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

Harbour: Chapter 2

 

“Sun and Moon follow their course

and it is now hot, now cold.”

 

 

(i)

 

       Life on The Peak was unaffected by the wedding and virtually unaffected by the nearby war in China. Every evening during the Spring of 1938 the elevated train, the Peak Tramway, was filled with hot English businessmen and rich Chinese making their way home up to the cooler slopes above the city where they shared the hillside with the military and their flags and uniforms. The Australian jockeys still won all the races at The Happy Valley Racecourse, the English Civil Servants played tennis in the afternoons and the Rodmells entertained lavishly on Sundays after Evensong. The wild monkeys in the bamboo and stunted pine forests round Bowen Road could still sometimes be heard screeching out to each other at dusk and the sparrowhawks and kites floated elegantly out over the harbour towards Stonecutters Island. The Great Men of Hong Kong followed the course of the birds and crossed the water to meet at The Peninsula Hotel. There, they continued to take afternoon tea as though the Japanese forces were not already dangerously close, just across the border. Their only concession to the nearby war was a disinterested discussion of the emergency regulations recently issued by the Governor which were designed to ensure the Colony’s neutrality. The Governor’s communiqué had made it plain that neither Japanese nor Chinese ships were to be repaired or welcomed in the harbour. The Government had passed legislation which gave it the power to ban meetings and processions if they were suspected of being seditious. This meant that the Chinese had to meet each other in groups of fewer than six people. At the same time, the Chinese newspapers began to suffer heavy censorship and any reference to the nearby war, its illnesses and refugees was automatically deleted for the common good. As Major Harland pointed out, “It would only provoke undue and unnecessary nervousness amongst the civil population.” Food prices were officially controlled and the Government had assumed the power to intern Chinese and Japanese combatants who attempted to take refuge in the colony.

       The Great Men looked at the steam launches and the motor boats pulling away from the wharf outside the Peninsula Hotel, and they yawned and decided that, however difficult, life must go on. Further along the waterfront, the red brick tower of the railway station stood out amidst the cluttered buildings like a Victorian cathedral and the trains chugged through the suburbs of Kowloon, carrying their freight first into Canton and then on into the heart of unoccupied China. The Sikh policemen and the Punjabi soldiers kept guard outside the barracks and the Japanese barber at The Peninsula Hotel drank sake and recited haiku when he had drawn the shutters down before his shop.

       The fortune tellers, the geomancers and the fung shui men, the calligraphers, the smugglers and the apothecaries worked through the hours of daylight in the packed, secretive tenements of Kowloon, and the whores and the taxi-girls took ingenuous soldiers to their beds and boats for a few grubby dollars.

       Out in the New Territories, the walled villages, the monasteries and the temples lay impenetrable and silent while on the plains the peasants watered their crops and stood knee-deep in the stagnant mud of the paddy fields. But beneath this apparent normality, the underworld was seething. Eliot Rodmell knew it, but he told his wife that it was a problem for the Chinese to solve. Which they did.

       The knifing of the Chinese on the train, which so nearly prevented Russell and Osbourne arriving at the wedding, and the strange and unexpected visit of the Hakka peasant, had been two sides of the same coin and had borne out Eliot Rodmell’s suspicion that a new competitor had joined the opium trade. Tang had chosen the day of Chen Liew’s wedding to send him an ultimatum. There could either be an agreement between the two of them or an underground war. Pride, at first, had made Chen Liew resist, but finally, seeing that the only person who would benefit from a Chinese struggle for power would be Rodmell, he had called a meeting with Tang and a temporary truce had been arranged.

       Chen Liew was particularly happy on the morning of April 19th, 1938, because he had resolved the last of his differences with the Tangs of Kat Him Wai. The drug trade into China was now divided into three parts, weighted in favour of Rodmell and himself, but including Tang. But, at least, he said to himself, they had avoided yet another Opium War which could only ever lead to killing and unrest.

       Tung Nien had never believed that propelling pencils kept them in the lap of luxury but neither had she stopped to wonder overmuch where their money came from. After all, nobody lived on The Peak if they had only one string to their bow. What was it Miss Dekyvere had said the other day?—“Rich people are seldom as rich as they make out they are, except here in Hong Kong, where they are richer.”

       When Chen Liew had picked her out that night from the cloud of girls clustered around his table, she had expected, at most, a small jade ornament for her favours. But he had not even wanted to take her to bed. Walking along the quay by the Peninsula Hotel, two bodyguards half-a-dozen paces behind them, he had said only, “We are two small people in this world. How extraordinary that we should have met at all!” And she had been more impressed by the bodyguards than by him. Although his age demanded her respect, he was a small, serious man who did not invite passion. Now, though, his face was alive. He had forgotten to treat her with the distant sensitivity of a poem and he was talking to her as an equal, someone who shared his problems and his success.

       “Of course, Rodmell was reluctant at first,” he was saying, “But when I offered him an extra five per cent...”

       “From where?” she asked suddenly.

       “We have more than enough with less,” he said, reaching his hand out to touch her cheek. He smiled indulgently, wanting her to share in his happiness.

       But she frowned and said, “So, the Taipan won!”

       “It is not a question of winning, Tung Nien,” he said, “It is a question of survival.”

       She was slightly amused by the sincere expression on his face but because she still wanted more than anything else to please him she decided to drop the subject of Eliot Rodmell and she leaned forward to accept a kiss.

       Her indignation, she knew, was principally a product of boredom. She had not left The Peak since her marriage for her husband had forbidden it. “You have everything you need here,” Chen Liew had said to her, “And what you don’t have, I shall bring for you.” She had lived eight months of exactly the kind of inactivity she had always dreamed about during the years she had lived in the crowded tenements of Kowloon, with only sporadic interruptions from Miss Dekyvere to break the monotony. Now, though, she had grown tired of it. Her mind was in danger of atrophying. She no longer got the same simple pleasure from merely sitting beneath a sunshade and watching the minutes tick away, allowing the sticky heat of midday to almost hypnotise her into a waking void with the minutes still ticking away somewhere at the back of her mind but swallowed occasionally by the buzzing of insects. She needed now to begin to think again, she needed to concentrate her attention on something or someone. She needed, more than anything, company.

       “But surely, you have Miss Dekyvere!” Chen Liew was genuinely surprised at her complaint. He looked into her eyes and tried to see more than just the reflection of himself looking at her.

       “Miss Dekyvere! What kind of company do you suppose she can give me?”

       So as not to lose the tenuous hold of love, he kissed her again. She did not pull away, but neither did she surrender herself to him as he would have liked. He was concerned because he had taken it for granted that she was happy and that she would always be so. And he was confused because he did not understand why she was not.

       “Miss Dekyvere is an extraordinary woman,” was all he could think of to say.

       Tung Nien sighed and said, “I want to go out.” She pointed across the lawn to the huge white walls and the closed gate. “I want to walk through there and shop, or visit, or just have tea. I want to go to that little bar in Mongkok where the old men take their birds down in cages and hang them on the walls. I want to be able to sit there in the shade, listen to the birds sing, and see that life is still going on—even if it is without me.”

       It was Chen Liew now who sighed. “I don’t think you quite understand the complications,” he began. “Or perhaps the dangers.” He thought for a moment and looked with her towards the gate. “Let us compromise,” he said finally. “I shall bring you the company you choose.”

       Tung Nien knew that Chen Liew, despite his generosity and will to please her, would refuse to accept any of the girls she had known before.

       “Bring me Molly,” she said, because she could think of no one else.

       Chen Liew merely stood up and said, “Molly. The girl Miss Dekyvere took under her wing for a while.” He found it neither a strange request nor a subject worthy of further discussion.

 

 

(ii)

 

       With the death of his wife, Willard Russell had begun to drink heavily. He had found a squalid tenement block where he set up home for Molly and himself. The little money he had managed to smuggle south to Nanking was soon squandered, but he scraped together enough to buy them food by setting himself up as a scribe in the compound. He sat outside the tenement in the street in his wheelchair, an old Remington type-writer on a folding table before him, and three bottles of bright inks with three feathery pens lined up on the table beside the type-writer for the work he might have to do in Cantonese. It was almost as though, not content to escape from his misery in an alcoholic negation of any future happiness, he felt the need to inflict further pain in the present by living amongst abject poverty and filth.

       Ah Chiew took Molly off to a local Chinese school every morning and picked her up again in the late afternoon. During the day Molly learnt what it was to have been born a woman in China and she was teased mercilessly by the other children because she was a gweilo. She hated school, but she hated her home more. She dreaded going back and finding her father slumped in his wheelchair, an empty bottle beside him and an incontinent stain over the legs of his trousers. Ah Chiew, who lived in a windowless scullery at the back of the flat, refused to clean but she did cook them boiled rice and vegetables which tasted blandly of the earth and she gave them cloudy glasses of water drawn from a well in the street. Molly drank the water and prayed that she might get cholera like her mother and die. She drank the water greedily, taking a vicious pleasure in knowing it had not been boiled.

       And then, one morning, on a sudden impulse and with the vague thought that fresh air would clear his head of a tremendous hangover, Willard Russell paid a sixty-year-old rickshaw boy to abandon his work for the day and, instead of the rickshaw, to pull his wheelchair. They went all over Kowloon drinking from Russell’s hipflask and ended up in the foyer of The Peninsula Hotel, the rickshaw boy embarrassed by such opulence in his blue shorts and white shirt, holding his round straw hat between his fingers and excusing himself to the Indian doorman in a language neither Russell nor the doorman could understand. Finally, the Chinese was pushed out onto the pavement outside and Russell was wheeled in to the Japanese barber, Kenji, for a haircut.

