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Authors: Paul Theroux

Kowloon Tong (18 page)

BOOK: Kowloon Tong
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"Chinese people keep you in a room, and men go in and abuse you and have sex with you. If you cry, never mind, they like to hear it. Don't laugh or they hit you harder. Then the Chinese people lock you up again."

It sounded like the voice of experience, but the ringing in Bunt's ears told him he was drunk.

"They won't put
me
in a room," he said. "Tell me about Manila."

"My daddy have a junk shop in Manila," she said.

"That's enough," he said. "Don't tell me anything more."

By midafternoon, leaving the Pussy Cat, Bunt had just about decided that he wanted to marry Mei-ping. All the time with Baby had helped him make up his mind. He was always too confused in Mei-ping's presence to reach any conclusions, and often when he was with Mei-ping he thought of Baby, of her willingness to consider any of his suggestions ("Let we make hippies" had been one); the penalty was that then he had to consider anything she suggested, and nearly always she asked Bunt for money or a favor, for her sister or mother—air tickets, clothes, jewelry, and, on one occasion, a television set. Or the ultimate condition:
I let you do it to me all the time when we get to England
... Sitting with Baby in the Pussy Cat, the loud music battering his head, drinking expensive bottles of beer, he found it easy to settle on Mei-ping. Drinking in the bar with Baby had made him amorous for Mei-ping. It was often that way with him: the presence of one woman made him desire the company of another. But this was desire of a different kind. Because it encompassed something more than sex—he imagined himself wanting to hang around after sex and not go home to his mother.

He had been dreading going back to England with his mother. Living with Mei-ping would make England easier to bear—he would be carrying a bit of Hong Kong with him, the best bit, and also the most portable. It was like the fantasy he and Corkill had developed in the schoolyard, of the insatiable Chinese mistress in the manor house, her red nails, her slinky nightdress, her pretty knickers. That was a schoolboy's fantasy, but there was enough of his own yearning in it to stir him still.

Marrying was a gamble, but it was less of a gamble now that he had money. Nor was he choosing to leave Hong Kong: he was being sent away by Hung. And he felt distanced from his mother—the deal with Hung had proven to him how different he was from her. He would never have sold his three-quarters share of the factory had it not been for her insistence, her saying there was no future here. His mother had made him listen to Hung. The damned woman had conspired with Hung, and what for?

The risk in marrying Mei-ping was not the same risk as a wager at Sha Tin, where it was win or lose. In marriage there would be some happiness. He would ask Monty to prepare a prenuptial agreement, so that he would not be gutted in the event of a divorce. If it didn't work, they would go their separate ways. But he felt he would never stop loving her, and what convinced him was that he needed her in a way that transcended sex. He wanted to carry her to England to be his wife, by his side, until he died.

As soon as he returned to his office, he asked Miss Liu to find Mei-ping.

"What's wrong?" he asked her when they were alone, Mei-ping on his sofa, Bunt at his desk.

"I had my nightmare," she said.

She was gaunt and attractive, and haunted in a way that made Bunt want again to hold her, to possess her, and to stay with her, lying next to her instead of going home. When she had seemed strong, saying "Do you want me?," he had demanded that she make love to him while, abstracted, he looked down at her busying herself with his body.

Now pale, thin, with the large eyes of hunger or illness shining in her bony face, twisting her hands, slightly stooped, her pain apparent in her shoulders, Mei-ping seemed almost to glow, the way the skin of sick people is often illuminated with a pale bluish light. It made him feel powerful and dominant, urging her to lie back and part her legs, and he could just imagine her closing her eyes and smiling with pleasure as he entered her and roused her and gave her some of his strength.

"Please," she said, because he was trying to hold her hand.

He had kicked the office door shut. Miss Liu was typing. Mr. Cheung's chair creaked in his office. He could hear cartons being thrown onto trucks in the loading bay at Shipping. In Stitching the machines were rattling, and every so often he could hear the bite of the guillotine in Cutting.

It did not seem to him that he was drunk, although he had been with Baby for several hours in the Pussy Cat. Yet the way that Mei-ping fended off his advances suggested that she thought he was drunk—that he needed to be fended off, that he would not notice.

