Myself, Tai Tai and Lotus are sat on the unfolded Fortnum and Mason boxes on the attic floor at 28 Dumfries Street, Kovan, Singapore, the property that we rent for a pittance from the missing nuclear scientist, Mr Stein. Our feet are dangling through the hatch. It is the middle of the night. While trying to fix a dripping water tank, we have found an airmail letter. In the light of Tai Tai’s house torch, Lotus reads aloud. I am dreading every word.
“It’s from the United States,” Lotus says.
The letter was itself in a state. Some of the paper had bleached white. It had benefitted neither from being in the heat nor from being so close to the damp. Lotus could only make out the occasional word.
“Tickets. Compound. Explosion. Fire brigade?”
There was a long pause. She turned a page.
She passed it to Tai Tai, who fared no better. Lotus took some photographs with her phone. She would fiddle with the contrast and brightness to try and make the writing clearer.
“Maybe at the office?” Tai Tai suggested, “I’m sure the technicians could do a lot with it.”
X rays, she thought, before guessing at “chemicals”.
I preferred to do things one step at a time and, if possible, avoid escalating this to the Singapore Consultancy or the Embassy, until all else had failed.
“Let’s find this Mr Stein,” I told the ladies, “It’s his letter. He’ll know all about it. We know that Stein is somewhere in the territory, as there’s no record of him leaving. That’s why they sent Miss Ng around with a clipboard.”
“Thinking session needed,” ordered Lotus. She’d been on a course and was prone to such outbursts.
We folded up the letter and switched the torch off. We sat in the dark, in the heat, in the attic, in our night clothes with our eyes closed. We whispered our good ideas to each other as they came to us. An excellent plan emerged.
* * *
The next day, myself and Tai Tai split into two teams of one. I visited various neighbours. Mr Stein’s big black Mercedes was famous but of himself, very little was recalled by anybody.
A maid at the property behind ours knew (from somewhere) that Mr Stein had returned to England to live closer to his grandchildren. Interesting. I thanked her and walked back around the block. Although the distance was short, I kept to the shade.
In the Dumfries Street direction, our next-door neighbours were the Bakshi’s, busy people. I was lucky to catch one of them at home. It was the youngest daughter. I was interrupting a session on Flight Simulator. She knew nothing of Mr Stein.
Next door but one, Paddy and Moira Fitzgerald, I was invited in. He was on the floor with his notes, a laptop beside him. She, brought me a juice.
Paddy’s veins flowed with ink instead of blood. His heart beat like a printing press. Instead of flesh, he had two big Serif G’s for ears and dense lines of subscript where his fingerprints should have been. Journalism wasn’t so much his vocation, more a species that he’d been born into.
No, Paddy and Moira couldn’t recall Mr Stein and weren’t even very sure about the car. I asked for a favour. Previously, Paddy had checked for Stein references in back copies of the Straights Star. He had drawn a blank. This time I wanted him to find out everything he could about “Operation Bonfire.”
He nodded in acknowledgement while attending to his scribblings and screen. Whatever scandal he was working on, he muttered that it was all the fault of the British. Over my drink, I tried to read his upside down and wrong way round scribblings. I wondered if it was a piece about the A-bomb veterans? Their legal case was getting nowhere, they were appealing more and more directly to the public, not least via Paddy and the Star.
“I’m not putting you to a lot of trouble am I, Paddy?” I asked.
“Not at all,” he replied. There was a computer index at the Star’s offices. Operation Bonfire? He would look it up. It would only take a few minutes. If nothing showed, there were one or two other things that he could try for me.
“Anything to do with the bomb tests?” he asked, looking up from the floor and smiling.
“I’m not sure what it’s to do with, Paddy,” I replied. Dangling some bait before him, I continued, “Just one of those things that has suddenly appeared. Not promising you anything but if there’s a story in it, and I can, you’ll be the first.”
* * *
Meanwhile, Tai Tai was at the workshop for savants opposite our house, volunteering. Volunteering to help with the young men and women and also, subtlety, volunteering to help in our search for Mr Stein.
She dropped our property into every conversation that she had that morning. The savants saw all, remembered everything, couldn’t lie and had an astonishingly detailed knowledge on a diverse range of subjects.
