Moira was a generous lover. Generous and adventurous, the beneficiary of a culture that ordained that the over forties must have fun. Chan was surprised she’d had the delicacy to sober up before his return from work and more surprised that she’d been able to arouse him when Angie hadn’t. She was unexpectedly sensitive, and then there was a self-sufficiency to her suffering that attracted him. Half dreaming beside her, he found it possible to believe he lay with a woman whose soul was as big as the world. He liked her breasts. They were large, pendulous, friendly. He formed a spoon around her body to hold them while she slept. She woke up once to say thank you, turned over, fell into a deep sleep.
As usual he remained awake. After a while he slid out of bed, closed the door, sat naked on the couch to smoke. He turned on the television with the sound off. Monks who had perfected the art of kung fu in the Shao Lin Monastery flew through the air, slaughtering their opponents against the usual impossible odds. On another channel an aging landowner in mandarin dress was taking his daughter to market when they were ambushed by a gang of robbers. Fear of rape, pillage and murder was amplified by the makeup. China dramas usually dug into the distant violent past. The recent violent past was too much for most stomachs.
He turned back to the monks of Shao Lin. He’d gone through his karate stage. To perfect the body to the point where you could defy gravity was a legend engraved in the imagination of every Asian boy. He lit another cigarette, coughed, wondered what to do about Moira.
The truth was, she was only the second Western woman with whom he’d been involved. Comparisons were inevitable. He wondered if the learning curve he’d been through with Sandra was applicable to an American. What he remembered most about his English wife was her complaining. She was very different from a Chinese wife; the problem did not seem to lie in lack of material possessions or social status. Sandra’s moans emanated from high moral ground. Hong Kong was shallow and materialistic, greedy, inhuman. Chan deduced that the British Isles were a fortress of psychological depth, moral courage, human kindness. He set himself to understand more, to take advantage of his wife’s wisdom and background. He found that she had an agile wit that ranged over English and American cultures with apparent ease. She used different voices, different accents to accord with certain moods. One funny little voice was used when she wished to convey affection. Chan wondered why she could not express love in her own voice, but he learned to live with it. A phony New York accent was used when she would have liked to be forceful; an upper-class British accent appeared when she thought he was being uncouth.
It was the videos that precipitated the end, though he could never have predicted it. He’d subscribed to a rental shop largely to try to alleviate the homesickness she complained of from time to time. She’d reacted with enthusiasm, renting mostly old videos of English comedy shows with a strong satirical, self-mocking bite. As he’d sat with her night after night, he’d begun to realize where her voices came from. Not only her voices. Her opinions, her moral postures-even her disdain for Hong Kong was a rerun of a BBC documentary. The English, it seemed, in their cold, wet climate spent hours in front of televisions being told what to think and who to be. He was married to a collage of Monty Python, Spitting Image, Black Adder, Not the Nine o’Clock News and a range of similar shows.
At the start she had been vehemently antiracist. Indeed Chan had worried that she had married him out of an excess of political correctness. Little by little, though, odd epithets had poked through the facade, like barbed wire through snow. English mockery was highly developed and embraced the world. French were Frogs, Germans were Krauts, Scandinavians were Hurdy-Gurdies, Italians and Greeks were Dagos, Chinese were Chinks or Chokies, Japanese were Nips. Was it possible that behind the television programs there cowered a mean-spirited people smaller than life?
Chan had probed further (he was looking for the woman he had married). Political opinions were reproduced verbatim from the Guardian; feminism was lifted direct from Cosmopolitan. Even her vegetarianism was tainted. She ate tiny dishes of vegetables to keep her figure, but when she discovered how well the Cantonese roasted duck, she stole morsels from Chan’s plate with a self-forgiving smirk. Under questioning (she called it interrogation) she seemed to consist most of an appetite for sex, marijuana and Greek sheep’s yogurt, with a nonspecific resentment that could fixate without warning on anything but most frequently targeted men and capitalism. Sobbing, she accused him of misogyny and chauvinism, two words that peppered her speech. He shook his head; it was worse than that. He’d married a piece of the West, and intimacy had bred contempt.
Although he’d remained a model husband, he knew that she’d fled from the profound disillusionment she saw in his face when he looked at her. If only she’d been able to let it go, all that absurd European pretension, but without those borrowed opinions and the energy of resentment, what would she amount to? The thought of being no different from any struggling Chinese housewife in the streets of Mongkok was unendurable to her. It was implicit in the way she talked and in the letters she wrote afterward: The last thing she’d expected from marriage to a Chinaman was that he would not be able to respect her, as if when all was said and done, disdain were a prerogative of the Raj. Moira, it was true, seemed very different, but there were reasons for caution.
