A sample from the novel, ‘The Flame Tree’ by Yang-May Ooi
Jasmine Lian settled herself into the roomy Club Class seat on the Malaysian Airlines flight for Kuala Lumpur. Through the port- hole window, she saw that the summer drizzle had started again, darkening the tarmac where the laden baggage-cart was snaking to the hold of the jumbo 747. Somewhere beyond the bustle of Heathrow, she thought, Harry would be just arriving at the sleek, modern offices of De Witte Cootes, a small but aggressively rising finance house where he was a broker. She pictured his confident stride and sparky grin that he would invariably flash at the female staff. Always the flirt, she thought, but she smiled in spite of herself. Always the flirt, but he was devoted to her alone. She thought, almost with awe, there would be only one Mrs Harry Taunton and it would be her. But, all too starkly, she remembered creeping out of Harry’s bed back in his house in Fulham earlier that morning. He’d still been asleep, his hair over his eyes, his face like a young boy’s. Quietly, she had dressed and slipped away to come to the airport.
They had always been the perfect couple. Was she risking everything by taking this trip now? Ever since she’d known Harry, he’d made life seem so special, as if they were charmed youth. If he knew her as she really was … Jasmine was afraid to think of the consequences. At Oxford, Harry had been older than most undergraduates, his work experience in the City after Harrow having turned into a two-year job. To Jasmine, he was the more glamorous for it. She remembered the summer balls a few years ago at Oxford, complete with champagne hamper and the right group of friends, she and Harry the daz zling centre of it all. Others watched them with envy from the periphery, glanced back as they passed. Even those women in Harry’s crowd slid their covetous gaze ever back to him. Jasmine would be elegant and graceful in a red cheongsam, the formal evening dress of her Chinese heritage, its tailored slits showing off her long, slim legs. Harry, as ever, looking gorgeous in black tie, all angular, athletic lines, his square-jawed features softened by a blond fringe falling into his eyes. Harry, always needing a haircut and having eyes only for her. She could hardly believe that of all the many women he knew – all of them wealthy, confident and attractive – Harry had chosen her to love. Once, five years ago, at a garden party in Kensington, she had stood by the sumptuous buffet and stared at all their friends, well-dressed, good-looking people who had taken her into their fold, accepting her as one of them because Harry was one of them. Harry had just come down from Christchurch after a four-year degree course. He had gained only a third in Classics but had been snapped up by De Witte Cootes. He’d been twenty-six then and poised to make his first million in the City within the next ten years. Jasmine had been exhilarated to be in the company of all these high-flyers – management consultants, brokers, designers, bankers, some with inherited titles – and more than a little intimidated.
Marietta Asquith, a glamorous blonde in her mid-thirties, had come up and taken her by the arm. “Don’t be shy with us, dear,” her husky voice had soothed her. “I want to know all about you.”
They took a turn round the garden, arms linked. At twenty- three, Jasmine had just started a new job as a trainee solicitor at a firm in Lincoln’s Inn, having gained a double first in Law at Corpus Christi and a distinction in her Solicitors’ Finals. Marietta was an interior designer and her family had known Harry’s since he’d been a boy. Her husband was something in the Foreign Office. Jasmine never knew what he did, only that he was often away. He was not there that afternoon.
“My dear,” Marietta said, “you’ve been so good for Harry these last three years. I can’t tell you how he’s changed ever since
you’ve been a part of his life. You make him so happy. Like no other girl he’s ever gone out with.”
Jasmine blushed. “How has he changed?”
“Happy, you know? Like a puppy. He adores you. Raves about you – so sweet, so innocent, not like coarse English girls, so delicate, and on and on. What potion have you slipped him?” Marietta’s laugh pealed across the lawn as she squeezed Jasmine’s arm affectionately. They had become fast friends.
The 747 taxied onto the runway.
In the aisle, a petite Malay stewardess in a batik sarong kebaya, the figure-hugging Malaysian national dress, was going through the motions of the safety procedure. A smooth male voice gave the instructions in Malay and then in impeccable English. Jasmine found herself listening fondly to the Malay, which she had heard only a few times over the ten years she had been in England. She was pleased that she still understood most of it.
