Author: Paul House
Pages: 388
Publisher: Diiarts
Price: £11.99
Price: £15.99

Harbour: Chapter 1

 

“When three people journey together,
their number decreases by one.
When one man journeys alone,
he finds a companion.”

(i)

 

They came down out of the mountains with the flat plain of Kwantung stretching away before them to the horizon, unaltering and immense. The cultivated, alluvial green of the fields was broken only by the dove-grey line of a river which split the plain in two from East to West. The three taut sails of a junk moved slowly along the river. Molly watched the junk from the sedan chair, resting her hand on the bamboo window frame and her chin on her hand. The chair swayed unevenly as the bearers’ bare feet slid over the loose stones on the path. At the bottom of the hill, the roughly trodden mud and pebbles of the path became a causeway of flat paving stones that stretched out across the plain. An old man was driving a pig along the causeway towards them. He was calling out in a high-pitched whine, trying to get the pig to the mountain path before the sedan chair descended onto the plain. There was no room for them both to pass and if he did not manage to get off the flat stones and onto the gravel path of the hillside, the laws of class and respect would force him into the monsoon drain which had been dug into the earth beside the causeway. The monsoon drain was filled with foul-smelling stagnant water and the long, thin leaves of weeds.

       Molly turned her eyes away from the junk and glanced at her mother, Suyong, who was lying beneath a grey blanket on the seat opposite. Her eyelids had fallen across her pupils and her eyes were glazed and unseeing. She stared past Molly’s head at the slatted bamboo of the sedan chair, and she looked through her fever at the dying sunlight.

       Her face had been hollowed out by cholera. Her skin was grey, her lips almost blue. There was no trace of the striking Chinese beauty that had so captivated Molly’s father that he had been willing to face the wrath and indignation of the American authorities rather than lose her.

 

       Molly looked at her mother’s drained, exhausted face. Her life was ebbing, seeping away. Every step the bearers made took them a little closer to Hong Kong, but every step they made jolted the chair and took a little more life away from Suyong. Although she was only fourteen, Molly had seen death before and she knew her mother would die soon. She carried some water across to her on the tips of her fingers. She ran her fingers along Suyong’s lips and they felt dry and gritty. Molly moved the flimsy bamboo curtains of the window and looked back towards the junk. Some phlegm hissed and bubbled in her mother’s throat, but she was used to that by now. She rubbed her fingers together to rid them of the last traces of water. Because of the water her mother would die, but without the water she would already be dead.

       Three coolies edged past them on the causeway, heading North. They carried wicker baskets on bamboo poles. The baskets were filled with chickens. Molly looked at the chickens. They were headed for the market in Lungchan where, in the morning, they would be sold and slaughtered. But they would live longer than her mother. She knew that her mother would die that night. She knew it, just as she knew that the junk in the distance was heading, like they were, for Hong Kong.

       Molly thought of her father as she watched the flat, brown sails of the junk. He would already be waiting for them. Had they been able to make the whole journey by train as he had planned, they would have arrived at almost the same time, but near the lakes a little to the north of Nanchang the train had stopped, the tracks impassable beneath five metres of water. Suyong had spent almost half the money Russell had given them for the journey buying the sedan chair and hiring the bearers, and since then, they had continued on foot, her mother, Ah Chiew, the amah, and the six bearers. No one had mentioned sabotage, but everyone knew that Nanchang was an important logistic centre for the Kuomintang and that it had a munitions factory. The railway was the lifeline for the numerous guerrilla forces in the field.

       Willard Russell had stayed behind in Nanking to close down his office before getting himself shipped out of Shanghai and making for Hong Kong to meet up with his wife and daughter. Molly still tried to imagine them all living together again although she knew it was impossible. Suyong had first shown the signs of cholera, paradoxically, in the town of Hoping. It was only years later that the Western half of Molly’s character would see the irony and the ridiculous inappropriateness of the name. Now, though, her Chinese education dominated her feelings and she tried to accept what she had been taught, that everything in life happened at its appointed time. It was quite simply the moment for her mother to die and, not only was there no point in fighting it, there was nothing to fight. Molly had heard her father say that, for the Chinese, the shortest distance between two points was not a straight line, but the line of least resistance. But Ah Chiew said that it was not that. It was just that you could not change the natural order of the world. Her mother would die, because she had to. But, said Ah Chiew, the reference for all changes was the unchanging and it was there that we had to live.

       Molly was still watching the almost stationary sails of the junk when Ah Chiew’s face appeared at the window of the sedan chair. Her gold teeth flashed as she spoke. For years Ah Chiew  had been replacing her stunted teeth with perfect gold replicas. It was an investment for her old age. When she had no money, she would simply have her teeth pulled.

       “Soldiers, missie,” she said, pointing off along the causeway.

       Molly leaned her head further from the window and saw four soldiers blocking their path. They were standing in the middle of the causeway with blankets over their shoulders. In the absence of her mother, Molly was in command. Molly accepted the responsibility as calmly as she accepted the inevitability of her mother’s death.

       The soldiers held their rifles trained on the bearers as they approached. There was a neurosis and a nervousness in the country even this far south and it was not only caused by the recent Japanese invasion of Manchuria. Although news was sketchy and mostly through word of mouth, it was generally accepted that the Chinese Civil War had temporarily stopped and that the rival factions, Mao Zedong and the Communists and Chiang Kai Shek and the Kuomintang, had joined forces against the Japanese, but nobody could be sure yet whether it was true or not. Any movement on the roads was still looked on as a potential threat. One of the soldiers, a thin, undernourished boy of no more than sixteen, waved his rifle nervously towards them and shuffled round to the side of the chair on broken leather sandals. He poked his sharp face in at the window then recoiled quickly as he recognised the signs of cholera in Suyong’s washed out face. He ordered the bearers to move on and waved his rifle butt at his three companions. They all stepped obligingly into the mud and slime of the monsoon drain to let them pass.

       Ah Chiew ran for a while beside the window of the sedan chair.

       “If there are soldiers, missie,” she said, “There will be a settlement. If there is a settlement, there might be a mission.”

       Molly nodded. She was tired, but she knew their only hope of getting food and shelter was at a French or English mission. The Chinese would have nothing to do with them once they had seen Suyong.

       “Send one of the coolies on ahead, Ah Chiew, to find somewhere to sleep,” she said.

 

       When she stepped down from the sedan chair, Molly could see the straggling atap roofs of a kampong stretching away behind the stone walls of a half-ruined watchtower. To the left of the tower was a hill covered by the small mounds of recently dug graves, each one marked by a white Christian cross. The missionaries, though, had been unable to rid the Chinese of the tradition of burying their dead on the side of a hill and the recent rains had caused one or two of the crosses to totter and fall as the soft earth had been washed away. The dull brown of a skull resisted burial at the very top of the hill. Molly could hear the grunting of pigs and the crying of a child, but could see no sign of life. She looked at the brown skull and noticed there was a flake of dry, leathery skin clinging to the bone behind the temple.

       She looked past the tower and the huts of the kampong and she watched the sun dropping down behind the sails of the junk. A small amber light swayed and flickered at the bows and reflected in the dull waters of the river as a mist began to settle over the plain. Behind her, Ah Chiew was knocking on the door of the tower.

       Finally, a French nun came to the door. She gave a nervous glance towards Molly, Ah Chiew and the bearers, then closed the door again. Ah Chiew grumbled beneath her breath and banged on the door. This time, they were received by a young priest. As he opened the door he had already begun to give excuses.

