Journey to Paradise
Time passed. How difficult it was, so much harder than Miranda had imagined, to leave. Her thoughts turned to the flowers she had placed at Henry’s grave that morning, the whispered words, then on to her parents. She imagined her mother and father’s return to London, and Socrates, her cat, purring on her mother’s lap. He was so young and lively, such a typical tabby, that he’d be bound to be puzzled by where on earth she and Gerry had gone. And then she thought of the work that she had left behind: the Women’s Volunteer Service – the WVS – and the volunteering she used to do at the hospital, long after the war had ended. Would the other women miss her, she wondered? How she longed for their evenings chatting – during the last few months, it had been more of a salvation for her than any of them could possibly have known.
The cabin door opened. ‘Guess what?’ Gerry said, leaning against the doorframe. He brought a draught of cold in air with him and his hair had been blown about by the wind.
‘First night and we’re on the captain’s table.’
She smiled. Even now, after three years of marriage, the blue of his eyes still caught her off guard and she saw him as others must do – handsome and successful. Sometimes, she couldn’t quite believe that a man like him had chosen her for his wife, and seeing him now, standing there, gave her a feeling like tumbling through the air. Even with his windswept hair and his crumpled linen jacket, he had an air of confidence about him that authority brings. He wore it like armour, she thought, and nothing seemed able to pierce it.
‘Wouldn’t it be better,’ she asked, putting the curl of hair away and snapping her locket closed, ‘if we dined alone? It’s been such a long time since it’s been just the two of us.’
‘But it’s such an honour,’ he said.
‘Fine,’ she said. ‘But let’s not make it a late night.’
She wore her best navy silk dress and sat between the captain, who was wearing his dress uniform, and Lim Bo Seng, a quiet, serious man in his fifties. She wondered which knife and fork to use and which glass was for white wine or red. The food was rich – terrine of pork, sole meunière, and chocolate mousse or apple charlotte, followed by stilton and port. When they’d finished, a band struck up and they danced – a waltz, the foxtrot, even an attempt at the tango – until suddenly it was well past midnight.
When they finally got to bed, Miranda couldn’t sleep. Despite her earlier reservations, she had enjoyed the evening. And it struck her anew that Gerry’s new job in Singapore as a colonial officer meant she would be meeting important guests like Lim Bo Seng and Beryl Keppel on a regular basis. It was both thrilling and terrifying at the same time: so many
complicated rules, such as which way to pass the port – was it to the left or the right? She never could remember, and she didn’t want to let Gerry down by showing herself to be a fool.
At three o’clock, she switched on the bedside lamp, got up quietly so as not to wake up Gerry, and sat at the desk where she’d left her grandmother’s writing case. Loneliness and uncertainty rose through her and the desire to be close to her parents and all that was familiar caught her off guard. She picked up her pen, wanting to write to them, needing to be close, but all the words she’d been wanting to write thundered around in her head, making her temples throb.
She glanced across at Gerry sleeping. His mouth was open and a small bead of saliva clung to his lower lip. She couldn’t let him down, not now that his career in the Colonial Office was taking off. And what was more, there was the secret she carried with her every day, the one that she could never let him know. It shamed her to think of the small items she’d stolen from the shops after Henry had died, the caution from the policeman, the spiralling of her emotions that had led her down such a stony path. The pain of it still stung, and she wondered if the humiliation would ever go away.
A burst of laughter from a couple passing on the other side of the closed door made her lift her head. She imagined them – the man wrapping his arm around the woman’s waist, them kissing, their faces shining with love. Her eyes smarted with tears. How could this new life in Singapore possibly undo the past? She knew she had to try to forget her mistakes, however hard it might be, but she wasn’t certain she could be the wife that Gerry needed in Singapore. She needed to ask her mother’s advice, but all she could do was stare at the open writing case as the words in her head stuck fast and her pen hovered over the paper.
‘Miranda, what are you doing?’
There was a rustle of sheets as Gerry sat up.
‘Well, switch off the light and come back to bed, then.’
She hesitated, then placed the lid back on her pen.
England seemed another world as she watched the mesmerising blues and greens of the sea, the hills in the distance and the unfamiliar buildings looming into view. Never had she imagined Singapore to be like this. And it wasn’t just the land – the water was heaving with boats carrying huge bags of rice or crates of bananas, with children swimming in the water and men hauling fishing nets on to the quay.
The cry of a heron startled her, and she lifted her head. She followed its flight as it dipped and dived up the Singapore River and as it moved towards the shore, over the sampans and junks and the crates of bananas, then as it darted beyond the crumbling tenements and rows of washing hanging on long poles, like festive banners welcoming the Queen Mary in.
The port was full of even more activity – yet more men in fishing boats tugging in their catch, trishaws and bullock carts transporting strange-looking fruits and vegetables, labourers staggering beneath the weight of heavy baskets on their backs. As she noted the rainbow clothing of the local women, she could hear the distant jingling of temple bells, and the aroma of spices that punctured the air made her giddy.
‘We’d better get a move on. There’s quite a queue.’ He headed towards the passengers filing down the gangway.
While standing in line, passengers began to throw coins into the sea. As they fell, men and boys from the sampans jumped into the air or dived into the water to catch them.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked, leaning over the handrail to get a better look.
‘It’s for good luck. The Chinese are the most superstitious creatures on earth.’
She watched the coins tumbling and falling.
‘I don’t suppose you have a penny, do you?’
He raised an eyebrow and dug around in his pocket, then jingled some coins in his palm. ‘I didn’t think you believed in all that good luck nonsense.’
‘Well,’ she replied – she tossed the coins into the sea, and as they fell, she glanced back at the children and mothers on the shore – ‘I don’t suppose it can do any harm.’