On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.
He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.
Thirty-six years after that morning, I hear his voice again, hollow and resonant. Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
The stillness of the mountains awakens me. The depth of the silence: that is what I had forgotten about living in Yugiri. The murmurings of the house hover in the air when I open my eyes. An old house retains its hoard of memories, I remember Aritomo telling me once.
Ah Cheong knocks on the door and calls softly to me. I get out of bed and put on my dressing gown. I look around for my gloves and find them on the bedside table. Pulling them over my hands, I tell the housekeeper to come in. He enters and sets the pewter tray with a pot of tea and a plate of cut papaya on a side table; he had done the same for Aritomo every morning. He turns to me and says, ‘I wish you a long and peaceful retirement, Judge Teoh.’
‘Yes, it seems I’ve beaten you to it.’ He is, I calculate, five or six years older than me. He was not here when I arrived yesterday evening. I study him, layering what I see over what I remember. He is a short, neat man, shorter than I recall, his head completely bald now. Our eyes meet. ‘You’re thinking of the first time you saw me, aren’t you?’
‘Not the first time, but the last day. The day you left.’ He nods to himself. ‘Ah Foon and I – we always hoped you’d come back one day.’
‘Is she well?’ I tilt sideways to look behind him, seeking his wife at the door, waiting to be called in. They live in Tanah Rata, cycling up the mountain road to Yugiri every morning.
‘Ah Foon passed away, Judge Teoh. Four years ago.’
‘Yes. Yes, of course.’
‘She wanted to tell you how grateful she was, that you paid her hospital bills. So was I.’
I open the teapot’s lid, then close it, trying to remember which hospital she had been admitted to. The name comes to me: Lady Templer Hospital.
‘Five weeks,’ he says.
‘In five weeks’ time it will be thirty-four years since Mr Aritomo left us.’
‘For goodness’ sake, Ah Cheong!’ I have not returned to Yugiri in almost as long. Does the housekeeper judge me by the increasing number of years from the last time I was in this house, like a father scoring another notch on the kitchen wall to mark his child’s growth?
Ah Cheong’s gaze fixes on a spot somewhere over my shoulder. ‘If there’s nothing else. . .’ He begins to turn away.
In a gentler tone, I say, ‘I’m expecting a visitor at ten o’clock this morning. Professor Yoshikawa. Show him to the sitting room verandah.’
The housekeeper nods once and leaves, closing the door behind him. Not for the first time I wonder how much he knows, what he has seen and heard in his years of service with Aritomo.
The papaya is chilled, just the way I like it. Squeezing the wedge of lime over it, I eat two slices before putting down the plate. Opening the sliding doors, I step onto the verandah. The housesits on low stilts and the verandah is two feet above the ground. The bamboo blinds creak when I scroll them up. The mountains are as I have always remembered them, the first light of the morning melting down their flanks. Damp withered leaves and broken-off twigs cover the lawn. This part of the house is hidden from the main garden by a wooden fence. A section has collapsed, and tall grass spikes out from the gaps between the fallen planks. Even though I have prepared myself for it, the neglected condition of the place shocks me.
A section of Majuba Tea Estate is visible to the east over the fence. The hollow of the valley reminds me of the open palms of a monk, cupped to receive the day’s blessing. It is Saturday, but the tea-pickers are working their way up the slopes. There has been a storm in the night, and clouds are still marooned on the peaks. I step down the verandah onto a narrow strip of ceramic tiles, cold and wet beneath my bare soles. Aritomo obtained them from a ruined palace in Ayutthaya, where they had once paved the courtyard of an ancient and nameless king. The tiles are the last remnants of a forgotten kingdom, its histories consigned to oblivion.
I fill my lungs to the brim and exhale. Seeing my own breath take shape, this cobweb of air which only a second ago had been inside me, I remember the sense of wonder it used to bring. The fatigue of the past months drains from my body, only to flood back into me a moment later. It feels strange that I no longer have to spend my weekends reading piles of appeal documents, or catching up with the week’s paperwork.
I breathe out through my mouth a few more times, watching my breaths fade away into the garden.
My secretary, Azizah, brought me the envelope shortly before we left my chambers to go into the courtroom. ‘This came for you just now, Puan,’ she said.
Inside was a note from Professor Yoshikawa Tatsuji, confirming the date and time of our meeting in Yugiri. It had been sent a week before. Looking at his neat handwriting, I wondered if it had been a mistake to have agreed to see him. I was about to telephone him in Tokyo to cancel the appointment when I realised he would already be on his way to Malaysia. And there was something else inside the envelope. Turning it over, a thin wooden stick, about five inches long, fell out onto my desk. I picked it up and dipped it into the light of my desk lamp. The wood was dark and smooth, its tip ringed with fine, overlapping grooves.
‘So short-lah, the chopstick. For children is it?’ Azizah said, coming into the room with a stack of documents for me to sign. ‘Where’s the other one?’
‘It’s not a chopstick.’
I sat there, looking at the stick on the table until Azizah reminded me that my retirement ceremony was about to begin. She helped me into my robe and together we went out to the corridor. She walked ahead of me as usual to give the advocates warning that Puan Hakim was on her way – they always used to watch her face to gauge my mood. Following behind her, I realised that this would be the last time I would make this walk from my chambers to my courtroom.
Built nearly a century ago, the Supreme Court building in Kuala Lumpur had the solidity of a colonial structure, erected to outlast empires. The high ceilings and the thick walls kept the air cool even on the hottest of days. My courtroom was large enough to seat forty, perhaps even fifty people, but on this Tuesday afternoon the advocates who had not arrived early had to huddle by the doors at the back. Azizah had informed me about the numbers attending the ceremony but I was still taken aback when I took my place on the bench beneath the portraits of the Agong and his Queen. Silence spread across the courtroom when Abdullah Mansor, the Chief Justice, entered and sat down next to me. He leaned over and spoke into my ear. ‘It’s not too late to reconsider.’
‘You never give up, do you?’ I said, giving him a brief smile.
‘And you never change your mind.’ He sighed. ‘I know. But can’t you stay on? You only have two more years to go.’
Looking at him, I recalled the afternoon in his chambers when I told him of my decision to take early retirement. We had fought about many things over the years – points of law or the way he administered the courts – but I had always respected his intellect, his sense of fairness and his loyalty to us judges. That afternoonwas the only time he had ever lost his composure with me. Now there was only sadness in his face. I would miss him.
© Tan Twan Eng 2012