The Diplomatic Corp are jammed into the reception rooms at the British High Commissioner’s residence at Eden Hall. The weather is against us. Not only is there a swaling wind (from the crop burnings in Indonesia) but it has started to pelt down. Rain hammers upon the stutters, competing with the remains of the dance band which, like a retreating regiment, has been decimated in the stampede from the lawns, brought about by the first lung fulls of smog. Enough of the brass section remains for a belting rendition of ‘When the Saints Go Marching In,’ thankfully from a different room.
Myself and my wife, Nicole, are trapped at the late-comers end of the buffet. Fortunately for herself, we are near the seaweed, which my wife craves (along with lime juice), as she is heavy with our first child. The pair of us are peering into her evening purse. Her phone is dancing to a tune too. A tracking app has gone off. The one we have been using to try to find the missing and mysterious Mr Stein, who may hold the key to any number of woes which, like a swaling wind of their own, swirl around us menacingly.
“Phone him up,” I suggest.
“How do you mean?” Nicole asks.
“You phone him up. I’ll look out for someone answering a phone, obviously.” I stand up on tiptoes.
This was a diplomatic event. All phones were kept on at all times, just in case. In the world of foreign missions, you never quite know what’s going to happen next, but you do know that you don’t want to be the last one to find out.
The cellphone that we were tracking was ours. We’d posted it to Mr Stein, our landlord, with our (well, his) address on the label. Nicole had traced it as far as a mail forwarding agency, but then the trail had gone cold. Now it had hotted up again. Another rule of diplomacy, turn up for the socials, that’s where it all happens. The spying, paperwork and derring-do is just preparation for circulating beside the spring rolls.
Salvation was at hand, all was finally fitting into place. The High Commissioner, the North Korean Secret Service, Mr Stein, even Mr Lee’s top chap (if only I knew who it was), all now appeared to be in the same place at the same time.
“What was that film we went to see the evening I proposed? The plot all came together at a dining in night under enemy fire in Waziristan. Remember? Was it based on a LeCarre?”
“Carry On Up the Khyber, darling,” Nicole replied with a resigned sigh.
The romantic main bill had been full. At least the non-smoking side of the cinema had been. Relaxed about such things, Nicole had still been in her cheroots phase. She does belong to a different species. I just couldn’t face it. We tucked ourselves into screen two with the Carry On team instead. Different times. Romantic all the same. Couldn’t stop laughing. And, to cap it all, she’d said, “Yes”.
“Phone him up, there’ll be a movement about the crowd,” I said, trying to make it sound like an order. Nicole tapped on her phone and, sure enough, there was a noticeable movement, phone to ear, elsewhere in the room.
“Beside the wonton soup. Got him.”
Mr Stein looked shorter than I’d thought. Lotus’s VPN assisted social media had found a couple of photos of him. And jet black hair. Surely a wig?
“Strange chap,” I muttered to Nicole, holding her hand, pulling her through the mass, apologising as we barged past diplomats, fellow travellers and their other halves. Infuriatingly, we skirted the sweet and sour Pakanan style, just out of reach. Duty calls and all that.
Having just had a lecture in diversity, in what was supposed to be a trade talk, it seemed appropriate that we should squeeze past our neighbour Dr Bakshi who, at formal events, wore a skirt and went barefoot. When I say a skirt, more of a thick sheet of material, almost like a towel, dark blue, down to knee level. He was standing talking to Squadron Leader Knightley, which gave me an idea. A very important idea that I would have to pursue another time, my present point of maximum concentrated effort being to get to Mr Stein before anything else went wrong.
Some were out of the starting gate earlier than others. Sir Julian’s trade speech had seemed to appear to insist social liberalism upon Singapore in return for a promise of extra business. As we approached Mr Stein, he seemed to be wearing a dress.
I crept up to the target from the rear, aiming for surprise, opening with, “Could I borrow your phone?”
‘Mr Stein’ turned to face me.
