Friday, May 14th, 1937
The Cathay Hotel
I know I keep doing this; sending you absurdly large packets, which cost ridiculous sums in postage, and which won't fit into your school mailbox. But I can't resist; particularly not this time.
What you have there, as you can see, is the ever-so Official Program (or Programme, as they spell it) of the Coronation celebration, held at the Recreation Ground here in Shanghai. All twenty-three pages of it. And yes, your correspondent in Shanghai was there.
All right; I know the Coronation will be ancient news by the time you get this, and I think you were already a little sick of the subject, even before it happened. I don't blame you for a second; I actually felt much the same way.
But it was spectacular. And it was fun. And I wish you'd been here, to share it. And so, this is my way of doing it.
The whole affair, actually, began with a garden party, at the British Ambassador's villa in the French Concession —
And right there, you have a taste of the odd, and rather absurd, nature of things here in Shanghai. First, is that the British Ambassador should have a villa — it's like a palace, really — in the French (!) Concession, of all places. Second, is that the Ambassador has a residence here at all; when the Embassy is upriver, in Nanking, (although everyone thinks that's just the temporary Capital). And third, is the fact — which Mister Grey, of Imperial Mining and Metals, Ltd., told me — that the villa is actually owned by Jardine Matheson and Company, which is a British-Chinese firm that everyone calls, simply, 'Jardine's', and which is enormously powerful and influential here, and which got rich out of importing opium into Shanghai, quite legally, and not-so-very-many years ago …
So many things are not quite what they seem, here.
Incidentally, speaking of Mister Grey, I agree with you about him, completely. He is a little odd.
I have to admit, though; he is very amusing, and good company; and he knows a great deal about the Far East, as witness the above. And as it turns out, we have a few character traits in common. Actually, he shares a few important character traits with us both, with you and me both, old man; which makes him more likable, I think.
Still; he seems a little — forward, I suppose, is the word — sometimes; and he seems curious about our business here, Father's and mine. So I am remaining wary about him; I am keeping an eye on him. Actually, I am attempting to keep him safely at arm's length, so to speak, by continuing to engage with him — but only up to a point …
Jack had never expressed an opinion about Mister Grey; of course.
It was all just my way of telling Jack that Mister Grey was the one with Imperial Mining and Metals, Limited, and hence, with British Intelligence …
Oh. And that he was a fellow-homosexual. That, too.
I doubted that he would find any of it reassuring. Far, far from it. But I did want to share the situation with him, and to let him know how important Tony's warning had been … and to tell him that I was trying to cope. And perhaps, that I wasn't panicking, or at least I wasn't panicking, exactly, yet.
Well, old man. There isn't much I can really add to your Official Coronation Programme (which, incidentally, is a Valuable Souvenir — it says so, right in the Introduction!)
Tom and I were seated in the stands, along with the rest of the masses —
I should explain. The whole thing took place in the Recreation Ground, which actually is just the infield of the horse-racing track: it is the largest open space in Shanghai, they don't really go in for public parks, here, there's nothing like Central Park, or Hyde Park. I wish there were.
But, they did it up, proud. There was a wood-and-plaster, full-sized castle, in the middle of everything; it was astonishing. And there were troops of soldiers, and marching-bands of soldiers, all doing the most complicated maneuvers, into and out of and around the castle, under the floodlights … it all reminded me very much of the Trooping of the Colors, that Father and I saw in London, in '34. (We'll see the Trooping of the Colors someday, together; I promise!)
And then, of course, came the fireworks
I swear, Jack, they were the best fireworks I've ever seen; and the show went on for a long time, a very long time … At the end, we were all of us, the entire crowd, on our feet, cheering and applauding —
I suppose it stands to reason. After all, fireworks were invented here, back when our own ancestors were still painting themselves blue, and living in mud-and-reed huts.
And that, actually, is a lesson that I keep re-learning, here in Shanghai … We have this impression of China as being, well, backward, and as needing a dose of Western civilization to get caught-up-to-date; but in reality, Chinese civilization is very, very, very old, and very advanced, in its own way. And the Chinese, or many of them, anyway, see Western technology and Western civilization as a passing fad, which might or might not work out; they'll give it a few hundred years or so, before they'll decide …
Partly, this realization comes from Doctor Yang; (you'll remember, I have written you about him, before). I have wound up taking some meals with him, at the hotel. And when a tenured and ranking and very wise university professor is willing to teach you things about your temporary home, it's a good idea to listen to him. But then, also, there's Tom's father, who apparently is learning things about soil conservation from the local peasant farmers, that have left him almost speechless, and quite excited …
The fireworks were spectacular; and the show was splendid; and I kept wishing you were there.
