Jeremy Clarke

Low life | 21 September 2017

‘Do you have a girlfriend?’ Joy asked. ‘Many,’ I answered

Low life | 21 September 2017
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I got off the plane at Changi still pleasantly sedated by Xanax, passed through the ‘nothing to declare’ channel, and there, waiting with my name on a signboard, was my guide for the next four days. Joy was short, middle-aged and had a low centre of gravity. She was Chinese, she said, pleased about it. A minibus and driver were waiting at the kerb. ‘Get in!’ said Joy. I did as I was told. We drove to the centre of Singapore just in time for the Garden Rhapsody light and sound show.

‘Look! Supertrees! Can you see them?’ she said. You couldn’t miss them. Towering above and around us were a dozen or so 50-metre-tall branched steel structures twinkling with coloured lights. For a quarter of an hour the lights changed colour in time to the chord changes of sentimental songs from hit musicals. We sat cross-legged on the ground among a thousand other tourists gaping upwards. ‘Look! No litter! Very clean!’ said Joy, impatiently diverting my attention from the rhapsody of light and sound to the cleanliness of the concrete on which we sat. I obediently searched the concrete for litter. ‘Did you enjoy?’ she said when the music stopped and the lights ceased to flash. ‘Very gay,’ I said. ‘Gay?’ she said. She was dumbfounded. ‘What you mean, gay? I don’t understand you. Now we eat.’

We ate at a table for two in a circular restaurant perched in the canopy of one of these ridiculous Supertrees. Joy ordered the restaurant staff around with toe-curling peremptoriness. She chose the dishes. Quickly losing confidence in the intelligence of the waiter, she would have truck only with the manager. When at last she found time for conversation with her new client, she monopolised it.

Joy was a simple soul and inordinately proud of the social status conferred by her prestigious occupation of tourist guide. There was a very famous, very beautiful Hong Kong film starlet, in fact, who preferred to use her above any other guide when she visited Singapore. She showed me a photograph on her huge smartphone: Joy standing next to this beautiful Hong Kong film star. Joy’s face was a picture of star-struck defiance. ‘Which one is you?’ I said. ‘Funny,’ she said, dismissively.

She was immensely popular, she said, and particularly with American tourists. One of them had lately sent her a Donald Trump election-campaign baseball cap. It was a special edition, I must understand. Instead of saying ‘Trump–Pence’, this one said simply ‘Trump’, which made it far more covetable. That is how much her Americans love and appreciate her. She would bring it tomorrow and show me. Unfortunately for me, she would not be wearing it. It was too precious. But she would bring it and let me have a look at it.

Another feather in her cap was getting to shake hands with the Duchess of Cambridge five years ago. Joy flicked through her phone’s photo album and showed me a video clip of Kate Middleton looking very glad to have just met Joy. Joy told me how adroit she had been that day in obtaining information from a security guard — one of her many contacts — about which part of the penned-in crowd Kate would make for first.

I was indeed most fortunate, I agreed, to be allocated such a prestigious and well-connected guide. Something akin to modesty fleetingly softened her features. Amazing as her life was, however, Joy felt that she was destined for greater things. This job was only a foot on the first rung of the ladder. Was I married, she said? Sadly not, I said. Was she married? ‘No. Single,’ she said.

The Xanax had made me ravenous. Joy talked about her work and her famous clients and her ambition while I gulped down the spicy food. ‘Eat!’ she said, maternally shovelling another heap of whatever it was on to my plate. ‘Do you like the music?’ she said. The music was a repetitive saxophone melody with a sort of spaced-out funk background. If I had said not, no doubt she would have conferred with the manager and had it changed. I did like it, however, and said so. In fact, I was listening to it, repetitive as it was, rather than to her. She did not like it, she said. It was bloody awful. She said ‘bloody awful’ in a posh British accent. ‘Do you like my accent?’ she said. ‘I am funny, aren’t I? Everyone laughs so much when I do my funny accents. Oh, you will see how funny I am. All my clients say I am so funny. Eat!’ I gobbled faster. ‘You have never been married?’ she said, sceptically. ‘No,’ I said. ‘You have girlfriend?’ ‘Many,’ I said. ‘Oh,’ she said, and for a moment she looked crestfallen.