This story acts as a sequel to The Centre Cannot Hold. If you haven't read it, I recommend starting there before diving in. I tell you candidly, it is not the story I anticipated. At every turn it zigged where I thought it would zag. Hopefully you enjoy it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
All the usual notes about not owning characters apply, with the added caveat that I have nicked one or two characters -Joan Makori in particular - from non-Anne sources. I've had fun integrating them. And those of you who know it will have fun spotting the moments of overlap with Tenko. Thanks you again McFishie for getting me hooked on it.
If we shadows have offended,
Think but this, and all is mended,
That you have but slumbered here
While these visions did appear.
And this weak and idle theme,
No more yielding but a dream,
Gentles, do not reprehend:
If you pardon, we will mend:
Give me your hands if we be friends,
And Robin will restore amends.
Shakespeare, A Midsummer Night's Dream
Afterwards, sitting in a cool, white office in Raffles, they ask Una Meredith what it was like, life at the camp. Una sits, a battered grey monkey on one shoulder, and wonders where in the name of God to start.
Cressida smiled easy as an orange peel, wide and colourful with it. Terrible teeth, of course. Loose too, by the time Una Meredith met her. Vitamin deficiency, that's what Nellie, then their nurse, said.
Improbable as it seemed, Cressida was apparently something in society. One of those women who came from Wedgwood China, Turkish Rugs and Rubber plantations. When Una met her, Cressida wore a hat pinched off a dead guard and picked at her teeth with a home-made toothbrush. Which made the society bit, frankly, unbelievable.
Even more unbelievable: Cressida's grin broadened when she saw Puck.
Bernice did the rotas. Actually, no. Bernice did everything, up to and including bullying Una Meredith into managing their motley cohort. But Bernice was infamous for the rotas because she drew them up at all hours and handed them out like marching orders. Well, she did back when they had paper. Later, she wrote them in chalk and trusted in the almighty power of her steel-eyed glare, which was considerable.
Bernice glared like an offended cat, which was the sort of thing one didn't expect from the former wives of Anglican Vicars. Possibly because Una thought of clergy's wives and thought Rosemary.
Bernice was emphatically not Rosemary. Talking of her husband, Bernice said unflappably 'His love of a well-run jumble sale came in second only to his love of a good cause. Hence all this,' and she gestured at the current rota.
'But what about you?' asked someone. Retrospectively, Una thinks that was Nellie, bold with nascent authority as Nurse. Their only nurse, if anyone wanted to know. Which they didn't, not really.
'Me?' said Bernice, still unflappably, 'I fit in…' she gave this some thought. 'Somewhere between four o'clock Evensong and Boys Brigade.'
'I'm sure that's not right,' said Nellie, consoling. She was sweet that way.
'No,' said Una, 'It's not. Mission work doesn't leave time for Evensong.'
Bernice laughed and slapped Una's shoulder. Said, 'See? Mrs Meredith knows. Even if she is Presbyterian.'
'Don't be absurd,' says Una. 'All the indignity of the situation and you cannot possibly stand on ceremony. None of us can.' She didn't correct the title. Not then. That was why Li gave Una that blue-gemmed ring in the first place. For safety.
'Well then,' said Bernice and smiled like a cracked chimney. 'That's me in my place. Una it is.' They shook hands over it.
Once, when Una walked the floor with an infant Robin, Bernice looked up from her everlasting rotas and said 'You had a girl once. In the photo.'
It was not a question. The photo was a battered thing and it lived on Una's designated platform. Iris and Puck caught in a giddy moment in the Trinity House garden.
Una walked the floor with Robin and her gut twisted, tensile one minute, liquid the next. 'A niece,' she said. 'Iris.'
An explosive hmph from the rota sector. 'Hair-splitting at it's best,' Bernice said. 'That's what I call that. Mind, that's what you Presbyterians do.'
'Be reasonable,' says Una. 'Anglicans are far more wishy-washy. Almost agnostic.'
Bernice cackled hyena-wild. Robin, absurdly, settled and slept.
In the cool, white office at Raffles, someone said, 'And that's why you were friends?'
Yes, thought Una. And immediately afterwards No. This moment in time was the whole of the friendship and it was none of it. Was not, in fact, even part of the why of Una and Bernice. But there was no way to explain this to the man opposite, with his need for hard facts, so Una didn't bother.
'Yes,' said Una, 'that's right.'
