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Authors: Betsy Tobin

Crimson China (9 page)

BOOK: Crimson China
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Johnny eyes her for a moment.

“So this trip,” he says slowly. “It’s about you and him.”

“I’m sorry.”

He looks away for a few moments, scans the other people at the tables that surround them, then finally turns back to her.

“So am I.”

They drive on and the atmosphere between them is strained. Lili keeps the map book open on her knees and as they approach Lancaster, she directs him on a series of roads leading towards the coast.

When they finally reach the broad promenade overlooking Morecambe Bay, she feels almost ill with anticipation. Johnny
pulls into a disabled parking bay and stops the car, turning to her.

“Now what?”

Lili stares out at the water: it is high tide now, the waves rolling in at even distances. The day is overcast, and the wind whips along the seafront. As she looks around she sees nothing that is familiar; no sign that he was here. This place is completely strange to her, and she wonders how that possibly could be. A creeping sense of disappointment steals over her, and she resists it with all her might.

“Drive on,” she says impulsively. “Go further up the shore.”

Johnny pulls the car out and drives further north along the shore for a few minutes.

“Here,” she says finally. “Stop here!”

He pulls over and parks the car. Without waiting, Lili jumps out and begins to walk down towards the water, until her feet crunch against pebbles and sand. She carries on walking until her shoes are almost in the surf. Ice cold water washes inside them, startling her with its chill. She reaches down and plunges her hands into the water. When she straightens she sees a lone male figure behind her up the shore.
Wen
, she thinks fleetingly. But it is not Wen, of course. It is Johnny. She looks back towards the endless grey of the ocean.

They order pasta in a café across the road, just as a line of dark clouds comes sweeping across the bay. Lili picks at her spaghetti while Johnny wolfs his hungrily. When they have finished, he pushes his plate to one side and takes out a pack of cigarettes, lighting one.

“Smoke?”

She shakes her head. He takes a deep drag and exhales.

“How long was he here?”

“In Morecambe Bay? A month or so. Maybe two. Not long, I think.”

“Was he illegal?”

Lili nods, watching his eyes narrow slightly with judgement.

“Wen was different,” she says earnestly. “He wasn’t like the others.”

“Different how?”

“He didn’t come here to get rich.”

“It’s no crime to be rich,” says Johnny.

“I know. But he wasn’t after money.”

“Then what did he come for?”

Lili falters, searching for the right words.

“He was restless. Things weren’t good for him at home.”

“In what way?”

“He needed to go abroad. To see other places, to see other ways of… being.”

“We all wanted that.”

“Wen wanted it more.”

“Why?”

“I don’t know. It was like he was looking for his place in the world.” She shrugs a little self-consciously and glances over at the next table, where an older couple sits chewing in silence.

“Did he find it?”

Lili shrugs. “I don’t know. But that’s why I came to London. To find out.”

“How?”

“By looking for him.”

Johnny looks at her askance.

“His spirit, I mean. I know he’s here. But I can’t find him.”

Johnny raises an eyebrow, then leans forward to tap ash onto his plate.

“Maybe he doesn’t want to be found.”

Lili shakes her head.

“You don’t understand. Wen and I were twins. In ancient times we would have been left to die at birth. They would
have called us ghost spouses.”

“He was your twin?”

“Yes.”

Johnny leans back in his chair, regarding her. “Like two halves.”

“I guess so.”

“So what does that make you now?”

Lili swallows. “Broken.”

As they rise to go, it begins to rain, and they are forced to run the brief distance back to the car. Once inside, Johnny turns to her. “Are we finished?”

She nods. He turns the car around and heads south down the coast road. After a few minutes, they pass a long pier jutting out into the bay. At once, her eyes alight on a stone statue halfway down the jetty.

“Wait! Pull over, will you?”

Johnny pulls the car into the side of the road and puts it in park.

“I’ll just be a moment,” she says, jumping out. She dashes down the jetty towards the statue, pausing just in front of it. An enormous stone bird stares down at her. Without a doubt, the photo of Wen and Jin was taken here. Lili stands staring up at the bird, wondering why Jin has lied to her a second time. After a minute, she returns to the car.

“Okay?” he asks.

She nods.

They head out of town and as they hit the motorway, the weather deteriorates. Johnny is forced to slow his speed. Darkness falls early due to the storm, and soon they are both straining to see through the windscreen. Johnny looks increasingly tired, running his hand every minute or so through his short cropped hair, as if struggling to stay awake. Lili too feels exhausted, both from the journey and the emotional energy it has cost her. She dozes off
just past Birmingham, waking with a guilty start when Johnny pulls off the motorway into a rest area. He parks the car in a deserted area and switches off the engine. She turns to him, and a shot of apprehension runs through her: she barely knows this man, nor whether she can trust him. She feels her chest tighten. Johnny rubs his face in his hands.


