The Great Bell
Looking back, should I have known? Should I not have exercised more forethought, attempted more restraint? I will never be able to answer those questions, but this I know: they will haunt me for the rest of my life. Let me depart at this point from the practice I usually employed in relating the exploits of my friend U Sha Lok, the Yangon consulting detective, and insert a passage I found, all too late, in his personal journal. An indefatigable diarist myself, I was not even aware that Sha Lok kept a diary. But what I found in it helps to explain many things which I had failed to understand about him. Without more ado, I will reproduce here some of the material passages.
“Hest-le-Sands, February Seventy-six. Has it really been three years since we arrived here? How we both hated it at first! I will not say Moe and I were homesick, since the death of our mother had deprived us of anything like a home. Certainly we could not look to our father for any aid or comfort. The moment our mother died, he packed us off to this boarding school in the remote wilds of northern England as if he were glad to see the back of us. Let me be charitable and say, that perhaps our presence would have been unbearable to him, serving as a constant reminder of what we had all lost. Even as a child I always thought him a cold, calculating man, cunning and flinty, though undeniably brilliant in his way. That he loved our mother was a surprise to nobody who ever met her; what she saw in him was a mystery to my brother as well as to me. Yet perhaps both of us have taken after him in our different ways.
“So this grim northern boarding school, with its stern rules, strict masters and awful food, has become our home. Harsh as this environment can be, I must allow that the school does encourage intellectual curiosity. We have prospered here, after a fashion, free to pursue our studies and our interests. Though now our fellow students include many Chinese and Indian boys, when we first arrived we were the only Asians. We may have been the only Myanmar in all England outside London. So first we learned to speak English, not in the clipped tones of our first language teachers back in Yangon, but the flat, soft, slow burr of our new Lancashire home. If the local people found it odd that two brown boys from the other side of the planet should chatter away to them in their own dialect, they never showed it.
“We have learned at this school far more than the teachers taught us in the classrooms. It was here that I have developed my interest and skill in unarmed combat, having been forced more than once to protect Moe Yat Ti from much bigger boys who thought him an easy target. Back in Myanmar I was never in a fight, but here in Morecambe I have become quite the schoolyard brawler, though once I had established my reputation, all attacks on me and my brother ceased altogether.
“Of the wider world outside the school walls we have also learned more than the masters anticipated. I will say no more of Mr Janville, a very fat and very important gentleman from the Home Office in London and his frequent visits. They said he had a deep personal interest in the school. Mr Janville, who was sometimes accompanied by even more important men than himself, most certainly had a deep personal interest in some of the boys. They tell us now those were innocent times, but we boys knew exactly what Mr Janville and his powerful London friends were after when they visited our remote little all-boys school.
“Seeing England with foreign eyes, we saw the contrasts perhaps English people do not see. Set in its seaside village, this school is a monument to a certain vision of England and the English: understated, polite, kind to animals, good with flowers, orderly, decent, not above taking a drink or betting on a horse, respectful of the law whenever they have to be, placid until roused, violent only under strict conditions. Then there is the Bay.
“The Bay is the first thing we see from our dormitory window in the morning: a vast expanse of water, glinting in the weak sun or, more likely, sullen under grey clouds, when the tide is in. When the tide is out, the Bay is a vast and silent bowl of salt sand and improbable growths uneasily tolerant of the air and daylight until, with a motion that is almost palpable, the earth tilts beneath our feet and the vast flood cascades back into the bowl. Alongside our regulated and tame existence, the Bay is danger. The Bay is fear. With its racing tides, its sucking sands that open up beneath unwary feet, its shifting channels, its imperious and fickle moods, the Bay is death.
“What fascination it held for us both, Moe and me. How many hours we must have spent on its fringes and then, as we learned its intricate paths and its mysterious ways, walking on the very floor of the Bay amid its weird sea-plants, spotting the occasional rusty engine part or, on one memorable occasion, a human skull, or so Moe said. We made great friends with the volunteer lifeboat crews as well who, I like to think, appreciated our knowledge of the Bay and its moods. This was to have consequences.
“I'm writing this as I recover from my last encounter with the Bay, which was almost my last encounter on earth. Now all the world knows of the tragedy of the Chinese cockle-pickers. We had seen them, of course, Moe and I, and even tried to speak to them. But they were Fujianese, and were baffled by our schoolboy Mandarin. We learned gradually that they were here to harvest shellfish from the floor of the Bay, as many local people do. But the local people respect the Bay and its movements and moods, and make sure they are safe home and dry before the tide turns. Moe and I did not discuss it, but I know he shared my premonition.
“It was two nights ago. At about 8.30 it was already dark, and the wind cut like a blunt razor (I shave now at least twice a week). From the dormitory window I saw the headlights where no headlights should be: in the middle of the Bay. Living where we did, I was very familiar with the tide tables. If the car that owned those lights had brought cockle-pickers out into the heart of the Bay, it had already tarried too long. The tide was on the turn, and unless they were even now climbing back in, they must be trapped and overwhelmed by the surging waters.
“Almost I opened the window to shout a warning, but it would have been a waste of time. The lights were a good mile away, and the wind was blowing off the Bay. Besides, if it was the Chinese cockle-pickers out there, they would not understand me. Rapidly I told Moe of my fears, and the two of us sought out Mr Corbishley, the night housemaster. A local man himself, and one of the less hidebound of our teachers, he at once understood the risk. ‘All right, boys. Leave it with me now. Go back to your dormitory, Shar Lok and Mory Arty. I will call the police and the lifeboat service.’
