Fiction • Tash Aw
It was the shape of an arrowhead: sleek, sharp, fast. Thirty feet long, it sat on the ash-gray water, away from the other boats, aloof. “The only one in Hong Kong,” the Frenchman said. “No one else has owned anything like this in Asia. This boat is made for you.”
Yanzu looked out across the marina at the ranks of plastic-white yachts; the jumble of masts and ropes reminded him of the washing lines and aerials that clad the run-down apartment blocks in the New Territories. Shorn of their sails, the boats looked fragile, purposeless. Just beyond the last row, not quite in open water, lay this new toy, its nose pointing westward toward the dipping afternoon sun.
“Listen,” the man continued, “there’s no pressure. If you don’t want it, no problem, okay? Someone will, how do you say, snap it up.” He ran a hand through his copper-colored hair, streaked with lighter strands where it had been bleached by the sun. “Quickly, it will go. Some big guy here will buy it for his son. Or else I will ship it to Shanghai. They do sailing on a lake there—pff—but you know, they want it, I arrange it. Those Mainlanders have a lot of money nowadays.”
Yanzu looked at the brochure. There was a picture of a yacht—this very yacht—sailing on the open ocean, tilted on its side, its nose slicing through the spray and swell. There was only one person visible on board, a lonely sailor battling the elements. The price was printed discreetly at the bottom of the second page, as if it wasn’t important. Yanzu triple-checked—it was in U.S. dollars: one zero too many.
“I’ll call you tomorrow,” Yanzu said, packing the brochure into his briefcase. “I just need some time to think.”
He was, of course, seeking consolation for a failed love affair, a woman whom he had known for three brief months earlier that year. Twelve weeks over the course of that summer, which had been especially muggy and close—hardly long enough to count as a relationship, she had pointed out. She was English, as it happened, and loved boats, which is why he was here, negotiating the purchase of a fast yacht he did not know how to sail. Men do the stupidest things when they are in love, she had once told him, laughing high-spiritedly; but he did not agree: men do the stupidest things when they are out of love, because they think they have failed. This was something he realised now—now that she was gone and he was a failure.
But Yanzu was a successful man. Is a successful man. From his office in Causeway Bay, he runs a number of thriving business concerns both on the Mainland and in Hong Kong itself—a paper mill in Jiangsu province that sells recycled paper to the U.S., a flour mill in Hebei that produces only organic wheat and rice flour for export to Southeast Asia, and, most recently, a development of eco-homes in Chi Ma Wan, built using the latest Swiss technology, which proved so popular amongst the moneyed, arty thirty-somethings in Hong Kong that Yanzu is now thinking of expanding this model to other countries such as Singapore and Malaysia. He has achieved all this at the age of thirty-nine, and sometimes, in a rare, self-congratulatory moment, he might allow himself to think: this is remarkable, given that I arrived in Hong Kong from Beijing, aged twenty, with no money and no qualifications, having been forced to abandoned my studies.
He had been a timid student; chemistry was his subject. The alchemy of things: it suited him, this intricate study of change. Politics was not his thing, but a casual, almost blithe signing of a circular letter in support of the Students’ Autonomous Movement had made him an “activist,” or so he feared. There had been a girl, a semideclared passion and two or three acts of recklessness to prove his virility and enthusiasm, including his support of the Movement. He had not even spent much time in Tiananmen, except to see the girl he’d liked and to bring her food parcels. With two friends, he fled to Hong Kong that summer, knowing that he would never again see the city he was leaving behind, that if fortune ever brought him back to Beijing, he would be a foreigner, unable to comprehend the people around him, the people he had grown up with, eaten with, laughed with, slept with, and that he would wish that he had not been allowed back home, would regret ever returning.
He arrived in Hong Kong, a city of buildings and people that dazzled and shone and did not care about him. He could not understand Cantonese and had no English at all. Twenty years old and already a failure.
