One of the most explosive installments in Occupied is loosely based on the 2010 anti-tuition fees march in Belfast. At the urging of editor Claire Burn, (“this chapter was incredible… send this one”), I’m making this available now as a free PDF download.
Occupied extract: The Illuminati Man
The morning after the strike the camp was thick with frost and the three girls in the marquee sat in a wafting mist. Regardless, there was colour in Cat’s cheeks. She and Jack were talking about where they went for bargain clothes. It transpired they each went to the same charity shops. Kiera said they dressed so differently she’d never have realised it to look at them. The interruption introduced himself as Alex. He was well groomed, and dressed in a sports coat and slacks, smiles and winks all round. Alex sat down a little too close to Jack for her liking, but she let it go. Alex kept his his options open, making eye contact with Cat.
‘God, yous are game, camping out in this weather. So are yous into politics then?’ he asked unironically.
Cat responded dryly, and disinterested. ‘Nah. Whatever gave you that idea?’
‘Ha! Did you hear about that strike yesterday?’ he asked.
‘Well duh,’ said Kiera.
‘They said the UK could be on the brink of another recession,’ said Alex.
‘That’s the word. Not just us: Europe, America, Asia,’ replied Jack.
‘Yeah. It’s all starting up again, honey. You’ve got to wonder.’
Eoghan zipped his tent closed and wandered up the path, bleary eyed.
‘Alright Eoghan,’ said Kiera.
‘It’s all engineered,’ said Alex.
‘Morning,’ said Cat.
‘What’s happening?’ asked Eoghan.
‘Am I detecting some animosity here?’ asked Alex.
Eoghan threw his head back, puzzled. ‘No. No animosity,’ he said.
‘It’s okay. Eoghan’s a friend,’ said Jack.
‘Oh. Just a friend? Nothing more?’ enquired Alex.
For a moment no-one spoke.
‘What’s up with you this morning? You’re looking worse for wear,’ noted Cat.
Eoghan sniffed. ‘Ah, just tired and fucked off.’
‘What’s the matter?’ she said.
‘Ach. The usual. You-know-who is sticking their oar in again and we’ve all this shit to do before the rally on Saturday and I haven’t had a day off this week.’
‘That’s what they want though, isn’t it? They all get together and decide,’ said Alex.
‘Same old shit,’ said Eoghan, and he began to pour out a bowl of cereal.
‘Wait. Who decides?’ said Jack.
‘Well, that’s it,’ said Alex. ‘Labour and Conservatives argue
over which of them go to war. They get India and Pakistan to agree to fight. It’s the Illuminati.’
‘Oh, the Illuminati?’ said Cat.
Eoghan moved slowly to take his seat.
‘It’s true. That’s how they see consensus. War: good for the economy, good for technology. We’re in the middle of things they set up three hundred years ago. Go and look it up on Wikipedia.’
‘Aye. Wikipedia it, Cat,’ said Jack sarcastically.
Kiera turned her face away from them and broke out in a huge grin.
‘I don’t think they’re capable of planning that far ahead,’ said Cat.
‘The Illuminati,’ said Eoghan. ‘A secret organisation causing chaos in the world, though not doing a very good job of disguising themselves.’
‘It’s true. This current situation is all carried out by finance capitalists pretending to look weak. They manufacture a narrative that they’re hard done by so that they can turn round and do it again in five years time.’
‘He has a point,’ said Cat.
Fred staggered out of The Love Shack, one shoe crushed under the weight of his sweaty heel. The new streams of drizzle slapped his creased face. He hobbled on the slimy path a bit before fixing his shoe. Eoghan looked at Alex with scepticism.
‘That’s balls. You’re saying they didn’t get caught with their hands in the till, but they wanted to get caught?’
‘They staged it. They rule us by division. Even this movement of yours! Capitalist society is run by the secret elite. They’re dedicated to preserving bloodlines –’
Eoghan mimicked an English aristocrat. ‘What? Capitalism is a boys club, filled only with the wealthy? And the rich people only marry other rich people? My god, does anybody know? Does Lenin or Trotsky know?’
Fred took a bowl and filled it with cereal and milk, and sat down next to Alex.
‘It’s fucking obvious,’ Eoghan ranted. ‘Princes marry Princesses, they become Queens and Kings. That’s the whole system staying in place!’
‘Alright Fred. Are you off somewhere?’ asked Kiera.
‘I’ve to sign on in ten minutes. It’s twenty minutes walk: uphill all the way.’
‘It served a logical purpose possibly at one time,’ said Eoghan, ‘but it wasn’t a great system. People were trying to overthrow it for years.’
‘Well it’s true,’ insisted Alex. ‘The Illuminati are going to take over the world and kill everybody.’
Eoghan raised his voice as he became increasingly frustrated. ‘There’s no such fucking thing as the Illuminati! Look. Have you ever read the books by Robert Anton Wilson?’
‘I don’t read books, said Alex.
‘You don’t read books? You don’t read books?’ yelled Eoghan.
Again, no-one spoke. Fred froze with his spoon before his mouth, milk dribbling off it.
‘Ah!’ exclaimed Alex. ‘Sure it’s all the fucking Jews anyway.’
Everyone was staring at him except for Fred who got to his feet and slammed his bowl and spoon onto the chair behind him, splashing milk onto Alex’s trousers. He glared at Alex. ‘That’s what I like to wake up to in the morning. A good old bit of anti-Semitism. Who doesn’t need a bit of beat-the-Jew over breakfast? Fuck this. I’m going back to bed.’
24 Hour Comic: The Spook
Moved by Gran? Educated by Absence? Interacted with Don’t Get Lost? Then you’ll probably want The Spook. Created in Farset Labs in 2018, this served as a rough draft for Occupied chapters 7-8. Early pages are raggedy but it gets good hi-speed comixing:
Optimising this for the web I followed the style Stephen Downey used at absencecomic.com. The images were merged in blocks of six with the easy free filesmerge.com making sure to keep altering the merge order as the display changed it in order of load. WordPress typically shaved 82% off image size but Freshtechtips provided a no-plug in solution: through settings to Media Settings and saving all image sizes to zero. The blocks of six were then re-saved to a 640 horizontal (maintaining aspect ratio) for efficient rendering, and re-merged.
This post was made possible by my supporters on Patreon before the three-month hiatus. The final version of prose novel Occupied is available to buy from Amazon in paperback, hardback and Kindle formats. Libraries and retailers, contact me about cheaper than Amazon stock. You can read more about the novel on this page on this website.
A Celebration of Narcissism
Colombo, British Ceylon/Sri Lanka.
Tuesday 8 December, 1925: Bodhi Day.
