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Authors: Betsy Tobin

Crimson China (5 page)

BOOK: Crimson China
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It takes hours to walk from Hammersmith to Hounslow, but Lili wants to etch the journey in her mind, for she is searching for a way into Wen’s past. She is numb with disbelief that Jin was sleeping with her brother. How could she not have known? And why would Jin keep it from her? When she finally arrives at Jin’s flat, dusk is falling. Jin is already home from work, boiling dumplings on the small stove, and greets Lili unsuspectingly when she enters. Lili sinks down onto the bed and kicks off her shoes. She watches as Jin drains the dumplings and pours them into a small red bowl.

“What did you do today?” asks Jin, sitting down beside her on the bed. In her hand she holds the red bowl and a pair of chopsticks. The smell of soy sauce and black vinegar fills the tiny room.

“I went to Wen’s restaurant. In Hammersmith.” Jin turns to her with a frown. “Why?”

“To find out more about his life here,” Lili replies. The silence stretches out between them. Jin stirs the dumplings slowly round in her bowl with the chopsticks.

“And did you?”

“Yes,” Lili says in English. The way she says it makes Jin freeze, her chopsticks halfway to her mouth. Lili looks around the
room, trying to imagine Wen in it. After a moment’s hesitation, Jin pops the dumpling into her mouth.

“I walked home from Hammersmith. It took me three hours.”

“Why didn’t you get a bus?” Jin asks.

“Because I wanted to know what his journey was like,” she says slowly, “when he came home each night to share your bed.”

Jin stops chewing and turns to her. Their eyes lock for an instant, then Jin sighs and sets the bowl down on the table.

“Don’t stop on my account,” says Lili. “You’ve never done before.”

Jin turns to her. “Why don’t you just ask me?” she says in a weary voice.

Lili looks at her: there are so many things she wants to know. But she doesn’t want to hear them from Jin. What she really wants is for Wen’s life to happen again, so that she can be a part of it.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“Because he told me not to.”

The words land like a punch. For a moment, Lili cannot speak.

“You didn’t own him,” continues Jin. “He had a life that was unconnected to you.”

“But
you
are connected to me,” counters Lili.

“I was connected to both of you. In the end.” Jin picks up the bowl, popping another dumpling into her mouth. Lili watches as she chews.

“How did you meet?”

“He came to the language school to find me, not long after he arrived.”

“How? I don’t understand.” Lili frowns.

“You
told
him I was here. Don’t you remember?”

Lili stares at Jin, trying to focus her memory. So much has happened during the interim. Perhaps she did mention Jin to her brother. But surely it was only in passing, she thinks.
I
have a friend in London.

“But I knew nothing then of how to find you,” says Lili. A part of her does not wish to believe anything Jin says.

Jin shrugs. “You knew enough. Anyway, he was resourceful. He asked around, found out the address of the school, and one day when I finished work, he was waiting for me outside. I’d met him once before. At college. You must remember. Even so, I walked right by him that day.”

No
, thinks Lili.
I don’t remember at all
. And then a picture forms in her mind of a sunny afternoon in early spring. She is playing volleyball with a group of friends when she looks up to see Wen standing just outside the gates, watching her. She drops the ball and runs over to him, throwing her arms about his neck in greeting. She drags him through the gates and onto the court, introducing him to each of her friends in turn. Jin is the last to nod her greetings.

“Anyway, he remembered me,” says Jin. She stands up and rinses the red bowl in the sink, then sets it upside down on the drainer before turning back to Lili.

“And one thing led to another,” she continues.

“How long?” asks Lili. “How long were you and he… together?”

“A few months. Maybe longer.”

Long enough to grow accustomed to each other, thinks Lili. She is suddenly bitterly jealous.

“Why did he leave?” she asks.

Jin turns away. “He hated London. He thought he could do better elsewhere. I told him he was lucky to have me, and this flat. I paid the rent. My salary was more than twice his. Anyway, we argued. And he left to find his fortune elsewhere. That was the end of it.”

“And after? Did you see him after he left?”

“No,” she says. “He called me twice. It was harder than he’d
imagined, I think. Though he never said. And then, for a long time I heard nothing. Until the day I saw his face in the newspaper.” Jin’s voice drops to little more than a whisper. “I couldn’t believe it at first. I couldn’t believe that it was real.”

“Wel,l it was real. Wen died that night.”

“Yes,” says Jin. She looks up at Lili and their eyes meet. “I’m sorry if I deceived you,” she says slowly. “But in the end, it makes no difference.”

Jin moves to the sink and fills a glass of water. As she raises it to her mouth, Lili sees the slightest tremor in her hand.

