Singapore, Spring 1977
The shooting in Singapore was finished; tomorrow, the unit would be flying on a Singapore Airlines jumbo jet back to the UK.
Grahame Ash and his team were taking it easy by the swimming pool of their hotel, or shopping in Orchard Road. Squire had hired a power boat which, like a taxi, came with a driver, a Chinese called Sun.
The boat cut through the waters of the harbour, skimming between ocean-going freighters in an exhilarating mingle of spray, sun, and shadow. Squire and the Sex Symbol, Laura Nye, laughed with enjoyment as the warm winds of speed fanned their cheeks. They roared past industrial islands. Ahead were the Roads, the glittering waterways which had brought wealth to Singapore, peppered with islands, many of them crowned with a ragged top-knot of palm trees.
Sun brought them to a small island, curving the power boat in so that a feather of water grew behind them and the craft touched silver sand broadside on. The two Europeans jumped out.
‘Oh, it’s gorgeous,’ Laura exclaimed. ‘Just gorgeous!’
‘Paradise. Shall we do a Gauguin and stay forever?’
‘I can’t believe we’re flying home tomorrow. Let’s have a swim straight away.’
They had not got the beach entirely to themselves. A large group of Chinese was sitting by rocks some yards away, laughing and eating ice cream. In the other direction, a noisy crowd of Caucasians, men and women, were kicking a football about. Just off the beach, embowered in brightly flowering trees and shrubs, a beach cafe stood; the sound of its music drifted faintly down the beach. Frank Sinatra-type music.
Squire and Nye went behind a thicket of bamboo and slipped out of their clothes. A minute later, they were yielding to the embrace of the waters. More intensely than on land, they merged with the amniotic flow which pervades and unifies all life. In the cells of their bodies, surges of current corresponded with the waves that broke above their heads.
After the swim, they nestled together in a hollow in the sand. He pressed himself to her.
‘My tits are still a bit painful from the sunburn.’
‘I’ve got to see you when the series is over, Laura. Things aren’t just going to end. I need you too much. We’ll work out something.’
‘You know we won’t, Tom. There’s your wife and children, and I’ve got Peter. This is just an episode out of time. Don’t let’s spoil this precious day. Make love to me, go on.’
‘At least we’ve still got the Los Angeles trip ahead of us.’
He rubbed the sand from his hand on his chest and felt her welcoming vagina. Sighs of pleasure escaped them both.
‘Never mind a bit of sand. It’ll add to the pleasure.’
‘Oh, you luscious creature, I could fuck you forever.’
He slid into her and they lay side by side, scarcely moving, mouths together, tongues linked. He swung a leg over her upper thighs for a better grip, and began to work, feeling sweat run in little channels between their arms and bodies. Flies tickled their burning skin. Little rivulets of sand trickled under their buttocks and shoulders.
They were moving powerfully when something struck Squire in the small of his back. He swung round. A black-and-white beach ball lay beside them.
‘Bugger!’ he said.
Laura sat up and grabbed for a towel just as a man with a stomach protruding from a Bermuda shirt ran up panting to reclaim the ball.
‘Sorry to disturb you,’ he said, laughing. He scooped up the ball, booting it down the beach and calling to his friends, ‘Look where you’re kicking, will you? You’re ballsing up other people’s romances.’
Squire and Laura looked at each other and laughed.
‘Australians,’ he said. The football party had moved nearer.
They were sitting up and had come apart. She held his juicy penis in her hand and gave it a few rubs, smiling down at it.
‘I’ll deal with this later. It was nice while it lasted, but that sports fan has broken me mood.’
He grabbed her suddenly, rolling her in the sand, giving her a playful bite in the crutch and coming up with his chin bearded with sand.
‘Come on, cover up all the delicious steaming flesh and I’ll buy you a drink.’
Holding hands, they trudged through the yielding sand to the cafe. On the tiled floor, shade and light lay tied together like smouldering twigs, as rattan screens overhead fended off the brilliant sunshine. They sat companionably together at the bar, and ordered drinks from the barman, a gin and Seven-Up for Laura, a Tiger for Squire.