Prismatic a rainbow colours the sky. Monks sit in damp; and think; and walk barefoot over twigs, while bells sing. The deities are ever present: watchful eyes; multi-tasking hands with candles, scripture and birds. Red lanterns are set at the foot of the sacred Bodhi tree. Under the Bodhi, the Lord Buddha sat for seven days without moving. This tree was grown from one of thirty-two saplings brought by King Asoka’s daughter, the nun Sanghamittra, in the 3rd century B. C. It is said a child treading the ground under this tree will never fail in life. The main building is built around it, the domed temple, the shrine room, and monk’s cells. By ficus religiosa, disciples bless one another with the peace of the Buddha.
The new arrival professed an interest in Theosophy, the esoteric group that teach of the Tibetan Masters. From Colombo he was to journey to Annie Besant’s school in Adyar, Southern India. On the stop-over he learned of this place and the Buddhist philosophy of liberation, suffering and rebirth. From a hotel window months ago he saw low yellow buildings line dusty roads and quiet lanes. There was a serenity, a cleanliness to the air. This was what took him out to the countryside. He walked, soothed and mesmerised by the fields, drawn there to Bellanwila Rajamaha Viharaya. Before the resplendent arches are seen, everywhere the disciples are heard in long chanting, ascending harps and drum beats.
This is one of the smaller monasteries. The central building is orange-gold, two storeys and columns lovingly carved with bas-reliefs. Inside are the library and seminary. Behind the building is the mosque-shaped white prayer house. Magnificent trees sway and bow in these heavy rains of monsoon season. These skies of indigo are expected to pelt another month or two. Rains ricochet on a glass cover over a twelve foot praying gold Buddha. It swamps green shrubs and sweeps grey stone steps.
Language cannot truly manifest the voice of the spirit, which in this modern world is shackled to The Self. However, communication can turn the key. Listen to the universe. The early morning song of the swallow. The strong wind is cut apart by the leaves of the palm trees. These things are the extensions of The Creator. Pali, the language of the original Buddhist writings, is said to be a dead language. How can this be so when it breathes wisdom through the ages?
The newspapers do not teach the fundamental principles of Buddhist thought or practice. They impart no knowledge of Pali, Sanskrit or even modern Sinhalese! The New York World, for example, is the antithesis to the state of quiet study. It is loud and crude and insincere. For five Sundays Summer past it carries the series, ‘Lincoln World War Spy Plotted to Control China!’ It told of his making bridges with Britain: Captain Corlett and Consul Steptoe. Lincoln was advisor to Wu Peifu, ‘In the Centre of a Struggle for the Destiny of The Orient!’
Leo Tandler’s concentration breaks. His feet he sees, crossed where he sits. His palms are upturned on his knees. A cloud colours the sun. There is pain in his thin bones. There is pain everywhere. He thinks of our slavery to modern life with its noisy technology and petty grievances. It may be the selfishness of the soul, ego that must be left behind. Dr. Tandler breathes to centre himself. He is in the carpeted, warm apartment of Joseph Schlesinger. The newspaper is in Joseph’s hand. He reads how Lincoln wishes to pay off his debts and gather his scattered family to retire to some quiet corner of the globe. Flapping the pages back, Joseph reads a line aloud.
“’He claims Britain is the greatest political institution that has ever existed, and desires to be reinstated as a citizen of that nation.’”
The tropical sun returns, cumulo-nimbus coming and going like the waves of the sea. He can feel its faint breeze, its perpetual rise and fall. These are mere waves of existence. Behind the unconscious mind is The Breather, experiencing by act of will, seeking truth. He lets the tension slip away, red to violet, risen from the base of the spine leaving through the top of the head. The breath can take you all the way to Nirvana.
Behind him are 2,243 miles of conical mountain and forest trail: Adam’s Peak; the Jewelled Hill; the Climb to Heaven; Butterfly Mountain. It has as many names as worshippers. From December to May pilgrimages gain momentum. They seek a rock formation at the summit, held as the left footprint of the Buddha. In Pali, it is known as Sri Prada. From the peak the Kelnai River brings its drinking water and fish ninety miles down into Colombo. The Kelnai River’s flow empties into folk poetry, and shrines.
When he first arrived he existed on one meal a day. He did not realised how little his body required. The teachers became fearful and encouraged the Austrian to change his diet. Each morning he rose at six to clean his cell and meditate. Then he consumes a simple breakfast of fruit, a rice cake, and tea. No sugar or milk. After three more hours of meditation the monks have a small bowl of rice and vegetables. He will teach some of them English before six o’clock prayers.
He only vaguely recognises the man in New York.
‘I am sick of life,’ he had written to her. ‘I have experienced too great adversities. But what is the use of lamenting? I am engulfed in impenetrable darkness.’
Under the Bodhi tree outside the chapel he knows this is the suffering of all existence. Those words are the past. They are also a moment of clarity among commerce’s poison illusion. When he looks at the work-book of one of his novices he sees his own hand, his true hand. The moment of a great revelation came to him in a room at Astor House in Tientsin; rooted to that spot, for who can say how long? The weight lifted from his back, of Jupiter and Zeus; a burden greater than he’d known, it shot through the tall ceiling and he fell to his knees weeping, weeping with happiness in the gaze of beauty. He made the great renunciation then. He made the great decision to quit the world, force the doors of the lunatic asylum open, and walk out. The novice’s hand-writing has his curls and dips. He returns the work-book with a gentle nod.
Each monk has his own cell with a pink roof and grey walls. Inside are a bed, table, chair, water jug, wash-basin and mug. Their clothing: black robes, skull-caps and slippers. Offerings are made but sometimes the monks must walk the six miles to Colombo, which is another world away. They beg at Kayman’s Gate, entrance to Pettah market. Tourists gather by Indian traders with stalls of gold and jewellery, and mull around the candy-striped Jami Ul-Alfar Mosque. There are five hundred Muslims resident there, and another hundred monks from the central Gangaramaya Temple, a kitschier tourist trap. Tram car tracks line the roads and doorsteps of businesses are fronted by granite flooring brought by their British town planners. He does not like the shops; the newspapers; the government buildings. Too easily they trigger him. He is reminded of the British diplomat in Tientsin who billed him for a wire to the Home Secretary in London. It evokes a feeling in his spleen like bile.
This monk will preach at the temple instead. All who meet him speak highly of his enthusiasm and sincerity. The Most Venerable Master will ask him again to address the Buddhist Working Men’s Club. Tandler will forgive the British, remembering the official in Manilla who granted him a visa for India months before. Yet he does not need it. Theosophy, with its schools at odds, is not something he pretends to comprehend. He gradually practices and develops mindfulness of the in-and-out breath as taught by the Enlightened One. He is in search of illuminating the entire world like the moon when it’s freed from clouds.
