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Authors: Betsy Tobin

Crimson China (7 page)

BOOK: Crimson China
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“What is your name?”

“May,” replies the girl. Lili smiles.

“That’s a lovely Chinese name.”

“It’s the name of a month. In spring.”

“You are right. It is that too. But in Mandarin, it means

“Yeah, I know.” May kicks at the ground with her shoe. Lili glances up the street. There is no sign of the child’s father.

“My mother named me after her favourite time of year,” says May after a moment. “But then she died,” she adds.

“Oh,” says Lili. “I’m sorry.”

“It’s okay. She wasn’t my real mother. My real mother was Chinese.”

“What happened to her?”

“Which one?”

“Your Chinese mother,” says Lili.

May shrugs. “I don’t know. They found me in an alley.”

“Oh,” says Lili, silenced momentarily by the girl’s bluntness.

“You’re from China too, aren’t you?”


“What’s it like there?”

“It is very different to here.”

“Different how?”

“Well. The people there are all Chinese.”

“But I’m Chinese.”

May is staring at her. Lili falters. She owes the child a better answer, but she is completely at a loss. Where would she begin?

“How old are you?” she asks instead.

“I’ll be ten in a few months. But I’m the smallest in my class,” May says, as if it is an oversight on her part.

“It’s okay to be small,” Lili says. “Maybe better than being big.”

May studies her with a frown, weighing up the truth of her words.

“I’m sorry! So sorry!”

Lili turns to see a tall, red-haired man rushing along the pavement, calling to them. He climbs the steps two at a time, coming to an abrupt halt in front of her.

“The traffic was murder,” he exclaims.

“You’re late,” says May accusingly.

“Sorry, darling,” he exhales, reaching out and laying a hand on her head.

“The other kids went home ages ago.”

He flashes her a brief frown, then turns to Lili.

“Are you the new Mandarin teacher?”

“Who else would she be?” says May quietly.

“Yes. I am Lili.”

“Hello. Adrian. May’s father.” He thrusts out his hand and Lili takes it. His fingers are long and slender. Lili sees a tiny tuft of strawberry hair peeking out of the triangle of his shirt.

“She is a good student,” says Lili, indicating May. “She learns very quickly.”

Bored, May has begun to hop up and down the steps on one foot. Adrian too glances at May. He takes a deep breath and runs a hand through his pale ginger hair.

“Well, it’s in her genes, I guess. I don’t speak any Chinese, so I thought it would be good for her to learn.”

“Yes,” says Lili. “Of course.”

“May’s adopted. From the mainland.”

“Yes. She told me this.”

“And she’s
excited about learning Mandarin, “Aren’t you, May?” He looks at her hopefully. May hops up the last two steps and comes to a halt abruptly in front of him.

“Can we go home now?” she asks.

“Yes, of course,” says Adrian. May hops down the stairs. Adrian turns back to Lili. “It was good to meet you. I guess we’ll see you next Thursday.”

“Yes,” says Lili. “Goodbye, May,” she calls.

May raises a hand in a sort of wave but continues hopping on one foot out the school gate and onto the pavement.

“Bye,” says Adrian with a small shrug of apology. He hurries down the steps and follows May out onto the street.

For three days, Angie goes to work, leaving Wen alone in her house. She has no idea what he does to occupy himself in her absence. But he leaves virtually no imprint. When she returns at the end of the day, the house is exactly as she left it, almost as if he ceases to exist when she is gone.

Several times she has experienced an unsettling moment at work when she is suddenly convinced that he is a figment of her imagination; that the events that night on the bay were nothing more than a drunken dream. And each evening when she walks through the door, her heart beats a little faster in anticipation of what she will find. But he is always there: sitting on her sofa, wearing the same black tracksuit, his hands resting uncertainly at his sides, his eyes trained on her. And each time what she feels is relief.

With remarkable ease, they slip into a sort of rhythm. Every night after work, she stops at a local supermarket and buys groceries and a small bottle of whisky. Once home, she pours a drink, slips into a hot bath and emerges to eat whatever he has concocted out of her purchases. On the third night, she hands him a carrier bag containing a packet of mince, a tin of tomatoes and a small package of spaghetti. Wen looks inside the bag.

“Bolognese,” she explains.

Wen pulls the ingredients out of the bag, eyeing them with uncertainty, and places them on the counter.

Bo lo nay
,” he repeats, frowning.

“Italian,” she says. “From Italy. Spaghetti with meat sauce. Okay?”

Wen shrugs. “Okay,” he replies gamely.

“Fabulous,” she says, disappearing into the bath.

