RAFFLES

 

RAFFLES

by James Sloan Allen

 

             Stuart Murphy swung his car onto the highway, joining the daily throng into the city. Horns honked. Fumes swirled. Traffic crawled. He peered emptily through the windshield.

            “The world is too much with us,” he sighed; “late and soon, getting and spending, we lay waste our powers.”

            Stuart knew his Wordsworth.  And he relished nice literary phrases. A middle-aged former literature professor, he was driving from his Scarsdalehome to the office in New York Citywhere he now edited scholarly books and The Journal of European Literary Traditions. Favorite lines of literature often got him through the day, punctuating the tedium of work–reading dull manuscripts. writing dull letters.

            “But what did Wordsworth know about the world being ‘too much with us’?” he mused, oblivious to the sea of cars ebbing and flowing around him. The question stirred his professorial imagination, and he went on earnestly: “Wordsworth’s world was so much simpler than ours. And yet it had so much more–what?–weight to it.  Everything nowadays is so ephemeral.  Novelty.  Fashion.  Celebrity.  They’re all anybody cares about.  It’s all so…shallow.  So…inconsequential.”

            These complaints were not new to Stuart.  But today they struck him harder than usual.  Thinking back to Wordsworth, he picked up the thread and started mouthing a lecture. “People cared about real things then.  History.  Society.  Philosophy.  Literature.  They knew their literary lines, too. Clichés, maybe.  But who today even knows what a good literary cliché is?”  Stuart paused to absorb the idea. “A good cliché, a really good cliché,” he continued, pleased with his unfolding insight, “is more than an advertising jingle or a bit of banal movie dialogue.  It’s more like an epiphany.  It reveals something every time you hear it.”

            The blaring horns of cars behind him jolted Stuart out of his meditations.  He propelled the car forward, lost his train of thought, and after a mentally vacant drive arrived at his office bracing for another day of routine.  Closing the door behind him, he sat down at his desk, leaned back in his chair, and again let his mind drift.

            “I would prefer not to.”

            The passively defiant words of Melville’s Bartleby rose to Stuart’s lips. He chuckled.

            “Now, that is a good cliché.  A life-affirming idea.  It signals something important.”

            The phrase took hold of him.

            “I would prefer not to,” he repeated. “And maybe,” Stuart whispered through clenched teeth, “I won’t!  I’ll just walk away. Go someplace where the world isn’t ‘too much with us.  But where?”

            “I could just get in the car and drive,” he thought. “But that would be no change. Europe?  No. That’s about the same.  It has to be farther away.  The other side of the world.

            “Hong Kong?  Too commercial.”

            “Bangkok?  Lethal traffic.”

            “Bali?  Tourists.”

            “Singapore?”  The sound appealed.  And so did the image formed by fiction and movies. The Crossroads of the Orient, and all of that. “But it’s modern now,” Stuart reflected. “And it’s got a repressive political regime. Still, it is as far away as I could go. And there’s a great old hotel where famous authors have stayed.”

            “But could I really do it?” he asked himself.  “Can I really leave? Just like that, if only for a while?”

            He had no family.  Only an inheritance.  And he had a career. “But what,” he questioned dismissively, “is that?”

            Within the month, Stuart Murphy was on his way.  The twenty-four hour flight throughTokyoleft him drained.  And yet, as the plane touched down, he felt exhilarated.  He was on the other side of the world.       

            “Welcome toSingapore,” came the pleasing voice on the plane’s loud speaker. “The local time is 6 PM.”

            No one said: “Have a nice day.”  That was a good sign.

            Stuart had heard that Chiangi airport is perhaps the best in the world–large, clean, efficient.  But he was not prepared for the futuristic setting that greeted him.

            Vast expanses of glistening cleanliness.  No crowds.  Polite service personnel.  An electric monorail to whisk him from the plane to the baggage claim where the bags were already waiting. It was not exactly exotic.  But it felt fine.

            The drive into town flowed peacefully along a wide uncrowded highway through a lush and manicured landscape.  The calm and beauty were idyllic.

            Then the city came into view. Stuart’s heart sank.  It looked like Seattle.  Or Houston.  A skyline of towering mirrored-glass buildings designed by Western architects.

            “My God!” he thought. “Did I make a mistake?”          

