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Authors: Martin Booth

Golden Boy

BOOK: Golden Boy
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for Helen, Alex and Emma, with love
in memory of my mother, Joyce, a true
China Hand
FIFTY FEET BELOW, MY GRANDPARENTS STOOD SIDE BY SIDE. IT WAS A warm spring day, yet my paternal grandfather, Grampy, wore a grey trilby with a black band and an overcoat buttoned to his neck. From far off, he looked like a retired Chicago mobster. His wife wore a broad-brimmed Edwardian hat decorated with faded feathers and wax flowers, which, even at that distance, gave the impression of being on the verge of melting. Her mound of white hair being insufficiently dense to retain her hat pin, every time she craned her neck to look up at me, the hat slid off backwards and Grampy deftly caught it.
It was late on the afternoon of Friday, 2 May 1952, and I was seven.
A deck steward in a white uniform approached. He carried a silver salver bearing rolls of coloured paper streamers.
‘Where're you going to, sunshine?' he asked me as he handed me three rolls.
‘Hong Kong,' I replied. ‘My father's been posted,' I added, although I had not the faintest idea what this meant. As far as I knew, one only posted letters.
‘You'll need to grow your hair, then,' he announced, making a show of studying the nape of my neck. ‘Far too short …'
I asked why.
‘Well,' he went on, ‘in China men wear their hair in pigtails. You're not going to be able to put a plait in that.' Then he winked at me and moved on down the deck.
Aghast at the thought my hair would be put in a braid, I asked my mother if this was true but her response was obscured by the thunderous blare of the ship's horn, high up on the funnel, announcing our imminent departure.
Further along the rail, my father threw a streamer over the ship's side. I followed suit, hurling mine with all my might into the sky. It arched through the air and, striking the corrugated iron roof of a dockside warehouse, bounced then rolled down to lodge in the drain. It was then I realized one was supposed to keep hold of one end of the ribbon. I threw another streamer. My grandfather caught it and held it firmly until, eventually, it tautened and tore as the ship edged away from the quayside. It was over three years before I saw him again.
The vessel upon which we were embarked was the SS
According to my father, she (not it, he impressed upon me) was a twenty-two-year-old liner operated by the Peninsula & Oriental Steam Navigation Company and accommodated 400 passengers.
At first, the ship's movement was infinitesimal; yet, quite suddenly it seemed, my grandparents were minute figures on a dockside far away, indistinguishable from others in the waving crowds. Once well clear of the dock, I watched the land pivot round as the bow gradually turned to face the open sea, the deck beneath my feet beginning to vibrate gently as the engines gathered speed.
My father disappeared to his cabin, but my mother and I stood at the ship's rail for over an hour. The wind ruffled her short
blond hair and tugged at her dress as we passed the Isle of Wight to head down the English Channel. Above us, the funnel pumped out a plume of smoke and the windows of the bridge glistened with the late sunlight reflecting off the sea. Every now and then, a passenger or crew member passed us by but otherwise we were alone with the lifeboats. My mother held my hand, not once letting it go. It was not that she was afraid I might fall overboard but that she wanted to share her exhilaration, too wide for words. As we sailed down Southampton Water, one might have expected her to cry, yet she did not. This was an adventure and one did not cry on adventures. She had told me as much the night before as I lay in the bed in her mother's terraced house in Wykeham Road, Portsmouth, in which she had slept throughout her childhood.
At last, with England a small but thin line on the darkening horizon, she said, ‘Let's go and sort out our cabin.'
Ahead was an ocean of sea water and endless possibilities.
My mother and I shared a twin-berth, second-class cabin whilst my father ‘bunked up', as he put it, with another male passenger, a forestry officer travelling solo to Colombo. Although attached to the Royal Navy, my father was no more than an Admiralty civil servant, having left school at sixteen to become a clerk in the chandlery offices of Portsmouth Royal Naval dockyard. He never wore a uniform with a rank on it, yet this did not prevent him from assuming naval ways and speech. He drank pink gin, called sausages ‘bangers', ate curry puffs and kedgeree, never let a knocked glass chime (for fear it sounded a sailor's knell), referred to his superior as ‘the Old Man' and used nautical expressions whenever possible.
