By Barbara Kuessner Hughes
When Andrew got back to Singapore, his father's house was deep in a Sunday afternoon slumber. It was a small, appealing bungalow with a blue-and-white striped awning to shade the patio and Jonathan's many prized pots of orchids.
To Andrew's surprise, the front door was open. He stepped inside. "Anybody home?" he called softly. Snoring could be heard coming from the direction of Jonathan's bedroom, so he followed it. Nearing the door, he could see his father's pale, paunchy torso sprawled across the bed. Andrew couldn't resist a chance to see his father with his defences down. He put down his luggage and stepped silently into the room.
"Thirty-two," Jonathan mumbled in his sleep.
No doubt he was dreaming about cash flow problems. He was prosperous, but Andrew knew that his father, after a quarter of a century with an engineering firm in Singapore, had attained a mere fraction of what he desired.
Andrew came close to study the strands of grey hair plastered across Jonathan's shiny pate. When Jonathan was awake and in control, these strands were arranged so as to expose his loss to view. He didn't approve of prevarication.
Suddenly, Jonathan opened his eyes. "Argh," he cried, pulling the sheet over himself. He gave a visible shudder. "Jes – Why would you –"
"I just got back."
Jonathan wiped the sleep from his eyes with heavily veined hands. "You're a day early. Doreen will be back in a minute. She'll make you a cup of tea."
"I can make it myself."
Jonathan grunted. "Suit yourself."
On the first night of Andrew's visit, as they were drinking beer, Jonathan had said, "I've been trying to remember… How old were you when your mother took you back to England?"
"I don't think she 'took me back to England'," Andrew had observed mildly. "You sent us away. You wanted a divorce."
Jonathan had ignored this remark. "You were…. four?"
"Before this visit," Andrew had said, keeping his tone even, "how long was it since we'd last seen each other?"
"Ten years. My last long leave in England."
"Right. You got into the habit of popping off to Australia, didn't you?"
After a brief silence, Jonathan said, "It was for the best. It wouldn't have worked in the long run. Your mum was full of opinions! And a temper to match. No offence, but I can see her in you. You want to watch out, or you'll make your life as difficult as she made hers."
"Oh, I think Mum's getting along pretty well."
"And she lives on her own, doesn't she?" Jonathan had said, as though that settled everything.
Now, in the shady bedroom, the two men eyed each other.
A sound came from the hallway, and Doreen's young Singaporean voice bounced into the room ahead of her. "Johnny, wake up, lah! Andrew's back!"
"I know, pet." Jonathan cast off the bedclothes and walked towards the bathroom. "I'm going to tidy myself up. Don't mind not following me in, do you, lad?" The door closed behind him with a sarcastic click.
"Oh, Andrew!" Doreen cried. "It's nice to see you!"
Her long-lashed green eyes swept over him with concern; he was sunburnt, travel-stained. She sat down on the edge of the bed, her reddish-brown mane and shapely body jiggling. She was such a sweet person, he thought, and he liked the way she always smelled of rose soap.
"Hi, Mum," he teased, "as you can see, your stepson's survived the hardships of the rainforest."
"It's so dangerous where you were going lah! Borneo! We were worried about you."
"Maybe you were worried."
"No, your dad, too." She'd made so many attempts to bridge the gulf between the two men, and so many times he'd glimpsed disappointment in her eyes.
When he first met Doreen, Andrew had failed to see beyond her voluptuous body, her Eurasian face which he found exotic and intriguing. He'd also been cynical about her motives in marrying Jonathan. She was only a few years older than him, after all.
But he'd come to believe that she was genuinely attached to his father. She was one of those people who needed the support of an older partner, and she seemed to have little family of her own. He'd grown fond of her joie de vivre, her ability to express emotions openly, and to laugh at herself.
Now, a month later, he was ashamed of his initial impressions. He'd written in his diary: "Never assume the worst at the start. And never become a male chauvinist pig like my old man." He knew Jonathan wasn't a bad person, and that he loved Doreen, but he couldn't stand all the proprietorial rump-slapping which went on.
Jonathan emerged from the bathroom with his hair combed.
"Nearly forgot!" Andrew rummaged through his rucksack and returned with a woven box in bright colours. "I got you a present in Borneo. It was made by the Murut people."
"Thank you." Doreen glanced at her husband. "Isn't that nice, Johnny?" she prompted. "It was nice of Andrew to bring us a gift."
"Very nice, pet," Jonathan said kindly. "But he ought to be saving for his fare home."
"Oh, that's not a problem now," Andrew said, looking at his father with gleaming eyes. "I'm going home on Thursday."
"Back to England already?" Doreen said.
"It's been a month. We have to let the lad get back to his studies," Jonathan said.
"Your mother never encouraged you to develop sound and productive interests," he'd grumbled on their second shared boozy evening. "Too busy chasing a career in journalism, I expect."
