Charles Joseph Albert | The rakan kembar

Deeyaitch looked with contempt about the train car. Peering over the top of his London Times, he took in the dense hodge-podge of grubby fellow Malaysians. Jammed into the tête-à-tête benches were entire families of wild, ill-behaved children, parents who were still children themselves, odiferous crones clutching rotting bird carcasses or bundles of rags… an old man sat in the front of the car, wispy gray hair sprouting from a dozen moles about his face and neck. He held a large eviscerated snake, the hideous thing no doubt due to be boiled up for some teenagers’ wedding dinner.

The Express Service had again been interrupted, which was why Deeyaitch was forced to shuttle in the Local with the great unwashed masses. He buried his carefully groomed head back into the world of his Times, wondering just how far along this backward little land was capable of coming. It galled him that he could not even commute from his well-to-do suburb north of Kuala Lumpur to his office in the financial district without having another immaculate seersucker suit endangered by the grubbies.

He had only felt this disdain since his return from England and University. If any of his old Queen’s College fellows could see him now, on the slow train, surrounded by riff-raff, he should fairly faint from mortification.

It took several hours in the cool, hushed corridors of his office building at Athercrombie and Jones (est. 1737, exactly three hundred years old!) and two piping hot cups of tea before the creases eased on his young forehead, and Deeyaitch was able to put the morning’s unpleasantness behind him, immersing himself once again in the cerebral world of international trade.

By eleven twenty-six he had recovered serenity through his assessment of the Borneo poultry industry, and was therefore composed despite the surprising apparition of Harris, a rather quirky colleague (although, Cambridge!).

“I say, old bird! Free for lunch, today, then?” Harris said, poking his head in the door.

Deeyaitch raised an eyebrow without looking up from his tables. “Of course I’m free, silly duck.”

Silly indeed: the staff of the Near East Commodities department always ate lunch together at the nearby Albion Club, an indispensable milieu of rumor and prognostication that could make or break an investor. Indispensable, that is, unless a particularly important client was in town. Those were dined at Chez Julien.

“Grand. Well, you see, the Old Bull himself is here. Asked about dining with one of the natives. So, there it is. We had to pick between you and the Great Faker. Well, Julien’s it is. Pick you up at one, then?”

Deeyaitch nodded his head, and Harris’s vanished from the doorway. Well! Lord Athercrombie himself! The Old Bull, the last heir to the Athercrombie family fortune, a stout man of fifty given to the occasional round-the-world jaunt. Rumor had him headed to India. Evidently, the shuttle to Calcutta had been waylaid, or perhaps inclement weather had forced a detour. A bit of luck, that! Nothing improves one’s career like personal acquaintance with the founding family. And protectionism was rampant in this company.

On the other hand… Deeyaitch wrinkled his nose in disdain of being called a “native.” Even worse was to be invoked in the same breath as Mastapa Ma’lagway, known in the office as The Great Faker, a preposterous, portentous buffoon, not even a native of Malaysia but instead a rootless drifter originating from the Indian subcontinent, an undisciplined megalomaniac whose affectation of bemused paternal worldliness was surely affected to compensate for his inability to get a proper English education. That they had chosen Deeyaitch over Ma’lagway was not even gratifying; quite simply, the man was insufferable.

When he arrived at Chez Julien, Deeyaitch blushed with honor to be seated only one away from Lord Athercrombie. What is more, Deeyaitch immediately felt a mystical bond with the man. An invisible connection. This sort of feeling was known among the grubbies of his people as soul-brotherhood: Deeyaitch and Lord Athercrombie were rakan kembar: twin souls. He lost all resentment of being chosen as the token native, and found himself looking forward to an epiphanal luncheon.

And then the Great Faker came.

And was seated between them.

If Ma’lagway was aware that he was coming between two rakan kembar, he was only the more pleased to draw the attention of both to what he considered its rightful place: himself. For that matter, he exhibited no concern for the desperate feelings of others of the party who were English and therefore desirous of engaging Lord Athercrombie in the possibility of being returned one day to the mother country.

For Ma’lagway, the entire room was there to be entertained by his portentous bombast, and he delivered one ego-centric monologue after another in that lilting yet sonorous voice of the Indian. The deference of the silly English to Ma’lagway reminded Deeyaitch in great annoyance that the buffoon was regarded within the firm as a seer of Eastern culture. Preposterous indeed since Ma’lagway had had to flee several of these backwater countries under threat of death, so profoundly inept was he in understanding anything except his own magnificent self-worth.

Ma’lagway’s indiscreet recounting of a scandal involving a corrupt local businessman, one of Deeyaitch’s uncles, capped the meal.

