(A short story from a competition theme of “fireworks”.)
It was Chinese New Year 1985. Elaine looked out over the harbour anticipating the spectacle. Every year the British Consul hosted a gargantuan display to placate the Chinese population’s frustration at firework restrictions. Random sprays of outlawed splendour still sometimes lit the sky above the hills encompassing Hong Kong Island with a show of their defiance, but the stream of injured previously dampening the festivities was stemmed.
Though familiar with the history and the complex relationships between native Chinese and her own British expatriate counterparts it was not this that engulfed her mind as she waited for the first triumphant bursts to issue forth from the ships anchored in Kowloon Bay. ..
She was remembering the last time she watched the sky transform in its choreographed blaze of glory. It had begun with the unexpected phone call, from a Chinese friend…
“I need your help. Can you help me?” the voice smooth, cultured with that hint of accent and the odd slip of “Chinglish grammar”. It was “Susie” Chan, or so she was known by her foreign friends. Susie ran a very respectable escort agency supplying guides and dinner dates for the many foreign businessmen that swarmed the city hoping to make deals with the elusive mainland market via enterprising Hong Kong compatriots.
“What do you need Susie?” Elaine tried to sound breezy. What would Susie need at Chinese New Year? Most of her girls would be with their families, even the foreigners would be somewhere imbibing the cultural grandeur of the celebrations.
“One of my girls is sick and I need a favour. It’s a special client…”
With her light brown hair that passed for blond in China, petite features and classic blue eyes Elaine had with difficulty managed to elude Susie’s enticements to work for her. She knew even the most respectable escort girls were not adverse to “turning tricks” on the side and agencies turned a knowingly blind eye. Not that Elaine worried what people might think (she hated expat society and all it represented). She just dreaded the embarrassment of possibly getting propositioned.
“Look Susie I’ve told you before…” Elaine interrupted.
“But it’s Chinese New Year, everyone’s busy. I pay you double! Come on you know you need it. You could buy some things for the girls…” While a charming friend, Susie, like most Chinese women, had a hidden tiger when it came to business.
“He just needs a partner to go to dinner. He’s clinching a big deal. He’s crippled, can’t pick up a girl so easy, anyway he needs a foreigner. Just this once, no need to do anything, just go to dinner and smile…”
Images flashed before her eyes. Gone was the picture of the slimy businessman, wallet in hand, instead the image of a human being in need… a cripple she said … someone who needed help to clinch a deal… Susie had accidently found a way past her defences. She sensed her indecision.
“He’s a nice man,” she said, “rich…” her tone heightened as she paused knowingly. Elaine didn’t share her perception that rich men were to be pursued and “landed”. Susie, who knew of her divorce and difficulty raising her two girls alone, doubtless felt she was throwing good fortune her way –It was every Chinese girl’s dream to marry a rich Englishman!
“That’s not important,” Elaine stammered still having a hard time swallowing just how upfront her Chinese friends could be. She could tell Susie didn’t believe her.
“He’s staying at the Peninsula,” she continued. “You’d have to dress up.”
“He’s crippled you said?” She wanted to get back to that point, the humanitarian gesture that would enable her integrity to disengage. Susie misunderstood.
“Oh it’s not so bad, he can walk with a cane, he’s not in a chair. I pay you double. ”Elaine could almost hear her smile over the phone.
“Two hundred dollars Hong Kong. Maybe he give you tip, big tip …” Elaine squirmed.
“No tip” she said firmly knowing exactly by what means girls got those “extras”!
“Maybe you like him…” Susie’s voice was full of innuendo. Elaine wasn’t sure if she felt she needed money bad or that she must want a rich English husband even if he was a little damaged. Susie sensed she was losing her and changed tactics.
“Come on, you’re the only English girl I know, with your high class accent and college background you’ll be perfect. Just this time, I won’t ask again, I promise.”
She did need the money that was for sure, classes stopped over the extended New Year as half the populace, like lemmings in mass exodus, endeavoured to fight their way home for their family gatherings. Pickings for an English teacher were slim and having only returned to HK a short while ago she’d not had time to create much of a cash buffer for her and the girls. “I’m doing this as a favour to Susie and to help a crippled man pull off his business deal,” she told her conscience. It was placated.