       Kenji would speak to all his customers in the same quiet, serious voice. He had heard the tragic story of the crippled American and his dead wife and as he cut Russell’s hair he said, “Mount Fuji is very big and the snail climbing its side is very slow. Which is you and which is your grief? The mountain or the snail?” And so it was that Russell understood that his grief would always be there and that it was stupid of him to consciously try to overcome it because, no matter what he did, he would always be the snail and his grief the mountain.

       “So, what do you do then?” he asked Kenji. “I mean, to escape back into life?” He realised the sentence sounded awkward and coughed to hide his embarrassment. But Kenji did not notice, accustomed as he was to the sometimes forced intricacies of meditation.

       “Yoga,” he said quietly. “Ch’ien i, Heavenly Oneness, the Great Emptiness. You will see that there is always a reason for everything.”

       But Willard Russell continued to drink, to lose himself in his own personal great emptiness although he recognised in Kenji an inner strength and a noble honesty of thought which attracted him. Soon he was paying the rickshaw boy to take him out every Friday, and every Friday he went to the hotel for a haircut. Sometimes, his hair was already so short that Kenji limited himself to a discreet snipping around his ears, but they both knew by then that it was Russell’s need for conversation which drew them together. Russell soon came to realise that Kenji was not trying to give him advice. He was just certain that what he said was right. Russell had, at first, begun to offer up objections by countering Kenji’s cryptic Taoist pronouncements with parables until he saw that the Japanese was quietly laughing at the simplicity of his arguments. Because Kenji was self-sufficient. When he spoke of Hsuan kuan—the Mysterious Gate—he was not telling Russell about it because he wanted to convince him of anything. There was no need. Mostly he was just speaking for himself.

       One morning, Russell was feeling particularly belligerent. He had what he called a migraine, although it was a hangover, and to add to the discomfort of his headache, bile kept rising into his throat each time he coughed, which he did frequently.

       “Tell me, Kenji,” he said. “How come you’re accepted here, what with all the anti-Japanese feeling that’s about?”

       Kenji smiled. “They think I’m Chinese,” he said.

       “Oh, yes! The Europeans, maybe. But what about the Chinese themselves? They must know, surely? And, after all, it’s they who hate the Japanese, not the rest of us.”

       “The Chinese know the facts but choose to ignore them. You would not understand.”

       That night, Russell went to the Glory Hole and bought himself a bottle of whisky. Harry Osbourne was there with some of his soldier friends.

       “Lend us a couple of dollars,” Osbourne was pawing his friend’s shoulder and was already beginning to slur his words. “Lend us a couple of dollars and I’ll buy you a drink! Come on, Fletch!”

       Sergeant John Fletcher pushed the insistent Osbourne to one side just a little too firmly with the result that he happened to land in the chair opposite Willard Russell, a rickety rattan table between them where the bottle of whisky stood half-empty. Osbourne reached for the bottle and looked at the American with bleary, bloodshot eyes.

       “Lend us a couple of dollars...,” he began, but Russell silenced him by pouring him a drink. Osbourne felt he ought to say something. “Golf competition, you know?” he said. “Open to all-comers, not just the bleeding nobs. First prize is a second free round of golf.” He belched and poured himself another scotch. “They do say, mind you, that you get a free round with the President of the Golf Club’s wife too! Ha! Ha!”

       Willard Russell decided he preferred Kenji’s mysticism to Osbourne’s vulgarity and, the following day, he reached an agreement with the Japanese. When he was not working, Kenji would wheel him through the city and, in return, Willard Russell would set out with him in search of the Absolute Void.

 

 

(iii)

 

       Miss Dekyvere had come to bridge rather late in life but she was a careful and skilful player. This was, she knew, the only reason her eccentric presence was requested at the Rodmells’ dinner parties. Tonight, it seemed her partner was first to be Dr Alfred Laughton. She could not help liking him. At least he had a bit of spunk. And he liked Mao and his Communists! That upset all of them, though why he liked the Communists Miss Dekyvere had yet to hear him explain. It was quite possible, she decided, that Alfred Laughton did not actually know himself.

       The wireless was playing as they sat down at the card table. The BBC Empire Service.

       “A taste of home,” suggested Miss Dekyvere politely.

       “Eliot has to hear the news,” Margaret Rodmell corrected her.

       He could do it at a different time, thought Miss Dekyvere, smiling to herself at the man’s apparent need to appear pompous and self-important at all times.

       “Have you noticed,” Rodmell was not even listening to the news anyway, “how, for the Chinese, there never seems to exist the excitement of surprise? I see it time and time again. Can you imagine a life where everything is always as you expect it to be?”

       “I don’t quite follow you, Eliot,” Laughton said. He had not been listening to either the news or his host. He had, instead, been thinking of a rumour he had heard at the hospital earlier in the day, when yet another Chinese peasant had been brought into Casualty suffering from various knife wounds. And so, rather than wait for a reply, he went on quickly, “I’m told your rival, Chen Liew, has had his boys out again.”

       Eliot Rodmell intensely disliked any reference to business at his card table, but he had heard nothing of Chen Liew for some weeks now. Unlike the Chinese, he was surprised, and he did not like it.

       “Why do you say that, Alfred?” he asked, trying his best not to appear too interested. He adopted his school teacher tone of voice and raised his eyebrows as he dealt the cards. This, coupled with an almost imperceptible but, once perceived, definitely stern way of handling the cards, had the desired effect on Laughton who now wished he had said nothing.

       “No,” he said, to fill a silence. He picked his cards from the table before they had all been dealt, another thing which was sure to infuriate his host. 2♦ 4♠ 5♠ 8♣ 4♣[i]. He grunted. “No,” he said again, “It was just another victim, I suppose, of the senseless street violence that seems to be so prevalent, these days, I mean, I thought...” Laughton’s voice dropped away. He did not really know now what he might have thought.

       “Oh, that!” said Eliot Rodmell, successfully dismissing the matter as if of no importance, at the same time placing the last card neatly before him on the table. “Is that all?” Any further thought of Chen Liew was immediately overshadowed by a handful of red cards. Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten of Diamonds! Plus the Eight, the Seven and the Five! He could not believe his luck. A couple more picture cards, too. Eliot Rodmell could not wait for the bidding to begin. Laughton, on the other hand, looked at a solitary, insulting King. Every other card he had was lower than Eight.

       “Come along, Alfred!” Eliot Rodmell boomed happily. “Your bid!”

       “Pass,” Laughton grunted and reached for his whisky and soda. Mary Laughton bid One Heart and scowled a warning towards her husband which said, at least so Alfred Laughton interpreted it: You should not be drinking at all and that is already your second! To get drunk at the Rodmells’! I shall never speak to you again if you drink that!

       “Oh dear! I don’t know how to say this,” Miss Dekyvere began, her voice an apologetic whisper.

       Laughton sipped his whisky and thought: I shall drink as much as I damned well like. And with cards like these there is not a soul on God’s earth who would blame me for it.

       “You see, I don’t think I shall make any tricks,” Miss Dekyvere continued quietly.

       “Well, the best thing for you to do is pass, Ruth,” Margaret Rodmell suggested as kindly as she could. She was not playing, but sitting by the wireless in case of interference. Miss Dekyvere smiled and looked again at her cards.

       “I mean,” she said in the same quiet voice, “That I want to bid ‘One Under’.”

       “Three Diamonds!” said Eliot Rodmell with a flourish. He did not care what the old trout wanted to bid.

       Alfred Laughton sighed and wondered why he ever allowed his wife to talk him into coming to these dull evenings in the first place. It is an honour, Alfred, his wife told him. Not any old Tom, Dick or Harry is invited. You should be proud. Proud! thought Laughton, and sipped his drink.

       “Four Clubs!” chirped in his wife. She was enjoying herself, anyway.

       “Five Diamonds!” said Rodmell sternly, looking across the table at Mary Laughton and daring her to contradict.

       “Excuse me,” said Miss Dekyvere, “But don’t I have a go?”

       Rodmell ignored her. “Come on, Laughton!” he growled. “Get on with it!”

       “Pass,” said Laughton wearily.

       “Pass,” said his wife.

       “Five Under,” said Miss Dekyvere.

       Alfred Laughton looked up suddenly from his whisky and soda. She was actually going to challenge the great man in his own house!

       “Five No Trumps!” Eliot Rodmell almost shouted, and Alfred Laughton could not resist.

       “Six Under, or whatever it is you’re supposed to say!” he said, unable to resist a little chuckle of pleasure.

       “Pass,” said Mary Laughton meekly.

       “Pass,” said Miss Dekyvere.

       “Double!” Eliot Rodmell pronounced the word somehow with three syllables. “Now, Miss Dekyvere,” he said, managing to make it sound like a threat, “Woe betide you if you get more than one trick!” And he rubbed his hands together in anticipation of failure.

       “Well done, Eliot!” Margaret Rodmell congratulated her husband on his masterful bidding.