       “Christians!” said Ah Chiew, and spat on the ground at the priest’s feet. What she really meant was “Europeans”.

       “My mother is ill,” said Molly in English, pointing back towards the bearers and the sedan chair. Responding to their common language, the priest stepped stiffly forwards and pulled the curtain aside. He looked at Suyong’s agonising face which was a deathly grey in the half light.

       “We have more than our fair share of illness already,” said the priest. He was complaining to justify his unchristian impulse to just turn them away. “Malaria, dysentery, typhoid. We have brought all the children of the kampong here, into the tower. To protect them. There is no more room.” He looked sadly towards Molly and spoke, but more to himself. “The Chinese, they just throw them out, the children. When they’re ill, they just let them die.” He looked absently off along the road for a moment and then turned back to them. “I’m sorry,” he said, “I can let you shelter round the back. We have so many children, you see? But I’ll send food. Some rice. Perhaps a little broth.” And he closed the door.

       “Men!” said Ah Chiew, spitting again in disgust. “In this country, it is even more of a sin to be a woman than it is to be Chinese. If we’d had a man with us, he’d’ve changed his tune.” The bearers were merely beasts of burden, little more than animals. They had no man to protect them and would have to make do with an animal’s pen.

       Molly went back to the sedan chair and took a small bag of belongings from beside her mother. She pulled the grey blanket up beneath her mother’s chin and followed the bearers round to the back of the tower. They settled beneath a bamboo shelter, the roof of which leant at a sharp angle against the whitewashed walls of the mission.

       Ah Chiew gathered her skirts between her knees and crouched down, sitting on her heels, her feet splayed flat on the floor. She wagged her head from side to side.

       “I suppose we cannot blame the priest,” she said finally, a note of resignation in her voice. “They are always being attacked. So many of them have been killed. By bandits. By the rebels.”

       “They shouldn’t be here, should they?” said Molly.

       Ah Chiew said nothing but she had, by now, forgiven the priest not only his nationality, but also his sex and his religion. One of the bearers lit a lamp and placed it on the packed earth before them. Molly watched the wick floating in the oil of the clay dish.

       “We’re going into the kampong,” the bearer said, and the men left.

       “They’ll get drunk,” said Ah Chiew. Her voice was flat and unemotional. It was obvious that she did not care what they did.

       Darkness fell across the kampong and Molly and Ah Chiew sat beneath the shelter in silence, watching the dim pool of light spilling over the ground from the oil lamp. There was nothing else for them to look at. Molly listened to the creaking of wood and the sound of the wind blowing across the plain. Ah Chiew watched the flame and began to breathe deeply. Molly closed her eyes. She knew the cycle by heart but, even so, she had to listen. The amah controlled her breathing until it became deep and regular. Molly counted first thirty-six breaths, then a pause, and then twenty-four breaths. Ah Chiew was meditating, concentrating on the positive and negative elements of the inner fire. Molly felt the trodden floor clammy and damp beneath her. She pushed her hands into the earth and gripped tightly to the soil. In the night, she suddenly needed something more tangible than religion to explain things to her.

       Molly was woken twice during the night. The first time was with the drunken return of the bearers who, not content with the restless fatigue induced by alcohol, squatted together in a circle to smoke several soft pellets of opium.

       She got up, her back stiff from lying on the hard earth, and walked behind the bearers out to the sedan chair which stood propped against the tower just beyond the shelter. She drew the curtain aside and stepped in beside her mother. Suyong’s breath was coming in a hoarse crackle, an echo of the opium pellets being scorched beyond the window. She was delirious, neither sleeping nor awake, and when Molly carried a few drops of water to her mouth in her cupped hands, Suyong pulled her lips away from her teeth but did not have enough energy even to swallow. Molly took a blue silk scarf from her neck and soaked it in the water. She wiped the sweat from her mother’s forehead and was frightened by a sudden look of terror in her eyes. Suyong had let her head fall to one side and with the first touch of the cold silk she had snapped her head back to face Molly. She had drawn her eyes wide in fear. Molly snatched her hand away and squeezed the scarf tightly between her fingers. She had to look away from the empty horror in her mother’s face because she did not want to see it. She looked at an embroidered dragon and tiger on the curtain and counted to ten. She remembered her mother saying once, “You must be like the tiger, Molly. A positive spirit.” She looked at the pattern on the curtain and ran her finger over the raised stitching that marked the tiger’s back. When she turned back towards her mother Suyong was slumped again against the corner of the chair where it joined the front wall. Her eyes were closed and she was breathing thickly from deep in her throat. Molly left the sedan chair quietly and walked back to the shelter. Ah Chiew stirred slightly in her sleep as Molly lay down again on the packed earth. She listened to the bearers’ sporadic conversation and turned onto her side to watch the red points of burning opium as they smoked. The heady smell of the drug wafted into the shelter and she soon drifted off to sleep again, the sweet smoke prickling in her nose.

       It was still not light when she woke a second time. Ah Chiew was bending over her and calling her name softly. Ah Chiew pulled her to her feet and spoke in a reverent whisper.

       “Her spirit has left her, missie,” she said, and she led her out of the shelter and round to the sedan chair. Molly looked at the corpse beneath the grey blanket.

       “The leap into the great emptiness,” Ah Chiew whispered at her shoulder. She looked up at the dark sky and the stars. “Her spirit will appear now in the heavenly bodies of space,” she said with a confidence based on certainty. It was, it seemed, a moment to celebrate. But Molly could not forget her mother’s momentary horror and not even Ah Chiew with her forty-seven centuries of Taoist teachings would convince her that she should be happy. She began to cry. Ah Chiew placed her arm round Molly’s shoulder and turned her away from the chair.

       “Patience, missie,” she said, offering up the only comfort she had. “Patience and endurance.”

       “She was frightened,” said Molly, and the idea of it was terrible.

       “No,” said Ah Chiew, “She has joined the void – the void which is not empty.” And she kicked one of the bearers in the ribs. “Let’s go!” she said.

       They were just under a day’s march from the New Territories, Kowloon and Hong Kong and, despite the fact that the priest had reluctantly offered them his burial mound, Molly decided that Suyong’s corpse should be delivered up to her father. The priest protested, but half-heartedly. He was glad to be rid of them and their diseased body and, anyway, as he would later explain to the nuns, they were Chinese. Their behaviour was, at best, illogical. Giving them the usual warnings against bandits, he had waved them off, happy to see the back of them.

       Molly was uncomfortable in the sedan chair with her mother’s lifeless body lying opposite her. She could not bring herself to pull the blanket up over Suyong’s face and, although her mother’s eyes were closed, she did not look as though she were sleeping. She looked as though she were dead.

       Molly tried to, but could not even envisage the void, still less place her mother there. She felt lonely and abandoned and her mother’s dead silence only emphasised the finality of existence. She could only think that she was loading her already physically disabled father with the added burden of bringing up a motherless child. And if that were not sufficient, one who did not even resemble him. He would not even have the evidence anymore of his Chinese wife to explain away her features.

 

(ii)

       Willard Russell was drinking in the bar of The Parisian Grill on Hong Kong Island when he heard the news that his family was arriving. He was not informed directly. The bearer Molly and Ah Chiew had sent on ahead to find him had been stopped at the Chinese border and refused entrance. Even had he managed to overcome this obstacle, he would have had no idea where to look amongst the other 800,000 inhabitants of the Colony and, even if he had been lucky enough to locate Russell, he would never have been allowed inside the European confines of the Parisian Grill. Willard Russell learned of his family’s arrival by accident.

