I began to obsess about Mr Reginald Stein on the evening that a party guest, a Mr Hong Gildong, tried to read Mr Stein’s Turkish rug. My wife thought him ill. Our student maid, Rose, looked for the first aid box. In a very Singaporean way, our other guests pretended that this wasn’t happening and continued their conversations (predominantly about property prices) uninterrupted. But reading it he was. Starting at the top left-hand corner and, in the Western style, going from left to right, down a bit, quickly right to left, like a carriage returning on an old Underwood Model 5, then repeating the process.
By the time he’d politely, smiling and nodding, headed for the door, Dumfries Avenue along with the rest of the city-state was suffering it’s daily forty-five minutes of torrential rain. Rose hurried after him and forced a cheap umbrella upon him.
“He was grateful”, she reported, damp herself, “he went around our corner, along Annan Road and hurried into the night, soaking wet already.”
Yes, my wife and I are one of those bourgeois ex-pat couples who are not only ‘landed’, renting foundations in the soil rather than on the apartment beneath, but also on a corner. This allowed for a side garden, to which Rose had added chickens. Unaware if that was permitted by the Right Honourable Mr Lee’s all-powerful administration, the chickens (like Mr Lee) caused no harm and (unlike Mr Lee) laid eggs.
The party guests’ conversation switched to the second most popular topic in Singapore: the person who’s just left the room. Our neighbour but one, Paddy Fitzgerald, a man of words, a journalist with the Straights Star, suggested a name for him. Our carpet fetishist must be known as ‘Wang Wu’.
“Like John Doe or John Smith, a Chinese name for ‘any man’,” he informed us in a Galway growl.
His wife Moira, also wordy, an English teacher at one of the better international schools, preferred a different Chinese name, ‘Li Si’. Also meaning ‘anyone’ but sounding nicer. She put a name to this naming convention for names, a ‘placeholder’.
“He was a Korean,” the vice-principal (of the workshop for savants opposite) insisted. He had been too enthusiastic and, for this territory, far too familiar on a first meeting. So much so, that the vice-principal had assumed that he was going to try to rent her a property. Therefore, in this particular hand of international placeholder whist, our over-enthusiastic carpet obsessive became, ‘Mr Hong Gildong’.
The Fitzgerald’s thought he’d come with the Bakshi’s. The Bakshi’s were sure that they had spotted him arriving with the vice-principal. The vice-principal thought that we were renting from Mr Hong Gildong (rather than Mr Stein) and that Mr Gildong was simply doing as he pleased with his own floor.
My wife thought I’d invited him. I thought that she had invited him. Rose solved the conundrum with a proverb from her homeland, “The unknown stranger takes advantage of the busy house.”
Myself and Dr Bakshi observed the rug. “You know, Mr Worth, an expert would know from the stitching exactly where it was made. Even who made it. Every place has its own style, as does every weaver, and every period of time, even to a month of a year.”
“I wouldn’t know, Dr Bakshi,” I fibbed.
“It’s Turkish, Mr Worth, I recognise the style,” he informed me.
“I hope your landlord is properly insured,” Dr Bakshi looked around the room, “there are some interesting pieces.”
“Don’t know much about him,” I replied honestly, “The only reason I’ve called him ‘Mr Stein’ is because of the signatures on some of the more naive paintings. I assume he did them himself.”
“You know, Mr Worth, your landlord certainly has a love of the tropics,” the doctor concluded, after the briefest of examinations, “and of Arab horses.”
This was going to be another sleepless night, wondering of Mr Stein. I decided to give in, and allow myself to be completely obsessed by my mysterious landlord. The one who I’d never met and from whom, through the office, I was renting an excellent property for a pittance. The house was for sale but there was a proviso. We shouldn’t try too hard to find a buyer. Perhaps, given the direction of house prices, the longer it sat, the better? Try to put them off, I’d been advised. Don’t flush the toilet for a week. Leave raw meat in the back yard to attract the rats and snakes. Definitely not allowed by Mr Lee.
We were interrupted by Mrs Bakshi, a professional translator of English into anything. She wanted to talk about airports. She was the mother of three daughters. In the multicultural style of everybody’s favourite squashed diamond-shaped former colony at the bottom of the Malay peninsula, they had all been born in Luton and wanted to be pilots.
* * *
As expected, I couldn’t sleep. I lay awake, my young wife draped across me in her silk nightgown. Inside our bedroom, there was a whirr from the ceiling fan. Outside, a regular heartbeat of drip, drip, drip from our faulty water tank. During the day, toilet flushes, baths, showers, cleaning and garden watering kept the tank down, but through the night it over-filled and began to leak through its outside spout. I should do something about it. I’d been in the attic before. It was very cramped. As 28 Dumfries Avenue was at the end of a luxury townhouse terrace, the roof pitched inwards from three sides, leaving little space beneath. Most of our belongings were in storage. Mr Stein had left a giant dissembled artificial Christmas tree up there, no room for anything else. The attic floor was covered in unfolded Fortnum and Mason boxes.
