'The First Time' - by Mike Forde
I was eighteen the first time, tall and gaunt after a sudden growth surge, at a stage when reconciliation between appearance and experience is impossible.
Singapore is a perfect venue for any time, let alone the first. Lush, tropical vegetation adorns the city. Bougainvillea in a spectrum of colour, frangipani and wild orchid compete for space among coconut palms and papaya trees. Hot, exotic and teeming with people, the island state is clean and tidy. Density demands a special discipline and littering is an offence; even a discarded cigarette-end draws a heavy fine. And while humidity squats in the streets like a beggar, the atmosphere is rich with its cocktail of cultures.
I arrived on a flight from London one July afternoon and was to stay overnight before taking a local connection to my father’s home in Brunei. Outside the airport terminal the backdrop to the taxi-rank was a grove of palm trees, their fronds shaped like gigantic fans.
“Where you wanna go?” said the taxi-driver.
“The Lion City hotel.”
Whistling cheerfully, he lane-swapped his way along the colourful boulevard leading to downtown Singapore and when he stopped for a red light near the Tiger Balm Gardens, he caught my eye in the rear-view mirror. He grinned, revealing long yellow broken teeth studded with gold caps. He tossed a glance over his shoulder; it included a conspiratorial wink.
“You want girl? I get for you. Very good, no problem.”
It took me some moments to absorb his proposition. The frames of reference that allow swift assimilation of and response to such a suggestion are generally unavailable to eighteen year-olds. He put a somewhat different interpretation on my hesitation and assumed I required more information, that he would have to define the offer and provide further descriptive stimuli.
“You like big girls?” He took both hands off the steering wheel and cupped them in front of his chest in a gesture that left no doubt about the bigness he had in mind. I sat in stunned silence, groping for the words with which to begin a sensible and urbane negotiation.
“You like Chinese girl?” His teeth showed again while he scanned my face in the mirror. “Maybe Indian girl? Thai, Filipina?”
I tried to unhinge my tongue from the roof of my mouth, where it had been stuck by an absence of saliva. Thoughts bounced wildly inside my head. Each new suggestion, each new vision of female beauty and availability compounded the intensity of my desire.
“Bring them all,” I wanted to tell him, “and I’ll take my pick.”
But I said nothing.
He negotiated the traffic in Orchard Road with a scowl on his face. His bewilderment at what appeared to him to be my intransigence and his lack of salesmanship turned to impatience and he stamped ferociously on the accelerator. The cab sprang forward and I was obliged to cling onto the back of his seat. Perhaps it was because I accidentally touched his shoulder that he was struck by another idea.
“You like boys,” he shouted triumphantly, “I get very nice boy for you, slim, with muscles, no problem.”
I knew that now above all, was the time to speak. Continued silence would imply the accuracy of his final notion, that a gender issue had been the cause of my reticence while I waited for him to produce the offer I wanted. A boy would be procured and later protestations would be smilingly and indulgently ignored. I managed a single but emphatic word.
With the heavy-eyed acceptance of a man thoroughly acquainted with the rules of street-market bargaining and who knows when he has lost, he grimaced and shrugged.
“You don’t like? Okay, no problem.”
The drive to the hotel proceeded without further conversation and as soon as I was shown to my room I took a shower to wash away the staleness after the long flight. A broad jet of water hissed out of the shower head and drummed rhythmically on the tiled floor. I sighed and bowed my head beneath the rush of spray and looked forlornly at my erection.
At the time my hero was James Bond. I had read all Fleming’s tales, had seen the movies more than once. In the Caribbean and the playgrounds of Europe I had marvelled at Bond’s exploits and his prowess with women. I often struck poses I felt were Bond-ish and frequently raised a laconic eyebrow. Sometimes I imagined the two of us together, on assignment, having a drink in a plush bar in an exotic corner of the world, the weight of our Berettas comforting beneath our left armpits. Singapore was such a setting.
After the shower I selected the clothes I’d bought for the trip: a pair of dark blue lightweight slacks, black slip-on shoes, a pale blue shirt, knitted tie and an off-white cotton jacket. Surveying myself in the full-length mirror, I decided I looked not unlike Bond himself, despite the fact the shirt didn’t bear Bond’s favourite Sea Island label, the jacket wasn’t from Savile Row and the small bulge in one of its pockets was a pack of duty-free Camels and not a gunmetal case containing hand-rolled Turkish cigarettes.
I took the lift to the top floor of the hotel, to the Panorama cocktail lounge that promised, according to a leaflet I found in the room, one of the finest views of Singapore.
In the subdued lighting of the lounge, the horse-shoe shaped bar beckoned and I sat on a padded stool that would afford me a good vantage point from which to survey the scene.
“Something to drink, sir?” The barman wore a red shirt and black bow-tie.
“An Americano,” I said. I thought of adding ‘stirred, not shaken’, but was ignorant of the cocktail’s constituents and their suitability for either. Bond had ordered one at a pavement café in Paris in Casino Royale and I liked the sound of it.
The barman stirred the pink drink vigorously and left the cocktail stick in the glass he set before me. After a little of my own stirring, I pocketed the souvenir surreptitiously; it was not the kind of thing 007 would have done.
