Movement of Jah People, by Rich Selwyn
Old Kuang handed me a red envelope.
‘You can’t have.’
Kuang said nothing. He was staring into his book.
‘I’m an hour and a half late.’
Kuang continued reading.
‘And after what happened to me this evening,’ I said. ‘I almost didn’t come.’
Kuang turned his page. I opened the envelope. Inside there was a slip of paper with three numbers written on it. Today it said 8.27. I looked at my watch then back at Kuang.
‘Incredible,’ I said, but Kuang ignored me.
I set to work, unfolding my furniture, and tying my poster to the railings. It was a Saturday night. On the other side of the Jade Market, a street-side karaoke bar was testing its speakers. A Cantonese song – ‘80s synths and guitar solos – cut through the sweating air.
‘Do you know this song?’ I asked Kuang.
Resting his book in his lap, Kuang hummed a few bars.
‘Is it a love song?’ I said.
Kuang picked up his book again.
‘What do you know?’ he said. ‘Where were your parents from? Didn’t they make you listen to this song?’
I shook my head. My parents were from Taiwan. They spoke Mandarin Chinese, and listened to classical music.
‘Back in England,’ I said, ‘they don’t play much Chinese music on the radio.’
Kuang tutted. ‘It’s about a sailor,’ he said. ‘Everyone knows it.’
He translated a couple of lines into English, and sang them in time to the music.
‘Oh yeah, it’s not easy, girl. Not easy when you’re so far from home.’
‘Is that what it means?’ I said.
‘More or less.’
I heard a yelp from across the road, and looked up to see Xiao-Su cursing a taxi driver. He was shaking his fist at a rolled up window.
‘Did you see that?’ he said, handing me my soya milk and my mountain dew. ‘That bastard ran over my foot.’
Kuang started laughing.
‘Don’t you start,’ Xiao-Su said, pointing a pudgy finger at Kuang.
‘Sei sup ng,’ Kuang said, and Xiao-Su answered. They talked hurriedly, ending their conversation with a warm handshake.
‘What do you guys talk about?’ I said.
‘He wanted to know about weddings,’ Kuang said.
I took a sip of my soya milk, and waited for my first customers. Tonight, it was a British couple. They were in Hong Kong for a holiday, and looked exhausted.
‘He’s not into this,’ the woman said. ‘So how much for one go?’
‘Two hundred dollar,’ I said. ‘I give good reading.’
The woman looked for approval from her husband then took a seat in the chair. Her husband stood behind, resting one hand on her shoulder.
‘First,’ I said, ‘I want know family history. You have children?’
The woman shook her head. ‘Not that I know of,’ she said.
‘You have brother?’ I said.
‘What you have?’ I said.
The woman reached behind her, placing a hand on her husband’s leg, and scratching the back of his knee with her fingernails.
‘I have my husband,’ she said.
I picked up a book and pretended to flick through it.
‘Ah,’ I said, ‘give me your head.’
The woman looked confused. I held out my hands.
‘Put your head here,’ I said. ‘I give good reading.’
The woman tilted her head forward, and I placed my thumbs on her cheeks. I ran my fingers through her hair, and scratched lightly at the back of her skull. I drew figures of eight around her crown before feeling her neck relax and the weight of her head fall into my hands. I focused on the spot between the woman’s eyebrows. A crack had appeared, not much more than a dot. Keeping my left hand on her crown, I placed my thumbnail lightly on the opening. The woman’s head fell heavier into my hands and the crack expanded. I wriggled my nail into the gap, massaging it outwards until I could fit my little finger inside.
Like kneading dough, I continued to pull and stretch, first one way and then the other, switching to my index finger, and then my hand, and then both hands, pushing my arms further and further into this crack in the woman’s thoughts. Leaning forward, I rested my forehead against hers, and pressed my face, and then my whole head between the woman’s eyebrows. I got up out of my chair and relaxed my shoulders, wriggling them through behind me. My arms pressed against the walls of the hole, stretching it to its widest point. Inching forward, I moved towards the tipping point then felt myself fall.
