Protestors fill Hennessey Road in Wan Chai, yesterday (June 9th).
Protestors fill Hennessey Road in Wan Chai, yesterday (June 9th).
I wrote this years ago, as a response to the prompt up there in the title: When the cheque arrived etc etc…
I hadn’t looked at it since finishing it, really, but it is set in Hong Kong and so I thought I’d add it to the collection:
When the cheque arrived, he realised that it was the last thing he wanted…
“Cheers, big ears.” Our glasses clink. “A published author!”
“Only a short story in a journal with a miniscule circu…”
“Enough! A published author. When do you get the readies?”
“Cheque’s in the post, they said.”
“Nice.” The beer is painfully cold.
*** Several hours later ***
“’scuse me, midly pissed man coming through. Published author in tow.”
“Watch the taxi, Mike.” A sweaty handprint is left on the red bonnet.
“Hey, know what? I’ve been along here a hundred and one times but never been to the fortune tellers.”
“Nah, waste of… Hey, wait, are you serious?”
“This one’s been on telly, look. I like his face. Mystical.”
“You plank, it’s all…”
“Do him, Mr, um… Chan. Tell us his future!”
“You like beer, I can tell.”
“Bloody hell, hope I’m gonna get more than that for a hundred dollars. Do him.” Two red plastic stools scrape in to place.
“Mr Chan, I respect your professional…” I sway slightly on my perch.
“You write, no?”
“Wow!” Is Mike really buying this; or is he just very drunk?
“Well… everyone writes…”
“You are waiting for a letter. You did a job well and this letter is the reward.”
“Wow! He’s good!”
“You think you will be happy when this letter arrives.”
“I’ll say he’ll be happy with a cheque for…”
Mr Chan’s wizened knuckles rap on the table. “You won’t be! This letter contains something very bad. Harmful. Be careful.”
*** The next day ***
“Good morning, darling.” Her voice is straining under the sarcasm. “Sleep well?” The coffee smells glorious.
“Bit of a headache.”
I don’t think I’m up to holding a conversation. I hope that’s it. It’s not.
“So, last night?”
“Just out after work, with Mike.”
She frowns her frown for people who do things she wouldn’t have done. I still hold the ace that will turn this conversation, and this weekend, around. Should I keep it a while longer?
“Katie has ballet at eleven. You walking her round?”
No, I’ll play it now.
“Got a call from the magazine yesterday. Tried to tell you but you didn’t answer.”
She looks up, ready.
“I’ve been accepted. And, they want me to sign up for a monthly contribution.”
She’s about to smile.
“Cheque’s in the post.”
“Oh darling! That is wonderful news. Oh, I am glad!” I feel the tension shattering and settling in clumps on the floor.
“There is one thing, though…”
No, that’s silly. Silly! Don’t tell her that.
“Ah, nothing. Actually, forget it.”
“OK, well, why don’t you stay here this morning then, actually, and nurse your hangover? I’ll do the ballet run. There’s a couple of things I need to pick up anyway.”
*** Two weeks later ***
“Mike, hi!” Mike looks sweaty and bedraggled.
“This had better be important, mate. I don’t normally do drinks on Mondays.”
“Let me get this, then. Something soft?”
“Nah, San Mig now that we’re here, I suppose. What’s up?”
“Remember that night a couple of weeks ago? After I got the news about the magazine? We ended up at Mr. Chan’s?”
“‘Course. Good laugh!”
“Mind what he told me about the letter that was on its way?”
“Something about it being ‘dangerous’?”
“I think it was ‘harmful’…”
“Harmful, yeah, That was it.”
“Well…? Cheers, by the way.” He takes a long draught from his freshly arrived pint.
“Right, just listen to this objectively and don’t laugh until I’ve finished.”
“So, the cheque from the magazine arrived a week ago, and I’ve not opened it yet.”
Mike’s face quivers before he laughs a sharp bark. “Because of what the old fortune-teller told you?”
“Mate! Are you serious?”
“I know it sounds…”
“You think it’s gonna be booby-trapped or laced with arsenic or…”
“Nah, course not. Just…”
Another laugh more like a Yorkshire terrier. “You’re mental. Where’re you keeping it?”
I pat my bag. “Here.”
“Show us it.”
I do want to and I don’t want to. I do. I’m embarrassed by how normal it looks, slightly yellow and scuffed from a week of hiding in my satchel.
“Let me open it for you. I’ll take the hit from whatever’s inside.”
“No.” I fold it back in to the bag.
“I thought you were a rational human being, Clem. But that’s just… It’s your first pay cheque as an author!”
“Right, I know. I dunno why I told you. I think wanted to prove to myself that I wasn’t going mad.”
“Well, you’re failing.”
“I had forgotten all about the fortune teller, you know, until I saw this in our letterbox. Then it all came back to me and I suddenly had this sense. This realization that it was the last thing I wanted. A feeling in my gut. I can’t explain it any better.”
Mike looks either concerned or embarrassed. He takes a drink.
*** Later ***
It’s the fag-end of the day and I look woozily up from my book. “Mmm?”
“You promised me a dinner, remember?”
She’s facing away but I can see her clearly in the bedroom mirror. “Did I?”
“With the money from the magazine.”
“We don’t need that money to have a meal out.”
“I know – but it was meant to be symbolic. The beginning of a long and successful career.” She smiles back at me. “Must have arrived by now?”
Don’t… Just… “Um, yeah, think so.”
“You think so? Don’t you remember?”
“No, yeah. It did.”
She squints back at me. “What’s wrong?”
“You’re lying. It’s so easy to tell.”
“Has the deal fallen through? Did the editor change her mind?”
Can I just ignore her?
I rest the book on my stomach. “OK, right. I’ll tell you. But just listen to this objectively and don’t laugh until I’ve finished.”
Sha Tin sunrise
This next story appeared in ‘Hong Kong Future Perfect’, the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s 2016 anthology. Contributors were challenged with creating a vision of the city in years to come, either a utopia or a dystopia. Very few went for a utopian vision…
In ‘Pearlania’, what was once Hong Kong is about to reopen to the public after a decades-long isolation. The question that journalist Lukas wants to answer is: what, if anything, remains?
“The buzzer sounds and the gates open. Passengers rush down the ramp and across the bobbing gangplank. Ropes strain to keep the boat in place while salty air hits your face. You find a seat and adjust it: facing forward, or back? Sit down and relax. You are now aboard the world famous Star Ferry!”
Silence descends upon the boat. Lukas and nineteen fellow journalists wait as the engine churns, the boat groans against the rubber-lined dock, a whistle sounds and they begin to move out into the harbour. Lukas closes his eyes and lets his body sway with the rhythm of the boat. His mind is woozy, somehow jet-lagged despite the short, five hour flight from Amsterdam.
“When Hong Kong was founded in the 1840s, the deep waters of Victoria Harbour allowed a vast number of vessels, from tiny sampans to huge cruise ships, to use its waters. At its peak, thousands of ships passed through the harbour’s waters every day! And, even as other forms of transports took over, the Star Ferry kept its place at the heart of the city.”
As the view slowly reveals itself, everyone stands and walks to the side of the boat. The water is a cloudy aquamarine, the sky powder blue with a touch of haze in the distance, and across the harbour skyscrapers soar like proud, puffed-up soldiers. Lukas takes a deep breath, watching the faces of the other passengers. It all looks so real. So very real. The announcement starts up again, the woman’s accent still unidentifiable:
“Rising on either side of us – the famous Hong Kong skyline. Look carefully and see the Bank of China’s unmistakeable lines, the subtle dome of Statute House, the majesty of Victoria Peak and the sharp point of Tamar Tower, the highest building in the world when it opened in the year two thousand and…”
Then it’s all gone.
Where there was an island and buildings and traffic and mountains and a glorious autumn sky, there is nothing. Just vast white walls for the water to slap against. Stunned, Lukas turns to look back. The pier is still there: the only dab of colour at the foot of a sheer white canvas. Murmurs break out. They are stranded on a boat afloat in a gargantuan bathtub. Then the engine starts up again.
“Apologies. We have encountered technical difficulties. We are now returning to our original location. Apologies. We have encountered technical difficulties. We are now returning to our original location…”
As steaming baskets of dim sum are placed around a wide, round table, Lukas can’t remember the last time he saw a tablecloth. The last time he even ate at a table. Does that say more about modern life, he wonders, or just his?
The restaurant appears to be revolving, with three-sixty windows offering a panoramic view of verdant hills and white sand beaches. Suddenly the scene changes to a street, all neon signs and Chinese characters. Lukas feels slightly nauseous. Someone to his left is talking.
“Did you hear about the group this morning?” A man with hair the colour of nicotine stains skewers a dumpling with his chopsticks. “On the ferry experience? Apparently the bloody thing failed! Shut down and they were left floating there like chumps.”
Lukas smiles. “I was one of the chumps.”
“You weren’t! Good God, what happened?”
Lukas explains and the man lets out a long, low whistle. “Not the start they would have wanted. Steve Gold, by the way. From The Telegraph.”
“Lukas De Zwol. Vandaag.”
They shake hands over a dish of soy sauce.
“What’s your schedule for the afternoon?” Lukas asks.
“As far as I’m aware we’re going to the beach, the market and the races. Busy day, eh?” They laugh. Steve moves closer, his voice low. “This place already gives me the creeps. And you? What thrills await? Glad you got this gig?”
A week earlier, Lukas had been summoned to his editor’s office and had entered without knocking. Patrick was half-buried in a pile of papers. His office always appeared to be on the verge of collapsing under the weight of back-copies and red-penned articles. “Just a second…”
“I doubt there’s this much paper left anywhere else in the world…”
Patrick straightened up. “Shoosh! OK. Listen. Hong Kong.”
“You mean Pearlania?”
“Yes. It’s opening next week.”
“Massive story. Huge. Big limit on press passes.” Patrick paused, enjoying the moment. “But we got one.”
“And you’re going.”
Lukas was shocked. “Me? But… Don’t you want someone senior? It’s huge! Like you said.”
“You’re what… twenty five?”
“Right, but, way too young to ever’ve been to Hong Kong. As it was.”
“Yeah of course.”
“You know what happened though, The Wave and…?”
“Ok, sorry. I just wasn’t sure. You’d have been a kid. Anyway, you’ve got nothing to compare it with. Fresh pair of eyes and all that. From what titbits are leaking out it sounds… unique. To say the very least. But I mean titbits. Scraps. Nobody’s been in or out for, what, near thirty years. Plus you’re always saying you want to cover something big. So…”
“Yeah yeah. OK. Flights Monday ten am. You do the sights in a group and get an audience with the head honcho a Mr…” Patrick had strained across his desk to see… “Lam.”
“What we’ve created here is unique. And I don’t believe that’s an arrogant statement, Mr. De Zwol.”
Mister Lam had a firm handshake. He motioned for Lukas to sit at the opposite side of a desk that was much thicker and wider than it needed to be. His face was round and flabby, covered mostly by a large grin. It should have been a welcoming countenance, that of a jovial old man; but something was lacking. It was the eyes, Lukas realised – dark little pinholes.
“You’re certainly efficient.” Lukas said, glancing at his watch. “I only landed fifteen minutes ago.”
“Glad to hear it.”
Mister Lam’s voice was gruff and his accent American, but a slight Chinese edge remained. Lukas thought of the short but spiky PA who had briefed him upon entry.
“You have ten minutes. No voice recording. No ocular device recording. You may not ask questions regarding Mr. Lam’s previous employment. You may not ask questions regarding The Wave. In short, you may not ask any questions about the past. We are looking toward the future, Mr…?”
“Yes. You may enter.”
