Thursday, May 6th, 1937
The Neighborhood of Perpetual Prosperity
The Hongkew District
The alleyway was even narrower, from the inside.
The afternoon was wearing on; the floor of the alley was in shadow, while the sun dazzled on the brick house-fronts, above. The sky was just a strip of blue, overhead, punctuated by some white clouds; the washing hanging above our heads waved gently in the breeze, like flags.
"Let's see … That must have been the main entrance; see, this is Number One, that's Number Three … We want number Two Forty-Eight, Boss, so we have a ways to go, yet."
I stopped, for a moment. Ahead of us I could clearly see what seemed to be an intersection, with another alley crossing ours at right angles; and farther ahead, yet another intersection.
"How many streets — alleys — are in this place, anyway?" I asked.
"I don't know, Boss, I've never been in this one. But I think it's one of the larger li-longs; there'll be quite a few."
"And the alleys don't have names — ?"
"Nope," Mister Chen answered, cheerfully. "You just look for the house number … But they're all in order, so it's not really that tough. Come on!"
We plunged on ahead.
At the first intersection we came upon a low, covered structure squarely in the middle of the road, which I recognized as a capped well; and all of a sudden, I was reminded, oddly, of Venice, Italy; there are very many capped wells, and some very narrow passage-ways there, too, and no lack of washing hanging from windows …
In fact, there was something very European about the houses; blank walls to the alley, blank, heavy-looking doors in those walls, with brass door-knockers; and then, the real life of the house starting on the upper floors, with windows — many of them open — and window-shutters, and gables and roofs and potted plants on window-sills —
We could hear voices, and clatter, coming from those windows as we walked; and while some of it was unmistakably Shanghainese — I thought some of it was not …
We followed the rising house-numbers; turning right, once, and then left, and I tried to keep track of our direction; I dislike feeling lost, and there was something maze-like and claustrophobic about the whole affair, here. The alleys were indeed barely ten, or maybe twelve feet wide —
And then we turned right once again, and the comparison to Venice, to an older, stonier European city, grew even stronger. We came upon a group of children kicking a ball around, up and down the alley-way, towards unmarked goals —
And they were European. Caucasian, anyway; unmistakably so. Two were blond, and one was red-haired.
Mister Chen noticed my surprise.
"This part of the Hongkew is where a lot of the Russians live, Boss," he said, after we'd passed the children. "You know — White Russians, the ones who left after the Revolution in 1917? Only, there are lots of Ukrainians and Hungarians and Romanians, too … just about every country in Eastern Europe." He shrugged. "My dad says we're getting of lot of Jews from Europe, lately, too."
I could believe that.
"He says Sir Victor helps them out, a lot. You know, the one who built your hotel — ?"
"Sir Victor Sassoon?"
"Yep. He gives to a lot of charities in Shanghai, and not just the Jewish ones. My dad's met him; he thinks a lot of him."
His statement told me that neither Mister Chen, nor his father, was reflexively anti-Semitic, unlike so many people; and I was glad. But I said nothing, for the moment. Talking of one's feelings in such matters generally leads to trouble.
We reached Number Two Hundred Thirty, and turned a corner —
"Two forty-four, two forty-six … Here we are, Boss." He smiled at me.
I looked at it.
It seemed much the same as the other alley-way houses … except that it had a red bougainvillea growing in a large pot by the front door, obviously-trained up the wall, and that the front door, uncharacteristically, was open. A sign was fastened over the ornamental Chinese stone-work in the pediment which surmounted the door. One inscription upon that sign was in Chinese, which of course I could not read; the second was in Cyrillic characters, at whose meaning I could at least guess; and the third was in ordinary French:
My confidential package was in an envelope addressed to Monsieur S. Simonov. It had not taken a genius, to guess that the recipient was a Russian.
I was immediately faced with a dilemma, or a least a minor dilemma of manners; but Mister Chen solved it for me. He settled himself comfortably against the brick wall by the open doorway, and pulled out an expensive-looking silver cigaret-case.
