The Girl in the Mango Tree by Suzy Gilmour
The Girl in the Mango Tree by Suzy Gilmour
Winner (Adult Category)
The mango tree stood by the lake, and the lake lay in the garden of the bungalow. The lake was a pond really, but it seemed vast when we first saw it, which was the day we moved in, the day you could say this story begins. Diggory, having gone down to inspect it, had had seen a fluttering of white in the tree, which he took at first to be a butterfly, because he was woefully short-sighted.
Being of a poetic turn of mind Diggory called up into the green cloud. ‘Butterfly, butterfly’. And that was when Louisa dropped from the mango tree into our lives, thin, termagant, and clad, then and always, in white somewhat stained with green from lying in wet grass and shinning up trees. A blue sash round her waist was tied in a big bow at the back, and she stood with her hands on her waist and her arms akimbo and said, ‘The mango tree belongs to me. The lake belongs to me.’ And she looked at Diggory with fierce red-brown eyes that made him understand somehow that this was not up for debate.
And so instead - for he was born a diplomat - Diggory said. ‘Can we play in them too?’ The red-brown eyes didn't become kind, but they became speculative. And that was Louisa: a demon in dirty dresses, a user and - alas - an enchantress. Certainly Diggory was enchanted. She showed him the handholds that took them high in the mango tree - and mangoes are not the easiest trees to climb. She showed him the sandbar that made a sort of path through the lake, so that even in the rainy season you could - pretty much safely - wade from one side to the other. And she showed him where to get over the fence into the tea plantation her father owned, where he left his daughter (indulged, spoilt, lonely - I see that now) to the care of an amah, who was as much a mother to her as a servant, though maybe not a good one.
Rumour had it the amah might have been her real mother, but rumour ran ripe riot in those little British enclaves, making our mother shake her head, purse her lips, and say a gossip’s mouth was the devil’s postbag. In fact, we knew her amah was really just that, for we’d had it from the Butterfly’s mouth that her real mother was an Indian Ranee, who, as a beauteous - always beauteous - girl, barely seventeen, though occasionally eighteen, had fallen in love with dashing Captain O’Hare, and died giving birth to Louisa. Her last words entrusted her child to her lover, insisting she be brought up as a Princess. And he, in tears, promised. How could he not?
To all of us - except Edwina - it seemed a good enough explanation for how she was. ‘But,’ asked Edwina, ‘if you’re a Princess, why don’t you have lots of servants and palaces?’ The Butterfly retorted sharply enough that she had had something better than dull servants and draughty palaces: she’d had a pure-bred Arab stallion named Rhadamanthine. Together she and Rhadamanthine had ridden like the wind over hill and valley, dashed through jungles and forded mountain torrents, out-stripping the handsome body-guard hired to look after her. But then, one day, galloping at full stretch through the forest, her bold and beauteous - oh, that word again - Rhadamanthine had been blinded by a shaft of light and run straight into a tree at full tilt and died beneath her. Or possibly she had drawn her pistol and had to shoot him to put him out of his pain. And indeed Louisa herself had broken a leg and lain there in fearful pain, but without crying out, until the bodyguard found her.
‘But.’ asked Edwina, ‘wouldn't he have found you sooner if you HAD cried out?’
‘Yes, stupid,’ said the Butterfly. ‘But not before a brigand.’
Edwina's eyes were wide and blue.
‘Are there brigands in the jungle?’
‘Of course there are. I was captured by them. But after one of them crept up on me and would have slit my throat if I hadn’t lashed out with my foot and broken his arm, they soon realised I was not someone you could murder and get away with it.’
And of course she had stayed with the brigands in their cave, to which she made several improvements involving carpets and plumbing. Indeed she had become their adored and feared leader, and had personally master-minded the theft of old Ma Bagnold’s emeralds when she was staying at Government House. ‘But people were killed in that robbery!’ exclaimed Edwina. ‘A porter was killed. And some of the family’s dogs.’ Edwina put her arm round the neck of Impy, her favourite mutt.
I remember the strange look on the Butterfly’s face. Looking back, I can see she was weighing up the odds. Either she had had to kill that dog herself to ensure the success - no - the very survival of her men. Or people had lied: the porter and the dog were shot in cold blood by the Governor himself, but he had subsequently blamed her brigand band of the crime.
‘Heaping opprobrium,’ said Diggory, for he was a bookish boy, ‘on the natives.’ ‘But wasn’t it her rubies’ asked Edwina thoughtfully, ‘that Lady Bagnold lost?’
What stopped us telling Mother? Of the Butterfly’s remarkable escapades? Her bravery? Of how she was loved by everyone?
‘It's so sad,’ said Joyce. ‘She has lost so much. The robber band. Rhadamanthine. The older half-brother who died saving her from the tiger. The imperial diadem her mother sewed into the frock she gave her baby as she died.‘
‘They had to sell that to pay off her father’s gambling debts,’ said Diggory, ‘or the entire plantation would have been sold out from under them.’
‘Sold out from under them,’ repeated Joyce with relish. ‘How terrible.’
Was it half overhearing some of that childish chatter that made my father (a bank manager and a man of marked discretion) say what he did in our hearing? ‘Of course, O’Hare’s just the assistant to the manager of the estate, not the owner. Decent chap,’ he told mother. ‘Straight as a die. Shame he’s going to Haphlong. The wife’s up there of course. For her health.’ Then, in a lower voice, not meant for the children, but reaching our sharp ears anyhow: ‘TB. Near the end, poor thing.’
‘What about Louisa?’ My mother’s head was bent over a letter from ‘home’, a place even Diggory could barely remember.
‘The child?’ Our father shrugged. ‘Boarding school, I imagine.’
And quite suddenly, the Butterfly was gone. We never saw her again. Nor even heard of her again, though she’d spoilt Diggory - glasses or no glasses - for nice, dull, respectable women for the best part of twenty years.
But wherever she went she will, I know now, have rescued us all from drowning in the lake-that-was-really-a-pond, resuscitated us after we fell from the tree to split our heads like ripe mangoes, swum out to drag us from the sucking slough of the sandbar, and sold her last jewels to ransom us from kidnappers.
It is not a bad legacy.