Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 20 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 20 – Mr. Xang’s Notebook

Mr. Xang rapped his chubby fingers on the desk in front of him. It was the subconscious action of a man brimming with excitement, yet full of frustration. His eyes left the blank page in front of him and studied his hands. They gave off an unnatural red hue that seemed to be becoming more vibrant by the day. To their owner, this change evoked fascination rather than alarm. Though, he was also conscious that others may not react to this development with the same levels of calm and composure. It was with this in mind that Mr.Xang had purchased a special pair of gloves as to hide his newfound peculiarity during the more important of his meetings. Now he was alone, he could finally study them properly. He turned them back and forth, exploring every contour, slowly rotating them and making a mental note of all he found. Once satisfied with what he saw, Mr. Xang then trialled their response to various tests. Their reactions to pressure and touch were minimal, indicating that there may in fact be a permanence to their new state. Mr. Xang’s intrigue persisted and he considered the potential that there may well be a non-medical reason for this change. They were hands that had once possessed great skill, though their actions through history were ethically questionable. Mr. Xang used to find excuses and would reason that the deeds carried out by these hands were for the greater good, though this notion of ‘the greater good’ had become warped and retarded over time and the true meaning of the phrase had become nothing more than a triviality. In recent years, the excuses had long disappeared and these hands now had a singular very well-defined purpose. To keep himself entertained. Whether that was at the expense of others was no longer a relevance that needed to be considered.

The room he occupied, to most, would have felt suffocating. Barely big enough for his numerous items of electronic equipment and without a window, it offered little-to-no ventilation and the smell reflected this. The primary purpose of the room was to be inconspicuous and it performed this task perfectly. An inconspicuous room located in an anonymous building that was neither too close to his commercial properties nor his private residence. It was far from hygienic and comfort was lacking but Mr. Xang found a certain amount of solace in what he thought of as his ‘men cave’. Countless boxes of instant noodles overflowed from the bin and empty bottles of baiju doubled as emergency urine containers when needed. There was a bathroom within walking distance, but Mr. Xang’s regularity meant that, from time to time, he preferred the convenience of the bottle. Shame had become a distant memory. This room was his room and therefore he could do with it what he liked. His wife’s lack of care or interest meant she rarely questioned his whereabouts, though she often suspected that his ‘office’ was perhaps not quite the epicentre of professionalism that he painted it to be. To her, if he was out of the house that could only be a good thing. His whereabouts weren’t her concern, at least, not any more.

Mr.Xang contemplated the irony as he continued to study his hands. A knowing smirk formed on his face as he became convinced that the emerging colour could very well be a metaphorical representation of his past actions. He raised his eyes and took in the room that enclosed him, admiring the work that these skilled hands had created. The time for pondering was over. Work had to be done. The cameras were currently showing no signs of activity, and he was behind in the usual meticulous logging in his notebook, so it was the perfect time for him to catch up. The pen found its home between his calloused red fingers and Mr.Xang checked his notes to ensure that no detail would be omitted. He wrote as he always did; freely and without any deep thought or hesitation.

***

25th January

I couldn’t believe it. She missed the bus! She actually missed the bus! There I am, thinking that she was perfection itself, and then she goes and does a thing like this! I helped her to buy the tickets and everything.  I’d call her an idiot if I didn’t know better. What a truly shitty start to the day! I can’t stay angry at her, but the woman, my Emily, is certainly a tricky one. First, she covers over nearly all of the cameras, and then she leaves late and ruins all my prospects of entertainment! I’m worried her and the boy will never meet now. I will continue to persist though. Persistence is paramount and The Puppetmaster never gives up! There’s no denying that she’s clever. Perhaps too clever… The apartment has been turned into an absolute mess. There are ridiculous colourful rags everywhere and she’s transformed it into something that looks like a Bangkok brothel. I can’t do anything now or she’ll know of my intrusion, but as soon as she’s out, I will change it back to ‘Mr.Xang’s Signature Style”! Simple, clean and, most importantly, very camera-friendly!

Despite her peculiarities and annoyances, it’s undeniable that there’s something special about her. Something different. Something that draws me to her. When she’s in the apartment, my eyes follow her whether I want them to or not. I’ve been spending too much time in my cave recently and I place the blame solely with her. I feel like I’m becoming an addict. Luckily for my addiction, she hasn’t found all the cameras. At least not yet anyway. I need to make sure my eyes can continue to follow her; otherwise I don’t know what I’ll do. I’m beginning to feel that this whole experiment has just been for the purpose of meeting her, and now I must make sure not to waste this opportunity. She is the culmination of everything I’ve done. She is the one. The energy of the woman is magnificent. She moves around the apartment so elegantly. It’s like she’s purposely dancing just for me. A Mr. Xang love dance! She may be independent, but with the right techniques I’m sure she could be tamed. Luckily, I am a master. A master of seduction. A master of control. I just need the correct tools of course! There is the same little problem as always though. I saw the way she looked at me. She smiled, but it wasn’t a proper smile. No, not a real one. She wanted to escape from me as soon as she laid eyes on me. Have I become that disgusting? She’s not like the others though. She can see beyond appearances. I’m sure of it. Once she gets to know me better, things will change, I know it. And if not, well, I always have my ways…

After she left this morning, late of course, I had to quickly get to work. Of course I had to get that thief Mr. Dai around. I’m seeing far too much of that snake lately.  He knows what he’s doing with the cameras, but the prices he charges for his services continues to rise. I trust him, but there is a limit to the money I’ll continue to pay for that trust. He hasn’t let me down so far but maybe I need to keep an eye on him. I saw my Emily with his wife and daughter. I’m sure it was them. They have the same stupid look on their faces as he does. It must run in the family. I need to know more of what’s going on there. Either it could put me in danger, or it could offer a lot of potential. If they know about the cameras, I’m done for. But, Mr. Dai wouldn’t tell them. He has too much to lose. Maybe the family could put in a good word for me? They could convince her that I’m not the vile creature she believes I am. I will talk to Mr. Dai soon and give him instructions. For the price I’m paying him, he owes me. Perhaps I shouldn’t have been so hard on him today. I need to think this through properly. A mistake could be costly, but the right actions could lead to everything I’ve ever wanted. One of Mr. Xang’s Special Baijiu’s  for Mr. Dai? That’s it. I’ve heard he’s almost an alcoholic, so surely he won’t say no to my premium product. I need to get him on my side and find out more information immediately. The Puppetmaster’s strings know no boundaries! Then they can tell Emily what a wonderful and influential business man I am. That I need to be respected. That I should be revered. That she should admire me. That everyone should admire me.

The new cameras he installed are almost completely undetectable. She may be British, but she’s not Sherlock. Mr. Dai wouldn’t shut up about how these new ones are a step above the others. Clearer picture, more sensitive microphones, completely silent etc etc etc. Anything to get me to empty my wallet! Now all I need is her to meet the British man and the fireworks can commence. All in front of my ever-watching gaze! Now I’ve seen her, I almost feel guilty though. But, entertainment must always come first! There’s no doubt that the boy has no idea of her presence. If he did, he’d avoid her at all costs. If they do meet it’s likely that he will ultimately only drive her closer to me. If their visit to Huangshan is unfruitful, I will need to act quickly though. Who knows how long the weird man will stay? He truly is a strange one. I have to make sure he doesn’t spot her before she spots him though. That’s the tricky part! He’s clearly here to avoid her and if she’s seen, he’ll run for it. It’s got to be handled delicately. I know I’ll find a way as always! Do not lose hope!

After the thief Mr Dai left me, I hurried to my usual spots for ‘commission’. They always think they can trick Mr.Xang, especially those Uyghur bastards at the restaurant. They forget that I know everything. I know she’s been there and I also know how many times she’s visited. Yet, they still debate my cut. I threatened them with going elsewhere again, and this time they actually tried to put up a fight. The arrogance of those bastards! I need to remind them of the consequences of their actions. Without me, they’d be back out in the middle of nowhere in Xinjiang. Have they forgotten what they owe me? I’ll make sure they know their place. And the shopkeeper! Who does he think he is?! He’s turning into the biggest problem of them all! It will cost me a bit, but it might be time to hire some help to remind them all of what their vanity and pride will get them It’s not the first time, and it probably won’t be the last. A costly solution, but an effective one. A reminder of what happens when Mr. Xang is disrespected! Perhaps Mr. Dang’s front teeth would make a nice little decoration for the cave!

***

Mr. Xang filled the large bottle in one go and panicked as it threatened to spill over. By now he had energised himself to a ridiculous, almost delirious, level and was writing at such a pace that most of the text would be illegible to any prospective readers. Though he pictured himself as an all-powerful tycoon, the reality wasn’t quite as glorious. However, that didn’t stop his name from being known by all in the area. It was a name that had become synonymous with anything negative or unexplainable that occurred.   However, most saw him as a figure to be ridiculed rather than one to be feared. Even Mr. Xang’s ego wasn’t totally immune to this ongoing mockery, and his alienation only increased his bitterness towards the local community.  As he eased himself back into his seat, his thoughts turned from his ‘business partners’ to the ‘strange man’ he knew as Chris, which only heightened his growing discontent. The bottle was hidden from view and Mr. Xang wiped his hands on his already dirtied jeans, ready to continue.

***

It’s lucky the woman is getting me commission as the idiot man has barely left the apartment. It feels like he’s barely left his own head! Something is really wrong with him. All he does is write and walk around the complex. He spends hours doing absolutely nothing. I don’t even think I’ve seen him eat? Once, he spent so long not moving that I thought the camera was broken! I almost had to call that snake Mr. Dai to check! The only excuse I can think of is that maybe he’s a proper writer like me? We are deep thinkers after all.  I need to go and see what he’s been writing. I need proof of whether he’s an intellectual or a maniac. Maybe I’ve been too busy with the woman… Though, who could blame me? The more I think about him, the more unnerved I feel. He’ll still be wandering around the mountain tomorrow, so I’ll go and explore his apartment then. There could be something in there that gives me an idea of what’s wrong with him, or what he might be up to? There’s something about him I just don’t trust. He’s trying to avoid my Emily after all. What human could want to avoid such a magical creature?

As I write, it’s impossible to stop my mind wandering back to the woman. She is the special one. I know it. I hope that she destroys the strange man when they meet. He’s clearly done something to her that deserves a proper punishment. Then I’ll have her all to myself. I think even my ‘darling’ wife has realised my mind is even more pre-occupied than usual. Lunch with the family was as miserable as always. Perhaps it was a bad idea, but I couldn’t stop myself talking about her. At one point, I told them how she dances around the apartment like an angel! What was I thinking? Luckily, I’m pretty sure Lu wasn’t listening. Lu stopped listening years ago. And the kids…. The kids! They are getting worse by the day, I swear! They are glued to their fucking electronic games. Don’t they understand what an exciting life their dad leads? Don’t they realise that all he has could one day be theirs? Maybe I shouldn’t give it to them at all. Yes, what a punishment that would be! Maybe, I should give it to the woman! To my Emily! I could offer her wealth and a lifetime of entertainment! How could she refuse that? That would teach Lu and the kids. They could go out on the streets for all I care.  Finally, I’d get the respect I deserve. And they’d get what they deserve too. They’d get nothing.

Next time I write in here, I promise that I’ll have some more interesting developments. Once they return from the mountain, I’ll reassess and plan my next course of action. Anyway, that’s enough of that. This evening I have other matters to attend to. I have two Koreans arriving. A couple of course. Koreans are not why I got into this business. They are too nice. Too well behaved. Too boring. Where’s a feisty Brazilian when you need one? Money is money though. But, it doesn’t guarantee entertainment, does it? Who knows, maybe they’ll surprise me. I’m going to separate them from the English ones though. There’s no need to complicate matters further between my subjects.

***

Glancing at the clock, Mr. Xang realised that time was running out before his new guests were to arrive, so his update would have to come to an abrupt end. The book was slammed shut and hidden where he was sure no one could ever find it. As an extra precaution, it was also locked away and Mr.Xang added the key to his enormous chain, so that no one would ever suspect that there was anything special about it. It was now just another key on a never-ending spiral of others. The anonymous room in the inconspicuous building was exited and Mr. Xang left with his mind racing, full of plans for the next day. Mr. Dai needed to be contacted and Chris’ apartment had to be searched vigorously. Hired help would also need to be considered to deal with his troublesome business partners. Though what truly interested him was the fate of his English ‘subjects’ visit to the mountain. Soon enough, he’d know if they met and the consequences of this meeting. All of this would expand his knowledge and influence, and maybe, just maybe, draw ‘his Emily’ closer to him.

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 19 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 19 – At the Precipice

Emily wasn’t as out of shape as she’d feared, but that didn’t stop the alcoholic perspiration dripping from her forehead. After her drooling episode on the bus, she’d begun to grow accustomed to not looking completely faultless. In fact, she’d actually grown to embrace it. With every person she passed, she wiped the top layer of sweat from her face and greeted them with an enthusiastic ‘hello’! Most of the passers-by were just as welcoming in return, but as she climbed higher, the energy of others started to decline as did the enthusiasm of their responses. According to her rough estimates, she was now approximately two thirds of the way up, and if anything, she had accumulated energy rather than lost it. Perhaps there was something in those lemons and oranges? The thought that Friedrich may have spiked the fruit made her smile, but this faded momentarily when she realised that it was a semi-realistic possibility. Either way, she had never felt quite this full of life. Emily had resisted the desire to take photos despite the irresistibility of the landscape that surrounded her. The advice of the old man was being adhered too, and Emily felt appreciative that she could now enjoy the scenery without the common urge to digitally capture every step along the way.

A strange but interesting cast of characters had been overtaken on her walk. Most had arrived well prepared for their journey, but some had clearly come for the vistas without considering the effort needed to get to the necessary height in which to view them. Perhaps the most perplexing of all the visitors was a woman who happened to be one of the few locals who had chosen to forego their Spring Festival celebrations in favour of a visit to the mountain. Through what must have been immense will-power, she had somehow managed to climb half-way up the ascent despite having the enormous hindrance of wearing a pair of silver stilettos. While the camera was on her, she managed to maintain a nonchalant façade, however, once the amateur modelling shoot had ended, Emily witnessed the reality of her struggle. For unknown reasons, the sizeable heels remained on even when the camera was well out of sight. Her growing discomfort led to a perpetual annoyance which was directed almost entirely at her photographer, who Emily strongly suspected was also her boyfriend. It was difficult for her to tell who was suffering most out of the two of them. Initially, Emily passed them both with a friendly ‘hello’ as was customary, however, sympathy got the better of her and she soon returned to offer help in the form of her spare shoes. The generous offer was briefly considered, but it didn’t take long for pride to take over and Emily’s gift was politely refused. This didn’t stop the woman thanking her countless times through a grimaced smile, which was an image Emily couldn’t shake as she left the couple behind. Shortly after progressing ahead of them, Emily decided to make their decision easier, and left the shoes at the side of the trail with a small, encouraging note for the couple. They were both cheap and easily replaceable, and Emily was enjoying the comfort of her hiking boots so much that she could see herself wearing only them for the foreseeable future. Feeling lighter, both literally and in spirit, Emily continued up the trail, interested to see who else she would meet along the path.

Her own thoughts provided surprisingly welcome company on the hike. It would have been great to have had Sammy by her side, but Emily kept thinking that a solo trip was exactly what she needed. If Sammy ever came to her senses, then she would of course forgive her, as long as she had a valid excuse for her behaviour of course. However, right now, Sammy could wait, as could everything else in life. Emily involuntarily let out a small giggle as she imagined what Matt would have been like to have as a partner on this trip. He would have hated every single second, and so would I. After years of neglect and subjugation, she felt as if she was finally connecting with herself and it felt good. Emily became so caught up with her thoughts that she almost forgot to stop and take in the views that only got more inspiring with each step she took. This is actually unbelievable… However, as if he was there with her, H.M Friedrich’s words repeated themselves clearly in her mind. ‘The top needs you. Photos on the way down.’ It could have been the ramblings of a mad man, but there was something about him that made her want to follow his potentially irrelevant advice. To Emily, it only added to the adventure.

