Monday, September 22, 2003

[9/22/2011] Perelman Tonight: "You rat!" -- Part 2 of "Mama Don't Want No Rice" (Chapter 4 of "The Swiss Family Perelman") (continued)


"'Are you implying by any chance, madam,' I asked scathingly, 'that I would deliberately haul three persons on a five-thousand-mile journey through swamp and mangrove just to catch a glimpse of a bunch of superbly formed, mocha-colored young women in their nether garments? Because if you are,' I said, rising haughtily, 'I have nothing more to say.'"
-- from tonight's installment of "Mama Don't Want No Rice"

The Swiss Family Perelman
Chapter 4, "Mama Don't Want No Rice,"

Part 2 of 3

To overcome such a hash of obscurantism and prejudice was a task calculated to intimidate a lesser man, but I flatter myself I brought it off rather well. Tapping a monogrammed Zira on the wafer-thin, solid gold cigarette case conferred on me by the Sublime Porte in connection with certain trifling services in the matter of the Missing Halvah, I pointed out with a silky smile that through a freak of bookkeeping, I alone was privileged to endorse our express cheques, which gave me what is known in sporting circles as an edge. "Do you not think, cara mia," I pursued, "that, though undeniably colorful and renowned for its hospitality, Hong Kong would not be the most ideal place for an attractive matron -- who, parenthetically, is not getting any younger -- and two helpless minors to go on the beach? I ask this, mind you, in an altogether objective spirit, knowing that your opinion will be couched likewise."

"You rat," replied my wife, employing a pet name she had found useful in domestic crises when logic failed. It being self-evident that she should never have crossed foils with so superior an adversary, I gallantly forgave her temerity and proceeded to outline our itinerary: two weeks' voyage aboard the M/S Kochleffel along the periphery of Java via the South China Sea, calling at Batavia, Semarang, and Surabaya, and thence northward to Macassar.

"What happens there?" she asked wearily, a look of dumb resignation investing her face. "I suppose we all remove our drawers and plunge into the canebrake."

"In the hands of Disraeli, irony can be a formidable weapon," I rejoined. "In a lout it becomes merely offensive. At Macassar we transfer to the Cinnabar, a snug little coaster in the interisland copra trade, which will convey us to Pare-Pare, Donggala, Menado, Ternate, Morotai, Sorong (the westernmost tip of New Guinea), Batjan, and Amboina -- in short, a sketchy circumnavigation of Celebes and the historic Spice Islands. I also plan, if the changing monsoon permits, to pay a visit to Banda Neira, that celebrated outpost of the Dutch nutmeg trade."

"There must be a gimmick in all this," she observed, moodily gnawing a piece of stem ginger. "In twenty years I have yet to detect you in a disinterested act."

"There is," I acknowledged. "The terminal point for our soiled laundry will be that jewel of the Lesser Sundas, the island of Bali."

"Aha!" she exclaimed triumphantly. "Everything falls into place. I was puzzled by the goatish gleam in your eye, but now I'm tuned in."

"Are you implying by any chance, madam," I asked scathingly, "that I would deliberately haul three persons on a five-thousand-mile journey through swamp and mangrove just to catch a glimpse of a bunch of superbly formed, mocha-colored young women in their nether garments? Because if you are," I said, rising haughtily, "I have nothing more to say."

"That," she said succinctly, "will be a relief all around -- eh, kids?" The children's reply was inaudible, mainly because they had taken a powder during our tête-à-tête and made a beeline for Pedder Street, the informal bourse of Hong Kong. On being coralled outside the Swatow Lace Store, they disclosed a flimflam worthy of Ponzi, having thimblerigged the money-changers with a dizzying parlay of soap wrappers into Portuguese escudos into Singapore dollars. I could not bring myself to reprove them, particularly since they had cleared a tidy profit, but as a lesson to cut me into their grift in future, I made them finance a tour of the Tiger Balm Gardens at Causeway Bay.

This curious nonesuch, a conceit of Aw Boon Haw, the noted patent-medicine taipan and philanthropist, beggars description; it is at once a potpourri of Madame Tussaud's waxworks, the castle of Otranto, and a theatrical prop shop, the whole tinctured with fumes of the Mexican drug called mescal. Just what its eighteen acres of nightmare statuary, turrets, grottoes, mazes, and cloud-borne pagodas signify, nobody on earth knows -- not even its proud parent, upon whom I called for a fast exegesis next morning at his headquarters in Wanchai Road.

Prior to our interview, Mr. Haw's interpreter, a Celestial version of Russell Birdwell, coated me with the customary schmaltz about his employer's humble origins, business genius, and benevolence. He then expanded with equal tedium on the virtues of Tiger Balm itself, which he unhesitatingly hailed as a specific for everything from St. Anthony's fire to milk leg. Apparently this was the universal belief, for I afterward observed Chinese air passengers rubbing it on their foreheads to forestall airsickness, at the same time smearing it furtively on the fuselage to insure the plane's staying aloft. For a preparation consisting largely of menthol and balsam, it undoubtedly has extraordinary powers. They may derive from Mr. Haw himself, a mettlesome old party in carpet slippers, who gripped my hand with such extraordinary vigor that I was forced whimpering to my knees.



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