Mei. The first time we met, I was dropping off an old lamp to her shop. A little place squeezed between a Sichuan restaurant and an import export company on the edge of Chinatown and Leicester Square. She was sitting behind a makeshift wooden counter. The door made a sharp creak as I pushed it and jammed halfway. It’s ok, that always happens, she said, as I tried with might to tug it free. My skinny arms made another desperate yank before she rose to help me. I was such a waif then. I’d just started my graduate clinical training fellowship programme with the Medical Research Council. What is it now? Six, seven years ago.
She was such a vision I stopped breathing for minutes. My head felt light and I blinked fast before stepping forward. My mouth dried up and I held up the lamp to her, wordless. My mother had found a fault in it. She liked to find faults in things. It was her favourite hobby.
No problem at all, Mr Cheng, she said. The little mechanical grey cash register made a ping.
No. I said. Call me Lewis.
I didn’t take my eyes off her. The deep blue silk fabric of her Cheongsam hugged her curves, flowing down her delicate frame almost to her toes. Her feet, narrow and exquisite, slid into matching silken slippers. She turned and placed the lamp on a shelf behind her.
Here’s my card if you need anything, she said, a bare arm stretched out. The faint green blue of her veins showed through her pearly smooth skin. I wanted to run a finger along them and see the small hairs rise.
I left the shop with my heart pounding so hard my ribs ached. So, this is it. Intense and all consuming. Faint, but persistent and constant. Just as all the stories had always told me.
We haven’t spoken for days. Almost a week. She usually calls at the weekend. I need to ask about the hems of some new work shirts. The buttons need changing. I prefer the light blue double holed ones to the clear four holed.
I roll off the living room couch and stumble into the bathroom. I hide the gin in the toilet tank now, so whenever I need a drink, I feel like having a piss too. I lean over the tank, lift up the ceramic lid, and reach into the clear water for the dark green bottle. The grey pipe makes a gentle hiss. I give the bottle a quick wipe with some toilet paper and unscrew the cap. The afternoon sunlight dances through opaque window panes lighting up the dust floating in the air. I tilt my head back. A rush of clear liquid gushes down my throat.
I slide the gin back into the water, close the tank and head back to the living room. The book of Shakespeare lies on the ground where I left it. It’s an old copy Mei gave me, yellow at the edges and dog-eared. It’s to help with my audition next week at the community theatre. Mei will come to see it if I get a part. Even though I’m not likely to be Benedick. They won’t cast my looks in a lead, even in community. I’ll be a major supporting character though. Claudio probably.
I flip back over the dog-eared pages, trying hard to memorise her favourite passages. Mei loves Shakespeare and the theatre, the words, the romance, the passion. I love it too. That feeling. That rush, when you’re standing on stage and all eyes are on you, and what you say and how you move matters.
The house is quiet. The boiler in an upstairs corner makes a soft burp. I close my eyes for a moment and when I open them again we’re lying side by side. It’s early morning. Rain is making soft patters on the roof. I feel her warm breaths next to my ear. She leans into me. I turn to kiss her sleeping face, nose, and lips. Her eyes, circled with delicate black lashes, flutter open for a second and she reaches up to stroke my cheek. I slide one strap of her nightgown down her shoulder and move towards her. I lean forwards to reach for her lips again and with a thud I roll off the sofa and land face down on the Shakespeare.
I lift my head and give my nose a stiff rub. The light is dimmer outside. Still lying on the carpet, I pick up the Shakespeare again and begin to speak the words. Alcohol sure brings the dreams.
A ringing sounds from the hall. Her ringtone on my phone. I jump up. My head feels like a hammer is going at from behind. I wince, grabbing my head. Little bits of electricity flashes in front of my eyes. I sway and bump into the end table. The phone is in the pocket of my jacket hanging on the bannister. I bend down and wait a few seconds for the banging inside my skull to subside enough for me to run down the landing.
Yes. Mei. Yes. My heart is racing. She sounds muffled. Far away. I try to shake the wool out of my ears. Yes. Yes. Yes, Mei. Dinner, really, of course. I say. No, she didn’t say before. Of course, it’s great. We’ve got some sparkle at home. I can bring it over. 6.30 is perfect. How was the shop today? And the new place by Carnaby Street, you’ve signed the lease for May? That’s wonderful. A real glamourous 1940s Shanghai boutique. Me? I’m doing great, the job is tedious, never-ending research. Lots of regulatory rubbish to get through before anything gets done. The lab office’s got goats milk now, as well as soy and almond. We’re very catered for the dairy conscious.
Why did I say that? It wasn’t funny at all. She laughs nonetheless. Good natured as always.
I hang up and wander into the bedroom. Excitement shivers through me. I should’ve asked Mei what she’d like me to wear. She always knows what looks really good on me.
“Hello!” The door bangs downstairs.
