On a mountain above the clouds once lived a man who had been the gardener of the Emperor of Japan. Not many people would have known of him before the war, but I did. He had left his home on the rim of the sunrise to come to the central highlands of Malaya. I was seventeen years old when my sister first told me about him. A decade would pass before I travelled up to the mountains to see him.
He did not apologise for what his countrymen had done to my sister and me. Not on that rain-scratched morning when we first met, nor at any other time. What words could have healed my pain, returned my sister to me? None. And he understood that. Not many people did.
Thirty-six years after that morning, I hear his voice again, hollow and resonant. Memories I had locked away have begun to break free, like shards of ice fracturing off an arctic shelf. In sleep, these broken floes drift towards the morning light of remembrance.
The stillness of the mountains awakens me. The depth of the silence: that is what I had forgotten about living in Yugiri. The murmurings of the house hover in the air when I open my eyes. An old house retains its hoard of memories, I remember Aritomo telling me once.
Ah Cheong knocks on the door and calls softly to me. I get out of bed and put on my dressing gown. I look around for my gloves and find them on the bedside table. Pulling them over my hands, I tell the housekeeper to come in. He enters and sets the pewter tray with a pot of tea and a plate of cut papaya on a side table; he had done the same for Aritomo every morning. He turns to me and says, "I wish you a long and peaceful retirement, Judge Teoh."
"Yes, it seems I've beaten you to it." He is, I calculate, five or six years older than me. He was not here when I arrived yesterday evening. I study him, layering what I see over what I remember. He is a short, neat man, shorter than I recall, his head completely bald now. Our eyes meet. "You're thinking of the first time you saw me, aren't you?"
"Not the first time, but the last day. The day you left." He nods to himself. "Ah Foon and I – we always hoped you'd come back one day."
"Is she well?" I tilt sideways to look behind him, seeking his wife at the door, waiting to be called in. They live in Tanah Rata, cycling up the mountain road to Yugiri every morning.
"Ah Foon passed away, Judge Teoh. Four years ago."
"Yes. Yes, of course."
"She wanted to tell you how grateful she was, that you paid her hospital bills. So was I."
I open the teapot"s lid, then close it, trying to remember which hospital she had been admitted to. The name comes to me: Lady Templer Hospital.
"Five weeks," he says.
"In five week's time it will be thirty-four years since Mr Aritomo left us."
The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng is published by Myrmidon. Read our review.