After a stay at Grand Hotel d’Angkor in Siem Reap, Cambodia, British novelist Rosie Milne follows in the footsteps of the many writers who have found inspiration in Raffles by writing a historical short story
It was unutterably thrilling, thought Marguerite, to have grown up in hotels all over the world – or, anyway, in hotels dotted all across those places on the map marked pink, to indicate they were colonies of the splendid French empire. There was an apartment in the sixtharrondissement, but that wasn’t home; Paris wasn’t home. Home was the hotel wherever she happened to be staying. Papa said their home was nowhere, or else it was everywhere, just like her mother. Marguerite couldn’t really remember Maman and it always made her sad to be reminded of what she’d forgotten, what she’d lost, but, in any case, she loved hotels. Back in her former life as a child, a life at once so recent and so distant, she’d loved that hotels provided a stream of new playmates to splash with in the pools, as well as ices from room service. Now that she was old enough to perch herself on stools in hotel bars, although only ever to orderde l’eau petillante, she realised she loved, too, the way lives crisscrossed in hotel lobbies. She loved the way hotels accepted all kinds of people as guests: old people; young people; professors, such as Papa; missionaries; nuns; colonial administrators; import-export agents; French; American; Russian; English. Everybody.
It was terrifically inspiring. Like father, like daughter she supposed: certainly, like Papa, she was writing a book – and not her first, either; there had already been a romance, almost as good as anything by Colette, she thought, but Papa had declined to send the manuscript to his publisher. Oh well, what did he know of romance? And whereas he was working on yet another of his boring old monographs, she was now planning a collection of short stories to be set in an hotel, one story for each of the guest rooms: something would happen to somebody in room 103; something else would happen to somebody else in room 210, etc, etc, etc. So far, she’d got no further than the idea, but she kept a constant lookout for material. And what was simply marvellous was so many of her fellow guests were willing to share their stories with a girl carrying a notebook! Indeed, since she’d started flourishing hers, she discovered another thing she loved about hotels: if you wanted to strike up conversation with a stranger, you were never at a loss; you could always break the ice by asking “Why are you here?”
As for herself, she was here because Papa was. For the past month he’d been busily collecting his fairytales and fables, Khmer ones this time and, he said, there was no better place in all Cambodia from which an ethnographer could conduct fieldwork than Siem Reap, this town built of stone and brick, and also of the echoes of ancient myths and prayers. This town, he said, existed in realms beyond the physical; he claimed the crumbling temples emerged from the jungle like long-lost memories bubbling up through the reedy pond of humanity’s collective subconscious.
Marguerite couldn’t really be doing with the subconscious. She thought the temples emerged from the jungle like islands from the sea. But in any case, Papa was fond of remarking that the temples were ruins whose beauty bespoke the beauty of the buildings they once had been. She could not disagree; nor could anybody else, either. Meaning that when she accosted her fellow guests to ask, Why are you here?”, they generally replied, “For the temples.”
Leo, though, Count Leonid Sumarakov, being, as it turned out, a man of artistic sensibility as refined as her own, had given a more original answer. He said: “I’m here to take photographs.” Marguerite had at once decided that after she had finished her hotel stories, her next full-length romance would have as its hero a dreamy Russian photographer, who’d speak French with a deliciously distracting accent. She had been unutterably thrilled when Leo added that he was compiling a book. It only went to show they were very much aligned, she thought. Not to mention a book would give her Russian hero something to be getting on with while he wooed her heroine. Leo’s collection of photographs was to be calledFaces of Angkor and it was to be published in New York, which impressed her no end, although when she told Papa, whose books were published in Paris, he had shrugged and said America would never have the cultural importance of France, nor its language the subtlety and nuance of their own French tongue.
