent English and issuing portents of looming disasters. Most of these disasters are for the Japanese. The radio is cheerful and optimistic in its bulletins of British salvation. Of course it is; Why would it not be?

At the Anglo-Chinese School it is the same. The radio is constantly on behind staff doors. It makes it hard to focus on the lessons of the day because always part of Una is being tugged towards the siren call of the radio with its finger on the pulse of the ongoing storm.

Una decides that's what this is. A storm. The kind that buffets and blasts but, provided you've build on firm ground, leaves you battered but in tact. Not world-ending. Severe, maybe. The kind of storm you watch roll in across the water and thank God you have a roof over your head, a good kettle and a warm fire to sit beside until it passes. The lightening crackles, and the thunder is close and terrible. Sometimes it is blistering in its bombast. But then the sun breaks through and the world blinks. It resettles to dazzling, water-dappled glory. Morning breaks, like the first morning, etc, etc. That is what is happening now to Singapore. They are in the worst of the still-breaking storm.

Three days ago, bombs fell on Singapore, after all. And three days ago, the Japanese zero-planes, all dragonfly-silver-and-blue flew too high for the ack-ack guns to get them. That was a Tuesday. On Wednesday morning the sun rises smelling of explosive, the air thick with the still-settling dust. Calcine. Though, in point of fact this is not true for the entire city. On Evelyn Road, outside Trinity House, Una and Li look out at the rising sun and smell only the sweet syrup-smell of the guavas. They hear only the mynas, who are singing All My Hope on God is Foundedthe way Una unwittingly taught them. It's true the dust drifts, and some of it gets into Nenni's fur and dulls her spots, makes her more brown than orange. More mundane moggie than miniature tiger. This infuriates Nenni, and she sits pointedly sulking on the veranda, on the round wicker table where her humans put their tea, and washes herself with extravagant specificity. Her ears get a thorough scrub, as does her balletically extended back leg, and the underside of her tail Una watches this display, and the way Nenni pauses between strokes to glare at emerald-green Harry the lizard, who is sunbathing in the drifting dust, in the explosion-tinted sunlight. What is both remarkable and tacitly amusing is that Nenni, back paw extended and head level with her abdomen can simultaneously look absurd and glower like a hellion. Harry swishes his spiny tail, unfazed and Una settles into one of the wicker chairs to survey her street in silence. Nenni washes her front for perhaps half a minute, but then spies a flesh-and-blood dragonfly, green-and-blue at the wings and gives chase.

Una shakes her head. There is a sunny yellow cushion at her back and she has a cup of spiced India tea in her hand. The red of the tea bowl with its gold leaf flashes lucent in the sunshine. Life is, improbably, still good.

To keep it that way, the ACS sent a delegation to Raffles to tend to the wounded and help get them to hospital.

Una goes as part of this delegation. Mrs Bowen takes Una's class. They discuss it with Una sitting in the wicker chair listening to the hymnody of the mynas and Mrs Bowen, old, browned and withered as she is, leaning with youthful casualness against the rail of the veranda.

'Quite the fireworks display, last night,' her opening gambit. 'Your girl must have loved it.'

'Oh,' says Una, 'Iris thought it was a holiday, I think.'

The conversation loops and segues as early-morning conversations do. Iccarus comes up, specifically the myth of. It's a point of reference, as per Mrs Bowen, for the high-flying dragonfly-graceful zero-planes.

Akela comes out to mark all his trees, unembarrassed by the presence of Mrs Bowen and Nenni watches him with the dubiousness of one who prefers to perform such mortifyingly private and unclean duties in deep secrecy. Una and Mrs Bowen chat about the bombing, the inevitable British rescue, the children at the ACS and what they must think of the spectacle. In these early days it is still spectacle. Still a bit like a lavish theatre production turned surprisingly violent at the end of the first intermission.

'There must be wounded,' says Una, 'the bombs fell somewhere.'

This is how they get to discussing the medical delegation the ACS is sending and the point at which Mrs Bowen offers to take Una's students.

'If they're yours,' she says confidentially, 'then I know they will have beautiful manners.'

Una doesn't have time to voice her private doubts about this thesis, because Mrs Bowen has moved on in the way of formidable older women everywhere to assert that Una is good with medical mission work. This is not true. Una doesn't like blood any more than she likes Carl's insects. The smell makes her head swim. It smells like jazz sounds when the improvisation swings wide and fast of the mark. Like Art Tatum at the keys or Gershwin playing fast and loose with musical conventions. Like Count Basie swinging a melody as he puts it through its paces .But Una has learned over the years how to stifle her squeamishness and live with it as a fact of life. She attends her share of difficult births for people the hospital won't see, and sundry other medical crises as her local church requires of her. Sometimes it makes her feel close to Faith, and Una misses the old closeness, even as she cherishes the nearness and dearness of sisterhood with Li.