“‘Sher Lok and Mory Arty’. That was what the English, unable to get their tongues around our names, called us. The two boys from Bahma.
“We should have followed his advice. But some devil made us act. Without exchanging a word, such was the depth of our common understanding, we dashed together out of the school grounds toward the lifeboat station, less than a mile away. We both knew the Bay, had seen it smiling under the sun and roused to furious rage by the wind. It was not a time to sit and wait for masters to make telephone calls.
“We ran with the wind in our faces all the way to the lifeboat station. As we arrived, a few of the men we knew were already boarding the hovercraft. We shouted to them that we had seen the cockle-pickers’ vehicle out in the Bay and pleaded to be allowed aboard to help with the rescue. Clearly short-handed, and driven by the same desperate urgency that had impelled us to the scene, they hauled us up on deck and the craft, with a roar of engines, plunged into the night. The tide had already reached the shore at that point and, we knew, was racing around the far curve of the Bay threatening to cut off the luckless Chinese and their vehicle.
“DONG! Behind us, carrying clearly across the Bay, tolled the great Bell of St Swithin’s, the lifeboatmen’s church which, from time immemorial, had marked the launching of the boats that went out to save travellers at risk of death on the dark waters.
“Aboard the hovercraft the wind intensified, driving the rain lashing into our faces as we hurriedly donned sou’westers and strapped on lifejackets. The hovercraft shuddered and heaved as the heavy waves crashed into its flank. Its searchlights tossed and weaved crazily as we made our way through the gloom, illuminating the heavy black swell ahead. Overhead, the night sky seemed to burst into flames as a distress rocket went up, bathing the storm-tossed surface in a lurid white light. For all the racket of the engines and the booming surf, the siren that suddenly erupted from above the cabin seemed loud enough to wake a drowned mariner. Poor sailor that I am, I was clinging desperately to the guard-rail as the deck lurched and shivered beneath my feet. Only then did I notice that I had run from the school barefoot.
“'There! Over there!’ cried Moe, shrieking into my ear above the roar of the wind. He was pointing at a fugitive gleam of grey only marginally less black than the black of the night. Now the searchlight swivelled and picked them out, three tiny figures clinging to each other amid the howling waste that was the returning sea.
“The hovercraft reversed engines as it sidled towards the three people in the water, and we helped the lifeboatmen throw a rope net over the side towards them. The searchlights blazed down, making that small patch of turbid water brighter than day. But the Chinese seemed confused, perhaps already in the grip of hypothermia and exhaustion. The water was up to their chests. Then one of the dark heads disappeared beneath the waves.
“The next thing I knew Moe had dived into the water, shouting as he swam towards the three. In his bright yellow sou’wester and lifejacket he was safe enough, and easily visible, but greatly hampered. It seemed to take him an age to reach the struggling cockle-pickers, who made no move towards him. “I burned with impatience and indecision as the craft grew closer to the people in the water. I had no fears for Moe, who was a strong swimmer. But what should I do? Jump in and help him? Or stay on board and help with the recovery? I flinched involuntarily as the loudspeaker opened up, bawling tinny instructions which I knew the Chinese would not understand. They may already have passed beyond any capacity to respond even had they understood.
“Now Moe had reached the group and was trying to carry one of them back to the hovercraft. Just then, an incoming wave crashed over the heads of the people in the water. When the wave had passed, there was no sign of the Chinese, or of Moe. The searchlight swung wildly from side to side, illuminating a waste of swirling, choppy water. But of the four people who had been struggling just a few feet from our craft, there was no sign.
“I did not think. Even now, I have no idea of what was going on in my head. The next thing I knew, I was in the water myself, gasping with the cold, straining against the current, shouting ‘Moe! Moe!’ as I thrashed towards the spot at which I thought I had last seen him. But in that shifting watery landscape I at once lost track of my bearings. The night turned to pitch black as the spotlight abruptly swivelled. And in the night ahead, I thought I saw a lighter patch.
“Desperately I struck out towards it, still screaming my brother’s name. An answering cry came from the grey patch ahead. As I battled forward through the evil, oily swell I made out two heads. Behind me, I heard the lifeboat crew shouting, and the spotlight swung back to pick out the scene before me. One of the figures was indeed Moe, the other a young Chinese man.
“The next few moments were a scene from hell. At the time, I had no idea of what was happening. As I reconstruct it now, in warmth and safety, I must have swum towards the pair as the hovercraft advanced slowly behind me, keeping its light trained on the three of us. Moe and I between us managed to lift up the man, who seemed unconscious, so that the rescuers aboard the craft could reach down and take hold of him, dragging him aboard to safety. But when I seized hold of the rope net to pull myself aboard, I realised that Moe was not beside me. Turning, I saw him plunging out of the circle of bright light into the watery darkness beyond.
“I screamed at him to return. I was myself very close to exhaustion after only a few minutes in the turbulent waters, and he must have been in worse shape than me. But I could only assume he thought he had seen another victim in the water and had gone to save him.
“The next instant I was back in the water myself, again screaming his name as I struggled against the swirling tides. The men in the hovercraft behind me were shouting, but I couldn't make out the words.
“I hardly know how to describe what happened next. It seems so bizarre and other-worldly, yet I will set it down exactly as I seemed to experience it at the time.