"You go ahead, Boss," he said, easily. He extracted a thin brown cigaret, and then, from another pocket, a lighter. "I'll be waiting for you right here. No rush." He had the air of someone who is used to waiting, as part of his job.
"Thank you," I said; then I took a breath, and stepped through the open door.
The doorway, as it proved, opened upon a very small, high-walled courtyard. There were flowers growing in pots, everywhere; on the courtyard pavement, in pots on a shelf, and in pots hanging on the walls. In a tub in a corner, there was what seemed to be an orange tree, in early bloom. Opposite the heavy front door, were two French doors, of white-painted wood and panes of glass; these too stood open.
I hesitated, a moment; and then I knocked, tentatively, on the wood part of one of the French doors.
"Monsieur Simonov?" I called out, not very loudly.
"Yes?" from a voice, within. Then; "Come, come."
In I went, and found myself in a classic tailor's atelier; a well-lit, high-ceilinged room, filled with the tools of the trade; mannequins, wearing finished suits, tailor's dummies both in-use and waiting for use, bolts of cloth in multiple colors and patterns, standing in racks or leaning against walls, paper patterns tacked up to cork boards …
And, sitting at an old-fashioned roll-top desk covered with stacks of what looked like sales records and invoices, was a man. A man who was regarding me, over the tops of his half-moon glasses.
"'Are you the spirit, sir, whose coming was foretold to me?'" he asked. His tone was sardonic.
I blinked at him, taken aback. The quote was Dickens, of course; it sounded strange, in French. Atrociously-accented, and rather guttural, French.
"Monsieur — ?" from me.
The man rolled his eyes, and waved a hand, dismissively. "Nothing, nothing. It is a joke, a weak one. I am expecting a package. Do you have a package for me?"
The man was middle-aged, perhaps sixty, but rather youthful-looking; he had a full, bushy mustache, of mixed black and silver; his eyes were quick, intelligent, and impatient. Incongruously, he wore a cloth cap, an ordinary worker's cloth cap, indoors, in his own studio.
I drew a breath.
"Yes, Monsieur. My name is — "
"No. No, no, no." He held up his hand. "Do not tell me your name. I do not want to know your name. Why would I want to know your name — ?"
He regarded me over the tops of his half-moon glasses; I just gaped at him.
"Believe me, it is better that I do not know your name. You would not know my name, if it weren't on a sign above the door. As far as you are concerned, I am S. Simonov; and nothing more. And as far as I am concerned, you are Monsieur Nemo. And nothing more. Is that understood?"
Eventually I closed my mouth; and then I opened it again.
"Good, good." He held out an impatient hand. "And now, the package — ?"
I unslung my canvas bag, and unbuckled the straps, and opened it, and brought out the manila envelope addressed to him. I handed it over.
"You will excuse me, a moment?" he asked, in mock-politeness. Then, "Sit, sit," gesturing towards a chair.
He wheeled his chair — it was the type that swivels, and was on castors — closer to the desk. Once there, he examined the envelope very closely, very minutely, on both sides — I was struck with the similarity to my own examination of Jack's letters — until, finally, he seemed satisfied. And then — partially blocked from my view, by a tall stack of folders, and papers — I saw him take up a sharp-looking knife, and carefully slit the envelope open.
Silence, then, for a few seconds. The sound of his breathing; the sound of papers — the contents of his envelope — being extracted, examined, and flipped-through.
At last, he looked up at me again, over the tops of his glasses.
"You will excuse me, yet again — ?" The same mocking politeness.
He rose to his feet, carrying the envelope; and he walked heavily through the back door of his tailor-shop room. I noticed that he had a limp. I heard him climb some stairs; and then I heard the floorboards squeak above my head, as he walked to the front part of the house, upstairs; 'lug-thunk', 'lug-thunk', 'lug-thunk'. More silence then, for at least three whole minutes, perhaps longer; and then I heard him walk to the back part of the house, a diminishing 'lug-thunk', 'lug-thunk', 'lug-thunk' —
And then, silence again. Real silence; not a breath, or whisper of movement.
