Sally first met Roger Wilde in February 1968, a few weeks after she and her husband, Dr. Edmund Pereira, had arrived in Borneo to begin their life as a married couple.
Coming home from a tribal market one afternoon, she burst into the barely-furnished living room of their new home - 'Look what I've found! Woven food covers for keeping flies off!', to be greeted by the sight of Edmund cleansing the injured hand of a Caucasian, a tall man with a beaky nose and a long, tawny ponytail, a grubby suede waistcoat, a T-shirt with a peace sign on it, and love beads. Sally hid her surprise in her usual well-brought-up way, but it was hard not to stare: he was the first hippy she'd seen in Borneo. As a trained nurse, she noticed an unhealthy pasty puffiness beneath his tan. Water retention, she thought to herself. Not a healthy man.
Edmund said to the stranger, 'Normally I don't treat patients in my home, but I cannot refuse to help a neighbour, lah' and unwrapped a bandage.
'This is our neighbour,' he told Sally. 'Mr. Wilde is staying in one of the houses behind our house.'
To the scruffy man, he added, 'This is my wife, Sally, from your own home country.'
'How do you do?' Sally said.
'Call me Wilde.' Wilde gave Sally the usual dazed once-over. 'Heard your husband was a doctor. But nobody said you were a movie star!'
Sally smiled, but in truth, she was bored with men's reactions to her tall young goldenness. Most people viewed her as a bright, shiny trinket, missing the points and angles hidden beneath her sheen. She was used to being underestimated.
Edmund had commended her nursing skills before saying anything else. It had instantly brought him close to her heart. They'd met whilst working at a London hospital, and it had taken months for Edmund to admit that he thought Sally had the vibrant beauty of a blossom. As soon as Edmund's new practice had patients, she planned to become the practice nurse.
Now Wilde was looking from her to Edmund with bemusement. Sally enjoyed the fact that she and her husband confounded people's expectations: Edmund was a head shorter than her, with rather bloodshot eyes. No matinee idol, as her sisters would have put it, but she'd been drawn to him by his aura of benevolence combined with determination, as well as a pheromonal pull that had nothing to do with appearance. His word would be his bond, she'd thought within minutes of meeting him, and so far, she'd been proved right.
'Do you need a hand?' she asked Edmund.
'No, all under control, darling,' Edmund said. How she loved his Malaysian way of saying 'darling'; the clipped syllables came out as 'dulling'. 'Mr. Wilde has a bee sting only.'
'I tried to chop down their nest,' Wilde explained and gave them both the goofiest crooked-toothed grin that Sally had ever seen in her life. She had to fight not to laugh.
'You're lucky your injury is not much worse, lah,' Edmund said.
'You should have seen it the time I got snake-bite, Doc! I was in the jungle – no boots on.'
'Wah! So glad I didn't see it,' Edmund said, grimacing at Wilde's ungroomed feet clad in open flip-flops.
'One time, I was barefoot in a boatyard, and I stepped on a rusty nail… '
'Barefoot in a boatyard? I don't understand.'
'Where're you from, Doc? You sound like a local, but you speak English better than I do!'
'I'm from West Malaysia, as Malaya is now called. I'm of Portuguese and Dutch descent, with smatterings of Sinhalese and Malay.'
'My wife and I have come to the 'Wild East' of our recently-formed Federation of Malaysia in search of new opportunities.'
'Strewth! You talk like a dictionary, and a history book rolled into one!'
'What's brought you here, if I can enquire?' Edmund asked.
'Animals. Orangutans. Hornbills. And that giant stinky flower you get on Mt. Kinabalu - Rafflesia. I like all the far-out stuff here. Psychedelic birds, crazy butterflies. It's wild, man!'
'Oh, how wonderful!' Sally exclaimed, suddenly feeling warmer towards the man. 'I can't wait to see the wildlife!'
'My wife always asks me about animals,' Edmund said affectionately. ''Is that what they call a mynah bird? Is that baby spider over there the type which grows up to eat birds?'' And I say, 'How do I know, lah! I'm not a zoologist!''
'You're hopeless, darling!' Sally said, frowning slightly. In her family, ignorance about nature was considered almost a character flaw. 'Tell me,' she said to Wilde. 'Are orangutans as endearing as one hears they are?'
'Dunno. Haven't seen any.'
'Oh! I look forward to seeing lots of animals. Though I'm rather frightened at the thought of a python or a crocodile.'
'Never seen any.'
'What about jellyfish?' Wilde shook his head. 'Have you been to those famous caves - Gomantong? - to see the bats and swiftlets?'
'Haven't got round to it.'
'What about snorkelling to admire the fish and corals?'
'No,' Wilde admitted, sheepish now. Slouched on one of the tatty rattan chairs on the balcony, he looked as inert and unenterprising as she'd ever seen anyone look. Sally tried to conceal her disappointment. These things are just handy notions to hang his hippy slang on, she thought dispiritedly. 'I hope you don't mind my asking,' she said. 'Are you married?'
