“Do you believe any of this nonsense?”
“Of course not.”
“They’re not going to sign it are they?”
Myself and Miss Noor of the Pakistan High Commission, are ‘enjoying’ a presentation as part of the British High Commissioner’s annual social. There is a tang in the air. Crop burnings across the Straits, in Sumatra, are threatening the evening. I’m juggling my facemask from palm to palm in irritation, Miss Noor is already wearing hers.
In front of us, the odious Sir Julian Minsk stands on a podium, behind a microphone, afore European Community bunting. He coughs as he gives us a lecture on the forthcoming EC Singapore trade deal. The acrid remains of burning Indonesian stubble isn’t the only thing that sticks in the throat.
“Diversity, inclusion, equality?”, I mutter to Miss Noor in disbelief. “What’s that got to do with crates on the dockside and End User Licence Agreements?”
“There are always strings attached, Mr Worth.”
“I can understand that Miss Noor, but this is ridiculous, it’s not as if Singapore needs the money.”
“Even in Singapore the banks are never full, Mr Worth, which gives Mr Sir Julian an opportunity to make the wind blow in a particular direction.”
At that point, the wind obliged. The stars disappeared, the smog from the south-west now above us. Experience suggested that the next gust would bring it to lung level. I estimated another three minutes and we’d be cavalry charging up the lawns, coughing and blowing, elbowing past the VVIPs, to reach the veranda. Fortuitously, by this point in the proceedings, the old colonial plantation building promised not only shelter and fresh air but a buffet.
Sir Julian mentioned ‘progressive’ for the umpteenth time. He was standing under a banner, strung between the Singapore national flag and the Union Jack, which ominously read ‘Progress Singapore’, rather than the usual ‘Forward Singapore.’
“Regardless of orientation,” he wheezed between mentions of bank bonds and tourists.
“What’s that got to do with trade?” I asked of Miss Noor.
“It’s leverage Mr Worth, you want the trade deal, you agree to the agenda. An agenda which appears to be driven by,” she coughed, despite the face mask, perhaps gagging on her next words which were,
“Is Pakistan going to sign up to this kind of crap?”
“Of course not, we get the money for nothing. We don’t even have to pile crates on the dockside in Karachi or forge user licence end agreements for arms shipments. It’s known as ‘aid’,” she noted.
The audience was positioned on the lawns by rank, lined up as if a medieval army. Children sat at the front, cross-legged on the grass. Junior chancelry stood behind them, then middling diplomats and their families (including me and Miss Noor), followed by the self-made (who could hardly see), VIPs and VVIPs (who, from the veranda, had an excellent view).
The bad thing about this order of battle was that Miss Noor and myself had to stand a bit too close to the oily pariah Sir Julian Minsk. The good thing about it was that, if you’ve lost your wife earlier in the evening (and assuming she’s not a princess), then you’re likely to bump into her. I felt an arm creeping around my waist. Not a flirting Miss Noor getting carried away with herself but the beginnings of a little squeeze from my other half, Nicole. Congratulations were in order which I passed on to her in a secret whisper, disguised as a kiss on the cheek. And an apology.
“Congratulation on the baby, my love. Sorry darling, I thought he pregnancy test was a pen. That’s why I put it in my top pocket and wandered off. Miss Noor spotted it and put me right.”
Nicole and Miss Noor exchanged brief pleasantries. Sir Julian droned on. Coughing and spluttering increased. At the fringe of the compound, the tops of the trees had now disappeared. In the torches and floodlights, their lower branches were already bathed in brown dust, as were the garish coloured tiled roofs of the billionaire’s vulgar mansions next door.
I put on my face mask just as the front rows, the seated children, broke as if a medieval army under arrow fire. The little ones picked themselves up and scampered through the grownups, like voles through a cornfield, while all about fumbled for their own masks. Aware of the way the wind was blowing, in every sense, Sir Julian didn’t so much make his closing remarks as alter the tone of his voice to suggest that the sentence he was on was his last.
He was rescued by Mr Jigan, our MC and the voice of Bukit Timar racecourse, who boomed us towards the buffet as if putting us under starters orders and giving us the off. A trot towards the residence became a gallop. One of the rules of diplomacy is to be nice to everybody all of the time. Another, is to be completely unflappable whilst being unable to breathe, being trodden on, being elbowed in a stampede and realising that you are going to reach the tables laden with food a bit too late.
Inside, the French windows were closed in reasonable time but we were still covered in dust and coughing. A light fog was about the chandeliers, decorated by little whirlpools spinning around the slowly rotating ceiling fans. Perhaps because of her condition, Nicole had suddenly developed a craving for seaweed. We were able to push our way to within reach of it but I remained a little bit too far away from the sweet and sour duck Peranakan style. The High Commissioner’s kitchen had prepared this in deference to our most special guest, Singapore’s top banana, Mr Lee. The recipe was from Mr Lee’s mother’s cookbook. It was reputed to be exceptional but I couldn’t quite get at it. Blocking the way was a thin Malay in thick spectacles who had something important to tell me.
Another rule of diplomacy is that there’s no such thing as a bore. There are always things to be learned and people to be cultivated. If someone does go on for too long, it’s your fault for not changing the subject or moving, without causing offence, to someone else in the room. If the bore’s a pedant, put him to use. He could always tell you about your old school tie. The one that your maid had bought from a market stall because yours is in storage. Or you could ask them who Mr Lee’s best chap might be. I’d just been promised their assistance but had no idea who it might be. These were the things that I was pondering as the thin Malay, sporting an easily recognisable middling oil company tie, shared his own thoughts.
“You know, it’s called a swaling wind,” he said.
I touched my tie. He didn’t take the hint.
“Swaling means a controlled burning, to improve the land,” he continued. “But the Indonesians don’t do it properly, they just set fire to everything in sight and they do in the wrong weather conditions. It sends a smog over here. You know, Mr Worth, I think it’s an English word, are you familiar with it? From the burnings of the goose moors, I think?”
“Grouse moors,” I corrected him. “Yes, I’m familiar with it,” I reassured him. “It means a very selective burning, very carefully done. Just the right part of the moor, at exactly the right time, in the right conditions, the right weather. If done properly it removes the debris and the pests, encourages the new growth and protects the next year’s game birds. Thoroughly good thing, done properly, by professionals, focused, exact. And constant, forever, year after year after year.”
I was boring him. My wife came to the rescue, squeezing me by the arm, distracting me.
“Something’s happening,” she whispered. “A movement. Here.” Her hand was about her tummy, patting it with her evening purse.
“Already? How far gone are you?” This being our first, I wondered when abouts hubbies were told of these things. Four months? Six months? Eight! I began to panic.
“I mean my phone,” she replied, “I can feel it buzzing. Would it be very impolite?”
Of course not. Another rule of diplomacy, keep your phone switched on at all times and don’t be afraid to use it, albeit discreetly. Imagine you’re the last to find out that the tanks are rolling across the causeway at Johor? Or you find out at the same time as the rest of the Diplomatic Corps but not until its 3 o’clock in the morning, you’re slightly pickled, the maid’s pulling your shoes off and there’s not a lot you, or any of the missions, can do about it. Nicole opened her evening purse and revealed her cell phone. Chinese characters danced with each other across the screen. Ominously or fortuitously (the jury was still out at that moment), the commotion was coming from the tracking app.
“Mr Stein is in the building,” we whispered to each other simultaneously.
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file