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The Auspicious Hour - After a stay at Raffles Hotel Singapore, author Alison MacLeod took inspiration from the beautiful surroundings for our latest short story

THE AUSPICIOUS HOUR

Words: Alison MacLeod    Illustrations: Eleanor Taylor

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After a stay at Raffles Hotel Singapore, award-winning author Alison MacLeod took inspiration from the beautiful surroundings for our latest specially commissioned story

Freya emerged from the wide, airy underpass and stopped short at the sight of the dream-dark bay. Here, at the mouth of the Singapore River, in the nightscape of Marina Bay, the towers of the financial district made countless rungs of laddered light, reaching to the heavens like Jacob’s Ladders, one window at a time. She reached for her shoulder bag and ransacked it for the binoculars. She carried them everywhere these days when on a job. Now, she adjusted the focus with an impatient thumb. What was that?

Gulls. Surely. Strays from a flock, confused by the forest of glass and steel. Except the shapes were too large to be birds, and they didn’t swoop in and out of her field of vision. They seemed, rather, to hold fast to the building fronts; to its floodlit sills, parapets and ledges.

Angels, she mused, in these, the small, jetlagged hours of the night.

They wore track bottoms and T-shirts. They shone with reflective running shoes, headlamps and fluorescent fingerless gloves. Through the binoculars, she watched one edge along a concrete parapet in bare feet. Parkour devotees. Urban climbers. An entire “jam” of them.

Wasn’t that the term for a group? They climbed in this metropolitan jungle the way she had once climbed the gnarly apple trees of her grandfather’s orchard, and the smooth copper beeches at the top of her childhood village.

The ascent had always been exhilarating; the secrecy of the canopy, 20 feet up, thrilling. She’d spied on owls in hollow trunks; on wide-bottomed women clip-clopping along the lane on horseback; on Mrs Grainger foraging in the hedgerow. She’d felt somehow “held” by those trees.

Then, on a mild day in January, six or seven weeks ago, a pine tree had offered itself to her in Regent’s Park. She’d been bent over the application for the Singapore job when she’d looked up from the bench and beheld the near perfect spiral staircase of the pine’s widely spaced branches.

She’d stood and told herself of course she wouldn’t.

Then she did.

Her shoes had good treads. The bark wasn’t too rough, and the branches were surprisingly sturdy. Forty feet up, she’d looked through the boughs to the giraffes’ enclosure at London Zoo. They’d looked at her, she’d looked at them, and the world had expanded.

She’d returned home and scrubbed the sticky resin from her hands. As she and David had discussed her application, pine needles had fallen from her hair to the floor. “It’s an opportunity,” he’d said, nodding deep in thought, and the word had resonated between them.

Other trees had followed... beckoning. A 200-year-old oak on campus. A silver birch behind the railway station. A horse chestnut in a farmer’s field. A cedar in a quiet churchyard.

She hadn’t told David.

She’d heard there were others like her. There’d been a discussion on Radio 4 just weeks ago. Solo urban tree-climbers had briefly declared themselves. She liked to imagine them all, alone together, in their respective treetops on given days, rising above the frenzy of London.

She’d travelled to Singapore with lavish funding from Singapore’s Business Federation. The city was a “Green Destination”. Apartment towers and hotels were “greening” their balconies and facades in tropical ferns, miniature palms, creeping vines and bonsai arrangements. In London, as a post-doc researcher working on “discrete biospheres” such as these, she’d received accolades for her computer modelling of energy flows, carbon emissions and heat absorption dynamics.

She wondered if these Singaporean angels climbed only at night; if the climbs were illegal. She watched, willing them on.

Illustration by Eleanor Taylor

She’d spotted the details of the live-streaming on a tourist website. What would a few minutes’ delay matter? The event couldn’t be sold out at such a strange hour. Even in a city of nearly six million, there couldn’t be many insomniacs interested in a play streamed by satellite at half three in the morning, or 7.30pm London time.

