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Everything – the ambling locals, the undulating traffic, the swaying trees, the cooing birds and insects, the elapsing time and the swirling air – is slow and quiet, which is familiar yet unfamiliar to Fai and Cheong. It is the afternoon teatime. They slump in the white wicker chairs around a wooden teapoy with a set of China, basking in the warm cloth of the sunlight, sipping their hot Earl Grey and munching shortbread in the balcony of the house they rent in Brighton. The shades of green and the grandiose of cream-painted Victorian buildings in the veil of haze constitute a splendid watercolor painting. Only the incessant sting of the frozen air and the swoops of white smoke they exhale confirm their existence here and now.
The couple relishes such tranquility, soothing their agitating cells, lightening the pace of their chicken hearts and drying their sweat-beaded palms. Yes, the feeling of transcendence. They have craved for years, but could only picture and dream of, with nectarous smiles etching on their faces in bed. That was why they determine their emigration here, escaping from the cacophony of their home city, Hong Kong, including the ceaseless and monotonous animosity, empty talks and protests. Cheong can also be emancipated from his old parents’ trivialities perpetually – he doesn’t understand why they don’t end their marriage and why his sister thinks he should listen to them more – and pursue traces of his youth vaguely hinting at the back of his mind due to time wash. He can also recollect the wild and adventurous school days here, and which Fai loves only if her husband, Cheong loves and perhaps a good chance for her to evade meeting her estranged sister regularly and dutifully – who she never doubts would not love to see her either – merely because of her mum’s last wish.
Unlike many other couples, they believe they have the privilege of time and money. They don’t have kids, both of whom agreed not to have since their first day of marriage. They have already seen enough kids in their schools with chains of problems – kids never ever had problems when they came to Fai and Cheong, a social worker and a vice-principal. Without kids, without families, they are a pair of wings like the meaning of their names, flying. Their favorite wedding gift, the Chinese characters, Fai and Cheong, in traditional Chinese calligraphy with the Chinese paintings of pigeons soaring above the bamboo forest in a large gold-rimmed glass case – indeed the only present they still keep and have kept for almost 20 years – is the first item they took out from their luggage to hang on the wall in the living room here. They don’t need to find a job. Perhaps they may do so after some days only for killing time and building a social network here. They have retrieved their early retirement funds – not a substantial amount, though. It is enough for them without spending lavishly.
Everything is bright and promising here, except that they were ridiculed by the customs officer who thought they could not speak English but performed a lot of monkey gestures in front of them to inspect their belongings on the first day they arrived in Britain but soon he was astonished – with no embarrassment nor apologies at all – by their fluent spoken English when they answered his question, Where are you from? and explained why they came. But they were also accused by the local bus driver of jumping the queue to get onto the bus, perhaps because they were smaller in size and he did not see they were in the line and refused to listen to their explanations and sped past their stop – which took them half an hour to walk back. They’d read the recent news about some unfortunate Asians assaulted by some locals because of the accusation of bringing Covid to the place, except that they once went out to shop for groceries with their masks on, a few local unmasked passers-by showed a contemptuous look to them with two middle fingers straight up like flags and cursed under their breath – they could still hear some unclear words like “get lost”, “virus”, and “thief” in between some other swear words. Things can still be controllable. They can treat the customs officer as a circus ringmaster to display a free show particularly for them; they can regard the extra walk as some sort of good physical exercise for a middle-aged couple to regulate their health index. They tell themselves they are not that unlucky and they are not in some radical district and just a few people on the street every time they are out. Things can still be manageable. They believe.
There are no problems for their adaptation here. Perhaps some friends they may miss in Hong Kong, but friends are friends – people have their own lives. Indeed, some long-term friends are no longer friends due to divided opinions some years ago. They quit the WhatsApp group and left Fai and another friend there, both of whom were silent in the two sides’ arguments and waited for their friends to join back. Yet, they still hadn’t till the day Fai and Cheong emigrated. When she announced the news in the big group and sent individual messages to those friends, she waited for a few days. Nobody replied, not even the silent friend. She then quitted the group. This has also occurred to Cheong and some of his friends too.
