China Boat

Chapter 54

Monday, May 10th, 1937
The ______ School
________, _____

Rhys, oh, Rhys!

I am floating on air, old man. I just received your first packet of letters from Shanghai … 

Oh, I am so happy! To get so much news from you, of you, all at once; including all the photos you took, of Hawaii, and of your boat on the way to Shanghai, and of your friend Tom — 

Let me correct that. He is very clearly important to you, and rightly so; and that makes him important to me, as well. He is our friend Tom; and I hope you tell him that, or better yet, show this letter to him, written in my own hand. I mean it; and I look forward to meeting him, as I know someday I shall.


Rhys, there is so much to say to you, so many things to react to (yes, I know, please don't show this to any English teacher, and in any case, I'm writing fast), and I don't know where to begin!

Well, maybe I do know; it's the Big Thing, here. You should have seen my face, old man, when I opened the envelope with Miss Lloyd's photograph … and read her inscription, written out to me. You should have seen our friends' faces, when they saw it, and pounced on it. I don't know which one of us is more envied, just now; me for having such a thing — and it has instantly become one of my most cherished possessions — or you, for having actually met, and befriended, Miss Deirdre Lloyd … 

I have never seen Harris' eyes bulge out, quite like that.

But I have to confess, old man, that as much as I treasure her photo, — I do believe it is the newspaper-photo you included, that means the more to me. And that is because you are in it.

(And yes, you do look a little awkward. But your expression is just, so, so you! It is Rhys L. Williamson at his finest — ! I have seen that look on your face so many times; although it is usually me who is the one embarrassing you.) (I have to find a way to preserve it, and frame it. I swear I will.)

But I have one, further, confession to make, Rhys. And that is, that you sent another item which matters to me, the most of all. It is a certain art-work — or tracery-work — and I have shown it to no-one else. It is currently pressed between two sheets of clean, bond paper, in my school atlas. Coincidentally enough, it is at the plate for Eastern China — which includes Shanghai … 

I was in my room — of course — and I had to look up, and blink, at that.

He was referring to the tracery drawing I'd sent him; showing the taken-from-life outlines of our two hands, one on top of the other, as if clasping … 

Oh, how I wished we could be together again. Even for a day. Here, or back home; oh, how I wanted it — 

Oh, it is so good to hear from you, again, old man. It is so good, reading your words, written in your own handwriting … Do you know what the sight of your handwriting, on a post-card (yes, I received the five post-cards from Japan; I hope there were just the five?) or an envelope, does to me — ?

Your words. Your own words; in your own letters. And the latest, is only a week old. That's the most precious thing of all. Better than any possible photo, or any possible enclosure.

I feel as though, perhaps now, we can really stay in touch. Perhaps, starting now, we can have a real conversation-by-mail; even though it's a week at best, going each way … 


Jack's letter was long, and chatty.

I could tell he'd written it in a single burst; he'd moved from subject to subject, skipping around, fast, just the way his mind works in person … 

And the love, within him, just shone out through the words, and the pages.


Much of his letter was taken up by reactions to my experiences; naturally enough. He was delighted by my description of 'shooting the sun', and told me that sextants used on airplanes had their own artificial horizons, like spirit levels. He was deeply envious of our talk with Miss Lloyd … not so much because he was star-struck, but rather at having missed the opportunity to ask her more about flying in the Clipper. As I could have predicted.

He did devote a little space to news from school. Our friends who were still there — those who hadn't crossed, to see the Coronation — had wryly dubbed themselves, 'The Colonials'. Shepherd had borrowed a tricorn hat from the stage-props trunk, and put a feather in it, and was parading around in it, at every opportunity. Several American flags had mysteriously appeared in the Common Room, in the run-up to the Coronation Day of 'King George the Third, Plus Three', as Jack put it. And I was declared, by all concerned, a Charter Member of The Colonials; Shanghai Branch.

This warmed me, deeply. Inexpressibly.