With a newfound urgency, she stretched her legs and increased her speed. Bowie hadn’t left her since the bus and ‘Moonage Daydream’ had sound-tracked her entire day. She now found herself singing it loudly as she climbed ever higher. There was a sense that the top was approaching and, with no idea what mysterious thing was waiting for her there, she broke into a jog while singing between breaths.

“Keep your ‘lectric eye on me babe!” A couple parted to let her through and she thanked them briefly before continuing with the song. As she turned yet another corner, Emily was confronted with a small crowd that had their eyes transfixed on something that was currently out of her view.

“Put your ray gun to my head! Press your space face close to mine, love…” As the song reached it’s crescendo, Emily realised that she was almost tunelessly yelling the song at full volume. She was now surrounded by others who, despite her best efforts, had yet to acknowledge her presence. They all had a look of terror on their faces and it brought Emily’s singing to an abrupt end. What are they all looking at? She followed their eyes and noticed that they were all focused on one man. One man who was stood right on the precipice of the cliff and was looking ominously down into the valley below. As she studied the figure that stood before her, memories from the previous evening came flooding back.

Fuck, it was him!!

“I know him! Chris! Chris! Stop!” Her voice pierced through the murmurs of the crowd and, upon hearing her, Chris’ surprise almost caused him to slip into the void below.

Chris remained still and tried to compute the situation. Who the fuck is that? How would anyone here even know my name? In that moment, he felt like letting go and allowing himself fall into the welcoming abyss. Whoever that was, he knew that there was no way it would be good news. His will had taken him to the cliff edge, but his body wouldn’t allow him to progress any further. It had now been twenty minutes since he’d made his way behind the heart to his final destination. Twenty minutes of deliberation. Twenty minutes of telling people to “please be quiet. I need to think.” Twenty minutes of sweating, crying and twenty minutes filled with an abject fear of the end. Now this unknown person was only adding to his mental strain. Despite his best efforts to concentrate on the task at hand, Chris’ intrigue began to envelop him. I have to know who they are. I just have to know.

Shaking violently, he slowly began to turn himself around. Inch by inch, he rotated, knocking multiple stones into the nothingness below. Before he’d managed to fully turn to face the watching crowd, he felt two arms grab him around his waist. They were clutching him with an intensity he’d never felt before. He looked down and a realisation washed over him that induced both comfort and anxiety.

Emily could feel both her and Chris’ heart racing. Ever since Sammy had broken it off, she’d be worried about him. She’d always seen similarities between the two of them, however, Chris had always seemed so overly reliant on his girlfriend, perhaps to the point of a complete emotional dependence. They’d never been friends themselves, but it was easy for her to see that Sammy leaving him would shatter the man. Seeing him trembling at the cliff edge only confirmed her worst fears. A hug was her first impulse and now she didn’t want to let him go, both out of worry and of a lack of other ideas. Everyone has moments in their lives when they’re at the lowest ebb, and Emily hoped that hers was behind her, but seeing Chris like this made her realise how low it was truly possible to go. H.M Friedrich flashed through her mind. Fate was not something she believed in but, even if this was a coincidence, she knew that it was now her job to help Chris. Even if she just helped him to live one more day, she would have done something.

“Emily…what….Why are you here? What’s going on?” Chris’ shaking was yet to desist and he feared that Emily’s arms were the only thing keeping him from collapsing completely.

“I’ll answer all those questions, but first let’s maybe get away from the edge a bit if that’s fine with you?” Emily was trying to avoid the usual tropes involved with talking someone away from a ledge. Though, every word she said seem to sound even more cliched than the last.

“Now, come on. Let’s sit down, catch up and just talk a bit, yeah? These people can take their photos, and we can forget all about this.” Why can’t I stop speaking like this?

Chris nodded and gently edged his way around the heart and away from the edge of the cliff. Emily expected the crowd to clap like they did in the movies, but instead they just stared at the both of them with open mouthed gawps. Chris was trembling uncontrollably and Emily worried that he’d lose his footing, so she took his hand and led him tentatively away from the eyes of the tourists. As they turned the corner, Chris’ legs finally gave way. Emily was unable to stop him falling completely, but she did her best to ease him down. His face was pale and he had been as yet unable to shake the look of shock. Whether it was from his near death experience, or from her own unscheduled arrival, Emily was unsure.

“You need to rest. You don’t need to speak. Just let yourself switch off for a bit. Explanations can wait until later. You’re still shivering, you poor thing.” Emily couldn’t stop herself from giving Chris another hug, but she noticed that he recoiled as she put her arms around him. She’d never felt sympathy for another human being to such an extent before. She’d never seen someone so broken. Chris looked directly into her eyes and attempted to speak. He looked terrified.

“Matt? Matt… Did you speak to…? Why aren’t you…? Sammy…” Chris couldn’t decide what he wanted to ask first. There was so much he needed to know. A question finally formed in his mind, but he was too scared to ask. Why don’t you hate me?

“I’ve just walked you away from a cliff edge and you want to talk about….?” Emily realised how insensitive this retort could sound, so instead attempted to respond to Chris’ incomprehensible requests.

“Well, Matt… Where do I start? Turns out I was the last person in the world to realise what a dickhead he truly was. I’m sure you already knew it. Sammy certainly did. I broke up with him just before I left. I haven’t heard from him since. I haven’t heard from anyone actually. In a moment of madness, I threw my phone into the Thames!” Chris couldn’t believe what he was hearing. Surely she had to know something.

“Sammy…?” Chris’ inability to form full sentences continued.

“Sammy? I don’t know what to say. I guess she just decided that we’re not really friends any more… Maybe I can explain more when we’re not at the top of a mountain though? I’m guessing you don’t have anywhere planned to stay tonight?” Emily knew it was a stupid question, but felt she’d better ask just in case. Chris’ silence confirmed her assumption was correct.

“Look, I have a twin room tonight. It’s just a bit more of a climb… I think? But, you’re staying with me tonight. I know you’re not a child, but I need to keep an eye on you. No more of these cliff-side dramatics, okay?” Emily attempted to adopt a jovial manner, but she feared she was condescending Chris.

“Okay. Sorry.” Chris couldn’t decide if he was incredibly lucky or cursed.

“Great! There’s no real hurry, but it’s going to become a lot harder for us once the sun goes down. So, when you’re ready, we can slowly start going. I’m sure it’s not too far… And we can stop whenever you need to rest! There’s no rush really.” Chris was already dragging himself to his feet. He felt uneasy, but desperate to be somewhere else. Anywhere else. He could still feel the presence of death around him, and before Emily could continue her monologue of care, Chris was already on his way, striding upwards towards any indeterminate destination.

Emily managed to catch up with him. She resisted the urge to give him a third hug, but pointed him in the direction she assumed her hotel was in. They walked side by side, but very few words were exchanged between them. They both tried to piece together everything that had just happened and what it meant for their immediate futures. Emily felt nothing but pity and care for Chris. To her, he was someone who had been defeated by life. Someone who needed help whether he wanted it or not, and now, for better or worse, she had to be that person to deliver that assistance. Chris felt confused and scared. He still couldn’t believe that Emily was so unaware of everything that had happened back in England. Part of him felt fortunate, but in reality he knew that the whole situation was just a ticking time bomb. They couldn’t exist in this stasis forever. Sooner or later the truth would emerge, and then he would probably do anything to be back at the cliff edge. Perhaps I should have jumped when I had the chance...

***

Less than an hour later they arrived at Emily’s hotel. It was a simple, but uniquely picturesque establishment. The building itself was unmistakably Communist, but the contrast with the spectacular scenery that surrounded it created something that almost resembled a Stanley Kubrick film. This was helped by the diminishing sunlight and the glaring beacons that shone out from the hotel over the neighbouring peaks. Being one of the only choices of accommodation on the mountain, it was necessarily large, however, as they made their way inside, their was a great feeling of emptiness within the building. In comparison to the rest of the establishment, their room was tiny and, although it was technically a ‘twin room’, the beds could barely be separated from one another. Neither of it’s occupants even thought of this as an issue as intimacy was far from both their minds. They both wanted to ask each other a multitude of questions, but neither knew where to start. Eventually Emily grasped the mantle.

“So… you feeling okay now?” She instantly regretted asking this. Of course he’s not bloody okay!

“Better than before I guess.” Chris forced a smile, though it was clear to them both that it wasn’t genuine.

“I’m so sorry for earlier. I really am. And I haven’t even said thank you yet. So… thank you. I haven’t decided yet if I wanted to be saved if I’m honest. But, either way, thank you.” There was no point acting like he was fine, and he weirdly felt like he could be open with Emily. He saw the look of fear in her eyes in response to this admittance though.

“But, just to assure you. I’m not going to try anything like that tonight. So, don’t worry about me.” Chris knew this was true, but even he felt the words sounded disingenuous as they left his mouth.

Emily sat on the one chair they had in the room and looked intensely at him. She too forced a smile that was lacking in credibility.

“Well, it’s going to be hard not to worry after seeing that! I mean, what the fuck were you thinking?” She quickly retracted her statement. Her usual social graces had been lost in this unfamiliar social situation.

“Ignore that. I’m sorry. I was so worried for you after you and Sammy ended. I wanted to contact you to make sure you were doing okay, but I asked Matt to do it instead. I thought it would be better coming from him. In retrospect, that was probably the worst thing I could have done!”

So, Matt only contacted me because of Emily. Fuck, this is messed up.

“Emily… I don’t really know where to start. But first, I need to know one thing. Did Sammy talk to you at all after she broke up with me? Did she tell you why? Did she say anything?” Chris felt uneasy about where these questions might lead. He briefly glimpsed at Emily, then back at the floor, before closing his eyes and waiting for her response.

“Not really. I don’t want to upset you, but… she told me she was going to break up with you a while back. One day I got a message saying she was going to do it. Then, I got another message saying it was done. She didn’t seem herself at all though. Then she went silent really. That’s all I know. Like I said, our friendship seemed to end around the same time. Not that I’m comparing us of course… It still hurt though. I can’t imagine what you must be feeling.” Emily felt guilty for temporarily pitying herself in the presence of someone who was recently, and could very well still be, suicidal.

Chris thought for a moment. There was a lot that he wouldn’t dare reveal to Emily. At least, not yet. Though, he felt there was one thing that it was necessary for her to know immediately. One thing that would potentially hurt her almost as much as it had hurt him. It just so happened it was also the one thing that wouldn’t make her regret her decision to help him away from the edge, both literally and figuratively. Chris took a deep breath and thought of how to structure his speech delicately yet unequivocally.

“I think you need to know something. It’s not going to make you feel great at all, but it might help explain things a bit. It was actually on the day that I…. on the day my dad died. Sammy had given me a final warning. She didn’t say it quite like that, but I knew that the end was just around the corner for us and I’d never been so scared in my life. I tried to solve things. I probably did more than anyone has ever done to put things right between us. But it was all a bit too late by then I guess.” Chris stopped himself and refocused on what he concluded were the important points for Emily to know.

“I arrived back from my parents’ place and Sammy was…. She was distraught. Despite what she thought of my dad, I could see that her emotions were genuine. It actually surprised me, but there was clearly pain in her eyes. She held me tight. I’d almost forgotten what that felt like.” Emily was listening with tears in her eyes. She didn’t know what to expect from Chris’ story, but she could sense the pain it was causing him to tell it.

“As she held me…somehow…. I could tell that there was something different about her. It wasn’t just the sadness and shock about dad. I could tell something wasn’t right at all. Something wasn’t right with her. I could feel that she’d also done something wrong that day. She was sad about something else too. She was upset at herself. Then, while she still had her arms around me, I saw him. And… I knew what had happened immediately. I saw him just looking back at me. That fucking smug prick…” This came across as more dramatic than Chris had intended, but the images of that day were now vivid, and reliving the moment brought back feelings in him that he’d been trying to suppress ever since.

“Saw who?” Emily leaned forward expectantly.

“…John Terry.”

“What? You saw John Terry? The Chelsea football…..?” Emily had to stop herself from laughing. Chris had to do that same when he realised that absurdity of his comment. He fell silent for a moment before offering a clearer explanation.

“Sorry… I mean…He was on the lighter. He must have been in a hurry and left it behind. She hadn’t been alone. I could still fucking smell him. I’d always thought she hated him. I don’t know if it was the first time, or whether it had happened before or what, but… it happened. It took her a while, but she eventually admitted it too. It fucking happened. I’m sorry. I thought Sammy might have told you. I’m really sorry.” Emily sat silently, staring at Chris, trying to decipher what he was trying to explain. What is he going on about? Then it hit her. There was only one man she knew that bulk-bought lighters like that.

“Oh… Fuck!”

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 18 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 18 – H.M

Almost her entire stash of paracetamol was taken that morning. It had been years since Emily had suffered from such an overpowering hangover. The usual ‘morning-after’ doubts plagued her mind. What had she said? How had she said it? Was she noticeably pissed in front of Susie? Please say I didn’t embarrass myself too much…The end of the night was being pieced together slowly and Emily found herself fairly content with what she could remember thus far. However, there was something important she was forgetting and she knew it. The last thing she could recall was making plans with the family. Luckily, all the details had been written down, so her struggling mind didn’t have to work too hard. Eventually, Emily concluded that putting pressure on herself to remember absolutely everything was going to be a fruitless endeavour, and that this ‘important thing’ would resurface when her recovering brain was good and ready to click back into gear. Right now, she had to get ready for her trip to Huangshan and all her concentration was needed to focus on the task that lay ahead of her. As she caught sight of her reflection, she realised that her morning renovation was going to be more difficult than ever. Leaving the flat in her current state was not an option.

A quick glance at the clock showed that she only had an hour before her bus left. Oh bugger it. A quick fix will have to do. For some reason, Sammy kept entering Emily’s mind as she rushed from bathroom to bedroom, fixing herself up. Since arriving in China, her friend had lay on the periphery of her consciousness, but now she had made her way to the forefront. Perhaps this was because Sammy and herself had shared a multitude of hangovers together, or perhaps they had discussed her absent friend over drinks the previous evening and she had since forgotten. Emily couldn’t exactly place why they were there, but her thoughts of Sammy would have to wait for the time being. There was no way she was going to look her glamorous best but, for the first time in a long time, Emily was beyond caring. It was a refreshing feeling, but one she imagined would be fleeting. With little time remaining, she ran out of the door towards the exit of the building, only to realise that her hiking boots were still next to her bed, where she’d ironically placed them to ensure they would not be forgotten. She quickly debated the merits of returning, then sprinted back up the stairs. By now, alcohol was seeping its way out of her pours and her freshly sprayed deodorant was fast becoming overwhelmed. Back at her door, she rummaged through her bag and discovered that she had dropped the keys somewhere on the staircase in her panic. Her watch confirmed that making her scheduled bus was now hopeless. Defeated, she retraced her steps, collected her keys and re-entered the apartment. The first thing she did upon returning was check the bus timetable Mr. Xang had given her. A feeling of relief came over her as there was just an hours’ wait until the next scheduled departure. She’d have to purchase a new ticket, but in the circumstances this was not a huge sacrifice. Now there would be just enough time for her to get ready properly and hopefully for her to start feeling more alive, or at least less disgusting, in the process. Emily couldn’t shake the feeling that by missing the bus, she’d let someone down. Matt would have been furious if her actions would have ever caused them to miss anything. Actually, Emily knew that was incorrect. Matt would have just left without her. He would have still been furious though. The difference was that, now she was alone, she’d only let herself down and, if she was being honest, she couldn’t really care less. She returned to the mirror with a rye smile on her face. The decision was made not too look too fabulous that day. However, she did concede that another shower wouldn’t hurt.

***

The bus was almost empty, and initially Emily felt exhilarated to finally be on her way. The driver’s music choices were far too abrasive for her delicate state, so she decided that a different soundtrack was needed for her first dip into solitary travel. She put on her headphones and started the playlist that she and Sammy had been working on for the trip. Shuffle was not on her side and, after skipping Sammy’s choices of Catfish and the Bottlemen and Mumford and Sons, the first notes of ‘Moonage Daydream’ struck the perfect chord. Ideally, Emily hoped to take in each and every moment of her journey and to watch rural China gradually reveal itself behind the glass, however, as the chorus hit, Emily couldn’t resist shutting her eyes and silently singing along.

