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Saint Jack


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Published by the Penguin Group
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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published by Hamish Hamilton 1976
Published in Penguin Books 1977
Reissued in this edition 2011

Copyright © Cape Cod Scriveners Co., 1976
All rights reserved

The moral right of the author has been asserted

Typeset by Palimpsest Book Production Limited, Falkirk, Stirlingshire

Except in the United States of America, this book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, re-sold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser

ISBN: 978–0–141–97163–6


Part One

Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Part Two

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Part Three

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Action will furnish belief – but will that belief be the true one?

A. H. Clough, Amours de Voyage

For Anne, as always, with love

And for good friends in twenty tropical places

‘A witty, subtle, often moving self-portrait of a memorable rogue’ Observer

Jack Flowers, saint or sinner, caught a passing bumboat into Singapore and got a job as a water-clerk to a Chinese ship chandler. Now, on the side, he offers girls (indeed ‘anything, anything at all’) to tourists, sailors, residents and expatriates, but he is haunted by his lack of worldly success and his fiftythree years weigh heavily on him. So when he agrees to act as blackmailer for the faintly sinister American Edwin Shuck in a plot against a general from Vietnam, he has high, not to mention wild, hopes of triumph.

These are the outrageous confessions of an ingenious conman in the seedy and unforgettable world of expatriates amidst imperial ruins.

‘Theroux’s prose is rich, his perceptions so many-layered, he involves us in a world that extends well beyond the physical limits of his novel’ The Times



In any memoir it is usual for the first sentence to reveal as much as possible of your subject’s nature by illustrating it in a vivid and memorable motto, and with my own first sentence now drawing to a finish I see I have failed to do this! But writing is made with the fingers, and all writing, even the clumsy kind, exposes in its loops and slants a yearning deeper than an intention, the soul of the writer flapping on the clothes-peg of his exclamation mark. Including the sentence scribbled above: being slow to disclose my nature is characteristic of me. So I am not off to such a bad start after all. My mutters make me remember. Later, I will talk about my girls.

I was going to get under way with an exchange which took place one morning last year between Gopi and me. Gopi was our peon – pronounced ‘pyoon’, messenger, to distinguish him from ‘pee-on’, the slave. He was a Tamil and had a bad leg. He sidled into my cubicle. He showed me two large damp palms and two discoloured eyes and said, ‘Mister Hing vaunting Mister Jack in a hurry-lah.’

That summons was the beginning. At the time I did not know enough to find it dramatic. In fact, it annoyed me. Though it seems an innocent request, when it is repeated practically every day for fourteen years it tends to swaddle one with oppression. That ‘hurry-lah’ stung me more than the summons. Mr Hing, my towkay, my boss, was an impatient feller. I was a sitting duck for summonings.

‘No one tells Jack Flowers to hurry,’ I said, turning back to my blue desk diary. I was resolute. I entered a girl’s name beside a circled day. He can whistle and wait, I thought, the bugger. ‘Gopi, tell him I’m busy.’

Carrying that message made the peon liable to share the blame. I suspected that was why I said it – not a cheering thought. But I couldn’t go straight up to Mister Hing. Gopi left slowly, dragging his bad leg after him. When he was gone I slammed my diary and then, as if stricken with grief, and sighing on each rung, I mounted the narrow step-ladder to Mr Hing’s office.

Mr Hing, a clean tubby Cantonese, got brutal haircuts, one a week, the sort given to inmates of asylums, leaving him a bristly pelt of brush on top and the rest shaven white. He had high Chinese eyebrows and his smile, not really a smile, showed a carved treasure of gold teeth. His smile was anger. He was angry half the time, with the Chinese agony, an impulsive belly-aching Ying swimming against a cowardly Yang: the personality in deadlock. So the Chinese may gaze with waxen placidity into your face, or refuse to reply, or snort and fart when you want a word of encouragement. The secrecy is only half the story. In the other half they yell and fling themselves from rooftops, guzzle weed-killer and caustic soda and die horribly to inconvenience their relatives, or gibber in the street with knives. What kept Mr Hing from suicide was perhaps the thought that he couldn’t kill himself by jumping from the crenelated roof of his low two-storey shop-house. The two opposing parts of his nature made him a frugal but obsessive gambler, a tyrannical philanthropist, a tortured villain, almost my friend. He had a dog. He choked it with good food and kicked it for no reason – he may have kicked it because he fed it, the kindness making him cruel. When it ran away, which was often, Mr Hing placed an expensive ad in the Straits Times to get the poor beast back. Mr Hing was short, about fifty-three, and every morning he did exercises called ‘burpees’ in his locked office. He had few pleasures. Until six in the evening, when he changed into striped pyjamas and dandled his grandson on his knee, he wore an ordinary white shirt, an expensive watch, plain trousers and cheap rubber sandals which he kicked off when he sat cross-legged on his chair. He was seated that way the morning I entered his office.