Still, Marguerite had rather expected Leo to bring his camera along this morning – his was no Box Brownie, but a complicated thing and a fiendish beast for your amateur to master, he’d said when he showed her its fiddles and twiddles and lenses. She had been such a jitter of anxious frisson she hadn’t noticed its absence at first. Well, rather horribly, there’d been the necessity of ignoring the rickshaw driver. That hadn’t been a frisson. Rickshaws always made her uneasy; she felt awfully slothful to be shifted from here to there by some poor local’s leg power, but when once she had said so to Leo, he laughed and said he had fled the Bolsheviks in ’17, and please don’t force him to flee again; so this morning, as she had climbed into the rickshaw provided by the hotel, she paid the driver less attention than she would a horse. Apart from that, though: what if Papa had seen her? He had set off already for the field, and rarely showed much interest in how she spent her days, but it would be just her rotten luck if he’d spotted her leaving. Moreover, when Leo had squashed himself on to the seat beside her, his thigh had pressed to hers, which had been so unutterably thrilling the world had blurred. They were fully halfway to Bayon before her heart stopped thumping and she could look about her again. Oh, dear! She pointed out to Leo that he’d forgotten his camera. But he shook his head: no. He left it in his room, he’d said, because he wanted to see the famous faces through his own eyes, through the lens of his own self, and not through the camera’s lens.
Marguerite had thought this explanation awfully artistic. Later, at the temple’s ruins, Leo said never mind looking through a viewfinder, what was lovely above all was to wander among all these timeless faces with a girl whose face was beautiful as hers. She’d wanted to swoon into his manly arms, but instead, like a ninny, she blushed and became ever so flustered and flushed.
It was all so much better than visiting temples with Papa. He did drone on so! Here at Bayon he had delivered the expected lecture: Bayon was dedicated to Lokesvara; it was his face in the mossy stone, on every tower. Lokesvara, “Lord who looks down on the world”, the sun and moon born from his eyes, “Lord who looks down on sound”, the sound of the world’s lamentations. Marguerite had remarked that with people lamenting to him all over the place it was a wonder he looked so unruffled; his face was so serene it was blank. Papa had ignored her, pointed to a face and said that when the eyes were carved closed like that it meant the “Lord who looks” was looking inward, contemplating the obliteration of nirvana.
Marguerite couldn’t really be doing with obliteration. It was such a relief Leo didn’t talk like a guidebook. Leo spoke, she had gloated this morning, exactly as her Russian photographer hero must, when she’d write the novel she planned to put him in. And Bayon would do very well for one of the settings. She thought how she’d describe it:Above the lovers, the empty sky was its usual azure. Quite good, she thought.There were no sounds at all; there was absolute silence, except for the noise of the jungle. A pity that half the time the noise was the shrieks of monkeys being throttled by pythons. She couldn’t mention that; that wasn’t very nice.The jungle pressed all around so the views from the decayed terraces between Lokesvara’s looming faces were of nothing but a great wilderness of trees. Yes, it was all ever so green. Green, green, green, wherever she looked.The jungle was green as Leo’s eyes.
I say! Marguerite was terribly pleased with that – except she could never call her hero Leo, of course … Oh, she did so hope he’d kiss her! Once or twice she’d thought he might. At one moment he’d seized her hand and tugged her into one of the chapels with, she’d thought, perfectly ripping forcefulness and a telling yearning in his eye. But the chapels were cramped and airless cells, fetid and lightless, and she’d felt suddenly afraid to be in such a cupboard with no one but him. They’d disturbed a smelly colony of bats, whose flapping had also frightened her and like the absolute ninny she was, she’d only gone and jumped straight back out, to the warmth and light of the terrace.
A little later they’d found themselves in the roofless remains of a dancing hall. Thanks to Papa, Marguerite knew that here in days of yore Lokesvara and his human envoys, the Khmer kings, would have watched courtiers dancing. The stones were all jumbled and tumbled now, but where sagging walls and columns still stood, they were densely carved with images of dancers, both human and celestial –apsaras, Marguerite remembered, fairies of the clouds and air, Papa said. She’d been about to remark that theapsaras looked as if they would at any moment float-shimmy right off the walls, so lively was their carving, when Leo stepped towards her, with his arms open in invitation. And in this safely unconfined space she would have accepted his invitation, she really would have, but at that moment a Khmer guide had walked around a column and with him were three plump, perspiring Americans. Leo had stepped away from her again. But as he did he’d touched his hand lightly to her shoulder and then he’d run it down the length of her arm, to her fingertips, in a movement she’d thought as graceful as any dancer’s, and one she’d found unutterably thrilling, so she wasn’t at all surprised to feel Leo’s fingertips searing hers long after he’d withdrawn them.
