Sacred to the Memory

Photo courtesy of Graeme Hall

Photo courtesy of Graeme Hall

He wasn’t even supposed to be in Macao, but Senhora Rodrigues was kindness itself. She ministered to him every day, and when the Fever was bad she would sit by his side and wipe his brow with a damp linen cloth. She reminded him of his mother, of how his mother had tended him when as a child he had been ill. He wished he spoke some Portuguese so that he could talk to her, or that she had a little English, but as it was they could only communicate through a shared, but fractured, Cantonese. They were both a long way from home.

He had travelled from Canton to Hong Kong to discuss business with Mr Rawle when he caught the Fever. He should never have gone to Hong Kong; the Colony was ridden with disease, and everyone knew that in Victoria the air was of a most sickly and deleterious nature. Rawle – no doubt anxious to be rid of him – had immediately put him on a steamer for Macao: ‘It is a healthier place than here,’ Rawle had said. ‘A better place to recover, God willing.’ He had seen enough people succumb to the Fever to recognise that the chances of recovery were small. He was indeed in God’s hands.

Disembarking from the steamer in Macao he found a coolie to carry his bags. A dozen rickshaw runners surrounded him before he selected the youngest and fittest of them, a lean young man with a shaven head, to take him to the address on the Praya that Rawle had given him. ‘Senhora Rodrigues is a remarkable woman,’ Rawle had said, ‘I knew her late husband. I will send a message so that she will expect you.’

His destination on the Praya had turned out to be a large house, though one that was showing the passage of time. The pale green render looked as if it had not been maintained for several years. Some of the shutters had broken slats. Money was not plentiful following the death of her husband and Senhora Rodrigues had been compelled to take in guests to make a living.

Maria, Senhora Rodrigues’ remaining child, she had lost three others, opened the door and showed him through to the drawing room. One of the servants took his bags.

The port is reached…

It had taken the Duncans forty-five minutes to get through immigration at the Ferry Terminal and then another half-hour in a taxi queue.

‘God, what a journey,’ said Alice Duncan to nobody in particular. ‘At least Emily has finally fallen asleep.’ Their daughter had cried throughout the crossing. George wasn’t listening to his wife as he watched the Macau streets from the taxi window. He knew that Alice had wanted to stay in the hotel in Hong Kong and he regretted having persuaded her to join him. He should have just come on his own but he had wanted to share his discovery with his wife. If he found what he was looking for anyway, Alice was doubtful.

The taxi driver turned down a narrow one-way street. Cars and scooters were parked on both sides of the road leaving barely enough space for the taxi to pass through. They passed drab apartment blocks, Edificio Van Kang, with metal grills guarding laundry drying on balconies, then suddenly the road opened out onto a square. Houses of yellow, ochre and pale green surrounding an ancient banyan tree, the pavements tessellated in black and white. A church in one corner with paint peeling from the higher reaches of the bell-tower. This was what he had imagined ever since he had first read about Macau.

‘Here we are,’ said George as the taxi pulled up outside the hotel.

‘Finally,’ said Alice, carrying Emily in her arms and leaving the bags to her husband. Waking, Emily coughed and cried once more.

‘I don’t like that cough, I don’t think she’s well,’ said Alice once they were in their room.

‘I’m sure it’s nothing, just a cough. The hotel could provide a babysitter if we wanted to go out.’

‘You’re joking right?’ said Alice testily. ‘You’d trust your daughter, your two-year old sick daughter, to a stranger?’

Alice turned away from George and started to unpack.

‘Give me a hand George.’

If he needed any more clues that his wife was angry with him, the plain use of his name was the final giveaway. Six years of marriage had taken their toll. When things were good between them he was “my love” or “darling”, simply being “George” was always a warning sign. Not that he needed much of a warning, it had been obvious for some time that Alice had no interest in this trip and thought his obsession was just that, an obsession, not the result of months of careful research. Alice had complained throughout the journey, and Emily’s illness hadn’t helped.

They ate in the hotel’s western restaurant. The food was indifferent.