He was slightly more agitated than usual, and the appearance of agitation was heightened by a black fan on a shelf moving its humming face from side to side very rapidly and disturbing the clutter of papers on his desk. Papers trembled and rose, and Mr Hing clapped them flat as the fan turned away; then it happened again, another squall, another slap.

Mr Hing’s brother perched beside him in a crouch, his knees drawn up, his arms folded into the trough of his lap. He was wearing a T-shirt, the collar stretched, showing his hairless chest, and large khaki shorts. I thought of him as Little Hing; he was skinnier and younger and his youthful hungry face made him seem to me most untrustworthy. Together, their faces eight inches apart, staring at me from behind the desk, they resembled the pair of fraternal faces you see fixed in two lozenge-shaped frames on a square-shouldered bottle of Chinese patent medicine, Tiger Tonic, Three Wheels Brain Fluid or (Mr Hing’s favourite) Rhino Water. Big Hing was especially agitated and saying everything twice. ‘Sit down, sit down’, then, ‘We got a problem, got a problem.’

True Chinese speech is impossible to reproduce without distraction, and in this narrative I intend to avoid the conventional howlers. The ‘flied lice’ and ‘No tickee, no shirtee’ variety is really no closer to the real thing than the plain speech I have just put in Big Hing’s mouth. Chinese do more than transpose r and l, and v and b, and s and sh. They swallow most of their consonants and they seldom give a word an ending: a glottal stop amputates every final syllable. So what Big Hing really said was, ‘Shi’ duh’’ and, ‘We go’ a pro’luh’’; there is no point in being faithful to this yammering. Little Hing’s English was much better than Big’s, though Little spoke very fast; but when they were in the same room Little didn’t open his trap, except to mutter in Cantonese. That morning he sat in silence, his teeth locked together, the lowers jutting out, fencing the uppers with yellow pickets.

The conversation, I knew, would be brief, and the only reason Big Hing asked me to sit down was that I towered over the desk like a sweaty bear, panting with annoyance, my tattoos showing. My size bothered them especially. I was a foot taller than Big Hing and a foot and a half taller than Little – when they were standing. I sat and sank into a chair of plastic mesh, and as I was sinking Big Hing started to explain.

A month before, he was told that a man was coming from Hong-Kong to audit our books. There was another Hing in Hong-Kong, a towkay bigger than Big Hing, and the auditing was an annual affair. It was also an annual humiliation because Big Hing didn’t like his accounts questioned. Still, it happened every year; at one time it was a sallow little man who always arrived ravaged from travelling deck class on a freighter; then, for a few years, a skeletal soul with a kindly smile and popping eyes, who hugged a briefcase – turned to suede by wear – to his starched smock with frog buttons. The auditors stayed for a week, snapping the abacus and thumbing the ledger; Big Hing sat close by, pouring tea, saying nothing. Last year it was a man called Lee, and he was the problem, though Big Hing didn’t say so. All he said was, ‘Meet this man at the airport.’

It was why Hing was agitated. He assumed Lee was Cantonese or at least Chinese. But he discovered, I never learned how, that Lee was an ang moh, a red-head. The ang mohs were my department. It was the reason I was employed by Hing – Chop Hing Kheng Fatt: Ship Chandlers & Provisioners, as the shop-sign read. Hing was peeved that he was mistaken about the name, and furious that his books were going to be scrutinized by an ang moh. He beamed with anger and banged his fist down upon the fluttering papers, repeating Lee’s name and my orders to meet him at the airport. I drew my own conclusions, and I was correct in every detail except the spelling, which was Leigh.

‘My car’s at the garage,’ I said. I was not being difficult. It was a noisy ten-year-old Renault with 93,000 miles on the clock. One wheel, the front right, had come unstuck from the chassis and made the front end shimmy at any speed, a motion that rubbed the tread from the tyres. ‘I’ll have to take a taxi.’

‘Can, can,’ said Big Hing.