The PA had started a timer as Lukas walked through the heavy, black-glass doors. Then she began to address the next journalist in line: Monsieur, vous avez dix minutes…
Behind Mr Lam hung a framed copy of a poster that Lukas had seen countless times since arriving. A smiling couple, Asian in a Western-looking way, walking hand in hand with a young boy and girl, and beside them a purposeful businessman with a phone held to his ear, all moving towards an ornate doorframe which doubled as the border of the poster. The slogan below them: Pearlania. Open for Business and a ream of hashtags. Lukas realised that Mr. Lam was still waiting for him to speak.
“So, waddya wanna know?”
“Well, perhaps, Mr. Lam, you could start by giving me an overview. What can visitors expect now that Hong Kong is once again open for business?” Lukas reached for his tablet. “Just notes. Data’s off.”
Mr. Lam smiled without opening his mouth. “‘s quite alright. This office is covered in blockers. Only things that work in here are mine. I could scramble your tablet. If I wanted to.” Lukas nodded, uncertain how to react. “As I was saying, Pearlania is a unique touristic experience, investment opportunity and vision of the future.” He glanced down at a sheet of paper marooned in the centre of his desk. “Remind me, you’re business or…?”
“OK.” Mr. Lam leaned back in his chair and cracked his knuckles above his head. “You ever been to Paris?” Lukas nodded. “Rome? New York? Tokyo?” Lukas kept nodding. “And where you from?”
“Amsterdam. Although originally…”
“Amsterdam? Yeah. Cheese. Tulips. Van Gogh…” He wiggled his fingers as if trying to pluck more words from the air.
Lukas helped him: “Rembrandt, Anne Frank, sex tourism…”
Mr. Lam frowned. “I’ve travelled a lot. Many cities. And I noticed that between, you know, the Eiffel Tower and the Mona Lisa, there’s a lot of crap. Streets and trash and homeless people.”
“That’s the case in any city.”
“Right! But not in Pearlania. Not now. We had an opportunity thanks to a… terrible thing. To create the ultimate, streamlined, ultra-modern tourist destination. Where tourists can come, see what they wanna see, take a picture of the important stuff, buy what they wanna buy… easy. Optimised sightseeing.”
Lukas tapped all this out in full on his tab. “Wouldn’t some people say that the ‘crap’, as you put it, in between the sights is what makes a city? What gives a city its character?”
Mr. Lam had laughed at this idea, and, with hands behind his head, reclined so far in his chair that Lukas had expected to see him topple backwards.
“Just wait. Wait until you start our tour.”
An hour after lunch, Lukas is one of ten journalists being led around a noisy market. The passageways between the stalls are narrow, and on either side of the group vendors cry out their wares: meat and fish, fruit and vegetables, flowers, clothes, old electronics, ancient DVD disks that Lukas vaguely remembers using as a child. There’s an intense heat and a strong, not altogether pleasant, smell.
“You smell that?” asks the young woman in front. “That’s really how markets were in Hong Kong. Intense, isn’t it? Like old meat and sweat. But don’t worry, it’s completely synthetic. Vents behind the stalls release a controlled amount of the odour.”
“And the food?” asks the woman in front of Lukas. “It looks very real.”
“It does, doesn’t it!?” This girl is scarily enthusiastic, he thinks. “It’s real produce, coated in a preservative layer.” She picks up a small, flat fish and offers it around. It feels like warm plastic, despite its glistening appearance. “Items such as this can be used for up to a week.”
“So,” someone else asks. “Nobody actually uses this market for shopping?”
The girl laughs a well-rehearsed chuckle. “No, of course not. Our residents are provided with everything they need. Downstairs.”
“There are shops down there?”
“I’m sorry, I’m only here to answer questions about the Kowloon Market Experience. Perhaps you can have that enquiry addressed elsewhere on the tour.”
Lukas turns to see who asked that question, and sees a sharp-nosed, middle aged woman wearing her hair in a fashionable iron-mesh bun. She smiles and looks at him over her glasses.
“I don’t know if I’m still jet-lagged, but where the hell am I?”
“Good question,” Lukas replies.
As they pass a fruit stall, a large elderly man jumps up and waves a bowl of oranges. His face is jovial, the words rising and falling almost angrily. Lukas recognises the language from the countless Chinatowns he’s visited around the world. He hesitates, then asks: “Is he speaking Cantonese?”
The girl turns around once again, a smile fixed to her face. “Why yes.”
“But, nobody in China speaks…”
“Correct. It isn’t spoken. Anymore. But the staff in this particular Experience took lessons to provide you with a truly authentic visit. Think of is as cultural preservation. We here at Pearlania are incredibly committed to preserving ancient or obsolete cultural practices. Even languages”
The group move slowly forward once more. Lukas tries to look up at the ceiling, but all he can see are bright lights. Behind the stalls he can make out the dim outline of apartment blocks and balconies. For a few seconds he believes them to be real, but soon notices the tell-tale hologram flicker. The girl continues: “Of course, when we open many more visitors will be allowed to the market at one time, thus ensuring real bustling feels. On arrival they will be presented with original 2017 Hong Kong dollars – as you can see all the products here are sold using the old currency – and they are free to buy what they wish.”
A voice behind Lukas asks: “To keep?”
“No, they must return every item upon reaching the end of the market. Where we are now.” The girl steps to one side, clicks something in her hand and the floor begins to move. As Lukas and the others steady themselves they realise that they are on a travellator.
“Goodbye, and thank you for visiting the Kowloon Market Experience.”
The girl recedes from view behind a black curtain. Her eyes remind me of someone, Lukas thinks. For a second he can’t quite place them but, just before she fades completely into darkness, he remembers. Mister Lam’s dark little pinholes.
The next day, Lukas and his group dip their feet in the lukewarm waters of the South China Sea Experience. They have a crash course on paddling techniques at the Dragon Boat Experience. They take a jolting tram ride tram along bustling streets and play mah-jong in a games parlour filled with fake smoke. They go shopping for luxury brand items in the Causeway Bay Experience – items that the visitors are this time allowed to pay for and keep – and ride Galactic Mountain at Disneyland. Scarily, this last stop on the tour is the least strange– the hologram backdrops and inanely grinning staff could easily have been from any of the world’s ten other Disneylands.
It’s technically impressive, he thinks. The way the traffic on the streets comes to life and the buildings reach into what appears to be the sky and the ‘real’ sea meets the holographic sea and the way that you stand looking out from what is supposedly Victoria Peak and you believe that mile after mile of city and harbour and hill is rolling out from beneath you. It’s incredibly impressive. On a technical level.
At one point, Lukas’s group joins another on one of the sleek shuttles used to move them from one Experience to the next. As he chats with the lady in the mesh bun, whose name he has learned is Julia, a man breaks away from the second group to join them.
“Where are all the bloody people?”
Lukas turns to see Steve, from the dim-sum lunch.
“I know. We were just saying that it’s hitting us now. Where we are.”
“I was promised a city, you know?” Julia says after introducing herself to Steve. “I want my damn city! Not this… theme park.”
They laugh, though Lukas looks to see who is listening.
The shuttle hisses and the 3D images of junk boats and dancing dragons flashing past the window fade to plain white walls. “I guess I’ll see you at the bar, this evening. Christ knows we’ll need a couple of fortifiers.”
That night, the journalists are provided with an open bar in the Hong Kong Club Experience. As he moves from group to group, Lukas notices that most is negative. Frustrated, even, as if they have been sold a lie. Although he has just left one group in which an annoyingly loud Australian woman said she could imagine bringing her young family here. He moves to the bar, holding his tablet, though he gave up on taking notes hours ago. Two rotund, middle-aged men are there, dwarfing their barstools, who introduce themselves as Roger and Hamilton.
“Great little place, eh?” Hamilton asks.
Lukas grunts noncommittally, suddenly feeling slightly drunk. “You work here or something?”
“We’re just looking to create end-of-the-nineteenth-start-of-the-twentieth-century feels, as the young ‘uns would say.”
“Fin de siècle!” Roger looks pleased with himself.
“You do work here?” Lukas glances around. Nobody else is within earshot. “Who are you?” he asks, hurriedly. “You’re actors, right? You get paid for this? You aren’t just doing this for fun?”
Both men look startled.
“Just give me something, guys. An insight in to what this place really is.”
Nothing is forthcoming other than an awkward silence. Lukas gasps in frustration.
“Fine. Are Chinese people allowed in here?”
“What?” Roger splutters “Of course…”
“Because I doubt they would have been, you know. Back in the fin de siècle.”
Hamilton frowns. “Well maybe not. But we can capture the essential essence of the place without… I mean, should we bring back malaria? Eh? For extra authenticity?”
“Well,” Roger waggles a finger at his companion. “If we could bring back malaria it would be an excuse to guzzle more G&Ts.”
“As if you need a bloody excuse!”
Both men guffaw and look at Lukas to get in on the joke. He doesn’t. How can I ever convey just how weird this whole place is? Will I even be allowed to? The laughter eventually subsides.
“Incidentally,” resumes Hamilton, his confidence returned. “All the drinks served here would have been available in the city, circa 1905.”
“Rita!” Roger bellows towards the bar. “Fix this man a mint julep.”
The short woman behind the bar jumps into action like a marionette.
“The sun is most definitely beyond the yard-arm.” Hamilton chuckles.
Lukas realises that he hasn’t seen the sun for almost three days. He points towards the window on the far wall, thick velvet curtains drawn tight. “What’s behind there?”
Hamilton drags his frame around to look.
“Oh that. Well, nothing. Of course.”
Back in his room, Lukas slumps on the bed and sets the windows to a dark red tint. He chooses a night sky setting for the ceiling and lies still, staring out into the depths of space. He is so tired that he cannot sleep.
He picks up his phone and dials Patrick.
“How is it?”
“Just…” Lukas is surprised that no words spring immediately to mind. “It’s not a city.”
“It’s a theme park.”
“Oh. OK… Nope. Sorry. I don’t get it.”
Lukas recounts the past two day’s itinerary. “Nobody’s here. Nobody lives here. It’s just a bunch of themed ‘experiences’.”
Patrick pauses. “People do live there. Intelligence suggested that tens of millions of people were being moved to area now that the damage was…”
“They’re not here. That intelligence was just speculation. Nobody’s flown a plane, a drone even, over the area for decades. How can they know?”
“I edit the travel section Luke, I don’t know where intelligence like that comes from. But it’s common knowledge.”
Lukas sighs. “I want to dig a little deeper. Sneak away from the tour if I can. Just to see… something.”
“No. You write for the travel section. Don’t rock the boat. From what you’ve said so far there’s more than enough to write about. Pan the place. Tell us what a fake crock of shit it is. But don’t do anything stupid. Remember who your hosts are.”
There’s a long silence before Lukas says goodbye, and hangs up.
The room into which they step is dark, but Lukas can tell from the breeze and the echoes that it is a large space. Young men with flashlights position everyone into a line. It’s eerie, Lukas thinks, knowing that something large and perhaps menacing stands in front of you but all you can see is blackness. There is also a different smell in the air. Damp? Earth? Are we finally outside? He looks to where the flashlights shine on the ground. Concrete.
“Like a bloody firing squad,” Steve whispers at his side. “Has someone asked one question too many?”
A voice booms out, with a hint of feedback. “Ladies and Gentlemen. Hand-picked members of the journalist community. You have now seen most of what we have to offer you here in Pearlania, hashtag openforbusiness. And yet, we have saved what we believe to be our most impressive feature for the end of your visit. For now.
