Kate Furnivall

Sweeping romance. Sumptuous settings. Unforgettable adventure.

An extract from The White Pearl

Malaya 1941

It was not the first time Connie had killed someone. But today there were witnesses.

A car’s bumper should be a mute object, but on 12 November 1941 the chrome bumper on Constance Hadley’s 1938 Chrysler Royal found its voice. It screeched, an ear-ripping noise of metal against metal. It cracked, snapping one of the wooden supports on the covered walkway that ran along Alexandra Parade. It thudded, a warm, muffled grunt as it smacked into human flesh. Those sounds were to play over and over in Connie’s head. A screech.  A crack.  A thud. Over and over, like one of the fairground merry-go-rounds where the tinny music knows no end.

The sun is a source of life. Connie had heard those words on the wireless last night. Whoever said them had never lived in Malaya. She squinted through the windscreen as she drove through the crowded streets of Palur, and felt the sun battering her brain with its fist. She had considered, on more than one occasion, taking her husband’s best hunting rifle, the one he’d had specially shipped over from London last year, aiming it at that massive yellow orb hanging in the sky and pulling the trigger. Popping it like a balloon. She’d once mentioned this desire to Nigel, and he’d looked at her oddly.

Today she’d broken her sunglasses, damn it. That’s what was making her bad-tempered. Without those, she always started a vicious headache in the sunshine. Sunshine. She grimaced as she peeled her back off the seat, feeling her damp blouse stick to the upholstery. Sunshine was far too gentle a word. Sunshine was what existed in England. Sunshine warmed your bare toes in the grass and peeked at you under the brim of your straw hat. She loved sunshine. The brutal heat and humidity here in the heart of Malaya were killing her.

There had been a mud-slip on the road north of Palur after yesterday’s rain, which had delayed her drive into town, and she was hurrying now to make it to the Victoria Club in time for a swim with Harriet Court. Harriet was a stickler for punctuality, and hated it when Connie was late. She squeezed her big American car past one of the bicycle rickshaws that darted up and down the high street, as irritating as the fat black flies, and spotted a gap in the traffic. Instantly she accelerated into it and swung the wheel to take the corner into Alexandra Parade, an elegant, tree-lined boulevard of imposing stone buildings where the British Empire had placed its colonial stamp on this docile patch of the Malay Peninsula.

At exactly that moment, another car did the same. It was a sleek coupé that cut through the flow of motorcars and lumbering carts as ruthlessly as a black-finned shark carves a path through the heavy waves of the Indian Ocean.

‘Damn you, look out!’ Connie shouted and slammed on her brakes.

It was too late. She fought the steering wheel but the back end of the Chrysler cut loose. With a sickening lurch of her stomach, she felt it start to swing in a wide, uncontrollable arc. Sweat greased her palms so that they slipped on the wheel. Her wing raked the black car, but instead of slowing, it seemed to gather momentum from the impact. It was the screech of her bumper that alerted people. Faces turned to stare at her, wide-eyed with shock as the two-ton metal missile hurtled towards them on the pavement. The car jerked when a wheel caught in one of the deep storm drains, but still it didn’t stop, and figures scattered in all directions.

The moment seemed to elongate. Appalled, Connie watched it happen. She saw a woman yank her child off its feet and open her mouth in a huge melon-sized scream. An old man in a straw boater stood paralysed with fear directly in front of her, and a dark moist patch blossomed on the front of his pale flannel trousers. Connie dragged at the steering wheel, her heart slamming against her ribs. The car’s bonnet shifted a fraction to the right, and took down one of the timber uprights of the covered walkway that gave shoppers respite from the scorching sun. The crack of the wood was like a gunshot. The old man ducked down on the ground, hands covering his head. The bumper missed him by the width of the brim of his hat, and instead selected a different victim: a stocky native woman wearing a bright green sarong, a woven basket perched on her shoulder.

Connie screamed at her through the windscreen as she stamped on the brake pedal. ‘Run! Run!’ Please, please, run faster!

But the woman knew that her time had come. That the spirits had chosen her, and there was no escape. She swung round at the last moment and faced the oncoming car. She stared straight into Connie’s eyes and her lips moved, but the words were swallowed by Connie’s own scream as the bumper uttered its muffled grunt. It had found flesh. The woman’s eyes became huge black pools of pain for one brief moment before she disappeared from Connie’s sight and the car shuddered to a halt.

No! The word resounded in Connie’s head. No!

