Read Kowloon Tong Online

Authors: Paul Theroux

Kowloon Tong (7 page)

BOOK: Kowloon Tong

Bunt arrived early, but even so, his mother was already at the table.

"He let me choose it," she said, and smiled at her companion.

It was Mr. Hung, in a new suit with the manufacturer's label
still attached to the sleeve in an ostentatious way, thought by the mainland Chinese to be the height of fashion.

Bunt smiled insincerely and felt discouraged. The sight of Mr. Hung was bad enough, but just as bad was the sight of his mother dressed up. Her formal clothes—stiff-beaded, ill-fitting—were cheap and made her look vulgar. Her everyday clothes were sturdy, if plain, and made her seem sensible. Tonight she looked like a mama-san.

"My son, Neville."

"And you are?" Bunt said.

He made a point of not shaking Mr. Hung's hand and decided not to acknowledge that he had met the man before. He had kept it from his mother yesterday. Anyway, apparently Mr. Hung did not want to let on either.

"My name is Hung, Mr. Mullard" he said. Even though he was fluent in English, here was another Chinese person giving him an Irish name.

Although Bunt was relieved that Mr. Hung was going along with the deception of never having met before, it made him trust the man even less.

"Mr. Hung wanted to go to a Chinese restaurant," his mother said. "I had to tell him, 'Not a chance. I don't eat that muck.'"

As Mr. Hung fixed his lips in a smile, his eyes retreated into his head and his face went unreadable.

"It's adulterated, you know."

Mr. Hung smiled more broadly. Bunt wanted to believe that the man was silent because he did not know the word.

"And I twigged you might be happier here."

That meant that she did not want him to see her as selfish for
choosing Fatty's for herself, which was exactly what she had done.

"Bunt loves a bit of beef," she said. "We're beef eaters—very English in that respect. But they have all sorts here. Steaks and chops, and they do a lovely sausage and pud. Proper toad-in-the-hole. English-type bangers with bread. None of your continental kind."

Mr. Hung was still smiling and tapping a Fatty's Chophouse match cover through his fingers.

"I have to laugh," Betty said, and she laughed and began to tell the story of the time Bunt had said, "I imagine London to be full of places like this."

"Mum," Bunt said, and she stopped.

But a moment later, winking at Bunt, she started to tell the story of the time at the beach on Silver Mine Bay, one Sunday while George was still alive, and Bunt had farted—

"Mum," Bunt said, stopping her again.

The punch line of that story was Bunt turning to look at his own bum and saying, "Quiet, botty!"

From his fixed smile and his silence and his nervous finger-tapping, it was clear that Mr. Hung had not the slightest idea of what the woman was saying. Bunt could tell that, however good the man's ear for English might be, it did not extend to peculiarities such as food, or his mother's south London accent, or her mumbling drawl caused by her loose dentures. Those childhood stories were dreadful, but he liked his mother better for her being a challenge to Hung's English.

"Here I am chin-wagging and I fancy you want your beer, Mr. Hung. I know Bunt wants his beer."

"I will have a cup," Mr. Hung said.

"Of tea?"

"Of beer," Mr. Hung said.

That was very Chinese, his getting his containers muddled.

"A cup of beer for Mr. Hung," Bunt said, to mock him.

There was a stack of presents beside Betty's placemat: a bottle of red wine, a box of chocolates, a leather coin purse, a flower sealed in clear plastic. Bunt did not ask about them; he knew the answer.

Betty had a shandy, Bunt guzzled his beer, Mr. Hung sipped but did not drink. They ordered their meal. Betty tried to tell another story ("We're on a tram and Bunt looks up and says, 'Mum, why that man has his mouf open?'"), but Bunt stopped her again. The food was served and, this being Fatty's, it was piled on trenchers and pewter platters. Now, eating, no one spoke for a minute or more.

"Lovely bit of beef," Betty said.

Mr. Hung cleared his throat and said, "Will you tell him, please?"

Bunt smirked at the man's lack of subtlety, but he was grateful, too. He would be just as forthright in his reply as the presumptuous man had been in his question.

Betty chewed her meat and with her mouth full she said, "Mr. Hung has got a proposition for us."

