Tai Tai was invited into Belinda Wong’s business services premises on the seventh floor of residential block 357, apartment six. It was a standard-issue Housing Development Corporation room but fitted out for business. It was not tidy. Tai Tai sat on a box. Belinda brought her a glass of water and sat opposite on the floor. She welcomed Tai Tai, by asking,
“How did you find us, plz, madam?”
Belinda was small, with very little nose, her hair was black and centre parted, matt not glossy. As with all Chinese women, through the European eye, she could have been any age between twenty and sixty. She wore a light coloured ‘about the house’ cotton dress. On the wall behind her, beside a calendar and amongst pinned up lists and reminders, was a framed picture of herself and her late husband. She wore a crucifix, small and silver, high on her neck, in a little gap between the bones which is called the first rib.
“Madam?” Belinda repeated.
“A personal recommendation,” Tai Tai fibbed, “and your brass plaque.”
“Ah,” Belinda exclaimed. As often in Singapore, there was, “A form to fill in.”
Belinda addressed a filing cabinet beneath another pinned up list. She found what she wanted, grabbed a clipboard and sat back down again on the floor.
She handed the form to Tai Tai.
“It’s in Chinese,” my wife observed.
“I will help,” Belinda had that ability to tuck both legs and feet under her bottom and to not only sit perfectly still but to even look comfortable.
“Your name and address, plz?”
Tai Tai was beginning to feel uncomfortable.
“I only wanted to make a quick enquiry, perhaps another time?”
“For the constant improvement of our service,” Belinda looked up, cow-eyed, “Mr Lee insists. Your name and address please?”
“Worth, Mrs Worth, 28 Dumfries Street, Kovan.”
‘Oh, Mrs Worth”, Mrs Wong brightened,” I recognise that name. How are you enjoying Singapore?”
Before Tai Tai had a chance to reply, Mrs Wong was back on the form, completing the ‘how did you hear of us’ box, in Chinese characters.
“Pers-on-al rec-omm-end-ation and brass plaque,” she said aloud, “And what is the reason for you visit?”
“It’s about package forwarding,” Tai Tai had had time to think and had rearranged a story, “I was expecting a catalogue but it’s very late, I was wondering if, by mistake, because we’re renting.”
Belinda spoke over here, neglecting the form,
“But why you come here?”
“I’m going to all of them,” my wife responded quickly, “All of the business services businesses that I’ve heard of, hoping to catch my accidentally re-directed catalogue. It’s for curtains, my husband and I return to England soon and must furnish a new house.”
“Ah”, Mrs Wong found a question on another page that Tai Tai had accidentally answered. She then returned to where she’d left off. Belinda struggled with the Chinese translation rounding it up to,
“How can I make it more difficult for you to find us?”
“For the improvement of the service, Mrs Worth, Mr Lee needs to know, ‘How can I make it more difficult for you to find us?’”
Tai Tai wasn’t expecting that. Worried that she had accidentally stumbled on something indiscrete she hesitated before replying.
“You could lose the brass plaque?”
“Of course,” Belinda seemed delightedly surprised, as though an important omission had been filled. She nodded in enlightenment as she scribbled more Chinese characters into a space.
“Thank you so much Mrs Worth, I shall look out for that catalogue, I have your address,” she stood, as if expecting Tai Tai to stand also.
Tai Tai obliged and offered Mrs Wong a hand. Belinda responded with a giant hug, one arm around the neck and one lightly on the hip. It was unexpected. Tai Tai wasn’t to know that Belinda was very touchy and hugged everyone. It was an odd, intimate moment in a Singapore most usually formal.
Tai Tai tried to put it to use, “I’m very sorry Mrs Wong, but perhaps, with the help of all these lists, where exactly is 28 Dumfries’s mail re-directed to?”
Tai Tai intended to make an excuse. She would pick up the catalogue herself, saving Mrs Wong the trouble.
“Oh, Mrs Worth, that would be most confidential,” Belinda exclaimed, releasing the hug, still smiling, “Don’t worry about the catalogue. It will find its way to you, no doubt.”
Belinda still beamed, no indiscretion had occurred.
She walked Tai Tai to the apartment door and stood smiling and waving until the elevator arrived.
