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China, 5: Small heart, big train

china train2

Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I catch a steam train and drink some gin.

Thought I was in a prison cell when I woke up the next morning. But then I remembered I was in an empty room at the Beijing languages institute. We have to get a move on, we’re catching the train to Xi’an at 12.25. Cheryl goes off to rescue her bike from where she parked it a couple of days ago and Elspeth and I and Bill go into the city centre. Bill is short and dark and Hungarian and rather sexy. He says he’s called Bill, because no-one can pronounce his real name. Elspeth has an idea he is some kind of aristocrat on account of his manners, but on the other hand, no one is an aristocrat in Hungary these days.

We have to get to the Russian Embassy sharpish to see if I can get a visa so that when I leave China I can get the trans-Siberian train to Berlin. We travel by bus (getting on is like trying to get to the bar on New Year’s Eve) and by tube. They’ve only just started building this, and there are not many stations, but the platform we’re on is as big as a ballroom. Bill translates the Chinese sign for ‘warning’ on the train door for me. Literally it means ‘small heart’, or, ‘What you are about to experience will contract your heart with fear.’

I think this is it:


Doesn’t much look like a heart.

The Russian embassy is closed, but the guard outside is charming; all done up in green with a high fur cap. He can speak Italian, but no English. We find him incomprehensible; and the only phrase I know in Italian is, ‘I would like a strawberry ice cream, please.’ But he smiles at our pantomime of stamping visas and then said, rather shyly, ‘Monday, Wednesday, Friday; nine to 13.’ Just our bad luck it was a Tuesday. Never mind, I’ll get my visa when I come back. Say goodbye to Bill and make a dash for the train station to meet Chezza. Time is getting on.

The station is bigger than cavernous. Why do the Chinese like to have such enormous public buildings? Smaug could flap his wings in this one. And more people and luggage than for a cup final at Wembley. Apparently everybody is on the move for the Chinese New Year. The bag of choice is a big boxy plastic blue and white tartan bag, all square and tied up with string. Nobody much has suitcases. Bet we’ll see those bags in Britain, soon. Everybody stares at us. If we stop for a minute we get surrounded by people wanting to practise their English and look more closely at our hair and eyes. It’s a bit unsettling.

All the trains in China are green with a yellow stripe. Lots are steam trains. In fact, China has the only steam train factory in the world; in Dahong. You can get hard seats (like park benches) hard sleepers, or if you’re feeling really flush, soft sleeper (which apparently features net curtains and flowers). We’ve got a hard sleeper. It means that the carriage is partitioned into open-ended stalls with a corridor down one side, and each partition wall has three shelves with a thin mattress, a blanket, pillow and a small towel. The shelves are our bunks and there are six in each stall, with a table in between. There are fold-up seats all the way down the corridor, for when you get fed up sitting on your bunk. It’s only possible to sit on the lowest bunks; you bang your head if you try it on the higher ones.

There’s a public address system playing a woman singing a rather lovely, lilting song, to a sort of scraping violin and flute. It seems to match perfectly with the little brown fields and red-roofed houses going by. But, as time goes on, it gets rather wearing. There is a button to switch it off, but none of the Chinese do. It is not thought of as respectful to touch it. In the end, I can’t stand it any longer, and I press the button. There is immediate silence and, as the rumble of the train on the tracks gets louder, I turn to find I am being looked at by several rather expressionless people. I begin to wish I’d left well alone. Five minutes later, when the train guard comes in with a thermos of hot water, she switches it on again.

All the Chinese travel with little lidded cups for their tea. And the guards are continually coming round and refilling them. It doesn’t cost anything, but you have to supply your own tea. The Chinese just tip new leaves in and, as the trip goes on, the green sludge in the bottom of everybody’s cups gets thicker and thicker. We get the gin out.


China, 4: Tea and toast


Continuing my 1985 diary of my trip to China. Here, I get a taxi and have some chocolate biscuits.