The bar was unoccupied except for a bald man in shorts smoking a cigar and drinking lager. He scowled as he drank. The only other person present was a woman. The woman sat alone at a table by the bald man. Stripes of light and shade ran over her. She had dyed blonde hair and wore red checked slacks and a black bikini top from which plenty of puckered pink flesh bulged. From her attitude of complete boredom as she stared out at the sea it was apparent that she was married to the bald man. She smoked. Her smoke rose up in stripes and filtered through the rattan bars. Frank Sinatra on cassette sang ‘The Good Life’, with plenty of backing from Nelson Riddell.
The man at the bar leaned forward and pointed the hot end of his cigar at Squire.
‘I can know from your voice that you are not from Australia,’ he said.
‘True.’ To Laura, Squire said, ‘I saw a likely-looking Malay restaurant just two blocks from the hotel where we could have lunch. Then a siesta?’
‘I don’t believe that I could eat any lunch.’
The bald man said, ‘Maybe you can know from my voice that I am from Sydney. You from America, you two?’
‘Wrong guess, chum. England.’
The bald man was astonished. ‘England, eh? You don’t sound English, does he, Tinka?’
This last remark was addressed to the semi-blonde woman. She turned her head slightly, waved a slow hand by swivelling it on her wrist, but did not deign to answer.
‘What you do in a place like this?’ the bald man asked Squire. ‘You live here? Your girl — you English too, darling?’
‘Where are we having the party tonight, Tom?’
‘Grahame’s got an open-air place in mind which someone recommended to him. Jenny’s booked a table.’
‘Grahame’s an old sweetie pie.’
The bald man moved over and said, ‘Mind if I join you? Can I buy you some drinks? I always am glad to speak with English people. My sister has married an English man in the Air Force.’
Seeing that the man was not going to be put off, Squire and Laura turned their attention on him.
‘Were you born in Australia?’ Laura asked.
He groped in the pocket of his shirt, brought out a cigar case, took a card from it with clumsy fingers and offered it to them.
‘Is me,’ he said proudly, as they read ‘Andrej Joachimiak: Computers, Micro-Processors’. ‘Andrej Joachimiak. I and my firm make the only Australian computer in the world. No one else.’ Over his heavy mid-European accent a few flimsy Australian vowels had been laid.
‘You manufacture computers?’
Joachimiak screwed one of his temples with what looked like an awkward but nevertheless determined attempt to touch his brain with his finger.
‘Know-how. Is all in here. I can make a great success. I am a real know-all.’
‘And were you born in Australia?’ Laura asked again. ‘Is Joachimiak an Australian name?’
‘Ah-hark, the lady is a little curious about me, yes. I know, I know it, all lady are detracted by success. Well, I tell you, lady, I was not born in Sydney but in Ostrow Lomelsky. You know Ostrow Lomelsky? Maybe you been to Ostrow Lomelsky?’
Suddenly, he appeared to have lost interest in the conversation.
He turned and lumbered back to his wife, who had produced a paperback entitled Growing Old Today and was glaring at one of its pages.
She was smoking continuously. Her cigarettes and lighter lay on the table beside her empty glass. Joachimiak grasped the lighter and blunderingly relit his cigar.
‘Can I buy you another lager?’ Squire asked the man.
‘A brandy. I want brandy. That is kind of you. I’d like to shake your hand, mister. First bit of kindness I’ve had all day. People don’t care any more, do they?’
He shook hands with Squire as the barman delivered three fresh drinks. Sinatra was singing ‘What Now My Love’.
Joachimiak edged round Squire so as to be able to address Nye face to face, and returned to his previous question. ‘You maybe been to Ostrow Lomelsky?’
‘Not that I remember,’ Nye said. ‘Where is it, exactly?’
He became very cunning, winking and putting one finger along his nose whilst almost laying his head on the bar.
‘Ah-hark, so you never heard of Ostrow Lomelsky? Well, you’d like that place. Very quiet. Wide spaces. Only a little village. Very cold winters, all the time it freeze very hard and the horses die.’ The mere recollection made his accent heavier. ‘Very pain to work, I don’t know. The River Bug, it freeze so hard — you know the River Bug?’