Between her own timidity, bats and shouldering Americans, Marguerite had felt just the teensiest out of sorts as Leo handed her into the rickshaw for the ride back to the hotel. Still, the sun was by now a white-hot dazzle, so the shade of the canopy was very welcome. And more welcome still: the rickshaw had barely departed before Leo took her in his arms, pressed his mouth to hers, and kissed her! With the driver up front and farmers passing on bullock carts, Marguerite hadn’t been the least nervous. Indeed, it was unutterably thrilling. She felt terribly sophisticated, to be kissing like this; she felt giddy with her own dangerous daring. And this kiss contained within itself the promise of so many other firsts, of lips, hands, flesh, of carnal joys to come…
When they broke, Marguerite shyly dared to meet Leo’s eye, eager to see shining there reassurance that he didn’t regret choosing her and not, say, The Hateful Sylvia. But the expression in his eyes could have meant a hundred different things. Still, he kissed her again, which was awfully satisfying. Not to mention that soon everyone would know he was her beau! Well, apart from Papa, of course. And best, perhaps, ifles grandes dames of the hotel could also be kept in the dark; they were such meddlesome old gossips, the lot of them. But in any case, The Hateful Sylvia would soon know, she’d see to that.
Le Grand Hotel d’Angkor, brand-new and glittering, always put Marguerite in mind of some confection all glazed in white, with its airy arcades below and its shuttered rooms above. And as the doorman bowed her and Leo from theporte cochere into the marbled coolness of the lobby, she felt as if she were gorging on sugared almonds: The Hateful Sylvia and her horrible sister, Helen, had seen her arrive with Leo on her arm! Or did Leo have her on his arm? Either way, it was unutterably thrilling. The English girls were standing by the extravagant display of orchids on the rosewood table in the middle of the lobby. Perhaps they were waiting for the doorman to call them to their own rickshaw? Though the sun was high, perhaps they were about to depart for the temples themselves? Oh, Marguerite knew what they would say, of course. Her English was pretty good – much better than their French – and not a week back she’d overheard The Hateful Sylvia remarking to Helen, of her and Leo, that 35 had no business to be making eyes at 17. Well! She didn’t care to pay attention to a disappointed and jealous cat, that’s all.
As she and Leo approached them, Marguerite gave the sisters a cheerily triumphant wave. To her great delight they looked back at her through narrowed eyes hard as agates. But a moment later her preening turned to apprehension: their mother, Mrs Bingham, a redoubtable busybody as gracelessly ugly as she was strict, or so judged Marguerite, was lumbering down the rather grandly sweeping stairs. She was carrying three parasols. Marguerite felt Leo flinch and then the darling dragged her out of the lobby, obviously to save her from a roasting, which was awfully sweet of him.
Now, though, a few hours later, she knew she was for it. Papa was so absorbed in his fairytales and whatnot she rarely had sight or sound of him before dinner. But earlier this evening when she’d gone to her room to change, she found a note demanding she meet him as soon as possible in the Elephant Bar.
So here she was, perched on the edge of a rattan sofa in her heavenly new dress – poppy-red crepe-de-chine, bias-cut and swishy. Although she trusted she looked poised, she was feeling far from cool and tried to blame the ceiling fan directly above her – the thing was so languorous it barely stirred the cloying air – but she knew the heat now pricking her was less to do with the fan and more to do with Papa, who was sitting on the facing sofa, looking stern. Next to him sat Mrs Bingham clutching a letter on her lap, and with a smug and beady expression on her damply shiny face. The traitoress must have told! Still, it cheered Marguerite, somewhat, that her betrayer’s stiff mauve satin was frankly hideous, and exactly what she’d expect of an Englishwoman.
