Refugees – Part III
The next instalment of Church of the White Rabbits…
Arthur walks slowly up the road. Four days have gone by since Sally caught him with the joint in his hand and he still hasn’t managed to speak to her. His sister-in-law isn’t having anything to do with him at the moment. It would be funny under normal circumstances. But he’d really wanted to get her advice before this moment: or at the least have someone to confide in.
It’s too late now though. He’s made the trip to the mainland as ordered. It’s the first time he’s left Black Island since coming home and he’s surprised just how busy and hectic the streets seem over here. The place is a village in relation with Vancouver but compared to King’s Port it’s a hectic metropolis.
Ignoring the surrounding shoppers, Arthur continues resolutely. Just ahead, he can see the Royal Hotel. Inside, Shuchun is waiting. It’s the day of reckoning.
As he enters the lobby, an overweight woman in a tight uniform is trying to rearrange a vase of dried flowers so it covers up a stain on a tablecloth. Arthur nods curtly in her direction but doesn’t say anything and marches through briskly. He’s a man on a mission and needs to keep focused and alert if he’s to survive whatever’s coming.
The lounge stretches along the front of the hotel. A gloomy bar runs along the left-hand side of the room and heavy drapes hang either side of the windows on the right. Two electric chandeliers dangle from the ceiling, both unlit.
He sees Shuchun straight away. She’s sitting in a bay window, facing away from him, apparently gazing out at the view. Arthur knows she probably watched him coming up the street but she’s not giving anything away. And although he’s aware it’s all a pose, the scene works nonetheless. She looks elegant and serene: sitting straight-backed and motionless, bathed in soft morning light that’s coming through the net curtains behind her. She’s wearing white and the sunshine glints on her immaculate head of glossy raven-black hair. The combination of light and pose is striking: Shuchun looks illuminated, almost ethereal, and the rest of the room dingy and dull.
Arthur feels a fluttering and a stirring down below that could be his stomach or his loins. His nails bite into his palms as he clenches his fists and walks over, trying to look calm.
As he draws closer to the table she’s still looking towards the window. He can’t see her eyes but he’s sure she knows he’s there. Arthur hesitates, uncertain. He wants to say something loud and cheery but feels unaccountably nervous.
Arthur’s debating whether to cough politely to get her attention when he suddenly sees the tiny smile on her face. That’s when he realises she’s been watching his reflection from the moment he entered the room.
‘Hello, Arthur.’ Finally she turns to face him and he feels his knees go slightly weak. Her face is calm, no emotion showing. But those dark eyes still have the same power to hypnotise. It’s been almost two years to the day since he last saw her. That day remains clear in his mind. Him running down the road in his underpants: her father chasing close behind waving a large kitchen knife.
They look at each other for a while. He’s not certain if he should shake her hand, kiss her politely or bend over and give her a big hug. It’s always been that way. For Arthur she’s the original inscrutable oriental. He’s never been able to work out what’s going on behind that perfect mask. It was the same even when they were together. One minute she’d be treating him with disdain and apparent contempt, the next she’d be pulling his clothes off. The uncertainty always made him putty in her hands, which he suspects was at least part of his attraction.
She finally puts him out of his misery by standing and gracefully offering him a cheek to kiss. He’s tempted to put his hand on the back of her head and turn it around for a full-on snog but doesn’t quite dare. Even though he can’t help wondering if that would impress her more.
Instead he merely brushes her skin with his lips and takes a seat opposite.
Arthur’s about to speak but then a waiter appears at the table. The man’s old and grey, wearing a uniform that’s been washed and pressed too many times. He rubs his hands together obsequiously. ‘May I get you anything, madam? Sir?’
Shuchun has turned away again and Arthur’s about to decline but then she lifts one hand slightly. ‘I will have tea: jasmine tea with lemon. Arthur will have black coffee.’
The waiter hesitates. ‘I’m very sorry, madam. I’m not sure if we have any jasmine tea.’
Shuchun gives the faintest sigh. ‘Earl Grey?’
‘Of course, madam.’
‘Thank you. That will be all.’
Arthur smiles to himself. He wishes he could manage to dismiss people with such ease but he’s never had the gift.
They’re silent while Arthur shuffles uneasily on his seat. Eventually he leans forward. ‘How did you find me?’
‘That’s hardly important. But it wasn’t difficult.’
Arthur studies her profile. Her skin looks as flawless as he remembers it. No make-up: or none he can spot. She’s twelve years younger than him but that’s never counted for anything. She’s the one in control and she’s obviously not intending to offer anything for free. Her gaze is steady and her mouth doesn’t move: she could be a mannequin apart from the tiny rise and fall of her chest. ‘So, are you planning on coming over to the island?’
She gives a brief, cold laugh. ‘No.’
‘You staying here?’
‘Here? No. I have to catch a flight back to Canada tomorrow morning.’
‘Okay. So, what… you want me to come with you?’
‘You think so?’
‘Well, I dunno… I thought you’d come to find me.’
‘I have found you.’
‘But… if you’re not staying, what do you want me to do?’
‘I don’t want you to do anything.’
‘Fine!’ Arthur starts to rise. ‘Well, have a good trip back.’
He slumps back, his show of resistance over the instant she gives a command. Arthur thinks back to when they first met. He’d been working as a driver and went to a party with friends. They’d only been there minutes when the slender Chinese girl caught his eye. She was in the middle of a group of other young women: the calm focus of a whirl of exaggerated gaiety, like an elegant flower surrounded by showy butterflies. Arthur and his friends moved in on the group and he tried to edge towards its centre. But before he got close enough to say a single word his target slipped away.
