Hello, friends. This is hardly breaking news, but I’m still bashing away at Monsoon Season, aka the Novel that Might Never End. It’s supposed to be in three parts with a frame narrative. Part 1 is 50,000 words long. I’m now midway through Part 2 and it’s sitting at 43,600 words. I really must do something about this – and I will, soon, but not until I’ve finished Part 2.
Having spent some time this week laughing/weeping/cussing about my word count, I finally thought to share with you a scene that definitely won’t make the final cut (it’s from one of the early drafts). Still, it has the flavour of the novel I’m writing. I don’t know why I haven’t done this before with a work-in-progress. Just naturally cagey, I guess.
Anyway, this scene takes place in a Communist guerrilla camp in rural Malaya during the Japanese occupation. The year is 1942. The narrator is Chen Liling, fluent in several languages including English; her friend Lim is the camp medic; and Theodore Croft is a British soldier who was stranded in Malaya during the Allied retreat.
Our Englishman has a knack for drama. We are waiting for him in the HQ hut, where he is scheduled to lecture a group of senior guerrillas about military tactics. He fails to appear. Ten minutes pass, and then fifteen. Comrade Li is visibly angry when he sets out to look for Croft. And then we hear Li’s shout of alarm, and the camp is small enough that we can easily follow it to the men’s quarters. There, collapsed on the sleeping bench, is a shivering, half-conscious Croft. Even in the gloom of the hut, his skin is unusually pale and his lips have a bluish tint.
The men stare down at him with varying shades of perplexity and horror, and I realize that somebody must take charge. “Go fetch Comrade Lim,” I say to Comrade Li. “Tell her to bring the medical kit.” He runs off obediently. Encouraged, I push at the remaining guerrillas. “Get him a blanket,” I tell another rather senior political advisor. “And the rest of you, stand back.”
Comrade Lim arrives quickly and the men shuffle outside to give her room to work. Perhaps, too, they fear something highly contagious. By this time, Croft is shaking so violently that the entire sleeping-bench rattles.
“Malaria or dengue fever, maybe?” I ask her quietly. We are both remembering a conversation we had earlier, about anti-malarial tablets and our lack thereof.
“Hard to know, at this stage. He was healthy an hour ago?”
“We don’t know. He wasn’t his usual self at PT this morning, though. He looked tired and leaned on his cane more than usual.”
Lim glances at me, her gaze uncomfortably sharp. “I see. Did he complain of aching limbs, a headache, anything like that?”
“He seldom complains of anything.”
“I’d like to take his temperature, but in this state he’ll bite the thermometer in two.” She feels his forehead and frowns. “The fever’s high. We’ll have to watch him for any changes. If it’s dengue, he’ll develop a rash in a few days.” Lim would know: one of her brothers died of dengue fever last year. She opens the medicine-box and selects a bottle of aspirin. She counts out two pills, passes me a canteen of water, and says, “Here, get him to take these.”
I gape at her. “Me? You’re the camp medic!”
“He’s your soldier.”
For a few seconds, I can only sputter. Eventually, I manage, “What a preposterous thing to say! He’s no more mine than he is anyone else’s.” I glance around to make sure the others are still outside.
Lim smirks. “You’re blushing.”
“I am not!” It’s a reflexive lie, but surely it’s too dim in here for Lim to tell. We look down at our fallen soldier. His hair is soaked with sweat and he’s shaking the entire sleeping bench with the violence of his shivers. His eyes are half-open and rolling back in his head, and he’s in danger of biting his tongue off every time his teeth chatter. “What,” I ask Lim, “you don’t find him attractive anymore?”
We begin a fit of giggles, like schoolgirls. The entire leadership of our camp waits just outside the sleeping hut and we can’t be caught playing the fool. Yet the harder we try to stop, the worse it gets, until Lim steps away from me. “I can’t look at you. Make him take the pills!”
I look down at Croft, who definitely can’t understand our conversation – a small mercy. I switch to English. “Captain Croft?” I can hear my own voice, quiet and tentative. Of course he ignores it. I must be more authoritative. “Captain Croft, I am going to help you sit up.” Still nothing. I bend down near his ear and snap, “Croft! Sit up!” His arm swings wildly and the next thing I know, I’m sprawled on the woven-rush floor, several feet from the sleeping-bench.
Lim, damn her, is grinning. “Good thing he missed your face,” she says, but she offers me a hand up.
The swipe of his arm caught me across the shoulder and chest, and I’m breathless from the impact of my landing. My bottom hurts, too. “You still think he’s my soldier?”
Lim rolls her eyes. “You don’t know the first thing about men, do you?”
“Why would I?” I’ve always been too busy with books.
“You have brothers.”
“I yell at them, too.”
She snorts. “You have to sweet-talk him, Chen. A little kindness goes a long way.”
I stare at her. “I wouldn’t know how to begin. And why can’t you do it, anyway?”
She grins. “He doesn’t want medicine from me. He wants it from you.”
Oh, this is preposterous. “Lim, he’s barely conscious! He doesn’t know what he wants!”
Suddenly, she’s completely serious. Angry, even. “You think I’m doing this to tease you? Chen, you’re supposed to be such a fine scholar. Think! He’s a soldier. He’s spent the last few years killing enemies, and suddenly now he’s out of his mind with fever. If he’s going to get better, he needs to feel that he’s among friends. He needs to understand that we’re giving him aspirin, not poison.” She pauses. “And we don’t need him trying to kill us, while we’re helping him. That swat on the shoulder was nothing, compared to what he’s capable of.”
I swallow hard. She’s right: I’m an ivory-tower half-wit. “Tell me what to do, then.”
She finds the water canteen, which went flying when I did. “Speak softly into his ear,” she says. “And call him by his given name.”
I stare at her. “I can’t do that!”
It’s very intimate, what she’s suggesting. But that’s not my only objection. I don’t want to start thinking of him as anything other than “Captain Croft”. I can’t afford to. We are allies, not friends. That has been my mantra of the past couple of days, ever since our conversation in the clearing. Allies, not friends. But Lim is watching me expectantly.
I bend down again, keeping a cautious distance from the edge of the sleeping-bench, and say, quietly, “Theo.” His head turns so swiftly towards me that I jump. His eyes are wide and glassy, his hair dark with sweat, and he’s looking at me without actually seeing me. I think I prefer it this way. “It’s time for your medicine, Theo.” He makes a sound of vague acquiescence and before I can think myself out of it, I slide my arm around his shoulders and help him to a sitting position. His arm tightens around my waist, and the heat of his cheek seeps through my shirt like water. He swallows the pills like a good little boy, and I encourage him to drink a few more sips of water. Then he slumps back, exhausted by the effort, and I look up at Lim.
“Good,” she says, and she actually means it. “Come back in six hours for his next dose.”
“You’re going to leave him alone until then?” I can hear my voice rising high with anxiety, but I don’t really care.
“No, you fool. I’ll check on him every hour or so.” She pauses, and that teasing smile returns. “Unless you want to take charge?”
I blush again, and this time there’s no point trying to deny it. “No. I don’t.”