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Don’t even ask

The Spectator Christmas short stor

17 December 2005

12:00 AM

17 December 2005

12:00 AM

‘Say seebong-seebong, say seebong-seebong,’ sang the Filipino band in their white tuxedos, swaying cheerfully from side to side.

‘Si bon, si bon,’ whispered Sweetie to the music, smiling carefully, swaying her sumptuous jade earrings in time to the Filipinos’ narrow hips and tapping her manicured nails on the tablecloth; everyone said that before she had left her last husband, who was with the Banque de L’Indochine, she had made him pay for a face lift and a bottom lift.

‘Si bon, si bon,’ she half-sang again, looking archly at her guests round the table; she was giving a birthday party for her new husband, a Scottish investment banker.

For its Christmas theme that year the Repulse Bay Hotel had chosen Scottish baronial, which was why Sweetie had booked a table there. The vast colonial dining-room was covered on every available surface with greenery, most of it far from Scottish, and the enormous Christmas tree behind the band was covered in tartan taffeta bows and a multitude of flashing pink and white lights. The centre of every table was decorated with baronial candles and stuffed Scottish game birds, surrounded by heather flown at enormous expense from the UK, with ambitious twirls of wired tartan ribbon.

‘So, Sarah, how do you like Hong Kong?’ Sweetie asked politely, leaning across towards Miles Thurston’s new wife.

‘Amazing,’ said Sarah, astonished by almost everything around her. ‘But I’m beginning to get used to it.’

‘You’ll never guess what my amah told me today,’ said Patty Hughes, the wife of another investment banker, in a very tight gold cheongsam. ‘It’s just too good. You know how priggish some of these old-fashioned amahs can be? Well, our Ah Yee told me that her friend Ah Ho — that’s the Hendersons’ amah — had been very hot and cross about something for ages. So finally Ah Yee got her to admit what was wrong. And do you know what she said?’

Patty suddenly began giggling so much she could hardly speak, and all the other guests leaned forwards to hear her above the band, smiling themselves.

‘Ah Ho said, “Other Master go topside Missee. In the kitchen.”’

At this everyone except Sarah began laughing as hard as Patty herself.

‘Unbelievable,’ they said. ‘Priceless.’

‘But it is funny, darling,’ said Sarah’s husband Miles, touching her arm and wanting her to laugh; he was sitting next to her, in Sweetie’s unconventional seating plan. ‘Really.’

‘Especially if you know Lalla Henderson,’ said one of the other bankers’ wives.

‘It was the kitchen Ah Ho really minded about,’ said Patty, gasping with laughter. ‘Her kitchen.’

‘I wouldn’t put it past Lalla at all,’ said one of the husbands. ‘She does put it about a bit’.

‘Not a very clever place to choose,’ said another.

‘But who was Other Master?’ said somebody. ‘That’s what I want to know. Is it someone we know?’

Sarah tried to smile, but she had not yet got used to Hong Kong manners. She hadn’t got used to being called Missee by their amah; she hadn’t got used to Miles being called Master. She looked at her husband’s clever profile and his handsome mouth, stretched into a deferential grin.

‘Anyway, Lalla’s always given Sam a pink ticket. He can’t really complain,’ said another man, someone who worked for Sweetie’s husband, Hamish.

At that moment the singers suddenly stopped crooning, the lights were dimmed, and then the band struck up with a faintly Oriental version of ‘The Campbells are Coming’. Sweetie looked triumphantly at her husband as a group of white-coated waiters hurried towards them with a trolley bearing an enormous monkey carved out of ice, sitting on its frozen tail and holding in its icy paws an enormous silver dish of caviar.

‘Happy birthday, Hamish darling,’ said Sweetie across the dead birds. ‘Your Year of the Monkey! And Happy Christmas everyone.’

‘A far cry from Pimlico,’ thought Sarah, as the waiters brought round blinis and sour cream, remembering the basement flat she had shared with Miles off Warwick Way before he had left for Hong Kong.

‘Oh, the virgin sturgeon needs no urgin’, that’s why caviar’s such a fine dish,’ sang out Archie McDougall, who worked for one of the big hongs.

‘Where on earth do they find them?’ Sarah whispered to Miles, but he pretended he hadn’t heard.