She found out where the big black Mercedes had been built and, no matter what it said in the badge, it was a W211. It had been built in Stuttgart. She also found out how much it cost to put one in a box and send it from Hamburg to Singapore. Just after juice break, she was standing on the ground floor, next to a boy’s desk, looking across to our house. It looked great. Better than a two up two down within spitting distance of the Tyne, or a ten-pound Pom’s prefab in Mattawatta. It was sunnier than her English boarding school and roomier than any flat in Eastern Europe, or shoebox in South East Asia, that she’d suffered as she’d been dragged around the world behind me.
All it needed now, was to be filled with children of our own and moved a couple of oceans. It could be done. Tai Tai was never quite sure how I made my money, only that there was plenty of it. I told her that my occupation consisted of “being about the place” and having “a bit of luck” or “a good idea”. It was profitable enough. She let me get on with it. Her half of the agreement was to help to spend it. When time allowed, she was busy on the internet property sites. The Worth’s could afford something modest (but very adequate) in London or something massive further north. Tempting.
So far, her team of one had completed a list of Mr Stein’s visitors, remembered by the youngsters; gardener, telecoms lineman, a builder on the roof. Everything written on the side of any van had been committed to at least one photographic memory. Not only names but brand names, types of van and the phone numbers written on their sides. During the morning, Tai Tai phoned around to no avail. The most memorable thing about Mr Stein seemed to be that nobody could remember him.
Now she stood beside Mark’s desk. He was working on his speciality, a pile of electrics in bits, which could be cannibalised into something different. Tai Tai addressed him.
“Mark,” she began, in her whisper of an educated Australian accent, “I’d like to buy a cell-phone from you. Slightly adapted. Here’s what I want.”
* * *
A bus ride later, Tai Tai presented herself to the Singpost office which is, as promised in the advertising slogan, “Everybody’s favourite neighbour.”
“Madam,” she was told,” the sender’s address is the same as the recipient’s, perhaps a mistake?”
“We’re renting,” Tai Tai replied in explanation, “our landlord left something valuable behind, but no forwarding address. His mail must be being re-directed, as it never comes to us. This seemed to be the best thing to do.”
The counter boy nodded while he typed. A label chugged out of a printer and was stuck onto Tai Tai’s package.
She wandered the rest of the mall, heading upwards towards where it was most quiet. Sitting on a corner stool in a concession, sipping at a self-service coffee, she looked at her cell-phone screen. Mark had installed an application for her. In the very efficient way that any good neighbour would, that package was already on the move. The phone that it contained allowed Tai Tai to track it, all the way to Mr Stein.
Two coffees and some browsing later, there appeared to have been a delivery already. There it was, a stationary dot in Senkang. Not only that, it was also near to a Metro station and next to a sculpture park. Excellent.
Fifteen minutes after, she was walking around the sculptures. It wasn’t really a park, more of an odd-shaped piece of land where two metro lines met. The flying concrete viaducts created such an odd space that not much else could be done with it. She imagined a very cross Mr Lee, looking at the architect’s model, deciding on a whim to cover it in grass and pepper it in sculptures.
They weren’t exactly Rodin’s. They were modern, abstract even, not particularly well displayed. With Tai Tai’s eye for the created form, she could tell that one or two of them were upside down.
She held her phone like a dousing rod. It beeped, whirred and vibrated, pointing her out of the park and across a road. Ideally, Mr Stein’s new residence would be a nice big house, sat on its own. Unfortunately, it seemed to be a high rise. She walked over to block 357. Although fifteen stories high, it could have been a lot worse in this tall neighbourhood.
Time to switch to another app. Mark Two, she’d decided to call it. Wary of the high buildings, Mark had realised that proximity must be displayed, as well as 2D location.
In Mr Lee’s crime-free utopia, doors are for saving the air conditioning rather than for security. Tai Tai let herself in to block 357 and addressed the stairwell. She plodded up the steps with her eyes on her cell-phone, waiting for it to become over-excited. A little dial went off the gauge on the seventh floor. It began to make a noise like a cricket outside apartment six. Tai Tai pressed a door buzzer, which sat above a little brass plaque. She waited patiently, already able to hear the sound of approaching steps. Belatedly, she squinted at the tiny writing etched into the brass. It wasn’t what she’d thought. She turned to go but it was too late. The door was opening, an unexpected and surprising face emerged.
To be continued ….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file