In my earliest memory I am leafing through a deck of cards. I gaze with wonder at the two-dimensional monarchs, austere-chinned, swathed in ermine, hands tight around orbs and sceptres. I swore my allegiance then, and we’ve never since parted.
I walk, talk, sleep, dream, piss and shit cards. I always have. I plan to call my first-born Jack. If it’s a girl, she’ll just have to adjust.
I’m a dealer. It’s illegal of course; so you’ll have to come to Chinatown, and it’s death bysociety to be seen here or to have a son seen here. I don’t care what my father’s peers think. I’m family here. My Mandarin is not as good as their English, but better than my French.
Our house is called The Crown & Anchor. Follow the tiny painted pictures of our namesakes from the port. Behind thepalings of an iron fence you’ll see a whitewashed building of two floors. An electric light fizzes above the door.
If they let you in, they let you in. The criteria are a mystery. Friends of mine fail regularly. Get your suit mended (or torn)and try again.
Climb the stairs and you’ll be greeted by an old man in a graphite silk suit. He is Wan. The Crown & Anchor ishis.
It has many rooms. One of the ladies will show you if you like. Rooms of ornate furnishings, tapestries and painted silks. Rooms of vases, hammocks and pipes. Rooms of soft women and willing pillows. Rooms full of worlds that are not really there. But I recommend you begin your journey there with me. My name is Victor. I will be your dealer.
I ask Xiangling to marry me. I ask her especially in the afternoon as she stands at the window smoking. ‘No thank you Victor,’ she replies, not turning from the view.
‘Because,’ she sighs wearily, ‘you have no family and not much money.’
‘My family is very rich and powerful.’
‘And do not speak to you.’
‘And I’m beautiful.’
‘This is not an important thing in a man.’
‘I think it is.’
She smiles and laughs, ‘I know.’
There is a young Dutch sailor who visits The Crown & Anchor many times a year. He has done so for as long as I have dealt here. His name is Jochem.
Jochem plays the best of cards. Each time he visits he fleeces us. In a few nights he can win a year of sailors’wages. How he cannot lose when the odds are weighted in favour of the house is a mystery to all. I think over this question often, wanting to know his secret, and sometimes laughing at the idea that any man might play better cards than I. Wan has watched him and is certain he is not a cheat. But what explanation could there be?
I have one strange clue. I am the only dealer never to have had the pleasure to meet the young sailor. He will choose anytable but mine. I have only seen his neatly-trimmed nape and the white square of sailor’s yoke, heard triumphant cries and watched him walk away with a dozen men and women vying for his favour.
‘Would you marry Jochem?’
She laughs. ‘He is a sailor!’
‘He’s beautiful and clever.’
‘Sailors make poor husbands.’
‘If he comes tonight, you should bring him to my table.’
She returns to the window. ‘If it is important to you.’
Chinatown is strange in daylight. You cannot see the sky for the sheets. Scattered among them are red banners, petitioning favour in fat gold letters. You wander in the soft filtered light among market stalls selling spice, silk and scent. Incesne burns in squat red shrines beside offerings and Buddhas. Children in tied-on clothes play dragons and ghosts, watched by pipe-smoking elders blanketed in rocking chairs.
I rarely go out in daylight, but today my razor needs sharpening.
As I turn into Haining Street, a man who is travelling at some speed crashes into me and we are both knocked to the ground. I laugh deliberately as I rise, to make light. He leaps to his feet and strikes me on the jaw, lacking force.
‘Mind yourself!’ he shouts, in educated but youthful shrills.
He wears a brown greatcoat and bowler hat. I take him by one shoulder and look him in the face. ‘Forgive me, Sir. My mistake.’
The colour drains from his face. ‘I’m sorry, I thought you were a…’ He attempts to move by me, but my grip is fast. ‘I’m sorry,’ he repeats.
When I let go he marches quickly away, twice looking back.
In Buckle Street, the knife sharpener’s wife throws tiles on my fate. ‘Two strangers. One will not harm you.’ Then she nods, ‘The other, it is not you he wishes to harm.’
I was never sure whether my father disowned me because I disagreed with him, argued with him, made a scene or because I threw a pint of stout in his face. Whatever, it must’ve been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
I think of him as I shave, standing naked before the glass. The sun is setting. The laundry has been brought in and replaced with lanterns. The wind is pulsing. Some of the lanterns go out. They will be lit again soon.
I am dressed when the cook knocks to bring me food. I haven’t begun to eat when Xiangling comes to call me to deal. She notices my full plates
‘You’re thinking of the sailor.’
‘Will you bring him to my table tonight?’
She smiles, ‘If you eat.’
Seeing Xiangling wrapped in a red brocade, black dahlias crawling up her thigh – my appetite has suddenly returned.
The card room is filled, and the evening is all light and smiling.
The sailors arrive mostly stumbling full, but Jochem sober and straight as a mast. The ladies see him first; by the time he reaches the card room he has one on each arm. I play my game with one eye and watch him with the other. Xiangling shows him to my table, but at the last moment he cuts across the room and joins another. Xiangling raises her eyebrows at me to say, I tried. I widen my eyes back at her to say, try some more.
Xiangling goes to him and laughing, pulls him by the arm. He won’t budge. As she leaves him, returning to the foyer, she glances at me and shakes her head.
I make the sign to Jochem’s dealer that means swap tables, then the sailor and I are face to face for the first time. Standing before his soft chin and pale lichen eyes, I forget instantly the words that I have repeated forty times each night since I was sixteen, naming the game and its stakes. The sailor rises from his chair and drifts toward the pipe room.
‘Bets begin at…’ is as far as I get. I cannot do anything but follow.