            Once in the urban maze, the taxi soon wheeled into the broad driveway of Raffles Hotel.  The hotel looked strikingly like the photographs taken a century earlier–the gracefully ornate three-story Victorian facade distinctively angled at each end toward the entrance and capped by a classical pediment in the center, with a welcoming portico stretching across the front. But now the hotel had recently been restored to appear almost new, pristine, and whiter than snow. Remembering that in the early photographs Raffles had stood on the harbor, Stuart surveyed the scene. No harbor. Only glass-and-steel behemoths looking down on the picturesque nineteenth-century hotel like predators on a prey. They had pushed the harbor out of sight.      

            Spurning the blight, Stuart turned toward the hotel’s imperial entrance, where a resplendent red carpet, extending to the driveway, glowed against the white surroundings, and where liveried doormen were poised at attention.  They drew open the doors, and he strode into the lobby.  The red carpet led across a bright marble floor to an imposing mahogany staircase.  An atrium rose with the stairs and its landings to the height of the building.  From the base of the stairway to the walls he saw to his delight the chairs and tables, flowers and potted palms of the “Authors’ Lounge,” which had long enticed visitors for refreshment amidst the ghosts of renowned guests like Joseph Conrad, Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham–especially Somerset Maugham, who, so the hotel liked to imply, had visited Raffles many a time. Stuart knew all about them.  He began to feel that he had come to the right place.

            “Greetings, Mr. Murphy,” said the desk clerk graciously. “We have been expecting you. The Somerset Maugham Suite is ready as you requested.”

            He signed the register and followed the bellboy outside along a covered corridor encircling a courtyard.  The heat now hit him for the first time.  Heavy, wet, tropical heat that evoked images of explorers slashing through jungles and colonial bureaucrats sweatily conducting the affairs of empire.  He liked that.

            They reached their destination. “Somerset Maugham Suite,” read the plaque on the door.  “This was Mr. Somerset Maugham’s suite when he stayed here,” announced the bellboy.   He undid the latch. Stuart stepped into a sitting room as cool as mountain air.   A chilled ice bucket holding a bottle of champagne rested on a dining table beside a bowl of tropical fruit.  Photographs of Somerset Maugham hung on the wall. An archway opened into a large bedroom where oriental carpets lay on a dark hardwood floor around a massive bed.  A ceiling fan rotated noiselessly.  In one corner stood a desk studiously strewn with Maugham’s books and memorabilia.

            Stuart tipped the bellboy, who quietly vanished. He approached the desk, fingering its surface, and sat down in its worn leather chair. He picked up a sheet of stationery and read the letterhead: “Raffles Hotel. Somerset Maugham Suite.” 

            Stuart smiled, drank in the atmosphere, and thought, “Yes. I have escaped.”

            He sat there for a while, his yearning to explore fighting with exhaustion. Aided by thirst and hunger, exploration won out.  Searching the hotel guide, Stuart noticed the Long Bar, birthplace of the Singapore Sling.  Perfect.

            A winding stairway on the far side of the hotel delivered Stuart to a barroom that could have been a stage set for a nineteen-forties movie in Singapore–smoky air, rattan furniture, ceiling fans, cages of tropical birds, languorous patrons sipping tall fruit-filled beverages.  Stuart sank into a chair along the wall and ordered a Singapore Sling. It came in no time, and was gone just as fast, the sharpness of the gin enfolded in pink sweetness.  It was as sweet as children’s punch.  He ordered another.  Feeling the spirit of the place, he craned to hear what other patrons were saying.  The indistinctness of their covert voices fed his curiosity.

            The second drink went down even easier than the first. And then a third. The room began to grow a bit hazy, the figures in it distant, the sounds of voices, the clinking of glasses, the squawking of the caged birds, grew muffled. It was all taking on an air of unreality.

            “No. This is reality,” Stuart assured himself. “A fiction come to life. All that Somerset Maugham and Hollywood movies had portrayed. The old Singapore, where intrigues were hatched, liaisons were hidden, and forlorn souls came to lose themselves forever. It’s delicious.”

            Delicious. The word awakened Stuart from his reveries. Hunger gripped him. Recalling the hotel’s Tiffin Room, where, he had heard, you could get the best Indian food in southeast Asia, he signed the check and went out into the night. The air was torpid and fragrant. Stuart breathed it in voluptuously as he made his way through the palms and hibiscus.