I pick a blue checked shirt and some dark smart jeans. They go well with Blue de Chanel, one of Mei’s favourite scents. I place the outfit on the bed. The shirt is in sore need of an ironing.
“Here you are, I was wandering all over downstairs looking for you.” She plants a damp kiss on my mouth and looks at me with a sweet smile.
“Do you know where the iron is?” I ask her.
“Look what I got, these great sample fabrics. Aren’t they just the prettiest colours.” Sun An beams at me. I walk around her towards the stairs.
“Why do you need the iron, I think it’s in the kitchen.” She dumps some plastic wrappings on the floor. “I don’t like that colour on you, it makes you look washed out sweetheart.” She picks up a sleeve and fingers the fabric.
“Don’t do that. It’s clean.” I say.
“Oh Mr. Grouchy. What’s up with you. Haven’t been drinking today have you?”
Fine, I’d had a glass. I was out with Jon for lunch, another graduate from the programme. He’s moved on into industry now. Better money for raising families at the big pharmas.
“I think I prefer coral #1 over #2. But you do see some subtle sheens in #2 that the other doesn’t have. See? It shimmers in the light.”
I look around the kitchen. The iron is under the table. Sun An’s always putting random things on the floor. The iron, plates, pans, books, toothpaste.
“Come on, darling, pick. It’s important to me.” Sun An shoves the fabric in my face. “It’s not like it’s for the bride’s gown. I know that’s back luck, but it’s ok with the bridesmaid’s dresses. Nothing will go wrong if you look at these. They’re just samples anyway.”
“The pink one.”
“What? No, sweetheart, between these two.” She laughs and waves them at me again. “I know they look pink but look carefully, they’re coral.”
I walk past her to get the ironing board from under the stairs.
“I’ll ask mum. Although she hates coral at weddings, and pastels, so cliché she says. It makes everyone look washed out. Did she call earlier? She said she would when I saw her on Monday.”
“Yes, she did.”
“I’ll give her a call back. What did she say? Is my gown material here?”
“No. We’ve got dinner with her tonight.”
“Oh no. I totally forgot.” Sun An forgets a lot. It’s a miracle she manages to account anything at her accounting job.
“Do we have to go today?” Sun An asks.
“Yes, why not?”
“I just hadn’t planned for it. There’s so much to do for the wedding.” She tucks a strand of long black hair behind her ears. The same silky black hair. The same brown eyes fixed on me. “It’s only 3 months away you know.”
“Yes, I know.”
“Honestly Lewis, I know it’s not a guy thing to dream about weddings and stuff but you’ve got to pay attention sometimes.”
“I supposed I could go by myself, if you don’t want to.”
“What. Why? Who else is going? It’s just dinner. We can go next week.”
“No, she said she had news or something. Why wait until next week?” I run the iron over the sleeves and press the top button and puffs of steam stream out.
“It’s probably just some new pieces for the store opening.”
“Or maybe it’s something for your gown.”
“Oh. Yes, I guess. I can call to check.”
“It’s already 5:30. We can be there in 10 minutes. You can check with her there. It’s better to see something anyway.”
“I suppose you’re right.” She smiles at me, her dimples appearing. They are cute. Just like Mei’s. “Otherwise you’ll just be imagining what it’s like, and then it’ll be too late to do anything about it.”
We make the short drive to Mei’s house on Hampstead Hill. Sun An drives. I hold onto the bottle in the passenger seat. She’s near enough. It’s the best of both worlds this way. Mei understands. She gets to live a fine free life. Unshackled. She’s already tried the whole marriage thing and clearly that hadn’t suited her. She loves children though. Something we’d never be able to experience together.
Maybe I want children, maybe I don’t. My grandfather is still alive. 97, all the way in Hong Kong and still asking about the next in line. You can’t lose face at the Golden Sun Retirement Villa mah jong tables. He’s waited a long time for me not to hook up with an auntie.
It did occur to me, what if I can’t even have children. What if my pipes are blocked or my swimmers lazy. I could do whatever I wanted and it’s not an issue. I needed proof though, so I did it. I sat at that clinic in a room full of magazines of women smiling at me, a cup in my hand. The results came back quick and negative. As in a negative wrong, nothing wrong. I didn’t tell anyone the disappointment.
Mei opens the door, resplendent in green, like a precious emerald. Sun An lunges past me for an embrace. Mei’s cheeks are rosy. I step over the door frame and she gives my arm a warm squeeze, a soft smile on her lips. Her eyes linger on me. She turns to Sun An and listens to her excited updates on wedding arrangements.
“That’s a nice shirt. Good stripes.” She gives me an approving smile. I run a hand through my hair and mutter my thanks. She takes our jackets and we walk through into the living room.
A form rises from the light green velvet couch. A long arm shoves out, first to Sun An, then to me. Square white teeth. Chiselled jaws. I take his hand and feel coarse skin curve around my fingers in a tough firm grip. The crack of knuckles sound.