Little Hing whispered something, staring at me, keeping his teeth locked, a coward’s ventriloquism. For Little Hing I was the ultimate barbarian: my hair was once reddish, I am hairy, my arms are profusely tattooed – a savage, ‘just out of the trees,’ as Yardley used to say.

‘Bus to airport, taxi to town,’ said Big Hing. That was Little’s whispered suggestion.

It was a two-dollar taxi fare; the bus was forty cents. There was no direct bus. I hated sitting at an out-of-town bus shelter, in the heat, with twenty schoolchildren. But I said okay because I could see Big Hing’s anger make him determined that I should save one-sixty and know who was boss. I didn’t start arguments I knew in advance I was going to lose. Big Hing was my towkay: I couldn’t win. But my dealings with him were small.

He counted out $2.40 from petty cash and looked at his watch.

‘What time is his plane due in?’ I asked.

Big Hing thought three-thirty; Little murmured in Cantonese, and I expected an amendment, but Big stuck to three-thirty and gave me the flight number. I went down to consult my Bus Guide.

So far it had been an unpleasant day, ruined first by the peon telling me to hurry and second by the command to take the bus all the way out to the airport. After looking at the Bus Guide I saw that several things were in my favour. I was right about there being no direct bus, but the 18-A Singapore Traction Company bus passed by Moulmein Green. I could have lunch at home for a change, and if I hurried a quick nap. The change would have to be made on Paya Lebar Road – a stroke of luck: I could see if Gladys was available before continuing on the 93 to the airport. None of this would cost a penny extra; out of two humiliations I had rescued a measure of self-respect. And if Gladys was free and Leigh was interested I stood to make nine dollars. In any event, I was anxious to meet him. It was nice to see a new face, and an ang moh’s was more welcome than most. We were lonelier than we admitted to; after many years of residence in Singapore, we all went for the mail twice a day, even Yardley and Smale, who never got any.

This is the beginning of my story, and already I can see that it represents my fortunes more faithfully, in the haphazard recollection of a single morning’s interruption, than if I had planned it as carefully as I once intended and began with the rumbling factual sentence I used to repeat to myself in the days when I believed my early life mattered, before I went away – about being born in the year 1918, in the North End of the city of Boston, the second child of two transplanted Italians; and then the part about my earliest memory (the warm room, my wet thumb and velvet cushion, my father singing with the opera on the radio). There is no space for that here.


Fourteen years ago, lowering myself on a rope from the rusty stern of the Allegro, anchored then in the Straits of Malacca (‘the financial straits,’ Yardley said), I did not think I was an old man – though if anyone had insisted I was old I would have believed him. Most people are willing to make fools of themselves with a little persuasion, and the question of age is answered by the most foolishness. Now I know that old and young make little difference: the old man talks easily to a child.

They say every age is more barbarous than the last. It is possible. If there is an error in the statement it doesn’t matter, because the people who say this are either very young or very old, just starting out and with no experience, or musing in life’s sundowner with false flickers of half-forgotten memories. The age, as they call it, is too big to see, but they have time on their hands: it is too early for one and too late for the other to worry about being wrong. What they don’t know is that, however awful the age is, it is placid and hopeful compared to a certain age in man.

Fifty: it is a dangerous age – for all men, and especially for one like me who has a tendency to board sinking ships. Middle age has all the scares one man feels halfway across a busy street, caught in traffic and losing his way, or another one blundering in a black upstairs room, full of furniture, afraid to turn on the lights because he’ll see the cockroaches he smells. The man of fifty has the most to say, but no one will listen. His fears sound incredible because they are so new – he might be making them up. His body alarms him; it starts playing tricks on him, his teeth warn him, his stomach scolds, he’s balding at last; a pimple might be cancer, indigestion a heart attack. He’s feeling an unapparent fatigue; he wants to be young but he knows he ought to be old. He’s neither one and terrified. His friends all resemble him, so there can be no hope of rescue. To be this age and very far from where you started out, unconsoled by any possibility of a miracle – that is bad; to look forward and start counting the empty years left is enough to tempt you into some aptly named crime, or else to pray. Success is nasty and spoils you, the successful say, and only failures listen, who know nastiness without the winch of money. Then it is clear: the ship is swamped to its gunwales, and the man of fifty swims to shore, to be marooned on a little island from which there is no rescue, but only different kinds of defeat.