So, on December, 9, 1942, Una goes with the other designated volunteers down to Raffles university, where the wounded lie in their multitudes. There is nowhere to put them, because Raffles is a university, not a hospital, so there are men and women and children lying out in the quadrangle, where anyone can get at them. Trample them. Batter them. Ignore them. The air swirls with dust and smells of the greenery of the close-cut grass students are forbidden to walk on, of explosive residue and blood. So much blood.

It unsteadies Una and as she stands there, wavering, long-standing colleague but only occasional conversationalist Percival Curtis says, 'Not used to the work?'

It isn't – that is, it doesn't feel – like a condemnation. More an observation.

'Not remotely,' says Una and tells him about the smell like wild and sinuous jazz. She spares a thought for Mrs Bowen and the ghost of Susan Baker and doesn't put it exactly that way. Still, he says, 'But you're here. Lots of ours aren't.'

Unable to argue with this, Una hums affirmation and together they pick their way through people and debris.

Everywhere there are mosquitos, and where there are mosquitos there is more blood. The air is thick with the smell of blood and the devastation of injury. Una walks delicately between these people and bandages them as she can. Also everywhere; glass. It's in wounds, in hair, underfoot. Una has never seen so much of it. If she walks too quickly it crackles under her feet and sometimes pieces jab at her ankles and cut through her stockings. This makes her bleed, so there is more blood in the air, more blood trampled onto the glass-spattered grass of the quadrangle. In Raffles quad it blinks all iridescent and lucent in the morning sunlight. It refracts light and makes rainbows of it, like the mirrors Una uses to teach scientific principle to her ACS pupils. When it does this it lights up the blood – so much blood – and makes that beautiful too. The beauty of it is raw, unnerving. Una wonders how Faith ever did this, and more than that, how she still does it.

But Faith isn't here to do the work and Una is, so she bandages and she binds wounds and thinks of Walter reading Blake, lugubrious in his attitude under the tree lovers. There was, in retrospect, a lot of cat in Walter Blythe. Darkly graceful and elegant with it. Una bandages and scrapes away glass, and her mind ticks over like a clock to those Rainbow Valley days to elegant felininity and fine eyes and What immortal hand or eye/ Dare frame thy fearful symmetry.When she can't do anything, Una helps the wounded stagger towards the vehicles that will get them towards the hospital. The hospital, no doubt is overrun, but so is Raffles quadrangle and at least the hospital has doctors.It is exhausting.

When it is over Una walks the long way home and sees that Killeny Way is gone beyond all recognition. Utterly destroyed. The houses there are rubble and the people still there are picking through it, trying to salvage the remnants of their lives. Even this has an oddly theatrical feel to it, not quite real. Una sees half-houses and skeletal houses. She sees incongruous things like a teapot sticking, still in tact, out of a jumble of what must have been kitchen furniture. She sees a lacquered chair, elegant and darkly wrought, poised like a ghost amongst the ruin of its destroyed kindred. She sees – oh strange and wondrous sight – a Woolworth's bear. Edward, she thinks, because all bears are named Edward. But she has no real idea if this is true until a girl no older than Iris runs unsteadily towards him with a look like a radiant starburst and cries, triumphant, 'Edward! Mummy, I told you so!'

She has the most precise, plummy English accent Una ever heard. The kind you hear over the radio announcing the shipping forecast. The child clutches her Edward and runs with him gazelle-lithe back to her mother through the ruin. Neatly she elides a broken window and all its fractured rainbows of glass, a burnt table and some unidentifiable thing that might once have been a sofa, its plush blue covering now in shreds, stuffing bleeding from its upholstered wounds. It makes Una feel a flash of scalding relief for Trinity House, still there, still standing. The strength of it startles her, burns her internally.

I will praise the Lord at all times,Una thinks, meaning it, as she walks on. Here the calcine air is warm as though heated in an oven, which, after a fashion, Una supposes it is. Was. Whichever. It feels the way warming bread ovens feel but smells different. Astringent, not yeasty. Of burnt telephone wires and fired camphor trees.

The boat quay is slightly better. It is damaged, but the damage is reparable, and anyway, the Americans are in the war now. That's a good thing. They boosted morale in the last war and they're joining does it again now. All around, Una looks at the battered boat quay and sees people who are worried, maybe even excited by the thrill of what is happening, but they are not panicked.

