The four of us are standing outside a storm-lashed and deserted British High Commission on Napier Road, Tanglin. It is just shy of 1am. Singapore’s Diplomatic Corps are weather trapped at the High Commissioner’s social, just over a mile away at his residence, Eden Hall. Likewise, the High Commission’s junior grades are marooned in various salubrious hostelries on Geylang Road, having excused themselves from their duties while the toffs are out of sight.
My wife, Nicole, is in full evening wear, an almost see-through off the shoulder gown in scarlet, split from waist to ankle. She presses the intercom. Lotus Flower, similarity attired but of bark blue, trimmed with gold, and finished off with opium war conflict pearls, bangs on the plate glass doors, vainly hoping a snotty may have been left behind to guard the shop. Myself, in my tropical warfare number twos, is swiping my Singapore Consultancy, and Lotus’s Hong Kong Consulate-General, passcards through a slot in a vain attempt to enter the building. Rose who, until moments ago we’d assumed to be nothing more than a humble maid, is in an ill-fitting improvised chauffeur’s uniform. She goes through her pockets one at a time, as though searching for something valuable concealed.
We are all wearing face masks. This is a swaling storm, bringing with it burning crop soot from across the Straits. The High Commission is a disappointing concrete building, in the modern style, but it does enjoy an overhang above the main doors which provide some shelter. Rose has parked our black Mercedes as close to the doors as possible, giving us some more. Trapped outside, our luck seems to have run out. We turn to Rose. Stepping out of the car she’d claimed that, as an absolute last resort, Mr Lee had authorised….
Having found what she was looking for, Rose held out a swipe card of her own. Despite clinging to it as if a gecko’s jaw clutching a lizards neck, she passed it to me. On the front was a Singapore National Flag pictured in front of a pyramid topped by an all-seeing eye, the trademark of the global elite. Suggesting immortality, it was numbered SG 00000000. On the back, in the style of Elizabeth R, the signature strip contained a scribble denoting, ‘Harry L’. It was Mr Lee’s personal access all areas card.
“Crikey,” I mumbled through my mask as I addressed the door swipe with the card. Sure enough, seconds later we had stepped into the reception area of the High Commission. Under the emergency lighting (lightning strikes having caused power supply problems in the city-state), we tried to find our bearings before a warren of sparse and clinical corridors. My work at the Singapore Consultancy often took me to the High Commission, a place I always found disappointing.
The reception was too boxy. It was all tiles, Formica surfaces and partition walls. It was like being in a provincial jobcentre.
“Not even any trophies,” I remarked to my companions. “The Queen’s chap in Nairobi has a 100-year-old tortoise on the staff. Big as a coffee table. In Karachi, we had the Sultan of Waziristan’s artificial arm. Hung in the dining hall. Used as a croquet stick on sports afternoons.”
Lotus added her two penn’orths, “Carlisle-Carter in Oslo had a bit of the Scharnhorst in the games room. Big enough to balance the billiard slate on.”
Nicole was making use of the torch on her cell phone. She was investigating a corner.
“Not jealous are you, the both of you? There’s something over here in a case. An engraved crystal tankard.” She was leaning over it.
“Oh, High Commissioner Andy has the Autumn Award for High Commissioning excellence.”
“Always was a bit of a swot, that’s why nobody likes him,” decided Lotus, “I bet he goes on, and on, and on, and on about it as well.”
“At our consultancy office in Cebu City,” I felt I had to outdo HC Andy. “We had a pair of stuffed fighting cocks in reception and a pair of real ones double caged in the back yard, between the well and the pigsty.”
Despite her discovery, Nicole felt obliged to join in, “Remember fake Princess Fatima’s gynaecologist’s dawnings? Signed, framed and mounted in the ladies at Al Hoora.”
“At Eden Hall, there’s the Japanese Admiral’s wall clock and sundial,” I reminded them all.
“Mr Worth,” interrupted Rose. “The coms room?”
Rose was correct. Time was tight. I held out my hand towards her saying, “I’ll need the VPN please, Rose.”
While she hesitated, I was able to read her mind. “I can’t possibly take you to the communications room, Rose. It’s beyond top secret. Hand over the VPN device, please.”