Tom returned to the hotel with me, by pre-arrangement; so that he might not wake up his brother, coming in. He spent the night.
It was actually rather odd, having overnight company again, after all these weeks; but it was, in the end, a very pleasant time.
I thought of you a great deal, old man. It would have been so much better, it would have been perfect, if you could have been there, too. I missed, and continue to miss, my best friend, very much …
* * *
Sunday, May 16th, 1937
#248, The Neighborhood
of Perpetual Prosperity,
The flowers in the hanging flower-pots in Monsieur Simonov's little courtyard seemed larger and brighter, than they had been previously; the orange tree in the wooden tub was in full bloom, now, and the scent of it filled the air. The sun was warm and strong.
I careful leaned my bicycle against one of the walls, avoiding yet more tubs of budding and flowering plants; and I took the bulky package out of the front wire basket.
The French doors leading in from the courtyard were open, just as they had been ten days before. Just as before, I knocked on the wooden frame.
"Monsieur Simonov — ?"
"Yes, yes, yes," from within. "Come. Come."
I walked in, my eyes a little dazzled from the sunlit courtyard.
"You do not need to be so tentative," came the sardonic voice. "When you visited me before, you were just a messenger. Now, you are that most treasured and valuable and coveted of things. You are a customer! Why, I should be bowing and scraping, welcoming you back to my humble shop!"
Monsieur Simonov was back behind his roll-top desk. He neither bowed, nor scraped; in fact, he did not stand up. I decided that irritation was his natural state.
"That is not necessary, Monsieur," I offered.
"So — ? Well, then. So, we will dispense with the traditional formalities. I see you have another package for me — ?" He held out an impatient hand.
It was larger and bulkier than the first package had been. It was simply addressed, 'S. Simonov'; the handwriting was Father's. I gave Monsieur Simonov the package.
"Grand-père? Will you be wanting some tea?"
A young girl was standing in the doorway to the back of the house; I guessed she was perhaps ten, or eleven. Her eyes and her hair were dark, and her skin was light-colored, almost pale; she seemed very poised and composed.
"Ah," from Monsieur Simonov. He looked over at her; and then he looked back at me. "Ah." That sardonic look crossed his features, again. "Young Monsieur Nemo, may I present this one, who may or may not be my actual granddaughter — ? You may address her as, 'granddaughter'." He looked at me, silently, expressively. "And, granddaughter," he went on, turning to her — "Allow me to present Young Monsieur Nemo; who is a Valued Customer." The irony was thick.
"Bonjour, Monsieur," from her, gravely.
"Bonjour, Mademoiselle," from me. After a moment.
"And yes, yes, tea would be very nice; so long as you join us. You may keep Young Monsieur Nemo company, while I attend to what he has brought me." His gray eyes regarded her, over the tops of his half-moon glasses
"Yes, grand-père." She turned, and vanished into the back regions of the house, as silently as she'd come.
The rest of the ritual went on much as it had before. Monsieur Simonov examined the exterior of the envelope minutely, and in detail, before opening it up. Again, my view was blocked; I could not see the contents. Monsieur Simonov perused the contents, whatever they were, also in great detail; I thought he was muttering, under his breath, as he did so.
'Granddaughter' arrived with a large tray, laden with a tea-pot, three cups-and-saucers, and a sugar dish, and a creamer. She set it down, and disappeared again, to return a moment later with a steaming kettle. The water was duly, and carefully, poured into the tea-pot; a fragrant aroma rose up from it. The tea-pot lid was replaced, and the tea steeped.
Monsieur Simonov stirred.
"Your employer," he directed toward me, "believes in value received, for payment tendered." A European 'pouf', from him. He stood up, with some evident stiffness. "You will, perhaps, excuse me, for a few moments — ?" That exaggerated, mocking politeness, again.
"Of course, Monsieur."
He walked, with his slight limp, through the interior door; and I heard him climb the steps, slowly. And then, I listened as the floor-boards squeaked above our heads, moving from the back of the house, to directly above our heads, and then stopped.
Silence, then, for one minute, and then two, and then three.
I realized, he was looking out of the upstairs window. That he was looking out, silently, and very patiently. For whom, or for what, I did not know. Unless — did he think I had been followed — ?
"Would you like some tea, Monsieur?" from the grave girl in front of me.
"Yes. Thank you, very much."
If she was at all surprised by her grandfather's actions, she did not show it. Instead, she carefully poured out a cup of the tea for me, and then a cup for herself; and she went through the ritual motions of adding milk and sugar to hers.
I tasted my tea, cautiously; it was black, and very strong, and bitter. I set down my cup, and added my own milk and sugar.
