ReadingRoom

Short story: The cure for disappointment, by Himali McInnes

"Chen’s chest felt tight with anxiety. His wife ordered tripe and chicken feet in Cantonese, ate with gusto": a short story about an inter-racial marriage by Himali McInnes

Sal drank a can of Tiger beer, wiped her mouth, and said loudly, “It’s easier to kill yourself when you’re on holiday. Somewhere where nobody knows you. Where the police won’t care. You could just disappear. Poof!” She smiled and looked around the table at Chen’s family.

Chen stirred his chopsticks through his noodle soup. He picked a piece of beef from the citrusy broth, pungent with spice and ginger, and chewed. Heat rushed to his face.

The others at the table fell silent. Chen’s sister, elegant in a silk jacquard dress, had been talking about her work. A family meal with herself and her husband present - both busy investment bankers - was rare. Chen’s mum Mei had spent all day cooking.

Now Mei rose, thin-lipped, and went to the kitchen. She fanned her hands sideways as she moved, as if to push Sal’s words out of the room.

Mei returned with a platter of char siu and claypot rice with smoky sausage. She had used the family’s ancient ceramic plates, passed down from generation to generation, to serve the food. These would need to be hand-washed, hand-dried, and wrapped in tissue paper for storage.

The meal continued. Conversation restarted smoothly; there was the development at Happy Valley, the success of Chinese companies overseas, the quality of roast duck at Mott 32 to consider. It was as if Sal had not spoken at all.

After the meal, Chen’s father Jerry went to bed. Chen’s sister and her husband headed back to Victoria Peak and their expensive home.

In the kitchen, however, his mother needled Chen about Sal’s words.

“Why does she say such things?” Mei asked. Her fine black hair caught the overhead light.

“These gweilo. They say funny things, ma. She’s just making a joke.”

“Her humour is crass, Chen. Jokes about killing yourself! Really.”

Chen didn’t reply. He scrubbed smears of red oil off the soup bowls. One of the smears resembled an infant’s face. He squirted this with soap until it dissolved into red bubbles.

Loud Britpop thumped from the living room. Chen imagined Sal atop his mother’s sofa (softest full-grain leather) with her feet on the antique coffee table. His temples tightened and he closed his eyes.

*

The first time Chen saw Sal, he couldn’t stop staring. He was shopping at the open-air Kowloon markets. Sal looked luminous. A thin-strapped top let sunlight, like shafts of gold, ripple along her arms. She moved between stacks of water spinach and Vietnamese mint, stepped past fingers of bananas, gold and green and back to gold.

Without meaning to, Chen followed her. He surprised himself with his sudden interest in this woman. He took in the dragon’s tail that curved around her shoulder blade. He heard her conversing in Cantonese with elderly stall-holders who smiled gap-toothed at the golden gweilo.

Chen stood beside her, complimented her on her Cantonese. She looked him up and down, then asked him to have coffee with her. He heard himself agreeing immediately.                           Sal told him of her childhood in Guangdong. It seemed exotic. Like the Kowloon markets, but louder, more chaotic. Her parents had run a school for expats. “We had a great time. Cheap food. Bespoke tailor-made clothes. White man’s burden, don’t you know.” Sal stroked the rim of her coffee cup as she spoke, then licked the froth off her finger and watched him with a sly smile.

Chen told Sal about studying economics at Oxford, the cobble-stoned streets slushed with snow, the darkened pubs. Somehow the conversation moved to his favourite Norse myths - raven-flanked Odin, hammer-wielding Thor, magical Freya. He felt self-conscious. No-one else had time for such tales. Certainly not Chen’s family. Sal listened, her head tilted, her eyes half-lidded. Chen felt a sudden urge to reach out, to run his finger along her collar-bone, to find her dragon.

Chen’s parents were silent when he told them about Sal. Jerry sighed, stared at his hands. Mei stood up and went to the balcony. For months, she’d been trying to set her son up with a young woman from a respectable family. Chen had avoided meeting her. The thought of marrying into old Hong Kong money was suffocating.

Now Jerry and Mei could not bear to hear about Sal.

“But I’ve never felt this way about anyone before,” Chen said.

“Leave this house. Take your things with you.”

Chen packed with a sense of disbelief. He found a modest unit in a tower block in Mongkok. Sal moved in a few days later with a suitcase of soiled clothes and a crate of beer.

“They’ll come around, don’t worry.” Sal ruffled Chen’s hair, kissed his neck. “Let’s go eat. I’m famished.”

Over the next few months, they ate their way around Hong Kong. The greasier the tabletops, the better the food. Hand-drawn Zheijiang noodles with pork sauce. Sichuan hotpot. Green tea and beer to wash everything down.