Up ahead, a great ocean-liner perched 800 feet over the Bay, stretching across the tops of six towers. Two by two, the towers leaned in on each other like playing cards, with the ship becalmed at the apex in an impossible feat of balance. Even up there, in that illusory world, green treetops sprouted. In Singapore, nothing, it seemed, could not be imagined.

She almost abandoned the idea of the play. Why go indoors when there was all this? She stood on the fantastical edge of a man-made bay that had once been swampland and fishermen’s houses on stilts. A breeze blew off the diverted river, rippling the carpet of lily pads near the shore.

Her binoculars trained, she followed the path of a particular traceur — yes, that was what the angels were called — holding her breath through each explosive leap and vault. By comparison, she was a spore borne along the bay on the breeze of early March, afloat in the night.

David hadn’t phoned. No matter, she told herself. She hadn’t made him promise; hadn’t wanted to sound clingy or needy.

At Security in Terminal Five, she’d reminded him about getting the refund before tonight’s performance. She’d nagged because the tickets were expensive after all, more than he knew. She’d managed to get seats bang in the middle of the first row of the Dress Circle at the Garrick. Seats 12 and 13. Her ideal view. Yesterday, as he saw her off, he’d said, fine, yes, okay, right, leave it now; he’d pop by the box office today and try. Then, at the security barrier, they’d kissed, and she’d reached beneath his shirt to feel the warmth of him beneath her palm. She’d curled a finger through a belt loop of his jeans. She hadn’t wanted to let go.

She checked her phone. Nearly showtime. If she were homesick, Singapore said she could have anything it could conjure. Tonight she could have London. She could have home.

Her heart stopped racing. She took a deep breath. The air smelled of hot sewers and lush, tropical sweetness.

She decided she might not tell David about seeing the play. To enjoy it here in Singapore, after cancelling their night at the Garrick, seemed a betrayal. After all, she’d bought the tickets as an early birthday treat for him. He’d been generous not to point out that, if he tended to choose badly for her birthdays, she always chose something for him that she’d enjoy at least as much, and frequently more. It meant they could do things together, she reasoned: a balloon ride, a weekend get-away to Vienna, theatre tickets for the play of the season.

Worse than not missing the play, of seeing it stealthily on her own, was the knowledge that, if she confessed to seeing the live-streaming inSingapore, she’d have to tell him about the sleeplessness. He’d been right; she should have taken the sleeping tablet on the plane to be on the right time now. She’d have to admit to walking alone in a strange city in the small hours. She hadn’t expected Singapore to feel almost eerily safe. The streets were so wide that no one ever seemed near.

The staff at the front desk had assured her she’d be fine. It wasn’t far, they said. The route was well lit. There was little crime.

Still, David was bound to worry. He was so good with maps, schedules and getting them where they needed to be. She always felt sheltered by him, as if he, her clever architect husband, was himself her house, her dwelling place. He might even suggest he join her in Singapore; he liked to feel he was still capable of spontaneity. Although they’d both agreed the trip would hardly be a holiday, he might surprise her yet.

“An opportunity,” he’d said, with the application between them on the table, and the word had hummed with possibility.

In that moment — the moment of the clasp — a trap-door opened within Freya and she fell through

On the edge of Marina Bay, the Esplanade Theatre was a monumental, gold-lit, spiked homage to a well known tropical fruit. Locally, they calledit and its twin building — the Concert Hall — “the durians”, after said fruit. If London had the Gherkin, Singapore had the Durians.

Better still, it was forbidden fruit; so creamy and sweet, yet with so pungent a smell that Singaporeans were forbidden to eat or carry durians on the underground system of the MRT.

It turned out it was not entirely easy to get one’s bearings inside so large a piece of fruit. An usher directed her to her row. She took her seat.The screen was vast; the views would be excellent, perhaps even better than those at the Garrick. She looked up. Some 200 others were dotted through the auditorium. Many, like her, were alone.

