Chapter 36

St. James’ Square, London.
Friday 28 September, 1923.

The sale goes in Hamptons’ ledger, another commission earned. The nineteen year old tells Brian he can maybe sell the properties on Lambeth Road. The rain lashes on the glass front of the office. It is only a silver street by the time he’s out onto the embankment. There’s a homeless man, about fifty, and he gives him a penny; tells him he was once on that same bench and they wish each other better days. John’s home is a single room in Spitalfields. He sits on his bed, letter pad in his lap and writes to Ignatius at Trowbridge Barracks. He returns the ten pounds. Though his brother had asked him not to repay him, John derives small mischief from the gesture. He goes to bed thinking how lucky he is. He thinks of Edward, living with his adopted parents in York, and Linda, the office secretary with smooth black locks. His sleep is warm and restoring.

Each morning he slows down at the pawnshop looking for his mother’s ring. He scrutinises the display and it is gone, for the cobblers, a heel mended against Westminster’s showers. Perhaps he can make it up to her, to both of them. He gets to the office early. There’s another letter from his father: the Chinese job is very important. He needs John’s help. He must understand. John wonders why only Magnus is in the office and puts the letter back in the envelope. He counts and piles the receipts, makes short tallies. Magnus sits down beside him and tells John about the changes. Brian was too soft on the staff and Linda wasn’t what they were looking for. Somewhere between memories of his paternal, good humoured boss and the day-dream of Lincoln & Sons Ltd, John is asked if he wants to continue under the new company appointed manager. He casually tells them no, not really, and it is a decision he will regret.

The timetables say he can arrive in Zurich on the afternoon of October 29th. He has no belongings to sell, some money in the bank and time on his passport. Before he leaves his father writes again. His commands are to be obeyed. He must come. John takes a boat from Dover to Calais. The Wagons-Lits carriages speed him from there to Paris. A different track and he ascends the Morvan peaks of Burgundy. The train sidles along the Doubs river until Saint-Ursanne, across the Swiss border. At Zurich Hauptbanhof his father waits on the platform. Trebitsch holds his arms out as if waiting to embrace John, then he disappears momentarily: the hug was not meant for him. He stops his father as they’re leaving the platform: Bauer; Suez; Chiang and Viktor, introduced at length drop their guard back at the hotel. They are impressed with how he looks over their projections, prospectuses and balance sheets. He feels like one of them. He is alarmed to discover that his mother and Clifford are due any day. His father had forgotten this, the clash with their very important meeting with Stinnes. This pains John because it feels familiar. General Chiang says Margarethe’s arrival necessitates a special welcome.

The next day Suez is ordering specialist porcelain and arranging for Chinese food and drink to come. He brings long silk robes to John, and a skull-cap. The men each have one, which they wear to Hauptbanhof Station. His mother does not see them: for each person disembarking a thought spins unresolved behind her travelled face. Clifford points to them. They are like five monks, he says. Margarethe looks at them twice over, and they bow respectfully.

John is not pleased that his mother and brother, just come from Hamburg, have to return there after only days. Mother says nothing but the twelve year old questions the decision openly, to Viktor’s amusement. They travel the longer route, via Berlin, and already John is regretting coming. At Berlin, his father puts them on the next train and goes back to Zurich. Mother laments the missed opportunity of visiting Julius who is stationed nearby.

I met Ignatius over the Summer. And his girl, Lily Morgan,” John says.

That’s good. You know not to call him ‘John’ around his father. It was fine when Ignatius was a boy, but his reasons–”

I can see the sea!” says Clifford, as he paws the windows.

Through the ages, Hamburg was decimated by Vikings, The Black Death, The Great Fire and a cholera epidemic, and each time she was rebuilt. The city was spared the worst of the hyperinflation punishing Germany, on account of her large port trade. Margarethe took her sons along the river Elbe where their grand-father once worked, and to the Jerusalem Mission House where their own father had studied. There were no extra items to pack or loose ends to tie. John suspected the only reason they were there was so they were not in Zurich. He would walk along the jetty at nights, thinking of taking a liner to Canada. Two weeks later, Father wanted them back with him.

They returned to a blazing row. Colonel Bauer had been asked to Russia as a guest of the state. Trebitsch said it couldn’t have been worse timed, that he was letting Wu Peifu down. Bauer put his hands up and told him to calm himself. Moscow was only temporary: he would likely be in Nanjing in two weeks. As he went, Bauer gave John a firm handshake, the sort that nearly breaks bones. Their own journey to the Italian port of Genoa took a long day by high speed tracks; a week’s sailing to Shanghai. Aboard the liner, John noticed Clifford was not like other boys his age: he was pensive and still. Their parents talk with the Chinese about schooling and the arts, and he wonders if they aren’t overlooking the kid. Wang Suez is telling the story of how Shanghai first opened to the West; where Christian missionaries physically forced the city gates. John tells Clifford they had to fight through dragons thirty feet tall. Their father begins to talk about the serious business of railways. Already there are services connecting Shanghai, Beijing and the North. John knows this, and that the expansion boom passed ten years ago. His skills, developed as an estate agent, trained him to read up and he has Nanjing facts stored away just for sharing with Clifford. The gardens there have enormous tortoises and elephants made from stone. There are old, old burial sites: the body of the Emperor’s brother, from the fifth century.