'What's your wife's name?'
'Do you have children?'
'How lovely! A boy or a girl?'
'What's his name?'
Sally struggled to stop her face from twitching. But at the same time, she was thinking, I can't wait to have children! If I had a little boy, I wouldn't be monosyllabic about him! Wilde only seems to be chatty about idiotic mishaps.
'You must bring Sunray to see us!' she said. 'I adore children! And I'd love to meet Dharma. '
Edmund had already expressed concern that Sally might end up missing her 'own kind', to which Sally had replied that she was perfectly happy in her little private world with him, thank you; she had no pressing desire to mingle with other white-skinned mems, but the thought of having a friendly Englishwoman close by was appealing. With that in mind, she decided to be as hospitable as possible.
'Would you like a cup of tea?' she asked Wilde.
'Yes, please join us,' Edmund said. 'Sally and I take tea and curry puffs every Saturday afternoon. The filling is made following my dear mother's recipe.'
'Groovy!' Sally tried not to wince at the word.
'What profession do you practise?' Edmund asked, holding out the plate of curry puffs. Wilde took three and devoured them as an inhalation, so fast that Sally could have felt offended; they were time-consuming to make.
'I'm an engineer,' Wilde mumbled through a mouthful. How extraordinary! Sally thought. I can't imagine somebody like him having any job, let alone one as down-to-earth as engineering. Oh well, never judge a book by its cover.
'Have you been staying in Borneo for long?' Edmund asked Wilde.
'Couple of months. New Guinea before that. Tahiti before that. Fiji, Oz, Kenya.' Heavens. Why would anybody want to move that often?
'Some people are just restless, I suppose,' Sally said.
Suddenly Wilde's snaggly grin seemed to take on a hard edge. Funny. He looks like a reptile when he smiles like that. Then Sally berated herself. No, I'm not being fair. He can't help having strange teeth.
'Each of us has a different destiny, isn't it?' Edmund remarked, shaking his head as their new neighbour shambled away down the drive, leaving behind a fug of sweat and incense.
'He's not somebody I'd normally socialise with,' Sally said. 'Yet being here, I feel quite neighbourly towards him. Odd, isn't it?'
'Daft but harmless, I think. I know it's not very nice, but I can't take anything he says seriously! At least he doesn't say much!'
Edmund and Sally both considered their move to Borneo to be a great symbolic restarting of their lives. They had left behind Edmund's hometown, Malacca, and Sally's, Windsor in Berkshire, to reside on the very circumference of the enormous, humid island, which was shown on maps with the motto 'No reliable data' printed across half of its landmass. Anyone wishing to travel within the interior had to go by boat along a river or fly to airstrips cut into the jungle; crossing the state by road was not an option. One thing Edmund and Sally had in common was an exhilarated sense of clinging to the edge of a land that was not only mysterious but potentially dangerous.
Their new home was a wooden villa in the state capital, built on pillars to keep out floodwaters and creepy crawlies. ''Paradise' is such a cliché,' Sally would say, gazing out at the dawn or sunset. 'But I do think this is it – except for the heat and humidity. Now, all we need to do is meet people – apart from Wilde.'
It didn't take long. Mrs. Leong, the Chinese-Malaysian resident of the house behind theirs, always said hello when Sally was gardening in the cool of the early morning, but the ice cracked completely when Sally voiced a question that had been playing in her mind. Mrs. Leong would make the rounds of her garden at dawn, tipping onto her flowers a liquid which reminded Sally of her time on hospital wards. 'Mrs. Leong, is that urine you're watering your orchids with?'
The neighbour's sun-tanned face split with delight. 'Yes, family urine! I collect every night! You like orchid, bah?'
'Yes, very much!'
Mrs. Leong gave Sally a tour of her dazzling plants, pink, white, purple, and yellow, and from there, they graduated to advice sessions on how to use the local fruit and vegetables. 'That one makes nice cake,' Mrs. Leong might say. 'Must cook that one, very sour.' Mrs. Leong's broken English and Sally's complete lack of Cantonese were a problem, but sheer friendliness enabled them to get by. Sally found her neighbour to be like an older Chinese version of her sister Nancy, whom she missed greatly. In no time, Sally had been introduced to every member of Mrs. Leong's many-headed family, and their rendezvous at the garden fence was part of the daily routine.
Often, at an hour much later than anyone would expect of an employee, Wilde would stroll past the Pereiras' garden and wave, and Sally would wave back, but Mrs. Leong would keep her hands where they were, and her eyes would blink in an excluding way. Mrs. Leong doesn't seem to like Wilde much, Sally thought one day. Oh, well, his smell alone would put off a lot of people.
A few weeks after their first encounter with him, Wilde appeared at their front gate on a Friday afternoon. 'We shut up shop early, and they all buggered off to play golf or go sailing,' he complained. 'But nobody invited me.'