***

He found the nights the worst. His fever combined with the heat to make sleep near impossible, and in his sleepless condition he was afflicted with torments. He thought of his wife and child back home, he hadn’t seen them for over a year. He wondered how long it would be before they learnt of his death. Weeks? Months perhaps. His wife had never wanted him to come to China at all. It was not in her normal character to resist him but she had tried to persuade him against Canton.

‘What is wrong with Bombay, or perhaps Calcutta?’ she had asked.

‘I’ve explained before, my dearest, they belong to the old established families. I would not get a good position there. I only want what is best for you and the child, to make a good future for us all. Cathay, Canton, is the right choice, I am sure of it. Mr Rawle will help introduce me to society there and after I am settled you will come and join me.’

The night before he had sailed he saw her wiping away tears when she thought that he wasn’t looking. The next morning she was herself again, an English gentleman’s wife, and she watched him depart, their baby son in her arms. He was not a superstitious man but in his sleepless nights he often wondered if she had known what his fate was to be.

The sails are furled….

***

George and Alice got little sleep. Emily repeatedly woke them with her crying and in the morning Alice found that she had a temperature.

‘Feel her forehead, George.’ Alice stroked Emily’s hair and tried to comfort her.

George rang down to reception and asked them to call a doctor.

‘About an hour they say,’ he told his wife.

The doctor was a thirtysomething Macanese woman. She prescribed rest and Calpol.

‘It looks like your wild goose chase will have to wait,’ said Alice after the doctor had left.

George bit his tongue. It was as if Alice was happy that Emily’s illness was stopping him from going out, but this wasn’t the time to argue.

***

Although exhausted by the ordeal of the night, he nevertheless felt a little better in the morning. Maria brought him breakfast in his room along with a tonic. After he had breakfasted he found that his clothes had been laundered and placed in a closet in his room. Anxious to take the air he dressed in a white linen suit and took pleasure in knotting one of his best cravats. He greeted Senhora Rodrigues in the hallway as he was leaving, he could not understand her agitated Portuguese but he surmised that she did not think that an excursion was advisable. Her protestations were to no avail, and he left the house telling her that he would be back shortly.

He had little difficulty in finding a sedan chair and bearers. Using his fragmentary Cantonese he asked them to take him via the Largo do Senado to the Cimitério Protestante and the chapel within. The simple plain white-painted building bore little resemblance to a fine English church, or even the new cathedral in Hong Kong, but in this Catholic place it was the closest to home. He had wanted to take some time to pray, not having been able to attend a church service for several weeks, but at first he thought he was going to be thwarted. A funeral was taking place and he sat on a bench outside of the chapel so as not to intrude. It was apparent that the deceased was a naval officer. An ensign was draped over the coffin and when the service came to an end the casket was carried from the chapel to its final resting place by six seamen.

When the chapel was empty of mourners he went in and sat in a pew towards the front. He looked at the cross on the altar and prayed silently. He prayed for his health: that he might recover or, if not, that at least he would live long enough to receive another letter from his wife. He prayed for his wife and child; that they would be cared for after his death.

While he sat there he could hear the graveside committal service.

Life’s voyage now is over….

***

George and Alice bickered all day. Trapped in the hotel with a sick child they had little else to do. Emily’s fever didn’t get any worse, but neither did it get better. By the evening George had determined that he would go out regardless of what Alice thought.

‘Suit yourself,’ said Alice. ‘I’ll get room service. Just don’t be late back; I don’t want you waking Emily if she’s sleeping.’

George left the hotel a little after dark. He had a general sense of where he was going but otherwise he wandered following his nose. He enjoyed the narrow travessas, the shophouses selling everything from gold jewellery to mobile phones, pastelerias still open offering cakes and sweet delicacies. He passed the neon lotus of the Hotel Lisboa and the Russian women who waved at him. He stopped and admired the illuminated façade that was all that remained of the ruins of St. Paul.

Eventually he arrived at his destination and he looked through the gates of the Old Protestant Cemetery. He was not surprised to find that they were locked at this hour, he had suspected as much, but he was pleased to have found the place. He would come back in daylight no matter what Alice said. Tomorrow was their last day in Macau.