            The Tiffin Room’s lights radiated welcomingly through the windows, beckoning Stuart like a moth to a flame.  Entering, he was engulfed in the scents of curry and countless other spices rising from the buffet of pakuras and samosas, chutneys and vindaloos, biryanies and jalfrazies.  He piled his plate high, seated himself beneath a fan near gently wafting palm fronds, ordered an Indian beer, and feasted.  As he scanned the room, he was amused to see other patrons dressed in their natty whites playing the role of colonials, casually snapping their fingers to summon the crisply uniformed and obedient waiters.

            “A colonial theme park,” he said to himself. “That’s what Raffles is. Renovated to recapture the past as pictured by writers and movie makers and tourists. Better than the original, though, I am sure.”

            By the time Stuart returned to his room he was drifting along blissfully on alcohol and the sensation that he had found what he had been looking for. He stretched out on the bed and reached for a volume of Maugham’s stories on the night table. Flipping through it, he paused at “Rain.”  He knew it well.  The tale of Sadie Thompson, a harlot who seduces a Christian priest in Samoa.  The tropics had got the better of the priest.

            Thumbing farther he came to “The Fall of Edward Barnard.’ Stuart followed its account of an ambitious young man who abandons a promising commercial career in Chicago for the dissolute idleness of Tahiti. Friends seek him out to save him. But they fail. Edward Barnard will not go home. Stuart lingered over the closing line, ruefully spoken by the young man’s former fiancée: “Poor Edward.” 

            “Poor Edward, indeed,” Stuart thought as he closed his eyes and let sleep overcome him.

           Stuart got up the next day still fatigued from jet lag. But breakfast in the courtyard revived him, and he set out to see the old Singapore.

            “Bugis Street,” he instructed the taxi driver, naming the street where generations of male travelers had sampled the bawdy pleasures of the exotic East.

            “And I’d like to see the Arab quarter.”

            “Very good,” said the driver in barely accented English.

            They drove through block after block of new office buildings.  Pedestrians in Western business clothes crowded the sidewalks. It was “rush hour.”  A modern city on its way to work.  But something seemed odd.  The traffic. There were few cars on the streets. No honking horns.

            “Where is all the traffic?” he asked.

            “Restricted zone,” came the reply.  “At certain times of the day you have to pay a fee to drive into the center of the city.”

            The driver pointed to a permit attached to his windshield.  “You get one of these when you enter the zone. The government does this to keep traffic out.”

            The car pulled to the curb at a roadside police station, where an official retrieved the permit. Above them an arch spanned the wide avenue, emblazoned with the words: “Restricted Zone.”

            “The government is very strict,” the driver explained as they resumed the trip beyond the city center. “But people benefit. The streets are clean.  The schools are good. Everyone owns their own apartment, with government help.  We all save money. And there is no crime. How can anyone live in America,” he added, “with so much crime and violence?”

            Taking the bait, Stuart spoke up, drawing on his newspaper  knowledge. “But are you free to do and say what you want?  Here you can be put in jail for all kinds of things, can’t you, even for just buying chewing gum or dropping paper on the street or criticizing the government?  And you can get officially caned for an adolescent prank.”

            “You Americans have strange ideas of freedom,” the driver responded soberly. “Here we are free to live a good life in safety, and to have respect. In America you are free to show disrespect and to be poor and to rob and kill. Who is better off?”

            Stuart sat back in silence thinking of New York City where crimes occur every few minutes. “What is real?” he asked himself. “Maybe you can invent a world.  Just as Raffles is a colonial theme park, Singapore is an urban theme park, a perfectly ordered city. An adult Disneyland with people living in it.  What kind of freedom is there in Disneyland, anyway?  Who cares?  And isn’t Disneyland a model of what people think the world should be?  Clean?  Safe?  Prosperous?  Contented?”

            Unsure of his own conclusions, Stuart gazed through the taxi window. The modern office towers had yielded to low older buildings. The pedestrians were less Western-looking now than those earlier, but nothing he hadn’t seen at home. Finally the taxi came to a stop in front of an open market. Stalls filled with oranges, pomegranates, melons, durian, and other fruits and vegetables extended far from the street.

            “This is it,” said the driver.