“One generation ago a disaster of unprecedented proportions befell the city of Hong Kong and the surrounding province of Guangdong. For many years it lay dormant, but never truly defeated, and now it rises again. As a symbol of Hong Kong’s resurgence, as a reminder of its past and as a statement of intent, we will now present to you the only remaining piece of the original city. Allow us to present to you, what will be the highlight of any visit to Pearlania, the Tai Mo Shan Experience!”
Lights flash on with an echoing boom and there right in front of them but still very far away is a mountain. Lukas’s mouth drops open. It must be a fake, he thinks, a reconstruction, like the rest of this place, but the longer he stares the more he realises that he is really looking at a mountain with grass and trees and rocks and a path winding up and up to what looks like a weather station on the top. It’s an actual mountain, but there’s a roof above it. An inconceivably vast roof with metal sheets the size of football pitches and lights like alien spacecraft.
“Bloody hell,” whispers Steve.
The two men share the lift back to their rooms.
“Three hundred five.”
Lukas presses for Steve’s and then for his own floor: three hundred and forty six. The lift moves off with a deep moan. After a minute it is Steve who breaks the silence.
“Can I ask…? What can you see from your window?”
“From your hotel room window?”
“Oh. Holograms. Bustling markets, a sunny harbour, beaches fringed with mountains. Hong Kong Mark I.”
“Mine’s the same. Did you ever visit?”
Lukas shakes his head. “No. You?”
“Once, yes. Not for work, though. I’m not that old. I was a kid and my parents took me on a cruise. Stopped off there… here… for a night.”
“What was it like?”
“God I was young. I remember neon signs. And the heat. And I have one very vivid memory of eating shrimp wonton. But even back then there were problems. I’m sure I remember my father talking about no go areas.”
Lukas feels the pressure rising as the lift soars. “There must be a way to see outside. Beyond the hologram.” He speaks more to himself than to his travelling companion. The lift slows with another moan and the doors pop apart.
As Steve steps out, he turns in the doorway: “If I were you, I’d try the drains.” The he laughs. “Goodnight!”
The doors slide back across and slot silently together.
The corridors at 4am look as empty as they do in the middle of the day. One hundred journalists barely make a dent in a four hundred floor hotel.
Lukas takes the stairs. The lifts only go down to the one hundredth floor, and he is sure that whatever he is looking for is below that. Plus, he is convinced he will be less conspicuous on the stairs.
His sole companion on the way down is the drone of the air-con. After twenty minutes he has lost count. Fifty floors? One hundred floors? He keeps going and thinks about what Steve said as they parted last night: Try the drains. He imagines himself shimmying along dank tunnels, a flashlight in his teeth, like that ancient movie star his dad used to love. With the ridiculous muscles and the weird accent. He can’t remember the name.
Without warning he emerges onto a landing. A guard sits asleep in a large booth, while behind him a mosaic of blue screens flicker. Lukas catches his breath and shuffles carefully towards an imposing metal door. It doesn’t budge; doesn’t even shake. He looks around. Now he can see the desk at which the guard is slumped, a light snore dancing around his lips, and a set of buttons. Lukas approaches and strains to read the metallic engravings above them. Only one makes sense to him: M/D OPEN. If I press it and an alarm goes off I can make it back to the stairs before he knows what’s going on. Probably. If I get caught I can play dumb and ultra-apologetic. If it works I might get a genuine world exclusive on what is really going on here. Lukas slowly stands up, ready to run, and presses the button. Nothing happens. He exhales a little too loudly and the guard murmurs. Seconds of unbearable silence. Then the doors sweep open. If this was a movie, he thinks, I’d be laughing right now.
On the other side of the door is a long corridor, lit by ornate gas lamps which upon closer inspection are electric and are flickering in unison. Lukas’s feet squeak against the polished floor. He arrives at another door, made of intricately wrought but surprisingly light iron, which he pulls back before stopping in shock. His eyes slowly adjust to the bright light.
He is at the end of a street. A suburban street, lifted straight from a kid’s picture book: manicured lawns, low, white fences and pillarboxes, verandas, tall oaks, pebbled drives. He stumbles, dazed, along half the street’s length then stops. Nobody is around. There is birdsong and a light breeze and Lukas is certain that he is finally outside until he realises that it cannot be 5am yet the sun is already high in a cobalt sky. He looks behind the houses, over the rooftops and into the far off icing-sugar clouds and knows, even without the tell-tale flicker, that at some point what he can see has changed from real to holographic.
He knows that he has reached the end of the street only when two doors rise up from the concrete. The row of houses continues ahead of him but when he reaches out a tentative hand he makes contact with a hard, warm, invisible surface blocking his way. One of the doors is clearly an elevator, a panel shining by its side, the other is a regular door. Lukas opens the latter. Another corridor with faux-gas lighting, smothering dark after the bright street, and a staircase at the foot of which another faux-iron door leads onto another suburban street, identical in every respect to the one above. Still he sees no-one.
The scenario repeats itself over and over: corridor, door, street, corridor, door, street. Lukas begins to feel trapped – has he gone too far? Street after street piled atop one another. Even the birdsong is becoming repetitive, until Lukas realises that there are no birds. The houses appear to be getting smaller and more closely packed together. There are no verandas anymore, and fewer windows staring blankly out. He walks briskly on.
Eventually the door leads on to a different street: apartment blocks, maybe twenty storeys high, with smart little lawns and courtyards nestled in between. Still no-one is around. Again this scene is replicated again and again until Lukas has no idea how many times he has seen it. He also has no idea how long he has been away from his room but knows it must be hours. Would he be noticed missing at breakfast? Or not until the final presentation at nine o’clock?
At the far end of the street behind him the elevator doors stand open and a man, the same guard he crept past earlier perhaps, is running towards him. Give yourself up, Lukas thinks. Apologise. He starts to run. Not yet. Aiming for the elevator door he notices a third opening at ground level. It’s much smaller, he might not even fit. How did I not notice earlier – is it just on this floor? He stoops down, stumbles, drags the door open and crawls in.
It is pitch black and after a second he realises that he is falling. He slams an arm against something metallic, which slows his descent, then a foot, which makes an alarming shriek as his rubber soles catch against the metal. Still he falls in painful, jerking drops and his exposed hands and elbows burn from the friction and he screams in such terror that he shocks himself, as he realises just how frightened he is.
The first thing Lukas becomes aware of, as consciousness slowly raises him up, is the smell. While his other senses remain dulled, he has time to linger over the overpowering stench of fish, sewage and decay. Then he becomes aware of the heat – every bit as oppressive as the odour. He rolls painfully on to his side, his cheek touches something wet and salty, and he wretches.
Opening his eyes he is alarmed to find another face just inches away from his. Deep brown skin, furrowed by the ages, black eyes buried deep in the folds. Something muttered, incomprehensible. An old woman, wrapped in an all-encompassing rag, shuffles slowly away, dragging a huge sack that rattles and clangs. Lukas carefully props himself up and watches her stop once more, inspect something on the ground, and drop it in the sack. He sees that the upper half of his body is in shadow, the lower half exposed to the baking sun.
Beyond the woman stretches a landscape of rolling, black hills, twisted, charred and stinking. Smoke rises from various points. Little peaks rise and troughs sink. He thinks he sees a house. Or at least what could pass for a house in this nightmarish scene. Then another one.
To his right a voice calls out. Two children, naked but for ragged vests, throw a misshapen ball to one another. Lukas lies back down again. He has an even stronger desire to wretch. Something sharp digs in just below his shoulder blade. Above him he can see a huge, black square, too massive to fit into his field of vision, propped up by huge, blackened pillars. The place he came from. Casting a shadow upon him as he lies in filth.
I can’t believe it has taken until my 7th Chinese New Year in Hong Kong to write this post…
This Tuesday (5th) will see the start of the Year of the Pig. Those born in Piggie Years (1935, 1947, 1959, 1971, 1983, 1995, 2007, and now 2019) are – apparently – carefree, lucky and wealthy (being fat in Chinese always comes back to having lots of money.) They are also sincere and brave. On the flip side, Pigs are stubborn, over-reliant on others and can be quick to anger.
The Year of the Rat will follow in a year’s time. This is technically the 1st year of the Chinese Zodiac – the twelve animals had a race across a river to decide the order and the rat used his wiles to win… Those born as Rats (1936, 1948, 1960, 1972, 1984, 1996, 2008) are clever, ambitious and sociable. They can, however, be greedy, devious and power-hungry, with a love of gossip.
Next up is the Ox. This is my zodiac symbol, but it annoys me how close I came to being a Tiger (I was born 9 days too early…) Oxes (1937, 1949, 1961, 1973, 1985, 1997, 2009) are, perhaps unsurprisingly, hard-working, patient and steady. They are also, again no surprises here, stubborn, slow and not great at communication. It’s perhaps the least glamorous symbol…
Tigers (1938, 1950, 1962, 1974, 1986, 1998, 2010) are brave, competitive, strong, charming, lucky and natural leaders. Not bad. Even their negatives are pretty cool: impetuous, quick-tempered and over-indulged by others. In China, everyone wants to have their children in the Year of the Dragon, but I’d go with the Tiger as the best symbol to have been born under.
After Tigers come the Rabbits. Those born in this year (1939, 1951, 1963, 1975, 1987, 1999, 2011) are discrete, lucky and tend to live long lives. They are also cautious, skilful and gentle. They can, however, be superficial, prone to melancholy, and overly-discreet.
Enter the Dragon. The only mythical animal in the Chinese zodiac, it’s also seen as being the most prestigious. Dragons, (1940, 1952, 1964, 1976, 1988, 2000, 2012) will live lucky lives and thrive in positions of authority. They are – deep breath – strong, kind, successful in their careers, innovative, courageous, and blessed with good health. See why everyone wants to be one? Every symbol needs its negative side, though, and Dragons tend to be over-confident, pompous, lacking in tact, and quick to temper (duh!).
Animal No. 6 is the Snake. Those born in this year (1941, 1953, 1965, 1977, 1989, 2001, 2013) are supposedly wise, good-looking, discreet and sympathetic. Their negative traits are pretty heavy, however: lazy, arrogant, greedy and vain!
Then comes the Horse. Horses are energetic and vibrant. Neigh! If you were born in the Year of the Horse (1942, 1954, 1966, 1978, 1990, 2002, 2014) you are confident, independent and – believe it or not – a very romantic lover… Perhaps predictably, horses are also stubborn and reticent. They are overly frank, and not very good at keeping secrets…
Next up – the Sheep, or Goat (1943, 1955, 1967, 1979, 1991, 2003, 2015). It should be fairly obvious by now that these profiles match some kind of storybook version of the animal kingdom: Oxes – hardworking, Snakes – sneaky, Dragons – quick-tempered. Sheep are, of course, calm, trusting, shy and polite. They are also artistic (OK, that’s a bit less obvious). They can be pessimistic, however, as well as short-sighted and slow to react to change.
Animal No. 9. The Monkey. This one has possibly the widest range of characteristics… People born in the Year of the Monkey (1944, 1956, 1968, 1980, 1992, 2004, 2016) are, amongst other things: intelligent, charismatic, inventive, loyal, egotistical, snobbish, arrogant and sly. Phew. They sound like absolute nightmares…
Two to go. Next up is the Year of the Rooster. Or Cock… Let’s stick with Rooster. People born as Roosters (1945, 1957, 1969, 1981, 1993, 2005, 2017) are kind-hearted, hard-working, honest and funny. They’re also punctual (roosters wake you up on time, gettit?). On the down side, they can be wild, arrogant and blindly admiring of certain things or people.
Finally we have the Dog – this year’s outgoing animal. If you were expecting Dogs (1946, 1958, 1970, 1982, 1994, 2006, 2018) to be loyal and faithful you would be right. They are also honest and smart, with a strong sense of responsibility. But they are also self-righteous, unfriendly, stubborn and have a tendency to chew things (I may have made that last one up.)