'Oh, dear.' Sally tried to sound sympathetic. 'Perhaps they're rather conservative and don't know what to make of you?'
'Right on! I don't like taking orders from uptight squares.'
'Oh! Unfortunately, we're going out shortly.'
'Friday night supper at the hotel?' Wilde asked. They'd told him about their little ritual the first time they'd met. A ripple of suspicion went through Sally. He isn't angling for a dinner invitation, is he? Oh well, what if he is? 'The doorman at the hotel looks down his nose at me,' Wilde said.
'In Asia, your appearance should match your status,' Edmund reproved. Wilde's unexpected arrival had made him stop playing a Mozart piano sonata halfway through. 'Cut your hair, and people will treat you differently.'
'You think like a square, man!' Wilde seemed likely to stamp away in indignation, but instead, he subsided onto a chair, looking forlorn. 'I just got bad news: got a dodgy ticker.'
'Oh, dear!' Sally exclaimed, feeling guilty about every negative thought she'd harboured. Hainanese chicken rice at the hotel will have to wait for another evening, she told herself.
'The doctor's certain about your heart problem?' Edmund asked Wilde. 'And you're receiving treatment?'
'Not much they can do.' Wilde's eyes grew round with melancholy. 'I'm not going to make old bones, Doc.'
'Wearing all that heavy leather clothing in this climate won't help,' Sally observed drily.
'Come. Please,' Edmund said. 'Sit here. This is our best seat. Rest and relax, lah. You should avoid strain and upheaval.'
'I've been writing to an old school friend,' Sally said in order to distract Wilde. 'Would you like me to read the letter to you?' Wilde and Edmund sat side-by-side, listening intently as Sally's clear voice rang out. ''We've got all sorts of flowers in the garden: bougainvillea, hibiscus, frangipani. Fruit, too: coconuts, papayas, jackfruit, starfruit… There's no television. Sometimes I feel quite remote and cut off from the rest of the world, but somehow, I rather like that. If the shops run out of ice cream, you've got to make it yourself or wait for the next boat to come in!''
'Wish I had somebody to write to,' Wilde said morosely when Sally had finished reading.
'Oh, but you must have somebody!'
'No. No relations. My 'dear mother' took off when I was a baby, and my 'dear father' disowned me ten years ago.'
Nonsense! He's fishing for sympathy, Sally thought. But then she reproached herself. Why am I so cynical? The world's full of rotten parents. It's not as though mine were marvellous. I left home as soon as I could! And it might partly explain why he's so odd. 'Why don't you stay for a sundowner?' she suggested, carried away by a charitable impulse.
Edmund performed a discreet roll of the eyes, but Sally thought it might be a nice change for him because they hadn't yet found a set to socialise with; just as Wilde was widely dismissed as a misfit, many people disapproved of a Eurasian, even a doctor, marrying an English rose.
So, Edmund sipped tea, and Wilde swigged from a bottle of beer, watching the sunset and feeding nuts to Edmund's parakeets, Mimi and Mei-Mei.
Sally stroked the luminous green and turquoise feathers of the parakeets, one finger for each bird. 'I don't suppose you've got any pets?' she asked Wilde. 'It must be difficult with all your moving about.'
'No pets,' Wilde said. 'They'd only get eaten.'
Sally began to laugh reflexively but stopped when she noticed the lack of humour in his face. The parakeets ducked their heads up and down as though in alarm. 'Don't worry,' Sally reassured them. 'He's only joking.' But was he?
'We still haven't met Dharma and Sunray!' she said to Wilde. 'How are they? '
'Same as ever,' Wilde said in a grudging tone.
'You must tell Dharma she's welcome to drop in anytime.' Wilde grunted. Anyone would think he doesn't want us to meet his wife. There must be a problem. Drink or drugs? No, it's my ridiculous big city mentality! Just because I've seen some of the most troubled people in London…
'This place is not so foreign for me,' Edmund said. 'But I miss my home very much. Do you miss your home also?'
'Not likely!' Wilde cried with such startling forcefulness that the drink in Sally's hand jerked. 'That stinking country's not my bag! Being there just brings me down, man! Too many people telling you what to do! Here we're free!'
'Not that free,' Sally said. 'Edmund still has to pay taxes, and I have to do the washing-up!'
But Wilde didn't seem to have heard a word. 'Europe!' he barked, seeming about to spit. 'Mind games! Phoniness! Squares bugging me all the time! Here we've got a chance to find rebirth, baby. Peace! Free love!'
'Immoral behaviour,' Edmund muttered under his breath.
'When I was training as a nurse,' Sally said, 'There was a pub around the corner from the nurses' home. Bohemian sorts used to drink there. It was all, 'I'm an artist, therefore I can be a complete egomaniac and take advantage of you. I can hurt you in the name of art.' This hippy free love stuff rather reminds me of that.'