“As I battled towards my brother through the waves, the scene suddenly changed utterly. In place of darkness there was light, not the harsh glare of the spotlight, but a softer, yet more brilliant illumination that bathed us both. We were no longer adrift in the stormy waters, but dry, and wearing our school uniforms. The noise of the storm had died away, replaced by a peaceful calm.
“I reached out my hand towards Moe. ‘Shall we go?’ I said. “He seemed pensive and reluctant. ‘Not yet.’ “Though this mysterious realm was calm and bright, and sheltered from the storm, my very skin seemed to crawl with unease. ‘This place is not for us. Not yet. Come, there’s tea and hot buttered crumpets by the fire back at school. Ni-lei, la-oun, pyanjyazou! Come, little brother, let’s go home!’
“He looked at me with a curious mixture of sadness, joy and defiance. ‘Mummy is here,’ he said. ‘I think I saw her. I want to stay.’
“A dreadful chill of fear stabbed through me. ‘You cannot stay,’ I told him gently. Please, come. Leave with me before it’s too late. For your life, come now.’ Again I reached out my hand and took his.
“‘No. I won’t go. Let me stay. You must stay too. Don’t you want to see Mummy?’ And I thought I heard a voice, clear but faint, musical and low. The sweetest voice I have ever heard, though I could not make out the words.
“’It’s not time,’ I said with desperation. ‘We have things to do back there, you and I. This is no place for us, not yet. We have our lives to lead. Mummy will wait. Come.’ And I tugged him by the hand.
“He resisted. ‘I want to stay. She always loved me more than you. I want to be with her! You can’t make me go! If you don’t want to come with me, go back by yourself.’
“We struggled, then, I striving to drag him back, back to the life we had known, though bleak and lonely, he struggling like a child that wants to run to its mother. For a moment the tussle hung in the balance, as if we fought above a gigantic waterfall, life on one side, death on the other. Then, with a sudden heave, I pulled him back from the brink.
“All at once, with a shock that drove the breath from my body, we were again plunged neck-deep into freezing black waters, with the roar of the hovercraft engines dinning in our ears and the searchlight blinding us. Still grasping Moe’s hand, I kicked out toward the craft and stretched out my other hand for the rope web. A few minutes later we were both safely aboard, freezing and dripping, wrapped in blankets and seated in the cabin. They gave us mugs of hot, strong, sweet tea.”
It had started like any other case. I had dropped in for a chat with my old friend U Sha Lok in the unlikely eventuality that he might be free. Finding him at liberty, I took up my old armchair seat while he, stretched out on the sofa, described to me with his usual dry wit his latest cases. Any newspaper reader of the time would have been familiar with them, whether U Sha Lok’s contribution to their solution had been publicised or not. There was the bizarre affair of the Chinese engineer’s thumb in Myitsone, for instance, and the dramatic disappearance of the entire Myanmar cricket team, immediately upon their return from their victorious tour of Australia.
Yet despite his obvious pleasure in relating to me these successes, in which he invariably trumped the efforts of the official Yangon Metropolitan Police, I sensed a kind of lethargy or ennui in my friend’s attitude. Presently he fell silent, only to exclaim a few moments later, “Oh Wa Zone, I truly fear that crime is dead! Yes, there are murders, robberies and so on, but where is the artistry? Where are the audacity, the contempt for risk, the fearlessness that characterise the true criminal? Life these days seems so weary, stale, flat and unprofitable. You know what I crave: the original, the bizarre, the outré, the downright weird. I declare my wits are growing soft and slow for lack of anything to pit them against in these safe and law-abiding days!”
I forbore to remark the obvious, that the great majority of citizens of our metropolis would be deeply glad that no such crimes were being committed, and quite grateful to him if they thought him responsible for such a state of affairs. Caring but little for his public persona, he would hardly have considered it a compliment.
“And if that were not enough,” he was continuing, in a high state of indignation, “Now I am expected to deal with ancient history. Take a look at this, which arrived in the morning post, if you would.” He handed me the merest scrap of paper, like something torn from a school exercise book, poor quality paper faintly lined in blue. Yet the handwriting was elegant, certainly that of an educated person. The card pinned to the top left-hand corner of the sheet of paper informed me that the writer was one Professor Daw Myint Hlaing of the University of Tanintharyi Department of Antiquities.
She had written the following: “My dear U Sha Lok. I wonder if you would do me the kindness of receiving me on the morning of the 12th inst. If you could but spare me a few moments I should count it an honour to bring to your attention a matter that has caused the most intense and, I am sorry to say, acrimonious dissension among the fraternity of historians in this country. Indeed, the matter is so delicate that I would rather not commit it to writing.”
“Why surely,” I said, “This could be something to suit your interest, could it not?” But in so saying, I had forgotten a singular aspect of my friend’s character: that, so expert in any matter that touched upon his vital fascination with crime in all its forms, he had no use whatever for knowledge he considered irrelevant to his needs. I have known him risk death by poison by applying to himself various toxic combinations of chemicals merely in order to calculate the size of a fatal dose. He has written learned monographs on different types of betel nuts in order to identify the source of splashes on the ground coloured in various shades of red, and will dilate with passion on the different sub-dialects that can be heard in the various neighbourhoods of our city, from which a speaker’s origin might be identified. Yet ask him to state who won the English Football Association Cup last season, or to name the celestial bodies that lent their names to our weekdays, and he would look at you as blankly as if you had addressed him in Martian.
