China Boat

Chapter 45

Monday, May 10th, 1937
9:15 a.m.
The Cathay Hotel
Sassoon House
The Bund
Shanghai, China





As usual, there was sheer magic in holding the telegram in my hand, knowing that Jack had written the words — well, just hours, before. Hours.

What a miracle. In several senses of the word.

And, perversely, it was a vast relief, reading that he was doing better. Perverse, because it was an admission on his part that he had been low … as I'd known he would be; of course. We know each other. But I also knew, for a fact, that he wouldn't wire that he was doing better if it weren't true.


How I wish I'd been there for him, when he needed me.


Just for the comfort of it, I pulled out one of the later letters from his last batch, and removed it from its envelope. It was a bulky one; he'd included some photographs.

I spread them out on the writing-desk.

 … well, I felt a little silly, going around and taking tourist snapshots of our boring old school; and I got some teasing for it, believe me. But I wanted you to feel part of the goings-on around here; it's your school, and your semester, and I wanted to make you feel as though you were still here, to the extent that I could.

Even if Coe is included in one of the group portraits. He insisted!

I did not care. If I could see them all again, if I could be magically transported back, I believe I would have even kissed him. Coe, I mean.

It's been about a month since you left, now — it feels much longer — and Spring appears to be happening on schedule. The snow is gone for good, or so we hope, anyway. The leaves are coming along; the grass is that new, impossibly-green color, that won't last. And of course, everyone has Spring fever, and nobody wants to study.

And that includes yours truly. It feels like the perfect time for one of our Escapes, out-of-bounds, into the birch-woods, maybe. I feel it, very strongly, Rhys.

We'll just have to make up for it next Fall, when you're back, and the leaves are beginning to drop, and there's the smell of burning in the air, and all. I think Fall is my favorite time of the school year, anyway. You know why.

He'd told me why, before. It is because that's when we met.

I felt — feel — the same way.

In any case, old man, it's a little bit of an odd Spring, regardless. It feels like the term is perhaps going to fizzle out, in a way. Quite a few of us are being withdrawn early, so as to make the crossing, and see the Coronation, in London. Forrest is gone already; which makes sense, his father is British, after all. (His father even has a very small role in the ceremony, as part of the Oxford contingent!) But Dunstan is going, next week; and Wilcox is going, and Sims, too … 

Which leads to the truly earth-shattering news. The end-of-term play, this year, has been cancelled! Too many boys pulled out; there weren't enough of us fifth- and sixth-formers, at any rate, left.

You know, between you and me, old man, I think it's hilarious. The newspapers and the magazines are just full of articles about The Coronation This, and The Coronation That; the New Yorker has been running full-page ads for package tours to see the Coronation procession, from windows in hotels and private apartments overlooking the route … 

Refresh my memory. Didn't we fight a rather nasty little war or two against this particular George's great-great-great-great-grandfather, George? (I may have left out a 'great', or so; it's easy to lose track.) And aren't we supposed to be a Republic, which doesn't much hold with monarchies in general? (With the logical exception of Her Majesty, Queen Wilhelmina of The Netherlands. Of course.)

All right. I will admit, I am perhaps just slightly envious, of our classmates who are making the crossing. Perhaps. Slightly. (Although, I'd infinitely, infinitely prefer to see Paris with you, than London with any or all of them.)

And perhaps, I'm just slightly disappointed that the play's been cancelled. You know 'A Midsummer Night's Dream' has always been a favorite of mine.

Did I tell you which role I finally landed, before it was cancelled — ?

I was to be Bottom.

I snorted a little, in laughter, reading this last line; just as he had intended, and just as I had, before. And just as before, I was also blinking, quickly.


I am much too sensitive, for my own good.


I picked up the photographs, one by one, looking at each one closely. The familiar settings, which stirred up a surprisingly-strong ache of homesickness … the familiar faces, looking out at me, in miniature black-and-white … 

Jack had included a couple of photos of Charles, obviously taken by him; and two more of Jack, obviously taken by Charles. In the second one Jack was standing in front of the Library, bareheaded, his hand lifted in a wistfully-humorous wave, his smile cocked up to one side, in a way that I knew so well … 

I had written to Jack, rather plaintively, asking him to send me some photos — 

But I had written that letter aboard ship; and I had only mailed it after we checked in to the Cathay. He might well not have even received it, yet. And in any case, the letter before me was dated late April … about the same time I was writing my plea, to him.