“You are all intelligent men here, of course,” Ma’lagway was saying. “Our work does a marvelous job of winnowing out the chaff, doesn’t it, Lord Athercrombie? And so I can give you the actual details of the case without fear of misinterpretation. For this is a very delicate matter; it involves a terribly important businessman, well-connected to the highest levels of government and so on. Well. He has used our services on a number of occasions for the underwriting of his timber concerns, and we have found him to be of the finest caliber of credit risk.

“However, it was only two months ago at the child-marriage of the governor’s son to three lovely daughters of the various politicians, in which I was asked to read some benedictions from the Kama Sutra, that I discovered that this lumber company did not exist at all, and that in fact, he was exporting not trees, but aboriginal virgins, to the brothels of Japan!

“Well, that may indeed be a more profitable venture,” he paused here for the laughter that he knew would follow, and continued, “but it is hardly a realm in which our company engages, and so I regretfully declined the last request for loan… despite a private offer made to me in the denomination of twelve- and thirteen-year-olds!”

The laughter exploding from around the room galled Deeyaitch so much that he could not finish his filet of sole. How presumptuous of these men to despise this practice, when half of the men in this room were customers of Deeyaitch’s uncle. Ma’laway must realize this; what political maneuvering was he attempting here before the Old Bull?

Athercrombie looked askance at Deeyaitch’s uneaten sole as a waiter carried it off. This only upset Deeyaitch the more. Worse was Ma’lagway’s patronizing observation that Malaysian “boys” had trouble digesting dairy products and that perhaps Deeyaitch’s mouth was bigger than his stomach.

“I’m rather afraid that the size of my mouth isn’t the problem,” muttered Deeyaitch darkly, a comment generally unnoticed due to Ma’lagway’s chatter. Unnoticed, except by his rakan kembar, who smiled faintly, a twinkle shining in his paternal eye as he rose from his chair, interrupting the oratory at last.

“Well, well, a most excellent repast. Good old Julien. The French are quite incompetent at anything except cooking, but there, they are the last word in civilization.” Deeyaitch smiled at that remark, which he had heard often in University. “And I suppose a brandy and cigar would help the digestive process along.” He turned toward the club room as the others at the table sprang from their seats to follow him.

Some fortuitous delay in the serving of the brandy had them lighting cigars immediately, and Deeyaitch was overjoyed to see The Old Bull insisting on lighting the cigar of The Faker, particularly in light of the latter’s utter intolerance for tobacco. Within a few minutes, Ma’lagway was quite green.

“I—ulp!—think I’d better go back to the office; these bloody things don’t agree with me,” he blurted, his smooth palaver coarsened in panicky concern for his own bloated stomach.

“Quite right of you; beastly habit, that,” said Deeyaitch triumphantly, between puffs. As the Great Faker fled from the room, an onerous veil lifted, and suddenly everyone else’s conversation became gayer, more animated. Harris and Barnaby bantered witty gossip about their respective clients, Japanese silk makers. Marlowe told an engrossing account of a factory venture in Singapore in which the locals had tried to produce a batík seersucker.

“Doomed from the start!” he ended, laughing. “Can you imagine it, chicken keepers in suits on the Malacca Straits?” The company snickered; although this was precisely the sort of thing Deeyaitch would have found terribly amusing before today, after the ridicule of his own family moments ago, it disconcerted him, and in his twill seersucker he supposed that he looked the ridiculous chicken-salesman to his mates. In the face of the slurs of Ma’lagway, and in the light of his invitation to the lunch based solely on his nationality, he felt an unfamiliar sense of guilt about his intolerance on the train this morning.

He became, then, rather withdrawn, and finished his cigar quietly. His desire to converse with his rakan kembar, rekindled with the dispatching of Ma’lagway, was again at an ebb. Besides, the rest of the room was now filling the Great Faker’s void.

Well, let them! Let them show their cleverness by laughing at Malaysians in seersucker. What was so ridiculous about his adopting English culture? In this enlightened age, it was not acceptable to call Malaysians an inferior people, yet it was still permissible to mock the anglophiles among them. And how fair was that? Wasn’t it also prejudiced and hypocritical to dictate to him whose culture he should adopt, what clothes he should wear?

At last the lunch party was breaking up; Deeyaitch headed with the others toward the door, but found Lord Athercrombie motioning to him.

“If you aren’t too terribly busy this afternoon, I should appreciate your company in a drive. Let us walk to the Rolls. Deejay, is it?”

“It–it’s Deeyaitch, my Lord.”

“Curious name. Not traditional Malaysian, I think.”

Deeyaitch considered Lord Athercrombie’s visage as he decided how to respond. He generally avoided questions about his name, but his rakan kembar’s face had such a familiar aspect to it—something in the eyes, perhaps—that made Deeyaitch want to be direct.

“Indeed. My mother is a great admirer of the works of D.H. Lawrence.”

“Well, that was quite, hmmm, liberal of her, then, wasn’t it?”

