It was raining in Maida Vale as Tom Whelan reviewed his meagre wardrobe. Did he possess a single garment which would be suitable for a detective sergeant conducting an investigation in a small town on the Equator? The answer, apart from a pair of cotton shorts bought in a sale at Burtons and a loud beach shirt which had once been worn in Alicante, was negative. But there was no time. As he threw what garments he could muster into an elderly suitcase, he allowed himself some pre-McPherson sentiments.
Whelan’s parents had been non-practising Methodists. At a Sunday school replete with flannel-graphs and magic lanterns, he alone had done duty for the family’s religious conscience. In consequence, his early knowledge of the world beyond his native Ruislip had been largely formed by the missionary zeal of well-meaning elderly ladies (and the obligatory school visits to Pathe Pictorial spectaculars of Royal visits to the Commonwealth). To the young Whelan’s mind the world was divided between US – ovaltine, tweeds and evangelical Christianity – and THEM – a romantic assemblage of assorted fuzzy-wuzzies in titillating nakedness with things through their noses.
Why, he asked himself, was he now jetting off to solve a theft from Lambeth Palace by interviewing a load of Anglican Dyaks whose great-grandfathers – grandfathers even – had been headhunters? He knew that in the current climate of the Met it was a question he was not permitted to voice. But it was none the less real.
By contrast, Commander Melhuilish, as she drove her signature Buggati along the M4 towards Heathrow, viewed the forthcoming trip with enthusiasm. Ben was in Bucharest, singing Julio Cesare for the Council of Europe, and she was footloose and fancy-free. Her Louis Vuitton was stuffed with the crush-resistant tropical kit that she had bought for her last trip to Borneo (a romantic five days in a Hilton longhouse in the depths of the Ulu with someone called Toby). Melhuilish, moreover, thought she knew what she was in for.
Surrounded by previously impenetrable jungle, and set on a broad bend in a navigable river, Kuching is a neat colonial town with unsuitable concrete additions. The fort of the White Rajahs and the thatched but extensive former bishop’s palace stand upon manicured lawns on one side of the river, the dazzling chunam of the major colonial buildings (barracks, Post Office, covered market ) on the other. St Thomas’ Anglican Cathedral, a concrete achievement of the seventies, looks as if it had dropped in for a visit from Harlow New Town.
Archbishop Datuk Lee Siew Hong was a small Chinese who, before political correctness, might have been called inscrutable. But the Commander knew that, despite his stature, he was a towering figure in modern Anglicanism. His fledgling province, though only two years old, had challenged the might of the Primates’ Meeting (though itself little older) by consecrating missionary bishops for the Anglican Church of Canada.
‘Between you and me,’ ‘Guilders’ Guildenthal had told her over a pink gin in his flat in Shepherd Market, ‘that is the modern sin against the Holy Spirit. Anglican bishops are like alley cats. They scent the fringes of their territory and woe betide another cat who so much as sniffs at them. Lee has done the unforgivable. The ABC is incandescent. And who knows, Lee may be your man.’
The idea that the Lambeth Quadrilateral had been stolen by a hit squad of Dyaks with blow pipes and impeccable Anglican credentials, led by an inscrutable Chinese who directed the operation from a secret hide out in the rain forest so neatly combined Conan Doyle and Ian Fleming that Melhuilish was immediately intrigued.
She and Whelan found the Datuk in the neatly whitewashed office of his compound behind the Cathedral.
‘Will you take some tea?’ the Archbishop asked politely, and sent a young man (bearing, Eve thought, a striking resemblance to John Lone) in the direction of the kitchen. On his return Melhuilish immediately recognized the incomparable aroma of tea from the Dragon Well in Hangchow. Whelan was not impressed.
‘You have come a long way, ‘continued the Archbishop, ‘and though I do not think for a moment that I can help you with your enquiries, I do, I think, owe you an explanation.
‘We Malaysian Anglicans are a young Church, a fragile Church, worst of all a post-colonial Church. Daily we confront Islam, and daily we confront the damaging accusation that we are simply the agents of a decadent Western culture. When the values for which we contend, the values of the gospel which came to us from the West, are mocked or undermined by our fellow Anglicans in the West, our position here becomes correspondingly untenable. Faithful monogamy, sexual continence outside marriage – these are basic values we seek to uphold and to teach. And how are we (to either animists or Muslims) to preach the doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation, sin, regeneration and redemption, when all these doctrines and values are being treated as so many merely human opinions on the shelves of some ideological supermarket in Vancouver or LA? Don’t you see that in the face of all this we had to do something? My consecrations for Canada were not aggression, they were self-defence.’
The Commander was strangely moved by the quiet sincerity of the small man in a purple shirt who sat before her, cradling his tea in his hands and rocking gently backwards and forwards as he spoke. She thought of her own life – Mike, Toby and now Ben – of the child they hoped to have, and the wedding they had decided against. She thought of her mother’s deathbed exhortations and her father’s mute tolerance. Eve hardly knew anyone who was married. Nothing so bourgeois was permitted in NW1 or along the trendier reaches of the Regent Canal. And what of Whelan? What did he get up to in the obsessive secrecy of his little flat? And would it have met with the approval of his Methodist Sunday School? They had both, no doubt, come a long way in more senses than one.
Back in the humming air-conditioning of the Kuching Inter-Continental Melhuilish knew instinctively that Lee was not her man. As she lay on the king-sized bed she had a sort of vision – an image of the beaming guileless face of the Archbishop as, seated on his throne in the chancel, he watched an Indian verger lead a parti-coloured surpliced choir of Chinese and Dyaks out of the Cathedral into the brief equatorial sunset. They were singling ‘The day thou gavest, Lord, is ended’.
Next month in QUADRILATERAL. Whelan in New York.