We are a team, Jack and I.

* * *

" … it is an initiative upon which the Japanese Government have been working for some time," said the well-groomed man in the dark suit.

"Yes — ?" from Father; neutrally.

The large conference-room in the Customs House, again; the same uselessly-full, heavy crystal inkwells, the same old-fashioned dip pens, in their stands. The same beautifully-painted ceiling.

But this time there were only four of us. Father, and myself; and two gentlemen from the Yokohama Specie Bank, a Mister Sato, and a Mister Hashiwara.

If those were their real names.

I know very little of banking, of international banking; but what I was hearing — disturbed me.

"The Government aren't ready to announce it, quite yet; but I can tell you, it will be known as the New Order in East Asia … its basis will be a free-trading zone, in which the common currency will be the Japanese yen. I do not need to tell you, Mister Williamson, of the advantages of trading in a currency other than the dollar, or the pound sterling."

"No," from Father. "You don't." This, drily.

Mister Hashiwara was the one in the elegant dark suit, and the one doing the speaking; the other man, Mister Sato, seemed deferential to him, almost to the point of awe.

Mister Hashiwara spoke excellent French. His hair-styling, from his crown to his slight, sculpted beard, was meticulous. He had the air of someone who might perhaps be something more than a banker.

"We have, of course, instituted this concept already, where we can … in Formosa, in Korea, and in the South Pacific Mandate. We have been gratified that the Government of Manchukuo have decided to participate as well."

This, with a straight face. The entire world knew that Manchukuo was a puppet state, a client of the Japanese Empire, carved by them out of Northern China.

More than ever, I was convinced that Mister Hashiwara was not just a banker.

"Naturally, we expect this zone of economic co-operation to grow, with time. We expect it to grow quite substantially, in fact; and that expansion may take place sooner than the rest of the world necessarily expects."

I felt a chill. The tension I could read in Mister Sato's face increased.

A short, quiet pause.

"You refer to China — the parts of China outside of Manchukuo — I presume?" said Father, neutrally.

I could not see so much as a twitch in a muscle of Mister Hashiwara's face; but somehow I knew, he did not like hearing Manchukuo being referred to as part of China.

"I do," replied Mister Hashiwara, at last. "For a start."

Another freighted pause.

"It is, of course, inevitable," Mister Hashiwara went on. "China today is the sick man of Asia, as the Ottoman Empire was the sick man of Europe, before the Great War. It barely exists, as a functioning state; large parts of its territory are outside the control of the central government. What government administration as does exist, is corrupt, ineffective, and inefficient." He stopped, then, for several long, meaningful seconds. "The Japanese Empire today is clearly the most advanced, the most developed, and the most powerful force in East Asia. One might say, that it is Japan's destiny, to lead her Asian brethren, in China and elsewhere, out of the age of Colonialism, and into the Twentieth Century."

This was extraordinarily blunt. I looked down at my clasped hands, on the table-top, and tried to keep my face composed.

Father cleared his throat, but said nothing.

Mister Hashiwara regarded Father, expressionlessly, for several seconds.

"It goes without saying," Mister Hashiwara continued, "that this new trading block — this New Order in East Asia — is going to require access to world markets; access to liquid capital flows. In short, we will require reliable partners in the form of major, respected, counter-party banks, with experience in cross-border transactions."

I noticed his use of 'nous', the French for 'we'.

I also noticed a further tightening of the expression on Mister Sato's face; and I wondered what, exactly, constituted 'cross-border transactions'.

"The possibilities for substantial profits for such banks certainly exist," Mister Hashiwara went on; deliberately. "And it is well-known that your own Bank maintains unusually close relations with the central banks and governments of Germany, and of Austria, and of Italy — and that, in fact, your Bank provides essential services to the Nationalists, in Spain."

A shock ran through me. I felt it, like a blow.

I did not look at Father.

"Many banks maintain good relations with the governments you have mentioned," he said, evenly.

"Few of them have such close relationships with high government officials as does yours. It is known that the senior management of your bank is sympathetic to the Fascist and National-Socialist causes. And now, to that of the Spanish Falangists, as well." A pause, from Mister Hashiwara.

My feeling of shock deepened.

