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Authors: Betsy Tobin

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BOOK: Crimson China
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She was surprised when Jin responded warmly to her email, promising at once to help her find work. With her fluency in English and teaching qualification, Lili was sure to land a job quickly, Jin had said. Mandarin schools were popping up like mushrooms all over the country. China was the new America, she had written. Everyone wanted a piece of it. But the wheels moved slowly. It was five months before Lili received the visa, and another two months before she had saved enough money to cover her travel expenses. So it was that eight months after Wen’s death, she finally fulfilled his promise of a reunion.

That first night, Jin takes her back to her room in a boarding house in Hounslow. When Jin opens the door and turns on the light, Lili is silenced. The room is sparse and depressing: a single bare light bulb hangs from a cracked ceiling, and the walls are covered in badly peeling pale coffee-coloured paper. Jin calls it a studio, but Lili thinks this is far too glamorous a term. There is a double bed, a tiny round table made of white metal, a chipped wooden wardrobe and a small kitchen unit with a sink and a two-ring cooker. The correct word in English is
bedsit
, she remembers. Because the only place to sit is on the bed. But she does not say this aloud. Jin explains that they share a bathroom with five or six others down the hall, which means they must fight their way to the
shower each morning. The landlord has installed a timer on the wall, and during peak times, each person is allowed only five minutes. When Jin tells her the weekly rent on the room, Lili gasps, for it is more than two months’ teaching wages at home. Jin laughs. Forget about
ren min bi
, she says. We work in pounds now. The pound is our ticket to prosperity.

But I didn’t come here to find prosperity, Lili thinks. I came here to
find Wen.

Wen shakes uncontrollably during the drive back to the English woman’s house. He has no sense of time passing nor of the direction they are heading, but is relieved when they eventually abandon the coast road. The English woman does not speak; indeed, she almost seems to forget his presence, so preoccupied is she with her own thoughts. She drives recklessly, he notices, too fast for a dark, stormy night. But he is hardly in a position to criticise.

His hands and feet are numb with cold. And each time he draws a breath, pain punches through his chest. But he is alive. He scarcely dares consider the fate of the others. Every time he remembers their stricken faces, he feels his insides lurch. Where are they now? He buries his head in his hands, clinging feebly to the hope that they have somehow been rescued, like him.

He owes his survival to the fact that he was willing to risk the water. The others refused, choosing instead to walk out to a high sandbank some distance away, where they assumed they would be safe from the rising tide. There had been a brief argument while he’d remonstrated with them. If they could manage to cross the channel that had severed them from the mainland, they might be able to find their way back to the shore, he had argued. But they were already terrified, and several protested they did not know how to swim, so in the end he was forced to go alone. He waded
out as far as he was able, then shed his coat and shirt and chose the shortest route across the channel he could identify in the darkness. He was a strong swimmer, but the icy water and treacherous currents proved too much for him. Within moments, his lungs were so compressed with cold he thought that he would faint. He managed to claw his way to the opposite sandbank, only to encounter a second channel a few hundred metres on. It was this second crossing that nearly claimed him: he had almost given up hope when he saw the English woman coming towards him in the water.

He glances over at her. Her shoulder-length brown hair is matted with wet against the sides of her face, and there are dark circles under her eyes. He is uncertain of her age. Not young, he decides. Thirty? Forty? He finds it impossible to judge with foreigners. Her clothes are ordinary: jeans, a long-sleeved t-shirt and a dark green pullover that now smells of wet wool. The enormous coat she was wearing lies in a sodden ball on the floor at the back. It was the coat he noticed first when she dragged him from the water: made of heavy black wool, it stretched below her knees and was buttoned up to the neck. No one in their right mind would attempt to rescue a drowning man in such a coat. That is how he knew.

Her driving makes him nervous. If she was prepared to die once, might she not be willing to do so again? Why rescue him, in order to kill them both moments later? It would not be rational. But then suicide itself is hardly rational, he decides. He closes his eyes, endeavouring to stop the thumping pain in the back of his head. He will have to trust to fate. From the moment he entered this world, his luck has not yet failed him; it is bound to serve him now. He concentrates on quelling the shaking that has taken hold of his body, taking deep breaths of air and exhaling slowly. In his mind he tries to find a place of warmth and stillness. The trembling gradually subsides, replaced by a sharp tingling in his
extremities. With considerable effort, he manages to flex his fingers and toes.