       He was drinking a gin and water and listlessly thumbing through a two-day-old copy of The South China Morning Post. He could not concentrate on reading the news, but at the bottom of the page there was an advertisement which he had read now three or four times:

 

 

IMPERIAL AIRWAYS

Fly to England
for the Coronation
in 10 days

£160 single fare


 

       Russell’s priorities did not include the new King of England, but what struck him about the advertisement was the fact that you could now get to Europe in ten days. His own journey East had taken the best part of six months.

       Suddenly, a group of British soldiers burst noisily into the bar. They called out to Harry Osbourne, a reporter for the Post, who was drinking a Tiger beer half way along the bar between Russell and the soldiers.

       “Story for you, Osbourne!” said one of the soldiers. “Bit of a rumpus at the checkpoint out in the New Territories.”

       “I’m off-duty, Fletcher. I’m not interested,” said Harry Osbourne and he continued with his beer.

       Ignoring him, Sergeant John Fletcher talked out to no one in particular but to everyone at once. “Three Chinese,” he said. “Two women, one corpse, rolled up in a sedan chair, happy as you like. Said they’d started down from Nanking by train but that they’d walked from as far North as Nanchang!”

       Willard Russell put down his newspaper and wheeled himself a little closer to the group of soldiers. “Three women?” he asked.

       “No,” said Fletcher with a grin. “Three Chinese. One of them a young girl! One of them dead!”

       Russell drew level with the reporter. “Take me out there with you—Osbourne, is it?”

       Harry Osbourne sniffed. “I’m not going out there, mate,” he said. “The Chinese aren’t news.”

       “I’ll pay you to take me,” said Willard Russell quickly. He did not need to be told that it was his family.

       Osbourne stopped drinking and looked at the American. “Pay me?” he said. It was not clear from his tone of voice whether he was offended or considering the offer.

       Russell corrected himself quickly: “I mean, buy you a drink, or something.”

       “I said: I’m off duty,” said Osbourne again. He turned his back on Russell, but the American insisted.

       “It’s my wife,” he said. “I know it’s my wife.”

       Osbourne looked again at the American. He had learnt early in life that there was little benefit to be made in worrying about anyone’s plight but his own, but something in Russell’s desperate expression, or perhaps merely the fact that he was in a wheelchair, prompted him to say, much to the surprise of Sergeant Fletcher, “Go on, then, get me another beer and I’ll take you out there. I’ve got nothing better to do.”

 

       “I’d given them up for dead,” Russell confessed to Harry Osbourne as they crossed from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon on the Star Ferry.

       “Really?” said Osbourne, but he was not listening. He was already regretting his generosity. The sympathy evoked by the wheelchair had not lasted and Osbourne was soon bored by Russell’s gushing expressions of love. The sooner he got him to the New Territories and dumped him the better.

       “And now they have been brought back to life!” Willard Russell had become talkative in his excitement. He did not care that the reporter was not interested. He thanked God and talked out to the choppy waters of the harbour. “It’s over six months since I last saw them. As soon as I’d put them on the train, I knew I’d done the wrong thing. I’ve been blaming myself ever since. Thought they’d been killed by bandits, or Nationalists or something.”

       Osbourne was already thinking of what he would do once he was rid of Russell. He was a thirty-four-year-old Englishman. He had a mediocre talent as a writer and he covered the social and sports news of Hong Kong, consisting mainly of horse racing at The Happy Valley Racecourse and polo. He spent most of his time in the bar of the Parisian Grill or in the Glory Hole talking to taxi-girls. He would rather have been there now than gallivanting about the New Territories with a cripple.

       As they approached Kowloon the surface of the water became greasy with oil and spattered with refuse. Willard Russell looked off along the lines of sampans which were moored together up to six deep in places. They were the homes for thousands of Chinese who would never step ashore in their lives. They were fishing families, mainly Tanka, but some Hokio. Russell looked across the squalor of the bobbing sampans. The lowest of the low, he said to himself. Banished from the earth. Descendants, the Chinese say, of traitors, all of them unworthy to live on dry land. Persecuted if they tried. Forgive and forget was not, it seemed, a quality of the Chinese.

       Osbourne breathed the thick pungent air with distaste. “It’s the bloody Chinese,” he said, cupping his hands to light a cigarette. “They just tip their waste into the harbour. You’d think they couldn’t smell it, wouldn’t you? Think they didn’t have to live amongst it all.”

       “It’s the same all over,” said Russell. He did not like the Englishman’s attitude and had no desire to hear his brash opinions. But Osbourne was now speaking about a subject which was dear to his heart.

       “Too bloody true, mate!” he said. “I’ve been there. I’ve seen it. It’s the same bleeding filth in Shanghai, Macao, Singapore—you name it, and it’s filthy fucking dirty!”

       “I meant, all over the world, Mr Osbourne. London, Marseilles, Lisbon. Anywhere where you have a port and poverty you get the same smells.”

       Osbourne flicked his cigarette out towards the dark waters of the harbour.

       “Smells, maybe,” he conceded. “But not this bloody smell!”

       Willard Russell decided to ignore him. There was no point in arguing with someone who was so utterly convinced that he was right. But Osbourne had not finished.

       “And they’ve got the nerve to say that we—the Europeans—are the ones that pong! Bloody cheek that is!”

       Willard Russell closed his eyes and thought of Suyong and Molly. He had been living at the Parisian Grill since his arrival in Hong Kong two weeks ago, but now he would have to find them all a house and himself a job. Kowloon was the best bet. It was cheaper and it was away from these damned Europeans.

       As the engines of the ferry began to churn the water into an oily froth of dead leaves and cardboard, Osbourne suddenly realised he was going to have to push the American along the steep ramp and onto the quay. He grabbed the handles of the wheelchair bad-temperedly.

       “How do you manage with this contraption, mate, when you’ve got no friends with you?” he asked grumpily.

       “The Chinese have always been very kind to me,” said Russell, wishing he could have chosen a more agreeable companion to bring him out, but the anticipation he felt at seeing Suyong and Molly again outweighed any disgust he felt at Osbourne’s company. And the Englishman was moaning again.

       “Can’t stand Kowloon!” he was saying, sniffing at the foul stench of rotting fruit and seawater. “Never come here if I can help it.”

       Willard Russell, though, recognised something else in the smells. They held the pulse of life. Once he had been bundled into the back of a taxi, he settled back to watch the passing shops, run-down, dilapidated shacks, with piles of food still spilling into the street despite the time. Oil lamps flickered softly in the backs of the shops and on the narrow balconies above the street. Osbourne looked straight ahead at the back of the driver’s neck, already convinced that they were being cheated.

       “He thinks we don’t know the way,” he said almost smugly, nodding his head towards the driver and he was surprised when Russell addressed the man in Chinese. The driver turned and grinned at the American.

       “They’re making fun of me,” Osbourne thought to himself angrily. “The bastards are laughing at me.” He turned to Russell. “Don’t speak the lingo, myself,” he grunted. “Can’t see the point. After all, what the hell could they say that might be of interest?”