"The cooperation of a bank of your stature — of an American bank of your stature — "

The accent on 'American' was unmistakable — 

" — with our New Order in East Asia would likely prove to be of immense profit to all parties concerned. I am, frankly, authorized to say that such cooperation would, in all likelihood, lead to even greater, and more profitable, opportunities … within just a few years. As world circumstances … evolve."

Full stop, from Mister Hashiwara. A rather thunderous silence.

"As world circumstances — evolve, as you say — our capacity to work together, may diminish," from Father, at last. "My government has a history of establishing sanctions, in response to — certain world developments."

"Your Bank has a long history, in turn, of successfully evading such sanctions," from Mister Hashiwara. "During the Great War, in particular."

An even more thunderous silence. It went on, for seconds.

Father cleared his throat, again; at long last.

"I will, with your permission, of course, be glad to communicate the sense of this conversation to the officers and directors of my Bank, in New York."

"Yes," from the sleek, elegantly-dressed Mister Hashiwara, who radiated a sense of power from the mere act of sitting there. "Please, do."

* * *


In a straight line, for once; well, except for dodging around pedestrians, and streetcars, and rickshaws … and, for the detours we'd taken, down side streets, away from the Quai de France, and the Bund — 

It was glorious. It was like water in the desert.

It was also a little bit too much for poor Tom; it was his first time running, since he'd taken his spill on the deck of the President Hoover. I'd kept the pace down, but I could hear his labored breathing, as he ran a little behind me.

I pulled us up on the western end of the Bund, just opposite of the Shanghai Club. The late afternoon sun shone on the gilded angel on top of the War Memorial; the shadows of the buildings were already dark. The sidewalk was crowded with people, as usual.

Tom bent over, panting, his hands on his knees.

"I thought … you were supposed … to keep … to the Bund — ?" he managed to get out, at last.

"Come on," I said. "We need to keep walking, for awhile. It's what you do, after running … " And then, once we were moving; "I'm supposed to stay on the Bund, when I'm alone; 'Unaccompanied', was my Father's term. You're with me. I'm not alone."

Father had clearly meant, 'unaccompanied by an adult'. But in truth, obeying Father's little dictate was the very last thing on my mind, just then. It was the very least of my concerns, when it came to Father.

We walked on the Bund, slowly, catching our breath. The air was warm, and still; smoke from the ships on the Whangpoo, from the factories in the Pootung district across the river, from countless smokestacks across the city, was rising straight up, in neat little columns. A sheen of milky cirrus-cloud hung over everything; it was going to be a red sunset.

We walked on in silence for another minute, and then two; I was working up the courage to tell Tom — 

Well, basically, everything.

I wondered if I had the right to burden him, with it; but like it or not, he was involved in my affairs — our affairs, Father's and mine — now; and he had a right to know.

And now that the news about my family, my connection to my grandparents, was out, he especially had a right to know about the risks.

A motorized sampan passed us, close by, going upriver; the 'chug-chug-chug' of its engine bounced against the building-fronts to our left. I could hear the slapping of he river water against its bow. The exhaust cloud it left behind hung limp, in the still air.

"Tom … I'm sorry I didn't tell you more about myself, before," I said. Abruptly. I groped for words, for a few seconds, then I went on. "About my family, I mean … my grandparents … "

I felt him look over at me, as we walked.

"I told you it was okay," he said, at last. A pause. "I'm not sure how you could have worked it into the conversation, anyway … " A breath from him, a kind of laugh.

Another pause.

"It's still a little weird, though; a little hard to get used to. I mean, even I have heard of your grandfather, before — "

I winced.

" — and I heard my mom and dad talking about it — talking about you, I mean — after I came home, that night … But they clammed up, as soon as I came in the room."

I felt him looking over at me, again.

"They heard us — ?" from me. "At our table — ?"

"Oh, yeah … I think a lot of people did."

I looked away from Tom, out across the river, for a moment.

"Well," I said at last. Feeling — not very happy, at what I had to tell him. "Well. Who my grandparents are … was never exactly a secret; lots of people know … But it's always been something we kept a little quiet about, in my family. Having it known, makes things more complicated … "

I watched a pair of sailors, working on the deck of one of the warships anchored in the Whangpoo; they looked like they were chipping paint. Closer at hand, three men on a sampan tied to a rickety dock argued, in loud Chinese.