‘I don’t think so.’
‘Is not good, in winter is not good, River Bug. So anyhow, I tell you how you get to Ostrow Lomelsky, then you go and see what I say. You know Lublin? Is big city south from Warszawa. From Lublin in a car, if you got a car, drive north-east, only nowdays you don’t drive too far or you come to the frontier with the Soviet Union.’
He broke off to laugh, cough, and drink half of the brandy Squire had provided. His wife continued to read, drawing cigarette smoke into her lungs before issuing it into the atmosphere.
‘Sounds a nice part of the world,’ Squire said.
‘Terrible, terrible, I can tell you, Mr Englishman; Sydney is a whole lot better than Ostrow Lomelsky. Not so quiet, no, not so quiet, but a whole lot better.’ He shook his head, laughing and wheezing.’ You think Ostrow Lomelsky sounds good? I have to sleep with my parents on top of the stove, you know? Turnips frozen in the ground.’
Wheezing, he turned back towards his wife. ‘Tinka, this Limey likes the sound of Ostrow Lomelsky. With the sewer running through the street?’ She paid him no attention, thumbing the pages of her book.
‘You were telling us how to get to your birthplace.’
‘What for you want to know?’ He swigged down the rest of his brandy, gasped, coughed, and said, ‘So you drive in a car if you got a car north-east from Lublin at forty kilometres an hour, across the River Wieprz where was once a massacre in older days, all the Jews killed off, and in two-and-a-quarter hours you will be in Ostrow Lomelsky, right smack by Krzysztof Gajda’s gasthof.’
‘I see,’ said Squire. ‘So Ostrow Lomelsky is ninety kilometres outside Lublin in a north-easterly direction?’
Joachimiak took the cigar from his mouth and laid it along his nose, at the same time cocking his head so that it almost rested on the bar.
‘Ah-hark, you are pretty fast at calculations, mister. Congratulations, for I see you are a smart guy for an Englishman. But your calculations are wrong, anyhow, or maybe you drive too fast, because the correct distance is only sixty-two kilometres.’
He started to laugh, dropped the cigar on the bar, bent double to laugh, turned back to his wife to try and get her to share his amusement.
‘Eh, Tinka, Tinka, this limey guy, he think Lublin is ninety kilometres outside Ostrow Lomelsky! Ninety kilometres! Jesus, Sweet Saviour! This guy’d be in the River Bug before that. How you like that?’
She looked at him stonily. ‘You’re pissed,’ she said.
He redoubled his laughter. ‘Yes, but, Tinka, you hear what this guy say to me?’
‘I heard,’ she said. She regarded him without expression.
‘We’d better be going, Sun’s waiting for us,’ Squire said, slipping off his stool and pulling some crumpled dollars out of his pocket.
‘Don’t go,’ Joachimiak said, grabbing his arm. ‘Listen, let me get you a drink. Barman, barman, two brandies!’
They made a difficult exit. Sinatra was still singing ‘My Kind of Town’. The woman at the table watched them from over the top of her paperback without changing her expression.
Sun asked them, as he held out a hand to assist Laura Nye unnecessarily into the power boat, ‘You have a happy time on the island?’
‘It was lovely. Thank you very much.’
She started giggling. ‘What was the name of that dreadful village near the River Bug?’
‘Stromsky Something. Stromsky Lomsky.’
They could not remember, and ended up laughing. As they snuggled together and watched the astonishing panorama of Singapore rise from the sea, Nye said, ‘That’s broken my dream. I was somewhere on a hillside where I’d never been before. I was walking through a funny sort of garden and there were lights flashing in the sky. Then there was a break and then I was surrounded by little green men. I should have been frightened but wasn’t. Everything charmed me — I think I had the idea they were rescuing me. They had a UFO parked among trees. They led me there and helped me up the ramp. I was getting very excited to think that I was about to fly to another planet, and then I woke up.’
‘Obvious sexual dream. I’m almost twice your age. You regard me as an alien or a time-traveller.’
‘Why do dreams always break off at the most interesting part?’