She had wanted to tell Harry the truth this last weekend. They had been down at Oaklands, the manor house and estate in Sussex which had been in his family for generations. Harry’s father and his second wife were in the South of France for the summer and Jasmine and Harry had had the place to themselves. Since their engagement two months before, she had been waiting for the right moment to tell him. The unseasonable June rain had eased as if miraculously for their weekend idyll. The sky was bright and cloudless, and the gentle slopes of Sussex green were lush and teeming with butterflies and ladybirds.
“Darling …”Jasmine had begun.
Harry lay on his back on the tartan rug, gazing up at the sky through the branches of the ancient oaks that sheltered their picnic from the midday sun. He had the broad shoulders of a long-time rower and the muscular build of a rugby halfback. Stretched out on the rug, he seemed a giant at rest beside Jasmine’s delicate build. The wicker hamper lay open, smoked salmon, duck terrine, strawberries and champagne spreading across the rug in antique china and fluted glasses. Jasmine curled across Harry’s chest, teasing his cheek with a cold strawberry. As she looked up at him, she could just see the house across the meadow of buttercups beyond his tousled head. The tennis courts were above his right ear, the lawns and banks of flowers like a crown across his golden hair. “Mmm?” Harry turned and drew the strawberry into his mouth, toying his tongue around her fingers.
Her breath caught in her throat. She sat up and made herself go on, pulling her hand away. “There’s something I …” She hesitated. She stared at Harry. This was the happy ending she had always longed for, wasn’t it? The perfection of this glorious day that Harry had bestowed on her gave her a sense of watching her own life as if in a movie. They were lying together, happy and in love, in an English glade in summer and the credits should be rolling. Only, the house lights were coming up too soon and she was back in the old Lido cinema, kacang shells crackling underfoot, the groundnuts’ salty residue in her mouth and, all around, the air stale with the garlicky sweat of the tropics.
“What is it, my love?”
Jasmine looked away and took a sip of champagne. “Nothing, really.”
Harry reached up and stroked her black hair. He caught her in his hazel-green gaze. His flirtatious tone belied his words. “Not having second thoughts, are you?”
“No.” Jasmine laughed a little too quickly.
“Then what is it?” He smiled, as if at a child.
“It’ll be perfect, won’t it?”
“The wedding? Of course.” Harry eased himself up and kissed her lips.
“No, I mean us. Our lives. Once we’re married.”
He drew her into his arms and she let herself sink into their safety. “Of course,” he murmured. She felt his lips on her hair, touching her ears, resting on her brow.
Harry had believed the story she had told him. Her parents had been killed when she was eight years old, she had said. Their Bentley had crashed one night on the Singapore – Kuala Lumpur highway. She had waited up for them all night. “But I fell asleep,” she had said. “Perhaps if I hadn’t given up on them, they might still be alive.” She had been brought up by a tutor, she had told him, all her practical needs taken care of by employees paid for from a trust fund her parents had left.
Jasmine had entwined her fingers in Harry’s. “You are my family now,” she had said, wanting it so much to be true.
In the aircraft, Jasmine felt the throb of the jet engines change. A sudden burst of propulsion pushed her back into her seat and the horizon tilted from the window. The air popped in her ears and a dizzying vertigo shook her as the airport below fell away. Rushing up, a panorama of fields and trees encroached with buildings and roads that were the outer London suburbs. These, too, bottomed out as the plane thrust up into banks of cloud.
Jasmine found herself breathing rapidly, a chill making her shiver. She hadn’t been able to tell him.
On that sunny afternoon she’d said, at last, “I have to be away on business on Monday.”
“Day after tomorrow?” Harry looked surprised.
“Yes. I have to go to Kuala Lumpur for some meetings.” Her heart was beating hard.
“You didn’t tell me this before.”
“Darling, I did. Two weeks ago.”
“I don’t remember.” Harry frowned. “What meetings?”
“That bid for the new university in Malaysia. I act for one of the tenderers – the British company.”
“Yes, Jordan Cardale.” Harry nodded but she could see that he could not remember the conversation.
Jasmine went on quickly, “There are some preliminary issues to settle and they need me out there for a few days.”
Harry took in her words and said nothing. She watched him
anxiously. Finally, he shook his head. “It must’ve slipped my mind.” There was a hint of annoyance when he next spoke. “But do you have to go? And at such short notice. The wedding is less than a month away.”
“I’ve got it all under control. Anyway, the event company is doing most of it.”
