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Reminiscences of an Old Rake

Bertie Seal’s San Francisco Tales


The Forbidden Fruit

That Man from Shanghai

The Night Lola Went Missing

Bertie For Hire

By Rip William © 2012

Drawings by the Author

All rights reserved.

To Moucellan & Panisse

From ~ Reminiscences of an Old Rake

Bertie Seal’s San Francisco Tales

The Forbidden Fruit

I slept right through the ship's early morning arrival into the majestic bay of San Francisco, missing the much hyped about passage under the newly constructed Golden Gate Bridge. It was the horn announcing we were docking that caused a sleepy eye to open, and almost instinctively I could sense the bird, or more correctly the bride, had flown. I was all alone. Sitting up I looked about and saw there was nothing left to indicate she had ever been here – vanished without a trace. I never saw her again; like so many other brave people Agnès Havensheer ended up a casualty of the coming war.

The year is 1937 and we had just fled troubled Shanghai, Agnès posing as my wife. Miss Havensheer, you see, was a spy, and in possession of valuable information about the Japanese military. Well aware of the fact I was psychologically ill-equipped for dealing with life before consuming at least two cups of strong oolong, she had spared me an emotional farewell, and made her exit quietly and discreetly. Her plan was to catch the first available train to Washington D.C., and report in with her booty. How I got involved in her world, our phoney marriage and hasty departure, is another story; suffice to say it ended for me with our arrival here in San Francisco. Bertie Seal is not the heroic type, nor one to look for trouble.

This is the story about my coming to America and starting a whole new life.

As I went through the tedious process of clearing customs and having the crates and trunks holding all my worldly possessions stored, I felt decidedly blue. It would be reasonably accurate to say I possessed a pathological fear of wedlock, and I suddenly wondered whether perhaps I’d been transformed. During the voyage I’d very much enjoyed being married to Agnès, and I was already missing her terribly. A short time later, however, I observed some poor chap being berated by his wife over some trivial matter and thanked the lord I was still a bachelor. Miss Haversheer’s behaviour, given the circumstances, was most probably atypical. My morose feelings, I then concluded, were more likely a result of simply being all alone in a foreign city with no immediate plans.

All I knew about San Francisco was the fact it was a harbour city with a mild climate, similar in that respect to Shanghai, where I’d lived for the last seven odd years. In the taxi taking me up Nobb Hill to the Fairmont Hotel I saw it also had electric cable trams and that businesses placed huge billboards everywhere (Coca Cola, as always, ubiquitous). But despite these similarities it was a different place in so many other ways to what I had become accustomed - the look of the people, the way the streets were laid out, the architecture, even the light.

Back in Shanghai I’d been in charge of a profitable casino, ably assisted by a local Chinese fellow named Michael. He had tried to dissuade me from staying at the Fairmont, suggesting somewhere less popular with the expatriates might be more congenial. In the lobby I saw that, as usual, he was right, the place was full of British who, like me, had recently fled the Orient, many of whom I knew, but few worthy of mention. I felt tainted by association. The Simpson brothers, two weasels who would sell their mother's false teeth to fatten their wallets, and probably welcome Hitler into London with open arms, came up to me.

‘Allo Bertie,’ one of the worms said, ‘Choosing to hide out here in America too, I see.’

‘Undercover,’ I whispered, tapping the side of my nose while giving a subtle wink. It wasn’t inconceivable to those who didn’t know me well that I might indeed be one of His Majesty’s spies, I was a hard chap to classify, and the idea worried them no end. They hurried off blurting something about being late for a meeting.

