Every autumn after the moon festival, when the sea turned almost too cold to swim, one of the old Hakka women from the village swept up the remains of the summer. She lit small bonfires of fallen leaves, crumpled paper lanterns, broken kites and noodle buckets dumped by weekenders. A series of anonymous cremations took the island into winter.
It was the afternoon after the mid-autumn festival. The foreigner who lived in the village was heading back to her house from her daily run along the sand when she passed the old woman in black pyjamas squatting beside a pyramid of smoking debris. The foreigner saw the dark figure from the corner of her eye and thought no more about her. She climbed the cement stairs from the beach, feeling her pulse.
Tracy had come to the island after Michael left her. She wanted to see no one she and Michael had known, had run away to lick her wounds, felt too raw to be touched again. She had thrown in her fulltime job and now eked out a living adapting school text books for Hong Kong primary schools. She worked from her home on the outer island, and never left except to catch a bus once a week to the ferry pier to buy food. The life she had wanted ended when Michael walked out.
Every evening she ran along the beach as the last light flickered out across the bay. She had come to love the island’s golden afternoons and her solitude. Only occasionally someone intruded into her space, like the parrot-bald old man next door. Some days he sat in front of his house with his legs splayed out on the cement, black trousers rolled up above skeletally-thin knees, hammering soft drink cans. Incessantly. Bang, bang, bang. She winced with each blow, as though he was deliberately banging straight into her brain. The noise drove her nuts. Once, she stormed next door and stood right in front of the old man, frowning and shaking her head, wagging her finger like the worst kind of foreigner. He stood up, flaying his arms like feelers until he found the wall and patted his way towards the door. Not only was he profoundly deaf, he was bat blind. She picked up a stray drink can and put it back on his step.
Within a year she had learnt to block out most noises – the old man banging his wretched cans flat, firecrackers that exploded in the dead of night to ward off lost spirits, fishermen thumping the sea at dawn to scare fish into their nets, and high, flat, discordant exclamations – ‘Wah!’ – that flew through summer evenings like sound-frisbees when teenagers from Hong Kong held barbecues on the beach.
She had worked out that her presence was as irrelevant to the villagers as theirs was to her. ‘Jo sahn’, she mumbled sometimes when she passed. They seemed to look right through her. The old women who sat like crows on the low cement wall never responded, never made eye contact. ‘Gweipoh’, they muttered. Ghost Woman.
The only other person near the village who spoke English was Emma, the landlord’s daughter-in-law. Emma was Tracy’s age. She lived with a husband and daughter in the bushy elbow of the hill behind the beach. She cleaned a beach bungalow owned by a bank where senior foreign employees spent weekends. Emma translated whenever Tracy and Mr Wong, the landlord, needed to speak. If Tracy had a problem, she called Emma.
The night before the old woman lit the fire, Emma had knocked. A full year had gone by since she moved to the island. Mr Wong needed to know would she sign a new lease. Emma believed her father-in-law would agree only a small increase, because the house faced the sea. ‘No old people like this house,’ she said. ‘Bad fung shui. Too near water. Tide goes out, same with money. Better you face the mountain. Old village people not educated.’
The house where Tracy lived looked directly out to sea. Perched at the top of the cement path, it took the full force of the elements. A bougainvillea she had planted in a dragon pot by the door struggled bravely, clutching at a trellis with bare claws, leaves burnt off by typhoons.
She said she would sign. Gladly she would. There was nowhere else she wanted to go. This was her bolt hole, her fragile grasp on sanity.
She expected Emma to leave when she agreed to sign, but the Chinese woman stood at the door looking into the house. Her gaze seemed to fall on a pile of books on the desk.
‘You clever,’ she said.
Tracy gave an impatient, self-depreciating half laugh. ‘I’m not that smart.’
‘You clever and lucky. You not marry.’
Tracy hugged herself. ‘Perhaps you’re the lucky one.’
‘Mo-ah! Husband big mafan. Big problem. Always angry. I tell him no more children. If sons, daughter same like me. No money. You clever.’ Emma folded her arms and nodded.
A wave of vertigo passed over Tracy. She experienced these panic attacks less often than twelve months earlier. She put it down to having no one else’s life to compare her own to. She wanted Emma to leave. Go. But she stood solidly in the doorway, looking now into the sky. ‘Will you go up to your roof tonight?’ she asked.
Tracy had forgotten about the moon. It was overcast anyway.
‘Sky always clears,’ Emma said. ‘Even if clouds stay longtime, moon still there.’ She touched Tracy’s arm and left.
