Margaret drinks coffee rarely; it’s too emotive. She doesn’t always want to return to Malaya in 1952. But today she’s weary.
She turns her teaspoon, thinking of other brown waters.
The sluggish ochre flow of a rainforest river. A gibbon whoops in an emerald tree above the boat. The outboard motor coughs. Sitting on Father’s lap, Margaret fingers the craters of his bullet scars. His shirt is as damp as the humid air, his thin face lathed leaner by former torments.
Their home, the plantation manager’s house by the river, is raised on pillars to exclude snakes and floodwaters. The corrugated-iron roof deafens when thundering rains crash. There is papaya for breakfast, curry for dinner.
Margaret enjoys following Father when he talks to the Tamil tappers. He smiles and jokes, unlike at home. She runs along solemn rows of grey-barked trees, with diagonal cuts in their bark and cups to gather the sap.
A birthday party for three, cake with coffee icing.
Disgruntled with prettiness wasted, sociability stifled, Mother changes the record to Sinatra and slits her eyes disdainfully. The smoke from mosquito coils rises toward the sunset sky.
Rubber trees are oppressive, Mother says, the life lonely and dull.
Father frowns. It’s a living. Bloody Hollywood fantasies! If you’re bored, read! Just be happy! Didn’t the War teach you anything? Or the Japanese? It’s an Emergency! The Communists could shoot us dead tomorrow.
They sit in a coffee shop in town. Margaret tastes condensed milk and coffee, sweet and heavy in her mouth. There’s a Chinese calendar with slashing scarlet calligraphy. A red roasted duck hangs up by its neck. She stares at a fly buzzing over the table as jagged words collide above her head.
Back in the now, Margaret pours more milk into her coffee to weaken its impact.
White slips and panties are spread out on her parents’ bed. An empty suitcase awaits.
A few days later, a void opens and engulfs the whole house. Father drinks many dark and golden liquids. Never coffee.
She gazes at the white café tablecloth.
The letter comes in a white envelope, addressed to her, yet writing past and over her. No explanation that she has ever accepted, even now.
Father is withdrawn in the evenings, finally vanquished. His white shirt looms in the dusk as she looks out onto the veranda and tries to enliven him with her thoughts.
She seeks comfort in the kitchen, in the arms of Malay servants who murmur to her and pity her, and sometimes love her.
Time and the river flow ponderously past. Father sends her to a convent school. He doesn’t concern himself with details.
Another piece of paper, a ticket, eventually bears her away to another life. A better life than she anticipated.
She looks up, wondering why she ever drinks coffee, why she doesn’t try harder to evade these associations. She sees the father of her children, smiling at her as he strides through the door of the cafe.