This is a complete, and free, version of the novel, ‘China Dreams’.
I’m tinkering with the thing, however. The most noticeable change is from third person to first. It’s noticeable but not very important; its purpose is only to give me a prod in the ribs with every sentence, so that I have to concentrate.
The most important aspect of the rewrite is to integrate the China and non-China parts. For instance, I’m introducing freaky stuff into the London scenes so that they more resemble the China stuff (eg the crouching woman), and Tom, the central character, is becoming more important in the China stories.
I’m also adding bits. Some of these are present in the Picador ebook edition.
Finally, I’m cutting some of the non-China stuff. There was a long section in an old folks’ home, for instance, which I’ve replaced with one word: school.
All of this means that errors and literals will creep in: not too many, I hope. I expect to continue tinkering for the rest of my life.
I kept dreaming about China.
At first they were only daydreams. I pictured myself in a rice field, or I was fishing from a boat on a river, the fish very strange and Chinese, or I was leading a buffalo home under the stars, singing because I was going to May Tan, my Chinese love.
But later I had no choice. I believed that London was all Chinese. I thought that the Thames flowed here from China. I saw the streets flooded and full of ghosts, with Chinese women wading waist deep. And finally I knew that these dreams had a meaning, although to find the meaning always seemed to need another dream.
Once, near the end, I was leaning over the wall of the Embankment. Below me were steps down into the river, as if there was a room under the water. I watched the river put its foot on the next step and then withdraw. I looked away, because I was thinking about going down the steps. When I looked again, the river’s foot was back on the next step, but this time it was not withdrawn.
All this started at the takeaway. At first I worked the counter, but I bungled the orders and fumbled the change so they sent me to the kitchen, where I broke plates, spilled sauce, and lost spoons in the noodles. Then May’s father put me on deliveries and forgave me everything because I’d go to the worst council blocks, not leaving the little Honda to be stolen or wrecked but riding up the stairwells over silver paper and used needles, and if a gang was waiting I wanted them to start something, staring them down until the ambush calls stopped.
On my days off I imagined being Chinese: in shops I’d point and nod, not speaking; I was careful on buses, like the Chinese cooks going home in their cheap clothes, London strange to me; and I’d sit in Chinatown cafes over green tea and bean-curd cakes, watching kids flirt and laugh, although their race is beyond age. When I was working I kept the helmet on, so that people might think I was a golden Chinese.
I was young then, and these things seemed important – in love with May, and wobbling around Whitechapel on a little red delivery bike, the back-box full of fried rice and crackers, stoned senseless until one night it was The Fear. At the first house I knocked softly and no one came. Then an old woman answered with a smile – so she wanted me inside for grisly old-person sex. At the next place the hall light was red, with a roaring from the living room like sinners on spits, and I nearly ran while the man went for his money. ‘You all right?’
‘Yes,’ I whispered. ‘Why?’
Then a Chinese child, sex uncertain, who smiled and shut the door. I stumbled off, picturing the youngster inside, dragging its satin slippers over Turkish rugs, sticky with opium, and into a gloomy bedroom where its master stands, shaking with sick dependence, takes the pack two-handed, hurries to the lamp, with coiled mandarin talons rips the lid, and drinks the filthy liquid while the sulking child, watching from the shadows as its master swoons, pockets a costly trinket and is gone, the cat-flap wagging and it’s free at last.
‘You druggie,’ I thought, leaning against the bike, heart galloping, shaking my head in wonder. I rode down tenement canyons (bodies in bin bags), through cobbled courtyards (where the Ripper crouched), along a dogleg alley (puddles deep as wells), and food was crawling from the box and up my back. ‘Fool.’
I was taking a shortcut when the alley narrowed like a funnel. It was only bad-dope bollocks but I could still crash.
‘Idiot,’ I said, and propped the bike against a wall. I couldn’t touch the food so I found a sodden magazine and lifted out the packs. I dropped them in a corner and pushed the bike to the takeaway, but Wei and Chung wouldn’t let me in and threw my doss bag in the street. I went to a pub, the bike key on its slinky wire on my wrist, still senseless with dope. The doss bag was full of my stuff from May’s room. By closing time I was angry. I hid in the alley till the takeaway was dark, then broke a window and got into the shed, the dog whining and barking as I kick-started the bike for the long ride back to the squat.
I wanted my old room upstairs, but only the basement was free. There was a mattress on the concrete floor, but someone had taken the door. I stole a light bulb from a pub toilet, a cup and spoon from a caff, and clear plastic sheeting from a building site, fixing it with thumbtacks round the cracked window.
There was no catch on the front door and for a while I propped it closed at night. But a Scouse drunk always came in late and kicked it open, stumbling down the basement steps and spraying in the toilet next to my room. So the house door stayed open and I curled fully-clothed in my sleeping bag against the draughts that flowed down the steps and gave the doorless room a campsite feel. I bought an electric kettle and claimed my big electric fire from a whining skinny ex-con upstairs, who said, ‘You can’t leave stuff and then take it back,’ but left a week later after some sort of fight. During the fight a wardrobe burst in the back yard, then a chair, and then a curtain rocked down and settled on the mess.
Next day I got the wet curtain to pin in my doorway. But instead I put it over the window and climbed back into the sleeping bag because I wanted to think about China and May Tan.
I was a fisherman on the river. I was old, so May had shortened my oars. I sat in the boat, angry and weeping.
Or I was mud-spattered. I was walking home, sick with tiredness. I opened the door and May looked up from pushing twigs into the stove. I smiled with anger. Every night I said the same thing. ‘I stare at a buffalo’s arse all day, but still you’re ugly.’
I blinked awake. What was all that? Damn nasty dreams. Damn dope.
I told myself, ‘May is my girl.’ I closed my eyes and put myself back in China. I was by a river, waiting for May, my Chinese bride. She was dressing at her father’s house. She had a tall hat. I saw the tiny brass discs on her skirt, and every stitch in her bridal shawl.
May turned to her father. I heard her, very clearly. ‘I’m young and lovely, as you see. Give me a potion to remain so.’
Her father said, ‘Drink this and you’ll live for ever.’
May drank, then clutched her stomach.
Her father said, ‘Did you eat meat today?’
‘At the marriage breakfast, of course.’
‘Fool! The potion has brought it back to life.’
May rolled on the ground, saying, ‘The beef has horns. The pork has sharp teeth.’
May’s father carried her from the house. He laid her dead body at my feet, then danced down the riverbank, singing, ‘She’s young and lovely, as you see.’
Nothing happened about the bike, so after a week I went back. I rode past the takeaway after closing time and then round the back to the alley. Next to Mr Tan’s bedroom window was the pipe for the upstairs toilet. Further along, a drainpipe rose by Johnny’s room. Between them was May’s window, but there was no pipe to climb there.
I limped away. I was a mule-driver. I was leading a mule train through the mountains near Tibet, and May was a great lady under a silk umbrella. We’d halted in the snow and I was boring a hole in a mule’s throat, so it could breathe easier in the thin air. I winced on my crushed feet: mules had crippled me.
I came out onto the Whitechapel Road, my feet OK but now I was tired. I’d been following the plough, knee-deep in a flooded field, and I was leading the buffalo home to May. I had one buffalo but used to have two, which worked in harness for years. They wouldn’t even drink at the river till they were properly aligned. But one of them broke into the granary and burst itself, so the other one thought that half the world had dropped away, or that it was walking by the edge of a cliff or a fast river, or the stable door was open or the stable wall had fallen, and it pulled the plough crooked. All day I had to hold the plough straight. I’d gripped the plough so hard that there was a flat bit on the gristle in my finger joints.
I scooped rain off the bike saddle. I revved the throttle, flexing my fingers, feeling the flat bit.
Back in Brixton, I plugged in the fire. I boiled a full kettle of water for the heat, then thought, ‘I haven’t washed since I got here.’
I carried the kettle up through the dark house, dodging water that dripped from the ceilings, the drips getting worse as I climbed so that it seemed like the roof was leaking. But I knew better. Last summer a hippy girl from down the terrace had said, ‘People used to come here for baths, but now the water’s cold,’ so I’d said, ‘Let’s fix it, then.’
The water tank was in a cupboard by the bathroom, and the job looked easy because the mains cable had come off the immersion heater. I said, ‘But probably the fuse has blown,’ and I touched the cable to the copper tank. There was a bang and the girl shrieked. Half blinded, I looked sideways at the scar on the copper. I laughed and said, ‘Well, it’s blown now.’ Again I touched the tank with the cable end.
When my sight came back the girl had gone and a jet of water, bright as a new nail, was spouting from the side of the tank. It drooped smoothly downwards, wrinkling as it neared the floor, then pattered onto the floorboards and ran between my feet in dusty drops. I walked thoughtfully away, but afterwards I’d always stop on the landing below and look at the spreading stain on the ceiling. One day I came with a matchstick and chewing gum and plugged the leak, at least until I’d shut the cupboard door.
But I could see now that all through my time with May at the takeaway the water had been soaking down the stairwell, the ceilings falling floor by floor, wet plaster trodden into the landings. And I was edgy as I climbed in the dark because the cons kept their doors open. ‘I suppose if you’ve been in a cell . . . ’
I scowled into their rooms, just to show them, and they were sat in the dark, their ciggies glowing, a tinny radio going night and day on the fiddled metre. But then in the bathroom I was angry: rubble in the bath, the toilet full of stuff you couldn’t look at, and I was washing in a sink they probably pissed in. I wouldn’t wash again. Grease keeps you warm.
I was heading downstairs when someone shouted, ‘The local yokel.’ It was the red-headed Scouser, lounging in a room full of mattresses, a couple of other lowlifes smoking in the dark: ‘Get out of that basement, pal. I’m having that room.’
I stamped down the stairs, kicking the fallen plaster, dodging under the hall ceiling that sagged and dripped, and splashing through the first pioneering drops that puddled outside my room. I lit a joint, then went to the basement steps and put my head back and shouted, ‘Bollocks,’ loud as I could up the stairwell.
I took off my wet pants and dried my legs on the curtain. I climbed into the doss bag and sat on the mattress in the red glow from the fire, feeling through the mattress the thump of trains along the Brixton viaduct, until the dope made everything fine.
‘May, where are you?’ I rolled over and closed my eyes, so she could come to me in China.
I was tired. I was standing by a river. Long ago I’d been married here with May Tan. Now it was night and I was talking to May’s father, and May was dead.
I said, ‘Why did you call me here?’
Her father said, ‘May is haunting me.’
Now there was a sobbing from the far bank. ‘Every night,’ said her father. ‘Every night.’
I thought, ‘In this country, a ghost can drag men to her grave.’ I stared across the dark river and said, ‘She’s angry because you drove me away.’
‘You’re trembling,’ said the father. ‘Coward! That’s why I drove you away.’
‘And so she killed herself. Talk to her. She wants a reckoning.’
The father went to his boat. Bitterly he said, ‘Why didn’t you fight for her?’
I stood on the riverbank, watching the little boat in the moonlight. It came to the middle of the river. I heard the father call, ‘May, he’s come.’ Then there was a sob behind me.
I was still asleep when Wei and Chung came round. I sat on the mattress, rubbing my face, groggy from the dream.
‘Tea?’ I said. I went to the toilet and dipped the kettle in the cistern, little Wei poking his head around the door, laughing and saying, ‘What, Tom?’
‘It’s clean water. Anyway, I boil, so...’
‘Smelly here, Tom!’
‘Free tea, all right?’
‘Why you live here?’ said Wei. ‘Crazy!’
‘No job, remember.’
‘Ah, no job. Maybe your fault.’
Wei passed me a scrap of paper. It was the corner of a Chinese newspaper, a name and number written in the margin. I said, ‘Who’s Ellie?’
‘Your father’s friend. May says: Tom call Ellie.’
‘OK. Tell her thanks.’ I was touched. ‘Tell her that’s very kind. Or I’ll tell her, actually.’
Wei laughed. ‘No, no. Not kind. Don’t talk to her, all right? She said don’t call, don’t talk.’
I was silenced, making the tea: ‘You share, OK?’
‘One cup!’ said Wei, squatting and grinning. Big Chung leaned on the wall, his look saying, ‘What do you expect from this fool?’
I said, ‘All right, Chung, you dick, how’s work?’
‘What?’ Chung didn’t answer, so I sat with my eyes wide until Wei sighed and said, ‘Maybe we get the bike. Key, please.’
I rinsed the cup in the cistern, Wei saying, ‘My god.’ I put the tea-making kit in a supermarket bag and hung it on a nail behind the curtain. The electric fire went under a torn rug below the basement steps.
‘Really?’ I said. ‘He’s really dead?’ They didn’t answer so I thought, ‘Bollocks to this.’
I said, ‘Hang on,’ and went into the toilet and closed the door. There was an old painted-over bolt that nobody used. I pushed it quietly but it was only half home when there was a shout and a great thump on the door. I was climbing out of the toilet window when Chung grabbed my ankle. I kicked him off and scrambled over the wall into the next garden and out to the street.
Still raining. I jumped on the wet saddle and teetered away, big Chung gaining on me, Wei on the pavement laughing. I screwed up the throttle, Chung left behind in the blue exhaust.
‘A moped? I can’t do nothing with a moped.’
‘I just want something that drives.’ I was at Bert the Breaker’s, avenues of wrecks stretching off around us.
Bert looked again at the Honda, red and new. ‘Well, there’s this little van.’
‘A van. Great.’
‘Down there. On the right, near the bus. Ex Post Office. Very practical.’
‘I’ve never had a van,’ I said. ‘Can you sleep in it?’
‘What do you mean “sreep”?’
I stepped around rainbow puddles, the bare earth black with oil, cars piggybacked in the rain. Crappy England. The van was low and dented and green, painted with a brush over the Post Office red. The back doors groaned when I opened them, my hands blue from the long ride.
‘I’ve never had a van.’ I could park at night and creep in the back, curled up asleep while people walked past. I leaned on the doors to shut them. Half a tank of juice, although the dipstick was low. But you can always get oil, I thought, if you don’t mind crawling under cars with a wrench – which, on the other hand, I didn’t have.
The gears crunched on the way back to Brixton, but I thought, ‘I won’t be driving much.’ The smell of new wire, threads of copper in the footwell, a cardboard roll of mains cable sliding around the back, and the pleasure of a junk car, jostling the traffic, nothing to lose. My van. Though the heater didn’t work.
I crept round the back of the squat and peeked through my window. No one. I went in through the toilet window and dragged my mattress out of the front door to the street. I leaned on the van, catching my breath, then stuffed the mattress in the back. It curled up the sides and pushed against the back doors, so I went behind the squat, opening my knife, and cut the washing line off the tree. I closed the back doors of the van against the mattress and tied the door handles together.
The van would slope into the gutter when I parked up, and I could roll into the trough of the mattress and be hidden and safe. ‘This good.’
I rolled the rest of my stuff into the rug and dumped it in the van with that fine feeling of leaving. I’d cut my hand somewhere and there were dabs of blood on the mattress and the van. I sat in the driver’s seat, taking a breather with the door open, Londoners tramping past.
I was sleepy, as always. I drove to a side street, crashing the rubbish gears, and parked up, thinking how you could have some kind of selective-breeding thing. You’d pick the sallow and squinty types, till everyone was Chinese.
I climbed in the back of the van and laid out the doss bag. Too much light from the front, so I fixed the curtain behind the seats, tying it with scraps of wire to the seatbelt mountings. I sat on the mattress, pulling bits of prickly copper thread from my socks. I took off my shoes and lay down.
What about Johnny? Maybe some Chinky thing where ‘dead’ means ‘dead to us’. Into the doss bag, fully clothed. I lit my last spliff and my bones eased.
The van rocked as a bus went past. I covered myself with the curtain and rug. The traffic was loud and I decided it was like a river. There was a draught on my face, very cold, and that too smelled of the river.
I was lying on rice straw, which pricked my ankles. I lived in a little wooden house by the river. I picked rice grains from the straw because my father starved me. On a wall by my bed was a picture of a girl. My father had made the picture, murmuring certain words over the paints, so that every night the girl stepped down from the picture and cooked and cleaned and returned to the picture at dawn. The old man called her ‘daughter’, but I said nothing because I was shy.
Now night was falling. My father said, ‘From now you sleep in the stable.’
I went to the stable and lay beside the little pony, which sighed and stamped. I was too angry to sleep. I went back across the yard and crept to a window and saw my father naked with the girl. ‘I’ll call you May,’ the old man said, ‘because you are young.’
I went to the picture and ripped it with my sharp nails. My father screamed all night, because the girl gripped him with her torn flesh.
In the morning the old man burnt the picture. I took the pony and went downstream to find my fortune, although the old man begged me to stay. Now no one comes to the lonely house by the river, and every night the old man is sickened by ghostly kisses, which taste of burnt skin.
I felt well hidden in the van in the dark in the rain in the Jack-the-Ripper alley behind the takeaway. Nine o’clock. I was watching for May going to or from her baffling shifts, because the dreams meant that her dad was to blame. ‘Listen to me,’ I’d say. ‘Not that fat rat.’
And I’d ask about Johnny. No wonder she was upset. ‘Take your time. Really. I’ll be here when you’re ready.’ White scalp at her parting, the separate hairs, and how with her hand flat she rubbed her lovely snub nose.
‘Damn.’ Instead of May it was little Wei, stepping out for a smoke. I watched him drop the lighter, pick it up, and pout his fag into the flame, cross-eyed and cautious like a child. ‘Wei!’
Walking crooked under the rain, head tipped, Wei came over. Comedy recognition: ‘Ah! You!’
‘Not so loud!’ The van window was stuck halfway, me squinting up through the gap. ‘Get in, will you.’
Wei stared, his clothes on crooked like a child or a corpse, then squeezed along the wet wall in the dark and into the passenger seat. His shrivelled jockey face. ‘Tom! You are well?’
‘Yes, thank you.’
‘You work now?’
‘No. In fact I wanted to know why I got the sack. Why I lost the job, the work, the bike.’
‘Ah! Bike! Where, Tom?’
‘I gave it back. Mr Tan has it. Or he will soon anyway. Look, forget the bike.’
‘OK,’ he said cheerfully.
‘I just wondered how is May. And Mr Tan.’
‘Very sad about Johnny. And May, very sad.’
‘He die? Really? How?’
‘I don’t know, Tom.’
‘What you mean, you don’t know? That’s crap.’
Wei said, ‘Kill himself.’
I thought, ‘I’m not ready for this.’ I said, ‘Got a ciggie?’
‘Your father’s friend – you phone?’
‘Forget my damn dad.’ I sucked down smoke. Fantastic. And bollocks to Wei and Mr Tan and all of them except May. Then I said, ‘Bugger!’
‘Bugger!’ said Wei, and we leant right back because May was at the kitchen door, looking round.
I said, ‘Did she see us?’
‘Maybe no. Night.’
‘I have to go.’
‘Wait, wait. I work.’
‘No, no. I work.’
‘Hang on,’ I said. ‘Wait. Just slide out quietly. Understand? Get out of your side. She can’t see that side. Just get out very, very quietly.’
‘I get,’ said Wei, softly opening the door.
We’d forgotten the courtesy light. Wei tumbled out as I raced away in the van, May watching amazed as I crashed the gears and said, ‘Bugger,’ because now the van was useless for stakeouts.
A mile down the road I stamped on the brakes and cut into a side street. I got out and walked around the van, kicking tyres, picking at rust, stroking dents in the passenger door, which Wei hadn’t shut so that it hit parked cars all along the Whitechapel Road.
Poor Johnny. Poor May. Because of their bastard dad.
I climbed in the back and lay down. Boring, being homeless. Too angry to sleep, I didn’t get into the doss bag. Damn cold, though, so I pulled it over me.
I remembered dozing in May’s room over the takeaway, her China books sharing the bed, until at dawn she’d creep in beside me. Silent and happy, I’d hear the pigeons stirring on the roof, their claws on the slates, their foolish cooing like my own wonder. Or if she was on days I’d roam through London, so happy that I’d smile at women and they smiled right back. But now I stank of failure, scared of May, stupid with loss.
I closed my eyes and at once tasted dust. I was lying on the ground, the dust in my mouth. At the same time, though, I could see myself from above, so that I was in the dream but also watching it.
I saw May. She was leaving a wooden house and crossing a yard to the latrine. She stopped, because I was lying in the dust.
She screamed, and a boy ran from the house.
I thought, ‘It’s Johnny.’
May raised her lamp. The lamplight showed my terrible wound. When the brother saw the cut he thought, ‘So this is how women are.’ When May saw the entrails she thought, ‘So this is how men are.’
Her brother carried me to a room, and afterwards paced alone. At midnight he went back to my room and stammered his love, then slipped into the bed. May was modest, waiting till dawn before she came to me.