I wrote this story a few years ago – unlike the previous two it never featured in an anthology. I had been reading some histories of Hong Kong, and so set it in the 1960s… Usually I read old pieces of work and cringe, but this one has held up quite well, I think.
It’s hot. So hot I can almost hear the heat humming. Air cloudy with dust, the room feels like the inside of my uncle’s car that time we went to the beach. I imagine the sun so close: trying to squeeze in between the wooden walls and around the orange curtains.
I’m bored. Yip Sir’s voice has become a dull murmur in the distance. Looking around, I see a grubby map of the world pinned to the wall and the pile of frayed Chinese dictionaries in the corner. The fan up above pushes a weak breeze on to my cheek, which reminds me of my brother’s breath when we’re lying in bed. I see a gecko glued to the far wall. It quickly wah-wahs off. There are twenty seven empty bottles of milk from morning break. And there’s Yip Sir staring at me.
“Mr Kwok. Do I have your attention? What did I just ask ?”
I have no idea . All my classmates are looking at me: some sorry; others smirking. Open on my desk, I realise, is an English textbook. But that’s not much help at all.
“Very well. One more time. Read out the definition of the word ‘victorious’ from the textbook.”
Another glance at the book tells me nothing. I’m probably on the wrong page. Nobody offers anything but a stare. Even Ching looks helpless. Feeling even hotter, I stare at the floor.
“Sorry Sir,” I eventually mumble. “I can’t.”
“Can’t? Or won’t?” Yip Sir’s voice rises.
He holds up his hand and begins to walk across the room. “Do you ever wonder, Kwok, why we have to go through this routine every week? Do you ever wonder why you are two years older than everyone else in this class?” He slowly moves in-between and around the desks: taking a longer route on purpose. He reminds me of a huge cargo ship in the harbour taking care not to hit the ferries and sampans.
“No, I don’t suppose you do. Because that would require knowledge, logic and reason…” His hand flashes out and grabs my earlobe. “Basic skills which you don’t, and I doubt ever will, possess.” He marches me to the front of the class, stopping on the way to clip the back of a chubby boy’s head.
“Even Wong here could answer those questions. It’s because, Kwok, you are a dunce!” We have reached the blackboard and, even though hot tears are splashing down my cheeks, I hold out my hand. I want it over with.
“Actually, I don’t think that particular punishment works any more. The effects have been negligible. I’m afraid that we shall have to try something new.”
Yip Sir flicks the tip of his bamboo rod, and I swear I can see a smile at the very edges of his mouth.
“Turn around, Kwok, and touch your toes.”
Later, I stand in the yard and make shapes in the sandy mud. I draw my name in Chinese. Then I try to draw my brothers’ names, but I can’t remember the characters. I think about the English word that got me into trouble. ‘Vic-tor-ee-us’. Even after my punishment, I still don’t know what it means. Yip Sir had forgotten all about it by the time I sat down.
My schoolmates leave the school chatting, shouting and laughing. One older boy runs past shooting pellets from a catapult. Everyone avoids me, yet I’m the centre of attention. They notice, point and whisper. Lashes on the hand are an everyday occurrence in one class or another. What happened to me today is a once-a-year talking point.
Soon I am left alone, the shouting and joking replaced by the whirr of insects and a few cars on the road. Although I try to forget, I am reminded by a warm sting. I’ve not looked but I’m sure there are marks. They’ll be hard to hide from Ma.
I don’t know why I struggle to read the characters in my textbooks. I don’t know why the words dance and jiggle on the page. It might be alright if I could focus on the lesson and pay attention; but I find that just as difficult. I usually try to forget all about school once I’m out the door; but today I can’t.
I hear a crunch behind me. Ching has finished his extra maths lesson and is ready to go home. His face is serious, like Kwun Yam in the temple.
“Yeah.” My voice sounds too cheerful, but I really don’t want him feeling sorry for me. Thankfully this is my brother’s only effort at sympathy. He pulls me to my feet and begins to run, dust clouding up behind him.
“Race you to Auntie’s.”
I beat him easily. Ching has the brains; but he’s not athletic. Feeling better for my win, we get a couple of Cokes from Auntie’s shop and stroll home. The sky is a hazy orange, and the insects are coming out to play. Butterflies, beetles and mosquitoes swoop and flick past. I walk close to the roadside, enjoying the tickle of the plants as I brush by. Some of them are taller than me.
“What old Yip did today was really bad. I’m sure that it’s illegal.”
I don’t answer. I pretend I didn’t hear.
“Wish we could get him back. Somehow….”
“No, just forget about it. I will. Don’t mention it again!”
Ching thinks about saying more, and then just shrugs. We pass old A-Chan, sitting smoking on his plough. His stinky buffalo snorts nearby. We shout a cheery ‘Nei Ho!’, as we do every afternoon; he grunts back, as he does every afternoon.
“What I can’t get is why you don’t just pay attention,” Ching continues. “I mean, I know it’s dull as anything but at least you’d know which page we were on.”
“I’ve told you a million times. I just can’t!”
“Yeah but, come on, you’re the oldest in the class…”
I shove him to the other side of the road and he almost stumbles into bamboo. “Just SHUT UP!”
He finally takes the hint and we arrive home in silence.
Dinner that night is noisy as ever. Ma produces plate after steaming plate and the room grows foggier and foggier. The rows of wet clothes hanging from the roof make the place seem even smaller. My big sister shouts, my youngest brother cries and Daddy sits, topless, trying to read.
“Good day at school, boys?” Ma asks. “Mr Yip give you into trouble?”
No answer. “Hopefully you can make it a week without getting kept behind, Hong-tsai! He is a grumpy old so-and-so, though, that Mr Yip. Like that even when I was a girl.”
“A good teacher’s a strict teacher, in my book.” My father pipes up from behind the newspaper.
“A bit too fond of the cane was old Yip, if I remember.”
My sister cackles. “And you never touch us?”
“That’s different! I’m your mother!”
I avoid Ching’s eyes and focus instead on my pak choi.
“Anyway, Hong-tsai, remember we’re going to the doctors tomorrow. Uncle’s coming in the car and I’ll have to pick you up at two sharp. Who should I talk to at school?”
“Just come straight to Mr Yip’s classroom, Ma.” Ching suddenly takes an interest in the conversation.
“Are you sure? I don’t want old Yip getting angry.” She chuckles. “Probably remembers me, and wouldn’t mind giving me a couple more on the hand, for old times’ sake.”
“Yeah, Ma, really. It’ll be the quickest way.”
Later, as we get in to bed with the gentle sound of plates clinking in the tub and my sister sweeping the floor, I feel Ching’s hot breath in my ear.
“I’ve got a plan!”
It’s so hot I feel that the heat is an actual person, in the room. Maybe the heat doesn’t go away at night. It remains, and is topped up each and every day. Added to this is the drone of Mr Yip’s history lesson. My eyelids are so soft and heavy that I really can’t keep… them… open…
Still able to think, but unable to force my eyes open, I lazily consider how wrong this is.
“Yip Sir! Hong’s sleeping!”
Ching’s voice. My eyes lurch open and focus on our teacher looking, eyes wide apart, at my brother. Who should he be angry with? He chooses me.
“Thank you, Mr Kwok. Now, Kwok senior, I had hoped that yesterday’s punishment would work.”
Twenty seven breaths are held in unison.
He carries out the same routine: a slow walk between the tables, the flash of his hand to grab my ear and a quick march to the front. My heart thumps and my hands sweat – even though this is part of the plan. At least I think it is, isn’t it? Ching hid most of the details and now I’m panicking. So many things could go wrong. What if he misjudges it? It’s so difficult to time this perfectly. And it has to be perfect. You can’t rely on time. Time can’t be trusted. There are too many possibilities.
Unlike yesterday, Yip Sir says nothing. I feel his hand on my back. Did Ching hear, or see, something that told him to speak? I dare not look up at my younger brother. I heard nothing. I hear nothing. The heat hums. Mr Yip picks up his rod. It’s too late.
“Ah, excuse me.”
There’s someone in the doorway.
“Hi Ma!” Ching sounds delirious.
“I’m here to collect my son. Kwok Ban Hong. I’m his mother.” I imagine a rubber band, stretched to its limits and then snipped by a pair of sharp scissors. Ma’s face changes from shocked, to angry and then to very, very serious – all in a second. She walks to me and takes my hand. Her head is held high like the empress in my history book. As we leave the school my only regret is that I never got to look at Yip Sir’s face.
Outside in the dusty yard, in the baking heat of the afternoon, my mother lets go of me.
“Wait here, Hong-tsai.”
She turns and disappears back into the building. I wander over to the spot where I waited for Ching the day before. I compare how I felt then to today. I see the patch of ground where I scratched the characters of my name. I remember the English word that got me in to all that trouble. ‘Vic-tor-ee-us’. Still unsure what it means; I no longer care.
Ma walks back out across the yard, the same serious, calm look on her face, and we go to meet my uncle.
Shing Mun reservoir, from the top of Needle Hill
This next story was published back in 2014, my first to feature in a Hong Kong Writers Circle anthology. The title of this collection was ‘Another Hong Kong’… In this collection, the Hong Kong Writers Circle’s authors and poets show us Another Hong Kong. This is not the city we think we know. By posing questions that defy easy answers and convenient cliches, these writers show us the Hong Kong of the past, the present and the future, as lived through the lives of others…
My story featured in Part One of the book: Future Calling, and is set in a post-apocalyptic vision of Hong Kong. I may be in the far-off future, but history it seems just can’t help but repeat…
Ten-Moons Over Sea View
Ten-moons-eve, the final day of the 3400th ten-moon…
There’s an island. A stretched, chunky island with craggy hills in the middle. It’s one of many islands: big, small, curved, and sharp, all clustered off the coast of main-land. Before the end of the world these floating rocks were a place of great significance. But now they’re nothing. In crumbling towers, people live. They count time by the cycles of the moon, celebrating every tenth cycle: ten-moons-eve…
Leader stares out from atop Tower 1. Through dusty morning haze lies a flat slab of land, directly contrasting the peaks that rise behind. Upon it sit enormous, crumbling, bird-like structures beside huge, caved-in buildings. It has been many moons since a regular watch was held here, yet Leader still casts an eye over the land from time to time.
He’s never trusted these birds. Time has proven them unthreatening, yet they may still contain dormant powers. The old man climbs up to watch them when his mind weighs heavy. Who built these monuments? When? What do they signify? Legends have spread over many moons. They are the idols of a people who worshiped birds. They are flying machines that carried many yan. Who knows?
“Not I, Sir.” Startled, Leader realises that he has been speaking out loud.
Unlike the old man, who inhales deeply and strides around the platform, cloak billowing from side to side, the boy stands immobile. The only movement is from his tunic, flicking around bare knees.
“Everything is unknown; until we learn it.” Leader smiles indulgently. “In times gone by these rotting birds were my greatest worry. Now they appear as old friends.”
The boy is nervous. Leader very rarely speaks to waterboys, other than to make a request. “This past moon my fears lie elsewhere.” Leader sweeps his arm out upon the calm water, beyond the crumbling birds, pointing at what seems to the boy a huge, floating city. “And what they want.”
On the eve of the ninth moon they arrived, rocking gently on the waves in their white, gleaming ship. Rumours dashed around Sea View and inhabitants actually began peering outside. To do that showed the fear that gripped them. Eventually, a pack of men left the ship, floated towards land, and approached Tower 1. What men! Tall, shiny and black-skinned. Dressed in outlandish garments. The vivid colours, the glossy materials – Leader had shriveled inside as he approached them in his dull, worn cloak.
