The southern tip of Lazarus Island, hidden by the long, low hill that dominates this rocky isle, boasts a shore of remarkable beauty, a bay formed by two curving walls between a coastal forest and the Straits of Singapore, into which sand, coral and seagrass have mounted a slow assault, turning what was once a barren beach into a plain of uneven terraces, where memories of picnics and other weekend pleasures lie buried under the stolons of delicate halophiles and mermaid swirls, where trees stumble and double over at the water's edge to become playgrounds for arboreal crabs, and to which the sun bids a premature farewell with a rapid dip below the slopes of St John's into a fretful west.
The lower reaches of this cove, built nearly four decades ago to replace, in part, a now landlocked coast, is a crest of coral, a reef fed by currents from an ancient channel in which planktonic larvae surf between two shallow seas before they drop anchor and take harbour in friendly shores. Freighters from the four corners also plough this straits, and have done so since the flagship of Juan de Silva ran briefly aground on a nearby rock en route to his death in Melaka. Luso-Spanish vessels then also faced the threat of unallied locals, who knew every fair way and foul route, and who swore fealty to upland kings but bowed to native lords. These men, who surveyed passing vessels and weighed their chances from wooded fringes, and whose families built houses atop sturdy logs at the feet of insular refuges, have left few traces of their existence, however – the true masters of the Malayan sea, a folk of maritime lore, gave up their homes and broke their habits when islands such as Sekijang Pelepah had their leases renewed as mainland haunts, bereft of history and shorn of the communities who lived and lost their lives by the tides. Lazarus now sleeps with his loins entwined with a stiff landscape and artificial lagoons to which yobs set sail for a spot of sun and the chance to unleash, beyond earshot of the lion city, their inner beast.
Other creatures, relics of an even earlier age, roam the dark side of Lazarus, beyond sight of Sunday yachts. On rubble, rock and weed are countless bodies and many more limbs, an epilayer of tissue and torsos that battle for space, reach out for food and keep their senses peeled for elements of danger, or perchance, objects of desire. Worms long and lean hunt flat out, a black sea cucumber probes the sand with its tail in a trench, shrimp with long arms and broken backs amble in stranded pools, and crabs armed with shears, spoons, pliers and paddles run riot until they sense unwanted attention and retreat under silt or stone. Conches, eyes aloft, vault to fresh turf, polyps with bold, braided heads raise their columns from the sediment, and the reef stirs with nocturnal tension, a stage of trysts, blows and affrays with few witnesses and no room for regrets.
Octopuses turn up as daylight fades, making their way across the reef with fluid ease. With no bones to hinder their passage and eight long arms that pack a punch and still fit into almost any hole, the cephalopods prowl even the shallowest of flats, stretching, hooking, huddling, squeezing, pouncing, groping, scrounging – touchy-feely monsters seeking their supper in the shadow of sea almonds and beach hibiscus trees, whose foliage, purple with age, litter the seagrass and lose their fibre to submarine jaws.
Amid portunids that found it hard to chose between fight and flight, I found one largish octopus with glazed eyes and deep hues sitting tight over a crack below a weedy slab, watching over a probable clutch and brooding on her eventual destiny as a mother to many but once. Another, more detached, individual swept across a broad puddle, spreading terror in three inches of salinity as it swooped over bland leaves towards promising outcrops, whereupon the loose tangle explodes into a pale, pulsing canopy that envelopes the rock and bars all ways out. Eager tentacles invade every crevice as the kraken seals the deal with an interbranchial web, a tent of expanded mantle that sends crab, shrimp and fish fleeing towards a fatal beak. Some traps are duds and the octopus moves on to another assembly, a strategy that probably pays off when almost every other cavity is filled with small, shelly things, more than enough protein to reward an evening of speculative pursuits.
The walk back is a slow plod over Jurassic formations that section the shore into parallel blocs of sedimentary layers, natural barricades riddled with tears, folds and fractures, too high to leap over yet too rife with gelatinous filaments to risk a casual slip. Between the miniature ranges are unconsolidated pits that invite tired feet to stay, and sink. Porous logs and bent trunks turn the narrow beach above the surf into an obstacle course with a cheerless crowd: ghost crabs nibbling on fleshy parts, grapsids playing hide-and-peek, and Coenobita in clicking droves. The sand, coarse and crudely heaped, pulls away and plays loose, leaving grains that never seem to fall off the threads of rubber soles even after several hosing downs.
Meanwhile, Lazarus in his true, truncated form – not the scrubland of snails and worse pests that was raised from the seabed to be welded to the corpse of a silenced reef – beckons to the left, offering bluffs that remain a habitat for rare trees and still welcome the worst-kept of secrets, where the survivors of recent disentombments rest on ridges that overlooked their homes, their prisons, their shrines, their wards, camps and quarters where they enjoyed cold, cramped comfort after an ill voyage and bade farewell to a life they never got to greet. The dreams of a promised land, bitter and betrayed by the few who found it a blessing, came to a close at the feet of a hill that marks the edge of the port, where the border ends and the unnatural history of an unlikely country began, in the wake of islands that guarded the harbour until they surrendered their badges as points of arrival to a nation that now looks up, out and inwards, secure in its place in the world at large but never fully at ease in the waters that still yoke it to its dim, deep and distant past.`