Golden Boy: Memories of a Hong Kong Childhoodby Martin Booth
At seven years old, Martin Booth found himself with all of Hong Kong at his feet when his father was posted there in 1952. This is his memoir of that youth, a time when he had access to corners of the colony normally closed to a gweilo, a "pale fellow" like him. From the plink plonk man with his dancing monkey to Nagasaki Jim, and from a drunken child/i>… See more details below
At seven years old, Martin Booth found himself with all of Hong Kong at his feet when his father was posted there in 1952. This is his memoir of that youth, a time when he had access to corners of the colony normally closed to a gweilo, a "pale fellow" like him. From the plink plonk man with his dancing monkey to Nagasaki Jim, and from a drunken child molester to the Queen of Kowloon (the crazed tramp who may have been a Romanov), Martin saw it all--but his memoir illustrates a deeper challenge in his warring parents. This is an intimate and powerful memory of a place and time now past.
The Washington Post
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FIFTY FEET BELOW, MY GRANDPARENTS STOOD SIDE BY SIDE. IT WAS A warm spring day, yet my paternal grandfather, Grampy, wore a grey trilby with a black band and an overcoat buttoned to his neck. From far off, he looked like a retired Chicago mobster. His wife wore a broad-brimmed Edwardian hat decorated with faded feathers and wax flowers, which, even at that distance, gave the impression of being on the verge of melting. Her mound of white hair being insufficiently dense to retain her hat pin, every time she craned her neck to look up at me, the hat slid off backwards and Grampy deftly caught it.
It was late on the afternoon of Friday, 2 May 1952, and I was seven.
A deck steward in a white uniform approached. He carried a silver salver bearing rolls of coloured paper streamers.
'Where're you going to, sunshine?' he asked me as he handed me three rolls.
'Hong Kong,' I replied. 'My father's been posted,' I added, although I had not the faintest idea what this meant. As far as I knew, one only posted letters.
'You'll need to grow your hair, then,' he announced, making a show of studying the nape of my neck. 'Far too short ...'
I asked why.
'Well,' he went on, 'in China men wear their hair in pigtails. You're not going to be able to put a plait in that.' Then he winked at me and moved on down the deck.
Aghast at the thought my hair would be put in a braid, I asked my mother if this was true but her response was obscured by the thunderous blare of the ship's horn, high up on the funnel, announcing our imminent departure.
Further along the rail, my father threw a streamer over the ship's side. I followed suit, hurling mine with all my might into the sky. It arched through the air and, striking the corrugated iron roof of a dockside warehouse, bounced then rolled down to lodge in the drain. It was then I realized one was supposed to keep hold of one end of the ribbon. I threw another streamer. My grandfather caught it and held it firmly until, eventually, it tautened and tore as the ship edged away from the quayside. It was over three years before I saw him again.
The vessel upon which we were embarked was the SS Corfu. According to my father, she (not it, he impressed upon me) was a twenty-two-year-old liner operated by the Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company and accommodated 400 passengers.
At first, the ship's movement was infinitesimal; yet, quite suddenly it seemed, my grandparents were minute figures on a dockside far away, indistinguishable from others in the waving crowds. Once well clear of the dock, I watched the land pivot round as the bow gradually turned to face the open sea, the deck beneath my feet beginning to vibrate gently as the engines gathered speed.
My father disappeared to his cabin, but my mother and I stood at the ship's rail for over an hour. The wind ruffled her shortblond hair and tugged at her dress as we passed the Isle of Wight to head down the English Channel. Above us, the funnel pumped out a plume of smoke and the windows of the bridge glistened with the late sunlight reflecting off the sea. Every now and then, a passenger or crew member passed us by but otherwise we were alone with the lifeboats. My mother held my hand, not once letting it go. It was not that she was afraid I might fall overboard but that she wanted to share her exhilaration, too wide for words. As we sailed down Southampton Water, one might have expected her to cry, yet she did not. This was an adventure and one did not cry on adventures. She had told me as much the night before as I lay in the bed in her mother's terraced house in Wykeham Road, Portsmouth, in which she had slept throughout her childhood.
At last, with England a small but thin line on the darkening horizon, she said, 'Let's go and sort out our cabin.'
Ahead was an ocean of sea water and endless possibilities.
My mother and I shared a twin-berth, second-class cabin whilst my father 'bunked up', as he put it, with another male passenger, a forestry officer travelling solo to Colombo. Although attached to the Royal Navy, my father was no more than an Admiralty civil servant, having left school at sixteen to become a clerk in the chandlery offices of Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard. He never wore a uniform with a rank on it, yet this did not prevent him from assuming naval ways and speech. He drank pink gin, called sausages 'bangers', ate curry puffs and kedgeree, never let a knocked glass chime (for fear it sounded a sailor's knell), referred to his superior as 'the Old Man' and used nautical expressions whenever possible.
The cabin I shared with my mother was fairly basic: two bunks, one above the other, a wardrobe and a small chest of drawers, a steel washbasin the top of which folded down to make a vanity table, two collapsible stools and a chair. I was allotted the topbunk. The ablutions (or, as my father would have it in navy-speak, 'the heads') were communal and a little way down the corridor. The cabin walls were cream-painted iron bulkheads lined with rivets, the ceiling the same but traversed by girders and ventilation pipes. Under an oblong of patterned carpet, the floor was made of iron painted dark green. The furniture was fashioned out of heavily varnished mahogany.
That I was surrounded by metal did not concern me. I somehow accepted that, as houses were made of bricks, plaster and wallpaper, so a ship would be made of iron plates and paint. What was strange was the fact that everything continually quivered, never changing its frequency. It was like living in the entrails of a vast, benign beast, the corridors its bowels, the pipes its arteries and the various cabins its organs or dead-end intestines. What was more, everything smelt of paint, diesel, tar, brass polish and warm lubricating oil.
We unpacked our cases and the steward took them to stow away for the duration of the voyage, then my mother ran me a bath of what I quickly realized, from the taste and sting in my eyes, was hot sea water. On returning to the cabin, I found a silver tray on the table bearing a plate of thin-cut sandwiches, a freshly sliced pear and a glass of milk.
'Supper,' my mother announced. She lifted one end of a sandwich and exclaimed, 'Roast chicken!'
This was opulence indeed. In England, still held in the grip of post-war austerity, chicken was an oft-dreamt-of, but rarely experienced, luxury. So was a pear.
As night settled upon the sea, I climbed the three-step ladder into my bunk, pulled the blanket up to my neck and lay on my side. Next to my pillow was a porthole, closed tight by heavy brass clamps. Pressing my forehead to it, I looked down. The sea was speeding by, the white tops of the wake catching the light fromother portholes and the promenade deck above. Now well down the French coast, the Corfu rolled gently in the Atlantic swell.
