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Immortality assured at a Tamil temple opening


Tom Hunter phoned me up. He had received an invitation for the two of us to attend a temple opening ceremony on the Teluk Anson Town Estate. In Malaya new temples had opening ceremonies to get them off to a good start in life. For Tom and me it was just an excuse for a few beers in the middle of the week. Like the song Now it’s a Long, Long Time, from June to December, to Tom and me it was a long, long time from one weekend to the next.

Why would Terry Spencer, the assistant manager of Teluk Anson Town Estate, send out invitations to two assistants who were considered reprobates by the expatriate establishment of Teluk Anson district to a temple opening ceremony? Tom explained that Terry Spencer was a South African who held pronounced racists views, had few friends and would like a few token tuans at the ceremony for appearances sake; the beer was going to flow like wine and that was where Tom and I came in. The beer that was going to flow like wine was a bribe. Tom and I were to be Caucasian extras in Terry’s temple ceremony.

I arrived at Terry Spencer’s bungalow on a Wednesday afternoon on my shiny, new Triumph 250cc motorcycle. Terry’s bungalow was a typical Malayan bungalow built on concrete piles allowing the air flowing beneath the structure to ventilate the bungalow above; the bungalow’s garden was very small, no bigger than a tennis court and surrounded by a high, lush hedge with a gap just wide enough to admit a car. There was a small, neatly manicure lawn in front of the bungalow.

I heard the sound of a vehicle approaching and then slow down and slowly nose its way carefully through this gap. A Land Rover came to a halt alongside me. A tall, serious looking European aged about thirty got out and without smiling introduced himself, ‘Terry Spencer, you must be Tony.’ Terry was a caricature of someone playing at being someone else and only partially succeeding. Sometimes he was a very loud Hooray Henry, other times he was back in South Africa being awfully rude to the natives of that country.

AJ Box book coverWe walked up the white concrete stairs into the bungalow and Terry shouted boy and an elderly Chinese man arrived at a fast walk. Lee, who formerly had been my cook, smiled at me.

‘Tuan?’

‘Whisky lekas ,’ ordered Terry. Lee flew out of his starting blocks and was back in seconds with a bottle of Johnny Walker Black Label on a silver tray with an ice bucket and two cut glass whisky glasses. ‘You’ll join me,’ it wasn’t a question, but an order and I accepted the whisky with a nod of thanks to Lee who withdrew with the tray and ice bucket.

Another of the ‘boy’ brigade I thought and wondered how he would feel if some Chinese man had shouted ‘boy’ at his father. Suddenly I felt sorry for Lee and responsible. ‘Wouldn’t it be kinder to call him Lee?’

Terry looked puzzled, ‘Who?’

‘Lee,’I said, nodding in his direction.

‘What for?’

‘That’s his name. Would you like your father to be called boy by someone at least half his age?’

‘That’s rubbish!’

‘Why?’

Terry shrugged his shoulders, ‘Everybody calls their servants boy.’

‘No they don’t. I don’t and Tom doesn’t and I am sure there are others who don’t.’ And there the conversation would have finished except Terry suddenly exclaimed, ‘I’ve heard about you, you must be called Mr.!’

I am not by nature an argumentative person and since arriving in Teluk Anson I had met a few very pleasant characters. People it was, a pleasure to be with but unfortunately there were occasions when I had got stuck with people, Europeans, who had turned out to be awful and really rude to Asians, especially those who had the misfortune to work for them. Terry filled this bill with spades and if I had been living in normal circumstances I would have not been in his company and drinking his Scotch had I not been asked by Tom to come along for the temple ceremony, to keep him company, and of course I had obliged. If I had thought I was going to spend the next four years running into the likes of Terry Spencer I may have been less abrasive.

Before I had time to reply to Terry and his observations, Tom arrived. I was relieved to hear his footsteps coming up the stairs. Conversation with this South African did not appeal to me. We had the same ritual with the boy with Tom’s whisky and our subsequent refills; Lee, despite his age, had staying power, he kept up the same fast delivery of the whisky bottle and ice and then retreating to the back of the bungalow at the same rate of knots, if anything faster. The conversation was about as mundane and boring as a conversation can get. Tom, on his best behaviour seemed to be enjoying himself. I enjoyed the whisky and that was all, I did not like our host and did not feel happy in his company.