He laughed. ‘Good question. I don’t know if anyone has answered it. Imagination refusing to go any further? Maybe if the good things always happened in dreams there’d be no incentive to make them happen in waking life. They’d sap your determination if you could get to Venus every night.’
‘Like you have to work very hard really to get to Ossle Tomski.’
‘She was dreadful, wasn’t she? Did she make him the way he is or vice versa?’
They were speeding among the freighters by then, heading for the docks ide.
After a light lunch, they returned to their hotel. Grahame and the others were nowhere to be seen. With some relief, Squire and Nye took the lift up to their room. It was a beautiful room, cool, well-appointed, smelling of sandalwood, with an ever-interesting view of Orchard Road and the city.
They showered together and sluiced the sand from their bodies. She let the water course over her upturned face.
‘Laura, dearest Laura, I can think and breathe nothing but you.’
She pressed herself against him. ‘Oh, I do want to be with you. I need you so much, Tom. I can’t leave you.’
Squeezing her, he stared painfully at her. ‘It’ll be different back in England. I can’t let you louse up your life with Peter. Besides — oh, Christ I keep telling you, I really am old enough to be your father.’
‘You told me also that when your boyhood hero Humphrey Bogart married Lauren Bacall, he was old enough to be her father, and that all worked out really happily. Well, we’ll work out something good, too.’
He turned the water off.
‘This is just an idyll, my darling. Unreal. Too good to stay true. Don’t spoil it with hope.’
She bent down. ‘I’m a sucker for you, Tom Squire,’ she said, and popped his still dripping penis into her mouth.
They climbed onto the double bed, and began to make love without hurry. Afterwards, they slept.
‘Any more dirty dreams?’ he asked her when they woke.
‘You don’t love me, Tom. You only fancied me because I was billed as the Sex Symbol in your Instant Culture series. You only love me as a symbol — and don’t start telling me that we all respond to each other as symbols, because I hate that line of chat.’
‘You’re doubly dear — as yourself and as a symbol. But I can’t bring all that misery on everyone. On Tess and the kids, and on your Peter.’
‘The other day you were saying that she didn’t care for you, only for the house and the possessions.’
‘I didn’t mean that exactly. Even so, it would still bring her misery. This must just be a beautiful interlude.’
She scowled at him, put out her tongue, reached over to a side table. Grasping a bottle of suntan oil, she began to anoint herself, kneeling up on the bed and shutting him off by her concentration on her body.
‘If that sight doesn’t give me a hard on, I don’t know what will.’
‘Oh, Tom, I wish that bloody UFO I dreamed about had taken me away.’
He swung over and sat on the side of the bed so that he did not have to watch her oiling her breasts.
‘I just remembered when I first thought of the title, “Frankenstein Among the Arts”. Long before I rationalized its use. I thought of all the arts of living, which have perhaps been brought to a higher standard in the West, and to more people, than they have ever been before. And I wondered why the hell we weren’t all happier than mankind has ever been. Not that we deserve to be while parts of the world are starving, as moralists would doubtless remark.’
‘As if you weren’t a stinking moralist!’
‘Ah, but I’m not the old kind who was shocked when people enjoyed themselves; I’m shocked that people don’t enjoy themselves. And that’s what I saw — behind all the benevolent arts of living, a monster looming, blindly clutching and throttling all that comes within its grasp. What I really wanted to do in the series and the book — what I haven’t done, what I even lost sight of doing — was analyse not the nature of the arts but the nature of the monster. How would you label it: Morality, Immorality, maybe, Communism, Capitalism, History, or some deep-rooted biological flaw in human stock?’
‘Things aren’t that bad, darling.’
‘You said it yourself earlier today. Why do dreams always stop just as you’re getting to the good part? Ever since we were in Sarawak I’ve been thinking of that cave wall full of phantom hands, palms outstretched in supplication. They may well prove to be the very earliest artwork of mankind that we know — and there we all are, hands lifted, grasping at — something we can’t get, something we can hardly even adumbrate.’
She put the stopper back on her bottle.
‘Or maybe something we’ve lost, like the Australian and his Istosky Lemosky.’