In the shrine room are great tapestries of worshippers and students gathered by ascending ones: hands at chins; hands on heart; a painting of the Bodhi tree. Under patterned ceilings are significant images from the Buddha’s life. Glistening sculptures of celestial hosts lurk in alcoves with bejewelled foreheads or blue skin. They dance and share, their feet on wisps of clouds. The sage Gautama Buddha levitates cross legged beyond orange fire.
Stars in violet night skies draw in after January’s Moon-Day, after the revellers have gone. He strolls through town near Kayman’s Gate, the Khan Tower Clock and water fountain. A young Sinhalese newsboy is in front of him, then behind him, and keeping close. The boy calls out: buy paper, buy paper. The monk gestures ‘no money’, but the boy keeps following. Eventually the tabloid is pushed into the man’s hands, taken when all other means have not sent the boy away.
In his cell the next morning the monk reads the words ‘Trebitsch Lincoln… facing charges in London.’ Will the English not leave him in peace? Old upsets in his appendix flare and clog his solar plexus, yet he reads on. The story is not about Trebitsch Lincoln, but his eldest son. The monk’s eyes quickly fill like pools and he is anything but centred. He stands, and looks around him, feels the space in his fingers. His instinct is to grab the chair and smash it, smash it over and over until the walls fall down.
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Friday 17 October, 1924.
Clifford sits alone in the hallway, listening to Father pitch (through the walls) to the Principal. Batavia wouldn’t be his first school, no. The cheerful thirteen year old has learned in London, Hamburg and Nanking. The Principal hears tales of monasteries and warlords and the pirates of the Yangtze. They left China only days after Wu Peifu’s forces suffered a major loss to Zhang Zuolin in another fruitless Zhili–Fengtian conflict. He had warned Wu, and General Chi. Trebitsch hopes his youngest will become an entrepreneur or political advisor. With his back to the hall’s stained crème plaster, Clifford sits still while his father talks of investment.
Java was wild and wet, yet large and free. At Palabuhanratu, the rice paddies touch a black sand beach. Looking out to the shore, the green stretches are squared, hedged, serrated; a half dozen palm trees before the baby blue and periwinkle Indian Ocean which floats rafts by misty asparagus hills. Astride two black buffaloes, the males waddle in. Seven volcanic mountains rise over the bay. There are thirty-eight in total, snaking west to east. Clifford is a ray of light as they track the lush and scenic forests nearby. At Cipanas Hot Springs boiling water bubbles up from river rock pools and he sees his father smile.
Trebitsch lifts up a shoe at Pasar Baru market. He studies the sole from heel to toe and places it back on the rack. The great concentration of people in these narrow streets slow them to look at the china, the silver-ware and herbal remedies.
The Batavia school is English language and the children have been lifted from all parts of the globe. They are from Java and Sumatra, Vietnam, Indochina and China. They are British, Dutch, Hindi, Muslim and mixed sex. One of the boarders has heard Clifford’s father is famous. A spy, a criminal? The boy has been told not to answer these questions. Did he change his name like Mrs. Jamu?
He barely knows his father but is fixed to his side at every chance. Trebitsch wears a white linen suit with a high collar; a pith helmet plumped on the back of his head. Soon John wears one, and then Clifford. They will be a family of planters. From the Great Post Road they can see all of Java’s lush, rugged countryside. It is only weeks after John’s twentieth birthday. Spirits rise as they’re climbing Puncak Pass, fifteen hundred metres up. Clifford and his parents laugh at the sight of John on the rug, fallen asleep under Australian Eucalyptus. When he awakes they descend to fertile, cultivated fields.
This is unlike any place he’s known. The curtains seem to shine. Stray cows wander dusty and humid paths. This vision, of the Lincoln family future, won’t come cheap. The parents must travel to Europe in search of finance, a loan. The world takes them and Clifford thinks he understands his father’s sadness. Christmas days are just like any others. On New Years Eve, this youngest son dreams in snippets of his father visiting them in Bucharest with great news about oil. He was three years old at the time. The memory is happy and uncluttered.
There are twelve boys in bunk beds, farting and slinging and snoring; hanging out to dry sweaty vests and towels. The wet season gurgles at the windows. Concentration during lessons is strained. On the first weekend John takes him out past the tall Dutch country houses lining the Molenvliet Canal. The people who live there own shipping and trading companies in Weltevreden: to the south. They are in Weltevreden the next weekend. They re-trace the steps around the Pasar Baru markets. Containers of quinine bark from the old town storage centres of Kota trail, then pass them, bound for the shops.
Clifford makes friends, prized for his football skills. The pitch soil is wet and dark, and sticks to him like it is supposed to. He is not so good with the books. The temple bells, once a joy, now nag and he is distracted with gossip and capers. Mrs. Jamu scolds him. He is falling behind, and does not want to visit the Principal. When Clifford sees his brother he says he shouldn’t worry. They’ll not be here long. They trek again to Cibodas Gardens, where John fell asleep on the rug. He has a job there now, harvesting quinine from the cinchona trees. Quinine is a key anti-malaria remedy and an active ingredient in Indian tonic water. Lake-side, under European conifers, they talk of Ignatius: employed at Trowbridge Barracks, England. When asked why Ignatius changed his name to John, John quickly says it was so he can be more like him. Clifford doesn’t believe his brother. John talks about how he and Ignatius had travelled from school in London to visit their mother for Christmas in Bucharest ten years before. Ignatius had insisted on making all the travel arrangements. Lining up the timetables and buying the tickets, he led the pair of them across Europe. A black swan glides across Mandalawangi Lake in front of them. A gamekeeper’s shot startles it into flight, and it leaves ripples that slosh against the edges after they’ve gone.
Clifford would like to live with John at Cibodas Lodge and the whole dorm hear of it. He’s ingratiated himself with one of the popular gangs but isn’t smart enough to duck a beating. He plays hooky at Hindu temples, abandoned when Islam came, were rice is left out for gods and rats. He sees the protests for Jakarta independence, the martial artists and the shadow puppet theatre. The Principal had assumed Clifford was as trustworthy as his father and cannot understand why John is not as capable as him. Clifford’s behaviour, they say, is completely inappropriate. It flies in the face of everything he should be doing. John says all his work may as well be for nothing. Clifford leaves, sure in himself, that all their problems are his fault. He tries harder: at Maths; History; neatens his hand-writing and develops consistency of style. John works over-time the following two weeks. Clifford wonders if it’s because he isn’t important enough to be with. He buries this. He dreams of a pile of gold, fading, and his mother’s hair. A letter from her arrives from south-eastern France. They were in Marseilles, are now in Nice, and proceeding to Monte Carlo. Father has calculated a full proof method of winning at baccarat.