My mother leant up and kissed me. 'We're on our way now,' she whispered with hardly suppressed excitement. 'Aren't we the lucky ones?'
The voyage to Hong Kong took a month, with seven ports of call en route. My father, assiduously studying our course on a daily progress map pinned to a notice board in the lounge and maintained by the officer of the watch - whom he accosted whenever he could for a mariners' chat - announced what we might see each day. His first prediction was that we should see Gibraltar 'off the port beam', but it was hidden in sea mist. This upset him greatly. To see Gibraltar was, he considered, a rite of passage.
'You've not lived until you've seen Gib.,' he informed me with an eye as misty as the distance.
'Why not?' I replied. 'It's just a big rock.'
'Just a rock! Did you hear the boy, Joyce? Just a rock ... What did they teach him in that bloody school?'
'To read and write,' my mother answered. 'Well.'
My father, not to be wrong-footed, went on, 'The Romans used to think that if you sailed too far out from Gib., you fell off the edge of the world.'
'But you don't,' I rejoined. 'It's round. You just come back again.'
This piece of puerile logic was met with a brief snort of contempt.
We arrived at our first port of call, Algiers, three days out ofSouthampton. The city consisted of low buildings encircling a bay into which several moles and pontoons projected. Only a very few minarets poked upwards into the sky, contrary to my expectations, my father having lectured me on Muslims and mosques. There was little shipping in the harbour and almost every vehicle was either of pre-war vintage or ex-military, both Allied and German. All the cars, without exception, were black French Citroëns. The air, warm and dry, tasted of the desert, which I knew from geography lessons covered north Africa.
As soon as the ship was berthed, our steward entered our cabin and, closing the porthole, warned us to keep it shut whenever we were in port in order to deter pole-fishers.
'What's a pole-fisher?' I enquired.
'Pole-fisher's a thief,' he explained in his cockney accent. "e 'as a long flex'ble pole with an 'ook on it. 'e shoves it through the por'hole an' sees what 'e can catch. But,' he added sternly, 'if you see the pole wigglin' about in the cabin, don't make a grab for it, even,' he glanced at my bunk, 'if 'e's 'ooked yer teddy bear. See, 'e'll've set razor blades in the pole. You grab it an' - zip! - 'e pulls the pole an' you ain't got no fingers.'
I immediately put the bear in the wardrobe, hid it behind my mother's frocks and closed the door.
My mother was eager to go ashore. This was the first time she had set foot outside Britain. I was just as eager to follow. My father, conversely, was not at all enthusiastic. A friend of his had been stabbed to death in Algiers during the war and he considered the place unsafe. That this friend had been in military intelligence, that Algiers had been under the influence of Vichy France and that the war against Hitler had been in full flood at the time did not seem to occur to him. However, my mother prevailed and we set off to see the sights in a small, decrepit bus with some other passengers from the ship. Our ride culminated in the Casbah, thesixteenth-century fortified part of the old Ottoman city. Here, we got out of the bus and, after my father had exhorted us to stay close together and be alert, wandered through the narrow thoroughfares of the suq.
Every street and alley was an animated illustration from my grandfather's morocco-bound copy of The Thousand and One Nights. Men wearing turbans and baggy trousers passed by, leading donkeys. Some of the women wore burkas, their eyes bright in the darkness of the slits. Dogs scratched themselves indifferently or lay asleep in the shade. Stalls erected under arcaded buildings sold vegetables I had never seen before, quaintly shaped copper jugs, vicious-looking daggers (the better for stabbing British spies with), leather ware and sand-coloured pottery. In coffee shops, men sat around tables drinking from small cups or smoking hookahs, the scent of their tobacco alien when compared to my father's Sobranie Black Russian or my mother's State Express 555 cigarettes. Away from the smokers, I found the air heavy with smells reminiscent of my grandmothers' spice cabinets, of minced pies and apple tart - and the odour of donkeys, camels and human sweat. My mother purchased some fresh dates from a stall and set about eating them, much to my father's alarm.
'How can you tell where they've been?' he remonstrated with her.
'They've been up a date palm,' my mother replied.
'And they picked themselves, I suppose?'
'No,' she responded, in the same tone of voice as she might have used to a dog sniffing at the Sunday dinner table. 'I expect they were plucked by a scrofulous urchin and thrown down to his tubercular aunt who wrapped them in her phlegm-stiffened handkerchief.'
'Well, if you want to poison yourself, at least don't give one to Martin. The last thing he'll want is dysentery.'
'But I want one,' I butted in.
I had no idea what I was being forbidden, but I was determined not to miss out on it or the promise of dysentery. Surreptitiously my mother slipped me a date. Its taste and texture reminded me of solidified honey.
Once through the suq, we climbed up to a battlement where I sat on a large cannon. From this vantage point, I could see camels down below, their wooden-framed cargo saddles being laden with sacks. My mother asked me what I thought of the city and was later to write to relatives that I compared Algiers favourably to the outer-London suburb of Woking.
As we retraced our steps through the suq to catch the bus, we were beset by a hoard of children, many of them about my age, dressed in flowing rags and the fragrances of warm humanity. They called vociferously for baksheesh, their hands outstretched, their eyes devious and pleading. One or two of the more courageous plucked at my father's tropical-weight linen jacket. He raised his hand as if to strike them and they adroitly retreated.
'What do they want?' I asked my mother, somewhat shocked that my father had thought to hit someone else's child. Smacking me was one thing, but clipping the ear of a stranger was an altogether different matter.
'They want money,' my mother answered. 'They're beggars. Ignore them.'
This seemed callous but I did as I was told.
My mother's first encounter with a camel was more costly. She had an inbuilt attraction to anything of fur or feather. Only a month before sailing, she had narrowly missed having her neck broken by a peeved circus elephant which, bored with being offered currant buns, swung its trunk full force at her. She had just dropped one of the currant buns and, with the timing ofLaurel and Hardy, had bent down to retrieve it. The wind of the passing trunk had ruffled her perm.
The camel was sitting on the ground, fully laden, chewing the cud. I wondered if it was dreaming of a wide desert of rolling dunes and a far-off oasis of palms, for its eyes were shut. My mother approached, hand outstretched, to stroke its muzzle, much as she might have caressed the velvet nose of a placid horse. In an instant, the beast was wide awake and getting to its feet with the alacrity of a sprinter leaving the starting blocks. Its neck arched forward, it sneezed and then it spat. A shower of bactrian spittle lodged in my mother's hair. In the sharp north African sunlight, she looked as if she had been sprinkled with glutinous tinsel. She stepped back sharply, discretion the better part of affection. The camel, thinking it had her on the run, lunged after her but its front feet were hobbled. The camel herder hurried over and struck the beast on its rump with a stout stick, shouting a spate of invective at it in Arabic, for the camel's benefit, and then in pidgin French for ours. The camel lay down again. The camel's owner looked balefully expectant so my father parted with all his loose change, no doubt hoping this would be sufficient for us not to be knifed in revenge on our way back through the suq.