They came to me every midnight and every dawn, each creeping in secret through the house. And their love put a false life into me, so that the ghost couldn’t get free of the body. Often the ghost drifted towards the river, which is the route to the afterworld, wondering if it was alive or dead and if it was man or woman. But it was always called back by the false life in the body. When my ghost returned, the body could open its eyes and sit up and say yes and no, though often at the wrong times.
Every night the brother stayed later and the sister arrived sooner. At last they met in my room. They were ashamed and angry, and May raged at my deceit. Without their love my body died, and they burned it behind the house and threw its ashes in the river.
But this was too late for my ghost, which pines for their love. On windy nights I howl and on rainy nights I tap on the window. Inside, the brother and sister embrace while the night howls and taps.
I woke up with a jolt.
‘Damn dreams are getting longer.’ I’d endure them, though. I’d follow them through every possible world, because they were about May.
On the other hand they were horrible. ‘No more dope.’
I lay in the back of the van while night rain clattered on the roof. Poor Johnny.
Stiff and cold, I climbed slowly over the seats and sat behind the wheel, still druggy from the dream. I got out and stretched. For the first time I thought, ‘The dreams mean something.’
Night and rain, so I got back in and watched women coming past, reeling and laughing from the pub, their fate on their face like the number on a bus. But there were too many tight jeans, the bollocklessness, so I started the van and drove.
Out of habit I went to Brixton, angry with myself. ‘Not the squat again.’ I parked and slammed the door and stalked down the Crescent, stiff with rage: Johnny and May, messed up by their bastard dad.
People milling around a squat, and I went in for the pleasure of pushing through. Along the hall and down the basement steps and into a roar of noise. No music, but a bellowing crowd swayed in the dark, and there was a cold draught like water around my ankles.
The red-headed drunk pushed past, and I said, ‘Hello, tosser,’ angry and pleased.
‘Oh, the farm boy.’ He waved a spliff, laughing, close enough to knee me. ‘Did we frighten you away?’
‘I’ve got my own place now.’
‘Excellent room. Ta very much. Very kind.’
‘Central heating,’ I said. ‘Everything. And I’m sharing with a girl. Chinese.’ But he’d gone away laughing.
The dripping ceiling bulged down, and I was squashed against a circle of men, who grinned and raised their plastic glasses. In the middle was a girl. A man spat in his beer and gave it her. ‘I don’t mind,’ she said, and drank. Somebody snatched the glass and put his dick in the beer. ‘I don’t mind,’ she said, while I pushed away but found the redhead again, lounging with his pals against a corner. ‘Don’t be scared, farm boy.’
I aimed for the door but a girl grabbed my arm, saying, ‘I know you.’ Square hands, a dancer’s stocky body: ‘I saw you. Last year. You fix cars. You fix cars so you can fix my bike, yes?’ Bad hippy teeth, a ribbon with glitter in her dirty-blonde hair. She pulled my sleeve. ‘Hello? Anybody there? My bike. Understand? You speak English?’
I said, ‘Um.’
‘Can’t hear you.’
I hated to shout over the noise. I cleared my throat and said, ‘Chinese.’
My village: mud around the well, the dirt track that twists and lifts from the riverbank – unchanging things.
She looked at me crooked, a little nervous laugh, finger-shaped bruises on her bare arms. ‘You’re never Chinese.’
‘Well...’ I was a Chinese tailor in Whitechapel. Fifty years over a steam iron, too bent to see the photo on the shelf: his sons, their children and children’s children, and in the middle his child bride, also old, in the village with the track rising from the river.
‘You mean you were born in China?’ Her face twisted, trying to believe. ‘I mean you’re not Chinese.’
‘A particular tribe in China. We’re a bit...’ Couldn’t finish the thought.
‘White?’ she said, laughing.
The village road was a blacktop now, but I’d always know the lift and half-turn up from the river, passing the well, capped now with a concrete slab, with a steel box where an engine thumped an hour a day, filling a tank above the village so that the houses had taps, and the old and the young would press their hands on the pipe to feel the engine, and the only mud was a hand-sized patch where a pipe-joint leaked. My bones would be carried up the bend and past the well, home after fifty years. I thought, ‘But who puts a well by a river?’
I said, ‘Let’s go, let’s go.’
She led me towards the door, and I was murmuring under the din: ‘The river was dirty.’ I saw a concrete town, a rusted outflow pipe squirting milky liquid into the river, plastic snagged on a midstream branch, and a pale smear on the water, coiling downstream to the village. I said, ‘The river was dirty, so we dug a well.’
Into the back yard, tripping on bricks and beer cans. ‘It’s really raining,’ she said, but I couldn’t answer. ‘Is that your village? I mean, with the well. You’re talking about China, right?’ But I wouldn’t speak English.
‘Deaf again,’ she said, hunched against the rain. ‘Christ. Come on.’
I followed her down the back of the terrace, her strong waist, rain drifting from the dark, the gardens clearer of junk as we got to the hippy end.
In through a back door and into a living room with collapsed comfortable sofas, Afghan mats, swirly paintings, purple skirting boards – stuff that our house had been drifting towards before the druggies came and then the cons who threw them out.
Downstairs to the basement kitchen. A big pine table, at the sink a good-looking man, paint flecks on his overalls. ‘Hey, Annie. Hey, man. Hey, I know you!’ Pushing long brown hair behind his ears. ‘Last year, right? I used to see you, with the cars.’
‘Don’t you worry about flooding?’ I said. ‘I mean in a basement.’
‘Seriously?’ The man laughed again, handsome and happy. ‘I hadn’t thought about it. You think we should?’
A silence until the girl said, ‘He goes deaf on you.’
Mr Handsome gave me a wobbly homemade cup with no handle. ‘Soothing, man.’ Tea with petals and bits. ‘A mechanic, right? I can’t do engines. Too . . . something.’ He grinned, forgiving himself. ‘But we need a mechanic, definitely.’
‘He’s from China, he says. He talks like Farmer Giles but really he’s Chinese.’
‘Wow. Really? Which part? I went to the south. Only three months, though. Travelled around, off the tourist trail. Amazing place. You mean you’re actually from there?’
I was staring at the table, the fancy tea in a homemade cup, fingerprints in the clay. ‘Hippy shit.’
‘All this hippy shit.’ A kitty and a cleaning rota. A communal pushbike. All that cooler-than-thou crap.
‘You like that other stuff, then, up the terrace?’ said the girl.
I thought: You don’t belong either – finger bruises, a glittery ribbon, satin slippers with the ballerina straps, and just a bit too old.
‘See? He goes deaf on you.’ If I had a gun. Knives in the kitchen drawer. ‘No answer. We’re not worth talking to, I suppose.’
The girl was sitting upright as a dancer on the bench, her mouth peevish. Red lipstick. I thought that there was a straight tube running all the way down from her mouth, top to bottom. I went to the kitchen door and struggled with the bolt, then out into the dark, the girl saying, ‘Oops. Off he goes. Back to China.’
I climbed across a tumbled wall into the next garden, falling over a supermarket trolley, the girl shouting, ‘Bye-bye, China boy.’
I groped forward and found a house wall and followed it in the dark, trailing a hand on the wet bricks, climbing over rubble and a broken fence and out to the street. The little van, patient in the rain.
I checked the rope on the back doors, leaned for a while on the bonnet, then sat in the driver’s seat, slumped with tiredness. I was bent-backed. It was my own fault. ‘Eat the bones,’ my father always said. But the fish bones pricked my mouth so I secretly palmed them and put my hand on the bamboo floor and pushed them through the gaps to the river below. It was easy to palm them because everyone ate with their hands, but now I couldn’t straighten to see the picture on the shelf, my sons and great-grandsons and my child bride with an old face.
I looked out at the cold, the windscreen already steamy, and thought I saw the girl from the party. She was up ahead on the corner, where the Crescent met the main road. She was crouched down, sitting on her heels, her arms around her shins, her head thrown back, staring open mouthed at the sky.
I was walking through a little wooden town by the river. I had a baby on my back. The river was grey and fast, with boats pulled up on the bank.
‘My wife is dead,’ I thought.
I walked slowly like a rustic and came to a low hut on the riverbank. Nearby a crow was treading a pile of fish heads and fish bones, which stank even in this cold air. I waited outside the low door, looking up and down the river, until a fat little pig came trotting around the hut. It sniffed towards me, alert and interested, pulling against the rope through its earflap. I ducked inside. It was very dark, but then I saw glowing coals and something shiny. It was the silver tooth of an old woman, who grinned and said, ‘Your honour?’
I had rehearsed my speech: ‘Find me a wife who’ll care for me and my house and my baby girl.’ I pushed a coin into the old woman’s hand. She smiled again, because my clothes were ragged and the coin was tarnished from long burial under my hearth fire. And she thought how a baby girl is a curse, because she must be fed until she’s ready to work, but then goes to her husband’s house so that her parents grow old alone. She put the money into her clothes and forgot the matter.
For months I waited in my little house in the hills, with its one field whose best crop was stones, which rose to the surface after every rain or every ploughing. I was ashamed to go back to the town, so at last I walked far upstream, my daughter heavier on my back. We lay down for the night behind a boulder in a high pass, the child fretful. Next day I came to a larger town and another marriage broker.
This time, though, I had dressed my daughter as a boy. ‘A plump son,’ I told the broker, ‘who’ll bring a woman and children to my house, to care for me and the fortunate wife you will find.’ I had no money and gave the broker a poor brass necklace that my dead wife had worn. The old woman sneered as she tucked the necklace into her boot, and at once forgot the matter.
Again I waited in the hills, gathering my daily harvest of stones. As I waited I kept the girl in boy’s clothes, although there was no one to see except salt-vendors and the beggars that I drove from the door.
I was proud to have a son. We joked and raced and had spitting games and threw a ball of rags across my stony field, so that the child laughed and clapped her hands. She grew lean and brown like a boy, though once I found her cradling the ball of rags and crooning, so I beat her. And I beat her if she bathed or tidied the house or washed her clothes or combed her hair. Her name was May, but I only said, ‘Good boy,’ and ‘My son.’
And I banished animals from the farm, in case she saw the difference in male and female, only keeping chickens, where the male parts are hidden. Likewise we ate lizards and snakes, and collected eggs from the nests of ground-dwelling birds. A wild dog attacked the chickens and my daughter killed it and said, ‘What are these parts?’
‘A big worm and a big tick,’ I said, ‘that sucked its blood.’
Another time she said, ‘Father, why do I sit to pee but you stand up?’
‘You sat because you were young, but now you can wear a peeing part.’ And I made her an earthenware spout, and made one for myself, which I pretended to use.
And finally she said, ‘Why am I bleeding?’
‘Because now you’re a man. Your blood can mix with a woman’s blood to make babies.’ Alone, I rubbed my hands and said, ‘I’ll find her a wife.’
I went to a third marriage broker and the search was easy. I ignored the talk of beauty or wealth and chose an idiot girl, who’d been raised by aunts and toiled all day like a beast. The wedding was a hurried thing and the aunts were not invited. Afterwards I gave my daughter a carved thighbone. ‘This is called a wedding part,’ I said.
Now the farm had another worker, though I mocked the idiot wife, saying, ‘Look how she spills the water, which you carried so far.’ But my daughter was happy, and the wife smiled so that she was almost pretty.
I was glad that my daughter wasn’t used by a man. But I was jealous of the women, who laughed as they cleared a second field, and whispered at the day’s end, perhaps thinking of the wedding part. The women kept it in their bed. It was tied with a silk ribbon and lay in a silk sleeve which the wife had made.
One day I lifted a stone and hurt my back. It wasn’t a big stone, and I lay in the house drinking barley beer and thinking that now I was old. I remembered the games with my daughter and thought how I’d never have a grandson. That night I woke up choking because I smelled the women or because their breath had drained the air.
Next day I lay drunk in bed while the idiot wife bustled about the house and my daughter trimmed maize in the yard. I said, ‘Where is the wedding part?’
The wife stared at me.
‘Where is the wedding part that I made?’
She looked towards the window.
‘Did you think that your husband made it?’ I said, laughing. ‘No, it was me. And now I’ll burn it.’
‘No,’ said the idiot wife.
‘I’ll burn it because I have a special wedding part. Do you want to see it?’
‘It’s a special wedding part that makes babies. Do you want babies?’
The idiot wife thought about this.
‘You want babies, of course. Come here. Look at my special wedding part.’
When the wife came I pulled her onto the bed. My back hurt, and I was surprised at her strength, or perhaps at my own weakness. But I pressed on, the wife shouting under me until my daughter came running with the shears.
She chopped off my special wedding part and I bled to death.
As I died I told them how to fix the roof, about men and women, and where to buy goats, which would prosper on these stony hills. The women were puzzled. That winter, though, the wife had my child.
It was a boy, so now the women understood. They were happy together and the boy grew fat. In time he married and had many sons, who played in the stony fields, and ran with the goats, and cared for the two grandmammas when they were old.
I woke in the dark. I was shivering in the driver’s seat, thinking that maybe dicks are full of gristle and hard to cut, especially with farm shears. And wouldn’t your dick shrink if someone came at you with shears? Or you’d fight them off, surely, even if you were drunk. And would you really bleed to death? So maybe the dream couldn’t be true.
‘Forget the dream.’ But I touched my pants because they might be bloody.
Canterbury Crescent was yellow under the street lights, and the houses asleep. I fired up the van and set off anywhere. ‘I’m in China more than I’m here.’ But as I turned into Brixton Road I saw the girl from the party. She was still crouched on her heels, her square peasant’s hands clasped tight around her ankles, her head thrown back and her mouth open, and she seemed to be spinning.
A new thumping from under the van, the gear stick shuddering so that it blurred. My hands also trembled. I drove fast around the Elephant and Castle double-yolker roundabouts and turned north, thinking ‘Saturday night.’ On King’s Cross Road I parked up and crossed to the pool hall. I straightened for the door-cam and flashed my membership card. An inordinate pause until the lock buzzed.
I bounded up the stairs, glad to be out of the dark, and here was that wonder – an all-night bar. ‘Good evening, gents,’ I said, bowing through the gloom to the slackers on the red plush benches.
An old barman, shaky and slow, and I said, ‘Lager, please,’ and checked my pockets. ‘Shit. Just a half, actually,’ the alky barman confused, then careful with the glass like he’s on a boat. I went to the big windows on to the snooker room. ‘I should pick up my dole.’ My nose on the thick glass. Rows of tables dwindling into the gloom, a library hush, and men bent to play or leaning like sentries with spears. I turned to the nearest drinkers and lifted the childish glass: ‘Gentlemen, the great London secret. And it took Chinamen to show me.’
But then I said, ‘Damn,’ because I saw the black Doc Martens shoes, black official polyester trousers. ‘Coppers, eh?’
‘Never,’ said one. ‘In an after-hours bar?’ Neat hair, well-filled sleeves.
‘Well, right. And tragic if it got shut down.’
‘You on something?’ said a cop, young and therefore dangerous. ‘You on the naughty substances?’
‘Just a natural high.’ I said, ‘Could I? Do you mind if...?’ and I wiggled a cigarette out of a pack on the table.
The young cop nodded: ‘Natural.’
‘Certainly. Just happy to see you gents enjoy yourself. Yes. Among the common folk. And I wish you well. Really I do. Slumming.’ A stillness settled through the cops at this, watching more than listening, so that I said quickly, ‘Well, must be going. Enjoy. Enjoy yourselves. Really. I really really mean that.’ Jesus, shut up.
Sweating, I aimed for the basement because the Chinese prefer pool. Metal-edged stairs that make your bones ache, then out into the strip-lit pool room. ‘Dead Chinamen,’ I thought, because big Chung loomed among the Chinatown cooks, and all of them yellow-brown under the lights. They love strip lights. Drives away demons maybe or something. Like in the Tan kitchen after hours, eating leftovers in a hospital glare.
I sat on a crooked chair against the wall, hidden behind the fag machine, watching Chung practise alone. Where was that little rat Wei? But maybe I could get more sense out of Chung, who’s big and calm or big and stupid. I slid the unlit cigarette into a pocket and strode out under the light.
‘How are you?’
I patted my jacket. ‘Got a smoke?’ Chung sighed, taking his time to haul out the Marlboros while I twitched. ‘Chung, I want to ask you something. About Johnny.’
‘Yes, yes. We know this.’
‘Johnny suicide because you.’
‘What? That’s crap.’ Chung frowning, beer glass in his huge hand. Why does he hate me? I sucked down the smoke. ‘God, that’s good. Jesus. Anyway. I wondered, Chung. Leaving aside your usual shite. I mean, OK I was stoned that night. But this is not so very bad. So why I lose job? Because Johnny dead? Why, please?’
‘Johnny dead because you. And because you friend from school.’
Dread in my belly, and Chung’s angry face, big as a bum.
I said, ‘God, this place. Bad lights, bad chairs. Why upstairs so nice? Because upstairs damn white people maybe.’
‘Forget,’ said Chung. He was giving me the straight look, looming over me, while I looked up at the blackheads in his flat nose in his flat face, his fingers spread on my chest, pressing a warning. ‘Forget May. Forget takeaway. Don’t come. Never.’
‘I can’t forget. Damn dreams.’
Chung tramped off for a closer look at a clutch of balls, me looking round the room, alone and stupid. I swallowed. Johnny and the school and now the sick dread. ‘Hey, Chung, you clown.’ People looking as I shouted. ‘How Johnny die? How?’
‘He did himself. Scissors. In dick.’ And he mimed stabbing his belly.
Abruptly I ran up the stairs, and there were the cops again. Their blank stare, and me breathless: ‘Look. I wondered maybe if you could help. It’s a friend of mine. He’s dead. A couple of weeks back. Very unexpected. So I wondered, when’s the inquest, do you reckon?’
An old copper said, ‘Probably it’s been and gone.’
‘Well, I want to object. I’ve got evidence. They’re saying suicide, but he was murdered. As good as.’
‘Tell the police, then.’
‘Well, I’m telling you.’
‘Yes, but we’re not here.’
‘Bollocks,’ I said, flustered. ‘Smart crap.’
The cop decided to be kind. ‘Listen, son. A word of advice.’
‘Bollocks,’ I said, and at last had the sense to leave.
I dreamt that May was dreaming. She was on a bunk in the nurses’ room but thought she was going up the stairs at the takeaway.
The wallpaper was ripped. She pulled the rip and found a door and another set of stairs. She went up the stairs to a dusty room. The room was beautiful, with a balcony over the river and stairs down to another door. She went down and pulled the door and heard a ripping noise and peered through torn paper to a handsome flat.
She crept away and cleaned the room and one day I came from the other flat. We were happy in the room but her father spoiled it all.
‘No,’ I said, stirring in the van.
I put myself on a tractor. May was planting rice. She heard the tractor and straightened, barefoot in the muddy water. She smiled, shading her eyes with her brown hand.
‘China,’ I thought. ‘China.’
I dreamt that May dreamt that she was free. She was out of London, happy in the country. She had leather wristbands and boots made of fur. She had a short skirt. A short leather skirt.
She was a bandit and led a gang of bandits. They were all women. They wore leather skirts and ran bare-breasted through the mountains. They bathed in the river, splashing and bold, and then danced naked in secret groves, and men sometimes hid to watch, though if they were caught they died.
The women danced to praise the goddess. This wasn’t the fertility goddess of men, who pray for sons or a rich harvest or fat fish. Instead it was the goddess of a woman’s self-love as she looks down at her body, her emblems being the moon over water, a marsh flower, the prow of a boat.
The women got dressed. They painted their faces, each painting another. They hid by the river road. When travellers came they spared the women but told the men, ‘We’ll cut off your head or your precious parts. Choose.’ And the men who gave up their parts were dressed as women and did the lowest work while the bandits pleasured each other. But May had a secret: as the moon changed so did her body. Every month she said, ‘I’m going to the mountains, to talk to the goddess.’ But actually the moon was growing and so were her precious parts.
So May would cross the mountains and for two weeks she was a man and the chief of a gang of men. When travellers came May said, ‘Stab the child so the parents are helpless.’ The bandits spared young men but killed the women and children and staked the husbands to the ground, May cross-legged on their chests, watching their eyes dimmed, saying, ‘You told your wives to run with the children, but they stood shrieking, their hands to their mouths, or they shrieked and held your arm. And so you die.’
In each gang there was a lieutenant who was the chief’s lover. One month, when May left the gang of women, her lieutenant secretly followed her into the mountains. At the same time May’s male lieutenant came to the mountains, wanting to know where his chief spent half the month.
The lieutenants watched from their hiding places as May crossed the river waist-deep and emerged as a man. Their spears met in his heart.
But then they wept. They saw each other weeping and embraced. They lived together in the mountains, talking often of their beloved chief who was dead, and at first they were chaste but later they were husband and wife, until the two gangs killed them and fought a battle where many died.
‘No,’ I said, awake in the van. I put myself with May in Chinatown. We were in a caff, sitting stiffly. I said, ‘It’d be great, you know, if we could get back together.’
We stared out the window. May said, ‘What about a job?’
‘Not the takeaway.’
