China Boat

Chapter 42






It was wholly inadequate, of course; there is only so much one can say, in a telegram. Particularly a telegram to one's clandestine lover, which is liable to be widely read.

Still, it was immediate. Jack would know I was thinking of him — hurting for him, really. Not that he would have had any doubt of it. We are a team.


Saturday, May 8th, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China

 … I think I can guess, just how low you are right now, old man. The photo on the front page of the local newspaper — the North China Daily News — was bad enough; but the story said the whole thing was filmed by a newsreel-camera, and that the film was expected in theaters — 

Well. As I write this, the film will probably be in New York theaters tomorrow; my tomorrow, I mean. By the time you read this letter it will already have come-and-gone, of course. But by the time you read this letter, the actual film will likely be just arriving in Shanghai. By air-mail, ironically enough.

It's a horrible thought. I don't want to see it. But short of boycotting the cinemas altogether, I don't know that I'll be able to escape it.

I really do wish I were there, old man. I would give anything to be there with you, just now … 


Jack lives for flying. He lives for flight; for the idea of flight.


When things go wrong, and large numbers of people perish in an air-crash, it hits him hard. He can go very low, indeed.

I knew, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that he was feeling especially low and horrible, just now. It was already clear that the spectacular explosion and burning of the German airship, the Hindenburg, would be the air-disaster story of the decade, and perhaps much longer. It would be for the air, what the sinking of the Titanic was for ocean travel.

Jack would be terribly low.

But as if that weren't enough — the Hindenburg, the LZ129, had held a special place in Jack's heart; partially because of me.

Jack is ordinarily a heavier-than-air man; he prefers stick (or wheel) and rudder, ailerons and elevators. He thinks the future of air transportation will be with airplanes, the larger, the more engines, the more powerful, the better, and I think he's right.

But in the end, anything that takes people up, engages him.

When the Hindenburg was launched, one magazine — I think it was 'Popular Science', but I'm not sure — had devoted an entire special edition to it. It came complete with detailed, cutaway drawings, showing the complex, internal structure of the ship: there were the cylindrical gas cells; the intricate ballast systems, which were crucial to the operation of the ship; the catwalks, running the length and breadth of the ship; and there were the docking-platforms and the engine-pods, and of course the passenger decks — two of them — actually inside the cigar-shaped hull, complete with a promenade-deck, with windows that could be opened in flight — 

What air-minded, fifteen-year-old boy could possibly resist?

So, Jack had cut out many of the photos, and diagrams, of the LZ129 from the magazine, and he had tacked them up to the walls of his bedroom, at home. He had drawn, and redrawn, sketches of the Hindenburg's internal structures in his notebooks, at school — 

And when I had visited him that summer, the summer of 1936, we had built a scale model of the airship, from a kit, together. It was made out of balsa-wood and tissue-paper, and it had taken us three tries and vast quantities of spoiled tissue-paper, before we'd gotten the outer hull-covering tight and taut and properly-doped.

It had been enormous fun.

It had also brought us much closer.

Jack had even, very tentatively, suggested that when it came time to do his Grand Tour of Europe after graduating — it was already settled, that I would go along — that we might even consider crossing on the Hindenburg — ?


I will not willingly take passage on a German ship, or airplane, or train, or airship; not if I can help it. Not after our experience, Father's and mine, in Berlin. Not even if the founder of the Zeppelin company was as anti-Nazi as he was rumored to be.

But I hadn't said no, outright. Regimes can change, after all. Leaders can fall; or so I'd told myself. And just the bare possibility — years ahead — of us flying across the Atlantic together, in just two days, on such a glorious airship, had made Jack glow with happiness, for days and days on end.


Well. It would never happen, now.


Jack would be very low.


It does not happen often; Jack is, as I've said, a naturally happy, ebullient, and cheerful person. Perhaps that is why, when he does get low, he can get very low.


The last time it had happened, we'd been at school. He'd gotten word that his dog, whom he'd loved very much, had taken suddenly and seriously ill, and had had to be put down.

And so, I'd gone to visit his bed, that night. And I'd held him, in my arms — we'd been on our sides; my front to his back, bare skin to bare skin, my right arm around him — and we'd stayed like that, for minute after minute, silent, warm, intimate — 

And then, finally, he'd sighed a deep sigh, a shuddering sigh, and I'd felt him relax, in my arms … and then, finally, he was asleep.


If I were back home in America, back at school, I could do it again. I would do it again.

Instead, I was stuck here in this accursed place, Shanghai, half a world away, reduced to sending a wholly inadequate wire, and writing a wholly-inadequate letter which might take the best part of two weeks to get into his hands.

As so it was, that I was in a foul mood, deeply unhappy with Father, Shanghai in general and pretty much the entire world, as we went up to have our special, exclusive, Saturday-night dinner with Miss Lloyd.

