A long night
I suddenly remembered that, dashing around frantically as I had been, I had not clapped eyes on George since he arrived. It was getting dark when I got into our canoe and paddled across to the rest house. It was a foot or two lower than my house, and the water was already over the floor-boards.
I was met by a rather bizarre scene. George, dressed in a sarong and one of my shirts, was sitting quietly smoking a cigarette and reading by the light of a kerosene lamp. The water was rushing past his ankles. As I waded towards him, a side table at his elbow floated away. He did not even glance at it. Attan waded through and put the side table on top of the billiard table; the green baize surface was piled high with boxes, bed linen, dishes and kitchen items.
I asked George how he was feeling. “Ravenously hungry,” he replied rather unexpectedly. “I have not had a bite to eat since I arrived here.” I spoke to Attan, who was indignant: “Yesterday he had three big meals. Today I cooked a leg of lamb for his lunch, with beans and potatoes. He ate nearly the whole leg, and an hour later, he asked why I had not given him any lunch.”
I collected a couple of glasses and a bottle of Royal Lochnagar, George’s favourite malt, and sat down in a cane chair opposite him. We chatted companionably for some time. As usual, the darkness fell swiftly. Attan pumped up the kerosene lamp. The water continued to rise until it was just below the seats of our chairs. I was beginning to get quite worried about the situation.
George seemed to be getting agitated. He lit cigarette after cigarette and tossed them into the water when they were half-smoked. He was talking more and more wildly, as the level went down in our bottle. It was a surreal situation. The lamp cast a small circle of yellow light on the two of us sitting on our cane chairs with glasses in our hands and our feet in the black flood-water which was sweeping past us. The scene has remained etched in my memory.
It was time, however, that we evacuated the rest house. Attan had already been paddling the canoe to and fro transferring his belongings across. You won’t be safe here,” I told George. “We must go over to my house. The piles are longer, and we will be a bit higher out of the flood.”
George protested feebly as Attan and I half dragged him into the canoe and we paddled the few yards across to my house. The rain had stopped. The storm clouds were clearing away and the moon was beginning to appear. However, the water level was still rising and it was now coming well over our floor-boards.
I did not think that we would have to evacuate the house. No matter how much rain came down the river, I reasoned, the level of the Sulu Sea was not going to rise. The tide was due to turn sometime in the early hours and by tomorrow morning, I thought, the flood level would probably have dropped. Mahid produced an impromptu meal which George ate ravenously.
Whilst we were eating, a large log hurtled out of the night and crashed into our veranda. The whole house shook on its piles. We all rushed to the front rail with long poles. With some difficulty, we pushed the log away and watched it disappear into the darkness.
This I realised was now the greatest danger. Obviously, logs from the timber camps upstream were breaking free. If a pile of logs was allowed to accumulate against the house, the posts holding it up would be under immense pressure. At least two men must be on duty the whole time. There were six in the house – Mahid, his sons Thaib and Attan, my driver Benchiron, George and myself.
It was going to be a long night. I drew up an impromptu duty roster. George had quietened down and was behaving quite normally again. I decided that he and I would take the first watch. The others went off to the servants’ quarters to comfort the women and children and to try to snatch some sleep.
Log after log was hurtling down the river. We kept a powerful torch trained on the black current. When we spotted a log coming towards us, we stopped it with our poles, guided it along the front of the veranda and it was snatched away downstream by the fierce current.
It was not difficult but it was exhausting work, and we could not relax for an instant. By the time Attan and Benchiron came through to relieve us at 1am, I was almost dead on my feet. George went through to the spare bedroom. I flung myself fully clothed on my bed and dropped off to sleep instantly.
Something woke me. The flood had now come up to the level of the bed. A torch flashed in my face. George was standing beside me. He was shouting furiously and waving a parang. “I’m going to kill you, you bastard. You have drowned my dog.” I rolled off the other side of the bed swiftly and backed away. “You haven’t got a dog, George.”
Attan and Benchiron splashed through with a kerosene lamp to see what the commotion was about. George’s mood changed abruptly. He sat down on my bed with his head in his hands and started to sob. “You’ve drowned my lovely dog. You’ve killed it.” I tried to comfort him. He handed over the parang without any protest.
George seemed almost unable to walk. We half carried him back to the lounge against the current, with the water up to our thighs. We gave a gasp of dismay. While we had been occupied with George, a huge uprooted forest tree had floated into the house. We all pushed at it, but it could not be dislodged. Within minutes, more and more trees and logs piled up behind it.
This was what I had been afraid of. The speed of the current was now terrifying and the roaring noise got so loud we had to shout to be heard. Suddenly there was a loud crack and the house shuddered. We did not need telling that one of the piles had snapped under the weight of the logs.
Lai had by now tied the Puyoh in the trees about 30 yards upstream of us, in order to keep it out of the current. With some difficulty he and Tundah managed to manoeuvre it back to the house. Mahid’s family piled on to it. His wife Emah and daughters Nordi, Silah, and Norlini, with the new baby wrapped in her arms, were all taken down to the cabin and made comfortable.
As we were collecting a few last-minute items, there were more loud cracks, as post after post snapped under the water. One side of the house started to sink. It was dangerous to keep the boat tied to the steps. We all climbed aboard. Lai cast off and the Puyoh battled back against the current to its mooring in the trees.
The moon briefly emerged from a bank of clouds. We stood on the deck, watching silently. There were a few more loud cracks. One side of the house rose high in the air, then it swung round, righted itself, sank a few feet deeper into the water. Then, very slowly at first, it floated majestically off down the river.
Datuk Leslie Davidson
Author, East of Kinabalu
Former Chairman, Unilever Plantations International
This is the second part of an edited chapter from the book published in 2007. It can be purchased from the Incorporated Society of Planters; email: firstname.lastname@example.org