pointed to a grey vessel devoid of armaments, âis a Royal Fleet Auxiliary. An RFA.â He lowered his voice in case there were any shiv-carrying Communist Chinese spies loitering near us. âIâll be on one of them. Sheâs called RFA Fort Charlotte .â Aided by nudging tugs, the Corfu very gradually eased round to moor alongside a substantial jetty on the western side of the peninsula. Immigration and health officials came on board and we were obliged to congregate in a passenger lounge to go through the disembarkation formalities. These completed, my father met a naval officer dressed as he was in a tropical white uniform but with his rank in black and gold braid epaulettes on his shoulders. He also wore a peaked cap with a white cover on it and the naval anchor and crown badge. Our cabin baggage was collected from our cabins by two naval ratings. Both were Chinese. Neither, to my relief, had his hair in a pigtail: similarly, none of the Chinese stevedores or the men pulling rickshaws along the jetty, laden with baggage, had theirs plaited either. At exactly noon, as signified by the dull boom of a cannon somewhere across the harbour, we walked down the gangway and into a large, dark blue saloon car with the letters RN painted on the side in white. We had arrived.
2 THE FRAGRANT HARBOUR THE DRIVE TO OUR LODGINGS, THE SOMEWHAT OSTENTATIOUSLY named Grand Hotel, took but minutes. My room was on the third floor next to my parentsâ. It had a narrow balcony on to which I stepped the moment the door was opened, to look down upon a street lined with wrist watch, jewellery, camera, curio and tailorsâ shops. Directly below me was a rickshaw stand, the coolies who pulled them squatting or lying between the shafts of their scarlet-painted vehicles. Those not asleep smoked short pipes, the sweetly pungent, cloying fumes rising up to tease my nostrils. Before I could begin to unpack my suitcase, my mother entered. She ran a damp flannel over my face and a wet comb through my hair, then hustled me down to the hotel lobby and out into the dark blue saloon once again. âBB,â my mother whispered as I got into the car. It was her code for Best Behaviour. âWhere are we going?â I murmured. âLunch,â my father replied sternly. âAnd mind your Ps and Qs.â The saloon drove through a gateway guarded by two army sentries and pulled up in front of a large, long Nissen hut with very un-military gingham curtains hanging in the windows. Along the walls were prim flowerbeds of low, pendulous scarlet and orange blossomed bushes being watered by a barefoot Chinese man in a conical rattan hat with two watering cans suspended from a bamboo pole balanced over his left shoulder. His hair was not tied in a cue either. Inside the building was a large dining room with a bar at one end. The tables and chairs were made of rattan, the cushions, tablecloths and napkins matching the curtains. We were joined by the officer who had met us on the Corfu. He handed his peaked cap to a Chinese waiter and we sat at a table. Another waiter dressed in loose black trousers, a white jacket fastened with cloth buttons and black felt slippers took our order for drinks. I requested the usual east-of-Gibraltar lemonade, but this was countermanded by the officer who ordered me a brown-coloured drink in a green fluted bottle with a waxed paper straw in it. The glass was running with condensation. âWhat is it, sir?â I enquired, heedful of the Ps and Qs â whatever they were â and my fatherâs previous instruction that I was henceforth to address all men as sir unless I knew them very well indeed. Or else â¦ That veiled threat implied a succession of brief consecutive meetings between the sole of his slipper or the back of my motherâs silver hairbrush and my nether regions. âItâs called Coca Cola. If you donât like it,â the officer replied, âyou