Edmund pursed his lips. There was much about their pasts which had never been discussed.
A few mornings later, when Sally encountered Mrs. Leong, she sensed immediately that something was wrong. Mrs. Leong beckoned Sally closer to the fence with nervous, jerky movements. 'I can talk to you?' she called in a low voice.
'Of course!' Mrs. Leong looked around, then released an impassioned torrent of words in the local accent, which Sally still found hard to understand.
'I'm afraid I don't –' Sally began, but Mrs. Leong's verbal waterfall continued. She raised her right arm and circled it with her left hand, fingers wiggling like running legs. Sally managed to catch a few words: 'Night-time. Neighbour. Amah. Trees.' I know 'amah' means 'maidservant', Sally thought.
Edmund had been insisting that they should hire an amah, assuring her that keeping a maid was the norm, but Sally had an inbuilt resistance to the idea of paid help and was stalling the process of recruiting one.
'You understand?' Mrs. Leong asked pleadingly. Heavens, I wish I did! Are the neighbours' amahs doing something to the trees at night-time? Sally was too embarrassed to make Mrs. Leong repeat herself. Feeling spineless, she said, 'Thank you. It's kind of you to tell me.' Hearing a sound behind her, Sally spun around to see Wilde slouching around the corner of the house. How did he get in? Edmund must have left the front gate open.
'Hey, baby,' Wilde called.
When Sally turned around again, Mrs. Leong had disappeared. 'You don't seem to do much engineering for a professional engineer,' Sally said.
'Not one of the wage slaves anymore, am I?'
'Oh, did something happen?'
'Difference of opinion, parting of the ways, baby! So, I thought I'd see what the vibe was round here.'
'The vibe is busy, I'm afraid. I can give you a glass of squash, and then you'll have to excuse me.'
'Far out. I can dig that.' Wilde sat on the balcony and watched Sally as she tidied her plant pots.
'I don't know how you manage to survive financially,' Sally said. 'You didn't seem to spend much time at work even before your 'difference of opinion'!'
Wilde shrugged. 'Don't need much bread.'
'Really? With a wife and child to support? You won't get any help from the government of this country, you know.'
'You've got hands like a girl guide.'
Inwardly, Sally rolled her eyes. Silly man! Was he going to come out with an invitation to lay those girl guide-like hands upon his sweaty, rank-smelling body? She'd heard something along those lines before, from a painter for whom she'd posed once, and only once, fully clothed. 'I haven't the foggiest idea what you're talking about,' she said in a disapproving voice.
'Ever been water skiing?'
'It's groovy. How about I give you a lesson?'
'Lovely, as long as Edmund can come along, too.' Sally didn't bother to look at Wilde's expression: she knew it would appear half-witted. Next, he'd be hinting that they could sail away to a palm-fringed island together. Honestly, what a silly man! What a joke! 'I've got an awful lot to do. You really must excuse me now,' she said, so firmly that even Wilde got the message.
She watched him shuffle away along the road and turned around to find Mrs. Leong standing by the fence again. 'Sorry my English so bad,' Mrs. Leong said.
'I'm the one who should be apologising!'
Grave-faced, Mrs. Leong mimed the turning of a key in a lock. 'Lock gate, bah. Understand?' This time, somewhat disconcerted, Sally did understand.
'Darling,' Sally said to Edmund as he left for work the next morning, 'Could you make sure you lock the garden gate? I had a rather strange conversation with Mrs. Leong yesterday, and she warned me to keep the gate locked. But she's right – anybody could walk in. And it's annoying when Wilde mistakes our garden for his.'
Edmund's expression sharpened. 'He's bothering you?'
'Oh, you know what he's like – harmless. But I'm not always in the mood. I'd like to find more people to talk to – sensible ones like Mrs. Leong, but first I need to get to grips with the language around here – with the English, at least! Although I'd like to learn Kadazan and Malay and Cantonese, and all the other languages as well!'
Edmund laughed. 'You'll be very busy, lah!'
One morning Sally was hanging up laundry in the garden when she was startled to spot a small Caucasian face peering at her through some foliage. Lately, she'd been assailed by homesickness, and she froze, fancying that it was an elf escaped from one of her childhood books. But no: this face was real: thin, freckled, and watchful, and it belonged to a boy of about eight.
'Well, hello there!' Sally called. 'You must be Sunray!' She caught sight of the rest of the child as he scurried backwards, gaping at her. Why, he's a waif! His kneecaps were his most prominent feature. And what strange behaviour! It's as though he's afraid of me! She observed as he ran away so fast that he could have been on fire, then shrugged to herself. Honestly! I'm exaggerating. And what do I know about children anyway?
A few hours later, as she was bringing the laundry back in beneath a rapidly-darkening sky, she caught a glimpse of a gaunt woman with faded ginger hair walking around where Sunray had been. 'Mrs. Wilde?' Sally called. 'I've been hoping to speak to you! I thought you might be able to tell me some things about the local area.'
