Singapore being a Commonwealth country the British Embassy was really a High Commission and the Ambassador, a High Commissioner. Since both high commissioners and ambassadors are addressed as ‘Your Excellency’, myself, my wife Nicole and my Chinese cousin, Lotus Blossom, were unlikely to offend him to his face at his high society social. Having said that, it was customary to mix up the titles and names when addressing the High Commission staff, in order to annoy them.
The High Commission itself being a rather disappointing concrete stump, wedged between China and the United States in the Embassy District, the annual British Mission social bash was held at the High Commissioner’s residence, Eden Hall, on the very desirable Nassim Road. Originally the property of a Baghdadi trader who, depending on who you believe, made his money from rice with a bit of opium thrown in, or from opium with a bit of rice thrown in.
Lotus having been sent ahead, myself and my wife are together alone walking up a meandering path, between the rain trees, as we catch a glimpse of the building. Nicole is seeing it for the first time.
“The gardens were originally a nutmeg plantation but have been much diminished by flogging bits off for nouveau riche mansions,” I explain. “Not even room left for a pool. His Excellency has to pester his new neighbours a swim these days.”
Beautifully lit by moonlight and the glow from torches about the lawns, Nicole gasped as she saw the property for the first time. Capturing the moment, she stopped, opened her little gold evening bag and presented me with a present. Surprised, I thanked her and asked, “May I?”
“Of course,” she replied.
I fumbled with the sky blue wrapping paper, quite excited. Inside, I found a pen. Fashionably, there was a little screen at the opposite end to the nib, which I assumed would show the time and the temperature. Already knowing it was precisely 8:30 (our maid had done an excellent job chauffeuring to the precise time) and 28 degrees centigrade (as it always was), I popped it into the top pocket of my topical warfare number two suit. Thanking Nicole again as I did so, I leaning forward to kiss her. Surprisingly, she moved her head to one side, allowing my lips to only brush her cheek. At that precise moment, we were interrupted.
“Oh, Mr and Mrs Worth! Lovely to see you.” It was the impossibly camp, Mr Jeremy Tan, a well known Singaporean valuer and auctioneer, one degree of effeminacy away from being beaten by Mr Lee’s bodyguards until he promised to take up bare-knuckle boxing.
“Mr Tan,” I shook his hand. As Nicole swapped air kisses with him, I felt obliged to mention, “My wife’s first visit to Eden Hall.”
“And how do you find it, Mrs Worth?” Jeremy asked enthusiastically.
“It’s like a Christening cake,” my wife replied quite honestly. Eden Hall did have a certain look to it.
“It is a bit fancily embellished,” I agreed with her. “Two story colonial plantation house, all pitched roofs, downstairs arches and upstairs balconies. Finished in a funny grey colour with white trimmings.”
“You are too modest on behalf of your High Commissioner, Mr Worth,” suggested Mr Tan, contradicting me as gently as possible.
“Not what it seems?” Asked Nicole. “Easily misunderstood? Perhaps worth a closer look?”
“Indeed. It is a Wedgewood colour, Mrs Worth, rather than a ‘funny grey’. A variable colour averaging a pale blue that is redder, stronger, and slightly lighter than average powder blue and stronger than an old blue.”
“Pink or blue?” stated my wife. “Perhaps we could take a closer look, Mr Tan, while my husband circulates out here. From time to time he needs to consult with members of the diplomatic corps. The process helps him to realise the self-evident.”
Bit tetchy. Rather cutting. Perhaps it was the music? Upon reaching the lawns, we were now within earshot of the dance band. A temporary dance floor, still empty, had been placed on the snooker table smooth grass next to a marquee. At right angles to that sat a podium ominously decked out in European Community colours as well as Great British. A tall, shaven-headed figure, in white evening jacket and black bow tie, stepped towards the microphone.