Despite the mauve satin, for a moment Marguerite was assailed by the wild idea that Papa was about to announce he and Mrs Bingham were themselves madly, madly, madly in love and that they wished to elope come the morrow. It was too silly! Papa had more interest in gnomes and elves and ogres and things than he did in women, not to mention he was in his late forties and bald, and wore pince-nez. And, quite apart from her damning lack of style, Mrs Bingham had jowls, which wobbled, and a mole on her chin sprouting with bristles. Come to think of it, she also had a husband. The Binghams lived in Singapore, where Mr Bingham was a colonial official; when Mrs Bingham brought her daughters to Siem Reap she’d left him behind, just as if he were a piece of luggage she’d forgotten.
But never mind luggage, if Papa were about to announce that he was in love, then why the grim face? No, Marguerite knew guilt and worry had led her to drape her own feelings over Papa and Mrs Bingham. Dear Leo! She hadn’t seen him since they parted this morning, but they’d agreed to meet for tennis tomorrow and even to think of the coming game made her blush. Leo would look so athletic in his whites. And tennis would let her show off her own athletic figure, too. But she mustn’t let herself think about any of that now. No, she must adopt a serious expression, for she was decidedly in the soup. There was nothing for it but to look downcast and brace herself for one of Papa’s stories.
Papa’s stories had dogged her childhood; they were the means by which he conveyed his tellings-off. Back in the day, these had most often been about the importance of not interrupting him at his work; once he’d delivered them he generally forgot them and left her to her own devices. But whatever they were about, they were ever so ethnographic. The thing was: Papa invariably delivered instructions, orders, homilies and moral lessons by way of the folklore he’d made his life’s work.
True to form, Papa now made a steeple of his fingers under his chin. He took a preparatory breath, and then he asked: “What do the Khmer say about monkeys?”
Marguerite, well used to this sort of thing, was not at all taken aback. But as well as being new to conversation with ethnographers, Mrs Bingham’s French was terrible; evidently she thought she’d misunderstood.
“Did you say ‘monkeys’?” she asked, in French so atrociously accented it may very well not have been.
Papa nodded. “Yes, monkeys, Ma Chere Madame. The Khmer say the character of this most human of animals is rather ambivalent. The monkey is described as witty and clever. The monkey is described as evil and cunning. The monkey is both a sacred messenger of the gods and also a metaphor for the cunning human mind. He is ever and always a trickster; even Lokesvara takes his form, when he needs to deceive the demons.”
“Demons?” asked Mrs Bingham.
Marguerite decided this interview might after all be rather blissfully entertaining, but she managed to keep her face in order, and not to laugh.
“Demons,” repeated Papa. “So, now we are clear about that, let us continue to the tale of the dancing monkeys. It exists in many cultures, of course, in various forms, as is to be expected, but it is particularly apt here in Siem Reap, such was the importance of dancing to those Khmer kings who built our splendid temples.” He paused, to clear his throat. “The king ordered a troupe of monkeys to be trained to dance with his courtiers. The clever animals were quick learners, and soon they were good enough – almost – to be compared to apsaras. They joined the sacred dance in the temple and when they were arrayed in their cloths of gold, and in their masks with the headdresses calledmokots attached, nobody could tell the difference. They performed many times for the king, who was always delighted – both by their dancing, and also by the way the audiences were fooled. But one day his youngest son, a mischievous lad he’d unwisely trusted with the truth, smuggled a bunch of bananas into the hall and, bent on his princely naughtiness, threw the fruit right on to the dancing floor. The monkeys immediately forgot their pretence, and revealed themselves: discarding their masks and mokots and, pulling off their golden silks, they fought with one another for the spoils. The dance came to an end amidst chaos, with the human dancers crying and the audience falling about in stitches. The king was so furious he banished the young prince to a peasant village for a year.”
After Papa finished, Marguerite waited for the question he always asked, after he’d attempted to impart a lesson. It duly came.
“And so, Ma Cherie, what is the moral?”