Continuing silence, from upstairs. Silence, too, from the girl across from me. She sat, quite still, with her cup-and-saucer before her, regarding me wordlessly.
She'd certainly, I thought, inherited her grandfather's capacity for uncomfortable silences.
Above us, at last, another squeak of floor-boards; and I heard his now familiar, 'lug-thunk' step, as he made his way into the back regions of the house. And then, silence, again.
I tried to think of something to say, some topic of conversation that might not annoy Monsieur Simonov, or seem too personal … and my glance turned to the books I'd seen, in their lower bookshelf, on my last visit.
"Pardon me, Mademoiselle … but I couldn't help noticing the books in the shelf over there; you see, the ones starting with The Adventures of Tin-Tin … May one ask, are they yours — ?"
"Oh, those — ?" She turned to look; and then, back to face me, again. She made a dismissive face. "Yes, Monsieur, they are; or rather, they were. Grand-père and I are reading Pushkin together, right now. Well, that is, we read to each other, taking turns. But sometimes, it is also Tolstoy, or Lermontov."
A grave silence, again. I blinked at her.
"That is — very nice. That you read to each other, I mean. My mother used to read to me … "
I didn't know where it came from.
The girl regarded me, steadily. "You do not read to one another, anymore?"
I tried not to wince.
"No … no. She died, when I was four years old."
A grave, quiet pause.
"That is very young, Monsieur. My mother died when I was seven." She said it, matter-of-factly. Her dark-eyed gaze was steady.
A pause, then.
"I am very sorry, Mademoiselle … I am sorry I brought it up." And I was.
"That is all right, Monsieur."
A return to that steady gaze. I tried to shift topics.
"May one ask, Mademoiselle … do you have any brothers, or sisters, here in Shanghai — ?"
"No, Monsieur. Grand-père is the only family I have left."
This time I did wince. I almost apologized for asking, again; then, I thought for a moment; and I tried to recover. I shrugged.
"I have no brothers or sisters either, Mademoiselle … I have my father, and my grandfather, and my grandmother, and that is all. Oh; and I have an aunt, my father's sister, who lives in Ceylon; but I have never met her. But I have friends whom I love very much; they are like family, to me."
"We have friends too, Monsieur … and I love Grand-père, very much."
"Of course, Mademoiselle."
Silence between us, again. It stretched on, for second after second. No sound at all, from the back of the house.
"Do you stay with us for dinner, Monsieur — ?" Those dark eyes, on mine.
I blinked at her.
"No … no, Mademoiselle. I do not think so. I am just here as a messenger, really."
"Grand-père says you are a very important messenger, Monsieur. He says that you — well, he says that you and your employer — are performing a mitzvah; although you may not know it, or be doing it for the right reasons."
I gaped at her. Her grave, dark eyes looked back at me.
'Lug-thunk, lug-thunk', from the ceiling, towards the back of the house.
I had at least some idea of what a mitzvah was, from Emile; it was a good deed, an important good deed.
And two things occurred to me, immediately.
The first was to wonder whether a 'mitzvah' — perhaps one referred to, ironically, by a Soviet Bolshevik — might be something I would also consider a good deed — ?
And the second thought was to wonder, if Monsieur Simonov had perhaps told his granddaughter to tell me this. And, to perhaps gauge my reaction …
'Lug-thunk, lug-thunk, lug-thunk'; and then, Monsieur Simonov's steps, one after another, coming down the stairs. He stepped off the last step, then walked to his swivel chair, and settled himself down, with a sigh.
Granddaughter immediately poured him a cup of tea; and she carried it to him, with great poise, and set the cup and saucer on a clear spot on his cluttered desk. He said something to her in what I assumed was Russian; and for the briefest of instants, a smile flashed on his face. It was transformative. Then he turned his gaze to me.
"I suppose, Young Monsieur Nemo, that you require another receipt — ?" The question was laden with polite scorn.
"My employer did not tell me to ask for one, Monsieur. And if he required one, he would have told me to ask for one."
"So." Another European, 'pouf' from his pursed lips. He leaned back a little, in his swivel chair; holding his tea. He looked at me, over the tops of his glasses. "So. Trust. Or, perhaps, at least, a touch of sanity." Another wordless gaze, for a few seconds. "And you took my advice, about your clothes. And you traveled by bicycle. And," he went on, looking at me closely, "you appear to have left your Chinese giant at home."
"No, Monsieur. He waits for me, outside the neighborhood gate."
A puff of amusement, from him. "So. Perhaps more sanity, than trust, then. That is all to the best."
Another moment's pause. His eyes, on me.