       The taxi pulled away from the shacks and tenements of Kowloon and out into the New Territories. Darkness had fallen and it was impossible to see the plain which led off into China and Guangzhou to the right of the road. Osbourne wondered again why he had let himself become involved, why he had allowed himself to be dragged out to the New Territories, and he looked across at the American in the back of the car. He could see his sharp profile in the moonlight and was vaguely disconcerted to notice that Willard Russell was smiling. Still, everyone in Hong Kong seemed either to be crazy or a misfit, thought Osbourne, himself included. Willard Russell was just one more.

 

(iii)

       Molly and Ah Chiew were waiting on the Chinese side of the border when the headlights from Russell’s taxi appeared at the end of the road. Molly paid no attention to the approaching lights. She was staring fixedly at the wall of the Chinese border post. Closed, unvarnished, wooden shutters covered the windows behind the jagged remains of six square panes of glass. Above the window the rotted struts of an elaborate wooden lattice had been replaced by bits of string tied in a criss‑cross pattern. Over an hour ago, a young Chinese soldier had slammed the shutters closed and disappeared into the building. Molly had been sent back by the British soldiers to dispose of her mother’s body but all the Chinese border guard had said was that it was not a Chinese problem. It was Ah Chiew who recognised Willard Russell’s voice drifting down to them through the darkness. She pulled Molly towards her and, with an expression which suggested that she expected no less, she said, “Missie, it is your father, at last.”

       Two British soldiers had called across the narrow strip of no-man’s-land between the borders and as Molly began to walk towards the wandering beam of a torch that was coming towards them from about a hundred yards away, the soldiers passed her and walked on towards the barrier. She could hear them talking to the Chinese guards but she was not listening to them. She was concentrating on the wavering light on the road before her. She could hear her father calling her name and calling for Suyong, his voice clear and echoing through the night.

       As soon as she could make out her father’s shape, Molly ran towards him, throwing herself round his shoulders. Russell squeezed his daughter to him and kissed the top of her head. But when he saw Ah Chiew approaching his face fell.

       “Ah Chiew,” he said quietly. “Oh, Christ! Who would have thought...?” And Molly felt him slump back in the wheelchair, his arms limp. “Oh, God!” he hissed in her ear and his head fell forwards. He buried his face in his hands. “I told Osbourne, the soldiers, to dump the body. I mean, I thought...Oh Jesus Christ!”

       Molly suddenly realised what was going to happen. She pushed herself away from her father and began to run back down the hill towards the Chinese border.

       “I didn’t know, you see?” Her father was shouting from behind her. He was more frightened by what he had thought than by the enormity of what he had done. “Molly! I didn’t know! I thought it was Ah Chiew that was dead!” His voice sounded unnatural and ugly.

       Molly reached the barrier across the road in time to see two of her bearers obediently tipping Suyong’s lifeless body out of the sedan chair onto a small mound of smouldering refuse beside the rotting corpse of a dead dog.

 

(iv)

       Miss Ruth Dekyvere was making a minestrone. Earlier in the day, she had sent her amah out to buy one carrot, one onion and two cabbage leaves and she was just finishing her frugal boiling of vegetables when Osbourne began to bang on the door of her house. Although he had little more than a nodding acquaintance with Miss Dekyvere, Osbourne knew that she was the one person in Hong Kong who would not turn them away. She had worked on a mission in Canton until the Nationalist Revolution had caused her belief in God to weaken. There were too many deaths, she said. No God could explain them away. She had arrived in Hong Kong with the sole intention of boarding a P&O liner and returning to her hometown of Bridport but, on her way down to the P&O ticket offices, she had realised that she had nothing and no one to go back to, not even God. She had stayed on in Hong Kong in a bungalow on Victoria Peak like a relic from a different age.

       When Miss Dekyvere opened the door of her bungalow she was surprised to see Osbourne, a man she could not recall ever having spoken to, clutching a young Chinese girl in his arms. At first, she did not notice Willard Russell, crumpled and pale in his wheelchair. Her first impulse was to tell them to go away, but her religious training, though debilitated, was still stronger than her intuition.

        “Do come in, my dear,” she said to Osbourne, stepping away from the door to let him pass. Osbourne sniffed at the faint smell of boiling vegetables and, without asking, located the bedroom, carried Molly through, and dropped her heavily onto the bed. A crucifix hung above the bed, but it had been turned to face the wall. Osbourne looked at the smooth sides of the cross and turned the figure back out to face the room. He grunted self-consciously before returning to the front door. He was dying to get down to the Glory Hole for a drink and a dance or two. Miss Dekyvere and Ah Chiew had manoeuvred the wheelchair over the two stone steps of the doorway and parked Russell by a bay window where he could gaze down at the lights of the city of Victoria falling away to the harbour. Osbourne coughed but only Miss Dekyvere seemed to notice.

       “Well, my man,” she said, insinuating that he was to blame for the whole situation. “I think an explanation is called for.”

 

       Osbourne made his explanation as brief as possible and was not disappointed when Miss Dekyvere turfed him out into the street. As he walked down the steep, luxurious, residential street with its high walled gardens and expansive lawns, Osbourne could hear the swishing of hoses watering the lawns while the sun was down. The city itself seemed a long way away. He stopped and looked down the hillside where the lights of the buildings were haphazard and jumbled together, and then on to the harbour and the wide expanse of dark water with the occasional, intermittent, flashing of a police launch or the clutch of yellow that marked out the lozenge shape of one of the Star ferries, and over to the almost uniform chain of lights hugging the opposite shore which was Kowloon. He lit a cigarette, lost in thoughts of what he could have been doing if only he had had more luck in his life, but all his thoughts, whether of the insurance office in Darlington where his father had been a clerk or the rubber plantation in Malaya run by a distant second cousin, seemed to lead him finally to the taxi-tables, the 50 cent vouchers and the dancers at the Glory Hole. Harry Osbourne flicked the stub of his cigarette over to the opposite side of the road and began to walk down the hill towards the harbour. A white Bentley was coming towards him, its headlights on full beam. Osbourne shielded his eyes from the glare and waited as the Bentley turned into the drive next door to Miss Dekyvere’s narrow crazy-paving footpath.

       “Crazy is right!” Osbourne muttered to himself and he plunged his hands sulkily into his trouser pockets before heading off to the bar.

       Miss Dekyvere handed Willard Russell a glass of gin and water.

       “It has been rather unfortunate, my dear, hasn’t it?” she said, she hoped, kindly.

       Willard Russell took the gin. “Is Molly all right?” he asked, twisting in his chair to find her.

       “She’s sleeping,” said Miss Dekyvere, nodding towards the bedroom.

       “Some place you got yourself here,” said Russell, looking back to the window.

       “Yes,” said Miss Dekyvere. “It’s a nice view.”

       “Got to see about getting myself a job now,” said Willard Russell.

       Miss Dekyvere felt she should respond positively.

       “Yes,” she said. “A job is not only important for the money it gives you. It keeps the mind active, helps us to forget, at least momentarily, the unpleasant things that have happened.”

       Willard Russell looked across at the old woman. He could not imagine anything unpleasant happening to Miss Dekyvere.

       “I must go back tomorrow and try to bury the body at least,” he said, sipping at his gin and running his tongue along his bottom lip. Miss Dekyvere, he noticed, finally sat down. She clasped her hands round her knees and leaned forwards as if about to impart a confidence.

       “The girl, then, shall stay with me,” she said, adding as an afterthought, “Poor little mite!”

       Russell did not know whether he should accept or protest. Finally, he just grunted. Miss Dekyvere stood up again and ran her hands down the front of her loose, cotton dress. She bent slightly towards him as though talking to a small child.