Fai is the first one to move, as she wants to heat another pot of hot tea. In fact, a drawback in Brighton which disturbs them most is the tea cooling down too soon. She walks back to the living room, ready to head to the kitchen. Every time she passes by the living room, she can’t hold her gaze away from the Chinese calligraphy on the wall. She loves the strokes of the Chinese characters, full of vigor and elegance, interlocking one another to sew a long shiny black ribbon in the white, which captures the attention – perhaps even admiration, she wonders – of the tiny pigeons to fly from the bamboo forest. She grins and immerses herself in the silence. It is serenity, as if they were two mandarin ducks on a mirror-like lake in a remote forest of voluminous shadows of green under the azure blue, rippling the water’s surface with their rhythmic paddles. Like an omen of a meteor rupturing the sky then plunging into the smooth, the eerie glinting of the fluorescent green light, the dreadful mechanic beeping and vibrating of her phone precipitously intrudes the peace. Her heart leaps a beat, fully awoken from her reverie.
She passed away.
Your mother-in-law. My mother. Cheong’s mother.
I called. She talked to me as usual.
I called too. Several times. She didn’t answer my last call.
Why? Her heart?
Yes. She told you she didn’t feel well these days. Right?
Yes. She always said that. But she took pills on time, didn’t she?
Yes. She did. No one feels well these days either. The fear of Covid. I called to remind her of the pills. She remembered. When I called later again, no one answered. Tell Cheong.
My husband and I plan to send him to an old folks’ home now. He doesn’t know anything. Perhaps he knows. We can’t tell.
If no one can take care of him, his Alzheimer’s will get worse.
Yes. Can you two come back for the funeral?
(Pause. Fai enters…)
I’ll tell Cheong…
We’re in quarantine. Heard there’s a ban on flights from Britain. You know, the 5th wave.
(Pause almost half a minute. Sis-in-law enters…)
Perhaps better for her to go like this than another way.
Fai doesn’t know how to respond. Better to go like this than another way. Those words were once like lead lodging in her mind and now emerge again by a sudden summon. She has never felt so heavy before except one time when her last parent, her mum, departed. She remembers she had a dream that night – she, her mum and her sister shackled up together were floating in the sea, being washed in the menacing dark. Far above them a tiny star of light was feebly blinking at them. Then the chain between her mum and them fractured and almost instantly theirs as well. Watching their mum being lifted to the only indistinct source of light, two of them sank to the deep blue separately, alone with air leaking from their bodies in bubbles. She was stiff and numb, expressionless like a corpse. Better to go like this than another way. It was a voice bouncing in the air, filling the void with its echoes.It woke her up sweating and panting, her head reeling and both of her ears ringing with the words.
She is in a daze, standing vacantly. She forgets what she plans to do. She forgets where she is. The weight of her phone in her palms finally reminds her of what she has read. The phone screen restores to its pitch dark again. Did she conjure up all those? Her gloves are sweat-soaked though it is only 10 Celsius degrees. They do not turn on the stove. She gently presses the side button on her phone. The list of messages again. The only difference is the “online” word missing below Sis-in-law. Fai glances back Cheong, who is like a tree trunk rooting in the balcony, stable and calm, oblivious to the inner disturbances inside the house – indeed just a few steps behind – and assimilated into the watercolor painting outside. Should she ruin the moment? She is a professional. She knows what to do. She shows the WhatsApp messages to Cheong and presses one of her hands on his shoulder. She sees him scroll slowly down the phone to read all the messages, scroll faster up again to the top, pause at the first message almost a minute and then hesitantly drag his thumb up and down along the screen again and again…
Do you want some hot tea?
