Singa Pura, the Lion City where two oceans meet. Where founder of the colony, Sir Thomas Stamford Bingley Raffles (Fellow of the Royal Society), stands immortalised in stone at Boat Quay. From there he gazes towards the Singapore Straight. Those straights are alive with shipping. Iron ore to India, oil to Japan, tropical hardwoods to Europe jockey with containers to everywhere and armaments to anywhere that a blurry end user licence agreement will allow.
Your God is in their heaven, the sun is high in the sky, the Right Honourable Mr Lee is in Government Palace and I’m in a big Mercedes driving to a pickup at Changi airport. The mercury is high, the air conditioning is even higher. At first glance, all is well with the world. The locals even drive on the left-hand side of the road and have black and silver number plates.
This old pen pusher is on his last lap, having submitted his last glorified school essay, before a life more ordinary beckons back home in Blighty. Underworked, one of my few duties is as the Singapore Consultancy’s colour party. No, not VC 10s taking water on their way to the antipodes, or a V bomber catching its breath en route to a tropical island bomb test, more mundane than that. As Singers has morphed from being the British Empire’s Clapham Junction into being the whole world’s Times Square, various odds and sods, from VIPs to chancers, need to be met at Changi International Airport.
Some of my charges need no more than their hands held in transit between arrival and departure gates. Some need to be taken to our office, on the twentieth and twenty-first floors of the Zhēn Xiàng tower in Marina Bay. Others might want a night out. Happily, if they are expecting a red-light district, I can tell them, hand on heart that, in Mr Lee’s Utopia, there isn’t one. “What about Geylang Road?”, I hear them cry. How dare they infer such a thing. Singaporean friends intimate Geylang to be a ‘bad area’ meaning, within my ken of South East Asia; roast dog, spinal cord soup and cockfighting. Not even a fallen lady would enter such a place. No, if they insist upon a fun night out in the real Singapore, I take them to one of the English pubs near the Singapore River, or to the lobby of one of the American chain hotels, where they listen to me telling them this kind of thing.
No chance of that on this particular day, as I’m collecting my distant cousin, Lotus Flower, who’s flying into Singers from Hong Kong. All I know is that the high-ups at the Embassy are about to dump a pile of bother on some poor underworked soul. Nothing to do with me, thank goodness, probably something to do with Mr Lee’s never-ending grind to squeeze a bit more out of Singapore-Europe trade.
I’m only the taxi driver, with a free Mercedes, courtesy of our mystery and missing landlord Mr Stein, who left a black Benz on the drive of the luxury house (only fault a dripping tater tank) that Tai Tai and I are renting for a pittance.
Friends may have overheard me say that Kai Tak International, with its Cresta run approach between the mountains of Hong Kong island and the high rises of Kowloon City, was the best airport in the world. I’m not changing my position when I say that Changi is the best airport in the world. At the time of our tale, Kai Tak is well on its way to becoming the world’s best car park next to a cruise liner terminal. Still having to cope with those troublesome things called planes and passengers, leaves Changi head and shoulders above the rest, as the world’s superior two miles of tarmac
As we meet, Lotus has flown 1,600 miles in 240 minutes on a pooled flight. Having left from Chek Lap Kok, she is able to announce it ‘efficient’ and ‘new’. Give me ‘exciting’ and ‘a bit old fashioned’ any day. Another excellent reason for me to move on.
She is impressed by the Benz. As I put her overnight bag in the boot, I make the mistake of trying to take her attaché case too. A little bracelet connects a chain from the case to another chain running up the inside of her sleeve, attached to a harness around her shoulders and bosom. Harder than tungsten, separate it by cutting her arm off while her karate moves break every bone in your body. One yearns for the days when Queen’s Messengers travelled with little more than a waxed moustache, un-concealed manila envelope and were armed with no more than a quick and sarcastic wit.
Sitting beside me as I drive along the East Coast Parkway, Lotus confesses that she flew in on a pool fight and isn’t sure by which airline. I always preferred Cathy Pacific when taking off from that concrete pinhead in Kowloon harbour, or Kai Tak cruise port car park as it is, depressingly, becoming known.
‘Busy…?’ I ask.
She addresses the attaché case on her lap, twisting and flicking the lock and clips in just the right order, allowing it to spring open.
“With your report,” she replies as if completing my sentence.
I’d assumed my final report a formality, to be put on a digital shelf covered in digital dust and to be both digitally and actually forgotten about.