“Yes, but you’re the bride. You shouldn’t rush off now. You need to be here – available. What if – what if there’s a problem?”
“Darling,” Jasmine stroked his hair, soothing him, “I’ll only be away a few days. It’ll be fine.”
“I’ve left all the details with Marietta. She’ll be in daily contact with them.”
Harry looked doubtful but she could see he didn’t want a quarrel. Then he said, “What about me?”
“My darling … is that what you’re really worried about?”
Jasmine drew his head towards hers, showering his face with kisses. “Sometimes when you’re working late, and I’m working late, we don’t see each other for up to three or four days. Just pretend next week is one of those weeks.”
“Do you have to go?” But he was pouting, teasing now, like a child who knew how to get his own way.
His old trick made her laugh. “You’re too charming for your own good. It’s not fair – you know I can’t refuse you anything when you give me that look!”
He gave her a strong dose of sulky James Dean and Ralph Fiennes from beneath his lashes. He smiled slyly. “So don’t refuse me.”
“Oh, my darling, if only I could stay. You know how important a client Jordan Cardale is to the firm. And to me.” It was because of the work she did for them that she was now the youngest corporate partner at Carruthers. “If they want me, I have to go.”
“But it was I who introduced you to the senior partner at Carruthers.” Harry played up the theatrical intensity, making her giggle at the incongruity of his words and manner. He broke into a laugh and then pulled a serious face, back in cinematic brooding mode. “I am your Svengali” – a strangled Slavic accent –”I made you who you are, I formed your tastes, showed you how to behave, what to wear, who to be seen with. You are mine, my creation! You belong to me and I command you to stay!”
He finished with a flourish that entangled her in his arms. They were laughing as they rolled and tumbled together on the grass. After a while, their laughter subsiding, Harry gasped, “Will I be able to reach you?”
“Why? It’s only a few days.”
“I might want to hear your voice before I go to bed.”
“I’ll be at the Shangri-La but there may be an on-site meeting in the hills – you might not be able to get me there.”
“You’ll have your mobile phone with you, won’t you?”
“Yes, but in the hills I don’t know what the reception will be like.”
“Faint heart – or faint phone signals – never won fair lady,” Harry had said, waving his arm in a mock-gallant bow, even though he was lying on his back.
And now Jasmine was flying back to Malaysia to keep a promise she should have forgotten long ago, the secret she had kept from Harry. Jasmine found herself twisting her ring. Her engagement ring. She looked down and saw the single blue-white diamond, two carats, set in platinum. From Tiffany’s, she remembered proudly. Like the flat in Chelsea he had chosen for her, its interior made over by Marietta, it symbolised who she had become.
So why could she not let go of a duty from an old life? Her new life with Harry was what mattered. It was all she had wanted in the world, wasn’t it? She had it now, so why was she putting it all at risk by rushing to a past she should have left behind?
Jasmine closed her eyes and listened to the roar of the aircraft engines.
They had driven back to Harry’s house in Fulham late on Sunday night. Jasmine remembered lying in his arms, the covers thrown off in the heat. The night is seldom dark in London and she watched him drifting off. The window was open and above the yellow haze of London lights, the full moon seemed cold and alone.
“Are you happy, my love?” Harry murmured dreamily.
“I have never been so happy,” she lied.
* * *
On the upper slopes of the tropical highlands of Malaysia, dawn was still a few hours away. The air was chill and fresh. Stars glittered like frost over the dark jungle on the hills. Here and there were clearings cultivated with vegetables and fruits. There were strawberries, lettuce, carnations and temperate flowers, too, which would not have survived in the heat of the lowlands. These were the smallholdings scattered around the market town of Kampung Tanah – the Village of the Land.
In the town’s high street, Wong sat in his office below his family’s living quarters. He was in his mid-forties, chubby from a few years of good business. His office was a partitioned area in the storehouse at the back of his general goods shop. He sold the items he trucked in from the lowlands – dried spices, salted fish, video games. On journeys down to the cities, his trucks carried fresh produce from the hills for the supermarkets.
As Wong worked on his accounts, he heard a car pull up in the back parking lot. Its engine gunned before subsiding to stillness. A car door. Then footsteps – taking their time – crossing the tarmac. Wong squinted towards the hinged door at the rear.