“Were you in love with him?” she asks.

Jin turns back to the sink to refill the glass.

“No. Love was not a part of it.”

Lili frowns. She cannot see Jin’s face. But even if she could she does not know whether she would find the truth there. Jin turns and crosses to the bed, picking up her coat and handbag, before turning back to Lili.

“I have to go. I have a student waiting. We can talk later.”

“Okay,” says Lili.

After Jin leaves, Lili lies face down across the bed, listening to the faint sounds of life around her. She hears the low hum of the television next door, and the sound of the shower running in the bathroom down the hall. She struggles to conjure a picture of Wen in this place, and for the briefest instant, imagines him entwined with Jin on the bed where she is lying. But the image jars her. Wen was no stranger to women; she knows this. Indeed, they were drawn to him, for he had a kind of transparency that was rare in a man. He was completely without guile. But neither was he weak. He had a kind of inner strength that women found reassuring. Lili looks around the room. Knowing Wen was here does not bring her any closer to him. Instead, he seems to drift even further away.

At length, she rises and crosses to the counter. She’s eaten
nothing but the spring roll since morning and is suddenly starving. Jin has left some dumplings for her, and Lili boils a pot of water and drops the dumplings in one by one with a pair of chopsticks. She looks down at the water, waiting for the dumplings to rise. As she does, her eyes alight on a battered black canvas suitcase beneath the bed. Without knowing why, she goes over to the bed and sinks to her knees, dragging the suitcase out from underneath. She unzips the lid and looks inside: some old jumpers, half a dozen paperbacks, and a thick brown envelope with an elastic band around it. She hesitates only for an instant, then reaches for the envelope. Inside is a sheaf of papers and correspondence: letters, visa documents, bank and travel receipts. She glances through them quickly, careful not to disturb the order. Near the bottom is an envelope with Jin’s address in Hounslow written on the front. When she sees it, her heart begins to race, for the handwriting resembles Wen’s. She pulls out a single sheet of folded notepaper; two photos drop into her lap.

Wen looks up at her, smiling. He wears jeans and a black t-shirt and carries a dark green satchel over his shoulder. The day is sunny, and in the background is the London Eye. The expression in his eyes is relaxed and good-humoured. The other photo has fallen upside down. When she turns it over she draws a sharp breath. Wen is completely different in this photo: his face more angular, his expression troubled. Wen and Jin pose together in front of a statue of a large bird that sits atop a tall stone column. The day is cloudy and in the background Lili can see an endless stretch of ocean. They appear to be standing on some kind of pier. Jin has both arms linked through one of his, but Wen’s hands are thrust deep into the pockets of his coat. Lili stares at the photo: there is something unyielding in Wen’s stance, as if he is resisting. Jin wears a smile of satisfaction, but Wen stares angrily at the camera. Clearly they are not in London. They are somewhere on the coast, but where?

Lili opens the folded sheet of paper, and sees at once that it is a note to Jin hastily scrawled in Wen’s handwriting. Her eyes sweep quickly to the end, but curiously, there is no signature. The note says only:
I am sorry to call upon you once again. I hope this will
be the last time
. She stares at the paper, struggling to make out the note’s meaning. What is it he was after? And why is it the last time? She looks again at the photos, this time laying them side by side. At once she sees the differences. Wen’s hair is considerably longer in the first photo. And in the second, his complexion is slightly darker than she remembers. She peers closely at this second photo. There is also a small mark above his left eye, which does not appear on the first photo, perhaps a scar. She realises that the first photo is very like the Wen she knew. The second is of a different person – older, and altered in ways she cannot grasp. She stares down at them. Jin said that she and Wen had been together a few months. But these two photos could not have been taken within the same space of time. Lili looks again at the envelope: the date has been smudged, but the letter has been posted from Morecambe Bay.

When she goes to work, Wen is left alone in her house. She obviously trusts him, though he is not sure why. He is not the thieving sort, though she has no way of knowing this. Perhaps she does not care if he steals from her – maybe her possessions hold no value. For the first time, he allows himself to look at her belongings. It was not poverty that took her to the bay last night, he decides. At least not by his standards. The house is comfortably furnished, though everywhere he sees evidence of neglect: peeling paint in the bathroom, a broken light in the hallway, stains upon the carpet in the sitting room, the front panel of a drawer missing in the kitchen. She has a long garden out the back, but it appears overgrown and unused. When he peers through the glass door, he sees a large ceramic pot tipped upon its side, the plant it once contained withered to dry stalks.