"Not just chasing it. She's caught it. But it's been a struggle, just her and me, and for a long time she had very little money. I'm proud of her. So, you don't consider what I'm studying to be 'sound and productive'?"
"A bit theoretical, isn't it? Not many nuts and bolts – not like engineering or business. As for your obsession with bats…!"
The night before Andrew's departure: Doreen was engrossed in a television show which gave her a chance to simultaneously adore the clothes the actors wore and deplore the shoes which went with them. Jonathan was reviewing documents, his reading glasses coming perilously close to sliding down his slippery nose. He signed something with a flourish, pushed his papers aside, and attempted a smile. "It strikes me that you still haven't told us much about your trip. Find everything you were looking for in Borneo?"
"Yes. I saw some interesting species. But I don't know enough to be able to identify them all."
Jonathan looked mollified by this modesty. "That'll come, lad."
"There's a particular species with a special appetite," Andrew said with relish. "Most of them are content with the odd piece of ripe fruit. But this type of bat preys on creatures larger than itself."
The wound was still feeding under his skin like a maggot. All through his short sojourn in Borneo, that moment had taunted him: the half-closed bedroom door, the words carrying along the corridor.
"Oh, Johnny! He's so nice lah!"
"Are you sure about that?"
"Oh, I know what the problem is. So handsome. Everywhere he goes, people look at him. And he's clever. Straight 'A's! Oxford University!"
"What are you getting at, Doreen?"
"When you treat him this way, it makes me feel ashamed of you."
"I can't help it, Doreen. I've really tried, but the lad gives me the creeps."
Whilst Andrew had been interested in bats from an early age, he actually knew little about the wildlife of Borneo. Zoology was just a hobby – he was studying politics, philosophy and economics. But he'd that decided that he might as well play up to his image.
The idea had come to him as he ascended a ledge inside a great cave, following his guide, a small, nimble tribesman.
Entering this portal into the earth had been such a stirring experience that it seemed only natural for long-buried feelings to rise to the surface. He'd had time to reflect as he acquainted himself with the yawning limestone hole, 11 hectares into which sunlight only penetrated faintly. It was a world of mysterious insects and over two million swallows whose nests plastered the walls of the cave. And the bats! Observing them, over 300,000 of them, jostling and feeding in the darkness, he'd felt the shadow within him take shape.
By the time he'd returned to daylight, to mountaintops rippling with brooding green and a sky heavy with pre-storm whiteness, he'd realised the true depth of what he felt. The hurt, the resentment. How could Jonathan have turned away from his own child the way he had? He, Andrew, would never behave like that.
"This type of bat causes a bit of a problem with cattle," he told his father now.
"You mean… It's a vampire bat?"
Andrew smiled as unsettlingly as he could.
"You should go and have a look at the place, Dad. It's magnificent. It blew my mind."
"I had the impression that was blown long ago." The maggot of injury writhed even deeper. "You wouldn't catch me climbing around in damp holes with thousands of those things fluttering around my head."
"Since we're on the subject…" Andrew left the room, walked along the corridor to the guestroom, and came back bearing an object shrouded in a dark cover.
"What's that you've got there?' Jonathan asked. "That's not…?" His face was purple. "How the hell did you get it through Customs?"
"It was easy." In fact, Andrew had caught it in the garden. He'd spent a few pleasant evenings observing the bats swooping through his father's line of fruit trees.
"You do realise the trouble you'd have been in if they'd caught you? I knew you'd be capable of all sorts of things, but this –" Jonathan stopped suddenly. As though even he thought it wouldn't do to display his hostility so openly. "I'm not having one of those things in my house!"
"Would you like to see it?" Andrew asked Doreen, who giggled uncertainly.
"You'll not –" Jonathan shouted. "They can carry rabies! Filthy little beasts –"
"You called me that once," Andrew said. "Shortly before you washed your hands off me. I'd been running around in the garden, the way kids do, and I'd put on your shoes. The only problem was, my feet were muddy. This has been a nice little reunion, hasn't it? I've had the chance to get to know you, to meet your lovely wife and admire your orchids, and even to visit Borneo. I'm grateful to you for giving me the chance. I didn't expect you to say yes when I asked if I could come."
"We've all had a long day," Jonathan said abruptly, standing up. "Just get rid of the bat, do you hear me?"
"Whatever you say, Dad. Sleep well."
Andrew got up and pulled on a pair of gloves. He went over to the cage which was placed on a table near the window, pulled off the cover, opened the door and reached inside. The bat, a small, brown frail-looking creature with a lumpy head and knobbly-topped wings, moved as Andrew's hand came towards it, but the cage was small, and Andrew was fast.
He was also gentle. He held the bat in both hands, exerting as little pressure as possible, and turned the little animal over, looking at it with loving fascination. He stroked its belly with one finger, then put it down on a slice of ripe pineapple which he'd prepared. He waited until the bat was engrossed in its feast and began to carry it carefully out of the guestroom. Once in the corridor, he paused to calm his racing heart and make sure the bat was eating.