I landed in a dark, wet tunnel. It was noisy inside. It felt like hiding behind a curtain at a grownup party; chattering – rising, falling, swelling, deflating. The air was dank, and smelled like rotting fruit. Beneath me, the floor was coated in thick gunk. I pulled a hand from the muck and tried to stand up, steadying myself on the wall beside me.
Lights flashed on my right and my left. They were brighter on the left so I waded towards those, my feet sticking with each step. At one point, my shoe slipped off, and when I reached down to get it, I found the gloop was too thick to penetrate. I carried on without it, feeling the sharp pinch of gravel on the balls of my feet. I felt a heavy dollop of slime hit my cheek, and wiped it away with my hand. It left behind a sticky residue, which I smeared into my sleeve.
This woman’s mind was a mess, but no more so than most others. I had landed in places wetter, darker and noisier than this. Sometimes there was only sound. On those days, I normally just made it up. Said something to the customer like: ‘You make one bad decision, but it already happen. Now, I see good thing happen to you.’ Which was normally good enough. Days like that, I wondered why I bothered going in at all. I used to think it was a kind of professional pride which kept me from faking it. These days, I think it was just curiosity.
I reached the wall of lights and put a hand out to feel it. It was crumbly and coated with dust. I touched the brightest part and felt chunks of wall break away. I ran my hand across it, looking for a ridge I could get a handle on. Finding one at shoulder height, I started to pull the wall apart. I tore at the brickwork, and scratched with my fingernails. That noise was getting louder now, swelling into an insect-like buzz. I felt a yearning to lift up that curtain and take a peep at the forbidden cocktail party. But as I listened, I lost my footing. I started falling towards the lights, expecting pain. But when I opened my eyes, I found myself standing over two teenage lovers fooling around in a double bed.
It was light, and must have been late afternoon. The room smelt musky, and the kids looked nervous. They had already started taking off their school uniforms, the boy’s blazer and shirt heaped at the end of the bed. They kissed, and the girl’s body rippled with confidence. She pulled at the knot of her school tie and started to undo the buttons of her shirt. This was enough.
‘When you born?’ I said.
I took my hands from the woman’s head and picked a book from my table. I pretended to skim through it.
‘March 11th,’ she said.
‘No, no, no! What year?’
‘Oh, um, 1972.’
I turned the pages of my book.
‘Interesting,’ I said. ‘Very interesting.’
I pretended to read for a moment then slammed the book closed.
‘When you confident,’ I said, ‘you make good decision.’
The woman looked at her husband and smiled.
‘But when you not confident,’ I said, ‘bad thing happen.’
‘What bad things?’ she said.
‘Already happen,’ I said. ‘In your life - you confident, have good thing. You shy, have bad thing.’
I opened a different book, and flicked through it.
‘What day you marry?’ I said.
‘June 7th,’ she said.
I kept my eyes on the book.
‘You want lucky day?’ I said. ‘Make big decision February 12th. You have good luck then.’
I shook both their hands and touched the woman’s forehead with the end of my fingers, stitching the crack back together.
‘Thank you very much,’ I said. ‘Two hundred dollar.’
By twelve o’clock, the street markets had all closed and the tourists gone back to their hotels. The karaoke bar had turned its speakers up, the Cantonese hits broken only occasionally by the odd Mandarin or English song. The lights inside the restaurants were beginning to turn off, leaving behind only the soft, neon glow of the restaurant signs and advertising billboards. Kuang was taking down his marquee, stacking his books on his trolley. I folded my chairs and tables and leant them against each other. A young, middle-eastern boy approached us.
‘You want girls?’ he said.
I stopped what I was doing.
‘What do you think we are?’ Kuang said. ‘We’re not tourists.’
The pimp looked up and down the road.
‘Hashish?’ he said.
Kuang turned to face him.
‘Get out of here,’ he said. ‘Get back to Wanchai.’
The man put his hands in his pockets, and shrugged. He walked slowly to the end of the street, taking a left down Nathan Road.
‘Do you fancy a beer?’ Kuang said. He was tying his equipment together, pulling his flexi-cable tight and hooking it to his trolley.
‘I thought you’d never ask,’ I said.