“Quite, milord. But then she is a liberal spirit. Not very many Malaysian women took a liberal arts degree from Oxford in seventeen.”

“Did she indeed! Well, well. You know, I finished in fifteen.” A curious look came into the Old Bull’s eyes. “I was quite the admirer of Lawrence myself, at the time. I say, what did your mother look like back then? I wonder if I mightn’t have met her?”

“I really couldn’t say. I was only just born in nineteen-fifteen.”

As he said that, Deeyaitch noticed the older man’s expression grow even more strained. He seemed to be noticing Deeyaitch’s face for the first time, and his bushy white eyebrows raised in an arch that Deeyaitch recognized from the mirror. Lord Athercrombie was muttering, “It’s impossible. No, it’s not possible; she told me she was a coolie servant, not a student!”

“Sir? I’m sorry, I don’t believe I quite caught—”

“Never mind, never mind.” The Old Bull made another strangely familiar expression, this time as he struggled to compose his features. Deeyaitch wondered what thoughts the older man had about this connection, but it was not his place to ask such questions, and he waited for the Old Bull to speak again.

They had reached the Rolls-Royce, and Lord Athercrombie’s chauffeur started them off in the direction of the textile entrepots. The stately car made its way painstakingly through fantastically thronging alleys of hideous poverty, and along teeming pock-marked boulevards of rickshaw, bicycle, ancient mule-drawn omnibus, and thousands of hobbling pedestrians, merchants, children, thieves, and old women. Deeyaitch marveled at the strange sensation of being a part of the street traffic, and yet being comfortably isolated from it. With the noises dampened, the stenches stifled, and the burden of negotiating through crowds left to the chauffeur, one had only to relax and enjoy the ride.

Deeyaitch began to sense that he was under scrutiny of his rakan kembar, and in that instinctively frank way of the non-English, turned and looked at him directly.

The Old Bull, taken aback, blurted, “Deeyaitch, my boy, one would almost say you were looking at your hometown for the first time.”

“Well, my Lord, I suppose this is the most tranquil trip I have ever made on my soil.”

“Ah, yes. A private carriage is a marvel. Of course, it has its limitations. I personally feel that close contact is absolutely vital to our industry.”

“Indeed?”

“Yes, Deeyaitch. Unless one is out there, cheek-by-jowl with the hordes, one is losing contact with the motive forces of humanity. Oh, I can see in your eyes: the great unwashed hold no fascination for you. I suppose you came to this job because of exactly the opposite inclination, eh? Quiet office, pleasant account ledgers, intellectual exercises.”

Deeyaitch inclined his head.

“But you see, Deeyaitch, empires are not made abstractly. Someone had to wade into the morass in order to provide you with your account-ledgers. Someone has to verify the assets, to ascertain each facility’s actual state.”

Deeyaitch began to divine the direction this was going, and he didn’t like it.

“Deeyaitch, my boy, we need more people with a native understanding of this city, of this culture, to be out in the field. We need to be more diligent in our fact-gathering before we make the larger decisions. Don’t you agree?”

Deeyaitch didn’t want to be in the field. He had only wanted to make the larger decisions! That was the whole point of University.

“I’m not quite sure I understand, my Lord….”

“You have shown quite a clear distaste of this task. Indeed, the entirety of the field work in your office been left to Ma’lagway.”

The enormity of this sank in. It was an inescapable truth, however unpalatable, that the Great Faker provided the only in-the-field verification of the ledgers that Deeyaitch so lovingly consulted.

As he mulled this, it dawned on Deeyaitch that the Rolls was approaching the Wan Fat Chu textile warehouses, which he had only the month before evaluated as a potential investment. Their inventory had seemed to him too slight, and their margin too scanty. And yet, already from a distance, he could see a bustle of activity at their docks. The business was clearly doing much better than it appeared on paper.

“Ah, I see you recognize this location. Do you know, Deeyaitch, that Chu has just obtained new financing? A miracle; he has quadrupled his volume of business.”

“But–but how could that be? I personally rejected the proposal.”

“The financing wasn’t from us. He got the money from Lloyd’s.” Frozen silence. Lord Athercrombie let his single deadly point sink in before continuing.

“They sent a few inspectors round and could see a serious business in the making. We, on the other hand, did not send anyone, because Ma’lagway was elsewhere… and on paper, they did not look like an attractive risk, I grant you.”

Deeyaitch stared at the bustling warehouses. The Old Bull’s point was now obvious. They wanted to send him out into these noisy, smelly, crowded, uncivilized warehouse areas, to the stench and filth of the agricultural hinterlands, to be plunged once again into the ugly throngs of humanity that he had thought to escape through academic diligence. The realization of this and the resulting distaste showed clearly on his face.

The Old Bull considered him with impatience and demanded in a rather sharp tone, “I say, young man… are you afraid of the lower classes?”