"I want to explain Mr. Hung," he said. He crossed the office, sat next to her on the sofa, and took hold of her hand as though he were being solicitous. His brain was turning very slowly. But she had not asked anything about Hung. He held a conversation with himself in this silence, reasoning with himself, and remembering. At the end of it he said, "Did you say nightmare?"

She tried to give him his damp hand back, and when he refused it, she placed it in his lap, as if dropping a crab into a basket.

"I have the nightmare all the time," she said. "It is of Happy Valley. Someone is being punished."

"Punished how?"

"Punished the Chinese way. They have led the person onto the racecourse blindfolded. The stands are full of people—Chinese people—but there is no race. No horses, no happiness. It is just Chinese men in uniforms on the big TV screen. I see the person kneeling."

Bunt was nodding and his hand, like the crab it had seemed, crept crabwise out of his lap towards Mei-ping's thigh.

"Last night the person was Ah Fu."

With that, Bunt's hand went dead. He said, "That's what I meant to talk to you about."

"The soldiers walked behind her and shot her in the back of the neck and all the people in Happy Valley were clapping their hands," Mei-ping said. "That is the Chinese way."

It was horrible to him. He could see it clearly: the TV screen, the crowds in the stands, the banners, the red flags, the kneeling Ah Fu, the execution on the green grass at the center of the racecourse.

The idea that Mei-ping had this horrific vision late at night, alone, crouched on her narrow bed in her room in Lai Chi Kok, filled him with pity, and he desired her again. His fingers lifted and he touched her hand.

Mei-ping shrank and folded her arms, and she tucked away the hand he had touched. Then she moved down the sofa from him, once again seeming to fend him off, and said, "What did Mr. Hung tell you about Ah Fu?"

"Only that he hadn't seen her."

"Mr. Hung is lying." Mei-ping became sorrowful. "I thought maybe she is at his flat. You didn't see her there?"

"No."

He knew he sounded unconvincing. It was the effect of suppressing so much of what he had noticed: the missing carpets, the pane of glass missing in the cabinet, the porcelain missing from the shelves, the stopped clock with the smashed face.

"Ah Fu is in trouble," Mei-ping said. "The police will know."

Bunt said, "Listen. If there's been a crime, it will do no good to go to the police. That will just make it worse for everyone."

"Not worse for Ah Fu."

Her simplicity made her clear-sighted. This was unanswerable. Bunt could not think of anything to say.

"They will find the person who did it," she said.

"Maybe they'll suspect you. You're the last person who saw her."

"Mr. Hung was the last person."

"Yes, but he'll tell whoppers. Suspicion will fall on you. Don't you see?"

Though he had not rehearsed this and hardly believed it, saying it to her and watching her react with fear made it seem plausible.

"I am innocent," Mei-ping said.

"Of course," Bunt said, and now he took a deep breath, for he was about to deliver the lines he had rehearsed. "But listen. Perhaps she is gone. Perhaps something went wrong. Perhaps Mr. Hung is responsible. But you have me."

In his rehearsal, he had seen her smile through her tears as he said this, and she fell into his arms. But instead her face crumpled and she began to cry bitterly, as she had yesterday holding the scissors. He watched her, desiring her again, wanting to embrace her.

He lifted his arms, but before he could seize her and save her, she got up quickly, inefficiently—she was not well—and hurried from the room.

He hoped that no one had witnessed her leaving his office in tears, and so as not to call attention to her leaving, he waited several minutes and then strolled—forced himself to stroll—to the elevator and went down to her floor, to her work area.

The other girls, wearing their safety bonnets to keep their hair out of their work, away from the spinning flywheels of their machines, were bent over scraps of cloth. One stool was empty. He saw a girl goggling at him, astonished to see the boss there the second time that day.

"Mei-ping?"

"Gone."

He pretended not to care. He smiled at the stool. He sauntered to the door and shut it carefully. And then he stumbled down the stairs and dashed as fast as he could to Kowloon Tong police station, where he imagined that Mei-ping was spilling her guts, and he guided himself there by using the Union Jack on the rooftop flagpole, lifting in a freshening wind, the sort of sudden sea breeze that often meant rain.