“They could speak our tongue, or a version of it.” He continues to his waterboy. “How is that possible? They want something we have. Do you know what?”
The boy is silent.
Leader continues in a bare whisper. “Our scrap-trash!”
The boy knows of the scrap-trash, stored deep inside Tower 2. No one goes in, through fear rather than any rule, but the few who have speak of it in hushed tones.
“Their chief held a piece in his hand. I denied having any. He laughed. They know we have it. But how? So many questions…” Leader pauses. “What do the ordinary yan make of this floating city?”
Hesitantly, the boy answers. “Most are scared, Sir. When it arrived my mother pulled the boards from our box opening to look outside. I can’t remember her doing that before. Never. She thinks it looks ill for the coming ten-moon.“
Leader is silent for a spell. He stretches as if just waking. “I shall make an announcement at tonight’s festivities. There is nothing to fear. We should enjoy ten-moons-eve with light hearts.” He places a hand on the waterboy’s shoulder. “What age are you?”
“This will be my fifteenth ten-moons-eve, Sir.”
“Then tomorrow you will…”
“…become a getter, Sir.” His chest swells.
“Tonight is a great night then. You become a man. Are you nervous?”
If only he could swap places with this young boy, Leader thought, on the edge of manhood with shoulders free of burden. Yet this ten-moon promises a test like no other. A getter slain on a neighbouring island; retributions required. A whole pack dead from heat-sicks following an expedition. The way their skin was peeling off… People are rightly scared. And now this.”
A cough. Turning abruptly, Leader realises that A-Yin, his assistant, has emerged on the roof.
“Leader, if I may, the dark-yan are expected this very moment.”
“Yes, sir.” A-Yin’s smile is not a warm one. “You requested that they arrive early, as you have the preparations…”
“I remember! Am I that old and loose-minded?”
Yin’s only response is a groveling bow. The boy shifts uncomfortably, seeing things he shouldn’t.
“Some time yet!” continues Leader. “They want an audience? They must wait for me to grant it.”
“Undoubtedly, Sir. Have you made a decision on the…?”
Leader interrupts with a violent stare. Yin shuffles slowly back, not turning around until he reaches the door. Silence resumes. The morning air is growing thick and warm.
The boy, boosted from having been taken in to Leader’s confidence, ventures a question.
“Sir, if I may, what will these dark-yan give us in exchange for scrap-trash?”
Leader hesitates, then delves into deep pockets. He produces two brown cubes, and offers one to his companion. Hesitating, the waterboy notices that it has stained the older man’s palm.
“Dark sweetness, they call it. It’s foodstuff. I’ve put off tasting it but I must, before I meet them again. Let us try together.”
Simultaneously they place the small, soft cubes in their mouths, and dark sweetness melts into their veins.
Sister is crying and ma is boiling and granpappy is smoking up the room. I gotta get out.
Making for the door, ma shouts me: “Where you goin’, Ting-Yat? Hey!”
“Needa see Kai-Saam.”
“No trouble, or pappy’s goin’ be mad.”
“And don’ go outside…”
Ma’s voice fades round the door. I in’t goin’ see Kai-Saam since he took my best throwin’ stick and I hate him. But I jus’ needs to get out the room. Ten-moons-eve’s always same: too many people hangin’ round an’ ma boilin’ all sorts foods that we can’t finish. T’night should be wow though – everyone gets outside (outside!) o’ T1 and there’s singin’ and dancin’ and eatin’ and Leader gives a speech. I jump down steps four a time. Don’t know where I’m goin’ but sometimes I jus’ like to run around. Along each lev’l I run past people sittin’, people chattin’, old folks fixin’ clothes, open doors with ma’s cookin’ or shoutin’, babes cryin’ and old granpappy’s sitting close-eyed smokin’. Jus’ like our rooms. All folks are the same. My rooms are on lev’l two one of T2 and for the next seven lev’l it’s all rooms and folks. Some floors’re cleaner than others, dependin’ who lives there I ‘spose, some have clothes strung up, some have colour hangings, but all’re dark ‘n’ dinge. I argue with Ma: “Getters can go out okay. So we can take off our cov’rs and get some light!” But she never liss’ns. Lev’l one three is for foods. Getters must have jus’ come in since there’s chopping and calling and some an’mals noisin’ and lots of folks. Soon I’m stuck behind some wantin’ to buy a monkey, which is good to eat on ten-moons-eve. I don’t wanna be stuck here cos I hate seein’ monkeys gettin’ chopped up so I try t’ push past. Old folks around me are chattin’ on the big dark folks who’ve turned up at T1 this past moon. They’re hopin’ Leader will tell whats happ’nin’ tonight, but they think it means trouble. My fav’rite shop sells the fish. I like it when they’re ’bout to get cut up and they fight and jump out the folk’s hands. Blood ‘n’ water meet an’ mix on the floor. An old granmammy’s peelin’ a big red ‘un, and I think she can’t see a crab that’s makin’ over the side of his tub. ‘Come on,’ I’m thinkin’ to the crab but granmammy gives a ‘Waiya!’ and bats it back in. I’m lyin’. My real fav’rite shop’s old Hei-Sei’s that sells sweet-stuffs.
“Ho, if it ain’t young Ting-Yat. Happy ten-moons-eve! T’day’s big day for you, no? How old?”
His hands are scary old and stretched when he gives me a bag. “Twelve eves.”
“You don’ look like it’s a big day! Many’d say havin’ been born on ten-moons-eve’s were an auspic’us thing!”
I dunno what that means, but if it means no folk pay you any attenshun cos more import’nt stuff’s goin’ on, he’s right.
I’m on lev’l one two ‘fore I know it. Ooops. Sick folks. I can’t turn back cos a bone-thin ma’s seen me and smiled. I keep my head lookin’ down and walk fast. Smells like ol’ foods. Someone’s cryin’. I walk a lil’ faster. I don’t wanna look but I know I will. I do. An old, old granpappy whose face is fallin’ into his mouth. Jus’ starin’. Lev’l one one. Scrap-trash. I shouldn’t come here, but I do som’times. Mountains and hills of stuff. Some shiny, some dull. Some square, some flat. Some tiny, some giant. Lots have li’l squares with funny writin’ on ‘em. Inb’tween the stuff there’s millins of little snakes (but not really) that’re red, blue, yellow, green, white and black, curlin’ and tanglin’ up. No folks know what it is. That amazin’? I know it’s real old, but also seems real from the future, too. I just stand and look. Some’re big black squares, and if you go up close you c’n see your face starin’ back. After watchin’ the scrap-trash, I decide to go outside. I do sometimes but don’ tell ma. I dance down the back steps. Checkin’ no folks’re there, I push the door. It’s dark ‘n’ waa, the air’s fresh. You don’ realise how bad the smells’re in T2 ’til you get outside. I suck Hei-Sei’s sweets. I see T3, tall and dark but lil’ bits of light are sneakin’ out. Behin’ it mountains and hills and then black, black nothin’. ‘Bove me I hear a noise, then see a shape, wings flappin’ then SCREAM! What’s that!? I dash back in t’ safe safe T2, sweatin’ an’ shakin’.
Ten-moons-eve, the final day of the 3405th ten-moon…
Deep inside the belly of T1, a mad dash of preparation is underway for the night’s celebrations. Waterboys scurry, hoisting rolls of fabric, women yell across the hall while wiping their hands on sauce-stained jerkins, and cage upon cage of monkeys chatter obliviously…
Separated from the hall by a single wall, yet a world away from the human maelstrom, is Leader’s chamber. Charts and documents cover the floor by the chair, yet his attention is elsewhere. A wah-wah scuttles across the wall, darting forward quickly yet stopping ever so precisely. Its tongue flicks out and catches an insect. It disappears between cracks in the wall. Outside. Just like that.
Reaching for the stick that has become his constant companion this past ten-moon, rays of pain shoot up from swollen ankles. Reaching for the covering, he slowly draws it back. He hears his mother crowing: “Stare too long and y’r eyes’ll melt!” Yet he climbs to the roof several times each moon and feels no guilt. The mind is strange. Some days Leader wants to announce: “People! Go outside! Don’t be afraid. It’s safe!” Other days, though, he’s thankful that the people of Sea View are afraid.
Beyond the tower the sky is bright yet hazy. It’s still too early to tell if tonight they will see the moon. The dark-yans’ craft cannot be seen from this angle. He can almost still remember a simpler time, before they arrived. Time hangs like a heavy shawl.
A cough. A-Yin has entered silently. As Leader maneuvers slowly around his assistant stares at the floor.
“Sir, I have brought the man and his sons. Those caught with…” Some words don’t need to be said.
“Bring them in.”
A-Yin turns, then pauses. “Sir, as inappropriate as my opinion may be at this time, since it is ten-moons-eve, perhaps a lighter punishment…”
Leader raises a hand. “You are right. Your opinion is inappropriate. Bring them in.”
The man is disheveled and stained. There is genuine fear in his eyes. His elder son has been crying. The younger one appears more uncertain than afraid. Leader can tell from their faces that they are of the same family.
“Twenty blocks of dark sweetness.” Leader’s voice is suddenly stern and bold. “Is enough to warrant death.” The father flinches. “What justification do you offer?”
A well-rehearsed plea floods out. “I…I… didn’ know what it was, really. I jus’ picked it up off the groun’”
“I’ve heard that excuse so often, I’m beginning to believe that Sea View must be paved with it.”
The older boy starts sobbing again.
“My assistant argues your case. It’s a happy day. I should be lenient.”
The man looks up, vague hope dancing in his eyes.
“But today I’m not disposed towards leniency. Your youngest son will return to your compartment. He is banned from serving as a getter when he comes of age. Your elder son, who I hear was due to pass through as a getter tonight, will instead remain imprisoned for five ten-moons-eves. You, sir, are imprisoned indefinitely. I will consider it further but am inclined to use you as an example. Leave.”
A-Yin jumps and ushers the now broken man and his sons from the room. Leader catches an apologetic glance between his assistant and the culprit. He is even more determined to use this man as an example. But not tonight. The two men are left alone.
Thoughts, and potential arguments, collide in Leader’s mind. The notion of retreading the same ground, yet again, forces him to sit down.
“Sir, we need to discuss the dark-yans’ role tonight.”
Surprised by A-Yin’s sudden change in subject, he hesitates. “What role?”
“We decided, Sir…”
“We decided, Sir, that as a gesture of appreciation, for following the terms of the first treaty, a select group would join us.”
He can remember a time when he and A-Yin would have been amidst all the preparations, working in tandem, reveling in the anticipation. Many moons ago, now.
“I wonder, Yin, that you refer to it as the ‘first treaty’, as if expecting a second.”
The assistant’s face molds into a bland expression, designed to give nothing away yet revealing all.
“This is what I want. The chief, Goul, and the two directly below him will attend the feast. They will not sit in our circle, but I will afford them a status equal to the tower-yan. Sit them there, one in each circle. No mention of them will be made in my address. Present them with gifts appropriate to their status.” Leader enjoys the flash of anger that fills A-Yin’s eyes. His assistant bows and retires.
“And, Yin, I feel that, after all, I am rather less disposed to make an example of our new prisoners.”
Another low bow and A-Yin is gone.
Spread out on the floor lies a sheet of paper. Older than time and almost worn away. Leader crouches tenderly and places both palms on it. Only he and his predecessors have studied this paper. Only they know that it’s a map of this very land. A decision was taken, a long time ago, to suppress it, as it might have encouraged people to venture outside. Every leader uses it once, at the very start of their time, to undertake the journey. High upon the mountains behind Sea View and the other crumbling ruins stands an unearthly bronze statue of a seated man. Leader can still recall his own visit so very clearly.