There were perhaps two dozen customers, mostly Chinese businessmen. Three middle-aged American matrons, blue rinses and shrill voices, sat at the table nearest the bar. Waitresses flitted between the tables, flashing in and out of the spotlights in the ceiling like butterflies.
A big, pot-bellied man with close-cropped hair took the stool beside me. He asked the barman for a Tiger beer and I felt him surveying me.
I considered an imaginary scenario: he was an agent provocateur, an assassin dispatched by Singapore’s Mister Big after I’d been spotted at the airport. My hand slipped nearer the pistol that lay snug in its holster against my rib-cage. How would it end? With the barrel of my Beretta hot and smoking and him sliding down the edge of the bar, slippery with his own blood? Or after a brawl, would my final blow send him sprawling over the Americans’ table, spraying glasses of Daiquiri across the startled room?
“Are ye British?” A Scottish accent.
“Aye.” He nodded, as though he had known it. I would discover it was a word he frequently used.
“I hav’na been back since the war,” he said.
We lapsed into silence.
“Churchill,” he said suddenly, his eyes glistening, “he was the greatest man our islands have produced and they kicked him out.” His arm shot out across the bar and he gestured wildly at the rows of bottles behind it. “Aye, he won the bloody war for us and they kicked him out of office. That’s when I left, that’s why I left.”
“He was a great man,” I said, “I remember watching his funeral on television at school. Morning classes were cancelled.”
The Scot ordered another beer and we watched the barman fill his glass. “Churchill drank,” he said, “he was a bottle-a-day man, ran the war on Cognac.” His big hand came out and slapped me roundly across the shoulders.
“You’re a decent young feller. How old are ye? Twenty-two, twenty-three?”
“Twenty-two,” I lied.
“Aye, I was your age when I first came to the East in search of adventure.”
We sat for an hour and had a few more drinks. I switched to beer. With each successive round the Scot seemed to sober up, and he told me the story of his life. He had captained a pleasure junk in Hong Kong, skippered a deep-sea trawler out of Manila. He had gone into business farming oysters in Port Moresby and while there had been briefly married to an Australian woman. Now he had a job with an oil company based in Hong Kong and was the master of a tug that towed oil rigs across the South China Sea.
“I’m on local leave,” he said, “in between contracts. We’ve just taken a rig from Yokohama to Jakarta, a bloody great bastard of a rig. We went through the teeth of a typhoon north of Luzon, right the way up that bitch’s throat and into her eye.” He drained his glass, licked away the froth of beer that clung to his moustache, looked at his watch.
“Let’s get some grub and some girls.”
I remembered my regrets in the shower and readily agreed. He led the way out of the hotel, hailed a taxi and gave the driver directions in fluent Chinese.
They simply materialised. It seemed they came with the food the Scot had ordered, joining us at our table in the crowded restaurant: two delicately beautiful Chinese girls, honey-coloured skin, a trace of make-up above coal-black eyes, a pale red sheen on their lips. One of them smiled at me and filled my bowl.
The meal over, taxis were hailed and money changed hands.
“Aye, you’re a decent young feller,” the Scot said. “It’s on me; enjoy yourself.”
She followed me into my hotel room. I sat on one of the twin beds and tried to imagine what Bond would have done to elegantly begin proceedings, but Fleming’s novels are not handbooks on sexual technique and I was at a loss.
“We take shower,” she said.
Obediently, I stood up.
“No, me first.” A last smile and she disappeared into the bathroom. I went to the window. The neon lights of Singapore trembled in the warmth of the night. I breathed deeply, trying to soothe my jangling nerves. She emerged wrapped in a towel that covered her breasts and fell to her knees.
“Your turn,” she said.
I stripped, throwing my clothes onto a chair in my haste. The shower was still running and for the second time that day I stood beneath the spray cooling my body. It was then that a thought, previously suppressed, presented itself: this was a set-up. At her suggestion I was under the shower, while in the bedroom she was robbing me. The thought matured rapidly: I’d been singled out by the Scot in the Panorama lounge. No wonder he’d seemed to sober up, he wasn’t drunk in the first place, it had all been an act, the initial approach of an expatriate pimp.
I catapulted out of the bathroom. She was hanging my clothes in the wardrobe. The room was bathed in the soft light of the bedside lamp.
“Finished already?” She smiled across.
“A towel,” I stammered.
Her smile broadened, dimples deep in the corners of her mouth, as she took off the towel.
“You’re cold, let me dry you.”
Her English was careful and precise and so was the attention she paid me. If Bond had not been such an accomplished lover, he might have enjoyed being made love to the way I did. When she left in the morning, I was in love with her and held her hand in the lift.
Telling me a friend would pick her up, she scanned the parking area.
“There,” she pointed, and ran to a waiting taxi. The driver waved at me and grinned: long yellow broken teeth, studded with gold caps.
Bio for Mike Forde
I caught the writing bug a few years ago while on a 6-month trip to Vietnam. Since then I’ve dabbled in short stories, articles, even a novel. One success: I sold a travel piece, with photographs, about Saigon. ‘The First Time’ needed editing to meet the required word-count, which improved it. And this is indeed, the first time I’ve won a prize!