A Skeleton in the Closet - A Tramp Ship Tale
It was the type of night of which Conrad might have written. A full moon rode high behind thin bands of cirrus, bathing the ship in a ghostly silver light as she snubbed to her anchor at the mouth of the estuary. But the patches of mist drifting down river on the jungle-rank breath of the land breeze, and the ebbing tide softly swirling and gurgling down our sides, gave the impression that we were slowly steaming through an eerie infinity towards the promise of a land cloaked in pristine mystery.
Or so I might have thought, if I had been as romantically inclined as the former master mariner in whose wake I was piloting my ship. It was just over ten years since he had passed away, and a little more since he had published the last of his trilogy set among the islands and tidewaters of the East Indies. Since then, however, the trading settlements, and the Malay, Arab, Chinese and Dutch merchants and rajahs who ruled them, together with the islands and rivers themselves, had changed little. The ships were bigger though, which is why I had anchored outside the bar, waiting for dawn and the height of the flood tide, to pick my way upstream to the jungle-besieged township where a cargo of rubber and Borneo ironwood awaited.
The prospect of a night at anchor in a sheltered estuary should have been a pleasant one, but despite the relentless advance of the white man’s so-called civilisation, this was the Iban’s watery territory, the legendary Sea Dyaks of northern Borneo renowned for headhunting and fearsome piracy. We’d fought them off once before, and I didn’t intend to have my head separated from my body while I was napping. So the watches were doubled up and men patrolled the main deck. With former Chinese pirates and Jihadi Somali tribesmen among my crew, I almost pitied anyone who tried to sneak aboard.
Satisfied the ship was as safe as human vigilance could make her, I invited Mr Poh to join me in my sea cabin for a nightcap. Poh was the owners’ Singapore manager. He didn’t normally take passage in the company’s ships. His job was to find the cargoes, mine to deliver them. This time, though, he had decided to accompany us to the remote settlement on the North Borneo coast, to pay his respects, so he told me, to an ancestor who had persuaded a local chieftain to grant him trading rights. Out of which he had, almost singlehandedly, built the entrepot that had expanded into the river-fronted township to which we were bound.
The hot, humid air in my cabin was stifling, so I grabbed the whisky bottle, called the steward to fetch some folding chairs and led the way down to the boat deck where we made ourselves comfortable. Feet up on the rail, we watched the lightning flicker over the mountainous interior, listening to the screech of bats attracted by our lights, and the distant howling and hooting of jungle apes.
Poh produced a box of Sumatran cigars, and soon there were two red firefly tips glowing in the darkness and the satisfying reek of fine tobacco.
“Many years since last here,” said Poh, taking an appreciative sip at the aged malt whisky he had brought aboard in Singapore, several empty bottles of which had already sunk to the bottom of the South China Sea in our wake. “And still feel same, like I first to set foot in unknown continent.”
That hadn’t been true even when his ancestor arrived in the previous century, but I didn’t want to spoil his reminiscence. “What brought him here, your grandfather?” I said instead.
“No one know,” said Poh. “He never say, only want make plenty money.” The disembodied face, pink in the glow of the cigar, creased into a chuckle. “My mother say maybe he run away from jealous lover in Canton.”
“Did he bring your mother here, later?” I said, assuming his parents had arranged a bride for him back in China.
“No, he marry local girl, very complicated.”
I knew that Poh’s family had been part of the southern Chinese migration to the East Indies, but I had no idea his mother was part Malay. I was not surprised it was complicated though; the Chinese rarely married outside their race, and Muslim Malays even less so.
“So how come your family ended up in Singapore, then?” I said. “Did he not do as well as he had hoped? Mother-in-law trouble, maybe?”
Poh’s laughter was punctuated by the splash of a jumping fish.
“Plenty money … but plenty trouble.” His face glowed again as he took a long draw at the cigar. “Everything go very well for first few years, then big earthquake,” he shook his head, “bring plenty trouble.”
I vaguely remembered tales of the earthquake that had shaken the north coast of Borneo towards the end of the previous century, more for the bloodletting it unleashed rather than the physical damage it had caused. The natives believed that earthquakes were the result of the mountain gods’ anger at the evil deeds of men, and that they had to be propitiated with offerings and sacrifices. Foreigners, with their strange customs and idols, were an obvious target and the days following the quake had seen bands of Malays running amok, killing any European and Chinese unwise enough to show their faces outside. Order had been restored eventually, although too late for many.
“Yes, he killed.” Poh’s eyes glittered in the pale moonlight, and a dark shadow of sadness seemed to cloud his face, then the smile returned. “But grandmother okay, also baby girl, my mother.”
“I’m sorry,” I said, wondering how a widowed Malay with a half Chinese daughter would have fared in such a remote settlement. “Did they leave?”
“No, brother come from China. Take over business, marry my grandmother. Later they move Singapore.” He took a long sip of whisky and raised his glass as if in a toast to the memory. “All turn out okay.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Poh was well respected in Singapore, and rich. He was one of the Lobang Kings, the Straits’ Settlement merchants who knew all the right people, and most of the wrong ones, and whose knowledge and connections kept my ship’s holds, and my pockets, filled.
