This is an excerpt from William Tham Wai Liang’s second novel, The Last Days. For context, we recommend reading the synopsis of the book first.
1981, Kuala Lumpur. An aging Communist revolutionary arrives in the hazy heart of the capital while the country lurches towards a political turning point; a time marked by protests, clandestine arrests and media suppression.
A woman known only as H agrees to document the revolutionary’s story and her dangerous task is complicated by the fragmented memories of her family’s own complicity during the violent days of the Emergency. As a silent assassin closes in, their lives become steadily intertwined as Malaysia’s own history – and future – becomes unrecognisable.
The Last Days, the second novel by William Tham Wai Liang, cuts through the murky layers of history to explore how our stories disappear and become realigned in unexpected and shattering ways.
Clarity Publishing has graciously granted Eksentrika the permission to produce an excerpt from a chapter of William’s The Last Days, “By Blood”. To purchase the novel, we’ve included a link at the end of this excerpt. Enjoy!
The city seemed hotter these days.
There were times when Dain had to step out of the sun, waiting to cool down before he could continue walking. He swore that his vessels would burst from the heat.
It did not help that the meeting with the Chancellor was still echoing loudly in his brain. It was ostensibly a disciplinary meeting to discuss Dain’s drunkenness, but to his surprise the Chancellor began talking about being able to buy a beer on campus and seeing pretty girls let down their hair. Just like a freshman!
Lunch with his uncle was up next.
Although Iqbal was old enough that he was unlikely to be promoted much further, he maintained a reputation for being a tough but cultivated policeman. Dain remembered being goaded into joining the more daring demonstrations by the Malaysians when they were in Singapore. Your uncle is a big shot! You can get away with so much more! they joked. It was true: Despite downplaying himself, Iqbal nursed an ambition that was checked only because he did not quite have the right background.
Dain last saw his uncle during Raya. They were up at the old house in Teluk Anson, close to the river and the Raja Muda’s residence. Iqbal had arrived late, citing work for keeping him busy. “I am only a small man,” he would joke, “My superiors pass on all their work to me so they can go back home early!”
That evening, when the kids were out setting off fireworks and shrieking, the men gathered around the table to drink their tea. When he was a teenager, Dain considered it an honour to be seated with them, but the increasing paranoia in the conversations was starting to unsettle him. Iqbal talked about the Chinese and their money and the trade and travel agreements with Red China. He muttered about how he was sometimes called in to handle the countless murders and gang wars between rich kingpins who paid for royal titles and protection. He talked about the terrorists in the jungle and how they were forced to keep assigning protection to the residences of worried officials. Then he would talk about India, and Pakistan even, and how both countries now had atomic weapons and aggressive leaders. Meanwhile, just across the border, youths were pressed into the army, armed to the teeth with howitzers trained directly at Johor!
The problem was that Dain could understand, and to some degree sympathise with the fears that his uncle was articulating. There was nuance to Iqbal’s arguments and the other men nodded in reluctant agreement. At long last, even Dain’s father was eventually cowed by his gentle persuasion. Dain couldn’t find it in him to raise his voice and tell Iqbal that he was being paranoid as by then his uncle had already dominated the table.
Now he stepped into the Coliseum cafe, the fan rattling overhead. A hippie tourist edged past him as he stepped past the bar, incongruous among the bankers who gathered for their lunchtime beers. His uncle was waiting for him near the staircase, seated with a fat deputy he recognised as Che Yahya. Both men were dressed in street clothes, but whereas Che Yahya was perspiring heavily, Iqbal was still composed and lean.
This was the man who had marshalled a cordon of police at the last elections, and who witnessed the hypnotic chanting crowds the night of the arrest of the Chief Minister.
“My dear boy,” Iqbal never lost the mannerisms of the Englishman who taught him at Victoria Institution, “You must be tired! You’re sweating all over.”
“Just the sun,” Dain mumbled. There were stains on his shirt and he felt terribly self-conscious. He felt tongue-tied. This always happened in his uncle’s company.
Che Yahya mumbled something and handed him a menu. He was glad for the distraction. It gave him something to think about until Iqbal eventually got around to whatever he wanted to discuss. Iqbal remained charming throughout the meal, but as soon as the bones from the chicken chop were cleared away, he began to sound serious again.
“I have a lot to deal with right now,” he whispered. “The transition is coming, and that is always stressful. There’s a demonstration planned in the next couple of days, and I have to handle that too.”
“ABIM, uncle?” Dain was clutching at straws, trying to find a way to delay Iqbal long enough for him to have to return to work.
“ABIM? No, no, that’s for the Federal Reserves to deal with. But what worries me is you, paying too much attention to things that are beyond your control. What’s this I hear from my secretary, that you came into the station on one of my off-days? He says you showed him a business card, probably false, and tried to talk to Gordon Chang.”
Dain flushed, feeling stupid that he had been caught. “How did he know it was me?”
Iqbal looked delighted. “Good, you admit it. That makes my task a little easier. I keep a photo of our family in my office. I even pointed you out to my staff a few times. I had rather hoped they would have met you under happier circumstances, but the fact of the matter is that you tried to gain access to a criminal. So why did you do it? Are you some kind of reporter now? Are you a card-carrying member of the Opposition? Don’t forget that as much as our views differ, we are related by blood. I want you to stay safe. I promised your father that much.”
“Safe from what?” Dain asked flatly. “You helped put the Chief Minister in jail. The only important event is the PM’s handover. There’s nothing we should be scared of.”
“Maybe this is just an older man’s fears talking. Make sure that whatever you do, you stay careful. We must know our place, after all.”
Iqbal’s silkiness made things worse.
He feebly tried to pay for his own meal, but his uncle was already counting out bills. Yet again he was in Iqbal’s debt. He hated the feeling and he wished them goodbye. Both policemen returned to his uncle’s Ford parked just outside the restaurant.
William Tham Wai Liang’s The Last Days (ISBN number 9789671765722) will be out in February 2020. The book will be available at RM39 at all major bookstores nationwide. Have an excerpt of your latest book to share with us? Send it over to [email protected]! Here’s a short story by William you might enjoy.