Walking out of that door into the main departure area was like a blow in the face. Behind me, plush calm, in front, dusty heaving chaos. Everyone in thick padded coats and peaked hats and luggage piled everywhere. I had given up all hope of seeing Cheryl at the airport. My plane times had changed so much. I had difficulty in working out how long the trip had taken me, never mind how I was going to get to the languages institute where she and Elspeth were students.

I practically dropped the gin, when I saw her at the departure gate.

‘Where the bloody hell have you been?’ she said. (She’s from Yorkshire, so that’s quite a warm welcome, especially since she’d been waiting there, on and off, for three days.)

‘I’ve got gin,’ I replied, as we gave each other a hug.

She had got hold of a tame taxi driver who, when we got outside, had disappeared. After about 20 minutes he returned in a sky blue job similar to a 1950s Morris Oxford, which clanked up to the airport entrance. This covered the 15 miles to Beijing at a pace that would have put a funeral cortege to shame. Still, we were glad even of that when half way there it stopped dead. We were just considering the prospect of a bracing walk when the driver managed to start it again. ‘Thank God,’ said Cheryl with some feeling.

Peking was dark, foggy, cold and the buildings stretched on for miles. Finally we drew up at some gates that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a remake of the Hound of the Baskervilles. The taxi wasn’t going any further. This was the institute compound. Large grey blocks. Thick wadding curtains covered every doorway. Even the tree trunks were wrapped in wadding. The air smelt of cabbage, but it was clean and cold and crisp.

The guy who designed the institute had obviously had a lot of concrete and not much imagination; it was just a square box really, separated into small square rooms with a lavvy at the end of each floor. The place was home to students from all over the world. One Jamaican lad I met said to me, ‘Most other guys put up pictures of girls in their rooms. I’ve got a poster of Caribbean vegetables. It’s so beautiful. I just look at it every night and dream of home cooking.’ He looked at me hopefully. ‘You didn’t bring any mangos, did you?’

Cheryl and Elspeth’s room, though, was quite cosy with bits of material and rather kitsch posters of the great Chinese leaders stapled all over the walls.

‘Trouble is,’ said Elspeth, when I complimented them. ‘Everybody else thinks it’s cosy too; it gets quite crowded at times.’

I put my backpack down and presented the girls with my other, heavier bag. ‘There you go, courtesy of the food hall at Marks and Sparks.’ They zip it open and fall like starving vultures on the goodies that spill out. Marmite, chocolate, camembert, smoked cheese, apples, chocolate digestives and chocolate; I had just filled my trolley with everything I could think of that you might not get in China. And it was practically vaporised. A German guy and a bloke from Denmark bagged the Bavarian cheddar with little grunts of delight. The gin made a very satisfactory glugging sound when it was opened. And, get this, I had remembered tonic water, and a lemon. Brownie points galore for me. One of the lads tugged out a cardboard box. ‘What is this?’

‘Tea bags,’ I said.

‘You brought tea, to China?’ he said.

‘Tea bags,’ I replied. ‘You know, for a proper cup of tea. With milk.’

They began to laugh. ‘You English,’ said one. ‘What would you do without tea?’

‘Tea and toast and Marmite,’ said Elspeth, dreamily. ‘Bloody marvellous.’

China, Day 3: The innocent smuggler

blokes with pig china3

Thirty years ago last Tuesday I got on a plane at Heathrow and set off for China. I was 26, and between jobs when a friend of mine, Cheryl, who was studying in Beijing, sent me a card saying she and her roommate Elspeth were just about to set off for Tibet. So, naturally, I asked if I could tag along. The following three months were some of the most extraordinary of my life. China in those days was still a bit of a mystery, a totalitarian state where many people worked the fields in the same way that they had done for 1,000 years or more; and where, generally, their Number One ambition was to be able to afford a bicycle. This is is my diary of what happened:

Five hours later we board the plane. Chairman Mao is determined to have a picture of all of us. His international friends, he calls me and Michael. So we have to get off the plane and line up smiling on the tarmac by the steps. Unfortunately Pakistani policemen have different ideas about photographs being taken at their airport, especially since there are military jets in the background, and they point their guns at us.  So we troop back up the steps and the Romanian pilot takes the picture.

