Sarah E Melville
You are seven and I am twelve. There is nothing like being alive. There is nothing like being back at school, where the clock becomes our guide and the shavings of wooden pencils litter the ground like ticker-tape or the peanut shells at our father’s favourite pub.
The teacher wears navy blue shoes. They are mary janes with the smallest heel, one that goes in and one that goes out. They call it a Louis. You can call me Paul.
The teacher has brown hair that she wears in curls. Her neck is fat, but she used to be pretty. My sweater vest is navy blue like her shoes and my hair is red outside and brown in the classroom. She tsk-tsk’s me when I say
J’ai chevaux roux.
Tu as cheveaux bruns
I do not know how to tell her that you have to go outside into the real world to tell that it is red. I do not know how to tell her that my sister who is seven and in the first grade hasred hair like me too. Red hair but you can see it’s red inside. So I say
J’ai cheveaux bruns
The Things They Let Into the Classroom
Fifteen small box rooms, none of which I want to enter.
I wake up and remember the night before, 2am, standing outside smoking three cigarettes one after the other and looking up at the trees leading up to the park at the top of the hill where I saw a monkey once. I thought it was a dog at first, but, no, it was a monkey.
The cigarettes are still in my throat and on my tongue. I have no choice but to get up and brush my teeth. I look in the mirror while brushing and notice the rest of the bathroom around me and I think, which is really better, this or sleep?
I think some other things too, but mostly I come back to the cigarettes.
I don’t even smoke…not really.
I go into the living room and sit down on the couch, but don’t turn on the TV. I never watch TV before the evening, I can’t. Instead, I think and think and worry.
The day ahead, one bad student I know of. 5pm, box room number thirteen, the little shit next to me with his pencil stuck in the tape recorder.
I told him last week I wanted to throw him out of the window. I think I’ll tell him this week too.
…the elevator doors open and I walk in and behind me there’s a kid and its helper rushing for the door and I put my hand over the ‘doors open’ button but they run harder and make it and press the number two button which is the same button I’ve already pressed. We’re going to the same floor and the kid is staring at me but I don’t want to talk to it, not until I’m in one of the box rooms and it’s my job to talk to them…
…but then it shouldn’t just be my job, I think, it should be my character, shouldn’t it? Yes it should, so I look down and say something to the kid and it stares at me and says nothing back, which doesn’t piss me off at all, but gives me a strange sense of power, that I can say whatever I like and the kid will do nothing, like talking to the elevator itself, so I laugh a little and tell the kid that if you press the button for the top floor you will go up and up and fly out of the top of the building like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and I mime the explosion of an elevator shooting out of concrete and glass with my hands and the kid says nothing again and edges behind its helper, who is smiling at me but also saying nothing…
‘Hok Yiu, can I see your page one?’
The kid colours page one.
‘Hey, you…Hok Yiu, can you show me your page one, please?’
‘No, no, no…’
He says nothing.
The three other kids look at me and then at Hok Yiu.
I stare at Hok Yiu’s hair for a while. I imagine pulling it out one piece at a time, making the little shit scream.
‘Hey, Hok Yiu…page one, come on.’
You little punk, you think this is fucking playtime?
I imagine backhanding him across the room.
Yes, across the room and through the wall into the next box room. Could I get him through the wall?
Hok Yiu finishes his colouring and hands me his page one.
‘No, it’s too late,’ I say and shove the paper back at him.
He hands it back.
He hands it back.
‘No…get it away…’
He hands it back.
‘I don’t want it…’
He hands it back.
He hands it back and says ‘tick.’
I stare at him.
‘Look, five minutes ago I asked you for it.’
He pushes page one closer to me.
‘No…five times I asked you for your page one. You didn’t give it to me.’
He starts slapping the paper.
‘No, you didn’t give it to me. I asked you and you didn’t give it.’
His eyes are watering.
I breathe out.
‘Hok Yiu, you didn’t listen to me. You never listen to me.’
He wipes at his eyes, but it’s not enough.
‘Tick’, he says.
‘No, I won’t.’
‘Tick, tick, tick…’ he says louder.
He picks up the paper and scrunches it up.
‘What are you doing?’
He wipes his eyes again.
Yes, wipe them you little shit, you little baby. I know what you are. You’re gonna grow up to be a little cunt, aren’t you? Well, fuck you, I’m not ticking your page.