"You may tell your employer, that there will be no difficulties with today's package." A brief, ironic pause. "And that, in the ordinary course of things, Young Monsieur Nemo, would conclude our business together, for the present. However, in your guise as Valued Customer, we do indeed have outstanding business. May one ask, does the young gentleman have time to undergo a fitting, today — ?" That mocking politeness, again.
"I do, Monsieur."
"Wonderful. Excellent. You will accompany me over to the window, then — ?"
* * *
As Monsieur Simonov had predicted, on my first visit, the fitting did not take long.
The suits were truly exquisite; light, cool, and superbly cut. And the fit was perfect; Monsieur Simonov — as a good tailor will do — had me stand, sit, and stretch in various directions, as he watched; and his expression, I could tell, was just this side of gloating, at the result.
I was honestly delighted, and I told him so. He shrugged it off; but I thought he was pleased. He was clearly one who took pride in his work.
After I paid — in cash, of course — he ceremoniously wrote out a receipt for me, on the block of brown paper; and I was of course listed as 'Young Monsieur Nemo'.
"And where, Valued Customer, shall I have these suits delivered — ?" he asked, after handing me the receipt. "I do not recommend taking them back by bicycle." His tone was dry.
I thought of that horrible day in Berlin; and I shuddered. And then, I was aware of him noticing.
"No, Monsieur … " And with that, I gave him the address of Mister Chen's relative's shop, off of the Nanking Road, and the name to be used; Monsieur Christophe Belgard. I had already arranged, through Mister Chen, to have any package addressed to that name, held for me there.
I felt Monsieur Simonov peer at me, sharply, over the tops of his half-moon glasses.
"No, Monsieur, it is not my real name, I promise … but my mention of it, does lead to a certain … delicate question, that I had thought to ask you."
I felt my heartbeat increasing, going up and up and up. My mouth felt dry.
What I was about to do, was dangerous.
Monsieur Simonov, characteristically, just looked at me, silently.
"I have been thinking, Monsieur, of what you said to me, the last time I was here. About my employer not fully trusting me … and, of the wisdom, of perhaps having, a, a, plan, for getting away, if it becomes necessary … "
If word of this, should get back to Father …
"I remember this too, Young Monsieur Nemo. It was good advice. It still is. And, so — ?" His eyes, on mine, were ironic.
I took a breath. My heart was full-out hammering, in my chest, now.
"Just this, Monsieur … If I were to be able to truly get away from my employer … I would need, papers." I swallowed, again. "A passport, Monsieur, in a name other than my own; and perhaps, a visa, to British India; although, perhaps not … And I was hoping, Monsieur, that you could perhaps suggest a way for me to find such a thing — ?"
Silence, for a stretch of seconds. It went on and on, as I wondered at it. And then, suddenly, out of nowhere, his face darkened, with real anger.
"Who put you up to this — ? Who told you to ask me this, eh — ? Was it your employer — ? Tell me, at once!" His eyes had narrowed, in fury; he leaned closer to me, as if wanted to reach out and shake me.
I was taken aback. I recoiled.
"Non, Monsieur! I mean, no-one told me to ask you; it was my own idea … "
I could have retracted my request, then and there; but the matter was much too important to me. I groped for words.
"I had hoped, Monsieur, for a suggestion; a name, perhaps, or an address, or a name to put me in touch with another name … I would not mention you, Monsieur, if you would rather. I could say I heard of such a person, from another source. Actually, I know just the person I could cite, as the source … " I was thinking of Mister Chen, of course.
For an instant, his face displayed astonishment; and then, I thought, a succession of complicated emotions … and then, I watched him arrange his features into his usual, imperturbable mask, with just a touch of ironic skepticism.
"It would be so easy for you, as that, then — ?"
I did not immediately take his meaning.
A pause, as we regarded each other.
"Of course, Monsieur, I would be prepared to pay … "
I did not specify whom I would pay; or, for what. I was quite prepared to pay Monsieur Simonov a referral fee … if he did not find the offer insulting. I rather thought he would.
"I had just hoped, Monsieur … It is important, to me … "
More long seconds. I thought I could see, under his mask, a struggle take place. Whether he was still struggling with anger, directed at me, or something else, I did not know.
Finally, he spoke.
"Papers. You require papers. Well, Young Monsieur Nemo, the whole world requires papers. I assume your employer holds yours — ?" His look was back to being self-contained, and ironic.
"Naturally so, Monsieur."
It was a lie. My passport was locked in my safety deposit box, in the Netherlands Trading Society. Father trusted me to take care of it; and the Cathay Hotel did not hold one's passport, except as a courtesy. It is Shanghai, after all.
More silent calculation, on his part. This time I thought he was looking at me, measuring me, and not as a tailor would do.
One minute passed; perhaps two. Two minutes, under those eyes, was a long time.