That was how I recognized Mr Leigh, the man they sent from Hong-Kong to audit our books. I knew his name and his flight number – nothing else. I waited at Gate Three and watched the passengers file through Health and Immigration. First the early birds, the ones who rush off the plane with briefcases, journalists and junior executives with Chinese girlfriends, niftily dressed, wearing big sun-glasses; then the two Chinese sisters in matching outfits; a lady with a little boy and further back her husband holding the baby and juggling his passport; a pop group with blank faces and wigs of frizzy hair, looking like a delegation from New Guinea, anxious to be met; the missionary priest with a goatee and a cheroot, addressing porters in their own language; a few overdressed ones, their Zurich topcoats over their arms. Lagging behind, a lady in a wheel chair about whom people say, ‘I don’t know how she does it’, a man with a big box, a returning student with new eyeglasses, and Mr Leigh. I knew him as soon as I set eyes on him: he was the only one who looked remotely like me.

He was red-faced and breathless, and, unaccustomed to the heat, he was mopping his face with a hanky. He was a bit heavier than he should have been – his balance was wrong, his clothes too small. I waved to him through the glass doors. He nodded and turned away to claim his suitcase. I went into the men’s room, just to look in the mirror. I was reassured by my hair, not white like Leigh’s and still quite thick. But I wished I had more hair. My face was lined: my nap had made me look older. I was dishevelled from the bus-ride and looked more rumpled than usual because I had rolled my sleeves down and buttoned the cuffs. It was my tattoos. I hid them from strangers. Strangers’ eyes fix on tattoos as they fix on scars in unlikely places. A person spots a tattoo and he has you pegged: you’re a sailor, or you do some sort of poorly paid manual labour; one day you got drunk with your friends and they got tattooed, and to be one of the gang so did you. It did not happen this way with me, but that is the only version strangers know of a tattooing.

Mr Leigh was just pushing through the glass doors as I came back from the toilet smoothing my sleeves. I said hello and tried to take his suitcase. He wouldn’t let go; he seemed offended that I should try to help. I knew the feeling. He was abrupt and wheezing and his movements tried to be quick. It is usually this way with people who have just left a plane: they are over-excited in a foreign place, their rhythm is different – they are attempting a new rhythm – and they are not sure what is going to happen next. The sentence they have been practising on the plane, a greeting, a quip, they know to be inappropriate as soon as they say it. Leigh said, ‘So they didn’t send the mayor’, then, ‘You don’t look Chinese to me.’

I suggested a beer in the lounge.

‘What time are they expecting me?’ he asked. He had just arrived and already he was worried about Hing. I knew this man: he didn’t want to lose his job or his dignity; but it is impossible to keep both.

‘They weren’t too sure what time your plane was coming in,’ I said. We both knew who ‘they’ were. He put down his suitcase.

One reason I remember the first conversation I had with Mr Leigh (or William, as he insisted I call him, though I found this more formal than Mister; he didn’t reply to ‘Bill’) is that I had the same conversation with every ang moh I met in Singapore. We were in the lounge having a beer, sharing a large Anchor; every few minutes the loudspeakers became noisy with adenoidal announcements of arrivals and departures in three languages. Leigh was still keyed-up and he sat forward in his chair, taking quick gulps of beer and then staring into his glass.

I asked about the flight and the weather in – William being English, I attempted some slang – ‘Honkers’. This made him look up from his glass and squint straight at me, so I gave up. And was it a direct flight? No, he said, it landed for fuelling at Bangkok.

‘Now that’s a well-named place!’ I said and grinned. I can’t remember whether it got a rise out of him. I asked if he had a meal on the plane.

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘perfectly hideous.’

‘Well, that food is always so damned hideous,’ I said, trying to sound more disgusted than he. The word stuck to my tongue. I wasn’t telling the truth. I thought airplane food was very good, always the correct colour and each course in its own little covered trough on the tray, the knives and forks wrapped up and all the rest of the utensils in clean envelopes and in fitted slots and compartments. I had to agree the food was hideous. He was a guest, and I had plans for him.

The next thing I said to him was what I said to everyone who came through. I said it slowly, with suggestive emphasis on the right syllables. ‘If there’s anything you want in Singapore – anything at all’ – I smiled here – ‘just let me know and I’ll see what I can fix up.’

He replied, as most strangers did, but he was not smiling, ‘I’m sure you don’t mean anything.’

‘Anything.’ I took a drink of my beer to show I wasn’t going to qualify the promise.

