In the Shadows of Limehouse

I didn’t recognise her for a moment. She hurried up the street in an anonymous sludge-coloured North Face jacket and a strange hat. This latter was made of mock tiger skin and had two vestigial tiger ears. Neither coat nor hat was anything like her usual get-up, which was restrained, stylish and utterly alien.

I was standing on the pavement wishing that I smoked and had a reason to stand there. It was bitterly cold and inside was steamy and on the cusp of smelling bad. I was about to go home. I was too depressed to be out, but home was not the welcoming place that it had been with the dog there.

She started when she saw me. As if in acknowledgement that this was an unusual encounter she tore off her hat.

Very cold, she said.

Nice ears.

Tiger ears. Kettering clothes.

You’ve come from Kettering?

Yes, yes. Yesterday Kettering day. Come in, come. Very cold.

So I did.

She was not pleased with what she encountered.

I go away one day. Place smell like armpit.

She busied herself. Girls who had been lolling (there is no other word, I am afraid) with customers were organised. A kettle was put on. Sweet oriental scents wafted from somewhere. It became a pleasant place to be again.

Tea, she said. Green tea.

She proffered a china cup with no handle.

Put it down, I said. It’ll be too hot to hold.

No. High tech cup. Hot inside, cool out.

And so it was.

Chinese supermarket, she said. Very good.

How was Kettering?

Very good.

You were telling me some time back how you left Kettering – but something happened; we were interrupted.

Not interesting.

Tell me anyway.

Usual terms?

The usual terms are that, when reported here, she talks in reported speech and whole grammatical sentences.

OK, I said. And this time you talk in whole sentences but I can use drivers with dialogue other than ‘said’. And sometimes with adverbs. OK?

Deal, she grinned.

The relationship with her husband was deteriorating. She left Kettering in dismay. She came to London, working here and there. She would return for twenty-four hours every week or so to her husband with a story about some job that required her to stay on the premises. Money came in.

Briefly she worked for Mr Lee at the opium den in Limehouse.

So you’d met him before?

Oh yes, she admitted ruefully.

You both kept very quite about that.

She remarked that inscrutability had never been a challenge for either of them.

She had also at that early stage encountered Mr Lee’s stakeholders, an experience she hoped not to have to repeat.

And then, she recounted round-eyed, the terrible events had started which had led to her being enslaved in the South China Sea and ultimately rescued by the son.

She finished her shift one night at Mr Lee’s place in Limehouse. It was four in the morning, still dark. Rather than wait half an hour for a night bus she wandered down to the river to clear the obstinate traces of opium smoke from her head. One great liner was at the quayside, its prow far above her, a hawser running down from it to the quay where there was a bollard to which it was attached.

On the quayside was a group of Chinese men. She could see at once that they were up to no good. They talked furtively and when they saw her they retired into the shadows to continue their conversation secretly. There was a gangway up to the ship, but another Chinese man, burly and rude, barred the entrance to it.

She had had no intention of doing anything other than walking past the ship and then going home, she told me frankly, but the deliberate attempts to exclude her had riled her.

I did something very stupid.

As dawn came the quayside finally emptied. There was no one around. She went to the hawser and slowly climbed up it, pulling herself hand over hand and tucking her legs around the steel so as not to be too visible, until she reached the prow of the ship. The hawser itself was connected to some machinery, no doubt it was retractable, but she was able to grasp the rail and haul herself over it onto the deck.

She just wanted to see what was going on. At a deeper level, she admitted frankly, she felt that nothing in her life was going well and an adventure, even an insanely dangerous one, was the only way in which she could change it for the better. She went off to explore the ship.

Of course, she conceded ruefully, it was impossible that she would not be spotted. There was a sudden violet pain, insensibility, and the next thing that she realised, from the motion beneath her, was that they were at sea.

It would be many months before she tasted freedom, or English air, again.

She stared at me truculently.

You’re putting me on.

Of course.

It never happened.

Only to Rupert Bear. My favourite Rupert story actually.

How on earth did she know about Rupert Bear? Was The Daily Express taken in Guangxi Province? But when she said this I remembered the story. It was probably my favourite too. I remember receiving the annual that it appeared in for Christmas, back in the Fifties. Unless I’m mistaken, Rupert finally prevailed with the assistance of some snakes. It was good to be reminded even if I was no further forward as regards the Kettering saga.

Or, as George Orwell would not permit my saying, even if I was back to square one.

She changed the subject.

What that mess round you face?

Where I haven’t shaved? I’m sitting shiva for the dog.

You shouldn’t be here then. Should be at home.

No. It’s not kosher at all, but then I’m not Jewish. It seemed appropriate to pay respect, that’s all.

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