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Authors: Janice Y.K. Lee

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BOOK: The Piano Teacher
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“Well, that’s the thing, dear,” Marjorie said. “They don’t have anywhere to go, imagine that. That’s why my league is so important.”
Amelia sat down. “The Chinese come down during war, they go back up, then come down again. It’s dizzying. They are just these giant waves of displacement. And their different dialects. I do think Mandarin is the ugliest, with its
wer
and its
er
and those strange noises.” She fanned herself. “It’s far too hot to talk about a league,” she said. “Your energy always astounds me, Marjorie.”
“Amelia,” Marjorie said unsympathetically. “You’re always hot.”
Amelia was always hot, or cold, or vaguely out of sorts. She was not physically suited to life outside of England, which was ironic since she had not lived there for some three decades. She needed her creature comforts and suffered mightily, and not silently, without them. They had been in Hong Kong since before the war. Her husband, Angus, had brought her from India, which she had loathed, over to Hong Kong in 1938 when he had become undersecretary to the Department of Finance. She was opinionated, railing against what she saw as the unbearable English ladies who wanted to become Chinese, who wore their hair in chignons with ivory chopsticks and wore too-tight cheongsams to every event and employed local tutors so they could speak to the help in their atrocious Cantonese. She did not understand such women and constantly warned Claire against becoming one of such a breed.
Amelia had taken Claire under her wing, introducing her to people, inviting her to lunch, but Claire was often uncomfortable around her and her sharp observations and often biting innuendo. Still, she clung to her as someone who could help her navigate the strange new world she found herself in. She knew her mother would approve of someone like Amelia, even be impressed that Claire knew such people.
 
Outside, the thwack of a tennis ball punctuated the low buzz and tinkle of conversation and cocktails. Claire’s group migrated toward a large tent pitched next to the courtyard.
“People come and play tennis? ” Claire asked.
“Yes, in this weather, can you believe it? ”
“I can’t believe they have a tennis court,” said Claire with wonder.
“And I can’t believe what you can’t believe,” Amelia said archly.
Claire blushed. “I’ve just never . . .”
“I know, darling,” Amelia said. “Just a village girl.” She winked to take the sting out of her comment.
“You know what Penelope Davies did the other day?” Marjorie interrupted. “She went to the temple at Wong Tai Sin with an interpreter, and got her fortune told. She said it was just remarkable how much this old woman knew! ”
“What fun,” Amelia said. “I’ll bring Wing and try it out too. Claire, we should go! ”
“Sounds fun,” Claire said.
“Did you hear about the child in Malaya who had the hiccups for three months?” Marjorie was asking Martin, who had joined them with drinks in hand. “The Briggs’ child. His father’s the head of the electric over there. His mother almost went mad. They tried a witch doctor but no results. They didn’t know whether to bring him back to England or just trust in fate.”
“Can you imagine having the hiccups for more than an hour?” Claire said. “I’d go mad! That poor child.”
Martin knelt down to play with a small boy who had wandered over.
“Hallo,” he said. “Who are you? ”
“Martin wants children,” Claire said, sotto voce, to Amelia. She often found herself confiding in Amelia despite herself. She had no one else to talk to.
“All men do, darling,” Amelia said. “You have to negotiate the number before you start popping them out or else the men will want to keep going. I got Angus down to two before we started.”
“Oh,” Claire said, startled. “That seems so . . . unromantic.”
“What do you think married life is? ” Amelia said. She cocked an eyebrow at Claire. Claire blushed and excused herself to go to the powder room.
 