“…keep your electric eye on me babe…make me know you really care…”

The two other passengers on the bus decided it was time to disturb the sleeping Emily after even the blaring rendition of ‘Little Apple’ failed to wake her from her slumber. She’d been snoring since they’d left the city and she awoke to find a thin, but noticeable, trail of saliva emanating from the left side of her mouth. It took her a moment to realise her whereabouts and she then thanked her fellow passengers at full volume as she was competing with Alex Turner crooning in her ears.

By the time she’d collected her possessions and her thoughts, they had arrived at their final destination. Due to her lack of consciousness, Emily hadn’t yet had the opportunity to truly appreciate the world around her. The two who had disturbed her sleep already had their phones pointing to the sky and Emily joined them in amazement. She involuntarily stumbled back as her eyes followed the trail high up the mountainside to the peak that lay somewhere far beyond her vision. Although impressed, there was also a faint, but definite, feeling of nerves within her. She praised her past-self for returning to get her hiking boots. This was not a day for Converse.

Since her unscheduled nap, her hangover had started to slowly but surely creep back. Her backpack was full of liquids and a few snacks for the climb, but after seeing the daunting trail ahead, she surmised that extra food was going to be a necessity. One stall remained open and, to her surprise, a Western man appeared to be its proprietor. Despite having little-to-no business, he looked at ease. It was as if sales were an insignificant part of his presence at the foot of the mountain. The scene in front of her struck her as odd for two reasons. First; what was a Western-looking man doing running a ramshackle food and drink stall at the bottom of a mountain in China? Second; why was he wearing such a ridiculous waistcoat? He had constructed a unique image for himself that contrasted greatly with his surroundings, however, Emily couldn’t picture an environment that this man wouldn’t juxtapose. As she examined the scene with bemusement, the man took notice and beckoned her over.

“Why, hello there young lady! You’re a tad late… Can I interest you in some fresh fruit for your climb? You look like you could use the vitamins! No offence intended of course!” Emily couldn’t help but feel slightly offended at this observation, but then she realised that she was yet to wipe the drool from her chin. She chose to not comment on the slightly odd ‘you’re late’ remark.

“Actually, that’s not a bad idea at all! But, can I ask you something though? What brings you out here? And also, what a fabulous waistcoat you have! I absolutely love it!” Emily’s compliment was semi-genuine.

“Ta very much! I made it myself actually. Took a long time, but lasted a lifetime! And of course you may ask me anything my new and welcome amiga! I came here to keep an eye on things. Some things more than others. The world is all too chaotic sometimes and I have nominated myself as the container of said chaos! That being said, I do enjoy a bit of unpredictability now and again, don’t you?” His confidence was infectious, and for some reason Emily already felt completely at ease in his company. Eccentric older men had always seemed to take a shine to her, sometimes creepily so, but there was something different about this man. If nothing else, her curiosity in him was the perfect distraction from her slowly increasing headache.

“I guess unpredictability is good in small doses… I’m starting to realise this lately. My ex used to be unpredictable but in all the worst ways. I used to fear what he’d do next. He’d never hit me or anything like that, but I was always waiting on the next disappointment. If I’m being honest, my fear wasn’t actually at what he’d do, but what I’d have to forgive him for doing. Every time I swallowed my pride and let him off yet again, I grew that little bit smaller as a person. But now, I guess I’m finally appreciating a bit of the unknown. I think I am, anyway…” This monologue fell out of Emily’s mouth without her being able to stop it. Why am I telling him all this? Emily was an honest person, but she was rarely this open about her thoughts and feelings, even with Sammy and Cassie. Yet, around this stranger, her filter had well-and truly broken.

“Well, I must say I’m sorry to hear that my dear. It sounds like you, and the rest of the world, are far better off without this hound of a man. But, that being said… without unpredictability and impulsiveness, I’m assuming you wouldn’t be here by yourself in this wonderful mountain range I’m temporarily calling home, would you? A predictable life is a sedate life. And a sedate life… well, that’s not a life at all. Those that live sedate lives crave predictability and routine. Where would the human race be with routine alone? This isn’t nineteen eighty four my dear! It’s… it’s… what year is it?” The man temporarily paused in thought, then dismissed the idea as unimportant and continued with his preaching.

“Now, I have enjoyed our little chitter-chatter, but it’s imperative that we mustn’t talk for too long. You are needed at the top of the mountain, young Sonechka! I don’t like to give spoilers, but I suggest you take your photos on the way down as time is of the essence! You look puzzled now, but you’ll understand once you get there…. Now, please indulge me one final time and answer this question. What would you like? Oranges or lemons?” There were many points in this speech that Emily wanted to question, but felt nervous regarding what the answers may be. However, his emphasis on the importance of time encouraged her to focus on the one question he requested to be answered. The man was now looking deep into her eyes, implying that this was more of a test of character than a simple choice of fruit.

“I don’t want to be pushy, but can’t I have both? I know it’s not normal, but I actually quite like lemons, especially with an orange afterwards. Then the orange tastes extra sweet.” This answer brought an enormous laugh from the amateur salesman.

“Now, I know I like you! You’re wiser than your years, young lady. Looks can be deceiving, can’t they? Of course you can have both! Just make sure you finish with the oranges rather than the lemons, eh? Otherwise the sourness may linger. Also, it might seem an odd request, but make sure you save one of those oranges for when you reach the top. Understand? Just one. It’ll be appreciated upon your arrival, trust me.” The man was almost dancing as he loaded up a small selection of fruits into a bag for his customer. For someone of his apparent age, Emily couldn’t help but be impressed with the elegance of his movements. Once the show was over, she offered him payment, but this was met with a polite refusal.

“The conversation was payment enough! It’s people like you that keep my ageing mind in working order. Maybe order isn’t the correct word… but…. I just wish we could talk a bit longer! Perhaps it won’t be the last time we meet though, eh? I’m a bit of a transient type me. Just keep an eye out for my waistcoat. Enjoy the walk, but not too much, eh… Remember the top needs you!” With his final flourish complete, he then almost immediately started shutting up his stall, despite it only being midday. His primary job had been completed.

“Thank you very much! That’s very kind of you! Can I ask for your name? If we’re going to meet again, I should know it. I’ve always thought that It’s so rude to ask someone their name if you’ve previously met… I’m Emily by the way.” She smiled and presented her hand. Rather than offer his own, the man instead placed a singular orange in her palm.

“The name’s Friedrich. H.M Friedrich. The H.M’s new actually, but I think it goes rather well, don’t you? And yes, Emily. I wish you luck on the mountain! Just remember two things. Photos on the way down. Orange at the top. Got it?”

“Got it! Thank you Friedrich… H.M Friedrich.” Emily got caught up in the theatrics of the meeting and found herself bowing for no real reason.

“Pleasure!” With that final word, he set off in a hurry, away from the mountain. Emily felt both amused and perplexed by their meeting. In another life, she’d have retreated before even beginning to converse with H.M Friedrich. However, she felt no threat from him despite his surety that they would meet again. In fact, she was actually quite looking forward to it.

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 17 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 17 – Yellow Mountain

There was no turning back now.

The letter had been posted that morning and soon Chris’ mum would know everything. Chris had hoped that he’d feel a weight lift off his shoulders once the letter was out of his possession, but if anything, he felt the opposite. His sleep had become almost non-existent and memories, some true and some fabricated, haunted him throughout the night. None of that mattered any more though. It would soon all be over. He counted out the money he owed Mr. Xang and left it next to the ‘Welcome Kit’ he’d been supplied. Chris always wondered how people felt on the last day of their lives, and now he was there, a few things surprised him. Choosing which clothes to wear became far more important than he’d ever imagined. The outfit he ended up deciding on had many memories attached to it, and every garment unsurprisingly had been chosen or bought by Sammy. For the first time since his ill-fated trip to The Goose, Chris allowed himself to gaze into the mirror. The figure staring back at him was more recognisable than he’d anticipated. The thinning hair he had grown used to was still just about clinging on and his eyes, though sleep deprived, looked surprisingly alert. He must have lost weight over the last few days, but it was hardly noticeable. Chris expected to be looking at a broken man, but what he saw was the same person he’d seen all his life. A confused, naïve and impulsive man who reacted to life rather than lived it. A brief sense of doubt uncovered itself as he stared into his own eyes, but it was too late now. The decision had been made. Today was to be the day.

Before he left, he packed his belongings so they could easily be dispensed of and he left a small note for Mr. Xang thanking him for his stay, as well as some extra cash to compensate him for his departure at short notice. He considered one last look in the mirror, but decided against it. Grabbing his backpack and closing the door behind him, it felt like he’d taken the first step on his final journey.

***

The bus station was nowhere near as chaotic as Chris thought it would be. Mr. Xang had been correct, the place was almost deserted. Clearly, everyone had already completed their travels in preparation for Spring Festival. He’d arrived so early that he was able to jump on an earlier bus than planned to Huangshan, and Chris found himself almost alone on his bus to the mountains. There was a small group of excited South Korean hikers, a couple of sleepy southern-European men and an American couple who could barely keep their hands off of one another long enough to show their tickets to the driver. Chris watched them walk on and make their way down the bus. Please, don’t. Please, don’t. Much to his disappointment, they inexplicably chose to sit directly in front of him, despite the vehicle being almost empty. They continued their displays of affection and, though it was easy enough for him to avert his eyes, Chris found it impossible to ignore the sounds of their lips and tongues intertwining. Part of him wanted to feel happy for this young, infatuated couple, but this was the last day of his life and for once, he wanted things his own way. He leant around the side of the seat and tried to interrupt them in the most non-intrusive way possible.

“Sorry…. Sorry… excuse me, but…. I can’t even fucking think!” This unplanned outburst made the couple jump back. Until the last two words, they hadn’t been aware of Chris’ presence.

“Hey man. We’re sorry. We hear ya. We just got a bit carried away! You know how it is… We’ll try to cool it. Just chill.” However much Chris wanted to elevate the argument, a deeper part of him resisted. There was a feeling of resentment towards this young, happy couple, but he also saw an element of himself and Sammy in them. Even if they would never have been this obnoxiously affectionate in public.

“It’s okay. Sorry for shouting. I’ve just been through a lot of shit and I can’t deal with anything really at the moment. You two be happy. Just maybe move away if you want to really go for it.” What am I saying? The couple laughed at Chris’ suggestion and both turned and leant their heads between their hands on the back of their seats. The attempt to silence them was clearly going to have the opposite effect.

“Aw man, that sucks. Break up I’m guessing?” That, and the fact I’m a fucking murderer. “We’ve both been through it this year too! I thought my heart was permanently destroyed… then I met Marie and she jump started it! Hang in there man!” He gave Marie a small peck on the cheek and she took the cue.

“It was the same was me. I was dating this asshole and never realised it. He was no good for me at all, a real shit. But it still killed me to leave him… But now I have my Brad and I couldn’t be happier!” Marie spoke was a deep southern drawl. They looked into each other’s eyes and were clearly finding it hard to resist another session.

Chris knew they meant well, but in that moment, he wished more than anything that he’d got on the later bus.

“Cheers guys. I’m glad for you both. Enjoy the trip.” He hoped this would end the conversation.

“So, what brings you to Huangshan, man?” He was wrong.

“You know… the …..uh…. Majestic mountain scenery that’s reminiscent of an otherworldly cinematic landscape. All that bollocks.” He hoped this would either put the American couple off talking to him or at least draw a laugh.

“You’re so right! The British always describe things so well, don’t they! It looks like something from Avatar!” Brad enthusiastically agreed and Chris felt compelled to also nod along. After his last attempt, he decided a prolonged silence would be the only way to draw this exchange to a close.

“Well, maybe we’ll see you on the mountain, amigo! And, we’ll try to keep it down dude!” The couple sat back down and Chris could hear them whispering about what an ‘interesting guy’ he was. In was only a few moments before their tongues were back in each others’ mouths. This was just going to be a punishment Chris would have to take.

The next two hours were two of the slowest of Chris’ life. He tried to focus his concentration on the scenery passing outside of the window, but he found himself either distracted by the affectionate couple or worse; his own thoughts. He still hadn’t got out of the habit of wondering ‘what would Sammy have thought of all of this?’. She would have been glued to the window, pointing out to Chris anything of interest. She would have been leafing through her notes, regaling Chris with every superlative that had ever been written about their destination. She would have almost certainly have continued talking to the Americans, and they would have inevitably ended up climbing the mountain together. Chris would have wanted to object, but Sammy’s enthusiasm would have triumphed as it always did. A smile formed on Chris’ face, but he was brought back to reality by the music on the bus, which the driver had decided to suddenly turn to full volume. Chris recognised it as the ‘Little Apple’ song the taxi driver from the airport had been so keen to push on him. “What the fuck?” Chris thought out loud.

“They always do this shit around ten minutes before we stop. And it’s always the same song. We’ve heard it so much that we can almost sing along with it now!” Before Chris had a chance to stop them, the couple were attempting to make up their own lyrics to the melody. Somehow they were even louder than the blaring noise echoing throughout the bus. Ten more minutes….

The scenery dramatically changed as they approached their final destination. The modern, built-up surroundings gave way to an enormous expanse of endless peaks. Each and every person on the bus pressed their phones to the windows to get their first snaps of what lay ahead. Chris couldn’t help but think that these photos would surely later be dispensed in favour of some photos from actually on the mountain, but nevertheless, he found himself temporarily transfixed by the emerging scenery. This is where it ends then… The bus pulled up and there was a rush to see who could be the first to explore. Chris remained stationary, hoping that the couple would forget about him in lieu of the landscape.

“You coming man?” Chris almost felt bad as there was a definite kindness and sympathy in the couple’s interest in him, despite their continued ability to irritate.

“Don’t worry, I’ll see you at the top. Enjoy the undeniably romantic vistas of Yellow Mountain!” He couldn’t help but continue his guide-book spiel, mostly to keep himself amused.

“Hear that Marie! Undeniable romance! Maybe we can get off the trail and find somewhere quiet….” This request was met with mock-annoyance, but the couple wished Chris luck and skipped out of the bus, ready to enjoy themselves. Although the headache they had given him remained, even Chris found himself smiling at their affection for each other, however naïve he thought it probably was.

The entranceway to the mountains was predictably overblown. A huge red gate marked the official start of the hiking trail. Two dragons snaked up the side of the threshold and a ceremonial flag fluttered in the breeze above it, just in case people were in any doubt as to which country they were in. A number of souvenir and snack stalls lay just before the entrance, but, due to it being Spring Festival, only one of them was currently in operation. Chris patiently waited for the small number of tourists to begin their ascent. The last thing he needed in his last few hours was to be jostling his way to the top. This day, more than any other day in his life, was one not to be rushed. The owner of the stall noticed his reluctance to start his hike and beckoned him over. Without a valid excuse, Chris obliged.

“Water. You need water. No more water until top of mountain.” The elderly men couldn’t have been under eighty and looked to have a permanent hunch, however, he had already pulled himself out of his camping chair and was grabbing multiple bottles out of his fridge. Chris caught the smell of something he was cooking. It wasn’t a particularly appetising smell, but it prompted him to the realisation that he hadn’t eaten in over twenty-four hours. His stomach rumbled in response.

“I’d better take three then. And I’ll have two of….those…. whatever those are.” The shop-owner followed Chris’ requests without feeling the need for any verbal response. He would have eaten anything, but as it was potentially the last food to ever enter his mouth, Chris felt like he should at least find out what it was.

“Sorry, but what is this? Tofu?”

“This is dough stick.”

“Dough stick?”

“Dough stick.”

“They’re dough sticks. Great… thanks.”