            “What?”

            “Bugis Street.”

            “This? What do you mean? It’s just a marketplace.”

            “The old Bugis Street was torn down,” explained the driver. “The government didn’t like it because it attracted trouble. Now it’s a market for everyone.”

            “There is nothing here to see,” Stuart said disappointedly. “Let’s go to the Arab quarter.”

            “Oh, you have seen that already.  We drove through on the way here. Muslims were selling goods on the sidewalk.  You want to go back to the mosque?”

            “No.” Stuart had seen mosques.  He had hoped for an ethnic enclave with colorful costumes and native customs.  “Let’s go to the Chinese quarter.”

            “OK.”

            The taxi went off toward the other side of the city, circling the Restricted Zone on a broad avenue that rolled through residential neighborhoods and landscaped hillsides. Eventually they turned down a narrow street and entered a section of rather tawdry-looking shops. Chinese were everywhere. The taxi eased around tight corners and came to a stop.

            “This is the oldest Buddhist temple in Singapore,” said the driver. “You can go in.”

            Climbing from the car, Stuart saw a weathered wooden doorway squeezed within a block of shops.  Through it he could see an open courtyard clouded with incense.  He stepped inside tentatively. Votaries were kneeling here and there, and Buddhist priests were performing rites.  A few tourists were viewing artifacts of Buddhist piety.  Stuart sensed an atmosphere of Buddhist detachment from the world, the temple an island of contemplation and transcendence–except for the intrusion of tourists.

            Raising his eyes to the sky above, Stuart caught sight of dragons curling from the corners of the temple roof toward the heavens, warding off evil spirits.  They signaled the confidence of faith and tradition.  Then beyond the dragons, Stuart’s eyes focused on other forms.  The skyscrapers of modern Singapore rose just blocks away, piercing the heavens indifferently. Against this backdrop, the temple dragons’ soaring defiance of evil fell into a theatrical gesture, a quaint dumb show.

            “Could any Buddhist believe in the efficacy of temple dragons after seeing this?” he wondered.

            “How old is this temple?”  Stuart asked one of the priests who was doubling as a guide.

            “It is the oldest in Singapore,” he answered proudly. “A hundred and fifty years.”

            “But Buddhism is thousands of years old,” Stuart retorted. “Weren’t there Buddhists here before that?”

            “Who knows?  Before the British came there were only fishermen.”

            “Uh, huh,” Stuart responded uncertainly.

            “Maybe that is the clue to Singapore,” he thought. “It’s not an Asian city at all.  It has no history before the British.  It’s a colonial city.  A creation of old Stamford Raffles himself,” who, as Stuart knew from his tourist researches, had established a British outpost around 1820.  “So Raffles Hotel is about as authentic as anything here.”

            Gratified at this discovery, Stuart returned to the taxi.

            “Is there a real Singapore?” he asked the driver.

            “What do you mean?”

            “I mean a Singapore that represents what Singapore really is?”

            “Orchard Road, I guess,” the driver replied with a hint of hesitation.      

            “Take me there.”

            Back again onto the wide avenues. Up and down the rolling manicured hills. In twenty minutes they arrived at the top of a busy commercial thoroughfare.

            “Orchard Road,” announced the driver.            

            Stuart’s eyes took in the real Singapore. Garish hotels and glittery shopping malls, chrome storefronts and neon signs, movies theaters and fast food outlets lined the street as far as Stuart could see.

            “You can buy anything here,” the driver declared. “Clothes.  Jewelry.  Carpets.  Cameras. Televisions.  Cars.  Anything.  Do you want to get out and walk?”

            “No,” Stuart sighed. “I think I’ll just go back to the hotel. ‘The world is too much….,’” he grumbled.      

            Stuart closed the door of the suite behind him with relief.  The coolness and quiet isolation were a balm. He poured a drink and ordered something to eat.  Then he lay down on the bed.  The overhead fan softly stirred the air with its silent, hypnotic rotations.  Taking up the Maugham volume, he opened it at random.  “I was in Pagan, in Burma, the narrator of the story “Mabel” began, and from there I took the steamer to Mandalay”.  Stuart was again in the world he had come to find.

            He could not remember just when he fell asleep, but when he awoke the next day he could hear the sound of rain on the leaves outside. It was a comforting sound, assuring him that he could avoid the “real world” for a while.