       Before he played his first card, the Six of Diamonds, Alfred Laughton could have sworn that Miss Dekyvere winked at him. When he laid his cards on the table, she actually dared to smile. But then she smiled at each of them in turn. Given that Eliot Rodmell never expected sense from a woman, he was able to beam back at her, confident and undaunted. Laughton was only vaguely interested in the game, in part due to the fact that he was sure they would lose. He leant back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his head and watched the small lizards on the ceiling. You are getting into a rut, he told himself. Forty years old and acting as though you were already an old man. Perhaps if we’d had children there would be another interest. And he looked as his wife took a trick with the Eight of Spades. It was two-nil.

       Mary Laughton glanced a little nervously at Eliot Rodmell and led the Nine of Spades. Rodmell shook his head. Two people alone with each other for twenty years, Laughton continued to mull over the causes for his actual feeling of inertia. Got to be a bad thing. At least with children... and he looked at Rodmell ...or excitement. For you had to admit Rodmell had that.

       “Oh, dear!” said Miss Dekyvere.

       “Ha!” said Rodmell triumphantly.

       Laughton glanced at the card table. His King of Spades had won their first trick.

       “Now we’ll have some fun,” Rodmell grinned and patted his wife on the knee.

       There is a cruel streak there though, thought Laughton, examining the elder man’s almost exultant profile. It was a sharp profile and although it was ageing, beginning to sag a little beneath the chin, it was elegant. And a little cruel, Laughton insisted to himself. He can’t wait for us to lose. And when we do, he will take an almost manic pleasure in explaining what we did wrong. I have seen it before. When Nurse Gemmell, poor thing, was brought to tears for having led the wrong suit. She was not invited again after that either. That she had had no cards to lead back into Rodmell’s hand had been unimportant once he had decided to publicly humiliate her.

       “That’s six-one,” said Miss Dekyvere from across the table. “Do pay attention, Alfred! At least some moral support.”

       Alfred Laughton looked reluctantly at the cards. His wife played the Four of Hearts.

       “Oh, good lead, Mary!” Rodmell boomed, a glint of light catching in the corner of his eye. He looked expectantly towards Miss Dekyvere and would have rubbed his hands, but she played the Two. As Eliot Rodmell pulled the trick across the table towards him and placed it against the other six, Ruth Dekyvere placed her cards face up on the table.

       “And the rest are yours, dear, I think,” she said to Rodmell.

       Alfred Laughton found he was suddenly laughing out loud. They had beaten the smug old bastard! His wife was guiltily offering up the Ace, King, Queen, Jack and Ten of Hearts. Margaret Rodmell looked slightly offended and coaxed a strident whistle from the wireless.

       “Turn the damned thing off, Margaret!” Rodmell had exchanged the School Teacher for the Head Master. Managing, but only just, to control his anger, he turned to Miss Dekyvere. “Fine game,” he muttered. “Fine game, indeed!” And he pushed himself to his feet. There would be no more cards tonight. He would wait for his revenge. “Yes,” he said again, more to himself now, almost as a self-congratulation, “Fine game.”

       Laughton could not take the grin from his face and so buried it in his whisky glass. Miss Dekyvere walked round the table to take his arm and lead him out behind the Rodmells to the veranda.

       “I’ve been wanting to do that for years,” she whispered to him. And she gave his arm a squeeze. “I’m so glad you were here to enjoy it too. I don’t expect many people would have done.”

       As they walked out onto the veranda, Eliot Rodmell turned on him. “I say, Laughton!” he commanded. “What was all that about Chen Liew?”

       Miss Dekyvere released Laughton’s arm and walked over to the wives who were looking absently down at the lights of the city. A monkey cried out from above them on The Peak, the sound suddenly shrill and piercing.

       “Nothing, Eliot,” said Laughton casually. Something had changed during the game of bridge. He would not, he decided, allow himself to be in awe of the Great Man anymore. He and Miss Dekyvere had won! “Just trying to make conversation,” he said. “That was all.” Laughton accepted one of Rodmell’s cigars.

       “Not like you, Laughton,” Rodmell snapped, “Not like you at all!”

       Laughton shrugged and puffed on his cigar. “The excitement of surprise, Eliot!” he replied with a grin. Eliot Rodmell scowled and then decided to be pleasant. He needed information.

       “Laughton,” he said. “Alfred.”

       Alfred Laughton blew a cloud of cigar smoke into the night sky between them. Twelve-one! He smiled to himself. Wait until I tell them at the Cricket Club! Rodmell had placed his hand on Laughton’s shoulder.

       “Do try to think about this very carefully,” he said, exerting a slight, but nonetheless threatening, pressure with his fingers. “What do you know about Chen Liew?”

       Laughton would have confessed the truth despite his recent resolution for courage that he knew only what he had said before, but it was Miss Dekyvere who spoke.

       “He’s looking for a young girl,” she told them.

       Eliot Rodmell was all but leaning his entire weight on Laughton’s shoulder and Laughton could have sworn that he could feel the Taipan’s heart miss a beat and then begin to race.

       “A young girl,” said Miss Dekyvere. “Tragic story. Really tragic. But she has disappeared.”

       There was silence as they all looked at the lights of the city. Laughton felt they were perhaps all trying to locate the girl in the twinkling, anonymous expanse that stretched away beneath them to the sea. Again the monkey shrieked high up on the hill.

       “God! I wish they wouldn’t do that!” said Eliot Rodmell. “They sound like people in pain!”

 

 

(iv)

 

       Even had Willard Russell been behaving more discreetly than he was, it would not have taken Chen Liew’s bodyguard, Chan, long to find him. As it was, the new friendship between Russell and Kenji was soon a topic of conversation from The Peninsula Hotel, where it was frowned upon, to the Glory Hole, where it was misunderstood.

       “Mind you, they deserve each other,” said Osbourne. He was talking to an only vaguely interested Sergeant Fletcher.

       “You’re just sour because he kept roping you into going with him out to the New Territories,” said Fletcher.

       “No, it’s not that,” said Osbourne. “There’s something funny about that Kenji-bloke. And, as for our American friend! Well! It stands to reason, doesn’t it? I mean, what the hell kind of man would marry a Chinese!”

       Fletcher shrugged. “Why do Chinese women have two holes in their knickers?” he asked with a grin. Osbourne’s eyes sparkled behind their alcoholic haze as he went through myriad vulgar possibilities.

       “Dunno, Fletch,” he conceded finally.

       “To put their legs through!” replied Fletcher smugly.

       Osbourne’s shoulders heaved with laughter and were then stilled by the pressure of two large hands. Osbourne turned and found himself looking straight into the immovable, inscrutable face of the bodyguard, Chan. Chan leaned his face still closer to Osbourne’s.

       “What are you writing?” Chan asked. Even this simple question seemed to contain a hidden threat. Osbourne glanced towards the blank pages of his grubby notebook where the only thing he had written for days was the word “Catinat,” the name of a horse, a sure winner for the weekend.

       “A little piece on the war in China,” he said nervously. Chan touched the notebook with the tips of his fingers as though it were unclean, and pushed it slightly further into the centre of the table.

       The Glory Hole was filled with soldiers exchanging vouchers with the taxi-girls. A rowdy group of sailors leaned against the small bar in the corner. Their merchant ship had docked the day before and, having already satisfied their thirst for sex, they were now slowly drifting towards a noisy and anti-social drunkenness. The air was thick with cigarette smoke and opium and from the rooms upstairs came the sudden gasping sigh of a faked orgasm or the very real cry of a child.

       “Drink, Chan?” said Osbourne, pulling a chair towards the table. He was desperately trying to think of all that he had done over the last week, trying to locate at what point he might have done something to upset Chen Liew. But Chen Liew was a reasonable man, not like some of the others. Osbourne could feel the sweat trickling from beneath his arms and his hand was shaking.

       Chan did not even smile. He neither refused nor accepted Osbourne’s offer of a drink. Instead, he pointed out the word “Catinat” and shook his head gravely.

       “No chance!” he said simply.

       With anyone else, Osbourne would have argued. As it was, he grabbed the notebook from the table, tore out the page, screwed it into a tight ball, and dropped it onto the floor beneath the table.

       “Paddy White’s horse will win,” said Chan.

       Osbourne was certain that he had done nothing to deserve Chan’s visit, which meant that he was going to be asked to do something. He hated doing things for Chan, but Chan was not the kind of person you refused. The last time, he had been asked to tail one of the Tangs and to write down everything he did. That had not been a problem until he had been led out into the New Territories and the walled village of Kat Him Wai. He had never been so frightened before in his life. Four watchtowers protected the village and on each watchtower stood a six-foot Chinese armed with a machine-gun. There was only one entrance into the village through a small gateway which Osbourne had stupidly tried to cross. He had been stopped at gunpoint and they had asked him who he wanted to see. When he had said “Tang”, the watchmen had begun to laugh in the same humourless, evil way that Chan laughed and, pushing him back out of the village with the butts of their rifles, they had told him that everybody in Kat Him Wai was called Tang!  Now, the last thing he wanted was to have to do another little job for Chen Liew.

       “You know Miss Dekyvere?” Chan was saying, sitting now at their table but not drinking. “It is because of her that I am here.”

Osbourne felt suddenly so relieved that he found he had started to grin. Chan looked at him and said quietly, “I don’t see why that should make you laugh, Mr Osbourne.”

       “No,” said Osbourne hurriedly, “It was a joke. Fletch told me. “ he said.