A bitter morning. Shivering through cold and the fear of being outside. Atop a rough flight of steps. The statue’s back has completely fallen away. The features almost eroded smooth. Yet the power that seems to flow from that raised hand. It soothes Leader, even now. He wonders if the makers of this map, all those heats and moons in the past, felt the same when they saw this man. He wonders if they lived an easier life than him; or if all lives are trials that we are doomed to fail. Did they live under the same moon that he now, for the first time in days, can see from his window?
“Boys, I look at you lined up here now and I feel pride.” Lung-Yat does his us’l pause for effect. “And I feel safe. Safe knowin’ that you are the future of Sea View 1, 2, and 3. Our newest generation of getters.”
I glance down the line and see thirty seven boys, at least half I’ve known since we was babes. I truly do feel kinda sad.
“Ten-moons-eves are mem’rable for all us folks; but you boys will never forget this ‘un. Trust me. Don’t worry ’bout the next part, it comes natural. And later, in front of all the folks, your mas and paps, Leader hisself, stand up tall and chest out.”
Aiya, I even feel sad lookin’ at Lung-Yat, thinkin’ of the way he’s trained us all this past ten-moon, even though he is an angry ol’ crutchjabber.
“Bein’ a getter these days is even more important than back when I was your age. Diff’rent times. More worries.”
He don’t needa say much more – we all c’n tell he’s talkin’ ‘bout the dark-yan.
“But I’ve seen enough in your training t’ be able t’ rest easy knowin’ that you’ll do your best for Sea View. You will.”
“Boys… and this is the last time I’ll be able t’ say that cos you’ll be men soon enough… Boys, walk on!”
Kai-Saam turns and winks at me. He’s been windin’ me for weeks. “Not long now, Ting-Yat, and your two bigges’ scares come to meet you. Goin’ outside and touchin’ a girl.”
“Least I ain’t been practisin’ on my ma.”
Jab him, though, he’s kinda right. I never been with a girl, though lots of these boys prob’ly have, and I ain’t been out since that night I got frighted by the bird five eves ago. First I was scared o’ gettin’ another beatin’ off pappy so didn’t dare; but when that wore off I found I was still scared, for diff’rent reasons. Practice in the yard with Lung-Yat was okay. Goin’ to main-land as a getter…
“I know it, I do. Chan-Yi is lyin’ waitin’ for me.” That’s Wing-Saam behind me. All boys have pretend chosen what girl they want behind the curt’n, and ‘least half want Chan-Yi.
“Nah,” says Kai-Saam, “Big Sing-Yat is waitin’, dentin’ her bed, callin’ ‘Wing, Wing, I’ll make you a man!'” Sing-Yat’s a girl from T3 with face like a pig’s pack-pack. All pappys wanna put their girls up for tonight, it’s real auspic’us and after it they’re ready t’ marry an all, but even Sing-Yat’s pappy won’ have the sauce to volunteer her.
“I jus’ feel sorry for Ting, here, cos there definit’ won’t be a boy waitin’ for him behind the curt’n.” Wing-Saam gets my elbow in his tum, as Kai-Saam laughs. Lung-Yat frowns as we pass him. His frown makes me realise I’m no kid no more. Not soon as I step through the curt’n.
I think ’bout bein’ a getter. It’s a dangerous job: neighb’rin folks attackin’, places with heat-sicks, snakes bitin’ in the long grass… Outside’s tough. Tougher these moons with the black-yan around, tryin’ to work a deal to set up perm’nent and get the scrap-trash. Some days it’s friendly ‘nough; others seems like fightin’ ain’t far off. Yet, all boys wanna be getters, if they can. Only boy I know who ain’t this year is on lev’l two six. He’s always c’llapsin’ and shakin’. His pa’s right angered recently. I think ’bout ma cryin’ earlier, and how she’ll be cryin’ at the cer’mony later. She’s proud, but right scared.
I realize somethin’. “Kai-Saam. You seen Lee-Sei? He ain’t in line.”
Lee-Sei should’ve been passin’ through with us tonight. Kai-Saam lowers his voice. “No, but I heard, secret like, that he’d been caught with… with dark sweetness.”
I shiver. Sur’ly not! Getting’ caught with that gets you a whippin’. More if you got ‘nough in your pock’t.
Kai-Saam’s next through the curt’n. I’m surprised when he goes cos he don’t turn round or make a silly face or nothin’.
All those problems lie waitin’. Now, though, I gotta be with a girl. All getters gotta do this or… I wanna, course, but I got no clue. Folks say stuff, but you dunno if it’s just talk or real ‘sperience. My chest feels tight but tingly, like nervous and ‘cited are fightin’ each other in there. The dusty curtain opens.
It’s dark, but there’re soft lights all down the line. I realise they’re lil’ rooms. Summun’s beside me, though I can’t really see, and I remem’er I gotta take off my tunic. Now’m naked. A strong hand on my back pushes me down the line. Most rooms have drawn curt’ns, but I hear noises like when folks’ve just woke up. The room next t’ mine hasn’t shut their curt’n. I look in and can’t straight work out what I’m seein’: legs, arms… Then I realise it’s Kai-Saam, and his white pack-pack’s goin’ up and down right speedy and I’m glad cos now I know what I need t’ do.
Ten-moons Eve, the final day of the 3410th ten-moon…
For the first time that even the oldest yan can remember, the ten-moons-eve celebrations are cancelled. Instead, in front of Tower 1, gather an army of dark-yan and defected getters. When the dark-yan were refused, for a third and final time, floors on T1 from which to trade in dark-sweetness they invaded. They met with little resistance.
The air is thick and sweet. Leader wonders, from atop Tower 3, was it always this sweet? Or is he noticing new sensations? Noticing too late, just moments before the end, is that what happens.
Death is not discussed in Sea View. It happens, the body is removed by getters and burnt in a pit. Yet death is always there. Leader realises that death has always been there, lurking behind all he has done, just waiting for this moment.
Looking out over the receding day, over Tower 1 and Tower 2, out to the sea, pink and orange from the dying sun, Leader recalls the first ten-moons-eve after the invaders arrived. That gleaming white city on the waves has since been joined by two more. The flat slab of land is now dark-yan territory, granted to them in a second treaty thirty moons ago. They cleared, casually, the rusting birds that had been so feared, almost revered, by Sea View for so long. From that day onwards the dark-yan changed in Leader’s mind – like a cloud passing over the sun. He began to truly fear them.
The invaders did not just bring dark sweetness. As soon as they had land, they began to impart ‘knowledge’. Leader avoided the dark-yan when he could, but A-Yin would keep him informed in his fevered, reverential tones. He now ‘knows’ about people in the past. He knows that Sea View was part of a very important settlement, once. A place that grew out of nothing in a matter of moons. The dark-yan use words that he cannot comprehend: world, city, year, port, china are a few he can remember. Not that he wants to comprehend them. They laughed when they discovered that Sea View folk don’t go outside, and cover the openings in their rooms. They say they understand, although it’s useless, and that it all comes from the endday, when a terrible wind tore across the land. This is the cause of heat-sicks, and is the reason why, if you go far enough into main-land, you’ll find empty, crumbling towers, ten times taller than Sea View 123. Many of the people here enjoyed discovering these facts. Leader didn’t. He didn’t enjoy discovering that the land and life he thought he knew, and had a responsibility to protect; he didn’t know at all.
The sun has nearly gone. The moon must be somewhere, but Leader can’t find it. The remaining, loyal getters are gathered behind him. Is it right that he should lead them to their deaths? Should they not have a chance at the new life? He counts fifty or so. Below, in T3, several hundred yan, who too prefer the old ways of ignorance and peace, prepare for a final stand.
Leader hobbles painfully towards them and picks out the tallest, proudest getter in the front row. That he should die tonight is a tragedy.
“What’s your name, my son?”
“And for how long have you served me?”
“Tonight marks my fifth ten-moons-eve as a getter.”
Leader meets the young man’s eye square on; in a manner he cannot remember doing for some time. “And do you regret that time?”
Leader needs no more than that. He rests a thankful hand on the getter’s broad shoulders. He steps back to address the whole troop.
I jus’ can’t describe it any better. I ain’t never seen nothin’ so inspirin’ as how Leader was jus’ now. I’m convinced, totally an’ truly, that some men are born ‘bove others. I’m ready to die for him. I am.
He’s talkin’. Thankin’ us for our loyalty. For standin’ by him. But I’m not really listenin’. I don’t have to. I’m already convinced.
Instead, I look beyond Leader, in to the darkening night. No matter I’ve done fifty moons as a getter, it still don’t feel right, deep down, to be outside. Ma could never quite ‘cept it an’ I think it was the worries ‘bout me that killed her in the end. I never watched the sun goin’ down before. It’s strange ‘cos you know it’s sinkin’ but you can’t quite see it move. Like what’s happened here at Sea View. Thinkin’ back a hundred moons ago, to now, it’s all change. But if you tried to watch it change, day by day, moon by moon, heat by heat, it’d be real tricky.
I’ve seen a lot in my fifty moons as a getter. Some good. A lot bad. Then there’s tonight. Leader’s stopped speakin’. The loudest silence I ever heard buzzes roun’ us. We’re gonna head down through T3 and meet the dark-yan and the traitors out front of T1.
It’s comin’ from under. Then another. And more and more. Sudden like there’s a battle ‘neath our feet. Dirty, cheatin’, low-down scummers have sprang on us. No surprise. Folks in T3 will be no match for ‘em. The noises are getting closer. Screams and clang and bang. I look at Leader and see his face change, just for a second, into somethin’ like what ma used to pull before I went on getter duty. Then he stiffens, straightens, and moves towards the door.
‘Fore we know, it bursts open and dark-yan spill out yellin’ and swingin’ swords. Leader’s disappeared under them. I know I’ll only get one chance to make a hit. I gotta pick it wise. It’s dull an’ dinge, but I jus’ make out, skullin’ in the backgroun’, the dirtiest, son-of-the-shithouse traitor, A-Yin, and I throw back my spear-arm and I yell like I wanna use up all my shouts and I…
This is a slightly edited version of the story that first appeared in ‘Another Hong Kong’. You can find the original anthology, and all other HKWC anthologies in physical and Kindle format, here.
Don’t look down… Wan Chai, December 2018
The latest Hong Kong Writers’ Circle anthology, ‘Hong Kong Highs and Lows’ is out now at Bookazine and through our website at hkwriterscircle.com. It’ll soon be up on Amazon and the Kindle Store.
It’s the fourth anthology that I’ve contributed towards since moving to Hong Kong almost seven years ago. And since I’ve struggled for blogging inspiration recently, I thought I’d share some of these short stories that I’ve written during my time here. All set in this city; all inspired by the bustle of her streets and the honk of her horns.
Starting with my story from the anthology above, released just last week…
A village. Wesley was feeling inspired today. A village! His pen scratched across the opening page of a tatty old notebook.
Hong Kong is a village. You hear about kids that grew up in tiny little places with one street and a few hundred people and one bar – like how my dad always goes on about his butt-hole hometown in Arizona – and how they dreamt of living in the big city. In a city as big, vibrant, whatever, as Hong Kong, Pearl of the Orient, where you can be one of seven million and nobody knows who you are. Well, Hong Kong might look big and busy but that’s just a front. It’s a village.
Behind him the cafe was getting busier, new voices adding to the hubbub minute by minute. Most were indeterminate; two weren’t. They were speaking English, which always stood out more to Wesley’s ears than Cantonese.
‘So it’s Cecelia you’ve got?’ A man’s voice, deep and full of itself. Wesley clicked his pen shut.