At last he stirred; and he cocked his head, slightly, to one side.
"Papers. Well, Young Monsieur Nemo, such things do not appear, by magic. You will need many things. You will need photographs. You will need a name; and a date, and a place, of birth. You will need a residence, the address of where you live, and perhaps you will need a residence card, also, did you think of that — ?"
Without saying a word, I extracted an envelope from my jacket pocket, and handed it to him.
His eyebrows went up, high, and he looked at me, over the tops of his glasses; and then after a moment, he shrugged, and he looked down, and he opened the envelope.
More silence, as he examined the contents.
At last, he looked back up to me.
"You want, not one, but two sets of papers — ?"
"If I can get them, Monsieur, yes."
"You do not ask for much!" Another European, pursed-up 'pouf' of disdain.
I shrugged, uncomfortably. "It seemed like the wise thing to do, Monsieur … and I can pay for them."
A short, uncomfortable pause.
"Yes," from Monsieur Simonov; measuring me, again, with his eyes. "Yes; I expect you can."
It did not sound like a compliment.
More silence, for a moment. He examined one of the two cards, from the envelope, with the particulars written on them, and my photos attached by paper-clip. Then he looked back up at me, over the tops of his half-moon glasses.
"Name — ?"
He said it abruptly. I understood at once, it was to be quiz, with him acting the part of a border control officer.
I made myself go wide-eyed, and a little scared. Under the circumstances, it was not difficult.
"Perreault, Monsieur. Jean-Marie Perreault."
"Date of birth, and place — ?"
"17 July, 1920, Monsieur. Genève, Switzerland."
"Address — ?"
"10, Rue Verdaine, Genève, Monsieur."
"Describe it to me." He made his voice skeptical; the tone of a petty official, with the authority to deny entry to one such as me.
"It is in the Old City, the Vielle Ville, Monsieur. It is a very steep street; the Cathedrale St. Pierre is at the top of the hill. Our flat is on the second floor; the building is of light-colored stone, and we can see the lake from the dining-room — "
He waved his hand in annoyance, cutting me off.
"Reason for traveling alone — ?" He broke character, for a moment, peering over at me. "You do travel alone, Young Monsieur Nemo — ?"
"I believe so, Monsieur."
I had for a time, considered, just perhaps, traveling with Mister Grey; paying for his company with cash, or my body, or both. Having an adult companion would hugely increase my chances of making it to Paris. But that had been back when I thought he was just a rogue. Now, of course, it was unthinkable …
I shook my head, a little, and went on.
"Here is the letter from my father, authorizing me to travel alone — "
"Yes, yes, yes," from Monsieur Simonov; back in his character as an impatient border control officer. "I can see that." We both ignored the fact that such a letter was, as yet, purely imaginary. "But I want to know why it is, that you travel alone. It is most unusual, for a boy your age."
I made myself appear to brace up, just a little.
"My father works for the League of Nations, Monsieur. We traveled to Shanghai, together. But his duties have called him to the countryside, to examine the shortage of Western-trained doctors, there; my father is a physician, a médecin. And he decided it was not appropriate for me to accompany him. And so, I return home, by myself. He trusts me to do this."
Silence, from Monsieur Simonov, for a moment; and his appraising look, at me. And then he spoke, using his normal voice, again.
"And what would happen, if the authorities attempted to contact Madame Perreault? Or the police in Genève, or the League — ?"
"Doctor Perreault does work for the League, Monsieur … but he and the family are in South America, in Peru, at the present. And there is a son, with that date of birth; but his name is Jean-Michel, not Jean-Marie." He had been a classmate, and a friend, at the School In The Sky. I looked at Monsieur Simonov, innocently. "I had thought to create, perhaps, just a little confusion, if my story were checked — ?"
A wordless, raised eyebrow, from him, and a long look; and then he picked up the next card, paper-clipped to a whole new set of photographs of me.
"Name — ?" Again, with a border-control officer's abruptness.
"Lehouillier, Monsieur; Philippe Matthieu Lehouillier."
"Date and place of birth — ?"
"October twenty-third, 1920, Monsieur. In Aix-en-Provence. But I currently live with my uncle George Lehouillier, at 32, Rue de Grenelle, in Paris … " I made my accent harder, clipped, more Parisian; or as Parisian as I could make it —
* * *
We disposed of the details of poor Philippe Lehouillier soon enough; mother dead, him, a natural child who had never known of, or met, his father … Sent to live with his bachelor uncle in Paris, who was a dealer in fine art —
Who, conveniently enough, had gone on an extended buying expedition into the Chinese countryside. Which required, of course, that his nephew be sent home, to safety. But there was an implication, in my story, that as a natural child, I was considered as more of an employee, than a relative, and I was being sent back to work …
All of which was unfair to the real Monsieur Lehouillier. He was actually a very nice man; and, I thought, one of our tribe, Jack's and mine. Grandmother had bought some good pieces from him.
