Sabah, Borneo 1922
“You never said it would be like this,” Claire groaned as she flicked open her paper fan, the one decorated with green bamboo and pink flamingos. She sank onto the chaise longue and waved the fan languorously in an attempt to coax some kind of reprieve from the stifling air.
“I assumed you knew what it would be like,” he drawled. “After all, you were born here, for god’s sake!”
“Yes but I was only three when mummy and daddy returned to England. Surely you wouldn’t expect me to remember what it was like back then.”
Claire and Richard had met at her parent’s comfortable home in the Cotswolds. He had first seen her when he had gone there to discuss details of his upcoming duties with ‘The Old Man’ which was how he always referred to her father. Having recently been appointed manager of Major Balfour’s rubber plantation, the major had wanted young Richard to meet his wife and daughter over dinner. The rubber plantation was, of course, nowhere near the Cotswolds. It was, in fact in Sabah, Borneo or…’the ends of the Earth’ as Claire called it. Despite having been born in Malaya, she held no fond regard for the place and had only recently returned there to join her fiancée after growing up and enjoying a somewhat privileged life in the cool green English countryside.
Twenty years in England had produced a young lady of considerable charm with looks to match. Her pale porcelain skin contrasted dramatically with the dark hair which she wore in a chignon with wisps falling seductively against her high cheekbones. Little wonder Richard was smitten at first sight!
It had been something of a whirlwind romance and they were engaged within a few short weeks, much to her mother’s disapproval but Major Balfour, surprisingly, seemed to support the match as he was fully aware of Richard’s background. The boy came from a good family which was of the utmost importance and had an Oxford education, another highly desirable asset in any future son-in-law.
Now his daughter, the apple of his eye, was beginning to doubt her ability to cope with the climate here at the ‘ends of the Earth’. A fine film of perspiration glistened on her slender neck and those wisps of dark hair stuck to the white skin. Richard was sitting at his desk and glanced across at her lying semi-prostrate on the couch. He resisted the urge to go over to where she lay and start covering her in passionate kisses. Unlike his betrothed, the heat had a completely opposite effect on him.
The big rattan ceiling fan revolved slowly overhead but, to Claire, it was no better than a paddle stirring warm porridge. This rambling whitewashed bungalow, which was to be their home for the foreseeable future, had withstood decades of searing heat and drenching monsoons yet showed barely any sign of it.
“If the climate here - the hot weather - is going to be a problem then maybe we should think about how practical it’s going to be for our future.” Richard spoke in gentle tones, feeling instinctively that he was touching on a sensitive area.
“What do you mean?” her face turned towards him.
“I mean we need to talk about the future. I don’t want you to live a life of misery if you can’t cope with the heat. As things are I need to be here to look after the old man’s interests, that’s what he pays me for, but it’s not going to work out if you’re unhappy.”
Claire felt a tightening in her stomach.
“Are you saying you don’t want to go ahead with the wedding?” She was sitting bolt upright now, both hands clenching her fan as if she were holding a dagger.
“No, no, darling, of course not!” Where on earth did you get that idea?”
He moved quickly across the room and sat beside her, putting a reassuring arm around her shoulder.
“All I’m saying is we need to talk about how we’re going to handle this. If you find the heat here unbearable then I may have to think about resigning from my position.
The old man won’t be happy but maybe I can persuade him to put an overseer in and I can work from England with just the occasional visit here to make sure everything is kept on track.”
Claire looked up into his eyes and saw no duplicity. He was sincere; he was only thinking of her happiness, she could see that clearly.
“I’m sorry, Richard, I didn’t want to ruin your career; I know it means a lot to you.”
His lips brushed her neck and he tasted the saltiness…
“Shhhhh…he whispered. “We’ll work something out. I’ll call the old man tomorrow and sound him out on it. If he agrees, I’m sure we can make the necessary arrangements and have everything set up before the wedding next May.”
“OK, but I want to talk to him too. I want him to know that it’s my fault. At least mummy will be pleased that I’ll be living back in England and not out here at the ends of the Earth”.
Richard grinned mischievously and said,
“But I do think we should seriously consider spending our honeymoon here.”
Claire let out a shriek and attacked him with her fan. They wrestled together and rolled off the chaise onto the floor, laughing and whooping in a silly rough and tumble. After a minute of childish horseplay they lay there panting in the heat, below the huge revolving blades of the rattan ceiling fan. Their eyes met and they both knew then that, however hot the weather, everything was going to be ok.