‘The Separation’ (Book Excerpt) by Dinah Jefferies

Dinah Jefferies

Dinah Jefferies was born in Melaka, Malaya before coming to England when her parents returned to Solihull, Warwickshire. She studied at Birmingham College of Art and the University of Ulster, Coleraine. Read her interview here. Below, you can read an excerpt from her book, The Separation. Courtesy: Dinah Jefferies.

The Separation (Book Excerpt) 

1931 Weston-super-Mare, England

The man smoothed down the lion’s paws with a sponge he’d dipped in a bucket of water, then withdrew a knife from a leather pouch at his waist. He glanced up at the waiting crowd, before bending his head and carefully sharpening the creature’s claws.

The young girl, squatting a foot away, reached out to touch the lion’s mane with her fingertips.

‘No!’ the man shouted, as he pushed the child away. ‘Not yet.’

Her head hung for a moment, but then she glanced back over her shoulder, smiled shyly at the woman who stood watching, and swivelled back to keep her eyes on the creature.

A gust of wind lifted a layer of sand and sent a thousand grains dancing and whirling. The man reacted quickly, dampening down the surface of the beast before more could be whisked away.

The watching woman shivered. Her red gold hair was cut close to her head, with a marcel wave to keep it neat, and she wore a pale blue dress with darker blue cornflowers at the modest hemline, with only a thin white cotton cardigan to protect her from the sudden chill.

Once he had satisfied himself that the animal was complete, the sculptor bowed, then walked round the crowd, an upturned hat in his hand. The woman listened to the chink of coins and dipped into her purse.

The sound of horses hooves rang on the cobbled road behind the esplanade, but it was not they who drew the woman’s attention. Her eyes remained fixed on the little girl, now kneeling on the sand, and gathering handfuls that glistened silvery-gold in the pale sunlight.

As the milling crowd dispersed, instead of their murmurs, or the noise of screaming seagulls and the waves of the ocean, the tap of hammer on metal filled the air. The woman glanced back at what had once been the grand pier, its elegant wrought ironwork bent out of shape by fire. She caught the scent of cockles in vinegar.

‘Are you hungry?’ she asked the child.

The little girl shook her head. There was hesitance, an uncertainty that revealed itself in the child’s slight blush.

‘What about a liquorice stick?’

The woman knelt down beside the child and drew close. Close enough to smell the sweetness of her hair. She took a long slow breath, and exhaled through lips that trembled only slightly. She stood, shook sand from the hem of her floral skirt, and took hold of the girl’s hand.

‘Let’s run, shall we?’

A look passed between them and they raced along the beach, kicking up sand and shells and stumbling and slipping until they reached the waiting nun.

At heart the nun was not unfeeling, and with a kindly look, she touched the woman’s shoulder. Just a fleeting touch that ensured the exchange would be smooth, tears kept at bay, and emotion restrained. The child tipped back her head and turned her hazel eyes on the two women, then beyond them to where red and blue flags lined the sandy sweep of the bay.

For the woman, the day had begun with excitement and a sense of elation. Now it was almost over, she could not take her eyes from the child’s sharp angled, stick-thin body. She patted the little girl’s auburn hair and fixed the moment in her memory.

But it would be different for the child. As her memory receded and blended into the past, she would doubt: wonder if the day, the lion, and the woman existed only in her mind. She would seek to capture details of a time that could not be recovered. There would be resonance – a dress, a smile. Only that. And the woman would continue to stifle her sorrow.

‘Come along,’ the nun said, and took the child’s hand. ‘We need to get on that tram, or we won’t get to the railway station in time.’

The woman in the blue dress stepped away, then glanced back to look at the golden sand lion, aware the incoming tide would soon wash it away.

Chapter One
1955 Malaya

They couldn’t see me beneath the house on stilts. But I spied on them. Our amah, and Fleur,
my little sister. I heard sandals on the patio – flip-flop, flip-flop – and Fleur’s sobs as she ran.
Then the swish of her old pink rabbit, dragged by its ears over the pebbled path.

Amah’s shrill Chinese voice came after. ‘You come here now, Missy. You spoil rabbit. Carry him like that.’

‘I don’t care! I don’t want to go,’ Fleur shouted back. ‘I like it here.’

‘Me too,’ I whispered, and sniffed a mix of dead lizards and daddy long legs. I didn’t mind them.

Beyond my earthy hideout, past the end of the garden, was the long grass, where nobody dared go. But I wasn’t scared of that either.

What I was scared of was leaving.

Later on, when the sky turned lavender, Daddy pointed out across the same view. Now, from an upstairs balcony, a Tiger beer in his hand, he looked past the lawns and over the hills. To England.

‘It’s never warm enough there in January,’ he said, talking to himself and rubbing his jaw. ‘With a raw wind that makes your cheekbones ache. Not like here. Nothing like here.’


I watched his bony face, the large Adam’s apple and straight line of his mouth above. He swallowed, the apple rose and fell, and his eyes came back to me and Fleur, as if he’d just remembered us. He sort of smiled and gave us both a squeeze.

‘Come on, you two. No need to look so miserable. We’ll have a great life in England. You like swinging from trees, don’t you, Em?’