A dark figure of a man stood in the doorway. The solitary desk lamp made Wong an easy target where he sat.
“So this is Wong Keng-wi,” the man said, in Cantonese. “Yes?”
Wong began to get up. “Who are you?”
“The businessman? Chairman of the Kampung Tanah Business Association? Member of the town committee?” the man sneered.
Wong nodded. He moved to the light switch on the wall. “No!”
“I am your friend,” the man said. Wong’s hand searched for the telephone.
There was a sound. Metal scraping on metal. Wong stared at the switchblade in the man’s hand.
The man gestured and Wong moved away from the phone.
“Call me Good Friend.” The man took a jambu from a bushel of the local fruit. He made Wong sit with him on crates by the open door.
Staying in the shadows, the man sliced his jambu. “You’re an influential man in this village.”
He was matter-of-fact, his knife occupied. The ordinariness of their seating reassured Wong and he began to relax.
The man was saying, “People do business with you because they trust you. You’re doing well.”
“Business is OK,” Wong said, cautiously.
Suddenly, the man flicked the knife onto the crate between them. It thudded into the wood. Wong started.
The man began to talk. He knew everything about Wong – his business, his wife and his family. “Your son, Jimmy, he’s your favourite. Seven next month. Loves cars and fancy gadgets.”
“H – how did you know?”
“Knowledge, my friend. That is the key to business success.
The world is changing.” The man took out a wad of cash. He peeled away two thousand ringgit and let them fall on the crate. “Progress is like enlightenment. We are on the path to a better state of existence. I am a Buddhist. Are you?”
Wong stared at the money. He nodded.
The man said, “I go to the temple. I pray to the spirits and gods. They are like my friends. They are enlightened beings.”
He toyed with the knife, watching Wong. “They control things we do not understand. But they want to help us. Like I want to help you.” He paused to let this sink in, then went on, “Many farmers have been selling – they’ve got good money for their land. There’s going to be a big development here soon.”
Wong took the bait. “We see people from KL coming and going. Testing the soil. Surveyors, engineers. All kinds, men in suits. What’s the development? Holiday condos? Country club?”
The man spoke quietly, drawing Wong in closer to catch his words. “University – top class. New life into this dead place, heh, what do you think? Businesses will follow, tourists will come to see this new wonder of Asia. There’ll be condos and country clubs, restaurants and malls, casinos, even, maybe – bright, beautiful lights flashing up the night, big fancy highways zooming us all up and down to KL, to Kuantan, anywhere you want, everything you want.”
“New customers with money. They will need a big store.” Wong stared out at the dark morning beyond, as if into a rich future. “Also a good transport service – minicabs, maybe even limousine service. I can give them that.”
“You believe in the future.” Good Friend laughed.
Wong held the money in his hand. It could do him no harm to hear out this man. It might even gain him an advantage. He acted tough but he seemed reasonable.
The man went on, “If I perform my obligations to the gods, they grant me success in business, long life, a happy family. In return, I give them my loyalty. Like we expect loyalty from you, my friend.”
“I have associates – rich men. Like you, they believe in the future. We need you to be our representative here. We want everyone in this town to be our friends – and you and others we are contacting will help us.”
“What do you want us to do?”
“You will know in good time. For now, remember this. I am always loyal to the gods. If I’m not, they can grant me terrible misfortune. Maybe, one night, a short circuit in my storehouse and everything is burned to the ground. Or my son, say his name is Jimmy, like your son, maybe he disappears and weeks later they find him dead, his body mutilated. Again no reason.”
Wong blinked, his mouth dry.
“I shall burn an offering for you when I go to the temple.” The stiletto blade glinted yellow from the lamp, flashed grey from the embryo dawn outside. “I would not like to lose your friendship, Wong.”
“You have my friendship – I swear it, Good Friend.”
The man closed the blade. He laughed, the confident laugh of a patron pleased with his protégé. “We will share good fortune together.”
Wong followed him out onto the steps. The man kept his back to him but he could see the brown suede jacket and jeans in the dim light. They looked expensive. Wong saw the money bright in his hand. Instinctively, he brought up the wad and sniffed its rich fragrance.
There was a red Mazda sports cabriolet in the empty parking lot. The man swung himself in.
Wong understood the deal. But it would not be so difficult to be loyal to this new friendship, he thought. After all, there was no gain without risk – and there was much to gain.
