Singapore. Forward Singapore! Everybody’s favourite piece of squashed diamond real estate, 31 miles by 17 miles, lies fashionably 200 miles south-east of Kuala Lumpur and 70 north of Sumatra. Here Malays, Chinese, South Asians, and more than a few of Her Majesty’s ex-pats, meet, work, play and engage in some very successful commerce, with a bit of diplomacy thrown in.
One stifling degree north of the equator, Mr Lee’s prosperous paradise also sits thirty-four degrees (and, reassuringly, seven thousand miles) south of old Tangiers, with its near-forgotten Berber maids, establishments and lost boys. They say the past is a foreign county. They are correct. A couple of decades have passed since my North African adventure, thank goodness.
The view? The Singapore Strait, packed with shipping crossing the waves where the Indian and Pacific Oceans meet. Location, location, location. The neighbours? Various, including the excellent but unhelpful Riau whose burning cane fields oft send a wave of smog towards our high rises and red slate-roofed townhouses. On this day they threaten the island state’s social highlight of the year, colloquially known as ‘The Ambassador’s Bash’.
“Don’t forget your face mask,” instructs my wife Nicole, touching up her makeup in the mirror which hags between two of the missing and mysterious scientist Mr Stein’s paintings of nuclear test sites. We are in the front room of our three-story townhouse in the upmarket Kavan subdivision, where low rise means high status. We rent from Mr Stein, but for a pittance. We’d love to thank him but, despite all our efforts, he’s disappeared. A strange cast of characters pursue him.
I’m standing beside my wife, endeavouring to get my tie just right, while fumbling through my pockets looking for my black cotton face mask.
“Must I?” I reply wearily.
“Yes, you must,” Nicole responds in her soft Australian accent, “There’s a weather warning. There are burnings across the Straits and the wind is in just the wrong direction for the ambassador’s knees up.”
“Darling, we have to start calling him ‘High Commissioner’,” I remind her, “We only use words like ‘ambassador’ and ‘embassy’ to annoy his staff.”
Lotus Blossom, my fourth cousin eight times removed (from the Chinese side of my family) chips in with, as often, definitive analysis and excellent advice, “Just say ‘your excellency’ and ‘mission’ which apply equally to embassies, high commissions, ambassadors and high commissioners.”
Lotus was adjusting a pearl necklace. Passed down through the family, from our common ancestor, it could tell a tale or two. Our ancestor had been a bit of a cad, probably on account of having eaten a few too many oysters whilst liberating those pearls. Lotus stood on a Turkish rug, making use of her reflection in the front window. A rug suspiciously valued and dated to a village on the way to Iraq during an arms embargo.
“And don’t bore His Excellency stupid with your unfunny outrageously exaggerated, silly, ‘largely true’ travellers tales of derring-do, desperately looking for a plot,” my wife advised as she got her left eyebrow just right.
“They say I’m a raconteur,” I responded.
“To your face,” Nicole replied somewhat acidly.
“No repeat of the embarrassment at the French navy reception off Guadeloupe, please,” added Lotus.
“I didn’t embarrass anybody, Dennis couldn’t stop laughing and Carol had to rush to the toilet.”
“But Mrs Thatcher was furious. And that poor Bahraini businessman’s daughter. Why did you repeat her story about the gynaecologist? How do you think she felt? Having to stand there while you told everybody? It was even reported in L’Monde’s ‘Page de Journal Colonial’ the next week.”
The ladies tutted.
“In the telling, I disguised her as a Saudi Arabian Princess. Nobody knew any different,” I responded, sticking up for myself while being outnumbered.
“We want to see Mr Worth two point zero tonight, best behaviour,” Lotus ordered.
“It’s a ‘Nicole’ night, Worth, think of me before you open your mouth or do anything,” my wife added.
Nicole was dressed in red. She looked stunning. I have a gentleman’s understanding of colours and struggle for the right word. When I say ‘red’, I mean a washed-out, almost see-through red, on an off the shoulder dress almost too revealingly split. She looked magnificent. Again, probably the wrong word. Her titian hair, full of life, bounded over her shoulders then tapered towards the middle of her bare back. She glowed these days, carefully applied makeup unnecessary. At times, during our endless postings in the tropics, she had looked very pained, unhappily thin and boney. Who said you can tell the character of a gentleman by the health of his wife? Might have been a Davenport-Hines.
I’d worried that she wasn’t getting enough, or the right things, to eat. But recently she had thrived, swelled in all the right places and couldn’t stop drinking lime juice, which is good for the skin. I was looking forward to, and would be very proud to, have her on my arm as I introduced her to the Singaporean and diplomatic corp’s high society. An occasion that threatened to be highjacked by ‘The Europe’.