When we stepped into the square where we had left the bus, it had gone. Panic entered my father's eyes. He had been to the movies. He knew the cash value of a blond white woman of shapely form and a matching potential catamite. His friend had bled to death in a gutter hereabouts. At this point, my mother disappeared down an alley of tightly packed stalls selling lengths of multicoloured cloth.
'Joyce!' my father called after her. 'Joyce!' His voice rose half an octave with anger, frustration and fear. 'Joyce! You don't know what you're doing. This isn't Piccadilly ...'
Yet, in less than a minute, my mother returned, unscathed by blade or bullet. Following her was an elderly bearded Arab in a flowing blue-and-gold striped robe leading a morose-looking donkey in the shafts of an ancient trap. My mother was ever a resourceful woman.
My parents, Joyce and Ken, were in many ways an incompatible pair from the very start. My mother was a very pretty strawberry blonde, petite and lithe; my father slim and handsomely dark in an almost Latin-American way. They looked the ideal couple, yet they were not. My mother was full of fun, with a quick wit, an abounding sense of humour, an easy ability to make friends from all walks of life and an intense intellectual curiosity. She was also as determined and tenacious as a bull terrier.
By contrast, my father was a stick-in-the-mud with little real sense of humour and an all-abiding pedantry. Furthermore, he had a chip on his shoulder which insidiously grew throughout his life. He came to hold all relationships at arm's length, considering himself a cut above most of his contemporaries.
My parents' coming together was perhaps unavoidable: born within five weeks of each other, they lived out their childhoods virtually next door to each other in Portsmouth. The marriage, however, greatly discommoded my paternal grandmother who thought my mother and her parents to be socially inferior. Her husband, Grampy, had been a commissioned officer, but his son had married the daughter of a non-commissioned officer from the lower deck. What was worse, my mother was a Modern Woman, had a job as a General Post Office telephonist and smoked cigarettes. In my grandmother's eyes, she was an upstartand could not be more common unless she worked behind the counter in Woolworths.
During the Second World War, my father spent a good deal of his time overseas in south and west Africa and the Middle East. When the hostilities ended, he was employed at the Admiralty in London, his office overlooking Horse Guards' Parade. Although he made himself out to be an important man, he was in fact little more than a superior clerk. Indeed, my mother had had an almost equivalent wartime job provisioning submarines for the Battle of the Atlantic.
After the war, our lives had seemed settled enough. We lived in a semi-detached house at the end of a cul-de-sac in Brentwood, Essex. My mother was a housewife in the outer suburbs of London, my father a daily commuter into London.
Then, one day, my father came home to announce that he had been posted to Hong Kong, to serve upon a Royal Fleet Auxiliary naval supply ship plying between the British crown colony and the Japanese military dockyard of Sasebo. The Korean War was in full flood and he was, he claimed, to be a part of it.
A debate followed as to what was to be done with me. My father was all for sending me to boarding school in England: I could spend my holidays with his parents. He and my mother, he pointed out, would only be gone three years. The quality of schooling in Hong Kong was an unknown and he would not have me educated in a school for children of military personnel.
'In with Army children?' he declared. 'Out of the question! A rabble of East End brats with snot-besmirched faces and grimy fingernails, the spawn of bloody corporals and squaddies'
'I'm sure there are local schools,' my mother said, with no foundation whatsoever for her optimism.
'Full of Chinese,' my father announced from an equally strong foundation of ignorance.
'Well, I'm not leaving him here,' my mother pronounced obdurately. 'He'll wind up like some poor child in a Kipling story. Parents in the Orient, boy in'
'Don't be ridiculous, Joyce! If he's in England, he'll be safe. The Far East isn't Farnham. There are tropical diseases, civil unrest, an inclement climate, native'
'It's a British colony, Ken. I'm sure they have hospitals and a police force.'
'All the same, we leave him here. In the long run, it's for the best.' My father's mind was made up. He had clearly worked it all out.
'No, we bloody don't,' my mother exploded. 'I didn't go through nine months of pregnancy and twelve hours of labour - while you were swanning around in the Mediterranean - to leave the product behind. I had a child - a son - to raise him, foster him, shape him, not foist him off on a gaggle of minor public school masters, half of them as interested in the contents of his underpants as his mind.'
'Don't be so bloody stupid, Joyce. The masters at Hilsea ...'
Hilsea College, an insignificant private boys' school in Portsmouth, was my father's Alma Mater, from which he had attained little but a basic matriculation and a few certificates for proficiency in Music.
'Hilsea!' my mother echoed in a voice verging on the falsetto. 'You can have another think coming! Martin's going to be with us. It's a family posting. We're a family. Fix it!'
I overheard this conversation through a closed door and missed bits of it but the gist was clear and the outcome decided. I was going too.
Life aboard ship quickly settled into a routine. It seemed to me that, for many passengers, the voyage was an extended and free holiday, away from the austerity of Britain. Mornings were spent reading in deckchairs, writing letters in the lounge or smoking room, both of which were forbidden to unaccompanied children, or walking briskly in circles round the promenade deck. Some joined in physical exercise classes on the boat deck. At mid-morning, a steward served beef tea in small china cups. According to my mother, it was supposed to give the white man salt and strength. After luncheon, most passengers either took to their cabins or lay supine in deckchairs. A few participated in deck sports, most of which seemed to involve quoits of tough rope that one threw over a net, shuttled across the deck or tossed from hand to hand frisbee-style. One passenger spent much of his time driving golf balls over the side, from what seemed to be an inexhaustible supply.
As far as I was concerned, the voyage was also a prolonged vacation although, early on, a blot appeared on this landscape of bliss.
Passengers under the age of twelve were expected to attend school lessons every morning in the ship's nursery, a room decorated with poorly executed versions of Disney and nursery tale characters, furnished with chairs and desks of Lilliputian dimensions and overseen by a crabby-faced woman in a nanny's uniform. The content of the instruction offered bore no relation to any syllabus and my mother, after visiting me shoe-horned into a desk, excused me from all future attendance. Thereafter, she taught me geography and history herself for an hour a day at a table in the lounge, her lessons anticipating the next port of call. My father attempted twice to teach me the basics of geometry but his patience expired before half time and he gave up in exasperation.
The days at sea were euphoric, reading Enid Blyton and Arthur Ransome in a deckchair, playing with the children of similarly educationally enlightened parents and painting watercolours of imaginary volcanic desert islands. A sub-tropical sun beat down from a cloudless sky, its heat deceptively cooled by a stiff sea breeze. I quickly acquired a tan with the aid of a noxious-smelling liquid my mother basted me with at every opportunity.