Mrs. Wilde shook her head. Sally saw a series of flickers in her brown eyes: timid warmth, wariness, uncertainty. She's tempted… The woman turned away like a child denying herself a treat. 'I don't know anything.'
'Oh, but I'm sure you do!' Sally coaxed. It wasn't really like her to be so persistent. 'Well, let me know if you change your mind.' Mrs. Wilde walked away, casting a look back over her shoulder, and Sally saw something else. Fear. Fear? Sally had seen many an anxious sideways glance in the hospital. There'd been the woman with a red gash instead of an eyeball; her ring-wearing boyfriend had given her a back-handed slap. And the woman who'd been badly beaten clung on to life for weeks, then died so that she didn't have to go home with her husband. Fear? No, it's all in my head, Sally told herself firmly and waved as Mrs. Wilde disappeared into her house.
Yet before Sally knew it, her feet were carrying her around the block to the Wildes' house, and she was ringing the doorbell. No answer. She rang again, hovered on the doorstep. She wasn't even sure why it felt so imperative to see the woman. 'Mrs. Wilde? May I speak to you?' No reply, although, stepping back and looking at the windows of the house, she was sure she saw a shadow behind one of the dingy net curtains.
What on earth has got into me? she asked herself. Lurking about like some pushy private eye in a Hollywood movie, trying to speak to somebody who's made it clear she wants nothing to do with me! Then she heard a car approaching. It could be Wilde. Sally slipped back out of the garden and around the corner in the road. To her relief, the car turned out not to be the decrepit Ford which Wilde crawled around in, but the lovingly-tended Aston Martin driven by jolly Mr. Tan, the businessman who lived two doors down from the Wildes. He took his hands off the steering wheel, pushed his spectacles up his nose with one hand, and gave Sally a wave with the other. Thank goodness it wasn't Wilde!
It was only when she was back in her own house that it occurred to Sally to ask herself: Why was it so important that Wilde shouldn't witness my attempt to talk to his wife?
'She was a bit peculiar,' Sally told Edmund that evening. 'Wilde said his wife spends most of her time lying down with damp flannels on her head, and I can believe it!'
'Maybe she's a shy lady only?'
Yes, that's it. I'm making much ado about nothing. Yet something impelled Sally to keep talking. 'I saw Wilde's little boy, too. He seemed so forlorn. And he looks awfully skinny.'
'Many children are thin. You were thin as a child!'
'True,' Sally conceded. 'The bullies at school used to call me 'Skinny Sally.'' The thought made her feel slightly better.
Two nights later, a screaming sound dragged Sally out of her dreams. At first, she thought there must be a stormy wind blowing outside, whipping the fronds of the coconut palms in the garden to and fro, but no: a moment's careful listening revealed that the darkness was tranquil. And then the sound shrilled again.
'Darling…' She shook Edmund's arm to wake him. 'Did you hear that dreadful noise?'
'I know you think I'm a trial sometimes! But there it goes again - an awful shrieking.'
Edmund listened for a moment. 'A wild animal, ah?'
'No, I really don't think it is.'
Edmund soon fell back into a deep sleep, but Sally lay awake. After several fitful hours, she gave up and set off on a dawn walk around the neighbourhood.
It was a deliciously cool time of day. She was admiring the silhouettes of the trees when she noticed a figure moving along the road away from her: a black-haired young woman carrying two overstuffed shopping bags. Something fell out of one of the bags and bounced on the road, but she didn't pause to pick it up.
She's in a hurry! She's limping, poor thing. She'll make her injury worse, rushing like that. I ought to offer to help her. But the woman was walking too swiftly, head flicking from side to side, and Sally didn't want to make a spectacle of herself by shouting down the street. Something awful has happened to her. She's rushing home to Mother. But I don't suppose it's any of my business…
When Sally got back to the house, Mrs. Leong was waiting for her. 'Wilde's amah run away.' Mrs. Leong had trouble with the 'L' in the name, but this time Sally understood her. 'Wilde chase her.'
'Oh, surely not!' A lazy, feckless, dopey sort of fellow he might be, but I can't credit…
Mrs. Leong frowned, and suddenly Sally saw or imagined an accusation in the other woman's eyes. You're just sticking up for your own kind…
'I can't believe it,' Sally said. 'He simply doesn't seem the type.' She went indoors. She felt unwell. Perhaps she'd overdone it, marching around after a night of so little sleep. She could feel shadows encroaching upon her.
