From A Mingled Yarn, Copyright 1953 by H. M. Tomlinson, Indianapolis and New York, Bobbs-Merrill Company, Inc. Chapter 15, p133-136.
H. M. Tomlinson
WE were told that if we followed the track through the forest for three more days we should reach the River Golok, by Nipong. Then, supposing we could find a prahu and men, another day's journey would bring us downstream to Rantau Panjang. There we should see so unlikely an object as a railway station, on a branch of the Malay States Railways. With further luck we should catch one of the rare trains, and so reach Tumpat at our ease.
There was no hurry. I did not wish to catch a train again before I was compelled. Just then there were no days of the week. We had morning and night, and sun or rain. At night, the rain drumming on the leaves was always on the same leaves, and it was the same rain. We were nowhere, and I suspected that the real calendar might dispute with my diary over three missing days. What had we done with them? But three days mislaid in that forest might look like three dead leaves. Wherever we camped the place could have been the spot where we halted the evening before. Nothing had changed. The cicadas struck up the same song at the moment when day became exalted, that moment before its light went out. Those still trees suggested our exemption from what concerned an outer world; we were held by the very spell which kept the jungle from progress.
One afternoon our canoe shot out of the solitude. While watching glide past us what I thought was the same forest, I saw a woman on the bank glance up in surprise from her water-pot as our shadow went by her. A little later there was an incredible modern bridge of iron across the river ahead of us. It was as surprising as coconut palms would be at Charing Cross. We landed, and found bottled beer could be had by asking for it. To the Chinese shopkeeper those English labels were as familiar as his own symbols. I thought, for a moment, that a London excursionist could be at home in that remote Malay village in five minutes.
By the light of morning this surprising homeliness appeared the less secure. It was no more than a little cheerful bravado. The railway bridge, the big Sikh policemen with their rifles, and the array of bottles of European drinks on the shelves of the Chinaman's store, were not triumphantly significant. The wilderness was not far away. It almost reached the bridge. It stood, patient and dark, waiting just across the padi marshes, with the blue untraversed hills of the interior above it. The sun was that of the dry monsoon. Sauntering leisurely across the iron railway bridge were figures which could have been assembling for the rehearsal of a strange drama, for the costumes of those women coming from Siam into Kelantan to market would make the ballet of a musical comedy look tawdry and unreal. They followed the railway track to the station buildings, where they sat by their wares, which mostly were fruits, scarlet and emerald chillies, yellow lansats, mangosteens the colour and size of new cricket balls, and crimson rambutans. The natives were as quiet and passive as images. Only their eyes moved; and when a girl whose father was a Chinaman and her mother a Siamese villager looks at you, then you understand that the art of coquetry has been nothing but a Western phrase. The quiet folk of the country, whose life showed ardent only in the audacious colours of their dress, which betrayed their silence and languor; the strange houses under a weight of sun, and the palms and bamboos jetting from the ground like fountains, made that railway track, neat and direct as Western logic, as queer as such logic often appears in the East. The station clock bore the name of a famous London maker; though perhaps it gave only the London hour, and the palms knew better. This also was bravado. The track, so much like commercial orderliness and promptitude, was empty in both directions. Its ballast and sleepers were as arid, hot, and hopeless as a trail in the desert. A buzzard was floating overhead. Two Chinamen were quarrelling outside the waiting-room.
The unbelievable train came as a sudden shadow and an uproar. Confidence was restored. The order and progress of a Western nation cut straight into the East, and at almost the appointed minute; and soon the cluster of huts and the groups of people by the station began to recede. More progress was being made.
I found myself beside an Englishman in an otherwise empty carriage. He was a stout young man in a despondent suit of Shantung silk. His white sun-hat was beside him. He held a handkerchief in his hand, which frequently he passed across his moist face, blowing as he did it. He was reclining his heavy body on one elbow, but his eyes were alert and cheerful. "Mornin'," he said loudly. "Didn't expect to see anyone at that station."
He was communicative. He was not like the Malays, who will travel with you all day and use only a few words when necessary, reserving their quiet gossip for the evening. I soon knew that he was not like the East, which, however, he understood very well. He thought trade was reviving. He himself was not doing so badly. Only leave alone the people who knew what to do, and no nonsense, and believe him . . . and so on. These natives liked being governed and ordered about. They'd never do anything unless they were made to. Lazy swine.
What was more, there was gold in that country. It only wanted developing. A little organization, sir. The Malays didn't know. The Siamese didn't know. Nor care. The people who knew would have to see to it that it was done. He hoped to make enough in another five years to go home for good. Then, a little place in the country, and a seat on the local bench, and he would be happy.
The buffaloes stared at us as we went along, as motionless as figures in metal. My fellow-passenger was telling me that he had been given a rotten O.B.E. for what he did during the war, but it ought to have been a K.B.E. He thought he had earned it. As he told me this I was looking at a Malay child, holding a big deer by a cord. They also stared at us intently without moving, and might have been trying to catch a word or two about the O.B.E. as we went slowly past those huts. I heard more then about the rewards for industrious men who had attended strictly to their business in that land, and of what fellows he knew, knew quite well, had been given for their war services. "Though, dammit, sir, they had made enough without that."
We ran into our last station. I looked from my carriage window on the strangest figure of a Malay I had seen. He was an old man, but as stout as my English fellow-traveller. He wore a yellow sarong, and yellow is the royal colour; but his tunic was the old scarlet affair, with yellow facings, of an English infantryman. Instead of the hat of a Mohammedan he wore a white regimental helmet. He had a blue sash. On his breast were displayed a number of ornate decorations, brass regimental badges, and medals won by other people in the past for the most diverse things--for swimming at Plymouth and running at Stamford Bridge. And central on his breast, hanging by a cord, was a conspicuous red reflector from the rear-lamp of a bicycle.
My English friend knew him well. He greeted the Malay cheerfully, and bestowed on him another decoration, a silverplated monogram he had found. The old man was so delighted that he regarded my contribution of a dollar with no joy whatever. He continued his conversation with my friend, in Malay, while he crumpled my currency note in his hand.
The Englishman turned to me, as we left the ancient, and chuckled. "See his battle honours and decorations, and all that? Quite mad, you know. He used to be a rajah till we turned him out. He thinks he's a rajah now. Just as well to humour the poor old thing."