Marguerite made a sulky little moue. Since the moral could only be that he was about to order her to put a stop to things with Leo, she thought he was probably looking for: children should obey their parents. At least they should if they didn’t want to be banished to the sticks for a year. But surely a better fit would be: children should not make fools of their parents? She was still wondering how to reply when Mrs Bingham beat her to it.
“I’m terribly sorry,” she said, her jowls wobbling more than ever. “But what are we talking about? I thought we were supposed to be discussing our so-called Count Sumarakov?”
Marguerite’s eyes widened: “What do you mean: ‘so-called’?”
At the very same moment Papa replied: “Ma Chere Madame, we are discussing the man known as Count Sumarakov.”
“Are we? Then what of these monkeys?”
“Papa!” Marguerite insisted. “What do you mean: ‘the man known as Count Sumarakov’?”
Papa sighed. “The moral of the story of the dancing monkeys is this: appearances can be deceptive.” He paused, and looked at his daughter over the top of his pince-nez. “Count Sumarakov. He isn’t a count at all; his name is probably not Sumarakov, although he would indeed appear to be Russian.”
What? Marguerite was outraged: Papa must have made this vile accusation out of jealousy! After all, he was 49, to Leo’s 35. Leo was Papa’s rival for her heart. Leo’s book was to be published not in Paris, but in New York!
“Leo not Leo?” She flashed. “I don’t believe it.”
Mrs Bingham had caught the drift of things now. “Did you ever hear him name his supposed publisher in New York?” she asked, her words just about comprehensible through the halting gabble of her accent and her grammatical errors. “Has anyone ever actually seen him take a photograph?” She wobbled her jowls. “I was suspicious of him from the start. Do you remember? When we arrived he was paying far too much attention to Sylvia. I warned him off…”
Marguerite gasped It was too much! She did remember, of course she did. The Binghams arrived a few days after she and Papa, and Leo a few days after that. At first, incomprehensibly, he’d seemed attracted to The Hateful Sylvia. But then he’d come to his senses and realised he could do better than a girl with mousy hair, and all the flair and style of her lumpen race. Not to mention The Hateful Sylvia had a sharp tongue, barely blunted when she wielded it in her appalling French.
“I warned him off,” repeated Mrs Bingham, placidly. “A man of 35! And it rang a bell. A Russian, and a photography book? I wrote to George.” She picked up the letter she’d been holding on her lap and she waved it at Marguerite. “The mail between here and Singapore is admirably efficient; his reply came today, in the mid-day post.”
Papa nodded: “It seems our so-called count must have thought Siem Reap would be a good place to lie low after wherever he was last became too hot for him.”
“Quite,” said Mrs Bingham. “It was a good couple of years ago, now. A chancer claiming to be a Russian count was revealed in Singapore as a fortune-hunter. He’d been paying court to an American girl, very rich, you know how Americans are. He used photography, the glamour of it, to worm his way into society. He said he was preparing a book,Faces of Singapore, to be published in New York. Irresistible! Who wouldn’t rage to have their portrait included? He was of course invited everywhere –Faces of Angkor? Different kinds of face, I suppose, but I knew I’d heard something similar, before.”
Marguerite was having none of it.
“I never heard anything so ridiculous in all my life.”
Mrs Bingham shook her head. “The rumour is he won that camera of his in payment for a gambling debt; it doesn’t even work, they say.”
“‘They say’? Who’s ‘they’?”
“Marguerite!” Papa admonished.
“I shall not notice your insolence, child,” said Mrs Bingham. “The American heiress’s father became suspicious. He had the so-called count followed. He was seen entering one of these jazz joints with a Chinese woman, his regular companion, it turned out,” Mrs Bingham paused, to check her letter. “She knew him as one Lev Sabitov, a shop walker at Tomlinson’s – the Selfridge’s of Singapore, you know. The father challenged him, and he didn’t deny a thing. He had to leave town, of course. Where he’s been since is anybody’s guess.”
Marguerite spotted a snag in this nonsense.
“No fortune hunter would ever target me.”
“And nor Sylvia, either,” said Mrs Bingham, unperturbed. “But if heiresses are in short supply, then to a conceited wolf at a loose end …you are young and terribly pretty, child.”