Alone together.

She checked her watch. The time on her ticket had allowed 15 minutes for the audience in Singapore to take their seats before showtime inLondon. There, the sun had set only a little over an hour ago. At home, the male frogs in the garden pond were croaking for love. David was watching Channel 4 News with a ready-meal in the oven. Later, he’d turn to the half-finished blueprints on the desk in his study. She still loved the sight of him bent over his compasses, triangles and slide rules, even though she knew most of the work happened with software these days. She could see in her mind’s eye his bowed head, the neat schoolboy edge of his hairline, and the bare, tender inches of neck above his collar. The sight never failed to move her.

She travelled back in her mind to their sofa. She imagined her feet nestling in his lap as the news of the day flickered past; his hands gently kneaded the soles of her feet.

She’d just allowed her head to relax against the luxury of the headrest when the universe blinked, a vista of light opened up, and an elegant sweep of gold balustrade passed before her eyes. A camera panned faces on the edge of the stalls. In London, the house had not yet gone dark.

Five minutes to showtime.

Theatre-goers at the Garrick sat in tightly packed rows, leafing through programmes, unwrapping sweets and gulping wine from plastic cups.They chatted, switched off phones, struggled out of coats, and tutted as they stood to allow new arrivals to squeeze past. It was wet in London. A woman’s auburn hair, beaded with rain, briefly caught the camera’s light.

The image on screen clicked off, then on again. A change of circuits.

Now the view was higher, the space altogether different. The view of the audience was transmitted through a stationary camera positioned at the front edge of the Dress Circle.

A woman in a crimson shawl pointed, her eyes alight, as she directed her husband’s gaze to what Freya knew were the gold-painted cherubim above the proscenium arch.

Next to the woman, a man with a red drinker’s face blew his nose. He had no idea he was, at that moment, on screen in Singapore.

Beside him, two glammed-up teenagers sank into their seats giggling.

On their left, a dark-haired woman in her thirties leaned forward, idly stroking her throat and collarbone. At her side, a man surfaced from behind his programme, reached for her hand and clasped it in his.

The man was David.

In that moment — the moment of the clasp — a trap-door opened within Freya and she fell through.

She stumbled to her feet. In her brain — its deepest architecture — her hypothalamus was an air-raid siren. Run, it said. Take cover. Another part urged calm. When she was 13, she’d fallen from a tree. Her brain had told her to remain floppy as she sailed 15 feet through the air to the river bank below.

Damage limitation.

Do not run. Do not panic.

She could not afford a state of emergency in a place where she had no bearings.

Illustration by Eleanor Taylor

Her husband and his lover were 30 feet high on screen. The woman’s expression was contented. Her cheeks shone. She was lovely if not beautiful, with a high white forehead and deep-set brown eyes. Her loveliness was what used to be called “poise”, that ineffable quality of stillness and self-possession.

Behind Freya, someone was complaining in Chinese.

She dropped into her seat and watched her husband turn to the woman to brush something from her face. An eyelash. The woman leaned in, murmuring in his ear. He laughed, in a way Freya hadn’t seen him laugh for years, and relinquished his programme to her.

Seats 12 and 13.

Freya wanted to run — but did not run.

David wore his good sage-green jacket with the collar turned up to show the jazzy yellow felt underside. He’d had the suit made in Vienna during their last city-break — one of his spontaneously bright ideas. They’d cracked jokes as the tailor had measured his inseam.

At his wrist, his father’s reconditioned Rolex flashed. He turned his face to the camera, unaware of it and blind to her. The scar on his forehead — where he’d driven his tricycle into a brake light as a small boy — registered briefly on her retina.

The red-faced man blew his nose again.

Then the fire curtain above the stage rose high, the buzz of voices dimmed — and blackout.

