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Authors: Janice Y.K. Lee

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BOOK: The Piano Teacher
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One day, Victor got in the car and directed Will to drive to the Peak. On the way up, he had seemed agitated, fidgeting with papers in the backseat.
“Mistakes were made,” he said suddenly, opaquely.
Will had not answered, which had made Victor more jumpy.
“Do you know what I’m talking about?” he had asked.
“In times of war, there are many decisions that are made, and things that get done without the benefit of reflection.”
“Yes, sir,” he had replied, his deference more threatening than anything he could have said. He saw Victor’s face in the rearview mirror. He was perspiring heavily.
“I’ve had some news . . .” Victor started.
“Yes, sir,” he repeated.
Victor hesitated, then seemed to get ahold of himself.
“At any rate, Will, the war has changed all of us. We’re all in this together now.”
Will remained silent.
“I’ve changed my mind, Will. You can take me home now.”
Will swung the car around and took Victor home. They didn’t speak on the return journey. His wages were suddenly doubled. Will never found out what had spooked Victor but neither he nor Victor ever mentioned the ride again.
He was waiting for something to happen. And in the meantime, he remembered.
Trudy and Dominick locked in a terrible embrace.
Funny how so many things seem inevitable, given enough distance. Put a girl and a boy of similar persuasions together in summer and see what evolves. Usually love. Two friends, equally matched, and then one suddenly has an advantage: rarely will they remain friends. This must have been what happened. Trudy and Dominick, alike as two peas in a pod when things were good. When the situation turned fraught, each reverted to form. Trudy essentially good, Dominick an animal. The betrayal sharp.
But his own? Much worse. He knows.
“I forgive you,” she says. “I understand.”
He clings to this. Hears her say it over and over.
How can he leave her now?
A WOMAN IS SITTING in a chair, reading by a window. A cup of tea has gone cold beside her. Dusk is gathering outside, and when it becomes too difficult to see, she goes to turn on the light. The room is suddenly illuminated.
She lives by herself now, in a small apartment she has found in Wan Chai, amid locals and wet markets. It is furnished simply, with an iron bed and a thin mattress, a wooden fruit crate for a bedside table, a lamp she bought at Dodwell’s during the holiday sales. She has a comfortable reading chair as well. She lives very frugally, within her means as a secretary for a shipping company, and she has found that it is possible to live like a local, on almost nothing, bargaining for everything from lightbulbs to tea towels. She buys one orange at a time, or two carrots, or picks her own chicken to be killed, a purchase that will last her three days. She eats at the street stalls: noodles and congee and roasted meats and other dishes she would have found unappealing just a year before. She can wield chopsticks now with the best of them. Sometimes, as she sits on the stools, next to a taxi driver or a shopkeeper, she listens and finds she can understand some of what they are saying; words emerge from the noise, like jewels. In the beginning, she was a curiosity to them, but now they have seen her enough to ignore her. Her Cantonese—still rudimentary—is improving. Now she can order at the
and they will not repeat the order loudly, in English; they just grunt and dump the noodles in the broth to boil, same treatment as the locals.
At home, she sometimes wears the black trousers and white tunics—the amah uniform—as night clothes and finds them oddly comfortable. They are made of light cotton and are very inexpensive. The shop owner had assumed she was buying them for her amah and kept asking how tall, gesturing with her hands. Claire held the cloth against her frame and nodded her head. The first day she spent in her flat, she walked down to the local street barber and sat down, much to his surprise, and asked him to cut her hair short all around.
And she knows the streets of the town—Johnston, Harcourt, Connaught—and how to say them in Cantonese. They are like a web of veins emanating out from Central to Repulse Bay, the Peak, Mid-Levels, places she rarely goes now, places filled with English people and the lives they lead. She runs into people she knows now and then, and they always ask how she is doing, in that searching, curious way, and she just nods and says fine, she is doing fine, enjoying the city very much. But are you going home? they ask, and she says no, she has no plans to go home at the moment.
She is talked about less and less. She is becoming a part of some old history that will soon be forgotten, and this suits her well.
Sometimes she is lonely, but she frequents the library at the Auxiliary, taking out three or four books at once. There are so many things to know and learn. She reads about Beethoven, Chinese rice farming, biographies of English prime ministers, and finds comfort in the fact that she will never run out of books. There is also a piano there, and the manageress has told her she can play after hours if she arranges it beforehand. She has been going there in the early evening, when the heat is less, and playing for an hour or so, while the staff cleans up around her. She goes late enough so that all the women she would know have already finished with their tea and gone home to prepare for supper, husbands and children gathering at home, filling the rooms with chatter and noise, so unlike her own.
Martin is still in Hong Kong, as far as she knows. She had stayed at the flat with him for a few days while she was finding her own quarters, a request she had brought up when he had come home, ashen-faced, after the party. He had not said yes but he did not say no. She knew it was more than generous of him. She had poured neat whiskey into two glasses and sipped it with him in silence. She remembered still his posture. He sat heavily at the table, drinking slowly, and fingered the edge of the linen coaster. Yu Ling hovered excitedly near the kitchen door, listening for anything, having already been informed by telephone, before either had arrived home, of the scandalous situation through the lightning-quick amah network.