The car makes a sudden turn then comes to a halt. Wen opens his eyes and looks at the English woman.

“We’re here,” she says, turning to him. “Can you walk?”

He nods. She reaches down beneath her feet and retrieves her handbag, then gets out of the car. He opens his door and pulls himself out, nearly falling sideways. The blanket drops to the ground. The woman hurries round the car and grabs him. She reaches down and picks up the blanket, glancing around nervously in the darkness, before guiding him to the front door. The house is a tiny bungalow, set within a terrace of others. It is made of rendered concrete and brick, with a wooden door flanked by barren trellis. Once inside, she closes the door behind him and turns on a light. They are standing in a small entranceway that leads directly onto a sitting room, furnished with a sofa and television and a chunky wooden coffee table that is strewn with glasses and magazines. She leads him into the room and he feels his toes sink into thick carpet. He looks down: cream coloured, with tiny flecks of brown. The woman at once moves to close the curtains and crosses to the kitchen, turning on more lights on the way. Wen looks, feeling faint, as the woman disappears round the corner. She reappears a moment later carrying a bottle of whisky and two glasses. He begins to slip sideways.

“Shit,” she says, moving towards him. She manages to catch him with her free hand, lowering him onto the sofa. Then she pours two large glasses of whisky and hands him one.

“Here. Drink this.”

Wen stares at the whisky: the first he has been offered in this country. If he drinks it he might be sick. But he does not wish to offend the woman, nor anger her, so he reaches for the glass and swallows a mouthful. The drink burns. But it feels better than he anticipated. Perhaps she is not crazy after all. He takes another
large mouthful, while the woman drains her own glass. She turns on her heel and disappears again.

After a moment, he hears the sound of water running. He leans back on the sofa and closes his eyes, nearly succumbing to sleep.

“Come,” she says.

He opens his eyes and she is standing over him. He sees that she has changed into dry clothes and towel-dried her hair, and that a bit of colour has returned to her cheeks. In her hand she holds a large red towel and a pair of men’s black tracksuit bottoms with a matching sweatshirt. She helps him to his feet and steers him through the kitchen to a small yellow bathroom. She points to a white bathtub, now filled to the brim with steaming hot water. He blinks in disbelief and looks at her. She is no longer crazy; she is a goddess.

“Are you all right?” she asks.

“Yes.”

“Can you manage? Alone?” She is staring at him enquiringly, motioning towards the bath.

“Yes,” he nods.

“Thank God for that,” she murmurs, shaking her head. She withdraws, pulling the bathroom door shut behind her, leaving him alone.

He turns towards the steamy mirror over the sink, staring at his own reflection. He looks like a dead man: his skin is grey and his hair stiff with salt water. He sinks to the edge of the bath and dips his hand in the water. A searing pain runs up his arm, but he resists the urge to remove his hand, and closes his eyes, allowing the heat to rise up his arm and travel through his entire body. After a minute, he hears a knock at the door, and pulls his hand out with alarm.

“Are you okay?” she calls through the door.

“Okay,” he repeats.

“Okay then,” she says with a sigh. “Just don’t… drown in my bath, okay?”

He hears her muttering as he pulls his wet trousers off and sinks into the bath, giving a tiny involuntary cry of pain when his body is immersed in so much heat. He forces himself to remain there for as long as he can, then crawls out and dries himself, pulling on the tracksuit she has given him. His skin has turned bright pink, as if he has been boiled.

When he emerges from the bathroom, she is standing there, glass in hand. Her cheeks are flushed from the whisky, and her hair, now dry, is the colour of chestnuts. It falls in soft waves just past her shoulders. Her features are strong: dark eyebrows, a wide mouth and a long straight nose. Not beautiful, he thinks. But oddly compelling. When she looks at him, her gaze is fierce and unyielding, like a bird of prey – as if she cannot quite believe that he has landed here in her kitchen.