I felt Tom looked at me, waiting for me to go on.

"I told you about blackmail, before," I said, in a low voice; as we walked. "About how blackmailers target homosexuals, like us."

I didn't see the use in sugarcoating the words.

"Yeah," from Tom; quietly. Eventually.

I paused, for a second.

"Well. With my grandparents being who they are … blackmail becomes much more likely." I glanced sideways at him, briefly. "And that also means, much more likely to involve you."

I let that sink in for a moment, as we walked along the Bund.

"My cabin was searched, back on the President Hoover, the last week out," I went on. Gently. Feeling — odd — at actually telling him, openly. At telling anyone, openly. "Someone read the letters Jack wrote to me … "

I heard him make a sound.

"Are you sure — ?" he said.

"Yes." Another few steps. "Oh, there wasn't anything like that first letter … the one that you read, the one I tore up, with you … But anyone who read them, who read all of them, would know how it is, with Jack and me … "

This was so awkward, in so many ways, as a subject to discuss with Tom. But it was his risk, too. It was his right to know.

"I'm still not sure it wasn't my father, who did it," I went on. Remorselessly. Airing my nightmares. "If it was … then you really don't have that much to worry about."

Another sideways-glance at him. His face was stricken.

"Were any of the letters missing — ?"

"No … And that's the odd thing. I know, for a fact, that someone searched my cabin, and that someone read Jack's letters. But I know, for a fact, that they're all still there … You can't blackmail someone, without material … "

Although, it had occurred to me, someone could possibly have taken photographs of Jack's letters … But that seemed far-fetched. Blurry photographs of handwritten letters, which might all be burned in the meantime — ? Rather than the indisputable originals — ?


More silence between us, for a moment. The loud argument in Chinese grew fainter behind us, as we walked on. The sideways-light glittered on the grimy factory windows, across the river.

"It gets worse," I said at last; feeling sad for what I had to tell him.

"Okay," from him, cautiously. After a pause.

I collected my thoughts, for a moment. Then, I looked at him, sideways.

"I think Mister Sayles maybe talked about us — about my family, I mean — because he means to blackmail us. It would raise the stakes; and it's the only thing that makes sense … " I took a breath. "And Mister Grey is working with Mister Sayles. They're working together … we can't trust Mister Grey. At all."

I looked down.

Another pause.

"I haven't trusted Mister Grey since the day I met him," from Tom, simply. "I told you, I saw the way he looked at you … but, are you sure — ?"

"I am now." I shrugged. "I saw the way he reacted, when Mister Sayles talked … I'm sure."

More silence.

Actually, I thought, it had been quite the road with Mister Grey. I'd wondered from the start if he and Mister Sayles were working together … and then, I'd thought they were antagonists. When my cabin was searched, I immediately thought of Mister Grey as a potential blackmailer … and then, when nothing happened, I began to see him as a mere reprobate, a chancer, someone who made side-money by selling information, for things like stock-market manipulation … 

I liked him much better as a reprobate, than as a blackmailer.

Assuming, of course, that it all really was about blackmail.

"What about him going into the countryside with Dad — ?" from Tom. With a kind of bleak anxiety. "They've already talked about it … should I try to tell my dad not to go with him — ?"

It was the real question. A hellish one.

I frowned, down at the pavement.

"No … I don't know." I glanced up at him. "No, I thought — I think — his offer was genuine, enough. I think maybe he's just interested in taking advantage of safety in numbers. And I can't imagine him getting anything out of it … except our gratitude." I smiled at him, a little crookedly. "I thought at the time, that maybe he wanted to get one of us, or the both of us, into bed with him … "

An image of the three of us, in bed, naked, together, suddenly came to me — resulting in the predictable, warm, rush of my physical reaction … 

In spite of everything.

I pushed the idea away, ruthlessly.

And, contrarily, I also felt a pang of — guilt, I suppose, for my remark … I'd watched, when Mister Grey had made his offer to Tom; and all I'd seen from him was what I'd thought was real sympathy, and a degree of genuine compassion. I'd never liked him more, than at that moment — 

Well. That was before.

I looked sideways at Tom; he was blushing, deeply, as I might have predicted. I let the silence go on, as we walked up the Bund, past the Customs House and the jetty.

"Do you think that Sayles saw us … up on deck, you know, that night — ? Or in the pool — ?" It came from him, in a near-whisper.