Bunt was still trying to suppress his smirk, knowing what was coming.

Swallowing her meat and dabbing at the juices on her lips, she went on, "He wants to buy the factory."

"And I hope you told him we're not interested in his proposition."

Now his mother was smiling. She said, "Hang on, that's not the proposition, is it?"

Mr. Hung beamed, seeming to approve of the way the mother was sparring with the son, like an old lioness swinging her broad paw and batting an unruly cub, pleased that her effort was on his behalf.

"Bunt, what do you reckon that old factory is worth?"

"If by 'old factory' you mean Imperial Stitching, I haven't a clue," he said. He was thoroughly disgusted. How had Hung found her? Bunt added, "A packet, no question. But it's not a factory. It's a business. We have many employees, we make things, we earn a substantial profit. It is more than a livelihood. It is a living thing."

"Four or five million?"

"I wouldn't be surprised."

But truly he had no idea, and these sums did surprise him. He had never thought of Imperial Stitching in terms of dollars or pounds. It was his life, and a life had no monetary value. He and his mother had always had a half-share in Imperial. It had hardly sunk in that they now owned Mr. Chuck's half as well.

"He's offering us twice that," Betty said. "Top whack. A million quid."

Bunt had resumed eating so as to seem uninterested, and he was beginning to choke from the effort of it. How he hated holding this conversation about the factory and money in the presence of this intrusive Chinese man who was a perfect
stranger. His mother's saying
A million quid
made him cringe in just the same way he had cringed when his father used an obscenity.

"And you think that's an attractive proposition?" Bunt said at last.

Betty glanced at Mr. Hung, who was gloating at her as though urging her to defy her son.

"That's the price," his mother said. She had shoved her chair back and was getting to her feet. "That's not the proposition. You tell him, Mr. Hung, while I spend a penny."

Mr. Hung smiled at her. "When I am through," he said, "you will be able to spend more than a penny."

Bunt was squinting. He said, "Pardon?"


plain as day you didn't want to know. But why bite his nose off like that?"

As she spoke, Betty interrupted herself by puffing out her downy cheeks and blowing on her cup of Milo. They were back home at Albion Cottage on the fog-smothered Peak, having one of Wang's hot drinks before taking turns in the bathroom and removing their pajamas from the airing cupboard (each had a shelf)—nighttime rituals that Bunt found more unsettling on days he spent with Baby or Mei-ping. Not that he felt dissolute or sinful, merely unfaithful, as though he were neglecting his mother. When a woman was tearing off his sweater he sometimes reflected,
My mother knitted this jumper.

Bunt said, "I wasn't interested in his proposition."

"If only you'd listened a titch more."

"I heard what I wanted to."

At times like this he was reminded uncomfortably of sounding like his father, and even felt like a little old man being henpecked by a bossy wife. He loved his mother and sometimes sorrowed for her lack of education—the poor woman had not gone past form four. Yet he needed to be selfish so as not to be overwhelmed by his pity for her in her early bereavement—the loss of Bunt the First—and by her ignorant and suffocating attention. He often sensed that her bullying warnings about local women, all of them self-serving, had made him overeager and reckless. That had apparently been the case with his father, if the mama-san could be believed.

"It sounded jolly interesting to me."

Betty took a gulp of Milo and worked it around her dentures with her lips pressed shut, not swallowing it, but sloshing it like mouthwash.

"All that money," she said.

"There'll be more down the road."

"Wrong end of the stick there, Bunt," his mother said. "The future of the colony is nebulous."

Bunt smiled at this perfect word of precise polysyllables on his mother's damp lips. "The Hand-over, Mum. That's pretty certain."

"But after the Chinese take-away it's all a muddle," she said. "Funnily enough, when our friend Mr. Hung explained his proposition to me I was bored rigid. Then the penny dropped. It's as though he's doing us a favor."

"Some favor."

"Ready money, Bunt."

"The company's flush."

"The factory's a pup."

She called it the factory, the works, the godown; he called it the company or simply Imperial. It was eight floors: three of them occupied by workers on machines, a floor of executive offices, one floor of machines covered in dust sheets, a storage floor, Shipping, Dispatch.