To amuse the younger passengers, 'diversions' were arranged. The chief engineer conducted a trip to the engine room, a cathedral-sized cavern filled with mechanical noise, spinning fly-wheels and governors, polished copper and brass pipes and brackets, heaving piston rods, levers, taps and the vast propeller shafts which incessantly turned whilst being lubricated by a muscular man with a towelling rag tied round his neck, stripped to the waist and glistening with sweat. The air stank with the all-pervading odour of diesel and lubricating oil, which convinced me that whilst a life at sea might have suited my grandfathers, it was definitely not for me.
Another excursion took us to the bridge, where we feigned interest in engine room telegraphs, radar screens, compasses and assorted nautical navigational aids. We were shown a blip on a green radar screen then given binoculars, identifying it as another P&O vessel heading west. On passing it at a mile, I was chosen to greet it with a blast on the ship's horn, to which it responded. We were also permitted to steer the ship, keeping her on her bearing with the aid of a large gimbal-mounted compass and the officer of the watch whose hand did not once leave the wheel. This feat accomplished, we were each presented with a certificate to say we had taken the helm of the P&O liner Corfu off the north African coast on such-and-such a date.
One morning I awoke to find the ship still and alongside a quay seething with activity. A quaint-looking railway engine passed by,its flat trucks laden with baggage. Men in white turbans mingled round the entrance to a warehouse, chivvied into order by a portly man in a bedraggled suit and red fez. Shouting stevedores pushing hand carts steered around each other with considerable alacrity.
'Port Said,' my mother announced, entering the cabin. 'Egypt,' she added, standing under the ceiling blower and towelling her hair. 'This is where the pharaohs lived. Remember our history lesson?' I nodded. 'Well,' she said finally, 'this is where it all happened.'
After breakfast, four or five elderly Arabs appeared squatting on the promenade deck, each with a lidded basket before him. None of them, it occurred to me, looked as if he might be even distantly related to monarchy. Their loose-fitting robes and turbans were grimy. They were barefoot, the underneath of their feet soiled, cracked and as thick as the soles of military boots. Their toenails were horny and ridged like a tortoise's shell. As I walked past the first, he reached out, his fingers ruffling the hair behind my ear from which he produced a day-old yellow chick, showing it to me with a grin framed by yellow-stained teeth. The little bird cheeped dejectedly and the man dropped it into his basket. As he performed this magic, he muttered, 'Gully-gully-gully,' in a cracked, guttural voice.
'They're called gully-gully men,' my mother explained unnecessarily and she put a coin into the man's open hand. His fingers were calloused, his long, curved fingernails striated like an ancient nag's hoof. He touched his forehead, secreted the coin in the folds of his clothing and produced a hen's egg from inside my other ear. I felt his talon of a fingernail scrape against my ear hole.
My father decreed we could quite safely go ashore. He had been here during the war, had lost no friends to enemy agents or native collaborators and purportedly knew his way around. A decayinglandau with faded cream leather seats, pulled by a gaunt pony with a hang-dog look, took us into the centre of town. Once there, we entered a museum of ancient Egyptian antiquities filled with glass display cases containing faded turquoise faience ushabtis, scarab beetle amulets, wooden and sandstone carved figurines, framed strips of linen and parchment upon which had been written dynastic poetry in hieroglyphs, bead necklaces, pottery oil lamps and bronze jewellery. The difference between this museum and those I had visited in England, however, was that everything here was for sale. Captivated by the ushabtis, I attempted to persuade my mother to buy me one, even desperately arguing that it might help me with my history lessons, but the price was too high and this was not, she told me in hushed tones, an emporium in which one haggled the price down.
'What does haggled mean?' I asked. My mother's reply was a severe keep-your-mouth-shut look. I complied.
Further along the same street we came upon a low, colonnaded building which seemed to be attracting passengers from the Corfu as a picnic did ants. The interior was dark and cool, large wooden and rattan-bladed ceiling fans spinning overhead, blue sparks dancing in their electric motors. This was the Simon Artz department store, almost as famous in Egypt as the Sphinx or the pyramids, alabaster replicas of both of which it sold in a variety of sizes. In addition, one could buy copies of ancient Greek amphorae; grotesque leather poufs decorated with hieroglyphs, high priests and heavy brass studs; camel saddles (labelled as being genooine Bedooine); beaten copper water jugs; wooden boxes inlaid with brass, lapis lazuli or ivory; carved camels, red felt fezes; brass salvers, alabaster ash trays and a working model of a water-raising system called a shadouf which I coveted but was forbidden to purchase by my father in case it harboured woodworm. That said, he purchased an alabaster ash tray. Without his knowing, mymother bought me a small wooden camel supposedly devoid of insect infestation.
Wherever we went, my father was addressed as effendi, my mother as Mrs Simpson. This I found puzzling in the extreme.
'Effendi is like saying Sir or Mister,' my mother said when I questioned her.
'But our name's not Simpson,' I went on.
'That's Mrs Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.'
'Are you related to the Duchess of Windsor?' I enquired wondrously.
'No!' my mother replied tersely. 'She's a tart.'
The look on my mother's face precluded any further discussion of the duchess or her pastries.
We took lunch in a small hotel overlooking the sea, which my father had frequented during the war. The meal consisted of cubes of nondescript gristle immolated on metal skewers and served on a bed of gummy rice mottled with dark brown objects that might have been unhusked grains, mouse droppings or steamed weevils. My mother ate one piece. I masticated another for the better part of ten minutes before swallowing it with difficulty. My father liberally soused his in Tabasco and ate the full portion. His face went red, his brow broke out in a sweat and he drank a number of glasses of pilsner. This, he declared, was an ideal prophylactic for malaria. (Nevertheless, he periodically suffered from a recurrence of the disease, regardless of this occasional medication, until he was in his late thirties.)
As he ate, my father embarked upon a tale of his wartime exploits.
'I was having dinner in this very room in 1942 - er 3 ... It doesn't matter - when an Arab approached my table. "Effendi," he said, "I have some very fine dirty French postcards." He started to open his jacket.'
My father started to open his as if he, too, had something to offer.
'Ken ...' my mother remonstrated in vain.
'"I have fifty, effendi. Just one hundred piastres."'
My father gave me a salacious wink. His eyes were somewhat glazed as if, in his mind, he was back in early-forties Egypt.
'That's enough, Ken,' my mother muttered sternly.
'I bought them,' my father continued unabashed, his voice now quite loud, having gradually increased in volume through the telling. 'And do you know what they were? Fifty grubby identical photos of the bloody Eiffel Tower.' He laughed loudly - a sort of braying sound - and drained his glass of pilsner.