She'd been fifteen years old on that hot afternoon at her friend Mary Hardcastle's house. Mary had gone to the kitchen to fetch some lemonade, leaving Sally alone in the living room with Mr. Hardcastle. Browsing through a magazine one moment, the next, Sally had been overwhelmed by a grown man's strength, smoky breath, one strong hand pushing her hand against a lumpy groin, the other kneading her breast like an unbaked bun. Last of all, iron fingers had slipped into her most private place and scraped around, so that if she hadn't been rendered soundless by shock, she'd have yelped at the discomfort. When glasses had clattered on a tray in the corridor, magically, Mr. Hardcastle had been back in his armchair, giving her that sly glance which was tattooed into her memory. Oh, the humiliation on top of the horror and shock. Sally had pleaded illness, rushed home and vomited, then spent months wondering whether she'd hallucinated the entire episode.
Mr. Hardcastle had the suaveness and cunning to carry it off, Sally thought. He was a solicitor, school governor, leading light of the cricket club, always in one of the front pews at church. But Wilde? He's a clown. He isn't bright enough to be devious. No: Mrs. Leong is obviously more of a gossip than I took her for, and a malicious one at that. Feeling saddened, Sally concluded, I shall continue to be polite, but I'd best avoid getting any more involved with her.
A few days passed. Edmund set off for his surgery humming snatches of Chopin, and Sally baked a cake. It was the usual beautiful morning, and yet… A cloud of unease had settled over Sally's heart, and she and Mrs. Leong had reverted to giving one another nods. It felt like a calamitous setback.
Her melancholy didn't lift when she saw Sunray lying on the grass in his garden, listlessly poking at a patch of shrinking grass with a twig and watching with scant interest as the tiny plants closed and opened again. Sally, peering around the trunk of a tree, had an opportunity to study him at her leisure. Excessively thin and strangely sad. So unlike his name! And he doesn't seem to have any toys, not even a ball. But she told herself off. A child playing in a garden on a sunny day: what's so sad about that? Yet I've never seen a child with so little animation…
She went into the kitchen, came out with a soft bread roll, and surreptitiously edged herself as close to the fence as she could. 'Hey, Sunray,' she whispered.
The child looked at her, startled. His eyes were large, veiny blue marbles in a mask delicate enough to shatter. A moment later, he was tearing into the bread so ravenously that Sally feared he might chew off his own fingers by accident.
'Was that nice?' Sally asked when he'd finished. 'Sorry, but I haven't got enough bread for your parents. So best not tell them, or they'll be disappointed that they can't have any.' Sunray gave a semblance of a nod, gazed at her dully, and backed away. Sally felt guilty for pushing a child towards subterfuge, but her sense that Wilde mustn't know how much she knew was growing by the second.
Sunray stayed out in the harsh sunshine, his eyes open but with their light turned low. My God, Sally thought. I've seen that look before, in the hospital. He looks like an old man who's waiting for… She was so angry that she wanted to destroy something.
'Not only is that poor little boy not being educated…' Sally began, when Edmund came home for lunch.
He shrugged. 'Maybe they'll send him to school in England soon?' He often said that he didn't really understand the British way of doing things, so how could he judge?
The knowledge had finally crystallised in Sally's mind. 'I think that poor little boy's being starved to death.'
Edmund peered at her in puzzlement, on the lookout for English humour. 'Oh, come! Darling!'
'No, I mean it literally, Edmund! I mean it quite literally!'
Edmund said nothing for a time. Sally could visualise what he was picturing: a small, lonely child with a sunburned, peeling face and the same parrot-like nose as Wilde, staring mournfully through the fence. At long last, he spoke. 'It's a private matter.' She'd seen that look of chagrin on his face several times in London: You know my awkward between-world status in life: how likely is it that anybody will listen to me?
'But there must be something we can do!'
'Can, lah! I know what you're thinking. 'Don't stir up the hornet's nest. Better turn a blind eye.' But how can we, darling? We promised ourselves and other people to save lives.'
There was another lengthy, purse-lipped silence. Then Edmund said, 'Show me this child.'
They stood at the bottom of the garden, watching as the fragile little boy gobbled up a banana, his eyes fixed on them with feral anxiety, then proceeded to vomit most of it back up.
When Sally turned to look at Edmund, his features had hardened into mottled grey stone.
They marched around to Wilde's house and rang the doorbell. 'We haven't seen you for a few days,' Sally said, straining herself to sound friendly. 'We were wondering, how are you all?' Wilde seemed suspended in the doorway like rags on a hanger. He made no attempt to smile. 'I saw Sunray the other day,' Sally pushed on. 'What a lovely little boy he is!'
Wilde's lips turned into a downward semi-circle. 'You reckon?'
'Oh, of course, I do! He's adorable!'
'You're welcome to him. Want to buy him?'
Sally gaped at Wilde. 'I don't – '
'I mean it. I'll sell him to you. It's only a matter of time. I'm going to flog him to somebody. Greedy little bugger always wants feeding.'
Sally was so shocked that she felt faint. 'But you can't do that!'
'No? Who's going to stop me?'
'A son is a gift from God, lah,' Edmund said, frowning so fiercely that his brows formed a bar. 'A son is a blessing that I hope to receive one day.'
'Not even sure he is my son.'