Marguerite was furious. Mrs Bingham was suggesting Leo was cruel? Leo had been toying with her? Using her as a plaything to help pass the drearily dusty dragging hours while he waited out some scandal somewhere? Before he moved on, to make the next silly rich girl his victim? She wanted to stamp her foot, or to throw something.
“Leo would never be so heartless. He’d never take advantage like that!”
“Gadding with him to temples?” Papa said, very sharply. “Marguerite! Even if he were a real count, think of your reputation!”
Mrs Bingham added: “A girl’s most precious asset, once lost, lost for ever.”
“We did nothing to damage it,” flounced Marguerite. But then she felt her cheeks grow warm: that wasn’t quite true, was it…
“I expect more of you,” said Papa.
Marguerite remained anxious a moment, but he added nothing more. It seemed he did not intend to challenge: you let this man kiss you in a rickshaw where anybody might have seen. But she wasn’t about to let relief improve her temper.
“We should give Leo a chance to defend himself.”
“I did. I happened to return a little early from the field today, and as soon as Mrs Bingham apprised me of what was doing, I went to find the blighter. I put it to him he was nothing but a scoundrel. His only response was to say he would be gone within the hour.”
“You offended his honour! He decided he’d rather be anywhere other than a place where the people could demean him like that.”
“Don’t be silly,Ma Cherie. And later I made sure to watch him go.”
“What? He’s gone, already?”
“Skipped without paying his bill, I gather.”
“He never did!”
“The manager tells me he’s going to suggest the ladies check their jewels.”
“But where’s he gone?”
“I didn’t ask.”
“We were supposed to play tennis tomorrow!”
“Tennis?” asked Mrs Bingham, who was again looking confused. “I’d say you’ve had a jolly lucky escape, child. But no harm done. No need to create.” She tapped her bejewelled watch, and stood up. “Now, shall we go in to dinner?”
No harm done? No need to create? Although it was utterly ghastly, Marguerite really couldn’t help suspecting – indeed she couldn’t help starting to believe – that she had been tricked out of her heart by a dreamboat just as deceptive as a spy. What? Her first kiss, stolen by a bounder? It was too humiliating. Her hopes! All her blissful ideas of showing Leo off to other girls. Her blissful morning at Bayon, hours she’d thought she’d return to forever; memories she’d thought she’d treasure until her dying day. The future. The past. All spoiled. It wasn’t fair! She didn’t want to go into dinner; she wanted to go to her room and howl.
On the other hand, heartbroken or not, she had her pride. If she failed to go into dinner, then The Hateful Sylvia would surely smirk, and that simply wouldn’t do. Furthermore, there was her glorious red crepe-de-chine to consider. It rippled like water down her body and there was no point denying it: in this dress she looked more beautiful than any other girl between Cambodia and Paris. It would be too, too criminal to waste this opportunity to shine.
In any case, Papa and Mrs Bingham were halfway across the bar by now and Papa had just turned to beckon her. She had no choice but to meet his summons. She stood up, and she too began to walk towards the dining room, thus freeing her swishy skirt to do its delicious swishing.
Perhaps it was the consolation of her skirt, but by the time she offered Papa her arm she’d realised something: this business with Leo, it was all grist to the mill. She must forget her novel with a Russian photographer for a hero and put her uttermost heart and soul into her book of hotel stories. She would set one in the bar – indeed, she could call itThe Elephant Bar. The plot could follow an ingénue learning the older man she’d thought divine was nothing but a rotten cad. Hotels accepted all kinds of people as guests? She’d learned the truth of that, today. Hotels accepted conmen, chancers, fortune hunters, counterfeiters, black sheep, adulterers, probably murderers, even. Goodness, she thought, she was becoming ever so sophisticated! It was all so unutterably thrilling. ©Rosie Milne 2016
Rosie Milne’s novelOlivia and Sophia: The Adventures of Sir Thomas Stamford Raffles, the Remarkable Founder of Singapore, as Seen through the Eyes of His Two Wives is published by Monsoon Books