That evening, the Corfu left the dock to join a line of vessels waiting to sail in convoy through the Suez Canal; the following morning, she started down it. Along the west bank ran a road and a railway line. It seemed bizarre to be travelling on a ship through a desert landscape dotted with low, square houses and palm trees. Moving at only six or seven knots, it was not long before a train overtook the ship, cars and trucks continually passing it on the road. The only form of transport the ship overhauled were donkeys and camels plodding methodically in the merciless, shadowless landscape.
By late morning, the dry heat was oppressive. My mother insisted I wore a white straw sun hat at all times. As it resembled a cross between a Mexican sombrero and a surrealist's lampshade, I resisted, yet to no avail. Instead, I contrived to forget it whenever possible, eventually managing to engineer for the detestable thing to blow over the side, only to discover the ship's shop had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of them. At least, I placated myself, it was preferable to the absurdly embarrassing knotted cotton handkerchief my father sported, which made him look like a retired London bus driver on the beach at Margate on a Whitsunbank holiday. It gave him little solar protection. The following day, his face was as pink as a prawn. The day after that, it started to peel so that he looked as if he was sloughing his skin.
'It's your own silly fault, Ken,' my mother chastised him as she rubbed calamine lotion on to his forehead, nose and cheeks. The lotion, being coloured faintly pink and drying to the texture of whitewash, did little to alleviate his general over-cooked appearance. 'I mean, what did you do when you were stationed out here?'
'Work,' he replied sullenly. 'I didn't have time to sunbathe. There was a war on.'
Despite the blowers being on full blast and the porthole wide open, our cabin on the port side (facing the supposedly cooler east bank) still reverberated with heat like the sides of a blast furnace. Luncheon consisted of a green salad in a bowl immersed in a tray of ice. Even the sliced roast beef was served on plates set in beds of ice. Ice-cream, provided in greased paper cups with a wooden spoon like a miniature canoe paddle, melted in minutes into a thick, warm, vanilla drink.
My mother spent the afternoon wallowing in the ship's minuscule swimming pool or lounging in a deckchair, 'doing a reptile', as she referred to it. She wore tight, brief shorts and a blouse with flounced sleeves: it was to become her informal norm for the rest of her life in the tropics. Meanwhile, my father pretended he was the officer of the watch. He busied himself with his binoculars, watching out for shipping coming the opposite way through the canal and dhows that looked as if they had recently set sail out of the pages of the child's illustrated edition of the Old Testament which Granny had given me the previous Christmas. She was a Salvationist.
Gradually, the Corfu edged by the town of Ismailia and entered the Bitter Lakes. The desert receded and the air cooled slightly.Around dusk, the lights of Port Suez twinkled in the hot night air and, shortly afterwards, we entered the Red Sea which, to my disappointment the following morning, was not in the least red.
More on-board diversions were planned to stave off boredom. There was a gala and tombola night for the adults and a casino evening. Every day, a sweepstake was held to guess how far the ship had sailed in the previous twenty-four hours. My father addressed this with mathematical precision, filling several sheets of the ship's notepaper with calculations every day. He did not win once. My mother, by pure guesswork and common nous, won three times, my father taking her success with such bad grace that, at the third win, he sulked and retired to his cabin claiming an upset stomach. We did not set eyes on him again until the following day when he complained my mother had not visited him in his sick bed.
'No, Ken,' she replied, 'I did not. A sick tummy I can fix with chlorodyne but a sick mind's beyond my reach.'
This did not improve matters and my father continued to brood for another day, his mood only being broken by an invitation from the captain to drinks that evening with a number of other male passengers in or connected with the Royal Navy. Women were excluded. He returned from this party with his plumage puffed up and his head held high.
A fancy-dress tea party was thrown for the children. I was dressed by my mother as a pirate in a crepe paper cummerbund, one of her head scarves and an eye-patch borrowed from the ship's doctor and painted black with a mixture of indian ink and mascara. A cardboard sword was tucked in the cummerbund and I carried an empty whisky bottle. I took home no prizes. First place was awarded to a tubby boy of twelve whose parents had seized their opportunity in Simon Artz. He wore a pair of round sunglasses, a real cummerbund, baggy pantaloons, Egyptian feltslippers and a fez. A long ivory cigarette holder completed his ensemble. He was King Farouk.
The ocean provided its own diversions. Dolphins cavorted ahead of the bow wave and we were permitted, under the supervision of a parent and a deck officer, to go for'ard to the f'c'sle (as my father would have it) and look down on them. They were sleek and grey, the colour of torpedoes. On occasion, they swam on their sides, the better to look up at us with an almost human eye. Flying fish scudded over the waves, their fins outspread like grotesque, ribbed wings. Occasionally the wind took them and they glided up on to the deck to be spirited away by the Lascars, low-caste Indians who cleaned, painted and polished the ship, who ate them. Off the Horn of Africa, a vast pod of at least fifty whales was sighted, blowing and diving, the huge flukes of their tails rising into the air only to slide under the surface once more.
Every evening, I lay in my bunk watching the sea speed by and reading or pondering what lay ahead of me. At least I knew the pigtail was unlikely, for my mother had insisted I had a haircut from the ship's barber soon after departing Algiers. But for the rest, I could only let my imagination wander. My father refused point blank to discuss anything about his job, claiming it was top secret. I considered the chances of him being a spy and asked my mother one night as I got ready for bed if this was his role in the Navy.
'A spy!' she retorted. 'In the Navy? What gave you that idea?'
'Daddy said his job was secret.'
'Your father could no more be a spy than I could be a spanner,' she replied, always keen to find an alliterative metaphor. 'He's a Deputy Naval Stores Officer. A naval grocer! It's his job to see ships get fresh supplies of lettuces and eggs. Secret!' She laughed. 'I'm sure the Commies're not interested in how many tins of sardines HMS Ark Royal is carrying.'
At seven o'clock - or nineteen hundred hours, as my father preferred - my mother, having seen me into my bunk, would join my father on deck for cocktails and dinner. Although, once in the tropics, the formal evening dress code for the dining room was waived unless there was a dinner dance or the like being held, my father insisted on wearing a lounge suit when all that was demanded was a tie. This greatly embarrassed my mother and, one afternoon between Aden and Bombay, it created an argument conducted sotto voce in my cabin. I only heard a part of it, eavesdropping at the door.
' ... but it's unnecessary, Ken,' I heard my mother say insistently. 'You stand out like ... like ... like a daffodil in a daisy field.'
'Just because the mercury touches eighty, Joyce, it doesn't mean we have to abandon all our bloody standards.'
There was a pause.
'You know what they call you, don't you?' She did not wait for a response. 'Commodore Blimp.'
'I don't give a bloody damn,' my father answered, yet I could tell his anger had been goaded.