The car squealed away in a thrust of power.
It had no number plates.
Wong slipped the money into his shirt pocket.
* * *
As the 747 hurtled eastwards over India, Jasmine dozed uneasily. She had stretched out in the reclining seat, a blanket drawn up close around her.
She had not had the nightmare for a while. This time was like all the other times – except for the face. She had not seen it those other times. It always began with the sound of weeping. Through murky blackness, Jasmine stumbled towards the sobbing. Fragments on the floor cut her bare feet. She crashed against unseen objects. The weeping lured her on. And then, she saw the room again.
Shadows shaped themselves into a table, chairs, a sideboard. Shattered glass and broken objects lay everywhere. There had been a struggle. It was night. By the jagged window, the woman wept. A weak light filtered in from behind her. Where her face should have been, Jasmine saw only an infinity of darkness. The sobs filled the room. It was the end of everything. Nothing but despair lay ahead. The weeping drained Jasmine’s heart. She felt cold.
She could not move. She could not speak.
She saw the blood. A black stain on the woman’s sleeve. It fanned up onto her shoulder, down across her chest. Seeping through her fingers, which now covered her face. Jasmine screamed but no sound came.
The woman looked up and raised her arms in a plea for help. Jasmine stared at her face but only darkness stared back. The metallic stench of blood was suffocating. “Save yourself,” the woman said. “Leave me.”
The outstretched arms turned and kept Jasmine at bay. Go, run as far away as you dare, they said. The woman spoke again. “I must wait here but you can escape. You have a chance.”
“Come with me,” Jasmine called out. “I must stay. Save yourself.”
Jasmine wanted to help the woman but she could not. She wanted to escape from the dark and the blood and the faceless woman but she could not leave her.
“Go. If you stay here with me …” The woman’s voice trailed off.
Jasmine turned and ran. Her legs were heavy, as if she lurched through mud. She looked back and wished she never had. The woman was watching her, her face now ashen in the eerie light. Jasmine looked back and saw what she had always known. The face was her own face.
She woke up, gasping for air.
For a moment, she did not know where she was. The roaring hum of the engine unsettled her. She stared at the seats looming like sentinels across her vision.
Then she remembered she was on the flight to Malaysia. Slowly,
she sat up. She tried to still her heaving breath and pounding heart. She touched the dampness on her cheek and stared at her fingers. There was no blood, only sweat.
* * *
It was nine in the morning and the temperature was already 30 degrees. Jasmine stepped out of the tunnelled walkway from the plane into Subang International Airport, Kuala Lumpur.
How it had changed since she had last been there ten years ago! Back then, she had been about to take her first journey overseas and the shabby little airport had seemed huge. She had been eighteen, clutching her passport and a suitcase full of homemade clothes. There had been no one to see her off. Now there was no one she knew to witness her return, reinvented stunningly and dressed for respect. The refurbished airport had two new terminals and shining floors as far as you could see. It had the opulent look of a new nation that had made good and knew it.
In spite of the air-conditioning, her lightweight Yves St Laurent suit felt too dense. Jasmine prided herself on her designer wardrobe, the internationally recognised labels like talismans of her new identity. In her beautifully tailored clothes, Jasmine felt empowered, charmed with glamour and good fortune. They hid the frightened girl she had once been. She caught an image of herself in the smoked glass partitions along the polished corridor of the transit lounge – a graceful, elegant young woman in her late twenties with silky black hair, classical Chinese features, and the confident manner of a Western woman.
The Chinese and Malay businessmen in the terminal were in short-sleeved shirts. The few executive women looked cool and stylish in silk blouses and cotton skirts, and Jasmine spotted some in designer names. A Muslim woman strolled by in a colourful baju kurong – a loose tunic over long, matching sarong. Jasmine took off her houndstooth jacket and draped it over her luggage trolley.
Outside, the heat enveloped her with a physical impact. She had forgotten its suffocating humidity. She slowed her pace and sauntered to the Avis counter where she rented a BMW Clove-tinted smoke of the kretek cigarette trailed from a group of chocolate- -brown young men as they passed. The aroma caught Jasmine like a memory of everything she had missed about home. Home. This was home. This heat was home. These dark-skinned, slight, friendly people were home. Jasmine stood, unable to move, taking in this world that had lived only in her memory for ten long years.