He got a job as a cub reporter at the Ming Pao, which he admired because it was sober, unemotional, and anti-China. He hated China in that first year in Hong Kong and wanted to write articles that railed against the Party, against its treatment of students and intellectuals; he saw himself several years down the line, a serious, celebrated columnist who would write brilliant essays about the fall of the Communist experiment, tinged with anger but never falling prey to emotion. Instead, he was assigned to cover petty crimes—first at the police station, at the end of the evening shift, then, as his fortunes began to rise, at the courthouse. Bag snatchers, visa overstayers, classy call girls—those were the people he saw and had to write about, week after week, trying to spot something tragic enough to force its way into the three, small paragraphs at the bottom of page six of the newspaper. At first he tried to string these stories together to construct a bigger story, something that made him feel like an investigative journalist exploring alarming changes in society:
Drug Use Among Foreign Backpackers in Chungking Mansions
Twelve Pakistanis Violate Visa Conditions
Louis Vuitton Knockoffs Gaining in Popularity
But even as he typed up these stories he thought they were pointless. There was nothing he could do to make these trivial events untrivial.
In his spare time he continued to write his brilliant commentaries on the state of society in China, arguing from the position of the exile, someone who knew his subject intimately but viewed it with the objectivity that distance afforded him. He was fair and analytical, he thought, exploring the changes in China and the direction he thought it would take. Once, he dared to submit a piece to the editor in chief, but the article was returned to him some time later, dog-eared and with an ear-shaped tea stain seeping through the top page, scrawled with the comment MESSY—Your argument is…..?? Undeterred, Yanzu continued to work on these little essays in private, half believing that some day soon, someone would publish them and belatedly celebrate his wisdom, his eerie foresight and scalpel-sharp analysis of a nation in trauma. He worked on those pieces for most of that first year, and possibly most of the second too, immersing himself in their world of controlled bitterness, until one day he realised that he was bored and had nothing more to say. He had exhausted his well of rancour and he no longer cared. The people he wrote about were already beginning to feel unfamiliar, as if he had never really known them. It was strange, he thought: the more he wrote about Beijing, the more distant it seemed. When he looked out of the window of his narrow bed-sit he no longer yearned to see the landscape of his northern past: the fine dust that swept in from the deserts, settling on the rooftops and leaves, bleaching everything of all color; the steam rising from stoves in winter; the wide flat avenues that disappeared into the horizon. He no longer felt the flash of panic or sickly streak of anxiety at the thought of losing those images, no longer wanted to cling onto that scene. It was a still life that belonged to someone else’s history, not his. Instead, he found himself looking quite calmly at the unchanging view, at the washing lines sagging with wrinkled clothes, the lazy whirring fans of air-conditioning units, the families who lived in the next building, so close that he could hear their tvs, watch their young children grow up, day-by-day; and everything suddenly shrouded by the sheets of rain during the downpours that would last all afternoon in this semitropical city. These were the things that kept him company now.
He knew he would never write again.
He bought a book called How to Be a Millionaire—Fast!, written by a Chinese American who had made a fortune investing in Asian markets and now lived in Monte Carlo. Its numbered chapters had titles that were cheery pieces of encouragement. “Trust Your Instincts: You’re Better than the Pros!” “Change Your Life: Move to Where the Money Is!” As he stood in the bookshop flicking through the pages of translated text, Yanzu marveled at the optimism of the writing. There was something odd about seeing so many exclamation marks on a page of Chinese characters; the tone was disconcerting, too—unfailingly positive, exhorting the reader to venture forth with courage, to act without hesitation, like a carefree child. Very un-Chinese. There were words that Yanzu had never heard before in Chinese, like investment trust and hedge fund, and occasionally the text would lapse into a phrase in English which Yanzu would not be able to understand. He knew that such energy and free-spiritedness could only have been expressed in English, and he wished he could see through the fuzzy screen of translation and appreciate the blitheness of this language in its original form.
He wanted to reach for the English version to see how many words in it he could understand, but there was a young woman standing in front of the shelf, leafing through the same book. She was about Yanzu’s age, though her dark, fitted jeans and silky, businesswoman’s shirt lent her an air of sophistication that made her seem older, cleverer, successful. Yanzu hesitated. He felt embarrassed, as if the mere act of opening the book would betray his lack of English. The woman was carrying a slim briefcase with the name Violet K. M. Lau imprinted in small gold letters on its front flap, just above an oval embossed with an emblem: a racehorse in full flight. She was flicking through the book purposefully, lingering on some pages slightly longer than others: she did not have a problem with English.
“Sorry, am I in the way?” she said, lowering the book and stepping aside. Yanzu noticed the way the pale gold bracelet of her watch strap clung delicately to her wrist.