More crucially, her house does not feel like a home. It is cold, as if lacking some key element of vitality. He remembers a proverb that his stepmother used to say:
if there is light in the soul, there
will be harmony in the house
. After a few minutes, he realises there is not a single photo in sight. Puzzled, he searches through her things, opening drawers, leafing through papers on the counter, but he finds no evidence of her family, or any connection to the world. He moves into the bedroom, looks inside the small closet,
then crosses to a chest of drawers standing in the corner. He opens the top drawer and sees that it contains her underclothes: a pile of frayed knickers and a tangled assortment of bras in different hues. He stares at them transfixed for a moment, but feels a sudden sense of shame when he remembers they are Angie’s.

He starts to close the drawer when he sees the corner of a tarnished silver frame at the back. It holds a faded snapshot of a woman flanked by two young children: a boy of perhaps ten, and a girl half that age. Neither child is smiling. The woman wears bright red lipstick, a short navy-blue dress and a bouffant hairdo. Her head tilts slightly to one side. The boy scowls at the camera, his hands thrust into the pockets of his trousers, and the girl fixes her gaze on the photographer with an intense scrutiny. Wen realises the girl is Angie, and suddenly the similarities between the child and the woman become glaringly obvious, as if the passing of time has happened at a stroke. He stares at the photo, wondering about the girl trapped inside. All the while Angie stares back at him accusingly, until he stuffs the photo in the back of the drawer, feeling as if he has violated her somehow.

He plants himself upon her sofa, scanning the channels for more reports on Morecambe Bay. Eventually he sleeps. When he wakes, dark is falling outside. Hungry, he goes into the kitchen and looks inside the refrigerator. Her food is strange to him: cheese, yogurt, a bag of salad. Discouraged, he returns to the sofa and watches a game show where schoolchildren vie for prizes by completing tasks of strength and stamina. There are two teams of four. Five of the children are white, two are brown and one is black. The colours of modern Britain. Not one of the children is Chinese. Because we are invisible here, he thinks. After the show finishes, a local news report comes on. A young woman stands upon the sands close to the spot where they set out last night, gesturing to the ocean behind, the wind whipping her dark hair about her face. He does not understand what she says, but after a
moment, a series of photos flash up on the screen: passport pictures of those who died. Wen freezes, the horror of last night flooding back to him. One by one, the people he worked with appear in front of him. He had not been digging fish in Morecambe Bay for very long, so he could hardly number these people among his closest friends, but their faces now seem utterly familiar. He sees with relief that Lin is not among them.

For the first time, he allows himself to think of his friend. He first met Lin picking apples in Norfolk in the autumn, and when the harvest had finished, they had come to Morecambe together seeking work. Though they usually worked in the same team, yesterday they’d been bundled into different vans on the long drive from Liverpool. Lin’s van had parked about a quarter-mile further west than the one he’d been travelling in, and the visibility had been so poor that he’d seen nothing of the other group once they were out on the sands. Angie told him that more than a dozen cocklers had survived, and that a few more were still unaccounted for. He can only hope that Lin is among the survivors. The reporter concludes the story and the screen changes to a commercial. Wen slumps back against the sofa, feeling drained.

A quarter of an hour, later he hears a key in the front door. Angie stops just inside the door and looks at him.

“You’ve not moved an inch, have you?” she says.

He rises and nods hello to her, uncertain of her meaning. She takes off her coat, hangs it on a hook by the door and walks by him into the kitchen.

“I thought I hallucinated you,” she remarks as she passes. He takes a few steps towards the kitchen, watches her take a bottle of whisky from beneath the sink and pour herself a generous glass. She drinks a third of it in one go, looks over at him and holds the glass up.

“Drink?”

He shakes his head.

“Suit yourself. Are you hungry?” She gestures putting something in her mouth.

“Yes,” he nods. “
Puh-lees
.”

“Can you cook?”

He hesitates. She opens the refrigerator and pulls out a pack of chicken, then reaches up to the cupboard for a small bag of rice, before turning back to him.

“You,” she says, pointing at him. “Cook? Food?” She holds up the rice, gives it a little shake, and points towards the cooker.

“Yes,” he says. “Little.”

“A little,” she corrects.

“A little,” he repeats.

“Thank God for that,” she says with a sigh. “’Cause I’m knackered.” She bends down and removes a frying pan from the cupboard and hands it to him, walks past him into the bedroom and closes the door.

