“An app for everything these days, Mrs Wong and Mr Worth.”
We’re on the IT floor of the school for savants opposite my rented home on Dumfries Street, Kovan, Singapore. My absent landlord, Mr Stein, had put the savants to work developing an internet controlling computer program through operations Bonfire and Swaling. Myself and Mrs Wong, of the Wong Address Company, have tied in the competition to take control of the software and hence the worldwide web. I was more than happy to contest Mrs Wong in a ‘throw rubbish from a distance into the bin’ competition but Mr Jeremy Tan, Mr Stein’s agent in such things has other ideas. He is sitting at a terminal logged into MrStein.com reminding us an app exists for everything and adding,
“Under strict instruction, there must be a tie-breaker and we will use online software to decide a winner.”
Outside, the rain is hammering the school’s corrugated tin roof. In the darkness, it is Singapore’s daily tea time downpour hour (or two).
“What’s your earliest memory?” Mr Tan read from his screen.
“I can remember being in the bottom of a sack of rice at the time of Mao’s Cultural Revolution. My aunty smuggled me through a checkpoint and into Hong Kong, a bag of pans in her other hand.”
“Enough, Mrs Wong,” interrupted Mr Tan while typing, “there’s only so much room in these fields.”
“I lived in the colonies as a child,” I began, “My father returned from England one time. He brought me a present, all the way from an important meeting in London. A bulb, battery and wire. I sat on the kitchen floor with Freda the rat catcher and Mbawambini the maid and made the bulb flash on and off with the wire.”
Mr Tan pressed the return button. Graphs and charts flashed before him.
“Two fails I’m afraid. No surprise,” said Tan in exasperation. “We’ll move on to the next tiebreaker. Tell me an example of when you’ve given someone a surprise.”
“Oh, no, no,” I replied unprompted, “I don’t do surprises. Tai Tai’s forbidden me to surprise anybody with anything, and quite right too. I don’t want any more surprises either. I’ve had enough excitement, controlling the world from the comfort of my armchair is the limit of my ambitions these days.”
Without hesitation, as though this was something that had troubled her for a long time (and she was pleased to have the opportunity to part herself from it) said,
“My first boyfriend thought I was a boy too.”
The inscrutable Mrs Wong sounded relieved. What she looked like, I did not know. I stared at my feet. A long silence followed.
With hesitation, Mr Tan began to type. Not unexpectedly he announced,
“Two more fails.” He sighed. “What would be the first thing you would do if you won this competition?”
Mrs Wong was now on much firmer ground having read all the material Mr Stein had deposited with her at the Wong Address Company. She’d had plenty of time to prepare, and was able to tell his application exactly what she thought it wanted to hear. Her obsession with buying and selling, and her familiarity with pigeon holes, led her to further commercialise and better organise the net. Her forte was storing and disseminating data, sifting and moving it about. Was there a hint she might be preparing to do all of this on behalf of the Chinese Secret Service? I trusted there would be an appropriate box, next to an on-screen field, Tan might click with that in mind. He typed it all in and turned to me.
I couldn’t compete with Mrs Wong. I wasn’t going to try. I’d realised the significance of the school for savants, now I had to get into Mr Stein’s mind again, as I did so a plan formed. In my pocket was the memory stick that Rose our maid kept forcing onto me. I was familiar with it, had used it before and knew what it contained. I thought of camaraderie many years ago in a far off place. The joshing of Stein while he did his oil paintings, the dining in nights amongst the palm trees and sand. The brilliant achievement bursting above the atoll, keeping Communism at bay and maintaining our country’s presence at the top table of the world’s strategic affairs. I held the memory stick for Mr Tan to see.
“Don’t ask me how, but if you guess this was pilfered from a confidential virtual archive accessible from beneath the British High Commission, you wouldn’t be far wrong. This contains the details of Her Majesty’s nuclear weapons tests, and the men who took part in them. It includes the digitised details of thousands of missing medical records. If I controlled the internet, this would go into the public domain to motivate medical experts, politicians and journalists into getting off their backsides and doing something useful on behalf of our veterans.”
I omitted to mention I’d downloaded it to trade for diamonds with the North Koreans. What Tan and his app didn’t know couldn’t harm them. Tan pressed the return key, waited for the computer to ping, and announced a winner.
Forward Singapore! No, farewell Singapore. Onward Singapore! No, Singapore was disappearing behind us as myself and my pregnant wife, Tai Tai, sipped champagne and lime juice in the expensive end of a Cathay Pacific 747 jumbo jet. We were travelling light. Small bags of inflight necessities sat on our knees. A single holdall was stowed in the locker above us. A small mountain of our possessions, jammed into a shipping container thirty thousand feet below us, headed to England the interesting way on an inconvenient, wet and choppy thing called the sea. Tai Tai flicked through the screens on her cell phone.
“I’m surprised I can get the internet five miles up, darling. Don’t we need a satellite link or something complicated?”
“Been a lot of changes online, my heart. Smaller, leaner beast these days. The whole lot can be uploaded to the plane’s onboard computer from where it connects to passengers phones. Ten times better than it was. Mr Lee’s thinking of lifting his firewall.”
“Is that what’s affected YouTube?”
“Nothing’s affected YouTube other than improvement.”
“Called TrainTube now, my dear. The selection is a bit narrow. One tires of sitting in the cab between Oslo and Trondheim watching the grass and the traffic lights go past in silence.”
“Q and A on the keyboard are the power handle. Y and G, the brake. It slows the video up and down. M blows the horn and the space bar cancels the AWS.”
She looked puzzled.
“The Automatic Warning System, vigilance before a signal, or a traffic light if you must. TrainTube’s a lot more interactive than the old YouTube. Which is why it’s better.”
I told her of an enjoyable run from Toulouse to Paris. If she kept the engine at half the line speed, we’d arrive in Heathrow just as she rolled into Montparnasse.
“It’ll help the time pass, Princess.”
She seemed unimpressed, ignored my advice and browsed instead.
“An awful lot to read in the papers about Sir Julian Minsk.”
“No?” I feigned surprise.
“Can he survive this kind of scandal?”
“Hope not. Tomorrow’s papers are better. All about servicemen and bomb tests. Surprising what a mountain of publicity can do.”
“Has it always been called RailHub.com? And RedTubeTrain? I’m sure that was called something else too.”
“Lots of changes, Tai Tai, the internet’s under new ownership, I’m told.”
She scolded me. How on earth could anyone own the internet? It was a free for all. The idea the whole thing could be controlled by a small number of people to further their own self-interest was ridiculous.
“Natasha Williams Re-United dot com? Something to do with you? Please, Worth, forget about the silly girl, even if somebody does find her she won’t know or care about you anymore.”
We were interrupted by a heft trolly dolly, squeezed into a straining red uniform, passing around the sandwiches. Although her collar was turned up and her and hat pulled down (as if in disguise), I thought I half recognised what I could see of the face.
“Do you remember Mr Hong Gildong?”
“Did he have a sister who flew for Cathay?”
The other first-class hostess was the opposite. Very slender but still with her hat pulled down and her collar turned up. Bit off-putting. With my newfound powers, I might hack the employees portal and change the uniform. She glanced at me and smiled, but not in a pleasant way, rather like an angry cat. Was a diamond set into one of her teeth? I’d do something about that too. No hurry. I was retired now. No more surprises or excitement for me.
© Always Worth Saying 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file