* * *
Myself, Tai Tai, Lotus and Rose the maid, are at home in Dumfries Street. I’m brooding on what my wife has just told me. One of those pinned up lists, she claims, although the writing beneath was too small for her to see, was headed ‘Bonfire’. While I am trying to think, the ladies are making noise upstairs.
They are fussing about the Ambassador’s approaching bash. Lotus must return to Hong Kong soon, the Embassy function is the social highlight of her visit. Ordinarily, I would have been iffy about such things but the data chewing IT problems that have been eating through the diplomatic corp’s data, means that one must meet one’s contemporaries face to face and actually talk to them. Not usually my kind of thing.
Lotus and my wife are on the middle floor, dashing between rooms, mirrors and sinks, having a dry run, swapping clothes and makeup, giggling like teenagers. I only have one outfit, a Marks & Spencers suit, white shirt, dark tie, polished black patent leather shoes. It has served me well for decades. It throws itself on ten minutes before leaving for an event.
The gate buzzer disturbs me. The street gate is kept open, seconds later, there’s a knock on the door. Rose answers, we have visitors. Wary of unexpected callers, I make my way to the hall.
We have two guests, a couple. One tall, one short, one thin, one round, one male, one female. The man is Anglo-Dutch pale, the lady, dark-skinned but not the dark skin of the local Malay, rather of the ex-pat southern European. It is Nicolaas Clogg and his Spanish wife, Dora.
Her face was set rather seriously, giving (rightly) the impression that her parents could have been on either, or both, sides during the Spanish Civil War. He had a long thin face, rather morbid, as if horribly hen-pecked.
I know them by sight and reputation. He, a diplomat with ‘Europe’, she, a lawyer at the multinational Explorada Bank in the Central Commercial District, a rather tacky inferior to our own Singapore Consultancy at the Zhen Xiang building in Marina Bay. They are famous for operating a, rather too obvious, two-handed scam. He makes Europe’s arrangements with Singapore far too complicated. She explains it all to you for $10,000 an hour. I must say, I don’t like them. I consider them the polar opposite of myself and Tai Tai. From a decent public school but a new Oxbridge college, Clogg is known to be a bit moody, prone to sinking into himself.
His superior in Brussels was an Englishman via Belorussia, who had gone native, firstly to us but subsequently to Europe. He was a greasy individual called Sir Julian Minsk who, with a nudge and a wink, we’d been instructed to be wary of. Being six thousand miles away, at that point, Sir Julian didn’t enter my mind.
They stood in an awkward silence, as though they were expected and were to be invited in.
“We’re expected,” Dora announced.
“By whom?” I quipped.
“We’re answering the advertisement in the Straights Star, aren’t we Dora?” Clogg gulped after saying his wife’s name.
I noticed a newspaper tucked under his arm.
“You are Mr Worth,” Dora reminded me.
“Of course I am.”
“In that case, Nicolaas.”
Doing as he was told, Mr Clogg took the newspaper from under his arm, unfolded it and placed it in front of my nose.
I leafed through it. There was a brilliant crossword, some rather good episodic thrillers, a mediocre review of an awful politics programme, mouth-watering recipes, two excellent diaries kept by animals, wonderful postcard reports from exotic locations, an enlightening book review or two, fair bit of politics, music and pets, excellent stuff. Then, near the back, within a big circle drawn in purple felt pen, the following classified advertisement:
Contact Mr A. Worth,
28 Dumfries Street, Kovan.
No time wasters.
Well, I had asked Paddy Fitzgerald to use the Star to find out about Operation Bonfire, which had been referenced in an airmail letter we’d found in missing nuclear scientist Mr Stein’s attic. I’d meant Paddy to look it up in the Star’s computer index, maybe ask around, drop it into the conversation beside the water cooler, check out some old microfiche. Not to advertise it.
I muttered what I always mutter when surprised, “Do something Rose.”
“Please come in,” Rose said, standing to one side and presenting a welcoming outstretched arm.
“Is that alright Dora?” Clogg asked.
I was tempted to reply, “Of course it is but don’t call me Dora”. It would have been pointless. The Clogg’s reputation for absolute humourlessness preceded them.
Rose found wicker chairs. The three of us sat in the front room. Themselves backing on to the front window, myself in front of Mr Stein’s bad paintings of nuclear test sites. A Turkish rug, smuggled through an Iraqi rat run during an arms embargo, laid innocently between us.
Here’s what they had to say.
To be continued…….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file