When she emerges forty-five minutes later, she finds that he has boiled, then stir-fried the spaghetti together with the mince. She watches with interest as he drains the tin of tomatoes, chops them roughly and adds them to the pan. After another few moments of stir-frying, he turns to her tentatively, holding the food out for her inspection. He watches as she leans down and inhales its fragrance.

“Perfect,” she says, raising her head. “Spot on.”

Wen looks at her and smiles.

After they have eaten, Wen does the washing-up, while she settles herself with the whisky in front of the television. Eventually he joins her on the sofa, and though he does not understand much of what he sees, he appears to find it entertaining.

They watch in silence, and occasionally he steals a glance at her. He sips one glass of whisky to her three or four. When the bottle is nearly finished, and her brain is sufficiently numb, she nods to him, stumbles into her bedroom, closes the door and pitches off the edge of consciousness into sleep. It is all, she decides, remarkably easy.

On the fifth day, towards the end of the afternoon, her boss Tony leans back in his chair and regards her with an arch look.

“What’s going on?” he asks. “With you?” His tone is friendly but suspicious.

She hesitates, feeling her stomach start to churn.

“What do you mean?”

know.” He rises from his desk and walks over to where she sits, stopping in front of her.

“No,” she says, looking up at him. “I don’t.”

“Something’s changed. You’ve changed,” he continues. He raises an eyebrow in a vaguely suggestive manner. Instantly she feels irritation. She reaches down and grabs her handbag under her desk.

“I changed my shampoo,” she says tersely.

“Angie,” he admonishes. “I’m not an idiot. I see things.”

“What kind of things?”

“I don’t know. It’s just a feeling. You seem different.”

“Don’t be fooled,” she says. “Nothing has changed, Tony. And I am exactly who I was.” They eye each other for a moment, then he turns and walks back to his desk.

“Okay,” he says placatingly. “Okay. I just thought…” He allows his voice to trail off suggestively.

“You thought
?” She meets his gaze and holds it challengingly.

“Nothing,” he says, looking away. Angie looks at her watch, then begins stuffing things into her handbag.

“I’m off, if that’s okay. I’m tired.”

“Stay,” he says suddenly.

She looks up at him with surprise. He shrugs.

“We’ll… go for a quick drink.”

She shakes her head.

“Not tonight. Sorry. Thanks, anyway.”

“Okay,” he says, frowning. “Suit yourself.”

On the drive home she agitates. He is right, of course. Something has changed. Slowly, almost imperceptibly, she has altered in response to Wen’s presence. It is not deliberate. Or at least, not consciously so. Two weeks ago, she could not see the point of living. Her life jolted along a featureless road beyond which she no longer cared to see. Now, suddenly, her fate has been
yoked together with that of a complete stranger from the far side of the world. The very fact that such a thing could happen, that it
happen, has taken her completely by surprise. She had thought that she was beyond surprise. It is an enormous relief to discover that she is not.

Mercifully, Wen’s presence has freed her from the burden of herself. But now Tony’s words have somehow disturbed the course of things. She had begun to look forward to the end of each day, to facing the array of choices at the supermarket, to the reassuring weight of the tumbler in her hand, to the lingering hot bath with the sound of Wen tinkering in the kitchen just beyond the door. These are small things, but she realises she has anticipated them with something akin to pleasure. Now Tony, with his smarmy look and insinuating tone, has somehow snatched this from her. For nothing has
changed, she thinks with dismay. The circumstances of her life may have altered – but she herself is fundamentally the same.

At the shop she stalks through the aisles, feeling the familiar flood of anger rise within her. Its reappearance startles her. Where has it been these past few days? Oddly, she had not marked its absence. Now she realises it was there all along, simmering just beneath the surface of her life. Anger has been her companion for as long as she can remember, stamping itself indelibly on her childhood and adolescence, and scarring her marriage from its earliest days. Angie stands motionless in the vegetable aisle, wondering why she thought she would ever be free of it.

A woman pauses just beside her, waiting politely for her to make her selection. Angie grabs a bag of potatoes and a head of iceberg lettuce, then moves to another aisle where she picks up a packet of pork chops, then crosses quickly to the spirits. Instead of one bottle of whisky, tonight she buys three. After all, she thinks grimly, it’s the weekend. She pays for the food and drink and once inside the car, cracks open a bottle and takes a long pull of burning
liquid before starting the engine. She drives with the open bottle wedged between her thighs, and by the time she reaches her house, she has downed almost a third of it.