‘Is that a beard?’
‘Yes. Sorry. A bath, straight away.’
Even her dad was fine. On Sunday afternoons he took me to Chinatown, fat but sprightly, dapper in a flat cap, his white shirt open sportingly at the throat, playing poker with his pals in a Gerrard Street basement, salty snacks in a glass dish, his fat fingers spread on the cards, while I watched because I was learning Cantonese. ‘More Chinese than damn Chinese boys,’ said Mr Tan. He put the fag in his mouth to shake with the other managers, and then we were off to the wholesalers, me heaving fat bags of rice into the car boot, trays of floppy-headed greens on the back seat, and back to Whitechapel, Tan angry at his English son-in-law, but what can you do.
Asleep, I said, ‘I’ll be the son you lost.’
I dreamt that May dreamt that she was a bandit’s daughter. She lived by a fast river, very arrogant towards her father’s men and towards me, because I was a poor boy who roamed along the river, fishing and begging for rice water and killing birds with a sling.
One day in a rage she locked her door. The bandit said, ‘Whoever opens her door is my friend.’ But the girl ignored the threats and persuasions of the bandit and his men.
That night I went to her door. I crouched down and miaowed like a kitten until she silently drew the bolt. The bandit rushed in while she cursed me.
The bandit was pleased with me, but his lieutenant said, ‘Beware of this boy, because he is called “Cunning Orphan”. When he was young his family were crossing the forest. The boy complained so they left him and a witch came and put him on her back and ran towards her den. The boy pushed his fingers in her eyes, but she laughed and said, “I’m blind, little one,” and ran even faster through the trees. The boy said, “I’m small. But my father is fat, and my mother is pretty, and my sister is young and sweet.” So the boy led the witch after his family. First she caught the little girl. Then the mother, who wasn’t pretty but the witch couldn’t see. Then the father, who fled into their house but she broke the door and killed him. Now the witch was full of blood and the boy said, “Tie me to this tree, aunt, so you can sleep.” The witch tied him with rope and fell asleep. But the tree was only the broken doorpost and the boy climbed up the post and lifted the rope off the post and killed the witch and that’s how he was named.’
The bandit grew thoughtful. He sent for me and said, ‘Read my dream. I dream every night that I’m beheaded and my head lies in a grey field.’
I lied to the bandit: ‘Your dream was nothing. Swim in the river.’
The bandit swam in the river and I said, ‘See? Your head is like a severed head in a grey field.’
The bandit’s men praised me, though May spat and said, ‘He’s a stupid beggar.’
Now the bandit’s men came to me with their dreams. I always found a happy answer, so the men paid me and said, ‘He should marry our chief’s daughter.’
May heard this talk and said, ‘Never!’ and took a secret lover among the men. But her father suspected and called his men together and said that I would search out the one who had spoiled his daughter.
May cried, ‘He’ll trick you. Above all, don’t be afraid.’
But I told them, ‘I’ve seen your dreams and now I’ll see your hearts. In the evening I’ll call you together and smell your loins and smell out who enjoyed this girl.’
That night the bandit’s men were called together and I went sniffing among them. Of course I smelled nothing, but then I smelled a man who had perfumed his loins. It was the bandit’s lieutenant, who was beheaded while May shrieked her hate.
May devised a trick. The bandit had a jewelled knife which was the symbol of his rule, but now it vanished. May said, ‘That beggar boy, your great wizard, can see six feet into the earth. But can he find the knife?’
I saw that this was my biggest test. On the first day I burned spices and odorous woods, and May came jeering and said, ‘Have you found the knife?’
I said, ‘I see it vaguely,’ so that May ceased to smile.
Next day I danced and sang and May came again and said, ‘Have you found the knife?’
I said, ‘I see it more clearly,’ and May went away angry.
On the third day I fasted and prayed, sitting cross-legged and calling on the Enlightened One. May came again, but before she could speak I looked into her eyes and said, ‘Now I see the knife.’
In her anger and fear May threw the jewelled knife in the dust and said, ‘Keep my secret or I’ll kill you.’
I took the knife to the bandit, saying that I’d found it in the dust, and I was rewarded and said, ‘Now I’ll marry your daughter.’
The bandit said, ‘But she hates you.’
‘I’ve seen into her eyes and overmastered her.’
‘But you are a beggar boy!’ said the bandit.
So I took the jewelled knife and cut off the bandit’s head, which rolled in the grey dust, and the bandit’s men took me as their leader, and I told May to marry me.
Instead she killed herself. She sits cross-legged in the Underworld, sitting on bones and chewing bones and pleasuring herself with a leg bone, the hair down over her face.
I woke up fighting. Someone was crushing my face. For a while I roared and kicked, my head cruelly held. Then I stopped because I was alone.
I’d tumbled into the footwell of the van. I was blind and suffocated, stuck between the seat and the gear stick, my feet tangled in the pedals. I lay for a while, smelling old mud on the carpet, my neck crooked, remembering how the dream had made me twist and groan.
Six a.m. Cold and still dark. I hauled myself free, my back sore, and started driving while I was half asleep, the Whitechapel Road as empty as a river when I parked across from the hospital, desperate to see May but instead watching a woman shivering on a street corner. A Whitechapel trollop, just like the Ripper killed. And probably the local Chinkies were suspects, pitiless insect faces, they chop suey then they chop us.
I jumped out and rubbed the windows with my sleeve. Christ, get me out of London. I nodded because it was obvious. Bastard place. But drive for long enough and it ends, just like anywhere else.
Back shivering in the van, thinking about the black beyond the last lights, and how I’d wake up shivering but at least it’s the country. I could get a job. I’d be brown and fit. Hedging and ditching, then evenings in the pub with a dog on my feet. I could steal the Tans’ dog. Poor bugger, it would love to run. I saw it muddy and laughing, still mad and crapping everywhere but getting better, galloping round the garden where I’m digging veg for May. I straighten, stretching my stiff back, then rinsing muddy carrots in a bucket by the door, grabbing herbs from a window box, and into our little thatched house, the roof over its eyes like a slipped wig, where we’re happy and alone.
I lay for a long time, thinking about Johnny with the scissors. ‘Of course.’
I’d talk to May. Somehow get her out of London. And steal the dog.
When the daylight was too horrible I started the van. I parked outside Brixton Tube, women climbing out to the pavement. But it was hopeless, sitting in a stink of ill-luck. May’s fault.
‘Maybe I’m sleepy all the time because I don’t eat.’
I got out and water was running over my feet. Some sort of flood or burst main. I checked the washing line around the doors and got back in the van. Damn shoes have been wet for months, big-toe nails poking through the cloth.
I saw two Chinese boys across the road, big Chinese-Brits with thick smooth chip-fed limbs. I jumped out and shouted gleefully, ‘Hey, Chinky boys. Fly lice? Wery wery dericious. Fly lice, OK?’
The boys stared, then I remembered Johnny and drove off disgusted. I parked in a side street, dozing as the engine cooled and ticked.
A witch stole the shadows of the villagers. Her name was May. She lived with the shadows at the bottom of the river. She made them stand around crops to kill them, or around a man so that he was blind, or around herself so that she had the cover of night.
Without their shadows the villagers were weightless.
One villager fell in love with himself so that his come squirted inwards and his belly swelled with a baby that ate him inside. Another made his sons work till they were old enough to argue, then killed them. One day his youngest son found skeletons in the field. He said, ‘Were these my brothers, who have disappeared?’ His father said, ‘No, these were women. See, they have no dick bone.’ When the boy was older he said, ‘Father, there’s no such thing as a dick bone,’ so his father killed him. Another was so lonely that he went out when it was windy so that the wind could take his arm, or he stood with his eyes closed so the wind pressed against him, cheek to cheek. A woman said hello but he punched her, saying, ‘You’re blocking the wind,’ and the punch took out her eye and no one would love her until a good man bought her a glass eye, but one day a pretty boy walked past and the glass eye swivelled after him so the man punched her and the eye fell out and the man stamped it to bits. The woman put a rag in the socket and stayed at home cursing the pretty boy, who fell ill, so his sweetheart cut off her foot to make broth and the boy got better and said ‘What good is a girl with one foot?’, but a kind boy courted the girl and she set him tasks to win her and he did them all and at last she said ‘Count every hair on my body and I’ll marry you.’ Laughing, he counted them but by the end he didn’t love her, so the girl threw herself in the river. Before she drowned she said, ‘A witch is here.’ So now the villagers knew where their shadows were. They dragged the witch from the river but it was dawn and their shadows were tall and drove them away. They went back at noon and killed the witch, and their small shadows crept back under them.
But now the villagers could only go to their fields at noon. They grew poor and moved away and the village died and people said it was the curse of the murdered witch.
I was in a pub toilet, washing my wounds: a cut eye, sore ribs, blood in my nose. I’d been stumbling through Brixton, forced from the van by the dreams, which had followed me through the evening streets while I blundered across the market, bumping people till the dream worked itself out, the witch murdered as I reeled under the viaduct. Then I’d seen the same two big Chinese-British boys.
I couldn’t fight. I watched them come, putting my hands up at the last minute, bowing humbly after the first punch, going down with a roaring in my ears. Then it was a rough pub all night, sipping a half in a corner, blood in my nose, until it was time for the van.
I walked to the side street, head down but watching for watchers. Not the back doors, too obvious, so I got in the driver’s side then over the seats and on to the mattress. I was aching for a smoke, but it was damned cold so I slid into the doss bag and lay awake till dawn, my eye and ribs and stitches sore, trying to understand the dreams.
‘I need a girl.’ A girl and a room. I’d be happy and the dreams would stop. But I shivered, thinking about Western girls: ‘I might not manage it.’ Only a China girl would do. They all want white boys anyway. You see them with a Chinese boyfriend. Useless, like a sister. A bit of sweat and stubble: that’s what’s needed. Not a black man: that’s too much. Just a little whiff of the sweaty bollocks.
I was too restless, so I drove and parked near Blackfriars Bridge, blinking across the river at birds like flags over the office blocks. But I hated daylight so I climbed back over the seats and under the curtain, my eyes mostly closed, finding the doss bag by touch, then curling up tight so that I didn’t think about the coppers and big Chung and ‘You friend from school.’
I shivered and got warm. The pleasure of hiding. Peace after my beating, but God knows I didn’t want to sleep. ‘I’ll think about the river.’
It was grey and fast. It ran by Chelsea and the Isle of Dogs. But first it flowed under houses on stilts, and past a dirty fishing town, and swiftly below a black cliff, sheer as a building.
‘Bastards. All of them.’
I stared hard at the cliff. There was a tiny house. It clung to the cliff face. It was called a ‘sky farm’, because its fields were scraps of land on ledges and crannies in the terrible rock.
I saw the farmer. On ropes of woven bamboo, and on bamboo pegs wedged in the black rock, he climbed to fields as small as rugs, which he covered with flat stones to keep the soil moist and save it from the fretting cliff-top winds.
‘Beautiful,’ I said.
The house was half on a ledge and half on beams driven into the cliff. Below, the rock fell sheer to the river. Above, it rose to a meadow on the cliff top, where wiry grass was nibbled by goats. The goatherds dropped stones on the little family, to keep them in their station, and the goats climbed down and ate their crops.
I saw the farmer’s wife. She was calling and calling from the house door. The farmer didn’t answer. She looked across the cliff face and put her hand to her mouth. There were two broken pegs – one which had snapped beneath him, and one he had broken as he fell to the river.
‘God,’ I thought.
So now the woman worked alone. She crept in terror to the scraps of land, her son and daughter playing by the house, ropes around their waist to keep them from the edge where the tiny garden stepped into air. They were twins, and wore their mother’s cast-off clothes, so that even she was confused.
The little boy hated to climb, but his twin, free of male entanglements, was soon busy on the cliff, her fingers sure as roots in the cracks of the handholds. Their mother watched from the garden, holding the little boy, who shouted, ‘May!’
Around their house were the lovely plants of the heights – azaleas, mauve primulas, maidenhair fern, palm trees, golden and green bamboo, clematis, white and yellow roses – springing from cracks which the father hadn’t reached. But May crept to the plants, cutting them for kindling and pushing the seedling of an orange or pomelo into the cupful of earth, looking straight down between her feet to the tiny boats on the river, and the riverside town, its folk too small to see.
Asleep, I held my breath. I was watching May, beautiful and brave on the cliff face.
Her mother ceased to work. Angry in her fear, she said, ‘May is the farmer and I am a useless extra mouth.’ She went to the riverside town and came home smelling of drink and the hands of river coolies. One day her son watched amazed as she folded her clothes at the edge of the garden and stood naked, then followed her husband into the river.
So May kept the house. She found new fields, little as pillows on the black cliff, and knelt on the spongy new earth, looming like a moon over the wiry grass and the flowers like trees in this small world, and perhaps a household of ants and a spider brought by the wind. She tore off the turf like a scab and turned it over and weighted it with stones and planted her crops, so that there was food to sell, and salt twice a week.
Now certain stirrings began. On hot nights she stood at the cliff edge, the night wind strong up her shift then weak where it tickled her breasts, and thought how the townsfolk might see up her shift, though they were too far down. And in the daytime she watched the town from a scrap of tilted earth, until perhaps a river bird rose with stiff wings up the cliff, and saw her with a squawk, and drifted out over the river, lost in day’s high house. She had no mirror, and remembered her mother, who perhaps had wondered if she was pretty enough to fly.
Like his sister, the boy heard the rustle of wings. But it seemed like the rustle of a woman’s clothes as she shed them at the cliff edge. So he climbed to the cliff-top meadows and spread a net over short grass, and scattered grain, and ate the birds whose feet were entangled. He pushed thorn twigs into the earth around grain, and rock doves stuck their heads into the circle and were caught. He smeared twigs with the sticky sap of the fig, and caught the tiny rice bird, which is cleaned by pushing a straw down its throat and blowing.
He ate the birds at once, or only broke their wings so they were still fresh when he sold them in the town. He killed falcons and sold them as scarecrows to the riverside rice farmers, who hung them by the feet so that their wings spread. He trapped a crane and sewed its eyes shut, tethering it on the riverbank where it called down other cranes, which he killed. And he hatched duck eggs by the fire in the house, a blue thread hung above the eggs so that the ducklings followed the thread, tied to a cane, when he led them to eat snails in the rice fields by the river, then to the town to be killed, where he suffered much chaffing about lonely duckmen and their ducks.
May’s birds didn’t die. She caught eagles with a rabbit in a tethered basket: the eagle seized the rabbit but couldn’t draw it through the basket and wouldn’t let go, though May was coming with her net. She fed the eagle with meat tied to string, pulling the meat from its stomach until its spirit broke, and sold it to traders in the town. She took goshawks from the nest and trained them to hunt pheasants, then sold them to hunters; after two years they were released to breed. She found magpie nests, which are made with nothing from the ground, and sold them to a healer who burnt the nests to bake the eggs, which cured ailments caused by the earth element. And her pigeons flew to fields on the riverbank and returned at night to a coop above the house, their crops full of rice. She gave them water laced with alum so that they retched up the grain.
These pigeons were hard to train, but one hot night her brother killed them all, each fluttering wounded thing so funny that he killed another, a fist on his mouth to stop the laughter. Then he left, because he and May looked the same and there was a war about whether they were female or male.
‘Stop,’ I said. I sat up in the back of the van. ‘Enough.’
I slid out of the doss bag and climbed into the passenger seat. It was dark and felt late. Bad dreams, bad thoughts, a sickness in the stomach, and the dreams weren’t just about May and bad dads and an outsider who might be me: there was also this stuff about pervy brothers.
I opened the door and sat sideways with my feet on the road, sucking the cold. Ten p.m.: I’d been asleep all day. I stamped along the street, the cold waking me.
I was near London Bridge Station when I stopped. I couldn’t believe it: a Chinese takeaway called The Dream House.
I stared at the name. I walked away and came back. I put my face to the glass and had another revelation: all takeaways are the same – a square room converted from a house, and a counter near the back wall, though here the top was the wrong colour.
There was a Honda inside. With an effort I remembered the Tans’ bike, and how I’d taken it to Bert the Breaker’s. So this definitely wasn’t the same one. It was older, now that I looked, and the food box was plastic not wood. But obviously it should be kept with a dog in a shed at the back.
I went inside. A Chinese calendar, Chinese posters, a TV on a stalk on the wall. No one behind the counter.
I lifted the flap and went through. For a second it was strange, but then I felt welcome and known.
The door to the kitchen had a frosted window and a clear plastic fingerplate. I pushed through and stopped. That old smell: steamed rice and sauce and chopped veg and the farty stink of cabbage. Men in aprons looked up but I ignored them. A new stove, and the dishwasher was nearer the door, but nothing too strange. The men were different, of course, but this was also good. A fresh start.
I lifted Chinese newspapers off a chair and sat down, hands on my knees, staring at everything. The men glanced at each other, but I looked with pleasure at the red tiles on the floor, the new white wall tiles.
I was so absorbed that the boy surprised me, saying ‘Can I help you?’ Tall, in a handsome sweater and ironed jeans.
I laughed: ‘You’re a BBC: a British-Born Chinese. I mean, you’re not an FOB: a Fresh Off the Boat. You’re a banana: yellow on the outside, but white – ’
‘We’re just closing, so...’
Now there was a girl. Big cheeks and glasses.
I looked at her with pleasure. Were they brother and sister? I thought, ‘When Chinese girls are plain they look like frogs – God, did I say that out loud?’
In a panic I held a hand up and said, ‘Sorry. Sorry. I mean it’s like white people. I mean they look a bit piggy sometimes, don’t you think?’
The boy said, ‘We’re closing now.’
Concentrating, I said, ‘I came in – in here – for a job. A job.’
The boy nodded. ‘Right. But actually we’re OK at the moment.’
I was stunned. After a moment I stood up. Head bowed, I moved towards the door.
The girl said, ‘Maybe in the future.’
‘No, no,’ said the boy. ‘Really.’
‘I used to do deliveries. In a takeaway. But then there was this thing with marijuana, so I’ve not been well. But this place is so nice. It’s like the old one. Like a mirror image or something: the same but not the same. And the name is great. It’s perfect. And you as well, all of you, the same but new, so I thought...’
‘It’s a Chinese restaurant,’ said the boy. ‘Normally we take Chinese people.’
We were at the street door. I murmured, ‘I love Chinese people. Anything Chinese.’
I stepped onto the wet pavement. It was like when big Chung and little Wei had edged me on to the Whitechapel Road. I said, ‘I was wondering: if there was a Chinese girl – I mean a girl who was just a baby in China, and then she came here, like you maybe, and she’s never believed in traditional stuff, Chinese beliefs and so on – and then she splits up with her boyfriend, could she send him dreams or visions or something? I mean send them to her ex-boyfriend, when he’s asleep.’
‘I couldn’t say.’
‘The dreams might be bad, you know, because she’s still angry. So she’d send him bad dreams. Or she’d take over his own dreams, and make them bad. What do you think?’
‘I don’t know. Really.’
‘Because if she did, then maybe it meant she still liked him.’
I was in the black street, my shoes wet, and rain glittering under the street lights. I looked into the takeaway. ‘You’re really lucky,’ I said.
I touched the inside of the windscreen, where the mist was gritty with forming ice. I rubbed my face, then looked at my hands. Road dirt and engine oil deep in the skin. ‘It’s from tinkering with the Honda.’
Why don’t I ever mess with the van? It’s too wrecked and scary, that’s why.
I sat back, refusing to think about anything except how I’d love to be a real mechanic: ‘I get too angry.’
I squirmed into the seat, hands in my armpits. My hands were black. Oil and coal dust. I worked on a riverboat in China.
I leaned my head on the door pillar. Comfortable, in fact.
Steam, steel and the smell of coal. This was my life, and I didn’t have to think about dad or Johnny or anything.
Instead I sweltered below decks. Or else I’d take the air, staring up from a hatch at the laughing China girls who leaned on the rails, round bottoms in their black trousers, staring at the river until they turned and saw me with a shock, hands to their mouths at the red-faced devil popped up from below. I would look away quickly, my hand on the deck to feel the thumping engine, staring sideways at the girls because I’d travelled to China for women in trousers.
I came from London. There’d been a scandal over lady cyclists, and I’d stopped in the Whitechapel Road to watch a woman wobble past, her trousers and the pert saddle like a hand. These visions were rare so I travelled north, watching from a cobbled corner as women left the mine in canvas trousers. In an alley near the station I bought photographs, and the pictures mixed in my mind with the smell of coal and oil. Then I was breathless in a library, my eyebrows up, blushing over picture books of the rice women of Italy, who bent in flooded fields, trousers under their tucked-up skirts, until I thought of millions in the East, their trousers of cotton and silk that clung in the sultry air. So I sailed down the Thames, past Tower Bridge and Gravesend, and came to China and stared across the Canton docks, rapt with desire at the trousered multitudes, and nothing else would do.
