Robert and I had uprooted ourselves from Penang at the end of 1922, sailing on a P&O liner to Cape Town. We stayed a pleasant fortnight in a hotel by the sea before taking the train to Beaufort West, a little town three hundred or so miles to the northeast. Bernard, Robert’s cousin, was a sheep farmer, and he had built us a modest bungalow on his land. The bungalow, whitewashed and capped with a corrugated tin roof painted a dark green, stood on a high broad ridge. From the deep and shady verandah – I would never get used to the locals calling it a ‘stoep’, I told myself – we had an unbroken vista of the mountains to the north. These mountains had been formed by the dying ripples of the earth’s upheavals an eternity ago, upheavals that had begun far to the south at the very tip of the continent.
It was high summer when we arrived, the sun smiting the earth. Everything was so bleak – the parchment landscape, the faces of the people, even the light itself. How I ached for the monsoon skies of the equator, for the ever-changing tints of its chameleon sea.
A week after we had settled into our new home we were invited to the farmhouse for dinner. The sun was just burrowing into the mountains when we walked the half-mile there from our bungalow. We had to stop a few times along the way for Robert to catch his breath. Bernard Presgrave was thirty-eight, twelve years Robert’s junior. Robust and ruddy-faced, he reminded me of Robert when I first married him. His farm was called Doornfontein, the Fountain of Thorns, the kind of inauspicious name that would have set my old amah Ah Peng muttering darkly, ‘Asking for trouble only.’ But Bernard and his wife Helena, a placid and dull girl from the Cape, appeared to be prospering.
The other guests – farmers and their wives from around the area – were already gathered in the straggly garden behind the farmhouse when we arrived. We joined them in a circle beneath a camelthorn tree, its bare branches spiked with thin white thorns as long as my little finger. The laughter and shrieks of the children playing at the bottom of the garden rang across the evening air. A pair of oil drums, cut open in half, rested on trestles, wood fire lapping away at their insides. Lamb chops and coils of sausages were smoking away on the grill. The farmers were Boers, blunt-faced and blunt-spoken, but affable once we got to know them. The meat of the gossip that evening – and chewed over and over into gristle throughout the district that summer, I would discover – concerned a wealthy middleaged Englishman and his beautiful young wife who had moved to Beaufort West from London the previous summer.
‘His doctor advised him that the air here would be good for her,’ said Bernard, keeping one eye on the lamb chops on the grill. ‘Graham – the husband – bought a piece of land on Jannie van der Walt’s farm and built their new home on it, a great big house. We’ll take you out there one of these days to take a gander at it.’ Bernard went to the oil drums and flipped the lamb chops over; fat dripped onto the fire, sending clouds of maddened smoke hissing into the air. ‘The wife’s health improved,’ he resumed when he sat down again, ‘but one morning, about three weeks ago, she walked out on him. Left him when he was still snoring away in his bed.’
‘She took all her jewels,’ Helena picked up the tale, ‘but she didn’t leave a letter for Graham, the poor man, not even a note.’
Bernard chuckled. ‘Knowing Graham, that deplorable lack of manners probably enraged him more than anything else.’
‘Ai, that’s not funny, Bernard,’ his wife said. ‘Coincidentally, our GP in the dorp disappeared that same morning,’ Bernard continued. ‘Left his wife behind. Neither hair nor hide of him has ever been seen again.’
I glanced over to Robert sitting opposite me; our eyes met. ‘Just the sort of tale Willie would have relished,’ he said.
‘Willie?’ asked Bernard.
‘Somerset Maugham,’ said Robert.
‘Who’s he?’ one of the guests asked.
‘A writer,’ Robert said. ‘A very famous one. An old friend, actually. He stayed with us in Penang. He’s promised to visit us here. We’ll introduce you to him when he comes.’
‘I liked some of his stories,’ said Helena. ‘But “Rain”’ – she made a face – ‘I’ll never forget that one.’
‘Is dit ’n lekker spook storie?’ one of the men asked, rubbing his hands together with relish.
‘No,’ replied Helena. ‘It’s about a . . . a woman.’ Her face flushed; she smoothed the folds of her skirt around her knees. ‘Oh, I’ll lend you the book, Gert – you can read it yourself.’
‘Ag, who has time to read?’ Bernard grinned at me. ‘Did he put you two in his stories?’
Twilight was dissolving the mountains. I pulled my shawl closer around my shoulders. ‘He probably found us,’ I said, giving just the briefest of glances at Robert, ‘to be the most boring married couple he’d ever met.’