Beryl died and unworthily, Una was relieved they were not close. She does not tell this to the man behind the desk at Raffles, the palms casting languid, lazy shadows across the white walls of the rooms. It would horrify him. Minister's daughters are not supposed to be callous like that.
Una told Cressida – sorry, make that Lady Cressida Worthing, daughter of some peer or other – at the time, though, standing in the unforgiving sun, fashioning the cross between them.
'Probably one of your heresies, me pitching in,' Cressida said, 'seeing as how I think it's all poppycock.'
'Well I believe it,' said Una. 'She hummed, music buzzing against her lips, Firmly I believe and truly/God is Three and God is One… Then she said about the relief and how awful that was to say of the dead.
'Tosh,' said Cressida. 'We've got to have some barriers, haven't we? Otherwise we would all end blubbing in a corner, and just look where that got poor Addie.'
This was unanswerable. They went quiet making Beryl Rutherford's cross thinking about how poor Addie Stafford had bawled herself into hysterics that had become real sickness. No one knew what kind of sickness, because that was before Nellie got there and took over the sick bay. It was before they had a sick bay, back when they were all floundering and gasping like fish on a line trying to keep the sick from dying.
' 'Sides,' Cressida said, 'You've got Robin, haven't you? You don't have the energy to cry over all of them.'
'We've all got Robin,' said Una, because it was true. Those witching green eyes had got everyone under a spell.
'But you particularly,' said Cressida, at which juncture Robin, lean tearaway toddler that she was by then, came haring round a corner, Puck a veritable Ate at her heels, and proved Cressida's point.
'Mama!' Robin said and swooped in to steal a kiss from Una. Una let her. She ruffled the girl's cut-short hair. Robin's mother would have cried to see it like that. Wild green eyes flashed devilry and merriment.
Their silence was punctured suddenly by Cressida's exclamatory, 'Damn it, why is it always you young lot we have to bury?'
Una refrained from observing she was more nearly Cressida's contemporary than that of the young girls. She got Puck on her shoulder and Robin under one arm, instead and gave Cressida her best approximation of Carl Meredith's grin.
'Because you, my dear,' said Una to Cressida, 'are quite invincible,'
Cressida snorted. She said, 'I'm not anyone's dear, as you well know. And I give up. If swearing where Robin can hear won't shock you, I don't know what will. Minister's daughter! Ha!' She poked Una's ribs with her half of the cross, not all that gently, considering the prominence of said ribs.
'There are worse things,' said Una evenly.
'Don't I know it,' Cressida said. 'Sometimes think I've lived too long.'
'Poppycock,' said Una.
'About Robin,' said the man at the desk. He's called Ernest Henderson, according to a brass plaque with antiqued inlay, and he has elegant fingers, Una notices. The kind of smooth, long, fingers with trimmed nails that would make a pianist proud.
It is high noon and even the shadows are lazy, now. They lie on the wall like sleek, elegant wallpaper. Opposite Ernest Henderson, Una Meredith does not blink, and he squirms in embarrassment.
'Robin,' says Una, as per Bernice's instructions, 'is mine.'
At the desk, Ernest Henderson of the pianist's fingers nods. 'Obviously,' he says. 'You can see that, looking at the two of you together. Something at the eyes, I think.'
Una wants to laugh bright, hysterical laughter like the kind that made poor Addie sick. Una's eyes are the clear blue of the Atlantic in languid, summer moods. Robin's eyes are what Cressida calls Irish green. Changeable green, temperamental, fluid, sun-catching green that can drown you if you look too close. Same eyes, indeed. Una does not laugh hysterically because she cannot bear the herculean labour that will surely be explaining the agony of little, green-eyed Elise English to this man with his zest for Japanese blood and hunger for details. At ten, Una might have quailed at acting a lie. At 48, Una is more afraid of putting orphaned Robin in the dubious hands of Ernest Henderson, less any immediate family.
So Una neglects to mention how blistering the sun, for instance, the day Elise and little Robin English came into the camp. How Elise could make anything grow, once the shell of shock shattered around her dancer's ankles. How she kept their dying garden alive, Robin at her hip.
How when Elise died, green eyes a green shadow of their old, enchanted glory, in Nellie's nursing bay, she made Una Meredith swear – and Una never swore, not like this, not ever – on the grave of Cecilia Meredith, to keep Robin alive.
But once Una too, had been motherless. There was no universe in which she didn't swear to Elise to keep her child alive. Una would have made the vow anyway, unasked. Elise knew it, Una knew it, everyone knew it. Even the guards knew it. It was that obvious, that unspoken.