The plane is almost empty apart from us. The Chinese all sit together and Chairman Mao gestures for me to join them, but I just smile and point out a row of three seats further back and stretch out on them. He doesn’t seem to mind. I think about my passport. Not much I can do about it now. I don’t know whether I’ve been stupid, or not.

Our meals come in flat, gaily patterned cardboard boxes. And when they’re finished with, the stewardesses scrape off the waste, and then insert the next meal. They don’t hand them to you, either. They chuck them, like frisbees. Breakfast was not too bad, a heated up omelette and a banana. Lunch was a complete mystery. It had the consistency and taste of a pan scourer fried in batter, and this came with four chips and plastic square inch of strawberry jam. It was pointless asking the stewardesses what these things were; most of them had curled up on the back seats and gone to sleep. One of them was doing her make-up. Two were alternately dishing out tea in red plastic picnic cups and trying to stop the more over-enthusiastic Chinese from leaping from side to side of the plane shooting off entire rolls of film of the Himalayas.

Those mountains are truly awesome. Even from thousands of feet up in an aeroplane they were astonishing – peak after snow-capped peak stretching in all directions. There seemed very little vegetation, just snow and bare brown rock and the occasional glacier. They eventually gave way to desert; miles upon miles of it. Everything looked so dry. Things that looked like river beds snaked across the landscape, but they didn’t look like they had any water in them.

Michael sat down next to me. He seemed unusually twitchy. ‘We will be landing soon,’ he said. I glanced at him briefly and then got back to the scenery. ‘China is a great country,’ he began again. ‘But there are many, many oppressed people. You are punished if you are a Christian. Put in prison. Tortured even. You cannot worship openly.’

I dragged myself away from the Himlayas. ‘What?’

‘Christians.’ He said patiently. ‘In China. They need help.’

‘Are you asking for a donation?’

He looked at me and then around the plane, very carefully. ‘I have 100 bibles in my suitcases,’ he said. ‘I am smuggling them into the country. For people who need them.’

I just stared at him. I couldn’t think of anything to say. How can you smuggle that many bibles in two suitcases? It’s not like nobody will notice.

‘I was wondering if you might like to help me,’ he said. ‘If you could take some of them. God will reward you. You will be doing a great service to the Christian community. You are a Christian, are you not?’

‘But if we are found out and arrested,’ I said. ‘What happens then?’

Michael shrugged his shoulders miserably. ‘I do not know. Bad things. But we will be suffering in the name of God.’

I know I’m not very assertive, but even I could see this was a time to say, ‘No.’

‘I don’t think I can do that, Michael,’ I said. ‘I just don’t. I’m not really that bothered about bibles. And I don’t want to go to prison much. Or er, be tortured.’ He looked, if anything, even more unhappy. Perhaps that was tactless. I decided to move off the painful subject of what might happen to him. ‘Why don’t you pretend those suitcases aren’t yours;  just say there’s been a mix up?’

He began to cry. ‘I cannot do that. You must see that we can bring hope to the suffering. ’

I didn’t know what to say. But I couldn’t help him. He was a long way from the Edgware Road. And so was I. I felt a mixture of irritation and sympathy. What did he think he was doing, fossicking about with bibles? He should have stayed at home instead of risking his neck. ‘You’ll be okay,’ I said. ‘We’re all honorary members of the team. Chairman Mao will look after you.’ This didn’t seem to comfort him, and eventually he went back to his own seat. I spent a long time thinking aimlessly about how to help him. But I couldn’t see a solution, and the view didn’t appeal to me anymore.

We were continually losing hours because of the direction we were flying in. I had lost all track of time in any case but, in six hours, it changed from being 9am on a balmy Karachi day to 6pm on a fog-enshrouded sleety Peking evening.