Later everyone started dancing. Sarah and Miles drifted together round the crowded floor to the slow, garbled music, overhearing scraps of conversation.

‘Fishing fleet out in force tonight,’ said an older woman in her thirties with an irritable expression, clutching at a man she was obviously married to.

‘That means single girls who come out to Hong Kong trawling for rich husbands,’ Miles whispered in Sarah’s ear, explaining and pressing his hand firmly into the small of her back in a way that was new to him, or at least to her.

‘It’s boy heaven,’ said one drunk young man to the heavily made-up girl he was dancing with. ‘Everywhere you go. All those gorgeous LBFMs.’

Sweetie floated smoothly past with Hamish, her left hand resting on the shoulder of her fat little husband, displaying an immense green diamond.

‘What are LBFMs?’ Sarah asked Archie McDougall later, as she danced with him.

‘Ha, ha, ha,’ Archie laughed in her face with cigar breath, sweating slightly in his dinner jacket. ‘Naughty. Don’t pretend you don’t know. Little Brown Fucking Machines.’

The next day, after Miles had left for the airport, Sarah rang a woman she quite liked, a company wife in her early thirties.

‘Do you feel like meeting for dim sum, Suzie?’ she asked. ‘I went to a dreadful dinner party last night. And now Miles has gone away. Again. Till Christmas Eve, to Indonesia.’

‘What you need,’ said Suzie, ‘is some retail therapy. Take your plastic for a walk. That’s what I always do.’

‘But I’ve done all my Christmas shopping. I mean, it’s only a couple of days now.’

‘Don’t be silly. There’s always something. And anyway, I mean something for yourself. Retail therapy. Besides, I’ve still got lots of shopping to do. You can come with me.’

Central district was even more crowded than usual, as if something urgent were going on, but otherwise there were few signs of Christmas.

‘I’ve thought of the most marvellous party favours,’ said Suzie as they walked into Prince’s Building. ‘For my Boxing Day lunch. Gold champagne swizzle sticks. They’re surprisingly cheap. Very good value actually’.

In the shop where Suzie had ordered her swizzle sticks the manager was expecting her. He brought out a large black box filled with gold tissue and inside were 30 tiny little boxes wrapped in gold with black and gold ribbons.

‘You can’t see them,’ said Suzie, ‘now they’re all wrapped up, but you must see this. I had it specially designed for Kimbo — it’s incredible. He’s going to love it’.

From out of another tiny box which the manager gave her she took a minuscule gold key-ring with a little coffin-shaped attachment; when she pressed one end, the coffin lid flew open to reveal a tiny gold corpse with a tiny penis, which immediately sprang up in a ghostly, precious-metal erection, to reveal a tiny diamond at its tip.

The Chinese manager ti
ttered politely.

‘Unbelievable,’ said Sarah, staring at it. ‘Incredible. Did you really design it yourself?’

‘Yes I did, actually. A bit expensive for a stocking-filler, but Kimbo’s had a very good year.’

Then, from out of her ostrich-skin wallet, from a collection of credit cards, she took a gold one in her husband’s name, to pay for it.

‘Now,’ she said, ‘where next?’

Later they stopped for drinks at the Mandarin and, sitting in deep upholstered armchairs in the lobby, ordered dry martinis. Suzie was still full of energy but Sarah was tired. All the designer bags and the tissue paper, all the glitter and gloss and the flurry of credit-card slips had depressed her; the flawless Chinese girls in the shops, with their insolent reserve, had made her feel clumsy; the heavy Western perfumes sprayed in the hotel shopping malls clashed with the sharp, slightly rotting smell of the city outside, and the constant hurry in the streets was disconcerting.

‘What’s a pink ticket, Suzie?’ she asked, reaching for a cashew nut.

‘God, don’t you know?’ asked Suzie. ‘Well, of course, you haven’t been here very long. It just means time out. You know, no questions asked.’

Sarah looked blank.

‘Well, what do you think all the boys get up to on these business trips to Manila or Jogja or wherever?’ Suzie asked. ‘They probably have to fight them off. Much better not to think about it. Don’t even ask. So a pink ticket is for business trips, sort of a carte blanche with a blush. Do what you like, but not here. Anywhere but here. I think it’s quite civilised, really.’