“OK, OK Susie, just this once…”
Having finally managed to procure a cab for an extortionate price Elaine stood nervously at the door of 709. The porter eyed her suspiciously. Would he challenge her? She thanked God for her English demeanour. The Peninsular claimed the elite place among Hong Kong hotels and looked frowningly upon any but the upper classes that frequented there. She could imagine what it must be like for those Chinese escort girls trying to gain entry. Avoiding eye contact and trying to look confident she knocked. The sound echoed along the plush carpeted corridor and bounced off formally papered walls. She heard a shuffling sound within. Involuntarily she held her breath as the door opened revealing a man leant awkwardly on a cane as he pivoted the door ajar. The impression lasted but a moment as her eyes were fixed by a glowing smile. He greeted her like an old friend quelling the reservations of the porter still attending his luggage trolley. Embarrassed she rushed to help close the door.
He turned to her.” Did he give you any trouble?”
“No.” Elaine felt the colour creep up her cheeks in a humiliating flush. He pretended not to notice, though she was sure he did.
“Russell,” he said extending a hand, “and you must be Elaine. Please, sit down and make yourself comfortable. We have a little time and I want to fill you in on what’s happening.” Elaine grasped frantically at her social graces as he eased himself into a chair, placing the cane alongside him.
“Susie said you had some kind of business you needed to conclude?”
She wanted to make sure he knew she wasn’t a usual escort girl, that she was Susie’s friend… She sensed a glimmer of amusement in his eyes as he motioned to a bottle of wine set on the table. She nodded and he poured her a glass before answering.
“Yes. I’m in shipping. I’m afraid you’re going to be having dinner with an Arab oil Sheik. Are you up for that?” The corner of his mouth twitched imperceptibly at her confusion. “Don’t worry, just be yourself.” He passed her the glass.
“A little out of my league,” she ventured.
“Don’t worry, all you have to do is look pretty and enjoy the meal. I’ll be the one doing all the talking!” He smiled again. It was not the kind of smile she’d expected. It was far too open, too comforting. She had felt herself on a private crusade to help one in need (and breach a financial pitfall) but instead she found herself quite taken with him.
The wine took a relaxing effect as they chatted informally, his humour setting her at ease. Her curiosity was aroused. Why was he the way he was? Had he been crippled from birth or had some sickness or accident maimed him? How did he handle it so well? She took in the deep green eyes, the brown curly hair that seemed to match his immaculate informality as, anticipating her thoughts, he explained.
He had made his fortune as a mercenary he said, before the leg injury that brought his career to a close. Bringing to bare his experience of several Middle East cultures in the business world he had slowly increased his wealth till now he dealt in liners. He said nothing further of his disability but seemed so at ease Elaine soon found herself forgetting the cane propped beside him.
Dinner was far less tranquil. Escorted to their table by a stream of overly attentive waiters Elaine took her seat. The Sheik seemed far from aloof, gesturing them to be seated with the practiced wave and perfect manners of a monarch he fulfilled his role with a finesse that set others at ease.
It was the woman that troubled her, excluding culture and charm. Russell had told her his colleague would be there with a companion but…
Elaine took in the perfectly matched co-ordinates, manicured nails, and beautifully coiffured hair as the icon entered into a discussion of the wine list with obvious familiarity. Elaine cringed, as, feeling distinctly inferior in her blue party dress, she hid her untended hands under the table. Taking a few sips of wine to cover her confusion she was further intimidated as a waiter at her right elbow instantly replenished it. There were five placed about the table like implacable soldiers on guard ready to move imperceptibly forward should the slightest need arise. It was like eating in a goldfish bowl.
The conversation moved around shipping and finances between the men. She remembered Russell’s words.
“All you need to do is smile and look pretty.” Certainly that was all she could manage.
She watched in envy as her nemesis mingled effortlessly in the conversations. From time to time Russell would inquire as to her meal, her comfort etc. rescuing her when she didn’t know which spoon to use, but she was relieved not to have to engage in conversation for the most part.