I took the opportunity, to look around me. To look thoroughly.
My first reaction, was one of surprise, at the quality of the mens' suits, on display, or under construction. To my eyes, they were beautifully-cut, in the individually-tailored, Continental style, with fitted, un-padded shoulders —
The materials, from where I sat, looked expensive too. But I did not want to make noise, by walking over to investigate further.
I wondered, on second thought, why I should be surprised. It seemed an unlikely place, for a fine tailor-shop; but then, all of Shanghai, the entirety of Shanghai, seemed an unlikely place, to me.
As unlikely as my presence, here, now. Somehow I doubted that Father had sent me to deliver an order for monogrammed handkerchiefs.
What on earth was going on — ?
I shook away the stab of gloom; and I continued my examination.
Two sewing-machines, obviously of professional grade, sitting at right angles to one another. Enormous spools of thread, hanging from wooden pegs protruding from a wall. A built-in bookcase, under the spools of thread —
A spot of color, there; and a little shock of recognition.
Mixed in with drab, clothbound books with Cyrillic lettering on their spines … a smaller stack of books. Familiar books. 'Histoire de le petit elephant, Babar'; then, 'Tin Tin'; several Adventures of Tin Tin, actually. I recognized French translations of 'The Secret Garden', and 'Anne of Green Gables' …
And near the top of the stack, 'A Christmas Carol', which explained Monsieur Simonov's greeting to me, just now. Obviously, there was a child in the household, or at least one who visited frequently. It was the most likable thing about Monsieur Simonov that I had yet discovered —
Footsteps, on the floor above me, again; 'lug-thunk', 'lug-thunk', 'lug-thunk' —
The footsteps approached the stairway, in the room beyond, and then they came down; and then, Monsieur Simonov was back in the room, and settling into his wheeled, swivel-chair.
"You can tell your employer, that the terms are acceptable."
He came to a full stop; and he just looked at me, over the tops of his glasses.
The silence stretched on, for second after second.
"Is there … nothing else, Monsieur?" I ventured. Timidly.
"If there were more to say, I would say it. 'The terms are acceptable.' That is enough."
More silence. He kept his gaze upon me. I found it — unnerving.
"Monsieur … I was told to bring back a receipt."
His eyes grew larger, and a 'pouf' of disbelief escaped his lips, the kind of exasperated, European 'pouf' that I hadn't often heard since coming home to the States.
"A receipt. A receipt — ?"
"Yes, Monsieur. My instructions were very specific. I am to bring back a signed receipt, from you."
"A receipt." He rolled his eyes. "A receipt. A written record. Words on paper. Madness. So. You will have your receipt."
He propelled his swivel-chair around to face his desk. He searched through the clutter on the desk-top, until he found a block of cheap, brown, unlined paper, of the kind used for jotting down casual notes, or for making scribbled calculations. Then, he rummaged through a glass jar, and pulled out a pencil; and he proceeded to write, briefly, and fiercely. When he was finished, he tore off the sheet, wheeled himself closer to me, and handed it to me, with a look of unconcealed disgust.
I looked at it. It was in French, of course.
Received, of Young Monsieur Nemo:
One envelope, with contents.
6 May 1937
"Thank you, Monsieur." I carefully folded the cheap brown paper, and then I slid it away into my wallet; aware of his eyes on me, of the movements of my hands, the whole time.
Wondering, with part of my mind, what Father would say to the 'Young Monsieur Nemo'. Nemo, of course, is Latin for 'No-one'.
I settled back into my chair. The awkward silence resumed.
I groped for something to say.
"Well — ?" from Monsieur Simonov, at last. The eyes above his half-moon glasses were impatient. "Is there anything else? Do you have any further business with me — ?"