Ta ma de
,” he swears through his hands. He lowers them and looks at her. “I need to sleep.”

“Okay,” she says, her voice faltering a little. She is flooded with relief as he climbs into the back seat and stretches out across it, balling his jacket into a cushion. He closes his eyes and gives an enormous sigh, and within moments is asleep.

Now Lili herself is wide awake, staring out into the deserted car park, watching the rain run in tiny rivulets down the windscreen. The night Wen died the weather was similarly bad, according to the news reports. She wonders whether it was the waves that finally overcame him, or the freezing cold. She feels guilty that she is now warm and dry, as if she should be out there somewhere, battling the elements, just as he was forced to.

With dismay, she remembers that she had meant to look for cockles on the beach, or at the very least, buy some in a local shop. She has never seen a cockle, much less eaten one. Wen said in his letter it was easy to spot the tell-tale pockmarks in the sand just after the tide had gone out: that when you raked the sand they lay like buried treasure just beneath the surface, their pale white feet pointing downwards. Once he had pocketed a few small ones and later pried them open with a kitchen knife. They had the taste and texture of salty elastic bands, he had written. Perhaps steamed with ginger and spring onion they would be palatable, but the English ate them cold from polystyrene cups with only a small squeeze of lemon, and this he could not fathom.

A sharp knock on the window startles her, and Lili looks out to see a tall figure looming in the darkness. She glances anxiously
towards the back seat, but Johnny is still fast asleep. Slowly she lowers the window, and is relieved to see a man in a police uniform. He leans down to speak to her.

“Everything all right here, miss?”

“Yes.”

“You’re not allowed to stop here overnight.”

“We do not stay the night,” she says nervously. “My friend is tired.”

The policeman cranes his neck forward to look at Wen in the back seat.

“I can see that. Is he the one that’s driving?”

“Yes.”

“Has he been drinking?”

“Drinking?” repeats Lili.

“Yes, miss. Alcohol. Has he had any alcohol tonight?”

“No. No alcohol. Only water. And Coca-Cola,” she adds, wondering whether it is a crime to drink Coca-Cola while driving.

The policeman eyes her, weighing up her words.

“This is a rest area?” she asks.

“Yes, it’s a rest area. But it’s not for sleeping.”

“Oh,” she replies. “Of course. I will tell him.”

“Thank you.”

She watches as he returns to his car. Johnny is stirring now, awakened by their voices. He sits up and looks at her, bleary-eyed.

“Who was that?”

“Police,” she says.

He looks askance.

“Why?”

“He says you’re not allowed to sleep here.”

Johnny shakes his head, swearing under his breath, and climbs over into the front seat.

He starts the car and backs out of the parking space.

“Do you want to stop for coffee?” Lili asks.

“I’m fine,” he replies, lurching into forward. “I just want to get home.”

They reach London just after ten o’clock, and she is relieved when he does not offer to take her to her flat, dropping her instead at Hounslow Station. After she steps out of the car, she bends down to say goodbye through the open window. She wants desperately to thank him, to convey to him how much it meant to her to see the place where Wen died, but she knows that gratitude is not what Johnny needs right now. His hands are gripped tightly on the steering wheel, and his eyes linger slightly to one side of her.

“I’m sorry,” she says finally. “I didn’t mean to deceive you.”

Johnny’s hands flex open and closed on the wheel. After a moment he nods. Lili turns to go.

“Hey Hebei,” he calls out.

She turns back to the car and bends down again. This time he meets her gaze.

“Let me know when you stop looking.”

Early the next morning, Wen wakes beside her sleeping form. She breathes deeply, her body turned away from him, the bedcovers flung back almost to her waist. Her dark brown hair is fanned out across the pillow like a tangled halo, and her bare shoulder looks stark and vulnerable in the grey light of dawn. With care he eases his body back from hers. But he dares not rise, as he does not wish to wake her. Right now what he needs is time.

Last night her actions took him completely by surprise. Until then, he had found her behaviour unpredictable and bewildering: her manner had seemed flint-like at times, almost brittle. But after a few drinks, the shell of her exterior fell away; she relaxed, became light-hearted, though he still found her changeable. Yesterday morning, when he came out of the shower, she’d stopped short and stared at him for an instant, before carrying on with what she had been doing. Oddly, it was the first time he had felt male in her presence. Their relationship had been defined by culture and circumstance: they were not man and woman, but Chinese and English, desperate and despairing.

But with hindsight, perhaps a part of him had anticipated their pairing. He knows enough of women, knows the changes that occur when they’ve made up their minds. Even without the aid of whisky, she had altered in the past few days. Shifted in her
bearing, in her treatment of him somehow. He’d felt it happen gradually, like the slow movement of a weather vane. One moment pointing one direction: the next, swinging silently towards his own.