Mrs. Jamu takes the boys to feed and pet the horses. They are warm and firm and brave. Spring is here and with his parents return imminent, Clifford knuckles down. The geography teacher singles him out for best homework. He passes a test, then another.
Beyond the sports pitch, hanging cocoa pods are macheted and piled. Other labourers work the palm oil plantations: fields of green shrubs under a blue sky. Clifford runs track laps rain or shine, managing his pace and time. He no longer needs John or Mrs. Jamu to tell him he is doing well. He has enough.
Mother writes to John again. The youngest son is quietly angry with the elder’s demeanour; how he drags his feet along the road, and his tired eyes. Clifford, though, has the same bitterness associated with his parents. They had travelled to Rome to see the Pope, The Hague, then Cologne, where they met Julius and his new wife. Trebitsch has gone on to New York and Margarethe is in Hamburg. The boys are to come to her. They both expected it. John is off on a rant. Where will he find the money for the travel? What about Clifford’s school fees? His boss may let go of him at any moment if he doesn’t work more over-time.
Clifford’s fourteenth birthday is spent alone in the dorm. He thinks about how John is so sick: perhaps it is his fault. He is driving his brother away. They will take him; just like the Viennese police took his father three years before. With these things in mind it makes much more sense to fail his Summer tests.
John secures the travel permits. He finds no way around it but to explain that he cannot afford to go with his brother. It is the job. Their debts will be paid in no time. He hugs Clifford goodbye and the boy steps onto the heavy and lumbering boat. Fish swirl in a mud pond underneath. The engine whinges and purple bellows of smoke fail to surf the wave. The boat bounces and Clifford takes his seat on the wooden bench. They leave behind water buffaloes, a floating bamboo raft, fields of horses and the snaking volcano horizon. He moves away from Christmas Island, Sumatra, leaves Indonesia. Everywhere around are tiny tidal pools, little self-contained swirls. Swirl, swirl, swirl. Past the Bay of Bengal but before the Arabian Sea lies Colombo. Off its coast thunder strikes water and springs hard upon the vessel.
He spends many more weeks by train crossing Eurasia to find his mother. He thinks of Ignatius and John’s trip to Bucharest a decade before. He knows they will be proud. He is taking the long way back.
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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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Piazza San Marco, Venice.
Monday 3 September, 1923.
Venice’s centre and everywhere is calm; life relaxes. People buy fish and hand-crafted lace. The rain from the night before has created a mini-canal across the centre of the square. On the south side a brass band plays ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ and a man feeds pigeons. They hobble around the porch, under the tables of Caffe Florian, established 1720. Maximillian Bauer is in tight fitting clothes; clean shaven; unflinching. He looks just as he did at their first meeting. Trebitsch’s hair is cut short, flecks of grey and a few of white. He wears a chequered tweed overcoat and silk shirt, a gift from the Zhili clan. He thanks Bauer for coming. Bauer says nothing. He watches a boy loose a black painted wooden boat on the puddle. The child steps back and imitates the long swings of a gondolier to the amusement of Chiang and Suez. Neither man has been outside China before. They see the flapper girls with eyebrows done in India ink, the men with Broadway hats and moleskin coats. Everything is a wonder to them. Trebitsch’s eyes sink into the stained chequered tiles as a cripple hobbles past him with golden-tipped cane.
Finally Bauer replies. He says Trebitsch’s letter was timed so he had to come, or let them down. He smiles gently at the Chinese. Bauer asks Chiang about his military service. Chiang recounts how the provinces tried to remove the generals from politics, how Beiyang’s Premier made an alliance with Marshal Wu, then betrayed him. Bauer says he recognises every detail. His wartime government were the same. Ebert was the same. Their decisions have led to the hyperinflation currently destroying Germany.
“Yet isn’t this a fine thing?” says Trebitsch. “Two of the finest Generals and diplomats each – proven teams – gathered to make great international changes!! Italy, China – Britain’s weak spots – plans in action, unfettered!”
Trebitsch’s chair has one uneven leg which wobbles as he talks. Bauer cold-shoulders him. Trebitsch only wants to redevelop China, make her a first rate global power. Suez says he is sure they will all get along just fine. Bauer has a few ideas to secure the loans China needs. They have a map of Chongqing showing coal deposits and projected railway lines; banks and addresses; persons of interest, points of contacts and overheads. It is only when Bauer is planning with Chiang and Suez does Trebitsch see the familiar light in his eyes.
They spend a week in negotiations: mostly fruitless. Trebitsch insists on being known as ‘Ludwig Tolnai’. They travel to Vienna and Bauer’s friend, Professor Viktor Otte, joins them. He dresses in a chequered tweed overcoat. Trebitsch takes an instant dislike to him. He says Viktor is a pigeon-breasted fake of a man. On their last night they unwind inside Schweizerhaus, corner of Prater public park, a raucous bar. Suez is quickly intoxicated. Chiang and Bauer bond over war stories and Trebitsch watches as they drift from him. Viktor comes back with two beers. There are two more at the bar. Bauer smiles; he will get the others. Trebitsch says he will get his own. The band are loud they shout to be heard.
“A lager please! Max. You must be careful using my real name. The Chinese–”
“The Chinese are the only reason we are talking,” says Bauer coolly.
“Yes, yes, I betrayed you. And I am sorry. But put yourself in my shoes. Stephani would have had me shot!”
“He swore to me –”
“You were naive to re-employ him and it put me in an impossible position. No matter, it is all done. Let us think of the present, the future, rather than what has gone before.”
Bauer stares into him a moment then lifts the beers and walks away. They are calling for him. Trebitsch pays for his drink and walks around Viktor and Bauer, his chair set apart from the others. Suez has fallen asleep against Chiang’s shoulder. Chiang is offering Bauer a job as Wu Peifu’s foreign advisor. Trebitsch misses the toast. They will celebrate until closing time, says Viktor, but Trebitsch disagrees. They have an early start. Suez ought to be wakened. Viktor says Suez will be a rich young man soon and can sleep where-ever he likes. Trebitsch is not sure whether to scowl or laugh with them.
‘Ludwig Tolnai’ will not speak with some in Vienna. Some will not speak with him. Alone by Josefstadt Prison and courthouse, people are caught up in new drama, White International revelations long forgotten. Half a mile from there, Cafe Central – six moon chandeliers, satin drapes and marble pillars; a polished wooden tile floor and grand piano – the others are talking excitedly. Suez welcomes him. Viktor has come up with a list of potential investors in Berlin.