He mopped his face. ‘I was wondering –’

And I knew what he was wondering. The choice wasn’t large, but people didn’t realize that. A tout could follow a tourist on the sidewalk and in the space of a minute offer everything that tourist could conceivably want. The touts who didn’t know English handed over a crudely printed three-by-five card to the man with a curious idle face. The card had half a dozen choices on it: blue movies; girls; boys; exhibition; massage; ganja – a menu which covered the whole appetite of longing. No new longings were likely, and the tout who breathed, ‘You want something special?’ had in mind a combination based on the six choices.

Leigh was perspiring heavily. Vice, I was thinking: it sounded like what it was, it squeezed, expressing the grape of fantasy. Gladys was free. It was possible to stop off at her place on the way back from the airport – Leigh would appreciate the convenience – and I was going to say so. But it is a mistake to make explicit suggestions: I discovered that very early. If I suggested a girl and the feller wanted a boy he would be ashamed to admit it and the deal would be off. It was always wrong to offer an exhibition – like saying, ‘You can’t cut the mustard, but how about watching?’ – and if a person was thinking of having a go he would refuse if I suggested it. Most people thought their longings were original, but they weren’t: they could only be one of six, or else a combination. Various as fantasy, but fantasy didn’t allow for the irregular performance of man’s engine. I knew the folly of expectation, and how to caution a feller against despairing of his poor engine and perhaps hitting his pecker with a hammer.

I sized up Leigh as he was blotting his cheeks and pulling at his collar, counting the whirring fans in the lounge. I took him to be an exhibition man, with a massage to follow – not an ordinary massage, something special, Lillian jumping naked on his spine. Intimacy, as the girls called it – or boochakong, to use the common Chinese term I preferred to the English verb – would still be a strong possibility, I was thinking. There was no such thing as impotence: it was successful as soon as money changed hands. It wasn’t the money, but the ritual.

‘What do you say?’ I asked, as brightly as I could. Usually it wasn’t so hard; when it was, it meant the feller was worried about asking for something I couldn’t provide.

‘Oh, I don’t know,’ he said, and drew a deep breath. So I was wrong about the exhibition, and just as well, I thought; I hated those monkeyshines. I guessed Leigh was slightly bent; his particular crimp was a weakness for transvestites, of which, as is well known, there is a whole sorority in Singapore. Very few fellers admitted to this yen; they were the hardest ones to handle, but over the years I had seen how they reacted to the Chinese boys who in skirts were more winsome than girls. Middle age may be an emergence of this comfort, too, a fling at play-acting with a pretty boy, a reasonable occasion for gaiety, the surprise of costuming and merry vestments. If I detected the wish I took the fellers down to Bugis Street and steered them over to the reliable ones, Tiny or Gina. Lucy had the operation which sometimes disappointed the fellers. Your bashful fruit pretended he was talking to a girl, but just so we knew where we stood I said, ‘Take Gina – he’s a very nice feller.’ The client looked surprised and said, ‘You mean –?’ And then, ‘I might as well take him home – I’m too drunk to notice the difference,’ and going out would slip me ten dollars.

‘What did you have in mind?’ asked Leigh.

A very uncommon question. I was going to say nothing, just keep smiling in a willing fashion. But he looked as though he meant it and wouldn’t tumble to my willingness.

I said, ‘I thought … if you were interested in anything illegal, hyah-yah, I might be able to –’

‘Illegal?’ said Leigh and put his hanky down. He leaned over and, puzzled and interested, asked, ‘You mean a prostitute?’

I tried to laugh again, but the expression on his face turning from puzzlement to disgust rattled me. It had been a mistake to say anything.

‘No,’ I said, ‘of course not.’ But it came too late; my tardy denial only confirmed the truth, and Leigh was so indignant – he had straightened up and stopped drinking – that shame, unfamiliar as regret, tugged at my neck hairs. Through the glass-topped table in front of me I could see I was curling my toes and clawing at my sandals.

‘Let’s go,’ I said. ‘I’ll call a taxi.’ I started to get up. I was hot; I wanted to roll up my sleeves, now damply stuck to my tattoos, revealing them.

‘Flowers,’ he said, and narrowed his eyes at me, ‘are you a ponce?’