       “You have been asked, Osbourne, or rather, you are being asked to transmit a message to the American, Russell. We know you drink with him from time to time.” Chan looked round the stuffy room almost as though he half-expected to see Russell himself slumped in his chair in a corner. Osbourne nodded.

       “Tell him,” said Chan, “That Miss Dekyvere has expressed an interest in seeing the child, Molly.” And with that, Chan had apparently finished, for he pushed himself to his feet. Sergeant Fletcher and Osbourne watched Chan’s immense back as it pushed a way easily through the crowded room. At the door, Chan stopped. A drunk soldier was gently mauling one of the girls, a Russian refugee. Chan examined the girl’s flaming red hair, first with his eyes, and then with the tips of his fingers. He pushed the soldier to one side and, without saying a word, took the Russian girl with him and out to the waiting Bentley.

       “Why does he want you to be his go-between, Harry?” Fletcher asked. He was still looking at the space which Chan’s enormous form had, until a moment ago, occupied so completely that now something actually appeared to be lacking in the room.

       “It’s a test, Fletch,” said Osbourne, sniffing. He might almost have been proud of the fact. “They like to know that they’re still in charge.” He took a well-chewed pencil-stub from his pocket and scribbled ‘Paddy White’ on a clean page of his notebook. After a moment’s thought, he underlined the name and wrote ‘Catinat’ beside it. “It is bloody Paddy White’s mount!” he explained to a disinterested Fletcher. Fletcher grinned although he had found nothing to amuse him. On the contrary, he had found the whole incident with Chan profoundly disturbing.

       “The way he just took that Russian girl!” Fletcher said indignantly, reaching for his beer.

       “They take more than bloody tarts, Fletch!” said Osbourne ominously. “This isn’t the Old Kent Road, mate! This is Hong Kong!” And with a final dismissive gulp at his beer, Osbourne stood up. He ran a finger round the inside of his frayed and smutty collar. “I’d best be making tracks,” he said emphatically.

       “I thought we were going to have a hand of crib,” said Fletcher.

       Osbourne pushed his thickset face towards Fletcher and blinked behind his glasses. “Look, mate!” he said. “When they tell you to do something, you better jump to it! Our friend Chan is a 426, a Red Pole!” It meant nothing to Fletcher. “He is a trained killer, Fletch, for the Triads. If I don’t get hold of that soppy yank by this time tomorrow, I might as well start booking my passage home!”

       Fletcher glanced quickly round the room. The soldiers and the whores and the noise depressed him. A child was crying upstairs, its voice barely audible above the masculine din in the stuffiness of the bar.

       “What about if I just tag along?” he suggested, standing.

       Osbourne shook his head very slowly. “You stay out of this, Fletch!” he said, looking at the table as though he had lost something. “You don’t owe him anything.”

       “And you do?” Fletcher had not meant to say it but, perhaps driven on by the prospect of being alone, he had been unable to resist. Besides which, sometimes there is a need to hurt.

       “That’s none of your bloody business, is it?” said Osbourne bluntly.

       Fletcher laughed, but it was partly embarrassment. “That’s tantamount to saying you do,” he said.

       “You can think what you like, sunshine,” said Osbourne. And, stuffing his notebook into his jacket pocket, he left.

       Alone in The Glory Hole, Sergeant John Fletcher felt morose. Whilst Harry Osbourne was not the most likeable of men, at least he was company. He looked a little sadly at the young, gaudily painted Chinese girls standing round the walls of the bar. Some of them could not have been more than fifteen. This, however, did not stop him beckoning to the nearest girl to his table and allowing himself to be led away upstairs.

       As he took off his trousers, folded them neatly and placed them over the bamboo rungs of the bedstead John Fletcher could hear the plaintive cries of the child quite clearly, coming, it seemed, from the next room along the passage. But he was not about to let that ruin his enjoyment.

 

 

(v)

 

       “But you are neither considering the girl’s feelings, nor her father’s.” Miss Dekyvere felt she ought to protest. “Besides which, you know the British Government banned Mui Tsai[1] years ago.”

       “This is not Mui Tsai,” said Chen Liew quietly. “I am not buying the girl, not as such, and, anyway, so as not to provoke unnecessary gossip, she shall live with you.” He could not see where the problem lay. “She will have everything. She will attend the best schools. And Tung Nien shall be like an elder sister to her. There is not much difference in their ages, after all. It will make them both happier than they are now and no one shall be any the worse off.”

       Miss Dekyvere glanced into her garden. “You remind me,” she said with a cough which revealed the misgivings she felt in saying anything which Chen Liew might interpret as a criticism, “You remind me of the old Buddhist woman who was converted to Catholicism on her death-bed because she had learnt that the Christian graveyard had better fung shui than the Buddhist burial ground.”

       “And what is that supposed to mean?” asked Chen Liew a little testily.

       “It means, my dear,” said Miss Dekyvere standing now and walking across to the window, the better to observe the riot of colour in her garden where a flame-of-the-forest tree dominated the landscape, “that you bend the rules to suit yourself. You have decided what is best and you will not see things any other way.”

       “And what would you have me do?” Chen Liew was genuinely at a loss to see what he had done wrong.

       “You might consider the feelings of other people,” said Miss Dekyvere with an exasperated tug at her skirt as she turned to face him. “What if the girl does not want to live with a stuffy spinster like me?”

       “But she will.”

       “What if I don’t want her?”

       “But you will do it. For me.”

       “Do you really think that money can solve all your problems?”

       “Experience has shown me that that is generally the case.”

       “You should begin to consider the place emotions have in your life or you shall end up being most unhappy.”

       “This is a question of emotions. My wife’s emotions.”

       “I just don’t see the point,” said Miss Dekyvere, “in uprooting this poor girl...”

       Chen Liew held up his hands and then stood. “For her it will be like winning the lottery,” he said. “What has she now? Nothing! What am I offering her?”

       “But her father?”

       “He may see her whenever he wishes.”

       “You have no idea, Chen Liew, have you, of the deeper feelings?”

       Chen Liew walked slowly towards the door. He wondered how he could explain that were it not for the deeper feelings, the problem would never have existed in the first place.

       “I love my wife,” he said, but it only sounded like an excuse.

       “I shall accept only with the father’s consent,” Miss Dekyvere said, but she spoke so softly that it was almost as though she did not really want him to hear it. But he did.

       “I don’t see that he has much of a choice,” he said.

       When Chen Liew had gone, Miss Dekyvere was left alone to consider what right she had to object. For certainly the girl’s life, at least in its material aspect, would see itself greatly improved. And from the little she knew of Tung Nien, Miss Dekyvere judged her to be kind. There was a calculating, even ambitious streak to Tung Nien’s character which had bubbled irrepressibly to the normally tranquil surface on one or two occasions. Miss Dekyvere remembered a discussion about money. She had been invited for afternoon tea, one of the few occidental customs which Chen Liew approved of. “It was,” he would say, to excuse this momentary lapse in his rejection of all things foreign, and in reference to a valuable set of painted silk scrolls, “not uncommon for the Manchu Overlords of the seventeenth century to take tea.” But Tung Nien, who had never seen the scrolls which depicted ‘The Four Pleasures of Bo Juyi’ (none of which, in fact, showed anybody drinking tea) had had the nerve to ask to be given money of her own. Miss Dekyvere had been about to ask Chen Liew what the Manchu Overlords would have felt had they known that Manchuria would one day be invaded by the hated Japanese when Chen Liew, raising both his voice and his hands in a mixture of anger and incomprehension, had said, or rather shouted, that she had no need of money. Tung Nien had looked at her husband with an expression of fierce determination.

       “I am not the kind of woman,” she had said slowly, “who will be content to allow my life just to drift on placidly like some kind of pale reflection of your own. I did not agree to leave the Walled City to come up here and vegetate, to do no more than to sit about making myself look pretty and to wait for you to have time to notice me. I want to have a life of my own and I want to live it.”

       As far as Miss Dekyvere knew, however, she had not managed to convince Chen Liew to give her anything, nor had she managed to find any life other than that which her husband meticulously planned out for her. She had merely, it seemed, exchanged the Walled City in the slums of Kowloon for the walled gardens of Chen Liew’s mansion on The Peak.

 

 

(vi)

 

       Osbourne’s search for Willard Russell was not a complicated one. He left the Glory Hole and went directly to The Pen. Although it was late, the foyer and the bar of The Peninsula Hotel were filled with people. In the bar, the gentlemen of the city were sitting around only half-heartedly discussing the problems of smallpox and cholera brought about by the tremendous influx of refugees who were flooding across the border to escape from the war in China. At least most of them stay on this side of the water, they said. But Osbourne was stopped before he could go any further. He was not wearing a tie.

       “I only want to see the Yank, I’m not going to have dinner, mate!” he said to the stern-faced Sikh who was barring his way.

       “Mr Russell?” asked the Indian, who knew perfectly well. “In that case, would you wait here, please?” And he indicated a hard chair which was partially hidden by the voluminous leaves of a palm. Osbourne watched the Sikh’s light blue turban as it weaved its way above the neatly combed European heads thronging the bar.           “Bastards!” he said to himself, and sat down to wait.

