Though I am old with wandering,
Through hollow lands and hilly lands,
I will find out where she has gone,
And kiss her lips, and take her hands…
Trinity House is silent. It is late evening when Una returns to it, the fireflies blinking to life in the long shadows of the day. Puck is pacing, nervously chattering, on the veranda. He sees Una, lets out a cry of what could be glee, or perhaps only surprise, and comes barrelling towards her. Little clawed hands catch at her knees and threaten to topple her. He chatters away after a fashion to rival Iris, and it is all Una can do not to cry. No, she cannot help crying. She is crying as she pulls Puck high up off the ground, tight in to her arms. He wraps his little hands around her neck, and together they walk in to the house.
It is like entering a museum. Exhibit A: the place where the Merediths sheltered from falling shells. Exhibit B: the hole in the kitchen wall that crushed the chickens and killed the Gladstone Blue Ribbon. Exhibit C is smaller, in pieces even. 1C is Carl's beloved chess set, still midgame where Puck left it. 2C is Puck's latest game of Patience. Clock Patience, Una can't help but notice. 3C is a book Li was reading the day prior, still open to her place, bookmark ever-so-gently tucked in to the spine. It's an embroidered bookmark. Gold on red silk. Una made it for her as an anniversary present. Then comes the basket where Nenni died, the place where Una was standing when the water finally gave out, the place she sat up the night Carl did not come home. The piano where she fretted her soul's way through crisis after crisis, its keys yellowed and smooth with use. It is all there, fragments of their lives frozen in amber. Una sees them, files them away almost as belonging to someone else. She walks dazedly through the house, taking stock. She does this with Puck in her arms.
The tea bowls, two to a pocket, with their gold leaf insets that had once been a wedding present from Carl to Li. Li's Kuan Yin, because Li says she means luck, and Una is past dithering over how they come by it. And because Li also felt Una would need more luck with her family gone, a white woman alone in Occupied Singapore. Syonan-to. Her confirmation Bible, with its inscription from her father. These are the things Una will take if – when? – the time comes to leave the city. She will wrap them in scraps of the silk that line the camphor chests, maybe in what is left of Papatee's last offering of leathery skin. She will take Puck by the hand, because she can hardly leave Puck behind, and go…Una has never got that far in the plan. To the mainland? To search for Li, for Iris? Perhaps it may yet prove necessary to relocate the ACS children. There's a chance that the Japanese may get hold of that institution too, like the university. There is a possibility, and it is not as dim as it ought to be, that overnight she too might disappear the way Carl has. There is a chance Li and Iris might arrive back at Trinity house to find it all still here; Puck, the tea bowls, Kuan Yin and the confirmation Bible from years ago, less Una Meredith.
Would she draft them a note? And what would she say? What did one say when departing for parts unknown without warning? Perhaps later, when they are all together again – if they were all together again – they could compare notes, she and Carl. Una thinks they would agree that Li had said it best, standing by station with the cattle carts behind them, weighed down with their precious cargo. Take care of Puck. Find him. Be well.
But has she honoured any of that? Una cannot remember the last time she was well in the common usage of the phrase. Cannot remember the last time it applied to anyone in her charge. Akela died horribly amidst the shells, and Nenni peaceably, in her basket, before they began. Papatee died untimely, slaughtered by a traitorous kiss. All those church pageants and Una never thought the role she was fitted for was Judas. Strange the choice life forces on one.
She has no idea where Carl is and it seems unlikely she will find out in the near future. Take care of Puck, Li had led with, and Una thought she could do that much. They have long been out of peanuts, but still, she rootles through the tins in the kitchen and comes up with the nigh-indestructible cornbread. Puck scowls at her, and Una thinks that under the circumstances, this is entirely forgivable. Bread – real bread – belongs to a bygone age. One in which she had the wheat flour to bake it fresh. Later, one in which Li had the pluck to steal it from the clamouring, scrabbling hands of a roiling crowd. But that was a long time ago.
Now it is only herself and Puck, last bastion of the old guard. She sits on the windowsill, the city before her, sun-red flag flying from the roof of the Cathay building, its fried egg centre rippling in the breeze. One of Una's hands curls around her fish, Yeats bubbles up in her breast, as natural as breathing.
Turning and turning in the widening gyre,
The falcon cannot hear the falconer,
Things fall apart,
The centre cannot hold…
Puck joins her. Singapore died long ago, as Li so rightly said. It's Syonan now. Una spares a thought for the cornbread of privation, the roadsides stalls with their leftover tins of corned beef and condensed milk. The sentries, the sting of their hands and the way they sometimes make you hold a stone over your head for an hour or more if not fast enough to bow. Thinks that she cannot leave Puck to all of this. Puck scrabbles into her lap, claps his hands in agreement. It is them against the world.
'I suppose,' Una says, fitting Puck's furred hand into one of hers, 'I had better teach you to bow.'
And walk along long dappled grass,
And pluck till time and times are done,
The silver apples of the moon,
The golden apples of the sun.
W.B. Yeats, Song of the Wandering Aegnus.
Here ends the crash-course in Yeats. Here also ends this part of the story of the Singapore Merediths. To all of you who followed, read, and/or reviewed, thank you. It's been wonderful having you along. We're going to leave Una and Puck here, because I don't think any of us wants or needs to read about the gory details of internment. But, if you're interested, I can highly recommend Tenko, with thanks to McFishie for putting it my way.
When we come back I'll skip ahead to after the war, and hopefully you get your fill of what happened to Una without living everything alongside her. See you anon!