Her eyes were drawn beyond the retinue of waiters to a magnificent view of Kowloon Bay. The men were making wagers about the speed of a vessel clearing harbour and eventually a call was made, courtesy of the hotel, to the ship’s captain to ascertain the facts. Elaine was strangely proud when Russell’s assumption proved to be correct.
Business finally concluded, the woman took her elegant British self to the ladies room.
“Are you enjoying your meal?” Russell asked leaning over.
In agony over her ineptitude Elaine whispered, “I’m sorry. I’m not used to dining in such company. I wish I was as accomplished as your colleague’s companion.” A grin crossed his face.
“She’s a prostitute, a very costly one, but a prostitute none the less.” He whispered. “I thought you knew. We all know her (hinting at services rendered). I told you, just be yourself.” Elaine was dumbfounded.
“I think the fireworks should start soon, we’ll have a splendid view.” He continued gesturing to the window.
The liner was steaming on towards the horizon and with it went Elaine’s misconceptions. When Paula returned she was no longer the English aristocrat but a fellow being of suddenly intense interest. What was her story Elaine wondered? One could not ask.
Glasses were raised as the first fireworks pumped their splendour into the night sky, their glowing colours reflecting in her opulent surroundings. Now she could enjoy the spectacle, enjoy the meal, even enjoy the company. Russell was admiring her along with the fireworks she noticed. She felt a warm glow remembering Susie’s words, “Maybe you like him…” She did like him. Somehow it didn’t seem to matter about the cane, the injury. It didn’t seem to matter to him, why should it matter to her? She watched as explosions of red and yellow silhouetted towering skyscrapers and felt her emotions blossom with their swell. She glanced round at Russell. Ever the gentleman he had given her the seat with the better view. He looked back confident in himself. Elaine smiled and knew this date would entail more than dinner.
It did. As the cane lay unheeded beside the bedside table Elaine felt her body respond like a finely tuned instrument in the hands of an artiste. He knew how to draw notes of passion from deep within her, how to stretch them upon the air and release them in tumbling crescendos. She knew it could come to nothing, he would be here only a few days, but like the fireworks it burst in a splendour that could not be denied.
Next day she brought the girls to meet him. They were too small to understand what was happening, only that this strange man with a cane was so much fun to be with. He played with them and told stories, bought toys and chatted to them like they were great friends. When they fell asleep tucked up on the plush sofa of Russell’s suite Elaine withdrew to the bedroom.
“That’s one thing I regret,” he said. “I never had children. Maybe one day. Maybe one day I’ll settle down and have a family.” Having gotten to know him better Elaine doubted it. There was a restless energy about Russell that had to somehow run its course.
“I hope you do someday,” she replied. “They are the most precious things in life.”
“I can see that. In some ways I envy you!”
“But not enough to change,” she teased.
“No, not enough for that.” He turned towards her his fingers beginning already to touch keys of sensation…
He had not changed, she knew he wouldn’t. Like the fireworks the time they shared fizzled and dimmed and the sky was as it had ever been. They saw him off at the airport with promises to write but the letters never materialised, yet she was grateful to him. It was not only the envelope he had sneaked into her bag containing enough to last them well beyond the New Year. It was the illumination of her life. Though short lived the bursts of enlightenment had allowed her to see far beyond her usual surroundings. He had welded his cane like a fashion accessory, something added that made him special and she must do the same. She came with her own “cane” did she not, two adorable young children. She could let that limit her or make her special. She understood, as he had said, she just needed to be herself, that was enough…
Her thoughts returned to the present as her fiancé’s arms enveloped her. She gazed out of the window of their Mid-Levels apartment leaning back into his embrace.
“Still waiting for the fireworks?” he asked.
“Not really.” She turned to look up at him curling her fingers past his collar into the enticing curls at the nape of his neck. He bent to kiss her as outside the first explosions lit the sky. Elaine was not worried, she knew now fireworks were to be had at any season; you just had to be brave enough to light the match.