But what truly moved me was Jack's reference to the wires we'd exchanged, both during and after the voyage.

One wire in particular.

As usual, he took advantage of the comparative freedom of expression he enjoyed, writing in relative confidence to me, skating the very edges of safety.

. . . you know, old man, I can't adequately describe what your wire after the Hindenburg crash, meant to me. Means to me, yet.

I was so down, I was so far down; and none of our friends really understood, not even Charles, bless him. Elliott might have; but I didn't hear anything, from him.

But you understood, Rhys; even though you were ten thousand miles away. And you cabled me, at once. And your words were just right. And reading your cable made such a difference to me, it so very much did.

I remembered Oakley Commons very well, just then … 

* * *

Tuesday, May 18th, 1937
9:30 p.m.
The Nanking Road
Shanghai, China

It had rained, rather heavily, for most of the day.

The rain had cleared the air, wonderfully; and it had cooled down the temperatures, quite a bit, it now felt really very comfortable, out. Puddles were left, everywhere, and they reflected the street-lights and the neon-lights; and the tires of the limousine made quiet splashing noises as we moved along slowly, amid the crowds of people.

I had my window part-way down. I can't stand the feeling of being cooped-up in a closed-up automobile, especially when anyone is smoking, or when it's warm, out. The air smelled like rain, like wet asphalt, and like the exotic cooking of the street stalls we passed.

Tom, beside me, was craning his neck, to look around me. I tried to keep my head out of the way. I wished I'd arranged for him to sit by the window, instead; but it had just worked out, this way.

"As I was saying, Miss Lloyd … I'm really not sure that this nightclub, this Lotus Land Lounge, is the most appropriate venue, for you. It is far from, well — fashionable … "

Mister Ocampo, the Filipino personal assistant assigned to Miss Lloyd by her studio, was very slender, very young, and very nervous. He was sitting ramrod-straight in his seat, facing us; he looked as though he wished to be anywhere else, but sitting next to Miss Deirdre Lloyd.

Well, almost next to Miss Lloyd. Doctor Yang sat between them.

Mister Grey — perhaps inevitably — sat on Tom's other side. 'Inevitably', given that a drinking-establishment was involved.

"It had better not be fashionable, Mister Ocampo," from Miss Lloyd, languidly. "I specifically requested a dive." A tiny corner of her mouth quirked up, in an expression I had seen before; and I once again had the surreal feeling, the moment of surreal confusion, that I was watching her on a screen, rather than two feet in front of me.

"Yes, Miss Lloyd," from Mister Ocampo; unhappily. "Only … I'm not sure the studio would approve of your being seen in a nightclub like the Lotus Land Lounge. If there are any press photographers there — "

"And why would there be any press photographers at an unfashionable nightclub — ?" Another quirk of her mouth; and she glanced lazily out her window. "Oh, do relax, Mister Ocampo. We're just going for the sake of research; I'm hoping to pick up a little local color, to add to my performance, that's all. If anything unseemly happens, I promise to take all the blame with Louis, and the studio." The quirk of her mouth deepened, very slightly.

"Yes, Miss Lloyd," from Mister Ocampo; gloomily.


It had started out as a simple dinner; the long-promised private dinner between Miss Lloyd, Tom, and myself. Except — to my pleasure, and a degree of relief — when Tom and I arrived at the private dining room, Doctor Yang had been there, as well. "To my night-time shipboard companions," Miss Lloyd had said, at our first toast; and I remembered that she and Doctor Yang had become friends, during her bouts of insomnia … 

Dinner had been great fun; and all the more so, since Doctor Yang's presence prevented any veiled references to our night-time assignation, Tom's and mine, topside … 

And then, at the end of dinner — in a complete surprise — Miss Lloyd had invited Tom and me to accompany her, in 'a little expedition', out to view Shanghai night-life. 'Purely for educational purposes, of course,' as she put it, smoothly.


How does one say no, to Miss Deirdre Lloyd?