When the taxi pulled up, Freya was standing beneath a half dead rain-tree. Her phone and its map had died, and in her distress, she had somehow wandered as far as Parliament Place.

“Where you go?” the taxi uncle barked.

She fished in her bag for the address of her hotel. “I’ve been trying to hail a taxi but they keep driving past.”

“Of course drive past. Go to taxi stand!” he scolded.

“Can’t you take me?”

“Not allowed!”

“I’ve been waiting here for I don’t know how long.”

The taxi uncle groaned and waved both hands. “Quick then. Get in! Quick, I said!”

He sped through the dark, empty streets as Freya wept.

When latecomers were at last admitted, she’d departed the auditorium and taken refuge in the loo in the foyer. The walls of the cubicle were floor-to-ceiling and the space was pristine. She’d lowered the cover of the toilet and sat with her head between her knees.

Now, in the back of the taxi, the tears came freely.

“Out!” her driver shouted.

He’d pulled up alongside her skyscraper hotel. She felt very small below it.

‘Here!’ He turned and passed her his card. “Philip Goh. Limousine Service,” it read. “Daily & Hourly Booking. Car Jockey. Wedding Charter. City Tours.”

Mr Goh was a skinny old man in black trousers and a black shirt. She made two of him, with her broad shoulders, wide hips and long legs

She wiped her eyes and rummaged for her purse. In the plate-glass light from the hotel, she could see him now. Mr Goh was a skinny old man in black trousers and a black shirt. She made two of him, with her broad shoulders, wide hips and long legs. “What do I owe you, Mr Goh?”

“No crying!” he said. “That’s what owe. Pay in no-tears. Call tomorrow. What you want see? Shopping malls? Casino at Bay? Cricket Club at Padang?”

She could hardly remember what she was meant to see; what her project required. “Trees,” she said

“Trees everywhere in Singapore! Seven million trees. Six million people. Trees winning.”

“That’s good,” she said.

“Good, yes good! In Singapore, we have your want before you want. Tomorrow, trees. Phone number on card. Now bed!”

“Yes, thank you. You’re right. It is time for my bed. I’m… over-tired.”

“My bed!” Mr Goh roared, and he waved both hands to hurry her on her way.

In the morning, Mr Goh heaved his own bodyweight in luggage into the boot of the taxi, complaining noisily. Freya was checking out ofher snazzy high-rise hotel and moving to Raffles Hotel. Her generous research budget would allow it and, more than anything, she needed its elegant three-storey calm. She needed its affection for England and a world that seemed familiar. She needed a private place, where she could nurse her wounds.

She texted David to tell him there was much to do; she was extending her stay. She reminded him that roaming charges were astronomical. “Don’t ring,” she wrote and switched off her phone.

Mr Goh pulled into the grand arc of the drive. “Raffles Hotel!” he announced, pretending to tug a forelock. “Fifteen minutes, Lady Chatterley. Then Mr Goh go! Understand?”

As Mr Goh picked a fight about parking with the Sikh doorman, she slipped into the lobby and was shown to her suite. Below both it and a peaceful veranda, a courtyard of palm trees streamed with morning light.

As she passed once more through the magnificent lobby, she stopped to take in the huge centrepiece of lilies, hydrangea and alstroemeria.A florist hovered, plucking the stamens from each flower. The great gentleness of the action — his seemingly infinite patience — brought tears, inexplicably, to her eyes.

“What I say, Lady Chatterley?” shouted Mr Goh as she slid on to the back seat. “No cry no cry no cry!” He banged the steering wheel.

“Hayfever,” she said, reaching for her pack of tissues.

In the rearview mirror, Mr Goh eyed her suspiciously.

Ten minutes later, the taxi came to an abrupt stop on Pickering Street. Mr Goh lowered the windows and pointed up, up, up. “Happy now?Look!” he ordered. The hotel on the corner was a garden in the sky, resplendent with ferns, mosses and translucent leaves.