He glances at the bottle on the counter and sees that it is nearly empty. She takes in the tracksuit and frowns slightly, and for an instant he wonders whose clothes he is wearing: does she have a husband or boyfriend? She hands him a whisky. Without hesitating, he tosses it back, emptying the glass in one go. For the first time, she smiles. “You’re a quick study,” she says. She turns and leads the way back to the sitting room, where he sees that she has made up a bed for him on the sofa. She motions to it. “You sleep here. And me in there.” She points to a closed door opposite the kitchen.

“Okay,” he nods.

“Okay,” she repeats, flourishing the bottle a little drunkenly.

She crosses to the closed door and opens it, disappearing inside with the bottle. He has the briefest glimpse of a double bed, a wooden chest of drawers, a painting on the wall. Then he hears a key turn in the lock, just once.

He sinks down onto the sofa. He is suddenly starving. The
woman did not think to offer him food, but he dares not enter her kitchen, and anyway, it is sleep he needs more than anything. He lies down on the sofa and covers himself with the duvet she has given him, closing his eyes. It occurs to him that the sofa is more comfortable than anything he has slept on these past six months. And he had almost forgotten the pleasure of sleeping alone, without the sighs and stirrings of others around him in the darkness.

But he must not think of the others. For there is nothing now that he can do.

London, she soon learns, is enormous: a city of endless streets with row upon row of houses that are identical. The street Jin lives on could be any one of thousands. For the first few days, Lili trails after her, struggling to memorise the names of all the roads around the bedsit: Beaver’s Lane, Martindale, Hibernia.

“Don’t bother,” says Jin. “All you need to know are numbers. We live three streets west of Bus 237, which will take you to the language school at Sheep Pen. Get off at the last stop, turn left, walk one street south, turn right and the school is at number 57. From Sheep Pen there are buses going everywhere. Bus 18 will take you to Chinatown. Don’t take the underground unless you’re prepared to pay,” she admonishes.

Jin has invented her own codex of Chinese names for London landmarks. Sheep Pen is Shepherd’s Bush, Westminster is Big Ben Clock, Oxford Street is Rip Off Street and Hounslow is Plane City. Even after two years, Lili notices, Jin’s English is full of errors and shortcuts, as if she has given up trying to learn the language properly. Her accent, too, remains strong, so much that Lili finds it difficult to understand her when she speaks. Her own English is relatively good, though she has had little chance to use it since she arrived.

True to her word, Jin has found her a part-time job teaching
Mandarin at the language school where she works. Lili will teach children, many of whom are overseas Chinese, after school during the week and on Saturdays. The centre can employ only her twelve hours per week, but at fourteen pounds an hour the pay is better than elsewhere, says Jin. And if Lili is resourceful, she can build up a range of private students, who will pay as much as twenty pounds per hour. Jin herself has five such students, whom she sees each week in the evenings after work. In this way, Lili can hope to earn as much as four hundred pounds per week: a small fortune at home.

Four hundred, she thinks. Life is reduced to numbers here. In his letter, Wen wrote that he earned ten pounds for each bag of cockles that he picked, and that he could pick up to four in a day. If he worked daily through the winter season, he hoped to save two thousand pounds. His living expenses were low: he paid twelve pounds a week for space on the floor with six others in a run-down house in Liverpool, a pound a day for transport to and from Morecambe Bay and another pound for food. With a bit of luck he could save nearly two-fifty a week. Almost twice what he was earning washing dishes in London. But this is far less than she will earn, Lili thinks, for a fraction of the effort and hardship. Not to mention the risk. Wen never once mentioned the dangers of cockling in his letter, though she has since learned from reading news reports on the internet that the tides at Morecambe Bay are notorious for claiming lives. Whether he was aware of the risks, she doesn’t know. At any rate, it would not have mattered: she felt certain he would not have heeded them.

Jin shows Lili where to buy food inexpensively, where to do her laundry and where to find cheap internet access. It feels strange to her, this reliance on Jin, and she must stifle a creeping resentment. She feels as if she is merely passing through Jin’s life on the way to somewhere else: she does not know where she is going, only that when she reaches it, Wen will be there. At the end of the
second day, Jin takes her to Chinatown for a celebratory meal. When they are finally seated in a tiny restaurant beside a steaming window filled with rows of smoked ducks, Jin gestures towards the room.