He was proud of the place. Here, Hong Kong was not a frenzy of marketeers and plonkers yattering on cellular phones; it was the rule of law, it was decorum and order. It was the solid building with its serious entrances and its scowling windows, all bars and screens, the dark uniforms, the black boots, the swept floor, the row of chairs, another flag inside, and the portrait of the Queen that was hung on the wall beside the sergeant at the desk.

"Yes?" the sergeant said, glancing up from a log book.

"I was looking for someone."

"You want to report a missing person?"

"Not at all, just looking for a friend who said she might be stopping by."

He knew as soon as he said it that it was wrong to use the expression "stopping by," for why would anyone stop by a police station, especially the forbidding one in Kowloon Tong?

"Her cat's missing. Sort of brown stripes."

Because he was usually truthful he was an inept liar—unimaginative, unconvincing, careless, worst of all he always gave too much information. Brown stripes was a mistake.

"We don't find missing cats."

"She thought it might be stolen. You deal with theft, don't you?"

"Stolen cat," the sergeant said. It was all he needed to say in order to mock Bunt's confusion. He returned to his log book muttering in Cantonese.

It was raining when Bunt left the police station. His mother said she liked the rain—it always reminded her of Uncle Ron's bungalow in Worthing on a wet Sunday; but his mother was thinking of a downpour on her small corner of the Peak, with the roof of the fire station gleaming on the bluff just below. That was atmospheric rain. In Kowloon Tong the rain came down like a curse, the thunder slipping between the buildings and tearing at the laundry on the stuck-out poles and battering the awnings of the stall holders. It went on falling, whitening the mildew on the housing blocks and snarling traffic and speeding the pedestrians—making them jostle each other—and sloshing into the dirty gutters like Chinese stew.

He stepped backwards into a doorway where a young man seemed to be coughing and spitting into a cellular phone. No: Bunt smiled, proud of his mistake—the man was speaking in his own language, and Bunt invented the idea that it was an affectionate monologue, the gagging man, his face contorted, his teeth covered in spittle, biting on the mouthpiece of the receiver in a doorway in Kowloon Tong as the rain came down.

He was disgusted by the repulsive man for suggesting the idea to him. He took out his own cellular phone and called Mei-ping, for if she was not at the police station reporting Ah Fu's disappearance, what was she doing?

After ten rings he was going to hang up, but it was still raining, he was in the doorway, he had nothing else to do, and the repetition of the rings began to calm his spirits with its monotony. The phone rang on, a dozen more times, and at last he was so surprised when the ringing stopped that he almost hung up. A timid voice detained him.

"Yes?"

Though the voice was small it was filled with shock and fear, like the piercing cry of an insect.

"It's me," he said.

"Please come."

"When?"

"Now, please."

His heart swelled with joy. "Right you are," he said to the sudden hum of the dial tone, for Mei-ping had hung up.

In all the time he had known Mei-ping—the seven years she had worked at Imperial Stitching—he had been to her building only once, and never inside her flat. The place was on the western edge of Lai Chi Kok near the noisy land reclamation which threw up dust and looked like a desert. The single time he had been there was after a Christmas party. Mei-ping had not asked him in, so she said, because Ah Fu was there. It was awkward, even shameful, for her to turn up with her drunken
gweilo
boss.

Today she had invited him and he was thrilled. Seeing Bunt getting out of a taxi, a small Chinese child burst into tears at this fearful apparition of the balding devil and ran to clutch his mother's legs to cower in terror. The woman laughed loudly in embarrassment.

Bunt looked up and saw Mei-ping's face peering down at him from a third-floor balcony. He ran up a littered stairwell to where she waited, hugging herself with her skinny arms.

She seemed strangely at home here, almost anonymous, but Bunt knew that the anxiety that turned her weak and pale and luminous had made her look like the rest of the inhabitants of Lai Chi Kok. She said nothing to him. She walked away abruptly, meaning it as a signal that he must follow her.

She pushed the door of her flat open. She stood aside. She said, "Look."

Though Bunt had never seen the flat before, he knew at once that something was wrong. It was lopsided, it was gappy, drawers were pulled out and they sagged, but they were empty. One entire side of the room was bare, but from the patches of dust and the sun-faded portions of the walls he knew that the bare side had once been furnished, perhaps even cluttered. A closet door was ajar—that closet too was half empty.

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