Somehow, Robin did not die, and everyone clung to her and petted her for it. And yes, Una will look for Robin's proper family because she promised Elise English that, too. But first she needs to get Robin out of Raffles, and terrifyingly efficient Bernice thinks the only way to do that is by lying through her teeth about Robin's parentage. So, that's what Una does.
Because – another thing Una does not say in the sun-baked Raffles office – she has faith in many things. God. Yeast tablets. Bernice's rotas. But the British? That shattered the day they exploded the causeway to Singapore.
Vera Saunders died. Bridget Starling, too. So did Mattie Crowley, Isabelle White, little Jessie Mallory.
Such a pretty child, said Emily when Jessie died. Not that it mattered. Nellie wrote them all up in a record book someone else had started. She tore the blank paper out of their meagre libraries and wrote their names, their dates, the cause of death. Marigold Lute: Malnutrition, Nora Lyons: Malnutrition, Tabitha Lang: Beriberi, Simone Harwick: Malnutrition…
The Japanese didn't like that, so Nellie started writing it in foreign languages. Latin was good. Una remembered the Tamil, but not why her ACS children would possibly have taught her this word, and Bernice knew the Hindi for it, because of course she did, so they used those, too, and the guards were never the wiser. Cressida knew the Ancient Greek. This was the only way in which it was obvious Cressida came from Society.
Pixie-eyed Emily ran the school, back when they had one. When Una wasn't rostered on to help Nellie, she helped her. She tells the man in his Raffles office that this is because she used to teach at the Anglo-Chinese School on Barker Road, and to be novel, this isn't entirely untrue.
But it's not only that. Emily with her puckish grin and ethereal cant reminds Una of an adult Iris, the way she's neither fish nor fowl. Emily's older than Iris would be now, but not by a lot. She could be an older sister to Iris, and in some bizarre, inexplicable way, Emily feels like Iris's sister to Una. Another niece, one less colourful and gregarious maybe, but another niece all the same. A girl-child with Li's placidness and Cecilia Meredith's depth of quiet artistry, her deep unspoken love of the world. Crucially, Emily is not British enough for the other women, not Chinese enough for…On the other hand, maybe that saved her, Una thinks. They've heard since about the massacres in the city. And while Emily's stubborn British was probably not the right answer to the guards' question that first day, none of them, least of all Emily, certainly not Una, was mad enough to think Chinese would the better answer.
When they sat in the sun together, tracing alphabets in the sand or reciting Yeats, Iris's childhood came back to Una in bursts of technicolour. The smell of the cinema, the way she played with Puck, wrestled with Akela, loved a buffalo…
This discussion of Emily and heritage prompts further discussion of Robin. Breaking with his role as audience, Ernest Henderson of Raffles asks, 'Robin, she was born…' He gestures, delicately, the question unfinished.
'Outside the camp,' says Una emphatically. That too, is true.
Also true: Una plucked a still-nursing Robin from the breast of her dead mother.
'Apparently,' said Emily, 'that's quite common. It says so in Essays in Idleness.'
Yet another thing Una cannot explain to her interlocutor; Essays in Idleness. When the school dissolved, Emily began translating it for their Commandant. He was a curiously philosophical man, and he moved like the cat he adored, whisper-silent and soft-footed through the compound. Essays in Idleness was to him what Yeats was to Una.
In the evenings, when the enforced cheer of that particular night's rostered entertainment got too much, Emily would share the book's latest wisdom.
'It is a great error,' she might say, irony not lost on her, 'to be superior to others.' She would deliver it as po-faced as possible and they would all try hard not to laugh. The first to succumb paid a forfeit. It wasn't monetary, because where would the money come from? No, the first to laugh might have to hunt for that night's round of bedbugs, or kill the lice they were crawling with, or some other nicety.
Once, Emily came in, and after sitting in her appointed place for the evening's entertainment – this a platform draped in a drunkenly colourful shawl– she said, 'Today's wisdom is this: Leaving something incomplete makes it interesting.'
Bernice lost that evening. 'Shall we tell the Commandant?' she said, and acquiesced with good grace when her cackling proved contagious.
Or, another time, 'You should never put the antlers of a deer in your nose and smell them.' Emily delivered this and then immediately lost her own game by bursting out laughing, a wild, raucous bell-peel of a sound.