Perhaps he had fallen into a doze or was merely thinking too hard. He didn’t hear her enter. Her hands over his eyes made him jump.
There was no light in the room except for the flickering images of the television and the eternal glare of Mongkok leaking through the curtains; she was no more than a voice and a subtle caress. Reaching behind him, he felt his raw silk dressing gown. Under it, those breasts that almost brought him sleep.
“My Irish genes.”
“Irish people aren’t especially nervous. Half the NYPD is Irish, including me. My maiden name was Kelly. They’re no more sensitive than a sack of potatoes.”
“I bet the murder squad is jumpy.”
She sat down beside him. “Ever thought of changing professions?”
“Sure. I have great options. Security for a bank, adviser to the triads. I’d make a great hit man except for my stomach trouble.”
“You have stomach trouble?”
She snuggled up to him. “I don’t believe that. I saw that photograph of you receiving an award for bravery.”
“I was very young. I just reacted. Probably caught between two fears. Fear of being called a coward was the stronger.”
“But you saved a life.”
She caressed his thigh, moved on up until she reached his neck. Her fingers probed his facial muscles, pausing at the ones that twitched.
“You know, in the West, where I come from, we think it helps to talk about it.”
He leaned forward, lit a cigarette. “Maybe because in the West you have ‘its’ to talk about. You think of problems like thorns. Just find it, pull it out and live happily ever after.”
“And in the East?”
“Chinese call it ‘being alive in the bitter sea.’ It’s not a thorn that hurts; it’s the whole environment.”
“In Hong Kong, the richest city in the world?”
“In China. Hong Kong is a Christmas decoration. Christmas will soon be over.”
Moira grunted. “Nobody loses sleep over politics. That’s what we pay politicians for. Was it a woman?”
He rested his head on the back of the couch. “Yes, a woman.”
“Look, I’ll be gone by tomorrow. We don’t even need to meet again. I can be just a voice in the night. You’ve helped me, more than you know. Why not let me help you?”
He smiled into the darkness. “She was Chinese, through and through-not inscrutable, though. She had a big moon face, eyes that took you straight to the purest soul you could ever meet. Eyes that couldn’t help believe everything you said because she didn’t know how to lie.
“She was short and dumpy, about five foot two, and no matter how hard things got she always made sure there was steamed rice and pork or duck for her kids to eat. The only adventurous thing she ever did was to come to Hong Kong but that was because her big sister was here. She walked. Lots of them did in those days. They camped by the frontier, tried to keep out of sight of the soldiers; then, when night came, they’d make a break for the border fence. They knew that some of them would be killed. A bullet in the back from the People’s Army, but most got through. The British weren’t too gentle either. They sent them back if they caught them near the border, but they had a rule, one of those funny British rules like a school game. If they made it as far as Hong Kong Island and the Immigration Department, they could stay. And she did. The little dumpy Chinese girl with the moon face made it when tougher ones failed.”
Chan stopped, moved from the sofa to find his Bensons. When he returned to the sofa, he smoothed the robe over Moira’s breasts. She held his hand. “Go on.”
He exhaled into the night. “No, it’s not interesting to you. You wanted another story full of sex and torment.”
She dropped his hand, let her own rest on his thigh. “That’s not true. You’re talking about your mom, right? You’re forgetting, I’m a mother. Was. Mothers don’t get such good press these days. It’s encouraging to know that some men have a passion for the woman who gave them life.”
Chan heard the catch in her voice. He squeezed her hand. “I’m sorry, I’m being selfish. You’re the one with the grief.”
“It’s soothing to hear you talk. And it’s not a story I’ve ever heard before.”
He took a long draw, found the ashtray. “Mai-mai lived with her sister in a squatter hut for a while, until she met Paddy. Actually his name’s not Paddy; I just think of him as a Paddy. I think he did love her, like a bastard can love his opposite. She really believed him when he told her he had to work nights during the week and could only be with her at weekends. It was believable to her because that’s what Chinese men did. Of course, he was out whoring in Wanchai, but he liked the emotional security of the little girl with the moon face who adored him. I was born first, Jenny three years later.
“Thirteen years later Paddy just disappeared one day as Paddys do. Mai-mai went into depression. No one had ever seen her like that. She even forgot to feed us, and her sister had to do it. Eventually she decided that these big red-faced people with the round eyes really were devils, just like everyone said. She’d left her home village to wander into the land of the devils. So she went back. On foot again. Somehow she managed to avoid the guards at the border. I guess they weren’t keeping an eye out for anyone who actually wanted to return to the PRC.
