More like this

It was an undecided and hazy spring, the spring that MAS370 disappeared, and I didn’t know what I was doing in London.

Everyone kept asking me what had happened to the plane. I had become an unintentional figurehead for Malaysia Airlines. I was Australian (at least that’s what it said on my blue passport) but my parents were Malaysian (red passport). And I looked like I knew something about it.

I wished I did. All I knew was that I was lost and probably wasting my time here.

I had been against Australia remaining a Commonwealth country and opposed to the British monarchy until I received a Commonwealth scholarship from a philanthropic organisation that had been set up in 1926 by King George V. The scholarship invited me to travel to London for a week to be ‘enriched by culture’ and then to Arbroath in Scotland for a month-long artist residency. Then I was going back to London to present my work at a postcolonial literature conference. Now I liked the Commonwealth and I decided that the idea of the monarchy was a mysterious and seductive one like religion or a beautiful stranger on a bus.

All I knew was that I was lost and probably wasting my time here.

A man named Leon had been the one to email me telling me I’d been awarded the scholarship. I hadn’t applied for it and I wasn’t used to things appearing out of nowhere so at first I thought it was a scam. But then he had called me on the landline at home and he seemed real. He told me he was the arts manager at a philanthropic society in England that had been set up to lend Commonwealth countries a helping hand. He said that they had read some of my writing in magazines and such and liked it and that usually these scholarships were for visual artists but there was some interest in gradually introducing writers into the programme and did I have any projects I was working on just now? I told him I was enrolled in an English PhD programme here but I had always wanted to write a novel, a postcolonial novel, I added, to make it sound more legitimate.

Leon said I could choose the flight and he would book it. I took full advantage and chose a good airline at a cost I wouldn’t have been able to pay myself. He told me it needed to be cheaper. So I chose a budget flight but he told me he couldn’t be liable for what might happen on a Smart Wings transfer flight. In the end, the only flight that fit his criteria was a Malaysia Airlines flight, which was a proper airline but heavily discounted because no one wanted to disappear.

The transit flight to Kuala Lumpur was completely empty. I spread out across three seats and lay down to sleep. When I got to KL airport, I bought a copy of the Star which didn’t mention anything about MAS370. It was as if it had never happened. Ikanyu had told me he thought the gomen knew more than they would ever let on. Of course, before this everyone had thought that planes couldn’t disappear. But now that it had happened, it felt like if it was to disappear from anywhere it would be Malaysia. I supposed this was why Ma and Ikanyu and Ah Ma had immigrated in the first place. I knew that Ma had been heavily pregnant with me when she got on the flight. She said she’d held on tight to her pelvic muscles to keep me in until they got to Australia. I was born the day after they arrived. Her extreme willpower meant that I got the passport but I’d never quite got away from Malaysia, and I didn’t know whether I wanted to or not.

The plane to London began to toss and turn like an insomniac and our food trays slid back and forth. Our chairs rattled like we were on a rollercoaster and a redundant turbulence announcement came on. The old man next to me yelped while the boy on my other side held onto his armrests. I could tell they were worried we would disappear. As always when something went wrong, I sat very still and did nothing. I thought about disappearing. It sounded quite pleasant to me.

I thought about disappearing. It sounded quite pleasant to me.

‘You’re fine there, are you?’ the man said. ‘Yep,’ I said.

‘It’s the Australian in you. Tough outback stuff.’

I’d never been called Australian before. It was nice. The last time I had really thought of myself as Australian had been in grade one. It was play lunch. There were these older girls sitting in the crotch of the big tree. We called it the Paper Tree because of its soft, tearable bark. Ugly sunburnt skin on the outside, but when you peeled it off, it showed a secret peach colour. They told me to come play with them. Their faces were smooth as stones. They asked me what I was. When I told them I was Australian, they told me no. Then they sang a strange song that I had never heard before: ching chong ching chong. They dragged the skin at their eyes back, till their eyes were cuts. They asked me to drag the skin of my eyes back and I did it. They laughed and I laughed because it was funny and we were all good friends now. The weather was warm and the sun was gold and I. I was happy.

Much later on Ma told me that when I was young, I thought I was white. I didn’t want to be white or anything like that. I just thought that was what I was because I knew I was real. I knew I was real and not made up because sometimes I tested it. Sometimes I bit my lip till blood came out and when the saltine pain came, I knew that I was non-fiction.

Sometimes I bit my lip till blood came out and when the saltine pain came, I knew that I was non-fiction.

I took the tube from Heathrow to Green Park station. Green Park had deckchairs laid out and people were sunning themselves even though it was twelve degrees and looking like rain. I had only seen London in movies and I was pleased to see it looked and felt the exact same in person as it did on screen: grim and beautiful. This probably meant that I wasn’t looking hard enough, but I was so tired of being clever. I was born clever because Ma was very sharp and shrewd and Ikanyu was very thoughtful and deliberate and they had passed these qualities on to me. And like immigrants everywhere they played without sheet music or instruments; every song they sang was improvised from start to finish. So, I had that too, a certain kind of freedom. It was the only real resource I had been born with and I exploited it fully. But I was starting to get sick of grinding my bones back into the dust to win scholarships and prizes and money and an existence. I was ready to enjoy the newborn pleasure of knowing nothing.

The philanthropic society’s clubhouse looked right onto Green Park. I knew from the pamphlet Leon had sent me before I arrived that it was a Georgian building with yellow bricks. Rusticated quoins darted up and down the sides. I loved that new word: quoin. There was a cartouche that showed two angels holding up a globe with a ship sailing across it and, as if that wasn’t enough, it had a festoon made of fruit and foliage dripping off of it. I walked up what I would have called the front steps but I now knew was a portico and peered at the Ionic columns with their scrolling acanthus leaves. According to the guide, they meant eternal life, as well as sin and pain and punishment. That seemed to me like a lot of symbolic pressure for a thorny leaf.

I was directed to my room and discovered it contained crystallised ginger biscuits on a plate with scalloped edges and a teapot and a pen and a white dressing gown and letter-writing paper embossed with the crest I had seen on the cartouche. That made me happy. The long trip had caused a mysterious problem with my back to play up again. It was stiff and sore from sitting on the plane and I massaged the places that burned bright with pain. Then I fell asleep.

This is an edited extract from But the Girl by Jessica Zhan Mei Yu (Penguin Random House),  available now at your local independent bookseller.