The Adventures of Bear Man
By Melissa De Silva
The first few raindrops stung his arms, then the full force of the April thunderstorm unleashed. Patches of damp bloomed across his cotton shirt. He looked up at the source of his affliction and was rewarded by an explosion of drops in the face.
Again he scanned the length of Temple Street from the crevice of an alley. Tourists and locals under umbrellas scurried into the stalls of the night market. Each plastic-tented booth blared the Cantonese pop of its choice, so shoppers perused made-in-China souvenirs of Hong Kong, pirated CDs and Gucci knockoffs against a cacophony of competing love ballads and up tempo beats. Friday evening. And here he was, crouching in an alley that stank of piss and souring noodles.
Without taking his eyes off the street, he felt around beside him for the piece of sodden cardboard and held it over his head. His left thigh was beginning to cramp again. He shifted his weight, ignoring the creak in his left hip socket. Had he missed his quarry altogether?
He tugged at the snarling bear's head until its rubber fangs covered his eyebrows. He'd always liked the fangs. The clear resin drops hanging off the tips simulating saliva were an especially nice touch, he thought, though he didn't have much of a yardstick for comparison. He'd never seen a bear in real life, much less bear drool. Sometimes he toyed with the idea of going to America, to go camping in one of their national parks. Jellystone? No, he was pretty sure Jellystone was the one in the Yogi Bear cartoons he'd watched growing up. Yellowstone, that was it. April seemed like a good time for a camping trip.
It had been April as well when he'd discovered Brunello. Another glance down the street. Still nothing. Just three seconds then. He was allowed three seconds. As he closed his eyes against the patter of rain on tarmac and plastic, his mind wound back to that vineyard in Tuscany. Standing in the makeshift tasting room that doubled as an equipment shed, his existence of thirty years had seemed pathetically impoverished before the acquaintance of the symphony of black cherry, pert raspberry, the teasing suggestion of dank leather, all mingling in a cypress-infused afternoon breeze.
A shudder of delight ran though him. He inhaled. And scented bad noodles.
How'd it get to this? July 1971. Macau. A movement caught his eye, jolting him from the past. An elderly man with tufts of white hair sprouting from his ears stopped at a stall selling cheap watches. He scrambled to his feet. Then slumped down again. Wrong guy. A tickle of water ran down his temple and inside the neck of the bear head.
The medicinal reek of herbal tea eggs floated past, almost making him gag. He'd always detested the bitter stink. Absently, he smoothed the unruly tufts of fur between the bear ears. The head used to freak the hell out of people. It had started off as a lark. He'd worn it one Halloween on a job at Lan Kwai Fong to blend it with the revellers. He was just there to deliver a first warning, but the guy thought he could be funny.
"Don't try to scare me. I'll go to the police!" he'd sneered in Cantonese.
"What, and tell them a man with a bear head is threatening you?"
That had deflated the little punk.
So his trusty prop had grown a little shabby over the years. So what? He glanced across the street as he shifted his weight again. Still no sign of the target.
The elderly man left the watch stall with a paper bag. How old was that guy? Seventy? Seventy-five? Whatever the number, he himself was probably more than halfway there. How could he be turning forty tomorrow? The hours that leaked to weeks that trickled to years. Macau. Swaggering drop-jawed into the glittering Casino Lisboa with fake ID proclaiming he was twenty-one. That wretched Sic Bo table in the Crystal Palace room. Johnny Law finally offering him a way out, saying he needed a runner anyway and wouldn't the extra money come in handy for someone like him. But the initial thrill of being part of the organisation gave way to the grind of terror. Eventually he began to suspect he'd never rise through the ranks because he wasn't able to make a lot of money for his Big Brother. The contraband cigarettes, the streetside drug dealing; he seemed to lack the glib bravado of salesmanship.
Rooster Wu, who joined six months after him, earned $400 his first day on the street. In a year, he was promoted to group leader. His Big Brother had put his inadequecies down to his youth, and let him act as a lookout for their gambling rackets. He'd managed to seem competent only because no one had raised the alarm. He'd thought it would be different from school – all those swimming numbers and wriggling English letters and Chinese strokes.
Now he understood; he didn't possess the combination of ferocity, callous indifference and hunger for profit that led to the greater responsibilities of more complex operations, a wider turf. Another uncomfortable truth pierced his consciousness. That was why, all those years ago when he'd been caught by the customs officer, none of his triad brothers had come to his aid. Even Big Brother had remained silent when he made the call.
As he watched the members growing younger every year, he began to feel like an avuncular simpleton, kept on with tolerant amusement. Had the Sistine Chapel, the fields of sunflower stalks taller than his head, Brunello even, been worth it? What did he have to call his own except a mute-walled flat in Mong Kok? Even his love affairs, if you could call them that, had been disconnected episodes bereft of human music. Apple. Candy. Kitty. Even the prospect of knowing their real names had seemed discordant. A cipher, that was all his life boiled down to; a shadow of a shade in the dark.
The bear head, now double its weight with water, lay heavy on his shoulders. As he glowered at the sky, a spear of rain hit him in the middle of the forehead and ran into his eye.
What if he were to leave? If he didn't provide much value, wasn't privy to high level dealings, there would be no loss, would there? Kirky Sit, his one close friend in the organisation, had succumbed to an administrative job in the civil service after he'd turned thirty and gotten married. Dodo Chan had cut ties with both of them and the rest of the members long ago, after that embarrassing episode when he was forced to ask his elderly parents to raise bail.
He was sick of breathing shadows, sick of putrid alleyways and stratagems for intimidation that demanded a more confident executor. He didn't want to spend the next 10 years like this. Surely Big Brother would accept his request to leave? He didn't know what he would do, but if he'd ever thanked the gods for anything in his life, it was that you didn't have to declare jail sentences under three months when you were applying for a job. Perhaps he could even migrate. People were uprooting themselves to all kinds of places before the coming handover. Some were even going to an island in Africa. The weather there might actually suit him.
As suddenly as it had begun, the rain stops. The streetlights come on, incandescent halos in the mist. People close umbrellas, shake off drips.
Then, out of the corner of his eye, he sees the target.
Years of experience snap him into action. He follows the old man, creeping along the opposite side of the road as the fellow makes a left into Ning Po Street, past the shops that in the day time sell joss sticks, paper Sony Discmans, paper houses for the dead. The man turns right into Shanghai Street, hurries by the bridal shops. Then a left into Saigon Street, with the drawn roller shutters of herbalists, tailors, pawnshops. The man's shuffle is surprisingly brisk.
He pauses, watching the figure retreat further down the street. A lorry clatters along the road separating them. The instruction was to tail him all the way to his home. Rebelling against instinct, he darts into the traffic, a furry-headed blur against rain splished windscreens. He could almost hear them in their metal boxes. "Was that a—?" "No, must have just been—"
Thrillingly unencumbered despite the bear head, he vaults across the bonnet of a car. Headlights blare, whiting out his vision. A scream.
The old man turns milky eyes on him, frozen as if caught in a photographer's flash. He finds himself reaching out, fingers closing over unyielding shoulders, jerking the man close as if in a lover's embrace. Even at this moment, he has no inkling what it is he intends to do. He is conscious only of the bear snout incongruously squashed against the side of the man's head, the rubber fangs impotent. Then the strangeness of his lips coming into contact with a papery lobe, his whisper guttural, "Disappear."QLRS Vol. 15 No. 2 Apr 2016