He appears not to hear her. She pulls off her gloves, grips and pats his shoulders gently. Her sweat leaves some damp finger marks on his shoulders. He doesn’t feel it. He is in layers. He wouldn’t even if he wasn’t. She lifts his cup and coaster. Only a few mouthfuls left and some tea leaves scattering at the bottom. Her movement stirs the leaves in the water. She wonders if leaves can really tell one’s destiny. She enters the living room. The Chinese calligraphy and painting are still the same. The cold air is the same. The temperature is the same. Everything is the same, except the missing phone. She reheats the kettle in the kitchen, watching the flames leaping fiercely on the stove and the gas oozing out from its mouth in clouds to crack the terrifying stillness in the house. The calming silence a few minutes ago now builds a wall of avalanche imminently crushing every living soul. How eerie it is! She doesn’t know what to think. She doesn’t need to. Some images flash in and open a path to the earlier days with the smoke and flames.
She is his wife. She can’t just leave him in that home.
What do you think she can do? She is old with a bad heart.
He is like a child. He’s got no ideas now. He even has problems recognizing us.
He had an affair.
She fought back with an affair too.
He doesn’t remember. She does.
Both you and I know many sent there will pass away soon.
Complicated. Can you take care of him? I can’t. I have my two kids to look after.
Hire a domestic helper?
Bro, we have gone over this a thousand times. You know she says she doesn’t want to live with a stranger.
We all have our lives.
Do the same images lead Cheong there? What is he thinking now? Which stage is he at? Denial? Anger? Depression? Sometimes she wonders if her professional knowledge can really offer any assistance. When she worked inschools, she delivered a range of talks on family relationships and counselling. She was not very famous, but she did gain a few awards for her professionalism. She didn’t analyze her own process of grief after her mum’s departure. Nor did she analyze that of her sister. After the funeral, they barely talked about their mum. They even went to the graveyard separately on festivals. That’s perhaps why it is better to be an outsider. Now it comes to Cheong. Can she help?
Frankly, she doesn’t want to be the one to help. You need to have the experience to help better. That’s why she doesn’t regret resigning from her job. Cheong knows. He always knows. That’s why he never retorts whenever they joke about death. She insists on being the one to leave first, as if she could really have the chance to choose. How stupid it is! she knows. At least she can verbalize her control. At least she tries. At least she lets him know. If there is an expiry date on every relationship – indeed there is – no matter what form it takes, at least he knows she wants him to live on. She doesn’t want to be the only one left alive. She doesn’t want to be like her best friend Ying, who lost her husband in an accident when they went travelling in Bali to regain quiet from the intense conflicts in Hong Kong a few years ago – Ying’s husband saved Ying during their diving in the blue. He fought ferociously with the sudden force of nature and with his last ounce of energy, he heaved Ying to the water’s surface to let her breathe. Ying was rescued, but not her husband. Fai doesn’t want this kind of experience.
Since then, she frequently tells Cheong she is ready anytime. She says she has no one to miss now. She doesn’t tell him that he can still go on without her. She firmly deems he can. Like Ying’s husband – who told Ying how he liked his funeral a while before their trip as if he could foresee what happened to them, Fai would like to be prepared too. Perhaps because when people grow older and wiser, they can sense death is imminent. Perhaps because they witness a generation gradually eradicated by time with their faint footprints retained in the leftovers’ faulty memory. Presumably, the remaining ones then start to speculate when, as the feeling of shock and grief seeks a mental corner to hide and masks its existence by pretending to be encroached on by the numb recognition and acceptance. Like Ying’s husband, Fai decides to arrange things in advance. She doesn’t reckon whether or not Cheong would be like the husband, choosing to save her if accidents happened. She doubts. It doesn’t matter. She never asks Cheong. This is not what she is concerned about. Instead, she tells Cheong when accidents happen, he should save himself first. This is when Cheong rolls his eyes and tells her to shut up. He doesn’t say “no” to her. She is satisfied with his answer.
How selfish, you just leave like this! Can’t you wait?
I quit my job already.
I’ve got my two kids. They want to study abroad. Now they may have the chance to get citizenship there. You know it.
What? Yom mean that I should wait for you to take the two kids there and finish studies there before I emigrate?
Can’t you just wait for a while? How about our parents?