When she walks through the front door, she comes abruptly face to face with Wen. Angie stops short. He looks down and sees the open whisky bottle in her hand, then looks back up at her. For the first time, she sees the dark flash of accusation in his eyes. She brushes past him and goes into the kitchen, tossing the bag of food onto the counter and reaching for a tumbler. Wen follows her into the kitchen and stands watching as she fills the glass. She takes a long drink and turns to him.

“What?” she demands.

He purses his lips, then turns away.

“Fuck off,” she says, going into the bathroom.

When she emerges from the bath some time later, she sees that he has chopped all three ingredients and stir-fried them together. The iceberg lettuce has wilted into pale green spittles and the long slivers of pork look like grey worms. In spite of herself, she bursts out laughing.

“Jesus Christ! Don’t you know how to do anything but fry?!”

He eyes her silently for a moment, his chest rising and falling, his anger almost palpable, an even match for her own. They stand facing each other, and it is as if they have been stripped of everything but their fury.

He gestures to the dish with a wooden spoon, speaking to her in Mandarin, the tone of his voice barely controlled. He is holding the spoon so tightly she can see the whiteness of his knuckles through the translucent membrane of his skin. Wen finishes speaking and Angie feels a terrible sinking deep inside.

“I’m sorry,” she whispers.

He nods, just once.

Later, when they have finished eating, he rises to clear the dishes
and she lays a hand upon his arm. “No. Let me.”

He looks down at her hand upon his wrist, and instantly she removes it, the blood rushing to her face with embarrassment. He goes and sits on the sofa while she does the washing-up, and when she has finished she picks up the remains of the bottle and her glass and follows him into the sitting room. She plants herself next to him, and refills her glass. For the first time, she feels nervous in his presence. She raises the glass to drink, and is startled to see her own hand tremble ever so slightly. He is watching a travel programme, but when she raises the glass to her lips, he turns his gaze to her instead, his eyes sliding down to the amber liquid, then back up to her face. She feels a sudden surge of fear.

“What?” Her voice is barely more than a whisper. He holds her eyes for a long moment, and she feels a tremor pass through her. She sets the glass down and places her hands on her knees.

“Look,” she says, swallowing. “I drink too much. I’m sorry. But that’s the way it is.” Her voice sounds hollow, as if the words themselves are empty of all meaning. He regards her uncertainly, measuring her.

“I drink,” she says slowly, “because otherwise I will go mad.”

Wen’s expression darkens with effort as he struggles to decipher her words.

“Or maybe,” she adds, “the madness makes me drink. Either way, I’m fucked if I do, and fucked if I don’t.” She looks up at him. “Do you understand?”

He nods his head slowly.

Her eyes drift away, flick past the television, the pile of magazines on the coffee table, the faded stains on the carpet, and settle on the neatly folded pile of bedding on the floor. She thinks of Tony’s raised eyebrows, his insinuating comments, and her response. Nothing has changed.

“Look at me,” she says with a small snort of disgust. “It hasn’t
even occurred to you to come into my bed.” She gives a brief, grim laugh, and takes another drink of whisky.

“Maybe you’re not that way inclined,” she continues, talking to herself. She turns and scrutinises him. “Are you that way inclined?”

He regards her uncertainly. Perhaps it is her imagination, but in that instant he seems to recede slightly, to draw back from her, and the realisation hits her like a slap. It has happened so quickly: this sudden shift between them. Now she is the one struggling to stay afloat.

“You’re afraid of me, aren’t you?” she says, her voice incredulous. “Shit-scared. Afraid I’ll chuck you out. Or top myself. Either way, you’d be in trouble.” She pauses for a moment. “Well you’re wrong. I don’t know why exactly. But I’m not going to do either. Okay?”

She turns to him for a response. He gives a brief nod.

“Okay,” he says.

She takes a deep breath and lets it out. “But what I’d really like,” she says, her voice wavering slightly, “this night, is not to be alone. Do you understand?” She looks at him for confirmation. “I do not want to be alone,” she repeats slowly, her voice trailing into nothing. She is swimming in drink now. Or is it nerves? She feels her head rush drunkenly and looks away. Her words float around her in the room; part of her would like to snatch them up and run away.

Instead, she rises and crosses to the bedroom, leaving the door wide open behind her. She walks over to the closet and begins to strip off her clothes, her back to the door. After a few moments, she sees Wen’s reflection appear in the mirror. He stands motionless in the doorway to her bedroom, his arms hanging loosely by his sides. She freezes for a moment, then pulls the last piece of clothing off and lets it slip from her grasp to the floor. Wen’s eyes flicker briefly to the pile of clothing at her feet, then back to her
face. They stare at each other in the dim glow of the mirror for what seems like an eternity. And then he steps into the room.

BOOK: Crimson China
8.46Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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