'And that knotted hankie. I mean! That's setting a standard? You'll be rolling your trouser legs up next. You could at least buy a panama in the shop.'
'I'll wear what I bloody like, when I bloody like, where I bloody like. It's a free bloody country, thanks to the likes of me.'
'Here we go,' I heard my mother say with an air of well-tried boredom. 'Tell me, Ken, I forget: which submarine did you serve on? Which Atlantic convoy did you escort? Which landing craft did you command on D-Day?' She fell silent for a moment. 'None. And whose father was imprisoned for three years in Germany after his ship went down under him at the Battle of Jutland? Mine. And whose mother snubs mine because herhusband was only a Chief Petty Officer? And you talk of standards. Double standards in your case, Ken. Double standards.'
There followed a brief scuffling at the end of which there was a loud bang as my father slammed his hand on the wardrobe door. I later saw the dent his signet ring had made in the veneer.
'Don't you ever speak like that to me again, Joyce, or ...'
'Or? Or what, Ken? A divorce? My! That would look good on your record sheet, wouldn't it? A real blot rather than a splat of ink. Set tongues wagging in the wardroom. And what about Martin?'
'What about him?' my father answered.
It was then I decided to make myself scarce and scurried away down the corridor. An hour later, my father appeared on the deck wearing a straw panama hat with a dark blue band.
Shortly before eight o'clock every evening, and the sounding of the chimes for dinner, my mother would return to the cabin with two silver-plated bowls. One contained salted potato crisps, the other small, pickled gherkins speared by variously coloured satinized aluminium cocktail sticks shaped like arrows and bearing the ship's name. I had never come across either delicacy in England and saw them as harbingers of a new and wondrously strange life to come.
My mother detested Bombay. The streets were dirty, the beggars persistent and frequently mutilated, either by accident, design or disease. Like the beggars, the buildings were in various states of decrepitude. Even the monkeys in the public gardens were a ragged, flea-ridden lot. The liberty with which cattle wandered about, dunging where they chose, also disturbed her, not becausethey left steaming piles behind them but because no-one bothered to clean it up.
'It would not have happened before independence,' my father declared in hushed tones, perhaps in case the Algerian assassin had a cousin who had migrated eastwards. 'Standards were maintained.'
I asked what cows were doing wandering in the city and sitting in the middle of the road. In my experience, they lived in fields, slept in barns and ate grass.
'They're considered holy,' my mother said. 'People here worship them.'
This struck me as too bizarre to be true. She had to be pulling my leg. Yet, with each port of call, I was realizing the world was not as I had previously anticipated it.
'What about the elephants?' I enquired, having seen several walking sedately down a wide street, their mahouts balanced cross-legged on their necks and armed with a vicious-looking iron spike with which they intermittently jabbed their mount behind its ears. 'They mess in the road, too.'
'That, too, is disgusting, but in India,' she went on, 'elephants are beasts of burden. Like Nanny's milkman's horse.'
By my mother's reasoning mind, this somehow allowed the elephants their defecatory habits and expunged them of all lavatorial responsibility.
'Doesn't anyone grow roses in India?' I asked.
'What?' my father, who had not been following the conversation, responded sharply.
'Nanny puts the milkman's horse dung on her roses.'
My parents exchanged glances and we crossed the road. A passing car ran through a particularly fresh and fluid cow pat which spattered my father's shoes and indelibly stained his socks.
Later, I was shown - from a discreet distance - the Parseedeath tower. My father explained to me that the Parsees did not bury their dead but left them for the vultures to eat. No sooner had I been told this than a flurry of plump crows took to the wing from the tower, several of them trailing ribbons of flesh from their beaks. They flew into a nearby park to squabble over their bounty, tugging it between them. One of them tossed a finger into the air for another to catch and fly off with, cawing jubilantly. Meanwhile, the vultures with their vulgar naked necks and hooked beaks perched in the flame-of-the-forest trees laden with scarlet blossoms, preening themselves and letting go pressurized streams of excrement on to the flowerbeds and monkeys below.
Yet the memory of Bombay that was to linger was that of a scrawny cat on the dock. It came each of the two evenings the Corfu was berthed alongside. Slinking out of the shadows, it moved with its belly flat to the ground like a leopard stalking a gazelle. Its ribs and shoulder blades protruded through its skin and it had a bloody, torn ear. I tossed it a gherkin which it ignored but it relished the potato crisps. The night before we were due to sail, I spent a long while trying to persuade my mother we should give it a good home but she resolutely refused to cave in. Finally, she allowed me one concession. In the warm dusk air, she led me down the gangway and along the quay where I placed two cocktail sausages and a pile of crisps on the quayside, to keep the cat going at least until its ear healed. I was then given my bath and climbed into my bunk just in time to watch through the porthole as an urchin detached himself from the shadows of the warehouse, ran to the food, crammed it into his mouth and fled.
In contrast, Colombo was paradisiacal. We arrived in the early afternoon, tieing up to a mooring about a mile out. In the distance were beaches of coral sand fringed with palms. No sooner were the ship's engines shut down than a plethora of small naked boys no older than I was appeared in the sea off the starboard side.Bronzed and lithe, they must have swum out from the shore, for they had no boat. Like marine nymphs they cavorted in the sea, oblivious to the dangers of jelly fish or sharks. Shouting up to the passengers, they invited us to throw money down to them. As each coin struck the surface, it quickly sank. The boys, thrusting their bare brown bottoms into the air like ducks did their tails, dived after them. They missed not a coin but, as they were stark naked, I could not understand where they stored their booty.
'They put the coins in their mouths,' my mother said.
'What if they swallow them?' I asked, aghast at the thought.
'They don't,' my father said perfunctorily. 'If they do, they get beaten.'
After half an hour, a canoe arrived on the scene sculled by a wizened old Fagin and a girl of about twelve. The passengers, sensing the show was over, drifted away. The boys clambered into the boat, arched themselves forward and either spat out or retched up - I was not sure which - a substantial amount of small change. The old man rowed back to shore, the boys following him like brown porpoises.
That evening, we went ashore in a motorboat to a wooden jetty.
'Who are we going to see?' I enquired as the wavelets lapped against the side of the boat.
'Uncle Bud and Auntie Cis,' my father replied.
'But I don't have any uncles and aunts,' I remonstrated.
'Out here you call a man "uncle" if he is older and wiser than you,' my mother informed me. 'It's a term of respect.'
This seemed to me to be as bizarre as worshipping cows but I decided to keep that opinion to myself.
We were met by my newfound 'uncle' and 'aunt' who were, in fact, my father's cousin Cis and her husband, Bud. They piled us into a vast black Humber saloon and drove us to their home at Mount Lavinia, on the coast south of Colombo. It was, I realizedas we made our way along a tree-lined road in the tropical twilight, swerving to avoid potholes, the first time I had set foot in a foreign land at night.