She was shaking, teeth chattering. With an effort of will she unclamped each finger from around the steering wheel and seized the chrome door-handle. She forced it open, tumbled out of the car and raced to the front of the bonnet. She caught sight of a pair of bare feet, their soles covered in red dust, then caramel-coloured legs and the edge of a green sarong. On the ground the rest of the woman’s body was hidden from sight behind the crowd that had gathered around her, but they drew back at Connie’s approach, opening a path for her. As if she were unclean.

‘Call an ambulance! Pangil ambulans!’ she shouted to a man in a striped butcher’s apron and he said something in reply, but the connection between her ears and her mind seemed to have broken because the sounds meant nothing to her.

The Malay woman lay on her back, not crumpled, not in a tangle of blood and fractured bones, but straight and unharmed as though she had dozed off by mistake in the heat. With a rush of relief Connie dropped to her knees on the pavement beside her and lifted the limp hand. It felt warm and dry against her own damp palms, with short stubby fingers that curled around hers in a stubborn grip. She isn’t dead, thank God, she isn’t dead. But the woman’s eyes remained firmly closed.

‘An ambulance is coming, a doctor will be here very soon. Don’t try to move,’ Connie told her, her throat so tight the words sounded as if they’d come from someone else’s mouth. She leaned over the motionless figure, shielding her from the glare of the sun, and asked softly, ‘Are you in much pain?’

No response.

‘I’m so sorry,’ Connie said. ‘I didn’t mean to . . .’ Her voice trickled away.

She wanted to wrap the woman in her arms and rock her gently, to sing a cradle song to her the way she did to her son, Teddy, when he fell over and scraped his knee. She wanted to ask where it hurt, so that she could kiss it better. Most of all, she wanted to look the woman in the eye.

‘Please,’ she murmured, ‘open your eyes if you can hear me.’

Still no response.

Thick black lashes lay on the plump dusky cheeks and fine veins traced a network back into her temple where the beginnings of a bruise were starting to form. She looked a similar age to Connie herself, about thirty-four, but the woman’s dense black hair that she wore pulled back into a knot behind her head was showing the first few streaks of grey. Maybe she was older. Her nose was broad, and the skin of her arms a patchy, uneven brown as if she worked with chemicals of some sort. What world have I wrenched her out of?

There was no blood. Not a mark on the sarong or on the woman herself, except for the slight bruise, and Connie allowed herself to hope it was just concussion. Softly she started to talk to her, to entice the woman’s stunned brain back into action. She asked her name, her address, who should be told about the accident, what was in the crushed basket at her side. She stroked her hand, tapped her arm, touched her cheek.

‘I’m so sorry,’ she said again.

The eyes opened suddenly. There was no flicker of warning, just closed one moment, open the next, in a narrow slit of life that sent Connie’s heart clawing up into her throat.

Selamat pagi,’ she said to the woman. ‘Hello.’

The eyes weren’t black any more; they were drenched in blood.

‘An ambulance is coming,’ Connie said quickly.

The woman’s lips moved but no sound emerged. The stubby fingers gripped harder, pulling at her, and Connie leaned forward, so close she could feel the moist breath on her ear as she tried to catch the faint words. For the first time since she’d knelt down, she became aware of the circle of people gathered around her in the street. White faces. Sunhats. A ginger moustache. A dark uniform with brass buttons. Voices aimed at her but jumbled together in a blur. With a jolt she realised that there was a young native girl of about sixteen crouched on the other side of the woman, a curtain of silky black hair half obscuring her face, but her eyes were fixed on Connie and her expression was accusing. Behind her stood a tall native youth, his face set hard. He was wearing a waist sarong and a sleeveless shirt from which his fingers were unconsciously tearing a button.

‘Do you know her?’ Connie asked.

The girl stared at her coldly. ‘She is our mother.’

Connie felt a rush of nausea.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said yet again. Empty, useless words. ‘It was an accident.’

‘White lady.’ The English words came in a guttural gasp from the lips of the woman lying on the pavement, a flutter of sound that barely reached her.

‘I’m here,’ Connie squeezed her hand. ‘And your children are here.’

‘Listen, white lady.’

‘I’m listening.’ Her ear was almost brushing against the struggling lips and there was a long pause, during which the heat of the day seemed to gather itself and launch an attack like a blow on the back of Connie’s neck. ‘I’m listening.’

‘I curse you. You family. You children. And you. I curse you all.’

Words sharp as a cobra’s bite, but Connie did not release her grip on the small hand. The blood-filled eyes opened wider, flashed at her full of malice, and then abruptly closed. Her fingers grew limp.

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