I worked on the riverboats. The city women wore a skirt over their trousers, but upriver the women were poor and had no skirts, their trousers faded and shrunk tight, their lack my vertigo. So I came to an inland town. There was a pretty girl. Her strong hill-girl’s legs. I followed her through steepening streets and she came to the foot of a great cliff, where a stream rioted down a cleft behind the town. Fearlessly she climbed, the black trousers tightening and loosening, up and up to a little house on the sheer cliff, where womanly garments dried on a tree.
The house was half on a ledge and half on beams driven into the black cliff. Around it were the lovely plants of the heights – mauve primulas, white and yellow roses – and people called it a ‘sky-farm’.
In the van I thought, ‘Oh, God.’ But then I saw that May was lonely, so I didn’t stop the dream. I saw how she often came to the town, sulky among the crowds, hoping that her brother had returned, but then she must climb again to the house, alone and angry. She dreamt of someone waiting on the cliff, solemn with love in a field like a bed. Or she sat astride a peg and kicked her heels on the sheer cliff, daring a lover to climb from the town, but proud that she sat on pegs too thin for men.
Now she watched me near the house. She bent to her crops, thinking how the foreigner would stare. When she climbed back down the stranger had left, and her trousers were gone from the tree.
Down in the town I saw a beautiful girl. I said, ‘It’s the girl from the cliff.’ But I was wrong: it was her brother.
In the van I thought, ‘Shit.’
May’s brother had travelled far. After he left home he had wandered with the bee-keepers, who carry their hives upriver in spring, following the flowers, then to the lowlands in autumn for the blooming of the winter plum. A girl wanted him, but she made him think of falling from a cliff, so he turned to the river, sleeping in summer in a fold of the riverbank, and in winter in a fishing town, curled among sacks in an alley or on nets on the shingle. He made a musket with a pipe stolen from a round-eye riverboat, and mixed sulphur, charcoal, and bird lime into bad powder which burnt with a hiss, scattering chopped wire at the river birds. One winter he lived off bats, stretching a net over a cave mouth and coming at dusk and dawn to take their breast meat, purple and gamey, throwing the shrieking bats into the river, although he didn’t hate them like the birds. He smoked out the last bats with fires of damp straw, and they were easy targets as they circled the cave roof. He tied driftwood into a kind of bonnet, and floated among wild ducks on the river, pulling them suddenly under by the feet so that the flock didn’t scare. He sold the ducks to the riverboat crews and drank his profits because he didn’t know if he desired his twin or desired to resemble her. One night, very drunk, he lifted an old woman’s door from its hinges and launched it onto the river, carried downstream for a week until he reached the great road to the capital. Just outside the Forbidden City was the shack of the knifers.
He paid six taels and lay on the low couch, held by three men, his parts numbed with chilli sauce and removed with a single pass of the curved knife, the wound dressed with wet paper. For three days he burned with thirst and a desire to piss. The brass plug was removed and his urine flowed, which meant he would live.
He entered the Forbidden City and his looks brought him a place with the Imperial players. But he was ignorant and ill-tempered and played silent roles as a serving maid or concubine. He thought, ‘My sister is pretty and we are twins, so I’m too pretty for this.’ He was whipped for idleness and fled to a nearby town, but was followed in the street by cries of ‘crow’ because of his high voice and ‘stinking eunuch’ because of his wayward bladder. So the Eunuch Police found him and took him back to the Forbidden City and gave him twenty strokes of the bamboo.
He was still proud and lazy and received a hundred strokes. He had three days to recover, then received a whipping called ‘lifting the scabs’. He ran away again, for which the penalty was death.
He had stolen a box of gold and could buy medicines to supply the yang – the male essence. He didn’t want his parts to regrow, but he hoped that his voice might deepen and his body lose its roundness so he might escape the Eunuch Police.
The medicines didn’t work and he stayed indoors, obliged to trust his servant – a grinning villain who chewed garlic and stole his food.
Sperm is pure yang, so he sent the servant to bribe a prostitute. There was no effect and he thought, ‘Perhaps the fluid must be fresh, and without female liquids.’ He sent the servant to buy parts from the executioner. Again he was disappointed, and thought, ‘Perhaps all potency is lost at the moment of death, even though the parts are warm.’
So he clubbed his servant with a log from the fire, and used his precious parts, then killed him. There was no effect and he despaired.
He returned upriver, wanting to visit his home town before he was killed. Here he saw a Westerner, smeared with coal dust, smelling of oil. He shuddered at the hairy hands and lumpy face, but surely they showed an excess of yang, so he stole May’s clothes.
He smiled, and the white demon bought him tea. He was coy, and the monster sweated. With a show of reluctance he went to the barbarian’s room. To please the white ghost he sat with his ankle on his knee, or with a foot on the table, or he leaned on a window sill like a woman at a ship’s rail. After three days a black hair sprouted on his arm.
But then the changes stopped. He thought, ‘Perhaps the foreigner is bored, as men grow bored, no longer giving the thick fluid which comes from the spine and makes sons.’ He pleased the Westerner in strange ways and the barbarian was enslaved, so he climbed to his old home on the cliff. May greeted him with joy, but he seized her throat.
‘I’m leaving with the white monster,’ he said. ‘But first I’ll kill you and dress you as me and throw you from the cliff, so the Eunuch Police will think I’m dead. And I’ll take your clothes and be you and everyone will say, “How pretty she is.” ’ But May twisted free and ran from the house and across the little garden and down the bamboo ropes. Her brother was close behind, and caught her on a narrow ledge above the town. Here they fought until a slim figure fell to the water and floated downstream and was found a week later and claimed by the Eunuch Police.
By this time, though, the white man and his lover were far away. They sailed downstream to Canton and lived in the Western quarter, a scandal to Chinese and Westerners alike. But the white man was proud of his lovely companion, and spent his wages on trousers of canvas and cotton and silk.
I got there early, but they were ready at the pub table, shoulder to shoulder. ‘Hello, Charlie,’ I said.
The girlfriend said, ‘And I’m Alice,’ frowning at me, because I was not to be trusted.
I said, ‘Seen Mac?’
‘We’ve seen nobody. We stay in and study, don’t we Charles.’
‘We wondered what you were doing, Tom. Are you working, for instance?’
‘What about Johnny? Seen him?’
Charlie said, ‘He called me.’
‘What?’ said Alice, shocked.
‘How can I stop people phoning?’ His greasy blond hair, acne pits, melted nose: the face of a sick lion.
I said, ‘What did he say? Anything about his dad?’
‘No. It was like, just a chat. He said did I fancy meeting up, but...’
‘You didn’t want to.’
‘Well, we’re really busy, you know.’
‘How was he?’
‘People can phone,’ said Alice. ‘Yes. But you needn’t encourage them.’
‘He was OK, I think,’ said Charlie. ‘Hated college, that’s all. I wanted to meet up, you know, but there’s all these lectures and essays and stuff.’ Where did he come from, anyway? Somewhere boring. Fading into his background. ‘Terrible, what you said on the phone. If I’d known.’
At last a wary glance at me. I said, ‘His bastard dad.’
‘These Third World fathers,’ said Alice. She sighed: ‘My glass is empty, Honeybuns,’ and Charlie headed for the bar. She said, ‘Charles tells me everything, you see. Everything. He wants to put all that behind him: Mac and school and everything. He’s had enough. He wants a normal life. Normal, you see. Do you want to be normal?’
‘Yes,’ I said, surprised.
‘It’s Mac we should be careful about. Your beloved leader. And he was with Johnny, you know.’
Alice, plain and simple, pursed her lips. ‘I’ve said too much. I didn’t want to get into this. We discussed it this morning and last night. We decided to keep out of the whole thing. You should as well.’
I looked round: hurry up, Charlie.
She said, ‘You seem very straightforward, Tom. A friend of mine always says, “If you find anyone else like Charles.” But I always say, “Charles and I are permanent.” She’s really nice. Annie. I’ll give you her number.’ She looked at me again, her pencil poised, suddenly dubious: ‘She’ll insist on changes, Tom. I warn you.’ Charlie sat down with an old man’s grunt. ‘I’m just writing down Annie’s number. You remember Annie, Honeybuns.’
A flicker of fear in Charlie’s eyes, and I said, ‘What’s this about Mac and Johnny?’
‘Christ, Tom. I mean you should ask him. How should I know?’ A nervous laugh: ‘God, you look bad. Been fighting or something?’
‘I can’t sleep.’
‘We’re engaged,’ said Alice. ‘Tell him, Charles.’
I stood up. ‘Have a fine time, OK,’ and I was out the door with Charlie after me, Alice tangled in her chair and the table and her bag of books.
Charlie on the pavement: ‘Tom, I forgot: this woman phoned. Ellie, I think she said.’ He looked back at Alice, heading their way. ‘We’re not really engaged. Not a hundred per cent. She’s all right, you know. You’ve seen the worst of her. Understandable. But come round if you want. You could do with a shower maybe.’ With a gulp: ‘When Alice is out, obviously.’
‘Oh, Tom. Thank goodness you’ve called. Wherever have you been? We’ve tried everywhere. That takeaway place as well. Nobody knew. I mean you’d vanished.’
In a call box off the Whitechapel Road, holding the phone next to my hair or my cheek or away from me, because Ellie is a friend of my dad.
‘But never mind, Tom. You’ve called. That’s the main thing. You don’t remember me, I suppose, but I’ve seen you. You came to the service, that day, in the summerhouse, last year. I used to help your daddy. He helped me, you see, with my late husband. Alfred. Alfred left me. He was ill, I think, already. Now I look back I think it made him a bit short-tempered perhaps, so I don’t bear a grudge and your father helped me to see that.
‘Anyway, water under the bridge. But listen: Gillian is fine. The council took her. A very nice lady. She’s in a special home, or a special school I mean. I’ll get the number. My friend says it’s very, very nice. If you ask me, if you don’t mind me saying, she perhaps could have gone sooner. I’m not saying anything against your father, goodness knows, but.
‘So Gillian is all right. And your daddy too, really. I mean it’s all in hand, Tom. It is Tom, isn’t it?
‘So anyway. How it happened. I went to your house, or your daddy’s house, that Saturday, as usual, for the washing and hoovering. But nobody answered. I was worried right away. I mean, Gillian was in the window as usual, but she didn’t look right. And your daddy, where was he?
‘And he’s been a bit strange, as you know. We used to go for lunch every Saturday, while the washing was in the machine, just to a cafe locally. Your dad paid. Gillian really liked it, and they didn’t mind her, which was very nice, the wheelchair and so on. But then your dad started. The worst thing was the singing. But also he was going over to other people, standing right next to them, and watching them. I said, “Peter. Really,” and eventually he’d come away, but he didn’t want to. He looked like my Alfred, the same attitude. Angry. He wanted to watch them eating.
‘And even if he didn’t do that, he’d do this other thing. He’d be sat with you but not really listening. He’d be twitchy and turning round, and you knew there’d be trouble. Then all of a sudden he was off. He’d go to one of the customers or the girl behind the counter, all polite, and tell them their collar was crooked, or their shoes were tied wrong, or the little tab – you know what I mean, at the back of your sweater, that little nylon tab thing inside the neck? – he’d say it was sticking out, and “Shall I put it back?” His hands all twitchy. He couldn’t help it. It drove him mad. You didn’t know whether to laugh or what.
‘So we stopped going. It was too stressful. I’d worry all week, if they’d turn us away or what would happen. And the singing. Just bursting out, really loud. Hymns or songs or just la-la-la. So I said, “Well, I’ll make us a nice lunch at home.” Chips and things, which Gilly liked.
‘But then, on the Saturday, no answer. I had a key because sometimes I had to pop out for things, and your father said, you know, take this. So eventually I go in. Nobody. And Gillian, so distressed. Not clean. I said, “It’s all right, Gilly.”
‘But nobody downstairs. Well, I shouted and called. I didn’t want to go upstairs, but I thought, “You can’t call the police, just for that.” I had to go.
‘He was in the bathroom. I didn’t fancy that at all, going into the bathroom after him. But who else would do it? He was sitting on the bath: the edge, like. He was stuck. He didn’t know what to do. My daughter laughed when I said. I said, “You weren’t there, my lady.”
‘He had a tube of toothpaste in one hand, the top off, and a razor in the other hand. One of those disposables. But he’d put toothpaste on the razor. So now he was stuck.
‘I went straight downstairs. I called Mrs Figgis, my friend. Thank goodness she was in. Usually she goes to the hospice on Saturdays, a very nice lady, so kind. But before that she worked for the council. Donkey’s years, actually. So she arranged everything. A nice lady came and then an ambulance for both of them, Gillian and your father.
‘But listen, Tom: the housing officer has been round already. They’ve got a waiting list for council houses, you know. But I said, “Well, he has to clear the house.” You, I mean. Because there’s all the furniture and your father’s belongings, and perhaps some things of yours and Gillian’s, though the lady from the special school or whatever it is, she took Gillian’s clothes and things, as far as I can see. And I suppose there’s the bills to settle, the final bills and whatnot.
‘And also, the other thing, his assistant or whatever he is. Darren. You met him, I think. He wants money. “Compensation”. I won’t say what for. You can talk to him. I said to my daughter, “Tom’s more his age, so they can talk.”
‘So that’s what’s happened. I’m very sorry to tell you, Tom. And then you didn’t call. And I tried to find your mum, but of course she went to Spain, and nobody’s heard for years. So unless you’ve heard from her...
‘Anyway, I’ll get the number. And the number for the place for Gillian. And the gentleman in the Housing Department. But at least you’ve got in touch now, so we can start making some, you know, progress.
‘Tom? Are you there?’
‘All right. So. Anyway, I’ll get those numbers. Hang on while I go. Now where’s my glasses?’
Very slowly I put the phone down, quietly so that no one would hear.
I saw a river. Its water was so clear that strangers thought they were walking in a cold wind and were drowned.
I lay breathing the van smells. I was stiff and straight in the doss bag, staring up in the dark. ‘Calm down, for Christ’s sake.’
The river ran through a forest. The forest was beautiful and full of food, with birds like lamps and leopards that were really ghosts.
Street noise outside. The early evening traffic through the dark, and I was sick with dread about Johnny and May.
I saw a little boy. The boy lived in a village but roamed the forest all day, hunting and playing and collecting wood.
I tucked the doss bag tighter round my neck, thinking, ‘Please, a decent story.’
So I was the boy in the forest. I looked at the high trees, and the sunlight filtering through, and sang as I walked.
In the van, I thought, ‘Where’s May?’
The boy had a friend. Every day they wandered the forest, climbing the trees for fruit and eggs, and stealing honey from the forest bee, the deadliest creature in these hills. Her name was May.
So I was climbing a tree. I looked across and there was May, her hair in a ragged crop, and her dusty pretty feet. We’d found a nest, as we found nests every day. She peeped inside and gave me her little girl’s smile. She lifted out a speckled egg and put it with a frown in the bosom of her dress. Every day she went home with eggs, although her father was rich.
One day she went home with a leech on her precious part.
Her father was angry, and asked about her life with me. She said, ‘When I’m eight we’ll be married.’ And she talked of our adventures in the forest, and how I helped with her makeup, and how she likewise spread the white paste on my face, with a dab of crimson on the lips, and oil to make the hair shine, so that we were alike.
But she wouldn’t explain the leech. Her father blamed the boy and kept his daughter at home in his castle. But in fact the culprit was May herself, who wished to resemble me in every particular.
‘God,’ I said, awake in the van. ‘More pervy stuff.’ I lay in the dark, getting angry. ‘I can change this.’
I thought: There was a river in a forest. A boy loved a girl. We were fifteen, and ready to marry. We roamed the forest, climbing for eggs and for honey from the wild bees, although the forest women told the girl, ‘Do not climb,’ because girls mustn’t go in the trees beyond a certain age. But May sat astride the high branches and laughed at the women catching frogs in the river or digging crabs from their burrows in the riverbank. ‘Soon we’ll live high up,’ she told me, ‘and make a home with the birds.’
But May’s father was a mandarin, and at last confined her in his castle. The girl pined in her rooms, and I pined in the forest, and when I thought of love I thought of May and held my precious part, holding it tight because it might fall off when it was full, like May’s leech.
‘No I didn’t,’ I said. ‘Start again.’
I was a boy in a forest. The mandarin had imprisoned my love, so I must kill him. I crept silently through the trees. I crept into the wind so that the prey couldn’t scent me, and I squatted like a girl to piss, a stick at my member so that the water fell without sound.
‘But this isn’t pervy,’ I thought. ‘It’s very practical. A hunter’s trick.’
The mandarin was afraid of me and sent assassins. But I led them to snares I’d set for pigs, then weakened them with arrows, then cut their throats, although they said, ‘Don’t kill us.’ I left their bodies for the animals, but took armour and a sword. I polished the sword and believed it could cut the river so that the water wouldn’t heal, or cut the wind, or cut today from tomorrow and make a place wide enough for a man to sit and in the morning his beard wouldn’t have grown.
‘But I didn’t go on about this bollocks. I only thought about May, and killing her dad.’
So I didn’t fuss with the sword. I didn’t need to, because I’d win any sword fight through superior will, a wound being the outward sign of an inner division, a feminine split which the sword had merely revealed.
I threw the sword away. Instead I polished the armour on the sandy bank of the river. I greased it with clarified fat, so that the plates were mirrors. I walked through the trees like swirling bits of forest and sky. My enemies would see my beauty, and their own image in the armour, and would fail because they were ugly.
‘No, they wouldn’t.’
I threw the armour in a stream. I walked through the forest, thinking only about May and her father and unarmed combat. I hung a bundle of palm leaves against a tree, punching for weeks until I punched the tree. I practised the following throws and holds: climbing rabbit bites the eagle; oil on the swan’s neck; and small fish confronts the waterfall but fails until the sixth attempt. I hid my testicles, lifting them into my belly with tight cloths. I checked often that my loins were empty.
‘Enough,’ I said. ‘I’ll be the mandarin.’
I was the mandarin. I came from London. I was kind. I gave food to the local people. I sheltered them when the river flooded, and they loved me, although my wife had smiled at a pretty boy so that I cast her out to be a beggar in the mountains, first cutting off her lips so that she smiled at everyone.
No, I was a mandarin and in love with May who was a poor girl from a forest village. I came from London. I’d been raised in a single Whitechapel room, the children sharing a bed, brothers and sisters lying feet to faces, to prevent mischief. This might explain some later matters. I worked in a Chinese bank on Mission Street, but in the evenings I wore a white linen suit, my hair slicked back, and loitered in opium houses with other wastrels. I became an addict. In my weakness I couldn’t service my harlots and was ashamed and then angry. I saw among the opium smoke that a man’s place was that great swath of the earth from Turkey to China, where I might stand berobed with legs wide, my women crouching. One day, in a house by the docks, the opium master was himself smoking, so that his woman came from a back room. Her bound feet entered my dreams: I would fill my house with women who tottered from room to room, or rested against the furniture like swimmers, and I would be the lord. So I stole money from the bank and came to China, staring from the ship’s rail at the Canton waterfront, rapt with desire at the lovely cripples, and nothing else would do.
In the van I stirred in my sleep. I watched the mandarin with suspicion. But I also thought how a bound foot would fit in your hand.
I found a castle in a forest where poor women could be bought. I clothed them in a stiff wig and a thick embroidered coat, laughing at their peasant surprise, and caused their feet to be bound. They were pleased with their new feet, thinking themselves like fine ladies, and I bowed my head over the white silk stockings and red silk slippers and the toes bent under. When I was weary of them, I thought how they couldn’t return to the forest and the fields, and I wept for them, as they also wept.
One day a peasant girl came to my castle with honeycomb to sell. I said, ‘I will train you in the ways of ladies.’ I gave her a heavy wig, and a heavy gown that was stiff with needlework. I smiled and said, ‘A true gentlewoman must have bound feet,’ and I showed her the silk ribbons which are tightened until the toes fold under and touch the heels. ‘I wonder what binding would suit you. Perhaps “the bow” or “the new moon”.’
She said, ‘The love of bound feet is the love of a woman humbled.’ Her name was May.
‘It is the love of beauty,’ I said, ‘and the desire that the beloved should be perfect.’
May said, ‘Besides the pain there is an impeding of the blood, so that the toes are mortified and fall off. Degenerate men may call them “crescent moons”, “three inch golden lotuses”, and “curved lotuses to fill a hand”, yet the feet are rotten in their red silk slippers and white silk stockings.’
‘Won’t you do this for me?’ I said. ‘Surely the greater the sacrifice the greater the love.’
May didn’t reply. She only thought how the forest paths would be hard for her and the trees impossible, and only the castle would remain. Nevertheless she came every day to my rooms, where I knelt and snatched her feet into my lap. ‘Tighter,’ I said to my servant. ‘Bind them tighter.’
Now May staggered from chair to chair. How I greeted her new feet! I knelt on the floor and drew them to me, my head in her lap, my silk cap slipping off and the oiled pigtail spilling out, and she stroked my head, so that I seemed like her own child.