            “I’ll just stay in the hotel today,” he decided firmly.

            After ordering breakfast he studied the hotel plan again to chart an itinerary.  Restaurants.  Shops.  Pool.  Bar. The usual.

            “But what’s this?  A museum?  A hotel museum?  This could be amusing.”

            Breakfast arrived promptly, served on the parlor table from where Stuart watched the rain outside. It was pouring so densely that he could hardly make out the main wing of the hotel across the courtyard. And yet it was gentle not harsh.

            “Ah, tropical rain,” he said to himself. “Torrential and drenching. But soft and warm.”

            After finishing the mangoes and croissants, Stuart left for the museum. The canopied corridor sheltered him from the rain while letting the moisture permeate the air. It led him past hotel shops–Oriental Antiques, Hassan’s Carpets, dozens of others–until it took him up a flight of stairs to Raffles Museum. Walking in, he found himself amidst memorabilia of Singapore’s history as an outpost of empire and a stopping place for wayfarers. Photographs, decals, correspondence, newspapers, as well as emblems of other colonial hotels which, along with Raffles, had “civilized” the East for Western travelers long ago–the Oriental in Bangkok, the Grand in Rangoon, the Continental in Saigon, the Peninsula in Hong Kong, the Cathay in Shanghai.

            “Those were the days,” he thought as he examined  the artifacts. “The days of real travel, when the East was far away.”

            A framed newspaper story caught his eye. “Tiger shot at Raffles,” blazoned the headline of The Straits Times.  The year was 1902.  He leaned forward to read the harrowing account in the mock melodramatic style of the day:

            A day or two ago, Stripes, a tiger belonging to a native

            show broke from captivity and to all intents and purposes

            disappeared.  The watchman alleges that the tiger

            interviewed him and after giving him

                                            A Few Friendly Scratches

            made off, presumably swimming gaily up the Singapore river.

            From this point he was missed until the closing hour of the

            Raffles Billiard Room last night when, Lo and Behold! he

            stared through the verandah railing of the Billiard Room and

            gave the bar “boy” a stiff shock.  This was rather

                                            Too Much For The “Boy”

            who promptly secluded himself and awaited developments.

            Finding the tiger did not seek a personal interview with

            him, the “boy” stealthily emerged, and “scooted”!, hurried

            by sundry scratches from under the floor beneath the

            billiard table. Mr Phillips of Raffles Institution was         

            roused from his bed and, taking his rifle, proceeded to

           the scene of the action                                      

                                              In His Pajamas.

            The tiger was still under the floor. There was no doubt

            about that. Yet no amount of peering into the gloom could

            discover his presence. At last the hunters got sight of the

            tiger. That is to say, they

                                              Saw His Eyes Gleaming.

            Mr. Phillips put one of those nasty hollow-nosed bullets

            right between the pair of eyes, and Stripes laid down

            and died

                                               Dead As A Nail.

            A museum note somberly reported that this was the last tiger killed in Singapore.

            Stuart liked the story. And the style. And the museum. He bought some reproductions of old photographs and some luggage stickers and went to find the Billiard Room where valiant Stripes had met his doom.

            The rain was still coming down in sheets. Stuart was glad. It gave him a pleasant feeling of tropical isolation.

            As he left the museum he passed before a shop window where a mannequin stood in a dashing white double-breasted linen suit and white fedora. He eyed his own non-descript American outfit and said, “I must have it.”

            A few minutes later, Stuart Murphy emerged transformed.  The suit, the hat, a silky white shirt, a floral tie, and woven leather shoes made him into a character out of the fiction and old movies he adored.  In his late Fifties, slender and a bit over six feet tall but slightly stooped, his aging faced lined more from thought than from experience, Stuart now floated along the corridor with a new-born panache.  Admiring his reflection in the shop windows, he was all he imagined himself to be.  A man of the world, thriving on adventure and rich with marvelous memories.

            He found the fabled Bar and Billiard Room standing a few yards from the main building near the front. It had not changed since the early photographs–or it had been changed back again. 

            “I would like to sit near the billiard table, if I may,” he asked the waiter with decorous politeness  They circled around the bar to the far end of the room.  There stood the table, its green felt gaming area brightly lit against the rich dark wood of the room.  Shuttered windows let in a soft illumination from the gray day outside.  Rain pelted the roof.