“One day I’ll count them up and work out how long he lived here,” I announced to myself.
I swung my legs out of the bed and headed downstairs, switching on lights as I went. I stood beside the Turkish rug in my cotton shorts. From the neck down, I look almost sporty, in decent shape considering. I’m approaching middle-age but I’m not going to tell you from which direction. From the neck up I look slightly battered. They say that you get the face that you deserve after forty, I’m living proof. A couple of spells in the Balkans, Middle Europe and nearby, had resulted in a bit of wear and tear. As had a total of six years and one week in Ulster. Yes, I made the mistake of going back for a week’s holiday, stayed in digs beside the Pickie pool in Bangor, County Down. Welcomed back as a prodigal, not.
This six-month stint in Singapore was the culmination of a long spell in South East Asia during which the region, and myself, had done rather well. After this, back to Blighty, semi-retirement, can’t wait and neither can my wife. We shall buy a property and fill it with children.
My wife had followed me downstairs. Waifish toes on cold marble, finest titian hair being swept away from sleepy eyes. Her silk gown might as well have been see-through. I do rather worship the ground she steps on. I stated the obvious, “It’s a Turkish carpet.”
“Even I can see that,” she replied in her patrician accent, part Australian, part English boarding school.
“What is it telling you, Tai Tai?” I asked her.
“I don’t think it’s a particularly good one, that’s why Mr Stein left it,” she suggested, citing his dwellings “awful paintings” as proof.
“You know,” I began to lecture, “every little place, even every weaver, has their own style. An expert could look at one of these carpets and say which town it was made in, by which weaver, even when it was made, down to a particular day in a particular week.”
“I know,” she replied, her hand now on her chin, as if an expert wrapped in experience, mocking my improvised quote from Dr Bakshi, “You brought me the most beautiful carpet when you came back from Turkey. Oh no, you didn’t, I got a skull. Then you sold it to someone else.”
A long story. There was a trade in human bones between Turkey and German medical students, tax and duty-free if apparently between spouses. One makes a few pennies when one can.
The rug was patterned, rather than depictive of a scene, allowing my wife’s imagination to flow, “It sits on the floor. It belongs to the landlord known as ‘Mr Stein’. The tenant, Mr Worth, has time on his hands because this is his last posting. His office use him as a goffer even though he’s the second most senior contractor there. They’ve cut the corner off his second passport and lowered his security clearance, leaving him bored and open to pointless obsession.”
“The tenant’s wife, Mrs Worth, is very ordinary and can’t cook but Mr Worth, perhaps because of the age gap, compares her to a film star. Despite, like every schoolgirl in Australia, being called ‘Nicole’, he calls her ‘Tai Tai’, as if a glamourous Chinese Singaporean lady who shops. In spite of which, she’s nothing more than a ten-pound-Pom-done-good’s daughter, who’s married well, or badly, depending on who she believes.”
If a total stranger had been reading this from a carpet, I would have been very impressed but my wife did have a lot of inside knowledge about herself and her husband.
“Oh, and Mr Worth thinks there’s still a British Empire and that he can change the world single-handedly, somehow.”
She put her arm around my waist and slipped her hand inside my shorts, scratching my thigh with her rings. Unlike some of our postings, her jewellery could remain attached to her skin without fear of her fingers being cut off by a passing warlord’s henchman. Better teasing me than in a safety deposit box at the Coconut Growers Bank, you’ll note. The best stone was a Kimberley diamond passed down through the family. Across the generations, we’d done rather well from the colonies. She tugged my arm in the direction of the stairs, there was the next generation to consider. Starting a big family beckoned again. Isn’t life awful!? Then she paused.
“One more thing.”
She got down on her hands and knees as if she’d caught something from Mr Hong Gildong. She began to roll up the rug. When finished, she stood with it tucked under her arm.
“Or put it in a bag or in a backpack. It’s to be sold to tourists, not to carpet a house or be an investment. Mr Stein brought it back from his travels as a souvenir.”
“Do you think we could we get someone in to tell us more about this rug? Value it? Give it a time and a place?”, I asked her.
“Is there money in it?”
“I should imagine there can be.”
“Then someone in Singapore will be doing it,” Tai Tai replied as if I needed to be reminded.
She tugged me towards the stairs again and as she did so, asked me, “Why did you lie to Dr Bakshi?”
“How do you mean?”
“It’s not like you. You know what he’s like. He was going around the room telling everybody that you’ve never been to Turkey. Whispering behind your back that he’s better travelled than well travelled Worth.”
“It’s that carpet,” I confided in her, “To me, it says ‘Trouble’.”
Later, as our heartbeats slowed in time with the fan and the drip, my wife laid across me, her silk nightdress draped on the floor. I whispered to her, “Ask Moira Fitzgerald to ask Paddy,” Tai Tai was so much better at schmoozing than I was, “to find out as much as he can about Mr Stein at the Straights Star office. If it’s not to much bother for him.”
“I already did,” she replied sleepily, “as soon as Mr Hong Gildong was out sight.”
To be continued……
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file