Arthur was disappointed. She hadn’t been exactly beautiful but there was definitely something about her. Over the next couple of hours he kept drifting around the party hoping to spot her again. Eventually, he assumed he’d missed his chance. Nipping out into the garden for a quick smoke, he was standing by the pool when she materialised at his side. Wordlessly, she took him by the hand and led him to the cars parked outside. The first words she spoke to him were an instruction to take her home: to his house.
He shakes his head. She had made the running from then on. They were together for about six months after that. But never exactly a couple. It was not a relationship of equals. She wanted him for her own purposes and always at her convenience. The one time he tried to take charge she walked out on him and he didn’t see her again for another three, painfully long, weeks.
Now? He doesn’t know what she’s doing on Black Island or what she wants from him. ‘So… Shuchun?’
‘Why are you here? Why did you want to see me?’
She smiles. ‘I didn’t want to see you.’ There’s no inflection, it’s just delivered flat: a statement of fact. Which is what makes it hurt even more.
Arthur exhales slowly. ‘Okay. So, why? Why are you here?’
‘I’m getting married.’
He blinks. Confused. ‘Who to?’
‘That’s not relevant.’
‘Not to you.’
‘It’s not relevant to me?’
‘Maybe but that doesn’t matter. You don’t need to know who I’m marrying.’
Arthur shakes his head. ‘Okay, well… congratulations and all that. But, why come here to tell me?’
‘I didn’t come here to tell you that?’
Arthur resists the temptation to lean across and throttle her. ‘All right. So, Shuchun: why are you here?’
She smiles. ‘I came to bring you your daughter.’
‘Don’t shout, Arthur.’ Shuchun pulls the tablecloth back and reveals the carrycot lying underneath. Inside a soft white shawl lies a small child with Asian features and typical Judd curly hair. ‘You’ll wake her up if you make too much noise.’
* * *
Keziah reaches forwards and grabs the pot of mustard from the middle of the lunch table. As she does, a loud fart echoes around the room. ‘Ah, those pies. Give me chronic gas they do.’
On the other side of the table Cynthia Drake makes a sound of disgust and turns her head.
‘Don’t they make you fart?’
Cynthia ignores the old woman, wishing yet again the revolting crone would either keep to her rooms or get on and die. She’s sure Keziah gets cruder and more irritating with every year that goes by. Unfortunately, although it was her seventieth birthday this year, the last of the Blacks looks as fit as ever. If only there was a home they could send her to: somewhere she could be with people her own age. Anything that meant they wouldn’t have to eat at the same table.
Keziah grins and slathers another coating of mustard on her pie. She takes a large bite and chews vigorously, mouth open. There’s a big spot of mustard on her upper lip. She can feel it there but makes no attempt to wipe it away: knowing its presence will only aggravate Cynthia more.
A couple more minutes pass and Cynthia wipes her lips with a napkin and leaves the table. The only two left in the room now are Keziah and Graham Drake.
Graham watches as his cousin leaves the room and gives a sigh of contentment. ‘There are times when I think you dislike her as much as I do, Aunt Keziah.’
‘I like pies. Particularly the mutton ones.’
‘Yes, but your gas doesn’t agree with Cynthia.’
‘Gas is natural.’
‘Hmm. Possibly. But not at your rate of production, old girl.’
Keziah stares at him. She’s never liked Graham Drake much: and the way he addresses her doesn’t advance his cause. ‘Old girl’ might be half-accurate but she’s certainly not his aunt. Technically they’re second cousins twice removed but she’s not going to even try to explain that one.
She wipes the mustard off her lip: it’s done its job. ‘You know how to play poker, Graham?’
He looks around in surprise. ‘Poker?’
‘Card game. You bet on it. For money.’
‘Unless you prefer strip poker.’
A momentary look of horror crosses Graham’s face but he masks it quickly and smiles. ‘Er… that’s okay. You want to play poker with me?’
‘Why not? Scared I’ll beat you?’
He laughs. Being invited to play cards with Keziah threw him for a moment: she doesn’t normally have any more to do with Graham Drake than any of the others who live in Tower House. But poker is his favourite game. He thinks he’s good at it; although he’s had an unlucky streak recently. He grins patronisingly as he looks at Keziah with the overconfidence of a man who has no idea what’s in store. ‘Sure. I’ll give you a game of poker. Did you want to play now?’
Keziah shakes her head. Her phone was vibrating during lunch and she wants to go and see who was calling. ‘Not now. Got to have my afternoon sleep. Later. How about five o’clock?’
‘Okay.’ Graham still looks a bit uncertain but the lure of a game of poker is tempting. ‘Where’re we going to play?’
‘My rooms. Don’t want Cynthia or Margaret watching over us and getting all disapproving do we?’
‘No.’ Graham smiles. ‘You want me to find some coppers to play for?’
‘Coppers?’ Keziah shakes her head. ‘No. I had a bit of luck on the horses last week so I’ve got a bit of extra money to play with. Why not make it more interesting? Shall we say a minimum stake of fifty pounds?’
Graham’s eyes widen and Keziah can almost see the calculations going on in his head: working out how much he might be able to take off the old woman.
* * *
Padraig strolls along the ridge, following it towards the summit of Beacon Hill. There’s a cairn of stones at the top and as he gets nearer he notices someone sitting in its lee.
To be continued…
Tomorrow, Arthur tries to come to terms with having a daughter and Keziah takes some revenge.