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Authors: Paul Theroux

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BOOK: Kowloon Tong
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W
HEN HE WAS
late and his mother stood waiting in the doorway, she always seemed to swell, filling the doorframe, to obstruct and delay him, so that she could bulk against his approaching face and scold him. She did it tonight. She had the pathetic aggression of a wife or a mother—to Bunt there was no difference. And sometimes, reading tabloid stories about men who committed horrific crimes, he realized that most of those homicidal psychopaths had his precise sort of domestic arrangement:
middle-aged, soft-spoken, regular in his habits, never married, no friends, sometimes seen leaving strip clubs, lived with his mother, to whom he was devoted.
He hated those stories.

"It's gone eight!" she said. "I haven't been able to do a thing. Wherever have you been, Bunt?"

Nor did she move from the doorway, and she repeated it. Bunt could not gain entry.

The question merely bored him. It was not unusual for mother and son to yell at each other. What made him uneasy was the reminder that their lives were synchronized, that they ate and bathed and went to bed and got up at the same time. He liked being punctual and did not mind seeming predictable, but this was confining and dull. You are forty-three and your mother is nearing seventy and she is telling you that she can't eat because you're not also at the table, and she is repeatedly demanding Where were you?

"Doing the accounts," he said.

He did not look her in the eye. Meeting her gaze would have undone him, yet how could he tell her the truth?

"All this Chuck business put me behind. I've been flat-out all day."

His lie immediately helped, as he suspected it would. His mother stepped aside, letting him pass, and she patted his cheek in a sympathetic way. As she lost her anger Bunt felt a jolt of energy, the physical thrill of having kept his secret from her. It was necessary. He knew he was weak, and so any secret made him stronger. Had his mother known how he spent his days, his life would have been unbearable. And his stratagem went deeper than merely concealing it from her. Keeping her in the dark was also a way of not having to face the secret himself.

They ate in the lounge, Wang waiting on them.

"I saw Wang jogging today."

Betty's habit of speaking about Wang as if he were not in the room was her way of making him insecure. She could sense him stiffening now, his chin rising, the almost perceptible contraction of his bum cheeks.

His usual jogging route was down the Peak footpath to Wellington, then up again. When people asked Bunt whether he exercised, he usually said, "No, my houseboy does it for me."

Betty said, "He looked very impressive in his combinations."

"Leave off, Mum," Bunt said. He wanted a bit of peace, his mind was in turmoil.

Just after Mei-ping had left his office, he had felt pleasantly drowsy, with a sharpened appetite. Sex in the late afternoon made him anxious but left him in such a stupor of fatigue that he could do nothing about it. The act of sex was for him first a stunning relief, sudden as a sneeze, and an instant later it was the opposite, a sense of helpless suffocation. Once, at thé Rainbow Theatre in Tsim Sha Tsui, he had seen a Chinese acrobat balancing his partner on his head—her headstand on his skull—and on each of her upright ankles clusters of gyrating hoops. That had been a thrill for him, because it seemed so dangerous. But when, as he dreaded, the woman faltered and fell, dropping the hoops, Bunt felt it was the same thing with sex. Sex was a balancing act that always ended in failure, a fall, a sense of having slipped and been inattentive, of not knowing how to explain it. You refused to remember it, and when you tried again the failure was repeated.

And there was the partner to consider: now, that woman knew a secret. It was not as though he had done something wrong alone. It was a conspiracy, but it was unequal. With the
onset of desire he found himself pleading and promising. Afterward he was empty, with no memory of his lust but only an odd fishy smell on his fingers and a fleeting image of the ridiculous posture he had contrived, the amateur acrobatics, the thrashing legs, even the hoops—no wonder it never worked. He felt tricked and resentful. It was all her fault. And it seemed motiveless as well, because most of them hated it and only did it because he was a big, needy
gweilo.

Bunt had seen them gag and make faces too many times for him to imagine he was giving a woman pleasure. Before they parted, while the woman was still rumpled, her hair askew, her face rubbed and pink, her eyes glazed, he would think,
She looks stuffed,
and wonder whether he looked the same. Sex was their favor to him, who did them many favors. Usually they said, "You done?" And always, after sex, he hated himself for wanting to say "Sorry."