We wheeled our equipment down Shanghai Street, crossing over Austin Road towards the Old Star Guesthouse. We passed twenty-four-hour McDonalds and late night 7/11s, expensive bars and by the hour hotels. In the recesses of the buildings, prostitutes waited for customers. As we passed, the girls fidgeted, shifting their weight from side to side.
Kuang lit a cigarette, and behind us a car horn beeped. I turned round. A tall Chinese man was stumbling across the road, his arm linked with a girl in red.
‘Everyone’s looking for Suzie Wong,’ I said to Kuang.
I looked back behind us. The couple were walking in the other direction, lurching left and right as the man tried to keep his balance. I took a hand off my trolley, and felt my pocket. There was a lot of cash there, and it made me edgy to think of it. Earlier that afternoon, I had been visited by the Hong Kong immigration authorities. They had reminded me I wasn’t supposed to be working. This looked suspiciously like I was.
We hooked a left on to Cameron Street. On each side of the road, signs written in Chinese and English hung from the buildings. They stretched almost into the centre, and advertised hotels, spas, restaurants, and pharmacists. Posters comparing Mainland Chinese people to locusts had been put up over some on some of the walls. It was part of an internet campaign that had turned especially nasty. It was mostly over now. No one was putting up new posters anyway.
The legitimate businesses were shut now. The only open doors showed staircases plastered with posters: airbrushed Asian girls posing in cowboy hats and neon underwear. Beside these pictures, pricelists displayed the cost of a foot, back, and head massage.
I was walking faster than Kuang, and could already see the sign for the Old Star Guesthouse. I touched the money in my pocket, and looked behind me. Kuang was lighting another cigarette. I craned my head to look further back, but saw only the road.
Earlier, when the immigration policeman had asked how I was supporting myself, I had told him I was spending my inheritance.
‘Why live in Hong Kong?’ he said.
‘I want to learn Cantonese,’ I said.
He was looking at my passport, tilting the information page backwards and forwards in the light.
‘Are your parents Chinese?’ he said.
‘Taiwanese,’ I said, holding my hand out for my passport. He didn’t give it to me. Instead, he turned the pages, looking for my entry stamp.
‘You have two months before your visa runs out. What do you plan to do then?’
I couldn’t tell him the truth. My plan was to go to Macau, breaking my stay in Hong Kong and giving me another hundred and eighty days to work.
‘Not sure,’ I said. ‘I need to look at flight options.’
Kuang reached me, and we wheeled our trolleys inside. We locked them together with a chain and walked downstairs to the bar. The place was quiet for a Saturday; the only noise coming from a group of students playing drinking games in a corner. The only other customer was a middle-aged man sat up at the bar. He drank silently, his eyes focused on the smart phone in his lap.
We sat in a booth and ordered two bottles of beer.
‘What kept you tonight?’ Kuang said.
I looked over my shoulder. The man at the bar had half-turned his head, his ear now pointing towards us.
‘I’ll save it,’ I said. ‘I’m trying not to think about it.’
Kuang took off his glasses, and wiped the steam with the hem of his t-shirt.
‘Immigration?’ he said.
‘Let me tell you about my afternoon then,’ he said.
The waitress laid two bottles of beer on our table, and walked back behind the bar. She was wearing a short skirt, and my eye was drawn to the flash of skin above her knee. Tsingtao beer was written across her bottom.
‘I was riding the subway,’ Kuang said, ‘ had planned to take a walk around the zoological gardens, grab lunch at that Thai place we were at last week. But as soon as I passed the barriers, I felt my stomach turn and my head start to spin.’
I took a sip from my bottle. ‘What had you eaten?’ I said. ‘Because I think that Thai place is no good. I think they do something funny to their pork.’
Kuang shook his head. ‘It wasn’t that,’ he said. ‘Something really wasn’t right. Not in me, but around me. The only person in my line of sight was this gorgeous girl – about ten yards ahead of me. Prettiest girl I’ve seen in a long time. Tight jeans, long legs.’
‘What are you telling me this for?’ I said. ‘I’m having a hard enough time as it is. This isn’t going to be a dirty story is it?’
Kuang choked on his beer.