       “And besides which,” she said with a smile, “We have a wedding tomorrow. My neighbour, Chen Liew, is marrying—oh, dear, what is her name?—some girl from Kowloon, a beautiful girl, but not the same class at all, it seems.” Nor the same age, she might have added. She walked across to a small, delicately carved, walnut coffee table in the centre of the room and picked up the stiff gilded card of a wedding invitation. “Tung Nien!” she said triumphantly.

       “The stirring of a thought,” Russell said absently.

       “What’s that?”

       “Tung Nien. It means ‘the Stirring of a Thought’.”

       Miss Dekyvere was impressed. Not many Westerners ever bothered to master even the most simple phrases. “You speak Chinese?”

       “Cantonese,” said Russell, “And a little Tanka.”

       “Well,” said Miss Dekyvere, replacing the card on the table, “That is nice. But, now, I think it is time for bed.”

       Willard Russell lay awake for a long time listening to the insects whistling and hissing in the garden and the trees beyond his window. He lay watching the slow ceiling fan because every time he closed his eyes he could see Suyong’s lifeless body falling onto the smouldering tip beside the fly-infested corpse of the dog. He could not see her beautiful and alive no matter how hard he tried and the only way to rid himself of her dead was to lie awake watching the fan. He felt an enormous emptiness somewhere between the pit of his stomach and his chest that engulfed him. He found he began to repeat her name to himself over and over again, as though that might somehow take him nearer to her or bring her back to him, but even as he lay there mouthing her name he knew that it was partly remorse, partly the fact that he blamed himself for sending her on such a journey. Had he not sent her, she would not have died. And every time he turned over in the bed to sleep, the welling sadness began again in his chest and forced him to open his eyes. There were moments when it all seemed unreal, when he could not believe that it had actually happened, when he could think that he would wake in the morning and find that there had been some dreadful mistake and that Suyong was still with him. If only I could see her alive just once more, he said to himself. Though what would be the point of that? What could he possibly do with her to atone for sending her on such a perilous journey? What would he say or do? No. There was nothing except the emptiness of her no longer being there and the regret for all the things he should have done. He should have been with her when she had died. At least he might have comforted her in some way, held her close to him, spoken to her. He watched the shadow of the fan moving slowly across the ceiling and tried to remember things about her to take forward with him in his life without her. He wished he could cry and have done with it but his tears stuck in his throat. Molly has not even realised it has happened, he said to himself, thinking of his daughter’s calm brown eyes looking up at him on the dusty road above the border crossing. She knows it has happened because it was she who saw it, she who travelled with Suyong when she was sick, and she who brought him the body. But she does not know it as a reality. It is a gap as it is for me, but I know that, no matter what else happens, it will never be filled again. And what shall I say to her when she asks, “Why did she have to die?”

       Willard Russell turned away from the fan. Suyong, Suyong, Suyong, he said to himself over and over again.

 

       The preparations for the wedding in the garden next door had already begun by the time Willard Russell finally abandoned any attempt at sleeping. He pushed himself to a seated position in the bed and propped a pillow at the small of his back. He looked morosely through the bedroom window as first light picked out the damp petals of the flowers in the high part of Miss Dekyvere’s tidy and meticulously planted garden. He looked across the flowers to a small square lawn which led away to a high wooden fence. He could see enough of the garden to notice that it was only where Chen Liew’s property bordered Miss Dekyvere’s that it ceased to be protected by a white-washed stone wall worthy of Stanley Prison itself. In his present mood the fact did not strike him as anything more than slightly odd. That a wooden gate communicated the two gardens went, at first, unnoticed as he watched the turbaned heads of half-a-dozen Indian servants struggling with a huge tarpaulin at the far end of Chen Liew’s garden where it began to climb away and disappear into the luxuriously rich foliage of Victoria Peak.

 

(v)

       In the front room on the fourth floor of a crowded flat in one of the teeming tenements in The Walled City of Kowloon, Tung Nien was being dressed in a red cheongsam made of shot silk. Rather than look past the rotting, but ornately carved, balustrade of the balcony where she would see only misery and poverty, Tung Nien looked at the very beautiful reflection of herself which seemed to glow with a soft silver light of its own from within the tarnished glass of a mirror being held by one of her six younger sisters. The face that looked back at her was quietly confident and certain that what was about to happen—her marriage with Chen Liew—was no more than she deserved. Her dark hair had been pulled away from her face and was tied in a tight bun beneath a head-dress made from a sweeping loop of black velvet decorated with pink orchids and pearls. Three small rough river pearls laced with fishing wire had been plaited through her hair above her right temple and, hanging from the left corner of her head-dress, joined by seven perfect pear-shaped pearls threaded onto a gold chain, was a cascade of round pearls of varying sizes that clicked together as she moved her head from side to side.

       “Like an abacus,” said her sister.

       Tung Nien ignored the comment, although her sister had not meant to insult her. The chain of pearls lay across her breast and rose and fell with her breathing.

       They had wanted to whiten her face but Tung Nien had refused. Now, free of make-up save for a little colouring on her lips, her face, framed by the pink orchids and the creamy whiteness of the pearls, glowed with dignity, youth and beauty. She had, she knew, no need of artifice.

       It was her mother who brought the small leather box containing the gold filigree earrings. She chattered excitedly as she clumsily tried to thread the clip—the curled tongue of a dragon—through Tung Nien’s pierced ears. She had no idea of the value of the jewellery—it might have been a sliver of bamboo between her rheumy fingers—but she was entranced by the reflected light and almost liquid colour of the gold. Tung Nien smiled kindly at all of them and accepted their unspoken adulation because she deserved it. It was not just anyone who could be plucked from the seething beehive of The Walled City, with its labyrinth of narrow, rat-infested streets, and be whisked away to the exuberant luxury of The Peak. Indeed, it was doubtful whether any of Tung Nien’s family had actually seen The Peak as anything more important than a green mountain on the other side of the harbour. How could she expect them to understand the tremendous significance of this twenty-minute trip across the water? And anyway, what did it matter? When she left The Walled City this morning she would be leaving it, not as the daughter of a poor rickshaw owner, but as the wife of Chen Liew, one of the most important men in the Colony and owner of one of its oldest businesses.

       Although Chen Liew had made no secret of Tung Nien’s penurious background, one condition of the wedding was that she should turn her back forever on her family. Instead of being invited to the ceremony, Tung Nien’s parents, her six sisters and three brothers, would, later in the day, be shipped out to Cheung Chau, one of the outlying islands, where they would begin a new life, the sons as fishermen on a junk which Chen Liew had provided for them and moored at the quay in Cheung Chau harbour, and Fu Yuen, her father, as keeper of the Temple of the Jade Vacuity, the main purpose of which was, perhaps appropriately, to exorcise wandering and malicious ghosts. The arrangement suited everybody.

       When she stood up and asked her sister to incline the mirror a little, Tung Nien had already begun to live in a different world. The jewellery on her head-dress alone was worth more than her father had managed to scrape together in his entire life. Yet her family danced and bowed around her. Far from resenting her good fortune or regretting the fact that they would never see her again, they revered her. She felt powerful. And why not? she thought. After all, she had brought them all solace and comfort; she had, by marrying Chen Liew, not only resolved her own future but she had assured for them a life of relative ease.