There was another stunned moment. Then Edmund's lips quivered. 'How can you talk like this about your wife? Marriage is a holy sacrament. It's your duty to cherish your marriage. My wife is my greatest treasure.'
Wilde snorted. 'Wish I'd never got hitched. Who knows how much time I've got left, with my heart like it is? There's always going to be some bloody hand sticking out, wanting something.'
'I came here to talk about a serious matter,' Edmund said, and Sally could see him making a strenuous effort to contain himself.
'You're like the meddling do-gooders I left England to get away from! Sticking your nose where it's not wanted.'
'As a medical professional, I'm very worried about your son's condition.'
'You been on the wacky baccy, Doc?'
'This is not a joke. His development is being arrested. If this continues, he will die.'
'No. You're committing an unforgivable sin. The authorities –'
Suddenly the assembly of rags in the doorway took on jagged, sinister life. Wilde lurched forward and lowered his snarl to a couple of inches above Edmund's head. 'How about you mind your own fucking business?'
'Peace and love, ah?' Edmund said bitterly.
'An Englishman's home is his castle. Ever heard that saying? No. A half-caste like you wouldn't know anything about that, would you?' There followed a series of hissed insults which made Sally's heart burn with biting shame and her blood turn to iced water. The last thing Sally saw as Wilde slammed the door was a smug leer directed at her.
'No, I am not an Englishman,' Edmund said to the closed door. 'I'm Eurasian from Malaysia, and I cannot permit you to harm a child.'
The Pereiras walked home in a venomous silence. Sally had never guessed that her gentle husband was capable of such rage. His eyes had turned into dark, murky pools in which dangerous creatures dwelled. Worst of all, he was looking at her as if he hated her. She understood that it was only because she'd witnessed his humiliation, but it cut her deeply.
How can I have been such a fool? I should have caught up to that girl on the road that day. I'd have seen black eyes, broken teeth, a ruptured lip…
'What if we smuggle Sunray and Dharma out of there and hide them?' she suggested desperately.
Edmund shook his head. 'He's a dangerous man, lah. We should call the police.' But Sally had little faith in the police: had they intervened in London, when her neighbour Patsy was being beaten by her husband? No. They'd knocked on the door, recited feeble words of caution, and jumped straight back into their police car.
'Darling, please, please, promise me that you won't do anything rash… What on earth are we going to do?'
Edmund's body was stiff and furious, his tone icy. 'I will plan and take action.'
As soon as they were back at home, he climbed into the Morris Minor and drove away. 'Wait! Where are you going?' Sally shouted after him, but soon the car was no more than a speck at the end of the road. She spent a heartbroken hour pacing around the house, thinking irrational thoughts. Has my love left me? Over this?
Whilst she was looking out for Edmund's return, Sally spotted Dharma limping to and fro in the Wildes' garden, dishevelled and in obvious pain, more shadow than woman. And then Dharma turned her head. A large part of her face had been turned into raw meat. Sally absorbed the hideous sight, nourishing her revulsion and fury. For the first time in her life, she felt murderous.
When Edmund returned to the house, he looked even angrier than before. 'I did my duty. I explained everything to the policeman in two languages. He didn't believe me. How can anybody believe in such evil without witnessing it? He said, 'Why do you hate your neighbour? Why do you argue with him? Why do you want to make trouble? We're peaceful people here!'' With that, Edmund strode into the kitchen, opened a drawer, and removed a large knife.
'Darling! What on earth -?' Sally shrieked, horror-struck. Then Edmund turned to look at her, and she was stilled. His eyes are crazed. I simply don't understand! Where has my husband gone?
Edmund carried the knife into his study and slammed the door behind him. Sally spent several minutes gazing at the physical barrier between her and the man she loved, feeling resolution seeping out from beneath the door like a noxious vapour, and a presentiment of doom began to creep over her: If Edmund remains in his present state of mind, he might kill Wilde. And if he does, he'll be executed. Edmund's far too transparent to get away with anything. And how could I live then?
She'd have to take action before Edmund did. But how? London-style social services didn't exist in this place where people relied on family and community. And Colonial times might be over, but she feared that Wilde might benefit from a vestigial White Man's Impunity.
A horrible map was taking shape in her mind, outlines ablaze: it showed the many areas of the world which Wilde had passed through like a vicious rolling stone. And now she imagined a slip of paper in Wilde's grimy hand, a ticket to the Land of Scot Free, ready for use when his business here was concluded.
Feeling overcome by her inner turmoil, Sally tried to nap, but no sooner had she eased out of the conscious world than she jerked awake, full of another sharp new realisation: If Wilde hasn't already disappeared, it won't be long. And he's got thousands of square miles of dense jungle in which to dispose of a small, emaciated body.
Two days later, Edmund was still lurking in his study. Worse, there was no sign of either Sunray or Dharma.
'Darling,' Sally begged yet again, 'Please come out of there so that we can discuss this situation like normal people.' When she tried the door, it was still locked. 'Please!'