The alcohol terrifies him. He has never known anyone drink the way she does. Quietly. Privately. And with steely determination. As if she is locked in a nightly battle with the bottle. His stepfather liked to drink, could down bowl after bowl of
bai jiu
until his eyes watered and his lips shone. But his bouts of drinking were infrequent: like most people, he could not afford to indulge with any regularity. Alcohol, like everything else in their lives, was a luxury. Used to mark an occasion. It was not a way of survival. He wonders how she came to be this way. And whether many English people are the same. At once he dismisses this thought. He may be alien to this culture, but he can still recognise someone who is quietly perishing within their own life.

He turns back to survey her body. Was making love to her different from the other women he has known? They came together like a warm rush of tides: almost melting into one another. He was deliberately gentle at first, alarmed by her fragility, afraid that she might somehow break apart in his arms. But her urgency soon overcame him, for she seemed hungry for physical contact, starving even. Within moments, she had moved to bring him inside her, and they had remained locked together, coupled like animals, for what seemed like hours. He struggled not to come too soon; to give her what it was that she needed. Even afterwards, she kept him inside her, until his body had signalled exhaustion and withdrawn into itself. By then she had fallen deeply into sleep.

He runs his eyes along the broad arch of her back. Her skin is the palest of whites. It seems almost translucent, like the inner membrane of an eggshell. His own skin seems tarnished by comparison. He has never been particularly drawn to the physical features of Western women. But there is something pure about her
skin that fascinates him. She is heavier than he is, her figure more abundant than his own. Her breasts are generous, her hips wide and curving, the globes of her bottom large and rounded like heavy melons. When he first took her in his arms, her flesh was warm and thick and yielding, nothing like the angular tautness of the women he has known. Chinese women were built like songbirds in comparison: slender-boned, with relatively little fat or muscle to pad them out. A trait he had always liked in the past. But now he wonders why.

She smelled completely different too. That had taken him by surprise. Maybe it was the drink. Or what she ate. But it was entirely unfamiliar. He had buried his face in the hollows of her neck, underneath her arms, between her breasts, everywhere he could in an effort to capture the scent of her, to somehow make it his own. Inevitably, her mouth tasted of whisky, but his mind struggled to reach past that, knowing that if he didn’t, he would not find his way into her essence. He needed desperately to know this woman, to make sense of what was happening. For him, last night had not been about sex – in spite of the fact that he had not slept with a woman in many months. He had grown accustomed to celibacy since leaving London and Jin, had almost revelled in it. But last night, though his body was desperate for release, his mind was all the while engaged in feeding her, understanding what it was that she required.

She rolls over and sighs in her sleep, one arm flung over her head across the pillow, her hand curling towards him. He shifts closer, studies her fingers. With a start, he realises that her fingernails resemble those of his sister: broad and relatively flat, with a tiny sliver of pale moon across the top. He has always thought that women’s fingernails were like snowflakes: infinite in their varieties. He wonders how he could have missed hers earlier. His own nails are blunted and badly torn from cockling; they have only just begun to repair themselves. But he realises that, given the chance
to grow, they would eventually look like hers. This strikes him as significant – the first point of physical convergence between them – perhaps the only one.

She stirs, breathes in deeply, exhales and opens her eyes. For the briefest instant she does not seem to know him. Then her face seems to cloud with turbulence, though whether it is anger or fear, or something else altogether, he cannot tell. Instinctively, he reaches out a hand and gently places his palm upon her cheek, as if to siphon away her feelings. He moves to take her in his arms, pulls her to his chest and cradles her as tightly as he can. They remain wound together for a long time, perhaps an hour or more, until she has drifted once again into sleep. He too falls off the edge of consciousness, lulled by the warmth of her body next to his, and when he does he dreams that they are entwined like seaweed, floating together in a vast warm sea.

When she next wakes she is newly calm, as if he has stilled something within her. They do not speak, but once again she moves her hands across his body, and urgently manoeuvres him inside her. This time he lets himself go, takes his pleasure without thinking, and it is over quickly, both of them slick with sweat and desire. When they have finished, she perches on one elbow over him.

“Come,” she says.

She takes him by the hand and pulls him through the kitchen to the bathroom, where she leans down and runs the tap, while he relieves himself in the loo.

They bathe together, something he has never done before, and he marvels at the fact of it. He sits behind her, her ample body pressed back against him, and he soaps her ivory flesh until he feels himself grow hard again. He positions her on top of him and comes into her from beneath, and she settles herself astride him comfortably, her breath coming in audible gasps. Afterwards, he buries his face in the wetness of her hair and the furrows of her
neck, and realises that the scent of her is no longer strange to him. She turns her face to him.

“Hey,” she says, in a voice thickened by desire. “What are you doing in my bath?”