The ‘dough sticks’ he handed Chris looked like they had potentially been cooking for days. They had the texture, and taste, of a heavily seasoned mattress and Chris’ dry mouth struggled to produce the requisite saliva for their consumption to be possible. The old man assured him they were “fresh, this morning” and advised him to wait for them to cool before he ate, but by now Chris was beyond caring and his stomach was aching with impatience. A full bottle of water was required to force them down and Chris chastised his former self for not planning ahead. The taste of oil-covered, stale dough was now sure to remain with him for the rest of the day. His stomach continued to complain, but now in a different tone, however, the other hikers were now far enough ahead that Chris could begin his journey without disturbance. The next bus was due to arrive in twenty minutes, so this was the perfect opportunity for a solitary hike. He over-payed the old man, thanked him, and readied himself for the ascent.

The dragons welcomed him onto the trail and the only sounds that could be heard were the whistling of the wind in the trees and the various birds that had found their homes on the mountain. No tourists, no photographers and no overly-affectionate Americans. Chris had strived for quiet and isolation, but this consequently meant that his mind was allowed to race. Sammy, Matt and his own father refused to exit his consciousness. Chris always found himself analysing his own thoughts, whether he liked it or not, and he found it surprising that, even now, only contempt was felt for the two men whose lives he had cut short. For many, life is full of loss and the subsequent sadness that follows it, but, to Chris, the world was better place without both of them. If Emily and Matt’s family were suffering from their bereavement, it would only be temporary. One day they would be much happier without his presence in their lives, even if they didn’t realise it right now. And as for his own father, his mum would have felt shocked and somewhat helpless after his death, but Chris knew more than ever that he had helped to free her. These thoughts brought him temporary solace, but he knew that there still needed to be consequences for his actions. If Raskolnikov couldn’t escape from what he’d done, then nor could he. Chris briefly pondered on this thought and wondered whether eight years in Siberia would be preferable to the fate that he’d consigned himself. In the end, he decided that this was irrelevant. His sentence had been decided for certain when he’d posted the letter.

As he climbed higher, Chris’ mood swung from relative acceptance to despair. Sammy was now making her inevitable way to the forefront of his mind. The volume of his thoughts was becoming ever-louder and drowning out the birdsong around him. He initially focused on what he missed; her smile, her optimism, her touch and her warmth, but then their last days together replaced any positivity that was being felt.

Three words circled perpetually in his mind: ‘Betrayal’, ‘lies’ and pain’. They became overpowering to such an extent that Chris involuntarily let out a scream to break the cycle. Birds that were in close proximity to him scattered and he collapsed onto a nearby bench, close to exhaustion. At this rate, he wasn’t sure whether he could make it any further. Perhaps the end would come even sooner than imagined.

After a moment of silence, Chris raised his head and focused his eyes on what lay before him. Strangely, a flurry of ‘tour guide adjectives’ surfaced in his mind. He smirked and whispered to himself “oh, how majestic this otherworldly landscape is”. Hysteria hit him and before he knew it, he was belly-laughing and crying in unison. Any control that had remained of his thoughts had been lost and his stream of consciousness jumped from one subject to another. Sammy. Pub Dad. Dough Sticks. Weeds. Magnificent mountain scenery. Emily. Finally, it cleared and settled, however, one solitary line remained:

“To live is to suffer. To survive is to find some meaning the in the suffering.”

Where the fuck did that come from? The laughter stopped and Chris stared out into the pine-covered peaks that lay before him, with the Nietzschean line repeating itself over and over. He’d hadn’t thought about the philosopher in years and wondered why, in this moment, he had returned to him. Is this my brain going into survival mode? Is this its way of telling me to carry on with life? Or am I too far gone in my suffering to find meaning any more? Was Sammy my meaning? Now she’s gone, is it time to end it all? Or is it time for the suffering to begin and to finally find meaning in it? Or have I just finally gone completely fucking mental? Chris opened a bottle of water and finished it in one. He then dragged himself up, wiped his cheeks and continued along the trail. The questions continued and he attempted to distract himself by describing the scenery around him in the most overblown ways possible.

“… a crooked tree, reminiscent of a Grimm’s fairy-tale, weeping over the abyss…. The peaks that have inspired countless Chinese poets and philosophers and that will continue to do so until the end of civilisation… the ascent up the trail can lead to an ascent of the mind and spirit as well as a newfound peace and serenity as the scenery grows ever more majestic with every step taken…”

He spoke these words theatrically as if for an audience of thousands, and they brought him a short reprieve from the darker thoughts that threatened to invade his mind. It was only when he heard voices ahead of him that he decided to stop. It was probably best that these people didn’t think he’d gone totally mad. Then, as he turned the corner, he saw it: the heart. The vision of it made his stomach turn. This was where he’d chosen to end it all. The reality finally hit him hard.

The American couple from the bus were passionately kissing and waiting behind two other couples for the perfect romantic photo opportunity. Chris held back and attempted not to be seen. The last thing he needed right now was inane conversation with strangers. He quietly made his way away from the small crowd, and his mind began to wander once more. His mother’s face vividly appeared as if it was right there with him. She was smiling. A genuine smile. A smile of relief and contentment. She was by herself and looking directly at Chris. Without realising it, he was smiling back at her. Her image gradually disappeared and the backdrop of Huangshan replaced her. I guess it’s hard to deny it’s not beautiful…Chris took a moment to admire the view. Something he’d rarely, if ever, done. The couples would be taking photos for a while and Chris didn’t want to traumatise others with what he had planned. There was certainly no rush.

A stork flew across his eyeline and landed on a lone tree on top on a singular peak. This lone granite pillar seemed to defy gravity with how it had somehow remained standing. Chris watched the bird feeding her young intently without any other thought in his head. It was difficult to see how many children the mother was caring for but she remained in the tree for a great length of time. Perhaps she wasn’t feeding them at all. Perhaps she was just checking up on them as a mother should. Sometimes life really can be that simple. The chatter of the crowd in the distance had been muted and nothing but peace surrounded him. He had no idea how long he’d sat watching the scene, but once he’d regained his focus, the couple’s were long gone. He picked himself up, walked over to the heart and looked at the precipice the lay behind it. It was a sheer drop, just as he’d imagined. Chris looked to the sky and inhaled, filling his lungs with clean air. He closed his eyes and allowed himself to think one final time about Sammy, his mother and everything he had left behind.

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 16 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 16 – Thursday at the Dai’s

Emily’s reflected image had been glancing back at her for the best part of two hours. She wondered whether anyone else would take this long to prepare for a dinner with an eight-year old girl and her mother. To Emily though, it was more about masking and disguising her own insecurities than impressing her hosts. ‘Always look your best, especially when you don’t feel it’. Another invaluable lesson from her grandmother that she’d never forgotten. A buzzing from atop of her bedside table continued to interrupt Emily’s preparations. Ever since she had purchased her new phone, Susie’s messaging had been relentless and Emily had been inundated with updates from the Dai family. Most of them were simply just stock photos of cute animals, but Emily always felt obliged to reply as to not leave her young friend waiting. Susie was one of a short, but quickly growing list of contacts Emily had accumulated during her short time in the neighbourhood. Due to her innate inability to offend; the local shopkeeper, the apartment cleaner and two taxi drivers were also sending her arbitrary updates on their day-to-day goings-on, although Emily did find them slightly easier to ignore.

Since she’d arrived, Emily had attempted to make the flat her own. The plain white walls had purveyed a certain bleakness that didn’t match with her attempts for a newfound positivity in her life. The local markets had provided her with a number of colourful garments, sheets and posters that helped to brighten the place up. It would be incorrect to say that Emily wasn’t concerned of what Mr. Xang would think of the transformation of his property, but she concluded that he would never know of this. Unless of course, he arrived unannounced, the thought of which made Emily’s skin crawl. He had already elevated himself to a new level of creepiness by sliding a note under the door the previous day. Emily had been in the apartment at the time but had luckily seen him approaching and managed to remain quiet enough that he remained unaware of her presence. The note simply stated that he hoped she was ‘comfortable in her room’ and he provided his ‘private number’ in case she ever needed his help. The note made her feel anything but comfortable. It was especially unnerving as she had only just returned from purchasing her new phone. It was almost as if he knew this, however, Emily had no intention of conversing with this man any more than she needed to. The note was transferred straight from the floor to the bin.

Since her first jaunt outside of the flat, the local cuisine had continued to make a hugely positive impression on her, however, Emily was yet to venture away from the first restaurant she had visited. The staff had grown used to her and she’d begun to feel comfort in her once-alien surroundings. Their low prices meant that it was cheaper to eat out than to cook and Emily found herself visiting the place twice a day. Through fragmented conversations with the waitress, she’d discovered that it was owned by a local Uyghur family who themselves had felt foreign when they’d first arrived into the city thirty years ago. Apparently, life had been incredibly hard for them as outcasts, but through sheer will and determination the place had now become a local institution. This thought comforted Emily and gave her further reason to return to the restaurant, apart from her fear of the unknown. Although she had experimented with other dishes, the original noodle soup was by far her favourite. Every visit, she would sit on the same table with her guide book and observe the controlled mayhem that surrounded her. It seemed that whatever time of the day she visited, it was always heaving, though her lonely table by the kitchen was always conveniently unoccupied. It wasn’t overly surprising as it was the worst seat in the place, but Emily had grown to like her own little space of chaos.

As she left the complex and hailed a taxi, she couldn’t help but wonder what culinary delights lay ahead for her that evening. So far, her experience of Chinese food hadn’t been too far out of the ordinary, though she worried whether home-cooking may contain one or two scary anomalies that could take her by surprise. She had never regarded herself as a fussy eater, but she knew that even her politeness, and taste-buds, had their limits. Ever since she’d booked her flight, Matt had constantly teased her that all she’d be eating was ‘foetus eggs, roast dog and children’s legs’. Though she questioned the legitimacy of at least one of these suggestions, she couldn’t help but worry slightly about what might await her. This was partly the reason she always carried an enormous bar of ‘emergency’ Dairy Milk in her purse, though luckily so far it had not been required.

The taxi pulled up outside an apartment block that somehow managed to look even more anonymous than the others surrounding it. Emily followed Susie’s Weixing instructions and punched in the code to enter the building. The familiar feeling of social-anxiety was beginning it’s inevitable rise, so Emily decided to take the long walk up to the fifth floor to help her calm her mind. The whole building seemed to be having dinner at the same time and with each new floor she reached, a new smell invaded her nostrils. Most of the food smelled more than edible and some of it even reminded her of the takeaways her and Matt would get from the ‘Golden Dragon’ back home. Upon reaching the fourth floor this changed dramatically, and Emily found herself gagging as the smell was more reminiscent of an abattoir than a restaurant. Emily held her breath as she rushed up the remaining flight of stairs, hoping that the fifth floor would welcome her with something more appetising, or at least something not as repugnant.

Before she knocked on the door, Emily took one long deep breath to prepare herself, however, half way through the inhalation, the door abruptly opened and ruined any chance of calm she was hoping to achieve. Susie had dressed up for the night and instantly clasped her arms around Emily’s legs. She was wearing a bright polka-dot dress and had a red bow expertly tied in her hair. Emily was unsure how to react but instinctively hugged her back. Susie’s mother watched their meeting with delight and her beaming smile reminded Emily of how at ease they had made her feel when they’d first met. Susie’s mother had also dressed-up, but her outfit looked more like business attire than evening wear, however, a flowery, stained apron hid most of it from view. Her bright red face indicated that there had been a final rush to prepare for Emily’s arrival. Beside her, there was another woman, almost identical in size and shape, but she looked far more laid back and at ease. There was a clear family resemblance between them. All eyes were on Emily as per usual, and she knew that the first utterance would have to come from her.

“It’s so lovely to see you all again! I mean…. Ni hao peng you!” Her rehearsed greeting seemed to spring them all into action. Susie relinquished her grip and ran excitedly to her mother. The ‘new’ woman approached Emily, pressed her hands together and slowly introduced herself.

“Welcome to you, Emily. My name is Crystal. I am Yolanda’s sister, and Susie and Rani’s aunt. I have come to join you for dinner. I hope this is welcome by you. It is very nice to meet you. You are a very beautiful woman.” She spoke carefully and calmly and took her time pronouncing each and every word. Emily realised that she had never actually known the names of anyone in the family other than Susie and felt slightly ashamed. Crystal was one of those people that helped everyone around her feel calmed by her very presence. Her sizeable round glasses sat on the tip of her nose and magnified her already large, brown eyes. She wore a simple black dress and knock-off Converse-style trainers, and easily looked the most comfortable of everyone present.

“Thank you Crystal! It’s lovely to meet you too! I love your dress! It really suits you!” Emily’s grandmother had always encouraged her to begin conversations with new acquaintances with a compliment.

“Thank you so much! You are definitely a very kind person. I can tell already. Please come into the apartment. I hope you are hungry tonight. Yolanda is an exceptional cook. You will enjoy her cooking. I am sure of it.” Crystal paused between each sentence to briefly structure the next one in her mind. For her, this was her first real opportunity to practice English with a native speaker and she was determined not to make a single mistake.

The apartment contrasted greatly with the building itself. It was a small space, but filled with brightness and decoration. It was unmistakably Chinese, with red and black being the dominant colours. Small paintings of Chinese landscapes with attached proverbs adorned nearly all of the available wall space. It felt homely to Emily, but she couldn’t help but feel that it was far too cramped for a family of four. That is, if they were still a family of four. She decided it would be impolite to ask about Susie’s father, however, Crystal seemed to read her mind.

“Tonight is what you call a lady’s night!” Crystal let out a soft giggle and Susie joined her aunt.

“Mr Dai is absent. He sends his apologies. He is playing cards with his friends tonight. But, I think it is better. Don’t you?” Emily wasn’t sure how to respond without offending the father of the girl who was stood at her side, so she simply continued to smile and nod. Susie escorted her guest over to the dinner table, which was packed full of uniformly decorated ceramic bowls. Each one was covered, so Emily was unable to see what lay beneath. There was barely enough space on the table for drinks, but Yolanda entered and placed three large bottles of wine in front of Emily, and simply uttered the words ‘please, enjoy’. Crystal saw Emily’s confusion and proudly stepped in.

“These are for you to enjoy tonight. In Chinese culture, we always have gifts for our guests. We supply them with what they…… what they…..desire. Please, enjoy the gift of wine. You are our guest.” Emily worried whether they expected her to drink the entire three bottles that evening and swiftly offered a response.

“In English culture it is considered very bad to drink alone, so I think the two of you will have to join me!” Emily found herself subconsciously imitating Crystal’s slow and careful speech.

“You are a very kind woman! Yolanda does not drink and Susie is too youthful, but I will be honoured to have wine with my new friend from England.” Crystal was slowly becoming more confident as she spoke, and Emily was relieved that she at least had someone she could converse with for the evening, even if it was a bit slow going.

Yolanda gently nudged her daughter forward, who had suddenly become uncharacteristically bashful.

“I also have gift for Emily. This is for you.” Susie took her hands from behind her back and presented her guest with a brand new pair of sunglasses. They were almost identical to the original ones Emily had gifted the young girl at the airport. To them, it was a small, standard gesture, but Emily found it difficult to hide her emotions. It had been years since she’d received anything remotely thoughtful as a present. Her, Sammy and Cassie treated each other to dinner on their birthdays as they agreed that they were getting too old to give each other presents, and Matt’s philosophy on the matter was that vouchers or gift-cards would enable her to get what she ‘really wanted’. He’d occasionally buy her something, but this was nearly always as an apology rather than for a specific occasion. Without thinking, Emily put the sunglasses on and struck a dramatic pose for Susie. By the time self-consciousness had hit, the whole family were already in fits of laughter.

Then, it hit her. Shit. I don’t have anything for them…

In a moment of panic, Emily reached into her bag and pulled out her emergency bar of chocolate.

“It’s nothing too exciting, but here’s something small for you too.” Feeling guilty of her lack of effort and forethought, she handed the extra-large chocolate bar to Susie and hoped her hosts wouldn’t be offended.

“Is this from England?” Susie looked at the confectionery in amazement.

“Yes, it is! It’s my favourite, so I hope you like it too! And maybe if they behave well, you could share it with your family too? But I’ll leave that one up to you, eh?” Susie proudly presented the bar to her mother and they excitedly conversed in Chinese. It seemed as if Emily’s present was satisfactory. Susie turned back to Emily and raised the Dairy Milk above her head.