“No, not at all,” Yanzu replied, reaching for a copy of the book. As he opened it and leafed through its pages he felt ashamed of his pretense. The words flickered past him—lines and lines of a language he couldn’t understand. He saw her looking at him; he was certain she knew that he was lost, that he was a fraud.
“It’s not as good as his last book,” she said.
“Really? I didn’t read it.”
“Where are you from? I mean, your accent…”
“Beijing—originally. But that was a long time ago.”
“Oh, a Mainlander. I should have guessed. I thought maybe you were an ABC or something. Your Cantonese isn’t very good.”
They ended up going for a coffee in the French café next door. There was music—old Parisian songs, Violet explained. She had been to Europe many times when she was growing up; her family went on holiday there once a year. But now her parents were old and needed their home comforts, and Violet herself no longer had the energy or passion for traveling long distances as she once did. It was harder now that she had a job and was at an age where, well, one starts to think about settling down.
After a couple of months of dating Yanzu visited her parents’ home. The furniture was European-style, and there was a piano at one end of the dining room. There were framed photos of Violet and her family: on holiday in a snowy landscape, their faces obscured by woolly hats and sunglasses; Violet as a child, reaching out to touch a killer whale; and at graduation, dressed in black robes with a furry hood, standing on a jewel-green lawn.
The conversation was polite and unprobing, but the family often lapsed into English—one-line jokes that Yanzu didn’t understand but smiled at nonetheless. Afterwards, over whiskey (which Yanzu found he liked very much), Violet’s father chatted about business and Chinese politics. “At least you seem to have opinions,” he said, refilling Yanzu’s glass, “for someone who isn’t that highly educated.”
Their marriage coincided with Yanzu’s first business venture, the purchase of a small light-industrial unit in Wong Tai Sin, run-down to the point of near dereliction. There were pigeons roosting in the iron joists in the roof space, and their droppings were corroding the metal, already half-eaten by rust. He achieved the deal with the help of a generous loan from his new father-in-law, whose expectations Yanzu would later dash when he refused to accept the offer of employment in the family business (a dull affair consisting largely of luxury car franchises). Yanzu bought the place with ambitions of turning it into an independent printing press, something that would not make huge amounts of money but would publish thought-provoking books on the State of the World. But somewhere along the line this plan was modified and then dispensed with altogether. In the end, the block was turned into twenty-eight solid but Spartan apartments, each one sold at a handsome profit. It was the mid-nineties: property was the way forward (“Spot a Big Wave Early and Surf It!”).
There are certain things that Yanzu is good at, as his first venture proved. Transformation: taking something unpromising, throwing in other elements and turning the original components into something shiny and new. His seamless progression into the new millennium illustrates this: burgeoning investment portfolio, bold, new joint ventures on the Mainland and even further afield, all achieved with just the right balance of bravado and prudence, so that the growth of his wealth is steady, never ostentatious. The chemistry of his work is, it seems, always right.
Even his look has changed in the last decade-and-a-half. There is the wardrobe of quiet, classic clothes, of course—double-cuffed shirts and handsome brogues; but there is also the way he carries himself, as if he had been born into the island’s long-established entrepreneurial class, the memory of money-making imprinted in his genes. Even he cannot now discern the aspiring young Beijing intellectual, born in the middle of the Cultural Revolution.
Neither the 1997 financial crisis nor the current downturn has hurt him unduly. His judgment is sound, the balance just right.
When the first of the contracts with the American buyers were negotiated, his assistants interpreted for him. He sat at meetings, unable to participate beyond issuing pleasantries: the mute CEO, the stereotype of the smiling Chinese businessman, nodding now and then whenever he knew that he should do so, smiling every time he discerned a joke. His assistants, expensively educated at Western universities, laughed heartily, nodded, muttered asides and summed up huge tracts of conversation for him in a single sentence. He gave instructions and then returned to his smiling silence, his frustration bordering on shame. Sometimes, when the slanting sunlight fell on the large glass windows overlooking the harbour, he would catch sight of his reflection. A man like him should not feel the way he did.
Violet said, “Maybe we should try speaking only in English at home for a while. You can make as many mistakes as you like in private.”