‘Me? Hyah-mn! What a thing to say!’ It was a loud hollow protest with a false echo. Prostitute, he had said, pimp, whore, queer, ponce – what words people use to name the things they hate (liking them, they leave them nameless, the human voice duplicating the suspicion that passion is unspeakable). ‘I’m a sort of pornocrat,’ I was going to say, to mock him. I decided not to. His incredulity was a prompting for me to lie.

The waitress passed by.

Leigh said, ‘Wan arn!’ greeting her in vilely accented Mandarin.

‘’Scuse me?’ she said. She took a pad from the pocket of her dress, a pencil from her hair. ‘Anudda Anchor?’

Nee hao ma,’ said Leigh. He had turned away from me and was looking at the girl. But the girl was looking at me. ‘Nee hway bu hway –’

‘Mister,’ said the girl to me, ‘what ship your flend flom?’

Leigh cleared his throat and said we’d better be going. In the taxi he said hopelessly, ‘I was wondering if I might get a chance to play a little squash.’

‘Sure thing,’ I said, pouncing. ‘I can fix that up for you in a jiffy.’ Squash? He was wheezing still, and red as a beet. Carrying his suitcase to the taxi-rank he kept changing hands and groaning, and then he put his face out of the taxi window and let the breeze blow into his mouth, taking gulps of it the way dogs do in a car. He had swallowed two little white pills with his beer. He looked closely at his palms from time to time. And he wanted to play squash!

‘What’s your club, Flowers?’

We had agreed that I was to call him William if he called me Jack. I liked my nursery-rhyme name. Now I felt he was cheating.

‘Name it,’ I said, and to remind him of our agreement I added, ‘William.’

I had an application pending at the Cricket Club once, or at least ‘the Eggs’, two elderly bald clients of mine who were members, said I did. I had been trying to join a club in Singapore for a long time. Then it was too late. I couldn’t apply for membership without giving myself away, for I often drank in the clubs and most of the members – they knew me well – thought I had joined years before. There wasn’t a club on the island I couldn’t visit one way or another. I had clients at all of them.

‘Cricket Club’s got some squash courts, but the Tanglin’s just put up new ones – you may want to have a look at those. There’s none at the Swimming Club so far, though we’ve got a marvellous sauna room.’ I thumped his knee. ‘We’ll find something, William.’

‘Sounds very agreeable,’ he said, pulling his head back into the taxi. He was calm now. ‘How do you manage three clubs? I’m told the entrance fees are killing.’

‘They are pretty killing,’ I said, using his dialect again, ‘but I reckon it’s worth it.’

‘You’re not a squash-player yourself?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘I’m just an old beachcomber – drinking’s my sport, nyah!’

That made him chuckle; I was laughing too, and as I shifted on the seat I felt a lump in my back pocket press into my butt: two thick envelopes of pornographic pictures I had brought along just in case he asked. Their reminding pressure stopped me laughing.

The taxi-driver tilted his head back and said, ‘Bloomies? Eshbishin wid two gull. You want boy? Mushudge? What you want I get. What you like?’

‘Just a game of squash, driver, thank you very much,’ I said in a pompous fruity voice to this poor feller for the benefit of the horse’s ass next to me. Then I smiled at William and tried to tip him a wink, but his head was out of the window and he was blinking and gulping at the breeze and probably wondering what he was doing on that tedious little island.


I walked into a bar where they did not know me well and I could hear the Chinese whispers: ‘Who does that jackass think he is?’ and then they ceased: my face made silence. It was not the face you expected in Ho’s or Toby’s or the Honey Bar, in the Golden Treasure or Loon’s Tip-top. Years ago I had not minded, but later my heart sank on the evenings all my regulars were tied up and I had to go into these joints recruiting. I got stares from round-shouldered youths sitting with plump hostesses; and the secret society members watched me – in Ho’s the Three Dots, in the Honey Bar the Flying Dragons. There was no goblin as frightening as a member of a secret society staring me down: he first appeared to have no eyes, then the slits became apparent and I guessed he was peering at me from somewhere behind the slits. I never saw the eyes. The slits didn’t speak; and it was impossible to read the face, too smooth for a message. I turned away and slipped the manager a few dollars to release the girl, and when I was hurrying out I heard growls and grunts I didn’t understand, then titters. On the sidewalk I heard the whole bar crackle and explode into yelling laughter. Now they had eyes; but I was outside.

