|The sun deserted us within minutes...|
The journey ended as the wheels of the aeroplane struck the tarmac with a deafening roar. I stared into the face of an airhostess and decided that Death wore a batik uniform and crimson lipstick. Over our heads, the rain hammered upon the cabin like gunfire, while the wind sucked at the egg-shaped windows. As the plane listed from side to side, I gripped the hands of my two little girls and opened silent negotiations with God. We were three hundred passengers holding our breath, waiting for an engine to blow or smoke to billow out from the wing. My eyes sought out the airhostess once more, scanning her features for any trace of panic. Her mouth remained composed, still fixed in a faint smile, her lips ghoulish in the dimmed light. At last, the plane came to a juddering halt. A hoarse cheer broke out, followed quickly by the snapping of seatbelts. It was all over – we had arrived. My hysteria shrank back down like a defeated genie into its lamp.
It was dusk by the time we staggered across the runway, crumpled and exhausted. We had endured forty-eight hours of travel, with eight pieces of luggage, a pushchair and a wooden crate. I thought I would be used to it by now, but the trip still knocked me for six. There were pustules of vomit on my jeans from where my eldest child had deposited her evening meal and my swollen feet filled up every crevice in my shoes. It was a journey to shake body and soul.
Within minutes of arriving, the sun deserted us, tunnelling down to another part of the world. I inhaled the soupy air and straightened my spine. It was a reflex – partly a reaction to the cramped cabin, but also a stiffening of resolve. Jakarta, we have returned! That said with defiance and weariness. After a summer away in Sussex, expatriate life was about to resume. While we swung croquet mallets in an English garden and caught up with the relatives, it was like someone had lifted the needle off the record player. Now, with a little crackle, the music would begin again.
When we reached the baggage hall, Simon disappeared into the rabble by the carousel, to collect the suitcases, while I ushered our girls over to a bank of seats. Two flights had arrived at once and there was general confusion as to whose baggage would materialise first. Outside the window, our jumbo jet melted away into a twinkle of lights, which swam in fluorescent waves as my eyes struggled to focus. A muscle in my left lid went into spasm. The urge to close my eyes was overpowering. Everyone had managed to sleep on the plane apart from me – the girls sprawled on the floor at our feet, Simon swathed in blankets. Ever watchful, I sat condemned to a numb kind of wakefulness, queasily aware of the body odour drifting over from across the aisle. Now sleep was calling me. The babble of the baggage hall was oddly soothing and I felt myself falling gently off a cliff… until a small jab on my forearm brought me back round.
“Mummy! Katie won’t let me have any of her water,” complained a voice by my side.
Slowly, automatically, I reached into my hand luggage for a flask to give to Hannah, my youngest. She took one swig and then flew back to her sister, invigorated. Both of them had been fractious and tearful when we left the plane, but now the excitement of arriving had given them a jolt of energy.
“Katie! Hannah! Please! Calm down,” I called after them. My glance flickered between Simon’s head, now floating above the crowd at the conveyor belt, and the girls in mid-flight. “Shush now, Daddy will be cross.”
After a while – I lost track of time – Simon and a porter returned with our luggage piled high on a trolley. I was too tired even to check the cases, an unusual omission for me.
“For God’s sake, try to get the girls to behave,” Simon snapped, before heading off to sort out the paperwork for the new dog.
During our summer in England, my husband had finally relented and allowed the girls to adopt a russet cocker spaniel called Dixie. For too many hours the poor animal had been holed up in a crate, two rows behind us on the plane, whining for her freedom. When we stopped in Bahrain to re-fuel, I watched out of the window as Simon gingerly led her around the plane. She eventually peed beside the wheel of a nearby truck as impassive soldiers looked on, cradling their machine guns. After Simon returned to his seat, he looked at me as if to say, this was all your bright idea.
More minutes ticked by in the baggage hall. I felt a dull ache rolling through my body – I was thirsting for a cigarette! With some sort of sensory memory, my fingers began twitching in my lap. The girls clambered across the floor, pretending to be donkeys. Where in the world had Simon got to? Girls please! Get up off the floor, it’s dirty. I gazed out across the marbled tiles and spotted my husband in the distance, arguing with an official in a blue uniform. Simon’s head was jutting forward, shooting words into the space between them. Something was wrong. Hauling myself to my feet, I tottered over in my sick-spattered trousers, trailing small girls, a porter and a squeaking trolley in my wake.
“What’s going on?”
“It’s the bloody dog,” said my husband tersely. “There’s an issue with the paperwork.”
That was Simon to a tee – controlling, aggressive, persuasive. He turned his back on me to continue his negotiations.
“Selamat datang,” the customs man said, ignoring Simon and beaming across at me. “Welcome to Indonesia, Nyonya!”
Despite my malaise, despite the ache in my head, despite bloody everything, I smiled back. It seemed the thing to do. For the dog’s sake.
“How can we resolve this?” Simon cut in, his voice officious.
“I am sorry sir,” said the man with another oily smile, “but you are not permitted to bring this dog into Indonesia. It is against our regulations. Your paperwork is not in order.”
He jabbed his finger accusingly at the documents on the table in front of us.
The pulse in Simon’s jaw started to throb. His fury was like ice in my veins. I almost pitied the customs official – he had no idea who he was dealing with, poor soul. Dixie whined pathetically in the background, scrabbling at the door of her wooden crate. I held out my hand to her through the mesh window. There, there, little one. It will soon be over. One of the girls started to cry again – Hannah – she had a knack for tuning into emotional static. Katie leaned despondently on the crate with her arms hanging by her side.
“Give me your gun then,” Simon said.
“You heard me. Give me your gun.” Simon gestured towards the man’s holster. “If I can’t bring this dog into your country, I will have to shoot her with your gun.”
The breath was sucked out of me, my fingers snagged on the mesh. Katie gave a yelp of dismay. “No Daddy, please!”
The man gaped at Simon, his mouth hanging open, revealing an array of yellowing teeth. “One moment please,” he said and disappeared into an office by the side of us.
Inside my head I began to scream. No one deserved to die. Not yet, anyway.
Then the official came back. “Go, go!” he said, waving us through with a dismissive hand.
Emma Clark Lam is the author of A Sister for Margot.
"This was such an enjoyable read and the quality of the writing was what made it so. I could not put it down as the plot was so meaty with so many twists and turns."
-- Amazon review