He stands uncertainly holding the pan for a moment. He places it atop the cooker and picks up the packaged chicken: two breasts, sealed in plastic on a white tray, for a price that would buy five times as much at home. He is not entirely sure he understood her meaning. But he is hungry, so he rummages in the cupboard and drawers and finds the soy sauce and some onions, a knife and a wooden cutting board, and begins to skin and bone the chicken, cutting it into pieces. The door opens and she walks past him in a dark blue dressing gown, still holding the glass, now empty. She pauses to refill it, then disappears inside the bathroom. After a moment, he hears her running the bath. He does not know any English people, so has no basis for comparison. But her actions seem strange by any standard.

He is not a bad cook. In fact, these past few months he’d taken over much of the meal preparation, as he was more experienced than the others: men whose wives had looked after them at home. No one wanted to spend more than a few pounds a week on food,
so he was forced to be resourceful, scouring the shops for items that had been heavily discounted. Mostly they lived on homemade dumplings, instant noodles and rice, occasionally buying cheap sausage or pork belly to go with it. He has not eaten chicken since he left London. He finds some oil in the cupboard and stir-fries the chicken with the onions and soy sauce, and prepares the rice the way his step-mother taught him, cooking it halfway, then turning the heat off and allowing it to steam itself from the bottom up.

When the food is ready, he goes to the bathroom door and presses his ear against the panel. He can hear nothing. Perhaps she has fallen asleep, he thinks. After a moment, he raps softly on the bathroom door. At once he hears the slosh of bath water from within, and after several seconds she opens the door. Steam wafts over him, mixed with the flowery scent of shampoo.

Her face is flushed and her hair slick with wet. She wears the blue dressing gown, hastily closed so that he can see a broad slice of moist cleavage. She takes a deep breath and sways ever so slightly.

“Yes?”


Puh-lees
. Eat.” He motions to the table where the food waits. She looks at the food, then back at him.

“Blimey. You weren’t kidding.” She crosses to the table and sits down, and after a moment’s hesitation, he joins her. She picks up the fork and takes a bite of the chicken.

“Not bad,” she says. “Much better than I could do.” She turns to him and leans in close. “Good,” she enunciates heavily, nodding.

He gets a brief whiff of whisky mixed with soy and onion.

“Thank you,” he says.

“No,
sank you
,” she replies, a slow smile spreading to her lips.

They continue eating, and when she has finished, she lays down her fork, leans back in her chair and crosses her arms.

“So what now? We get married?” She throws back her head and laughs.

Wen smiles uncertainly. She is drunk. And she has clearly made a joke. But he has not understood it. Still, he should humour her. She stops laughing and looks at him, leaning forward.

“What. Are. We. Going. To. Do.” She pauses in between each word. “With you,” she adds, pointing at him.

He takes a deep breath. This time he has understood. Maybe not the words, but the meaning. He lowers his eyes to the empty plate in front of him. He knows that he should offer to leave, but he has no idea where he would go. He does not even know where he is. He raises his gaze to hers: she is frowning at him. They regard each other for a moment.

“I think,” she says slowly. “That you should stay. Here,” she adds. “With me.”

Wen looks at her. He has understood three words:
stay
,
here
and
me
. He does not know precisely what she is offering, but it seems worth the gamble. And he does not really have an alternative. Even if he was prepared to contend with the police, the thought of returning to ill-paid jobs and sleeping eight to a room now seems impossible.

“Okay,” he says.

She nods. “Okay,” she repeats.

He does not know where he is going, but for the moment, his journey has brought him here.


The next morning after she leaves for work, he writes a letter to his sister. It is the only letter he has written since leaving China, and he dates it three days previously. He cannot risk telling her the truth: the letter might be intercepted by the authorities en route. When she receives it, she will think it was written the day before he died. He is not certain what the outcome of his present situation will be, but he wishes to set down his life to date. He owes that
much to his sister, particularly if he is going to disappear off the face of the earth.

It takes him most of the day to write the letter, and in the end it runs to several pages. He describes his experiences in England, leaving aside a few key details. His affair with Jin he does not share with her. His sister has always been conservative in such matters; for all he knows she has never slept with a man. And Jin is not the sort of woman she would have chosen for him – he knows this even without asking. Though the two were room mates at university, they were very different in their characters. But he was drawn to Jin from the moment he first met her. He admired her strength and her independence, though he sensed that she was cold-hearted. When they eventually became lovers, he was surprised by the contradictions in her nature. Jin was fiercely self-reliant, but over time, became increasingly demanding of him. He could see, after a few months, that she was falling in love with him. This, more than anything, accounted for his decision to leave London.

He finishes the letter with a cryptic message, urging his sister not to lose heart over his absence.
It was painful to leave you
, he writes. But after a moment’s hesitation, he promises they will meet again soon. In the absence of truth, he wishes to furnish her with a small degree of hope. For now, it is the most that he can do.

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