            Stuart sat down and ordered a drink, conjuring up visions of the hapless tiger and the ferocious hunter in his pajamas who had made history here.  Not world history, but history all the same.

            Looking around the warm convivial room, he saw the usual tourists and businessmen who had made the modern Singapore an economic boom town. Yet they all seemed rather like bit characters in the drama he was living. He felt at home. He belonged here more than they did.

            The rain continued intermittently for days.  Stuart stayed in the hotel.

            Finally, the weather changed.  Stuart did not leave.

            A week went by.  Then another.  Stuart stayed on.  He was often seen in the public rooms. The Long Bar. The Tiffin Room. The Bar and Billiard Room. The Authors’ Lounge. The Museum. The shops.  But he ventured no farther.  His white suit and fedora became a familiar sight.  As did the dog-eared copies of Somerset Maugham that seemed an inseparable part of his attire.

            Most of the staff came to know and like him.  He was always polite.  And he left good tips.

            “Good morning, Sir. What will you be doing today?”

            “Oh, I think I’ll just stay in and do some reading.”

            “Good afternoon, sir.  What are you reading today?  More of the same?”

            “Ah, yes.”

            “Good evening, sir.  Will you be with us much longer?”

            “Indeed I will.”

            One morning as Stuart was preparing for another of these sublimely repetitious days, the telephone rang. 

            “Good morning, sir.  This is the manager.  I would like to speak to you about your bill. I am afraid your credit card will no longer accept charges.  I must therefore ask you to arrange to settle your outstanding bills and arrange for future payments before we can continue to provide you services.”

            “I am terrible sorry,” Stuart replied cordially.  “I don’t know how this could have happened.  I will take care of it immediately.”

            Stuart sent a FAX to his accountant back home:

            “Please wire me $30,000 at once and see that my credit card charges are          covered from now on. Do whatever you must–SM”

             The transaction completed, Stuart lay down on the bed to await the wire. He reached for Maugham.

            When the money came, accompanied by a laconic note from the accountant–”What the hell are you doing?!”–Stuart paid his balance and assured the manager that there would be no further misunderstandings.

            More weeks went by. He had to move from the Somerset Maugham Suite occasionally to accommodate other guests who had booked it long in advance, but he always came back.

           Communications from his accountant became more urgent and exasperated.

            “Your reserves are dwindling. I take no responsibility!  Come to your                              senses!!”

             “Just do what I ask!–SM”

              “The cash is nearly gone. What are you going to do!!?” Are you crazy!”

              “Sell! Stocks. The art collection. The house. The car. Everything. It means                                   nothing to me!–SM “

             All the while, Stuart never strayed from Raffles.

            But a change was coming over him. He receded almost completely from the world outside. He never read a newspaper or a magazine.  He wandered the hotel aimlessly. And he would sit for hours in the Authors’ Lounge reading Maugham and watching people passing through the lobby.

            In time, the change took another turn.  Stuart began to talk to people. Tentatively at first, then with accumulating confidence, he would approach waiters, shop keepers, hotel guests, as if to share a confidence.  Once he had their ear, he would tell them of his adventures and of the peculiar characters he had known.

            “When I was in Chiang Mai before the war,” he might whisper to a waiter, “I knew a man not unlike that one over there,” pointing to a lone diner at a neighboring table. “He wanted to sell me his business there because his wife had run off with a missionary. I declined, knowing how bad luck clings to things in the Orient.”

            Or drawing close to a guest in the Authors’ Lounge or the Long Bar he would share his memories of intrigues in Jakarta and loves in Papeete, of mysteries in Denpasar and discoveries in Calcutta, of dangers in Macau and seductions in Shanghai.  Listeners usually grew curious.  Some would relate incidents of their own.  Then they would excuse themselves and go away.

            Eventually, Stuart added another twist to his behavior. He started to write. At first he appeared to be idly writing letters. Then his concentration deepened. With heated intensity he began  filling page after page of stationery from the Somerset Maugham suite. The waiters could not have failed to notice.   

            “You write a lot these days, sir,” one of them observed while serving a drink. “If I may ask, are you writing a book?”