The sun was glinting through their blinds with slanting rays. He reached over and picked his watch off the bedside table. ‘It’s half-five already. In the Pole’s case it was no doubt the hostile politics of the century that separated him from his place of birth, awful, cold, and unpronounceable as it was, and set him on that long road to Australia and the noonday brandy. But the monster always calls, through one agency or another.’
She trotted round the room and stroked his hair. He placed a cheek against her glistening flank.
‘Stop it. The dice aren’t loaded against us. Don’t pretend they are or they will be. Fatalism is all wrong. Come on, we found each other, didn’t we? That suggests that your monster is on our side, doesn’t it? There’s no monster. You’ve just got one of these intellectual ideas like my father had. I’m going to get you out of it, I’m going to be your Lauren Bacall, Bogie, and I’m going to take care of you and mother you like a daughter, and see that no harm comes to you — ever.’
He grasped her teasingly by one labium.
‘Laura, you’re marvellous. For you I’d swim the Styx, or even the River Bug. Now, drape something over this lascivious little body and let’s see how life is progressing down below.’
‘Ladies and gentlemen, we’re very happy to have you aboard with us for this tour of Singapore by Night, of which we are all so proud, remembering that it is the third largest port in the world. There are many exotic sights to see, for this really is the most cosmopolitan city on Earth, not excluding Hong Kong and other ports you might name, and thus perhaps a pointer for other cities in the future.
‘As to the past which is behind us, many many peoples have formed Singapore and still live here now it is an independent republic. That’s why it is such a melting pot of the Orient, with Chinese, Malays, Indians, Sikhs, Indonesians, Pakistanis, Eurasians, Japanese, Australians, and also the British and other Europeans, with all different religions, in the pot happily together. So it is a hospitable place.
‘It’s a great tourist spot, and this year we expect that three million tourists will visit us. All will be welcome, since each tourist spends just about five hundred dollars during an average four days’ stay here. Radios, clothing, cameras, electronic gadgets, these are favourite buys for the traveller, along with girls of course, for which Singapore is famous, although prostitution is not quite so rampant as in the days when our city was part of the British Empire and a port for the navy.
‘Of course it’s not an ideal city, despite what our tourist propaganda says, but maybe there’s no such thing as an ideal city — except existing as an ideal. However, if you don’t mind if I get a bit egg-headed, I want to draw a parallel between Singapore and Venice, because you’ll be able to get a free drink on Four Star Coach Company when we stop at Raffles Hotel in the glamorous heart of the city.
‘Both Venice and Singapore depend on the sea, of course. That much is clear even to the thickest tourist from the USA or wherever. As the Middle Ages closed in Europe, it was the golden city of Venice which stood out above all other cities as supreme in beauty and wealth. In its internal development, it showed the promise of a new urban constellation far remote from the old walled cities which till then had existed since Neolithic times. So it was the city looking to the future.
‘For many years and centuries, Venice was a symbol and legend of city-state success. We think Singapore is the current example of a demographic urban solution. We are peaceful but energetic.
‘Trade was the golden key in Venice. Here in Singapore, it’s the same. But much more so. We depend not only on water but also the air. Two hundred ocean-going vessels float in our harbours each day, and sixty countries send their shipping lines here. At the Paya Lebar airport — and soon we will have a newer bigger one at picturesque Changi — we form a hub for international air routes, and over thirty important airlines operate their services through us. If you are male and your hair is too long when you arrive here, then you must get it cut short, but that’s a minor detail because nobody wants to harbour hippies in our hard-working republic — they can go on to Bali or India, where nobody seems to care if they shit on the beaches.
‘In the future, we will expand also into space if necessary and at all profitable. We can build a spaceport as easily as anyone. There are still a few kampongs we could knock down, or we could take over an unused pleasure island. We have to do all we can, because we have no defences and so no crippling defence budget to be paid for in taxes. So we make an appeal to pacifists the world over, but pacifists won’t come here to live in case they must work too hard.
‘After all, in a hard world, the population of Singapore must work. We’ve got enemies. Indonesia’s a pain at the back of the neck. And all the desperate nations of Indo-China. So here you can work and live comfortably, with dignity. Some of our girls are very beautiful, but sex is an invisible earner and we are realistic. Venice was called The Brothel of Europe in the eighteenth century. We have no danger of a similar label today, not with the Thais about, and Bangkok such a flesh market.