Life here for us was not much different from our old one in Penang. Robert and I had our own bedrooms, and every morning we would meet for breakfast on the verandah. Afterwards he would adjourn to his study to work on his memoirs – he had begun writing them shortly after we moved here. There was not much to keep me busy around the house. Liesbet, the wife of one of the Coloured farm workers, cooked and cleaned for us. She was a few years older than me, a fat woman with broad flanks and a round smiling face which reminded me of the Malays in Penang. To fill my days I decided to create a garden in front of the house. The soil was as dry as the powder in my compact, but with the help of Liesbet’s son Pietman, I persevered with it.
In the evenings Robert and I would relax on the verandah with our whisky stengahs and gin pahits and watch another day slip away behind the mountains. And later, before we retired to our bedrooms, I would play my piano for a while. Robert would sit in his armchair, sipping his favourite pu’er tea, his eyes closed as he drifted away to the music.
On the large map pinned up in his study the lower shores of the Great Karoo lie about a hundred and fifty miles to the north of Doornfontein. But there were days when I felt it was much closer, and I was convinced I could sense its timeless silence reaching out from the deepest heart of the desert – its stillness, its infinite emptiness. It called to my mind a story I had once heard: a pair of explorers, husband and wife, had got lost during an expedition across the Gobi Desert. To hide their growing despair and feelings of hopelessness as they wandered deeper and deeper into the desert, they stopped talking to each other. I often wondered which of the two was more oppressive: the silence of the desert, or the silence between the husband and his wife.
The sound of the screen door opening and banging against the wall pulls me back to the present. I lift my eyes from the page and close the book. Liesbet steps out onto the stoep, her white starched apron taut over the prow of her stomach. She only comes in once a week these days, and without fail she’ll moan about her painful knees as she cleans the house.
‘Another book?’ she says, stacking my plate and teacup onto her tray. ‘Everywhere in the house, books, books, books.’
‘Yes . . . another book . . .’
She puts down her tray and peers more closely at me. Offering a watery smile to her, I take the book with me into the house. In the sitting room I walk past my watercolour paintings of old Penang shophouses to the wall of photographs above the Blüthner piano. I lean back and study the photographs, searching for a particular one I have in mind. I have not looked – really looked – at them in years.
Many of the photographs are of Robert and me with our two sons. A few of them show people who had visited us in Penang: stage actors, MPs, members of the aristocracy, writers, opera singers. I can’t even recall their names now; and anyway, they are probably all long dead. Claiming pride of place on this wall of imprisoned time is my wedding portrait. Robert and I are standing on the steps of St George’s church in Penang. I straighten the slight tilt of the silver frame, wiping the thin layer of dust from it with my forefinger.
People around here had expected me to pack up and return to Penang after I buried Robert. There were days when I asked myself why I didn’t do it. But – sail home . . . to what? And to whom? Everyone I had known in Malaya was either dead or had disappeared into distant lands and different lives. And then war had broken out all over the world and the Japanese had invaded Malaya. So I had remained here, a daub of paint worked by time’s paintbrush into this vast, eternal landscape.
Below my wedding portrait hangs a photograph of two women, their blouses and frocks and hats quaintly old-fashioned, from another age: Ethel and me, each with a rifle in our hands, the mock-Tudor façade of the Spotted Dog in Kuala Lumpur looming behind us. The photograph had been taken after a shooting competition on the padang. Poor, poor Ethel. My eyes glide to the photograph next to it. I unhook it and study it in the light of the windows. Looking at the four of us – Willie Maugham and Gerald and Robert and myself – lounging in our rattan chairs under the casuarina tree in the garden, my mind loops back to the two weeks in 1921 when the writer and his secretary had stayed with us at Cassowary House.
I put down the photograph. The morning is decanting its light down the slopes of the far mountains. It is the autumn equinox today; here, in the southern bowl of the earth, the portions of day and night are exactly equal. The world is at an equilibrium, but I myself feel unsteady, off-balance.
There is not the slightest stir of wind, and there is no sound, not even the usual petulant bleating of sheep from the valley. The world is so still, so quiescent, that I wonder if it has stopped turning. But then, high above the land, I see a tremor in the air. A pair of raptors, far from their mountain eyrie. For a minute or two I want to believe they are brahminy kites, but of course they cannot be.
My eyes follow the two birds as they drift on the span of their out-stretched wings, writing circles over circles on the empty page of sky.
From The House of Doors by Tan Twan Eng, on sale October 17th from Bloomsbury Publishing. Copyright © Tan Twan Eng, 2023. All rights reserved.