       When he saw Russell being wheeled towards him by the Japanese, Osbourne snickered. They both looked totally out of place in the ostentatious luxury of The Pen and, from the way the American was lolling to one side, it was obvious he had been drinking. He had a confused expression on his face, as though he might just have been woken from a deep sleep. Kenji was poorly but immaculately dressed in a high-collared grey suit at the neck of which a tight black bow tie protruded. It reminded Osbourne of a small bat. As they came into the colonnaded entrance hall, Osbourne stood and shuffled a couple of places towards them. He jerked his hand out towards the American in greeting, but Willard Russell frowned and kept his own hands firmly folded in his lap.

       “What do you want, Osbourne?” he asked gruffly.

       Osbourne grinned. “Miss Dekyvere wants to see your girl, Molly,” he said, replacing his hand in his trouser pocket.

       “And?” said Russell.

       “And I’ve come to tell you,” Osbourne replied. He could not decide whether or not the American had been drinking. He leaned forwards for a hint of whisky, but Russell’s breath was sweet with the smell of camomile. A little disappointed that he appeared to be alone in his alcoholic excess, Osbourne rubbed his hand over his unshaven chin and turned to leave. “Well?” he all but demanded.

       “Tell Miss Dekyvere I shall send her up tomorrow.”

       “You’re not even going to ask what she wants?”

       “She would not have told the likes of you, Osbourne. What would be the point?”

       Osbourne had to agree that that was true. “See you around,” he said. None of it had anything to with him anyway. Why should he bother his head about it? Let the old Yank dig his own grave if that was what he wanted. Or his daughter’s, come to that. And without waiting for a reply—in the event, Russell merely raised his hand slightly, but said nothing—Osbourne walked as elegantly as he could back out into the sticky night air. He grabbed a rickshaw which was heading west along Salisbury Road and looked absently across the harbour to the twinkling lights on The Peak.

       “Bugger them!” he said.

 

 

(vii)

 

       “A Russian prostitute has been strangled. Her body was found by the quay of the Floating City.”

       Miss Dekyvere looked up at Tung Nien and scowled. “I don’t know why you read that nonsense!” she said, and she offered up her own copy of The South China Morning Post. “I have read it,” she explained.

       Tung Nien took the newspaper and frowned at the front page which proclaimed:

 

“MAO ZEDONG AND CHIANG KAI SHEK FORM ALLIANCE TO FIGHT THE JAPANESE”

 

       Miss Dekyvere smiled to herself before saying, “Mind you, I don’t suppose it’s that much of an improvement. One Russian whore, or hundreds of Chinese peasants. There is so little, these days, that is happy.”

       Tung Nien was still looking blankly at the front page of the newspaper. “They look so funny,” she said.

       Miss Dekyvere, who had found nothing amusing in the paper, leaned forwards. “What’s that?” she asked, putting her glasses onto the end of her nose.

       “Your letters,” said Tung Nien. “They look so funny. I don’t think I shall ever be able to decipher them.”

       Miss Dekyvere sat back in her chair and sighed. It had been a stupid thing to have done. Thoughtless. She always spoke Cantonese to Tung Nien but, then, you took it for granted that the educated classes spoke English too. And, now, she had inadvertently brought to light a failing, a weakness, in her neighbour. To make amends, or to hide her embarrassment, she moved quickly on to the subject which had brought them together that morning.

       “Molly, I suppose, will soon be here,” she said.

       Tung Nien’s face brightened and she dropped The South China Morning Post onto the grass. She pulled a red envelope from her silk sleeve. “I have prepared this for her,” she said, smiling.

       Miss Dekyvere could not help thinking how young and beautiful she was. She was not thinking about the red envelope as she leaned forward to take it between her fingers. It swung heavily. The bottom of the envelope seemed to have been filled with tiny pebbles.

       “And what is this, my dear?” she asked.

       “Lai see,” said Tung Nien, still smiling in the same apparently innocent way. “Lucky money. For luck and prosperity.”

       Miss Dekyvere carefully lifted the flap of the envelope and peered inside. A necklace had been dismembered and the envelope had been filled with the pearls.

       “I had no money,” Tung Nien explained quickly, “Either lucky or otherwise!”

       Miss Dekyvere folded the flap back into the envelope and handed it across the table to Tung Nien as the huge metal doors away at the bottom of the garden opened and the long bonnet of the white Bentley appeared.

       Molly could see the two women from where she was sitting in the car. Her father slumped, rather than sat, beside her. Preferring to ignore his presence, she looked through the window of the car, across the lush green lawn which climbed away to form a small mound before the house, to the two women. She recognised both of them and some of the apprehension she had been feeling fell away. The name “Miss Dekyvere” had meant nothing, but the kind old face was a symbol of hope. It had rescued her before and might do so again.

       The younger woman, Tung Nien, was a far more vivid memory for her. She could still see her quite clearly, on the day of her wedding, sitting before the shrine-like dressing-table bedecked in silk and pearls, pretty and peaceful, her skin as smooth as a porcelain doll. Molly had found, then, her ideal of beauty and as she looked, now, from the car, she saw it again, floating down towards her over the grass as though she belonged to another world.

       The sun was hot through the car window and Willard Russell flipped the back of his hand at a fly. With his other hand, he held tightly onto Molly’s arm. He felt an unreasonable sense of foreboding and imagined for a moment that the reason they had been summoned was for him to be interrogated and found guilty for being a bad father. But seeing that both women were smiling as they walked towards the car, which was now crunching to a standstill on the gravel drive before the house, Russell decided, not without a small sigh of relief, that they knew nothing of his debauchery.

       “Mr Russell!” It was Miss Dekyvere stepping forward in a bright cotton dress to greet them. “And Molly! How nice!”

       Shang-Chih Su, the chauffeur, helped Russell into his wheelchair and pushed him over to the table where breakfast had, until recently, been in the place now occupied by Miss Dekyvere’s carefully folded copy of The South China Morning Post. Willard Russell gave the newspaper a cursory glance, although he knew what it said, and he cleared his throat before saying, “The longer the war lasts, the better it will be for the Japanese. You don’t seriously believe in an alliance between the Communists and the Kuomintang...” He stopped because he sensed that the two women were looking at him. “I know China,” he said, instead. “I worked there.” He looked at Miss Dekyvere’s sincere expression and smiled. “Quite beautiful in its way,” he said dreamily, reliving, perhaps, thought Miss Dekyvere somewhat romantically, afternoons beneath the peach blossom with his wife. Until she suddenly found that she was still wearing her glasses. She removed them quickly and, as she was searching in her handbag for her glasses case, she said in a kind of forced whisper, “If we could speak in Cantonese, Willard?”

       Russell nodded in agreement and glanced at Tung Nien. She was looking fixedly at Molly and smiling. Molly returned her smile.

       “I do not imagine,” said Russell finally to break a silence that was in danger of becoming, at least, for him, embarrassing, “that we have been invited here for morning coffee.” And then he added with a laconic smile himself, “Although coffee would be most welcome.”

       “We were worried about you,” said Miss Dekyvere. “You hear such stories.” She wished she could have been more specific.

       “Stories?” said Russell.

       “Rumours,” Miss Dekyvere corrected herself.

       Tung Nien had not been listening to them. She took the red envelope again from her sleeve and pressed it into Molly’s hand.

       “Lai see,” she said. “For you.”

       Molly took the envelope but did not open it. After the squalor of their tenement flat, where the air was always thick with the stench of rotting vegetables and laced faintly with the smell of fried fish, she was enjoying the heavy, scented smells of the flowers. After the rows on rows of bamboo poles and damp, washing forever dripping into the dank central well of the flats, after the truncated view offered by their small balcony which was merely the dull sockets of a darkened row of windows in the flat opposite, she was enjoying the immense green open spaces of the garden and the hard blue of the sky. She held the red envelope in her hands and rolled her fingers round the pellets of the pearls through the paper.

       Tung Nien was speaking to her father. “It’s not because I am in any way altruistic, Mr Russell, that I have made this suggestion.”

       Russell’s first reaction upon being informed that they wanted to all but adopt his daughter had been to laugh. The idea was preposterous!

       “Is it not?” he asked quietly. His thoughts were racing, though. In a way, it was a godsend. He, a cripple, could not look after her properly. (For the time being, he would not also say drunkard. Anyway, he would stop drinking altogether soon. That was not a problem.). And he would still see her. It was not as though they wanted to take Molly away from him. He had not considered sending her away to boarding school, but if he had? What would be the difference? In fact, she would be better off here, by far. He realised, rather guiltily, that he was already trying to give himself reasons as to why he should accept. But Tung Nien was still speaking to him. She had rested a lovely soft hand on his and she looked at him with her calm almond eyes that looked, he decided, like two brown leaves floating in a pond.

       “No,” said Tung Nien firmly. “I must learn English and Molly will teach me. In return, I shall giver her the kind of life she could never even have dreamed of.”

       “Why Molly?” asked Russell. It was a logical question, but the reply was far from logical.

       “Because she, too, is beautiful.”

       Willard Russell had lived long enough among the Chinese to know he would never understand them. He had loved his wife, he had known her better than any other person in his life, but he had never wholly understood her. Molly had inherited enough from Suyong to be somewhat of an enigma to him. There were times when her thoughts would go down a path that he could never follow. So, he said, “I don’t understand!” Because it was true. When he spoke to Miss Dekyvere, he found he had reverted to English.

       “What the hell kind of reasoning is that?”