I said, ‘Your feet are like the feet of a child in the forest, or like the hooves of a new creature, one of the tiny deer of the forest, which are as high as a man’s knee, and wait in a snare, shivering and thin, trembling when the hunter comes, who will kill it with a single blow, though first taking his pleasure, whether doe or buck.’
One day I was delayed and May sat in my anteroom. She would be happy among my orchids and silk, she thought, and the plates that could be laid on a book and the book still read. And she half admired me for spurning the functions of woman and man.
I stirred in the van and said, ‘No she didn’t.’
May was a healthy girl. She wanted a normal life. Normal. And now she saw shrivelled things in a silver frame, which were my wife’s lips.
I was awake in the van, and thought, ‘I’ll be the boy in the forest.’
I had been faithful, waiting in the forest, raging against the mandarin, who was crippling my love. And at night in the hot forest I thought of May in those private moments when we are hermaphrodite.
But there was no time to lose, so I was the boy coming to the castle gates. My precious parts were bound up, which was fair and reasonable and good tactics, but the guards searched me, their hands between my legs, laughing and saying, ‘This is a woman.’ So I killed them, the bow leaping to my hand.
The stairs to the mandarin’s rooms were steep. Their treads sloped outwards and were narrow and slick with wax and designed to creak. But I had spent my life in the trees. I braced against the walls and climbed without touching the steps. Then I heard May shriek and knew that the story was working itself through.
She had peeked around a door and found the mandarin’s bed.
She had gone to the bed and fingered its coverlet of silk.
She had pulled back the coverlet, and stopped in surprise. Along the pillow was a row of wigs, like her own wig.
She had pulled back the sheet. Below each wig was a coat, like her own embroidered coat.
There was a gap amid the coats. It was just big enough for the mandarin to lie in.
She drew down the sheet. Below each coat was a pair of legs. They were severed at the knee. A leg fell to the floor, pretty in its white stocking and red slipper, and seemed to kick her.
Now the mandarin rushed in, his little sword a blur, the story unstoppable.
But I was also there. I burst into the bedroom, my bow humming. The mandarin fell with arrows in his face.
But where was May? Now I saw her. She stumbled towards me, her face blank. Why was she on her knees? She laid her hand on the table, looking at me with a dumb appeal, and the story had won.
I gathered her up. I carried her away and never left her till her wounds were dry. She lived with me in the deepest part of the forest, and bore her affliction bravely, but often looked at the sunlit paths among the birds, where she had once been glad.
I was walking fast, clearing my head. A stupid sick dream, the worst yet. I strode around the block and back to the van, then around the block again, kicking walls because the dream had beaten me.
Bollocks to the dreams. But how else could I be with May? I got into the driver’s seat, the doss bag spread on my lap. Three a.m. The world is speaking Chinese.
And here was another thing: with every dream the river got bigger. At first it had been a torrent among mountains, and the girl saying, ‘I’m young and lovely, as you see.’ Then it was broad and fast below the black cliff, and now it was slow among forests, as if the stories were heading downstream, getting closer.
I sat very still in the cold van, my muscles tense instead of shivering. ‘It’s because there’s no draughts in a car, except if you make your own.’ Tense and cold, I wouldn’t turn my head, so the night gathered round me. The Whitechapel Road was quiet under the street lights, asleep but its eyes open, and I thought about the age of China and its millions of dead: scalded and strangled and shot, or stoned to death or fallen off cliffs, or choked on noodles or tripping over a dog, but above all death by knife and fire.
I remembered when I last saw Johnny.
I’d been pubbing in Brixton. I’d walked very carefully from the Whitechapel Tube, a secretive grin, past the hospital, round behind the takeaway, through bin bags and empty cardboard boxes into the kitchen, and had sat at the steel table, drunk and stoned, watching Johnny make toast, pleasantly bemused at his weird haste as he stacked the slices. Now, in the van, I understood: ‘It’s because toast is an insulator.’
Medicine was disgusting, said Johnny, so maybe he’d write about the Chinese abroad. You could do the history of a house, maybe this house, maybe as a long poem, and the people who’d lived here, going back through the generations to China.
And he was still damn fast with the toast, leaning from the hips, his long narrow back, swiftly spreading marge, then the knife deep in the jam so that it covered the toast in one quick sweep and a couple of fiddles at the corners. I nodded at the windscreen: margarine and jam are also insulators.
Johnny turned off the grill and relaxed. The lid of the margarine tub was upside down on the table. He lifted the tub at one end, slackly between finger and thumb so that it turned upside down, and pressed it into the lid. He let it spin upright and put it in the fridge, swiftly so the cold couldn’t get out. Fag fussing.
‘My dad’s trying something new on the menu,’ he said. ‘Rack of lamb.’
‘He was going to do ram instead of lamb. But there’s a lack of ram.’
His hair was greased straight back. A thin black tie over a silk shirt, the sleeves rolled up, slim slick arms like a shop dummy. His pants were baggy linen: his linen jacket on a chair back. Now I recognized the look: a Shanghai gangster in 1920. Fag vanity.
Johnny put the lid on the jam jar and turned it the wrong way. When the ends of the threads clicked he turned it the right way: this prevents cross-threading. He held the sugar bowl over the cups, moving it aside to empty the spoon. He poured the kettle, following the tea bags for maximum infusion. He added milk while the water still swirled, and stirred vertically so the sugar didn’t just circle the bottom. White scalp through his hair, which was countable like a wig: they have hairs not hair.
‘How’s my sister? I never see her nowadays. Or you – though I hear you, of course.’ A squirm and a kind of frowning smirk: ‘Not what I expected when I offered you the job.’
‘Blimey, Johnny. I mean.’
‘I came to the squat, at great personal inconvenience.’
He halved the toast into faggot triangles and brought it all to the table. Straight-backed he prodded the toast with his face turned away, lifted it with his fingertips, bit, his lips held clear, then looked at the bite. I saw May in him, but soured with loneliness, fussy where she’s quick.
‘We might be going to China,’ I said. ‘Me and May. Tracing her roots. Up that river, you know.’
‘Maybe I’ll come. They’re my roots too.’
‘I thought you didn’t fancy it. Third World toilets and all that.’ Deliberately I said, ‘Anyway, it’d be me and May – a boyfriend–girlfriend thing, you know.’
‘Yes,’ he said Johnny, stiff-backed. He slid the cup towards him, then off the table edge, then lifted it, thus needing the minimum of tricky balancing: ‘I could do so much, given time.’
I was crouched behind a parked car. I was watching Mr Tan on the tall stool behind the counter, staring up at the TV on the wall. At eleven o’clock he came through the counter flap and turned the sign to Closed.
I waited, then went round the back. I took a deep breath and opened the kitchen door. ‘My god,’ said Wei.
They were at the steel table, Wei astonished, Mr Tan in his chef’s whites, sleeves pushed to the elbows, his thick smooth arms on a played-out game of Patience. He saw me and went grey.
‘Mr Tan. I very sorry. Sorry about Johnny.’
Tan looked down at the cards and said, ‘Go.’
‘Yes. Definitely. I just want to say I very, very sorry.’
‘Go.’ His fists bunched on the table, muscles moving in his slick arms.
‘Yes. Definitely. But, one thing. I just, I mean I dream about China.’ A nervous laugh. ‘Maybe you have medicine. Tiger bits or bear’s feet. You know.’
‘Waste of time,’ said Tan, lifting his barmaid arms and dropping them back, me watching the buttery lumps of muscles so that I lost the thread.
‘I mean. Mr Tan. I very ill. I not sleep.’
‘Yes. Sorry. I mean I’m dreaming about a river.’
Mr Tan stared, his bull-dyke forearms still at last: ‘Johnny is dead.’
I bowed my head. ‘I very sorry. Really. Is unbelievable.’
‘Yes. I wish I spoke Cantonese, Mr Tan.’
‘Not Cantonese. Not Chinese. Not a man!’
‘What? What you mean?’
‘English! You English, you talk English.’
‘Yes. OK. No problem.’
Tan’s fingers curled, holding some outrage. ‘Dirty. A dog.’
‘No. Wait. Just a minute.’
‘Go. Where my bike?’
‘It stolen. It was stolen. It has been stolen.’
‘You are really very useless.’
‘Yes. But that other thing. I mean it was nothing. It didn’t matter. Anyway it was somebody else. This other friend, who...’
‘Go.’ Tan’s hand, smooth as a glove, over his eyes.
‘What about May?’
‘I dream about her, so I want to talk to her and still see her.’
‘Talk to May, you finished.’
‘Look,’ I said, pointing. ‘About May. You split us up. I don’t want any more of that crap.’
Tan got up, his arms curved. I said, ‘Look, you fat fool. Johnny is dead because of you. It’s your fault, OK? And I’m going to marry May.’
Afterwards I thought, ‘When they say that a man is strong, that’s what it means.’ My fingers crushed together behind my back, Tan’s other hand on my neck, I was pitched into the alley as Wei held the door and bowed me out.
I stumbled to the Whitechapel Road, Wei laughing and following in the rain.
‘I’m OK,’ I said. ‘I’m fine. Didn’t want to hurt him, that’s all, my future father-in-law.’
‘My wife’s father.’
‘Ah. Good. Congratulations.’
‘What you want?’
I got in the van. ‘Tell Mr Tan that I keep dreaming about May. It means I’m going to marry her.’
‘Yes,’ said Wei, laughing. ‘Yes. Dreams about May. And you tell Mr Tan.’
‘It’s nothing bad, OK.’
‘You tell her father!’
Wei holding the van door, sympathetic for once. ‘Forget this place. Nothing here for you.’
I started the engine. ‘How did Mr Tan . . . I mean, who told him about Johnny? Was it somebody called Mac?’
But Wei only shrugged and grinned.
‘Little Chinky shit.’
I waited in the doss bag in the driver’s seat in a side road near the takeaway, hot with shame. ‘No wonder May dumped me.’
I needed Tan asleep and then I’d climb to May’s room and wait for ever if I had to. ‘Hurry up, you fat bastard.’
I pictured Mr Tan, his slippers flapping on curly lino or fat-spattered tiles or restless under the table, his bare arms on the playing cards. He shuffles to the sink, his fingers spread because they’re fat and sweaty, and slides the fake Rolex up his arm on its expanding metal bracelet, which you can only do with bald arms, and rinses the last pots with his piggy hands.
Midnight. I saw him with a clipboard in the stockroom under the stairs, the dog snorting through the tongue-and-groove wall from the shed next door, and he was thinking about the boy who soiled his daughter: ‘You poyfriend? Poyfriend?’
Tan frowned over his glasses. His feet hurt. He’d lost a kilo of rice, because all cooks are thieves.
He imagined long talks with his son, but now it was too late. He thought:
I found your mother on a hot day. First my parents died and then I sold the land for too little to a grinning uncle and came by luck to the wife fair, money in my pocket, the women in their underclothes.
This was in the mountains near Tibet. She blushed because I was young like her. Her father was drunk. I haggled and was told a price and walked away.
I was eating and looking at the other women, who were older than me. Really I thought they were sexy and older. But she had blushed and shivered so I dropped the food and went to her father again, in a hurry but looking calm. A fat old farmer was arguing. I pushed him away and put money in her father’s hand and he said, ‘This old man will pay more.’
I gave him more money. He said, ‘The old man will pay more still.’ I said, ‘No,’ and told the girl, ‘I’ve bought you.’ She cried and got dressed and we walked straight off the market and down the road, the girl looking back until the road went round a hill.
We sat down, just out of sight. I had bought her from curiosity not desire and because it was a day for doing anything. Men were putting wheat on the road. She sat and cried and I watched the men. They were spreading wheat on the tar. I watched for a while because they sometimes ran in front of carts and made them go around the grain. I saw it was because wooden or iron wheels, and the hooves of buffalo, would crush the grain to dust. But people or rubber tyres were just hard enough, so the wheat was threshed. I’m always interested in things.
We went to the river and got a boat. The bunks were this far apart and there were a hundred people in that boat but I climbed into her bunk when the lights went out. Someone said, ‘There are children,’ but I didn’t care. She cried and which made me want her. I don’t say this because it’s right; just to tell you.
I was angry so I didn’t talk, thinking that I was rich but not free, or that I was rich so any woman would have me without payment. I was young and stupid. But I spilt food on my shirt and she laughed. She said, ‘You’re like my brother, and I always laughed at him.’ I liked her to mock me.
Then she had you two, and I hired a midwife and bought foreign baby clothes and rented a good house and bought a crib that we left when we went downstream.
We always went downstream. We got to the coast and your mother worked in a factory and I built more factories, digging drains. But she never got well. I bought folk cures and was a porter or river coolie or a bodyguard.
Then we heard about the doctors in Hong Kong, so we crept at night through marshes to the English fence, hiding while the little Gurkhas went by, you two drugged, then over with people we never saw again except for the guide who took the last of my money and said, ‘It’s not enough.’
I worked for him for a year, and your mother died. I brought more people over the fence. I slept in fields near the fence. You slept in restaurants, in the pantry. Once you slept on boxes stolen from the docks. Brown boxes in a room with no windows. And once you stayed in a brothel. The mats were very dirty, so I moved you. You had a lot of mothers! All that time I worked at the fence. I knew that fence! One time a boy hung on the wire by his neck, so we carried him into Hong Kong, his mother calling his soul to come back. Another time...
That fence was my life. One day I’ll go back. But maybe it’s different, now the English have gone.
We sent people to London. That was easy: we put them on a boat or a plane. There were other things too, sending people to Japan. And things with money-changing and some of the money stuck to my hands so I bought factory-made shoes.
Yes, I told you before. I was proud of the factory shoes. I said, ‘I’ll never wear handmade shoes again!’
‘Oh, Daddy,’ you said. So English, such an English little boy. And I told you about London, when you were babies and I didn’t know anything and I thought, ‘Can an English phone understand Cantonese?’
Yes, I know: ‘Oh, Daddy.’
So I picked a lucky day and brought you to London. I didn’t tell the snakehead. We were poor. Then I was a debt-collector for the London snakehead. See this scar? A woman threw a dish.
Then I was a cook. Then I came here. I was a cook, but then the manager left because we argued, so I was the manager. I was glad he left. I made him leave.
Then when you were older the snakehead had a tax thing so my name is on the deeds, though really I’m the manager, so the takeaway isn’t ours.
I did all this for you.
Mr Tan, that flat-footed quacking Cantonese, shuffled to the kitchen, me thinking, ‘He has to shuffle to keep the slippers on.’
I pictured Wei and Chung at the kitchen table. They were gathering their strength to go: the Tube ride, then a bus, then the long walk to their room over a launderette. Tan sat down, a thug Buddha, big arms making them think, ‘He was with the gangs.’
Wei looked at Chung and they put on their coats. They were by the door when Tan said, ‘Where are our ancestors? Did they follow us here?’ He looked at the little gilt altar in a corner. ‘I bought that in London. So they didn’t come with the altar. How can they find us? Who tends them? Are they tending us?’
They thought, ‘This is about his son and his wife.’
Wei said, ‘They find us in the end.’
Tan didn’t watch them leave. He got up and scraped their plates into a bowl, then checked the knobs on the big stove, because someone kept leaving the gas on. He went to the shed, grunting as he put the bowl on the floor, leftovers of leftovers, the dog trying to snuggle but he pushed it off. He sat on a box and thought of the white boy who was to blame for everything, while the dog whimpered and nuzzled, lonely too.
Master Tan placates the North Dragon, which makes earthquakes. He schedules the planting of the rice. He makes kites and predicts floods. He built an outhouse where the wind turns round and round like a dog and at last sleeps.
A bandit attacked Master Tan, who held him, saying, ‘You tried to hurt yourself but I have saved you.’
Master Tan gives so little impediment to his food that he needn’t wipe his lips or his arse. He gives so little impediment to his drink that he drinks without swallowing and pisses without afterwards shaking his dick.
Master Tan’s pupil said, ‘I want to be happy.’ Master Tan answered, ‘I want to live only in the right-hand side of the world.’ All day he leapt to the right but when he was tired his left side was still there. So he lay on his left side, to control it, and this was in a cellar with cold walls.
Master Tan said, ‘Contemplate towers not wells. Stand on bridges when boats go under. Buy a caged bird and observe its belly. Tom, if personal circumstances permit, go to fishing villages where boats are onshore. If a boat is raised on stilts to be painted, then this is worth a two-day walk. Consider birds and boats and pretty girls, sustained by a shape.’
Master Tan was so wise that he grew rich. He put away his loincloth and bought trousers, the first in the village, but was too lazy to button the flies. He bought factory cigarettes and struck poses from the advertising posters. He held the cigarette near his ear or casually in his cupped fist. He stared shrewdly through the smoke, and practised many methods for flicking off the ash. But he was used to the long village pipes so the smoke went up his nose.
Then Master Tan’s wife and son died and his daughter loved a foreigner, so he sang, ‘The elephant’s foot / Is soft-hard as the wheels of a bus, / His shits as big as boxing gloves. / Still, as she runs between, / The little mouse says: Me! Me! Me!’ But he was still lonely.
In the van, I thought:
Maybe there was a one-child policy, so one of the twins would go for adoption. Or perhaps twins were ill-luck, especially boy-girl twins because the girl’s virtue was tainted in the womb. Or maybe the tribe hated twins, because only animals have multiple births, and so one of the children must be killed, just as a child is killed if it’s crippled, or the parents have too many children, or too many children of that sex, or if a sibling is still suckling, or if the parents are ill, as a mother might be ill if she has twins and wonders which should die, twisting in her fingers the leaf she will push down its throat. Or perhaps Mr Tan said, ‘In Hong Kong they have so much food that you shit every day, sometimes twice, although their nasty toilets are indoors.’
Anyway, they left China, crossing the marsh at night, and the babies were first over the barbed wire, then Mr Tan thinking, ‘Certainly, in crossing a fence, a man knows when he passes halfway,’ then his wife thinking, ‘They can see up my skirt,’ dying but she didn’t know, and this was their unknown mother, never discussed, long since lost in China.
Master Tan adjusted the twelve musical tones so that yin and yang were equal. He redirected rivers so that the earth’s rotation was sustained. And every day he walked through his castle and sniffed the air and said, ‘The balance of happiness and unhappiness is sustained. It is good.’ But in fact Tan’s son was unhappy because every night a bandit climbed to Tan’s daughter and made her happy.
This bandit gathered an army. Master Tan stood at his window and sniffed the air from their camp and said, ‘The balance of hate and love is sustained. They will not attack.’ The bandits attacked, and by as much as they hated Tan’s men, by so much they laid down their lives for their friends.
So Master Tan’s castle was besieged. He sniffed the air and said, ‘The balance of making and breaking is sustained. We are safe.’ But the bandits made ladders and broke his walls. Tan was taken, his son killed himself, and his daughter married the bandit leader. ‘They won’t hurt me,’ said Master Tan, sniffing the prison air. But his parts were cut off while the bandit laughed.
So Master Tan roamed the hills in rags, his arms stretched out, his hands turned out at the wrists because he might just as soon cartwheel. He listened to the twelve tones, counted his fingers, put out his hand for the sky to perch on, and lay in a cellar where drunks piss.
Mr Tan turned off the kitchen light and went upstairs. He didn’t undress any more. He kicked off the slippers and pulled the quilt over him.
He frowned as he fell asleep. He was trying to understand the river. He thought, ‘I’m asleep in the bedroom above the takeaway in the Whitechapel Road,’ but he frowned because the river had run over rapids, under houses on stilts, flowing through China, yet now it passed Chelsea and the Isle of Dogs.
I thought of Tan thinking of Johnny, who was mist on the river. We watched his spirit heading upstream, muddled by coal smoke, passing dirty concrete docks, through thunderous gorges, under a black cliff, and up and up to the source in the mountains near Tibet.
‘Come home,’ said Tan, willing his son downstream, past the pretty riverside towns, Maidenhead and Qianjiang.
I fell on to the road. I knelt in the rain, then leaned on the van to get up. I stood shivering, because Johnny was in my head. Two a.m.
I scooped rain off the van roof and rubbed my face, then wandered through side streets, waking up, searching pavements but the dog-ends had melted. I came briefly on to the Whitechapel Road, which glittered like a river, with buildings which might or might not be black cliffs, then back to the van and took the washing line off the door handles.
‘I really, really don’t fancy this.’
In the alley behind the takeaway I checked the line. It had maybe been tied to the apple tree for years, and wasn’t so strong. One end held the shape of the branch. Still, it hadn’t snapped when I dragged long Frank up the alley. I scratched it and fibres sprang loose.
‘No choice, anyway.’
I tucked the line in the back of my belt and climbed the pipe by Johnny’s window. I tied one end of the line to the pipe and climbed back down, out of breath and scuffed and my scalp itchy, but I couldn’t scratch with my dirty hands. The dog barked once.