Freya snapped a few shots on her phone through the window. It was already well documented. “It’s very interesting. Thank you.”

Mr Goh threw his hands in the air and mimicked her under his breath: “Very interesting very interesting.” He turned the key and backed into fast approaching traffic. “Okay okay. You want trees. I give you trees!”

At the “Gardens at the Bay”, he pulled on to a quiet verge. “Out!” he instructed. The blast of midday heat was a shock after the air-conditioned chill of the taxi. Mr Goh exited and stood slightly bent, inches below her. “There!” he pointed. “Supertrees! Tallest 16 storey high.”

The 12 structures soared above a winding river, woodland and greenhouse domes. She blinked.

“Follow me!” said Mr Goh, her self-appointed guide, and they walked on into the “grove”.

Each “supertree” was like Jack’s beanstalk after a nuclear war — spectacular, over-sized and unnerving. She could just about discern the construction. A concrete core of a trunk was sheathed in a steel frame and covered in vegetation: bromeliads, orchids, ferns and tropical flowering climbers, all growing up the “trunk”, free of any soil.

Shaped like inverted parasols, the canopies were lattices of pink artificial branches, with something that resembled a white lightbulb at its centre. In time, the “skin” of creepers and climbers would cover the parasols too and form a pseudo-canopy.

“At night,” narrated Mr Goh, “light show! Wow wow!”

“Ah,” she said, smiling.

“Lady Chatterley don’t like.” He sighed, planted his hands on his knees and panted. He was elderly after all — 70-ish —and perhaps no one ever grew accustomed to tropical heat.

“Of course I like. They’re marvellous,” she said, even if, she silently added, these supertrees would never — could never — “hold” anyone other than an occasional prodding technician.

More than anything, she longed to be held.

“Get in!” barked Mr Goh, slamming his door.

She tapped his headrest. “I’d thought I might take pictures.”

“Too late!”

At the Botanical Gardens, Mr Goh scampered along the rainforest path, muttering at dawdling tourists and school groups, and clutching his side. He was an impatient guide, pointing and shouting back at her: “This one Heritage Tree! Two hundred year old. That one Weeping Fig. See? One hundred feet high. Look at trunk. Like church organ pipes, no? Heritage Tree fell last month in all-rain-wind and killed woman — Tembusu Tree. Hundred twenty high. Deep, deep roots. It didn’t want go. It did not want kill. Was good tree. But Death say fall, we fall!”

Freya circumnavigated giant ferns and stepped through a curtain of liana climbers. Mr Goh was leading her off-piste. “How do you know,” she called up ahead, “when a tree is a good tree?”

“Neighbour trees of a tree know! They talk! Gossips all!” He shook his head, as if to say any kampung child knew these things.

“Here!” he announced, stopping abruptly.

She squinted 60 feet up to the crown of a Saga Tree. Any climber would need ropes just to get to its lower branches.

“This tree good — but sad,” Mr Goh said. “It cry red tears.” He bent to the ground and picked up one of the many red heart-shaped seeds scattered at its base. “‘Love seed’,” we say. “They fall, make soil rich. Tears into goodness. You take, Lady Chatterley. Souvenir.”

On the way back to the hotel, she studied the seed, bright and glossy as a bead on her palm. She and Mr Goh fell into a comfortable silence. The open sky overhead gave way to high alleys of blue as the towers of downtown closed in. Mr Goh seemed to ponder the rush-hour traffic.

Then: “So where Sir Clifford, Lady Chatterley?”

Her heart lurched. She saw David again, brushing the eyelash away from his lover’s face, his fingers lingering on her cheek.

She straightened in her seat. “Gone, Mr Goh.” Why pretend? “To another.”

Mr Goh shook his head and eased off the handbrake. “Your Sir Clifford…”

She tilted her head, waiting for him to finish his sentence.

“…blockhead,” he muttered.

She didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.

“You like to read, I think, Mr Goh.”

