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Authors: Janice Y.K. Lee

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BOOK: The Piano Teacher
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“Indeed,” Claire murmured. Mrs. Chen came back into the room and sat down next to her husband. The amah came in next and offered Claire a napkin. It had blue cornflowers on it.
“These are lovely,” she said, inspecting the embroidered linen.
“They’re from Ireland! ” Mrs. Chen said. “I just got them! ”
“I just bought some lovely Chinese tablecloths at the China Emporium,” Claire said. “Beautiful lace cutwork.”
“You can’t compare them with the Irish ones, though,” Mrs. Chen said. “Very crude.”
Mr. Chen viewed his wife with amusement.
“Women!” he said to Claire. Another amah brought in a tray of drinks.
Claire sipped at her drink and felt the gassy bubbles in her mouth. Victor Chen looked at her expectantly.
“The Communists are a great threat,” she said. This is what she had heard again and again at gatherings.
Mr. Chen laughed.
“Of course! And what will you and Melody do about them? ”
“Shut up, darling. Don’t tease,” said his wife. She took a sip of her drink. Victor watched her.
“What’s that you’re drinking, love? ”
“A little cocktail,” she said. “I’ve had a long day.” She sounded defensive.
There was a pause.
“Locket is a good student,” Claire said, “ but she needs to practice more.”
“It’s not her fault,” Mrs. Chen said breezily. “I’m not here to oversee her practice enough.”
Mr. Chen laughed. “Oh, she’ll be fine,” he said. “I’m sure she knows what she’s doing.”
Claire nodded. Parents were all the same. When she had children, she would be sure not to indulge them. She set her drink down.
“I should be going,” she said. “It’s harder to get a seat on the bus after five.”
“Are you sure? ” Mrs. Chen said. “Pai was getting us some biscuits.”
“Oh, no,” she demurred. “I really should be leaving.”
“We’ll have Truesdale drive you home,” Mr. Chen offered.
“Oh, no,” Claire said. “I couldn’t put you out.”
“Do you know him? ” Mr. Chen asked. “He’s English.”
“I haven’t had the pleasure,” Claire said.
“Hong Kong is very small,” Mr. Chen said. “It’s tiresome that way.”
“It’s no trouble at all for Truesdale,” Mrs. Chen said. “He’ll be going home anyway. Where do you live? ”
“Happy Valley,” answered Claire, feeling put on the spot.
“Oh, that’s near where he lives!” Mrs. Chen cried, delighted at the coincidence. “So, it’s settled.” She called for Pai in Cantonese and told her to call the driver.
“Chinese is such an intriguing language,” Claire said. “I hope to pick some up during our time here.”
Mr. Chen raised an eyebrow.
he said, “is very difficult. There are some nine different tones for one sound. It’s much more difficult than English. I picked up rudimentary English in a year, but I’m sure I wouldn’t have been able to learn Cantonese or Mandarin or Shanghainese in twice that.”
“Well,” she said brightly, “One always hopes.”
Pai walked in and spoke. Mrs. Chen nodded.
“I’m terribly sorry,” she said, “but the driver seems to have left already.”
“I’ll be fine taking the bus,” Claire said. Mr. Chen stood up as she picked up her things.
“It was very nice to meet you,” he said.
“And you,” she said, and walked out, feeling their eyes on her back.
At home, Martin had arrived already.
“Hullo,” he said. “You’re late today.” He was in an undershirt and his weekend trousers, which were stained and shiny at the knees. He had a drink in his hand.
She took off her jacket and put on a pot of water to boil.
“I was at the Chens’ house today,” she said. “Her parents asked me to stay for a drink.”
“Victor Chen, is it? ” he asked, impressed. “He’s rather a big deal here.”
“I gathered,” she said. “He was quite something. Not at all like a Chinaman.”
“You shouldn’t use that word, Claire,” Martin said. “It’s very old-fashioned and a bit insulting.”
Claire colored.
“I’ve just never . . .” She trailed off. “I’ve never seen Chinese people like this.”
“You are in Hong Kong,” Martin said, not unkindly. “There are all types of Chinese.”
“Where is the amah? ” she asked, wanting to change the subject.
Yu Ling came from the back when Claire called.