Our destination was a rambling bungalow with a wide veranda on three sides. The pillars supporting the roof were ornately carved with glaring, snarling demons. Upon the veranda stood rattan furniture and a number of collapsible roorkee chairs. Oil lamps hung from hooks or stood on the table. Drinks were served by an almost black-skinned, barefoot man in a patterned sarong. The whites of his eyes shone in the lamplight. My parents drank gin and tonic but I was given a tall glass filled with an opaque liquid in which were suspended small white flecks. I tentatively sipped it. It was exquisite, cooling and strangely sweet. I asked Uncle Bud what it was.
'Coconut juice,' he replied.
'Where do you buy it?' I enquired, hoping I might successfully implore my mother to purchase a supply.
'We don't,' Uncle Bud answered. A ripple of night breeze teasing the lanterns was followed by a dense thud in the darkness. 'There's your answer.'
Uncle Bud called the manservant who led me into the night to pick up a coconut the size of my head.
'Now you know why we don't park the cars under palm trees,' Uncle Bud declared. 'When I first came out, I did so. Once. Didn't think. Had to get a new bonnet shipped out from the UK. Terrible cost ...'
When we had eaten, I sat on one of the roorkee chairs and looked out into the night. Bats the size of English thrushes wove their shadowy flight through the darkness, issuing barely audible squeaks. Atlas moths as large as my outspread hand, with antennae like feathers and translucent windows in their fore-wings, fluttered round the lamps. Tiny grasshopper-like insects nobigger than a grain of rice scorched themselves to death on the hot lamp glass while beetles the size of my first thumb joint flew into the circles of lamplight with a whirling clockwork sound but were wise to the heat and avoided it.
The most fascinating creatures to be drawn to the lamplight were the geckoes. No more than a finger long, these tiny lizards gathered round the ring of light to pick off any insect they felt they could handle. They stalked their prey, made a headlong dash at the last moment and delicately chewed on their quarry, a bulbous tongue folding wings and legs into their maws. When they swallowed, one could see the insect they had eaten in their stomachs, sometimes twitching to escape. Fascinated by them, I caught one in my cupped hands. It quickly escaped, however, shedding its tail which, for a minute or so, thrashed to and fro on the floorboards between my feet.
Sitting there, the adults talking in the background, I gradually became aware of someone standing just over my shoulder and turned. Beside my chair stood a beautiful Singhalese girl of about my age. Her eyes were as wide and as black as a starless night, her hair long and cascading like threads of jet upon her shoulders.
'Hello,' I said. 'I'm Martin.'
Her response was to put her hands together as if in prayer and bow to me. This formality over, she sat on the floor by my side and remained there unspeaking until we left for the ship. I tried several times to take her hand for I was utterly smitten by her, but she demurely shunned any physical contact with me.
Returning to the Corfu in the motorboat, I watched the shore recede with a curiously heavy heart. The quayside lights rippled on the sea with a clarity that I had never before seen. It was as if the balmy tropical air transformed it into something magical and I was leaving behind a singular, mystical place I knew I would never find again.
Two days out of Colombo, we sailed past the Great Nicobar Island, changed course, skirted the northern tip of Sumatra and headed east across the Strait of Malacca, bound for Penang. A small British colony founded in 1786, it consisted of an island bearing the main settlement of Georgetown and a parcel of the Malayan mainland opposite. Once again, we went ashore to walk along an esplanade, drink a lemonade that was ubiquitous east of Gibraltar and look at a number of sedately squat nineteenth-century colonial buildings, one with a tower, the only building above three storeys in the town. Sated with colonial architecture, my parents then decided we should take the funicular railway to the summit of Flagstaff Hill from which, my father declared, one was afforded a panoramic view of Georgetown. Quite why one should particularly seek out this vista escaped me but my father had his binoculars round his neck so perhaps he intended to ensure that the Imperial Japanese Navy was not poised for a sneak attack, as - he informed us several times - it had been in 1941.
The funicular consisted of a single carriage resembling the hybrid of a horse-box and a guard's tender with open windows. Moving at not much more than a walking pace, it took twenty minutes to arrive at its destination, passing over viaducts and through dense expanses of jungle.
Halfway up the mountain, the carriage slowed. As it did so, a troop of several dozen macaques materialized out of the luxuriant undergrowth and invaded it. The first we knew of this simian assault was the patter of their hands and feet on the roof: then they swung in through the windows into the carriage. Pandemonium broke loose. The monkeys grabbed what they could with the well-rehearsed proficiency of an experienced pirate boardingparty. One seized on my father's binoculars and, finding them attached to him by a strap, proceeded to chew through the leather. My father batted it away with the back of his hand only to have a second monkey take its place. Another, to my considerable gratitude, grabbed my sombrero lampshade hat and made off with it into the tropical undergrowth.
'Let him have it!' my mother wailed. 'Let him have it!'
I willingly complied.
'Don't resist! Don't let them bite!' one of the other passengers from the Corfu yelled whilst at the same time lashing out with a black furled umbrella at a large male, and swearing in what I took to be a local language.
'They'll be rabid!' shouted the umbrella lunger's wife, a plump, middle-aged woman in a sun dress. She turned to my mother. 'I lost my firstborn to rabies at a tin mine up-country from Ipoh.'
My mother hugged me to her bosom in much the same fashion as a female monkey balancing on the window frame clutched its own infant. As she did so, nimble fingers skilfully plucked a handkerchief from her blouse pocket not two inches from my eye and I found myself face-to-face with a big-eared monkey. It bared two rows of yellowed teeth at me and promptly vanished.
Meanwhile, my father was engaged in his own tussle, retaining his binoculars only because, being wartime Royal Navy issue, they were too heavy for the monkey to carry off. Another man was not so lucky and watched as a monkey snatched his Kodak camera and started to rip open the bellows. Throughout this attack, the monkeys uttered not a sound. It was as if they were working with military precision to a set plan requiring no orders.
In less than a minute, the raiding party of hirsute imps retreated into the jungle to be followed by a hail of pebbles hurled inaccurately and far too late by the funicular brakeman. Once inthe cover, they chattered and screamed and howled. Victory was theirs and they knew it.
On our way back down the mountain, I caught a brief glimpse of my detested sun hat hanging from a thorny creeper, shredded. There were, I subsequently discovered with ill-disguised glee, none left in the ship's shop.
Whereas the monkeys' ambush had been pure pantomime, our next excursion ashore lacked any potential to degenerate into farce.