“When she reached her home village, it was infested with Red Guards. China’s second civil war this century, called the Cultural Revolution, was in its closing stages. As a ruse to keep power Mao Zedong set his people against each other, the young against the old, brother against brother, pupil against teacher, wife against husband. It was an orgy of hate, Chinese style. But to some of the outside world it was a courageous socialist experiment. Wise men and women from Europe and America were taken to a kind of Walt Disney China where everything was wonderful, the people full of smiles.
“The real China was villages like Mai-mai’s, where they arrested her for being a capitalist running dog. They put her in a dunce’s cap and paraded her through the streets. Red Guards about her age, or younger. They made her confess, something she was glad to do since she believed everything they told her and supposed she must have been deluded by the wicked West.
“Ordinarily they would have let her go, but she made a mistake only the very innocent make. She told them she would have to return to Hong Kong to bring her children back. So they decided she hadn’t really reformed at all and threw her from a fourth-floor room in a government building. The fall broke both her legs and her pelvis and made a hole in her skull, but she remained conscious. I have eyewitness accounts of her lying there, deciding to die because all over the earth from west to east there was no place for her. A pure soul with a big moon face who believed what people told her.”
Chan went to the fridge, found a beer, came back. They sat in silence.
Moira coughed. “That’s a lot of hate to carry around. Hate is a problem, like a thorn, at least to my Western eyes.”
Chan shook his head, opened the can, swallowed. “No, hate’s not a problem. If you’re bad and you hate, you kill someone; if you’re good, you forgive; if you’re in between, you hesitate-but it’s not the real problem.”
“The way they’ve turned the world upside down. That’s what drives you crazy.”
“Sure. During the Cultural Revolution important people like film stars, famous BBC commentators with film crews, French left-wing journalists went to China and were deceived. We said, ‘Okay, that’s because the West is naive; they want to believe in the socialist experiment, and those cunning old men in Beijing, they’re so good at the art of deception.’
“But even when the truth came out, nothing much happened; you didn’t even hear any of those famous people apologize for being so stupid. We said, ‘Well, what can you expect? They’re embarrassed, and anyway what could they do about it? But next time those old men start murdering people, then surely the West will expose them to the world.’ Which is exactly what happened when they killed all those students in Tiananmen Square in June 1989.
“The West was mad as hell. People went on television denouncing the violence; politicians talked about trade sanctions; nobody believed those murderous old geriatrics anymore. But in America and Japan and Europe there were people who said, ‘Hold on, there are one point four billion people over there, the biggest single market in the world, and if you impose trade sanctions, some other bastard is going to be selling them the T-shirts and the sneakers and the pocket calculators and the mopeds instead of us.’
“So the trade sanctions didn’t last long, and the murdering old men in Beijing laughed so hard you could hear them in Hong Kong. And in two months’ time they’ll be here with their tanks and their cynical sneers and their contempt for human life, and the Chinese screens will go up, and no one over there in your country will want to know what’s really going on here. They’ll be happy with the shadow play on the screens, glad not to have reasons for refusing to sell the T-shirts. That’s the problem: how to live a life when you always have to pretend that the world is upside down and has always been that way.”
Moira had stopped stroking him. He let the television lights flicker over his face. Her voice when she spoke was a Bronx rumble. “Kinda tough, that one, Charlie. Not sure there’s anything I can do to help.”
“Well, there’s one thing that might help in a tiny way.”
“You could stop lying.”
“Did you say stop lying?”
“Yes, that’s what I said. You were a sergeant in the NYPD, but you took early retirement over two years ago. Your daughter, Clare, did go to NYU, but she didn’t graduate in sociology; she graduated in business studies. Strange mistake for a mother to make.”
The silence lasted so long Chan assumed Moira wasn’t going to answer. It didn’t much matter. He became absorbed in the images from the kung fu show again. Evil wasn’t vanquished as easily as all that. There had been a counterattack by the bad monks from the black monastery over the hill. It was no problem telling them apart from the good monks because they always snarled when they spoke whereas the good monks oozed serenity. If he went into movies, he’d have to be one of the bad guys. Finally Moira made rumbling sounds preparatory to saying something.
“You checked the same day? With the university as well? Would have taken NYPD a month, minimum. If they’d bothered at all. Guess what made you suspicious was the stuff I pocketed in the shop downstairs, huh? You didn’t believe I did it to test you, did you?”
Chan tried to look at her. “You mean I was supposed to?”
Moira grunted. “Guess not.”