The cabin I shared with my mother was fairly basic: two bunks, one above the other, a wardrobe and a small chest of drawers, a steel washbasin the top of which folded down to make a vanity table, two collapsible stools and a chair. I was allotted the top
bunk. The ablutions (or, as my father would have it in navy-speak, ‘the heads') were communal and a little way down the corridor. The cabin walls were cream-painted iron bulkheads lined with rivets, the ceiling the same but traversed by girders and ventilation pipes. Under an oblong of patterned carpet, the floor was made of iron painted dark green. The furniture was fashioned out of heavily varnished mahogany.
That I was surrounded by metal did not concern me. I somehow accepted that, as houses were made of bricks, plaster and wallpaper, so a ship would be made of iron plates and paint. What was strange was the fact that everything continually quivered, never changing its frequency. It was like living in the entrails of a vast, benign beast, the corridors its bowels, the pipes its arteries and the various cabins its organs or dead-end intestines. What was more, everything smelt of paint, diesel, tar, brass polish and warm lubricating oil.
We unpacked our cases and the steward took them to stow away for the duration of the voyage, then my mother ran me a bath of what I quickly realized, from the taste and sting in my eyes, was hot sea water. On returning to the cabin, I found a silver tray on the table bearing a plate of thin-cut sandwiches, a freshly sliced pear and a glass of milk.
‘Supper,' my mother announced. She lifted one end of a sandwich and exclaimed, ‘Roast chicken!'
This was opulence indeed. In England, still held in the grip of post-war austerity, chicken was an oft-dreamt-of, but rarely experienced, luxury. So was a pear.
As night settled upon the sea, I climbed the three-step ladder into my bunk, pulled the blanket up to my neck and lay on my side. Next to my pillow was a porthole, closed tight by heavy brass clamps. Pressing my forehead to it, I looked down. The sea was speeding by, the white tops of the wake catching the light from
other portholes and the promenade deck above. Now well down the French coast, the
rolled gently in the Atlantic swell.
My mother leant up and kissed me. ‘We're on our way now,' she whispered with hardly suppressed excitement. ‘Aren't we the lucky ones?'
The voyage to Hong Kong took a month, with seven ports of call
en route.
My father, assiduously studying our course on a daily progress map pinned to a notice board in the lounge and maintained by the officer of the watch – whom he accosted whenever he could for a mariners' chat – announced what we might see each day. His first prediction was that we should see Gibraltar ‘off the port beam', but it was hidden in sea mist. This upset him greatly. To see Gibraltar was, he considered, a rite of passage.
‘You've not lived until you've seen Gib.,' he informed me with an eye as misty as the distance.
‘Why not?' I replied. ‘It's just a big rock.'
‘Just a rock! Did you hear the boy, Joyce? Just a rock … What did they teach him in that bloody school?'
‘To read and write,' my mother answered. ‘Well.'
My father, not to be wrong-footed, went on, ‘The Romans used to think that if you sailed too far out from Gib., you fell off the edge of the world.'
‘But you don't,' I rejoined. ‘It's round. You just come back again.'
This piece of puerile logic was met with a brief snort of contempt.
We arrived at our first port of call, Algiers, three days out of
Southampton. The city consisted of low buildings encircling a bay into which several moles and pontoons projected. Only a very few minarets poked upwards into the sky, contrary to my expectations, my father having lectured me on Muslims and mosques. There was little shipping in the harbour and almost every vehicle was either of pre-war vintage or ex-military, both Allied and German. All the cars, without exception, were black French Citroëns. The air, warm and dry, tasted of the desert, which I knew from geography lessons covered north Africa.