In addition to the receipt, Father had asked for my considered opinion of Monsieur Simonov. Specifically, as to whether he could be trusted, in 'an important business matter'.
At the moment, my answer would be, 'no'. I thought Monsieur Simonov eccentric at best, and possibly unstable.
But Father would want to know the basis for my opinion; and I had exchanged just a handful of words with him, and seen just one room of his shop.
I imagined Father's face, as I told him of my reactions, and my reasons for them. He would say nothing, of course; but I could already see the look of disappointment, forming on his features.
He might even imagine that I hadn't really tried. I found the prospect galling; a hurt to my pride.
My mouth opened, a little; to say what, I don't know. Monsieur Simonov's silent, implacable, impatient stare continued, for one last moment —
Jack would know just what to do now, I thought, miserably —
And then, from out of nowhere, I heard words come from my mouth.
"Actually, Monsieur — I think that I would like to have a suit made. A linen suit, if you please." S'il vous plaît.
It was Monsieur Simonov's turn to blink back at me, in astonishment.
I honestly did not know where the idea came from; other, than that I was aware that I needed some new linen suits for the summer; and, that I was in a tailor's shop.
Maybe, it was thinking of Jack, and of his skill with people, that did it.
"A linen suit." Another, short, explosive 'pouf', from Monsieur Simonov. "'A linen suit.' There is no such thing, as, 'a linen suit'." He waved a quick, dismissive hand. "If you wear linen suits, you need at least three of them. One to wear, one to have in the closet, and one to be out for cleaning. Do you already have two linen suits — ?"
"No, Monsieur." I answered carefully. "I did not bring any with me; and the weather is getting warm."
More silence as he looked at me; as a tailor, or as someone else entirely, I did not know.
A long pause.
"So. You will order — three suits — then?"
"I will order four, if I may, Monsieur." He was perfectly correct, about one's needing a minimum of three linen suits. I usually had four; and I had worn all of them out, the previous summer, I had practically lived in them.
Those implacable eyes on me; he started thrumming his fingers, impatiently, on the wooden arm of his swivel-chair.
"So," he said, at last; his eyes flicking to the mannequins, the tailor's-dummies, standing here-and-there throughout the shop. "Did you see a particular suit, or a particular cut, that you liked — ?" His manner did not soften, noticeably. "You are in long pants, I see." This last, sardonically.
I flushed, with temper; but I kept my voice level, and mild.
"Yes, Monsieur. This one, over here — ?"
And with that, we fell into an absurdly-normal, an almost-surreally-normal, discussion of fabrics, and cuts, of backings and of styles.
* * *
"Arm up, like this, please? Yes, yes."
Having one's measurements taken is always the most tedious part of having clothes made. Monsieur Simonov was taking many measurements, which is the sign of a good tailor.
"Now, out forward, please?"
The feel of the tape running on top of my shirt — I was standing coatless, and shoeless, of course — and then, he lowered my arm, and scribbled another number onto the same brown-paper block he'd used to write out my receipt.
Something about the process — perhaps the routine — seemed to have dulled the edge of his antagonism. Or, possibly, it was the scent of orange blossoms coming through the open French doors. The day was warm and pleasant.
"Now, the left arm, please. Out, and to the side."
I had tried to engage him in conversation To learn something more about him, for Father's sake.
I could hardly ask him anything directly; that was clear.
So, instead, I had asked him a few questions, about Shanghai. It was about the only subject we had in common, after all. I had asked him about neighborhoods; I had asked him if the International Settlement, the City, as a whole, was safe.
It was the latter question which had generated the only real response, from him.
"Safe? Safe — ? Yes, yes; Shanghai is quite safe, very safe, as safe as any large city. Safer than most large cities."
There had been silence, then, for a moment. He had been measuring my outer-leg seam. Then:
"Still. It is always wisest to know, to be aware, of where the nearest policeman is. The Sikhs are the best."
"Yes, Monsieur — ?"