***

He was no longer well enough to walk as far as the chapel, but ignoring the daily efforts of Senhora Rodrigues to dissuade him, he still endeavoured to take a morning promenade along the Praya. He observed the fishermen on the junks and sampans, the steamers to Canton and Hong Kong, and occasionally the arrival of a clipper from London or San Francisco. One day he watched as the Emily Graham set sail for England, the ship that had first brought him to China two years ago. He tried to put out of his mind the wish that he were on that ship now.

As the days passed and his health deteriorated further his excursions grew shorter. He would waken with progressively less energy and it would take him longer to prepare himself for the day ahead, until one day he collapsed and had to be carried back to the house by passing strangers. He knew then that he would not leave the house again. Senhora Rodrigues asked the doctor to attend him daily but his decline could no longer be arrested. He wrote a final letter to his wife instructing her on how to dispose of his estate. He sent a cheque to Mr Rawle to settle his debts, and he ensured that Senhora Rodrigues was not out of pocket. ‘Obrigado por tudo…’ he said to her when she visited his room for the last time.

By faith’s bright chart

He has reached that world

Where storms are felt no more

***

After the frenetic activity of Macau, the cemetery was a haven of peace. George had left immediately after a breakfast during which he and Alice barely spoke. Arriving at the cemetery he walked through the gates and saw the chapel that he had seen in the guidebooks. He would return to it if he had time, but first he headed for the graveyard. The gravestones and memorials were arranged in tidy ordered rows over two tree-shaded levels. Not knowing where to start he began with the lower level and was fascinated by the tales that the gravestones told: “Sacred to the memory of…”, “Erected by his messmates”, “Late Commander of…” Set aside for the burial of protestants in catholic Macau, the cemetery was full of British, American and Dutch merchants and sailors who had died far from home.

But also sometimes wives and families. He was brought up short by the memorial to Charlotte Livingstone “who departed this life January 5 1858 Aged 5 months and 10 days”. He immediately thought of Emily and felt a twinge of remorse, but he was here now so there was no point in going back to the hotel just yet. In the end it took him the best part of an hour to find what he was looking for, a simple gravestone on the upper level: “Sacred to the memory of George H Duncan who departed this life May 9th 1857 age 32 years.” He read the poem that was inscribed on the stone.

George spent a few minutes at the grave of his ancestor and namesake, trying to imagine his life and death here in Macau. He took out his phone to photograph the gravestone, and then went into the empty chapel and sat for a moment close to the front. He had never been particularly religious but for once in his life he found himself saying a simple prayer for his daughter. In the quiet afterwards he imagined he heard voices coming from the graveyard, but leaving the chapel he found nobody there. The atmosphere of the place was getting to him, he thought.

Returning to the hotel George found Alice packing their case. They were due to check-out.

‘How’s Emily?’ he asked.

‘See for yourself.’

George picked up Emily and she chuckled. He tested her brow and found that the fever had gone. He kissed her on the nose.

‘Did you find it?’ asked Alice.

‘Yes.’

‘And?’

‘The name and date fit with what I was hoping for. It must be him.’

‘I’m glad. Can we go home and get back to the present now?’

***

Emilia Duncan was in the drawing room with her needlework, her son Henry playing at her feet. For several weeks she had experienced a feeling of dread, of increasing anxiety, and last night she had been tormented by bad dreams. She heard the knock at the door and the footsteps of the housemaid Mary. Emilia put down her needlework and waited patiently until Mary entered the room.

‘Ma’am, there’s a letter for you.’

Graeme Hall

About Graeme Hall

Graeme Hall left the world of patent law to pursue a long-held ambition to be a writer. His short story “The Cormorant Fishers” was runner-up in the 2014 Leeds Writers Circle Short Story Competition, and “The Faraday Cage” was short-listed in the 2014 Black Pear Press Short Story Competition and included in the Black Pear Press anthology “Seaglass And Other Stories” (www.blackpear.net). Currently writing his first novel, Graeme also writes and blogs on music at: http://www.dongraeme.blogspot.co.uk/Graeme lives in Yorkshire with his wife and a wooden dog.

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