“Can you help with dinner? ” Claire said. “I bought some meat at the market.”
Yu Ling looked at her impassively. She had a way of making Claire feel uncomfortable, but she couldn’t bring herself to sack her. She wondered how the other wives did it—they appeared to handle the help with an easy aplomb that seemed unfamiliar and unattainable to Claire. Some even joked with them and treated them like family members, but she’d heard that was more the American influence. Her friend Cecilia had her amah brush her hair for her before she went to bed, while she sat at her dressing table and put on cold cream. Claire handed Yu Ling the meat she had bought on the way home.
Amah put to work, she went and lay down on the bed with a cold compress over her eyes. How had she gotten here, to this small flat on the other side of the world? She remembered her quiet childhood in Croydon, an only child sitting at her mother’s side while she mended clothes, listening to her talk. Her mother had been bitter at what life had handed her, a hand-to-mouth existence, especially after the war, and her father drank too much, maybe because of it. Claire had never imagined life being much more than that. But marrying Martin had thrown everything up in the air and changed it all.
But this was the thing: she, herself, had changed in Hong Kong. Something about the tropical clime had ripened her appearance, brought everything into harmony. Where the other Englishwomen looked as if they were about to wilt in the heat, she thrived, like a hothouse flower. Her hair had lightened in the tropical sun until it was veritably gold. She perspired lightly so that her skin looked dewy, not drenched. She lost weight so that her body hung together compactly and her eyes sparkled, cornflower blue. Martin had remarked on it, how the heat seemed to suit her. When she was at the Gripps or at a dinner party, she saw that men looked at her longer than necessary, came over to talk to her, let their hands linger on her back. She was learning how to speak to people at parties, order in a restaurant with confidence. She felt as if she were finally becoming a woman, not the girl she had been when she had left England. She felt as if she were a woman coming into her own.
And then the next week, after Locket’s lesson, the porcelain rabbit had fallen into her purse.
The week after, the phone rang and Locket leaped up to answer it, eager for any excuse to stop mangling the prelude she had been playing, and while she had been chattering away to a schoolmate, Claire saw a silk scarf lying on a chair. It was a beautiful, printed scarf, the kind women tied around their necks. She put it in her bag. A wonderful sense of calm came over her. And when Locket came back into the room with only a mumbled “Sorry, Mrs. Pendleton,” Claire smiled instead of giving the little girl a piece of her mind. When she got home, she went into the bedroom, locked the door, and pulled out the scarf. It was an Hermès scarf, from Paris, and had pictures of zebras and lions in vivid oranges and browns. She practiced tying it around her neck, and over her head, like an adventurous heiress on safari. She felt very glamorous.
The next month, after a conversation where Mrs. Chen told her she sent all her fine washing to Singapore, because “the girls here don’t know how to do it properly, and, of course, that means I have to have triple the amount of linens, what a bother,” Claire found herself walking out with two of those wonderful Irish napkins in her skirt pocket. She had Yu Ling hand wash and iron them so that she and Martin could use them with dinner. She pocketed three French cloisonné turtles while Locket had abruptly gone to the bathroom—as if the child couldn’t take care of nature’s business before Claire arrived! A pair of sterling salt and pepper shakers found their way into her purse as she was passing through the dining room, and an exquisite Murano perfume bottle left out in the living room, as if Melody Chen had dashed some scent on as she was breezing her way through the foyer on her way to a gala event, was palmed and discreetly tucked into Claire’s skirt pocket.
Another afternoon, she was leaving when she heard Victor Chen in his study. He was talking loudly into the telephone and had left his door slightly ajar.
“It’s the bloody British,” he said, before lapsing into Cantonese. Then, “can’t let them,” and then some more incomprehensible language that sounded very much like swearing. “They want to create unrest, digging up skeletons that should be left in the closet, and all for their own purposes. The Crown Collection didn’t belong to them in the first place. It’s all our history, our artifacts, that they just took for their own. How’d they like it if Chinese explorers came to their country years ago and made off with all their treasures? It’s outrageous. Downing Street’s behind all of this, I can assure you. There’s no need for this right now.” He was very agitated and Claire found herself waiting outside, breath held, to see if she couldn’t hear anything more. She stood there until Pai came along and looked at her questioningly. She pretended she had been looking at the brush painting in the hallway, but she could feel Pai’s eyes on her as she walked toward the door. She let herself out and went home.