‘But do you — I mean, what about Kimbo?’ Sarah wondered.

‘Oh, Kimbo has always been a hard dog to keep on the porch,’ said Suzie, cheerfully. ‘Besides, it’s different when you’ve got children.’ Something in Sarah’s expression made Suzie lean forward with a look that might have been sympathy.

‘Anyway,’ she said, ‘gorgeous Miles absolutely adores you. It’s obvious. You really shouldn’t listen to what people say.’

Trying to decorate the Christmas tree in their flat on May Road that evening, Sarah realised she should have taken Miles’s advice and got Mimi Wang to do their Christmas decorations; putting a few lights on the tree was clearly not going to be enough. Mimi Wang had been round and had even suggested a theme, which had involved wrapping the tree and most of the furniture in silver gauze and producing galvanised buckets full of silver-sprayed bamboo, but Sarah hadn’t liked her. Mimi was wary, looking at her cautiously with expressionless black eyes; she was very friendly to Miles but not to Sarah.

‘How do you know her?’ she had asked Miles, but he had been vague.

‘I can’t remember,’ he said. ‘I think she does all the flowers and the tablescaping for the Rannochs, or someone. And expensive hotel design. She’s very successful.’

Sarah was standing on a chair, unable to reach the top branches of the 14ft-high blue Norwegian spruce she had ordered, at absurd expense; it reminded her of home and of the smell of English Christmas among the alien, ambiguous smells of Hong Kong.

‘Tablescaping,’ she said to herself. It was not the sort of word Miles used, or at least so she had thought.

It was almost impossible to attach the lights to the highest branches; the tree looked half-naked without them and she hadn’t thought of getting any other decorations, still less of a theme. As she stood wobbling on the chair, their middle-aged amah padded quietly into the room in her black Chinese plimsolls, severe in her black and white uniform and her greying pigtail.

‘Missee like drink, same like before?’ she asked in pidgin, without any expression.

Why do they talk like that? Sarah wondered yet again. In 1979?

The amah returned with a very large tumbler of vodka on ice, on a red lacquer tray Miles had brought back from Toyko. She put it down with well-judged rudeness under the Christmas tree.

Sarah climbed down and took her drink out on to the balcony, looking north towards Kowloon and then west towards the darkness of the South China Sea. A cold damp wind blew back on her face from the Western Approaches, and a night plane moved slowly down towards Kai Tak. In the enormous expanse of black sky there were no stars to be seen; the dramatic spectacle of the lights in the great sweep of the harbour below seemed as lifeless as a postcard. All the vast container ships, all the yachts, the junks, the ferries, the little motor-boats and all the money passing to and fro in the darkness, in massive crates, in freezers, in bullion, in powder, in girls, could just as well have been imaginary. The only sound was an occasional poop-poop from the Star Ferry as it crossed the shipping lanes hundreds of feet below. Miles was changing. Something about him was not the same.

If she needed a theme, Sarah thought, wondering about her tree, if she needed a contemporary decorative idea, something to hang on the tree, something dans le vent, something of a style statement, what could be better than credit cards? Little shining, twisting rectangles in gold and silver, turning and twinkling in the lights? All over the tree. She felt pleasantly drunk.

At that instant it occurred to her to look at Miles’s credit-card statements. She came inside from the balcony and went to his little study in a spare bedroom. His desk was filled with papers, neatly arranged in the way he had, and a thick pile of bank statements. She was surprised by how many pages there were, pages and pages of cities and hotels and air tickets, and thousands and thousands of dollars. Tokyo, Manila, Taipei, Singapore, again and again, but occasionally other places she had barely heard of, places she had never heard Miles talking about. Batu Ferringhi, Hakone, Baguio, Chiang Mai, the Rasa Sayang in Penang, the Chosun in Seoul. An astonishingly expensive Japanese hotel in Kyoto, which charged several thousand dollars.

She had no idea Miles had ever been to Kyoto. To her he was either away or back again. She had hardly asked. It hadn’t occurred to her to ask. She did not even know whether he was really in Jakarta now; he always rang her from wherever he went. Her eyes filled with tears. She certainly would not ask now, she thought with anger.