Mei steps around me and goes to his side. My throat tightens. Her hand slides around his hips. She tips her chin up and smiles at him. This is George. Nice to meet you both, he says, I’ve heard so much about you, Mei talks about you all the time. Odd. We’ve never heard of you.
“How wonderful to meet you!” Sun An chatters. “So, you’re the reason mum’s been so happy.”
“Oh, you’re such a good baby, noticing your old mama.” Mei laughs.
“I hear you guys are tying the knot soon.” His voice is deep.
“I’m so proud and relieved. I was terrified at your age, never wanted to get tied down.” Mei sits. “Thought I’d traumatised you forever Sunny, when I took you from your papa and moved half way across the world.”
“No, not when the right person comes along.” Sun An sits down next to Mei.
“I couldn’t see you two together at first. Lewis, so sensitive, and shy, just like you. How can two such introverts ever connect. You need compatibility. Something extra.” Mei brushes Sun An hair. “But, I was wrong. Here you are. And I can’t wait for the grandbabies!”
“Oh mummy. No, I don’t want to lose my figure yet!” They burst into laughter.
“How did you propose?” His black eyes swivel to me.
I sit down on the reading chair opposite them. My legs losing strength.
“Yes, fine. I’m a bit lightheaded.”
“Let’s go eat. It’s probably low blood sugar. Everything is ready in the dining room. George made some pasta himself, from scratch. We’ve had it before. It’s delicious.”
“Yes! This is all really exciting mum. You’ll have the handsomest date at the wedding.” Sun An giggles with a hand to her mouth.
I look at his face again. Smooth skin. Neatly trimmed beard. Dark, thick eyebrows.
“How old are you?”
“Lewis!” Sun An coughs.
“No, it’s ok. I get that a lot. That’s why I grew out the beard. Can’t grow wrinkles fast enough though.”
“All right for some!” Mei touches his neck with another smile. What would my hand feel like placed there?
“I’m turning 28 at the end of this month.”
We sit down to eat. Ravioli. With tuna. Or lobster. I can’t tell. Sun An is in love with it.
“What do you do?” She pauses chewing to ask.
“I’m a pharmacist.” He replies.
“That’s interesting.” I say.
He bites down on a stick of asparagus.
Sun An nods. “Saving lives with medication. It’s very noble work.”
“Why? It’s not like being a doctor. You’re just following orders. Picking out things from a list. Like an Amazon centre dispatcher.”
Sun An glares at me. “You have to be on call sometimes late into the night, right? Emergency dispensary.”
“I hear you’re in a similar field, Lewis.” He asks.
“Not really. I’m a Biomedical Scientist. Pharmacological research, investigation and innovation of new drugs. It’s entirely different from handing out pills.”
I feel Sun An’s cotton covered foot press down on top of mine. I snatch my feet away, making her jolt.
“Bio break.” I stand, knocking the table, making the glasses shake. They stare at me.
I walk out into the hall and down to the front room. Mei keeps her spirits in an old oak cabinet by the window. I pull out a large glass bottle. A souvenir from her trip to Neuchatel, Switzerland, home of the bright green liquid. I unscrew the top and take three large gulps. The burning on my throat leaves my eyes watering. I shut the cupboard and run into the downstairs toilet, run the taps and gulp some water, swilling it around my mouth and spitting it out before going back into the dining room. The two women are laughing.
“I’m coming around to coral. It’s growing on me. I’m glad you’re going traditional but it really does clash.”
Something else clashes. It’s me. My elbow slips off the table and my chin almost lands on my plate.
“Lewis, what is the matter with you today?” Sun An hisses. “You’re sweating.” Mei looks over at us, her thin eyebrows begin to furrow.
“You’re fine.” I say.
“Fine. I mean…I’m fine.”
“Why don’t you go lie down on the couch in the living room?” Mei says.
Sun An follows me. She sits cross-legged on the floor beside the couch and starts talking. I place a hand over my face. Doesn’t mum look good, she chirps, don’t they look perfect together. Isn’t it wonderful. Isn’t he wonderful.
I can’t stop her.
“I can’t imagine her with anyone else.”
I choke back a gentle gag.
“Lewis, where are you going?” Sun An grabs my hand but it slips from her fingers.
I’m at the front door, grasping at the knob. The door flies open. I stagger and stumble down the path towards the gate, push it open and step into the road. The trees sway and wave their branches, laughing at me. A honking horn blares through my head. I turn my face just as the car slams into my side. The blow hits me just below my ribcage and sends me flying. Tires screech and then I’m on my back. I stare up. A bird flutters far above to the left.
Sun An begins to shriek my name.
I should’ve walked out quicker. I could’ve outrun him. If only. Missed opportunity.
I can’t just lie here. I need to get up.
More voices yell. My god. I’ve killed him.
Can you get up…can you get up…can you…
Y F. Zhang
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