“The Hungarian embassy refused me a passport. And with this ‘Interpol’ operation.. it seems I will not be joining you all. There are men in Berlin who would have me jailed; or worse.”
“I see no reason why this should up-end the mission,” said Bauer.
“The Colonel and I will take his place,” said Viktor.
“I will stay here and try to make other contacts. I am sorry General Chiang.”
“Actually,” says Bauer, “If you are alone here, I do not know if I can protect you. Maybe you should explore our opportunities in Zurich.”
“It is neutral territory, more or less,” says Viktor.
Zurich is infernally quiet. He can feel the temperature dropping. He wears items of Asian jewellery and his Chinese skull-cap, to meetings arranged with dead-eyed men. ‘Maybe.’ ‘Perhaps.’ ‘We’ll see what can be arranged.’ The Foehn wind crosses the Limmat River and cuts to his bones. He sits at Confiserie Sprüngli turning his spoon, a gesture rumoured to lure rich old ladies. It doesn’t and he feels old and fat. He is not used to the seat next to him being empty. St. Peter’s, with the largest clock face in Europe, looks down on him. The city is built around Lake Zurich which has less swimmers every day.
On Heimplatz, a dozen streets intersect. He regularly sits at the covered tables of Pfauen Restaurant, known locally as Peacocks, stirs his tea and talks to anyone. His grasp of Swiss-German is poor. He is oblivious to their wishes for solitude. It is at Peacocks he opens the first letter from Bauer. Ludendorff is well, though spends too much time with Hitler. Scheubner-Richter, who introduced them to Biskupski, is positive he can smooth things over with Hugo Stinnes, financier of the Kapp Putsch. Bauer laments it will not to do much good. Money is worthless and he cannot see a future for his beloved country. Trebitsch looks up to the aeroplane from Dubendorf passing the Uetliberg mountains. Then it is gone. He knows for any German deal to pass he must remain outside it all.
He kicks a stone along Heimplatz, and another. He chain smokes, alone at the tables, watches trains around Zurich Hauptbanhof. The tea is low in the mug and the spoon scrapes against the sides. Near Peacocks is the Museum of Design, the ‘combination of aesthetic and functional qualities translating the themes of visual communication’. There are prints and illustrated books going back centuries. Looking closely at a drawing of an 18th century explorer he sees his face reflected in the glass. He is kicking more stones when he remembers Kreitner, the Austrian who discovered China in the 1870s. Kreitner’s son is in Zurich and at the apartment he writes to arrange a meeting. He writes also to Margarethe in Hamburg, and to John, in England.
Gustav Kreitner is in his late thirties: handsome with a bushy head of brown tufts. He is also a former Vienna police director. They laugh when it transpires he knew Trebitsch’s arresting officer. Kronenhalle restaurant is expensive but serves a veal stripped, sautéed, with tagliatelle, paprika and lemon juice. It reminds Trebitsch of Lajos’s kitchen in New York.
“Look, Mr. Kreitner. I am Trebitsch Lincoln. I cannot be humble about that. I do not have time for any flash-in-the-pan article. Still, the truth about my life be told. What say you to helping author such a book?”
In October mornings he is at Peacocks most mornings waiting his audience. Kreitner transcribes the tales of the Canadian cleric; the British politician; the American spy; the European revolutionary. The more Trebitsch hears from himself, on himself, the more his enthusiasm is stirred. He shares Bauer’s latest report, how the Chinese have been gifted a signed photo from his good friend Ludendorff. Details of his family are kept to a minimum. Margarethe cannot get a travel permit, or find the right clothes. One delay after the next. He writes that she should come at once or he will send someone to fetch his son.
It is nearly two months since he has seen Bauer. He embraces him on Hauptbanhof’s crowded platform. There is a meeting with Stinnes’ East Asiatic Department in Berlin that Saturday, but Bauer is not returning to Germany. Viktor will accompany the Chinese. Trebitsch will join them part of the way: he has to deal with family in Hamburg. His seething contempt for Viktor has not passed. On that journey he eyes Viktor suspiciously; undercuts the man; briefs Chiang and Suez to do without him.
Back in Zurich the following week, he finds two letters: Chiang says Stinnes has turned them down: they will return soon. The other letter is from Scheubner-Richter: Hitler plans a putsch in Munich. He finds Bauer packing a case and tells him to sit.
“You have seen the letter then? It means that Germany will rise,” says Bauer.
“No. No. It’s a second ‘Kapp Putsch’, I tell you. I think we two have had a little experience of these affairs, haven’t we?”
“You think that nothing will come of it?” Bauer asked.
“I not only think, I am certain of it. They will not stand by Hitler. They will betray him before the day is out. Perhaps it is not too late to send a telegram and warn Ludendorff. First though, we must deal with this Chinese matter.”
“I have been feeling out a company called Knolls,” says Bauer. “Their base is Stuttgart but they are also in Stammheim, about forty kilometres away.”
“Yes, I know Stammheim but I am unfamiliar with this bank,” said Trebitsch.
“They are a large industrial concern. I think just what we are looking for.”
They are shocked by Scheubner-Richter’s death and the arrests of Ludendorff and Hitler. Regardless, they open negotiations with Wilhelm Knoll. Wilhelm is a handsome man, well groomed and polite. ‘Ludwig Tolnai’ takes an interest in his family, his brother Walter in Stuttgart, and his young nephew, Hans. Wilhelm finds this endearing. Bauer is all business. If Knolls are willing to supply a loan equal to twenty-five million U.S. dollars, he says, they can have concessions to exploit minerals and operate transport across China. Wilhelm expresses concern over the amount. ‘Tolnai’ says the concessions are exclusive, a virtual monopoly. Wilhelm will confer with the board of directors.
A week later Chiang, Suez and Viktor join them in Stammheim. While they wait in the conference room, Trebitsch steals Bauer’s attention. He has a new photo passport under the name ‘Hans Trautwein’. Bauer laughs. Trebitsch hides it before Viktor can see. Over several hours Wilhelm and his people go over contracts with them. Finally, an agreement is reached. Bauer slaps his chair and rises, shaking hands with everyone.
That evening they celebrate. When asked how he did it, Trebitsch advises Chiang that it all happened with Viktor out of the picture. The next day, Suez tells Viktor his services are no longer required.
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The Watch Thief Chapter 34
Yang-Sen’s Home, Chongqing.
Thursday 19 April, 1923.