The airport was extraordinary. We were ushered into an enormous room with plush drapes and chandeliers and 1930s boxy furniture and a little delegation came to meet us. Lots of respectful nodding. Chairman Mao beckons me and Michael forward, says something; everybody nods again. He hands an official my passport who looks at it, stamps it and gives it back to him. Chairman Mao hands it on to me, beaming. I nod and smile at him. We shake hands. He says something to Michael, who whispers gloomily back, and then looks at me. ‘Sank you,’ he says, making a great effort to repeat what Michael has told him. ‘Sank you. Danke schon.

Dunno what for. ‘Thank you,’ I reply. And mean it. He, a committed communist, had found a couple of stray people in the world, and had taken them under his protection. I hadn’t actually wanted him to, but that was beside the point.

A man I hadn’t noticed came forward and took me across the thickly carpeted floor to my bags. ‘These yours?’

I was so stunned to hear him speak perfect American English that I could only nod, again. He touched them lightly and then gestured at a small door. ‘They’re ok. You can go.’

I turn back to see Michael staring at me. I give him a thumbs up sign. He doesn’t return it.



China, day two


Thirty years ago last Tuesday I got on a plane at Heathrow and set off for China. I was 26, and between jobs when a friend of mine, Cheryl, who was studying in Beijing, sent me a card saying she and her roommate Elspeth were just about to set off for Tibet. So, naturally, I asked if I could tag along. The following three months were some of the most extraordinary of my life. China in those days was still a bit of a mystery, a totalitarian state where many people worked the fields in the same way that they had done for 1,000 years or more; and where, generally, their Number One ambition was to be able to afford a bicycle. This is is my diary of what happened:

February 11, (I think) Karachi. A hot summer’s day on a February morning and an airport full of organised (ish) chaos with lots of shouting. No connecting plane to Beijing. Me and Chairman Mao and his retinue and Michael shrink together. The PIA official is condescendingly kind and casually efficient. ‘We’ll put you in a hotel,’ he said. ‘Very nice hotel. And your flight is at 7.30 tonight. Off you go.’

Hordes of porters descend on us, determinedly wrenching away our bags; anything that remotely looks as if it needs carrying. I clasp my still unopened gin to my chest. Nobody is going to get their mitts on that. If that breaks on the Pakistani dust, I will cry. Or kill someone.

Everything, including us, is piled on a mini bus that is coming apart at the seams. The porters want to get on too, but the driver, with some difficulty, shuts the door in their faces. So they hang on to the sides, waving their thin brown hands through the windows. ‘Baksheesh! Baksheesh!’ they yell and we’re all too jetlagged to care. ‘No money!’ we yell back.

The hotel is not big or swanky and the water comes out of the taps with great gloopy burps, but I couldn’t have been more pleased if we’d pulled up at the Dorchester.  It’s built as a series of inter-connecting cloistered courtyards with grass and trees in the middle of each. I think about Rikki Tikki Tavi and wonder at the back of my mind if I’m going to find a king cobra under my bed or in the bath, but no. The room is a bit musty smelling but clean, and I sit on my doorstep soaking up the heat.

Lunch in the canteen. Serve yourself lamb curry and rice. The cooks’ aprons look disgusting but everybody smiles at us and I put food poisoning in the same mental box as the snakes, and dig in. It’s kind of earthy tasting, but very satisfying. The Chinese look a bit unhappy, but Mao gives them a pep talk (although he could be reciting a dirty limerick for all I know) and they each get a pair of chopsticks out of their pockets and start eating. Weird.

Then, my big mistake. It’s so hot I put my shorts on and get on the minibus back to the airport so I can telex Cheryl (the hotel doesn’t have a telex). My trip is taking so long I’m beginning to worry that she and Elspeth will have set off for Tibet without me, and I’ll have to somehow catch them up. I was thinking about this so much that I didn’t think about the fact that I was in a muslim city. Or that I was female and on my own.