‘I want to be monster,’ he says, tears falling.
‘I want to be monster,’ he says louder.
I stare at him.
‘I want to go…I want to go away…you are naughty…you are monster.’
I keep staring at him. Punishment. Mercy. Tick his page or punch him through the wall.
‘I want to be monster,’ he screams.
‘Hok Yiu, get a tissue.’
The staff woman comes to the door and looks through the window.
Hok Yiu wipes his eyes and doesn’t apologise.
You little shit…
I take his paper and tick it.
We don’t speak to each other for the rest of the lesson.
A break, 2pm to 3pm.
Robert sits in box room fifteen reading the South China Morning Post.
I sit on the other side of the table, thinking of ways to meet better people than Robert.
Brett walks in and takes a seat.
He tells us he’s just had his pipes cleaned.
I don’t know what he means.
‘Yeah, over on Dundas. Nice Thai girl. Lovely.’
Robert says he likes the Thai girls, but their tits are too small.
Brett nods. ‘Tits aren’t always great, it’s true,’ he says.
I get up and walk out.
Robert hears the bell at 7pm and leaves the box room before his students.
He thinks about going a little further and getting some action before heading back, but vetoes himself. The wife will do for tonight, he thinks.
The bus comes and he gets on.
On the way back to his wife he thinks back on the day and that student he had at 4pm. He remembers Brett and the talk they had about the whores, and he pairs it to his other thoughts, his thoughts of that thirteen year old student and the uniform she was wearing, the hairs on her arms and those few spots on her legs. God, she wasn’t perfect, but she’d take it.
He looks around at the other passengers, sees no one looking his way then goes back to the window and the girl.
He plays it out in full, a whole scene.
There she is, her skirt shorter, her foot touching his leg, his hand moving up her calf and then her thigh…the box room window… a blind for the window that he can reach up and pull down…pulling her onto his lap and lifting that skirt right up and…thirteen years old…thirteen…it wasn’t bad, it wasn’t immoral, not really…was it? Only three years away from legal…was it that bad?
The scene plays on.
Brett goes back home and talks to his wife.
One of his two kids runs into the room and jumps at him. He lifts the little girl up and swings her around, both of them laughing.
Later, they all sit and watch TV.
The little girl starts on the sofa then moves onto Brett’s lap.
He doesn’t push her off.
Little Hoi Lam writes her sentences on page six, singing nonsense.
I sit on my chair, watching her sketch out ‘This is a mouse’ with no spaces, thinking about how many times I’ve seen that page.
‘…mama mouse, mama mouse, drop you on a floor,’ she sings.
I think of other things. The student I had before Hoi Lam. The teachers that came after me and left before. The routine of getting up and getting the bus and coming to the same street for three years, to do the same thing, the thing that I think is probably beneath me but I’m not sure.
‘Bee-bee-bee, bee-bee-bee…ballo!’ she shouts in my ear.
‘Hoi Lam…not so loud.’
She laughs and tries to climb onto my lap.
I look at her. Those cute little eyes and nothing on her face, no marks or creases or anything.
‘Mr. Billy…I go to sleep now.’
She tries to climb up again.
I want to pick her up and swing her around and give her a big hug.
She touches my thigh.
I push her off.
The bell rings and I wait a while before leaving.
I don’t want to meet any of the others downstairs, not the ones who are in today.
I walk downstairs and outside and there is no one waiting.
I walk along Nathan Road seeing people walking alone and people walking in pairs. I’m alone, but it’s a normal day after work, it’s ok. A lot of people go home alone.
I wait for the bus, thinking of what to eat.
I don’t really want to eat anything, but I have to do it.
The bus comes and the line starts moving.
An old man tries to edge ahead of me.
I slow down a little and let him get in front then say to his back, ‘it’s not going anywhere, you old fuck.’
He doesn’t turn around.
I sit at home watching TV.
Las Vegas is on.
Tom Selleck is bowling in a penthouse suite and telling another tall guy to make sure he takes care of it.
Tom Selleck…what’s he doing now?
I mean, right now?
Is he sitting at home with nothing to do?
The programme continues but I lose interest and stare out the window. There are lights in most of the windows across the estate.
What are they all doing?
It’s 2am again and I’m sitting in the dark.
I don’t want to go to bed yet, but I have nothing to do.
I pick up my computer and type ‘Tom Selleck’ into the IMDB search.