The strangest moments were those when Una found herself agreeing with Essays in Idleness. Once, Emily's quote of the evening was; The pleasantest of all diversions is to sit alone under a lamp, a book spread out before you, and to make friends with people of a distant past you have never known.
Una thought of a night not so long ago as it should be, when she had kept vigil with Puck the monkey and Akela the dog, and recited Yeats, Auden and Donne to save her fraying soul alive.
Other times these quotations came not from Emily, but the Commandant as he concluded one of their sporadic meetings. Una would bow and be halfway out the door and he would suddenly say, 'If you must take care that your opinions do not differ in the least from those of the person with whom you are talking, you might just as well be alone.'
Una would stop, Bow again, make some faint noise of stunned agreement, and find herself thinking, But then why are we here, if you believe that? Perhaps she would look it, and she would see that he saw this, and realise that he too was struck by the bizarreness of it, how at odds the situation was with his private meditations.
Rarer still, Una might return a quote of her own. Be secret and exult, she might say, because of all things known, that is most difficult. Or perhaps, Education is not the filling of a pail but the lighting of a fire. The Commondant liked that one. In spite of himself his face would lighten, and he would say, 'That, Mrs Meredith is your poet? Yeats?'
'Yes,' said Una, not bothering to explain there were other poets that were hers, among them an dark-haired dead youth somewhere in France.
Una did not dare try and explain any of this to Ernest Henderson, with those pianists fingers. Collaborator was a terrible word. It would leave Robin alone in the world, because nuance was dead.
Something Una says instead: They had a piano. A strange, wild, out-of-tune thing with the ivory half off the keys. No one knew where it came from. It looked drunk. Cressida, because she could, climbed practically into it and wrestled with it until it sounded less like a caterwauling wildcat and more like a tortured budgerigar.
'Well, go on,' Emily said, 'give it a go. After all that work, let's hear it.'
'Oh no,' said Cressida. 'I don't play. Bet the God-botherers do, though.'
Una looked at Bernice and Bernice looked back, and they laughed, because they did play, Una and Bernice, and because when they sat down they stumbled by mutual understanding, into the same Chopin four-hands.
'Uncanny,' said Nellie.
'Couldn't have planned that if they wanted to,' said Elise, who was still alive then.
'Give over,' said Joan, 'let's have something less stuffy. We haven't got a parlour to show off.'
'They think we can't,' said Bernice.
'Naturally,' said Una. 'Entirely too old for anything modern, you and I.'
'Obviously,' Bernice said.
There was general gabble behind and around them. Emily said, 'Only if you believe you are too old, remember, If you pretend to be mad and run about in the streets, then mad is what you are…' The hubbub intensified as peels of laughter mixed with the rest of the conversational jumble.
Someone said, 'That book of his has a quote for everything!'
Bernice and Una caught one another's eye and began again. This time it was Don't Sit Under the Apple Tree and the general cacophony escalated still further as an impromptu choir sprang into existence. It was half-flat and the harmonies had nothing on Berg, but it was theirs.
'Joan…?' said Ernest Henderson, who could not, so far as Una could judge, keep them all straight.
'Our doctor,' said Una.
'I thought that was Nellie.'
'Yes and no,' said Una. 'And in any event, she died. Three months before you got to us, as it happens.'
It's unfair, maybe. It makes him shuffle uneasily and twitch like a moth in a flame. But he wanted the truth, and this is it, unvarnished edges and all.
'How exactly,' he says now, 'is a person a doctor and not a doctor?'
It goes like this, not that Una tells it this way.
Nellie stumbled into their bedraggled, sun-baked camp months into – Una doesn't know. She wasn't the type to keep a diary, much less a calendar. Bernice did dates. Each rota had one. So, Una doesn't know the day, just that it was a long time into camp life. Sometime in 1942, maybe. When they heard Nellie was a nurse they went half-mad with relief because there had been no one - Una stresses this, no one, to ensure her listener understands – and suddenly, here was this young, capable woman who could look at a patient and say 'That's malaria,' or 'That boil needs lancing,' or…
So many ors. It was a lot to pin on one girl. The weight of it buckled Nellie, but she went on doing it. Nellie chivvied and bossed and barked orders with the grim conviction of someone trying desperately hard to be sure they were right. She was good at it.
And then – and again, Una can't say when, which makes the Raffles man uneasy – Joan Makori appeared. Barely trained, and God knew how she had ended up in Singapore. But she walked into the sick bay on instinct.