Two weeks later, when Claire went for her lesson, she found Pai gone and a new girl opening the door.
“This is Su Mei,” Locket told her when they entered the room. “She’s from China, from a farm. She just arrived. Do you want something to drink? ”
The new girl was small and dark and would have been pretty if it hadn’t been for a large black birthmark on her right cheek. She never looked up from the floor.
“Her family didn’t want her because the mark on her face would make her hard to marry off. It’s supposedly very bad luck.”
“Did your mother tell you that? ” Claire asked.
“Yes,” Locket said. She hesitated. “Well, I heard her say it on the telephone, and she said she got her very cheap because of it. Su Mei doesn’t know anything! She tried to go to the bathroom in the bushes outside and Ah Wing beat her and told her she was like an animal. She’s never used a faucet before or had running water! ”
“I’d like a bitter lemon, please, if you have it,” Claire said, wanting to change the subject.
Locket spoke to the girl quickly. She left the room silently.
“Pai was stealing from us,” Locket said, eyes wide with the scandal. “So Mummy had to let her go. Pai cried and cried, and then she beat the floor with her fists. Mummy said she was hysterical and she slapped her in the face to stop her crying. They had to get Mr. Wong to carry Pai out. He put her over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes and she was hitting his back with her fists.”
“Oh! ” Claire said before she could stifle the cry.
Locket looked at her curiously.
“Mummy says all servants steal.”
“Does she, now?” Claire asked. “How terrible. But you know, Locket, I’m not sure that’s true.” She remembered the way Pai had looked at her when she came upon her in the hallway and her chest felt tight.
“Where did she go, do you know? ” she asked Locket.
“No idea,” the girl said cheerfully. “Good riddance, I say.”
Claire looked at the placid face of the girl, unruffled by conscience.
“There must be shelters or places for people like her.” Claire’s voice quivered. “She’s not on the street, is she? Does she have family in Hong Kong? ”
“Haven’t a clue.”
“How can you not know? She lived with you! ”
“She was a maid, Mrs. Pendleton.” Locket looked at her curiously. “Do you know anything about your servants? ”
Claire was shamed into silence. The blood rose in her cheeks.
“Well,” she said. “I suppose that’s enough of that. Did you practice the scales? ”
Locket pounded on the piano keys as Claire looked hard at the girl’s chubby fingers, trying not to blink so that the tears would not fall.
June 1941
IT BEGINS like that. Her lilting laugh at a consular party. A spilled drink. A wet dress and a handkerchief hastily proffered. She is a sleek greyhound among the others—plump, braying women of a certain class. He doesn’t want to meet her—he is suspicious of her kind, all chiffon and champagne, nothing underneath, but she has knocked his glass down her silk shift (“There I go again,” she says. “I’m the clumsiest person in all Hong Kong”) and then commandeers him to escort her to the bathroom where she daubs at herself while peppering him with questions.
She is famous, born of a well-known couple, the mother a Portuguese beauty, the father a Shanghai millionaire with fortunes in trading and money lending.
“Finally, someone new! We can tell right away, you know. I’ve been stuck with those old bags for ages. We’re very good at sniffing out new blood since the community is so wretchedly small and we’re all so dreadfully sick of each other. We practically wait at the docks to drag the new people off the ships. Just arrived, yes? Have a job yet?” she asks, having sat him on the edge of the tub while she reapplies her lipstick. “Is it for fun or funds? ”
“I’m at Asiatic Petrol,” he says, wary of being cast as the amusing newcomer. “And it’s most certainly for funds.” Although that’s not the truth. A mother with money.
“How delightful! ” she says. “I’m so sick of meeting all these stuffy people. They don’t have the slightest knowledge or ambition.”
“Those without expectations have been known to lack both of those qualities,” he says.
“Aren’t you a grumpy grump?” she says. “But stupidity is much more forgivable in the poor, don’t you think?” She pauses, as if to let him think about that. “Your name? And how do you know the Trotters?”
BOOK: The Piano Teacher
12.29Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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