A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
The Queen’s Coronation was big in Malaya and it was big for me too! On our drive down to Taiping to join my father and his regiment for the celebrations we passed through one kampong after another, with a richly coloured Coronation arch festooned with flowers and streamers and pictures of the Queen welcoming us into every village … everyone seemed to be involved.
When we had arrived from the train and ferry at the Runnymede Hotel several months before, it was discovered that the porter who picked up the trunk with my clothes in it amongst other things, had disappeared with it. This meant that my new summer dress and my new and unworn swimming costume had gone, and I now had little more than the clothes I stood up in- a well-used green striped skirt cut down from a summer dress of my stepmother’s two years before, and a green air-tex shirt.
My stepmother had coped with this disaster with insouciance, but I was in despair since I knew my clothes were unlikely to be replaced any time soon. I managed to make a new skirt with some fabric given to me, and as time went on, different people bequeathed dresses which they said they no longer wanted and which I learned how to alter to fit me.
But the loss of the swimming costume was a misery in the tropics where everyone swam most days. Now in Taiping for the week of the Coronation, I was staying with a couple whose daughter was in hospital with appendicitis, and after we had visited her once a day, these two lovely people took it upon themselves to spoil me. Not only did they buy me a swimming costume, but a pair of shoes – I had been managing with some humiliatingly ugly tartan cloth ones my stepmother had bought for me in the local Chinese market. The wife also gave me one of her dresses and let me try on all her evening dresses and her makeup. It all felt wonderful.
When I turned up for the Coronation Parade and re-joined my parents in my new finery, I saw my stepmother looking rather coldly at these kind people and I, but my cup was overflowing, and I didn’t worry.
After the festivities and two weeks holiday spent amid clouds and cool forests at the top of a mountain called Maxwell Hill we all went back to Penang, where I waited another three months before being accepted into the boarding school in the Cameron Highlands. Apart from my school terms I spent eighteen months living beside the water in this beautiful environment.
Each day began with the long walk between pillars which seemed as big as those on the portico of St Paul’s Cathedral, but in this case, they were holding up the huge ballroom, about a hundred feet long. At the end was the dining area, where the Chinese maitre d’hotel met each family and conducted them to their regular table with as much flourish as though they had been pre-war English milords, miladies, famous writers and intrepid tourists in the thirties. (He had probably been on the staff then himself, having somehow survived the Sook Ching massacres -the wholesale killings of the local Chinese – by the Japanese during the war) My step-mother was one of the ladies he met with particular deference and a favoured smile.
Our service was always quicker than less favoured mortals. It had nothing to do with my father’s mediocre rank or mediocre income. I supposed it had something to do with my step-mother’s unbending dignity and courtesy -she ‘nothing common did or mean’… it took me a while to see that others did do mean things, I was so used to her being, as my father’s sergeant -major put it -” a lady.” (Which didn’t mean to say I found it pleasant living with her. She might not manage anything common or mean, but she had ways of dealing with people like me who she didn’t like!).
After a hearty English breakfast beginning with cereal, ending with toast and marmalade, and bulked out with sausages, bacon and egg in the middle, coffee or tea, we all filtered back up the stairs to our rooms. The amahs had already tidied them and made the beds, so we prepared ourselves for the day – for the wives, a little shopping, ending at the Cold Storage Co. for feasts of iced coffee and sundaes in blissful icy air-conditioning to which I was sometimes invited. Or it might be a trip to the swimming pool, and hot curry puffs and ginger beer shandies in deck chairs round the pool… having no swimming costume I just sat around enviously.
Wives who were happy to leave their toddlers with an amah would sit on the hotel verandah by the sea, just by the huge flame tree where the children took turns on the swing, while their mothers played canasta or mah-jong. Or they just gossiped over coffee.
Husbands sometimes managed to get back for a weekend with their families every few weeks. One regiment stationed at Alor Star had its hands full with constant bandit activity, and at the last minute their leave would be cancelled for an emergency. A mock groan was the only outward sign of disappointment the wives allowed themselves when the message came, and when one young woman, newly- pregnant, couldn’t bite back her tears of disappointment before the others noticed, there was much comment at her lack of control.
There were some who didn’t follow the regular routines of the others… they were outsiders, who didn’t join the regimental groups or the more exclusive cliques. They may have been free spirits, and seemed to have busier, more satisfying lives than the daily routines of the others, but, sometimes too, I felt their loneliness. The other women wordlessly disapproved, as though being an army wife was being part of a team that the outsiders were refusing to join.
After a generous lunch with several courses from soup or a starter through to pudding and cheese in the great dining room, the hotel would fall silent. Every-one retired to their room for a nap – including, I suspect, all the staff -because the place was deserted between two and four. Except for the amahs and house-boys, who were busy whitening shoes and doing the dhobi, washing, ironing, and starching our full-skirted cotton dresses – Horrockses were the prettiest and most sought- after. Some wives had their dresses made up locally but you could tell at a glance when fashion trends took about two years to reach us.