       And so it was not a tearful farewell. Fu Yuen even consented to use his rickshaw for one last, short journey. He pulled his radiant daughter, momentarily covered from head to foot by a cautious, plain green cloth, from the confines of The Walled City out to Chen Liew’s waiting Bentley where, with a casual wave of his hand and a grin of genuine pleasure, he said good-bye to her forever.

 

(vi)

       From the sanctuary of his sprawling house above The Happy Valley Racecourse, higher even on The Peak than Chen Liew’s respectable mansion, Eliot Rodmell, his mind only half-concentrating on the neat row of printed figures before him on his desk, called out bad-temperedly to his wife, Margaret.

       “You’d think they’d make less of a show about it, wouldn’t you?”

       But his wife, who was arranging a bridge four for the evening, was not really listening.

       “And when you think about it,” Eliot Rodmell went on, wetting his lips as though in preparation for an important announcement, “She is basically no more than a tart.”

       Rodmell disliked on principle anything which took the attention of the Colony away from his own carefully chosen and select circle.

       “A very beautiful tart,” his wife called back from the other room, rather too breezily, he thought.

       “You’d think he’d have enough on his mind,” Rodmell turned his eyes back to the rows of neat, black numbers, “without lumbering himself with a wife as well.”

       Margaret Rodmell did not notice the insult but she stopped struggling with the improbable pairings she had made for her evening party and put her head round the door of her husband’s study.

       “Whatever do you mean, Eliot?” she asked, though he could tell she did not really care.

       “I mean,” he said, pausing again in his scrutiny of the figures, and making it patent by the stiff way in which he turned to face her that he was, at the very least, put out at having to answer her at all, let alone enter into details. “I mean with these figures.” And he shook the paper ominously.

       Margaret Rodmell shrugged. “I think you are just upset because he didn’t invite you, us, rather,  to the wedding,” she said over her shoulder.

       “I would have refused had he had the audacity to do so,” said Eliot Rodmell as though stating an obvious and irrefutable fact.

       “You would have loved it!” His wife’s voice sang back from the distant reaches of the house, somewhere from the direction of the kitchen. Eliot Rodmell satisfied himself with a grunt which brought a faint taste of bacon to his mouth. He swallowed quickly before it also became poached egg and looked down again at the rows of numbers before him on his desk. Opium sales into China were down by fifteen per cent on figures from the last quarter. If his sales had fallen off by fifteen per cent he could safely say that Chen Liew’s losses would be as great, if not greater. Of course, it was easy to blame the Japanese. It was easy to blame the unrest and the uncertainty caused by the recent bombing of Shanghai and whether or not it would stop at that, or might they not now continue to move south? Who would stop them? Chiang Kai Shek and his Kuomintang? Mao Zedong and his Communists? No. Even if they had decided to stop fighting each other, they were unlikely to be a match for the Imperial Japanese Army. The international community through its fragile mouthpiece The League of Nations? No. Anyway, it was not that. The Japanese had very little to do with it. New competition, that was the only explanation. Chen Liew and he were suddenly being faced by a common enemy, an intruder in their carefully guarded monopoly. Since the Second Opium War of 1860, the selling of opium to China had been virtually the exclusive right of two families, the Rodmells and the Liews, and it had lived a relatively untroubled existence. Eliot Rodmell found he was grinding his teeth as he thought perhaps he had been over hasty in tearing the stiff card of the wedding invitation into thin strips to use for lighting his pipe.

 

(vii)

       Not all the European community had refused to attend the wedding, for not all of them shared either Eliot Rodmell’s prejudice or his knowledge as to the source of Chen Liew’s fortune. Dr Alfred Laughton and his wife, Mary, were quite happy to believe it all came from a large factory near Prince Edward Road in Sanpokong which manufactured propelling pencils. Of course, they had, like everyone else on the island, heard the rumours which referred to Chen Liew as the Head of the Dragon, the leader of a Triad Group but, like everyone else, they preferred to ignore them. “Leave well alone,” was the unspoken motto of the European community when referring to anything Chinese.

       Laughton and his wife were standing at the bottom of the garden by the high stone wall and drinking champagne when they noticed Miss Dekyvere walking purposefully across the lawn towards the house, pulling a young Chinese girl along behind her by the hand. Dr Alfred Laughton smiled to himself at this flagrant breach of Colonial etiquette, but his wife was not amused. It was well known that Miss Dekyvere mixed not only with the rich Chinese, which was not to be encouraged but could be tolerated, but also with those whose social standing was far from acceptable. It was also rumoured that she allowed her Indian gardener into the house to shower after his day’s work. Such flaunting of the established order could only give rise to problems sooner or later, thought Mary Laughton.

       “It wouldn’t matter quite so much if she didn’t always insist on being so public,” she decided finally, and they watched as Miss Dekyvere actually kissed Chen Liew on the cheek. More as a result of emotional inertia, from an unwillingness to contradict, Alfred Laughton shared his wife’s offence and tutted. He clicked his tongue against the back of his teeth. In fact, however, his attitude to the Chinese was far more liberal than his wife could have imagined. More than once he had managed to escape from the claustrophobic, imperialistic atmosphere of the Chess Federation or the Royal Hong Kong Golf Club at Deep Water Bay and he had crossed the harbour to Kowloon to seek out the more lively company of the British soldiers in the Bottoms Up Club or the Glory Hole. But, finally, even that bored him and it was then that he would walk alone along Ferry Street and into the Yau Ma Tei District to find one of the tiny, open sampans where, with the clicking of Mah-jongg tiles from the other sampans moored around him accompanying his efforts, he would satisfy his lust and try to ease his loneliness with one of the young girls from the floating city. He sometimes thought that, more than the sex, he enjoyed the obvious danger entailed in returning to dry land, hopping from one sampan to another, knowing that, at any moment, he might be set upon and killed and that no one would be any the wiser. The Floating City of Yau Ma Tei not only had its one-girl sampans. It was, as its name suggested, a city. It had dentists, schools, barbers, and apothecaries. It had its own particularly ruthless law-enforcement brigade. Alfred Laughton knew of at least three cases of Europeans who had last been seen gingerly stepping across the bobbing sampans in the company of a young girl.

       “And you know what she said the other day, don’t you?” His wife’s voice brought him back to the wedding party rather more suddenly and stridently than he would have liked. “It was quite funny, really. I was out walking with Beth Hartley—of course, she couldn’t see the funny side!—and her two children and we bumped into old Miss Dekyvere.” Mary Laughton almost gulped at her champagne and swallowed quickly as she sensed her husband’s attention wandering. “She bent down,” she went on, choking back the bubbles that were rising in her throat, “and said, if you please, to Beth: ‘Oh, how nice! One dark one and one blond one! Both from the same father?’”

       Alfred Laughton smiled but could not see the relevance.

       “But of course she knew!” said his wife emphatically.

       “I’m only surprised the Rodmells aren’t here,” Dr Laughton said yawning and looking for a suitable place to dispose of his half-empty champagne glass. “Shall we?” he said, and offered his wife his arm so that they should mingle. Miss Dekyvere saw them coming and pushed Molly away inside the house.

       Molly felt awkward. She pulled off the pink tasselled and tinselled head-dress that Miss Dekyvere had miraculously, but unnecessarily, resurrected that morning from a leather trunk, and began to walk off down a long, empty corridor that ran the entire length of the house. After the noise of the garden party the house seemed unnaturally quiet. She could hear a woman’s voice coming from somewhere near the end of the corridor.