"Yes. The locals call them 'Turbaned Number Threes'; it is not a flattering reference, and they are afraid of them. And, another thing." His eyes flicked up to mine, briefly, from over the tops of his half-moon glasses. "If you see a young man, any young man, in a sharp, cheap suit — you would know the type of suit I mean — if you see such a young man, or men, avoid them. Shanghai is full of young, petty gangsters. They gain status, within their gangs, by robbing people, the poor, the elderly, even penniless office clerks like you, yes — ?"
This last came out sardonically.
"Thank you, Monsieur."
"And they carry knives. Always knives. Switchblades. I can tell, you are not carrying a knife — " Again sardonically; the process of taking measurements is quite intimate — "so, best to avoid them."
"I will, Monsieur."
At last, Monsieur Simonov carefully folded up his measuring-tape, and put it away in a pocket; and then, he sat on a a stool, and looked at me, from different angles — scooting his stool around, in the process, as he did so — as I stood there. This is also something a good tailor will do. He continued making occasional notes on his block of brown paper.
"Yes, yes," he muttered, almost to himself — "you have very good posture; no difficulties, there … " His eyes looked me over head-to-toe once, and then again, more slowly; and then he met my eyes, briefly. "Linen suits can be a little, eh, fragile, perhaps — ? Although you chose fine material, it is tougher than it looks … But. Regardless. Just in case, I will leave in enough extra material, that you can have them recut to wear next year. Bring the suits to me, and I will recut them; or if not, please, take them to a good tailor. I do excellent work, and I do not want to see it destroyed by a fool."
I felt a surge of hope run through me; it was almost like an electric shock.
"Do you think that I am still growing, Monsieur — ?" I tried to keep my voice casual.
"Eh — ?" He looked me up-and-down, again, quickly; then he took my right hand, and pushed my sleeve far up my arm, peering at my wrist, my arm, and my hand closely, through his half-moon spectacles; and then he repeated the process with my right pant-leg, peering at my ankle, and my stockinged foot. Then he let it fall, and he sat back on his stool.
"Yes, yes, yes, you are growing. Two centimeters at least, this next year; perhaps three. More likely two. I will leave extra material for two centimeters of growth; more than that, and you should come to see me for new suits, anyway."
"Yes, Monsieur. Thank you, Monsieur."
Jack has told me, my grandparents have told me, that I still have some growing to do; my doctors have been more circumspect. I wanted very much to gain at least a little, in stature. I found Monsieur Simonov very reassuring.
Monsieur Simonov now sat back on his stool, no longer taking notes; he looked at me closely, in the face, and held his silence for long seconds. I wondered if it meant the return of his original antagonistic manner.
Finally, with a quick wave of his hand, he motioned me towards the other stool.
"So, Young Monsieur Nemo. I have told you something about yourself, that perhaps you are pleased to hear. Good. Excellent." His tone was faintly ironic, just short of mocking. "Now, maybe, I will tell you a few more things about yourself, that may be less pleasing to you, eh — ?"
I blinked at him.
"Monsieur — ?"
He shrugged an ironic shrug. "With your oh-so-pleasant conversation, you have been trying to find out information about me. Undoubtedly you have been doing so on behalf of your employer. Such loyalty; it is to be commended. But in the process, you have spoken many more words than I have, and so I have found out more things about you, than you have of me."
His eyes held mine. They were not unkind; but they were implacable.
"First. Your employer is American, of course; but you, yourself, are French, and that is a good choice, a wise choice, on his part. You are very well-educated; your accent is that of Paris but also with something else, something of the South about it; I do not know what." He saw the look on my face, and for the very first time, a brief smile twitched his bushy mustache. "Yes, yes, yes, I know, my own accent is terrible. I can't be bothered, I make myself understood, and that is enough. But I have ears."
I felt a pall of dread fall on me; even though he had missed the key facts of my nationality, and of my relationship to Father. It was increasingly clear, that I did not have the slightest idea of what I'd gotten myself into.