‘Um, yeah.’ A woman’s voice, young and timid. ‘Why’re you looking like that?’
‘Nah, it’s just – she’s got a bit of a reputation.’
‘A bad one?’
‘Look, some people really like her…’
‘… but some people think you’re difficult to work with.’
Cecelia sniffed and pulled the bed sheet up over her breasts. ‘How do you know they were talking about me?’
Wesley shrugged and turned to lie on his back. ‘She looked like a student. I’m sure they mentioned Chinese Literature.’
Cecelia turned her head on the pillow and raised an eyebrow. ‘And somehow you knew it was me they were talking about.’
‘How many Chinese Lit professors are called Cecelia? And it was, like, spooky because I had just been writing about how Hong Kong is actually a village. You know? Like it’s a huge city; but it’s also a village where everybody knows everybody else.’
Cecelia laughed and reached for her glass of water. Wesley reached for his phone which had slipped in between the bedside clock and a pile of books. Books about business, management, and one about some invasion in Normandy. One WhatsApp, from Jasmine. He’d reply in a day or two.
‘I would rather be first in a small village than second in command in Rome.’ Cecelia was gazing at the ceiling. Lying together in the gloom, their breathing back to normal now, Wesley looked around the bedroom and counted how many items he could identify before finding one that belonged to Cecelia’s husband. Mirror, wardrobe, man-size dressing gown… Books, jewellery holder like a disembodied head in the darkness, stack of weights in the corner… Should it make him feel bad, he wondered, seeing these reminders of him?
‘So are you?’ he asked, reaching over to lay a hand on Cecelia’s stomach. She lifted it away, gently but firmly.
‘Am I what?’
‘Difficult to work with?’
‘Only to incompetent colleagues.’ The bedside light clicked off. ‘I have to sleep. Don’t make too much noise.’
As he opened the bedroom door, Cecelia called out again.
‘Remember, Regina. Tomorrow evening. At the W. I’ll send you all the details.
The clock on the oven blinked 23:27 as Wesley felt for the switch. The lights flashed bright then settled into a mellow blue. It was pretty neat: the blue running around the surface edges made the kitchen look like the control-deck of a spacecraft. He took a bottle of beer from the fridge and walked through to the living room. The huge windows were streaked with rain, and the lights of Happy Valley below, then Causeway Bay and Kowloon in the distance, all bled into the drops. It felt like this was the highest place in Hong Kong. He looked across at the ICC tower standing proudly across the water. It was taller than Cecelia’s apartment – of course it was – but somehow he felt sure that this couldn’t be. Not tonight. Wesley wondered which raindrop on the window was covering his Jordan walk-up. He stood up against the cold glass – forehead, fingers, chest and dick. He liked to do this after leaving Cecelia’s bed. Here I am, Hong Kong. They could all see him – framed and naked in the window sixty-eight floors above their heads – and yet nobody thought to look. He realised that he was still sticky from sex. He went to the kitchen to find a towel, or a dishcloth, to wipe himself off.
Wesley was woken by the rain strafing against the windows. He was in his boxers, his back stuck to the soft-leather sofa. It was 9:33.
He loved being able to spend mornings here, alone. He used the waffle maker to make a bacon, cheese and syrup waffle that came out raw in the middle but still tasted epic. There was half a bottle of wine in the fridge too, which he finished. Cecelia wouldn’t mind: there was a full-on wine cupboard next to the fridge. A flash of lightning lit the room and a crack of thunder followed almost immediately.
He flopped back down to watch TV. Cecelia never had it on. She didn’t seem like someone who ever watched TV, or used a waffle maker, or lifted those weights in the bedroom. It was like this wasn’t really her house. All this stuff must have been her husband’s. Geoffrey. Wesley had seen his name on an old credit card in a drawer. He didn’t know what he looked like – was he Western, Chinese, or mixed like himself? His name didn’t sound Chinese; but who knew? Was he forty, fifty or sixty? Was he a banker, a pilot? Geoffrey. All Wesley knew was that he was away until October. He liked to imagine him coming back, unexpectedly, one day. The door would open and they’d stare at each other. And you are…? And they’d fight. Or maybe just laugh. Or maybe Wesley would hear him coming, hear the keys jangle in the lock, and he’d hide in the shower with the curtain pulled, like in a lame TVB drama. Wesley lay back and looked down over his chest and stomach. He was getting hard again. The downpour continued outside.
The rain had stopped by the time he stepped out of the MTR exit, but the clouds still hung low and threatening. It felt more like late evening than early afternoon. There was a smell of wet dust in the air. He pushed through the market where the awnings dripped fat drops onto his shoulders, and around dim-sum joints whose customers were starting to spill out onto the pavement. Jordan always reminded him of a visit he’d made to New York with his dad back when he was thirteen. There were all these apartments below street level, with tiny windows from which you could only have seen people’s feet as they hurried past. He remembered thinking that the people who lived in them must have been really poor, how he would have hated to live down there compared to their home in the Mid-Levels. But Jordan was just the same, really. Loads of places in Hong Kong were. Even at street level there was always something towering over you: billboards, awnings, apartment blocks, until the sky was a little strip pinched in right above your head. Wesley wondered if people ever got claustrophobic while walking the streets here. Maybe he could include a scene about that in his novel: A claustrophobic village.
As he turned the corner, he stopped to check that Cecelia’s envelope was still in his back pocket. She had left it on the kitchen counter as usual. Outside his building two figures stood framed by the building walls beside them, the overhanging signs above them and the glistening wet road below. Wesley pushed past them silently, ignoring their half-heartedly offered flyers. One of the women touched his arm as he brushed past. Leng jai, massagee? Wesley saw pink eye-shadow gathered in clumps around her eyes. He looked away, then down, and reached out for the door. There was a homeless man slumped next to the front step, a can of Blue Ice dribbling onto his trousers. The door to his block swung open – unlocked, as usual.
Wesley spent the afternoon trying to write, but ended up getting high and napping. When he woke, the sun had dipped low enough to be blocked by buildings rather than clouds. As dusk began to settle, Wesley set off along Canton Road to the Star Ferry. He no longer took the MTR if he could help it. It was stifling down there, soul-crushing to have to share the cramped carriages with all the drones.
There were thick crowds outside Gucci, Prada, Longines and the rest, each shop with lights more blinding than the last. He remembered that his father had given him a Longines watch for his eighteenth birthday, and he wondered what he had done with it. Once Island-side, he started uphill on walkways and escalators, never touching street-level until he stepped down onto on a steep, curved road. The Mid-levels. Neither the highest; nor the lowest. The height of Hong Kong’s middling middle-class.
‘You’re not eating enough,’ his mother announced as he walked in.
Wesley pulled out a stool at the table, opposite his younger brother, William, who didn’t look up from the spread of textbooks in front of him.
‘You’re thin,’ she added.
‘You saw me, like, three days ago.’
‘And you look thinner.’
Gloria, the helper, smiled to herself over some washing up. ‘Take some soup.’
‘Good idea’, agreed his mother. ‘I made it this morning.’
‘You made it?’
His mother didn’t respond. ‘Take it. Who knows what you’re eating up there in that dormitory.’
Wesley shook his head on his way over to the fridge. Her eldest son choosing to live in university dorms rather than staying at home had been his mother’s second biggest disappointment of the previous summer, after the same son had failed in getting into Hong Kong University. His father, a Cornell alumnus, had thought the dorms a great idea. He had no idea that the keg parties, the debauched fraternities and the cheerleaders, that any kind of disorganised, reckless fun, were banned from Hong Kong dorms. The only thing likely to keep you up all night were the churchy kids practising their hymns. And that was why Wesley had dropped out. One of the reasons. He wondered, as he opened a bottle of Tsing Tao, how much more pissed off his mom would be when she discovered he now lived next door to hookers in Kowloon.
‘Well,’ she continued, reaching for her tea, ‘your brother’s much more sensible. He’ll be living here next year. We’ve decided.’
William looked up from his books for the first time, smiling blankly.
‘You’ve decided?’ Wesley asked.
‘We’ve decided. Your father, brother, and I. So he can focus properly. Medicine isn’t like literature.’
Down the hallway came the sound of a toilet flushing.
‘So I’ve heard,’ said Wesley, taking a sip of beer. ‘Who else is here?’
Aunt Patricia strode into the kitchen, a Queen entering her ballroom.
‘Wesley. How are you?’
‘Don’t you think he looks thin?’ asked his mum.
‘I’ve always said he’s too thin, Jane. And what’s this?’ She was pointing at the beer bottle.
‘Beer.’ His mother again.
‘You’re too young.’
Aunt Patricia waved her hand dismissively. ‘You need to be working before you drink beer. What do you do all day?’
‘And drink beer? How do you remember anything?’
Wesley couldn’t think of a smart answer in time before his aunt called out, ‘Gloria! Get me some tea.’
Get it yourself, Wesley imagined her replying.
His mother had picked up a magazine. ‘Inside!’ The cover announced. ’10 Top Tips to Keeping a Happy House and a Happy Husband!’ He turned to his phone and started flicking through Instagram. The first post that came up was William and his girlfriend Candy – or was it Mandy? – at Disneyland. He was holding a huge bundle of stuffed toys; she had pink Minnie ears on. Wesley held the phone up.
His mother and brother looked up; his aunt’s head now buried in a newspaper.
‘Yeah,’ his bother replied. ‘Yesterday.’
‘Such a nice girl, Mandy. So polite.’ Wesley rolled his eyes. He’d been banking on his mother not knowing they’d been to Disneyland. ‘She’s going to be a vet. A vet and a doctor!’
‘Are they getting married? Congratulations!’
For the first time that afternoon his brother responded with something other than a blank smile. ‘No! We’re not!’
‘Of course not,’ his mother scoffed. ‘Not until after University.’
Wesley watched the top of his brother’s head, looking down once again at his books. William-mode. Was it pity that he felt towards his brother? He had to live here and put up with this shit all day long. Frustration? He never answered back, never challenged his mother over anything. He was such an obedient little dick. Studying medicine, going to Disneyland with Mandy, getting straight As. Wesley wanted his brother to fail his final exams this summer. Except, he didn’t. Not really. He drained his beer bottle and went to get another from the fridge. Beside him his aunt cracked the newspaper open.
‘Stupid children. Protesting again. What have they got to protest about?’ The question was to nobody in particular. ‘Finish your studies, get jobs, get married, get families. Then decide what’s worth protesting about.’ She tossed the paper to the edge of the table. Wesley closed his eyes. Not this again.
‘And what about you, Wesley? Do you have a girlfriend yet?’
Wesley turned to look at his aunt. ‘Just the one?’
It didn’t sound as funny out loud as it had done in his head. His mother sighed. ‘Wesley’s never brought a girlfriend home.’
‘Maybe girls think you drink too much.’ Aunt Patricia eyed his freshly-opened bottle as if it were about to explode. ‘They won’t want to marry a man that’s going to drink away his savings.’
‘It’s only my second.’
‘And it’s barely six o’clock.’
Wesley closed his eyes. He heard his aunt clumsily fold the newspaper back up.
‘Did I tell you, Jane? Agatha, from church, thinks her son is gay…’
Something snapped. Wesley wasn’t sure why. Why it had to happen right then. Was it the look in his aunt’s eyes as she mentioned her friend’s ‘gay’ son? He didn’t have time to really consider why, because he was up and yelling before he knew it.
Why do you give a shit about everything? Stuff that’s nothing to do with you. Who didn’t go to church last week. Whose son’s gay. Who’s protesting when they should be at home studying, obeying their elders. Just… Shut… Up!
A beer bottle toppled and gushed brown fizz out across the table. She stared him down, without rising from her chair. He stormed out.