       Miss Dekyvere, too, was at a loss. “I know her very little,” she said. “Too little to imagine what she might be thinking. But I can assure you that your daughter will want for nothing. I, myself, can guarantee you that.”

       Willard Russell attempted a more comfortable position which, unfortunately, turned into a slouch. “And what do you stand to gain from all this?” he asked.

       Most people would have been offended by the question, but Miss Dekyvere accepted it as she accepted most things in life. Her own personal philosophy was not so far removed from the Chinese. There was nothing she could do to change the unexpected and strange incidents in life, so why should she fight pointlessly against them.

       “I?” she asked quietly. “I shall gain, if anything, the experience of seeing this girl become a woman. Nothing else. Unless it is a certain friendship.”

       Willard Russell was confused. A part of him had already agreed to the arrangement as being the best thing for both him and Molly, but upbringing, rather than emotion, rebelled.

       “It is as good as admitting that I am not capable of looking after her myself!” he complained. But he was almost willing Miss Dekyvere to convince him otherwise. She would not, however, do that.

       “I am very sorry if that is how you see it, Mr Russell. You see, it is not that at all.”

       “I wish I knew what the hell it was, then!”

       “Willard! Why try to look for deeper reasons when they don’t exist? I must confess that I had my own misgivings. I had suspected that perhaps Tung Nien and Chen Liew were incapable of...” But she stopped, unwilling, even in thought, to intrude upon another’s intimacy. “And that would indeed have worried me. But as it is...” she concluded.

       Tung Nien and Molly had left the table and were walking across the lawns up behind the house to where the grass disappeared into a tangle of ferns and palms that rose almost vertically up the side of the mountain. Molly felt as though she were living out a dream. She would have agreed to anything, but Tung Nien was careful to speak no more about it. Instead, she spoke of the “Bun Festival” on the island of Cheung Chau.

       “We shall go together,” she said. “And we shall take your father, if he wishes to come.”

       Molly knew he would not, but the idea of mountains of edible buns pinned to huge bamboo frames appealed to her. Anything to escape from the endless bowls of earthy rice which Ah Chiew prepared every night. She looked down the steep rise of the lawn and she could see her father talking earnestly to Miss Dekyvere.

       “Let him say yes!” she said to herself. “Please, let him say yes!”

       “So long as I can see her whenever I want and so long as I can break the contract the moment that I am not happy with it,” Willard Russell decided, “I don’t see that it will do her any harm. But she must, of course, still go to school.”

       Miss Dekyvere nodded. “I shall see to it that she goes to the Forces’ school.”

       “An English school?” grunted Russell.

       “Quite so, Willard!” Miss Dekyvere countered.

       As he was being driven away, Willard Russell felt strangely relieved. He drank slowly on his hip flask of whisky and felt as though a great weight had been taken from his shoulders. Yet, at the same time, there was an emptiness with Molly gone.

       “Take me to The Pen,” he told Shang-Chih. “I need a drink!”

 

 

(viii)

 

       Dr Alfred Laughton felt tired. He was tired of the heat, tired of his work at the hospital where the flow of refugees from China had brought endless cases of typhoid and smallpox, tired of the hospital itself, tired of the company his wife forced him to keep and tired, he realised with a sentimental pang of regret, of his wife. From his bungalow on the lower slopes of The Peak, he watched Chen Liew’s Bentley roll slowly past the end of his driveway.

       “Now that’s a woman for you!” he said beneath his breath, erroneously imagining the identity of the passenger behind the tinted windows. Normally reticent in allowing any sign of passion to emerge, Alfred Laughton could not help but let his desire surface when he thought of Tung Nien. Ever since the wedding, when he had first seen her, he had imagined himself making love to her each time his wife had reluctantly allowed his clumsy gropings to reach fruition. Sterile as she was, he thought, she might have let him do it more often. Of course, it might have been he and not she who were sterile, but what did that matter now? There were no children. There was no life for them together. What little it had been which had brought them together in the first place had long since dried up. There was nothing. But just seeing Tung Nien’s car made his heart race.

       Alfred Laughton poured himself a whisky and soda although it was only half past eleven. He rattled the ice against the side of the glass and walked back to the small veranda of his bungalow. Mary was out shopping with Margaret Rodmell. “Now we are going up in the world, Alfred!” she had said. At that moment, he should really have been playing cricket but he had cried off at the last minute. He could think of nothing more pointless than the sound of willow against leather and Eliot Rodmell’s pompous “Shot, sir!” as their Punjabi openers scored yet another boundary, with the sun beating down mercilessly, the flies moaning annoyingly in his ear, the glass of orange juice (orange juice!) somehow always sticky in his hands, and the ladies, having finished shopping, wittering behind him in the clubhouse, his pads cutting into the backs of his knees and his “box” cutting into his testicles. It was time for a change.

       Alfred Laughton sat down heavily in a rattan chair and picked up a magazine he had taken home the day before from his surgery at the hospital. “What’s on in Hong Kong and Macao.” He flipped through the pages listlessly and sipped at his drink. And, suddenly, there they were! He had to smile.

 

 

The Kowloon Cricket Club
Austin Road

10.30


The Royal Hong Kong Cricket Club

Vs

A combined RAF/Army XI

 

 

 

       He flipped the pages. “Cheung Chau,” he read, “used to be the island home of pirates. Cheung Po Chai was one of the greatest pirates in Chinese history and he used the island as his hide-out. Many deaths and ritual tortures down the centuries have sullied the land to such an extent that, once a year, the whole island community comes together for a big Bun Festival, a celebration held to exorcise wandering and malicious ghosts who have been unable to find rest in this world. The festival is held between the last 10 days of the third moon and the first 10 days of the fourth moon (the end of April, beginning of May).”

       “Pirates.” said Laughton to himself. “Well, it beats bloody cricket.”

 

 

(ix)

 

       There were many small motor boats to take people across to Cheung Chau from the piers on Connaught Road, but Tung Nien and Molly had no need of them. Chen Liew had arranged for them to be picked up from Blake Pier in a motor launch that he normally used to do the opium run into She-k’ou, in China. As they waited on the wharf, Tung Nien and Molly spoke of confetti and firecrackers. They could have been two sisters on their way to a birthday party, enjoying each other’s company the more for what they were about to share together. Tung Nien explained to Molly the legend of the skeletons, the origin of the feast. How the island of Cheung Chau had suffered and been persecuted following the discovery of a pile of skeletons. Some years after the find, a Taoist priest had visited the island and explained that as the dead had been murdered they would have to be placated every year with offerings. With buns and fireworks and confetti.

       “But does it work?” asked Molly.

       “Does what work?” said Tung Nien.

       “Do the buns get rid of the evil spirits?”

       “I don’t know,” said Tung Nien. “I’ve never been before. I suppose so. Why else would they do it?”

       “Maybe they just like to have a party.”

       Molly looked across the waters of the harbour towards Kowloon. Beyond the clustered buildings of the city, the New Territories stretched away into the distance.

       “Do you suppose my mother is a wandering ghost?” she asked, with no hint of emotion, only a childish desire to know.

       “Why ever should she be?” she asked in return.

       Molly thought for a moment and then said, “I shall get a special bun for her, just in case.”

 

       Alfred Laughton, from his vantage point on the terrace of a small bar slightly to the east of Blake Pier, saw Molly before he saw Tung Nien. His heart missed a beat. She was, he thought, an exact version in miniature of the older woman. But then he saw Tung Nien herself. She was even more strikingly beautiful than the image he had fostered of her from his memory of the wedding. He stood on the terrace, his whisky and soda caught at the point of touching his lips, and he could not, indeed he did not want to, take his eyes away from her. Two men pushed past him, rudely knocking into his arm and suddenly bringing his attention back to his drink. He looked at it in some surprise, not that he did not remember ordering it, but that he did not remember ever having wanted it. Or anything else, for that matter. Except her. He slumped back in a bamboo and rattan armchair.

       “She’s young enough to be your daughter!” he sighed, resigning himself to sipping at his whisky. It was a sad state of affairs when even his lust brought him full circle and back to the greatest tragedy of his life. When so many had children without ever wanting them. Of course, Mary had suggested adoption. That had caused another argument. He could not understand how for her the child would be theirs, and she could not understand why he did not want one which was not his. “It’s nothing as banal as seeing the name ‘Laughton’ continuing on for generations, stretching away into the future. It’s just the idea of a part of me (he forgot to include her, but not out of malice or lack of affection) growing into a separate being, with its own feelings, ideas and prejudices, and me, all the time, having to live up to the ideal of being a father. I can’t see the bond being the same, being so automatic, if you adopt.”

       “That is because you are a self-centred, insensitive brute.”

       That is because you are a man, she had meant to say.

       And perhaps, she was not too far away from the mark at that, he admitted, juggling the ice in the watery remains of whisky.

       A small, brown motor launch with an inboard motor was slowly approaching the wharf of Blake Pier. At the bows the enormous Chan was shouting orders and swaying from side to side on the deck like a guard dog pulling against a restraining chain. Laughton realised the futility of his infatuation. It would, he thought sourly, be easier to go to bed with anyone else in Hong Kong than her! As Chan waved his arms and ordered previously unseen, or at least unnoticed, minions into action, to clear a path through the bustling crowd, Tung Nien took Molly by the arm and Laughton watched as the two most beautiful things he had ever seen were first swallowed up by the bobbing heads and hats before the pier and then emerged to take their seats in front of the wooden cabin of the launch. If he had only previously been in half a mind to visit the Bun Festival when he had ordered his whisky and soda, he was now convinced that fate or destiny had decided he should go. If only to have the chance of being on the same island as her. Hong Kong would be empty with her gone. It would be unbearable to think of her across the water on Cheung Chau, with anonymous eyes looking at her, whilst he sat in the company of these rude Europeans, drinking drinks he did not want and thinking about the children he could never have.

