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Authors: Betsy Tobin

Crimson China (4 page)

BOOK: Crimson China
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“Thank you,” she murmurs, embarrassed.

“Spring rolls,” he offers with a shrug. “Western style. Made them myself. No charge.”

“Do you own this place?” She asks, surprised.

He looks at her askance.

“No way,” he says in English. “My mother’s cousin owns it. I’m just the hired help. But this is a quiet time of day. So I’m on my own.”

“Lucky for me,” she says.

“So who are you looking for? Boyfriend?” Lili blushes and shakes her head.

“No one important,” she says. “Just an old classmate.”

“Do you know people here? In London?”

“A few,” she says. “One, actually,” she admits.

He laughs. “Well now you know two. My name’s Johnny. I’m an engineering student.”

“Johnny?” she raises an eyebrow.

He shrugs.

“Zhong Li. But here I’m Johnny.”

“Thank you, Johnny,” she says. For the third time, she turns to go.

“Hey Hebei,” he calls in English. “What’s your name?”

“Lili,” she replies with a smile.

He nods. “Come back and see me sometime,” he says easily. “I’m here most days.”

“Okay.” Lili flushes slightly, surprised by her own boldness. Would she have agreed so readily at home?

Johnny is right. The old guy who runs the Golden Phoenix Restaurant is breathing fire at a string of cowed employees when she walks through the door. The restaurant is empty of customers. Four tired-looking men wearing stained aprons are seated at a booth just outside the kitchen. The owner stands beside them waving a lit cigarette and berating them in a mixture of Cantonese and heavily accented Mandarin. Close to the door, a young Chinese woman wearing a tight-fitting black dress sits punching numbers into a calculator. At once she stands and approaches Lili.

“May I help you?” she asks, eyeing her.

“Could I speak with the owner?” The young woman raises an eyebrow.

“If you like. I’ll just get him.” She crosses over to where the owner stands and speaks quietly to him. The owner looks at Lili across the room, stubs out his cigarette in an ashtray, then walks over.

“Yes?” he says in English.

“I’m sorry to trouble you,” she says nervously in Mandarin.

He narrows his eyes slightly. “Go on,” he says.

“I was wondering if you could give me some information about one of your former employees.”

His eyes immediately register a look of alarm. “Why? Who do you work for?” he asks suspiciously.

“No one,” she says quickly. She fishes in her purse for Wen’s photo, pulling it out. “I’m looking for this man. His name is Zhang Wen.”

The owner frowns at the photo.

“Never seen him.”

“He worked here. Last year.”

“Last year? I employ a dozen people here. They come and go like salmon. How do you expect me to remember one?”

Lili pauses. “He was memorable,” she says quietly.

The old man hesitates. In that instant, she knows that he is lying.

“Who are you?”

“I’m his sister,” she says. “His twin sister.”

The old man stares at her for a long moment, then points towards a table.

“Sit down,” he says. He turns to the woman in the black dress and tells her to bring a pot of tea, then sits down opposite Lili with a sigh.

Slowly he removes a pack of cigarettes and takes one out, offering the pack to her. Lili shakes her head. She waits while he lights the cigarette. The young woman comes hurrying from the kitchen with a pot of jasmine tea and two small cups, which she pours for them. The old man motions for Lili to drink, then takes a long drag from his cigarette.

“Your brother is dead,” he says exhaling. “Surely you know this?”

“Yes,” says Lili, her voice nearly breaking.

“Then why are you here?” The words are harsh, but his tone has softened.

“I want to know a little more. About him. And his life here, before he died.”

The old man nods slowly, frowning. He reaches for an ashtray and taps the cigarette in it.

“I remember him,” he says. “In fact, I liked him. I was sorry when he left. He was smarter than most.” He inhales deeply from the cigarette.

“How long was he here?”

The old man shrugs. “Three months, maybe four. I don’t recall exactly.”

“Did he live here? Upstairs?”

“No.” He shakes his head. “Your brother lived with his girlfriend. In Hounslow.”

“Hounslow?” Lili asks. The information startles her.

“Yeah,” says the man with a smile. “He called it Plane City. Said he couldn’t sleep for the noise of all the planes going in and out of Heathrow.”

Somewhere deep inside, Lili feels something twist.

“His girlfriend,” she asks, her voice dropping to almost a whisper. “Was she Chinese?”

The old man nods. “From the mainland. Nice-looking. Bit of an operator. Dressed like she’d been born here.”

“What was her name?”

