Glorious Boy

Aimee Liu

March 13, 1942

     When Shep lifts the blackout shades, a thin film of gray invades the bedroom, exposing his annoyance. He’s overreacting, Claire tells herself. The deadline for boarding’s not till two o’clock. It’s just that he needs to get down to the jetty early to oversee the transfer of his patients and hospital equipment onto the Norilla, and until last night, he’d assumed that she and Ty would come with him. Shep cannot understand why his wife still needs more time to deal with her field specimens, when he finished crating his yesterday.

     They pull on their clothes in silence rather than argue the point again. She does have their books, Ty’s things, and the family essentials in hand, but Claire has a bad habit of saving the most painful tasks for last, so her study’s still piled with field journals, artifacts, and her attempts to decode the language of the forest tribe that’s become her second family over these past five years. A family she’s being forced to leave without even saying goodbye.

     But it’s not just that. The sorting of their household staff—especially Naila’s fate—has also taken more of a toll on Claire than she lets on. As she and Shep now pass Ty’s room on their way up the outside stairs, she winces at the memory of the girl’s impassive face last night when they told her she couldn’t come with them. Their gentle Leyo will surely take good care of her, but Naila has been through so much. She doesn’t deserve this.

     “You really don’t think we could sneak her aboard?” Claire asks as they cross the terrace.

     Shep sighs and stomps a warning foot before cracking the kitchen door. Vipers and scorpions are always a concern when entering the out-buildings.

     “And then what, Claire?” He rummages for tea and biscuits—the cook left days ago. No need to remind her how fraught their own future is. Who knows where he’ll be sent from Calcutta, or where she and Ty will land, or what else the war has in store, now that it’s finally caught up with them.

     She follows him in, strikes a match under the kettle, and wrestles with her conscience. Naila is thirteen years old, an orphan, but she’s not their child, and she does belong here. Port Blair is the only world she’s known.

     Also, she’s not at risk the way they are. Even if the Japanese should land in the Andamans, most of the locals are so deeply steeped in resistance to the Raj that they would welcome the soldiers of Britain’s enemy as liberators—“Asia for the Asians,” an old and passionate refrain among these erstwhile freedom fighters.

     None of that would stop Shep from bringing Naila with them, though, were it not for the Commissioner’s evacuation edict: Europeans and official personnel only. All local-borns to remain. Colonial rules. A tyranny of injustice, not to mention ineptitude. For years every official in Port Blair has insisted the enemy couldn’t possibly push this far west. Not even the news from Pearl Harbor rattled this conviction. Last month, three navy green fighters with small red suns emblazoned on their sides scatter-shot the airfield, and still the Brits denied danger. No one was even scratched, according to the Commissioner. And Shep was right there with him. He came home from surveying the damage—a few small craters, some broken saplings—and told Claire the bombardiers must have been blind. Three weeks later, Rangoon fell. Now everyone’s changed their tune, and poor Naila’s got to pay the price.

     “We’ve provided for her as best we—” Shep breaks off at the sight of Ty trudging through the morning mist in bare feet and blue pajamas.

     “Hello, old boy!” He swings the child into his crooked elbow and plants a kiss on his cheek, which Ty promptly wipes off when Shep sets him down.

     “Biscuit?” Claire puts on a smile and holds out one of their last McVitie’s, but Ty’s lower lip thrusts into a pout. As usual, their four-year-old’s inexplicable speechlessness dares them to read his mind.

     “Toast?” She tries again.

     “Big boat ride today.” Shep prefers distraction, but this morning Ty resists him too, and the familiar clutch of frustration is barbed with panic as Claire pictures the three of them sailing into the future alone.

     “Where’s Naila?” she asks.

     Ty brightens, turning to point as the girl reaches the top of the stairs and lurches into view. She’s dressed in haste, her green skirt backwards, pink blouse untucked, that cap of soft unruly black curls framing the fear in her eyes. Relief floods her face at the sight of them, and Claire feels another pang.

     Until Shep overruled her yesterday, she’d argued in favor of keeping the girl in the dark. It would have been hard enough if they’d waited until they reached the jetty, but Shep thought Naila deserved some time to prepare herself. He was right, of course. And Naila received their plan with a grace that Claire never could have anticipated. But that grace is gone now, replaced by the lingering tremors of a child’s alarm. She must have thought they’d abandoned her already.