 

       Molly and Tung Nien watched the lush, green foliage of The Victoria Peak darken through blue to almost purple as the launch bounced over the choppy waves of the harbour and took them west and around the point of Pok Fu Lam. On the nearest tip of the island of Lantau, they could see the green and ochre tiles of a white pagoda, half-hidden in the dry, scrubby bushes that climbed the hills around it.

       Chan walked towards them from the little cabin, his body swaying from side to side in time with the rocking of the launch, carrying a silver tray of Dim Sun, small, heart-shaped dumplings and pastry triangles filled with pork, shrimps, bamboo shoots or liver and steamed fried rice wrapped in lotus leaves. For Molly, used to food which tasted of the earth, the Dim Sun were like little parcels of heaven. Tung Nien picked at her food and looked out over the bows of the launch at the approaching island. By now she could make out the low, four-storey houses along the waterfront of Cheung Chau harbour. Each one was painted a different colour—yellow, red, blue, brown and green—over whitewashed walls and brown wooden balconies. Behind the buildings, the trees were dark green and thick as thunder clouds. Sampans and launches rocked on the green water of the bay and away to the right a rickety fishing pier stretched out into the sea, its dark, wooden struts standing out against the light like the teeth of a comb. Molly bit into a steamed dumpling filled with tiny shrimps and the spicy, fishy sauce dripped onto her chin. As she looked with Tung Nien towards the island, she could make out the garish, multi-coloured, rippling cloth of a dragon dance weaving off along the quay and she knew that she had never been so happy in her life before.

 

       Laughton was dropped off, along with some twenty excited Chinese families, not at Cheung Chau Harbour but on the other side of the island at Tung Wan Beach. He and the other passengers had to wade through the water to the beach as there was no pier for their motor boat to moor at. None of the Chinese seemed to mind and even the oldest among them leapt with surprising agility into the sea. Laughton leaned against the hot, splintering wood of the side of the boat and removed his shoes and socks before lowering himself gingerly into the warm, soupy water. Although it came only to just above his knees, Laughton winced in displeasure and instinctively pulled his genitals away from and over an incoming wave. He struggled onto the beach and sat down to brush the wet sand from his feet and to replace his socks and shoes. With his trousers flapping wetly against his legs, he set off across the small strip of island which separated him from Cheung Chau Harbour. He could already hear the deafening chain of explosions as strings of firecrackers were set off to scare away the evil spirits before the festivities could begin. Through the trees before him, and from over the roofs of the village, he could see the 60 foot bamboo towers covered with buns which had been erected all along the coastal path, for all the world like watchtowers to look out for the distant Japanese army divisions which were at that very moment making their way slowly and inexorably south along the Chinese coast. A huge papier-mâché effigy of a grotesque red face loomed occasionally above the heads of the crowd. Laughton walked out of the narrow strip of palm trees which separated the two sides of the island and found himself suddenly in the narrow alleyways of the town. A child, no more than five years of age, walked beside him, balancing on his hands. Laughton knew that this was supposed to represent some kind of human vice, he had read as much in the guide book earlier that morning, but he could not for the life of him think how. All he saw was a strangely red-faced child—an echo of the red-faced effigy of Shang Shaang, the Earth God—smiling innocently up at him from upside down. He had an urge to tickle the child’s bare feet but resisted for no other reason than that he felt sure that it would be the wrong thing to do. “A man is the less, is somehow incomplete if he is childless,” he said to himself, concerned by the fact that he did not know what to do in the presence of the little acrobat. He had no idea what he could do to make himself friendly and so he did nothing. Suddenly, the child tipped himself forwards and ran off into the crowd. Laughton noticed that he made a rude sign at him before he disappeared among the milling backs of adults. He sighed and began to look for somewhere to have a drink. The real festival would not begin until nightfall.

       In a small square which had somehow been hollowed out from the tangle of narrow, twisting streets, Laughton stumbled upon a hastily erected, make-shift bamboo and mat theatre. People had already begun to crowd into the square and were sitting cross-legged before the stage, patiently waiting for the show to begin. Laughton had experienced the tuneless, incomprehensible whining of Chinese opera soon after his arrival in Hong Kong and nothing would have induced him to sit for three hours watching a white-faced man in an elaborate head-dress prancing across the stage and making noises like a cat on heat, had he not suddenly seen Tung Nien and Molly looking out at the stage from a balcony at the back of the square.

       Laughton glanced behind him at the brilliant reds, blues and golds of the painted bamboo scenery and noticed that the musicians had already taken up their positions, the percussion instruments on one side of the stage, the wind and string instruments on the other. He sat down like the Chinese, cross-legged on the floor, but in such a way that with the slightest movement of his head he would be able to turn his attention from the actors on the stage and rest his eyes instead on the calm but eerie beauty of Tung Nien.

       Molly was excited. She had never seen the opera before and she was none too sure what to expect. Tung Nien was doing her best to explain, but her own knowledge was limited to the most basic facts.

       “If the actor is wearing green,” she said, “It means he represents a person of high rank.”

       “Like Chen Liew!” said Molly.

       “I suppose so,” Tung Nien agreed and continued, “Purple is the colour worn by Barbarian Generals.”

       “Like the Japanese!” laughed Molly.

       “A red-faced actor represents a courageous but dim-witted man.”

       “My father,” said Molly quietly. Tung Nien took Molly’s hand and decided she had explained enough. As they looked together over the heads of the people sitting in the square below them, Tung Nien thought that perhaps she should have defended Russell before his daughter. But she knew so little about him. What could she have said? Something stupid and grown-up like, “That’s no way to speak about your father!” Besides which, maybe Molly was right.

       Most of the people in the square were wearing round, pointed straw hats and it was not long before Laughton’s beige panama attracted Molly’s attention. She pointed towards the Englishman with a shriek of pleasure.

       “Look!” she called out to Tung Nien, tugging onto her sleeve. “Doesn’t he look silly sitting there in those stupid clothes!” It was unusual for a European to venture so far from Hong Kong. Not many of them were interested in native culture and most of them would have been too frightened to sit, as Laughton was doing, alone amongst the Chinese.

       “That is your courageous but dim-witted man,” Tung Nien said, laughing, but she could not help finding the situation curious. What on earth was a gweilo doing at the Bun Festival? As she looked towards him over the heads of the crowd, Laughton turned his face and looked up at the balcony. Their eyes met. Laughton, far from dropping his eyes in embarrassment, as she would have expected him to do, smiled and moved his hand towards his panama. He was going to take it off as a sign of greeting! Tung Nien snapped her eyes away to the floor and then up to Molly.

       “Dim-witted, certainly!” she said, but it was half to herself.

       “Do you know him?” Molly was asking.

       Tung Nien shook her head. She would not look at the man again to find out.

       “I know no Europeans,” she said, and she raised her chin to make it obvious to anyone who was watching that Chinese Opera was one of her passions, a passion from which nothing could distract her.

       A flat gong sounded to indicate that the opera was about to begin and the musicians began what for Laughton was the most horrendous, tuneless noise imaginable. The Chinese around him continued to talk as though the opera had not begun. Indeed, one man had stood up and was weaving his way through the seated crowd, making for a far corner of the square from where he could make good his escape. Laughton did his best to catch some hint of melody but found it impossible. He tried to pick out the beat, drumming his fingers on his knees, but there did not seem to be one. When a man loped across the matting dressed in an elaborate red and gold silk costume with matching head-dress to take up centre-stage and sing in a piercing, falsetto voice, it was almost too much for Laughton. It was all he could do to stop putting his fingers in his ears to block out the appalling racket. He looked up at the balcony. Tung Nien was looking at the stage and was smiling. She actually seemed to be enjoying it! Beside her, Molly had screwed her face into a frown and a grimace, as though she had bitten on something sour. Tung Nien leaned towards her, said something and the frown vanished, although Laughton noticed a bitter taste still lingered on at the corner of her mouth.

       The falsetto voice rose slightly in pitch as though demanding Laughton’s attention, but what was going on on the stage was totally beyond the bounds of his comprehension. A man was trotting from one side of the stage to the other with precise and measured steps chasing, it appeared, two squares of brightly embroidered silk, but never getting any closer to them. A white-faced man appeared at his shoulder and the Chinese sitting beside Laughton drew back his lips and hissed between his teeth in displeasure. Laughton searched the actor’s expression for some hint as to what was going on, but the white make-up remained as immobile as a mask. Laughton looked at his watch. Only ten minutes had passed. He hoped this was not one of the operas Miss Dekyvere had mentioned once over bridge. “There are some of them which last all day,” she had said, before adding with a smile, “But in those cases, it is acceptable for the audience to talk, to have luncheon or, indeed, to leave at any given moment, if they so desire.” Laughton would certainly have left immediately had Tung Nien not held him spellbound in his place.