I knew I’d done something wrong almost as soon as I got on the minibus, from the way the driver looked at me, but the door clanked close behind me and he wouldn’t stop and there was nothing I could do. All the men on the bus, the hotel porters going out to greet a flight just stared at my bare legs and me, and then grinned and nudged each other. I began to feel very, very nervous. I looked determinedly out of the window and pretended I was somewhere else.

Still, got to the airport ok. Got out of the bus to cross the busy road to the airport entrance with lorries full of men leering at me and shouting stuff. God knows what. Even when I made it to the PIA desk the looks I got from the suitably covered up female groundstaff didn’t make it seem worth the trip. If they could have looked any further down their noses at me and my naked legs their eyes would have dropped out. Supercilious cows. But I had to send the telex. Or at least try.

Sending the telegram was a completely potty exercise. After waiting for what seemed like hours, with the entire bloody population of Karachi staring at me, while everybody yelled at everybody else, one of the officials gave me a slip of paper and said, ‘Write your message here.’ I did. So then he took another slip, wrote his own telegram to Cheryl and told me I needn’t bother with mine.

‘But…’  I said. ‘That’s my message.’

He stared at me and pointed at his. ‘And this is mine,’ he said. ‘Much better.’

‘What does it say?’ I asked. ‘Can I see?’ ‘Certainly not,’ he said. ‘Off you go now. And, in future, do not forget to dress more respectably.’

‘Fine,’ I said. ‘Fine.’ Thinking anything but, and went back to the hotel, ignoring another swathe of leering men, to stitch up my fraying temper and put my jeans back on.

At 7.30, all present and correct at airport. Not enough seats on plane. We’re sent back to the hotel. At 4.30 in the morning all present and correct at airport. PIA staff shove us off to Romanian Airlines. Plane arrives. Groundstaff don’t.

Chairman Mao goes back to PIA, determined to negotiate. All the Chinese put their bags on the check-in desk in silent protest. The groundstaff official looks distastefully at them and then at Chairman Mao. ‘You must remove your bags from this place. People are going to New York you know,’ he says. ‘I have important work to do. Take your baggage away until the proper time.’

The place is packed with poorly dressed men queuing up to fly to Dubai to see if they can get work, there are women in saris and men in djebellahs and, strangely in that colourful mass, a line of westerners in dark suits with briefcases, checking in for the New York flight.

I suddenly realise I am watching two members of the greatest bureaucracies in the world lock horns. Chairman Mao can’t speak English; the Pakistanis can’t speak Chinese, but a very flustered Michael Wong translates.

Chinese second-in-command lady speaks to me in French and chips in with her own observations. The Chinese finally move their suitcases and then get into a huddle. I have no idea what is going on.  Michael turns to me. ‘Give the leader your passport.’


He nods at Chairman Mao. ‘You must give him your passport.’

‘Don’t be silly.’

Michael looks at me seriously. ‘I am giving him mine. He is an important party member.  If you give him your passport you will become a member of his cadre and he will become responsible for you. You will be under his protection.’

Chairman Mao smiles at me and bows. I hand over my passport.

China, day one

chinese children

Thirty years ago last Tuesday I got on a plane at Heathrow and set off for China. I was 26, and between jobs when a friend of mine, Cheryl, who was studying in Beijing, sent me a card saying she and her roommate Elspeth were just about to set off for Tibet. So, naturally, I asked if I could tag along. The following three months were some of the most extraordinary of my life. China in those days was a bit of a mystery, a totalitarian state where many people still worked the fields in the same way that they had done for 1,000 years or more; and where, generally, their Number One ambition was to be able to afford a bicycle. This is my diary of what happened:

February 10, 1985

Set off for China but didn’t get there. Snowing thickly and the plane, due to take off at 12.25 was delayed for 4½ hours. PIA treated all the passengers to lunch; great long tables full of cheerful Pakistani families with mountains of luggage and huge packets of Pampers nappies going on their holidays; plus me, and Alex, who is apparently the only American mountain guide based in Nepal, a six-foot tall, blond Californian complete with cowboy hat, whacking great mountain boots, plus fours and muscly calves. He had about 50 rucksacks with him and wanted me to check some of them in on my allowance. Didn’t think this was a good idea, but for some reason, agreed. I comforted myself with the idea that he couldn’t be smuggling anything out of Britain and made a mental note to be more assertive in future.