During this silent two hours in the afternoon, the various teenagers in the hotel would coalesce, playing tennis, giggling, talking, and sharing, I remember, the whole series of books on Tarzan in the jungle. Unfortunately for me, I quickly became bored with them and Tarzan, and after a few weeks was back on my own, stemming boredom with what my stepmother dismissively called, my highbrow pleasures- whatever poetry and history I could find, all and any literature. This left me indifferent to Tarzan.
Some childless friends of my parents who lived in Penang permanently took a fancy to me, and began inviting me to their fascinating house filled with books and art. They introduced me to opera on their new-fangled long- playing records and took me to a film of Faust. I was hooked and took back with me to school a precious gift from them of a 78 record of Joan Hammond’s standard, “Oh, my beloved daddy”. I never got to play it. It warped in the heat during the way up from Tapah on the journey to school in the Cameron Highlands.
Between four and four-thirty, all over Malaya, in rest-houses and residencies, homes and hotels, the amah knocked on the door of every bedroom, and deposited a tray with a pot of tea, a plate of rich tea biscuits and a clump of the tiny, sweet, Malayan bananas. This we would consume at leisure, dressed in a cool cotton housecoat, and if we were lucky, enjoy for an hour the coolness of convection rain which fell at the same time every day, in sudden sheets. The coolness lasted only as long as the rain, and then the sun would return, and steam would rise and it would feel hotter and stickier than before.
Simultaneously with the tea-tray, the house-boy would deliver the clean laundry, our stiff, rustling, starched dresses, and white shoes cleaned with white Meltonian polish. After a shower, we dressed for dinner, and descended the stairs for the ritual of salted pea-nuts in cut glass saucers and drinks before dinner. Sometimes one of my father’s friends would ask if they could include me in a round of Pimms, which I thought the height of sophistication, but usually it was lemonade for me, or better still, a delicious fresh lime.
And then for the third time in a day, the long walk down the pillared ball-room for another stately meal at our own tables, before sitting on the veranda under the stars in the warm tropical night, sipping coffee with dreadful tinned and boiled milk from tiny, old fashioned coffee cups. The scent of frangipani hovered amidst the inevitable cigarette smoke, and sometimes a sampan with a single fisherman would drift silently past where the sea lapped against the garden wall, and as he scooped his net, or dragged his oars, a shower of gleaming phosphorescence would show us where he was on the dark water.
During the months I was waiting to be accepted into boarding school in the Cameron Highlands, my parents arranged tutoring for me in the mornings. To keep up with my Latin, I attended a Chinese convent where they had a Latin class every morning at seven o’clock, so I set out to walk through the deserted streets at six thirty. I nearly died of embarrassment as no European was ever seen actually walking at that hour in the morning, and everyone stared at me.
It was a pointless exercise, because I couldn’t understand the accents of the Chinese nuns reading Latin. I was completely defeated, and never kept up with the place in Virgil that we were supposed to be translating.
I came up against this problem again, during my French oral exam for School Certificate the following year. We were laboriously ferried down from school to Tapah, with all the palaver of armoured transport, troop carriers, guns and all, and on to Ipoh to visit a Chinese convent where the nuns spoke French, and were accredited to examine us.
This was a ponderous joke, which we all mutually recognised but never acknowledged, because they knew that our school-girl French was not up to understanding their Chinese -French, and they couldn’t understand our clumsy Anglo- French. So they gave us the benefit of the doubt and we all passed our French oral.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
When we’d eaten all we could of the roast chicken at Easter, I boiled up the carcass. The resulting jelly was too good to put in a soup. I made a risotto with it instead. I pre-cooked an onion in the micro-wave, and then tipped ut into a frying pan, lubricated with chicken fat from the roast chicken. Three chopped mushrooms and a teaspoon of garlic (from a jar!) went in next, and adding more chicken fat, I poured in a cup of Arborio rice.
When it was translucent I added a glass of good white wine, and before it had all boiled away started adding the chicken stock which also had small chunks of chicken from the carcass in it. There was enough to cook the rice completely, and when I started to run out at the end I added some milk… then cream, then a good knob of butter. When the rice was soft, I stirred in a couple of table spoons of freshly grated parmesan, and covered the pan for five minutes.
When we tucked in, I nearly swooned with greedy delight… each grain of rice glistening with stock and butter and cream was sumptuous. It didn’t even need any more parmesan, it was so delicious. I will never cook risotto again unless I have real chicken stock… bouillon cubes just don’t cut it any more!
Food for thought
Always say “yes” to the present moment. What could be more futile, more insane, than to create inner resistance to what already is? what could be more insane than to oppose life itself, which is now and always now? Surrender to what is. Say “yes” to life — and see how life suddenly starts working for you rather than against you. Eckhart Tolle, spiritual teacher