They tried this for a week, maybe less. Yanzu could not get through a single sentence without being pulled up for some fault or another. His pronunciation was off. His grammar was nonexistent. His vocabulary was tiny. His lack of progress and Violet’s growing impatience made him anxious; he stumbled over everything he said. He knew that she resented this imposition on her time: she was a busy woman, nearly a partner in her law firm; her hours were long and even outside work she had plenty to think about, such as whether they should have a baby. All her married friends were starting to have babies. She didn’t have time to explain the difference between a and the.
“Why don’t you get lessons, darling?” she suggested after a while. “If you pay someone to do something for you, there’s never any embarrassment.”
Before she arrived, the woman with whom he would fall in love, there had been an earnest Canadian ex-Mountie, an Australian ex-accountant, and an ex-headmistress from the British Council: foreigners who float through Hong Kong for a thousand different reasons, some staying six months, others three years before earning enough money to go south through Vietnam or Laos, or back to their homes in temperate lands. They had tefl qualifications and taught Yanzu the basics. In his head he would rehearse properly constructed sentences but when it came to saying them aloud he stumbled and failed.
After some time she came to him through an agency—a cheaper rate, they explained, because she had little experience. Only one previous tutee—but a senior investment banker, mind you, who had given her a glowing testimonial.
She was not deliberate like the others had been, not methodical or conscientious. Her folders were a mess, dumped on the table in a heap as she laughingly rifled through them for the first day’s lesson. So embarrassing, she said, to be this disorganized on the very first lesson, oh my god, she was sure she was making a very bad impression. But she did not seem very embarrassed, Yanzu thought, as he watched her getting her things together, nor did she seem to be bothered about the impression she made.
“That’s okay,” he said. “I mean, that’s fine.”
She looked at him and squinted like a child figuring something out. “So you do speak English. I was told you had virtually no English. Well, this will go swimmingly, I think!”
She made him introduce himself to her, however he liked; he was not to worry about proper sentences or anything like that. And she wanted him to speak about anything he wanted, to forget the formal introductions and talk about any aspect of his life—just so that she could get an idea of who he was. For example, her name was Liz, and when she was young her brothers used to call her Lizzie the Lizard, such a childish name, thank God it didn’t stick. She loved the sea, which is why she liked Hong Kong, its proximity to water. Water, water everywhere. Wonderful. She loved boats—sailing. She was forty years old. Yes, very old by, especially by Chinese standards, and unmarried. Remaindered, that’s what they called women like her in China, ha ha. She was born in Britain, on the south coast. When she was young she could see the sea from her bedroom, sailboats on the water.
When Yanzu spoke she held his gaze, nodding. She did not correct him, allowed him to stumble, said, “Really? Wow!” a few times, her eyes widening with surprise at the things he told her—things that he can’t now remember, banal things. She had lines at the edges of her eyes that creased when she smiled.
They went on outings. It was better to practice your language in real-life situations, she said; language isn’t a dead thing.
She made him order cakes and coffees at the Starbucks in the lobby of his office building. Yanzu felt strange speaking English to the Chinese kids behind the counter; he could see them straining to understand him. Two coffees, please. What kind? Normal kind. Their earnest frowns unsettled him. Why was a Chinese guy speaking to them in broken English? One of them tested him with pidgin Japanese, her expression brightening as if expecting greater comprehension. He nodded, still without understanding. The girl behind the counter was only a teenager, but he could see her polite serving-staff smile turn first to bemusement and then, swiftly, to scorn. From her vantage point midway between the revolving-door entrance and the lifts, she would be able to see him come in every morning, dressed in his expensive suits and carrying the new calfskin attaché case Violet had given him; and she would giggle each time she saw him because she would know that he couldn’t even say what kind of coffee he wanted.
He turned back to look at Liz; she smiled and nodded encouragement.
They sat down at the little round tables and had their lessons there, away from his office, surrounded by teenagers surfing the net on their laptops. There was breezy music with guitars playing in the background, and Yanzu thought he could understand the words of the chorus.
She took him to a café, just off Hollywood Road, run by a friend of hers. His English was coming along in leaps and bounds, she said, but he needed to use it in new situations, speak to other people; he was getting too accustomed to her speech patterns. The owner of the place was there when they arrived, an Italian. “Darling,” he said, his vowels expansive and confident. He leaned in to kiss her on both cheeks, his hand resting on her waist even after she had pulled away a little. “I haven’t seen you for months—where have you been?”
“Franco, this is my new student,” she said, moving aside to introduce Yanzu. “Actually, not that new anymore. We’re going to have our lesson here today—isn’t that fun?”