It was one o'clock in the morning. At half past two, give or take a few minutes, Doreen would get out of bed. Her bladder functioned with clockwork regularity. The bathroom was next to the guestroom, and Andrew always knew it was Doreen because she hummed when she was in there. His father never seemed to get up during the night.
So far so good. The bat seemed contented, and now Andrew was turning the doorknob of Jonathan and Doreen's bedroom door. It opened silently.
He had only the scant light coming through the window to see by. The window was open, and not blocked up with bars or slats. It surprised him that Jonathan and Doreen had so little concern for security, but he was glad; the bat would be able to return to the garden. He stood deathly still, holding his breath, until the vague white shape of the bed came to him.
Jonathan was such a sound sleeper that Andrew would definitely have time to get back to the guestroom. What did he want to achieve? He was uncertain. He was a tangle of emotions. If Jonathan failed to register the bat's presence it would be an anti-climax, but Andrew would have the satisfaction of scoring a point over his father. If Jonathan woke up, he'd have a fright, which would give Andrew a different sort of satisfaction. There was a small chance that the bat might be carrying something nasty… But Andrew had dismissed that as unlikely.
Andrew knew his father slept on the near side, Doreen by the window. He took a step, seeing nothing but a lower leg pulled clear of the sheet. He lifted the bat off the pineapple and placed it tenderly on the protruding ankle.
Suddenly there was a stirring. He thought his intestines would tie themselves into a knot. He crouched down beside the bed and watched in horror as the figure moved, making itself recognisable. It was Doreen…
He turned and fled, closing the door quietly behind him, and in his own room again, flung the pineapple and gloves into a plastic bag and hid them in the bin, covering them with the refuse of days. He jumped into bed and switched off the light.
The next few seconds were both the slowest and the fastest that he'd experienced in his life. He lay rigid, bathed in sweat, visualising every movement in the other bedroom. Sure enough, Doreen was beginning to issue long, wrenching screams, and Jonathan was roaring.
Andrew got out of bed, swallowed, dashed to Jonathan's bedroom, trying to adopt an expression of perplexed innocence.
"It was you, wasn't it?" Jonathan was shouting. "You and your bloody bats… My wife's just been frightened out of her wits by one of the abominable creatures!"
"Are you sure it was a bat?"
"We both saw it! I turned on the lights when Doreen started screaming. I tried to catch it, but it got away. By God, I was right about you! You planned this! You didn't know we'd switched sides, did you?" He waved his large, bony fist in the air, and Andrew waited for the impact.
"Stop it!" Doreen screamed.
"Stay out of this, love. I'm going to give this so-called son of mine a piece of my mind, once and for all."
"Leave him alone!" Doreen tried to step between them. "Why are you always so mean to him? You want to believe he's bad! But why? He's your little boy lah!"
Andrew closed his eyes. He was being flooded by a sensation of shame. He was no better than his father thought he was. What had possessed him to embark upon this cruel and childish escapade? He opened his eyes to see his father breathing heavily and Doreen trying to restrain him.
"Don't hurt him!" Doreen screamed again. "I'll never forgive him if you hurt him!"
Jonathan, caught as though by a whip, lowered his fist. "He does this to you, and you defend him? I don't understand it."
"I'm sorry," Andrew said, and meant it. He went to his room, put his head under his pillow, and felt a tear come out of his eye.
A tight silence filled the house until halfway through breakfast.
"Things got a little out of hand last night," Jonathan said suddenly. "I said things I shouldn't have. I'll admit I've often been a bit hard on you." He paused. "You know, Doreen's not just my other half. She's my better half."
"Apology accepted," Andrew said. "I apologise, too." But he knew that it had long been over between them. All this visit had done was erase the possibility of fantasising about their relationship. One day Jonathan would die in Singapore with Doreen by his side, and Andrew was back to being the small boy whose father seemed to have forgotten him. He was drained and impotent and full of self-contempt. "I'm really sorry you were frightened, Doreen. Are you feeling all right?"
"Yes." She stared at him anxiously. "Why? Do I look bad?"
"No, no, of course not."
Andrew gave Doreen a hug and tried to forget that this was the last time they would ever meet.
"Well, goodbye then, lad." Jonathan shook his hand. "Drop us a line, won't you?"
Andrew turned around and hurried towards the barrier. Before he stepped through it, he glanced back, witnessing the look of love his father gave his wife. Just as he made to go on his way again, he felt a clutching at his heart: Doreen was bent over, scratching her leg.
"Why, pet," he heard his father say, and at the words, tears came into Andrew's eyes. "That looks damned nasty. Infected. I would swear it's a bite!"
Andrew went through the departure gate with swift but leaden steps. He didn't look back again.QLRS Vol. 18. No. 4 Oct 2019