I hauled on the line and nothing broke. I tucked the end of the line into my belt and climbed to Mr Tan’s room, noticing halfway up that I was swearing. I pulled the line tight and grunted as I tied it round the pipe next to Tan’s window, thinking of that fat rat-bastard inside and sniffing hard because maybe I could smell Marlboro.
I slid to the ground for a breather. I put my fingers under the shed door and the dog licked me then growled. Even the bastard dog hates me.
The line stretched across May’s window, held by the pipes. I stood among the dustbins, looking up, thinking, ‘I’m always doing this,’ meaning that I would see holes in a plan but still go ahead.
Next to the bins was a black plastic bin bag. I kicked it, then looked inside. ‘Christ.’ Johnny’s clothes. I took a sweater and tied it round my head for a helmet.
I climbed the pipe next to Johnny’s window. I ducked between the washing line and the wall, then stepped on to the window ledge, wanting to break in and sleep for a week.
This bit was easy, edging across Johnny’s window ledge, the line behind my shoulders, gripping the window frame although my stitches hurt. But then I came to the blank wall – ten foot down to the concrete yard, and the long stride to May’s window ledge. ‘Madness,’ I thought, then reached a wavering leg across the drop.
‘Shit!’ I couldn’t move. I had a foot on Johnny’s window ledge, the other on May’s, my hands stretched out and hooked on the two window openings, the wet washing line across my neck, my cheek pressed against London bricks.
‘Bugger.’ My knees shook and the stitches were bleeding. The sweater dropped over my eyes. My crotch was splitting.
‘I’m stuck,’ I said, and with a great heave pulled myself across.
I rested, sweating and cursing on May’s window ledge, my breath misting the glass. Her curtains were drawn, but they always were. I couldn’t see a light. I thought about tapping on the window, but instead I squinted at the latch, planning where I’d slip the knife blade. I pulled the washing line down behind my shoulders.
Where it crossed my back, up between the shoulder blades, the line broke.
I hung on. Spread-eagled, leaning backwards, my feet on the window ledge, my arms stretched out, I gripped the broken ends of the line. ‘Bugger!’ The sweater slid over my eyes.
I tapped the window with my foot, the line sliding through my hands. ‘May! Are you there?’
I fell. One hand holding the line, I swung down until my feet skimmed the concrete yard. Then I went sideways through glass and wood.
My legs recovered first: I found myself high-stepping from the stockroom, tangled in glass and window frame, the dog bounding against the shed door.
I limped to the van and sat breathing hard, then went back to the takeaway. Lights on downstairs, the dog berserk, as I took the bag of Johnny’s clothes.
In the van I pulled glass from my ankle. I had an excuse to look for May at the hospital, but instead I bound the cut with one of Johnny’s socks. I drove until I was lost, then sat in the dark between street lights, the back doors hanging open, my head on the steering wheel. After a while I saw a forest.
‘Bastards. I’ll burn the place. Then they’ll have to come out.’
The forest was beautiful and sloping. I walked under birches in dappled sun.
‘Bollocks to them, anyway. I’ll be alone and happy.’
I’d walked for hours in the forest. Alone and happy I’d eaten fruit and roots, and had drunk from tiny streams which drained the forest’s gentle slope.
I knew this slope. I wouldn’t go down to the valley bottom because the ground was sodden around the river, with bushes full of biting flies, and the tribes had poison arrows and worshipped a snake. And I wouldn’t go higher, where the trees thinned and there were rocky outcrops and nothing to eat except the goats of the highland folk, who leaned on their muskets watching for tigers and goat thieves. Instead I kept to this middle slope, where the trees were slim birches, and sunlight dappled onto deer-nibbled turf, and I could find the animals and plants that my tribe knew best.
I remembered my tribe, the women with beads and oiled hair. I’d left the village after a fight. I’d walked deep into the forest, keeping to this middle slope where my people had always lived.
Because of this I found the tribe’s old villages.
The first village was where my father had been born. In the middle was the village yard: trampled earth where still nothing grew. Around were falling huts, each with three scorched stones which had held the cooking pots of the tribe, who’d left when the animals and soil and plants were finished. I found a hut whose roof still kept off the sun and the morning dew, and stayed for two days, digging tubers from a midden where the scraps of crops had sprouted again. Perhaps my grandparents wouldn’t have hated me like my father.
I saw a man with thick arms who beat me with fists and sticks and on the last day had kicked me, so that I walked further into the forest than anyone before.
I walked on and found the village where my father’s father had been a child. Decades of rain had washed its cooking stones. Its huts were fallen into piles of sticks, which were full of snakes. At the next village the huts had gone and the cooking stones were mossy.
I walked for day after day, the villages older and older, each a day’s walk from the last, because a hunter will travel half a day to his traps and half a day home, even the hunters of my ancestors’ time, when men conversed with gods. I felt that I knew these men, and that in turn I was understood.
I sniffed out grubs in the deepest leaf mould, squeezing out their innards and eating as I walked. I followed monkeys by their trail of half-eaten fruit, which I gathered. I found pigs by their bitter smell and squealing young, and chewed the roots which they’d dug with their great snouts. I met a tiger that coughed and slid away, silent on the close-cropped turf.
Now the villages were hard to find, their cooking stones lost in grassy hummocks that were full of ants, their top worn bald by the forest grouse, which dances for its bride. Still I walked, looking for my tribe’s first village, where the men were freshly made and wouldn’t hate their sons.
‘Why did my father hate me?’
I saw a father ashamed of his son.
Now the villages had nearly vanished. On the last day I crept slowly, watching each step, hoping for the felled stump of a starch tree or a patch of hard ground where the trees were the same age, or just a shiver down the spine because of ghosts. I was coming to the oldest village of the tribe, whose people had been wise and kind.
Instead I smelled smoke. I halted, fearing strangers. I crept on and saw a field of maize. It was tended by women I seemed to know. I crouched among bushes. At last a man appeared, half hidden under a bale of wood. I blinked in surprise. The man was my father.
I sat bewildered in the undergrowth. I’d left the village on the forest side, where trees came to the village edge and were kept for hunters. But I’d returned on the women’s side, where the trees were cleared for crops. I stood up in the bushes till my father saw me.
This was my homecoming. My father led me to the village, punching my arm in a friendly way. But I was dazed, and looked around with a stranger’s eye. The village was ragged, I saw, and my father stupid and old.
I couldn’t shake off this strangeness, which made me dizzy. At night I lay on my back, holding the bed while the stars turned the wrong way. During the day I groped around the village, which was misaligned. I’d left on one side but returned on the other, so now I went wrong among the houses, coming to walls not doors.
Finally I understood: I’d walked around the slopes of a great highland and so back home. But the knowledge didn’t help. I spilled my food. My drink ran down my chin. I sat by the village yard and held my head, frowning at the villagers until they told me to work.
So I went to the fields, but they sloped the wrong way and made me stagger. My father said, ‘Cut down this tree.’ I swung the axe but it spun me round. I sat down with a bump and gripped the earth. My father helped me up, shouting angry questions, but I was useless. My traps caught only my fingers; my arrows clattered among trees and were lost. I hopped in circles, one foot on the spade, leaning too far into the slope or too far out. I pissed on my feet. ‘I’ll go back around the highland,’ I thought, ‘and stop this strangeness.’
But then I picked up a hoe, which is a woman’s implement. The hoe didn’t tip me, so I worked with the wives, trying on their wide straw hats, smiling when they mocked their menfolk. In this way I accepted my strangeness. The village was odd but I didn’t care, because my way of looking was as good as another. I crouched to piss, my father baffled and angry.
In the van I thought, ‘Hang on,’ because I saw where this led.
Every morning my father held my trousers. I put my hands on his shoulders and stepped into the trousers with my eyes closed. If I opened my eyes I fell over. But one day I put on a blanket like a skirt, and left for the fields before my father woke.
The blanket taught me how to place my feet – one in front of the other, as on a narrow path, so that the slope didn’t fool me. When I came home, my father said, ‘You woman!’ and punched the side of my head. At once everything was clear.
In the van I said, ‘Just a minute,’ because this was blatantly a story about Johnny, not me.
I left home and moved to a house with three women, where I stayed indoors, cleaning and cooking and sweeping the earth floor. I had a delicate way of holding a cup, so that the drink didn’t spill.
Later I moved to a town by the river, and then downstream to Canton. Here I met a white sailor. We travelled to London but I left the sailor and danced in Chinese theatres and afterwards bought a boarding house on the Whitechapel Road.
I lay in the van with my eyes wide and my eyebrows up. ‘So Johnny is back in London.’
Mac said, ‘I’ve never been really pally with Johnny. Not like you. But what the hell: it’s a come.’ A small grin with his small mouth: ‘God, Tom, you look rough.’
Mac did complicated things with his ciggie that I couldn’t bear to watch, various flicks and twirls, and the head thrown back to blow out smoke. Then the same flat brogue, cutting through the clamour in this City pub: ‘Of course what we want is both of them. May and Johnny. Three in a bed, me in the middle. Wouldn’t know which way to turn. Them in their naked nuddy. Sort of before and after.’ His ciggie arm now stiff down, the wrist cocked, black hairs curled over a gold signet ring, and the same numb stare, that didn’t change even when he punched you.
Six months since I’ve seen him. His thickened face, thick thighs in some kind of pin-striped wool, the morning shave already growing out on his thug’s neck. ‘A good move anyway, shagging a Chinky. Careerwise. But bloody Johnny isn’t talking to me. Doesn’t answer my calls, anyway, the mad tart.’
‘You called the takeaway?’
‘Christ, no. Left messages on his mobile. No, his dad’d kill me. Young May not too friendly, either. Maybe she can read minds. Or dicks.’
‘Hang on,’ I said, feeling helpless. ‘I should have told you. Johnny is dead.’
‘Bloody killed himself.’
‘My god.’ He stared, interested at last. ‘His dad. His dad, you know, found us.’
‘At the takeaway.’ Mac nodded, too entertained to smoke. ‘He’s really dead? Christ.’ Filing this away as part of his own legend. ‘Well, yes. He called me so I went round. Very odd. I thought the trollop hated me.’ Again he showed his bright small teeth. ‘Tom. The state of you. What happened?’
‘You went round. Then what?’
‘Well. I was out with the guys from the office. Friday night. In here, in fact. They’d buggered off and I was feeling sad and lonely. Then Johnny phones. He says blah-blah-blah, so I hop in a cab. Stayed the night. Very nice. Highly recommended. But then you know all about that, I believe.’
I looked out of the pub window. This was Mac’s secret: casually nasty so that you were powerless. ‘So his dad finds you on the Saturday. Then what? What about Johnny?’
‘Dunno. I mean the old man bursts in, fit to kill. I was shitless. You know, mad coolies steaming up from the kitchen. Me in the fridge with the Alsatians. I got dressed sharpish. Johnny looked poleaxed. Sat in bed crying while I’m panicking. I couldn’t get any sense out of the silly slot, so off I fucked. Crying about you and May, I mean, as you doubtless know. Then little me turns up. Then his monster dad. And I’m thinking I might be next on the menu: number 28, round-eye bollocks. So I ran downstairs and over the counter and out the door and back to England.’
‘How did his dad know?’
‘A mystery,’ said Mac. ‘Though that was a hellish squeaky bed.’
‘Did you tell anyone about . . . I don’t know. About me.’
‘No.’ Mac laughed: ‘Wait. Is that why you fell out with May? Really?’
‘Anyway, that’s when he died. That Saturday.’
‘No doubt. Shagged by the master. Nothing else to live for.’
‘Sorry, Tom. A joke. He was a pal, et cetera.’
‘What a shit.’
‘They do say so. But, you know, we should be friends, you and me. Who else can we trust?’ He winked: ‘Old pals, after all.’
Mac laughed. ‘But you saw Charlie, poor bastard. Him and his lovely fiancee. I mean the bite goes deep. Nothing else will do. What’s up? Don’t go. Sit down, you pillock. Just have a half. A coffee, then. Come on, you dick, don’t be boring. You still at that squat? Don’t go, you dick. Tom?’
I lay in the doss bag, the cut ankle throbbing, trying not to think about anything except the van. No rope for the back doors, and the tank was low. ‘I should pick up my dole. Or get a job.’ I shuddered, remembering The Dream House. A different kind of takeaway, then: Indian or a pizza place maybe, anything with a bike.
Then I thought, ‘Of course,’ because I remembered when the bad thoughts started. They’d started on my last night at the takeaway.
I’d been stoned and scared. I’d bought an eighth in Brixton, rolling joints in pub toilets, but then it was work time so I’d swallowed the rest. I was walking to Brixton Tube, cruising nicely thank you, no one would know, when it was like a bullet went past. I stopped on the pavement thinking, ‘What?’ I struggled on, then leaned against a wall, laughing till I was bent double and tasting my sick.
Onto the Tube and I’d leered at Londoners: a big-leg lezzie; pretty, skinny little-tit women who are often mad; an obvious perv, who doubtless chats up children in parks, doubtless with smiles and conjuring tricks and a neatly prinked pink-tinted miniature poodle; sad bachelors that piss / At midnight in their bedsit sinks. But suddenly everyone looked Chinese, which wasn’t funny at all. So then it was The Fear. I struggled out of the Whitechapel Tube, my hand on the tiled walls, flinching from other people – their boiled hands, the meaty heads squeezed from their clothes, but above all from the hungry laps of women in jeans. Down the Whitechapel Road and into the takeaway, but here it was lizard evil – Wei and Chung quiet and blinking, Mr Tan checking the scripts, tapping the tinfoil packs, his crocodile calm, and me, sick with The Fear, knowing that the food was full of horrors.
With a jeering grin Wei had given me the packs, and I tottered to the bike, queasy at the smells of food. At the first address an old woman answered with a smile – so she wanted me inside for grisly old-person sex, and soon I was pushing the bike back to the takeaway. The back door was locked. I went round and knocked at the front, and Wei and Chung edged me on to the Whitechapel Road, saying, ‘Go. Don’t come. Nobody want you,’ and the doss bag was full of my stuff and May wouldn’t see me and upstairs Johnny had the scissors.
So now I lay in the van, thinking, ‘Of course,’ because I’d seen first of all that the dreams showed families like the Tans, with maybe an outsider like me. Then that there were people losing their bollocks, just like Johnny had stabbed himself. And then how the dreams had started in the mountains, where the river was small, and had travelled downstream and now Johnny was back in London. And here was the final clue, which showed me when all this bad stuff started: it started while Johnny was dying.
I hated daylight so I took the Tube. But we hit the outskirts and the train came up from the dark, clattering and small, past football fields and ratty trackside trees, the light coming in and me defenceless.
Willesden. I climbed out of the station and into suburbia: big prams, a hardware shop that spilled across the pavement, a London bus looking lost, and me squinting under the milky winter sky, weary and sick as I turned into a side street, everything spread out and tiring – big houses with big gardens, an everlasting petrol station – and toiled uphill on the empty afternoon pavements.
‘Enough, Johnny, you bastard.’
Then the temple, a large brick box with mock-Gothic windows and the words ‘Methodist Mission’ cut into a stone slab across the eaves. By the gate, though, a concrete wedding-cake fountain, set with mirrors and coloured tiles, squirted into the cold. It splashed my pants as I crossed the big front yard, half builder’s rubble and half tussocky grass, and rang the bell on a cheap plywood door. ‘Dad is praying for me in that place in Willesden,’ Johnny had said. ‘He wants the spirits to put me back on the straight and narrow-minded.’
The door swung back. A Chinese monk, young and happy in his orange robes.
I said, ‘Hello. Hi. I’m a friend of John Tan.’
‘Ah.’ The monk was puzzled, though his huge smile didn’t change.
‘John Tan,’ I said. ‘He died. He’s here, I think.’
‘Ah! Tan Yiu, I think. English name John.’
‘Can I visit the ashes or the urn or whatever it is?’
‘Please. Yes.’ The young monk trying to be grave, thick lips squeezing his smile.
At first there was only damp-smelling corridors: low ceilings, whitewashed dented walls, and the monk’s happiness flooding back as he trotted in front, shaved head rocking, his legs and arms ebullient, sandals slapping the floor that changed from ragged mats to parquet to worn lino and back again. ‘Tan Yiu ahead. Special room for ashes.’
Then a huge surprising hall, quite empty, where Methody clerks had knelt, worried that their worn soles would show, starched collars chafing their boils, but now it was Eastern tat, the arched ceiling in brash colours, scattered mismatched mats, and a wall of ranked godlings, fat and gilded, with demons and beasts and all that Buddhist bollocks, the young monk flashing a big yellow gappy grin over his shoulder, so that I said, ‘Can you do the kung-fu stuff?’
‘We are not fighting monks.’
‘Well, not necessarily fighting, hitting. Maybe just smashing bricks.’
‘Not that,’ said the boy, surprised but not angry, taking another white corridor, the tattered mats and Third World bareness.
‘Whoa,’ I said. We were passing a room like all the rest – parquet-pattern lino, Gothic windows with Protestant plain glass, varnished tongue-and-groove ceiling – but here a badminton net was stretched between two poles. ‘Brilliant,’ I said. ‘Fantastic.’ I grabbed a racquet and made a couple of passes. ‘God, I’d love to see you killer monks at this. Running up the walls. A bit of slo-mo. Ten foot off the ground. Can you do that? Can you show me? The mid-air stuff?’
‘Maybe we go to Tan Yiu.’
Another narrow corridor, the whitewash soft with damp, and the monk walked behind, watching for trouble. But I was silenced, because here was a little room to the side.
It was walled with cabinets, each a foot square, so I thought of the locker room at school. But the cabinets were glossy with lacquer, red for luck, and a fancy strip of gilt around the edges. In the middle was a brass frame for a picture of the dead. Mostly the picture frames were empty, but half a dozen had colour photos like a passport snap. I saw Johnny’s picture and looked away.
‘This stuff,’ I said quickly. ‘It’s to bring peace, because he kill himself.’ A table under Johnny’s cabinet with candles and flowers.
‘Kill himself. So family give things – flowers, lights – and also come. They talk to ashes.’
‘Maybe unhappy,’ said the monk.
‘Trouble for living people.’
‘Maybe give trouble.’
‘Maybe lost,’ I said. ‘Maybe gone to the ancestors, travelling through their lives, maybe the bits like his own life.’
The monk looked judicious, his big lips squeezed shut over horse’s teeth, but perhaps he didn’t understand. ‘Maybe Tan Yiu angry,’ he said.
I looked at the little picture. Johnny’s lopsided smile, anxious and jaunty, the head tipped back but hurt eyes. ‘Oh Christ. Oh God.’
Tears at last.
The young monk stood at my elbow, his worried frown wrinkling up onto his shaved skull, and that Chinese no-smell, like a statue or Johnny. ‘His spirit soon well. Resting and peace.’
‘Well, no offence, but I don’t believe that stuff, you see. No. And his family. I mean, that was the whole thing – his dad. So how can they help? Maybe he just gets more upset.’
‘Family come every day.’
I was absorbing this when I heard a squawking. But instead of the Tans, a gang of old women bustled in, square in their nylon jackets, busy little legs in neat trousers. ‘Cantonese,’ I thought. Their eager faces, heads pushed forward, chattering in whispers, eaters of everything, and me watching through the tears. I saw May grown old, and myself beside her, old and proud.
I turned away from Johnny, grieving for everything, the women stilled. The monk said gently, ‘I leave you. Don’t worry. Listen: chants.’ A tape machine stood behind the flowers, specked with paint, and I wondered what music the monks had played as they whitewashed the walls. ‘This all day. Help him.’
Alone with the women, tears on my chin, I faced a life-size plastic Buddha. It was fixed to the wall, floating cross-legged over a table laid with stubby candles in cups, flowers in a cheap glass vase, and a tray of offerings – peanuts, chocolate, a bottle of mineral water. Its long fingers cupped a plastic pearl like a cricket ball. Its bland young face stared over my head at the cabinets.
I turned back to Johnny. ‘Leave me alone, OK,’ I said, the women watching. ‘It’s not my fault and I can’t help you.’
The passport photo smiled from its screwed-on brass frame. It was covered by a clear plastic bastard cover thing, which I picked at with a fingernail. I stepped back, frustrated.
At the corners of Johnny’s cabinet were gilt metal knobs, the size of a fingertip. I twisted one. It unscrewed smoothly. But underneath was the top of a fat cross-headed stud, bare steel and businesslike, hiding the last of Johnny Tan.
‘Bugger.’ The ladies watched, heads craning, absorbed but unsurprised because of course white people are odd. I passed the gilt knob to the nearest woman. She bowed over it with interest – her cropped white hair, her hand square from honourable work – showed it to the others, offered it back.
‘No,’ I said. ‘A present.’ She watched me step into the corridor, and was staring at the knob when I came back with a fire extinguisher. I drove it into Johnny’s face.
‘Oh,’ she said. The blow echoed through the wall of cabinets and boomed down the corridor.
‘Noisy,’ I said to the women, who’d shrunk into a corner.