And he hadn’t had the stomach for questions. He wanted her to volunteer the information but she could not bring herself to talk to him. For the first few days, his cold silence when he returned home was welcome; it was when he began to try to talk to her and understand what had happened that she couldn’t stand it. She slept on the sofa in the living room, and tried to wake before Yu Ling got up, so that she could put away the pillow and the blankets, but too often she had seen the amah’s curious eyes watching her as she woke. She supposes, in Yu Ling’s world, such a situation would be settled with a chopper, and that she and Martin seem bloodless, bizarre to her.
Then Martin: “Were you unhappy?” The first sentence he had spoken to her since that night. He had come into the living room from their bedroom; she had been reading.
And what could she have said? She put down her book and tried to think of the answer. She found the question too prosaic, and hated herself for that.
“I needed to believe there was more to life.” Said simply. The fanciful notion an affront to good values, and she all too aware of it.
“Where did you go?” His second question. He sat down at the dining room table, far from her. He rubbed at his eyes.
She explained. She had walked outside the Chens’ house. It was hot, as usual, and she had no car. So she walked down May Road, the windy, narrow street carved out of the mountain—a snake of a road—until it became Garden Road and she got to Central. By then, she was very hot, so she went into a bakery and drank some cool tea. Her head had been filled with a white noise, similar to when she had fainted outside the Chens’ house earlier. Then, not knowing where to go, she had just continued east, found herself in Wan Chai, and found the commotion and bustle soothing. With so much activity around her, the frenzy inside her had quieted. And she had looked around, and thought, I could live here.
“I think I found myself too apparent in the world, after what happened at the party, and I want to be invisible for a little bit,” she told Martin. “There was too much going on, and I don’t know why I’m a part of it, but I am. And I realize that you must feel the same way, and for that, I apologize.”
He stared at her—this unworldly young woman he had brought over from England—and realized he had no idea who she was.
So, she left as soon as she could. She packed up her belongings and got a taxi while he was at work. She hugged Yu Ling, feeling the amah’s slight frame under her embrace and an unexpected sadness at leaving her, this life. But she was now finally convinced that people got what they expected from life. Martin had never expected to find love, and so, ultimately, he would be all right. She would not be his great disappointment in life, his tragedy. That would come from somewhere else and she realized with relief she was not responsible for even knowing what that might be. She herself hadn’t known what to expect from life, and still didn’t. Her life was, is still, a work in progress.
She supposes that she is becoming a cliché, a woman “gone native,” someone who eschews her own kind. Amelia, her old acquaintance, had come to see her in her flat and could not quite hide the shock at the circumstances she had found Claire in. She had fluttered around the small space, given her a jar of strawberry preserves and some soaps, and never returned. Claire supposes Amelia dined out on the story for several weeks after. This does not bother her in the least.
Last week she had taken a small bag of costly jewelry, scarves, and trinkets and given it to the local secondhand shop. The woman who had taken the items looked befuddled and at a loss as to what to do with them, amid the dusty, inexpensive sweaters and used pots. Claire hadn’t known what else to do with them. As she walked out the door, she felt her mood lift, and she became light.
Now she pauses, looks out the window to the busy streetscape outside. Cars traverse the streets, the red taxis crossing lanes with double-decker trams tethered to their cables, a few men on bicycles. The sky is blue, delineated by the tops of the low buildings with their antennae and rooftop clotheslines. The pungent air from the road rises and enters through her window. A scene she could never have imagined just two years ago.
And a simple knowledge is what sustains her through all of this: that all she needs to do is step out onto that street and she will dissolve into it, be absorbed in its rhythms and become, easily, a part of the world.
I want to thank so many people:
My agent, Theresa Park, without whose support and gentle encouragement this novel might still be a jumble of notes on my computer. She has been with me from the first pages of this book.
Abby Koons, Julian Alexander, Rich Green, Sam Edenborough, Nicki Kennedy, and Amanda Cardinale.
Kathryn Court, my wise and elegant editor.
Clare Ferraro for her early and unwavering support.
The amazing team at Viking: Alexis Washam, Carolyn Coleburn, Louise Braverman, Ann Day, Nancy Sheppard, Paul Slovak, Isabel Widdowson, and so many others.
Clare Smith and the wonderful team at Harper Press UK for their enthusiasm and guidance.
Pat Towers, who showed me graciousness, always, while teaching me nuance.
Abigail Thomas, who encouraged me with cake, good judgment, and kind words.
Chang-rae Lee for advice both writerly and practical, always on-point.
Elaina Richardson for the time at Yaddo
For friendship and encouragement, and understanding: Mimi Brown, Deborah Cincotta, Rachael Combe, Kate Gellert, Katie Rosman, Sarah Towers, Daphne Uviller.
I read many books about this period in World War II in both the New York Public Library and the Special Collections Library at Hong Kong University. In particular, I learned much about the time from Emily Hahn’s excellent memoir,
China to Me
, and the colorful
Prisoner of the Turnip Heads
by George Wright-Nooth with Mark Adkin.
I also spent many hours working in various rooms at the New York Public Library, the New York Society Library, and Hong Kong University Library and thank them for being open to the public and providing space for writers to work.
My mother, father, and brother and his family.
The extended Bae family.
My children, who give me joy every day and put everything in perspective.
And most important, my husband, Joe, who is my best friend, my better half, and who supports me with an unstinting love and generosity that I am grateful for every day.
BOOK: The Piano Teacher
8.58Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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