“I am so in love with it!”

“I think we’re going to have a rather enjoyable evening, aren’t we?” Susie’s enthusiasm contrasting with Crystal’s over-formality cracked Emily and she joined the family in laughter. Susie regained her composure first, and nominated herself to be master of ceremonies.

“Ok. Dinner time!”

***

The food surpassed all of Emily’s expectations and there were no unpleasant surprises like the ones she’d smelled on the fourth floor.. None of the family could accurately translate the names of the dishes, so they simply told her the vast amounts of ingredients that had gone into making them. Without exception, Emily loved every mouthful. When they pressured her to pick her favourite, she pointed towards the aubergine with minced pork. Susie was delighted to confirm that it was hers too, whereas the sisters preferred the ‘pork that has been cooked twice’. The second bottle of wine had been opened and both Emily and Crystal were loosening up.

“So, Emily. You really don’t have boyfriend?” Susie seemed fascinated by this subject.

“No, I don’t. I had one, but he was a bad man.” Yolanda in particular looked concerned at this response.

“How old are you?” It was the first full sentence she’d heard Susie’s mother say.

“I’ve just turned twenty-seven.” Now all the family looked just as concerned as Yolanda. A tipsy Crystal felt it was her opportunity to jump in.

“You really should have a boyfriend by now. If you do not soon, you won’t get married. Women over twenty-five seldom find a suitable partner.” Apparently the description of Matt as a ‘bad man’ was not enough to discredit him as a future husband. Emily couldn’t help but wonder if this is how Susie’s father got away with playing cards and drinking away from his family so often. For the first time that evening, Emily had no idea how to respond. The two sisters caught each other’s eyes, said something in mandarin and they suddenly transformed from worried elders into excitable school-girls.

“We have a solution for you! Yolanda has a work colleague who is a very respectable gentleman. He will make you a great husband! Yes!” Luckily for Emily, she’d had just enough wine to play along and not get too offended by the undercurrent of pity within the conversation.

“Let’s see this handsome fella then!” The response surprised even herself. Susie had now began to entertain herself as the adults were getting carried away with matters that didn’t concern or interest her. Yolanda frantically scrolled through her phone looking for evidence of her colleague. She paused on one or two photos, but the sisters decided they didn’t compliment the man’s ‘positive features’ enough. When she finally settled on one that she felt might win Emily over, she handed over the phone and stepped back, watching closely to gauge Emily’s reaction.

Emily had been preparing herself for the worst. The words ‘don’t laugh, don’t laugh’ had been repeatedly spinning through her head, however, upon seeing the photo, she was unable to control herself. It wasn’t that the gentleman was especially bad looking, but the arrangement of the photo was even more ridiculous than she could have imagined. It must have been taken at Yolanda’s work’s Christmas party as for some inexplicable reason, the man had a sauce-stained white shirt on, was holding a neatly wrapped present in his arms and, most bizarrely of all, was sat on a Chinese Father Christmas’ knee.

“So…um…why did you think I’d like this one of him?” Emily said as she caught her breath between giggles. Her usual excellent social filter had become weakened by the wine.

“Because it’s a great honour for a man to be selected as Santa Claus!” The response almost made Emily burst. She held it in just long enough to ask.

“The man you’re suggesting for me is the one in the costume!?” Now it was Yolanda and Crystal’s turn to laugh.

“I’m sorry, but we’re joking with you Emily! We will find you a perfect match, unless you prefer Mr. Santa Claus of course?” Emily now let herself loose. All three women were struggling to maintain their composure. Susie stared at them all with bemusement, but eventually the infectiousness of it all caused her to start as well.

More wine was poured and the last of the food was finished off. Emily couldn’t remember the last time she’d consumed this quantity of food or alcohol, but she also struggled to recall the last time she’d enjoyed herself quite this much. Talk turned to her accommodation in Hangzhou and Emily noticed Yolanda’s mood suddenly change at the mention of a certain property owner. She interrupted her sister and was given her a long, seemingly very important, speech that was to be translated for her guest. The smile faded from Crystal’s face and she concentrated on the information she was being given, then took a moment to compose her thoughts.

“My sister has a grave warning for you. She is concerned with where you’re staying. The owner of the property is a dangerous person. Everyone has stories about him. None of them are good stories. He is known as ‘The Man from the Cave’.” Despite the seriousness in Crystals’ tone, Emily couldn’t help but find the nickname amusing as it suited Mr. Xang perfectly.

“Why do they call him that? And, what are these stories about?” Crystal turned back to Yolanda and translated the questions. Her fast-paced, staccato speech in Chinese couldn’t have contrasted more with the way she spoke in English.

“My sister has chosen not to scare you with the stories this evening. But, she warns you to be careful. Her advice is to move to another place. If you stay, then avoid ‘The Man from the Cave’ as much as you can.” Yolanda then gave Emily a stern look, gathered some of the plates and exited into the kitchen. Crystal leant forward and in a hushed voice continued her warning to Emily.

“Maybe it is idle gossip, but be careful Emily. The stories are not confirmed, but they say people in his buildings have gone missing.” As she said the last word, her eyes widened to convey the seriousness of the accusation.

To Emily, Mr. Xang was someone she would always try her hardest to avoid, but this more due to his hygiene than anything else. Until now, she hadn’t viewed him as an actual threat. However, unlike the sisters, Emily hadn’t been able to flip her mood so easily from silly to serious, so she, in spite of the warnings, was still finding the whole experience amusing. It was also starting to get late and she was determined to end the night positively. She could worry about Mr. Xang later. After a long, tense silence, Emily decided to force the mood back to what it once was.

“So, what other men in uniform do you have lined up for me then? I’m not sure I should settle for being Mrs. Claus just yet!” It took a moment for Crystal to compute what she’d been asked, but she immediately called her sister back into the room and they all eagerly searched through her phone, giggling as they did. For now, the threat of Mr. Xang was put on the back-burner and the evening’s frivolities could continue.

***

Before leaving, the family insisted further plans were to be made with their new friend. As per tradition, they left it to Emily to pick the exact date, time and location. Emily couldn’t help but feel like Susie was somewhat left out of the evening’s action, so she made sure that she was placed at the centre of their next meeting. The decision was made that the family would show Emily around Hangzhou’s most famous attraction; West Lake, with Susie as the tour guide. However, they all agreed that this would best be done once the craziness of Spring Festival had subsided. Susie promised Emily that she would teach her all about the lake, but only if she promised her that all the adults wouldn’t drink alcohol that day. Emily felt a pang of guilt with this request, and was more than happy to oblige. The evening ended on a high and Emily smiled throughout the entire journey home. The only issue she faced was keeping her eyes open long enough to make it back.

It was only when she struggled to fit her key into her door that Emily truly realised how effected she was from the alcohol. Although Crystal had joined her in the wine consumption, she had been going at a much slower pace than Emily, therefore Emily concluded that she’d probably got through a full two bottles by herself. As this thought entered her head, a wave of alcohol-induced nausea hit her hard. She opened the window and took several long deep breaths to suppress the desire to throw up. Once stable, Emily remembered the stark warnings the sisters had given her regarding Mr. Xang. The door was quickly bolted and Emily used any available sheets to cover all the ‘security cameras’ she could find. This buzz of activity brought the nausea back to the fore and she soon found herself at the window again. Across the courtyard, there was one light that shone brightly from an apartment and was difficult to ignore. Through the haze, Mr Xang’s mention of the ‘nice man’ found its way through. A person could be seen through the window, but due to the distance and the alcohol, it was difficult to fully make him out. It looked to her as if he was writing. He’s a writer… All the talk of dating that evening still remained in Emily’s consciousness. It had been years since she’d fantasised about anyone other than Matt. The words ‘nice man’ had come from a very unreliable source, but that’s all Emily could now think about and it was everything she wanted. Someone nice. Someone kind. Someone caring. Her mind invented a picture of a sensitive, emotionally mature writer who would finally treat her the way she wanted to be treated. He was someone her grandmother would have been proud to see her with. My boyfriend. The writer….

In that moment, the ‘nice man’ looked up from his desk and out into the courtyard. Emily squinted to try to stop the room spinning and to catch a clearer glimpse of her drunken fantasy.

Surely it’s not…?

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 15 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 15 – The Letter – Part Two – Weeds and Flowers

Rosie made sure to never let the boy out of her sight and doted on him constantly. Even while in her arms, she kept an almost constant eye on him, partly out of love, but mostly out of protection. He was a curious, but nervous child and, perhaps due to his mother’s overbearing care, he found life difficult whenever she wasn’t in sight. The cot they’d received from Harold’s parents remained unused as Chris spent every night by his mother’s side. By this point, Rosie and Harold slept separately, and Rosie was more than happy to have Chris in her arms and under her watchful gaze. As he grew, he displayed little interest in what other boys his age were doing. While they were learning how to kick a ball and ride a bike, all little Chris wanted to do was to help his mother in her daily tasks. Sometimes this proved troublesome, especially when she was cooking or gardening. Chris obtained several grazes and burn marks from when he’d got over-zealous in his eagerness to help. Rosie noticed her child didn’t seem to possess an accurate ability to perceive danger. Knives and garden shears were seen as play-things and on more than one occasion, Chris managed to get a bottle of bleach to his lips before his mother had a chance to snatch it away. He was a child that had a fascination with anything that could possibly cause him pain, and Rosie always felt it was lucky that he was too young to understand the threat of his father, otherwise he may well of pursued that too.

Once Chris reached the age of seven, Harold became concerned with the boy’s over-dependence on his mother and made the decision that it was time for him to get involved, even if it did mean that his own independence would suffer. As Rosie feared, this was when abuse returned to the family. Harold’s growing dependence on liquor had limited his patience and increased his tendency to use violence as a solution. His boy needed to become a man, and physicality was the only way Harold knew how to make this happen. Chris remained unscathed for now, but was made to watch Rosie’s suffering. The more the boy tried to help his mother, the worse both their lives became. It was a harsh lesson, but Harold was pleased to see that it had the desired effect. By the age of nine, the bond between mother and son had been all but broken. Unable to grow close to his mother and unwilling to grow close to his father, Chris sought for comfort elsewhere. By the time he’d left Primary School, books had become his primary source of comfort and escapism.

Philosophy isn’t a usual interest of a boys in their developing years, but Chris nurtured a growing fascination in trying to understand both the world around him and the confusing nature of his own mind. He found himself drawn to the works of Nietzsche and his contemporaries and idealised those who not only questioned ‘normality’ but actively shunned it. Originally, Harold decided not to discourage his son’s interest in reading. The world was changing and he wondered whether perhaps there was now money to be made in intellectualism. The kids in the neighbourhood, in his eyes, were part of the ‘moral decay’ of society, so they were best avoided and Chris would naturally make friends eventually. Probably. It was only when Chris started sharing some of his ideas to his parents that his father became concerned. He was unable to understand all the words that were used, but these dangerous ideas were not going to be tolerated in his household. Without hesitation, Harold confiscated all the literature he could find and forced he son outside to ‘get some bloody exercise and clear that oversized head of yours’. Of course, as always, this came accompanied with physical encouragement. Devastated at the loss of his books, but inspired by his beloved Nietzsche, Chris began to test his body’s physical limits. Sometimes he would run until he would literally collapse. Multiple injuries were sustained in quick succession, but Chris continued to explore how far he could push his growing body. After badly straining his ankle ligaments during a particularly arduous run, he became bed-ridden and tried experimenting with sleep-deprivation. The experiment resulted in him becoming so delirious that he became temporarily unable to recognise his own parents. His mother wanted to get him professional psychological help, but his father decided that all he needed to do was ‘toughen up’. Unable to recognise his own failures, Harold blamed his son’s smothered early years and recent bookish ones for his apparent abnormalities.

That summer, at the age of thirteen, Chris was enrolled by his parents on ‘Military Mick’s Teen Training Course’: An army-style camp made for teens with undiagnosed disorders that needed ‘to learn the importance of discipline’. His father reasoned that this would give Chris some much needed focus and structure and his mother hoped that it would help him expend some of his pent-up energy. They both were proved to be partially correct. The other boys he encountered at the camp noticed his slightly abnormal nature and bullied him relentlessly because of it. Chris had never been popular, but this was his first proper experience with bullying from someone who wasn’t a blood relative. Through desperation, he attempted to explain the situation to the course instructors but there go-to advice was to ‘grow a backbone and handle it yourself’. Chris took this advice into consideration. One day, he returned from the day’s activities to find that some of the boys had used his book; ‘The Antichrist’ as toilet paper and then relieved themselves onto Chris’ pillow. His room-mate, Brandon Gray, was unfortunate enough to return just minutes after the discovery was made and he found Chris waiting for him in a full rage. Chris had no idea that Brandon had been absent during the defilement of his possessions. Without thinking, Chris grabbed Brandon’s s head and pushed it onto the book and then the pillow, mimicking a technique he’d seen used on ill-disciplined dogs. The consequence was that faeces and urine were smeared into the boy’s eyes, . After they were forced to come and pick up his son, his parents were told that Brandon was lucky not to permanently lose his eyesight. The journey home was filled with apologies and excuses from Chris. His mum quietly wept while his father loudly laughed. However, once he regained his composure, he assured Chris that he would be sorry. Very sorry.

Making friends continued to be a problem for Chris into his teenage years, mainly due to a lack of shared interests and a growing reputation as someone who is best avoided. As puberty took hold, he shrank into himself further and regained his lust for literature. By now, he’d grown adept at hiding this from his father. For most people, the word ‘turbulent’ is the most accurate when defining their teenage years. For better or worse, it is a time for mistakes, learning and growth. For Chris, these were just a period of prolonged solidarity and mundanity. To his mum, he’d gone from being an eager and helpful child to a cold and distant teenager. This was the natural progression for most, however, most would naturally also return to their mother’s side once their hormones had settled. Rosie could sense that Chris would forever be too scared of the consequences of doing this. Their split had been painfully permanent. As he aged, he attempted to forget about his once-close relationship with his mother and began to distance himself from his parents as much as possible.

Eventually, he made acquaintances with outcasts like himself and used them as excuses to get away, and stay away, from his home. Sometimes the reasons he gave his parents for his absence were legitimate, but more often than not he would just get on his bike and ride as far away as possible. His interest in the limits of the human body remained and he enjoyed spending nights under the stars, regardless of the season or weather. To Chris, the body and mind were just concepts to be experimented with and pushed to explore their possibilities. On more than one occasion his body nearly went into shock due to the low temperatures and exhaustion he was forcing himself to endure. During his time spent gazing at the stars, Chris always wondered whether he’d ever find another who had the same fascinations as him. He concluded that unfortunately he probably wouldn’t. If he wanted to meet friends, proper friends, then he was the one who needed to adapt.

The academic side of school was never an issue for him, but his social issues only amplified as he grew older. Teachers would regularly call his parents and inform them of the ‘scuffles’ he got himself into with other boys. He’d try to explain to his dad how he’d been bullied and pushed to breaking point, but his father would then only continue to push his son further. This cycle continued until Chris inevitably reached the age when he could escape to University. Chris’ grades would have got him into any academic institution in the country, but he made sure to pick one far enough away that it would be a major inconvenience for his parents to visit him, not that they would have done so anyway. He settled on Newcastle. It was more of a random choice than a thought-through one, but he liked the professor he had met on the Open Day and felt more welcome there than at Durham or Aberystwyth. For Chris, this was a chance to reinvent himself. The main issue with this was that he had no idea how. He forced himself to watch popular shows on T.V in preparation. Some were tolerable, some were not. He listened to Radio 1, but swiftly decided it wasn’t worth the effort. He did find solace in some of the music he discovered though. Unfortunately for him, Chopin was probably no longer popular with young adults. He made notes on what was happening in the Premier League, even though he couldn’t force himself to sit through a full ninety-minutes. He even forced himself to read a Dan Brown novel or two. No more isolation. No more fighting. Chris wanted a normal life and this was his chance.