 

       “That man with the hat keeps on looking at you,” said Molly, who found Laughton’s antics more interesting than the man chasing, but never catching, the embroidered silk.

       “He is not chasing the silk, Molly. The silk represents a sedan chair. It means he is being carried in a sedan chair. And the European gentleman does not keep looking at me.”

       “Oh, yes, he does! And he has taken off his hat.”

       “What is he like?” Tung Nien asked quietly.

       “For one of them,” said Molly, “He’s very handsome.”

       And so she would have to look after all.

       At that moment, Laughton was watching the stage. His profile was soft in the sun, although his nose was large in comparison with the snub-nosed Chinese sitting around him. He was holding his hat by the brim between surprisingly long and feminine fingers.

       “He has a gentle face,” said Tung Nien, but Molly snorted.

       “He looks like he was made from stone!” she said.

 

       When Laughton caught her eye for a second time, he could have sworn that she smiled at him. It made the torture of the opera worthwhile. The tuneless music, the unrhythmical percussion, the high, falsetto voices and the garishly made-up faces all faded into insignificance with the faintest movement of her lips. It did not occur to Laughton to examine the other faces of the audience. Had he done so, he would have found that everyone was looking across at him and that all of them were treating him to the same quizzical smile which, in Tung Nien, he had taken for affection. And the reason that they were all looking at him was that the man who had been chasing the silk squares had arrived at his destination, put away his sedan-chair and was now pointing his sword at Laughton and singing a very angry song in a most strident squeak. Laughton would have felt mortified had he realised he was the centre of attention, but Tung Nien’s smile protected him from baser feelings. When she looked away and released him, the moment had passed and it was only the insistent nudgings and leers of his hissing neighbour which gave Laughton the uncomfortable suspicion that something else had happened.

       And then Tung Nien and Molly left the balcony. One minute they had been there, laughing, and the next, they had gone. Laughton would not have felt more devastated had he been told that the Japanese had reached Kowloon and were preparing an invasion of Hong Kong itself. He stood up immediately and began to climb over the seated bodies in an effort to reach the corner of the square in time to see where they were going. He fell a couple of times and banged against the spectators’ backs with his knees but they seemed to forgive him his clumsiness because he was European.

       When he reached the alleyway, it was empty. A solitary bamboo pole of white washing dripped from a balcony to his right and a small puddle formed in the path before him. Laughton wandered the streets aimlessly for a while until he came out on the waterfront of the harbour and there he found a bar in which to hide himself away along with half a dozen old men. Watching people scrambling up bamboo poles and grabbing at edible buns with which to assuage the anger of the dead did not seem such a good idea any more.

       No sooner had he sat down with the only drink he had ever been able to pronounce in Cantonese, a rather malodorous brandy (whisky was not available on the outlying islands), than he was approached by a young boy of about fifteen with bright, piercing, black eyes. The boy sat down uninvited at Laughton’s small, rattan table. He held out his hand and Laughton obligingly shook it.

       “Wu Tang,” said the child and, seeing no reaction in Laughton, added proudly, “The Tangs of Kat Him Wai.”

       “Sorry, young fellow,” Laughton said smiling, “The only Chinese I know is Mao Zedong!”

       The boy grinned and clasped Laughton’s knee as he repeated with a grin, “Mao Zedong!” He shook his head happily. “You Communist!” He said in English.

       Laughton leaned back in his chair. Communist? He had never stopped to think about it before. He sipped the brandy. It was so disgusting that, without thinking what he was doing, he spat it straight back into the glass.

       “My God!” he said to the boy, his face involuntarily showing his disgust. Wu Tang grabbed the glass and ran with it back to the bar. After some gesticulating and a little laughter, the boy returned to the table with a glass of clear, but yellowy, liquid which smelled of petrol or paraffin, Laughton could not decide which. The taste was fiery but surprisingly palatable. Laughton smiled at the boy and took a second mouthful of the drink.

       Outside in the streets, darkness was falling and paper lanterns were being lighted and hoisted onto long poles. They were being carried towards the harbour as the people made their way slowly down to the waterfront and the bamboo bun towers.

       “You come!” said Wu, pointing towards the lanterns. “You watch!”

       Laughton shook his head.

       “I don’t think so,” he said. Wu frowned, shrugged and left the bar. Laughton was again made aware of how clumsy he was in the presence of children. He felt angry with himself for not having simply agreed with the boy. He watched the soft yellow glow of the lanterns bobbing past in the street and sipped at his yellow drink. He listened to the birds singing in their cages at the door of the bar and he began to relax, preparing himself for an evening’s drinking. He had lost Tung Nien. For all he knew she might have already left the island, and he had lost his little Communist companion. All he felt like doing was sitting apart from the crowd and looking on as the strange festival ran its course. But Wu Tang had returned.

       He had changed his clothes and he stood now arrogantly in the doorway of the bar, silhouetted by the dancing lights of the passing lanterns. He was wearing a white T-shirt covered in red Chinese characters, a green, silk band at his waist, and baggy, red trousers with a flash of white just below the knee. Wu Tang stood with his hands on his hips and beckoned to Laughton with a surly tilt of his head.

       “You come!” he demanded.

       Laughton stood up. He recognised the uniform of the dragon dancers. He placed a hand on Wu’s shoulder.

       “Are you going to be the one who carries the ball for the dragon to chase?” he asked. It seemed the most logical thing, given the boy’s size, but Wu tossed his head back and said, “I am head of dragon!”

       “Well,” said Laughton, “In that case, I should be delighted to come and watch.”

       When the dance began, although Wu was apparently thrusting the dragon’s head as high as he could into the air, his face remained hidden beneath the huge grinning mouth of the dragon. The head was mostly red, although the edges of its mouth formed an elaborate pattern of intertwined blues and greens. Inside the mouth, four white fangs and a pointed red tongue tried to make its lolling grin more fierce. Two red and white horns wobbled on the top of its head and its green and yellow eyes seemed to be set on springs. The striped silks of the dragon’s body flowed out behind Wu like an enormous centipede, floating and twisting and rippling through the air. A deafening crash of firecrackers echoed along the street and died in the tight alleyways of the village and hundreds of children ran towards the bamboo towers in search of buns. Somewhere, gaudy floats were being prepared and hoisted aloft on bamboo poles.

       Laughton felt suddenly exhilarated in the presence of such unfettered energy. He breathed in deeply, the remains of burnt gunpowder and the smoke from thousands of joss sticks stinging in his nose. The dragon continued its mad, frenetic dance and another string of firecrackers exploded somewhere away to Laughton’s right. Everywhere he looked, he saw happy faces reflected in the soft glow of the paper lanterns, all of them chewing on small buns.

       “I got three!” said an excited voice behind him in English. Laughton turned quickly and saw Molly repeating her message in Cantonese to Tung Nien. “Three!” she said again, counting out the buns on her fingers. Tung Nien smiled and pushed Molly past Laughton to the front of the crowd from where she would have an unobstructed view of the dragon dance. Laughton placed himself directly behind them and breathed in the intoxicating smell of jasmine perfume. He opened his eyes and saw that the dragon was careening towards them, racing and twisting its way across the open ground, heading straight towards where they were standing at the front of the crowd. In a mad cacophony of exploding firecrackers, Wu jumped up onto the man’s shoulders who had been in charge of the furry ball which teased the dragon. He pushed the dragon’s head high up into the air, holding it stiffly up into the night on the end of two long poles. He stood immobile on the man’s shoulders and stared fixedly down into the crowd, his face fulfilled and still, with a faint smile playing along his lips, as though in a trance. He was staring straight into Molly’s eyes.

 



    [1] Miu Tsai: the buying of children for adoption, or for selling them into service or prostitution. It was declared illegal in 1922.



 [i]. Bridge Game: Chapter 2:

 

 

♠ — A 6 3 2
♥ — 9 8 2
♦ —
♣ — J 10 7 6 5 3
N
RUTH DEKYVERE

 
♠ — 10 9 8
♥ — A K Q J 10 4
♦ — 9
♣ — A Q 9
W
MARY LAUGHTON
  ♠ — Q J 7
♥ —
♦ — A K Q J 10 8 7 5
♣ — K 2
E
ELIOT RODMELL
 

S
ALFRED LAUGHTON

♠ — K 5 4
♥ — 7 6 5 3
♦ — 6 4 3 2
♣ — 8 4

 
Bidding:
A. LAUGHTON
PASS
3♠
PASS
6♠
PASS
M. LAUGHTON
1♥
4♣
PASS
PASS
PASS

DEKYVERE
1♠
4♠
5♠
PASS
PASS

RODMELL
3♦
5♦
5NT
DOUBLE


Game:

NORTH PLAYS AND SOUTH IS DUMMY

1:—W 9♦; N A♠; E A♦; S 6♦.

2:—E 7♠; S 5♠; W 8♠; N 6♠.

3:—W 9♠; N 3♠; E Q♠; S 4♠.

4:—E J♠; S K♠; E 10♠; N 2♠.

5:—S 2♦; W A♣; N J♣; E K♦.

6:—E K♣; S 8♣; W Q♣; N 10♣.

7:—E 2♣; S 4♣; W 9♣; N 7♣.

8:—W 4♥; N 2♥; E Q♦; S 3♥.

 

WEST IS NOW LEFT WITH THE 5 HIGHEST CARDS IN ♥





Sample Chapters

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Chapter 1 •  Chapter 2