* * *

The world, as I keep finding out, does not revolve around me.

"This way, sirs … This way, Messieurs." The discreet usher led us through the darkness, to a round table, up in the Tower Nightclub, at the very top of the Cathay.

"Oh, hello, Rhys," from Miss Lloyd, brightly. "Hello, Tom! Won't you join us, please?"

"He said no," Tom whispered to me, in an aside, as we took our seats.

I'd known he would.

"Hello, Miss Lloyd," I said. "Mister Grey. Mister Kaufman. Mister Sayles." Then I squeezed Tom's knee, reassuringly, under the table, and smiled dutifully at the distinguished-looking woman at Miss Lloyd's side.

Miss Lloyd's special dinner had, in the end, been dinner for thirty-five. The guests had included Sir Hughe and Lady Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen; Sir Hughe being the British Ambassador to the Republic of China. In spite of that, we were lucky; dress was the relatively-informal black tie, the tuxedo, rather than the much less comfortable white tie.

And I was feeling utterly confused, angry all over again at Father, supremely guilty at not being with Jack right then — 

And on top it all, Tom's father was leaving in the morning for his first stint in the countryside, with only a single driver for company.

"Dear … " from the distinguished-looking lady, as she claimed her husband's attention. He looked over.

As did Father, with whom he had been talking; rather intimately.

Silence, for a moment. By rights, it should have been Father to introduce us; but he seemed utterly preoccupied, miles away.

It was Mister Grey who cleared his throat, and stepped into the void.

"Ambassador Sir Hughe and Lady Hughe Knathchbull-Hugessen, may I present Mister Rhys Williamson, and Mister Thomas Fletcher — ?" And then he completed the introduction, on the other side.

Nods, and smiles, and a few words, all around.

Sir Hughe had a broad face, a thin mustache, and unusually intelligent eyes, framed by laugh lines. And in spite of his spending his life being introduced to people whom he was unlikely to ever encounter again, I had the impression that he'd really looked at us, both of us, with interest.

But then again, he had been speaking with Father.

About what, I had no idea. Of course.

"I hope you enjoyed the dinner, boys — ?" from Miss Lloyd; in her perfectly-modulated, contralto voice.

"Very much, Miss Lloyd," I replied, truthfully. "It was — dim-sum — was it not — ?"

"Yes. The very best in all of Shanghai, I'm told," and she nodded at Mister Kaufman, the silver-haired manager of the Cathay, who bowed in his chair.

"Old Nieuwenhuis would weep, if he knew what he'd missed," contributed Mister Grey, raising his glass; provoking smiles, from some of us.


The desultory conversation ground on. Tom, at my side, was silent, and unhappy; I wished I could take him to one side, to offer some comfort … 

And at the same time, I wished I could get off by myself, to think. To think, to brood, about Jack, of course; but also, to think about Father, and the astonishing events of the past two days — 

I had reported back to him, concerning my visit to Monsieur Simonov. I'd told him everything, except Monsieur Simonov's observation about Father's lack of trust in me, and his advice to me, to have a get-away plan … 

And Father had told me nothing; except to repeat, that the matter was confidential.

Well, no; that was not strictly true. He had in fact offered to reimburse me for the cost of the suits. I had politely declined, on the grounds that I had needed them anyway.


The rift that had been there before, between us, was now a chasm.


I was also concerned about his health. He was pale, and his face was pinched; I felt fairly sure that his ulcer had returned, and the last time it had flared, he'd narrowly escaped hospitalization. And how I could help him, how I could deal with such a thing, as a minor, here in Shanghai, thousands of miles away from his usual doctors, from Grandfather and Grandmother, and from home — 

"I believe you boys missed it," Miss Lloyd was saying, smoothly, catching my eye — "but I was telling dear Freddy, Mister Kaufman, here, that he'll have me on his hands for a bit longer than we'd planned." She blew a stream of cigaret-smoke slowly off to one side. As usual, every move, every gesture, was languid, and polished.

"Ma'am — ?" from me, politely.

I guessed she'd noticed our silence, and was working to draw us into the conversation.

"Oh, yes." She looked mildly amused. "It seems there's been a strike, at the studios back home. One of the less-glamorous unions; the Federated Motion Pictures Crafts Union. They primarily represent makeup-artists, and scenery-painters, actually." She paused to take another draw from her slim cigaret-holder, and to slowly blow out the smoke. "And do you know what the Screen Actors Guild's reaction, was?" This time her glance took in all of us at the table, except for Father and the Ambassador.

"No, ma'am," I supplied.

"They told us not to honor the picket lines." Her beautiful face frowned, slightly, in distaste. "Can you imagine, one union not supporting another union's strike — ? Something about a jurisdictional dispute, I believe."