‘What do you take me for?’ he said. ‘Can we be serious for a second here?
I looked at his face, but couldn’t tell if he was joking. The lights of the bar had turned his cheeks a funny colour, and his forehead was starting to sweat.
‘When I got on the train,’ he said, ‘the only seat left was next to her. I sat down, and felt my insides twist again. My eyes fell out of focus, and I found myself blinking hard. I looked at the girl and she smiled at me. “Are you feeling all right?” she said, and I raised a hand. “It’s the heat,” I said, and rested my head on my knees.
‘That’s when it hit me. It wasn’t like normal – this felt like I’d slipped through a rabbit hole or something. And when I found myself inside, there wasn’t any choice going on. No noise, no light, just one pulsing wall playing the same memory on repeat. I rested against it, and found myself focusing on this tree. I was pretty far away from it, but it was the only thing worth looking at – the rest just grass and sky.’
I took a sip from my glass.
‘Are you listening?’ he said.
‘Yeah, yeah,’ I said. ‘Trees and grass. Keep going.’
‘Well,’ he said, ‘I moved closer to the tree, and saw that there was something strange growing off its branches. The fruit hung down like vines, almost touching the ground. I moved closer and saw that that fruit was people. Chinese people - looked like farmers. They’d been hung by their necks from a cherry tree. I was so close now I could see their sunburn. I reached up to touch them and noticed there were blossom petals resting on their shoulders and necks.
‘Then I was thrown right out of there, and when I opened my eyes, the girl next to me was gone, and the train was sitting at Central, about to go off in the other direction. “You all right, Uncle?” some kid asked, but I couldn’t answer. I walked off the train, out the station and over towards that big shopping mall in Repulse Bay. The sun had gone down, and I guess I must have been out like that for hours.’
‘I’m surprised you made it on time,’ I said.
Kuang shook his head.
‘I didn’t,’ he said. ‘I got there ten minutes before you.’
I swallowed my saliva. The bar was quieter now. The students had all gone, but the man at the bar was still there. He was staring into a Rolling Stones poster on the wall, his smart phone resting in his lap.
‘Yep, well,’ Kuang said, tearing small strips of paper from the label on his beer.
‘Yep, well,’ I said.
‘And the immigration people?’ Kuang said.
‘I’ll tell you tomorrow,’ I said. ‘It’s not important.’
My shadow stretched halfway down Shanghai Street as I shouted people out of my way to keep a steady pace. I was unpractised with the new weight, and regretted not having made things easier for myself. It was rush hour, and the streets were busy. I could’ve come earlier, when the sun was higher, when the air pollution was lower.
I took the second hand marquee from the trolley, and looked over the fabric. It had belonged to a fruit seller previously, and was a little stained. When I clipped the fabric to the frame, I could still see the outline of his stand. The years of sun damage had made the top half almost pink, keeping the bottom half a bright red. I didn’t mind. I had bought it cheap, and by the time night came, no one would be able to tell.
I had my feet rested on the table when Kuang arrived. As he pushed his trolley - his forehead strained, and his arms tensed - I tried to look relaxed.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘not too bad, ay?’
Kuang said nothing, but handed me a red envelope. I pulled it open. Inside there was a note with three numbers written on it. Today it said 5.15.
‘But how could you know?’ I said. ‘I arrived before you.’
Kuang ignored me. He put down his chair and started to read.
I crossed the road to take a look at my new stand. It looked good. I had tied my posters to the side of the tent and stacked several old-looking books on the table. I tried walking away and then walking back, pretending to be a tourist. As I passed it, the purple tablecloth caught my eye, and an idea came to me: If I tied the tablecloth to the front of the tent, I could fold it down for extra privacy. I figured it might be good for hiding from the immigration people, too. I shared this idea with Kuang.
‘What do you think?’ I said.
Kuang kept his eyes on his book, but gave me a thumbs up. I tied the cloth to the tent with a granny knot, and sat down on my folding chair. I put my feet back up, and felt the table wobble. I took one of my books and placed it under the front left leg then felt the table again. It seemed solid.