On the day he left home, his father offered him one of his rare handshakes. It was a finger-breaking shake, and Chris wondered whether he sensed pride from his father or just relief that his son wasn’t quite the embarrassment or failure he had feared. His mum embraced him with a warmth than she hadn’t done in years. Chris had grown considerably, but all she could picture was the little four year old boy helping her with the baking and catching worms in the garden. As she continued to cling to him tightly, Chris could sense the desperation and sadness in her embrace. Their relationship had lay stagnant for over a decade, but at that moment in time, he never wanted to let her go. So much remained unspoken between the two of them, but something unspoken was communicated as they held on. It could have been a final goodbye or a wish of good luck, but both of their faces were soaking wet as Harold pulled them apart.

***

Tears dotted the page and Chris mopped them up with his shirt sleeve before continuing to write. Many subjects had always been off-the-table for family discussion, but Chris had always found himself more honest with a pen in hand. The last thing he wanted to do was to cause his mother undue pain, but there were things he felt she ought to know. Things that would be hard for her to read, but would perhaps finally help her to understand her son, and also to know the truth of what happened to her husband.

When I left that day for Newcastle, I promised myself I would never return. I hated saying goodbye to you, but the pain that was contained within that house was far too great. After all, you were the one who found me after I returned from that stupid army camp, covered in blood and with a stomach full of pills. You and the doctor agreed that it was a cry for help. A boy who was clearly suffering but who just needed attention and medication. You need to know that it was far from that. That day, I decided I was done. I wanted to end everything, and if you’d come in any later than you did, then I wouldn’t be here right now. At the time, I so angry with you. I’d finally been able to make one decision in my life, and even that had failed. I’m not writing this letter to chastise or punish you. I’m writing so you know the truth of it all, but I also wanted to thank you.“

Chris started to imagine his mum reading this. Part of him wanted to screw up the paper and just be done with it. The woman had suffered enough in life, and this letter was only likely to continue this. The only thing that stopped him was the thought that in some way this could free her. Free her from the past and free her from the guilt he was sure she was feeling. He was sure of this because he was feeling it to. She needs to know. Reluctantly, he pressed on.

For some people it becomes a necessity for them to leave this world. Either because of something they’ve done or because of how they feel. At the time, for me it was the latter. It became impossible for me to foresee a time when I would ever be content or feel like I belonged in this world. Because of that, I made the decision that my time was over. But mum, you also need to know that none of this was your fault, and there was nothing you could have done to have changed this. I didn’t want you to find me, but I am sorry about how I reacted when you did. You didn’t deserve that. Another thing you need to know is that I was actually wrong about my future. I did achieve happiness. It proved to only be temporary but, because you saved me, I was able to experience this for the first time in my life. Thank you for that mum. Thank you.”

A short break was needed as Chris’ hand was shaking relentlessly and making it almost impossible to write. The Baiju that Mr. Xang left for him was not something Chris had previously considered sampling, but now seemed like a better time than ever. Ideally, he would write the letter with a clear head, but apparently having this, as well as a steady hand, was no longer possible. He decanted a small amount into a glass and winced as he smelt the liquid. The smell reminded him of petrol fumes and, if he had been planning on living a long life, it wasn’t something that he would have wilfully consumed. The first shot rocketed down his throat and tasted even worse than it smelt. Chris cursed and held back the bile that was rising from his guts. What the fuck is this? The shaking continued, so Chris hesitantly poured himself a second glass. This time he made sure to dilute it with some unidentifiable carbonated drink he had bought from the local shop the previous day. He tasted his make-shift cocktail. There was no chance it would ever make its way into a reputable bar, but it was better than drinking the stuff neat. The pen was picked up and his writing slowly started becoming legible again. The taste that lingered on his tongue was just about worth it.

It was because of this happiness that I returned to you. University released me. Most people say they ‘find themselves’ once they leave. I don’t know if I ever achieved that, but I found Sammy. Sammy was the first person that made me feel anything positive in my life. She taught me so much about being human and how find happiness. Eventually, I talked to Sammy about how saying goodbye to you broke my heart and how I worried about you daily. She never knew about dad. Not really. Not fully. In her eyes, I’d abandoned my mother, and she gave me no option but to come back. I wanted to tell her everything, but couldn’t. I wanted to tell her that I was scared to go back. That I was scared that my happiness would be destroyed as soon as I walked back through that front door. That’s not saying I didn’t want to see you mum, but like I said before, that chapter of my life was over and the pain was too great. I forgot about all of this pain and fear as soon as you and Sammy met. The smiles I saw on both your faces… I’ll never forget them. Right then, I loved Sammy more than ever. I felt that she was the medicine to all the sickness that dad had caused.”

Another break and another shot of bailju followed. It was quicker to drink without the mixer and Chris was starting to find the fiery liquid tolerable, if not enjoyable.

…but as you know, dad hadn’t changed and he never would. Sammy was strong, but even she couldn’t cure that man. They only ever met a few times, but I could already witness how he was changing Sammy. Parasites have the ability to do that, don’t they? I’ve only recently realised that. He was a parasite. He needed to suck the life out of everyone around him to make himself feel better, and that’s the worst part of it. He was never better. Just the same old bitter, life-sucking bastard he’d always been. So, if no one did anything, all he was going do was endlessly continue to destroy everything around him until nothing good was left. I saw it happen to you. I felt it happen to me. I couldn’t let it happen to Sammy.”

A decision now had to be made. One more swig convinced him to continue.

You were the first one to find dad after he’d died. I was the last one to see him alive. That was no coincidence, mum. His life was one that should have been ended long before it did. Imagine the misery that could have been prevented if he’d never torn us apart. Imagine the happiness you could have experienced if you’d never even met him. You may have realised this by now mum, but I made the decision that his time on this planet was over. I ended it for him. Hearing Sammy suffer and seeing that old familiar look in your eyes made up my mind. I did everything I could to avoid being caught, but I’m done running now. I’ve been running and hiding my entire life, nearly always from that man. And now mum, I’ve made the decision that I’m going too. Like I said, there are two reasons why people’s lives should end; because of what they’ve done or because of how they feel. Now, I tick both of those boxes.”

A fleeting image of them both in the garden flashed through Chris’ consciousness. His mother had a fistful of weeds and was teaching her son how to identify which sprouts needed to be removed and which ones would eventually grow into beautiful flowers. Half-way through her lesson, she had to pause to pick up her son who had become distracted and was getting perilously close to the garden shears. Once safely in her arms, she gave a dandelion to her son who tried to blow it away but ended up ingesting half the plant. After an initial panic, they both laughed and Rosie gave her son some juice to help remove the taste. Chris wished he had that taste in his mouth now, instead of the one reminiscent of petroleum that he currently had. He wiped the tear from his cheek and decided to bring an end to the letter while he was still lucid.

As soon as dad was gone, I was no longer angry. No longer bitter. No longer full of hate. But a sadness starting to grow inside me again. I had changed and so had Sammy. Dad was gone but the damage had been done. I just hope that he didn’t damage you beyond repair, mum. I hope that your life is better without him. I hope that you’re life is better without me too. You’re free mum. Please be as happy as you can and please try to forget the past. I’m not asking you to forgive me, but I hope you understand why I did what I did. I love you mum even if I haven’t said it or shown it for a long time.

Thank you for bringing me happiness, even if it was only temporary.

Enjoy your future and make sure you always separate the weeds from the flowers.

Your boy,

Chris.”

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 14 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 14 – The Letter – Part One – Seven Sisters

Out of his window, Chris watched the sun setting over the hazy concrete horizon. The courtyard was quiet as always, but he knew the streets surrounding the complex would be thronging with traffic right about now. The beeping and shouting could just about be heard in the middle-distance, but only if he made the effort to actually listen. The apartment block had been silent since his arrival and Chris was almost sure that he had the entire seven-story building to himself. The only people he’d had contact with in the last two days were a couple of delivery drivers and the local shopkeeper and, even then, few words had been exchanged. Chris had wandered aimlessly around the complex countless times. He’d used the exercise equipment, sat on the bench and tried to clear his head with the semi-fresh air. To an observer, he would have looked like a caged beast slowly driving itself to insanity. In reality, this wasn’t too far from the truth. It was tough coming to terms with the thoughts that continuously swirled around his mind, but he had no desire to explore the city any more than he needed to. The local shop had enough to keep him sustained and the assistant seemed just as keen for a lack of verbal interaction as Chris was. Since his arrival, Chris had stopped weeping for the past, but he had begun to try to rationalise his actions and to consider their consequences. He came to the conclusion that running was no longer an option. Although it was true that he felt little remorse for what he’d done to Matt, he couldn’t help but think of Matt’s family and, in particular, Emily. An internal debate was still being conducted as to whether he had emancipated the poor girl or plunged her into a state of despair similar to his own. During his courtyard pacing, he’d questioned himself relentlessly. If I could go back, would I do it again? Probably. Did Matt deserve it? Probably. Would it have improved Emily’s life? Maybe. Do I deserve to get away with killing him? Probably not. Friedrich had potentially freed him from a legal punishment, but Chris had always believed in accountability, and he deduced that if others couldn’t punish him, then he’d have to decide his own penance.

The writing that sat in front of him had been corrected numerous times. So much so that the recipient was going to have a tough job deciphering it, but she needed to read what he had to say. If he was going to do what he had planned, then at least this would bring him, and her, a small remnant of closure.

Chris read back over what he’d written so far. The word ‘sorry’ appeared fourteen times in total. The writer in him wanted to edit this, but even a hundred repetitions of the word still wouldn’t do justice to how sorrowful he actually felt. His mother had led a life full of pain and submission and he wondered how different her life could have been if she and his dad had never met. The man was certainly the catalyst for her misery though she had never, and would never, vocalise this. Once or twice her façade had fallen and Chris had truly seen the helplessness that lay underneath. Each time, his stomach would turn as he knew that, as her only son, he should have found the power to do something to change this, but when it came to confronting his father, he was just as passive and as hesitant as her. His mother had rarely reminisced about her childhood, but from the snippets he had received, it sounded just as bleak as her adult life.

She was the middle child to a litter of seven girls. Most siblings have favourites, whether they admit it or not, but somehow a young Rosie had managed to have been missed by her sisters. Due to their constant struggle to allude poverty and their general lack of parental instincts, her own mother and father had largely left the kids to govern themselves. Angela, the oldest, attempted to rule them all with an iron fist and strived to become the mother they never really had. Tanya and Rachel, the next two in line, were twins and had the tightest bond of all of the sisters. Their primary aim was to rebel against Angela’s tyrannical rule and to undermine her at every opportunity. Separately, she could have destroyed them, but together they were a force. The youngest three; Katie, Jane and Hannah were born in quick succession and were nearly as inseparable as the twins. They were far less confrontational with Angela and strived to remain as unseen by their older sisters as possible. However, one of their favourite pastimes was to play pranks on their oldest sister. Her dignity and perceived power made her the perfect target for humiliation. They had become so adept at this that they were almost never caught and, when they were, they had their excuses ready made. Rosie was sadly usually the one that they placed the blame upon. Rosie, was the epitome of a middle child, but the fact she came in the middle of a group of seven only emphasised how forgotten she was. She spent most of her time attempting to clean up after the others, both literally and metaphorically. Her primary tasks included; trying to undo one of the younger group’s pranks before Angela would fall-foul to it, discouraging Tanya and Rachel when they were picking on the younger ones or bitching particularly harshly about Angela, and of course, trying to calm her oldest sister down when the other sisters got the better of her. This was by far the most difficult of all her tasks. Her interfering and mediating ultimately led her to being ostracised and alienated from all of her siblings. She wasn’t exactly disliked, but she was viewed by all as more of a nuisance than a companion.

It was on her seventeenth birthday when she was first introduced to Harold. Her parents were aware that she was the prettiest of their offspring and were keen to use this as a way to advance their social standing. Chris’ grandfather, Oswald, had made a habit of sucking up to his manager yet he was always painfully overlooked when it came to a promotion. He’d met his manager’s son a few times, and he wasn’t someone he would actively pursue to have as his son-in-law, but he knew that this boy couldn’t help but be infatuated by his middle-daughter if they were to be introduced, and if this were to happen then the family’s fortunes could change dramatically for the better. Oswald made the proposition to his boss in the most business-like manner as if he were proposing a joint-venture and, before she knew it, Rosie found herself at the cinema with her dad sat to her left and Harold to her right. It wasn’t how she would have liked to have celebrated her birthday, but with a lack of friends and apathetic siblings, the choice was taken out of her hands. Her future husband was sharing his popcorn with his own father and every line conducted between the prospective couple was scrutinised by the two chaperones. Most of the four person date was conducted in hushed whispers, however, both the fathers made a habit of commenting on the film during the tensest moments, much to the ire of some of the other cinema-goers. At one point Harold tried to place his hand on Rosie’s knee, but his eagle-eyed father gave him a subtle, but painful, elbow to the ribs. Within three months of their first meeting, the couple were married at the local St Mary’s church to a congregation of thirty-three. Rosie’s sisters were all selected as bridesmaids and made sure that their bickering and self-importance took the attention far away from the bride. As it was Rosie’s ‘special day’, she allowed herself one day off from policing her siblings, which resulted in all manner of fall-outs and arguments, some of which had major ramifications for the future relationships of the young women. For Rosie, the lack of attention was a positive as she felt so uncomfortable in the frumpy dress her mother had selected for her, and anything that kept eyes away from her was greatly appreciated. As they left the church with the back-drop of her screaming sisters, Rosie couldn’t help but wonder whether her life was going to finally take a turn for the better. Could this quiet, unassuming man in a tired grey suit really be the one for her? The two had barely had a full private conversation before their marriage and the wedding night lay somewhere between awkwardness and general unpleasantness. Luckily for Rosie, Harold didn’t last long enough for the experience to be totally regrettable. They were both each other’s firsts and Harold would remain Rosie’s last. However, the same could not be said for her husband.

The marriage started amicably enough. Harold presented himself to Rosie as a fairly pleasant, if unexciting, man and made sure his wife was treated how he imagined a wife should be treated. He wasn’t overly controlling and he would even surprise her with the odd act of cliched romance. The sex became less unpleasant, though it remained more functional than erotic. Rosie found herself getting into the rhythm of adult life for the first time and welcomed her newfound freedom away from her sisters. She got a part-time job in a bakery and met co-workers that turned into genuine friends. It was a simple life, but a life that Rosie savoured and didn’t take for granted. Away from his father, Harold’s confidence grew and his importance in the community took flight. He discovered a newfound dignity and respect that he savoured and it slowly became an obsession of his to preserve this. Neither husband nor wife felt bitter about their growing distance from one another as they were both finally enjoying life and their marriage had always been one of necessity and functionality, rather than one of love.

The local community was a close-knit one and this ultimately led to the couple’s, and particularly Rosie’s, downfall. Late one night, Janet, the assistant manager of Best Buns, caught Harold returning home from what was largely assumed to be the town’s local brothel. The news got through to Rosie over the next morning’s bake. She had always held her suspicions about Harold, and if she was honest herself, she probably always knew what he was up to. Returning home at four-am with regularity was never inconspicuous. However, her new life was too comfortable for her to give everything up just because her husband was having extra-marital sex. Janet, along with her other co-workers, implored Rosie to confront her wayward husband, and the social pressure became too great to ignore. Rosie barely got past the words ‘Janet said she saw you…’ before an unexpected, but firm fist met her jaw with ferocity. Not another word was said, however, Rosie would never again work at the bakery, spend time with Janet, or converse with any other of her newly acquired friends. Her subservient life had begun anew.

At the time, Rosie contemplated explaining the situation to her sisters, but she knew they either wouldn’t be able to help or wouldn’t be bothered enough to do so. Since the marriage, she’d barely contacted any of them and, by now, many of them had their own problems in their own miserable marriages. The violence with Harold started slowly and infrequently and only when he deemed there was ‘sufficient reason’ for it. However, the list of the reasons grew in number and the violence became more frequent and unpredictable. The only way Rosie kept sane was to reason that she was one of many, but without others to confirm this, it was just conjecture. Harold continued his affairs unabashed and Rosie knew that their marital bed had been defiled many times and, on at least one occasion, while she was present in their house. After a few years, the worst of the physical abuse stopped, but Rosie now understood her position and the threat would always remain if she did happen to forget.