But on the other hand, the story could also be seen as flattering. The real Monsieur Lehouillier was immensely fat — almost as fat as Mister Sayles — and he liked his comfort. And although he spent large parts of each year on buying expeditions abroad — including most every Spring and Summer — the idea of him venturing into the dangerous Chinese countryside was ludicrous. An heroic Monsieur Lehouillier! It was unthinkable …
Monsieur Simonov regarded me, for another long stretch. More than a minute. The seconds ticked by.
"I am a fool," he said, at last. "I am an idiot." He took off his half-moon glasses, and rubbed the bridge of his nose.
"Monsieur — ?" from me; a little weakly.
Another, shorter pause. He stared at me, wordlessly. At last, he spoke.
"Of course, you will need more than just papers, and a heart-warming story. What else would a young man such as yourself carry? Photographs, family photographs; yes, yes. A personal letter, from Mother, or Father, or even Uncle; yes." Another look. "And not in your own handwriting."
"I had thought of that, Monsieur."
And I had; just as soon as Jack had a truly private mailbox, I would send him letters — one from Cher Papa, one from Cher Oncle — to copy out in his distinctive, masculine hand, to send back to me. I could look for 'family' wallet photographs here in Shanghai; or ask Jack to send me something … I'd even thought of perhaps asking for photos of his family, to stand in for mine …
Mother's — my own, real mother's — photo would be 'Mother' for each of my fictitious identities, though. I'd already decided.
"And you must know every detail of your life by heart, from memory. Your parents' birthdays. Your siblings' middle names. Their saints' days. The name of the café on the corner. So much more. You, Monsieur Lehouilliet; do you attend secondary school? If so, where — ?" The question came suddenly, and sharply.
"I do, Monsieur. The Lycée des Frères Chretiens; also on Rue de Grenelle, near the Boulevard Raspail. It is very near where I live." I answered automatically; I had passed the school many times, and I had been rehearsing the details, in my head, for days now.
I allowed myself to feel a stab of hope.
Another long pause, under Monsieur Simonov's direct, probing gaze.
"I am a fool," he said again, softly. At last. There was an ironic tilt, to his head. "I am going to help you, Young Monsieur Nemo."
I blinked at him.
"I am going to help you, because you are not an incompetent child; and because I think you truly may need to go on the run, and because you are confused, and frightened of your employer; and because I have been all of those things at once, too. Believe me, I know what the experience is like."
I scarcely dared to breath.
"Thank you, Monsieur … "
An impatient wave of his hand.
"As it happens … I have a contact, who can supply papers; passports, visas, residence cards. He is very good. And, he owes me a few favors." An ironic flash of his eyes. "Many people in Shanghai, owe me favors."
"Yes, Monsieur. Oh, Monsieur — "
Another impatient wave of his hand.
"Naturally, there is a price."
"Yes, Monsieur. Naturally."
A dry look, from him. "I do not speak of money … although the sums involved, would be considerable. The going price for a French passport is … " He calculated, for a moment. "Three hundred fifty dollars, American; we will quote it in American dollars, in honor of your employer, and because I expect that is the currency in which you are paid. The price for Swiss documents is higher; four hundred and fifty. It is the paper stock, you see; having the correct paper stock for such documents is essential, and the Swiss are not so easily bribed."
I blinked at him.
I had the money, in cash, in my safety deposit box; it was not a problem. But it was a colossal sum; the price of a brand-new automobile, back in the States —
"Still," from Monsieur Simonov. His eyes glinted at me. "That is not the price I ask of you. As I said, I am owed favors, by this person. The customary fee is waived. And even if you had the money, I expect you could find better uses for it."
I wondered what he would say, if he knew who I was. If he knew of my family.
"Thank you, Monsieur."
"Do not keep thanking me. Now, we come to the price." He looked at me, for another long, unnerving stretch of seconds. "You offered, a moment ago, to say that you had obtained your papers elsewhere, if you were caught. You said you knew who to name."
I blinked at him, yet again.
"I did, Monsieur."
His gaze at me was direct, piercing, unforgiving. "You must promise that you will never do such a thing. Not in the matter of these papers, which I will have produced for you. Not in any other matter. You must swear to me, that you will not press false accusations against others. Ever. Not even to save yourself. That is the price." A pause. "Do you swear it — ?" It came out, almost gently.
I gaped at him.
"Monsieur … the person I would have named, would not have minded. It is the sort of service, which his family provides." A pause, from me. "I think — ?"