Across the road, a sparrow was dancing on the shop awnings. It flitted between buildings before squeezing into a hole three floors above street level. I watched the hole, and saw three or four smaller birds fly out for a last look at the sun. I looked back down. Xiao-Su was standing at the door of his 7/11. He ran across the road, his hand extended to keep the traffic still.
‘No time,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you your bill tomorrow.’
He handed me my soya milk and my mountain dew, then gave Kuang a bottle of water. He stopped to talk with Kuang, and I tried to listen. They were talking quickly, and I couldn’t catch much of what was said. Xiao-Su looked agitated, his arms up in disbelief. Even Kuang seemed moved. Later that evening, when the flow of customers slowed, I stepped out my booth to ask Kuang about it.
‘Just politics,’ he said, and waved me away.
Kuang was terse, but I could understand it. He was in character, and didn’t want me to break it.
I returned to my booth, and found a teenage boy examining my posters.
‘Hello,’ I said, ‘you want good fortune telling? You sit, sit.’
The boy looked confused.
‘Nihao,’ he said, ‘can you speak Chinese?’
‘I can,’ I said, then - switching to English - added: ‘but I too speak English very good.’
The boy said nothing.
‘What would you like?’ I said, reverting to Chinese. I gestured to the chair in front of the table. ‘Please, sit.’
‘No,’ the boy said. ‘I have no money.’
I put my hands in my pockets, hoping the boy would leave.
‘No money,’ I said, ‘no reading.’
He looked back at the posters, tracing the lines of qi with his index finger.
‘What can you tell me?’ he said.
I scratched the crown of my head.
‘I do –‘ I looked for the word in Chinese - ‘future telling,’ I said. ‘Or, um, brain reading.’
‘Anything else?’ the boy said, and I shook my head. He reached a hand into his pocket and pulled out a handful of change. ‘Is this enough?’ he said.
I looked it over then held out my hand to accept.
‘Okay,’ I said. ‘But it’ll have to be quick.’
The boy poured his coins into my hand and took a seat. I took down my purple ex-tablecloth, and sealed us inside.
‘Close your eyes, please,’ I said, placing my hands on his head and my thumbs on his cheeks. He closed his eyes, and I drew figures of eight on his cheeks and scratched at the back of his head. The hole between his eyebrows opened to the size of five pence piece. I put my little finger inside and felt my whole hand pulled inwards. I was up to my elbow before I knew it. Slipping into that hole felt like falling over.
When I opened my eyes, I found myself up to my chest in water. I stood up on my tip-toes, and looked around. The cavern was silent, except for a regular mechanical clunk coming from behind me. I turned round, and saw a heavy hunk of metal moving rhythmically. I swam towards the machine, pulling myself up on its platform. The machine was making nails, its weight concentrated on a Philips head screw. It cut grooves with each beat, working under its own energy. There was a handle beside it. I pulled it, but it did nothing.
I looked around to see what else there was, and as I did so, the water on the floor started draining in front of me. I heard pipe gurgling noises, and then in front of me stood three human figures. Signs had been hung round their necks, Chinese characters saying ‘mum’, ‘dad’, and ‘little sister’. I rubbed my eyes, stepped off the platform, and found myself standing in a field. A tree was breaking the horizontal symmetry, and hanging from that tree were those figures Kuang had described. I found myself walking towards them, my eyes focusing on the outline of their bodies. I tried to turn away, but my feet carried me closer. I was close enough now to make out the patterns on the men’s t-shirts. I could see that some of their shoes had fallen off their feet, and now lay on the ground in the shade of that cherry tree. I felt myself reaching up to touch the leg of one of the men.
‘What the hell do you think you’re doing?!’ I said, but I had spoken in English. The boy looked back at me, his face dumb and smiling. ‘Why are you doing this?’ I said, switching to Chinese.
‘Doing?’ he said.
I took the boy’s money from my pocket and handed it back to him.
‘I don’t understand,’ he said.
‘I can’t tell you anything,’ I said. ‘I’ve got nothing.’
‘Didn’t you see my future?’ the boy said. He looked down for a second, then added quietly: ‘My past?’
I tried to brush him away, the way I had seen Kuang do it.
‘Just go,’ I said. ‘I can’t tell you anything.’