Sal laughed with her head thrown back, her white neck exposed. She placed bets at Happy Valley, lost money, laughed some more. Chen laughed back. 

A lecturer at the college where Chen taught invited them to his end-of-term party. He had a tiny thirty-fourth floor apartment in Pok Fu Lam. From the balcony, you could see all the way out to Lamma island, a clod of greenish-grey grass and stone rising from the waters of the South China sea. The apartment was crowded and hot. Sal danced in a group wedged between the fridge and sofa. Her mascara smudged, her legs wobbled. Chen sat on the sofa watching her.

She came and sat beside him, flung an arm around his neck, drew his ear to her mouth.

“Do you think -” she shouted over the din of music, “Do you think we should get married?”

He blushed and kissed her.

“I’ll take that as a yes! Your family can’t possibly say no to me now.”

*

“So, she’s seven years older than you, Chen. An experienced woman, no doubt.”

The first time Mei met Sal, she ignored her as politely as she could.

Sal had booked a dim sum lunch at Yan Toh Heen, worn the most elegant clothes she owned, avoided crude remarks or too-loud laughter.

The lunch lingered. Chen’s chest felt tight with anxiety. Sal chattered about this and that. She ordered tripe and chicken feet in Cantonese, ate with gusto.

Chen’s sister said, afterwards, “Does she even have a proper job?”

“She freelances as a translator when she can. Her Cantonese is fluent, don’t you think?”

“She is fluent, yes, even if she has a mainland accent.” Chen’s father said. “But why so many tattoos? And why the short short skirt?”

“Blondes age fast. Soon she’ll have crow’s feet and a wrinkled neck. Like a tortoise.” Mei said with a satisfied air. She herself had a porcelain complexion.

Chen looked at his mother’s beautiful skin, then looked away.          

*

Sal’s first seizure came two years later. Chen dialled for help with shaking hands. The paramedics took ages to reach them. They took her to the best hospital Chen could afford.

Chen’s family visited Sal on the ward with flowers and chocolates. The last time they’d seen her had been one year ago at the baby’s funeral.

Chen had woken to Sal screaming. Their child’s blue face, shrouded in blankets.

Now he held the sides of Sal’s hospital bed. He would not cry in front of his family. His father patted Sal’s hand in a distracted manner. Chen’s sister made small talk. Mei reached out, cupped Chen’s cheek in her exquisite hand. She turned to leave without saying goodbye to Sal.

The seizures happened again and again. The neurologist increased Sal’s medication, but still the seizures came. In the first post-ictal moments, after each seizure, Chen felt a great tenderness towards Sal. He covered her with a blanket, wiped her face.

He found himself closing the door to the unused nursery at these times.                              

*

“Good news, Sally.” The neurologist looked at Sal and Chen across the polished desk. “We recorded two seizures on the video, each lasting ten to fifteen minutes. The EEG, or brain tracing, was normal during both.”

“I don’t understand.” Sal’s voice sounded small, tired. Chen could not look at her.

The neurologist coughed. “Mrs Li, your seizures appear to be non-epileptic in origin. Colloquially known as pseudo-seizures. These are not deliberate, but involuntary reactions to trauma -”

“You’re saying I’m making them up! You stupid bastard!”

That night, Sal pushed Chen away when he reached for her. She turned her back to him. Soon she was snoring. The dragon on her shoulder looked lifeless. Chen stared at the ceiling until the first blush of dawn came through the blinds.

*

“I’ve booked us a trip to Tonga, Sal. Our fifth wedding anniversary, my fortieth. We can swim with the whales!”

Sal chopped onions and peppers, diced them into careless lopsided pieces. She tossed them into a hot pan and started sawing at some beef. “Tonga?”

“Whatever.”

“I’ll get the room redone before we go.”

The unused nursery would be turned into an office. The coral paint on its walls, the jaunty bunnies that hopped along the dado line, mocked Chen every time he passed. He’d avoided redecorating it. Just going in there was so painful. Sal said she didn’t care, one way or another. All that was in the past, a long time ago now.

Their little girl would have been four years old by now.

Chen scraped at wall decals and swabbed old gluey residue till his fingers ached.

*

The small boat approached the jetty. The Tongan skipper’s arm draped casually over the motor.

“This is the boat you’ve hired, Chen?”

Chen grabbed Sal’s hand and pulled her away from listening ears. The other resort guests had noticed, and were laughing and taking photos.

“They’re collecting evidence in case we don’t come back,” Sal said, accusingly.

He felt irritated. The wind moved the frangipani. A single flower landed at his feet, its gold centre whirl-pooling out to white.

