Daily storms raged for much of November, as if the heavens were striving to make up for the drought that had ravaged the island early in the year, turning lawns brown and the woods bare in parts. The squalls that rolled in at daybreak during midyear have run their course, and the winds were in a state of confusion, cantering between closed seas and trapped in a month between two monsoons that forced them to release their wrath almost every evening over a city that could care no less, as orchards became ponds, roads gave way to rage and sidewalks sank under a stream of miserable, misgiven humanity.
Cyrene once enjoyed pride of place in maritime directories, which drew the attention of sailors to a shoal that presented "a brilliant appearance at low water, being covered with live corals and shells, many of the most brilliant colours." In earlier centuries, vessels seeking to chart a safe eastward route from Melaka to China were advised to hug the southern coastline of Singapore until they came within sight of a "small low island with a few trees and a shore of white sand". The learned navigator Jan Huyghen van Linschoten then continued, "You will bear down on this lsland and when you come close to it you will see the straits [of Singapore], towards which you will steer keeping off a little both to avoid the shoals and reefs to the North and also so as not to be carried by the tide to the South side of the entrance of the straits."
What trees once grew on this low, sandy isle may be guessed by the name bestowed on it by the people who lived on and off the straits. By the mid-19th century, however, Pulo Pandan no longer harboured any terrestrial vegetation and had lost ground, literally, to the waters that hammered at its edges and bore away stray grains with each sweeping tide. Screwpine Island was now a landmark in jeopardy, a hazard for mariners that warranted special concern by the port community, who noted that "no strange shipmaster will come in as far as Cyrene shoal without the services of a pilot, nor would any shipmaster, stranger or not, be willing to drop his pilot here if bound out at night." Signs and beacons were placed on the reef to warn passing ships, and the shoal became "a favourite hunting ground for conchologists" who landed at low water to find creatures of "the most brilliant colours, conjoined with immense variety of form."
Cyrene was still awash in green when we landed on its northern flank in early November for the final survey of the year. The corals that once defined the shoal have retreated to its margins, leaving in their wake a broad pan of seagrass and sand, a plain of short, serrated blades and curving mounds that shimmers and shakes as it rises from the straits only to groan before a scene of new islands and missing lands. Reef egrets, phantoms of ash that stalk the southern shores, swooped in towards pools of rubble near the western tip as the team counted, tallied, measured and pronounced judgement over the grass in their transects. When the tapes had been wound back, there was still a little time to see what lay among the spoons and sickles: hordes of sand-shifting sea stars, hermit crabs in search of companionship, the disposable end of a polychaete worm, frantic young portunids, polyps in limp solitude and carpets held hostage by shrimp in fancy dress. Margined conches were in season; tell-tale tilts betrayed the small, striking snails as they lunged over the sediment with their snouts at indecent lengths probing the silt for modest helpings and nervous eyes casting a spell of truncated suspicion over their surroundings.
We wrapped up just as a storm raced in, devouring the sky with growing shades of grey and a thickening of the air that turned the horizon into a band of cold radiance. For a few moments before the lights went out, Pasir Panjang blanched and Cyrene basked in gold as distant rays rushed in from the west, slipping under the clouds that guarded the straits to strike the port from an angle that turned the reef into a burning glass, from which every ship loomed close and the city appeared rather more lucid than usual. The lion – clad in steel, crass and heartbreak – glowered with rarified clarity, aloof and asunder from the world at its margins, until the gales silenced its roar, sent us packing and the island drowned in a shroud of damp, darkness and despair, shorn of its colours and awash with tempest that flared to no avail and floundered in a flood of its own making.