“What possible good can information of that kind be to me?” he would ask. Historical knowledge in particular is of the deepest insignificance as far as he is concerned. For him, anything that occurred five years or more ago is dry-as-dust theoretical knowledge best consigned to musty volumes kept locked up in a glass-fronted cabinet, in an empty room. Under normal circumstances, he would be no more likely to receive a commission from a history professor, than to shake hands with an escapee from a leper colony.
Indeed, when the knock on the street door came, and he heard the landlady, Daw Hat Sun, ushering in a visitor, he groaned aloud. “Wa Zone, be so good as to kick me, and not gently, if I should happen to nod off during the good professor’s dissertation,” he said.
But the lady who entered our dingy sitting room when we opened the door to her knock was not at all the image of the wrinkled, bespectacled professor of history we had expected. Daw Myint Hlaing was a young, personable woman with a keen eye, an athletic frame and an engaging demeanour. Immediately identifying Sha Lok, she said, in a clear contralto voice, “An honour, sir. I follow your cases with great care.” The handshake with which she greeted me was firm and bracing.
Once seated in the visitors’ chair, she began her story without delay. “Forgive me for sending you such a mysterious letter, but the matter is indeed a delicate one. As soon as I discerned its elements, I knew at once that you were the only man who could help solve this matter.” U Sha Lok, mollified perhaps very slightly by the professor’s admiring remarks, waved an inviting hand, bidding her proceed. He then assumed his customary posture when interviewing clients, stretched out on the sofa with his fingertips steepled on his chest and his eyes half-closed. “It concerns the Great Bell of Magwe,” said Professor Daw Myint Hlaing.
U Sha Lok did not sit up. But, knowing him as I did, I at once spotted the gleam that came into his eyes at the sound of that name. I myself involuntarily sat forward. Who has not heard of the Great Bell of Magwe and its mysterious and fateful history?
“The moment I heard what I am about to relate to you, it was clear that you were the man to track it down,” Professor Myint Hlaing was saying. “The masterly way in which you located the six buried Spitfires, lost since the end of the Second World War, was the talk of the Senior Common Room at our university.”
“It was really nothing,” demurred U Sha Lok. “Once I had established the motive for packing vintage fighter aircraft into plywood boxes and burying them deep in the ground, actually running them to earth, so to speak, was no great trick. But who would have thought that they would turn up buried below the British embassy compound itself! That was a surprise. But do please continue.”
“I have been on the track of the lost Bell for many years. It is not my full-time job, of course, merely an entertaining hobby. But in view of the central place of the Magwe Bell in our nation’s history and even mythology, because of the many stories that have grown up around it and the mysterious hold it seems to exercise over the national imagination, the study of the Great Bell of Magwe, in a sense, takes one to the heart of our own history.”
She paused, as if better to frame what she was about to say. “I come to you now, U Sha Lok, and Dr U Wa Zone, because I have found it.”
Now U Sha Lok really did sit up. “You have found the lost Great Bell of Magwe?” he repeated. “That would indeed be a feat, not just of history, but of national, even international importance. But how did you find it? And, indeed, where is it?”
“As to your second question, the Bell is in a potting shed behind a bicycle repair shop in the Pazundaung Road, covered with a blue-and-orange Korean tarpaulin.”
U Sha Lok and I could not help laughing aloud at the prosaic detail of the professor’s reply. But she, entirely serious, continued to speak. “As to how I found it, that is a matter of secondary importance. Let us say only that my discovery was the result of many years’ unremitting efforts, during which I built up a host of useful and knowledgeable contacts in all walks of life and a passing acquaintance with scientific and other disciplines far beyond my own specialty of history. Though I hesitate to use the term in such company, it was something of a work of detection,” she said.
“But let me proceed at once to explain why I have come to you. During my search for the Bell, I came across many disturbing indications of the true reason for its disappearance. I do not refer to the original theft of the Bell by the Portuguese adventurer Maroës, who wished to melt it down to turn into cannon-barrels, nor the second theft, by British soldiers, who wished to send it back to Queen Victoria as booty. In each case, brave Myanmar patriots recovered the Bell and kept it safe for the nation.
“I was not aware of that fact,” I ventured. “I always assumed the Bell was secreted in some museum or private aristocratic house in London.”
Daw Myint Hlaing shook her head firmly. “The Bell was never placed aboard the British warship that was to have taken it back to London. This I know for a fact. It was recovered en route to the Port of Rangoon in a daring raid and kept, hidden, in Ayeyarwady Division, for many years, in the custody of an old family of former royal retainers. This fact was known only to their most intimate associates, as well as others whose loyalty and love of country were unquestioned.
“And then, last year, it was stolen. Again. I have spent the past 12 months tracking it down, with all the help given to me by a well-placed network of allies who have nothing in common but love of country and of our national heritage, and a desire to see the Great Bell of Magwe restored to its proper place by the Shwedagon Pagoda.
“Opposing them is the man who ordered the Bell stolen. I have come to learn a great deal about this man, who lives not two miles from this room. He is a master criminal, with fingers in many lucrative pies, both here and abroad. Though I have never met the man, I have managed to build up a very complete and detailed picture of him from his many associates and accomplices, some of whom have admitted to me that they have qualms regarding his plans for our national treasure. The man’s name is Dr Moe Yat Ti.”