From the mouth of Trebitsch’s New York brogues a cockroach raised its bulbous head. It climbed out, onto the concrete floor, and made for the desk as monastery bells rang. It trekked to the bed where Trebitsch slept and remembered Chi’s message: Wu Peifu had given them tens of thousands of men to call upon. Still, Yang-Sen wanted another recruitment drive. The bell’s chimes continued and he dreamt of looking down to a serene and leafy enclosure in the Wu Mountains. It was a temple, and Seebohm Rowntree was there in monk’s tunic. He spoke Italian, and quietly assured Trebitsch that the new army were his army, loyal men all. Then he heard Yang-Sen’s soldiers drilling outside and awoke. It would happen today.
Each of the five sampans carried seven men including two specialist rowers. They twisted in the tantrums of the Yangtze River. Trebitsch watched his crew wrestle the currents. One sailor held on so fiercely the rapids turned his oar against him and bash it back against his skull: he fell to the deck, still clutching it. Blood trickled from his temple to cheek. Trebitsch met his gaze, and then, got it into his head to help him. He rose, just as the next wave forced itself over the bow and his shin crashed into the bench. Roaring waves muted any snap or scream, and nobody else noticed.
Forty men ran across a mud shore. He limped behind on lost ground. They climbed the craggy incline. Trebitsch looked back at four battered sampans.
It was a small settlement. They were burning bamboo roofs and kicking in doors when he got there. The women were beaten with clubs, the men more-so. One of the villagers pulled a gun. They were quick to carve his throat. He flapped in the death rattle and blood swamped the soil. The girls and women had their arms strapped; soldier’s hands at their backs. The sharp-toothed lieutenant targeted one, taller and more defiant than the rest, and the men laughed as he violated her.
Four days later, they were in the workshop. Over eight long tables slaves filed and sanded wood blocks held in steel vices. They were those taken from the village earlier that week. The dummy rifles were Trebitsch’s idea. The one called Wei looked up instinctively as he approached. The look was fleeting. Trebitsch remembered he could have him killed just for doing that. The knife-toothed lieutenant glanced at the advisor, thinking the same. A minute later heavy boot-steps sounded in the hall and the lieutenant punched Wei to the ground. As he was dragged upright he saw the General had arrived.
“Mr. Keelan, I though I might find you here,” said Yang-Sen.
“It is very inspiring to see them work,” said Trebitsch.
“Wu Peifu has invited us to Loyang this weekend. Come,” he said.
Two hours later Trebitsch walked speedily across the garden. He passed the spot where the lieutenant put a bullet into Huang Shenrong’s head. The last ray of sunlight died as he reached his suite. It was a one room building and he flung his door open and launched himself into the desk chair, the quill and the paper. He wrote quickly.
‘Taxation must be legislative: no longer the arbitrary will of local generals.’
Outside, he heard the laughter of Yang-Sen’s lieutenants. He remembered the villager who dared stand up to the invaders. What did he look like before they cut him? He remembered the bandits hiding there. There were two of them. One was kept as a slave. The other, who had lost the coin toss, was dead before he fell. It didn’t matter. He must keep writing. Wu Peifu was to get everything he had. Trebitsch scored out half sentences going nowhere, wrote on until he came to his second point.
‘Official corruption: to be discouraged and rooted out. People needed to have confidence in the administration’s honesty…’
Again the quill froze. Some block; as if his mind just stopped. The lieutenant ripping her clothes off. A dozen men laughing, like it was horseplay, him trying to think the same way. He was looking away when he saw the boy hid down in the rushes. He couldn’t have been older than five. Trebitsch crossed out the word ‘honesty’. He re-wrote it, and then crossed it out again as the image stuck with him. Who was the child? Had they killed his father, or was he the son of the woman crying as the lieutenant grabbed her hair?
‘Honesty… and enactment of justice.’
“Stop! Let her go!” yelled Trebitsch.
The soldiers did not speak English. The villager, Wei, had shouted Trebitsch’s command in Chinese and pointed to him. Wei was punched, hard, and his arm twisted underneath him as he hit stony soil.
‘Three: good roads and railways must be built.’
He could feel the same rain on his clammy skin, the boy watching him as the lieutenant raped her. He’d followed two soldiers into a hut. An elderly woman was sat still in bamboo chair as they grabbed clothes from her shelves and jammed jewellery into their pouches. Trebitsch stood in the corner, watching. He didn’t know if she knew he was there.
He jotted the words down faster and faster.
‘Army re-organisation and discipline, provision for agricultural instruction…’
With the prisoners rounded up, the lieutenant was told there was not enough room to take the woman. He shoved her behind him, left her. They left, and Trebitsch breathed a sigh of relief.
‘Public health services must be developed.’
The cockroach scurried over one paper to another. He worked at the dossier through the night and next day through that night. He held nothing back. When he was done he took the papers past the factory and into the administrative office where he asked for a translator. Trebitsch retired early and left instructions he was not to be disturbed. He got into bed and the cockroach returned to his shoe.
Loyang was three days trek through the hills of Ankang were bandits shot and killed one of their men. Upon the frosty peak at Xianyang they were safe. A day east they met with a unit of guards from the Zhili faction. Wu’s men were led by Wang Suez, young, friendly, with extra food and healthy donkeys. His English was good and they talked European politics on the final day’s journey.
Soldiers milled around the dining suite, talking and waiting. Their uniforms were perfectly buttoned and strapped with bayonets and grenades. Only Marshal Wu Peifu dressed casually: in grey shirt, trousers. He was stocky, mid fifties, orange closely cropped hair and a red moustache. Forty men stopped speaking when he spoon-tapped twice on the crystal glass. He held the glass to the waiter in both hands. Rice wine was poured. Wu raised it and spoke Yang-Sen’s name. The glass was passed to another waiter who placed it at a set point on the table. Yang-Sen went and stood there.
“Patrick Keelan,” Wu announced, holding glass under bottle.
During the night Trebitsch awoke several times. He’d tried to match Wu’s propensity for heavy imbibing and his bladder had fallen victim. He barely saw his palatial quarter. That morning, six armed soldiers arrived at his door. He dressed quickly.
They led him across the leafy compound, past six guards at the main house, two guarding every door off the winding corridor, four outside Wu Peifu’s office and four inside. Yang-Sen was there too.
“Keelan, I have asked the General if you would stay another night. The dossier you presented me with at dinner: I think your proposals merit further consideration,” he said.