As soon as the ship was berthed, our steward entered our cabin and, closing the porthole, warned us to keep it shut whenever we were in port in order to deter pole-fishers.
‘What's a pole-fisher?' I enquired.
‘Pole-fisher's a thief,' he explained in his cockney accent. “e ‘as a long flex'ble pole with an 'ook on it. 'e shoves it through the por‘hole an' sees what ‘e can catch. But,' he added sternly, ‘if you see the pole wigglin' about in the cabin, don't make a grab for it, even,' he glanced at my bunk, 'if 'e's 'ooked yer teddy bear. See, 'e'll've set razor blades in the pole. You grab it an' – zip! – 'e pulls the pole an' you ain't got no fingers.'
I immediately put the bear in the wardrobe, hid it behind my mother's frocks and closed the door.
My mother was eager to go ashore. This was the first time she had set foot outside Britain. I was just as eager to follow. My father, conversely, was not at all enthusiastic. A friend of his had been stabbed to death in Algiers during the war and he considered the place unsafe. That this friend had been in military intelligence, that Algiers had been under the influence of Vichy France and that the war against Hitler had been in full flood at the time did not seem to occur to him. However, my mother prevailed and we set off to see the sights in a small, decrepit bus with some other passengers from the ship. Our ride culminated in the Casbah, the
sixteenth-century fortified part of the old Ottoman city. Here, we got out of the bus and, after my father had exhorted us to stay close together and be alert, wandered through the narrow thoroughfares of the
Every street and alley was an animated illustration from my grandfather's morocco-bound copy of
The Thousand and One Nights.
Men wearing turbans and baggy trousers passed by, leading donkeys. Some of the women wore burkas, their eyes bright in the darkness of the slits. Dogs scratched themselves indifferently or lay asleep in the shade. Stalls erected under arcaded buildings sold vegetables I had never seen before, quaintly shaped copper jugs, vicious-looking daggers (the better for stabbing British spies with), leather ware and sand-coloured pottery. In coffee shops, men sat around tables drinking from small cups or smoking hookahs, the scent of their tobacco alien when compared to my father's Sobranie Black Russian or my mother's State Express 555 cigarettes. Away from the smokers, I found the air heavy with smells reminiscent of my grandmothers' spice cabinets, of minced pies and apple tart – and the odour of donkeys, camels and human sweat. My mother purchased some fresh dates from a stall and set about eating them, much to my father's alarm.
‘How can you tell where they've been?' he remonstrated with her.
‘They've been up a date palm,' my mother replied.
‘And they picked themselves, I suppose?'
‘No,' she responded, in the same tone of voice as she might have used to a dog sniffing at the Sunday dinner table. ‘I expect they were plucked by a scrofulous urchin and thrown down to his tubercular aunt who wrapped them in her phlegm-stiffened handkerchief.'
‘Well, if you want to poison yourself, at least don't give one to Martin. The last thing he'll want is dysentery.'
‘But I want one,' I butted in.
I had no idea what I was being forbidden, but I was determined not to miss out on it or the promise of dysentery. Surreptitiously my mother slipped me a date. Its taste and texture reminded me of solidified honey.
Once through the
, we climbed up to a battlement where I sat on a large cannon. From this vantage point, I could see camels down below, their wooden-framed cargo saddles being laden with sacks. My mother asked me what I thought of the city and was later to write to relatives that I compared Algiers favourably to the outer-London suburb of Woking.
As we retraced our steps through the
to catch the bus, we were beset by a hoard of children, many of them about my age, dressed in flowing rags and the fragrances of warm humanity. They called vociferously for
their hands outstretched, their eyes devious and pleading. One or two of the more courageous plucked at my father's tropical-weight linen jacket. He raised his hand as if to strike them and they adroitly retreated.
‘What do they want?' I asked my mother, somewhat shocked that my father had thought to hit someone else's child. Smacking me was one thing, but clipping the ear of a stranger was an altogether different matter.
BOOK: Golden Boy
11.5Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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