It was wrong to keep an appointment afterward, like that one with Monty. He would have preferred a quiet pint of beer and a plate of chips in a darkened club, a little time to resume a calmer identity, an interval, like deliciously smoking a crafty fag between the acts. But the encounter at the Cricket Club, silly and meaningless at the time, had begun to antagonize him. Perhaps it was the presence of Wang, hovering here: Wang somewhat resembled that other man, Hung.

I would like to discuss the purchase of your building was
presumptuous and offensive. It was not a building, it was a business; it had products and employees. It was a large, busy place, a living thing, and it made a profit. So "building" rather missed the point.

Bunt was not used to probing questions from strangers, and this stranger Hung was more foreign than most people he had met in Hong Kong, the local strangers. He had looked Bunt in the eye, as Singaporeans did, but his English was far better than that of any Hong Kong or Singapore Chinese, and from its precision and overcorrectness Bunt concluded that the man was from China. He had gone to a good school. He had been force-fed the English language in the brainwashing way of Chinese education, and he had learned it for a purpose, which was to con and cheat English-speaking people.

All through dinner Bunt was disturbed. He could not tell his mother about Mei-ping. As for Hung's request, how could he tell his mother if he did not understand it himself?

He had managed to change her tone from scolding to pity. "Where have you been?" she had said repeatedly to him long ago, when they had lived on Bowen Road and he had dawdled in the back alleys around Hollywood Road, looking in the rear windows of shops and rooms, hoping to see women in their underwear. In those days he would claim he had a fever, or say "I hurt my foot," and she would melt and become motherly and lose all interest in scolding.

He felt so stifled, so possessed by her that he became childishly insistent on deceiving her any way he could. His mother knew so much about his life that he deliberately contrived to create secrets—the bar girls, the affairs with employees, Baby the Filipino girl on all fours ("Let we make fuppies"), and now Mei-ping. The deception was as important as the sex. He needed some room in his life, some space to which she was not admitted. So often he had lived in the space the lie had made for
him. There was no truthful way that she would have allowed him this elbowroom. And the lie did not make him feel guilty, rather the opposite. He felt triumphantly cock-a-hoop because he had something of his own, no matter how small—it was entirely his secret. That was just one of the satisfactions of a lie. There were others: mastering the trick of deceit, manipulating his mother's mood. Lying was storytelling, ventriloquism, mimicry; it set him free.

What made it especially uncomplicated for him to lie to his mother was his assurance that she had never been consistently truthful with him. He often reminded himself that she had taught him to lie—fibbing, she called it, telling whoppers. But he was grateful to her. It was such a consolation to him to have secrets.

She was sorry for him now, sorry for all his work ("I've been flat-out"), and he was pleased that he had fooled her so thoroughly and put her in the wrong. He liked it when she was made to feel a bit of remorse. It was right that she, who had put him through so much, should endure a little spell of harmless suffering.

What a waste it would have been to tell her everything. He would only be disgusting her or shaming himself by telling her about Mei-ping. "You filthy beast," she would have said. Yet what would her reaction have been to the impertinent offer of that Chinese man to buy the factory? Had he been able to guess it, he might have braved the discussion.
It's their way, isn't it? Chinky-Chonks get their meddling fingers into everything, don't they?

"You're awfully quiet," she said.

All this time over dinner he had said nothing.

"All right?" she said.

At times like these, when he was so sunk in his secrets, she had a matron's way of querying him.

"I'm fine, Mum. Just tired."

"Course you are. Factory all right?"

"Busy. So many muddles."

No muddles at all! He had sat watching Mel-ping's pretty hair. He could not recall whether they had kissed. He was not happy being touched, but in this case he was reckless. It was as though she had performed first aid on him, the Boy Scout handbook's emergency method for snakebite. Before she had come to his office he had felt ill—irregular heartbeat, tremulous hands, hot sticky palms, dry mouth. Then she had cured him. She had sucked out the venom from his throbbing wound.

"I hate it when you work late, Bunt."

"Someone's got to do it."