The wind had blown away the clouds by the following afternoon. A light breeze that had sprung up during the night developed muscle as the day wore on. It chilled the sweat on Tracy’s back as she climbed the slope from the beach, puffing as she passed the old woman poking at the small smoking pyre. Chickens pluck-plucked out of her way as she strode by a pile of rubbish – sheets of tin, broken air-conditioners, an old refrigerator and wooden planks. Every day Tracy asked herself the same question: Why do the villagers’ hoard this junk?
It was dark within the hour. Dark when Tracy looked up from her desk, the smell of smoke in her nostrils. Only then she recalled seeing the old woman. She’s going to smoke out the whole damn village, she thought as she stood up and closed the window. Someone would take care of it. She went back to her computer and the maths text book she was localising. She read aloud the conversion problem. ‘If a Macau jewellery store owner earns HK$9,000 from the sale of an ivory bracelet, 15,000 patacas for an apple-jade disc, and 8,000 remnenbi for a gold figurine of a lucky cat, how much has he earned in U. S. dollars?’
A sound broke into her concentration. Clashing, like Chinese cymbals. The tin sheets on the junk pile were lifting and dropping in the wind. She looked out a window. Clouds of smoke were billowing towards the house. She realised that if she had done even the most basic calculation, she should have figured out the likely consequences of the smoke, the wind, and her house, the closest exposed structure on the slope. A line of flame stretched up the hill from the beach. She took no notice of the voice of reason that suggested she grab her lap-top and make a run for it. Where? This was her safe place.
She leafed through her address book and stood by the window as she dialled, peering into the night. Emma would take care of this. She tapped a pencil on the desk. For three, four rings, no answer. Where was she? She should have finished at the bungalow by this hour. When at last the phone was answered a man barked abruptly, ‘Wei? Wei?’ Emma’s husband.
She shouted into the phone. ‘Big problem. You wenti.’ She wanted to convey a sense of panic, although she felt none. Emma’s husband could feel it instead and do something. He and Emma could make the problem go away.
‘Wei? Wei?’ the man shouted back.
She struggled to retrieve some Cantonese. ‘Em-ma haih bindo-ah.’ She had no idea of Emma’s Chinese name. ‘Where is she?’
She tried mixing Cantonese with Mandarin. ‘Ninde furen. Your wife.’ She shouted at him. ‘Haih bin-do-ah?’ Surely he would understand that!
He hung up.
She remembered her landlord had stored gas bottles among rusty tools and broken chairs in a lean-to by the entrance to her house. What the hell was the number for emergencies? She dialled 999 and was put directly through to the local fire brigade. Thank God one of Britain’s legacies was an English-speaking emergency service. Ten minutes, they said.
She unplugged the laptop and carried it to the door. She stepped back from it, annoyed. Already the metal door handle was too hot to touch. It was all right, she told herself. The fire brigade would arrive soon. She stood by the window, strangely calm, gazing down to the beach, unconnected to the scene around her. The glow of the fire illuminated the night. It was like bonfires of her childhood. She wondered what Michael would think when he picked up the paper next day. Expatriate Burns to Death in Island Blaze. That would teach him. Would he even care? Perhaps if he had still been in her life she would have tried harder to get out. To bother, there had to be someone who gave a damn.
There, she’d admitted it. She didn’t care if she burnt to death.
Her eyes stung as smoke filled the room. She made her way upstairs, feeling for the wall as tears ran down her cheeks. She curled up on the bed and pulled the quilt over her head. She wished to simply disappear, let the fire wash over, this night to end. She imagined herself cocooned in flames, wrapped like a corpse at a Chinese funeral. The house, her lap-top, everything would go up with her like paper effigies. A few things to take with her to the after life.
Under her shroud she strained to hear what was happening, no longer blocking out sounds. Flames beat like wings against the house. A series of explosions erupted like massive crackers as the fire found the gas canisters. Distantly at first and then gradually louder, came the whine of an approaching fire engine.
All of a sudden, villagers were wah-ing, shouting instructions. Boots resounded on the cement. The shush of a hose. And then Emma. Her voice high above the din.
‘Tracyyyyyy. Where you? Tracy?’
Something banged directly on the other side of the wall near her head. She lifted the quilt in time to see a ladder positioned by the window. Moments later, a Chinese fireman dressed in black fireproof gear with yellow tape climbed up.
‘You are safe now,’ he said in good English, unwrapping her, helping her out of the window and down to earth. She had waited too long for Michael. He would never rescue her. Get real, she told herself. Rescue meant delivery back to this reality.
‘Why didn’t you leave the house?’ Emma asked when the fireman brought her down.