You may well be wondering why I chose not to go back to England and participate in the coming war with Germany? I won’t deny a certain cowardliness, I’m not what one might describe as brave, and I also lack that British patriotic zeal. Even before leaving the motherland on a semi-permanent basis, (I vanished in ignominy in 1929, but that’s another story), I had begun to think of myself as less English and more a citizen of the world. And when I ended up in Shanghai, a totally cosmopolitan city, the feeling grew stronger. However, the main reason for not returning home was common sense. I’m not a military man, and at thirty-seven years of age too old and settled in my ways to learn new tricks. I had come to America to replace a good friend who was presently managing a casino in Las Vegas, owned by the same group of people as my former operation. Holdhurst had decided to go back home and take up a commission. Freeing-up a useful man and remaining gainfully employed, thereby able to contribute financially, was, I knew, the best way that I could assist in the fight against tyranny.

If I were of a soldierly nature I’d have probably stayed in China and taken up arms against the invading Japanese, such was my affection for Shanghai. Much has been written about this city, I’ve written about it myself, and while it had many bad qualities I still loved it. The casino where I lived and worked was in an area known as the International Settlement that included, as well as the English, French, German, Italians, Americans and of course the Japanese. I got on well with all, including the Japs till they got aggressive. It was probably fair to say that the Yanks I first met held little interest, but over time I became more curious towards them. Having been run out of town sooner than expected, combined with the fact I had remained pretty much on the job over the years, there was general agreement that I should take a few months' leave before taking up my new position in Las Vegas. I planned to spend the time exploring and acclimatising to America.

At the reception desk I changed my booking to just an overnight stay and the fellow showed no disappointment, but did ask if I wouldn’t, therefore, mind taking a lesser room. Being soft I agreed. When I got to the appointed apartment my spirits sank even further, the small suite had but one window, and it overlooked the plumbing of the building next-door. I was certain that those pipes would rattle all night long. I didn’t bother unpacking, over-tipping the porter I got him to go and fetch me a map of the city and spent the next half hour working out how to get to the other hotels Michael had suggested. Then donning my hat and cane I went off to see what I could find.

As I deposited my key the receptionist said, ‘Oh, Mr. Seal, I was just ringing you, there’s someone asking to see you.’ Assuming the culprit was one of those dreadful acquaintances from Shanghai I’d spied earlier on, I was about to slip the blight one of those ghastly green-backs that Americans use as money to say I was out, when I saw from his look the person in question was standing behind me.

I turned slowly around, a look of apprehension no doubt on my face, and found one of the most beautiful Chinese women I’d ever seen smiling back at me. She bowed, and taken aback I did the same, causing our heads to bump. When we’d straightened ourselves out, which included retrieving my hat from her head and returning it to mine, she introduced herself in perfect English.

My father, his uncle Joe, has sent me here with a request that you join him for lunch.’

Michael had urged me strongly to contact his uncle Joe but had made no mention of his beautiful cousin, Rose. I wasn’t surprised; after working closely together for so many years he was well aware that my profound interest in the opposite sex, often reciprocated, could lead to complicated situations. Roses’s presence lifted my mood no end, and I happily accepted her father’s luncheon invitation. I was also trusting that later I would be able to enlist her help in checking out these alternative hotels.  

Outside, a fancy-looking new saloon was waiting for us, a Chinese chauffeur in full livery standing attentively beside it. He opened the door for Rose and we both got in. Michael had said nothing about his uncle Joe being a wealthy man, and I had assumed his relations would be on the humble side, as were most honest Chinese in Shanghai.

As the car drove off I asked Rose what her father did. ‘He’s a businessman who dabbles in many things,’ was her brief reply; she was busy looking me over with what appeared undisguised approval. The good Lord may not have endowed me with much in the way of brains or brawn, but had kindly compensated with looks, something I’d been careful to look after. Nonetheless, I was still aware that I was at least twelve years older than Rose, so didn’t expect her to think of me as anything other than a friend. And while a roll in the hay was something Bertie enjoyed, it wasn’t my sole interest in the opposite sex, unlike many chaps I knew. Women, especially those who could think outside the square, I found agreeable company, and Rose struck me as such a gal.

