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Excerpt: 'The Man in the Wooden Hat'

by Jane Gardam
Oct 22, 2009

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Chapter 3

And so, a few hours later, into the sea dropped the great red yo-yo sun and darkness painted out the waters of the bay at Aberdeen Harbour. Then lights began to show, first the pricking lights under the ramparts they stood on, then more nebulous lights from boats knocking together where the fishermen lived in houses on stilts, then the lights of moving boats fanning white on black across the bay and then across far away bays and coastlines of the archipelago; lights of ferries, coloured lights of invisible villages and way over to the south dim lights staining the darkness of Hong Kong itself.

Edward Feathers and Betty Macintosh stood side by side, looking out and a drum began to beat. Voices rose in a screech, like a sun-set chorus of raucous birds. Cantonese and half a dozen dialects. The crashing of pots and pans, clattering pandemonium. Blue smoke rose up from the boats to the terrace of the hotel and there was a blasting smell of hot fish. Behind the couple standing looking out, waiters were beginning to spread tablecloths and napkins, setting down saucers with floating lights and flowers. The last suggestion of a sun departed and the sky was speckled with a hundred million stars.

"Edward? Teddie — yes. Thank you. Yes. I will and I will and I will, but could you say something?"

Some of the older waiters would respond to Elisabeth's voice in the slow English of before the war. It was beginning to sound old world. Proud, unflinching, Colonial. Yet the girl did not conform to it. She was bare-legged, in open-toed sandals with clean but unpainted toe-nails. She was wearing a cotton dress she had had for years and hadn't thought about changing to meet her future husband. The time in the Shanghai detention centre had arrested her looks rather than matured her and she would still have been recognised by her old first-eleven hockey team. Edward looked down at the top of her curly head, rather the colour of his own. "Chestnut", they call it. Conker-colour. Red. Our children are bound to have red hair. Red hair fascinates and frightens the Chinese. They'll have to go home to England if we settle here. If we can have —

She said, "Edward? Please? I'm sorry I've taken so long, but I never change my mind." At last then he embraced her.

***

"We must get back," he said, and on the ferry again across the harbour they sat close together but not touching on a slatted seat. Nearby sat a fat young Englishman who was being stroked and sighed over by a Chinese girl with a yearning face. She was plump and pale gazing up at him, whispering to him, kissing him all the time below the ear. He flicked at the ear now and then as if there were a fly about, but he was smiling. The ferry chugged and splashed. The Englishman looked proud and content. "She's a great cook, too," he called in their direction. "She can do a great mashed potato. It's not all that rice."

At Kowloon-side Edward and Elisabeth walked a foot or so apart to his hotel, climbed the marble steps and passed through the flashing glass doors. Inside among the marble columns and the lilies and the fountains Edward lifted a finger towards the reception desk and his room-key was brought across to him.

"There's a party now."

"When? Whose?"

"Now. Here. It's tomorrow's judge. It's going to be a long case and he's a benevolent old stick. He likes to kick off with a party. Both sides invited. Leaders, juniors, wives, girl-friends, fiancees. And courtesans for flavour."

"Must we go?"

"Yes. I don't much want to, but you don't refuse."

When he looked down at her she saw how happy he was.

"Have I time to change?"

"No. It will have begun. We'll just show our faces. Your clothes are fine. I have something for you to wear as it happens. I'll go up and get myself a jacket and I'll bring it down."

"Shall I come up to the room with you?"

The new easy, happy Edward faltered. "No. I don't think they care for that here. I'll be back in ten minutes. I'll order you some tea."

***

"It's a strange betrothal," Betty told the lily-leaf-shaped tray, the shallow cup, the tiny piece of Battenburg cake and the cress sandwich so small that a breeze from the fountains might blow it away. A trio behind her was playing Mozart. Two Chinese, one Japanese, very expert and scornful. She remembered how people in England used to say that no Oriental would ever play Mozart. Just like at school when they used to say that there would never be Japanese pilots because they were all half-blind behind dark glasses. She was all at once overcome by the idiotic nature of mankind and began to laugh. "God must feel like me," she thought, "Oh, I love Hong Kong. Could we live here? Could Edward?"

Here he came now, washed and shaved in a clean shirt and linen jacket, loping over from the lift, smiling like a boy ("I'm going to be with this person all my life!") and he dropped a little cloth bag into her lap and she took out from it the most magnificent string of pearls.

"Yours," he said. "They're old. Someone gave them to me when I was sixteen in the war. Just in time. She died a few minutes later. She was lying next to me under a lifeboat on deck. We were limping home up the Irish Sea — everybody sick and dying. She was very old. Raj spinster. Whiskery. Brave. Type that's gone. She said, 'One day you can give them to your sweetheart.'"

She thought "He's not cold at all." Then "Oh, OH!! The pearls are wonderful. But they're not what matters."

"There's a condition, Elisabeth."

"About the pearls?"

"Certainly not. They are yours for ever. You are my sweetheart. But this marriage, our marriage."

"Hush," she said, "People are listening. Later."

"No — NOW," he roared out in the way he did, like other cured stammerers; and several heads turned. "This marriage is a big thing. I don't believe in divorce."

"You're talking about divorce before you're proposed."

Mozart behind them sang out, "Aha! Bravo! Goodbye!" And the trio stood up and bowed.

"Elisabeth, you must never leave me. That's the condition. I've been left all my life. From being a baby I've been taken away from people. Raj orphan and so on. Not that I'm unusual there. And it's supposed to have given us all backbone."

"Well I know all that. I was one too. My parents suffered."

"It will all be forgotten soon. What our parents did for an ideology. And there's no doubt we were mostly damaged even though we became endurers."

("May I take your tray, Madam?")

"It did not destroy me but it has made me bloody unsure."

"I will never leave you, Edward."

"I'll never mention any of this again." His words began to stumble. "Been left all my life. Ages couldn't speak. Albert Ross the saviour. So sorry. Came through. Bar a test. Must meet Ross. Bad at sharing feelings."

"Which, dear Eddie, if I may say so, must be why you haven't yet proposed to me."

"I thought I had — "

"No. It would help." (She was happy though.)

"Marry me, Elisabeth. Never leave me. I'll never ask again. But never leave me."

"I'll never leave you, Edward."

A waiter swam by and this time scooped up her tray though she called out "Oh, no!" "Bugger," she thought, "I've had nothing all day but that rice at Amy's." Then "I shouldn't be thinking of cake."

***

In the lift on the way up to the judge's party, her bare toes inside the sandals crunching the sand of Aberdeen Harbour, she thought, "Well, now I know. It won't be romantic but who wants that? It won't be passion, but better without, probably. And there will be children. And he's remarkable and I'll grow to love him very much. There's nothing about him that's un-lovable."

They stood together now at the far end of the corridor where the judge had his suite. They could see the open doors, gold and white, the noise of the party inside rose in a subdued roar. Edwards said "Unclutch those pearls. I want to put them around your neck." He took them, heavy and creamy, into both hands and held them to his face. "They still smell of the sea." She said, "Oh, ridiculous," and laughed, and he at last kissed her very gravely in full view of the distant waiters round the door. She saw that his eyes brimmed with tears.

"Why, the dear old thing," she thought.

From The Man in the Wooden Hat by Jane Gardam. Published by Europa Editions. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.

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