They were shown to a table in a quiet corner, from which Liz could survey the rest of the room. Yanzu could look only at her; the wall above her head was painted with a grapevine trailing through a pergola. She was talking excitedly, flitting from one subject to another—about things on the menu, how they reminded her of trips to Italy; about the impending typhoon moving across from the Philippines; the new scooter she was thinking of buying. Occasionally she would wave at someone but Yanzu did not turn round. He felt comfortable like this, visible yet unseen. He liked the idea of people wondering who Liz was having lunch with; the possibility of recognition emboldened him. As he watched her trace her finger down the wine list he realized that she, too, was excited by the novelty of being here with him in this shady alcove. There was a glinting quality to her laughter, a sunniness he had not discerned before.
“It’s been an eternity since anyone took me out to lunch,” she said. “Although I suppose this is technically a lesson and not a social occasion!” She closed the wine list and then brought it to her chest, holding it against her as if guarding a secret.
“Why don’t we pretend this is a date?” she said at last, smiling, the corners of her eyes creasing into crow’s feet. “Is that all right with you? It’ll be more fun that way. You’re going to do all the ordering, communicating with the waiters—everything. Just take charge!”
He took his time studying the menu. Each item was accompanied by a brief explanation; it wasn’t so difficult to understand what everything was. The waiter, another Italian, took the order without fuss. Liz whispered, “Your English is miles better than his.”
At home that evening, he tried not to sound boastful as he related this triumphant episode to Violet, but there was no disguising it: he heard the pride in his own voice as he repeated what Liz had said, in English.
“Your English has definitely improved,” Violet said. “She sounds like a good teacher. Is she old? She looks old. That’s what your PA says.”
Yanzu cannot pinpoint the exact moment their affair began. Was it the accidental meeting of fingers—an awkward clash—over the bread basket? Or perhaps while waiting in the cab rank at rush hour, feeling the first heavy drops of rain that would soon become a thunderstorm, foreshadowing the typhoons that would come later in the summer. Or did it occur in the middle of a sentence, when, arranging subject, object and verb, he found that everything fell into place and he was finally speaking?
Beijing is a city that I miss. I miss Beijing. It is cold but beautiful in the winter. It is where I grew up.
Yes, I understand.
Yes. It’s difficult being far from home. It’s hard for me too. You’re doing really well—carry on.
Hong Kong does not suit me neither. Hong Kong does not suit me either. I am not, not—sorry. I don’t know the word.
As he fell into silence Yanzu recognized in the expression on her face a quality he knew too well: she was alone in a foreign place, and this is why she would fall into a relationship with him.
“Come to my book club,” she said one day.
They had slept together four or five times by then, usually in the afternoon when it was easy for him to be away from the office. They got together in her cramped apartment in Happy Valley, their ankles and wrists and elbows knocking painfully against the bookshelves that stood on either side of the bed, only a foot away. Her bed smelled of milk. They lay naked, on top of the rumpled sheets, listening to the air conditioner drip onto the ledge outside the window, a staccato ta-tap, a miswired heartbeat. When he looked at her, he thought he could see the same expression of solitude he had recognised at the beginning: she was adrift, and this comforted him.
It was July now and the air-conditioning was too weak to cool them properly.
At first their times together felt like a gift which he accepted gleefully, childishly, but like all children, he soon wanted more, and when she turned down his dinner invitations he was surprised by the strength of his disappointment, by how quickly he had outgrown the newfound thrills of their midafternoons together. He wanted to go out with her, accompany her. The excitement of their outing to the Italian restaurant remained with him, but that had not technically been a date, as she had pointed out at the time. He needed to correct that imperfection. In the rest of his life he would not have tolerated this lack of satisfaction. He thought of how he behaved in meetings, calmly insisting on the execution of every last detail, on the absolute nature of success. It was the only way he knew how to conduct himself. Yet now he was staring at a ragged mass of unachieved aims, staring at failure.
He wanted to know her foreign friends, wanted to risk being seen with her; he wanted to be part of her life. He tried to ignore the prick of annoyance he felt at her evasiveness and his inability to pin her down. “Restaurants in Hong Kong are such terrible value,” she said, “certainly the ones you’re suggesting. Bad French food at those prices? In this heat? I don’t think so. Much prefer some back street noodle shop. That’s more my style. No gwailos around.”