“Yes. Books, good! Imagination good! How imagine life better, different? Imagine first, do second. I read English classics: Shakespeare, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Emily Brontë, Virginia Woolf, DH Lawrence! When boy, I borrow two book each week from mobile library.”

She leaned forward in her seat and smiled. “And is there a Madame Goh, Mr Goh?”

He shook his skinny head. “1977 kampung flood. All houses, gone gone. Mrs Goh too.”

He gripped the steering wheel, as if even now the waters might bear him away. “Hotel close. Get out here. Walk, Lady Chatterley! Don’t get ang mo fat. Tomorrow, more trees.” He tapped his head.

The sense of a plan, their plan, was like a rope between them in a torrent. It steadied them both.

She shut her door behind her. “What time tomorrow, Mr Goh?”

“At the auspicious hour.”

“What time is that?”

“The time I come.” Then Mr Goh reversed in a three-point turn and sped away.

At the auspicious hour of 12 noon, he pulled up in front of the hotel and picked another fight with the Sikh doorman. Freya could hear Mr Goh all too clearly as she asked at the front desk whether any messages had been left.

“None, Miss Freya,” said the concierge.

The relief was huge.

Back on the road, Mr Goh informed her they were going to the city’s outskirts, the Heartlands. She knew of it: the social housing project that, 50 years ago, that had replaced the outlying kampungs. All villagers had been resettled.

It was good, the new life, Mr Goh explained, but he admitted he missed the trees of his boyhood. Most had been razed to make way.

In the near distance, the Heartlands arose, a small city of HDBs — brightly coloured tower blocks — surrounded by hawker courts, modern temples, churches, mosques, swimming pools, basketball courts and community centres. Yet, just as his neighbourhood came into view, Mr Goh seemed to change his mind, swerving sharply.

“Out!” he said as he switched off the ignition.

They were nowhere.

“My old kampung,” he said.

They stood in a green, derelict space. She nodded to a group of tall, straggly trees ahead. “Who are they?”

“Some day, friend. Some day, foe. Depend.” He pointed to the spiky globes of golden fruit that dangled from their branches. “You know?”

She walked forward and stared up through the branches, shielding her eyes with a hand. “Ah,” she began — when she felt Mr Goh’s hand grip her forearm and pull her body back. In the drama, Mr Goh toppled to the ground and she nearly fell upon him.

A large durian fell inches just away, exploding as it hit the ground.

Mr Goh brushed himself down, panting hard and clutching his side.

“Are you all right, Mr Goh?”

“Durian heavy. When fall, can kill. I come here weekends with ladder to pick — but hard hat always. This head too good.”

“Mr Goh, did you just save me?”

He frowned and changed the subject. “I pick and sell. People share tree. Everyone, two-hour slot. Even Steven. Why you talk so much, Lady Chatterley?”

Mr Goh declared it was lunch time. They would go to a hawker court and eat very well, he said, with Sir Clifford’s money ha ha! But as the taxi entered a built-up area, Mr Goh slammed on the brakes.

He lowered his window and started shouting in Chinese at the driver of a brightly painted lorry. The noise of many drums and cymbals crashed from within, and the driver ignored Mr Goh as row upon row of girls streamed forth from a nearby corner. The marching girls wore hot-pink tops and matching mini-skirts with white knee socks and white trainers. Each pink girl balanced a pink parasol and a flower display on an elastic string. Ranks of middle-aged men sauntered behind the girls, sporting straw cowboy hats, white shirts and white jeans. Each man bore a small flat drum. At the centre, three cowboys towed a huge silver urn on wheels.

Freya saw Mr Goh smile, in spite of his taxi’s near collision. She wondered which festival the parade celebrated. A second lorry followed, decked out in oversized fluorescent pom-poms and flashing lights. From its innards, Asian-style electronica blasted.

Young men in black and gold sportswear brought up the rear. She poked her head out the window to see better.