Again, U Sha Lok did not move or react in any visible way, but I was conscious, the instant I heard that name, of a kind of soundless intensity that transformed his entire being, as when the sun, rising above the horizon at dawn, floods with sudden light and colour the grey landscape beneath.
Speaking in a voice that sounded to me slightly hoarse and tight, he said, “I am familiar with the name. Why do you think he has stolen the Bell?”
“He wants to barter it. As you may know, Moe Yat Ti is an inveterate collector of Western artworks. Why he should care so little for the objects of beauty produced by his own culture, I cannot say. But I am given to understand that he has long coveted a work of the Belgian-Myanmar surrealist painter Ma Gritte. It is called, “This is Not a Painting”.
“Last year the painting, “This is Not a Painting”, was stolen from the Louvre Museum in Paris by a person or person unknown. Unknown, at least, to the general public. Evidently, working through his international criminal connections, Moe Yat Ti discovered who was in possession of the work. It seems that negotiations then took place, since the head of the gang that stole the work also has a taste for Asian artefacts, supposing they are particularly exotic or valuable. It seems he was willing to talk about exchanging “This is Not a Painting” for the Great Bell of Magwe.
"A grubby haggling session ensued, with a great deal of mutual suspicion and bad faith on either side. Negotiations were broken off several times, as one or other party denounced the other for greed or treachery. No doubt in that respect at least, both parties were entirely correct. But now it seems that the lust for acquisition has finally overcome mutual antipathy and mistrust, and a deal has been struck. The Bell moves tonight.”
Our visitor leaned forward earnestly. “U Sha Lok, unless I, or you, can stop it, the Great Bell of Magwe will this night leave Myanmar forever, to be locked away in the vault of some nameless Western criminal, to be gloated over in secret by foreigners. I appeal to you to join me in forestalling this crime, and restoring the Bell to our nation, and to its rightful place.
“What do you know of Moe Yat Ti’s plans?” asked U Sha Lok.
“My sources have informed me within the past hour that Moe Yat Ti has procured a fishing boat to transport the Bell out of the country. He has also engaged a pantechnicon to carry the Bell to the wharf. The rendezvous is the wharf at Monkey Point, and the time of embarkation has been set for high tide, a little after six this evening, just as night is falling.”
“Then we must act at once. Have you called the police?”
“I had no time. I came to you the instant I received this intelligence.”
U Sha Lok reached out and picked up the telephone. Placing it to his ear, he jiggled impatiently the plastic button.
“It’s dead again,” he said. Springing up, he walked swiftly to the window and opened it. Thrusting his head out, he emitted a piercing whistle.
“I will instruct the Bei Ka Street irregulars to tell U Lek Trey of the official police that this crime is being committed,” he said. “Then we three must go down to the Pazundaung Road to see if we cannot stop it.”
Moments later, the door opened to admit Maung Oo, the leader of the irregulars, a band of small boys who served as U Sha Lok’s eyes and ears in the highways and byways of the metropolis. U Sha Lok swiftly explained to him the situation and sent him off to Bo Street police station.
“Let us hope U Lek Trey will be on duty this afternoon,” he said after the boy had slipped away. “If not, I fear it could take Maung Oo valuable time to convince another officer to act on his word. After all, Maung Oo is himself known to the police, and an unsympathetic officer might not take him at his word.”
"Let me accompany the boy. I can explain to the police and convince them of the urgency of the case," said Professor Daw Myint Hlaing.
“In any event,” I said, “We should leave for Pazundaung Road without delay.” The moment I uttered the words, the room seemed to shake as a gigantic thunderclap erupted, seemingly directly overhead. The same instant, torrential rain poured down. U Sha Lok swiftly closed the window.
“Let’s go,” he said.
Looking back, the events of that tumultuous evening seemed to have been crammed in tight, chaotically jumbled like scenes in a play about a fever dream. And, I swear this is not hindsight, but throughout that fateful afternoon I was oppressed by a sense of doom. It was that ominous sense that impelled me, during our frantic race to the docks aboard a sidecar, to confront U Sha Lok, for the first time, about what I knew concerning him and Moe Yat Ti.
Years before, during the affair of the silver spoon, stolen from the banker Thura U Aung Naing, U Sha Lok had been obliged to call on the services of the one man in all Yangon capable of breaking the safe in the presidential suite of the Grand Hotel. That man, known to the world’s professional crooks as the Genghis Khan of Crime, was Dr Moe Yat Ti. And after he had tricked me into helping him steal the world-famous Fallen Madonna of Angelo Di Leonardo for his collection, Moe Yat Ti had told me things about U Sha Lok.
Now, in the headlong dash to the wharf to save the Great Bell of Magwe, I broke my long silence about what had transpired that night in the mansion of Moe Yat Ti. I told Sha Lok what Moe Yat Ti had told me.
“You told me you knew little of him. That you had had few dealings. Maybe that’s true now, but it was not always true, was it? In fact, you knew Moe Yat Ti very well indeed. You were at school together—”
“School? Pshaw. What school?” he scoffed, though visibly uneasy. He continued with a derisive sneer in his tone. “What kind of school would that be? High school? Middle?”
It seemed I had been waiting a long time to say this.
“Elementary, my dear U Sha Lok! You were at school together from the earliest age. Because Moe Yat Ti is your brother!”