I winced again.

Damn Mister Sayles, I thought to myself, in a sudden rush of anger. And damn Mister Grey, too. What Tom and I had done that night was beautiful. Stupid, perhaps; unforgivably stupid on my part, since I was the older one, and responsible, and the leader. But it had all been beautiful, it truly had been.

"I've thought about that, a lot … and I just don't see it." I turned my head to look at him, again. "And even if one of them did, Mister Sayles or Mister Grey … so what?" I shrugged. "To blackmail me — "

I deliberately said 'me', rather than 'us' — 

" — there would have to be some kind of proof. Photographs; statements from witnesses; something … But it was dark, and there weren't any flashbulbs going off. And Miss Lloyd is a friend, she's the one who warned us about Mister Sayles, she'd never tell on us … and Mister Molloy is a friend, too, he's one of us, and all he wants to do, anyway, is hide what he is — "

Poor Mister Molloy. Oh, poor Mister Molloy; my feelings of intense empathy, of empathy for him, hit me again, in a rush — 

I breathed out, a moment.

"And anyway — it's all too late. The time to blackmail me would have been while we were still on board … But the President Hoover is halfway back to Hawaii. All the potential witnesses are scattered, or out of touch … No. I just don't see it. Most blackmail comes about because of letters, because of things that are written down … "

Silence again, between us.

Along the Bund, sampans and boats were tying up at the ramshackle wooden jetties, in increasing numbers; the work-day was coming to an end. On the ground, the shadows were deepening; overhead, the high clouds were beginning to go red. The sky had become a kind of turquoise-green.

"So, it's you and your father, together, here … " from Tom, hesitantly. Another few paces. "If it really is about blackmail … and if you can't figure out how they can blackmail you — or us — "

He'd noticed my omission.

" — could it be, about your father — ? Something about him, instead — ?"


I actually stopped short, in my tracks.


Oh, Hell and damn, and Sheisse and merde — 

I felt my mouth hanging open, as I turned to look at Tom, helplessly — 


Father, with all his secrecy and odd behavior, since the beginning of the trip. The coded messages, in five-letter-groups, and the seven-letter-groups which he didn't let me see. His obvious stress; his renewed ulcer — 

And most of all, the meetings with the other bankers. The very confidential, no-written-record meetings … 

Including the last one; with a person who I thought was was clearly an official, or even a minister, in the Imperial Japanese Government, offering Father's bank some kind of devil's bargain — 


Oh, Hell.


"That's what it is, isn't it?" from Tom; watching my face, intently.


Merde. Fuck, even.


"I'm an idiot," I told him, at last. A little helplessly. "I am an idiot."

"No you're not!"


The world does not revolve around me. I keep re-discovering that fact, as I get older. Some day, I may finally take the lesson to heart.

In my defense — I had been so worried, so focused in my worry, about Jack and I being found out, found out and separated, or worse — 


"Come on," I said; remembering, belatedly, to look around us. "We need to keep walking … "

I'd been on the lookout for anybody who might be following us, since we'd started our run; it's why I'd taken us on so many detours and side streets. It had seemed rather like a game, at the time. It did not feel so, now.


I am an idiot; I told myself, again.


I had known, for weeks, now, that Father was involved in something … unusual. Some sort of business, that required subterfuge. Something underhanded, even. I'd worried about it. I'd even guessed that Mister Grey and Mister Sayles were interested, in Father's affairs … 

It had never occurred to me, not once, that his business might be — well, illegal. A thing that might lead to a blackmail attempt.

I mean … it was Father. Father; a very highly-placed, very highly-respected banker; a confidant of Cabinet Secretaries, and someone who was even acquainted with Presidents. A man of utterly unquestionable integrity … 


Who had sent me on what amounted to a clandestine errand to a Bolshevik Russian refugee in the Hongkew District. A clandestine errand about which I still knew, and understood, nothing.

And, who was meeting with a presumed official of the Imperial Japanese Government, discussing what very much sounded like a division of spoils from a conquered and occupied and brutalized China … 

Or worse.


Oh, Hell. Putain.


"Come on," I said to Tom, sideways. "Let's take a quick trot up to the Public Garden … then, once more down to the French Concession; then, we're done?"

I wanted to move. I wanted to run, actually.

"Okay," from Tom.

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