Xiangling steps in front of me. ‘What are you doing?!’
I take her by the arm, trying to move her aside. Her tiny wrist twists in my hand and she cries out. Everyone falls silent. All eyes are on me with the twisted wrist of a sobbing porcelain figurine in my rough fist. Wan’s two nephews, large on brawn and short on syllables, grab me, wrenching my arms behind me and compelling me out of the room and upstairs, my forehead hitting against picture frame, cabinet and architrave on the way. They throw me into my room and bolt the door. I suppose I passed out.
Smashing glass in the alley below wakes me. I lift the sash and look out. The view is obscured so I climb quietly onto the fire escape. It rains softly, but I can feel my forehead is sticky with blood.
Below in the fizzing electric light, a sailor and a ladyboy stand propped against a low wall, the remnants of a liquor bottle about their feet. The ladyboy is being held up by the sailor, who otherwise seems to be trying to escape.
‘You can’t come with me,’ insists the sailor. ‘Yes, I come!’ complains the ladyboy.I snigger.
‘No, I come!’
The sailor kisses the ladyboy on the mouth and lifts him onto the low wall. In one motion he snatches the ladyboy’s gilded slippers and sprints away with them, leaving him/her stranded in stockinged feet shouting profanities in Mandarin.
I scramble down the fire escape and maintaining a discreet distance, I follow.
I tail him by the sound of his footsteps echoing from the wet walls of the narrow ways, skirting oily puddles and looking back at myself from black window panes.
I lose him when a lone carriage drives between us on the road. Still I continue towards the port. By the time I get there the rain has stopped and a fog is settling. It smells of sulphur and fish. Waves lick the legs of piers that are cross-hatched with ropes. Rusted anchor chains that spill from the towering hullseke dull creaks.
I have walked all the piers when finally I see her: small, wellmaintained, gangway-down. Narcissenster.
From her deck spars and rigging jigsaw the sky. Below deck it smells of piss and there is a symphony of snoring. I can just make out the doors of cabins with boots at each threshold. Only one cabin also has a pair of sequined slippers.
Jochem sleeps silently, his jaw, lashes and collarbones outlined in silver. His bunkmate snores like a carpet mill.
I creep to kneel beside his bed, not knowing what to do next. The carpet mill whistles and the young sailor’s eyes flick open. He fixes on me, jumps and in the next second has a fist of my hair and a knife at my throat.
Examining my face as we are eye to eye, he appears confused.
‘I mean you no harm,’ I whimper.
He lets go of my hair and sheathes the knife, hissing, ‘Then what are you doing here?’
How unfair to be asked to explain first what I am most unsure of. I swallow and rub my throat. ‘I followed you.’
‘I gathered that,’ he scoffs. He lights a small lamp, then props himself against the wall behind. The blanket slumps. I shudder at dusk pink aureoles on a firm white plain.
‘Why do you avoid me?’
‘You should go.’ He gestures towards the door.
I catch his hand in mine. Our fingers lock into a dovetail join. ‘Play me.’
He sighs, and takes from underneath the bunk a well-played deck, edges dog-eared and swollen.
I choose my game and I win. He chooses his, and I win. As I lay down my final cards he puts his hand to my chest. ‘Your luck’s in,’ he whispers, bringing his lips to mine.
I discover him in lamplight the colour of a low summer moon. His neck, chest, arms and belly hilled with muscle and wired with tendons. His back painted with mermaids and lash-strokes. His thighs, his cock, his arse.
The lamp dies as the horizon begins to pale and I pull on my damp clothes.
‘Will I see you again?’ I ask.
A pause, then, ‘Yes.’
‘I might not be at the Crown & Anchor.’
The day grows clear and bright as I whistle through the streets towards Chinatown, swinging sequined slippers. The first laundry is being hung out.
I return to my room the way I left. The bed is stripped and the shelves and surfaces bear. Two suitcases stand by the door. No one speaks to me as I leave.
I order cha at the restaurant, sit outside beneath the canopy of lanterns and begin to write a contrite letter to Wan and Xiangling.
I have almost finished it when I begin to feel someone watching me. I glance around, but the street is thick with washerwomen. urchins, silk merchants, spice sellers, moneychangers, monks in chrysanthemum, drunks, soldiers, sailors and police officers. There is no likely suspect.
I am gazing at the passing crowds when I see Wan walking towards me. I rise to greet him like the prodigal son.
Wan is only a few feet from me when a cacophony rings out from my side, a single shot. He is blown backwards, I hear the sickening crack of his skull on the cobbles and run to him. A crimson stain grows from a black hole in his chest, and his face has turned still and grey.
As I go to place my hand on Wan’s chest it is yanked away. A huge hand wrenches my arm behind my back, pulling me to my feet and turning me to my table. There beside my almostwritten letter and almost-finished cha is a pistol.
‘Is that your letter?’ the officer asks.
A crowd is gathering and another officer is trying to hold them back, arms outstretched. At the front is the man in the brown greatcoat, his right arm shaking.
The jeering crowd seem hazy, but I see clearly Jochem pushing through them. He leaps at me.
I feel as though I’ve been punched in the guts, and fall to the ground. Winded, I curl into a ball on my side, tip my head back and gasp for breath. From the ground I see a sideways view of police officers leading away a man with a cut head who wears a dinner jacket. He is looking at me.
I struggle for air, feeling, inexplicably, the strings of the sailor’s yoke tied tight around my chest. I travel the world now, playing cards and always winning. I speak good French now, Dutch and English, but my Mandarin has escaped me. Although I scarcely remember her, sometimes I think I miss Xiangling.
Still, mostly, I’m like you. There are some men, and some women, that I never play, because I know they would win.
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