I have never seen my friend look so stricken, not even when Daw Aye Linn made him the laughing stock of the National Theatre, in the presence of the president of the Union himself, in the affair I entitled A Scent of Scandal.
“You are right, Wa Zone,” he said at length in a hushed voice. “He is my little brother.”
He sat for a while, brooding, as our sidecar hurtled towards the Pazundaung Road. “How much else do you know?” he asked.
“You became estranged. Moe Yat Ti did not tell me exactly why, but it happened at your school in England. There was an incident involving a near-drowning. I had the impression he was withholding part of the story.”
“I saved his life. Or so I thought at the time. He has barely spoken to me since, for the past twenty years or more. He has never explained our estrangement, though I think I understand.” Again he fell silent.
“You took different roads,” I suggested.
“We took the same road. But we headed in opposite directions, I toward the law and justice, and he toward crime and the amassing of great wealth. You might say that each of us excelled in his chosen field. And that tonight, fate will bring us together again, in what I fear will be a decisive engagement.”
He turned and looked at me. “I very much fear, Wa Zone, that of the two of us, Moe and I, only one will survive our encounter. Perhaps neither of us will.”
“I won't listen to that kind of talk,” I said, with more firmness than I felt. Sha Lok was, after all, merely echoing my own deep sense of impending crisis. Yet there was still time. Perhaps the police would arrive in time and arrest Moe Yat Ti and his men in possession of the Bell, and avert disaster. Perhaps even now U Lek Trey and his officers were converging on the wharf at Monkey Point ready to impound the fishing boat and arrest its crew. But somehow I did not think so.
“You remember,” I said, “When I last saw your brother, Moe Yat Ti, he gave me a message to pass on to you: 'No man is an island'. You did not react when I passed you the message. But it must have significance. What does it mean?”
U Sha Lok seemed plunged into thought. “He was quoting the English poet John Donne,” he said at length. “We studied him at school.” He murmured, as if to himself, 'Never send to know for whom the bell tolls. It tolls for thee!'”
After careering downtown at breakneck speed, we arrived at the wharf as the sun was setting. The time was almost upon us when, at the turn of the tide, the fishing boat would take the Magwe Bell away from this country forever. Urgently, his mood of fatalism apparently thrown off, U Sha Lok questioned the boatmen and the loungers, asking about the fishing boat we sought. About 50 small and medium-sized craft were ranged along the harbour, bobbing slightly in the tide, which was just reaching its height. A man directed us to one of them, and U Sha Lok and I ran towards it.
As we ran, he turned to me. “I will go aboard, but you must stay on shore.”
“But why? Let me come with you. You’ll need help to deal with the men on board.”
He shook his head decisively. “No. I can deal with them. There is only one that matters, and I must deal with him alone. Stay. Please.”
“But, Sha Lok, why?”
“You know why.”
With a deep sense of foreboding, I was still willing to argue the point, but now we were at the quayside and the small boat, its ropes cast off, was already departing. Without another word, U Sha Lok leapt from the quayside onto the deck, his longyi flapping in the wind, leaving me behind. The little boat was already too far away for me to jump; and I had never learned to swim.
It was almost dark now. I saw him dart into a low cabin door as the boat, with surprising speed, headed into the gloom.
Just then I heard a call behind me. Professor Myint Hlaing had arrived, with Maung Oo, bringing the police, led by our old friend U Lek Trey. I quickly explained to him what had happened. “Don’t you worry, U Wa Zone,” said the ferrety little detective, his usual self-confidence, often so sadly misplaced in cases where he was in competition with U Sha Lok, seeming rather reassuring now. “We’ve alerted the river police and their boat will be here presently. They will be able to pick them up with ease.”
Suddenly the darkness was pierced by a brilliant spear of light. A searchlight mounted atop the police car in which U Lek Trey had arrived swept the harbour and steadied as it picked out the fishing boat carrying Moe Yat Ti, Sha Lok and the Bell. U Lek Trey, sitting in the cab, spoke into a microphone, his voice eerily magnified and distorted as it echoed across the darkening water.
“Dr Moe Yat Ti! Turn your craft around and dock it! You cannot escape. Police motor boats are converging on this point with armed officers aboard. Give yourself up!”
No answer came from the little boat whose decks, trapped in the brilliant beam, were empty. I could not help wondering what kind of tense parley or desperate struggle was proceeding out of our sight, below decks, between U Sha Lok and his renegade brother.
At that instant, a loud boom echoed across the tumbled waters of the harbour and the boat seemed to shudder. Pale at first in the harsh spotlight, flames licked at the cabin roof. Another great boom, this time overhead, signalled the onset of a torrential downpour. Under the merciless eye of the police spotlight the boat seemed to wallow in a sickeningly heavy swell, as if it had lost steerageway. Still the decks were empty.
As Professor Myint Hlaing and I looked on helplessly, U Lek Trey conferred urgently with the squad of police he had brought with him.
“The patrol boats! Where are the police patrol boats?” he was shouting. The blaze aboard the fishing boat now had half the small craft in its grip, and the boat was visibly listing. A sudden heavy wave left it staggering like a boxer under a roundhouse punch.
U Lek Trey was shouting at the officers on the wharf. “Commandeer one of these boats tied up here! Where are the skippers? Who here knows how to sail a fishing boat?” Evidently landlubbers all, like myself, his men shifted from foot to foot, shamefaced.