I nodded. ‘Well, yes, but— ’

‘What about you, Fleur?’ he broke in. ‘Plenty of streams to paddle in.’

Fleur’s mouth remained turned down. I caught her eye and pulled a face; it sounded too much like the jungle to me.

‘Come on,’ Dad said. ‘You’re a big girl now, Emma. Nearly twelve. Set an example to your sister.’

‘But, Daddy,’ I tried to tell him.

He went to the door. ‘Emma, it’s settled. Sort out the books you want to take. That’ll keep you busy. Just a few, mind. Come along, Fleur.’

‘But, Dad.’

When he saw my tears, he paused. ‘You’ll love it, if that’s what’s bothering you. I promise.’

I felt very hot, and the thought of my mother made me catch my breath.

He opened the door.

‘But, Dad,’ I called after him, as he and Fleur went out. ‘Aren’t we going to wait for Mummy?’

Chapter Two

Lydia dumped her dusty case. Out on the patio, her daughters’ bikes lay abandoned beside the jacaranda tree.

‘Emma, Fleur,’ she called out. ‘Mummy’s home.’

She stepped from the patio to glance down the pebble path that led to the long grass. As the sky darkened, an enormous moth, from the fringes of the jungle, smacked her in the cheek. She brushed its black dust off, then ducked back inside to escape the oncoming rain.

‘Alec?’ she called again. ‘I’m home.’

Her husband’s clean-cut features came to mind, skin smelling strongly of soap from the Chinese market, light brown hair cut short back and sides. There was no reply.

She fought off a pang of disappointment in the too-silent house. She’d sent a telegram, just as he’d asked; so where were her family? It was too hot to have gone for a walk. Were they at the pool perhaps, or maybe Alec had taken the girls for tea at the club?

She climbed the stairs to her bedroom, glanced at a photo of Emma and Fleur on the bedside table, and felt such a surge of love. She had missed them.

After undressing, she ran her fingers through her shoulder-length auburn hair, and flicked on the fan. Tired from the journey, and a month looking after a sick friend, she really needed a bath. She pulled open the wardrobe doors, stopped short, frowned. Her breath caught – none of Alec’s clothes were there. Throwing on her loosely woven kimono, she ran barefoot to her daughters’ room.

Someone had left their wardrobe open, and she saw, straightaway, that it was practically empty. Just a few pairs of roughly folded shorts on the top shelf, and crumpled paper on the one beneath. Where were all of their clothes?

What if, she thought, but the sentence died in her throat. She steadied her breathing. That’s what they want: the men in the jungle. To frighten us. She imagined what Alec would say: Hold your head up. Don’t let them win. But what can you expect to feel, when they throw a grenade into a marketplace packed with people?

She spun round at the sound of a cry, and ran to the window. Her shoulders slumped. Just the flying foxes hanging in the tree.

With one hand on her heart, she slid her fingers under the crumpled lining paper in the wardrobe and pulled out one of Em’s notebooks, hoping for a clue. She sat on the camphor wood chest, sniffed the comforting familiar smell, and clasped the notebook to her. She took a deep breath, then opened the notebook to read:

The matriarch is a fat lady with a flabby neck. Her name is Harriet Parrot. She has raisin eyes and a shiny buttery nose which she tries to hide with powder. She slides on little feet in Chinese slippers, but wears long skirts, so you can only just see them at the edges.

Harriet. Had they gone to Harriet?

She stopped abruptly, grasped the edge of the chest, reeling from a rush of heat and the panic that was rising in her. Too much was missing. A note. Of course. He must have left a note. Or a message with the servants.

She ran downstairs two at a time, missing her footing, diving into the downstairs rooms: living rooms, kitchen, scullery, the covered corridor to the servants’ day quarters, and the storehouses. Just a couple of abandoned crates remained, everywhere was dark and empty, the servants gone. No amah’s rocking chair, no cook’s day bed, all the gardener’s tools removed. She scanned the room – no note.

She listened to the rain, and biting a fingernail, racked her brain, hardly able to think for air so heavy it weighed her down. She pictured her journey back home, hours squashed against the jammed train window, a hand cupped over her nose. The pungent odour of vomit from a sickly Indian boy. The distant gunfire.

She doubled over, winded by their absence. Fought for breath. This couldn’t be. She was tired. She wasn’t thinking straight. There had to be a rational explanation. There had to be. Alec would have found a way to tell her if they’d had to leave. Wouldn’t he?

She swivelled round and called their names, ‘Emma, Fleur.’ She choked back a sob and pictured Fleur’s dimpled chin, blue eyes, fair hair parted with a bow. Then, recalling the jungle mists that concealed desperate men, her worst fear overtook any remaining chance of rational hope. Sweat crawled under her kimono, her eyes began to smart and she covered her mouth with her palm.

With trembling hands she picked up the phone to dial Alec’s boss. He’d know what had happened. He’d tell her what to do.

Then, she sat with the phone in her lap, sweat growing cold on her skin, flies humming overhead, the sound of the fan churning, click, click, click, and the flutter of a moth’s wings beating the air.

The line was dead.

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