She couldn’t tell the truth, confess she wanted to die. ‘I was scared,’ she lied.
‘Can not stay here,’ Emma said, looking at the barbecued house. The paint outside had blistered and the metal front door buckled by the heat. ‘Come.’ Emma wrapped her arm around Tracy’s waist and led her across the beach to the bank bungalow.
She fetched a blanket and made tea while Tracy tried to stop herself shaking. They sat in silence on the sofa, nursing thick mugs.
When Tracy was calmer, Emma said, ‘You know the old woman who lit the fire?’
Tracy shook her head.
‘She your neighbour. Mrs Lai. Lives with old man you shout at.’
Tracy thought no one noticed anything she did.
‘Every day Mrs Lai carry vegetables from beach. You know her now? She goes carries from paddy fields.’
Oh yes. She knew now who she meant. The old woman who shuffled across the sand each morning, stooped beneath a pole with can baskets balanced each end. She was part of the scenery, as much a feature of the island as the flickering afternoon sun. So, vegetables grew in fields behind the beach. Tracy had not registered them, never thought what the old woman had in those baskets.
‘Old people.’ Emma shook her head. ‘No education. Make only little money. Sell vegetables and lapsap.’
‘They sell the rubbish?’ Like flattened drink cans and loose sheets of tin.
Things began clicking into place. It was like figuring out a maths problem. She had seen spring onions tied in bunches on the next door clotheslines, peanuts spread on the concrete to dry, purple yams piled by the door. Never thought they were for sale.
‘Sell to pirates,’ Emma said. ‘You see boat.’
Tracy thought, Do I? ‘Pirates?’
‘Every Monday, three o’clock. Next week you watch. Big boat from China. Bring rice, hami melons, cigarettes.’ Emma laughed. ‘Not legal. Police like you. One eye always closed.’ She pushed more water out of the plastic urn into the teapot.
After a long pause, she went on. ‘No matter how many vegetables, Mrs Lai can never pay my father-in-law for cooked house. She sells peanuts more than one hundred years, still not enough.’ She handed Tracy a refilled cup and added, as their eyes met, ‘Old Mrs Lai wants kill herself.’
The absurdity hit Tracy like a slap on the face.
‘What? No! She can’t do that.’ The old woman was integral to the rhythm of island. The old man needed her. The village needed her. Wasn’t it the old woman who fixed the concrete stairs to the beach, making the cement herself, sliding a spatula over the cracks. Tracy needed her. She needed her like she needed the sun coming up and going down each day, like she wanted reassurance that the moon shines even if you can’t see it.
For the first time that evening, Tracy felt a true sense of urgency. It seemed like her fault for not paying attention. ‘She needs help. Counselling. Something.’
Emma looked down at her cup. ‘The law is on my father-in-law’s side.’
Tracy was amazed how therapeutic house painting could be. The scraping was hard, removing the blackened, bubbled paint, but once she finished the undercoat, she enjoyed applying the top coats of white paint, reaching up with the roller brush and bringing down the paint so it blended with the one before. She liked the results. Mr Wong had agreed that if she painted the place he would forgive Mrs Lai the damages. He would also make out the lease for the next year at a low rent.
She was up on the roof, reaching out over the outside wall with the roller brush when Emma called to her.
‘Have you forgotten?’ She stood at the bottom of the ladder. ‘It’s Monday.’ She pointed into the bay.
A large Chinese junk had anchored. Mrs Lai was already heading down the path to with her baskets.
Tracy climbed down the ladder and ran inside for her wallet.
On the shore, a dozen villagers in black pyjamas and cane hats had gathered. Some stood beside baskets of lettuces and sweet potatoes. One old man had dumped a broken television on the sand. Everyone watched as a young leather-tanned couple in a dinghy motored in from the large wooden boat. When the dinghy came close enough, the old women pulled up their trousers and waded in to pull it ashore. They laughed and chattered, exchanging goods, loudly negotiating prices.
The dinghy was full of eggs, cigarettes, toilet paper, bags of mandarins, bok choy and other vegetables, all cheaper than the wet market by the ferry pier. Tracy bought tomatoes and garlic and was about to add spring onions when Mrs Lai grabbed her wrist. She pushed a bunch of her spring onions into her hand, more than Tracy could use. She wanted to pay, but the old woman refused to take money.
For the first time, they made eye contact. Mrs Lai stamped and pumped her arms back and forth, back and forth, as if running. Her voice came out shrill. ‘Pao Bo!’
She must have seen Tracy running in the afternoons. The old woman grinned, reached out with gnarled fingers and touched her.