Although a South African, our host clearly really wanted to be an Englishman, therefore he behaved how he perceived English gentleman behaved; he wore khaki drill slacks, a military type jacket and a cravat. To complete the picture he wore brown suede shoes. He tried to conceal his South African accent and overlaid this with exaggerated English; however, every now and then he would forget, and the very English accent would deteriorate into Boer guttural. He did not seem to notice these slips or if he did, he did not care. He just changed a gear and carried on with the same boring litany of pounds of rubber per acre and union trouble with the labour force. If he had called his labour Kaffirs it would not have surprised me, but maybe he figured that was not English enough.

Just as the situation was making me feel desperate and I was contemplating making with the bum music or having a loud hissing type piss on his immaculately groomed lawn he leapt up from his seat and announced; ‘That’s it then, let’s get this bloody business over!’

In Terry’s Land Rover we raced onto the main road, went a few hundred yards and made a right into the administration block of the estate where the new temple was about to be ceremonially opened. Obviously Terry had a far lower tolerance of alcohol than Tom and I, or perhaps he thought it would impress us to drive flat out over the short distance to the temple through the tropical dusk with its smells and beautiful sunset. With one of the Land Rover’s wheels nearly in the monsoon ditch, Asians leaping for their lives and all the while still in second gear it was an exciting drive.

The new temple looked like a set from the movie of George Steven’s Gunga Din 1939. There were wall to wall Tamils; children in their Sunday best, complete with caste marks between their eyebrows and golden ankle bracelets, wide-eyed and crawling about on the concrete floor. Old men, young men, ugly old women, and young and beautiful women who one day would be ugly old women made up the cast and three Europeans, if you count Terry Spencer, were lead to the seats of honour. Garlands of flowers were placed around our necks by dewy-eyed virgins, I assumed they were virgins. At this stage of my life I assumed most Asian women were chaste; in future I was to find out that the opposite was nearer the truth; most female estate workers went at it like the proverbial rattle snake. Of course this was long before TV.

Food started to arrive and what was more important large bottles of ice cold Anchor lager. Beads of condensation flowed from the bottles onto the table leaving wet rings. The background noise was deafening, the advantage of the noise was that we no longer had to listen to our host. Tom and I just supped the lager and soaked in the atmosphere. Tamil love songs bounced off the temple walls, incense sticks and candles sent up columns of scented smoke. Many other varied smells assaulted our nostrils; sweaty bodies, many different kinds of curries, sour milk, and urine and so on. Still the Anchor came. Terry sitting next to Tom leaning over him and spoke into his ear and then got up and with a perfunctory nod in my direction left. Same to you I thought.

Now senior members of the estate staff came and sat with us; it was as if they had been waiting for Terry to leave. I wondered if Terry realised that nobody loved him and if he knew, did he care? The food and drink continued to wend its way to our table and by now Tom and I were talking in Anglo-Indian to our newly acquired Indian friends. Beery, garlic smelling intimacies were exchanged. Future meetings and offers of hospitality at homes were offered, ‘You must come home and met the wife’ sort of thing. Still the food and drink flowed and I began to wonder if I had died earlier in Terry’s Land Rover after a head on crash and was now in paradise.

AJ Box book coverThen the crowd started to thin out but still the Anchor arrived at our table. There were dead soldiers all around us. I became aware that Tom was no longer beside me, but asleep under the table. I got up and promptly fell in a heap to be picked up by what seemed like dozens of dark brown arms, placed on my only recently vacated chair, dusted off, and a plate of food and yet another bottle of Anchor placed in front of me.

I woke up and although the music and the various smells seemed as loud and as intense as before, there were no longer many people around. Tom was still under the table and still asleep. I decided I would make another attempt at standing and to refresh myself I took a long draught of warm lager. I stood up slowly gripping the table in front of me. Unlike before I did not fall over but swayed a lot. After adjusting to the swaying I slowly made my way out of the now well blessed temple and with great difficulty made my way to Terry’s bungalow which was in total, unfriendly darkness.

Like the current Doris Day hit By the Light of the Silvery Moon I made my way across Terry’s well-groomed lawn to the bungalow where I had parked the Triumph. I took the bike off its foot rest and it promptly fell on me. I contemplated remaining where I was lying with the bike on top of me but it was not very comfortable so I struggled from underneath the machine and this time managed to replace it on its foot rest. With the bike on its foot rest I kicked the foot start and the engine roared into life first time, the noise echoing under the bungalow. I wondered if I was under Terry’s bedroom and this made me smile to myself and the smile turned into hysterical laughter. I put the bike into first gear and the machine leapt forward as if possessed of a life and will of its own as indeed it did.