I heard a distinct, 'Haw!' from Mister Sayles. Mister Kaufman, who dealt with unions on a daily basis, kept a diplomatic silence.

"But in any event, Louis — "

She obviously meant Louis B. Mayer, of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer — 

" — decided to play it safe, with our production; we have too many assets on location, with too many other unions involved, like the Seamen's Union, and the Longshoreman's Union. So, we're shut down, for the time being; and Coop and Basil are, I'm sure, having a wonderful time, waiting it out in Hawaii." Another poised, languid draw, on her cigaret-holder. "Personally, I feel very fortunate to be here, instead."

This brought a smile to Mister Kaufman's lean face.

"And it's our very great privilege to have you, Miss Lloyd."

A look of amusement, on Miss Lloyd's part. "Well, you may want to reserve your judgment, on that point, until a little later." She looked around to the rest of us, at the table. "Dear Freddy, and Sir Victor, have agreed to let me practice two or three of the nightclub-numbers I'll be doing in the film, here, tonight." The corners of her mouth turned up, just a little. "Believe me, 'practice' is the operative word. If I drive off all of your customers tonight, Freddy, please remember that I did give you fair warning."

"Oh, are you really going to sing for us, Miss Lloyd — ?" This from Lady Hughe. "Oh, how wonderful!" Her enthusiasm was genuine.

"I'll be acting the part of a singer, Lady Hughe; as best I can. I'm afraid your imagination will have to provide the services that our sound-editors will provide, in the final cut of the film."

"Nonsense," from Sir Hughe; finally surfacing from his deep conversation with Father. His face shone with warmth. "We'll be honored; the privilege will be all ours … "


I have not been in so many nightclubs as all that, in my time; but I do know the basics. People circulate, they roam from table to table, they even stand, drinks in hand, to talk to one another. And perhaps, as more alcohol is consumed, the social constraints — loosen, a little.

Tom and I slipped away, to talk, relatively quickly.

We found a place by the windows overlooking the Whangpoo, fortunately-enough; the lights of the anchored warships in the river were actually quite beautiful, against the darkness of the water. The elaborate, Lalique light-fixtures of the nightclub were turned down low; the reddish glow of them just framed Tom's head, leaving his face slightly shadowed. He was, at that moment, quite beautiful, too.

It was pretty much as I'd guessed, from the beginning. I felt for Tom, acutely.

"What did you say to him — ?" I asked.

Tom shrugged.

"I told him the truth; that I thought going off into the countryside with only a driver for company didn't sound safe. And that if I went along, I could at least help keep watch. I could be another pair of eyes, and another pair of hands."

I thought it would be a good argument, if Tom were just a little older. But I could also imagine Mister Fletcher's reaction.

"And what did he say to that — ?"

Tom's face had turned, a little. Now I could see his expression more clearly, as he looked out into the darkness.

"He said that he'd be perfectly safe, and that I was making a mountain out of a molehill. But then he said, that the driver had a gun. A revolver."

I tried not to wince.

"Yeah, I know," Tom went on. "Doesn't sound all that impressive, does it?"

From all accounts, the real danger in the Chinese countryside, nearby, at least, was that of armed bandit gangs. According to Mister Grey, and to several stories in the 'North China Daily News', these gangs tended to be well-armed.

"And after that, he told me that my job was to stay here with Mom and Mickey … and then, he kind of shut down the discussion … "

I was familiar with the tactic.

A pause, as we looked out at the Whangpoo.

"It's only four nights, this first time out," I said. Trying to be reassuring. "And Mister Grey said, there haven't been any reports of hold-ups, nearby, anyway. And remember, he said they usually don't like to rob Westerners; it's too dangerous for them."

Mister Grey had also added, that the danger was in the potential Western retaliation, from military units based in Nanking and Shanghai. Which didn't help the victims of the robberies, at all; these were frequently slaughtered, as inconvenient, potential witnesses.

Tom gave me a look, which said that he knew all this.

Another, longer pause, then, as we went back to gazing at the dark river. Behind us, a piano was playing soft American jazz and show tunes. The low sounds of conversation, and of glasses clinking.

"So, I'm not going. I didn't really expect that he'd say yes. But you know what really gets to me, what really bothers me — ?"

His eyes slid past mine; and I automatically followed his gaze, over to where his parents were sitting. His father was clearly in high spirits. His mother, clearly, was not.

"What?" I asked it, gently.

Tom's eyes went back to the darkness outside.

"He said no … but, he respected me for asking. For pushing it." He kept his eyes away from mine. "I know my father loves me … but we're really different people, and he doesn't really respect me, very much. Not me, not the things I do, not the things I like … But he respected me, this one time, for pushing to go with him … just because it might be dangerous. As if, that was why I wanted to go. As if, that mattered."

A long, silent pause, between us. Then, at last, I reached up, and silently squeezed his shoulder.

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.