The headquarters had trees everywhere and Trebitsch strolled past barracks after barracks, gun sheds and shooting ranges. It was like a military town. He took lessons in the riding school where he was reunited with General Chi Hsien-Yuan. He attended most of the 6am inspections, the only times Wu dressed in full uniform. The Marshal was a deeply thoughtful man. ‘The Philosopher General’ they called him. They disagreed on some political matters but it was all done professionally. Wang Suez often attended their afternoon chats, along with General Hsien-Yuan, and his associate, General Wu-hung Chiang.
“Marshal, we have talked about Russia’s pretended loyalty and the expanding Japanese population. Not to mention England, which listens to the whole world’s business with its Secret Service.”
“There Mr. Keelan goes again,” said Suez, and the other men laughed.
“Did you not say they will lose their empire to Bolshevism?” asked Wu playfully.
“Something like that. Marshal Wu, I would like for you to commission an expedition. A trip to Europe to secure funding, and to establish military allies there. Overseas investment for China’s railways and roads. Just think! You could put ten soldiers at points where other Generals can only move one.”
Yang-Sen returned to Loyang for the banquet in honour of Wu Peifu’s mandarin, Patrick Keelan. A military band played the off-key opening to ‘Song to the Auspicious Cloud’, which expanded loudly into painful wails backed by eight trombones. They played ‘China Heroically Stands in the Universe’, its notes arranged in a jaunty melody layered by voice choir. They played the tunes again in the morning as Chiang, Suez and ‘’Keelan’ left by military coach.
In Genoa they ate pizza by the fast Saltarello dancers. In Venice, a naval band played Wagner as they sailed in gondolas. General Chiang was overjoyed and Mr. Suez announced, “this is an amazing journey, Patrick!”
Their boat glided gently to the dock, to where a large man stopped it with his foot and looked down on them.
“Hello, Trebitsch,” said Bauer.
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The Watch Thief Series 4 (Chapter 33)
Upper Yangtze, Chongqing.
Saturday 13 January, 1923.
Geoffrey Corlett had used his charm , status and cash to borrow the sampan for bridge night. It gave cover from the pelting winds. There was a lavatory, stove, and benches built-in tight against the card table. Mark Davidson, an English banker, with tidy black fringe and a trimmed moustache looked at his cards for some combination to move the game along. Suddenly a fit of vile coughing erupted from Corlett. This set off young Steptoe, who spluttered like the sound of kicked gravel.
“Maybe you both should try dragon bones. They find them in the mountains, Keelan, and grind them into powder,” said Davidson.
“Dragons? I have been here a week and all I’ve seen is fog!” he quipped.
Davidson looked down, stroking the tip of a card. His dark irises were inscrutable.“They say a Szechuan dog barks at the sun…” said Davidson.
“Because the sun rarely appears,” said Corlett. Corlett was ready to fold when the small boat shook violently and the choice was taken away. His cards crashed across the table. A bottle of rice wine rolled for the floor but Steptoe put his palm around it.
“Dear God!” he yelled.
“Goodness. It is as if we were near rapids,” said Keelan.
Davidson put the ashtray back into position. “They can be fearsome,” he said.
“Yes,” replied Keelan. “Anything that is not bolted down will fly across the deck. The day I first sailed the Yangtze the hail came so hard that I thought we were being shot at. Then we were being shot at!”
Six months later, a steamer zig-zagged the Yangtze River for a week. It sailed past the junks under the Wuling Mountain range and the Three Gorges, through Wuhan, Nanjing, and finally Shanghai where it spilled into the China Sea. From there Davidson boarded the liner across the North Pacific. At San Francisco, the rakish trader crossed the yard at the docks and took the west-bound train.
The January rain was like a round of pellets pummelling the bamboo curtain and the restless Yangtze swayed the sampan and her passengers.
“Night rain in the Ba Mountains,” said Davidson.
“Over twenty years naval service. Nearly a year in the ‘City on Rivers’. You think I’d get used to it,” said Corlett.
“Give Steptoe and Keelan a tour of the Widgeon,” said Davidson.
“You’re in Chongqing on business, Patrick?” asked Steptoe.
“That is correct. I am chasing a vacancy as an economic advisor. One of Mr. Davidson’s colleagues at the bank, my landlord, means to introduce me to the brother-in-law of Yang-Sen.”
“General Yang-Sen has many wives,” said Corlett.
“I hear his star is on the wane,” said Davidson.
“I was asked by a travelling companion. ‘Do you not want to see Wu Peifu?’ he asked. ‘No,’ I said. Wu Peifu has won his battles. Yang-Sen has lost his, so it is he who needs my help.”
“Those warlords only seem to fight one another for the sake of fighting,” said Steptoe. “Men pressed into military slavery, institutionalised rape and looting, then a one week alliance before one warlord betrays the other. We all need to be careful.”
On Park Avenue, midday rain on Park Avenue lashed against Albert Otto’s third floor office. He needled a pen tip into his desk. One eye clasped a monocle tight to breaking as he stared over the desk at Davidson.
“Patrick Keelan? Yes, I know him What is he to you?” he asks.
“Sir, I represent Young Brothers Banking and Trading Corporation. Recently Mr. Keelan made in-roads with Chongqing’s ruler, Yang-Sen. You were listed as a backer in redevelopment plans financed by this ‘Keelan’ character.”
General Yang-Sen’s banqueting room was light colours: peach curtains and clean beige carpets. Wind chimes hung silver petals. Orange flames transformed lemon candles. The focus on natural harmony transported the inhabitants far from the harsh winter outside. Guards stood in each corner, strapped with multiple guns and knives. They made Davidson nervous. Keelan didn’t seem bothered. The table was laden with delicacies: pork leg and dumplings, hot pot and Jiangtuan fish. Knowing the General was a vegetarian, Davidson sought to honour him by eating from a bowl of Chongqing noodles. The Szechuan peppers were numbing and spicy.
“The aim is to build up, not destroy. I know you are a thinking man. You should be thinking of the long term,” Keelan told him.
Yang-Sen’s eyebrows were like trains on curling tracks. He was used to his looking inward but now cheeks and lips followed Keelan’s spoken-aloud thoughts.
“You intrigue me, Mr. Keelan. What you would do if you were in my shoes?” he asked.
“Begin with the people. Give them good roads and railways. This will win them over, and give you a workforce willing to make use of Szechuan’s coal and gas reserves.”
“How do you propose I do that? I have far too few men,” said Yang-Sen.
“Presently you have no army but you can get one,” Keelan said. “Ally yourself with Wu Peifu. He controls half the provinces. He may loan you with an army with which you can conquer Szechuan.”
Yang-Sen exhaled heavily. His teeth protruded. “Wu Peifu waged war on me last year. No alliance is likely,” he said.