Instead they're plucking what they can out of the wreckage, repairing the places the bombs didn't explode into oblivion. Una sees this and knows the ACS will send another delegation here to help, because they are dependent on the quay for the supplies it brings in. And once it's fixed, the British will rescue them, and all will be well. All manner of thing will be well.

On the morning of December 9th, neither is Una Meredith panicked, not really. She is startled by the damage the last night's bombing caused, but she has faith in King and Country. The British will save them.

At Trinity House Una bypasses the front door for the garage, where she finds and greets Papatee, resident buffalo. He snuffles at her, intrigued because she smells of blood and fired air. Of scalded trees and dust. Not quite right, not like herself.

'You're all right, anyway,' says Una as she strokes Papatee's nose. 'I see Nenni is keeping you nice and clean.'

The cat sits poised on the buffalo's monumental back, where she delicately grooms his neck, granular pink tongue working overtime. She has got a pink-padded paw atop his ear as if to hold him in place. It's such a ridiculous gesture that it makes Una smile. Papatee is only getting a bath because he allows Nenni to give him one. He knows it, Una knows it, beautiful Bengal Nenni is oblivious. She sits on Papatee utterly convinced of her superiority as Cat and washes her friend with gusto. Her pink tongue bristle-brushes its way across Papatee's back, whisper-silent. Una feeds Papatee extra grass to reward this show of tolerance. Papatee nuzzles his thanks. It is a bit like being gently but firmly pushed by a house. Or so Una imagines. She laughs and Papatee snuffles. From the doorway comes Iris's wild, gleeful, 'Auntie!'

Another animal, less docile, would startle. Papatee lifts his head but is not otherwise fazed. This causes Nenni to have to readjust herself on her friend's back and she does this with feline affront in proportionate excess to the size of Papatee the buffalo. She turns a circle of ruffled dignity twice clockwise, once counter-clockwise, halfway perpendicular then clockwise again. Whereat, she sits, legs akimbo and both forepaws splayed wide on the massive head and gets back to work. Out comes the rough pink tongue. It dips and brushes and nuzzles it's way across Papatee's buffalo head. It is like watching an ant move a bolder.

Years later, Frank Sinatra croons High Hopes on the radio and this is the image it conjures. Nenni atop a beloved buffalo, washing him clean.

But that is later. In the moment of December, 1942, Nenni's offended status is forgotten and she goes placidly on, whisper-silent tongue pink as a candy heart in the light of the exposed garage.

Iris tumbles down the veranda to meet her aunt. Buffalo bathing waits for not cat.

'Auntie,' Iris says again, 'Come, listen!'

Una allows her niece to half-tug, half-lead her from the garage with its warm, sweet animal smell, into Trinity House, which smells only of the jasmine flowers sitting in a nearby cut-glass dish, lemon balm oil from the floors and baking. In the sun room, where Li is, there are also smells of fresh-cut flowers and dog, because Akela is lying in forlorn posture on the floor, nose pressed to his paws. On the pale green of the rug, darkly mottled Akela stands out like a wine stain or inkblot, the white of his belly invisible, just as his nose smothers his starched white canine socks. But he's a loveable inkblot, all shot through haphazardly with reds and browns among the invisible white, so Una bends and scratches forlorn and floppy ears. Then she settles herself on the differently green footstool with its white diamonds, button inlays and unpresuming brown legs made of cherry wood. She sits down and Akela hauls himself lazily over to settle his head on the brown cambric of Una's skirt. When he smells something interesting he sticks out his tongue, pink like Nenni's but much larger, and gives it a curious wash. It tickles and Una laughs.

This is why Una does not immediately realise that Li has the radio on. Li never has the radio on. That unsettles Una perhaps more than the bombs. She shifts on the green footstool with its white diamonds and digs her fingers into Akela's shaggy head for grounding. Li finds the disembodied voice of the radio too much like a ghost. She worries, Una knows, that if they are not careful the dead will come after them through the radio. Long-reaching ghostly fingers slip through the little holes the buzz of the radio emanates from and touch them, mark them for death. Now Li sits placid but alert on the sun room settle, the deep purple of her gown lustrous and stark against the robin's egg blue of the upholstery, listening while a disembodied voice broadcasts that the Japanese troops have landed in Kota Bharu in Kelantan, 400 miles away.

'When they started taking over the city with their shops,' says Li, 'I didn't realise they were spying on us. My mother,' and she stiffens at the invocation of her long-rejected mother, 'would have recognised it. Una, I did not want to be my mother!'