The boy stood up, knocking the money from my hand. The coins scattered on the ground, rolling outside the tent and onto the street. The booth was still sealed, and the boy now stood with his back to the purple tablecloth. He was breathing heavily, and I thought he was going to hit me. I scanned the table for a heavy object and picked up the biggest book I could find. I held it to my face as a warning.
‘Aiya!’ he said. ‘What do you think I am?!’
I said nothing, holding the book tightly in my hands. My arms were shaking and my temples throbbed. I looked around the tent for something more threatening, but found nothing.
‘What did you see?’ he said.
I stared back at him.
‘Just tell me what you saw,’ he said.
I was quiet.
‘You stupid old fuck!’ he said. ‘What did you see?’
The boy gestured at me contemptuously, and rushed out through the tablecloth. I dropped the book onto the table and put my head in my hands. I was sweating, and my temples pulsed. What was wrong with that boy? A breeze passed over my ankles, and I noticed the bottom left hand corner of my tablecloth had blown open. I watched it flap backwards and forwards, and thought about getting up to close it. I didn’t want to get up.
Behind the curtain, I could hear talking in Cantonese. Two men were discussing something important. Their voices were sharp, and they spoke almost under their breath. I looked at my table and saw the book I had been about to use as a weapon. It was a Chinese translation of the Bhagavad Gita. It had been published in the ‘70s, but without its dust jacket looked much older. I picked it up and felt its weight in my hands. It felt light. I looked at it. It looked cheap. I looked around my tent. The whole thing looked cheap.
I closed my eyes and tried to remember the boy’s face. His nose was flat and he had high cheekbones like a Mongolian. He spoke with a slight northern accent, but I wouldn’t have been able to place it. Really, what was wrong with him? He had done nothing wrong, he just was wrong. His memories were wrong, his thoughts were wrong. It felt like he had done it on purpose. I wanted to ask Kuang if he’d seen anything like it.
The tablecloth jerked sideways, and a young face poked through. It addressed me in Cantonese.
‘I’m sorry,’ I said, ‘I don’t understand Cantonese.’
The head withdrew, and the curtain was pulled fully open. Two uniformed policemen stood in front of me. They hesitated to address me, each waiting for the other to begin. My breathing was still unsteady.
‘Well?’ I said, feeling a wobble in my voice.
‘We’re…’ They had said it simultaneously, and it surprised them. They muttered to each other, and the older officer took a step into my tent.
‘We’re sorry to come round so late,’ he said, ‘but there’ve been reports of a missing man hanging out round here.’
The younger man stepped forward, holding out a black and white CCTV picture for me to look at.
‘Do you recognise him?’ He spoke carefully, punching out each word as if afraid to get it wrong. I took the picture and examined it. It showed a young boy crouching beside a stairwell. He was wearing a hoodie and had a small, teenage moustache.
‘Mister Hu thinks he was with you tonight.’
‘Mister Hu?’ I said. The man gestured towards Kuang. I kept my eyes on the picture. It was grainy and difficult to make out, but I knew who they were looking for.
‘Is he dangerous?’ I said.
The men shook their heads.
‘Not dangerous,’ the man with the mole said. ‘Just missing.’
I waited for them to continue, but the officers were distracted. They were looking over the contents of my tent. It wasn’t a policeman’s glance. They looked like customers checking out my credentials. Old books – check. Posters – check. Their eyes both rested on the Bhagavad Gita.
‘Is this yours?’ the young man said.
I nodded. I wasn’t used to customers who could read Chinese.
‘Do you use it?’ he said.
I picked it up and flicked through the pages.
‘Sometimes,’ I said. ‘It depends on the case.’
‘Will you do me?’ he said, but his partner jabbed him in the ribs.
‘Look,’ the old guy said, ‘all we really need to know is whether you saw this guy or not.’
‘Look,’ I said, ‘I didn’t ask for this intrusion. And yes, if you’d just come out and said it, I did see him. I’m not the one wasting everyone’s time here.’
The men nodded and put their caps back on.
‘We’re sorry to have inconvenienced you,’ the old man said. ‘We’ll be back within the week to finish our report.’