Her jaw dropped.

Six of them bore a gold-painted coffin on a litter.

This was a funeral, not a parade.

Mr Goh spoke to her in the rearview mirror. “When my time come, I hope mine nice like this.” He blinked something back. “That remind me,” he added. “I need visit friend Mr Tat. We boys together at school in kampung. He do well. Offerings shop. Good business. Everyone want keep dead happy.”

Mr Tat was wiry, with a round face, bald head and tiny moustache. He wore coke-bottle glasses and had a pencil tucked behind his ear. A sign above his concrete shed read: “Mr Tat’s Religious Goods Trading”.

His shop was packed with coloured paper and card, waxed papers, stickers, scissors, glue, parcel tape, Sellotape, glue-guns, strips of wood, apaper-cutter and staplers of every size. Here was everything the dead could wish for: bespoke paper replicas of tablets, iPhones, dollar bills, cigarettes, single malt whiskey, champagne, Belgian truffles, Mercedes, Bentleys, cruise ships, planes, and of course, the homes the dead might aspire to in the afterlife: shiny three-storey maisonettes ($200), sturdy bungalows ($400) and condos with life-sized servants ($700).

All to be burned.

Mr Tat served up three bowls of fish and noodle soup.

Freya wiped her face with the last of her tissues. They’d gone quickly. Each morning at the hotel, she’d awoken and wept again

Freya managed her chopsticks badly and had to wipe her face with the last of her tissues. They’d gone quickly. Each morning at the hotel, she’d awoken and wept again.

Mr Goh hadn’t touched his soup. He and Mr Tat were laughing and insulting each other — or so it seemed — in Chinese. She yawned, happyto be both ignored and in their company. She felt for the bright seed, still in her pocket. Mr Goh would organise her tomorrow and the next day. He would drive. She would not float away, a spore on the breeze.

It was only then that she noticed. Beside her perch, spread out over Mr Tat’s workstation, a great forest of coloured paper trees lay ready to be folded into three dimensions.

On a shelf above, a mobile library caravan and a shiny black limousine taxi were complete. They needed only the keys for their ignitions.

Mr Goh left his conversation and shouted across the room: “Good, yes?”

She stared at him.

“No make big blue ang mo eyes at me, Lady Chatterley! Like my trees? Like new taxi?”

Illustration by Eleanor Taylor

She reached for the words. “I like your old taxi…more.”

“‘If it be not now, yet it will come — the readiness is all.’ Hamlet, Act 5, Scene 2, Lady Chatterley.” Then he eyed the shiny new limo again, barked at Mr Tat, and got to his feet. “Home now to Raffles!”

At the hotel entrance, he said: “Tomorrow okay okay.”

She opened her door and glanced back, smiling. “At the auspicious hour.”

He nodded, a sage behind his steering wheel.

Back in her suite, she ran the bath and sank up to her neck. Time slowed. A bird she couldn’t identify hopped along the window ledge.

Then, cocooned in the hotel’s white robe, she picked up the receiver and waited as the landline beside her bed — their bed — in London rang and rang.

It was eight in the morning, London time. Saturday. Her heart pounded.

At last she hung up.

But the readiness, she told herself, was all.

The next morning, Sunday morning, Mr Goh arrived at half nine. He assessed her trainers and nodded approval. “Quick!” he shouted. “Two-hour slot. Clock ticking! But first —” He opened the boot and, with asweep of his arm, revealed all: an extendable ladder, a climbing rope, an empty fruit crate, and two hard hats.

She stared down and smiled. “Mr Goh, you think of everything.”

“Wait ’til taste durian!” He slammed the boot shut and ran to his door as the doorman opened hers. “Why so slow, Lady Chatterley? Why? Quick!” he barked. “Auspicious hour now!”

Alison MacLeod writes novels, short stories and essays; her novel Unexploded was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2013. Her latest collection, All the Beloved Ghosts, was published in March.

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