And so, a call had been put through to the American Consulate; and Miss Lloyd herself had breezily described the expedition to Mister Fletcher, and who else would be participating; Doctor Yang, Mister Grey — 

I'd blinked, at that. It was the first I'd heard, of him coming along — 'as the local expert in nightlife in China', as Miss Lloyd had put it — 

 — and Mister Ocampo, and a Mister Collins, who was an associate producer for the studio's Shanghai unit, and a Monsieur Kerzhakov, a cinematographer … 

And four body-guards. We were to be in three automobiles.


As I said. How does one say no, to Miss Deirdre Lloyd — ?


In the end, Miss Lloyd raised an immaculate eyebrow, glanced my way, and then silently held out the receiver for me to take, with a graceful gesture, and a smile.

"Hello … sir?"


"Yes, sir … "

Mister Fletcher had sounded as though he was trying not to let the amusement, and exasperation, show in his voice.

"You are definitely included in this excursion — ?"

I told him I was. I explained some details.

"Well. If Tom is going to be in Shanghai for any length of time, I suppose he'll have to be exposed to the flesh-pots sooner or later. And I expect it's better done with a large group, with adults in charge, and bodyguards … Will you promise me to look after him, and keep him out of trouble? I'm asking this quite seriously."

I'd blinked.

"Yes, sir. I promise."

"Good. And, will you see to it that he gets back here at a reasonable hour? Say, midnight — ? No; no, make that one o'clock, that's more reasonable. His brother's sleeping in the amah's room these days, that seems to keep him quiet."

I'd glanced sideways at Tom; he was looking on, wide-eyed.

"Uh … yes, sir. I'll have him back by one o'clock."

"Good. And, thank you for this; his mother and I appreciate it, very much. And now, may I please speak to Tom — ?"

"Yes, sir … "

I'd handed the receiver over to Tom, under Miss Lloyd's amused eyes; and as I did so, I felt a quick rush of wonder, and of pride, that of all the people going along — including Doctor Yang, and Mister Grey — Mister Fletcher had asked me, to be the one to look after Tom. To be responsible for him … 


We slowly and gently turned off of the Nanking Road, our tires splashing through puddles — and, almost at once, it started.


"Hey, Mister! Hey, beautiful lady! Help, spare some change, American dollar, fifty cent, English shilling — ?"


From out of nowhere, we were surrounded by children — well, mostly boys, to be exact — running along with us, hands outstretched, jostling each other, crowding closer — 


"Spare change? Spare dollar?" And then — "No momma, no papa, no whiskey — "


I'd seen the exact phrase, quoted in Tom's guide-book; I supposed it was traditional. The boys were younger, and dressed raggedly; they might well have been orphans, but most of them seemed to be laughing, pushing and competing with each other, to get close to our limousine. One of the boys actually jumped up on the running-board — we were in a Rolls-Royce, of all things — and the driver opened his window, stretched his right arm out, and hit the boy with a riding-crop, until the boy jumped off … 

The boys crowded closer, and we slowed yet further. It appeared to be a dance that everyone, boys and driver alike, was used to.

At last, we came to a complete stop, the beggar-boys still clamoring around us, laughing, and our driver blew his horn. I twisted around — Tom, Mister Grey and I were seated facing backwards — and looked ahead of us; there seemed to be some sort of hand-drawn cart, in the exact center of the road, moving very slowly … 

Our driver blew his horn again, twice. The cart-puller ignored him, completely. Bystanders in the crowded street, looked at us. A rickshaw passed the hand-cart, on the left.

"Spare change? Spare change, pretty lady, please, spare change, spare shilling, spare fen, spare fifty cent — ?" The voices were unrelenting, cacophonous.

"You don't suppose," from Mister Grey, idly, "that the person pulling that cart is just possibly working with the boys — ?"

"Do you really think so?" from Doctor Yang; apparently fascinated.