One night a thug spoke to me. He was sitting up front at the bar eating a cold pork pie with his fingers. He was wearing the secret-society uniform, a short-sleeved shirt with the top four buttons undone, sun-glasses – though it was dark – and his hair rather long, with wispy wing-tufts hanging past his ears. I didn’t think he saw me talking to the manager, and after I passed the money over and turned to go the thug put his hand on my shoulder and, rubbing pork flakes into it, said gruffly, ‘Where you does wuck?’

I didn’t answer. I hurried down the gloomy single aisle of the bar, past eerily lit Chinese faces. The thug called out, ‘Where you wucking?’ That was in the Tai-Hwa on Cecil Street, and I never went near it again.

‘Who is he?’ they murmured in the Belvedere, the Hilton, the Goodwood, when I was in the lobby flicking through a magazine, waiting for one of my girls to finish upstairs. I could have passed for a golf pro when I was wearing my monogrammed red knitted jersey – the one with long sleeves – and my mustard-coloured slacks and white ventilated shoes. No one knew I had a good tan because I worked for Hing who refused to pay for taxis in town and who sent me everywhere, but always to redheads, with parcels. In my short-sleeved flowered batik shirt, with my tattoos displayed, they took me for a beachcomber with a private income or a profitable sideline, perhaps ‘an interesting character’. Once, in the Pebble Bar of the Hotel Singapura, an American lady who was three sheets to the wind said I looked like a movie actor she knew, but she couldn’t think of his name.

‘What’s your name?’ she asked.

I smiled, to give her the impression that I might be that actor, said, ‘Take a guess, sweetheart’ and then I left; leaving, I heard some hoots from the gang of oil-riggers who always drank there.

My appearance, the look of a millionaire down on his luck, which is also the look of a bum attempting to be princely, was never quite right for most of the places I had to go. I was the wrong colour in the Tai-Hwa and all the other Chinese joints – that was clear: at the Starlight, strictly Cantonese, they seated me with elderly hostesses and overcharged me. I was too dressy for the settler hang-outs and never had enough money for more than one drink at the Hilton or Raffles, though I looked as if I might have belonged in those hotels. I certainly looked like a member of the Tanglin Club, the Swiss Club, the Cricket Club and all the others where my chits were signed for me by fellers who liked my discretion. I was always welcome in the clubs, but that was a business matter. And they did not laugh at the Bandung: they knew me there.

In the taxi I mentioned the Bandung to Leigh; he didn’t say no, but he thought we should stop at Hing’s first – ‘Let’s have a look at the towkay’ was what he said. We got stuck in rush-hour traffic, a solid unmoving line of cars. There was an accident up front and the cars were passing the wrecked sedan at a crawl to note down the licence number so they could play it on the lottery. There was a bus in front of us displaying the bewildering sign I Don’t Know Why, But I Prefer Sanyo. The local phrase for beeping was ‘horning’, and they were horning to beat the band. We sat and sweated, gagging on the exhaust fumes; it was after five by the time we got to Hing’s.

Little Hing was sitting on the shop entrance reading the racing form. He sat like a roosting fowl, his feet on the seat, his knees drawn up under his chin. Seeing us, he turned his bony face and bawled upstairs, then he locked his teeth and snuffled and paddled the air with his free hand, which meant we were to wait.

‘Your oriental politeness,’ I said. ‘He’ll spit in a minute, probably hock a louie on your shoes, so watch out.’

We had made Big Hing wait; now, to save face, he was making us wait. Hing spent the best part of a day saving face, and Yardley said, ‘When you see his face you wonder why he bothers.’

Gopi, the peon, brought a wooden stool for Leigh, but Leigh just winced at it and studied Hing’s sign: Chop Hing Kheng Fatt: Ship Chandlers & Provisioners, and below that in smaller assured script: Catering & Victualling, Marine Hardware, Importers, Wholesale Drygoods & Foodstuffs, Licensed Agents, Frozen Meat, and the motto: ‘All Kinds of Deck & Engine Stores & Bonded Stores & Sundries’. ‘Sundries’ was my department. The signs on the shops to the left and right of Hing, and on all the other shops – biscuit-coloured, peeling, cracked and trying to collapse, a dusty terrace of shop-houses sinking shoulder to shoulder on Beach Road – were identical but for the owner’s name; even the stains and cracks were reduplicated down the road as far as you could see. But there was something final in the decline, an air of ramshackle permanency common in Eastern ports, as if, having fallen so far, they would fall no further.

‘What’s your club in Hong-Kong?’ I asked.