"It's entirely ours. Mr. Chuck made sure of that. Doesn't that mean something?"

"All the other stitching beavered off to China. How can we compete with China?"

"This will
China next year."

"Queen Anne's dead," his mother sighed. "Don't be such a binder, Bunt."

He was gesturing for her to let him finish. "And then we can compete."

"They'll issue us with ID cards."

"We've got ID cards now, Mum."

"These tatty little learner permits are not IDs. I am talking about ID cards that say Big Brother Is Watching You."

"What does it matter what it says when we've also got British passports?"

"A U.K. passport is a license to eff off. They could ban them. They could make us take Chinky-Chonk nationality." She sloshed a mouthful of Milo. "Which makes sense. As you said, Hong Kong will be China."

"Are you saying you'd get a Chinese passport?"

"Not on your nellie." She was sloshing once more and he thought she might spit, for she was glancing around as though for a spittoon, but instead she swallowed.

"So we sell to Mr. Hung," Bunt said. "Then what?"

"We'll go back to U.K. and find a suitable location. Something on the coast. A chalet bungalow. Freehold. Newish."

He felt married to her again.

"It's cold and awful there."

"Cheap and cheerful," she said. "And we'll have—what—a million quid."

"Million" in his mother's mouth was a meaningless word. She seemed foolish the moment she uttered it. Bunt could almost imagine having a million pounds, but he could not imagine spending a million. Whatever would you spend it on? There was nothing, apart from another badge manufacturer, that he would want to own, or that would consume a million pounds. Even if they bought a new house, a new car, a new TV, central heating, smoked salmon, and all the other luxuries that people bought, there would still be hundreds of thousands left, and what for?

"We don't need ready money," Bunt said. "Our bills are paid. We're better off with a company like Imperial."

"In Hong Kong?"

"Of course."

have no future here, Bunt," his mother said. "That's why I say take the million."

Take the million! To Bunt there was something hilarious in his mother's again casually mentioning a million—she who would often risk being hit by a scooter as she delved into
dustbins for used tram tickets; who soaked uncanceled stamps and peeled them from envelopes to use again—used the old envelopes too; who licked the lids of jam jars and used the jars for water tumblers; who saved string as assiduously as her late husband, from whom she had learned the habit; who rinsed and saved old sauce bottles and kept her old flannel underwear in the rag basket—it still seemed strange to Bunt when he saw Wang dusting the furniture with his mother's knickers. Her mention of a million made her seem credulous and clownish.

For one thing, anyone who used the word "quid" had never had a million of anything, and certainly not pounds sterling. When she said "million" he was reminded more strongly than ever that she was plain Betty Mullard of Balham, who had still not lived down a note she had scribbled to George after the coal man had delivered his load, writing,
Colemans bin.

"Use your bonce," she said.

"I didn't like the sound of his scheme."

"He had thought it all out."

"It sounded dodgy."

"You were looking at him squiffy-eyed."

"Because he's a nasty piece of work."

"How do you know that? You'd never clapped eyes on him before."

It was now too late to reveal to her that he had, and that the encounter at Monty's instigation had not been a success.

"He's nicely spoken," his mother said.

He thought, Trust her, so common herself, to be a snob about accents. Yet it was in character and as English as her homemade cardigan and the way her clicking dentures made
her whistle, for it was a shop assistant's way of mocking—the self-inflicted snobbery of sneering at people just like herself, on behalf of her equally snobbish customers.

His mother's opinions reminded Bunt of how his father had met his future bride, at the Army and Navy in Victoria Street. Betty had been behind the counter in Fancy Goods. Her mother's family had been nearly destitute and her father's had been "in service." Her father, a gambler, had been bankrupt, and she referred to him with a kind of hauteur as "a gentleman's gentleman." He polished silver, laboring with it, using paste. "He wore white gloves." But that was futile boasting. She had also once tearfully told her son how the poor man, dogged by gambling debts, had walked the streets of south London trying to work up the courage to kill himself. He had not done himself in, and instead had gone home to Balham, gray-faced with depression, feeling even more like a failure. "But he was nicely spoken." The very mention of his accent maddened Bunt and made him want to drop his aitches.

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