“See? Just like home,” she smiles, looking around her. The room is filled with Chinese people; there is not a single Westerner present. Lili overhears snatches of three different dialects from the surrounding tables.

“I wonder if Wen ever came here,” she muses aloud. Jin’s smile vanishes.

“No.” She shakes her head. “He would not have done,” she says emphatically. Lili is surprised by her vehemence. Jin never met her brother, so her conviction is puzzling.

“Why not?” she asks. Jin pauses for a moment, frowning.

“Because people like your brother, they live in a parallel world here,” she says finally. “Like shadows.”

“What do you mean?”

“They are migrants: they move from place to place and never settle. They’re always on the run. It’s a different life from ours. And believe me, it isn’t one you’d want.”

The waiter arrives just then with two steaming bowls of noodle soup, which he sets in front of them. Lili watches Jin spoon crushed chilli into her soup.

“How strange to think that you were both here at the same time,” she murmurs.

“Not so strange. London’s full of Chinese. There are thousands of us here.”

“Perhaps I should have come to England with him,” Lili says tentatively. Jin pauses and looks up at her.

“Why?” she asks. Lili looks around the room a little searchingly.

“Because… then I could have helped him,” she explains.

“Maybe he didn’t want your help.”

Lili considers this. “Maybe not,” she admits. “But in the end he was unlucky.”

“Maybe,” says Jin. “And maybe he was just foolish,” she says with an air of finality.

Jin picks up her chopsticks and snaps them apart while Lili looks on, a lump rising in her throat. She is startled by the harshness of Jin’s words, and wonders what lies behind them. Her brother Wen was many things, she thinks. But he was not a fool.


The next day Jin goes to work, leaving Lili to face London on her own. She knows at once what she will do. Wen wrote that his second job was in a Chinese restaurant near the river. Not far from the restaurant was a bridge where he often went when he’d finished his shift. The bridge was cast in wrought iron and painted green, and at night it was magnificently lit. He liked to stand in the middle and watch the river flow beneath him. The restaurant specialised in hotpot, he said. So each day he faced a mountain of greasy metal pans in the kitchen. And it was run by a sour-faced Cantonese who docked their wages for the meagre meals he served them. She does not know where the restaurant is, but Jin has given her a map book of London, and she hopes she can find it. After all, she thinks, how many bridges can there be?

She is dismayed by the answer. She sees that it would take her days to walk the length of the Thames, particularly since it does not flow in a straight line, but curves like an unruly serpent. But surely not all the bridges in London are painted green? she thinks. She decides to walk to the closest point of the Thames to Hounslow, and from there follow it east as far as she can manage. She cannot think of an alternative. On the map, the river does not look far from Jin’s flat. She must merely keep walking east until she runs into the Thames at a place called Isleworth. But when she emerges out onto the street, she quickly becomes disoriented; walking in a straight line is not as simple as she thought. She must
refer to the map book constantly if she wishes to remain on course. Eventually she holds it open in front of her as she walks, checking the names of streets carefully at each intersection.

By the time she reaches Isleworth and the river, she is already tired. But unlike Hounslow, it is very picturesque. Brightly painted old buildings line the shores of the Thames, and a pretty church with spires rises up beside the river. There is nowhere at home that looks like this, she thinks, pausing for a moment to look out upon the swiftly flowing water. In the distance to her right she spies her first two bridges. The near one is low, modern and relatively plain. Though she can see some pale green railings, she does not think it could be the one her brother spoke of. The one behind it, further down river to the south, appears to be a railway bridge, and therefore closed to pedestrians. With a sigh she turns and begins to walk upriver. Two down, she thinks resolutely. Only eighteen more to go.

After half an hour, she passes another bridge, painted red and white. Both sides of the river are lined with parkland here. A gravel path runs beside the water, and for a time she forgets that she is in the middle of a large city. She passes the occasional jogger or cyclist, and a trickle of other walkers, but for the most part she is alone. She and Wen grew up in a small village just outside the city of Tangshan, a three-hour drive south-east of Beijing. A river ran along the outskirts of their village. When they were young, it was clean enough to swim and fish in. But as the region developed, the water became polluted with run-off from factories. Eventually it carried a thick skin of industrial effluent, so dense that birds could alight on it and ride downstream.