‘Ah Leung,’ she called out, walking towards the kitchen quarters. ‘Another drink please. Like before.’

Sipping her vodka, she went through the statements again and again, becoming more and more enraged. Suddenly, on an impulse, she picked up the telephone and dialled a service they had for reporting thefts.

‘I’m ringing on behalf of Miles Thurston,’ she said, spelling out his name and giving the necessary details.

‘His wallet has been stolen. All his credit cards have been taken. Please would you have them cancelled right away?’

‘Aw cars?’ asked the efficient Chinese voice that answered. ‘Hau bau passpor?’

‘No, just all the credit cards,’ said Sarah. It was so easy.

She put down the receiver and imagined with angry pleasure the moment when Miles’s first credit card was rejected, and then the next and the next. Wherever he was, in a restaurant, in a hotel, in one of those places she hadn’t heard of, he would confidently hand over a card but he wouldn’t be able to pay. The card would be rejected, in front of whoever it was. And then he would know. He would know that she knew. He would just know. He wouldn’t be able to say anything, and she wouldn’t need to. If he didn’t say anything, she would know.

The next morning she had a hangove
r. All day she waited for Miles to call, becoming more and more angry, but he didn’t ring until after six in the evening. By then she was not only angry but also afraid, afraid that she had done something irreparable.

‘How’s it going?’ she asked, lightly.

‘Very well, actually,’ he said, with his voice full of confidence and energy. ‘Extremely well. How are things with you, darling?’

‘Oh, I’m fine,’ she said. ‘Fine.’

On Christmas Eve and well past 11 o’clock Sarah heard a key turn in the lock of the front door.

‘Sarah, I’m back,’ Miles shouted, slamming the door behind him. Sarah came out of the bedroom in her nightdress and ran barefoot towards him in the hallway. His arms were full of shopping bags and his face was shining; his expression was the one she loved most.

‘At last,’ he said, putting down the bags and kissing her hungrily; his breath smelt of whisky. ‘The flight was incredibly late. I’m so sorry. Darling, you look wonderful in that.’

‘How was your trip?’ Sarah asked.

‘Believe me, darling,’ he said smiling, ‘you don’t want to know. Don’t even ask. But I did all my Christmas shopping. Masses of it.’ And he picked up his bags, took them into the living-room, knelt down and started putting packages underneath the tall scented tree. Sarah switched on the little lights, and he turned and smiled up at her.

‘There’s one thing I want you to have right now,’ he said. ‘I brought you back that Yves Montand song, the one they were playing at the Repulse Bay. Kitschy but lovely. But I could only get an American version. Dean Martin.’

He put the cassette into their sound system. ‘Dance with me,’ he said.

He put his arms around her, one behind her shoulders, the other pulling the small of her back towards him in that new way he had; his thigh parted hers, and they moved easily to the rhythm.

‘Si bon, si bon,’ sang Dean Martin, ‘si bon, si bon.’

How had Miles managed to buy all those presents from all those expensive shops, Sarah wondered, without any credit cards? How had he managed to get so much cash so quickly? His office might have settled his hotel bills and his clients might have paid for his lunches and dinners; they might have provided him with a driver. But all that cash? And without saying anything. Did he have other credit cards, but why? Or was there someone with him, helping him?

Miles kissed the back of her neck and up into her hairline, smelling her, as they circled round the tree; it gave her gooseflesh.

‘Si bon, si bon. My darling, c’est si bon,’ sang Dean Martin.

‘But this isn’t the same,’ Sarah said, holding Miles tightly. ‘It’s not the same.’

He had his eyes shut, smiling.

‘Gigi si bon,’ Dean Martin sang on. ‘Si bon, si bon.

Mimi si bon,

And all those mademoiselles that are si bon,

In fact you’d be surprised how much good stuff there is around here, Frank.

Si bon, si bon.’

Sarah pulled away, surprised by the unfamiliar lyrics. But Miles seemed not to hear.

‘This is all so good, darling,’ he said, opening his eyes and looking down at her.

‘But is it?’ she wanted to ask him. ‘Is it really?’ She was afraid of what he might say and of what he might not say.

‘Happy Christmas, Miles,’ she said instead.

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