Chris arrived into the family unexpectedly. The sex between Harold and Rosie was less frequent than the violence, however, the odd drunken night would lead to Harold requiring his wife to perform her duties, or at least let him perform his. Nine months after a particularly intoxicated night, Chris emerged into the world and immediately became Rosie’s one-and-only obsession. Harold acknowledged his boy but his belief was that the early years were a mother’s responsibility. Once his boy became old enough, then he would step in to show him the true ways of the world, but until then, his life would continue unaltered by this newborn inconvenience. Rosie hoped with all her heart that Harold would never get the chance to corrupt her beautiful boy. She had suffered enough for two lifetimes, and, although she had never been particularly religious or had never believed in fate, she hoped this was enough to spare Chris.

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Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 13 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 13 – Solitary Noodles

As they pulled up to their destination, Susie made sure that Emily made a binding agreement to keep in touch. Emily was still without a phone, but she assured the family that purchasing one was top of her to-do list, and Susie meticulously wrote a structured guide on how to download Weixing and subsequently add her as her first friend. The family suggested Emily join them for dinner one night and she politely agreed. It was only when a long, empty silence followed that she realised that non-committal plans were not going to be accepted.

“How about….Thursday?” The silence of anticipation continued. More details were clearly needed.

“…at eight?”

Susie jumped with joy and translated for her mother. They immediately started discussing what to cook for their foreign visitor, and Emily wasn’t sure how to say her goodbyes without rudely interrupting them. Luckily, Mr Xang was on hand to help.

“Come. Please, come Miss. Emily. Goodbye! Zài jiàn!” He waved encouragingly to Emily and then dismissively at the family. The lift had already arrived and Mr Xang was impatiently holding the door open, giving Emily little option but to follow him. She hurriedly said her goodbyes to Susie and promised to message her as soon as she had a phone in her possession. Messaging an eight year would usually have made her feel uneasy, but Susie’s mother couldn’t have been more enthusiastic for their correspondence to begin. “See you Thursday” were the last words exchanged before Emily squeezed into the tiny lift with the diminutive man, who took up a surprising amount of the available space.

It only took a matter seconds for Emily to come to the conclusion that Mr Xang was somewhat strange. His unpredictable demeanour and his unending moisture encouraged her to keep her distance, which was not easy in such close quarters. Luckily, she was head and shoulders above him, which allowed her some amount of freedom, though not nearly as much as she would have wanted. The apartment was as expected; unexciting and unimaginative but functional. At this point, Emily would have settled for anything with a bed and a roof, and preferably somewhere where Mr.Xang wasn’t. The first two boxes had been ticked, now she was waiting for the third with agitated anticipation. After showing his guest the basics, Mr. Xang made a special point of taking her over to the living room window. He directed Emily to the building opposite and looked at her with mischievous glee.

“This one is Mr Xang’s first building. I bought it in 1994. Everything was very different then. Very, very different. Better, I think! Mr.Xang was very thin! Very sexy!” Emily didn’t want to laugh, but felt obliged to join in.

“That room there is my favourite. You see the light on? Right now, there is man in there. Very nice man. I think you would like him. He’s very handsome! Nearly as handsome as Mr.Xang used to be!” He studied her gaze to ensure she focused on the correct room and fell silent, hoping that it would allow her to absorb this most important of information.

“Oh right. How lovely…” Emily was forever polite, but her limits were now being tested by the growing social exhaustion that was taking over her. The family had been delightful, and Susie especially had been so friendly to her, but she wasn’t used to receiving this much attention for such a prologued period of time. It wasn’t sleep she longed for, but isolation, if only in a temporary sense. Unaware of this, Mr Xang continued to wax lyrical about his other guest, but much of what he was saying wasn’t penetrating Emily’s dwindling concentration. The significance of it was lost on her, but Mr. Xang bubbled with anticipation thinking of the drama that his reborn puppet-mastery could cause. There was just one final part of his plan to complete.

“This weekend is the Spring Festival. Chinese New Year. You must visit Yellow Mountain. Huangshan. Hangzhou will not be good. Very very busy with people. Best time of year to visit Yellow Mountain. Beautiful, quiet and not too hot. Perfect!”

He handed her a pamphlet containing photos of the mountains and the bus timetable, all while watching Emily closely. The mountains did look stunning, however, Emily worried that the strange man would be asking to join her if she committed to this trip in his presence.

“So, are you travelling for Spring Festival, Mr. Xang?” He knew exactly why she was asking. Over the years, Mr. Xang had accepted the fact that foreigners wanted as little as possible to do with him once the formalities were completed, especially the women.

“Spring Festival is family time, so I have to satisfy wife.” As he laughed, flicks of perspiration contaminated the spotless apartment floor.

“No Chinese people in Yellow Mountain. All with their families for Spring Festival. Just Emily and new foreign friends.” Just to get his point home, he repeated once more.

“Emily and her new handsome foreign friends”. This pushed Emily’s irritability to almost intolerable levels and her expression failed to hide this in spite of her best efforts.

Realising this, Mr.Xang rushed through the last few bits of his usual standardised speech and then wished her good luck for the weekend, briefly pausing to remind her one final time of the ‘nice man’s’ existence. Emily collapsed onto her solid sofa and couldn’t help but laugh with relief. She knew Matt would have hated everything about this experience so far, but even with a creepy old man leaking all over the place, she couldn’t deny that she wasn’t finding the experience quite fun if only in retrospect.

***

Emily awoke unmoved and surrounded by peacefulness. For the moment, she appreciated the simplicity of the walls around her. She hadn’t been unconscious for long, but her mind somehow felt both relaxed and energised. Constant distraction had led to hours without nutrition, but now she finally had time to rest, thoughts of food consumed her. It was a strange hour to eat, but her host had been kind enough to direct her to some restaurants which he assured her would be open any hour she required them. Her reflection was briefly acknowledged, but it was currently not the priority. A guide book and map were placed into her bag and, after a deep breath, Emily left the complex with her usual swagger. The streets weren’t especially busy, but those who were out glared at her with an intense intrigue she was quickly getting used to. Emily greeted them all with her unfaltering smile, channelling her grandmother as best she could. ‘Even when you live in a world of frowns, make sure you still offer a beautiful smile in return’. Never had her grandmother’s advice been so relevant. However, her grandmother had never mentioned finger pointing and stealth photo-taking. As always, her confident demeanour hid the insecurities that simmered beneath. It seemed as if every other building was serving food of some description and the smells were only making Emily’s stomach more audible. It was going to be the first time she’d ever been to a restaurant by herself, and the fact she was in China and the only foreigner in sight greatly added to the trepidation. Dizziness was developing and Emily silently made a promise to herself to dive into the next eating establishment she passed, as long as it wasn’t too intimidating.

Bowls were clattering and waiters were shouting orders as they rushed between kitchen and customer, slaloming between tables as they went. Perhaps not this one… Emily began to walk away but her hunger pains were becoming almost impossible to ignore. Fuck it. Eyes were on her as soon as she entered but most didn’t take long to refocus on their food. Some things were more important in life than a pretty foreigner. The restaurant seemed small from the outside but somehow managed to fit a surprising amount of people within it. Every table contained four chairs and every one of those chairs were occupied, however, there was one exception to the rule and Emily made her way to the only available space in the restaurant. A single chair at a single table, which was probably only available as it lay directly adjacent to the searing heat and noise of the kitchen. The Food and Drink section of her guide book was opened and Emily tried to find something that could be both delicious and easy to vocalise. Her finger fell on ‘Tomato and egg noodle soup’. Fang qie dan tang mian. Fang qie dan tang mian. Fang qie dan tang mian. She raised her head to find the waitress stood impatiently in front of her.

“Fang jee dan tang mien.” A blank face was not the response she was hoping for. Flustered, she double-checked the book.

“Fang jie dang tan mian.” At the second attempt,the waitress scratched her head in bemusement. Emily didn’t think people actually did that.

Rather than embarrass herself further, Emily raised the book and presented the translation to the waitress. Without expression or acknowledgement, she disappeared in seconds. The order was shouted in the chef’s general direction, receiving a hearty ‘hao!’ in response. I’m sure that’s exactly what I said! Not wanting to cause unnecessary attention, Emily buried her head in the book and started to read about Huangshan. The images Mr. Xang had shown her had been more than enough to intrigue her, especially as there was no chance he would also be there.

‘…. steeped in picturesque natural landscapes and Chinese folk history…mind-bending rock formations and countless pines as far as the eye can see…. The most spectacular views at sunrise….’

It all sounded ideal but the words seemed to be moving on the page as her ability to concentrate was waning. She had read somewhere that in China slurping noodles was a sign of someone enjoying the meal, but the chorus than rang through the restaurant was ridiculous. Her lack of sleep should have made this slurping orchestra irritable, but instead she couldn’t help but find the whole spectacle hilarious. What started as a giggle turned into uncontrollable delirious cackling. It was a cackle that Emily tried to avoid, and that only those closest to her had experienced on rare occasions. The waitress placed the steamy bowl of soup in front of her, but Emily couldn’t stop herself long enough to thank the woman, which frustrated her slightly as ‘thank you’ was one of the few expressions she had mastered. Once the laughter had finally been brought under control, Emily realised that no one had even batted an eyelid at her delirium. Her face was bright red and her cheeks were wet with tears, but apparently no dignity had been sacrificed. Emily brought the spoon to her lips and tasted the broth. It was unlike anything she’d ever tasted and a broad smile crossed her face. This solo adventure was turning out to be quite a fun one. Her entire life had been lived as a shared experience, but for the first time she was realising that perhaps relying on having company was not always necessary. In fact, perhaps sometimes it was better to be alone.

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 12 – A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 12 – Mr. Xang – The Puppetmaster

It had been a quiet and disappointing few months in the life of Mr. Xang. Foreigners used to flock to his concrete haven from all over the world and he revelled in the unique social experiment he had so cleverly created. He delighted in theatrically regaling his wife and kids with ever-so-slightly embellished stories of what the strange Western folk had been up to, while they listened attentively and often sat open-mouthed in shock. Well, at least they used to. He had begun referring to himself as the ‘Puppetmaster’, and although the nickname was never acknowledged by others, this did not dissuade him from frequently using it in third person. The Americans and British had been the first-wave who metaphorically opened the gates, but once word spread, visitors from more exotic locations soon started arriving in numbers, and they brought an entirely different dynamic with them. The Americans and British enjoyed their alcohol, and would usually last until around two in the morning, but this seemed to be when the Italians and the Spanish would kick into gear. Mr. Xang always ensured that he placed these groups in close enough proximity to each other to create the maximum opportunity for tension, and therefore fun. His efforts would more often than not result in nothing, but when they worked, he made sure that everyone knew of ‘The Puppetmaster’s’ success.

His wife had heard the story of ‘The Night of Many Vomits’ several times, but that didn’t stop him repeating it further. It all occurred in early September, when business was at its peak. One young red-haired girl from Scotland had consumed far too much of Mr.Xang’s special baiju, and had decided she needed fresh air. While outside, she had discovered the Greek couple below were experimenting with cooking some of the local cuisine. Unfortunately, the cuisine they were experimenting with that day was chòu dòufu, or as the Westerners accurately called it; ‘stinky tofu’. The pungent smell wafted up to the red head’s balcony and caused her to empty her stomach directly southward. This cascaded onto the Greeks below who understandably erupted with anger. However, the male Greek had a particularly strong aversion to the smell of the girl’s vomit, which was now mixed in with the already nauseating smell of his own cooking. He then proceeded to also empty his guts over his balcony, which ended up liberally covering the entrance way below. The Scottish girl continued to apologise to the screaming Greeks, however, at that very moment one of the Canadian guests was cycling home from a night tour of the city. Distracted by the argument above, he failed to notice the pool of sick that had accumulated on the already slippery granite flooring outside the building. His bike tyres failed to find grip and he careered into the other bikes that were parked outside the entrance. Mr. Xang was then contacted by the Scottish girl who explained the unlikely series of events and their consequences, much to his silent amusement. Mr. Xang arrived to find the Canadian lying semi-conscious in a mixture of vomit and blood. He found it difficult to contain his giggles throughout the ambulance ride and repeated the story over and over in his mind to ensure no details were omitted. Upon returning to his apartment, he rushed to his ‘Book of Tales’ and wrote the entire story down, pausing momentarily to wipe the tears of laughter from his cheeks. His wife was always repulsed at the story and asked him many times not to tell it to the kids, but it was one of his personal favourites, so she had little choice on the matter.

Many of his stories were far too vulgar or sexual for his wife, but he hoped that by writing them down, he would one day find someone that would find them as amusing as he did. Without exception, all of his apartments contained cameras. He would point this out to his guests as he showed them in as to not shock them, and he always carefully explained that this was the norm in his country and that they were for security purposes only. This was in fact only half of the truth, as some cameras were perhaps more inconspicuous than others, and he also failed to mention the microphones that accompanied them. Mr. Xang sometimes placed guests in certain rooms in a hope for hostility or drama, but if two particularly good-looking single travellers arrived around the same time, he’d make sure they were always likely to run into each other in some way or another. This could potentially give him entertainment of a different variety.

A couple of years ago, a beautiful blonde man from Denmark had arrived. Nearly two feet taller than Mr. Xang, he reminded him of the athletes he saw play for his ‘beloved’ Chelsea F.C. By chance, the following day, a striking Argentine woman arrived and Mr. Xang made sure she was placed next door to the Dane. She was of a slim build and fairly tall herself. She wore the correct clothes to accentuate her figure and Mr Xang found it difficult to maintain his professional manner in her presence. He remarked that her light skin made her look more European than her other Latin American counterparts, which she luckily took as a compliment. She was the first Argentinian he had met and she seemed a world away from the party-mad Brazilians he was used to accommodating. The apartment blocks were fairly empty at the time, so he made sure to mention the man’s existence to her just in case she ‘got lonely’. He rubbed his hands with delight as he hurried back to his own tiny apartment hoping to watch the raunchy soap opera unfold. To his amazement, his social experiment was already well in motion by the time he got home. He boiled some instant noodles and sat back to watch the ensuing romance.

Despite being Argentinian, the woman contained the characteristic South American trait of unerring social confidence. Mr Xang kept his eyes on her slim figure, which had already found itself in the Dane’s apartment. They were sat side-by-side on the sofa studying the map and hastily growing comfortable in each other’s company. Before long, they ventured out together, probably to the same restaurant Mr Xang recommended to all of his guests. While they were out, he unlocked the Dane’s room and left a bottle of the finest Chinese wine on the dinner table with a note that simply read “Have fun in China! Mr. Xang”. He wanted to do all he could to facilitate the evening’s entertainment. The next time he saw them was just after midnight. His sensors alerted him and he awoke at his desk with cold noodle sauce saturating his lap. He watched them entering the building, hand in hand. The noodle sauce was partially mopped up in a hurry before he proceeded to pour himself a glass of the same wine he had left in the apartment. Now the stage was set, he gestured with the glass towards the digital images of the genetically-blessed couple. What unfolded was unlike anything he had seen before. Shortly after entering, the Argentine woman set about tying the large man up on the living room floor and seemed to be almost torturing him. He feigned a struggle but he could have easily overpowered her if he wished. Mr Xang stared wide-eyed at the screen in disbelief and turned the volume up as high as it could go. Thrust after thrust of his belt against his back left marks that would have taken weeks to disappear. She yanked and pulled his hair and appeared to bite so hard on his buttocks that Mr Xang thought he could see blood. Then, out came the wine bottle… Even Mr Xang had to avert his eyes momentarily. He would end up watching it back countless times though, questioning the physics of what he saw occur. Somehow, after all of this, the blonde man ended the night affectionately hugging his ‘torturer’ and tucking her in as if nothing untoward had happened. It was all in his book, but Mr Xang wished more than anything that he knew someone who he could share this story with. His wife was unquestionably not this person.