What is he doing now?
Las Vegas only, it seems.
I stare at the screen and wonder where all my friends have gone.
I remember a few faces, a few nights out, long ago.
Yes, I know where they’ve gone.
Outside, it’s not 2am anymore, it’s much later, but I don’t care, I’m walking and I’ve got my music and who gives a shit if I go out and do this every night anyway?
I don’t want to make any more friends.
I want to be alone.
I recall a Joseph Conrad quote, but can’t remember it exactly. Life is lived alone? We all live and die alone?
It won’t come, not the full line.
I wake up and look at the clock and think ‘it’s 11am and I’m the last one in Hong Kong to wake up today.’
I stay in bed for another hour wondering whether or not I should bother getting up. I’ve lived enough Wednesdays, do I need to live another?
I tell myself to get up.
I lie there and think of words.
Liminal…I read it somewhere, recently…what does it mean?
Something to do with time?
Time and…subliminal…sub-liminal…it’s connected, isn’t it?
Subliminal means something appearing and disappearing suddenly, so liminal must mean…?
I think of the word ‘purpose’.
…I walk onto the ground floor and there are about a thousand kids sitting and standing and talking and dancing, and the helpers aren’t controlling them, and the staff aren’t controlling them, they’re too busy fucking about on the computer, and I walk further down the corridor looking for a box room that’s free where I can sit down and put my head in my hands for a few seconds before the bell goes, but these little shits have seen me and they’re looking at me and they want me to do something funny, but I don’t want to right now, I just want to sit down in an empty box room, but they’re still looking and still expecting something from me, and fuck them, what do they want, what should I have to give them when I only get fourteen thousand, fifteen thousand a month, and I smile thinly and keep walking until I find box room three and disappear inside…
The bell rang a few minutes ago and Robert is in the box room waiting for me to leave.
I talk to him and ask him if he played with his kids on the beach before work.
He holds up a hand and stops me.
‘Wait a sec…’
He looks out at the corridor and I look there too.
The new teacher walks past, the seventeen year old half English, half Thai girl, and she’s wearing a tight vest top and her…
‘God, those tits,’ Robert says.
‘The highlight of my day…’ he mutters and leaves.
I don’t want to stay in the classroom because I know the little shit is about to come in, but I have no reason to go outside so I stay.
He comes in, picks up a marker pen and throws it at my head.
I get him to sit and we talk about the first page, animals on the farm.
I ask him if we eat pigs.
‘We eat Mr Billy stupid, la…’ he says back.
I tell him to be quiet.
‘No, you are Mr Stupid, you quiet…’
I tell him to shut up.
He picks up a pencil and puts it inside the tape recorder.
‘You’re ruining the tape, Ian. Stop it.’
He doesn’t stop.
You little thug. You ugly little fucking midget.
I stop the tape.
‘Listen, Ian. If you don’t shut up I am going to open that window…’ I point to the window two floors above the shitty little alley outside. ‘I will open it and throw you out, you understand?’
‘Stupid…’ he says.
I fucking mean it, you little shit. I’ll throw you out. I’ll watch your little dumb head smash open…
‘I mean it, Ian. Be quiet or…’
‘Stupid Mr. Stupid…I throw you the window.’
I stare at him.
He picks up the pencil and pretends to stab me in the leg.
‘You little motherfucker,’ I mutter under my breath.
It’s just gone 9pm and the restaurant is about to close.
The young men in the dirty white uniforms walk by talking in Cantonese and laughing about something. About me maybe, I don’t know.
I eat the same food I get every time.
The beef is dry and I think I don’t want to eat it, but if I don’t then I’ll have to think about eating something later and I just want to get it done.
I remember another time I was in this place, when I stopped eating because I knew something bad was going to happen.
That was around the time I lost my friends.
I close my eyes and listen to the Cantonese I can’t understand.
I try to think of ways to get new friends. There’s a festival on the weekend, I can go to that. Meet some new faces, some new minds.
I play the festival scene and think of all the words I’ll have to say and the words I’ll have to listen to.
I start to sweat on my head.
I drink some of the iced coffee.
Those guys on the other table, they’re still speaking, but something’s not right. I don’t know what, but it’s not right.
I wipe my head.
No, something bad is going to happen.
I move the plate and the dry beef to the side and put my wrists against the cold, coffee glass.