     Ty scurries over and gives a little hop as Naila salaams to Shep and Claire. “Sorry,” she says, sounding shy and breathless. “I am sleeping when Ty Babu—”

     “It’s all right,” Claire says.

     Shep gestures for her to join them in the kitchen. “Ty was trying to tell us what he wants for breakfast.”

     Naila leans down to look into the boy’s eyes. They confer for a couple of seconds in their silent, exclusive language.

     “Toast, please,” she translates, coming up.

     Ty nods and takes her hand, and Claire pushes back a tide of emotions that would do none of them any good.

     Her husband’s silence, unlike her son’s, is easily interpreted: We must get on without Naila, but how?

     “All right,” Claire says. “The bread’s a little stale, but it should toast all right.”

     The children set to drawing with chalk on the terrace while Claire gets their breakfast going and Shep downs his. Then she walks him out to the forecourt, where his driver, Narinder, stands waiting beside the Morris.

     The blue air smells of night jasmine.

     Shep inhales. “Can we take this with us?”

     She hears sorrow and resignation, the end of an era in too many ways to count. She removes his pith helmet and smooths back his damp ginger forelock, then replaces the topi, only straighter. “We’ll come back,” she tells him.

     He gives her a not-quite-reassuring squeeze.

     “We’ll be down at the dock by noon.”

     “Earlier,” he says, his tone stiffening.

     “You’re not going to let them leave without us.”

     “I shouldn’t be letting you stay here now.”

     “I know, I know. Commissioner’s orders. No exceptions. We’ll be there, Shep.”

     He shakes his head and is off without a kiss.

     No sooner has he gone, however, than the morning twists sideways. Ty climbs into the empty boxes. He empties out the full ones. He breaks a glass and tries to hold the shards up to the sun. The day’s heat rises.

     It’s only natural, Claire keeps reminding herself. How can a four-year-old be expected to grasp the threat of war? He thinks this is just a game. And why should she ruin these last hours for Naila by fighting Ty, why shatter this last bit of peace?

     She sends them down to help Leyo move Shep’s specimens up from the greenhouse while she finishes packing her study. At ten Narinder will be back for her and Ty and the last of her boxes and Shep’s plants. Hurry, she admonishes herself, but time turns glassy and slow as she focuses at last on her field pieces.

     Each of the shell bowls, reed baskets, pandanus mats, and arrowheads that line the floor tells a story, connects her to a different soul, a unique moment of discovery and change within herself. The straw headdress Chief Kuli wore to greet her and Shep on their very first visit to the Biya camp. The woven sling little Artam rode as an infant, just seven months before Ty’s birth. The conch in which Kuli told her to listen to the voice of the Biya god Biliku, a god who often over these years has seemed much wiser and kinder than her own.

     How patient and accepting the Biya have been with her. Especially in the beginning, putting up with her callowness, her naive arrogance and presumptuousness. The thought of her initial view of this tribe as anthropological subjects now makes her wince. She’d come to the Andamans mistaking youthful ambition as a virtue, and it took her a long time to realize that ambition is worthless unless it’s rooted in human understanding.

     Had she been a quicker study, perhaps she and Ty would have that understanding now, as he and Naila so instinctively do. It’s a painful irony that she communicates better with the Biya—even when they, too, are speaking silently—than she can with her own son.

     But she and Ty have a long future in which to repair their bond. Soon these objects could be all she has left of her Biya friends and mentors.

     While no one on this island now can be certain of their fate, the Biya’s numbers began to decline decades before the war started. What if she never comes back? This is the thought that derails Claire when Naila and Ty appear in the doorway, Ty making straight for the arrowheads, which are sharp enough to hurt him. Reflexively, she grabs her son’s arm. He replies by punching her hard in the chest.

     Claire pulls back and holds still, as she’s trained herself to do in such moments, waiting for Naila to glide between them and apply her mysterious powers to soothe whatever injury Ty believes his mother has inflicted.

     Instead, Naila gives a little gasp. Glancing down, Claire notices the circle of blood where the stone in Ty’s fist pierced her shirt.

     Her son watches from Naila’s sheltering arms, his green eyes bright with attention now as the wound begins to throb.

     “Mem—” Naila starts, but Claire waves her away.

     “It’s nothing. Really.” She meets Ty’s gaze. He studies her with a detachment that hurts far more than the scratch. She forces a smile, and he shrugs as if tolerating a truce.

     “Please,” she says to Naila, then hears herself begging. “Just keep him out of the way.”