“I don’t recall. She picked him up a couple of times. He used to complain that she earned twice what he did. I think she taught Mandarin at a language school in Shepherd’s Bush. Sheep Pen, he called it.” The old man shakes his head with a smile.

Lili stares at him, unable to speak.
, she thinks. The old man leans forward, frowning.

“What happened to your brother was terrible,” he says quietly. “A terrible tragedy.”

She looks at the old man. His eyes are slightly yellow; she sees a small stain on the collar of his shirt.

“Yes,” she whispers. “I know.”

In the morning when Angie wakes, her head is shrouded in pain. She squints at the clock, sees the whisky bottle lying empty on the floor. She peers at it, trying to sift through the events of the preceding night.
, she thinks. There is a Chinese man on her sofa. Wearing tracksuit bottoms that belong to her ex-husband. Or maybe not. Maybe the man is already gone. And she will never know if he was real, or a figment of her mind, sent to save her from herself. She rolls over and pulls the quilt over her head.

There was a moment in the waves when she thought that they would both die. The fear was unlike anything she’d ever known: enormous, powerful and terrifying. It pierced her like a sharp blade and at once she realised death was not her friend, but her enemy. How stupid could she be? And yet she’d saved a man’s life. She is not religious, does not even believe in God. But perhaps something greater than herself sent her to the bay last night.

Yesterday had been a bad day: the first anniversary of her mother’s death. She’d woken with a sense of dread, and had stumbled through the day feeling oddly out of place and time. She does not remember making a decision to drive to Hest Bank, only that she ended up there.
, she thinks now. I have to go out there. And talk to him. It would help if he could speak back. His inability to communicate irritates her. How hard can it be to learn a
language? Slowly she rises and moves about her room as noiselessly as possible, finding some clothes. She is desperate for the loo. Perhaps he is still asleep and she can get to the bathroom without having to face him first. She turns the key in the lock and eases the door open as quietly as she can, peering out.

The Chinese man is sitting on her sofa, the bedding she gave him neatly folded in a pile to one side. The TV is on but he has muted the sound. When he sees her, he rises at once to his feet, his eyes filled with uncertainty. She comes out of the room. He nods to her nervously, then glances at the TV and quickly moves to turn it off.

“Don’t,” she says quickly. “It’s okay.” She sees for the first time the images on the screen. He is watching a local news channel, and the picture is of Morecambe Bay. She walks slowly towards the TV, staring at the images. Police cars, ambulances, yellow tape, a string of bodies laid out upon the sand, covered in pale white cloth. She turns and looks at the man.

“I’m sorry,” she says. He nods grimly. She reaches over, turns up the volume and sinks down onto the sofa. A reporter is speaking: eighteen bodies have been found, but five more are missing. She listens for a moment, then turns to him.

“They’re looking for you,” she says. “You,” she repeats, pointing to him.

He swallows a little nervously, and nods.

“Do you speak English?” she asks.

He holds up two fingers close together.

“Little,” he says.

“Do you understand me?” He shrugs.

“Little,” he repeats.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out, remembering her full bladder. She rises and walks through the kitchen to the bathroom, closing the door behind her.

The bath is full of cold water. She reaches down to pull out the
plug, watching the water slowly ebb as she relieves herself. What in God’s name is she meant to do with him? Should she ring the police?

“Are you hungry?” she asks a moment later.

His eyes widen, and he nods.

“Please,” he says.

She crosses to the refrigerator and looks inside: a sagging grapefruit, a bottle of salad dressing, three tired tomatoes and some out-of-date milk. Dismayed, she realises she will have to go out for food and she can hardly take him with her. So he will have to stay.

She looks into the sitting room: he is seated on the sofa, his eyes locked onto the news report. Poor bastard. She picks up her handbag and keys, then returns to the sitting room where he is waiting.

“I’m going out,” she says. “To buy food. To eat. Stay here. I won’t be long.”

The man’s eyes widen briefly.

She buys more food than she has eaten in a month. Orange juice, bread, eggs, bacon, potatoes, chicken, cheese. She adds rice and soy sauce as an afterthought. At the till her eyes land on the rack of newspapers: the story is all over the headlines. She picks up two different papers and throws them on the counter. The shop assistant, an older woman with badly hennaed hair, clucks at the headlines.

“Terrible, what’s happened,” she says. “Someone should’ve warned them. Imagine dying out there in that freezing water!” The woman looks up at her for confirmation. Angie cannot meet her eye. She stares down at the food, a lump forming in her throat. It is all she can do to nod.

