We were due to go out together the other night, but as it turned out the better half had some tatting to do so I went by myself to the opium den. As soon as I got through the door (unremarkable, as you’d imagine, in need of a coat of paint and with an almost illegible plate bearing the name of a company in the fruit importation business) it was clear that something was badly wrong. Mr Lee, the General Manager, took me quickly to one side.
There was no opium left. Apparently there was discontent among the Lascars who brought it into London on the great airliners. Some had threatened coordinated action. Houses such as Mr Lee’s, but unfortunately not Mr Lee himself, had stocked up. As a result there was none left.
Just like the petrol tankers, I volunteered.
Mr Lee’s face suggested a total lack of interest in petrol tankers.
You wouldn’t get it with the crack houses, he muttered.
But I have something for you, he said, that I think you won’t regret.
I could hear the desperate sounds of the salesman in Mr Lee’s voice, but I went along with it. To be honest, I have never felt that the opium is the be-all and end-all of an opium den. I go as much as anything for the company and to get me out of the house. (I was about to say that I go for the crack, but you know what I mean!) I am also aware that Mr Lee will always look after me, for reasons which I will now relate.
My son, the privateer, was recently in the South China Sea. There had been an embarrassing outbreak of slaving there and he had been asked to stamp it out.
Turned gamekeeper, I see, I had said.
Nonsense, was his reply. It’s a contract like any other.
Needless to say, the slaver had been located. He had been smoked out of the remote and apparently impregnable island where he had his secret headquarters and his operations had been dismantled with a precision that one might describe as surgical if one had never actually met a surgeon. My son had put the slaver over the side of his ship, by means of the plank, and he described to me his pleasure at the sight, seconds later, of the black fins and the sluggish water temporarily threshed into turbulent activity. My son is not an unforgiving man, but he is a philosopher as well as a privateeer and the practice of slavery offends every idea that he has for the freedom of thought and action of human beings.
When his men went ashore at the slaver’s island they found a dungeon full. They tore off the slaves’ manacles and shipped them without delay to the nearest office of the social services, which manfully reflected the gravity of the situation by staying open after the regular closing time of 4.30 pm, and making Care Orders on them all.
Two however he kept back, and when he put to sea again he could be found, having negotiated the shoals that surround that particular harbour – shoals that might be described as treacherous had they ever expressed a preference one way or another and then gone back on it – in the captain’s cabin of The Jolly Thought having tea with Aubergine Small and Amy.
Aubergine Small has since assumed great importance in my son’s life. He is immense in size and strength, and mute. He has lost his tongue. His loyalty since his rescue is total. He has become indispensable. My son told me of an instance in Oman, as they returned from the South China Sea. They went ashore for an engagement that went wrong. It became necessary to escape the forces of the good but in this case misadvised Sultan, His Highness Sultan Qaboos. There was fifty miles of desert between them and The Jolly Thought. Aubergine Small seized my son, flung him onto his broad shoulders and charged, piggy-back-fashion, across the sands, making the vessel minutes before the forces of Omani law and order. Not all the men were so fortunate, in spite of not having to carry a philosopher on their shoulders.
Anyway, Aubergine Small is not part of this story, except that second only to his loyalty to my son is his devotion to his fellow slave Amy, and it was he who convinced my son, wordlessly but effectively, that Amy should also be kept back from the attentions of the social services.
Amy is as tiny as Aubergine Small is huge. Her real, Chinese, name is unpronounceable for my son – he has no gift for languages – but she insists that Amy will do. The question, when they returned to England, was what to do with them, since clearly a place in the Cameronian dole queue was not an option. Aubergine Small would of course stay by my son’s side, but there was no place for a woman on the fighting machine that is The Jolly Thought. My son consulted me and I thought of Mr Lee. The upshot is that Amy now works in the opium den. I have not quizzed her on her background, but she clearly has a feel for the drug, she assists the sometimes elderly clientèle on their way to happiness, and the takings have gone up substantially.
And that is why Mr Lee will always look after me.
And Amy will look after you, he said.
She took me to a private room.
No opium, I said, conversationally.
This very good, she said.
She made me take my shirt off and lie face down. She worked her fingers into the muscles of my shoulders. After ten minutes or so she handed me a small porcelain cup with a milky fluid in it. Drink, she said, very good.
It’s kefir, I cried. I know this.
This very good, she said.
It’s made from the intestinal flora of sheep, I shouted.
Very good dreams, Amy murmured.
And so they were.