Deeyaitch, startled, took a moment to answer. “No, my Lord, I don’t believe I am. I am simply ill at ease with them.”

His rakan kembar’s eyes softened, and his voice took an understanding, paternal tone. “Well, I certainly share that condition. But it is hardly conducive to our business. Why, almost all of our investments are in the world’s great cities. It is time you grew to know them, as I have done. You have apprenticed long enough behind the ledger-book. You must prove your true worth to the firm now. You can see for yourself the disasters incurred by a lack of this diligence.” He paused briefly, and continued, it seemed, in spite of himself. “Deeyaitch, my boy, I can’t—won’t—tell you why, but I feel you are almost like a son to me. I will make certain you are amply rewarded for this difficult next phase of your career. Your salary, for example, shall be doubled.”

The Old Bull and Deeyaitch both gulped at the same time; neither of them had expected this. They turned to look out opposite windows, surveying in silence Chu’s lucrative traffic.

At last the Old Bull continued. “I dare say that you, too, are a sensitive lad, as I was when I was a student at Oxford. Oh, yes, I found the hurly-burly of the masses unpalatable for tastes as refined as my own. But I knew that one day, I would have to take the helm of the family business and that such intractability as mine was doomed a quick death. Nevertheless, I was quite beside myself with agitation when I was sent to Bombay to apprentice. The stench! The crowds! The unspeakable living conditions! It was all…” here the old gentleman’s eyes drifted out over the crowds outside the Rolls, and Deeyaitch sensed an unsettling flicker of emotion.

“It was worse even than here.” He leaned close to make certain Deeyaitch was attending and continued: “And the reason is that the Indians have not fully embraced the English aristocracy. But here, all goes well: we oversee the lower classes, we coerce the work out of the crude beasts. Look about you! That is what these throngs here crave most of all! To be placed under the benevolent control of us, the leaders of the great British Empire!”

Deeyaitch struggled to keep from becoming sick.

“And make no mistake…” He turned to look at Deeyaitch significantly, with all the authority he could muster, “…only a proper class system can keep the lower classes in their place and maintain world peace. Look at India! They worship this Gandhi, and now they are chaos!”

Deeyaitch searched the Old Bull’s visage for signs of a joke. But none showed in his face.

“You see, all of these uneducated beggars, all of these mindless drones, they are only happy when a gentleman is in control. The Japanese understand this! Only country in Asia that does it properly. Mark my words, boy; by nineteen-fifty they will be undisputed masters of Asia. And Athercrombie and Jones will be the ones who helped them get there.”

Deeyaitch deliberately did not peer at him as he continued, but instead froze his gaze out the window to disguise his alarm. Oblivious, Athercrombie continued pontification as the Rolls turned back toward the office.

“Yes, quite. The highest point of civilization is the gentleman’s class, is it not? Therefore, all of the distasteful hullabaloo that surrounds you must necessarily surround you because they exist for you! The stinking chicken vendor and the noisy factory men and the ill-mannered urchin take on a holy importance, because, don’t you see, they are all striving and sweating and sacrificing so that the miracle of you can exist in the manner to which you are accustomed. That is why we eat at Chez Julien and they eat there!” He motioned to a street vendor spooning noodles into disposable clay bowls before a throng of customers.

“Ah, thank God the perversity of classlessness never assailed gentle England, what?”

Deeyaitch was now staring openly at the lunatic seated across from him like a Dickensian specter of brokerage future come to warn him of a horrible fate to come. For the scariest part to Deeyaitch was not that the old man was rambling incoherently. It was exactly the opposite, that his maniacal logic was accessible to Deeyaitch, that Deeyaitch was already halfway to the same point of insanity himself.

* * *

Three weeks later, Deeyaitch stepped off of a train and strolled through a small town in a strange land. He could feel his shoulders relaxing, his agoraphobia dissipating. The energy of the place suited him: cool sunshine, ancient stone buildings, cobblestone roads—it all added to a delightfully bucolic kind of run-down disorder to the place. Although he had only just been sent here by the firm, he now began to conceive an irrepressible intention to settle here. Indeed, it seemed quite the obvious thing to do! And with that, his step grew lighter and he swung his briefcase more cheerfully. He would resign from Athercrombie and Jones and become a private investor. He would do it; he would move here, invest his life savings in the factory, join its management, and do whatever was in his power to avoid the madness that had seduced his rakan kembar. And what better place to free himself of that poisonous elitism than here in the land that Athercrombie had expressed the greatest aversion to: India.

Charles Joseph Albert runs a metallurgy shop in San Jose, California, where he lives with his wife and three boys. His poems and fiction have appeared recently in Quarterday, Chicago Literati, 300 Days of Sun, Abstract Jam, The MOON Magazine, Literary Hatchet, and Here Comes Everyone.

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