‘Just one, I’m afraid,’ he said. He paused and smiled. ‘The Royal Hong-Kong.’

‘Jockey or Yacht?’

‘Yacht,’ he said quickly, losing his smile.

Little Hing spat and went back to his racing form without bothering to see where the gob landed.

‘Missed again,’ I said, winking at Leigh. ‘I’ve heard the Yacht Club’s a smashing place,’ I said, and he looked at me the way he had when I said ‘Honkers’. ‘You’re in luck, actually. You have a reciprocal membership with the Tanglin here and probably a couple of others as well.’

‘No,’ he said, ‘I inquired about that before I came down. Bit of a nuisance, really. But there it is.’

He was lying. I knew the Royal Hong-Kong Yacht Club and the Tanglin Club had reciprocal memberships and privileges; a member of one could sign bar chits at the other and use all the club’s facilities. So he was not a member, and there we were standing on the Beach Road sidewalk, on the lip of its smelly monsoon drain, at the beck and call of a surly little towkay who had chosen to sulk upstairs, lying about clubs we didn’t belong to. It made me sad, like the pictures hidden in my back pocket I would never admit to having: two grown men practising lies, and why?

Big Hing came out in his pyjamas and gave Leigh that secret society stare. Hing was not a member; he was a paid-up victim of the Red Eleven who controlled Beach Road and collected ‘coffee-money’ for protection. The payment gave Hing a certain standing, for, having victimized him, the Red Eleven would stick by him and fight anyone who tried to squeeze him. Leigh handed over a letter, and we waited while Hing gnawed the sealing wax from the flap. He put on his old wire glasses and read the column of characters, then he smiled his angry eyeless smile and nodded at Leigh.

‘I trust everything is in order,’ said Leigh to Hing.

It was a wasted remark; Hing was muttering to Little Hing, and Little replied by muttering into the racing form he held against his face.

‘Where’s our friend going to put up?’ I asked.

‘Booked at the Strand,’ said Big Hing. ‘Can come tomorrow.’ He picked up his grandson and bounced the trouserless little feller to show the interview was over.

The Strand Hotel was on Scotts Road, diagonally across the road from the Tanglin Club. As we were pulling into the Strand’s driveway, under the arch with the sign reading: European CuisineWeddingsPartiesReasonable Prices, Leigh saw the Tanglin signboard and said, ‘Why don’t we pop over for a drink?’

I let my watch horrify me. ‘God,’ I said, ‘it’s nearly half-past six. That place is a mad-house this time of day. Fellers having a drink after work. Look, William, I know a quiet little –’

‘I’d love to have a look at those new squash courts of yours,’ he said. He hit me hard on the arm and said heartily, ‘Come on, Flowers, I’ll buy you a drink.’ He gave his suitcase to the room-boy at the Strand, signed the register and then clapped his stomach with two hands. ‘Ready?’

I’ll buy you a drink, he had said, but that was impossible because money was not allowed and only a member could sign chits. The brass plaque on the club entrance – Members Only – mocked us both. I looked for someone I knew, but all I could see were tanned long-legged mothers, fine women in towelling smocks, holding beach-bags and children’s hands, waiting for their syce-driven cars after a day at the club pool. They were eagerly whispering to each other and laughing; the sight of that joy lifted my heart – I couldn’t help but think they were plotting some trivial infidelity.

‘The new squash courts are over there,’ I said, stepping nimbly past the doorman and bounding up the stairs.

‘Drink first,’ said Leigh. ‘I’m absolutely parched.’ He was enjoying himself and he seemed right at home. He led the way into the Churchill Room, and ‘Very agreeable,’ he said, twice, as he looked for an opening at the bar.

The Churchill Room had just been renovated: thick wall-to-wall carpets, a new photograph of Winston, a raised bar and a very efficient air-conditioning system. In spite of the cool air I was perspiring, a damp panel of shirt clung to my back; I was searching for a familiar face, someone I knew who might sign a drink chit. The bar was packed with men in white shirts and ties, some wearing stiff planter’s shorts, standing close to the counter in groups of three or four, braying to their companions or sort of climbing over each other and waving chit-pads at the barmen. Leigh was pushing ahead of me and I had just reached out to tap him on the shoulder and tell him I had remembered something important – my nerve had failed me so completely I could not think what, and prayed for necessity’s inspiration – when I saw old Gunstone over in the corner at one of the small tables, drinking alone.

I buried my friend