59. Cat People
Jack and Maria led Matthew and Elspeth into the Churchill Room. This was a large, wood-panelled dining-room with a dance-floor in the centre and tables arranged round the sides. A grand piano stood at the edge of the dance-floor, and a man in white tie and tails was playing this, while behind him two other musicians, a drummer and a guitarist, were fiddling with equipment.
“One of the nice things about this club,” said Jack, “is the fact that you can always get a dance. Every night, more or less. And bridge too. We’ve got a jolly good card room. You can get a good game of bridge three days a week.”
“Four, sometimes,” corrected Maria. “And Mah Jong one day a week.”
“She likes her Mah Jong,” said Jack, smiling at his wife. “I don’t care for it myself. All that click-clicking as you put the pieces down. Gets on my nerves.”
“Do you play Mah Jong?” asked Maria.
“No,” said Elspeth. “I’m afraid I don’t.”
“Nor me,” said Matthew.
There was a silence. Then Matthew spoke. “Do you mind my asking, Uncle Jack,” said Matthew. “Do you mind my asking what it is that you do out here?”
“Import/export,” said Jack quickly. “Goods in. Goods out. Not that we’re sending as many goods out as we used to. China is seeing to that. They make everything these days. Everything. How can Singapore compete? You tell me that, Matthew. How can we compete?”
It appeared that he was waiting for an answer, and so Matthew shrugged.
“Precisely,” said Jack.
A further silence ensued, broken, at last, by Maria. “Do you like cats?” she asked.
Matthew looked to Elspeth, who looked back at him. “Yes, although I… we don’t have one.”
“We like them a lot,” Jack said. “And I’m actually president of the Cat Society of Singapore. Not the Singapore Cat Club
– they’re a different bunch. The Cat Society.” He looked down at the table in modesty.
“Jimmy Woo was the president before Jack,” explained Maria. “He’s one of the big Siamese breeders here in Singapore. His father, Arthur Woo, was the person who really got the breed going here.”
Jack cleared his throat. “Well, that’s a matter of opinion, my dear. Old Dr. Wee was pretty influential in that regard. And there was Ginger Macdonald well before him. He shot his cats when the Japanese arrived, you know. Rather than let them fall into their hands.”
Maria looked grave, and cast her eyes downwards, as if observing a short silence for the Macdonald cats. Then she looked up. “It’s a pity that you’re here this week rather than next,” she said. “We’ve got our big show then. People come from all over. Kuala Lumpur. Lots of people come down from KL just to see the show. Henry Koo, for instance.”
“No, he’s Penang. Not KL,” said Jack.
“Are you sure?”
“Pretty sure. The Koos have that big hotel up there. And they breed pretty much the finest Burmese show cats in South-East Asia. A whole dynasty of grand champions.”
Maria looked doubtful. “Then it’s another Koo,” she said. “The Koo I’m thinking of definitely came from KL. Maybe he was Harry Koo, not Henry.”
The conversation continued much in this vein throughout dinner. Jack was keen to discover what Matthew thought of Raffles and Maria came up with shopping recommendations for Elspeth. Then, just as coffee was being served, the small band struck up and several couples at the other tables went out onto the dance floor.
“I’d be delighted if you’d dance with me,” Jack said to Elspeth. He threw a glance at Matthew and then nodded in the direction of Maria. Matthew took the hint and asked her if she would care to dance with him.
Jack was a good dancer, and Elspeth found herself led naturally and confidently around the dance floor. As they passed the other couples, polite smiles were exchanged, and Jack nodded to the men. “I’m very glad that Matthew phoned,” he said. “I’ve been out of touch, you know. It’s like that out here. You get caught up in your own life and you forget about family back home.”
“You must have a busy time,” she said.
“Oh we do. There’s never a dull moment. Especially when the show comes up.”
They returned to the table and Maria suggested that Elspeth might care to accompany her to attend to her make-up.
“We’ll meet you ladies back in the bar,” said Jack. “I’ll show Matthew the card room.”
The women went off, and Matthew walked with his uncle back through the lobby.
“What an enjoyable evening,” said Jack. “A jolly good evening. Good of you to get in touch, Matthew.”
“I’m glad that we’ve met again,” said Matthew. “I recall your last visit, you know. I remember your cigarette holder.”
Jack gave a chuckle. “Yes. One remembers the little details. I find that too.” He paused. “Tell me, Matthew, you’ll have heard the talk, won’t you?”
Matthew looked puzzled. “The talk?”
“Yes,” said Jack. “The talk. People said, you see… Well, you’ll know what they said. About you being… being mine rather than your father’s. That talk.”
They had almost crossed the lobby. Matthew stopped in his tracks. “I’m not sure what you mean.”
Jack took the cigarette-holder out of his pocket and started to fiddle with it. “The talk was that you were my son. I heard some of it myself.”
Matthew found it difficult to speak. His throat felt tight; his mouth suddenly dry. “I don’t know what to say… I’m sorry. This is a bit of a surprise.”
Now Jack became apologetic. “Oh, I’m terribly sorry, old chap. It never occurred to me that you wouldn’t know. But I do assure you, there was never any truth in it. Idle gossip. That’s all. Now, let’s go and take a look at the card room. They might be playing bridge, but we can take a peek and won’t disturb anybody. This way, old chap.”
Later, in the taxi on the way back to Raffles, Matthew sat quite silent.
“That didn’t go well, did it?” said Elspeth, slipping her hand into his.
“Ghastly,” said Matthew.
“You’re very quiet,” said Elspeth. “Has it depressed you?”
Matthew nodded, mutely – miserably. He remembered the discussion between his parents: why had they lowered their voices; why had the visit of Uncle Jack been such a fraught occasion? Why had Uncle Jack looked at him so closely – scrutinised him indeed – at their earlier meeting? Suddenly it all seemed so clear.
I am the son of the president of the Cat Society of Singapore, thought Matthew. That’s what I really am.