The words are atypically glass-sharp, even shrill. Li shifts and snatches at Una's hands, and Una lets her do it. Li's hands are icy and Una's are raw with the work of the day. Una is not used to scrubbing her hands so compulsively to get the blood off, or bandaging so many people. She isn't used to handling glass either, and more than once she pricked herself with it. Li sees this and clucks.

'Tiger balm,' Li says. 'That will help. I will get some.' She sounds herself again, no longer cut-glass shrill and snagged-silk frayed, but only Li, placid as a koi pond. Una doesn't demur. She lets Li go for the ointment.

'I'll make tea,' says Una.

Puck, hearing a word he likes, trots after Una into the kitchen.

'You,' she says, not feeling up to mischief, 'can feed the chickens.' She reaches for and hands Puck a bowl of chicken feed. He takes it delighted and lightly tap-dances towards the pantry where Una's hens live. The tap-dancing is a new trick, tip-tap, click-clack against the floor while Una moves through the motions of tea. Jasmine from the tea chest, strong green leaves smelling ethereal as ever. They conjure memories of those first, tentative moments with Li on the veranda, her waterlily smile gentle in the twilight. Tip-tap, click-clack goes Puck, who wants only a cane to be the next Fred Astaire, apparently. Una shakes her head. Lifts down the requisite numbers of tea bowls. She holds each one for a moment, feeling the restorative weight of it in her hands, the gold leaf insets winking in the afternoon light.

The teapot is next. Then the kettle boils. When Una returns to the sun room, Li has relaxed. Her back is no longer arched to attentiveness and she reclines on the settle, the way she did in late pregnancy, Nenni snuggled beside her. Seeing Una, she swings upright and holds out her green-blue jar of ointment.

'Come here,' Li says. 'While the tea steeps, let me see your hands.'

The tiger balm is bliss after the long day. Li's fingers press it, cool and moist into Una's palms. It smells of camphor, potent and astringent but soothing to the touch. Puck comes rat-tatting into the room, where he spies and picks up an umbrella and begins to twirl it around. Una begins to laugh. Li says, 'Carl took him to the pictures.'

'Ah,' says Una. 'I did wonder.'


That is December 9th. By the 11th, the city is still unpanicked, still convinced of their imminent rescue. The HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse set off early for Kota Baru and reinforce this belief. They are purportedly unsinkable, and they are going to drive out the Japanese army.

'Mind you,' says Mrs Bowen, 'the last boat they called unsinkable sank.' She says this over elevenses in the ACS's staff room. This is a stark, under-furnished room that speaks to the mission roots of the school. If Christ died for you, proclaim the severe, high-backed chairs made of camphor, the least you can do is drink your tea sitting on uncomfortable chairs.This might be an understatement. In a gesture Aunt Martha and possibly Una's many-times-great-grandmother Agatha would appreciate, there are hard, deliberate knobs in the backs of the chairs. If you have the temerity to slouch the hard little knobs jab you in the back and prod you sharply upright again. Una understands why, in theory, her students are subjected to this kind of utilitarian exercise in form over function, but she cannot understand why an edict has gone out precluding all persons from relaxing in a snatched quarter-hour mid-morning. That there are no cushions to mitigate the discomfort goes without saying.

Una sits ramrod straight, half an eye on the window and half an ear on Mrs Bowen's pessimistic rambling about the doomed vessels. It takes all of Una's hard-won patience not to say something caustic and evocative of her sister in their Good Conduct Club days.

'Perhaps,' says Una, 'they got it right this time.'

After all, she thinks, the British cannot only mean to defend them with the sluggish Buffalo Brewster planes. That would be madness. Even Una, unschooled in military practice as she is, knows this. Mrs Bowen clucks. She pats Una's hand with her sun-freckled, wizened one and murmurs something about only God being truly unsinkable. Then she asks if the children are still playing with fighting spiders, because yesterday George Lee let one loose in the classroom and it gave her such a fright...

'Mine are collecting shards of bomb, now,' says Una.

'Ah, of course,' says Mrs Bowen and glides away humming Will Your Anchor Hold.

The song circles Una's head for the rest of the day, like an especially jaunty and militaristic earworm. She is not at all sure militarism has a place in church, not anymore, and when her pupils are bent over Dictation, she slips her hand into her desk drawer and feels the smooth silk edge of the white poppy she wears every November. Strange to think how recently that was, too. Perhaps, Una thinks, if this war continues much longer, she will begin wearing it all of the time.

