Peering over his spectacles, Abdullah began recounting my life to the audience, braiding sentences in English into his speech, ignoring the sign in the courtroom dictating the use of the Malay language in court.
"Judge Teoh was only the second woman to be appointed to the Supreme Court," he said. "She has served on this Bench for the past fourteen years . . ."
Through the high, dusty windows I saw the corner of the cricket field across the road and, further away, the Selangor Club, its mock- Tudor facade reminding me of the bungalows in Cameron Highlands. The clock in the tower above the central portico chimed, its languid pulse beating through the walls of the courtroom. I turned my wrist slightly and checked the time: eleven minutes past three; the clock was, as ever, reliably out, its punctuality stolen by lightning years ago.
". . . few of us here today are aware that she was a prisoner in a Japanese internment camp when she was nineteen," said Abdullah.
The advocates murmured among themselves, observing me with heightened interest. I had never spoken of the three years I had spent in the camp to anyone. I tried not to think about it as I went about my days, and mostly I succeeded. But occasionally the memories still found their way in, through a sound I heard, a word someone uttered, or a smell I caught in the street.
"When the war ended," the chief justice continued, "Judge Teoh worked as a research clerk in the War Crimes Tribunal while waiting for admission to read law at Girton College, Cambridge. After being called to the bar, she returned to Malaya in 1949 and worked as a deputy public prosecutor for nearly two years . . ."
In the front row below me sat four elderly British advocates, their suits and ties almost as old as they. Along with a number of rubber planters and civil servants, they had chosen to stay on in Malaya after its independence, thirty years ago. These aged Englishmen had the forlorn air of pages torn from an old and forgotten book.
The chief justice cleared his throat and I looked at him. "Judge Teoh was not due to retire for another two years, so you will no doubt imagine our surprise when, only two months ago, she told us she intended to leave the Bench. Her written judgments are known for their clarity and elegant turns of phrase . . ." His words flowered, became more laudatory. I was far away in another time, thinking of Aritomo and his garden in the mountains.
The speech ended. I brought my mind back to the courtroom, hoping that no one had noticed the potholes in my attention; it would not do to appear distracted at my own retirement ceremony. I gave a short, simple address to the audience and then Abdullah brought the ceremony to a close. I had invited a few well-wishers from the Bar Council, my colleagues and the senior partners in the city's larger law firms for a small reception in my chambers. A reporter asked me a few questions and took photographs. After the guests left, Azizah went around the room, gathering up the cups and the paper plates of half-eaten food.
"Take those curry puffs with you," I said, "and that box of cakes. Don't waste food."
"I know-lah. You always tell me that." She packed the food away and said, "Is there anything else you need?"
"You can go home. I'll lock up." It was what I usually said to her at the end of every court term. "And thank you, Azizah. For everything."
She shook the creases out of my black robe, hung it on the coat stand and turned to look at me. "It wasn't easy working for you all these years, Puan, but I'm glad I did." Tears gleamed in her eyes. "The lawyersyou were difficult with them, but they've always respected you. You listened to them."
"That's the duty of a judge, Azizah. To listen. So many judges seem to forget that."
Excerpted from The Garden of Evening Mists by Tan Twan Eng. Copyright © 2012 by Tan Twan Eng. Excerpted by permission of Weinstein Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
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