My wife and Mr Tan linked arms and made for the steps to the Christening cake residence. I was left abandoned between huddles of Singapore high society. I felt rather self-conscious but for only a couple of minutes. I was recused by a booming voice from the microphone. That tall figure was our MC for the evening, a Mr Jigan, who, amongst other things, was the voice of Bukit Timar racecourse. He caught our attention with a rather off-colour remark about Malaysia, then pointed out the fire exits and warned us of the weather, reminding us to our face masks as crop burnings across the Straits threatened the evening. All of this chanted as if runners and riders before the Raffles Cup. He then saved my skin, and that of any other poor mixers present, by announced a dreaded ‘getting to know each other’.
“Turn to the person next to you, remind them of your name, and then tell them a few secrets.”
He was met with mild laughter and a splatter of applause accompanied by a low murmur as the diplomatic corps turned to each other and, perhaps surprisingly, entered into the spirit of the ice breaker. I suppose it saved a lot of money on phone taps, surveillance and satellite time. Feeling obliged, I turned to my right and, being a gentleman, addressed a stranger standing next to me.
My companion was a small, young woman, certainly not slender but compact rather than wide. She was dressed in the Muslim style, in a green sari with a matching shawl covering nearly all of her dark brown hair. Her face was quite round, her eyes bright, her lips pursed. On appearance, I would place her to the foothills of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, towards the more pleasant side of Islamabad.
“Apparently you have to tell me a few secrets,” I said smiling, breaking the silence.
She replied very confidently, “I’m Miss Noor of the Pakistan High Commission.”
“Delighted to meet you Miss Noor,” I offered her a hand, rather reluctantly taken. “But that’s not really a secret,” I reminded her, “I can tell that just by looking at you. How is Islamabad? You must tell me some proper secrets.”
Still smiling, I was expecting to be rebuffed, or even have her glass of mineral water thrown over me, but Miss Noor was very keen to be indiscreet, if not even to show off.
“Oh, I have lots of secrets for you, Mr Worth. Rawalpindi, by the way. I’m not sure which ones would be the best? Your Mr Stein, Operation Swaling, Operation Bonfire, I don’t know where to start. But, of course, Mr Worth, just because you’re the last to realise, doesn’t mean that these things are secret.”
I was rather taken aback, somewhat speechless. Not only did she already know my name but had impertinently addressed me by it before I’d introduced myself.
“No,” she pondered, rubbing her chin and smirking. Despite everything, I must say, as she mocked me, I found her rather cute.
“Here’s a better one,” she decided. “Your wife is quite cross. May she have excused herself to the restrooms to sob?”
“No, if you must know, she’s wandered off with Mr Tan,” I replied rather surprised.
“Whatever,” Miss Noor continued. “She is heavy with your first child.”
My surprise turning to irritation, I became quite prickly.
“Miss Noor, I think that kind of comment’s a bit out of order. How on earth might you think such a thing, let alone say it? And it would hardly be a secret if such a happy blessing were to be bestowed upon us, I should be the first to know.”
“Your wife’s approaching confinement? Because of the pregnancy test. Your first child? Because you’ve never seen such a test before and are therefore wandering around a High Commission reception having mistakenly put it in your top pocket. Your wife is cross? Self-evident, Mr Worth, where is she? I should find her if I were you. Enjoy your evening.”
I would have loved to have lingered, quizzing Miss Noor about the gossip in Rawalpindi’s compounds, especially since it seemed to concern myself and my present mysterious predicament, but she was correct, I really did have to find my wife. After tucking the errant pregnancy ‘pen’ to an inside pocket, I strode towards the High Commissioner’s residency. Ordinarily, likened to a Wedding Cake rather than a Christening cake, Eden Hall on that night suddenly had a sinister look. Miss Noor’s suggestion that herself, and possibly the entire diplomatic corps, knew of ‘Swaling’, ‘Bonfire’ and Mr Stein, created a nibbling and a gnawing inside me as if I was striding towards the most ghastly and threatening of gingerbread houses.
To be continued…….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file