'But,' says this idiot of a Raffles-bred Army man, 'she's…'
'Black?' says Una for him. 'Young? A fourth-class woman? Yes, we noticed too. Also a doctor. A good one. We weren't going to be fussy.'
Una was in the sick bay the afternoon Joan Makori arrived because Elise was beginning to die on her. So, Una was sitting there, talking with Elise about Robin, not swearing anything yet, just talking and hoping that they could get enough quinine to stave off this round of Malaria. And in walked Dr. Joan Makori as would be. Nellie, opposite Una, looked up, saw her, and said, 'You're a doctor, aren't you? Oh, thank God.'
Then, remembering Una, 'Sorry.'
'It's not blaspheming if you mean it,' said Una, reflexively. By then it was something of a catch-phrase, and the women passed it around the same way they passed a colicky Robin or the parcel in pass the parcel.
Joan Makori looked between them, and said by way of answer, 'What needs doing?'
Una watched that, too. She saw the way Joan seeped in like water and ebbed into the corners of the sick bay. How Nellie lightened with a look. She sank down onto the other side of Elise's sickbed and said, 'I don't know how she did it, I really don't.'
'Hmm?' said Una.
'The woman who trained me,' said Nellie. Then she began to sob.
'And there was…no doctor before Dr. Makori?' says Una's interlocutor.
There is a laundry list of things they did not have. Mosquito nets, doctors, medical supplies, enough food, proper beds, proper anything… Una can't go into it. She should go into it. But Robin is waiting somewhere and the sun is in her eyes.
'That's right,' she says.
The others are waiting when Una emerges from the white office. They have foregathered in the lobby, little Robin snug under Bernice's sun-browned arm. By now the doctors from Edward VIII hospital have poked and prodded them, leaving them looking like walking bruises. Then again, that might be the juxtaposition of Raffles' embarrassment of riches with the rags and tatters of their lives. It makes Emily look more Asiatic than ever, perhaps because Una knows that but for the people behind the Recovered Allied Prisoners of War and Internees, Emily would never be let through Raffles' front door. Nor would Joan. In another life, Una wouldn't be here out of loyalty to Li and Iris. To be here now…It's almost as absurd as the latest snippet of Essays in Idleness.
'Well?' says Cressida when Una emerges. 'You gave him hell, I hope.'
General clamour as half a dozen people offer an opinion at once. Snaring Una's arm, Bernice says emphatically, 'That, is why I made you our mediator. She'd have had us all shot faster than a knife goes through butter. Frankly, I'm not sure I'd have done better.'
'Weeks,' said Una. 'With you at the helm we might have lasted weeks.'
'Well,' Bernice says, affecting offence, 'I like that very much. How's that for loyalty?'
It's too much. They begin to laugh. Puck joins in, there on Una's shoulder, and that makes Robin laugh, too.
'Come on,' says Bernice, 'they've assigned us all rooms. Hope you don't mind sharing.'
Una allows the older woman to lead her, along with Puck and little Robin, through the blinding white of Raffles. It's dazzling to look at. To come from nothing to this - It's the stuff of fairy tales.
Everywhere Una looks there is luxury. The carpets are rich. The windows are pristine. The sun streams through them in dazzling, golden swatches that bisect the sumptuous carpets, highlight the strips on the silk of the sofa, and accentuate wayward dust eddies, not that there are many. Una's hand skims soap-slick off the gleaming bannister. It smells – how is this possible? – of beeswax and lemon rinse. Una used to treat wood the same way, except her rinse smelled of lavender. The room, when Bernice unlocks the door, has mosquito nets. Lots of them, spiderweb-gauzy and butterfly-fragile. There are beds and coverlets, and when Una wanders into the bathroom she finds bars of soap and toothpaste.
'The management,' Bernice says with wryness, 'apologizes for the quality of the beds. Not up to standard, if only they'd had more time…'
Una doesn't dare catch Bernice's eye. If she does, they will both laugh hysterically at the absurdity. Una trails her fingers unbelievingly along the cool metal of the camp cot nearest and is shocked by how reassuringly solid it is, by the give of the mattress when her fingers stray upwards to test it.
Puck goes one better. Elderly or not he hops from Una's shoulder to the mint-green coverlet and begins to bounce with giddy abandon. Seconds later, Robin joins in.
'Tell the management,' says Una, 'that this will do fine. Absolutely fine.'
Quoted throughout are an assorted jumble of selections of Yeats and Essays in Idleness. If you want a lovely, leisurely, utterly eclectic read, I highly recommend the latter.