“But that is the deal, Mr Worth,” Rose replied stubbornly. “The deal between your swotty and unliked award-winning High Commissioner Andy and Mr Lee. You are allowed to use Mr Lee’s VPN on condition that Mr Lee is informed about the coms room. Mr Lee has access to all areas and knows everything about Singapore but, for some reason, this High Commission’s communications room remains a mystery.”
Rose knew full well that there was lots to do in limited time and that I couldn’t afford to linger. Certain death at the hands of the North Korean Secret Service threatened at sunrise. Added to which, there was an imminent European Community / Singapore trade deal, with strings attached, that really did need a bit of sabotage applied to it.
“Follow me,” I conceded.
I led them down a corridor, then another, then another, all of which looked the same, lined with doors that just had numbers on them. There were no names of great patriots, heroes or monarchs emblazoned upon them, just HC 101 or LC 5.4, instead of a Captain Crowe mess or a Captain Toole meeting room. It was depressing. And dark, with the storm assisted power supply problems, the High Commission was on emergency lights. The audible hum in the distance came from the generators. When the generators died, we’d be on batteries. Time was tight.
I stopped and told the others to gather around. We’d arrived. I stood still. Rose opened the nearest door. It was a broom cupboard. She used Mr Lee’s swipe card on a door lock opposite. It was an empty office.
“Very funny, Mr Worth,” Rose snarled. “Now get a move on.”
I stamped on the floor. I stamped it again. Lotus was the first to twig. She got down on her hands and knees and began to run her fingertips around the edges of the floor tiles.
Rose joined her, but it was Lotus who, prodding away at a corner, was able to undo a latch. The actual disguised hatch was too heavy for her. I bent down to provide a good hard tug of my own. The hatch was weighty, covering an area the size of four floor tiles. It lifted very slowly as we heaved at it. I was just about to give up when it seemed to pass a balancing point, moving the last two-thirds of the way on its own, with ease. Beneath, a row of steel steps extended themselves automatically towards a concrete floor, while strip lights blinked into life. One at a time, we crept down the steps and into Her Majesty’s Singapore High Commission beyond top-secret communications room.
Rose was the last to descend, talking excitedly as she did so.
“Of course, Mr Worth, an underground coms room. I think we all know why.”
Around us, computer screens flickered to life, displaying various screen savers. Myself? I was infected by Rose’s enthusiasm, but Lotus looked unsure and Nicole downright queasy. My wife began to gag, as though she was going to be sick.
Lotus understood, “Worth, your wife needs seaweed and lime juice. Because of her condition.”
Nicole held her hand over her mouth and made gargling noises. Rose handed over Mr Lee’s access all areas card.
“Take Mrs Worth to the canteen, Miss Lotus Flower. Compliments of Mr Lee.”
‘Canteen’ just about summed it up. British missions should have refractories or dining halls. This one had a canteen. Dear God. After Nicole and Lotus had disappeared back up the steps, myself and Rose were together alone. The room was as plain as the building above and not much bigger than our living room at Dumfries Street. The walls were lined with cabinets of flashing electronics, interrupted by six work stations with only a desk, keyboard and computer screen within each.
I put two stools in front of one such terminal while Rose found the cooler and returned with two plastic cups of water. Then, she began to undress, taking off her ill-fitting chauffeur’s cap and throwing it to one side, taking off her jacket and dropping it to the floor. Beneath, she wore a formal polished black top with high collar. Around her neck I recognised a Kimberley diamond choker centred with an East Rand gold love knot, recently liberated from my office safe. She untied her hair, one raven coloured bunch landed about each of her slender shoulders.
Expecting the VPN to be a gadget that plugged in, a kind of electronic, multi-functional digital Singapore Army Swiss knife, I held an open palm towards her again.
“I’m the VPN,” she announced seductively while taking control of the keyboard.
“Every kilobyte of it,” I replied, smitten.
“Mr Lee has agreed to allow you through the firewall. Your boss must be well-connected. I’ve never seen so much permission go through the door so quickly,” she continued.
“Or quite so stylishly,” I felt obliged to add, looking at her doe-eyed while raising my plastic cup to my lips. Still puzzled by this turn of events, I added, “May I ask you where the VPN is?”
She tapped her forehead, “I have memorised the necessary passwords and computer code, Mr Worth. It can be done by any attractive woman with half a brain.”
To be continued…..
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file