When she had friends visiting from abroad, she never explained who they were.
Sometimes she promised to call but didn’t.
He would text but get no reply.
She would forget to turn her phone back on, or fall asleep early—sorry, so disorganised, so tired.
When, therefore, she unexpectedly issued the invitation to her book club, Yanzu was not sure if it was a battle he had won, if he had bent her to his will, or if it was merely a favour she was granting. But it didn’t matter. As she wrote the address down on a piece of paper and handed it to him, he tried to feign nonchalance. He kept the piece of paper folded in his wallet all week, looking at it from time to time to check that he had memorized the address. At the top of the torn-off fragment of paper it said “Conduit Road Ladies’ Reading Group.”
It was just to practice his comprehension skills, she’d said; he could just sit and listen, see how much of the discussion he could understand—an extended, relaxed lesson. But he knew it was not merely an informal class—it was a declaration of sorts, her way of showing that she, too, wanted a more public existence with him.
He arrived late that evening—a meeting that had gone on too long. Liz winked at him and raised her glass when he came in, but there was no space next to her so he had to slump on a beanbag on the far side of the room. There were five women there, spread out over a sofa and two armchairs; four nearly empty bottles of wine stood on an Indian chest in the middle of the room. Yanzu tried to scribble down words and expressions that he’d never heard before, especially when Liz spoke. She was speaking with a freedom and rapidity he found unfamiliar—with him she was deliberate, careful, caring. Here she rushed ahead, talking over everyone else, which made him smile at first; but soon he found he could not keep up with what she or anyone else was saying. Sometimes one of them would raise her voice, insisting on a point; other times they would all break into laughter, sharp and brilliant as shattering glass, but Yanzu would never be sure of the reason for their disagreement or joy. He would discern individual words here and there, the odd phrase, but all of a sudden, Liz was no longer speaking a language he could understand—the language they had shared. Occasionally she would catch his eye and smile—a flash, here now, then gone—but then her attention was swept up again by her friends, the book, the wine: her life. None of the others looked at Yanzu, and yet he continued to pretend to jot down notes, and sometimes even nod as if in agreement. He looked at what he had written: lines remembered from his lessons, nothing to do with where he was now.
There was a lull in the conversation, someone flicking through the pages of the book. Liz looked at him, and he thought maybe this was the moment she would introduce him to her friends; maybe someone would ask him what kind of work he did, where he was from. Answers to imaginary questions began to form in his head. I am the CEO of a group of companies I founded myself. Yes, I suppose you could consider me successful. Our turnover? Oh I don’t know, I’d have to check with my PA. No, no, of course I’m not a billionaire, but I’m comfortable. Property, mainly, and renewable energy, but I’m always open to new ideas. I am building a house in Clearwater Bay, designed by a famous architect. Right now I live on the South Side of the island. Yes, it is very agreeable there.
But the woman found what she was looking for and began to read. It began with “The passage of time…”
That was all Yanzu could discern before the words and the conversation began to slip away again.
The answers he had prepared remained poised on the tip of his tongue; he could feel the words rest there, heavy, redundant. He looked at Liz. She was talking loudly, both arms waving, her face flushed with wine. He had been wrong. She was not lonely in Hong Kong, she was bored. She was a foreigner, she was passing through, she was bored, she wanted adventure. That is why she was with him.
“Is it safe?”
“Yes, of course it’s safe to swim, you big sissy, just jump.” She raised one hand out of the murky sea and tried to splash him. If her swimsuit had not been bright yellow he would not have been able to make out her body. The smog was thick and he could not make out whether her face was pulled into a smile of a frown. He hesitated, pressing his foot against the rope that ran in a low circle along the side of the deck. “The water looks cold,” he said.
The yacht was anchored in the shelter of a small bay; the island was small, rocky, unapproachable; its vegetation a drab green. The water seemed dark to Yanzu’s eyes, almost opaque. He looked at Liz in the quiet sea, bobbing gently, as she kicked to stay afloat. She was still waving at him, her arm popping out of the water now and then, like a toy, something inanimate. They were far from the noise of Central, far from all the gwailos she claimed to detest, even though she was one herself; far from all the things she hated. They were alone at last.