What do you think I can do?
What do you think you can do, bro?
Fai’s and my visas are ready. We will leave next month, sis.
Since then, Cheong’s sister has only talked to Fai and WhatsApped her messages. The whistling of the kettle drives her back from the mental landscape to the cold, bright kitchen. She pours the sizzling hot water into Cheong’s cup, the tea bubbling in it like murmuring old stories. Soon the water will be stagnant, concealing the stories underneath, albeit anticipating its stirs to their revival.
Cheong is not on the balcony. Fai places the teacup on the dining table and looks for her husband. He is in the working room with the door tightly shut. She can hear sobbing sounds by the door, suppressed yet still audible outside. He wants to be in solitude. He has never ever wept in front of her. She walks back to the dining table, sits on the chair and clasps Cheong’s cup in her hands, her fingers looping through its handle. She laggardly sips his tea and flares her nostrils to sniff the steam. Yet the warmth lingers at her skin only, never diving deep inside her. Cold penetrates, pinches and pierces her heart and mind. Her eyes once again fixate on the calligraphy in the living room. The lengthy strokes of their characters in the painting like the moving walkways she remembers in the airport transporting her and Cheong away from a blurry image of a petite old woman with a slightly hunched back – she wondered if she was Cheong’s mother but she did not farewell them in the airport. She blinked to get a clear image of the woman who suddenly appeared to be her own mother and vanished into the surroundings.
Cheong’s mother was a small woman always with a tiny smile on her face when meeting Fai. She only grumbled about Cheong’s father to Cheong and his sister. When Fai was there, she was taciturn yet well-mannered. Fai recalls the day she broke the news to her that they decided to emigrate. Cheong’s mother didn’t respond but her lips still curled into a closemouthed smile. She turned her gaze away, her hands habitually folding laundry on the sofa but her mind apparently drifting away to a faraway place, which Fai could tell from her eyes. Fai picked up a shirt, planning to fold it. When she almost finished, she felt a shadow lurching towards her, her hands being grabbed and squeezed by her mother-in-law. Take good care of Cheong. Not awaiting Fai’s responses, Cheong’s mother collected all the folded laundry and left the room as if she hadn’t said anything to Fai.
Huddling up on the futon, Fai knows that Cheong must not sleep well. He spent the whole afternoon in the working room and came out only at dinner time with two printed receipts in his hands. Sitting across the dinner table, Fai could see Cheong’s wrinkles vividly dented on his forehead and around the corners of his swollen eyes and downturned mouth. They wriggled like worms when he spoke coarsely, a deadlock formed between his brows. Strands of white hair spiked up on his head, having substituted the black ones for some unknown years. He looked fatigued. It was the first time Fai realized that their youth was really fading away. Both of them were orphans now. Old orphans.
I’ve booked two air tickets. But it depends on whether or not Hong Kong drops its ban on flights.
The 5th wave is soaring.
Yes. I’ve checked the news. It’s not optimistic.
We try our best.
Cheong didn’t respond. He drank his tea, burying himself in his stories. He ate a few mouthfuls of his rice, but barely touched the dishes in front. Fai spooned some meat and veggies in his bowl and he mechanically swallowed them without a word.
Did you sleep?
Her husband’s regular breathing – the only sound amid the dark silence – fills Fai’s ears, yet unlike the usual snoring he has, the signal of his slumber. Lying back-to-back, Fai feels the warmth and rhythm of his body, his curve rising and falling, slow and heavy like a chain of deep-throated sighs. At least he is breathing. She can’t sleep either, which is beyond her expectation. The chain. Her older sister. The last time they talked is on the phone.
Cheong and I will emigrate.
(Pause a short while) (The phone muffles with the movements of Fai’s sister) okay.
We will come back for holidays.