Monsieur Simonov grew serious again.
"There is more. You come from money, from real money. You have been standing, getting measured for clothes, your whole life; it is second nature to you, I can tell, and that is very rare. Your shoes were hand-made for you, in England, or by someone who learned how to make shoes in England, and you paid more for them than you will for all four of my suits."
It was true. Mister Chen's cousin did not carry second-hand shoes; I had been forced to wear my own. But in my defense, and Mister Chen's, we had merely wanted to be inconspicuous, not disguised.
" … and there is still more. You ordered four, good suits — and you clearly recognize quality tailoring, that is another tell-tale — and, you did not remember to ask the price, until later." A wry twitch of his mustache, then. "If you had asked the price, I would have asked you to put down a deposit. But, you did not. So, I did not ask for a deposit. Nevertheless, I did not raise the price of the suits. I charge a fair price for the quality of work I do, and that is all I want or require. And I am not so very much in love with the law of supply and demand, in any case."
Silence, then, for a moment, as he looked in my eyes. I began to realize what he was telling me.
"So," he said; then, he waved another dismissive hand. "So. One last thing to tell you, about yourself, Young Monsieur Nemo."
A pause. Implacable eyes on mine, again; but perhaps, this time, tinged with the slightest hint of — sympathy — ?
"I have surprised you, several times, in the course of this interview. I have surprised you, when you should not have been surprised, had you known our business — your employer's business, and mine. And that tells me, that your employer perhaps does not entirely trust you. And that, in turn, means that I should not entirely trust you, either."
He actually said it, with a surprising degree of gentleness. For my part, I kept my expression carefully blank; but his words — about Father not trusting me — hurt, because they were true.
"Under those circumstances, Young Monsieur Nemo, I will give you a piece of advice; a recommendation. And that is, to always have a plan, a getaway plan, a contingency plan, ready and at hand. Better yet; have two. For if your employer does not entirely trust you, it follows that you should not entirely trust him." He shrugged. "It is a lesson that I myself learned, much too late, and at great personal cost."
An echoing moment of silence, then; until I finally found my voice.
"Thank you, Monsieur," I said. And then I surprised myself, by going on. "I had already thought of this."
You fool, I told myself, immediately. You utter fool. Admitting this to a complete stranger. You fool.
"Good," from Monsieur Simonov. "Good." His eyes held mine for another moment; intent, measuring, judging … and then, with a sigh, he pushed himself up off of the stool, and to his feet. He walked, limping, over to his swivel chair, and settled himself down into it. I reached for my shoes.
"And now, Young Monsieur Nemo, I will tell you this, also. If your employer is not a complete idiot, you will be visiting me again. Several times. Perhaps multiple times. How lucky I am, to become so popular in my older years, no — ?" The sardonic edge was back to his voice, now.
I said nothing.
"Do you have more sets of clothes — ? Clothes like you are wearing now, I mean; not your true clothes."
"Yes, Monsieur … and I will get more."
"Good. Wear them; different clothes, each visit. Change them around, I mean. But wear them, first. The clothes you have on now were washed in lye soap, and they were boiled; and they do not hang on you, correctly. I expect you bought them only this morning. Even clothes that do not fit, have a certain way of hanging, once they have been worn, for awhile. It is obvious."
"Yes, Monsieur." That feeling of unreality, again; of groping my way along, in a fog.
"Did you take a rickshaw here — ?"
"Rickshaws are good. But always take a public rickshaw — they are yellow — and for God's sake, not one associated with your hotel, or with your employer. Always start your journey in a different part of town; rickshaw coolies have amazing memories, and they like to gossip. A bicycle would be even better, much better; a boy your age, a clerk, on a bicycle, with a canvas bag — " He made another, European 'pouf' sound — "He is invisible. A bicycle would be very good."
I wanted very much to ask, why any of this should be necessary. I suppose the question showed in my face.
Monsieur Simonov looked at me, and cocked his head to the side, a little. The intelligence gleamed in his eyes.