Unfortunately for the voyeur, these days of vomit and masochistic violence were no more. The recent increase of tourism into the city had led to foreign hotels opening up in abundance, and his home-made Western soap operas had grown rather dull without a decently sized cast of characters. He made arrangements with a few local ‘Chinese-only’ hotels that they would fail to mention their exclusively online. He left them his business card and promised them a small share of his profits if they directed customers his way. This was keeping him going for now, but only by the skin of his teeth. He had been lucky enough to buy three apartment blocks with his father’s inheritance when this area of the city was destitute, but like many Chinese cities, business increased at an unprecedented rate and Mr. Xang found himself reaping the benefits of this exponential growth. Ripping off foreigners made him a well-known businessman in the local area, but the golden age of the Xang family had now passed and desperation was setting in. His wife had become more distant than ever and his children now looked at him with disdain rather than excitement. His ability to supply them with the lavish lifestyle they were used to had disappeared, and their affection towards him was dwindling with it. The Englishman with thinning hair was one of only five people staying with him at the moment, and Mr Xang had a worrying suspicion that he wouldn’t be staying long. He always liked to surprise them with the bill at the end of their stay, but he was wondering whether this could be a mistake this time. He’d have to watch him extra closely.

As he was boiling another pot of noodles-for-one, his phone rang its familiar tune. He yanked it out of his pocket and found himself disappointed to see the usual +86.

“Hello, is this Mr. Xang?” The British accent took him by surprise and instantly put him in full professional mode. As always, this meant the sweating started. It was a highly unfortunate tic of his.

“Yes, the famous Mr. Xang at your service! How can I help?”

“Uh, well I have a booking with you, I think? Maybe my friend cancelled it though? It was in the name Sammy Wise? We’re at the apartments now. Sorry to call at this time, but I didn’t have your number before!” Mr Xang couldn’t quite compute exactly what was happening, but he surmised that the man with thinning hair was trying to avoid whoever this was at the other end of the line. He quickly conjured a devious plan.

“Oh, yes! This booking cancelled, but it’s OK. I will be there in ten minutes. Please wait!” He attempted to discard the instant noodles and spilt the boiling water all over his bare feet. Now was not the time to moan though. He had a potential sale, and a potential new drama.

“Thank you so much! This isn’t my phone though, so I won’t be able to contact you. I’ll be waiting at the front door for you. Does that work?” Mr. Xang painfully put on his socks, fastened enough buttons on his shirt to cover his growing stomach and stumbled out into the street, all while continuing to converse with his new cast member.

“Mr Xang will be there. Don’t you worry! I give you better room for special price! You will love it! Don’t move, please!”

Before he closed the door, he made sure to yell “The Puppetmaster is back” to his wife who he assumed was with with the kids in the living room. In reality, none of them were currently present in the apartment, but he had been far to preoccupied to notice this.

Mr Xang started sweating heavily as his excitement rose. It seemed his Western soap opera was going to continue for another season.

Categories
Novels

Reluctance – Chapter 11- A Story by Robert Honour

Chapter 11 – No Wai Guo Ren

Sammy’s organisational skills proved to be exceptional as always. Chris just had to open her folder and he knew exactly where to go, how to get there and what to expect. The sign displaying both their names brought back the unwelcome reality of the break-up. So much had been going on that his thoughts had be clogged with short-term trivialities, however, seeing her name written next to his was a harsh reminder of how and why he was in his current state. A lonely single man, separated from the one he loves in a country that he’d never desired to set foot in. The taxi driver played his music at full volume all the way to the apartment. He seemed particularly fond of a song called ‘Xiao Pingguo’, which according to him, translated into English as ‘Little Apple’. Chris wasn’t too enamoured by the tune, but nodded his head to the beat regardless, which pleased the driver greatly. An endless parade of posters welcomed them into the city, and each one displayed the familiar face of Jackie Chan. Chris couldn’t help but smirk. It was more like a Westerner’s poorly imagined impression of China, rather than the reality itself. The actor had a product named ‘BAWANG’ in his hand, which could have been anything from green tea, to medicine, to tampons. It seemed that film stars in Communist countries were just as shameless at selling-out than their capitalist counterparts.

Sammy had chosen to book them a private apartment for the next two weeks. She explained to Chris that this would be their ‘base’ and being in an apartment would allow them to experience ‘real’ Chinese culture that would be lost if they stayed at a ‘just another Western chain hotel’. Also, it had been recommended by Kim, and Kim was never wrong with her recommendations. Chris of course agreed without any argument, however, the decision was no longer in her hands. On the flight, Chris made the decision that staying there would be far too risky, considering the potential arrival of a bereaved and furious Emily. His knowledge of the city was close to zero, so he used the airport’s free Wi-Fi to find a cheap hotel in close proximity. This way, all of Sammy’s notes and directions would still be relevant, but he could keep tabs on the incoming Emily if needed.

The taxi driver clearly felt they had made a connection in their short time together, so he tried to add Chris on some Chinese social media app. Chris apologised as he didn’t have it and the driver used one of the few English words he knew to try to convince him. “Need. You need”. Not discouraged, he wrote his number down on Chris’ receipt and the name ‘Weixing’. He then gave him a big toothy grin, and waved him goodbye. The hotel’s exterior was uninspiring, but Chris’ funds had been massively depleted by his lavish journey, so his options were now limited. Chris’ expectations of Chinese service lay at two extremes; either he was to be treated as an important foreign guest, or seen as an inconvenience which must be dismissed as quickly as possible. The indignant look that the receptionist greeted him with convinced him that perhaps the latter was closest to the mark. His battered suitcase clattered along behind him, marking the floor as it went. The receptionist shook her head as he approached and placed both hands flat on the desk in front of her to assume a position of both authority and professionalism. She couldn’t have been older than thirty, but carried herself with an imposing aura that one could only usually obtain with experience. Chris had lately discovered his more assertive side, but he already found himself preparing for the worst. The receptionist acted as if she’d never lost an argument in her life and she wasn’t going to start now. Chris opened his mouth to speak, but the receptionist made sure she said her piece first.

“Sorry. No foreign. Chinese only.” She pointed to a sign that was incomprehensible to Chris and then turned away and continued her paperwork indicating that to her the matter was now concluded.

“I made a reservation online though. My name is Chris Bannister.” He handed over his phone with the confirmation visible.

“Money already refunded. Foreign people use this number.” She handed him a dusty card with the name ‘Mr. Xang Apartments’ stamped onto it. The ‘s’ was only half on the card and it looked like the whole process had been done with speed being the priority, rather than quality. With a lack of any alternatives, Chris asked if he could borrow the hotel’s phone.

“Quick.” The receptionist slammed the phone on the desk and gave him a look that implied she would personally be timing the call.

The phone was answered before a full ring could even be completed. Chris tried to fully explain the situation but the gentleman on the other end of the line was far too excited to let him finish. Once he’d spoken to Mr. Xang, he released that the word ‘quick’ may have been the receptionist warning him about the apartment-owner himself, rather than the strict order Chris took it to be. Little information had changed hands, but Chris thought he’d recognised the word ‘stay’ within the barrage of frenzied speech. Before he’d managed to gather his belongings, a diminutive, but portly man in loose-fitting khaki trousers and a soaked white t-shirt was rushing into the foyer.

“Welcome Mr. Chris! Mr. Xang is happy to help you!” Without waiting for a response, the man approached Chris with two outstretched arms. Chris expected to either be shaking people’s hands or bowing to them in China, so this approach unsettled him. He extended both his arms and hoped Mr. Xang would take the lead. The spherical man placed both his hands on Chris’ right-forearm and shook it violently. Sweat dripped off his forehead and he quickly took a small, dirty cloth out of his pocket to remedy this.

“Sorry. Mr Xang very busy and hot today! I take your case. The walk is not far!” Before Chris could evaluate the situation, he was chasing his faltering suitcase out into the street. Chris got the impression that Mr. Xang was always busy and hot regardless of the temperature outside, as it was no warmer than the average Spring day. Chris attempted to channel Sammy’s trusting nature and fought against his instincts to grab his luggage and escape the situation as soon as he could. He went to thank the receptionist as he left, but she had already retreated from her post, so he continued after the unusually energetic man out onto the street.

“This hotel not for Wai Guo Ren. People like you. I have apartment though. Very nice. Very cheap. Other foreigners, so lots of friends for Mr Chris!” Mr.Xang’s speech was the very definition of staccato. Every syllable was emphasised and every word was delivered with the ferocity of the one that preceded it.

Chris knew he’d remembered the name from somewhere. He fumbled through Sammy’s notes as they walked and saw ‘Mr. Xang’s Apartments’ clearly written, next to the words ‘cheap’ and ‘good area’. The words ‘Thanks Kim!’, were also written adjacent to a smiling face.

“Oh no. Sorry, Mr. Xang. Mr. Xang!” Trying to stop the man was proving to be a tough task, but Chris stood his ground and eventually their race to the apartment took a temporary pause.

“I can’t stay in the apartment. We had a booking with you. Before, I mean. But I need to change it. It’s difficult to explain why, but I can’t stay in that apartment any more. Sorry, Mr Xang.” Mr. Xang winced. Foreigners always butchered his name, but this attempt was especially poor. Through experience, he found that correcting guests led to a lack of sales so continued ignorance was an unfortunate necessary.

“It’s fine, Mr Chris. Don’t you worry! Mr. Xang has many apartments. I give you different one. Any one you want. Mr Xang is the best choice for you.” The local entrepreneur showed Chris a homemade map. His apartments were located directly in the centre, surrounded by several badly drawn hotels with ‘NO WAI GUO REN’ written in red marker pen.

“See.. No foreigners here. Mr. Xang is only option, but don’t worry. You will like it a lot!” His self-assurance was frustrating and remarkable in equal measure.

He was another person it seemed impossible to win an argument against. Despite his considerably longer legs, Chris found it extremely difficult to keep up with the little man as he hurried over the road towards the four large apartment blocks in front of him. Mr Xang’s thin, wiry hair blew in the wind, exposing the bright-red scalp below. Chris wanted to tell him to slow down, but his voice would inevitably be drowned out by the sound of the traffic that surrounded them. Perhaps this was the man’s sales’ technique. If he can’t hear you and he’s got hold of your possessions, it makes it very difficult to argue with him.

Chris followed him through a small stone archway and into a communal area that contained a small, empty, swimming pool at its centre. Various outdoor exercise equipment was dotted around the courtyard and Chris was pleasantly surprised how little of the traffic noise made it through to the green area. Well-kept flower beds filled the courtyard and there was a surprisingly genuine feeling of serenity that contrasted with Chris’ experience of the country so far. He may have pushed him into this decision, but Chris was starting to feel like the crazy man might in fact be his best option after all.

“Which building you want?” Chris handed him their original booking and Mr Xang pulled out his glasses and stared at it intensely.

“This booking cancelled days ago. Don’t need worry. Mr Xang has nice apartment in other building anyway. Better for you. Follow. Please.” Although his service wasn’t exactly polite, it was difficult to argue that he wasn’t effective. Chris breathed a huge sigh of relief. So, she’s not coming. Thank God..He thought about asking if he could reinstate the previous booking then caught himself. It was best to err on the side of caution. The building itself was meticulously clean and the sixth-floor apartment Mr. Xang led him to was the very definition of ‘plain and simple’. Everything was white, and everything was plastic. The living room was almost completely devoid of decoration. The only colour of note came from the few books that lay under the coffee table, all of them looked to be photography books on Chinese landscape. A small two-seater sofa faced a flat-screen T.V with the glass-topped coffee table in between. The flat could be described as minimalist, but to Chris it just looked empty and unimaginative, not that he was particularly unhappy about this. Mr. Xang proudly showed him the ‘welcome-kit’ he had prepared in advance, which consisted of some instant noodles, a face-mask, a local map and a small bottle of something called ‘Baijiu’.

“This one just for adults!”. Mr Xang laughed uncontrollably at his own joke, which evolved into a violent coughing fit. His handkerchief was on hand to mop-up the viscous liquid that escaped from his mouth.

Chris was shown the small bathroom and kitchen, both of which were spotless and, of course, white. He was then led through to his bedroom, which was unsurprisingly the same., apart from the garish bedspread that Mr. Xang pointed to with delight. The sight of it made Chris shudder.

“You like? Mr. Xang is a big football fan and Chelsea are my team! You?” Now the sale was practically in the bag, Mr. Xang was feeling more relaxed with his foreign guest. In reality, he had no interest in football, but from his market-research he’d found that it was almost a religion for Europeans, and he knew a man who could get the sheets made cheaply for him. He had baseball ones ready for the Americans, who he heard had different tastes in sport. Chris stared at the blue Chelsea crest in front of him, and the ridiculous lion mockingly dancing back at him. Images of Matt shot through his mind and he uncontrollably emptied the contents his stomach all over the bedroom. Regurgitated watery beer mixed with pre-chewed salted peanuts instantly brought an end to the apartment’s perpetual cleanliness.

“I’m so sorry! Let me clean it! I’ll pay for new sheets. I’m sorry Mr. Xang.” For the first time in a long time, Mr. Xang was speechless. He ran to the kitchen and swiftly returned with a mountain of tissues and a mop.

“No problem. No problem. You have a long journey. Please. I will do.” Chris felt embarrassed but also relieved that at least now he could avoid sleeping in a Chelsea-themed bed. Mr. Xang cleaned up the worst of the mess, refusing Chris’ offers for assistance, then closed the bedroom door and assured Chris he would have the place professionally cleaned that very afternoon. He then insisted that Chris joined him on the small sofa. As always, there was no choice but to agree with the man. Chris was thankful that Mr. Xang didn’t possess the odour to go along with the amount of sweat he was secreting, as there was no way of moving more than an inch away from him on the tiny sofa. Although, he realised that he neither was currently at his most hygienic.

“How long you stay for?” His glasses were back on and he became incredibly business-like for someone who had just been picking up lumps of sick with thin tissue paper.

“I guess a week? I’m not sure. Do I have to give you an exact date now?” Chris’ plan of taking everything a day at a time was still in practice, so the thought of committing to any amount of time was currently off the table.

“Good. One week, then I return. You can stay longer if you want. If you stay shorter, just let Mr. Xang know. Not big problem. You have my number.” Chris wondered how many times a day this man must have said his own name. Perhaps it was just a thing he did for foreigners? Chris couldn’t imagine him doing it in his own language. Did he wife even know his first name? Chris thanked the man, but clearly he wasn’t quite finished with his performance. He pulled out a thick, hardback photo book from underneath the coffee table and his mood shifted from Business Xang to Tour Guide Xang.

“So, this weekend is New Year. Hangzhou very busy. I recommend you get out and go to Huangshan. Yellow Mountain. No tourists. Good weather. Very beautiful!” He was flicking through the photos of the mountains so quickly that Chris barely had a chance to glimpse them, but he agreed and continued to thank the ever-moist man. It had now got to the point where his craving for peace was overpowering his ability for politeness. However, from the images he saw, it was hard to disagree with the place’s beauty. Mr Xang then gave him prepared details on how to get there and presented him with a hand-written bill for the room.

“Pay at end of the week. I have your details, so no running away!” He laughed once more, but another coughing fit overcame him and he closed the door abruptly as to not embarrass himself further in front of his foreign guest.

Chris’ head lulled back. Mr. Xang was someone who radiated anxiety onto others and Chris had felt the full force of this. Once he found the power to open them again, his eyes were drawn back to the images of Huangshan. By a strange twist of fate, this was exactly the idea Sammy had planned for that weekend. The book fell open to page seven. The photo was of a viewing spot with a tacky love heart positioned conveniently before the peaks that lay in the middle-distance. The perfect spot for young lovers to pose for a photo that they would inevitably apply a filter and a cliché tagline to, before sharing with the world. Sammy would have insisted on having countless shots together there. The plans had now changed though. Chris stayed transfixed on the heart. Most people don’t know where their time on Earth will end, let alone get to choose that spot. Chris had a catalogue to choose from, but something about page seven had him convinced. Thoughts of his father, Matt and Sammy consumed him. In that moment he decided; this was to be the last place he would ever visit.