Together we stood helpless on the quay as the fishing boat, now awash to the gunwales, turned before our eyes into a funeral pyre, the flames rivalling the spotlight in brightness. The rain, heavy as ever, did nothing to dampen the conflagration, whose roar was audible over the loud drumming of the wind-borne cloudburst.
Suddenly, out in the bay, the boat listed sharply to starboard. As it did so, a great muffled “DONG!” rang out over the bay. U Lek Trey and the police fell silent in sudden astonishment, and, beside me, Professor Myint Hlaing gasped audibly.
“The Bell! The Great Bell of Magwe has tolled! No living man has ever before heard its voice!” she breathed, gripping my arm, her eyes wide as she gazed out through the darkness at the stricken craft.
Then, with a fierce and intense hiss, the boat upended, its bow slowly rising as its stern slid below the storm-tossed waves.
It was the police that stopped me. Though I struggled furiously to escape their grip, to fling myself into the water and, somehow, I knew not how, go to my friend’s rescue, I remember a confused knot of them, pulling me back from the brink of the quay.
For I could imagine something of the scene that was playing out, even as we watched from the quayside, aboard that blazing boat. The two brothers, Sha Lok and Moe Yat Ti, one the consulting detective who used his extraordinary powers to fight crime and serve the community, at very reasonable rates, the other the notorious Genghis Khan of Crime who had used his international network of evil-doers to amass a huge fortune and thumb his nose at polite society on every continent, were even now locked in a deadly confrontation.
Now I know, as I did not know then, the full implications of that encounter. Aboard the doomed boat, as it burned around them, deaf to the sirens and blind to the spotlights of the police boats that surrounded them, both of the brothers must have recalled the scene I later saw described in Sha Lok’s private journal. Both must have been aware that they were again engaged in a life-and-death struggle amid the stormy waters, as they had been that long-ago night in Morecambe Bay when they took to the lifeboats to help rescue the Chinese cockle-pickers. Then, the two brothers, known to their English teachers as Sher Lok and Mory Arty, had grappled as if on the brink of a watery abyss, the one pulling back towards life and rescue, the other believing himself called into a higher sphere of light and peace, to be reunited with his lost mother. Prevailing in that tussle, the elder brother thought he had won, and felt entitled to the younger’s gratitude. Instead, the two became deeply estranged, fraternal love hardening to enmity as they pursued their opposed courses in life.
Now, as the flames consumed the flimsy craft on which they stood, as the storm roiled the waters of the muddy confluence, making its deadly currents all the more treacherous, what could be passing between the two? Were they speaking, quietly, reasonably, even in the shadow of death, the boat blazing around them, as they had in U Sha Lok’s description of their encounter in that strange, half-lit antechamber of death out on Morecambe Bay? Were they at each other’s throats in a life-or-death struggle, heedless of the fire engulfing the frail craft and the risk of being dragged down to muddy death? Were they, in the grip of the powerful sense of fatalism that had dogged me all afternoon, quietly reconciled to each other, and to their fate? Or were they already dead, killed by the explosion or the fire, or by each other’s hand?
Nobody will ever know. The details of that final, deadly confrontation have passed beyond reach, even as the two brothers have. But I like to believe that, albeit unspoken, a kind of reconciliation in the face of death might have been effected between the two, once so close, lately so fatally opposed. That the one, Moe, might have acknowledged that he could pursue his life of crime and acquisition no further. And that the other, Sha Lok, might have accepted that the extinction of the threat posed by his renegade brother would be a fitting culmination to his lifelong struggle against crime and evil. I pictured a scene in which it would have been impossible for any third person to intervene, such was the pent-up intensity of the fratricidal duel.
More than that: they were beyond rescue, for both, each in his way, were ready for death.
At my last meeting with Moe Yat Ti, the evil doctor had given me a message to pass to the man I knew as his brother, U Sha Lok: “No man is an island”.
I never knew whether U Sha Lok understood the implications of that phrase or not. But I have since looked it up, and read the meditation of the English poet John Donne to which Moe Yat Ti was referring.
It reads: “No man is an island, entire of itself. Each is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thine own or of thine friend’s were. Each man’s death diminishes me, for I am involved in mankind.
“Therefore, send not to know for whom the bell tolls.
“It tolls for thee.”
Brief as it was, the lightning had illuminated the boat, now standing several hundred yards from the quay, but quite beyond our reach. Aboard the fire, of unknown cause, still blazed fiercely, despite the rain that bucketed down. The boat rolled groggily in the leaden swell, freshening now under the influence of the strong wind that had started up. A sudden wave dashed against the stone quayside, and would have drenched us with surf had we all not already been soaked through.
There must have been three or four policemen grimly holding on to me as I raged and struggled, shouted and wept. From out in the harbour there came a dreadful hissing sound as the blazing boat sank deeper into the waters, now whipped up by the wind into a frenzy to match my own. Stark in the spotlight’s blinding glare, the blackened timbers of the boat, now almost perpendicular, still burned fitfully under the pounding torrent that had now drenched us all. And as we watched, helpless on the quayside, Bell, boat and brothers slipped beneath the rain-lashed waters. Within a few seconds, nothing was left on the heaving surface to reveal what had just taken place.
I must have continued to struggle, heedless of the restraining officers, until U Lek Trey himself stood before me and said, quite gently for him, “U Wa Zone, it’s no good. It’s over.