"Yes," he said. Then, "No." A pause. "Maybe". An ironic shrug. Another pause. "All I know, is that your employer has paid a considerable amount of money, in exchange for discretion. And, that he wishes very much that his name remains — unconnected — with our … business. At such a price, I assume there would be consequences, were it to become known. Whether anyone is interested, whether anyone is looking, I could not say." Another shrug. "In my experience, someone is always looking; but then, I am Russian, no — ?"
I thought, immediately, of Mister Grey; but then, also, of Mister Sayles, and …
The list, I realized, was depressingly long.
"So," from Monsieur Simonov; watching my face, my reactions. "You will be careful when you come to visit me in the future, yes — ? For your employer's sake?"
"And next time, you will please leave your Chinese giant outside the neighborhood gates, somewhere. Wherever did you find him? The neighbors will be talking about him for a week." He rolled his eyes, in resignation.
"I will, Monsieur … Monsieur — ?" I hesitated a moment, before plunging on.
"Yes, yes, yes — ?" A hint of his earlier impatience.
I hated to do it; but I could see no other way.
"Monsieur, you are correct, that I was asked to bring back … my impressions, of you. But you have told me very little, of yourself." I paused, a moment; and I swallowed. "Is there anything you would like me to tell my employer — ? About you, yourself, I mean — ?"
Astonished eyes regarded mine, over his half-moon glasses; then, suddenly, and unexpectedly, he barked out with laughter.
"Honesty, in dealings such as ours! Genius! Madness! Who could have anticipated, such a thing — !" More barks of laughter; and then he shook his head, slowly recovering. Finally, he looked at me, closely, and more soberly. "Well, then; let me trade you, an honest question, for an honest question, Young Monsieur Nemo. Does your employer harbor doubts about working with me — ?"
"I do not have the slightest idea, Monsieur."
The honest answers are always the easiest to give.
Silence, then, for a long stretch of seconds. Monsieur Simonov held my gaze; thinking. Calculating. He did not try to disguise it.
"Indeed. So. What am I to say, then, to your employer — ?"
His head tilted, slightly, to one side; and I watched, as he made his decision. I could see it flash across his face.
"So. I will say this much, at least; and you will kindly repeat it to your employer, please. You are aware, perhaps, that this part of the Hongkew District holds many Russians — ?"
"Yes, Monsieur." This, from me, cautiously.
"Yes, yes, yes; many Russians, who fled the October Revolution. They came here in 1918, 1919, 1920." He looked at me with a certain ironic defiance. "But I am not one of them. I came here from Russia, from the Soviet Union, five years ago, in 1932; and believe me, I did not want to leave, it was not my first choice."
I blinked at him.
"Since then, I have lived on my wits, and by my skills — and I do not mean, my skills with needle and thread. Your employer will understand. And in that time, I have built a large, and respectable, and influential, clientele."
I said nothing. The ironic gleam in his eye had deepened. Whatever his skills were, I did not think they were being put to an entirely legal use.
"You can tell your employer, that I am the best man in Shanghai for his needs, and that he is a fool, if he does not use me. And finally, Young Monsieur Nemo, you may tell your employer that I am working, on this job, for my costs, only; because it is the right thing to do. I have already donated my ever-so-generous engagement fee … appropriately." He peered at me, over the tops of his half-moon glasses. "Now, then, Young Monsieur Nemo; can you remember all that — ?"
None of it made the slightest sense to me.
A pause, as he looked at me; and then he rose, with a grimace, from his chair. I rose, too.
"Good. You will go, now. And the next time you come, we will perhaps have a fitting, for you. But do not expect that I will need to make any alterations. I am very good, at what I do."
Comments are always welcome, at dlgrantsf (at) yahoo (dot) com.
And, please consider donating to Awesomedude, by clicking on the yellow button on the main page? Even the smallest contributions are very welcome, and will help keep this priceless resource online.