I got to know Terminal Three very well in the next four hours; the bar, the bookshop and, most importantly, the duty-free shop. I bought a two-litre bottle of gin for Cheryl and Elspeth. Even when the flight was called we had to sit in an airport bus for an hour. I began to consider opening the gin, but managed to resist. Eventually got on the plane, which lumbered into the air and, within minutes, landed again in Paris where we took on 15 Chinese people in grey Mao suits. They were led by a guy who looked like Mao’s twin brother and who spoke perfect German. His second in command was a woman who was a kindly intellectual type, who spoke perfect French. On investigation, I found that all of them spoke another language perfectly. But not English.

And then it just went on and on. Awful film, awful food and a three-year-old boy in front of me threw up. I spent the next millenia in a fog of vomit with nothing to read. The most memorable thing about the flight was flying into the dawn. A faint red outline of the wing tip just kept growing and growing until the whole sky was red and orange and pink and green and bright, blazing blue.

Staggered off the plane at Islamabad. It was lovely. The air was fresh and clean and clear and the morning was warm and gentle, nothing like the raw Heathrow afternoon I had left. I didn’t see Alex and his 50 rucksacks, and nobody came to arrest me, so that was ok. But then the problems began. My connecting flight to Beijing had gone. The next one was due in four days. It was just me, the Chinese lot and a young anxious lad called Michael Wong who works at a Chinese takeaway in the Edgware Road.

Indian toilets! How amazing are they! An old woman in a spotless sari welcomed me in, bowing and smiling. She even opened the door to a cubicle for me, and then…well. My mate Gina told me back in London that there would be no toilet paper, but I didn’t believe her. She told me I would have to fling water over myself instead. Oh, how I laughed. And there, in the cubicle, was a silver jug on the floor filled with water. I eventually emerged with sopping jeans and socks to find the woman waiting, bowing and clasping her hands and leading the way to the sink, where she switched on the taps for me. I was obviously not to be trusted with water. She even adjusted the hand drier and pointed it out carefully. Then she waited expectantly and I didn’t know what to do. I knew I was supposed to tip her but I had no Pakistani money. ‘It is quite all right,’ said another woman. ‘I will do it for you. Go, catch your plane.’ Didn’t have the heart to tell her I had four days to wait for it.

Got back to the desk to find Chairman Mao, his entourage, and Michael, clustered anxiously around a PIA official who wasn’t going to let any of us litter up his airport for four days. Too tired to argue, we trailed faithfully after him and he loaded us, like vaguely bleating sheep, on to a plane bound for Karachi. Completely in the opposite direction to Beijing, but hey, what else did we have planned for the day?

That’s rich


I have three brothers, and there was a point when the middle one was getting irritating beyond belief. He rang all of us at various times, pretending to be a dimwitted salesman (of different products, depending on how he felt). And, to give him credit, he was very good. He took my mother in, oh, for at least 20 minutes with his impersonation of a double glazing rep. This, naturally, we all found very funny. But when he started on the rest of us, we were less than impressed.

Eldest brother in Canada, who is a doctor, rang me up to chew my ear off. ‘How am I supposed to get up all bright eyed to slash at people’s varicose veins, when I get phone calls at midnight to see if I want my drains unblocking? I thought it was one of my patients who’d become unhinged. I tell you, if I have to get a plane to come home and sort him out, things are going to get messy.’

Needless to say, middle brother just laughed. His next call, to me at 5 am, backfired slightly because I had just come home from a late shift, but he kept me talking so long that when I eventually went to bed I couldn’t sleep, and was knackered for my next shift.