I had assumed, anyway.
"You think," from Monsieur Simonov. That dangerous look, in his gray eyes, again. "You think."
An uncomfortable silence.
"Very well, Young Monsieur Nemo. You are nobody's fool, and Shanghai is full of such people, who provide such services. As here we see," he went on, spreading his hands, indicating himself with an ironic gesture. "But the price, stands."
"Yes, Monsieur. I — "
"No. No, no, no." He held up a hand, palm-outward. "No. You will allow me to tell you a story, first. And then you will think about your reply, to my stated price." A pause, from him. "Do you agree — ?"
I could see very well, that he meant it. That he was entirely serious.
A long, considering look, from him. Then, a quick glance around; and it came to me, that he was looking to see that his granddaughter was not, somehow, in the room with us … And then, his gaze was back upon me.
His head tilted, a little. The corner of his mouth twitched.
"I was denounced, by the traitor Zerinsky, in closed court, in the secret trials of 1932." A flick of his eyes, and a quick, humorless smile. "You will not find my name in the court record. For one thing, my name was not Simonov, then; but even if you knew my real name, you would not find it. It has been erased. It has in fact been erased, throughout the Soviet Union. I do not exist. I have never existed. I have become, a non-person." A quick breath of humorless laughter. "Oh, of course the Security Apparatus — it was the OGPU then, it is the NKVD now — of course, they still have my name. But they must be careful, when they use it; they could cause trouble for themselves, if my name were to slip out to the public. It is an idea that amuses me."
A short, horrified silence, from me.
"I am sorry Monsieur — "
A wave of his hand, to silence me.
He went on.
"Of course, neither Zerinsky, nor I, was a traitor. Well, perhaps Zerinsky had been a little too close to Kirov, and to Vladimir Ilyich — whom you know as Lenin. And I had written a piece with Trotsky, once, and I had made other mistakes — it does not matter." He shrugged. "Comrade Stalin required traitors, at that moment, so" — and he made another, European 'pouf', with his lips — "we became his traitors; among many others. Our last service to the Party, and to the Rodina."
I said nothing.
"I do not blame Alexander Alexandrovich for denouncing me," he went on, more softly. He was looking off to the side, a little, now. "He was in the Lubyanka Prison, in Moscow. It is a terrible place. The interrogators there can make you confess to anything, they can make you swear that you are a Tsarist, that you eat babies, that you fuck your great-grandmother's ghost, every night … anything, at all. No, I do not blame Alexander Alexandrovich."
A span of heartbeats.
"I see, Monsieur."
My feeling of horror, deepened. I have always hated, and feared, the idea of torture. The idea of it fills me with revulsion, and dread.
A long silence, from him. The scent of the potted orange tree, permeating the room, now. The contrast was almost obscene.
"As it happens, I was — lucky," he went on, at last. "I was in St. Petersburg — excuse me, Leningrad!" he said, with a wryly comic expression. "Oh, how Vladimir Ilyich would laugh, to know the new name — ! Anyway. I was in Leningrad, when a courageous friend sent word to me. I was able to slip out of the Soviet Union, with nothing, just in time. Barely in time."
"I am very glad, Monsieur. That you got away, I mean."
"So — ?" Another ironic flash of his eyes, at me. "For myself, I am not so sure. My son and his wife — the girl's parents — were not so lucky. They were in Moscow. They were arrested. They were not important enough to rate a secret trial, but — because of who I am, or was — they were too important to be shipped off to the gulags. So, they were shot. In the courtyard, of the Lubyanka Prison. And, they never knew why."
My feeling of horror, deepened. I could find nothing to say.
"And here is the point of the story, Young Monsieur Nemo. The moral, perhaps. And the reason for the price I charge, for your papers."
A long, intense pause.
"Yes, Monsieur — ?" I breathed it.
He tilted his head, a little. His eyes, on mine, were relentless.
"Just this. Zerinsky — my friend, Alexander Alexandrovich — knew I was in Leningrad, when he denounced me. He knew that I would be warned, by one of our friends. He knew, or hoped, that I could get across the Finnish border, in time, and that I could then hide myself, in time, since the Finnish border does not mean so very much to the Security Apparatus."
He paused, for several heartbeats, and he looked a little off to one side, again.
"It is even possible that he thought he was doing me a favor. Getting me out, before they came for me, too, in my own turn, without warning." Another pause. "And that, believe me, is a thought that accompanies me, in the nighttime … "
I said nothing. There was nothing I could possibly say. I held my breath.
His eyes came back to mine.
"But what Alexander Alexandrovich did not know, is what would happen to my son, and my daughter-in-law. Nobody knew. It was the first of the great purges; it was just the beginning, of the oceans of blood that the kulak madman has spilled, is continuing to spill — " He cut himself off, for a moment.