‘You know that this whole island was rather a dump, with just a few indolent Malay fishermen and snakes before Sir Stamford Raffles arrived and stirred things up. Well, Venice was much the same until some Italians from Padua escaped from an invader, crossing lagoons and settling on unpromising swamps and islands in the fifth century AD, So was the canal developed and the gondola, which we hear of by the eleventh century. We have created a city out of similar material, due mainly to the energy of the Chinese. It’s true we have none of the arts which made Venice great, and no painters or even stars like Piranesi or Tiepolo, but international cabaret stars like Sammy Davis Jnr often perform here and all the latest films are shown from all over the world. In fact, we’re suspicious of art, which is often produced by layabouts or religious maniacs, but it’s great f16 country. Our business men are strictly commercial, yet honourable and look after their families well.
‘Perhaps you are whispering to yourselves that Singapore is fun to visit but it must be hell to live in. Let me tell you otherwise, because the health record is so good. Even the President of the Republic is a notable gynaecologist. We have here, I’m proud to say it, the fourth highest urban population density in the globe, which is to say about three million people of all the nationalities I mentioned once, but the GNP figure is about just over four and a half thousand dollars a person, and rising. That’s not only because we are industrious and don’t allow strikes like in Britain and Australia, to name two disgraceful examples, but because we develop industries and people invest in them, the workers themselves not least. Oil, banking, shipbuilding, all increase.
‘Fortunately, we learned something from the appalling state of manufacturing towns in Europe and the USA not forgetting those busy little Japanese people to the north. We have brought in good legislation under our Prime Minister, Lee Kwan Yew, who is certainly no fool. Not only do we avoid a lot of socialism going on, we have strong anti-pollution laws and clean air acts. So the workers have their good health, industry is zoned away from residential areas, and we can generally do without filth and disease. Our record is greatly better than Venice, don’t forget, because of the disgusting Italian habits.
‘The cleanliness of the Chinese is so well-known as to need no emphasis from us. Often we think our tourists smell bad, but are too hospitable to say it. After all, this is such a clean place, with no diseases such as malaria or plague or smallpox. Syphilis — well, a lot of that is brought in from abroad, and we know gonorrhoea is prevalent in the United States. That’s all in all why our death rate is down to 5.4 per 1000 of the population — one of the lowest in the globe.
‘French visitors to our shores will be particularly interested to note how we have taken to the English language as the common tongue. The French language is hopeless as it’s pronounced. Far more English is spoken here inter-racially every day than, in Hong Kong — or in France, for that matter. This is not because we like the English, and any way Somerset Maugham was decidedly queer, which is not a popular habit in our republic, but because it cools things between the various racial groups, particularly Chinese and Malays, and is used a lot in international trade.
‘There’s plenty more we could tell, but outside the windows of our coach you see all the lights twinkling in invitation to spend and enjoy, which speak more eloquently than words. So in conclusion I’ll say that human beings will always make cities, unless they are just indolent Malay fishermen, and progress has to go on.
‘Here in Singapore, fortunately with geography, we think we have one of the best ways of progress, and thank goodness we’re a long way from China and the Soviet Union, so we work hard, enjoy play, be kind to our through-put tourists, and hope that you enjoy a pleasant stay here, remembering that our emblemaic flower is the fragile orchid, the symbol of how delicate nature is, and its beauty. Good-night, and thanks for listening. Have a fun holiday.’
As the tourists disembark from the coach, clattering with cameras, past the smiling slant-eyed hostess, night comes on and geopolitical constellations wheel overhead.
Even for the a-political state, time is running out. The lights of Europe may be guttering, but the USSR too is low in the westering sky. As for those stars of lesser magnitude in South America, their light is eclipsed by the brightness of the North American galaxy, which now burns at the zenith. The configurations of the Middle East presage no greater ascendancy for them.
Meanwhile, over the northern horizon, the bulk of that vast planet China continues inexorably to rise, tawny, magnificent, and fringed with an ever-increasing number of satellites.