The following afternoon had settled into a humid funk. Dust rose and a workman’s drill thudded into Wesley’s skull as he walked quickly up the flyover ramp towards Elements, the high-end shopping mall which propped up soaring, glassy blocks filled with luxury hotels and apartments. He was late for his meeting with Regina, and he felt awful.
He had barely slept. Jason, a school friend, had come to his apartment the night before. They had smoked and stayed up until four-thirty. Chatting about nothing, at first, and then about everything: family, university, jobs, and the bullshit village that is Hong Kong. It had helped Wesley to feel better, in a way.
It had been his aunt’s fault. Absolutely. She just never shut up. On and on and on. So hanging out with Jason had made him feel better but, at the same time, had forced him into a realisation. Whenever Jason asked about why Wesley had chosen to live in a Jordan shithole, about how he had so much free time, about why he never replied to Jasmine’s messages… What could he say? His life was a mesh of secrets.
Was that what this hard ball deep in his gut was? This feeling that he either had to run through the mall shouting, or screaming, or maybe even singing – anything to ensure that every single person noticed him – or he had to run back home and hide under his bedcovers. The way he had yelled in his aunt’s face, looking for a reaction that never came? Or was it when Jason had staggered to his feet in the small hours of the morning and told him that he was starting an internship at his father’s company next week. Wesley had stood resting his forehead against the cool surface of the front door. Was he disappointed? Angry? It’s not like they’d ever spoken about it, made an agreement or anything. But he’d thought that Jason was like him. Against all that bullshit. Paid internships. Whatever.
He entered the mall, and the cool air began to revive him. The car horns and the drilling were swallowed up by the calm of the shiny, chrome corridors. Eventually, after getting lost in a never ending maze of high-end shops and mood music, he found the elevator to the hotel lobby. The feeling of rising up at speed helped Wesley’s head to clear; leaving the bullshit far below. Follow today’s instructions. He entered the lobby and saw her immediately. Short, much older than Cecelia. Angrier looking too. She watched Wesley find the large plant, then continued to watch him flick aimlessly through his phone. Wesley glanced up once, twice. Did she look disappointed? Eventually she turned towards the elevator. Room 331. Twenty-fifth floor. Wait at least five minutes. Knock three times. The door opened slowly.
Close up she didn’t look quite as daunting. She might only have been a year or two older than Cecelia; but with none of Cecelia’s allure. Her skin was pale and lined, her lips drawn together in a permanent pinch, her hair flat and limp. Usually the women that Cecelia paired him with were pretty wild. They put on their best clothes and make-up, had some wine, got nice and mellow, and were up for anything. An afternoon with him was the craziest, most reckless act in thirty-odd years of being perfect wives, mothers, committee members, church goers…
‘How old are you?’
Wesley slowly shut the door behind him. Regina took a step back. ‘Um… didn’t Cecelia tell you all that?’
‘You look young.’
Isn’t that the point? Wesley thought.
He got undressed in the bathroom, and hung all his clothes on the one peg. Two minutes later he stepped out, glad that the mirror had steamed-up. He didn’t really want to see himself. While showering, his T-shirt had slipped off the hook and now lay soaking in a puddle. He wrapped a thick towel tightly around his waist. Regina was still standing by the bed, fully-clothed, picking at her thumbnail. She stared at him as if he were already naked. He instinctively covered his crotch.
Regina didn’t smile, or respond. Slowly she shuffled past him and into the bathroom. The lock clicked. Wesley sat on the bed. Where did Cecelia know this woman from again? How were they even friends? The sound of the shower and the rhythmic throbbing of his head lulled him into a trance. He called room service and ordered a bottle of champagne. It might, he thought, help to relax her.
Five minutes later a young guy arrived with the bottle and two glasses on a tray. He smiled as he entered, then winked at Wesley when he realised that someone was in the shower. As the man prepared the champagne, Wesley parted the curtains and looked out. There was the ICC, arrogantly blocking the view, safe in the knowledge that nobody would ask it to move. On either side of its gleaming glass lay the harbour. Then the Island. He could just make out Cecelia block rising above the blur of offices and towers. It was like a mirror image of the view from her apartment. He sighed.
A scream ripped the scene in half. Wesley spun around. Regina had emerged from the bathroom, two towels wrapped like a straitjacket around her midriff plus one over her head. She was pointing.
‘Sorry. Room service…’ The man looked at Wesley for help.
‘Get out! Out! Out! Out!’
The man grabbed his tray and hurried out, bowing in apology along the way. Wesley walked towards Regina.
‘I can’t do it. I knew I couldn’t. I don’t know why I… Someone might see me. Someone has seen me! This is… wrong.’
‘Just go!’ Regina, with much more strength than she looked capable of, forced Wesley out in the hallway. There was no sign of the room service. A family were emerging from the room opposite. Japanese, maybe. Or Korean. The mother saw Wesley standing in his towel and guided her young daughter quickly back into the room. He was left alone. His head thumped even more ferociously. The door opened behind him and a hand dropped his clothes to the floor. The wet T-shirt slapped onto the thick carpet.
He counted every foot, every centimetre, of the descent. His stomach lurched as the elevator slowed before spitting him out into a melee of shoppers and selfie-takers. He ran – he felt he had to run – through the shops and restaurants until, several wrong turns later, he made it out and on to the overpass, down the steps to street level and finally scurried into the warren of streets north of Austin Road. The sun had set but it was still stiflingly warm in the narrow, dark spaces. The wet-market was still open, more noise and bodies, the smell of fish and raw meat. The hookers pushed their flyers towards him. The homeless man at the foot of the stairs looked at him with his empty eyes. Wesley slumped onto his bed.
Cecelia called him three time that night. He ignored each one. In the morning he sent her a message.
He had written one explaining what had happened with Regina; but deleted it. She would know all about that by now. He had written one simply apologising for what had happened with Regina, but deleted that too. In the end the message he sent read: ‘Can we meet?’
She replied late in the afternoon, though Wesley could see that she had received and read the message hours earlier. ‘Sunday. As usual.’
Wesley lay there for a long time, watching the cursor blink. Waiting for him to reply. It blinked faster and faster. More and more impatiently. ‘I meant for dinner. Or something’. He hesitated over the ‘or something’. What was the ‘something’? He sent it anyway.
Her reply woke him up. It was completely dark by now, inside and out. He fished his phone from under the duvet.
‘Let’s stick to Sunday. As usual.’
On Friday morning, however, she called.
Wesley had woken early, having slept so much over the previous two days that he physically couldn’t have slept any more. He hadn’t smoked, or drank, and felt better than he had done in months.
The vibrations interrupted a poem he had been writing, about a caretaker who worked on the top floor of a 5-star hotel, and the things he saw as he moved from room to room. The corridors, the streets / The village hidden amongst the suites. It sounded good.
‘Hi. It’s me.’
‘Listen. Short notice, I know. But I have a job for you. Tonight.’
Wesley paused. Then sighed. ‘Mm-hmm?’
‘Look…’ Cecelia continued. ‘She’s willing to pay a lot. Three times what you normally…’
She sounded strangely uncertain, Wesley thought. ‘Who is she?’ he asked.
‘Friend of a friend. Of a friend. She’s a big name in… in certain circles. Her husband’s pretty high up in the police.’
Wesley began to imagine a night with this woman. The policeman’s wife.
‘And I’m told that she’s extremely willing. Someone put her in touch with our… our circle just yesterday, and she called me straight away. This won’t be like…’
Wesley felt a sense of power. She wasn’t begging. Not quite. But she had never spoken like this to him before. ‘Like Regina?’
‘I am sorry about that. I should have known that she wasn’t ready. Wasn’t the right type.’
Wesley sighed again, and waited.
‘So… Can you?’
Cecelia sounded relieved. ‘Thanks, Wesley. OK. Have you got something to note this down? Her instructions are quite specific.’
Wesley abandoned his poem to spend the afternoon getting ready. He went for a haircut, and bought a new shirt. Back home he showered, and clipped his pubic hair. He ate a large plate of chicken pasta, then took the Star Ferry across to The Four Seasons in Central.
Go to the bar. Order a drink. Charge it to room 4503.
He sat at a table and ordered a Tom Collins. He’d never had one before and thought it sounded stylish. The harbour stretched out behind him and the handful of other drinkers like a moving fresco. When the drink arrived, a key-card had been placed discreetly atop the napkin. Wesley knew that this latest mystery woman might pass by while he was drinking, at a distance. It turned him on, to think that she was watching him, perhaps from behind a pillar. Seven o’clock arrived. No call from Cecelia. The coast was clear.
Elevator. Forty-fifth floor. Knock three times.
He stood alone in the elevator, and felt the familiar lurch as it began its rapid ascent through the hotel floors. He pictured them flicking by as if the elevator was made of glass. All luxurious, all exactly the same. His phone vibrated. A message. From his mother.
‘Wesley. Please apologise to your aunt. For me. For family.’
He swore under his breath and replaced his phone in his pocket.
The corridor stretched out from the lift doors. 4503 was at the far end. He imagined the corridor in darkness – the thick carpet and the pot-plants had disappeared and only one light remained. Shining softly on Room 4503.
His phone vibrated. Jesus Christ, my mum is... But this time it was a message from Jasmine.
‘Hey U. No reply? How’s things? xxx’
She never gives up, Wesley thought, as he paused midway up the corridor. From the rooms on either side there came not a sound. Nobody entered, nobody exited. The air-conditioning hummed. He began walking again, and reached 4503.
The door was heavy and opened with what seemed like reluctance. Inside all was black: not pitch-black, but dark enough to obscure whoever was in there. He couldn’t help but remember Regina wrapped tightly in her towels, screaming at him to get out. He stepped inside.
‘On the bed.’
The voice was commanding, and deep for a woman. Wesley obeyed. The door clicked shut behind him.
‘Get undressed first.’
A thought suddenly passed across his mind. It was Cecelia. The voice could well be Cecelia’s. This was her way of making it up to him. He quickly unbuttoned his shirt and let it drop to the floor. He made out the silhouette of a desk, and leaned on it as he removed his shoes and socks, his jeans and his underwear. He stood and waited.
He wasn’t so sure that the voice was Cecelia now. Yet it did sound familiar.
A click, and a light. Dim and orange. A figure reclining on a wide, marshmallow bed. Short, in a pink silk nightgown. A shocked expression on her face. Scrabbling upright. Pulling the gown tighter and tighter. ‘Oh!’
And not her usual hair.
It was still…
Wesley jumped back as if electrocuted, hands over his crotch.
Married to a policeman. High up. Certain circles. FUCK!
His Aunt Patricia scrambled off the bed, slipping and grabbing at a standing lamp. She moved towards her nephew, then stopped.
Wesley knew that she needed to get past him but he was frozen. She forced her way around him, still bent-double, elbowing him in the stomach.
Able to move once again, Wesley ran for the door, grabbing his scattered clothes as he went.
Jasmine squealed as he brought the phone closer to their faces.
‘Not so close. Turn it a little. Other way. I look so ugly…’
‘Aw thanks hon. So sweet. Ok, that’s perfect.’
Wesley smiled and Jasmine pouted. Then she turned and kissed him lightly on the cheek. Around them people milled, children screamed and huge bubbles floated by while the spires of the Hong Kong Disneyland castle poked up towards a sky of slate.
‘Look. It’s Sean and Daisy.’
Wesley watched the pair, who had been a couple since they were all in eighth grade together, walk by. Yet another example…
‘Did you ever think,’ he began, as Jasmine leaned in for another selfie, ‘that Hong Kong’s like a village?’
His girlfriend looked up at him, her big eyes sparkling, the pink ears wobbling on top of her head.