The car-jockey came up with the keys to the BMW. Rousing herself, Jasmine loaded her overnight bag and leather briefcase into the boot. The engine started with a roar and, pulling out onto the highway, she followed signs to the city centre. The air-conditioning blasted cold air but the glare of the sun burned through the tinted glass. She passed royal palms and bougainvillaea, then rubber plantations and oil palm estates.
Soon, the KL skyline loomed and she stared in amazement. The last time she had been here, there had not been a skyline to speak of. Now, sleek buildings of glass and steel gleamed in the sunlight. The centrepiece was the Post Office tower, a spire impaling a flying saucer of office suites. Downtown, she gaped like a tourist at the sprawling shopping malls – Yow Chuan Plaza, KL Plaza, Sungai Wang ‘river of money’. She could not match the wealth of what she saw with the hazy picture she had held in her mind of a much smaller and less imposing capital city. She felt a buzz from the energy and bustle she sensed all around. This was a city of money and new prospects, racing to catch up with its more mature cousins in the West. She cruised towards the international hotels jostling for space – the Regent, the Hilton, the Istana and, finally, the Shangri- La.
She pulled up and had the car-jockey hold the car. Inside the Shangri-La, marble floors and icy air welcomed her to a fantasy palace. Suddenly, her nerve failed her. What if someone recognised her? Saw through her veneer of breeding. Saw who she really was. Jasmine looked furtively round her. A few men were giving her admiring glances but nothing more.
“Can I help you, mem?” The young man behind the reception desk inclined diffidently towards her.
Jasmine floundered. Then, she drew herself up and walked over to the desk.
She checked in but did not wait to see the room. She hurried back to the car, not wanting to think about what she was doing.
She kept her mind on the road and on the drive ahead. She did not contact Seng & Mustafa, her firm’s associate offices in KL – they did not know she was here. She did not contact her client – they were in London. The client and project were real enough. But there had been no meetings arranged in Malaysia.
She had lied to Harry.
Not a lie, she corrected herself. Just, well, not exactly the truth.
Not just yet. She would tell him. He would know everything when she got back to London. She would make sure of it.
Manoeuvring through the traffic, she found her way back to the highway and headed north to Taiping. The clear stretches of tarmac sped her through vistas of tracts of rubber and oil palm. In the east, the blue of the Titiwangsa mountain range filled the horizon, its highest peaks enshrouded in mist.
That last journey alone to KL airport, she had taken the bus – six hours along the old trunk road, single file all the way, its diesel engine spewing black smoke. She had been crammed between a fat old woman, with a loud, betel-stained mouth, and a young man, whose cheap cologne steadily soured into rancid sweat. Six hours of watching timber lorries scrape by and trying to hold down her nausea and her nervous excitement, knowing always that her life was about to change forever.
Now, speeding smoothly along this new highway, Jasmine thought how strange it was to be back after so many years. The landscape she remembered had been filled up with concrete and tarmac, veneers of progress. But she knew intimately this glaring sun and its bright sky, the palm trees and, here and there, the uncleared mass of jungle. Other, forbidden memories crowded the corners of her mind, tumbling against the backdrop of this tropical landscape, summoned as if by her return.
Her mother had told her never to come back, but Jasmine had made her a promise. Her mother had replied, “You’ll wish one day you never promised me anything,” but Jasmine had sworn it in spite of her protests. And now she knew that her mother had been right.
Jasmine had trained herself to forget all that had come before Oxford. But where she had succeeded in mastering her future, she had failed in taming the past. She had been glad to leave the sweltering heat as if leaving the claustrophobia of her servant class. And here, amid the swamps and jungle, her emotions had been wilder, more unsafe, her passions unsubdued. She had thought them becalmed in the cool of her English life but she had been mistaken. They had begun to prowl again the evening that Harry had asked her to marry him. Three hours north of KL, just outside Ipoh, she searched the landscape for the lime stone hills whose caves for generations had housed dwellings and sacred temples. In the ten years she had been away, cement and chalk factories had arrived to devour the lime- stone. There remained only gouged-out cadavers of hills and the debris of dead forests. Relentless blasting for chalk had drained the land of holiness and life.
It seemed to Jasmine, suddenly, that she saw before her the landscape of her heart.