From Beyond the Edge

            Mrs Maclean, clad in a local tunic and paenung, was standing upright her hands clasped before in the manner Lat had stood many years before. Her face lit up, she laughed, and looked happy and delectable. 
            “The Bank of the Rice Bag amuses her,” said Maclean, also happy. He was proud of his plucky and individualistic wife. Powell envied their partnership and consequent mutual confidence.
            The Macleans lived near to the margin but were undaunted by their lot. Hueffer had rescued them from disaster and their happiness and confidence were restored. As long as life permitted health and workaday luck, they did not spurn the world but embraced it.
            Mansfield Park was unwrapped from its oilskin. Its front and spine and back were all covered in blotches of blue-grey mould. Its pages were likewise stained in a faint ochre and smelt damp. Powell handed the mouldy Jane Austen to Mrs Maclean.
            “A present for the governor. Make it clean and nice.”
            Mrs Maclean wrinkled her nose and replied in her incomprehensible version of English. She made an exaggerated or comic gesture of disgust. In contrast to Jane Austen, she looked clean and fresh and shapely. Powell looked at her with masculine interest for a moment.
            “Make it clean and pretty like yourself,” he added, and gave her a bow.
            Mrs Maclean replied with a comprehensible “thanyooser” and likewise bowed, conveying a gracious equality or even condescension, as of a skilled person assisting the incompetent.
            Powell watched her carefully separating the first fifty pages or so and inserting thin, dry petals and leaves between each.
            He returned later to find that this process had been extended to the entire volume. The whole volume was gently baked over smouldering herbs or incense, presumably to remove the mouldy smell, and then subject to pressing from stones piled upon it. 
            Later still, together with a darned pair of his socks, she presented Jane Austen neatly contained in a silk bag with a cord tie.
            The effect was somewhat feminine but Powell was pleased.
            Mrs Maclean’s normally serious or stoic face changed when she was thoroughly at ease. Her Japanese eyes and eyebrows conveyed both ethnic and female superiority, a mixture of ‘you were not capable of doing that yourself, were you?’ and ‘don’t underestimate me, you clumsy English oaf.’

            Five of the governor’s young aides greeted Powell, both in unison and separately in serial. They were dressed on this occasion in white high-collared jackets with gilt buttons, violet leggings, white stockings and black patent leather shoes with silver buckles. It was difficult to tell from their manner whether they were naively enjoying their somewhat pantomime performance or were indulging in conscious self-parody so as to confuse Powell.
            Powell, duly confused, did not know whether to take them seriously and look appropriately neutral as a visiting dignitary, or to laugh and smile at their cheek.
            Two violet rears moved forward to open doors, another preceded Powell into the governor’s room, bearing Mansfield Park. The two remaining aides followed behind.
            The governor was already standing to one side of his desk. The silk bag was presented to his aristocratic hands.
            “Thank you, Herr Powell,” he said and smiled.
            He untied the silk bag and opened the book which smelt of spice and incense. A small forest cockroach also emerged from the spine of the book and dropped on the floor. The nearest aide, took a step forward and gently trod on it. He did this in a manner which suggested that he had been specially trained how to deal with this kind of emergency, specifically, the appearance of small, not unendearing, cockroaches from volumes of Jane Austen.
            “You have not written in the book,” said the governor. “Please, you must write in your gift.”
            He sat at his desk and the aides moved around, bringing up ink and a pen and a chair so that Powell could sit opposite the governor and sign his book. He dipped the pen into the pot and then paused. What was the governor if he were also a regal descendant of some lesser northern dynasty? A highness? A majesty? Or as a governor, an excellency?
            “How do I address it, excellency? Excellency?”
            “Excellency? Formal, that is. Please make it more personal.”
            “Your name, excellency?’’
            The governor happily enunciated his formal name, very clearly one syllable at a time, one after the other. Since the name contained a great many syllables, this process was itself lengthy and by the time the governor had reached the end of his name, Powell had lost track of the middle and early units.
            Two of the violet-bottoms were standing behind the governor. The polite smiles on their faces extended very slightly. They looked, as they always looked, supremely happy.
            The governor started again but Powell was defeated once more. He could not scrawl down the first syllables in case he made a mistake and had to cross it out.
            He asked the governor if an aide could write the name down for him to copy.
            “No, we will not trouble you,” said the governor. “You may write my German name. I had a German name when I was in the Pomeranian Guards. They called me Hans Gutaussehender.”
            “What?” said Powell in some exasperation.
            “Hans Gutaussehender.”
            “That was my German play-name, Mr Powell.”
            “We all have play-names, Mr Powell. Even you have already a play-name.”
            “Have I?”
            “Your play-name, Mr Powell, is Big Toe.”
            The violet-bottoms behind the governor exchanged the faintest of glances which might just have indicated amusement.
            Powell was bewildered.
            The governor laughed. The violet-bottoms permitted their smiles to lengthen a fraction of an inch.
            “It is of no importance,” said the governor who also smiled. “Please write in your gift.”
            Powell’s German spelling was as limited as his Siamese. He wondered whether German writing was saddled with umlauts or accents or diacritic marks of any kind. He hesitated again.
            “Mr Powell, please just write ‘Hans’,”
            Powell’s nib dropped a small blob of ink on the governor’s table. An aide stepped forward and, with the same precise skill as he had dealt with the forest cockroach, blotted it immediately. Powell was exasperated. He looked up at the governor who smiled broadly. It seemed to Powell that the governor might be laughing at him.
            “Mr Powell, you can address the book to ‘Bob’ if that makes it easier for you. Add what you wish.”
            So Powell wrote “To Bob, with much appreciation from John Gillis Powell” with a flourish of a line and the date underneath. He thought of adding ‘and admiration’ but that might appear like insincere overstatement.
            The aide blotted the writing and conveyed the open volume to the governor, placing it on the desk about a discreet foot in front of him.
            “Now I have the book which has been carried over the mountains.” The governor smiled happily and picked up the volume and smelt it. “I could eat it. Come, Mr Powell, have tea and cigarettes with me in the garden. Come, no buts.”

Click to Return to Novels: Suk's Story