However, things came to a head when my youngest brother, who had got more calls than anybody else, told the mysterious caller with the funny accent to fuck off, and then discovered it was one of my mother’s oldest friends, calling from Mauritius.

Something had to be done. And at that moment, believe it or not, I won a Rolls Royce in a competition in the UK Press Gazette. Just for the weekend, mind, but it was enough. I could now exact revenge on middle brother.

This all happened at the time when I lived in a slummy flat in London (see putting on the Ritz) and one of my flatmates was Jochen, a German lad who I’d known since school and who was just starting out in the music business, composing TV theme tunes. Anybody who says the Germans don’t have a sense of humour needs to meet him. He enthusiastically hired a 1930s chauffeur’s uniform straight from Lady Chatterley’s lover, complete with breeches and gaiters, while I got my fishtail cocktail dress and pearls out. My then boyfriend (now my husband) Steve came along for the ride. He flatly refused to dress up in formal evening wear, but Jochen pointed out that, since he had a leather jacket, he could easily pass for somebody successful in the music business.


I alerted my sister in law as to what was going on, and a couple of hours later we arrived at the Yorkshire pub where my brother liked to drink on a Friday night. I’m not talking here about a place where you can discuss the merits of a bottle of Chardonnay. I’m talking a spit and sawdust four-ale bar, mostly inhabited by silent men who had (and probably still have) fairly strong, unprintable, views about Margaret Thatcher and the champagne-guzzling Tory elite.

The low level of chat and the click of dominoes trailed to absolute silence when I walked in. My brother, who was standing at the bar, froze with his pint half way to his lips.

‘Darling,’ I trilled. ‘Do give me a kiss. Aren’t you going to buy me pint? I’ve just made a shed load of money in London.’

A rather stunned looking bloke banged into the bar behind me. ‘Somebody’s just parked a fucking great Rolls Royce in’t car park.’

‘Oh that’ll be mine,’ I said. ‘I do hope the chauffeur hasn’t put it in your way.’

The door opened again and Jochen came in, respectfully removing his hat.

‘Everything all right?’ I asked him.

‘Yes, madam,’ he said in his perfect, accentless English. ‘But one of the dogs has been sick on the lambswool rug in the car.’

‘Oh, that’s all right,’ I said generously. ‘You can clean it up in the morning.’

There were some deep mutterings at this. And my brother looked daggers at me. ‘He will not. You can fucking clean it up. Who said you could have servants? Bloody nonsense.’

He turned to Jochen and forced his face into a kindly smile. ‘Now then, lad, would you like a pint?’

Jochen looked at me. ‘Is it permitted, madam?’ (More rumblings of discontent.)

‘Maybe just a half,’ I said magnanimously. ‘And you can have a cigarette, too, if you like.’

Jochen took a tin of tobacco out of his breeches pocket, and at that moment about ten men flicked open their cigarette packets and held them out to him. ‘Here, have a fag, lad. Have a fag on me.’

And so the evening wore on, Jochen was treated with sympathy, Steve was accepted as a normal, but somewhat intriguing person, and the interplay between my brother and myself was the best entertainment ever for the other blokes in the bar.

‘I’m never going to live this down,’ said my brother, gloomily. ‘Never. Why did you have to come dressed like that?’

‘I thought you’d like to see how well I was doing,’ I trilled. ‘And Jochen’s such a treasure, isn’t he? Good staff are so hard to find.’

Jochen and Steve choked on their beer.

What are you laughing at?’ demanded my brother.

‘Tell him,’ pleaded Jochen. ‘I can’t stand it any longer. And besides, my jacket is getting itchy.’

‘What, tell me what?’

‘It’s a joke,’ I said. ‘It’s our revenge on you for your stupid bloody phone calls. Steve is not in the record business, I only have the Rolls Royce for the weekend and Jochen is not a chauffeur. He’s really a German composer.’

My brother looked at me for a long moment and then laughed. ‘A German composer? He’s as German as I am! Pull the other one. You can’t fool me!’


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