Sal stepped over the sides of the vessel, sat down on a wooden ledge. Her dress was pea-green, cinched at the waist. Her hair lifted in the breeze, her nails peeped bright red from her sandals.

My mother was wrong, Chen thought. Sal is still beautiful.

The boat had peeling paint and plywood innards. There were no life-jackets. Instead, in the middle of the boat, glass bowls of watermelon and papaya rocked in time with the waves.

The skipper grinned at Chen. “Hi, Sir! I am Ofa. Good weather today.”

Chen nodded. He decided not to ask the man why he was two hours late.

It took several pulls on the motor before the diesel engine coughed back to life. The water rippled and shone, molten obsidian flashed with green. They passed villages and coconut trees. Small children chased each other along the beaches and waved. Chen waved back. The belly of the boat rose and slapped, an awkward wooden fish.

Jörmungandr the sea serpent might be lying below. So enormous that it circled the earth and grasped its tail in its mouth. Scaly skin slick with sea-slime. Poison and blood dripping from its fangs. Chen smiled, despite himself. It had been a long time since he had indulged in Norse mythology.

Sal’s eyes looked gold-green in the tropical light. Jörmungandr’s eyes would look like this, Chen thought. A vortex of sea and salt and fury.

The skipper yelled, “Shark!”

A dark fin. Two more fins, on either side of the first, rising and falling parallel to the water’s surface. Chen got his camera out.

“A manta ray. Can you see it, Sal?”

The skipper slid to one side of the boat with excitement. Everything tilted; the fruit bowls slopped slices onto the deck. A huge shadow passed under the surface of the water.  

They stopped for lunch on a tiny atoll. The sand was hot. The Pacific was huge around them, clear and lapidarian in the shallows, a denser blue further away. This was the stuff of travel brochures, Chen thought. He picked up a starfish, placed it back in the water, then looked at Sal. She sat on the beach, her feet covered in sand. A large black hat hid her face.

He went for a walk around the atoll. Someone had built a toilet here once; the wooden sides of it flaked under the hot sun. He wondered what it would be like to live here. You’d have to survive on a diet of fish and seaweed. Maybe the occasional coconut. Desalinate your own water. It’d be tough. But elemental, character-forming.

They climbed back into the boat. Chen ate some watermelon, still crisp and cool despite the heat. More fins appeared. This time, a pod of dolphins, sleek under the waves, passing so close he could see white patches on their backs. One dolphin tilted its head and looked Chen in the eye. He flushed with delight, dreamy in the heat.

Ofa yelled.

As Chen turned, he saw Sal shaking.

After the disastrous consult with the neurologist, there had been a flurry of frequent fits. Chen had held her hand each time. He had not called the ambulance. Then they’d died down. There’d been no fits for at least two years.

Now Sal fell over the sides of the boat and into the water. The pea-green of her dress billowed, a cloud of pigment swelling and contracting with the currents. Chen took off his shoes and jumped in.

Blindly, he stretched out both hands.

There she was, lower down. Her arms and legs were still. Her hair streamed out from her face, a million strands of plankton.

Taking a deep breath, he dove. The ocean pushed back at him, it was a thing alive. He pushed back with determination.

He opened his eyes to a blue-black haze. He shut them again, breathed out to help him sink, kicked down. His hands combed the water. Disconnected thoughts surfaced, small thick bubbles floated up, popped open.

The tiny cot, the tiny blue face. How he’d slept in that morning. The Norse afterlife. How those who died at sea ended up at the underwater lair of the giantess Ran. How those who died in battle went to Valhalla to feast with Odin and his Valkyries.

His hands brushed something. Reaching out, he felt hair, a face, a collar. He tightened his grip and kicked upwards. The ocean boomed and echoed, eerie sounds he could not place.

The skipper shouted, held out a big hand. Chen aimed for the boat. Ofa hauled both of them back on board as if they had been pieces of kelp streaming past.

Chen spread Sal out. Salt caked his lips and started to dry as the boat picked up speed towards the harbour.

He pushed down hard on Sal’s chest. Small spurts of fluid came from her mouth. He exhaled into her lips, but the air went nowhere, her lungs refused to inflate.

Finally she coughed. Her breath came in gasps, her eyes opened, the blueness of her lips became a tiny flush of pink. She looked at him. He reached out to touch her face, then stopped. In that moment before she turned away, he saw her look of disappointment.

The boat sped on, their ancient wooden sea-steed taking them to safety.

Next week's short story is "Tearooms" by Mandy McMullin.

*ReadingRoom short stories appear with the support of Creative New Zealand*

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