Johnny’s photo slid to the floor. I bent to pick it up but changed my mind. Twice more I drove the red metal into the wood, the plastic cover flying in splinters.
‘Strong,’ I said. I looked at the wall of cabinets. ‘Yes. Good stuff.’ Johnny’s cabinet had half-moon dents, and a flake of thick lacquer had fallen off, showing the pale wood, which was still solid.
I set the extinguisher down, suddenly tired. I dragged myself along the corridor, the women leaning around the door to watch. I came to another little room, this time a library, and stared for a while at shelves of tapes, books in Chinese, and ragged old airport thrillers. I walked on, very weary, stopping again at the badminton net. I stared at what I hadn’t seen before: the two poles stood in cement in old cooking-oil drums. ‘From a takeaway, I suppose.’
Another corridor, the whitewash soft as chalk, a noticeboard where I read about classes for English speakers, and then a trestle table with books laid out for sale and I pocketed one. ‘Too big for the congregation, this place. Not enough people to keep it nice.’
At last the plywood door again. I was stepping outside when the young monk grabbed my wrist: ‘Why?’
I shook him off. He wasn’t, after all, a fighting monk.
I was back at Willesden Tube when a train came in from the centre. I ducked behind a pillar and there was May.
She liked loose clothes. A studenty black jacket, her lean profile, and a buttoned-up white shirt, though I’d seen her lovely breasts, little as kisses.
‘May.’ Her frightened eyes. ‘Hello, babe. It’s good to see you.’
‘Tom. Well. Actually I wanted to talk to you. Did you call your dad? Because a woman phoned. A couple of times, in fact. It seemed really urgent.’
But then she was striding again, me hurrying behind up the station steps, saying, ‘How are you? I thought maybe you needed your favourite biker again.’
‘Actually I wondered if you’d left London. Back to your dad’s, perhaps. Or that area, anyway.’
‘Enough about my dad. Christ.’ Trotting behind as we hit that High Street again, wondering how she could be normal when the dreams were so . . .
She turned on me. ‘What are you doing? Are you going to the temple?’
‘Yes. Well, maybe. In fact I’ve just been.’
‘You can’t come with me. It’s a family thing.’
‘Right.’ My eyes began to be strange. I was a little dizzy perhaps, and the road was inclined to tip and twist, but above all May seemed surrounded by threads of light. They grew out of her and frayed into nothing. Fighting the odds I said, ‘I’m sorry I didn’t see the funeral. The customs and stuff.’
A sigh, resettling her shoulder bag, then striding off, me lagging on my cut ankle. ‘Dad wanted the old things – funny clothes and so on – but I didn’t. So you didn’t miss much.’
‘Where does his soul go, in fact?’
‘For God’s sake, Tom. You don’t believe it, any more than me.’
Here’s what May believes: buses stop with their door right next to her – not always, but more than you’d think; she knows what track is playing before she turns the radio on, or maybe they’ve just played it, or it’s playing on some other station; she dreams about friends before they call, and when she phones she can tell if someone’s at home, or just coming home, or maybe they’re actually, you know, thinking about their home; she speaks the truth and gets in trouble for it, but it’s her nature, she can’t help it and actually doesn’t want to help it, because the truth is within, not in churches or books, so you just have to follow your real nature whatever anyone thinks. And when she was a toddler in Hong Kong, they would visit her mother in the cemetery on Pok Fu Lam Road, where the buses halt at every stop, even if no one is there, because the dead might be travelling.
We were passing the hardware shop, me dodging an aluminium ladder, a box of washing lines, stacked rubber buckets, dog food in sacks, when I saw that everything pointed towards her – the edges of buildings, cracks in the pavement, blurry lines pointing from the sides of cars. ‘So who’s got the bike now?’
‘We haven’t got a bike, have we. Anyway, we use the car. It’s better.’
‘That bike. We went everywhere. That first time, as well. Do you remember?’
‘People stole the food.’
‘Not from me. Not when I was doing it.’ The world was moving like a ship at sea, and the still point was her.
‘And someone set fire to a bike once,’ she said. ‘Before you started, maybe. Maybe you didn’t hear.’
‘It was sweet for us, though.’
‘A car is better. Dad’s friends have swapped as well. I mean, he needs the car anyway, so a bike’s just an overhead. And he’s told the police.’
‘What? That it got stolen?’
‘For the insurance.’ Still she was hurrying.
I said, ‘Did he mention me, do you think?’
‘I think so. Probably. Yes.’ By now I couldn’t see for a blur of perhaps tears.
We were outside the temple and she felt safe. She looked me in the eyes and said firmly, ‘Goodbye, Tom.’
I thought, ‘Let her go: if you let her go she’ll come back.’ But then I followed her into the yard.
‘I said goodbye.’
‘Yes. I’ll call you.’
‘Don’t call. I mean it.’ She was angry again. ‘And what about you trying to break in? What was that about? And look at you: like a tramp.’
‘I know what your dad thinks. I mean, did your dad talk to you about me? I know he doesn’t like me at the moment. Because of me and Johnny.’
‘But I just want to tell you that he’s wrong.’ She walked away so that I said, ‘I keep dreaming about you.’
She stopped and scowled at me down the cracked concrete path. ‘I know.’
‘Really? You felt it?’
‘Wei told me. I don’t like it. It’s not flattering, if that’s what you think.’
‘It’s nothing bad. Not what you think. Bloody Wei. I mean I felt closer to you, through the dreams. Like I was trying to understand about you and your family and me. But then I wasn’t so sure. The dreams were too strange. So now I think maybe my dreams are getting mixed up with Johnny.’
‘Right. So actually you were dreaming about him.’
‘No. Christ. No. I don’t know. I think maybe Johnny sees something in the afterlife, and then I dream about it. Or maybe I’m dreaming already and things he sees in the afterlife get into the dreams.’
‘So. Dreams about my brother. Very, very funny.’
‘You have to save me. I need saving.’
‘From what, for God’s sake? Yes, wet dreams about a dead person.’
‘Don’t, May. I love you.’
‘Don’t say that. Don’t ever say that. Don’t you come near me, or dream about me, or dream about Johnny. Maybe he doesn’t like it either.’
I paced Willesden station, hobbling fast on my bad ankle, waiting for the cops or a gang of fighting monks to abseil in. I thought of May with the young monk in the room of ashes. They were staring at the dented wood. I screwed up my face: ‘Johnny gets cremated and I fetch the fire extinguisher.’
Then the long Tube ride, wiggling my toes in the wet canvas shoes, my toenails showing through the holes, not thinking of anything except the van, parked by Waterloo station and probably covered in tickets again.
I could beg. I could buy petrol and drive and drive until the trees meet overhead, and leave all this city stuff and the dread in my belly.
‘No Chinks in the country.’ I pictured fat Mr Tan on tiptoes in a muddy lane, helpless in his trodden-down shoes. Although, come to think of it, he was an ex-peasant or something. ‘Actually, I don’t know anything about the bugger.’
May had jumped on the bike on that first night, eyes like the light on an empty cab, passionate and ready. She’d said yes with her legs in the room under the eaves, the pigeons restless on the slates. When she turned over asleep, her hand was stiff like a swimmer’s.
I saw her as a Red Guard. She was holding the little red book, looking up, full of joy, red ribbons on her two little sticking-out pigtails. She had a blue padded suit. She held up the book at full stretch, which pulled her trousers up tight. She thought of people looking at her pulled-up trousers.
‘I’m going the same way as Gilly.’ Or dad on the bath edge, big Ellie stalled in the door.
I leaned my forehead on the Tube window, so I could watch the black tunnel walls and think about getting out of London. The shaking of the Tube was like the shaking of the van. I pictured myself driving at night, lost in the narrow streets around St Paul’s.
‘No,’ I said, and imagined the river. It was black and glittering, glimpsed between office blocks. I steered towards it and found the Embankment, empty in the small hours, and drove through Chelsea and Hammersmith and on upstream. As the van took corners, I leaned over in the Tube.
I hit a dirt road, and the van skidded over loose stones and through a night-time village with boats drawn up, then climbed a bald hill and down again to the river, which was dark and wide as a lake. I gave the van off-road tyres. I made it a diesel, throaty and strong. ‘It needed driving, that’s all, to tighten stuff.’
The stones in the road got bigger, the van roared and gripped, and I passed more boats, a house on stilts, and on the far bank was a black cliff with lights high up, which were the houses that folk call ‘sky farms’. The road climbed into forested hills, wet and cool, with mist in the headlights, the knobbly tyres throwing up mud.
I felt free, and laughed. ‘This is a long road. It’s not a wrong road.’
The Tube took a clattering bend, and I felt the road curve around a wooded hill that fell to the river. It was dawn. I drove under dripping pines, rounded a last bend, and there was the village. May was waiting. She stood by her father’s house, brass discs on her blouse, a skirt of many layers, and smiled to see me.
I got out of the van and the village was perfect: huts on bamboo stilts among the pines, children gazing shyly from the windows. There were men in the fields, and a woman waved as she climbed the track from the river, a basket on her arm, fish tails wagging. We went to the headman, May’s father, and I said, ‘I’ll be your new son.’
A hut was ready. There was a fire against the mountain chill, and May had laid sweet potatoes on banana leaves. I slept that night on branches of odorous pine, the hut swaying on its stilts, and in the morning she came to me again and never went home. Swaying in the Tube, I thought, ‘It’s like the old dreams: me and May, happy together.’
And I helped the villagers. I loaded their fish in the van and brought them up the curving track from the river. When the tank was dry I ran the engine on lamp oil, then fish oil, then on the gas from goat droppings. I put the front axle on blocks and drove a pulley, which dragged a sled up the hill and lifted the bucket in the well.
‘And I soon learned their language.’
With the horn I drove rooks from their fields, and with sparks from the battery I lit their fires. At harvest-time I shone the headlights into the threshing house, so the men could work all night. They praised my skill, and it didn’t matter that the headman hated me for spoiling his daughter.
How we were in love! I wrote poems on fans, to praise her, and put gauze bags of tea inside lotus flowers before they closed for the night, in the morning making tea with pure water from the well beside the village, and May smiled at that scent of lotus. At night, when my work was done, we lay on pine boughs in the firelight and stared over the treetops, smoking opium until the village lamps went out, and the dogs had ceased to bark, and a thorn bush was pulled across the pig pen to keep out wolves. May said, ‘My husband.’ And I replied, ‘Only a China girl will do.’
I told her, ‘I have seen the Western races, where the prettiest women are only as pretty as boys. And I have seen the blacks, their men so manly that women are driven mad. But then I saw the yellow folk, in whom the yin is certainly the most strong, and therefore I travelled east.
‘First I came to Japan, where there was much variety, with dark or light skin, and large or narrow eyes, and the nose with a higher bridge, which many prefer. But the men have a yang trait, which is shown in their hairy legs and manly build, and this is also seen among the women. And likewise in Korea, although their blood is more pure.
‘Then I saw the Thais. The southern Thais are lovely, despite the blood of foreigners. But I went north and even the menfolk showed the yin. And also in Siam, where the tribes by the China border are the most beautiful.
‘So I came to China, but was confused. Some here seem Caucasian because of the Turkic strain, and some resemble the Eskimo, and there are Chinese of Malay stock who are small and dark.
‘But I recalled the Thais, and came south, where the tribes are soft and yielding, filled with the yin, driven by more virile folk to these wooded hills. And so I found you, the most female of women. And your father is as smooth as a wooden Buddha, and surely your brothers are light and slim.’
‘Ah, my family,’ said May, her eyes downcast. ‘I had a twin brother, but twins are unlucky so my mother died and then my twin also. And now my father has sent me from the house, because of you. But I am happy to lose him, and would stay with you always.’
‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Always.’
In the morning I smiled again, and we kissed as I left the house. But then I saw the van. It was parked by our hut under a dark pine, whose fallen needles stained its roof. The windows were edged with green, which was moss. I took the jack and worked all day to move a neighbour’s broken roof beam, and then with the tyre wrench I levered the new beam home, but the jack and the wrench were rusted. I came again to the van and someone had laid a sickle on the bonnet and scratched the paint. Chickens pecked between the soft tyres, and one stood on the driver’s seat, its lime on my coat.
I cleaned the windscreen and thought, ‘Why did I do that?’ Then May was standing beside me. She said, ‘You took me from my father, and now you are restless.’
‘No,’ I said.
‘I lost my home for you,’ she said. ‘No man will want me, being used.’
‘No, no.’ But then I thought: ‘Perhaps there are women more female, more smooth and slim, in the higher hills.’
Dozing on the Tube seat, I half woke. But for once the story wasn’t taking over. In fact it all made sense. If you were in China, with all those Chinese women, of course you’d look around, even if you didn’t do anything. So I watched myself in the village again.
It was morning, and I was moving the van from our hut. I parked under trees on the far side of the village, thinking, ‘In love, only selfishness is wise.’ In the afternoon May came to me. I was lying on a bed of pine boughs in the van, warmed by a little charcoal stove that I’d made from river clay, and I looked up in surprise.
She laughed and said, ‘Won’t you speak? Are you thinking of our time together? You were happy, I think. Would you like that time again?’
I shook my head.
‘Very well,’ said May. ‘Very well. But I have a friend who wants to be acquainted, as you and I were acquainted.’
‘I’m happy alone.’
‘But didn’t you want a lover who is slim and smooth and light? This one is all those things, and will do whatever you ask, even favours that were denied elsewhere.’ I was startled, recalling a small thing I had wished for, that May had refused.
She laughed and gave me a folded note. ‘Go to this village, to a lover who is everything you want.’ I saw that she was angry and couldn’t be trusted: I wouldn’t go to her friend’s house.
But in the evening I was restless in the van, the stove shining red on the roof, and recalled my quest for the feminine. Perhaps May knew a woman who was slim and light and smooth beyond all others. And I might show that our love affair was finished, by preferring another.
So I opened her note, then climbed the forested hill and came to a village hidden among pines. Cautious, I walked between stone houses, lamps flickering under the trees, and found the house of May’s friend and studied its dark windows and cracked wall. Faintly in the dusk I saw carved words above the door. They were vague and wavering in the gloom, but at last I saw a verse which might be translated thus: ‘Husbands! You are slaves, / Nightly digging your own graves.’
I smiled, because the writer contradicted May, who wished to maintain our connection, against the call of freedom. I opened the door.
In my worldwide travels I had visited numberless houses of pleasure. All were richly furnished, but this excelled them. I crossed a hallway carpeted with silk. Silver lamps shone from lacquered tables.
But the hall led only to marble steps, which descended into darkness. I paused, then went down the steps, where woven hangings depicted love or showed the emblem of yin and yang like twins in the womb, with a deep carpet underfoot, and screens that glittered with precious stones. I came to the lower floor and crept through the dark, thinking, ‘I am unarmed.’
‘Who’s that?’ I said, because my wrist was seized.
I was drawn into a room, very dark. A slight figure pressed against me, and my heart leapt. I laid the creature backwards on a bed, my blood roused by the slender limbs, so smooth and light.
How I pleasured myself! Anger made me take what had been forbidden.
‘Are you content?’ said my bedmate in the dark. ‘Are you contented now?’ The voice was cold, and I liked this coldness.
‘I’m content,’ I said, and gave my lover a silver bracelet, pretty but not expensive, that I’d bought for May, until her sorrow bored me. Now my least desire was met, so I gave the bracelet promptly, showing that ours was a business matter.
But our fingers touched and I was inflamed, and must satisfy myself again, the limbs so light and smooth, like my dream of China.
Next day I thought of nothing but the house of pleasure, and was careless in my work. In the afternoon I climbed again to the house, but the door was locked. I returned at dusk but was disappointed. At last in the dark I could hurry again over the rich carpets and down the marble steps, though I was weak from the night before.
I was welcomed without words, and the night was yet more wearying, because I was roused so often to desire, and my bedmate always ready. ‘What do you wish, husband?’ said the voice in the dark.
Now I was caught. Daylight was an interlude between these raptures, or was a time when the poor human frame might rest, though I lay in the van and couldn’t sleep, and at night in the pleasure house I was restless with the itch of love.
Once, in that dark room, I said, ‘I must relieve myself.’
‘Do it in the corner, because my neighbours hate me.’
‘Why do they hate you?’
There was no reply except, ‘Do it in the corner.’ But instead I crept up through the house and out into the garden and stood among weeds. I stared into the forest, because there were lights which moved in the dark as if carried. Then the lights approached. Alarmed, I returned to the house and closed the door. But outside were men of the village, who called, ‘You will die there!’ So afterwards I used the jar in the corner.
Once, in that dark room, I said, ‘How strange, how strange. When one lies in the near-dark – when there is only the light under a door or through a crack in the shutters – how often we see our lover’s face wavering in the gloom, sneering and snarling, or stained with decay, the eyes like the sockets of a skull. And this latter thought oppresses me.’
‘Yet all skulls are handsome,’ my bedmate said.
One evening I lay in the van, too tired to sleep, impatient for the pleasure house. There was a tapping on the van doors, and May said, ‘Are you there?’ But I didn’t speak, fearing her sad demands. Yet later, after my spasms in my lover’s arms, sick from weariness, I thought of my happy time with May and said, ‘I should seek a reconciliation.’
But my bedmate said, ‘Why should you trust a woman?’ and sang a jolly tavern song, beating time with a slim wrist, the silver bracelet jingling, and the chorus of the song was: ‘My woman’s love / Changed its palate every month.’
I came again to the village, where the people said, ‘You were gone for three days, and the village is dark.’ But I was too tired to work, and lay all day in the van, and dreamt of the pelvic socket where a thighbone fits, or of the socket of a guttered candle, or of a man digging his own grave, weakening as he digs.
I thought, ‘I must rest or die.’
But the hours dragged in the cold, until it seemed foolish to bear this discontent, fretting the feeble body. Slowly I climbed the hill, up through the sodden forest, resting against trees, aching for my lover as a bone aches for flesh, till I came to the stone village, where many lamps flickered, and there was a murmuring and a hidden busyness that was new. But I hurried to the pleasure house, where my strength was praised, and I caressed that side, so smooth and cool, and the limbs so light.
When I next saw the village a week had passed, though it seemed I had spent only a night in that dark room. I bent above the engine, making many mistakes, my former friends spitting on the ground, until night fell and I turned again to the hill.
But I was followed by jeering villagers, and boys threw stones. ‘Fool,’ they shouted as I hurried through the forest, my coat over my head, and they were close behind when I crossed the stone village, where there was a muttering like anger, as though hidden folk were roused. I came to the pleasure house and slammed the door and rushed through the corridors, which were now bare stone, their furnishings gone, and into the dark room where my bedmate lay and didn’t rise to greet me.
The villagers struck the door, but my lover answered with another jeering song: ‘Do you see death coming / With slim arms like a woman, / His lap / Empty with a woman’s lack?’ When I next left the house, my van was daubed with chicken blood. The windows were broken, and someone had smashed my charcoal stove and scattered the pine bed. May watched from her father’s door, but I turned away and waited in the damp woods until I could climb again to the pleasure house.
I wasn’t seen in the village for two weeks, though in that dark room it seemed that only a long night had passed. The villagers shouted as I crept to the van, which was a burnt shell, sunk on melted tyres. I sat on the bare wires of the driver’s seat in a smell of wet ash, until I heard a battering on the van. I leapt out and found the villagers with sticks, and the headman angry and grinning, so I fled to the forest and hungered all day for the room where all I saw was my lover’s smile and the bracelet gleaming.
Yet I was so weak that my bedmate must bend to my lips when I said, ‘I begin to guess your secret, but you see that I do not care.’
‘I’m glad that I please you.’
It was a month before I left the room, where I never hungered and where a month was like a winter’s night. The van was gone from the village, and I followed its tracks to a cliff above the river, which swirled around a glint of metal. I sat on a stump in the forest but couldn’t rest, the day cold, mist filtering downwards through the trees, and then it rained, so that I came again to the village where a woman shouted, ‘The foreigner!’
Her cries brought the villagers. Over their heads I saw May, who called, ‘Don’t go again to that house.’ But I didn’t answer and was swallowed into the mob, which dragged me to the headman’s hut. Here men had gathered to speak of crops trampled at night, and a beating on their doors by bony knuckles, and in the morning the tracks of bony feet. And the pig pen was robbed, though its bars were so close that only a child could enter, but no child could have killed the pig. Also: the sucking out of the eyes of goats, the chewing of babies’ toes, and the biting off of the precious parts of the watchdogs of the headman, though his gold was untouched.
The men shouted to see me, and May’s father bent his great arms, saying, ‘Our troubles come from where you go nightly.’
Then the villagers surged forward and the headman’s guards were overwhelmed. The crowd hurried me from the village, and a madman gripped my arm, saying, ‘We know who steals male essence.’ So I was carried up through the forest, the mist very thick, and a roaring from the hidden folk of the stone village, and so to the pleasure house.