"I am very sorry, Monsieur." I meant it.
He came out of his thoughts, and focused on me, again.
"I am sorrier. Believe me. But, more to the point — do you understand my price, for your papers, now? You do not denounce others. Not even if you think, you know, that the outcome is harmless; or, just. You do not know everything; you do not know all the consequences of your actions. You cannot know all the consequences of your actions. So, you do not denounce. Do you agree to my price — ?"
He said it all, gently. I could tell, he was deadly serious. It was not a rhetorical question.
I thought about what it must have been like, to lose his son and daughter-in-law, in such a way. What hearing the news, must have been like.
It would be like hearing the news that Jack had been killed, and that somehow it had been because of me. Because of someone's denunciation, of me …
I wondered, under such circumstances, if I could bear to go on living. Even with the responsibility of caring for a grandchild.
The silence, while I considered all of this, lasted several seconds. Some moments.
"Yes, Monsieur. I agree. I give you my promise."
His eyes, on mine, for heartbeat after heartbeat; and then, his expression softened, very slightly.
"You thought about it. You thought about it, before you answered. That is good." Another intense look; another, fraught pause. "Your payment is accepted, Young Monsieur Nemo. I will see that your papers are produced."
A wave of relief washed over me. "Thank you, Monsieur."
Another wave of his hand. Then: "I remember when my son was your age. He was large; he was large, he was loud, he made rude noises, and he laughed a great deal. He was nothing like you. I miss him more, with each passing day. He could never have accomplished what you propose to try." His eyes took on a measuring look, again. "You must take care to look properly intimidated — scared, even — when you have to show your papers. It is what these people expect."
"I have been through German passport control, Monsieur. I do not need to pretend to be scared." I suppressed a shudder, and I pushed the memories away. "Monsieur — ?" I started; and then, I hesitated.
"Yes, yes — ?" A hint of his customary impatience.
"Monsieur, it is none of my business … but, may one perhaps ask — are you safe, here in Shanghai — ?"
I asked it, in concern, and sympathy; and I felt my face screwing up, a little, as I said it. I found that it mattered a great deal to me, that Monsieur Simonov and his granddaughter be safe, and not because of the papers he would obtain for me.
His eyes widened.
"Safe? Safe — ?" Another expressive, European 'pouf', from him. "You are correct, Young Monsieur Nemo, it is indeed none of your business, none at all … But. Since we have been exchanging far too many confidences today, due to what madness on my part I do not know, I will tell you, anyway." He settled back a little, and regarded my over the tops of his glasses. "Yes, I am safe, here in Shanghai. I am very far away from home, the Party, and the Security Apparatus. I stay quiet; just a poem, here, an essay, there, none of them worse than satirical, all published under different names … And, I am protected, here."
He stopped, abruptly, and looked at me.
"Protected, Monsieur — ?" I asked it, timidly.
"Yes, yes. Yes. Protected. I told you, I am owed favors." That ironic gleam in his eyes, again; that very slight tilt, to his head. "From the Shanghai Municipal Council, or the leading members of it, anyway. From the French. From the British. But there is more. I am under the explicit protection, of the most powerful man in China; and everyone knows it."
I gaped at him, a moment.
"You are under the protection of Chiang Kai-shek, Monsieur — ?"
He rolled his eyes.
"No. No! I said, the most powerful man in China. I am under the protection of Du Yueh-seng."
He looked at me, expectantly.
"'Du … Yueh-seng', Monsieur — ?
More eye-rolling, and another exasperated 'Pouf!'; but this time, I thought, the exasperation was very real.
"You have been in Shanghai, in China, how many weeks now, and you do not know who Du Yueh-seng is — ?"
"Umm … no, Monsieur."
He shook his head, disbelieving.
"Incredible. Unbelievable. You will have to do better than that, Young Monsieur Nemo, if you do indeed go on the run, you will need to do much better than that, if you want to survive … " He hoisted himself to his feet, with difficulty. "No; I will not explain. Ask someone else. Ask anyone else. Our business, for today, is done. We have wasted far too much time, talking. I will send on your suits, Young Monsieur Nemo; and your papers will be here, the next time you come, and believe me, there will be a next time. And one more thing, Young Monsieur Nemo — ?"
"Yes, Monsieur — ?"
Those gray eyes on mine, again; knowing, ironic.
"I am safe, here. But if you had any thought of going home overland, through the Soviet Union — do yourself a favor. Buy yourself a gun, and shoot yourself through the head. You would be saving yourself, and everyone else, a great deal of pain, and time, and trouble."
This time, I did shudder.
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