     The girl takes Ty’s hand, and he presses against her, quiet now, his hair a halo of wavy darkness against her crumpled blouse, his face the same warm brown as her arms. They grimace in unison, and then, for no reason that Claire can discern, they grin.

     Urchins, the two of them, she thinks. Like brother and sister. Unlike either of his parents, Naila always knows what Ty most wants: to memorize sunbeams and trace the clouds, to match each bird to its song, to draw the botanical names of plants, even if he can’t speak his own.

     She dreads ripping them apart almost as much as she yearns to share in their closeness.

     “Ten minutes,” she says. “I just need ten more minutes.”

     Naila circles her chin and crooks her pinky in a signal that lights the boy’s whole small being. Then the two turn to leave. Joining hands they skip in unison out into the sun.

     Shep surrenders so deeply to the stupor of duty that when the Norilla’s horn blasts, he loses his balance. Catching himself on a wooden bollard, he checks that his final batch of crates has started up the gangway. He’s seen to that all right. What he’s failed to notice is the chaos thickening on the jetty behind him. The scene is a frenzy of Burmese, Indian, and Eurasian officials and their families, everyone who’s allowed to leave desperate to get on board with their belongings, while the local remainers taunt the Indian soldiers and police who’ll be left with them “to keep order.”

     He glances at his watch—twelve thirty—and searches back over the throng. Claire and Ty should have been here at least an hour ago, but he resists the alarm that needles through this calculation. The crush must have held them up in the square. It practically requires hand-to-hand combat to get back through it.

     Every few feet, exhausted couples block his path squabbling over heaps of possessions that exceed the emergency restrictions, and the light-fingered locals threading around them don’t help. One of his own porters earlier tipped a box of surgical supplies into the drink, no doubt with a plan to retrieve it as soon as the Norilla sails. If the Japanese ever do land here, those scopes and scalpels will be worth more than gold. The potential end of British rule in these islands makes everything fair game for those staying on.

     He takes a breath and presses forward, but the dread that the horn unleashed keeps rising. Why can’t Claire ever just follow the rules?

     “On the next ship, then!” A squat Indian matron is shouting at the MP who’s threatened to confiscate her trunks if she doesn’t move them back off the pier.

     “God willing,” comes the young Sikh’s beleaguered reply.

     Shep elbows past. The real question is, why are they still here at all? Hubris. Delusion. Fantasy. Did he and Claire honestly believe the war wouldn’t find them, that their respective ambitions justified putting their lives—and Ty’s—at risk? Possibly, but it was his own cowardice that tied the knot. The prospect of abandoning his wife and son terrifies him even more than the inevitability of being called up.

     A sudden spasm compels him to check that the gangway’s still down, and in that instant the Norilla appears as a towering gray Gulliver bedeviled by Lilliputians. The mooring cables groan against the wharf’s pilings, and the midday heat makes the hull seem to tremble.

     He blinks. Or was it that the balance he and Claire struck together might be too fragile to survive anywhere other than “paradise”?

     At last he’s through the worst of it. He stands on the curb of the foreshore road and scans the crowded waterfront, but the only car visible amid the jam of rickshaws and lorries is the police superintendent’s jeep, which careens to the platform and disgorges two reluctant plantation managers who seem to embody Shep’s guilt.

     Sunburnt and unshaven, still in jungle kit, the men look like they’ve come straight from the toddy shack. One Shep recognizes as the widower of an elderly woman who sailed from Calcutta with him and Claire when they first arrived in this tropical backwater. The wife succumbed to dengue not long afterward, and this bastard didn’t even see fit to notify the authorities.

     “Dr. Durant!” Assistant Commissioner Alfred Baird hails him with a sheaf of his inexhaustible lists. “Your specimens get on all right?”

     “Specimens.” Shep needs a moment to realize that the well-meaning major is referring to his botanical samples. “Yes, but . . .” He shades his eyes against the sun and traces the route to Middle Point. “I’m still waiting for Claire and Ty.”

     Baird’s voice spikes. “Why in God’s name—”

     Just then Shep spots the large red knob of the Morris winding down the hill. His hand twitches as he points to the car. “It’s all right.”

     By the time the vehicle reaches the backup of vans and carts above the square, his pulse has returned to normal. The car halts. Claire jumps out and pushes ahead on foot. But even from this distance her spasmodic haste and rudeness—blindly shoving people and animals alike out of her way—telegraphs her desperation.

     He’s never seen Claire behave like this. And why is she alone?

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