"It is an old trick. Well, perhaps not all that old; it might date to the current millennium, or so. Still." His voice was ironic; he was clearly enjoying himself. "I do hope he's taking no more than his fair cut."

"Should we give them some money?" asked Miss Lloyd; she seemed to be enjoying herself, no less than Mister Grey. "Perhaps they'd let us go on through. And in any case, I'm sure they need it … " She moved the little clutch-purse, in her lap — 

"Oh, no, Miss Lloyd, please, I implore you! If you give them money now, we'll be here all night, they'll never let us go — !" from Mister Ocampo. From his expression, he was obviously thinking about explaining the whole disaster to the studio heads in Hollywood — 

More honking, from us. Our limousine rolled forward another few feet, and stopped again.

"Spare dollar? Spare fifty cent? No mama, no papa, no whiskey — "

And then, all of a sudden, motion, coming up from behind us; running figures in Western suits, carrying slender sticks, or canes — 

The beggar-boys, still laughing — although I heard one high-pitched voice, delivering something in Chinese that sounded unmistakably like a curse — the beggar-boys all scattered, like a flock of disturbed pigeons. There were a few glancing blows struck at retreating backs, with the slender canes; and then two of the bodyguards — I twisted around again, to see — went up to our slow hand-cart puller, while two came back to our limousine.

"I'm very sorry, Mister Ocampo — Ma'am," said one of them, through my part-open window, and he touched the brim of his hat, addressing Miss Lloyd. His accent was unmistakably, and broadly, Australian. "We were backed up in traffic, ourselves. We'll take care of things, now."

"Oh, that's quite all right," from Miss Lloyd, with a polished grace, and the briefest of sideways-glances at Mister Ocampo. "It was all actually very — colorful." She delivered a warm smile at the guard.

"Yes, ma'am … Sir?" He addressed me, directly. "You might want to keep this window up, going forward … they can't resist an open window, it's like flies to honey, for 'em."

"Oh! … Oh, sorry," from me and I began to roll it up — 

"You're all right for now, sir," from the Australian, reassuringly. "We're with you, the rest of the way. I just meant, going forward. Right — ?" And with that he stepped up onto the running-board, and grabbed a hand-hold on the exterior coach-work which had obviously been put there for that very purpose, and called out something to the driver; and after a pause, in a moment, we were off again, moving slowly and smoothly ahead. The sound of our tires on the wet pavement, came back through the open window.

"Well," from Miss Lloyd, into the momentary silence.

"I am sorry, Miss Lloyd," from Mister Ocampo; clearly regretting his outburst. "I was merely concerned for your comfort and safety — "

"Of course, of course," said Miss Lloyd, smoothly and graciously. She glanced sideways, at Doctor Yang. She smiled that famous, familiar, upturned-corner-of-her-mouth smile, again. "What I want to know, is what that boy called out, when our guards came up … it sounded quite sulfurous."

"Oh, it was!" from Doctor Yang; blinking, behind his glasses. "It was quite fascinating, really. It was Shanghainese; but it was delivered with a distinctly Viet accent … the accent of the people of Viet-Naum, in French Indo-China, far south of here. And, the young man sprinkled some really rather archaic Viet words into his objurgation." He twisted in his seat a little, trying to look backwards, a bit. "I would very much like to speak to that young man … " He said it wistfully, with real longing.

Miss Lloyd's up-ticked smile deepened, just a little.

"Yes … but what did he say — ?"

"Oh … " Doctor Yang's face showed amusement, now, too, mixed with some embarrassment. He cleared his throat. "Well … I believe, among other things, he suggested a, a … rather improbable physical conjugation, between a person, and a barnyard fowl … " He cleared his throat again, and glanced at Miss Lloyd, the amusement still in his eyes. "But I think it was directed at the guards, rather than at us."

"Of course."

I had to smile, to myself; remembering my own education, in Switzerland.

Languages, I thought, may differ; but the fundamentals of profanity remain the same … 

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