“If you care, General, I will devote a week preparing a plan for you to bring to Wu. He will see you are all for bridge building and redevelopment. This province has some of the greatest resources in China. Your path to the top is assured!”
At London’s Mount Pleasant Sorting Office, Duncan Robbins wiped away the summer sweat and returned back to the mailbag before him. He skimmed an envelope addressed to Scotland Yard and threw it in the box. Inside that letter was an introduction from Blyths’ Solicitors. It came on behalf of Mark Davidson, who was at that moment crossing the Atlantic for Plymouth. Davidson journeyed by rail to London, and was welcomed by the head of Special Branch. Basil Thomson was well known to Davidson, or anyone who read the papers. His recent book, ‘Queer People’, fetched headlines when he told of bringing down Roger Casement, Mata Hari and the German Kuperferle. Beneath his flat white hair-line the spy-catcher looked tired. Thomson quick-thumbed a dossier, then set it down on the desk and snorted out over soot moustache. He leaned forward, calloused fingers spread over a knuckle.
“British business interests in China are threatened by this man,” said Davidson. “My meeting with Otto only confirmed it.”
Davidson had recognised the concern in Otto’s eyes, the sincerity to his story.
“I was initially attracted to him and yes, I loaned him £15,000,” Otto confessed. “The more I learned of him the lesser my opinion. Soon the demands began. He wanted another £2,000, and implied that if I didn’t furnish the amount, the original loan would not be repaid.”
Thomson paused with the transcription. “He was sure ‘Keelan’ was Lincoln?”
“Yes, yes. He admitted it to him. I met him as lodger of an American banker friend. Later, he took up residence in one of Yang-Sen’s homes. Young Brothers rely on the military authorities contributions to operate. Public works, road contracts, large scale developments all go through these warlords. We had good relations with Yang-Sen prior. Yet since Lincoln got in with him all existing British contracts have been cancelled.”
A rap on the door, and an officer entered to leave an album of photographs. Davidson thumbed through the pictures: Edmund Backhouse; Morris ‘Two-Gun’ Cohen; Bertrand Russell and, “there,” said Davidson, settling on Trebitsch. “Keelan.”
Though mid-Spring, the mountain city’s moist air immersed the heads, with subtlety. In the Yuhzong district were the Yangtze and Jialing met, soldiers drilled in this sneaky rain. Fifteen of the sixty men dressed in uniforms of dish-cloth greys with feet in rice-straw sandals. Most dressed in whatever they had when the invaders pressed them into Yang-Sen’s army. It was a choice between that and being killed outright. Across the street Davidson watched them. They were lined up in five rows. Yang-Sen and his advisor, Keelan, moved between them.
“Why are your shoes not clean?” Keelan demanded.
“Do you want your opponents tracking you? You, hold your head up!” Yang-Sen ordered.
Several of the coolies were staring at Davidson. He decided he’d seen enough and carried on down the road.
“You need to understand discipline if you are to serve your General. This is how it is done by the Germans,” said Keelan.
“You heard Mr. Keelan. I demand an improvement. Fall out!” Yang-Sen shouted.
Suddenly there was a snap of bark, heavy steps, and the men turned as one. Two officers were approaching from the South. One had his arms outstretched and wore a wide smile. The other looked nervous. Several of his soldiers had raised their guns and Yang-Sen ordered them off. Then he walked forward to greet the newcomers with a few armed lieutenants following.
“Chongqing is geographically remote and getting close to Yang-Sen or Lincoln is impossible,” said Davidson. “This alliance with General Wu put fifty thousand men at his disposal, and machine guns, and armoured cars.”
Thomson drew his hand from his head, looked away from the notes. “Worrying,” he said.
“Perhaps you heard of the February 7th executions along the Beijing–Hankou rail-line. That was General Wu. and the Zhili clique. Yang-Sen’s master. Presumably Lincoln has opened up channels there as well,” said Davidson.
“I’ll have the department put together a comprehensive update on his file,” said Thomson.
“The senior British naval officer there, Captain Corlett, became suspicious of him early on. And Consul-General Steptoe, he had a bad feeling too. The man is a waiyi!”
“Pardon me?” asked William Tyrrell, whose suite Davidson was now in.
“What the Chinese call an outer barbarian. A waiyi. He came in from outside to poison Yang-Sen against British firms. Mr. Tyrrell, Young Brothers are already inching toward collapse because of this…waiyi!”
“The Foreign Office agrees with Special Branch,” said Tyrrell. Each word was spoken Trebitsch-weary. “We will help any way we can. Have you spoken with Yang-Sen?”
“He will not see me. According to Otto, Lincoln is trying to float a company of his own, presumably to fill the trading vacuum he created!”
Tyrrell said, “I will write to our consulate in Peking. Mr. Steptoe has moved on but I will ask his replacement to enquire. Maybe we can put pressure on to have Lincoln removed from his position.”
Yang-Sen and Huang Shenrong, a visitor from the easterly Hunan province, walked the hall, laughing and joking. They were followed at distance by Patrick Keelan and Chi Hsieh Yuan, a short, dour looking officer.
“Congratulations, General Chi. I understand you are now director of the Pukow Port project. I hope we’ll work together. Tell me this, though. That man. He dined with Yang-Sen yesterday. However I heard after that he betrayed the General?”
“Huang? That is correct. However, he was here with a mutual friend. He enjoyed Yang-Sen’s hospitality, and protection,” said Chi.
The party arrived in the dining room where moments later waiters served rice, noodles, vegetables and Yunnan cheeses. There was beef and pork, pig kidney and brain, duck bowel and cow stomach. There was ice cream and tea, and a bowl of perfect oranges grown in the region. Yang-Sen toasted to his new alliance with Wu Peifu, and opened a bottle of brandy that he had sent over. Yang-Sen toasted Keelan for bringing them together. He would have a monument erected to the expert! Huang Shenrong toasted Yang-Sen for his generosity, and wished him a long life. General Chi spoke of his experiences governing Kiangsu and Anhwei. The conversation was fruitful. An hour later, Yang-Sen set down his glass and got to his feet.
“Now Huang,” he said, “you can go into the garden. You will be shot there.”
The Orient Express railed from Paris. Davidson slept in Venice, and dined before Belgrade. He bussed to and from Tehran, under hundreds of tunnels. He crossed the tracks of the British Raj in Pakistan and through China where the lines were built by men from every country. He crossed Szechuan and arrived home in Chongqing. He slept very well that night. The next morning he met Corlett on the way to the bank. Keelan, Corlett said, appeared to have left town, perhaps even shortly before Davidson himself had departed. The banker settled for being happy with this, until he reached work and found the staff clearing out their desks.
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