January, 2015. They told me Yangon had changed, in the twenty or thirty years since I lived and worked here, and helped my friend U Sha Lok, the famous consulting detective, solve and record his famous cases.
It seemed to me that the great metropolis had more in common with my home in London than with its more gracious incarnation of the eighties and nineties. The snarling, choking traffic, the huge illuminated advertising hoardings, the soaring concrete flyovers, the pace of life, all had been quite transformed.
I never should have come, I thought to myself as I wandered round. Why not just leave well alone? But I had been sent, as a last-minute replacement, to some medical conference in Bangkok which, unexpectedly, had finished a couple of days early, leaving me at a loose end. They told me I now needed no visa to fly to Yangon, that I could get one on arrival with no difficulty. A one-hour flight later, I was here.
Of course, I had to put up at the Strand, knowing it better than any other, though there are many more hotels to choose from now. And of course I had to take a stroll through Mahabandoola Park, half-expecting to bump into old Boothby from the embassy and chat to him about the difficulty of finding decent accommodation at a reasonable price. In my mind’s ear I seemed to hear him say, “Do you know, another chap was saying just that to me earlier this morning. If you’d care to share with him, you’ll find him at the Yangon Hospital, doing one of his chemical experiments...”
Painful though it was, I could not resist the temptation to revisit old haunts, the surviving remnants of ancient triumphs that I had shared with U Sha Lok in those memorable days, now so long ago. So many were barely recognisable, or quite vanished. Opposite the cathedral once had stood a stately terrace of fine houses, of which one was the home of the captivating Daw Aye Linn. It was to gain entry to her home, and discover the location of the secret document she had taken from his client, that U Sha Lok had staged a fight by chinlone players and teashop patrons in which he would be knocked down, and so taken inside to recover. The plan did not work. The cathedral is still there, but nothing remains of the terrace, which has been demolished and replaced by the offices of The Myanmar Times.
I headed over to 50th Street. Surely something would remain of the lair of that demon Moe Yat Ti, sometime known as the Genghis Khan of Crime, who from his secret mansion there had held in his hand the threads of a hundred criminal undertakings that stretched across the city, and across the world? The neighbourhood was scarcely recognisable. The first time I went there, with U Sha Lok, we had passed through an archway in a blank wall and across a flag-stoned courtyard. All of that was gone, replaced by some new-fangled shop. Further up the street was quite a good restaurant, in which I enjoyed a tasty but solitary lunch. I couldn’t help wondering if, somewhere on the premises, there was a secret door which, with the right key, would open to reveal a passageway leading to the hidden mansion of Dr Moe Yat Ti, which extended over several blocks and had concealed entrances and exits in every one of them. I paid my bill and left without asking.
Along Anawrahta Street I looked in vain for Ba Thoun Street, the site of the first adventure I had shared with U Sha Lok, when we visited together the death chamber of Jasper Monk, the San Francisco drug lord. Though the street pattern seemed unchanged, the heavy traffic and the intrusive lighting, and the crowds of people, many of them foreigners, made everything seem quite alien. Worse was to come. To my baffled distress, though I pounded the streets of Bahan township for what seemed like hours, growing ever more weary and footsore, of Bei Ka Street, and our comfortable, shabby lodgings there at number 221B, I could find no trace.
So it was almost evening when I reached the place that, in my heart, I suppose I was always making for: the wharf at Monkey Point. I found there an unexpected bustle of activity. Out on the water bobbed a little cluster of boats with a purposeful air, their superstructures equipped with cranes and other, more mysterious apparatus. I watched for a little while, wondering what the many spectators were waiting for. At length I asked one.
“They’re looking for the Bell,” he said. A thrill ran through me.
“The Great Bell of Magwe?” I asked incredulously.
“What? Oh, heavens no. The Dhammazedi Bell. They say the nats have revealed where it lies, after all these centuries. These are navy people, they’re going to find it and pull it up. Out of all that mud, after all that time. The Bell of Magwe, you say? What’s that?”
Hurriedly, I made an excuse and left him there, looking after me oddly.
For a moment I stood irresolute on the quay, looking out over the darkening waters, as I had stood under very different circumstances so long before. Had it all been a dream? Had so much vanished, never to return?
No. It was no dream. U Sha Lok had indeed been Yangon’s first and only consulting detective, and I had been his associate and the chronicler of his exploits. He had indeed exercised his strange and remarkable powers to fight crime and bring evildoers to justice. And he had died, just yards from here, gripped in a death struggle with his evil brother Moe Yat Ti, as the two sank beneath the waves, dragged down to a muddy death by the weight of the Great Bell of Magwe.
But only as I stood there did it finally hit me. It really was over and he really was gone, along with most traces of his then-famous victories and his final defeat – unless the death of Moe Yat Ti was also a victory, for who knows what other devilry he might have got up to had his brother not ended his career?
So it was over. Perhaps I felt a kind of peace. But mostly I felt sadness: that I would never again marvel at the subtle force of Sha Lok’s intellect as he constructed a chain of reasoning from an ownerless umbrella or a splash of betel juice, or deduced, from acute observation, truths hidden to all other onlookers. Never again would I stand at his side as he laid a hand on the collar of a notorious criminal that the police had failed to apprehend. And never again would I hear that thrilling voice, as he waked me in the early hours before dawn, saying, “Quick, Wa Zone, get up! Our quarry is on the move. Make haste!
“The game’s afoot!”