       Thousands of red papers had been pinned for luck along the whole length of the corridor. The corners of the papers curled outward as though they were damp, and the red Chinese characters all proclaimed the same message of congratulation and goodwill. Half way along the corridor in a gap in the seemingly endless stream of papers and set in its own perfumed forest of joss sticks was a pat kwa octagonal mirror. It had been placed there to keep away evil spirits and to keep Chen Liew and his family from harm. Molly stood on tiptoe and looked at herself in the round circle at the centre of the three octagonal rows of the gilt framework. What she saw did not please her. Miss Dekyvere had given her a pair of dangling pearl ear-rings, had swept her long hair into a bun and painted her lips in a raspberry coloured lipstick. Molly scowled into the pat kwa mirror and continued on along the corridor. She could hear the woman’s voice clearly now. It was coming from an open door at the far end of the corridor.

       “I want to know why he is not happy,” the voice was saying calmly, but with a potential for sudden anger. A man’s voice, soft and subservient to the point of being indistinct, answered in a muffled whisper. Molly crept a little closer to the open door. She saw, seated inside at what seemed to be an elaborately decorated shrine, the most beautiful woman she had ever seen. Her face was turned slightly away from the door and the light from the window settled on her cheek like a faint dusting of talcum powder. It was the bride—Tung Nien. Molly stood at the door, transfixed by the vision of beauty that she saw before her. She was immediately surprised that the old man, Chen Liew, was marrying such a young bride. She did not notice a cold, even cruel glint of determination in Tung Nien’s eyes because it was already beginning to melt to match the soft glow of her cheeks when she stood up and, on seeing Molly, began to walk towards the door, her hands outstretched to grasp her by the cheeks.

       “But what have we here, Ying? She’s so lovely she could be my sister!”

       Ying, Chen Liew’s fifty-year-old housekeeper, remained inscrutable. He did not even turn to look at her.

       “The daughter of a gweilo,”[1] he said coldly.

       “But look, Ying!” Tung Nien insisted that he turn to see. “She could be my sister. Look! Even down to the pearls!”

       Ying turned obediently, placed his hands together before his chest and bowed.

       “Your sister,” he agreed. “Yes.”

       It was not his place to point out that not one of Tung Nien’s six sisters bared even the slightest resemblance to Molly, but it was true that neither did they resemble Tung Nien. Molly, bedecked in pearls and painted raspberry lipstick, her dark hair tight on the back of her head, did, on the other hand, look like the bride.

       “But what is she doing here?” Tung Nien continued to speak to Ying whilst holding Molly’s face in her hands. Before Ying could reply, Molly, carefully taking Tung Nien’s hands in her own and lowering them to her sides, said, “I am with the saiyahn,[2] Miss Dekyvere. My father has gone to bury my mother in the New Territories. Ah Chiew says she will not be buried well. She will not have favourable breezes if my father does it because, you see, my father does not know.” She thought for a moment and then added by way of explanation, “And besides, he is upset.”

 

       “Your father does not know what?” asked Tung Nien softly.

       “My father is American,” said Molly. “Ah Chiew says he does not understand the winds. My mother will not be buried well, she says, because for them, for the gweilos, it is not important. They bury them like dogs, she says, or worse.”

       “Ying!” Tung Nien called, although he stood at her shoulder. “Something must be done!”

       And so Ying was dispatched to look for Willard Russell and the hapless Harry Osbourne, who had once more been roped in as wheelchair pusher—“Feel like a flaming rickshaw boy,” he had moaned—and to ensure that Suyong was given a fitting burial site. By the time he and Russell were brought back to the party, the celebrations had disintegrated and the guests had formed isolated groups. The Chinese were involved in noisy games of mah-jongg, the ivory bricks clacking and banging on the wrought-iron garden tables, and the Europeans had drifted into aimless groups which were trying to communicate and which, in the absence of anything more important than the Japanese aggressions as a subject, were getting steadily more and more drunk, losing, at the same time, that colonial dignity which defined all of their excursions into the outside world. Dr Alfred Laughton having, as always, Mary said, had just one whisky too many, was even on the point of becoming downright objectionable—he was going to launch into a defence of Mao’s Communists—when he was stunned into silence by the unexpected appearance of Osbourne staggering out of the white Bentley, a glass of champagne already in his hand.

       “My God!” he hissed at his wife and then with a grin at Nurse Gemmell. “What the hell is he doing here? We wouldn’t even invite him to the annual dinner and dance of the Bird Watching Society!”

       Mary Laughton wondered whether her husband were attempting a joke, albeit, to her mind, a feeble one. Still unsure as to his intentions, she decided to ignore the comment but she cast a disapproving eye anyway over the unfortunate Osbourne. Antonia Gemmell, who had travelled to the Far East in search of a husband, did likewise. And then a limp figure was lifted bodily from the car.

       “What in God’s name...?” Mary Laughton began, but seeing it was an invalid, fell into an embarrassed silence and turned her attention to the flowerbed nestling beneath the wall. Nurse Gemmell was not so cautious.

       “The poor man!” she said, grabbing, as she did so, Dr Alfred Laughton by the arm. Once extricated from Nurse Gemmell’s impulsive and clammy grasp, Alfred Laughton excused himself.

       “I need a bloody drink!” he said. “This damned Chinese food—it sticks your gums together!”

       “Personally, I like it,” Antonia Gemmell said to his back but her attention was focussed firmly on Willard Russell and his wheelchair. She thought he looked washed out and grey, as though he might have spent the night travelling somewhere, and she immediately felt sorry for him. His disability was a trigger for deep emotions. Harry Osbourne was, she regretted, brash and as unwelcome as ever. You could even see where he had sweated into his shirt. Dark stains looped beneath his arms and had settled into the small of his back. And he did not seem to care, for here he was, a beery grin on his face, loping towards them across the grass.

       “Quite a hullabaloo!” he said, evidently pleased at something. “A Chinese stabbed on the Kowloon to Canton railway! Talk about all go! We nearly couldn’t get through. Harland’s soldier boys are out, the Chinese have taken it into their own hands and cordoned off the station. If it hadn’t been for old Ying they’d never’ve let us through onto the ferry.”

       “They are always killing each other,” said Mary Laughton cautiously, and she looked up at Nurse Gemmell and added for reassurance, “Aren’t they?”

       “This one worked for Tang!” said Osbourne, touching the side of his nose. The importance of this fact was lost on the women. Osbourne insisted. “The Tangs of Kat Him Wai!” Picking up Laughton’s discarded champagne glass and tipping the remnants into his own he continued. “Rumour has it,” he said, in a confidential whisper, “that the Tangs have moved into the opium market!”

       “Do you think I could have a scotch and soda to wash this down?” Dr Laughton had gravitated towards the house and was picking at a bowl of prawn crackers. Whilst waiting for his drink he cast his eyes languidly over the crowded garden. “Quite a turn out!” he said to himself, hooking his tongue into his teeth and chewing thoughtfully. Even the Chairman of the Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank had come, he noticed, for there was Sir Vandeleur Grayburn himself by the hibiscus talking to Major Harland, Walker, the Colonial Secretary, and Da Souza, the Portuguese Consul from Macao.

       Laughton looked away from this little group which represented the most illustrious guests, for he suddenly saw that a little wizened Chinese with tired eyes was toiling up the drive, seemingly unaware of the attention he was drawing to himself. He was wearing the traditional dark samfoo of the Hakka people and he looked totally out of place so far from the paddy fields of the New Territories. The wedding guests turned to stare at the little man as though they might never have seen a Chinese peasant before and the conversations and pleasantries they had until so recently been sharing suddenly died out to be replaced by an expectant and heavy silence.