“Come to think of it, can I have my own phone back please, I don’t suppose you’re a Mr Stein.”
I held out a palm in expectation.
The awkwardness of momentary impoliteness was followed by a burst of recognition, not aimed at me but at my wife.
“Oh, Mrs Worth, how lovely to see you.” It was Mrs Belinda Wong from the mail forwarding company. She had a reputation for being touchy-feely. After hugging Nicole, she held out a limp hand towards me. Having quickly prepared her retaliation, she delivered the following salvo,
“We haven’t met. Mrs Worth, please introduce me to your father, soon to be a proud grandfather I hear.”
At that point, I wasn’t wearing my face mask, in the same way that a dreadnought might not have enough deck armour. Thus, her slight cut all the deeper. There was a flash from outside, followed quickly by a clap of thunder.
“Oh, your husband, Mrs Worth,” Mrs Wong pretended shock when corrected. “Forgive me, a lucky man!”
Chastened but unrepentant, I fired a round of my own, “You nick all of the forwarded mail do you, Mrs Wong? Charming.”
“Oh, Mr Worth, as with yourself at the Singapore Consultancy, at Wong Address Forwarding, we carry out our client’s instructions. Our most generous clients.” She held up the phone in question, the one we’d sent to Mr Stein to try to trace him. She gave it a little shake.
I changed tack, “As Sir Julian just announced, there are different communities. My wife and I must reach out to those of a ‘don’t want anybody to know where they are’ persuasion.”
“There are private truths as well as public truths, Mr Worth. Perhaps they must stay private. I’m sure Sir Julian Mr Minsk appreciates that more than most. Did he mention a right to privacy for the individual? It is progress apparently.”
Mrs Wong reached out to me with an open hand. Another rule of diplomacy, foldy stuff with a picture of a ship on the front and a couple of zeros in a corner comes in handy. While on the subject of rules, in Singaporean life, talking about money is never rude, rather not talking about filthy lucre is a little off.
I slipped a hand into my tropical warfare number two jacket. Into the secret pocket where my tailor, Mr Kowloon Ken, allowed for a gentleman’s gun. In Mr Lee’s crime-free utopia it held my gold clip. I peeled a hundred dollar note from it and, palm down, held in place by a crossed thumb, discreetly passed the note to Mrs Wong. It being impolite to refuse a remuneration, her hand went to her modest cleavage and tucked the money inside her evening dress. Likewise, this being Singapore, everybody saw but nobody noticed. Money was changing hands, it would have been more suspicious if it hadn’t been.
“I’m afraid your Mr Stein is well disappeared,” Mrs Wong began. “The Wong Address Forwarding Company were given no forwarding details. Nothing arrives for him of any interest, I just put it all in the bin. Apart from the phone, it seemed a shame to waste it.”
“I’ll have it back, then,” I retorted, pleased with myself, aware I was retrieving my wasted hundred, plus a bit more.
“No you won’t, Mr Worth, it belongs to the addressee the instant its posted. And I’m the addressee’s authorised agent, so it’s mine.”
I made a humph noise and put on my grumpy face. But all was not lost, now that I had Mrs Wong’s attention and, as far as I was concerned, at least part of my hundred still on account, I felt obliged to make further use of her.
“Mrs Wong, might I ask if you know who Mr Lee’s best chap is? I’ve been promised his assistance but have no idea who to look for.”
“I’m sure Mr Lee’s best will find you.”
“No sign of him, Mrs Wong, and time is tight. I’ve been standing about all night like a pudding hoping he would come to me, to no avail.”
“Oh, Mr Worth, relax, one can always rely upon Mr Lee. Perhaps, even, now this minute?” Mrs Wong looked at me and then beyond me, nodding towards the chicken wings in pork stew sauce. I looked over my shoulder and followed her gaze. Sure enough, there was a cleft in the crowd travelling across the room, like a parting of the Red Sea. Someone with sharp elbows was approaching, as if on a mission.
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file