The Thames here looks better, she thinks, though not something she would swim in. The late September day is warm and sunny; she has finished the small bottle of water she brought with her and is beginning to get hungry. She follows the path around bend when suddenly a bridge comes into view. She stops short. It
is a tall suspension bridge: graceful, delicately wrought, with two enormous iron spires stationed like guards on either end. The entire bridge is painted green. At once she knows that it is Wen’s.

Quickly she checks the map book. She is just beside Hammersmith. She follows a path that takes her up to the bridge and walks out to its centre, just as Wen must have done countless times. From there she has a good view upriver. The tide is low and there are few boats in sight. A small sailboat drifts along lazily in the distance. She stares down at the map book: she does not know which side of the river Wen’s restaurant was on, but decides on balance to head towards the centre of London.

Minutes later, she regrets this decision, as she finds herself caught in a series of concrete underpasses with cars whizzing by her in every direction. But she perseveres and eventually emerges onto a high street with shops and restaurants. Hungry, she goes into a small sandwich bar, though once inside, she is bewildered by the display of fillings inside the glass case, most of which she does not recognise. A dark-haired man behind the counter raises a bushy eyebrow at her. Lili flushes and turns away.

She carries on walking, and after a few more minutes she sees a small Chinese restaurant on the opposite side of the road. The sign in English reads
Taste of Spring
, though the Chinese characters across the shop’s front say
Fragrant Spring Joy
. She hurries over to it and peers through the window. She sees with disappointment that the restaurant is only a takeaway: inside there are no tables, only a long counter and a few chairs for waiting customers. Besides, she can see from the menu on the door that it does not serve hotpot. She steps inside anyway. A young Chinese man is behind the counter, talking on a mobile in Mandarin. He is tall and lean and clean-shaven. When he sees her, he hastily closes the phone.

“Excuse me,” she says in Mandarin. “I’m looking for a hotpot restaurant near here. Do you know of one?” The young man
crosses his arms and leans back against the counter, regarding her with a look of bemusement.

“Why?” he asks.

Startled, she hesitates. He is good-looking, the sort of man who knows as much, the sort of man she has always avoided at home.

“I like hotpot,” she says finally. The young man laughs genially and spreads his arms.

“We’re just a takeaway. Noodles, fried rice, that sort of thing.”

“I know. I saw the menu.”

“But you only want hotpot,” he says teasingly.

“Yes,” she replies, the colour rising in her cheeks.

“Stubborn lady,” he counters.

Embarrassed, she turns to go.

“Hey,” he says. “I was only joking. There’s one not far from here.”

She turns back to him, her heart racing. He steps from behind the counter.

“Here,” he offers, nodding towards the map book in her hand. “I’ll show you if you like.”

She hands him the book and he opens it on the counter, turning the pages.

“Thank you,” she murmurs.

“No worries,” he says in English. He glances sideways at her.

“You speak English?” he asks.

“Of course,” she replies.

“Not everyone here does,” he says, looking back down at the book. “When did you arrive?”

“Three days ago.”

“I thought you were new,” he says. “From where?”

“Hebei Province,” she says cautiously. “Near Tangshan.”

“And already looking for hotpot? What are you, homesick?”

“No,” she stammers. “I…” She breaks off. The young man looks up at her, sensing her discomfort. At once his tone softens.

“Here,” he says, pointing to a place on the page. “The place you’re looking for is here. Fifteen minutes’ walk at most. But be careful. The guy who runs it is a bit of a tyrant. A friend of mine used to work there. A couple of years ago.”

She looks at him. A couple of years ago, she thinks. Like Wen. She resists the impulse to ask him the name of his friend.

“Thank you,” she says, turning once again to go.

“Hey,” he says. “You hungry?”

She pauses, for in truth she is starving. “A little,” she admits.

“I’ll get you something from the back. You can take it with you.” He disappears inside and returns a few moments later with a small white bag, which he hands to her.

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