“But your grandfather?” I said, wondering if the soul of the dead man appreciated not being able to share in the success of his descendants. The answer surprised me.
“He okay too. Well respected here, I show you tomorrow.”
The rickety timber wharf groaned as we came alongside, and I wondered whether our mooring lines were safely securing us to it, or holding it up out of the deep mud that lined the riverbank. The settlement was not a large place though, and I instructed the chief mate to blow a couple of blasts on the whistle if he needed me in an emergency. Then I followed Poh down the gangway and into the maze of muddy lanes running between an assortment of corrugated iron sheds, red roof tiled shop-houses, white painted bungalows and the palm-thatched huts of the native kampongs.
At the edge of the settlement was a large square of cleared ground that served as its cemetery. Divided into sectors, the graves of the faithful were clustered together according to their denomination, as if whatever deity had created our shared world might punish the dead for maintaining insufficient distance between crescent, cross and lotus. The Chinese graves were at the eastern edge, the austere hanzi engraved headstones marking plots on which the cropped grass and the occasional cut flower evidenced some care. Poh scanned the stones, his lips moving as he silently read the inscriptions, before expressing satisfaction and pointing one out.
“Ah yes, there he is. Some time since I last here, had to read names to find right one.” Reaching into the jacket pocket of his linen suit, he pulled out a bulky envelope that he rested on the headstone. Taking a step back, he clapped his hands to attract his grandfather’s attention, removed his Panama hat and bowed his head in prayer.
I guessed the envelope contained spirit money, the usual offering to one’s ancestors to enable them to enjoy whatever material pleasures and comforts they were required to pay for in heaven. To be effective though, the money had to be burnt, not left to be turned to soggy pulp by the afternoon rains. When Poh raised his head on completion of the prayer he retrieved the envelope, and pointed towards a well-worn track that disappeared into the jungle in the direction of the river.
“Now we visit grandfather,” he said, an enigmatic smile settling across his round, well-fed face.
If I was intrigued by the macabre invitation, it was the thought of the tigers and pythons inhabiting the forest that made me shiver. Wishing I had brought along my Webley pistol, I shrugged my shoulders and set off after him. The shade of the trees meeting overhead provided welcome relief from the baking sun, but it was humid and I was sweating profusely by the time the path emerged from the jungle, to a narrow clearing on the river bank in which stood a single longhouse. An Iban longhouse, I realised from the long peraus drawn up on the mud. With paddles and vicious looking mandaus, razor sharp machetes, resting on the bottoms, it looked as if they were kept in immediate readiness for a raid. I glanced nervously about, but my qualms about trespassing faded when Poh boldly mounted the steps to the veranda calling a greeting to whoever was inside.
The man who emerged wore only a thick belt from which hung long rectangles of cloth fore and aft to preserve his modesty. He was dark and bowed with extreme age and hardship, but his eyes lit up when he recognised Poh and he beckoned us to follow him into the longhouse.
“Brother of grandmother,” Poh said proudly, as he introduced us in a mixture of pidgin, Chinese and Malay, while I sat uncomfortably cross-legged on the floor, waiting for my eyes to adjust to the longhouse’s gloom. In the semi-darkness above my head, suspended in crude nets hanging from the rafters, a number of coconut fishing floats swayed gently in the breeze that wafted in beneath the eaves.
The news that Poh’s grandmother had been an Iban, rather than Malay as I had supposed, was a surprise. But not as big as the shock of realisation when Poh pointed towards the rafters. As my eyes adjusted to the light I saw, with mounting horror, that there were not coconuts suspended above my head … but heads! Preserved heads! Human heads, with hair still attached, lips sewn shut and eyelids sunk into empty sockets, their wrinkled skin dark from smoking and rubbing in ash.
I looked more closely, one of the heads was different, the skin lighter despite the smoking, the remains of a pigtail clinging to the scalp.
I glanced queasily at Poh, who nodded, his face creasing into a mischievous grin.
“Grandfather!” he announced.
“He already dead when they find him,” he explained as we walked back to the ship. “They took his head as mark of respect, before burying body.”
“Respect!” I said, trying to conceal the shock in my voice.
“Certainly he well respected. Worthy sacrifice to mountain gods. Also, his soul protect family. Very good fortune have preserved head in longhouse, especially relative of fine character.”
“And the spirit money?” I said, trying to sound as if smoked human heads were something I saw every day. “Will he burn it for your grandfather’s good fortune in heaven?”
“Spirit money!” chuckled Poh, his eyes rolling at the apparent superstition of ignorant Europeans. “Not hell dollars! Good Straits’ ones. Pay my family for upkeep of grave.”
It was an odd thought, the urbane, Chinese Poh being related to a tribe of head-hunters. But whose family didn’t have a skeleton in the closet, if not a preserved head hanging from the rafters?