Will your anchor hold in the straits of fear…When Una raps her chalk against the board, she hears the jaunty, percussive tune. When little, asthmatic Liu rat-tats her pencil against her exercise book during composition, Una hears it again. Una looks out at her pupils, atypically studious and detects mischief. She gets up and begins to circle the room, soles of her shoes pattering against the floor. When the breakers roar and the reefs are near…Una shakes her head, irritated that Mrs Bowen's pessimism should come in the shape of the hymn of her home. It makes Una feel them close, her father, Rosemary and her siblings. It's also inaccurate because they are not in the straights of fear yet, only moving through some dreadful storm. Soon someone will walk across the water to their rescue. That is the way this goes.

When the surges rage and the wild waves blow…The children are not, in fact, concentrating. They are scrutinizing pieces of bomb and detritus with a maximum of covertness, but they are young and Una's eyes are sharp, so this is not as much as they believe it to be. They are operating on the age-old belief that if they cannot see Una, she cannot see them. It makes Una smile. Anyway, Una thinks, she's hardly focused either. She's being persecuted by a hymn she's never much liked and could do without today, with the HMS Prince of Wales and Repulse sailing unsinkably out to Kota Bura.

One of the boys – Una misses which one – lets a snake loose and it hisses, yes, really, in time to We have an anchor that keeps us strong…It should be the straw that snaps the camel's proverbial back on last of Una's patience. But the children are squealing and screaming and the snake slithers rope-slick up the leg of Una's desk, and she thinks of Carl, and smiles. In spite of a long-standing dislike of things that hiss, creep, crawl, and otherwise lurk and ooze in shadowy, muddy, places, Una picks the thing up. It feels waxy, almost leathery.

'Right,' she says. 'Today in Natural Sciences, we're discussing snakes. Now, who can tell me…'


As she hangs up her silk scarf of blue with white, gaping lilies on a peg at the end of the day, Nenni coiling around her neck to take its place, Iris rushes up to her and says, 'Auntie, those boats sank!'

'Which boats?' says Una, not quite present, yet. She is still back in her classroom with a slithering snake and half a dozen tops spinning across Sally Zhang's desk. Una's ears ring even now with the sound of the children's enthusiastic cheering.

'The boats, Auntie! They sank!'

Now it comes back to Una. The radio crackles in the background and Nenni swishes her tail against Una's shoulder to bring her back to the immediate present. HMS Prince of Wales. Repulse. The unsinkable boats. They can't have sunk. They are unsinkable. Grudgingly, Una concedes Mrs Bowen's rightness. She recalls that the tower of Babel fell because men tried to get too near God. That God flooded the earth for their cumulative iniquity. Perhaps, after all, making boats that could not sink was an error of judgement. Perhaps all boats should be designed to sink.

'And the zero planes,' says Iris, still chatting and excited, 'hardly got hurt! Only six of them fell! Can you believe that? Only six!'

She hops up and down, and Puck joins in. They begin an impromptu dance around the wide hall of Trinity House. Iris sings, out of time to the music, I've got music/ I've got rhythm…She hasn't, but Una won't tell her so. Not for worlds. She focuses instead with as much interest as she can muster, on the creamy white wall behind the pegs for scarves, coats and the rest. She wouldn't shatter this playful dream for worlds. The imperfect and off-kilter waltz – or perhaps polka? – unsettles Nenni, who hisses and arches her back on Una's shoulder, but it makes Una laugh. She reaches backwards to stroke Nenni and feels the light bat of an unsheathed claw. Then Nenni resettles herself and allows Una to soothe her.

'Our Brewster planes got six of theirs?' says Una to a giddy Iris.

'I'm shocked, too,' says Li, coming into the room. 'I don't know how they did it, flying so far behind them. But perhaps they have very good aim.'

They trade wry smiles and make tea.

In times of crisis, Una thinks, tea is always the answer to Armageddon. Luckily, they are not yet facing Armageddon.

And because in these days honour has not yet died, the Japanese fly over the place where the boats sank the next day and drop a wreath there. Hearing this, Una touches a hand to the silk of the white poppy at her throat and is glad. If small kindnesses like this exist, then perhaps the storm will not be so terrible after all.


Parnokianlipstic - Thank you, friend! Una really lends herself to poetry, so you're in for a lot of it with this one :) And I'm glad you're keeping up with the maths, because there was a while there where I had her a year older than she was before catching it! As ever, I love your ramblings. Liminal space feels very apt here. And Dvorjak for autumn - perfect choice. I'm diving into the Gypsy Melodies song cycle again as we speak, and had Rusalka on the other day. As I think of it, Songs My Mother Taught me would fit perfectly into this world, if I could find a way...And if you don't know it and want a lyrical, evocative read to go with the music, get you to a copy of Katherine Arden's WInternight books. A bit dark, a bit romantic and just steeped in Russian fairytale tradition.