       “Damnedest thing!” said Laughton taking his whisky and soda and stepping forward slightly, unable to take his eyes away from the incongruous visitor.

       The Hakka took an interminably long time to struggle up the steep drive to the house and this was so emphasised by the silence that accompanied him that Laughton was inclined to think that perhaps the little man had always been there, caught in mid-stride half-way up the hill, but that he had just failed to notice him until now. He looked at the clear blue sky and then back to the baking concrete drive and he willed the Chinaman to arrive so that he might continue with his drink without drawing attention to himself for any sudden movement would, he knew, break the strange, timeless spell that had settled over the garden and held it still as a photograph or a painted scene from the Chinese opera. The Hakka drew his thin lips away from his mouth and his breath caught in harsh gasps at his throat. You would have been forgiven for thinking he had walked the twenty miles from Kat Him Wai although in the silence the soft purring of a car engine could be heard from beyond the garden wall.

       As he neared the veranda and the arched entrance to the house where Chen Liew waited, flanked by two obvious bodyguards, the Hakka took a creased paper from the pocket of his pyjama-like jacket and flipped it open with a surprisingly agile flick of his wrist. He waved it towards Chen Liew and said something which Laughton’s non-existent knowledge of Cantonese did not allow him to understand. He did notice, however, as did all the other guests, that the paper was not the traditional lucky red. Without knowing quite why, Laughton felt uncomfortable and he was pleased to see that Harland, Walker and Da Souza looked equally embarrassed. Only Harry Osbourne drank on regardless.

       One of Chen Liew’s men took the piece of paper from the Hakka’s hand and walked with it back into the shade of the veranda. The Hakka turned and began his long descent towards the waiting car. Laughton found he was letting out a huge sigh of relief as though he himself might have been instrumental in averting some moment of almost tangible danger. Now, the danger past, he drank greedily at his whisky and soda, quite happy to be ignorant as to its cause and eager to return to his wife to discuss the significance of what had just happened.

       A buzz of excitement swept around the garden. Each group of guests exploded into conversation. It was as if a line of firecrackers had been set off round the garden until the initial overloud voices died down a little, order was restored and the party continued its natural course where congratulations were dropped like confetti on the happy couple and the guests, a little the worse for drink, finally drifted away to their own isolated bungalows and houses on the lower slopes of the Victoria Peak for an afternoon’s sleep before having to face the rigours of the evening.

 

(viii)

       Tung Nien was watching her husband as he undressed for bed. The love and romance she had anticipated for her wedding night had slowly evaporated during the day as Chen Liew’s face had grown steadily more sullen. The strange Miss Dekyvere had taken her to one side before leaving with the young Chinese girl and her father, late in the afternoon, long after all the other guests had gone and had said, her face at the same time serious and gentle, “People tend to think, my dear, that Chen Liew has sacrificed the passion and passionate flow of life to the subtleties of the intellect—the heart to the head, as it were. I do not believe this to be true. Indeed, the very fact that he has chosen you to be his bride gives me a very good indication that his heart is very much at the centre of his actions. Do try to treat it well.” She might think differently if she could see him now, thought Tung Nien to herself but, in an effort to at least draw herself closer to her husband and whatever it was that was so upsetting him, she said, “Shall I prepare you a pipe?” already reaching for the small needle and pasty pellet of opium that lay in an open ivory box on the bedside table.

       Chen Liew turned towards her and his face looked old and tired. Slowly, it softened for the first time since the unexpected visit of the Hakka peasant. He walked over to the bed, smiled, took her face in his hands and kissed her on the lips. “No,” he said softly. “I have had enough of opium for one day. And besides which, drugs dull your sense and your desire. I want to be aware of everything, to go into every corner of your body. I want to be like the lamp which illuminates everything, which lights up even the backs of the petals of the plum flowers.”

       Tung Nien relaxed in his arms and lay back unashamedly naked on the bed. “Is that a poem?” she asked laughing. The words had sounded uncomfortable in his mouth.

       “I think it was once,” he said laughing too. “Until I changed it. I have been practising saying it for days. It sounded better when I was alone.” He began to run his fingers over her stomach and kissed her again on the lips.

       “I was never alone at home,” she said, returning his kisses. “I even had to sleep with my sisters. One of my greatest dreams has always been to have a room of my own. To be able to sit and listen to the silence, with no one to tell me what to do, and nothing to be done. I think I should like it.”

       Chen Liew pulled himself away from her slightly and, still caressing her body with the tips of his fingers, he shook his head. “I lived alone in a village with only my shadow for company,” he said. “Who was there then to listen to my orders?”

       Tung Nien smiled but she was hardly listening to him. She closed her eyes and allowed his hands to roam across her body a little nervously at first and then with more conviction. She raised her back slightly from the bed and led his hand down and between her legs, pulling his mouth up to her breasts and squeezing his head to her with both hands. “Now I am here to give your orders for you,” she whispered in his ear. “And all you have to worry about is me.”

       She felt powerful and strong. She could almost taste his submission to her in his mouth as they kissed. She could feel his dependence on her in the grubbing of his fingers as he rushed and strained to push himself inside her, clumsily prising into her until she felt she would split apart before accepting him. Then suddenly he was gentle and tender and small and she could feel her body contract and mould itself to him until it seemed to be about to engulf him utterly in a shuddering rush of passion. But he was already pulling away from her.

       Chen Liew rubbed his hands over his eyes. “I’m sorry,” he said in embarrassment, covering his nakedness with the sheet. He looked at her for a moment and then shook his head before standing and making for the door. Before leaving the room he turned to face her. “I am not used to such beauty,” he said simply.

       Tung Nien lay back on the bed and felt hot. A sticky breeze blew in through the slatted blinds of the window and settled the perspiration on her body. The bed had been made with a single silk sheet and he had taken it with him, not realising in his haste to leave that she would be left naked. She listened to the sounds in the house, a clock down the hall and, from somewhere out towards the inner courtyard, the tinny, tinkling bells to keep away evil. It was so silent compared to the massive noise she was used to in the tenement that she knew that the lack of human sounds would keep her from sleeping. She got up from the bed and slipped a silk kimono around her shoulders, tying it loosely at her waist.

       “So many things have happened today,” she told herself as she walked quietly to the bedroom window and pulled the bamboo blind away from the glass, just enough to look out obliquely into the darkness of the garden, “that it is not surprising that you cannot sleep.”  But as she walked around the long empty corridors of the enormous house and as she peeked into more rooms than she could have imagined existed beneath one roof, it was not the excitement of the new life she could see stretching away before her that was foremost in her mind, nor the difficulties she would have in adapting, not only to this new life of luxury, but also to the customs of the strange foreigners she had seen in the garden—what she most worried about as she crept through the darkened mansion was the fact that she had realised that she hardly knew her husband at all. She stopped where Molly had stopped earlier in the day, half way down the main corridor that led away from the front door of the house, and stood in front of the pat kwa mirror. If she moved her head a little below the height of the mirror she could see the full moon reflected in its three octagonal bands. She stood, then, to her full height and looked into the central circle of the mirror. She smiled at her reflection, but it was more a smile of resignation than of happiness.

 


 [1] Gweilo—Foreign devil—used as an insult.

    [2] Saiyahn—Western person





Sample Chapters

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Chapter 1 •  Chapter 2