‘So you were Michael's boss in Shanghai?’ Rose asked, conversationally, as the car moved silently and smoothly over the perfectly tarmacked roads. I was used to the odd pothole throwing one off balance and had developed the practice of bracing oneself in expectation; it would take some time to rid myself of the habit. ‘In a technical sense,’ I began, in the same relaxed manner, ‘Though I’m not one to be overly interested about being in charge. Michael and I tended to work as a team. I left him to do what he was good at and he reciprocated.’

I was indeed lucky to have Michael as an assistant. With a little help from friends I’d purchased, while it was still under construction, a share in the casino; it bought me the job of manager.  I wasted no time in employing Michael, initially topping his salary up with some of mine so as to afford him. He’d been born in the old city of Shanghai, his ancestors going back centuries, and had educated himself. Michael spoke English like an Englishman, but his defining characteristic was his gift for effective management.

Rose was barely listening to me, her thoughts elsewhere, a smile wanting to break out. ‘So what is your area of expertise then, Mr. Seal?’ she eventually asked, playful in manner, crossing her legs as she spoke and giving me a glimpse of a well-turned calf.

‘Bertie, please,’ I said, giving myself time to think. ‘I don’t really know what I’m good at,’ I told her honestly. Then added, ‘Well, keeping people amused is one trait; tell a good story, what. Also I’ve travelled around a bit and flatter myself I have a certain worldliness.’

Rose just sat, her eyes now studying me even more carefully, and I hoped I hadn’t blown my own trumpet too loudly, as they say. Then she smiled, and if they ever found a way to bottle it and sell it as a tonic someone would make a lot of money. ‘I like a good bedtime story, Bertie,’ she crooned invitingly, which caused a look astonishment to cross my face, an expression that does me little good. Fortunately at the same time we pulled to a stop outside a large Chinese restaurant, and she barely noticed, also saving me from having to come up with some clever rejoinder. The venue turned out to be one of uncle Joe’s 'dabbles'.

The place was buzzing, with a good number of caucasian diners as well as Chinese. I expected Rose to lead me to a table but instead we went to a red lacquered door, which she opened, after a brief knock, and beckoned me to go through. It gave admission to a large private dining room where a small, very plump, well-dressed Chinaman sat. He had a friendly and relaxed manner about him, but as we shook, his grip like iron, I sensed that face, which now resembled a playful bulldog, was capable of turning cold and hard should it be provoked. Bertie, I thought, best be well behaved.

Once we were all settled and my host had given instructions to Rose for food and wine to be brought, and she’d gone off in pursuit, he turned to me and asked, ‘Now, what do your friends call you?’

‘To my face, or behind it?’ It was probably too early in the relationship to try and be clever, as he didn’t laugh and looked instead somewhat confused. ‘Bertie, is what I’m generally referred to. And I hope you will do the same.’

‘I shall, both to your face and behind it.’ We both laughed at this. ‘Bertie, I want you to think of me as your uncle. I already consider you family after what cousin Michael has written about you.’ Like his daughter he spoke perfect English. I told him I’d be very happy and honoured to have him as an uncle. Uncle Joe, pleased with my response, cried, ‘Good, good! Now, you’ll be my guest while you’re here in San Francisco.’ I smiled, but this was a bit of a sticking point.

Bertie didn’t mind the odd weekend at the house of someone hospitable, but longer than that tended to make me somewhat anxious. I was prone to forget the rules and apt to be tactless where too much protocol existed. Also, I was easily bored, and when in this state liable to do something silly. I tried the old line about not wanting to be a nuisance, and it met with the predictable response, leaving me no option but to accept. I consoled myself with the thought that perhaps after a couple of days of Bertie they’d be happy for me to take my leave.

The food and wine were good and plentiful. We started with champagne, but well aware too much of this wonderful drink was apt to make me loquacious, I drank sparingly. It was heartbreaking to see a bottle of Mumm, half-drunk, get taken away. Rose sat with us, and together with her father sought tales of my time in Shanghai. They would have been far more sensational if I’d let more of the wine lubricate the stories. As the meal drew to a close uncle Joe asked, ‘So, Bertie, what are your plans now?’