China Boat

Chapter 52

Sunday, May 16th, 1937
4:15 p.m.
Pingling Road
The Hongkew District
Shanghai, China

The bicycle trip back from Monsieur Simonov's shop was slow going. The streets of the Hongkew were very crowded.

I made Mister Chen ride in front of me, so I could keep an eye on him. He was still a little shaky on his bicycle, especially at low speeds; and there was no question of going fast, not with all of the people, the rickshaws, the carts and animals, on the streets … 


For myself, I was feeling — strange. Lightheaded, perhaps.


Mister Chen's stability was not helped, by his habit of looking back towards me, every minute or so; checking to see if I'd been kidnapped by slave-runners specializing in young, white, poorly-dressed and un-prepossessing office-boys, I supposed.

"Look out!" I called out to him; just in time for him to avoid crashing into an elderly man with a long pole balanced across his shoulders, with a large basket hanging on each end. Mister Chen wobbled to a shaky stop, and came partway off of his bicycle, almost dumping it to the ground in the process.

"I'm sorry, Boss," he said sheepishly; as he disentangled his long legs from the bicycle frame. His beautiful face was contrite.

"That's all right," I told him; and then I had to duck, as the elderly gentleman turned, and one of his baskets almost hit me in the face. It proved to contain a live chicken, which stared at me with one blinking eye for an instant, before the elderly man moved on, the crowds parting and re-forming around him, in that distinctly Chinese way, as he went. "That's all right; you're doing fine. You know, we can always walk our bikes along, when it gets very crowded … "


I was feeling light-headed, for a reason.

Well; it was light-headed-ness; but it was also, overwhelmingly, a feeling of relief. A very strong feeling of relief.


Partly, I have to admit, it was due to the prospect of getting papers; passports and travel documents. Having such papers meant the world, to me. They meant, freedom; the freedom to at least try to get home, at a time and in a way of my choosing.

Whether I made it home, or to Paris — which was almost the same thing — was another question, one which I pushed aside, for the moment. The important thing, was; once I had the papers, I could go. I could at least try. The freedom to go, to move, to try, was everything. It was like having the key to a locked cell-door … 


"Uh, Boss … ?" from Mister Chen, a few minutes later.

He didn't really need to say it. The street in front of us, only grew more and more crowded, as it passed by the big, three-story open market. There was no way we could actually ride, for the next few blocks.

"It looks like the time to walk is now." I smiled over at him, as I dismounted.

"Remember what I said, Boss — ?" His expression was serious.

"Yes; thank you. It's all taken care of." He'd told me to watch out for pickpockets, in crowds like this; I'd taken to carrying my wallet in a pouch that hung down from my belt, inside my trousers. I'd had it, and occasionally used it, for several years; I am a New Yorker, after all.

"I should probably go first," he said, a little apologetically; it was a reference to his greater height, and bulk.

"Go ahead," I said; smiling, again. "I'm right behind you."


There was more to my feeling of relief, than the prospect of getting papers. There was much more to it, than that.


There were — there had been — three basic ways, three basic options, for me to return home.


The first was to go home with Father's consent; either with, or without, his company.


The second was to run. Either east-bound, on my own passport, if I had a big enough head start; or west-bound, to Paris, after I had the necessary forged papers.


There was a third option. It was absolutely foolproof. It was guaranteed to succeed. It was risk-free, to me. It would also get me back home in the shortest time.


All I had to do was write a letter. A letter to Grandfather, to be specific.


And in that letter, all I had to do, was tell the truth. I needed to explain, how Father had been behaving in ways which were increasingly strange, and secretive, and bizarre — 

Which was true.

And then, I needed to lay out my suspicions, that Father was involved in something … underhanded, at the very best; and likely illegal — 

Which I feared was also true.

And finally, I needed to tell Grandfather how I was being intimately involved in whatever Father was doing. Sitting in on meetings with what I suspected were Japanese government officials, discussing the profit to be had from co-operating with Fascist states, dismembering China, and evading United States Government sanctions … 

And, also, that I making clandestine visits to an un-reconstructed Soviet Bolshevist, carrying sealed packages from Father, containing what, and for what purpose, I did not know — 


This last would have been enough, all by itself.


I could imagine what would happen, once my letter was received. I thought I could map out the consequences, almost to the day.


First, there would be an exchange of cautiously-worded wires, between Grandfather and myself; it would be his way of ascertaining if I'd gone completely insane. Perhaps — probably — he would wire someone, someone to act as his agent, who would contact me discreetly, and question me further and confirm my story … 


And then, things would happen, very quickly.


One way or the other, I would be gotten away from Father.