She remembers when she was very small, her sister bought a pink velvet scrunchie for her birthday, plaited her hair into a fishtail braid, tickled her tummy and whispered in her ear that she was a little mermaid. Her sister always bought her snacks after school and gave her lovely princess stickers. Since when has there been a solid, non-transparent wall shielding Fai from her sister? She doesn’t really know. Perhaps it was when she disclosed her sister’s theft of stealing money from their mum to buy a brand name bag for the first date instead of sending her trinkets, or perhaps when Fai was first praised by her mum on being one of the top girls in her class – it was far better than being a little mermaid she thought with all the admiration from her classmates and appreciation from her teachers – while her sister, scolded because of spitting foul words to her teacher insisting on her submission of homework, perhaps when she entered a prestigious university while her sister was sacked by her fifth abusive employer for not running a personal errand for him, perhaps when Fai and Cheong announced their engagement while her sister was dumped by her nth nasty boyfriend, cheating on her with her best friend, perhaps when more and more rifts here and there eventually widening to an unmendable, big thick crack till their mum assigned Fai to be the executor of her will allocating her property between them. Things soon became a duty cloaking their relationship. Or perhaps Fai did subconsciously assume that the duty could reach its end from the moment they arrived in Brighton.
Fai tosses about in bed. No matter which direction she turns, she can’t force her thoughts away. Nor can the cold freeze the sprouting of memories in her brain like the mold in dark damp ditches. She crooks her arm behind her head, ignoring its numbness – which is what she desperately needs at the moment – and staring at the ceiling of darkness as if she could figure out the dance of the ghostly shadows hovering above. She has a sudden fear of being sucked into the shadows alone, the same feeling she had in the nightmare of her sinking into the abyss with the broken cuffs. What did Cheong’s mum think of when she breathed her last breath alone in her apartment, lying flat on the cold tiled floor near her bed—the paramedics told her daughter where they found her? Was she accompanied with the ringing of her phone, the call from her daughter even though she could not answer, oscillating between consciousness and unconsciousness? What would Fai’s mum think if she were here? Would she think she was more fortunate with both daughters around her dying bed, watching her last breath turning into the air even though she knew she was the only bond between them—they had meals together during festivals only if she asked? Would she still feel comforted if she knew they were far apart now, both physically and spiritually? Did Fai’s sister dream the same nightmare after their mum’s departure? Not wanting to disturb Cheong though she knows he is fully awake, Fai crawls off the bed and decides to drink some hot milk for her sleep.
Holding her glass of hot milk, Fai watches its steam in the dim light offered by the table lamp near the sofa. Unwittingly, she settles her glass on the side table and grabs her phone next to it, which she forgot to switch off. It is 3 am. In Hong Kong, it should be 11am. A news feed bumps into her sight – anti-mask and social distancing protesters storm Brighton seaside. A sudden flood of annoyance sloshes inside her. She frowns, her index finger swiftly swiping it away. Then a list of WhatsApp contact emerges. She scrolls down…
Are you okay these days?
After typing the words, Fai instantly presses the side button and the phone screen turns black again. What does she expect? She dares not think. Her hands trembling uncontrollably, goose bumps exploding across both of her arms, she clutches her glass in her palms and props her chin on her bent-up knees in the sofa to warm herself. She seems to be waiting. She doesn’t know. She maintains her posture with no intention of going back to the room even though she finishes her drink. She gazes up, her eyes meeting the calligraphy again, something tickling at the corners of her eyes, a faint tulle then veiling her vision. She blinks and rubs her eyes. Her drops of tears glitter on her fingers and soon evaporate in the cold. She smiles. Somehow she understands. The intertwining dark ribbons tend to become chains hobbling Fai and Cheong’s limbs, which they can’t flee. Then the chains become thorny branches growing vigorously, swaddling their torsos and reaching their throats and heads, stinging blood and suffocating breath. They are like mannequins in the cocoons of barren branches. Perhaps there are ways for them to escape. They are reluctant to. They are frightened to do so. Perhaps they choose to adapt. Subconsciously, they yearn to be manacled, a living proof of love, loss and hatred, whatever it is, whatever you call. There are still some fragments of connection like puzzles, awaiting to be molded into parts of an unforeseeable and inscrutable picture.