An enormous, ultra-efficient Dove 7000 gleamed on the runway of Mai Wei Airport outside Beijing. With seats for two thousand people – the travelling elite – it was the best and latest of Chinese technology. A dozen of these aerospats wove their white web around the globe, linking its largest cities on monthly flights. The passengers were hand-selected for purpose and integrity. Perhaps the second most powerful man in the country, Ping Ping, the cousin of Mai Wei’s astrologer, Chop Chop, was chair of the PSC – the Passenger Selection Committee. It was he who decided who could travel on which flight. Mai Wei had no trouble obtaining a slot on the MW6, the monthly hop from Beijing to Telford International. After all, he owned the airline and, even in egalitarian China, that implied certain rights.
He reclined into seat 8, row 8 in the 8th zone. There was no luckier place on the plane. A smile of deep contentment worked its way across his plump face. All was well. He thought of his wife, Mai Tao, visiting her parents in the countryside – a French chateau with an estate of several thousand hectares and a dozen villages bustling with peasant smallholdings –all newly built in the Gobi desert. He thought of his friend and confidant, Chop Chop, who would be spending the week studying the flocks of migrating geese, looking for tiny anomalies in the flight patterns which could signal favourable timing to swoop in and close a deal.
He let his mind wander to England. Almost thirty years since a scrawny teenager had taken a taxi to Casablanca Close in Telford New Town. He lodged with Arthur and Gladys and they treated him like a second son. Gladys fed him up with full Englishes – feasts for breakfasts and Arthur took him to the dogs. “He’s here to learn England.” Mai Wei remembered the flag of St George behind the telly in the lounge and next to it a street oil of the Houses of Parliament. The mugs of stewed tea when they got back from the races and beans on toast. They called him Frank and took him everywhere.
A card would come at Christmas and he followed the ups and downs of Kevin. He’d even sponsored a car which ended its career in a mess upside down, like the horse Kevin swore by and was shot dead on the edge of Leamington race course. You don’t choose your relatives, and as a language student in a distant and strange land you don’t choose the son of your guardians. Then the card stopped.
And now waiting for him at Telford International was Kevin. Kevin, Lord Pie. Kevin gave Wei a slippery hug – he’d even managed to wangle a car from the Petrol Party protocol office. Not a Porsche Mephisto; he’d asked for something much classier, for a very, very special person. And so Krebs, the general factotum of the Petrol Party and head of protocol had rustled up an ancient Rolls, metallic gold, with allowances for 50 miles of petrol. “We’ll get him into town and dine at his hotel,” said Pie. “We won’t need all the 50 miles. I’ll take a note of the mileage and I want credit if I’m under,” he warned Krebs. Krebs had a reputation of a snaffler; a snaffler of balancing figures, of small differences; the alert beneficiary of poor negotiation on lazily specified jobs, and a friend of certain suppliers. It was said he owned vineyards in Devon and Somerset. Or perhaps near Dundee.
Now Krebs was dressed as a chauffeur, bowler hatted and a tight black suit and swung open the gaping doors of the Rolls, and shuffled Mai Wei in with a flourish. He removed his hat, placing it on his coat folded on the passenger seat next to him. He discreetly selected one-way intercom and eased back for the short journey into Birmingham. But Mai Wei observed things and noticed Krebs’ guilty glance, and spent the journey discussing Lord Pie’s parents (Arthur had been taken away by pneumonia and Gladys lived in a home in Totnes – rather too far for Lord Pie to visit regularly) and the English Amateur Football League which was still watched by the world over, with most of the payments for TV rights being donated to charity.
By dinner small talk had been exhausted and they sat in a private dining room in the Birmingham Dorchester hotel. Krebs, waiter in tails, filled Pie’s wine glass to the rim. Mai Wei covered his glass with his hand; Krebs was late and a drop splashed on Mai Wei’s hand. A trillionaire does not let trifles like this worry him; he chuckled and Krebs flapped around like an injured blackbird having difficulty taking off.
“A vision, Mai Wei, a vision. I think you would call it that,” purred Pie, the cat (the blackbird had retreated to a shadowy corner and was reading a romance by candle light).
“Indeed,” replied Mai Wei.
“Access to land is the key. As you would know…” a toady wheezy laugh.
“Of course,” said Mai Wei.
“You see, I’ve got the connections. I can pull it off. I’ve rather gone up in the world since we met last,” sniggered Pie.
“Congratulations,” said Wei.
Pie said: “Thank you, Mai Wei. Thank you very much indeed. I do appreciate that, coming from you. Now,” he continued as he dabbed his bread roll into his lentil and smoked haddock soup. But a piece of haddock fell onto his lap and he brushed it away; it needed two goes and his trousers were soiled. Krebs scuttled out of the dark and crawled under the table to retrieve the haddock, a black beetle scavenging.
“There are eight thousand plots, each just over a hectare. I think we can house two thousand people in each. I shouldn’t worry about planning. I’ve got connections, you see.”
Mai Wei said nothing. He just listened and smiled.
“No, really, I do. Old shopping centres. All closed. Right across the country. You see, four blocks on each site. With some garden. We’ll give them trees. We can put five hundred in each block. I’ve worked it all out. So two thousand on a block, and eight thousand blocks. That’s sixteen million people.”
“What will they eat, Kevin?” asked Mai Wei, finally.
“That shouldn’t be a problem. There’s lots of Chinese cuisine in the DRB. It’s quite a tradition, you see.” Pie was happy to be on firmer ground. But he pushed on. He wanted to get to the big one. He couldn’t wait to reveal his master plan to the modest trillionaire. He lowered his voice as if to draw Mai Wei further into his conspiracy. One of the candles suddenly dribbled away into nothing. Krebs was there in a tick and replaced it. The new one had to be screwed firmly into the candle holder and stood askew.
“When we have sixteen million Chinese colonists living on the edge of Britain’s towns, you’ll be a political force,” continued Pie. He looked up into Mai Wei’s face, watching for signs. “A force to be reckoned with. We’ll set up a political party. We’ll rework the constituency boundaries. With your cash behind us we will hold power.” Pie began to speak a little quicker, his voice rose. “We’ll be able to crush the Purpose Party and their ridiculous morris dancing. I can broker a deal for you. We’ll tie up with the Petrol Party. Chinese can have an exclusive on supplying cars. We’ve still got plenty of coal. We’ll build liquefaction plants. It’s all here.” Pie tapped his head. “There’s no way they will be able to fight back after that, Mai Wei. I can make this happen for you, Mai Wei. For us, Mai Wei. We’ll make billions.”
He stopped and wiped his brow then emptied his wine glass in one.
Mai Wei smiled and sipped his water.
Lord Pie waited tensely. He tried to read Mai Wei’s smile, his eyes, the angle of his cheeks. Nothing.
Then Mai Wei spoke. “Your mother, Gladys. She made special breakfast. When you visit her, Kevin, please give her my love. When you visit her.”