When she opens her front door, she does not know what she will find. Perhaps he has fled, along with half her things. A part of her would be relieved. But he is there, seated on the sofa just
as she left him, the TV still on. Where would he go, she wonders? He jumps to his feet as she enters and immediately moves to help her with the bags. She unpacks the food while he watches. She turns to him after a minute.

“You’re making me nervous,” she says.

He blinks, uncomprehending. She points to the sofa.

“Go watch TV,” she orders. “I’ll call you when it’s ready.”

“Okay,” he says, retreating quickly.

She turns back to the food laid out in front of her.

“Okay,” she mutters to herself.

He eats ravenously: she thought she had cooked masses but it is not enough. She too is hungry, has not eaten properly in days. They finish the breakfast and then she makes several slices of toast, which she puts on his plate. She hands him a knife, a plate of butter and a jar of honey.

“Toast,” she says pointedly.

Toe se
,” he repeats.

“Yeah, something like that,” she says. “I use butter and honey, but you can eat it how you like,” she adds, not really caring whether he has understood.

He watches her spread butter and honey on her toast, then does the same. After six slices, he finally indicates that he has had enough.

“For someone so thin, you can’t half eat,” she comments.

He regards her uncertainly. She sighs.

“You’re going to have to learn English or I’ll go mad,” she says, picking up both their plates and moving towards the sink. At once he leaps up and crosses to help. She looks at him and laughs.

“Okay,” she says, indicating the dishes in the sink. “They’re all yours.”

“Okay,” he replies.

She goes back to the TV, switching channels to try to find more
coverage, and scanning the newspaper stories. Eighteen men and two women were dragged out of the bay last night. Only two were still alive. It is uncertain how many more are missing. The Chinese had ventured out at dusk so as to work under cover of darkness, because of recent disputes with local cocklers. She has a flash of memory then: a battered white van crawling across the sand. Her stomach lurches. I saw them, she thinks. And I did nothing. But neither did the others, she remembers, those coming in from the beds. So the blame does not sit on her alone. And anyway, she thinks, I saved him. But how many more could she have saved?

Just then she hears the sound of breaking glass from the kitchen. She jumps to her feet and crosses the room. The Chinese man is staring at the floor where he has dropped a tumbler. He raises his eyes to her and she sees fear in them. At once he drops to his knees and begins to gather up the pieces.

Dui bu qi
,” he says in Mandarin.

She goes to the cupboard under the sink and takes out a dustpan and broom.

“It doesn’t matter,” she says. She lays a hand on his arm, and he looks up at her. His jaw is set in a grim line and there is a remote look in his eye. What exactly has this man endured? she wonders.

“It doesn’t matter,” she repeats slowly.

He takes a deep breath and nods, just once.

As she finishes sweeping up the glass, the telephone rings. The sound startles her. The Chinese man eyes her to see what she will do, and for a moment she is paralysed. The phone rings six times, seven, before she finally picks up the receiver.


“Angela?” A male voice comes down the line. Tony, she thinks. Her boss.


“Are you okay?” he asks. She glances at her watch: it is past eleven. She is two hours late.

“I’m fine,” she says quickly.

“So are you coming in?”

“Actually, I’m not well.”

“What kind of not well?” His voice is sceptical. Angie hesitates.

“Some sort of food poisoning.” It is the first thing that comes to mind.

“Food poisoning? From what?”

She looks around the room uncertainly. Her gaze settles on the Chinese man, who is watching her closely.

“Bad takeaway,” she says. “Chinese,” she adds. She has to stifle a laugh.

“Well, I’m a bit snowed under here. Can you make it in?” He is asking, but his tone is one of irritation. “Angie?”

“Yeah. Give me half an hour.”

She goes back into her bedroom to change into work clothes. So this is how it goes, she thinks. The business of life. There is no stopping it. Here she is, going through the familiar rhythm of it all, dressing for work, combing her hair, making excuses to her boss. And yet things have altered, she thinks. There is a complete stranger on her sofa. She finishes dressing and returns to the sitting room, where the Chinese man is still watching TV. She takes up her handbag and keys and turns to him.

“I have to go now,” she says. “To work,” she adds.

He nods anxiously.


“Make yourself at home.”

He looks at her quizzically, has clearly not understood.

“Stay,” she says then. “You can stay. I’ll be back later.” Their eyes meet for a moment. She taps her watch. “Later.”

The Chinese man nods. “Okay,” he replies.

She moves to the door, but at the last minute she turns back to him with a frown.

“I’m not in a position to save anyone,” she says. “Least of all myself.”

BOOK: Crimson China
11.87Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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