By Desmond Kwok
They sit on the balcony looking at the undying light of the summer evening. It has become cool, but they do not move to put on the coats that hang from their chairs. A bird coos in the distance and Antonia scrapes the sole of her shoe on the floor.
“Do you mind?” She is fumbling in her bag and produces a pack of cigarettes.
Victor shakes his head. She flicks a flame from the green lighter – “a tip from Poachers” – and takes her first puff. Victor lets his gaze fall on the trees that fringe the college. They are purple and green, Like the salad they just ate for dinner, he thinks - salad he had carefully chopped this afternoon, now scrunched up on Antonia’s plate, uneaten.
“That was really wonderful. Thanks so much. No, really, I really enjoyed myself,” She nods repeatedly. “I haven’t had something this good for – ” She laughs heartily then stops and taps her cigarette on the corner of the table to think.
“Ages. I don’t know. Since coming here,” She gestures expansively to the college buildings before them, ash falling from her waving cigarette.
Victor starts from his seat. “I forgot –” he says, walking towards the kitchen.
She coughs. “Oh I’m so sorry! It’s the cigarette isn’t it?”
He is telling her not to worry, that it’s O.K. because the cleaners will get it tomorrow, but he is looking for something she can use for the ash in the kitchen. He says, his back to her,
“So what’re you going to do after you finish your thesis?”
“Hmm what? Oh you mean after the whole madness is over... Hmmm... Yes... I’ve been thinking about that one...”
Victor doesn’t turn to look at her, but he can imagine her cropped, blonde head, tipped slightly above her right shoulder, thinking about his question. That was Antonia from the day he first knew her – beautiful, and dreamy, and brilliant.
He comes back out with an old mug but finds she has already finished her smoke. A black film canister has appeared on the table in front of her. She takes it and waves it in front of him as he places the mug on the table.
“My portable ash tray. Sorry, I should’ve remember earlier - ” She pauses. Then, “They don’t allow smoking, right? So I do it secretly,” She leans towards him, her voice dropping to a whisper: “In the toilet.” Then she leans back and laughs riotously, her hands folded across her chest.
“No smoke detectors, you see,” She shifts in her chair, looks around the balcony, then gets up from her seat and walks to the railing.
“Ah summer... Summer summer summer... I love summer... Did I ever tell you that summer was my favourite season in Beijing?”
Victor smiles and settles back in his chair. “No, but tell me about summer in Beijing,” He watches Antonia stroll round the balcony, a single finger tracing the length of the railing. Antonia who was brilliant and won the single European scholarship to Beida to study Chinese Language and Culture when she was twenty-one. (Antonia who came back to England after six years to meet him one day, a strange Chinese man in the college pub, and tell him fantastic stories about her life there.
- I was so good even the taxi-drivers thought I was local!
- But your hair? Your eyes?
- I always said: wo ba shi xinjiang ren!
- They believed you?
And then Antonia had laughed loudly, heartily, for a long, long time before saying slowly, very seriously, “They always believed me...”)
“The first time I went there, I hated it. Of course I hated it. No, no, wait, I didn’t hate it. At first I liked it, but then when my flat mate left – he was from America and he couldn’t stand the food – and then my best friend, who had to go back to Japan because she was finished – then I started to hate it,”
She laughs. “But it’s all right. I hated it for about three months and then after that it got better... Once you can speak Mandarin it’s much better...”
Victor nods. She scrapes her chair back and stares out into the evening sky.
“Of course it could get pretty – crazy, you know? For an English girl in China, alone?” She waves a hand in the air to show Victor what she means. He laughs, wanting to show he understands. She looks at him for a second and says,
“It’s different for you, of course... You are still Chinese... I know you don’t really talk about it but you can still – ” She searches for a word. “Relate. You can still relate to the culture, your culture, because it’s... it’s, well, yours, and...”
Victor shifts his chair and says, “I don’t know about that...” He trails off and looks at her. Then he pushes his chair back and studies the stone floor of the balcony.
He says, “I mean, I...” He thinks he needs to tell her that he left Beijing when he was ten, barely in his teens, that he, too, would find China crazy and maddening and opaque, if he went back. But for a moment, it seems as if the argument is slipping from him and he can’t find the words to express the complex of emotions in his chest. He looks up to see her looking at him, as if waiting for him to say something.
Then she says, slowly, thoughtfully, “I don’t know... I suppose I think I can relate to it, too, now, in a way… to the culture… the people... I mean, like you can, being Chinese,” She stops.
Then she says, “Sometimes I dream of Beijing. Sometimes I dream in Mandarin. Do you do that?”
Victor looks at the crucifix that hangs on her neck. He doesn’t know what to say. He says, “I don’t know.”
“You don’t know what?”
“I don’t know if I ever dream in Mandarin. I mean, I can’t remember most of the time, what I dream,”
“Oh I see.” She laughs and shakes her head. “Never mind then...” she says.
Victor wraps his hands round his forearms. He feels hurt, though he doesn’t quite know why.
“I guess I haven’t really told you... But I left China when I was ten, my whole family – I mean, my dad and mum and I. We went to Australia to live with my relatives...”
He can hear his own voice faltering. He thinks of his uncle and aunt and their large double-storied house in East Melbourne. Of their dog, Chester, and the garden they had where his uncle had planted anturiums, and violets and roses. Suddenly he feels tired of the evening, tired of thinking about Antonia, tired of his history. He thinks, It is the fatigue of the ordinary.