Perhaps I would be taken in by the American Consul-General. Possibly I would be parked with Sir Hughe and Lady Hughe, if they were still in town; I'd understood they were to spend some weeks in Shanghai. Regardless, I would be under guard. Armed guard; either American, or British.

And then, in the shortest time possible, I'd be on the way home. By Clipper, if I had any say in the matter; by the most direct, east-bound boat, if not. With company of some kind, some kind of guard, either way; I was sure of it. And so, one way or another, in a matter of a few weeks at the most, or a few days at the best, I would be stepping off the train, onto the platform of Grand Central Station, into the arms of my grandparents — 

And of Jack. He'd be there, too. No power on Earth could keep him away.


I would lose Father, forever.


There would be no eventual reconciliation, there would be no going back, after a betrayal of that magnitude. We would be permanently estranged.

And it would be a spectacular betrayal. Aspects of it would play out in public.

Oh, it might not ruin Father completely … Grandfather would try to keep it all as quiet as possible, for my sake. But people talk; and there would be filings in court, as he and Grandmother sought permanent custody of me … 


'Unstable,' the whispers would go. 'Shady business dealings, in Shanghai.' 'The boy had to be taken away, for his own protection … '


I'd even gone so far, as to speculate on how things would settle out, with the property. I'd assumed I would wind up with the Park Avenue flat; Father would want nothing further to do with it. And I would lose Father's and my house in Connecticut; the house in which I was born, the house in which I'd lived, with Mother, and Father, both … 


It was all a nightmare scenario, and I'd been facing it as an option, ever since I'd started to plan my escape from Shanghai.


And now, I was giddy, almost light-headed with relief, because it was an option that was no longer open to me. I'd given my word, to Monsieur Simonov. I would keep it. Even more so, I'd accepted Monsieur Simonov's wisdom, that I didn't know everything. I did not know nearly enough. I did not know what was really going on. I would not risk harm to Father, or to unknown others, by denouncing Father.


Running was infinitely preferable.


"This way, Boss!" from Mister Chen. He was looking back at me, over his shoulder, urgently.

"Go ahead!" And I followed him, as we pushed our bicycles through the milling crowd, towards a less-packed space; it took some moments. And then, when we arrived, and while we were catching our breath, I recognized the facade of the Japanese steam-ship company, with the gold-leaf lettering on the window. The crowd was clearly avoiding it.

"Just one more block of this, Boss, and we should be able to ride the rest of the way home … "


A simple word.

* * *

As I have said, I remember when my mother died, when I was four years old.


I'd cried a great deal, at the time. It went on for days. I didn't understand much, at that age; but I knew I missed my mother, terribly, and that she wasn't coming back.

Bed-time was the worst. That was when Mother used to come upstairs, and hold me, and read to me.

I cried; but I tried to keep my tears to myself, because I knew they would make Mrs. Kelliher cry as well, and that would make everything all the more horrible … But of course she knew.


On the third night after Mother died, Mrs. Kelliher didn't tuck me into bed, as she'd done previously; instead, she left me sitting on the edge of the bed, in my pyjamas, bathrobe and slippers — 

And in a moment, I heard Father's tread on the stairs; much heavier, much more substantial, than Mother's light step … 

He came into the room, then. I don't remember what he said; he might not have said anything. But he sat down in the high-backed armchair, the same chair Mother always used. And I wound up beside him, snuggling up against him, as I had done with Mother.

I remember the sensations, very well. The roughness of his tweed coat, against my cheek. The smell of his pipe tobacco, both old and new; in fact, he was puffing on his pipe, as he held me. The scent of his after-shave, the scent of the soap he used, the scent of him, really — 

But most of all, I remember his arms, around me. I remember the power of his arms, so unlike Mother's. So powerful. I felt — protected. I felt utterly secure; I felt a sense of complete, overwhelming security.

And so I fell asleep, immediately. Gratefully. Without tears. I slept.


Father came up again, the next night. And the night after that. It happened, for I'm not sure how long … but looking back, I know we took comfort from each other. I know it.

* * *

"All set, Boss — ?"

We'd walked our way down the street from the market. The road in front of us was merely crowded, rather than impossibly packed.

Mister Chen was straddling his bicycle, a little awkwardly; for all his new-found enthusiasm for bicycling, he hadn't yet mastered the art of the running start, balancing on a pedal, and then swinging his leg over.

He smiled his beautiful smile at me.

"Let's go!" I smiled back at him, and then watched, as he wobbled his way forward, slowly gathering steam. I followed him. The day was still warm, with full white clouds floating in the blue sky.

I'd made my decision. I'd made my promise, to Monsieur Simonov. I still might need to run; I could not, and would not, stay in Shanghai, so far from Jack, for years. But I would not ruin Father in the process. We might still become estranged; but I wouldn't ruin him, or the memories of what we'd shared.

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