When she returned, Amelia had drifted away and was talking to a tall man Claire had never seen before. She waved her over. He was a man of around forty with a crude cane that looked as if it had been whittled by a child out of pine. He had sharp, handsome features and a shock of black hair, run through with strands of gray, ungroomed.
“Have you met Will Truesdale? ” Amelia said.
“I haven’t,” she said, as she put out her hand.
“Pleased to meet you,” he said. His hand was dry and cool, almost as if it were made of paper.
“He’s been in Hong Kong for ages,” Amelia said. “An old-timer, like us.”
“Quite the experts, we are,” he said.
He suddenly looked alert.
“I like your scent,” he said. “Jasmine, is it? ”
“Yes. Thank you.”
“Newly arrived? ”
“Yes, just a month.”
“Like it? ”
“I never imagined living in the Orient but here I am.”
“Oh, Claire, you should have had more imagination,” Amelia said, gesturing to a waiter for another drink.
Claire colored again. Amelia was in rare form today.
“I’m delighted to meet someone who’s not so jaded,” Will said. “All you women are so worldly it quite tires me out.”
Amelia had turned away to get her drink and hadn’t heard him. There was a pause, but Claire didn’t mind it.
“It’s Claire’s birthday,” Amelia told Will, turning back around. She smiled, brittle; red lipstick stained her front tooth. “She’s just a baby.”
“How nice,” he said. “We need more babies around these parts.”
He suddenly reached out his hand and slowly tucked a strand of hair behind Claire’s ear. A possessive gesture, as if he had known her for a long time.
“Excuse me,” he said. Amelia had not seen; she had been scanning the crowd.
“Excuse you for what? ” Amelia asked, turning back, distracted.
“Nothing,” they both said. Claire looked down at the floor. They were joined in their collusive denial; it suddenly seemed overwhelmingly intimate.
“What? ” Amelia said impatiently. “I can’t hear a damn thing above this din.”
“I’m twenty-eight today,” Claire said, not knowing why.
“I’m forty-three.” He nodded. “Very old.”
Claire couldn’t tell if he was joking.
“I remember the celebration we had for you at Stanley,” Amelia said. “What a fete.”
“Wasn’t it, though? ”
“You’re still with Melody and Victor? ” Amelia inquired of Will.
“Yes,” he said. “It suits me for now.”
“I’m sure it suits Victor just fine to have an Englishman chauffeuring him around,” she replied slyly.
“It seems to work for everyone involved,” Will said, not taking the bait.
Amelia leaned toward him confidentially. “I hear there’s been chatter about the Crown Collection and its disappearance during the war. Angus says it’s starting to come to a boil. People have noticed. Have you heard anything? ”
“I have,” he said.
“They want to ferret out the collaborators.”
“A bit late, don’t you think? ”
After a pause, when it became apparent that nothing more was forthcoming from Will, she spoke again. “I hope the Chens are treating you well? ”
“I cannot complain,” he said.
“A bit odd, isn’t it? You working over there.”
“Amelia,” he said. “You’re boring Claire.”
“Oh, no,” Claire protested. “I’m just . . .”
“Well, you’re boring me,” he said. “And life is too short to be bored. Claire, have you been to the different corners of our fair colony? Which is your favorite? ”
“Well, I have been exploring a bit. Sheung Wan is lovely—I do like the markets—and I’ve been over to Kowloon, Tsim Sha Tsui on the Star Ferry of course, and seen all the shops there. It’s very lively, isn’t it? ”
“See, Amelia,” Will said. “An Englishwoman who ventures outside of Central and the Peak. You would do well to learn from this newcomer.”
Amelia rolled her eyes. “She’ll grow tired of it soon enough. I’ve seen so many of these bright-eyed new arrivals, and they all end up having tea with me at the Helena May and complaining about their amahs.”
“Well, don’t let Amelia’s rosy attitude affect you too much, Claire,” Will said. “At any rate, it was a pleasure to meet you. Best of luck in Hong Kong.” He nodded to them politely and left. She felt the heat of his body as he passed by.
Claire felt bereft. He had assumed they would not meet again.
“Odd man? ” she said. It was more of a statement.
“You’ve no idea, dear,” Amelia said.
Claire peeked after him. He had floated over to the side of the tennis court, although he had some sort of limp, and was watching Peter Wickham and his son hit the ball at each other.
“He’s also very serious now,” Amelia said. “Can’t have a proper conversation with him. He was quite social before the war, you know, you saw him at all the parties, had the most glamorous girl in town, quite high up at Asiatic Petrol, but he never really recovered after the war. He’s a chauffeur now.” Her voice dropped. “For the Chens, actually. Do you know who they are? ”
“Amelia! ” Claire said. “I teach piano to their daughter! You helped me arrange it! ”
“Oh, dear. The memory goes first, they say. You’ve never run into him there? ”
“Never,” Claire said. “Although the Chens suggested he might give me a lift one time.”
“Poor Melody,” said Amelia. “She’s very
fragile.
” The word said delicately.
“Indeed,” Claire said, remembering the way Melody sipped her drink, quickly, urgently.
“The thing with Will is”—Amelia hesitated—“I’m quite certain he doesn’t need to work at all.”
“How do you mean? ” Claire asked.
“I just know certain things,” Amelia said mysteriously.
Claire didn’t ask. She wouldn’t give Amelia the satisfaction.
September 1941
TRUDY IS DRESSING for dinner while he watches from the bed. She has finished with her mysterious bathing ritual with its oils and unguents and now she smells marvelous, like a valley in spring. She is sitting at her dressing table in a long peach satin robe, wrapped silkily around her waist, applying fragrant creams to her face.
“Do you like this one? ” She gets up and holds a long black dress in front of her.
“It’s fine.” He can’t concentrate on the clothes when her face is so vibrant above it.
“Or this one? ” A knee-length dress the color of orange sherbet.
“Fine.”
She pouts. Her skin gleams.
“You’re so unhelpful.”
She tells him Manley Haverford is having a party, an end-of-summer party, at his country house this weekend and that she wants to go. Manley is an old bigot who used to have a radio talk show before he married a rich but ugly Portuguese woman who conveniently died two years later, whereupon he retired to live the life of a country squire in Sai Kung.
“Desperately,” she says. “I want to go desperately.”
“You loathe Manley,” he says. “You told me so last week.”
“I know,” she says. “But his parties are fun and he’s very generous with the drinks. Let’s go and talk about how awful he is right in front of him. Can we go, can we? Can we? Can we? ” She wears him down. They will go.
So Friday, late afternoon, he plays hooky from work and they spend the twilight hours bathing in the ocean by Manley’s house. To get there, they drive narrow, winding roads carved right out of the green mountain, blue water on their right, verdant hillside on their left. His house is through a dilapidated wooden gate and at the end of a long driveway, and right by the sea, with a porch that juts out, and rough stone steps leading down to the beach. He’s had coolers filled with ice and drinks and sandwiches brought down to the sandy inlet. The still-hot sun and water make them ravenous and they eat and eat and eat and curse their host for not bringing enough.
“Me? ” Manley asks. “I assumed I had invited civilized people, who ate three meals a day.”
Victor and Melody Chen, Trudy’s cousins, wander down from the house, where they had been resting.
“What are we doing now?” Melody asks. Will likes her, thinks she’s nice, when she’s not around her husband.
A woman they have never met before, newly arrived from Singapore, suggests they play charades. They all moan but acquiesce.
Trudy is one team’s leader, the Singapore woman the other. The groups huddle together, write words on scraps of damp paper. They put them all in the empty sandwich basket.
Trudy goes first. She looks at her paper, dimples.
“Easy peasy,” she says encouragingly to her group. She makes the film sign, one hand rotating an imaginary camera lever.
“Film! ” shouts an American.
She puts up four fingers, then suddenly ducks her head, puts her arms in front of her, and whooshes through the air.
“Gone with the Wind,”
Will says. Trudy curtsies.
BOOK: The Piano Teacher
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