“Which is crap,” she continued.
When pressing the ‘send’ button, I’d reassured myself that “The Political and Economic Development of the Provincial Philippine Islands” had its strengths, and that I’d more than got away with it. From the corner of my eye, I could see my final great work as an awful lot of administrative blood and gore on a printout. Yes, ‘printout’, another whiff of a disappeared world. Having taken a lot of incoming, the front page was covered in scribblings, annotations, crossings out, exclamation marks and underlining’s, all in red ink.
“It’s far too long,” Lotus explained, “it loses its pace and there’s too much about you and God. What’s any of this got to do with God?”
“It goes with the territory, cousin”, I replied, “they are a deeply religious people in the archipelago.”
She flicked through it, tutting.
“Thought I emailed it to you encrypted, as a secure pdf?”, I remarked, puzzled.
Not only had I used a secure document and secure software but also secure hardware, via a very secure undersea cable that the navy had run from Singers to Honkers in the days that every two red dots on the map needed to be connected by a black line buried in silt.
“Can’t trust the IT,” Lotus responded, casually, as if I was already supposed to know, “Stuff keeps on going missing. About this report.”
Before she could pull me to bits and tell me to write it all again, I noticed a word that could provide a distraction. Yes, that’s how devious I can be,
“Missing? Speaking of which.”
I filled her in regarding the disappeared and mysterious Mr Stein, presumed in hiding in Singapore for reasons unknown.
“Some kind of boffin to do with the nuclear bomb project, judging by the oils he did on his travels,” I informed her.
I went on to tell her what I hadn’t told valuers, Squadron Leaders and bomb test veterans.
“He must have been in Turkey too, during the Iraq arms embargo, judging by one of his purchases, a Turkish carpet. There was a rat run.”
Lotus chimed in, “Mersin, Tarsus, Adana.”
“Exactly. Breaking sanctions to Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, via an anonymous port in the Eastern Med.”
“I was there too,” I continued, “but I don’t recall a Stein or anybody in Union Jack underpants with an atom bomb.”
“So, whose side he was on?” She asked.
“Quite,” I replied.
I waited for that to sink in, before adding a bit more to the mix.
“Does Chong Chon Shipping ring a bell?”
“North Korean shipping line, front for North Korea’s intelligence effort abroad. Kill somebody overseas, smuggle something, Chong Chon will be involved. Imagine MI6’s transport squadron was a fleet of tankers instead of Aston Martins and stealth Hercs.”
“One of their people gate-crashed our house party and took an interest in Mr Steins collection,” I informed her.
“Ho-hum,” she replied, “who have you told?”
“Nobody, after listening to the bomb test vets, I’m not sure I trust the higher-ups.”
“I’m the second most senior in the Singapore Consultancy, that’s why they want rid of me, I get paid too much. I can sit on this mystery for a bit, make a few more enquires and present it to London as a fait accompli, solved by me”, I reflected, “Might be a nice little note to end my career on. Complete the circle a bit. I’ve nothing else to do. Apart from this chauffer gopher thing.”
She noticed a few of my words.
“Nothing else to do?” she repeated,
I tried to distract her again, “One thing. Our water tank’s dripping. Something’s loose, we need more pairs of hands, two for wrenches and one to hold the torch. You’ve volunteered.”
Undaunted, she noticed another of my words, ominously it was “volunteer”.
“The problem with the IT,” she explained, “is that data is being erased, blotted out, vanishing off the system. Whole reports just disappear, nothing to see, no trace, just gone, back up too, it’s all being chewed through.”
l used the F word, pronouncing it as if it contained five U’s.
“That’s why I had to printout your crap report and correct it by hand,” she continued, “The technical people are on to it but are struggling. In the meantime, there’s lots to do, Mr Volunteer.”
My six months of thumb-twiddling, while driving a luxury motor and occasionally inquiring about Mr Stein, appeared to be disappearing as well.
“The D List has gone, which is where you come in, Worth. It has to be put together again from the original sources, as best we can. You did say you wanted to complete a circle?”
She put on her cross voice, “And before you exercise your adolescent humour, D List means ‘Defence List’ in the same way that D Notice mean ‘Defence Notice’.”
No, it didn’t, D List meant ‘Dirty List’. It took me back to the very start of my career, to a most unsatisfactory and unpleasant state of affairs.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file