Ha! Lunch at the Pussy Cat, sex in his office with the blinds drawn, a pint of brain damage at the Cricket Club with Monty, the pushy Chinese Hung with his probing questions. The sex and the beer had given Bunt a weary, overworked look.

Wang was back in the room again, clearing the plates, and Bunt saw Hung in him. It had given him a sense of power to say no to the man—more than a simple no, Bunt had jeered at him. He would never have been able to do that before Mr. Chuck died. He would have had to go to the old man's house and repeat the question, seeking his permission to say no, knowing in advance that Mr. Chuck, who hated the People's
Republic, would never say yes. Perhaps it was not only the People's Republic that Mr. Chuck hated, but the Chinese, all of them.

In addition to his excellent English, what was also disconcerting about Mr. Hung was his manner. Bunt liked to think that the Chinese were predictable. Bunt could understand them because he understood Mr. Chuck and Wang. It bothered him to think that these two men might not be typical, that they might be unlike any other Chinese. It would be so inconvenient. Certainly Mr. Chuck's will was an indication of something. Bunt never would have thought the old man wanted him as his heir. He felt he understood Mr. Chuck completely, but what about the rest of them?

"Nice bit of beef," his mother was saying.

Over tea in the lounge she was reminiscing about the meal they had just eaten.

"Smashing," Bunt said.

"The sprouts were fresh. From the New Territories. Wang got them today at the market."

Bunt sipped his tea. Yes, he thought, it was as though Mei-ping had given him first aid for snakebite, as though a creature had left fang marks and poison in his goolies.

"And I saved you some dripping for breakfast."

"Ta."

"The news will be on the wireless. It's five and twenty past nine."

"Don't, Mum. You know what it's going to be."

They both knew—the Hand-over. It was the only topic and it was torture, because what could you do about it? Long ago
they had reconciled themselves to it. It only confused them to hear more.

His mother said nothing. She watched him as always, with a pained smile, having shifted her false teeth in her mouth, which gave her an odd, bulldog-like grimace. But her expression said nothing. Her mind was crowded with sharp regrets and old sorrows.

Bunt dozed, and on his eyelids were images of Mei-ping's head, her narrow shoulders between his knees, of the mama-san saying "horse trainer" and "anything." And that other disturbing thing, the shocking item in the paper,
Your face belongs to me.
Then he was asleep in his chair, his hand on his head, his head on a purple knitted antimacassar.

At ten-thirty his mother tapped his arm and said, "Bunt, off you go then." He woke and yawned and scowled in the lamplight, and they each stumbled to their separate rooms, mother and son muttering, "'Night."

The following day he was on the stitching floor, doing his rounds, when Miss Liu's voice came over the loudspeaker: "Mr.
Mullard, wanted on line one.
"

His name pronounced by a Chinese person sounded unfamiliar and Irish, and he disliked that. It made him reluctant to go to the phone.

And he also thought, without being able to account for its occurrence just then, that he would never marry anyone to whom he was sexually attracted. He chose women for sex because they were unsuitable for marriage. He had had sex only once with a woman who was neither Chinese nor Filipino, and she was a tart in Macao. He thought of the Portuguese as borderline cases. The tart told him her name was Rosa Coelho, a common name which he discovered—feeling pity—meant "rabbit." Rosa Rabbit was hairy, and when she was naked she gave off a shipboard odor of salt and grease. But that was Macao, over the horizon, and did not count. Why was this all coursing restlessly through his head as he approached the telephone on the stitching floor? He did not know.

"Bunt, just a word—"

"Mum?"

"Dinner tonight at Fatty's," she said.

Fatty's Chophouse in Causeway Bay was his mother's favorite restaurant: spit and sawdust, horse brasses and football pennants, fake beams, a row of pewter tankards on hooks, oak tables, and in the summer "serving wenches," so the advertising said. They were most of them illegal immigrants, Vietnamese women who had arrived in Hong Kong as boat people.

"There's someone I want you to meet," she said.

Long ago, at Fatty's, Bunt had said, "I imagine London to be full of places like this, except with better food and no Chinese waiters," and his mother had laughed and said, "There's a few like it in London, but the food's worse and all the waiters are Chinky-Chonks." She often told the story.

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