Julian Rama Mayson did not imagine that his holiday to Malaysia would end up with him having an incestuous fling with his cousin, but the fact was that it happened and she had allowed it to. Amy was seventeen and she was a girl of the tropics, slender with a sharp face and an athletic body. She was like a gazelle with golden skin and she wore make-up with a flick on her eyelids.
Rama had not seen her since she was little, and he could not remember much from his last trip except that she was the eldest daughter of his Uncle Wei Leong and his wife Rebecca, and they lived in a large home on the hills of Bukit Jambul.
He had been so bored at his grandmother’s home in Tanjung Bungah that he thought he was going to get depressed if he didn’t go out, so Amy invited him to a New Year’s Eve party in Belissa Row. It happened outside a club and he had waited until she came out of the bathroom. Then he tapped her on the shoulder and lured her to a corner outside. He leaned onto her, and she pushed him away. But then she laughed and kissed him back.
That night, she took him back to her room, and though he couldn’t be sure what had happened, he remembered her driving him back in the early hours before her parents could find out.
“I want to stop by Kek Lok Si, if you don’t mind,” she said in the car.
The sun had started to rise and Rama could hardly open his eyes.
“What’s Kek Lok Si?” he asked.
“It’s a temple. On a hill in Air Itam.”
She parked the car and they got out at the foot of a 30-metre tall bronze statue. It was Kuan Yin, the Goddess of Mercy and she looked over the inhabitants of the hillside and the island with her eyes closed.
Rama followed Amy into a temple hall, where nuns in saffron robes sold beaded bracelets, jade amulets and this year’s talismans. He watched patiently as Amy walked to a table with little drawers labelled ‘wealth’, ‘health’, ‘studies’, ‘career’, ‘friendship’ and ‘love’. Inside were strips of ribbons, a different colour for each category. She took out a ‘love’ ribbon and headed outside to tie it to a bonsai tree.
“It’s the New Year. You should make a wish for yourself,” she said.
“I’m alright, thanks. Here, let me take a picture of you with it,” he offered.
“No, of the both of us,” she said.
She took out her phone and gave it to a passer-by.
After their time at the temple, Amy treated him like winter. She pretended as if nothing had happened between them, which made Rama feel horrible. Over the next few dinners she ignored him and avoided his gaze completely. He recalled that she had a boyfriend named Justin, but he didn’t think that he and Justin had to be mutually exclusive in her life.
On his last night in Penang, he absolutely had to know. They had had a family dinner at Sunset Bistro in Batu Ferringhi. It was by the beach, and the adults had commenced their drinking. When Amy went to the bathroom, he followed her and pretended to order a drink at the bar.
“Can we talk?” he asked, when she came out.
She was washing her hands at the sink and looked up. “Sure.”
They walked to the beach, where a black ocean ended only where one could no longer see.
“That wind is unnatural,” she said.
“Lots of things are unnatural,” he said.
She looked at him. That night she wore a shawl over a black dress. In the darkness, she looked alluring.
“Look,” he began. “I know nothing can happen between us.”
Amy closed her eyes. “Rama.”
“I know. Well, we’re not related by blood, if that’s what you’re thinking.”
“Still. Can you imagine the talk? I would be disowned. Exiled.”
“So come with me to London.” Rama held her hand, but she shook it away.
“We need to forget this ever happened.”
“So what was that at the club?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know?”
“Rama, we’re cousins,” she whispered, as though it was a tragedy. “What do you want from me?”
“I want to know that you feel something for me.”
“I don’t know what I feel.”
“So why take me back to your place?”
“You were so drunk. You couldn’t even stand. And for the record, nothing happened.”
“That’s not true!”
“Maybe you going back to London is the best thing right now. So we can both forget all this.”
A whistle came from the restaurant. Uncle Wei was waving at them in the distant. It was time to go home.
Rama did go home, but how could he forget? He was never the same again after his trip to Malaysia. The weekend before going back to Middlesex University, he went home to see his mother in Essex.
“Your uncle is coming to visit,” she said, sitting on his bed. She held a letter in her hand.
“When?” He pretended not to be interested and busied himself with things to bring for his last semester.
“I’m going away in September,” he said. “To Liguria, remember?”
“Oh yes. But I’m sure you can spare some time for your Uncle Wei. Him and Amy were so good to us in Penang, showing us around and taking us out for dinners. Amy has been accepted to Bristol.”
Rama looked through the books on his desk. There was Kafka’s ‘Metamorphosis’, Murakami’s ‘Norwegian Wood’ and Jack Kerouac’s ‘On The Road’.
“Did something happen between the two of you?” she asked.
“You and Amy. I always thought you liked your cousin.”
“I do,” he said. He was not sure if his mother meant ‘liked’ in a certain way. Either way, he was telling the truth.
Rama started to go downstairs to fix himself a bacon breakfast, but his mother gave him the letter.
“Made some friends in Malaysia, I see?”
Rama took it from her. There was no sender’s address, but the postmark was inked with the words ‘George Town’ over a stamp of a Malaysian fruit.
“Who writes letters anymore these days?” he muttered.
“Romantics,” his mother said.
“When did it arrive?”
“A few weeks back,” she said, heading downstairs.
He tore it open to see a letter from Amy. I’m starting Psychology at Bristol University in September. See you in London, hopefully? A x
There was a picture of the two them at Kek Lok Si, next to a bonsai tree with multi-coloured ribbons tied to its branches. Rama had looked so burnt, wearing a white shirt and dark blue jeans from the night before in the club, one hand in his pocket and the other by Amy’s arm.
He put the photo on top of his book collection, just above Hemingway’s ‘The Torrents of Spring’ and headed down for breakfast.
The first place he took her to was Harrods, its Food Hall stocked with English biscuits and tea. Amy looked like she had put on weight, but she was nonetheless beautiful in an angora cardigan with skinny blue jeans.
He remembered how he had felt when he was in Penang, out of place and totally dependent on her to bring her around. It had only been nine months since his trip, and yet time seemed to have passed by so quickly. Now he was repaying her kindness, making sure she felt at home. She strung a Nikon around her neck, and Rama obliged her by posing with the Harrods bear.
He took her outside to Brompton Place, where they sat on a wooden bench that looked out onto the courtyard of a church. He bought her coffee, and she swept strands of long hair as she ate a chocolate muffin.
“Are you excited about Bristol?” he asked.
“I am,” she said.
There was a lustre in her eyes because the sun made everything look lighter, though Rama was sure that her skin tone had not changed. One thing he was certain of – she was sure to lose her tan in Bristol.
“The weather is good today,” he said. “I’ll show you the real London when you have more time. It’s over in the east where I live.”
“How are things with Justin?” he asked.
She paused. “We broke up. Just after you left.”
“I’m sorry, Amy.” He wasn’t really, but that was the right thing to say. He didn’t want to ask.
Rama held her hand, and she let him. She brought the warmth with her from the tropics, and he wasn’t going to let her go again. Besides, he was on home ground now and he had the upper hand.
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