Shanghai is a bustling cosmopolitan port. There are many political and Jewish emigres from Russia. Father is constantly out meeting them all. Mother is at once uncomfortable. John recalls another Christmas, ten years past, when she lived in Bucharest. Lost as to the language and prices, she depends on her sons to help her shop and this is no different. Boldly, John corners Suez at the Oriental Hotel and explains she needs help. A guide is discretely arranged.

Several weeks later the train brings them to Nanjing. The weather is like London’s: cold damp rain every day. The street sellers tout lamb kebabs and salted duck, honey duck, duck oil blood, all duck, all the time. Also radishes, which locals are obsessed with. Neither John nor Clifford care for radishes.

Nanjing was once China’s capital and size is everything. The City Walls are fourteenth century granite, limestone packed layers of gravel, yellow earth and broken bricks, their joints coagulated by mixed lime, tung oil and cooked rice water. Mid January masses rclimb the walls as part of some festival which John never truly understands. He walks on the banks of Qinhuai, ‘Nanjing’s mother river’, tributary of the Yangtze, where there are barges, bazaars, lanterns and Fuzimino the old Confucius Temple, now a barracks, and the New Year’s fireworks whistle over, popping in showers of green and red. In the mornings he looks out at Purple Mountain, named for the ethereally covered clouds signalling his transportation to this alien world. Pink cherry blossom trees are in bloom.

All these spells distract John from the vaguest murmur that says he is unemployed. After all, he is taking Chinese lessons. They were arranged by his father so that John can act as translator. Yet Trebitsch is never around. Clifford attends Hillcrest American School, while their mother fusses over their spacious home, dusting its rectangles and ethnic baubles. There are silk screens and hanging scrolls, though the floor is covered with garish kitchen linoleum, one of many anomalies Wu Peifu had installed in the mistaken belief that the designs were ‘wordly’. Trebitsch briefs Marshal Wu and General Chi Hsien-Yuan, and ratifies the Knolls agreement; he tutors Wu’s son; goes to meetings with Bauer and his secretary; he writes articles for the local English paper and seems to have a new job every week.

The passport office in Nanjing is like most others: world maps on white walls and uninspiring plants; dour wood framed dusty glass kiosks. John finds this both mundane and reassuring. He hands over the Trautwein passport which his father needs endorsed for his trip to Zurich. The clerk asks why Trautwein is returning after only two months. If John is not Trautwein, then Trautwein must appear in person if he wants the privileges of an updated passport. John’s father sends him back. It takes a third visit for John to be successful. Trebitsch is gone a matter of weeks when Suez delivers the news he has been detained by police in Zurich. The charge is of carrying false papers though it is likely he has been released already. John enquires about the contract with Knolls and Suez says he is worried. Not a single dollar has been received.

Bathers are jumping in their number into the Qinhuai signalling the beginning of Spring. The rain is of the particularly wet kind that clings to John, and he wanders, and thinks of Thames embankment. He dreams of escape to Vancouver, not happy with the prospect of looking for work again. A letter from his father brings tears to his mother’s face. Everything is in ruin he says. Knolls turns out to be a small furniture business, a two-bit operation, in no way positioned to deliver the loan they agreed. It is surely Viktor’s fault, and that of Bauer, who has disappeared again. He has been betrayed, embarrassed, six months of his life wasted. There is no point to any of this. John suggests they should move on. His mother agrees but fights the words out through her tears. She has no passport, neither does Clifford. John tells her he will look after them.

Early April is the solar Qingming Festival: observing ancestors with the burning of joss paper and incense sticks. All the departed are similarly honoured on July 15th with Zhongyuan, the Ghost Festival, when the gates of Hell are said to open to let spirits eat and drink. This was the day when Trebitsch returned. On the way home he had learned Chi Hsien-Yuan and Wu Peifu were preparing for war. Suffice to say he was not in a good mood.

After all I have given you here, John, you try to slip away, like some snake! And to add insult to injury you try betray my location to the British government!”

I have a right to my passport, just as mother and Clifford do,” he says.

Oh, you may leave whenever you like,” said Trebitsch.

Well I can’t. He impounded my passport. The consul Harry Steptoe. He said he knew all about me, who my father was, what the passport was really for…”

Steptoe? Right then. We shall take it to his superior, and to the London Foreign Office. Marshal Wu will hear of it!”

He went on and on, making up stories about me using a fake name. Do you know him? This Steptoe seemed to think passport was for you. Now I am stuck here!”

I think I have heard enough back-talk, John. I have enough trouble from bloody furniture men without all this nonsense!! Go and get your writing pad.”

A month later, Eyre Crowe and Basil Thomson discuss the letter mailed through Nanjing consulate. Trebitsch Lincoln’s tone, in angry five point outline, sways them against the whole family. Eventually, after speaking with the Home Office, they grant Margarethe Lincoln and her sons a one-way emergency certificate. Crowe, and Steptoe, receive a response from John Lincoln. The conditions they have imposed upon him are humiliating. He will remain in China against his will until he has a passport like any other British citizen. When John has written as he is told to, Trebitsch instructs him to sign the letter. A few weeks later, Wu Peifu gets involved in the doomed Beijing Coup. Father is tired of the Generals’ cold callousness, the political corruption, and tells the family to pack their bags.

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