In Singapore, our next port of call, we were greeted by a friend of my father's who whisked us off in a large black Cadillac, through Singapore to the causeway crossing to Johor Baharu, where we had to halt at a military checkpoint. Once through it and across the causeway, our host drove at breakneck speed. It was then I noticed, with a certain quiver of excitement, that there was a sub-machine-gun propped against the front seat between the driver and my father, with a number of spare magazines on the top of the dashboard. Tucked into the crease of the seat was an automatic pistol. At intervals along the road were stationed Bren gun carriers or armoured scout cars with soldiers sitting in them.
After half an hour of driving through serried rows of what I knew from my mother's shipboard lessons were rubber trees, we turned off down a gravelled drive at the gates to which were posted several British soldiers in a sandbagged emplacement. They wore steel helmets covered in camouflage netting stuck through with leafy twigs, the muzzle of a heavy machine-gun protruding through a gap in the sandbags. To one side, a soldier in his shirt-sleeves was boiling a dixie of water over a tiny solid-fuel stove.
I asked why there were so many soldiers. I thought it impolite to enquire why we had a veritable arsenal in the car.
'It's the Emergency,' our host told me.
'What's the Emergency?' I replied.
'It's a war between the British and the Malayan Communist Party,' came the reply.
I wanted to ask why but my father cast me a keep-your-mouth-shut look so I kept quiet.
We had arrived at an extensive bungalow raised on brick piles under a wide tiled roof and surrounded by trim gardens of huge, fan-like travellers' palms, elephant-eared banana trees and what I later discovered were cycads, a plant dating back to the times of the dinosaurs. Thorny bougainvillaea bushes grew supported on bamboo trestles. By the veranda was a virtually leafless tree in full blossom, the exquisite perfume unlike anything I had ever come across. When I asked what it was, my father abruptly told me not to interrupt and our host informed me it was called a frangipani.
The entire garden was surrounded by intermeshing coils of barbed wire. We had a hurried lunch, after which I was permitted to play in the garden - so long as two Chinese men oversaw me - and an equally hurried tea and then we were driven once more at speed back to Singapore and the Corfu.
'Why did we have guns in the car?' I asked my mother that night as she brought me my gherkins and crisps.
'We could have been ambushed by terrorists,' she answered matter-of-factly.
At that moment it dawned on me that what I had previously taken to be a safe existence was quite possibly going to be anything but from then on.
The following night, my parents attended a formal end-of-voyage dinner, my mother dressed in a long evening gown, my father in a tuxedo. They cut a dashing couple. If there had been an adults' fancy dress party, he could have gone as a thirties matinee idol or a jazz band leader.
The next day, the steward returned our suitcases from the storeand we spent the day packing. I realized all I had to show for my voyage halfway around the world was a collection of multicoloured cocktail sticks, the small wooden camel and a coconut. My mother persuaded me to abandon the latter which I did with reluctance, but not until the cabin steward had drained the juice from it which I sipped slowly, as if it were ambrosia.
The morning of 2 June dawned overcast. I woke to find the Corfu barely vibrating, the sea outside my porthole hardly moving by. I dressed quickly and went up on deck to find my mother standing at the rail. A hundred yards off, a red and white launch bobbed on a low swell, the word Pilot emblazoned on its hull. As we watched, it edged alongside the Corfu's hull, a rope ladder was flung over the side from one of the gangway ports and a man in a white uniform clambered up it. A short time later, the Corfu picked up a little speed and sailed slowly into a channel only two or three hundred yards wide. On the starboard side were scrub-covered mountains descending to a treacherous rock-strewn shore against which a light swell broke. To port were more steep hillsides covered in grass and intersected by several bays containing sandy beaches. The shoreline otherwise consisted of more sharp rocks. On a stubby headland was a small village and some low houses set apart in trees beside, to my astonishment, a golf course. The summits of the mountains were lost in a thick fog. The air was warm and humid.
'That's Hong Kong,' my mother remarked. 'Our home for the next three years.'
My father joined us wearing starched white shorts and a white shirt with long white socks and brown brogues. It was tropical kitfor a naval officer save that his shoulders were not adorned by 'scrambled egg', as my father termed gold braid.
'And who are we today, Ken?' my mother enquired amiably.
Ignoring her, my father raised his binoculars to his face and scanned the shore for dangerous rocks and underwater sand bars.
'Which one?' I asked.
'Which one what?' my father replied, lowering his binoculars and peeved by my mother's gentle sarcasm.
'Which one?' I repeated. 'Mummy says this is Hong Kong where we're going to live for three years. Which of the houses is ours?'
'You blithering idiot!' my father responded, yet he typically made no attempt to elucidate.
'No,' my mother said tenderly, 'we aren't living in one of those exact houses. We don't know where our quarters are yet. Just wait and see.'
The Corfu steamed slowly to port round a headland lined with warehouses, a shipyard and a large factory complex with the word Taikoo painted on its roof.
'What does Taikoo mean?' I enquired.
'I have absolutely no earthly idea,' my mother replied. 'Not the foggiest.'
I crossed to the starboard rail. A peninsula of land culminating in some docks, a large cube of a grey stone building and a railway station with an ornate clock tower jutted out towards the ship. Behind them was a city of low buildings. In the distance was an undulating range of mountains, free of mist. One of the summits was, in profile, vaguely like the lions around the base of Nelson's Column in Trafalgar Square. Rejoining my mother at the port rail, I discovered the Corfu was moving slowly past a city which extended up the slopes of the mountains close behind. Inthe centre were two tall buildings and a Royal Naval dockyard, the basin and quays lined with grey-painted warships.
'That's HMS Tamar,' my father said.
'Which one?' I asked.
'What do you mean?' my father snapped back.
'Which ship is HMS Tamar?'
'None of them. That's the name of the dockyard,' he answered tersely. 'That ship there,' he pointed to a grey vessel devoid of armaments, 'is a Royal Fleet Auxiliary. An RFA.' He lowered his voice in case there were any shiv-carrying Communist Chinese spies loitering near us. 'I'll be on one of them. She's called RFA Fort Charlotte.'
Aided by nudging tugs, the Corfu very gradually eased round to moor alongside a substantial jetty on the western side of the peninsula. Immigration and health officials came on board and we were obliged to congregate in a passenger lounge to go through the disembarkation formalities. These completed, my father met a naval officer dressed as he was in a tropical white uniform but with his rank in black and gold braid epaulettes on his shoulders. He also wore a peaked cap with a white cover on it and the naval anchor and crown badge. Our cabin baggage was collected from our cabins by two naval ratings. Both were Chinese. Neither, to my relief, had his hair in a pigtail: similarly, none of the Chinese stevedores or the men pulling rickshaws along the jetty, laden with baggage, had theirs plaited either.
At exactly noon, as signified by the dull boom of a cannon somewhere across the harbour, we walked down the gangway and into a large, dark blue saloon car with the letters RN painted on the side in white.
We had arrived.
GOLDEN BOY. Copyright © 2004 by Martin Booth. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied jn critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.
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