Here I wiped my eyes, because the house was now a tomb in a graveyard. Weeds grew on its roof and the door was broken and its bones scattered by the mob.
May was by my side. She led me among the graves, where I stumbled and saw the loneliness of death. She pointed to weeds, where a skeleton lay white and new, still with its burial clothes. ‘That was my brother,’ she said.
On its wrist, though, was the silver bracelet, and in this way I was broken, as every bachelor is broken at last.
I crept into the forest and lay on the wet ground. When May came I turned away, recalling my lover in the pleasure house, and nothing else would do. I ate grass and bark, and drank water from the stump of a tree. Then May found a husband, a trader from the town, so I went to the river. At night I slept under bushes among fish bones and rats, and in the day I sat in the sun in an old rotten boat on a mudbank in the shallows.
Stale water lay in the bottom of the boat. It was fringed with green, kissed by mosquitoes, and often I leaned forward and saw my reflection black against the sky. Then I would think, ‘Everything all along was all my fault.’
By midnight I was back on the streets. As I left the cop shop, the sergeant pointed me to Waterloo.
‘Sorry,’ I said. ‘Sorry for all that.’
‘Next time, if we find you we keep you.’
It was raining. I smelled of piss. As I walked I remembered lying on the Tube floor at the terminal, still locked in the dream, groaning and twitching because I was held by my lover in the dark room. Then the police had hauled me away, and I fought them because they were also the crowd hauling me up the hill to the graveyard. And finally I was in the rotten boat and staring into the stagnant water, but actually I was sitting on the bunk in a police cell, until the police decided that I’d stopped being mad.
Waterloo. I turned into a side road, nervous about the van, but there it was, faithful under a street light. As I climbed into the driver’s seat I thought, ‘I’ll go home.’ The roads were empty, I’d be there in an hour, the house dark and locked up, but the catch loose on the pantry window. I’d take a bath. Sleep in a bed. In the morning I’d look for a job. It’d be better without my dad. I could make friends. You make friends if you’ve got a job.
I started the van, thinking about the route out of London. But only fourth gear worked. I slipped the clutch, the engine toiling as I pulled away, and I blushed in the dark because my life was crap.
I was turning into Kennington Lane when the clutch burned out. Shouting, revving the engine, I beat the steering wheel as the van rolled gently to the kerb. I put my arms on the wheel and my head on my arms and said, ‘The end.’
I’d been wrong about everything. Wrong and wrong, ever since Wei and Chung had pushed me out of the takeaway. But the young monk had put me straight: ‘Maybe Tan Yiu angry.’
Very depressed, I climbed out into the rain and went round the back. But I got a shock when I opened the doors: my doss bag was crooked in the dark, like someone was lying inside.
I got in and closed the doors and sat with my back against the cold side of the van, eyeing the bag. The street light here was faulty. Its yellow light flickered through the windscreen and past the edge of the curtain and lay in a ribbon across the doss bag, which was all bright ridges and black valleys, with me watching angry and afraid.
But I was cold and wet. The bag was empty or full or lumpy with bones, but at last I had to slip inside.
I lay there for days. Mostly I dozed, but sometimes I woke to the slap of parking tickets. Then I would roll asleep again, deep in my last dreams, which were all about Johnny.
Johnny was in a mountain pass. He lay on a stony slope, facing a stony slope, mist streaming between. Tall birds were crossing below him. One by one they ran across the pass, hopping from rock to rock on their long legs, hurrying because they were afraid. Sometimes one stood on a boulder to rest, upright like a man. Then it would see him and scurry on, though it was tired, stretching its long neck, rolling its eyes, long wings trailing, until it vanished in the mist. At last Johnny understood: the birds were too heavy for this thin air. He stood up and followed them. His breath steamed, as did the wound in his belly. Soon he was going downhill. He slithered on loose stones, following a stream. Ahead, a bird stood on a rock. It turned its long neck towards him, then cried out and spread its wings. It leaned out over the slope and launched into the mist, and through its wake he saw a green valley. The stream had become a river. Next to the river was a village with a red tent and a girl who said, ‘I’m young and lovely, as you see.’
So this was his journey home – through lives and deaths that conjured up his own.
First he was a landlord’s son, and killed himself because his father was stupid. A drunk climbed into his room and the father heard him and put money under the door to placate his son’s ghost. The drunk stayed for months, singing and climbing in and out through the window until the father was a beggar.
Then he was a hunter in the forest. A tiger took his sister and he followed the blood trail to a castle and broke in and caught the tiger-lord with his coat off, grey as a rabbit, sitting with his legs crossed, his terrible smile in a bucket. His paw / Opened like a butcher’s drawer. But the hunter was brave and fast and killed the tiger and took his sister home but she was bored for ever.
Then he was a farmer’s son. He told his father, ‘Buy me an axe.’ The father bought an axe, but the son said, ‘Why should I cut wood? Buy me a spade.’ The father bought a spade, but the son said, ‘Why should I dig? Buy me an ox and plough.’ The father bought an ox and plough, but the son said, ‘Why should I plough? Buy me a horse to ride.’ So the father bought a good horse. Finally the son said, ‘Why should I work?’ So the father killed him with the axe, and buried him with the spade, and ploughed over his grave, and rode downriver on the fine horse.
Then he was a girl, relieving herself in the forest. A leech climbed inside her and popped out every night to sing and tell stories, so she couldn’t marry but it didn’t matter because the leech made her laugh.
He was a girl again, relieving herself in the forest. A spider jumped on her belly and itched so much that she married young. Every night she put the lamp out before she undressed, but one night the moon shone in and her husband saw the spider and ran to kill it. The spider bit the girl and escaped and the husband was left with the girl who was neither alive nor dead.
Johnny is making toast or being toasted. He wears a linen suit, flames in the pockets. He opens his jacket and his fancy waistcoat is flames. His hair lifts in the updraught and is licked off by flames. He looks at me and flames come from his smile.
‘Please, Johnny,’ I said.
But Johnny was a little boy by a river. This was in Oxfordshire, where every spring the Thames floods. It swells across the plain so that river captains are confused and sail their ships over gardens and roads. Then the little boy would sit with his sister on their roof. When a ship sailed down their road the captain would shout, ‘Which way to the river?’ But the children only laughed, or else they lied because they wanted the ship to run aground. If they saw a ship jammed in a field or a garden, they ran to where the men were heaving on ropes or digging earth from under the keel or taking off goods to lighten the ship, because there was a chance to steal.
One year the flood came early and full. The children woke in the dark. They ran to the window, but fishes were kissing it. They went back to bed but the bed was wet. They ran up and down the landing, but the Thames was there / In silk slippers climbing the stair. They went to the roof, and all day they watched the town. People had rafts made of firewood, or they floated on doors. Old men who had bought their coffins paddled them with brooms through the streets or left them tethered to lamp posts while they visited the tea house, sitting on the teahouse roof and smoking their pipes and grinning at the children. But the river rose until the old men paddled away and the children were waist-deep on the roof. The boy held his sister’s hand until it was dark, but the river grew deeper and stronger and in the morning she’d gone.
The boy called and called across the flood. As the waters fell he climbed down through the house. There were minnows in her chamber pot and an eel in her bath, but the girl had vanished. He followed a trail of smooth stones, like the stones in a stream. A thread seemed part of her clothes, and led him through reeds near Shillingford. The hem of her dress was shining over stones at Shiplake, but melted in his hand. Someone said / She crossed waist-deep at Maidenhead.
He walked downriver, searching under trees that wept across the water, afraid to look but he had to, wading through reeds and muddy shallows, leaning over bridges by the pretty riverside pubs. And a great fish / Spawned in his image under Chiswick Bridge, / Where Thames, a lissom country girl, / Comes to London’s corseted curves.
So he entered the city. He looked everywhere for the girl, although the women were lovely. He slept under Blackfriars Bridge, with the river’s kisses and sighs. He traced the Thames tributaries, that run now in sewers, and listened through tarmac to the Fleet, the Westbourne, and the Effra, which sing: ‘I am a hidden London river. / Where in a ditch I’d skip and bicker / Only the sick fat dead old / Notice a dip in the road.’
He grew ragged, looking for the girl, and thought that London was flooded. He saw masts passing stately behind buildings, and his sister at the far end of streets, crossing waist-deep, reflected in the water, two-faced like the Queen of Spades, her lower mouth / Working in the water with sneers and shouts.
He was old, and knew things were bad. He crossed the Whitechapel Road, along through Limehouse, down the East India Dock Road, and came again to the river, where a Thames barge was breasting the waves – Familiar its figurehead / Watching over dividing depths!
So now he was sure. He walked downstream, because she was riding the river by day and lay on the waves at night, a billow her pillow. He walked past Greenwich Reach, leaving London, dipping a finger in the river, salty now, and night falling. He was tired, his eyes failing, the estuary very wide under the stars, the shining levels and the smell of the sea, but at last he saw her / Blaze on the brackish water, / Her face the moon / That broods above those tidal pools.
But Johnny said:
I was a girl. I was walking to my wedding. I was crossing a forest, but there was a witch upside down in a tree, her skirt around her chin. She dropped on me and ate me. She took my clothes and walked to the wedding and pleased the groom in strange ways. She fell asleep with her mouth open and I called from her belly but the groom didn’t answer.
I was a girl and found a jewel that had fallen from the moon and hid it inside me and therefore couldn’t marry. But the jewel was poison and I shrivelled up and the villagers burned me.
I was the wise man to a king, but the king was murdered by his son who took the throne and would have killed his sister but I turned her into a bird. The son said, ‘Where is my sister?’ I said, ‘She forgot her name and her home. She couldn’t speak. She hid from people. This morning she jumped from a cliff and rose to heaven.’ When it was safe I turned her back to a girl. We killed her brother and took the throne and were married, but she was always a bit birdy.
I was a rat-killer asleep on a dark road. I was woken by a queen under a silk umbrella and we sported together. She asked for my secrets and I said, ‘Well, I starve two rats in a box until one eats the other and gets a taste for rat and kills other rats. Or I sew up a rat’s bottom and it’s mad with pain and kills other rats.’ The queen said, ‘We’ll do the same to you,’ because actually she was the Queen of the Rats.
I was rich, and lived with my daughter in a fine house. One night I woke up shivering because my quilt had gone. I searched through the house and found the quilt on my daughter. This happened every night, so my daughter said, ‘At least wash the smelly thing.’ We washed the quilt and for two nights it stayed on my bed, but on the third night I woke up and went to my daughter’s room and her leg was around the quilt. I burned the quilt, but it stank as it burned. My daughter went to another town and I left the house and slept on leaves in the forest with only my snot for salt.
I was a little boy and thought I was brave. One day a man and his little boy came to the river. The father and the little boy were identical, so the village women said, ‘Beware, because they are lizard people.’ But I remembered I was brave and played with the son along the riverbank. The man said, ‘Will you play with my daughter?’ The daughter was also identical, so I was afraid. But I thought, ‘If they are lizards I’ll run into the river and be safe.’ Then the father said, ‘Come to my house and eat.’ So I went into their house, which was a cave on the riverbank, and the brother and sister and father were smiling in the firelight. Then the father said, ‘This is my wife,’ and the wife was also identical. I ran into the river, but the brother and sister and mother dived after me. The father danced and laughed on the riverbank saying, ‘In fact we are crocodile people.’
I was a girl working on a hill and the wind followed me home. I went upstairs to my old husband, but the wind rattled the door. I went downstairs to bolt the door, but instead I went outside and the wind took me like a crowd.
I was an old man on my deathbed thinking, ‘At least I never got kicked in the bollocks.’
I had so little food that I only needed one chopstick and I asked for a pay rise and the boss said, ‘We already pay rice,’ so I came to London and my daughter met a white boy and I helped at the wedding: when I said, ‘Stand,’ the boy stood, and when I said, ‘Crap,’ the boy clapped and everyone was happy, so happy.
I said, ‘Johnny, we’re tired,’ but in fact I was a boy on a roof with my sister. In the morning the flood had taken her so I searched downstream and found a body among reeds. I stood pointing and shouting but people ran away. Then they crept back and took the body to a chapel. But my sister walked in weeping and I saw that actually I was a ghost and the body was my own and fish had eaten my precious parts. So I left the chapel. I walked on till I was lost in London. I looked for clues in pavement cracks, streetlight flickerings, beer spills and car dents, and the twitches, squints, limps, and shoe-scuffs of passers-by, with only my anger for a guide. I was easily distracted, and followed sirens, a tourist bus with music, police horses, a man in a red hat. For days I was lost in the suburbs and came to the limits of London, a cold wind over the fields, and I turned back through Hookers Road and Pimp Hall Park, along Butcher Row, Organ Lane, Bleeding Heart Yard, Cutthroat Alley, World’s End Lane, downhill like water till I found the river. I was so broken that only ghosts could see me. They were milling clueless on the Embankment. They grabbed my sleeve and sang, ‘Up empty elevator shafts, / Floating to closed doors, we weep and tap.’
I tried to pull free, but they carried me along, singing, ‘We wander walls and floors / In the Tube’s cylindrical corridors.’
They were the lost dead of London. I listened while they sang: ‘We ride / Escalator undersides, / Are weary baffled cold / On single-decker buses, upstairs alone, / And can’t get home.’
I sang with them: ‘Snoring town, / We’ll rise through your dreams like the drowned!’
I’m a little boy. I’m playing in a park and find a house and see a window among the ivy. On tiptoes I peek inside and see an old Chinaman reading. The old man looks up, surprised. I’m frightened of his evil face, and I run down the side of the house and see a door under the ivy. I hesitate, then reach up and turn the handle. I go down a dark passage and come to a room.
Perhaps it’s the old Chinaman’s room because there’s a book on the table. It’s big and heavy for a little boy, but I push it open. It’s full of horrible stories about twins and fathers and the chopping-off of bollocks. After an unknown time I shut the book. I squint through rheumy old eyes. There’s a little boy at the window.
Johnny and me are living through stories, faster and faster:
A woman touches herself so often that her finger becomes a cock, and a man is the same only opposite and one day they shake hands...
A farmer is so lonely that he marries his shears, but on their wedding night...
Twins are joined at the groin and the surgeon must choose who gets the dick and he shows them pictures of cars, handbags, shoes, power tools, but...
A girl plays with her baby brother and thinks that his dick is an extra length of gut and likes to see it stretch up for bits of meat, so when he’s a man...
A boy wants to fly and a witch says that his precious parts hold him down...
A man has a sex change because he loves women, a slave to the shape / Badged on their belly like the ace of spades, / Or the ace of hearts / If they’re redheads, pale as playing cards...
A wizard wants a woman but she rejects him so he jumps on her until she bursts and becomes a man...
A wizard wants a woman but she rejects him so he tears off her husband’s parts and rapes him and jumps on him till he’s a man again and the man sleeps with his wife but comes with the wizard’s seed...
A couple tell a witch, ‘We’ve done everything in bed so in the next life we want to swap parts.’ They jump from a cliff and in the next life the woman is burst and the man’s parts are rotted off...
A man walks round a highland and comes back to his village on the wrong side. He spills his food, and can’t find his wife’s precious part, and lets men find his...
A man is so broken that he can see ghosts. He runs through London saying, ‘A Chinaman wants to cut off my bollocks because I love his daughter...’
A man is so broken that only ghosts can see him. He runs through London saying, ‘A Chinaman wants to cut off my bollocks so he can marry me...’
A man dreams about a dead man so often that the man comes back and says, ‘You woke me...’
A man dreams about a girl but her dead brother comes back and says, ‘It was me in your dreams and you didn’t know because my parts were cut off or burned off or rotted off...’
Johnny is looking for me in Brixton. The first pub is ankle-deep in water and the gents is in the basement, the steps going down under water. The next is warm and dry but the flood outside is mooning against the windows. The third is flooded but outside is dry so when Johnny opens the door the water carries him out.
He goes to the squat. He opens the front door, water behind it like letters, and follows the water to the basement steps. The basement is full of water but he goes down anyway but I’m not there. He walks to the Tube and goes with the water down the steps, the platform sticky with water, the train pushing a bow-wave, then under the river, aquarium windows, to surface at Kennington. He comes out of the Tube and there’s the van.
There was a banging. I didn’t move, but then the back doors popped open. I crawled out of the doss bag. The van was on a low-loader. A man in overalls said, ‘Bloody hell,’ as I climbed down to the road, dragging the bin bag of Johnny’s clothes, the man laughing: ‘All right?’
I leaned in a bus shelter till it was dark, then went to a pub I didn’t know. I sipped a half all night, limping to other tables, opening the bin bag with gestures and nods. Towards closing time I got a pint for a pair of shoes and gave up.
‘Drink up, please, pal.’
‘All right. Fuck off.’
I went round the ashtrays, taking butts, dizzy but not from the beer, the barman shaking his head. I sat on a bench in the cold and rain and dark, thinking, ‘I should have stayed in the van.’ Cosy in the car-pound, sneaking out at night, nicking stuff from the other cars.
I hunched under my jacket and rolled the butts in a fag paper. I threw the wet jacket behind the bench and pulled Johnny’s from the bin bag. I hesitated, then tucked my jeans in my socks and pulled on Johnny’s pants. I thought about fighting the cons for my basement room but instead went north, warming myself with walking, the rain a misty drift under the street lights, every house with a horrible story.
I crossed the river at Tower Bridge, cars hissing on the wet road. But then the cars seemed full of water, the drivers nodding and drowned, so I put my head down and marched.
By Commercial Road I was watching the shops. I walked near the gutter because a shop window could burst out under the weight of water. I went to a shop window and put my head to the glass, hands cupped around my eyes, but couldn’t tell and hurried on.
I thought, ‘Maybe you know you’re a ghost if it’s raining and you don’t get wet.’ I touched Johnny’s clothes: they were wet, but perhaps that didn’t count. I touched my face, but now my hands were wet from the clothes.
The Whitechapel Road. I started across, but in the middle I crouched to touch the white line. I heard a car behind. It swept past, no problem. A car came from in front and I spread my arms, staring into the lights. I walked along the white line, thinking, ‘Why can’t I feel my bollocks wobbling?’ But maybe only a woman would ask this.
I crossed to the pavement, my hand and ribs and ankle sore. I wouldn’t look at my hands because the street lights were yellow, and I wouldn’t watch myself in shop windows because of Johnny’s clothes. I thought that Johnny was looking out of my eyes.
I walked on, showing him the world. We came to the alley behind the takeaway. Snapped washing line hung from the pipes. The dog barked. I climbed the drainpipe, banging my balls to make them ache. I opened my knife and got onto Johnny’s window ledge and forced the latch, my hand and ankle bleeding as I squeezed inside.
A faggoty smell of talc and scented soap. I pissed in the sink, saying to Johnny, ‘Women can’t do this.’ There was no mattress on the bed. I put the bedside rug on the bare wires and sat down, thinking, ‘The mattress was full of his blood.’
I was desperate for a smoke and thought of the Marlboros under the sink. Hungry, too. A bit of toast.
I heard the back door slam, then someone in the kitchen. It must be May. She started upstairs, again sounding like a crowd. ‘She’s drunk,’ I thought, smiling and puzzled.
There was whispering. As her door closed I heard a man’s voice.
I stood up. I opened the door, quiet but quick, and crept downstairs. I thought about Johnny and May going up and down these stairs. I put a hand down my pants but couldn’t be sure.
Into the kitchen and I found the cigarettes, thank Christ. I lit up in the dark, my hands shaking. Weak with the hit I went to the kitchen window. Raining still, and the jacket upstairs in the room next to the room with the bed that squeaked. I dropped the butt into the sink and twisted the gas tap, thinking, ‘Toast.’ I turned on more gas and sat in the dark at the kitchen table, my arms laid flat like May’s dad.
‘A place I can’t stay and can’t leave.’
There was a stink of gas so I went through and sat on the tall stool behind the counter, thinking about the dreams and who had sent them.
‘I’ll wait, and in the morning Mr Tan will come down and I’ll tell him I’ll work for nothing and be the son he lost.’
Then I smelled gas again and knew it was time.
I put a fresh cigarette in my mouth and went back into the kitchen. I said, ‘Thanks,’ because Johnny was holding the lighter. It clicked twice without lighting. Then it lit, and the flame was everywhere.
======= ++ ENDS ++======
The notion of food coming alive in the belly is adapted from a passage on page 150 of Wolfram Eberhard’s ‘Local Cultures of South and East China’ (E. J. Brill, Leiden, 1968), where it is noted that certain tribes believed that a potion called ku had this effect, producing a fatal swelling, after which the soul of the victim must serve the poisoner.
The love token found in a grave is perhaps the most common plot twist in Chinese ghost lore.
Would-be squatters should note that the old house at 1 Canterbury Crescent, where I squatted for six months, has been demolished with the rest of the Crescent and replaced by new houses in private hands.
This is the last of three books about China. ‘I’m in China more than I’m here,’ says Tom. Often, in the past nine years, I’ve felt the same.