She had borrowed the yacht from a friend. “Oh, someone you don’t know,” she’d said with a merest shrug of her shoulders, a gesture that did not countenance further discussion of the matter. “Just concentrate—the sooner we motor off the better. God, you look adorable in your life jacket!”
He listened as she gave him the safety brief, how to turn the engine on and off, how to work the radio and fire the flares—he would need to know these things, just in case she fell overboard and drowned, she said, or if she got hit on the head and fell unconscious. It would be up to him, then, to keep them alive. They would float, undrifting, on the cold foamy water, swallowed by sea mists, the tops of the high-rises jutting just over the peaks of the steeply sloped islands around them, frustratingly out of reach. And when they perished—from dehydration and exhaustion—their story would be one of those freak tragedies that filled the nether pages of the South China Morning Post, sandwiched between world news and features, one of those chilling but faintly comic episodes that people would talk about in the office for days afterward: did you hear, those people died, were shipwrecked, just five miles from Chek Lap Kok; and in the gutter press there would be speculation—maybe they were lovers, why else would they be out there, alone. And some people would wonder: who died first, and was he or she forced into cannibalism?
“Will you pay attention?” she yelled from the helm. “I said cast off aft. No, the back—the other end, at the back!”
He stumbled over ropes, bruised his knee on a hard metallic thing whose purpose he couldn’t discern, felt his leg deaden, then tingle. He did not know where to place himself, whether to stand or sit. When they were clear of the harbour she gave the order to hoist the sails, but as he fumbled with them she darted beside him, nimble, her face flushed with concentration and he could tell that she was impatient to be free and on the move, impatient to be beyond the reach of land. The wind picked up, swelling the mainsail, and she let out a cry, a woooo yeaa as they cut through the waves. He wiped the spray from his face and turned back to look at the marina receding slowly into nothingness. He knew he ought to feel exhilarated, but didn’t. Couldn’t. He tried to remember what she had told him but still he wound the rope the wrong way round the winch. He was a smart guy; this shouldn’t be happening, he thought. He had thought he understood her when she spoke, followed her crystalline vowels and steady rhythms, but now she spoke in a language that left him for dead. Tack, ready about, helm’s a lee. Let draw. She repeated things, cheerily at first, encouraging, then briskly, as if he were a hindrance which—there was no point denying it—he was. “Never mind, I’ll do it,” she said, and he knew that her smile was a pretense, betrayed by the frown that cut deep ruts in her brow.
They sailed through the low cloud and smog that was especially thick that day, obscuring the cheap tower blocks that lined the shore, arranged in dense rows that back on to each other in terraces. Stretches of mud lay exposed on the hills, bulldozers perched on the slopes. Pile drivers and pylons jutted from the indistinct landscape, but he could hear no noise, just the rushing of the wind. They were leaving all this behind now, sailing further into the fog. It was better like this, he thought, better that he could not see what he was venturing into. He realised that he was in her hands, that she could take him anywhere she wanted, and that would have to be ok with him. Maybe that had always been her idea.
It was his task to drop the anchor, she said; of course she trusted him. “You’re doing just fine.”
He watched it slither off the deck, disappearing noiselessly, serpentine, into the water.
“All gone?” she cried from the helm. “Is it holding?”
He shouted something—not really a yes, nothing committal, enough to make her think he had done his job, enough to assuage her.
The yacht took its time to settle, even though there were no waves in the inlet, just a low swelling of the sea now and then, never breaking the surface.