“And behave yourself if anybody mentions the European Community. It’s their event too,” Nicole pointed out. “Big announcements and all that. And if it wasn’t, then Mr Lee might not be there. Bear that in mind.” Nicole was giving me a final piece of advice while finishing my tie for me. Getting it just right, she checked my mask and popped it into an inside pocket of this, my second, suit.
My Marks and Spencer’s was in storage in a box somewhere. I was wearing a much lighter suit. Marks and Spencers coloured but knocked off in an upstairs room in Hong Kong. It was a tropical warfare number two. If it had been my employer’s bash, the Singapore Consultancy’s, then I would have worn my silk shirt, Panama hat and crocodile skin shoes but, with it being High Commission business, a white shirt, brogues and an old school tie took precedence. Unfortunately, my old tie was in storage with the suit. Singapore was a brief and final posting, nearly done, then back to Blighty with the hope of a family and a life more ordinary. Our Vietnamese maid, Rose, had been dispatched in the general direction of Lau Pa Sat, where all things were known to be available. She’d guessed at a good tie. It did suit me but I was uncertain to which esteemed establishment it belonged. Hopefully not a girl’s school or a place full of Anglo-Catholics.
Nicole had perfected the knot all the same. Over my shoulder, Lotus was being assisted by Rose. Lotus was all dark blue with gold accessories, including a little gold bag which matched Nicole’s. Wearing black shoes with discreet but high heels, Lotus was still only slightly north of five foot tall. With more appropriate genes for the territory, she was always well, her glossy black hair always shone. I was just about to compliment her, by observing that she looked like the healthiest hamster in the pet shop, when I realised that Worth 2.0, on a Nicole day, should bite his lip.
We had dressed Rose in black. Black blouse, baggy black cotton strides, I was going to find her a black cap but Nicole thought it ‘servile’.
“But she’s a servant?” I’d replied, puzzled, before being outvoted (again) by the ladies.
Rose had announced that she could drive. She would be our chauffeur. She could definitely drive a moped. She kept one hidden in a bush in the side garden of our corner house, where Dumfries Street joined Gretna Avenue. Not really allowed in the deeds, we turned a blind eye all the same. Rose used it to thrash back and forwards to business school when not serving on us or reading her business books in the ground floor maid’s room. She was billeted next to the kitchen and beside our roasting hot concrete box of a back yard.
The car wasn’t difficult to drive. It was a giant black Mercedes automatic that Mr Stein had left behind when he’d disappeared. Rose seemed to be making a good job of it as we set off from our property. She managed to reverse between the gateposts, through the security fence, without hitting anything. She turned in plenty of time, without striking the school for savants opposite, and then nudged the big three-pointed star at the end of that giant bonnet in the right direction. An achievement for any driving female, licensed or otherwise. My wife and I sat on either side of the back seat. Lotus, because she’s the smallest, sat in the middle.
“Any more news of Mr Stein?” I asked Lotus.
“How would I know?”
“His social media.”
“Check it yourself.”
“I can’t, I’m behind the firewall.”
Lotus grunted as she addressed her gold purse, finding her cell phone.
“Download a VPN,” she advised as she typed away on the screen.
Somewhat shamefacedly, I replied, “I don’t know how to do it. And anyway, something is chewing through our data, not least the all-important Dirty List. The boffins are struggling to fix it.”
On my other side, Nicole busied with her phone too, trying to help.
“I can’t get onto it at all,” she announced.
“What’s that one?” I asked, pointing at a circle containing a Chinese character on her screen.
“The find Mr Stein app.”
“Ah,” I replied. “Bit of a wild goose chase.” I explained the situation to Lotus. “We posted a traceable phone to ourselves but addressed it to Mr Stein, assuming we could follow it to him when SingPost redirected it. It ended up at a re-redirection service where it stuck. Bit of a waste of time. Proprietor a Miss Wong. I wonder if she’ll be there tonight? Might try to squeeze her for a bit more info.”
“Charming,” announced Lotus, holding her screen in front of me, “Nothing new but look what’s in his old photos.”
It was difficult to see what it was. A vessel? A ship with a big bay on the back of it, too small for a landing craft, too big for an inflatable, just the right size for a ……….
“Whale,” I realised aloud.
“What lovely people you rent from,” decided Lotus. “They make their money from nuclear weapons, sanctions-busting and whaling. They invest in exclusive property and big German limos that they let you use for nothing. Worth, you’re the beneficiary of a top-flight un-ethical investment portfolio.”
“Mustn’t grumble”, was all I could think to say as Rose drew us very gently to a halt on the exclusive Nassim Road, outside the High Commissioner’s residence, fashionably precisely on time.
Alighting, I took Nicole by one arm and outstretched my other for the unaccompanied Lotus. She declined, heeding Nicole’s instruction to, “Be a darling and run ahead,” leaving myself and my wife to stride together alone along the darkened path, between the rain trees, towards the residency. Deliberately alone, as Nicole had some life-changing information that she wanted to share with me.
To be continued…….
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file