But Antonia is eyeing him with a sharp, bright look. She says,
“That must have been hard for you and your parents. Moving to another country, I mean, and leaving your family and friends,”
“No, not really... We just did it because we could... Everybody who can does it... That’s all there is to it...”
“I see,” she says. He waits for her to ask him something else. When she doesn’t, he feels relieved and annoyed at the same time. He says,
“I guess I don’t think much about it... China, that is... But I mean, I feel Chinese – or rather, I can’t think of myself as anything rather than Chinese – ”
She looks at him intently, her brows slightly knitted. Then she says, “I was in Beijing for six years on and off, and most of the time I was laughing my head off – because you have to, you know, if not you’d go” - she pulls a face - “Barmy. But then – you know what? I love China. Even though I hate it. I love it and I hate it. I’m perverted, you know?”
She looks at him, smiling. “You know?” She says again.
Victor turns away. “I guess it’s that sort of place...” He stops and shakes his head. Then he says it again slowly, carefully,
“I guess it’s that sort of place.”
She scrapes her chair back and swings her arms by her side.
“I mean, it’s crazy. Like, I worked at Poachers, right, and the crowd could get quite rough there... I mean, like, really rough.” She rolls her eyes. “The English were the worst – god!” She barks with laughter, shaking her head. “Crazy. Absolutely crazy. I never told anyone I was English, of course - I always pretended I was French. I took French for my GCEs you know – and everybody thought it was so cool to find a French female bartender in Beijing city...”
She grunts, a fresh cigarette clamped between her teeth as she looks for her lighter. “Did you know, they didn’t use to let the Chinese in?” He watches her light the cigarette and draw the smoke in, her breath coming out in wisps that disappear just as they reach him.
“Yeah, that’s right,” she continues, “No Chinese – unless you were a prostitute, of course. You know they would come in after eleven o’clock and stand around the tables...”
She tilts her head away from him and puffs into the air. “But no Chinese, theoretically. Isn’t that awful?”
Victor doesn’t say anything. Far away, he hears the ten thirty-nine draw into the station, the slow grind of halting wheels, the wheeze of a dying engine. The purple-green trees that had reminded him of the salad are gone, indistinct in the dusk. He thinks of Beijing, but cannot remember the name of the road where he had lived, or what his house had looked like, or if there had been a courtyard, with trees perhaps like those that now stood invisible before them. He thinks of their garden in Melbourne, where he would lie behind dark glasses on Saturdays, his eyes closed to the sun, as his uncle, kneeling by him, explained the various points of gardening in earnest tones, tools in hand. He thinks of telling Antonia about the garden and how wonderful it felt to have the sun on his face, the smell of mown lawn in the hot summer air.
“They changed it, though... A year or so after I left... A friend of mine told me... Now the place is swamped with local rich-kids...”
Victor shakes himself. We are talking about China, he thinks.
“Yasss,” Antonia sighs a slow, long swirl of smoke into the summer night. “It’s all changed now and I’m not sure I’d find that old Beijing anymore...”
She has walked to the parapet, thin and unyielding against the night. He stares at her figure against the sky and makes one last effort to see Beijing – a seedy nightclub, where Antonia, pert and twenty-one, flirts with Englishmen, an old room with peeling paint where Antonia mouths Chinese words to herself, a cigarette balanced on the corner of a metal desk, a Beijing taxi careening down a dusty road as Antonia shouts wild stories to the taxi man above the clamour of second-hand engines, the clamour of horns and the squelch of brakes on hot tar…. But Beijing is a pastiche – cobbled fragments of stories he had heard from his parents, from Antonia, a haphazard conflation of images from the family album that lay unopened in the living room dresser.
Antonia leans against the parapet, slowly swinging her arms on elbows that rest precariously on the cool, metal railing. Crumbled ash flicker uncertainly on the tip of her cigarette, then fall into the night beyond the balcony. Victor stands up. He walks slowly towards her but stops before they touch. He sees her cigarette, which has burnt to an inch from her pink, moist lips, unnoticed by her.
“I suppose,” he says.
“I suppose you miss Beijing,”
She takes the glowing stub from her mouth and throws it hard into the air. They watch as it describes a thin, bright curve, before being swallowed by the summer night. She is so close to him he feels the movement of her sleeve as she nods gently, repeatedly – Yes.
He stares at the darkness that engulfed the last glow of her cigarette.
“I don’t,” he says.
A bird coos in the distance, shrill and insistent, then stops. She turns, almost imperceptibly, away from him. She is still, as if waiting for an explanation. Then she says slowly, clearly,
“I’m going back there after my thesis.”
Victor puts a hand on the railing and grips the cold of the metal. He stares at the darkness of the summer night and lets her voice play over and over in his head. Then he hears her voice again,
“Would you - ” She stops and blinks at the night. “Would you go back there?”
Victor doesn’t move. He can feel the chill of the summer night in his bones, but he doesn’t think of taking the coat that hangs from the back of his chair.
“No,” he says.
The summer night seems to envelope him as he waits, as he feels her unmoving body next to his, as he looks at the darkness that extends beyond the railing. She shivers suddenly and moves to put on her coat. He stares into the night, into the space that she has left by the railing.
“No,” he says again.QLRS Vol. 2 No. 3 Apr 2003