Of course there were things that he wanted to discuss with her, for example: did she think they could possibly have a life together; did she think about him when they were not together; whether she would stay in Hong Kong for much longer; the fact that he was planning to divorce his wife; all the places he wanted to visit with her, the countless lists of countries and sights he had drawn up, including Beijing, which he wanted to return to after all these years, now that things had changed there—now that he had changed. They were silly things that were not easy to say in the middle of an English lesson when he was trying to remember the difference between object and subject and clause and subclause. As they sat cross-legged on the deck eating their prepacked BLT sandwiches, she began to talk and he could not find an opportunity to interject. The fog reminded her of her childhood, she said, of all the times she went sailing with her father in the Channel. It wasn’t fog, Yanzu said, it was actually pollution. But she ignored this, said it didn’t matter, it looked like fog. She had learned to sail when she was very young, and her father would take her across to France, to places like Honfleur and Deauville and Le Havre. She could still remember those little towns of sheltered harbours and cobbled streets and shops that sold fancy chocolates that nowadays one could buy in Hong Kong. Tiny overheated cafés that served mussels and crepes, the damp mustiness of her cabin, the smell of seawater and creosote, the warmth of her sleeping bag. Back then it seemed so magical. She remembered, in her teens, sailing back from Brittany and getting lost in thick fog at night. All of a sudden the weather closed in, the wind rose violently and there was heavy rain. She couldn’t see anything except for the occasional glint in the dark when the raindrops caught the light from the cabin below; but all the time she could feel the freezing spray on her face and her hands, numbing her fingers. Her father was getting older then, and was afraid. But she had not been scared, she had loved the sensation of not knowing where they were. It had emboldened her, made her sure of herself. She knew it sounded stupid but she loved the feeling of being between places, of being nowhere. It made her feel she could go anywhere, anytime she wanted, on her own. She would never be pinned down; she would always be her own woman, never dependent on anyone. Being on that yacht had made her realize she would always hate a sedentary life. Sedentary, it means, um, staying in one place, inactive, boring, that sort of thing. She could never stay anywhere or be with anyone for too long. She wanted constant adventure, moving from one place to another.
“Right, well enough of all that—let’s swim!” she announced, peeling off her T-shirt to reveal her yellow swimming costume.
He had never learnt to swim properly but he could keep afloat, and he did not fear the water. She splashed inelegantly but powerfully, kicking up a froth, and occasionally she would call out to him, a whooping carefree cry of jubilation. He stayed near the boat, lurking in the safety of its shadow, hanging on to the foot of the ladder until she swam up to him and put her arms round his neck. She kissed him on the lips but her legs, treading water, bumped into him so—gently—she wrapped her legs around his waist. The weight of her body pulled him gently away from the boat and she giggled as he let go of his grip and they sank-bobbled on the water, their wet embrace becoming half-submerged. He kept his head above the water as she clung to him, both of them kicking to keep afloat now. She was laughing. Her skin was very pale against the darkness of the water. He held her tightly, and suddenly he felt the weightlessness of her body in the water, felt the strength of his arms against her. He wrapped his legs around her, as she had done to him earlier, and felt her sink with his weight slightly, her tiny descent immeasurable to an observer standing on the shore, he thought. His placed his hands on her shoulders and pushed downwards, her head vanishing under the water, her grin swallowed by the sea; underwater, her shoulders felt bony in his armlock. He could hold her down there and she would never come up; he could do that for as long as he wanted. That would make the newspapers too, for sure; the gutter press would dig into his personal life and everyone would talk about it at work. There would be no doubt: everyone would know they had been lovers. What a way for it to end, it was so sad, but I told you, that guy might have been successful but he wasn’t quite right up there, he’d been in Tiananmen, maybe it messed up his head. Anyway, he was a Mainlander, what can you expect—he never quite fit in. That’s what people would say when his love affair became public. He felt her struggle, kick out against him, her arms pushing at his chest with the feebleness of someone who knows they are trapped, helpless. I was just playing, he would say later, just… fooling around. Like kids do. She would say, Jesus, what were you doing, you nearly drowned me, you idiot, and she would slap him on his buttocks as she sometimes did, an invitation to foreplay. He closed his eyes and saw her floating away, like a picture she had once shown him, a famous painting of a princess who had drowned herself after being rejected by her loved one, a crazed prince. He had forgotten the name of the painting, even though she had written the name of it for him; but he remembered clearly the milky-white skin against the black, unmoving water.
And now, months later, when he remembers those last moments with her—a few seconds during which, in a strange way, he felt closer to her than he had ever been—he still cannot recall the name of the painting, and this frustrates him.
Tash Aw is the author of The Harmony Silk Factory (Riverhead), which won the Whitbread Award and the Commonwealth Writers Prize for Best First Novel and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, and Map of the Invisible World (Spiegel & Grau).
A Public Space is an independent nonprofit publisher of an eponymous award-winning literary, arts, and culture magazine, and APS Books. Under the direction of founding editor Brigid Hughes since 2006, it has been our mission to seek out overlooked and unclassifiable work, and to publish writing from beyond established confines. Subscribe today, and join the conversation. More
A one-year subscription to A Public Space includes three issues of the magazine as well as access to the online archive and membership in a dynamic community of readers and writers.