'I am thinking of a way to eliminate the evil once and for all,' Edmund mumbled from the other side.
'But how?' And how she missed being called 'Dulling'!
'I will find a way. God gives us the means to solve our problems.'
Suddenly, Sally thought, Edmund's absolutely right. And a possible solution came to her. Reinvigorated, she styled her neglected hair, made up her stricken face, and caught a taxi to the town's sailing club, which she entered under the pretext of enquiring about membership. In less than an hour, a couple of gin and tonics with a Scottish dentist and an Australian engineer later, she had all the information she needed.
She walked around to the Wildes' house through the searing afternoon heat and prepared herself to look furtively alluring. Usually, she despised the idea of using 'feminine wiles', and consciously avoided behaviour which could be construed as flirtation, but her desperation was pushing her into adopting an alien persona.
She was worried that even if Wilde was still around, he might refuse to speak to her, but his front door was open before she was halfway along the path, Wilde looming in the opening like a lecherous scarecrow.
'I wanted to apologise,' Sally said. 'I feel dreadfully embarrassed. I know Edmund overstepped the mark… He can get awfully carried away…' She'd expected wariness, but instead, she encountered smirking pity.
'Married life, eh?' Wilde commiserated.
'Yes, well…' Sally adopted a long-suffering expression.
'Likes throwing his weight around, doesn't he, your husband? 'Dr. Pereira'! Wouldn't blame you if you'd had enough of that stuck-up stiff!'
'Well, to tell you the truth…' Sally said coyly, 'I do feel like having a change.'
Wilde's eyes acquired a new gleam. 'Music to my ears, baby!'
'I'd be glad simply to get away for a few hours… Would you be willing to let bygones be bygones and teach me how to water-ski?'
Wilde considered for a moment, then smiled widely. 'What the good doctor doesn't know, eh? Sure. Anytime.'
'Have you ever been water skiing in Dying-Moon Bay?'
'Never heard of anybody water-skiing there.'
'I've been told it's a really lovely spot – utterly unspoilt.'
'We'd be the first people in the history of the world to water-ski in Dying-Moon Bay, eh? You and me and Mother Nature? I can dig that!'
'Marvellous! How about the day after tomorrow? You must let me arrange everything.' He was pleased, as she'd known he would be. He read it as a sign of engagement, and best of all, it catered to his innate stinginess.
'You're on, baby.' Wilde hesitated. 'You're sure your old man's not going to be there?'
'Oh, no, of course not! Edmund's got his career to think about.'
If her plan failed, no one need ever know, and she'd come up with an alternative. If it succeeded, there'd be a scandal: the local press would write about an adulterous tryst ending in tragedy, and there'd be pieces to pick up, a damaged career, probably even the ruin of her marriage. But Sally could see no alternative. She had to take the risk.
The boatman was a Bajau with sun-mahoganied skin who came from a fishing village a long way down the coast. He wouldn't be intimately familiar with conditions in this small stretch of water. Her request had been accepted as the eccentric whim of a peculiar white woman, and a generous offer of cash had sealed the deal.
The sky was clear and fiery, the water the colour of a green glass bottle, and the motorboat's engine was running nicely. It had been agreed that Wilde would do a warm-up before the lesson. A few minutes later, the boat was out on the open water, and the wind was whipping his ponytail around.
The motorboat passed a fishing kampung, the rickety wooden houses on their stilts resembling a delicate sketch. Naked children waved and called from platforms. Sally, from her vantage point on the shore, could imagine whatever she couldn't see clearly: the back of the boatman seated in the stern, the outline of Mount Kinabalu on the horizon, the entrance to Dying-Moon Bay, a perfect oval, edged by sand as fine as dust.
Had the motorboat been stationary, Wilde would have been able to see straight down to the minute movements of corals and fish, but he was flying now.
There should be a clouding of the water about now, Sally thought, and sure enough, the boatman, presumably noticing a change in the water, was beginning to turn the vessel around.
Yes, Sally could picture what was going on out there. But it gave her no satisfaction. This was an unpleasant but necessary operation like emptying a bedpan or lancing a boil. She was saving Dharma and Sunray and the one person she truly loved in the world.
Oh, what must Wilde's face look like as he realised that he was surrounded by thousands of box jellyfish… Jellyfish as far as the eye could see. The water was thick with them. And they were lethal. She'd once seen a photograph of one: a ghostly, shimmering bag with long, straight tentacles like silver rain. There'd be a translucent cloud of them, pulsating and gliding just beneath the water's surface.
Sally could feel it: the blood in Wilde's veins turning glacial. Sweat breaking out on his puffy face and running down the back of his neck. His hands weakening, knees crumbling to dust. His body trembling from head to toe, pain exploding, heart beginning to falter, his brain beginning to register what was about to happen to him.
And still no end in sight to the deadly waters.