            “Oh,”  Stuart replied, “I am writing about many things, places I have been, people I have known. Human nature is so peculiar, you know. Let me tell you about a time when I was in Kathmandu….”

            “Uh, excuse me sir,” interrupted the waiter, “I am being called.”

            Stuart picked up his pen again. “Kathmandu in winter,” he began, “was the perfect place for a hunted man to hide….”

            As more weeks went by, Stuart steeped himself ever deeper in his work. Each day brought a new outpouring of creative energy. The pages piled up. His life was full of meaning. He moved among his haunts exuding a strange combination of distraction and concentration. His white suit grew yellowed and unkempt, his fedora stained and shapeless.

            Early one morning a knock came at his door. Stuart opened it to see the manager.

            “Mr. Murphy.  I am afraid you have another large unpaid bill. Your credit cards have been canceled.  Mail to your bank and your accountant is being returned unopened.  So we cannot continue to accommodate you.”

            “I beg your pardon?”

            “Mr. Murphy,” the manager repeatedly emphatically, “you have no funds. You seem to have no one to assist you. And quite frankly, Mr. Murphy, I regret to tell you that you have become something of an embarrassment to the hotel. I have no choice but to inform you that you are must leave Raffles.”

            “Oh, there is some mistake,” Stuart said with assurance. “You want someone else. Surely you know me. My name and initials are everywhere. Look.”  He pointed to the plaque on the door. And he displayed the SM engraved on the cufflinks clasping the frayed cuffs of his favorite shirt, and gestured toward the luggage stacked against the wall. “After all,” he went on, “I do a lot of my writing at Raffles. On my personal stationery, see.”  He plucked a sheet of it from the table.  “And many of my books are here. I would be happy to autograph one of them for you, if you would like.”

            The manager started to object but thought better of it.  After a pause, he simply said, “I will look into the matter further. Forgive me for disturbing you.”

            Stuart closed the door satisfied and prepared for another day of work. He made a feeble attempt to straighten his suit, donned his disheveled hat, gathered up a batch of stationery and a book of Maugham stories and departed for the Authors’ Lounge.

            He settled into his usual chair advantageously situated in a corner from where he could view the comings and goings of hotel guests. It was home to him now. Placing the stationery on the cocktail table in front of him, he leaned back and let the book fall open in his lap. The pages fanned. He looked down as they rested at the story “Honolulu.”

            “The wise traveler travels only in the imagination.”

            Stuart didn’t need to read this opening line.  He could recite it from memory.  And often did  It was a good cliché.  He reached for some stationery, took out his pen, and began to write:

            “The tramp steamer cast off as the dawn came up in a summer haze, and a blanket of stifling heat descended upon Singapore. We were headed for Pago Pago. But where didn’t matter. We were on the sea again….”

            Stuart’s concentration was broken by the voice of the bellboy: “Mr. Maugham.  Paging Mr. Somerset Maugham.”

            Patrons in the lobby and the Authors’ Lounge looked quizzically at the bellboy striding toward the odd figure in the rumpled white suit sitting in the corner, his arm raised to attract the boy’s attention.

            “Mr. Maugham, the manager would like to invite you to his office. Would you be so kind as to come with me.”

            “Certainly,” Stuart said graciously.  “Maybe he wants to apologize for this morning,” he thought, “or perhaps to plan a reception for some of the guests to meet me and take photographs.  That’s always good public relations for a hotel.”

            Stuart got up and, donning his hat and his cosmopolitan air, followed the boy through the lobby.  He nodded at attentive guests, pleased to be known and admired. From the lobby, the boy led Stuart down a hallway that Stuart hadn’t seen before. Stuart wondered how he could have missed it.

            They came to an unmarked door at the back of the hotel.  The bellboy knocked.  The door opened.  “Please come in,” the manager said, as he ushered Stuart into a small room where, in the soft light filtering through shuttered windows, the Singaporean police were waiting.         

 

One thought on “RAFFLES

  1. Just got around to reading this Jim…. and enjoyed it greatly! the vivid detail of the immediate surrounds throughout, counterpoint, almost as ‘character’ to the casting about drifting of the mind and mood of main character Mr. SM, created a frisson on ‘suspense’ which kept me reading as fast as I could. And I found the denouement perfect. Have you submitted this anywhere? Hoping it gets a very much bigger, deeper and wider audience!

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