Later she cooks him breakfast in her dressing gown, the first meal she has prepared for him since the morning after the accident. He tries to talk to her, to converse as normal people would, but each time his English fails him. He resolves to learn her language before he does anything else, for without language here he is nothing. When they have finished eating, she disappears into the bedroom and comes out a moment later wearing jeans and a sweater, clothes different from the ones she has worn before. She comes over to him with a smile.

“It’s Saturday,” she explains. “I don’t have to work.”

Nearly a week has flown by since the accident. A lifetime ago. Since coming to England, he has worked steadily regardless of the day. They did not have days off, only occasional times when work was not available for some reason, and when this happened everyone grew anxious and irritable. They did whatever they could to fill the time, rolling back the mattresses in their accommodation and playing cards or sometimes
mah jong
, if a set was available. When they were working they would lose track of time altogether, had no sense of days or dates for weeks on end. They had no weekends, no holidays. The only day that mattered to anyone was pay day.

Ironically, the accident had happened on the biggest holiday of the Chinese calendar: the eve of Spring Festival, the start of the lunar New Year. When they set off from Liverpool that afternoon, the mood had been decidedly glum. At home their families would be gathering around tables for festive meals, boiled sweets hidden inside dumplings, the start of fifteen days of celebration. Originally, there had been talk among them of a small party after they finished work, but these plans were quickly shelved when
they’d been told they would be leaving later than usual, owing to disputes with local fisherman, who had set fire to their catch the day before. We’ll go out late tomorrow, the gangmaster had told them. At dusk. After the locals have gone home. We don’t want any more trouble.

During the long drive from Liverpool, the atmosphere in the van was unusually tense, everyone anticipating the angry shouts and reddened faces of the men who had attacked them the day before. They all realised what lay ahead: they would be expected to cockle under cover of darkness, with only the headlights from the vans to help them see. Cockling was difficult at the best of times, but doubly so at night, and in foul weather. When they’d first reached the fishing beds, the conditions hadn’t been so bad, but the weather had quickly deteriorated, and soon the wind was whipping around them in savage gusts. Wen had lowered his head against the cold and worked steadily, trying hard not to dwell on the fact that halfway across the world his people would be celebrating.

He still remembers the moment of utter panic, of sheer terror, when they realised the tides had risen higher and more swiftly than usual – had in fact surrounded them, closing them off from shore.

His mind flies to Lin. Where is he now? At home his wife and children will sprinkle ash across their threshold to catch his footprints, searching for a sign that he is with them, for after seven days the soul of the deceased must find its way home. But if Lin is truly dead he is a
shui gui
now: a water ghost, doomed to remain at the scene of his death until his spirit is released by someone else, a new victim. Wen looks down at his hands: scratched and scarred, they are the hands of a survivor. He is here and he is alive, but is he whole? Perhaps a part of him, like Lin, remains trapped beneath the waters of Morecambe Bay.

“Wen?” Angie is staring at him, her expression creased with
concern. He raises his head, takes a deep breath. She takes a step forward and places a hand upon his arm.

“Are you okay?”

“Yes.”

“I think we should go out.” She nods her head towards the outside.

He frowns. He has not left the house since she brought him here. He has no shoes, no coat, no money, no passport. He looks down at his clothes: he is still wearing the black tracksuit she gave him the first night. She follows his gaze.

“Don’t worry. We’ll fix you up.” She goes back into the bedroom and returns a minute later carrying a pair of rubber flipflops, some white socks and a large green anorak.

“Here. This will do for now.”

He takes the things from her, but does not put them on, for he is not certain he is ready to face the outside world. But he does not know how to express this to her, to explain why he is reluctant to return to living.

“Okay?” she asks.

“Okay,” he answers tentatively.

The drive takes nearly an hour, much of it on a vast highway. The day is cold and sunny, and as he looks out the windscreen, he begins to relax a little. He feels as if he is seeing England for the first time, through eyes that are somehow different. When they finally arrive, he sees that she has brought him to an enormous shopping complex just beside the motorway. The car park is crowded and she circles a few times before she finds a spot. She switches off the engine and turns to him, reading his uncertainties at once.

“Don’t worry,” she says. “We’re miles from home. Here,” she adds. “Put this on.”

She hands him a bright red woolly hat. He pulls it on his head, then looks in the mirror. The hat looks ridiculous, and they both
burst into laughter. But she is right; he is unlikely to be recognised wearing it.

They go to a large department store where she buys him jeans, shirts, underclothes and trainers. He blanches at the prices when he sees them, but she tells him not to worry. In all she spends nearly two hundred pounds. Twenty bags of cockles’ worth. Or more than a week’s wages at the restaurant. He cannot help but make these calculations in his head: the numbers follow him everywhere. She pays with a credit card, as if this amount of money is nothing to her, and he realises that this is another enormous difference between them. No matter what his circumstances, he does not think he will ever be able to treat money with such casual indifference.

BOOK: Crimson China
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