The silvery moon went behind a cloud. I had forgotten to put the bike lights on. I shot across Terry’s beautiful manicured lawn and the bike imbedded itself in the hedge. I got off the machine and pulled it clear of the hedge. The bike fell on me yet again and I picked myself up, dusted myself off and started all over again only this time I started the bike in the sitting position. Once more the engine roared into life and with great foresight I put the headlight on, engaged a gear, and slowly released the clutch and the machine kangarooed across Terry’s lawn. With great skill and ingenuity I drove around Terry’s beautifully groomed lawn and made my way to where I thought the gap in the hedge was. Only it wasn’t there. I made another round of Terry’s no longer so immaculate lawn, and then made yet another round. This time I saw the gap, but too late. I was going too fast and I overshot the gap and entered into yet another circuit of the lawn that by now was getting rather cut up, the ride was getting bumpy and slippery.

Suddenly the garden lit up. The entire world is a stage I thought and yet again I missed the gap. As I went into yet another circuit I noticed the figure of Terry on the bungalow stairs. He looked amazed and I noticed he was wearing a Tootal dressing gown on top of Tootal pyjamas, rig that was not suitable for the humid Malayan night but apparently de rigueur for some expats, it reminded them of the Old Country. I lined the bike up towards the gap and punching the air above my head in triumph I roared through the gap and on to the estate road.

I felt rather pleased with myself. I had achieved the impossible; however, my approach to the main road was too fast. I braked hard and finished up with the front wheel of the motorcycle perilously hanging over the edge of a monsoon drain. I pulled the motorcycle back and it fell on me again. Sadly I burnt my leg on the exhaust but felt nothing at the time. Getting back on the bike once more despite a lot of swaying I managed to get my burnt leg to the foot start and once more the faithful engine burst into life. They really know how to make motorcycles in Birmingham I thought.

I rode along the Teluk Anson – Bagan Datoh Road and putting the bike on autopilot I made for Glinnis Estate and the ferry for Bayan. I was wild at heart; I had survived a truly incredible alcoholic binge, escaped from a seemingly escape proof garden, and survived a near tumble into a monsoon ditch. What could possibly go wrong now? Unbeknownst to me, disaster lay ahead in the form of a Bailey bridge.

There were a lot of Bailey bridges in Malaya in December 1941 during World War Two. The British forces, retreating down the Malayan Peninsula from the Japanese army, systematically blew up all bridges. Then, when the Japanese army surrendered in August 1945 and the British returned in September of the same year, the country was left with a lot of these totally inadequate structures the Japanese had erected to replace the bridges blown up by the British.

Prefabricated bridges known as Bailey bridges, presumably named after the apple of Mrs. Bailey’s eye, a Mr. Bailey, were erected up and down the Malayan peninsular to replace the inadequate Japanese structures. The Bailey bridges were built partially of wood, the surface consisting of wooden planks that made a pleasing sound as one passed over the bridge. Although the wooden surface was treacherous when wet, it was this pleasing sound that woke me up.

AJ Box book coverBy the time I realised what was going on I was exiting the bridge and if alert and not asleep would have been going into a left hand bend the other side of the Bailey bridge. I braked but my speed was too fast for me to make the bend and I passed over to the other side of the road up onto a grass verge just managing to avoid a pile of gravel. However, the foot rest and gear change caught the gravel and I now had a bent foot rest and gear change and was unable to change gear. Thus I limped back to Glinnis in top gear and waited for the Bayan ferry at 6 am. I did not have long to wait and I ignored the few estate workers coming off the ferry but was conscious of their muttering in Tamil and knew I was the subject of their interest. They knew I did not understand what they were talking about.

There was nobody but myself going over to Bayan and we set off right away. I passed the time of day with the boatman, a Malay gentleman called Hamid, we were on friendly terms, and I used to practice my Malay with him. He was always kind and would correct my pronunciation if I got it wrong and next time we would meet I would use this same word in conversation to see if I was able to pronounce it correctly. Now he asked if I had enjoyed myself and smiled, and I smiled back and said I had but now it was time to pay for my pleasure.

Although I had very little knowledge of Tamil I was improving my Malay all the time as I spoke the language everyday with Habsah and other Malays I met socially.

I had left Hamid with usual polite salutations so beloved and appreciated by Malays, surely the most polite and courteous of people and made my way to my bungalow. Habsah had made tea and toast and I quickly showered and changed, and in a short while I was keenly inspecting tapping panels and cursing my throbbing head and burnt leg caused by my adventures with the hot exhaust and the pile of road flints.

Extracted from A.J. Box’s fascinating autobiography of life in the rubber plantations of 1950’s Malaya, published in February 2016. Buy it now from Amazon, Waterstones, Foyles or direct from the publishers.

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