It doesn’t work. It’s too hot…it’s too hot in here…it’s too hot and they’re still talking and it’s not clear or I’m not clear, something’s not clear, or it’s…it’s outside of me, it’s-…I shouldn’t be here, it’s too hot…something bad is going to-…
A woman in an apron and hat appears and tries to take my plate.
‘No…’ I mumble.
She nods and picks it up.
I put out a hand to stop her.
She shakes her head and tries to take the plate away.
‘For fucks sake…’
I grab the plate and bring it back.
‘I haven’t finished yet…come on.’
She walks away, mumbling in Cantonese.
Charlotte Tong tells me she went to church and learnt about Abraham.
I nod my head and listen.
‘Abraham was tested, but he passed the test,’ she said.
I think about not saying anything, not arguing…
‘Abraham was a true believer,’ she said. ‘No one else could do the thing he did.’
‘Charlotte, Abraham tried to kill his kid.’
She shakes her head and says it was a test.
I shake my head back and tell her what I think about Abraham and God.
She says I’m wrong.
‘I studied this, Charlotte. You should trust me, I know what I’m talking about.’
I’ve never studied it, but it doesn’t matter. I know I’m right.
It’s 3am again and I’m walking away from my estate.
I should be going to bed, but I don’t want to.
What’s the point, I won’t be able to sleep.
I walk in the dark alongside the road that will take me to Kwun Tong.
I’ve seen this road a thousand times and I’ll see it a thousand times more.
I light a cigarette even though I don’t smoke.
Tomorrow’s a Thursday and I hate Thursdays.
Not hate, no. It’s something else. I’m tired of Thursdays?
A minibus goes past and a few faces look out at me.
Fuck you, I mouth back at them.
I smoke the cigarette and light another. I’m thinking about smoking the rest of the pack. Why not? It’s better than thinking of Thursday.
I take a long drag and then another.
Thursday. Thursday. Thursday.
I step out into the road and walk with my back to the lane.
I step back onto the pavement, relieved, depressed.
God…isn’t there any way out of Thursdays?
I sit at home with the financial news playing on the TV.
There’s someone talking about slow recovery and a while before jobs become available again.
I’m not listening.
I stare at the wall and wonder if there’s any possible way I can not only escape Thursday but the whole fucking thing.
The man on screen talks about jobs again and now I’m listening.
There are no jobs, you dumb cunt.
He keeps speaking, saying, ‘yes, there will be jobs’, but then he stops, unsure of something. He stumbles and looks down at his lap.
I start to sweat as I watch.
Something bad is going to happen. I know it.
Robert sits in box room five reading the newspaper.
He’s thinking about the three lessons he has left to teach, and the time it will take to teach them, and how quickly that time will go.
After work, he’s decided to go to Dundas Street.
I walk down the corridor between lessons and say hey to a lot of teachers, most of whom I don’t want to talk to.
Andy stops me and says he really doesn’t want to be there today.
I nod and say yeah.
‘I don’t know how much more of this I can take,’ he says.
I walk to the toilet and close the door.
There’s no one waiting.
I stand there and count down two minutes, but after a few seconds I get bored of counting and stop and just think instead.
I think of a few things, but all the thoughts are cut off.
I wash my hands and flush the toilet I haven’t used.
As I walk back to box room twelve I look in box room fifteen and see Robert standing near that new teacher, the half-Thai in the vest.
I’m probably wrong, but it looks like he’s backed her into the corner.
I wake up and tell myself to call in sick.
Just do it, who cares?
Then I realise it’s my day off.
I check the clock then lie back on the bed.
There’s a short list of people I know, but it’s only short and I don’t want to call any of them anyway.
And the festival, the one over in Pok Fu Lam.
No, too many people. No one I want to talk to.
I won’t go.
I don’t want to go.
Andy walks past me on the stairs as I’m heading up to the second floor.
He tells me he can’t take much more of this, that he’s going straight home and onto the job sites when the day’s done.
I nod and say, ‘yeah, job sites.’
The pencil flies through the air and hits me just under the eye.
I stand up and think about putting my hands around Ian’s neck and crushing it.
He laughs and rocks back on the chair.
I pick up another pencil and throw it on the floor, a couple of inches to the side of him.
I walk over and slam his chair down onto four legs.
‘Listen, you little…shit. When you grow up I am going to find you. Yes, I am going to find you and I am going to beat you. Understand?
He stares at me, unsure.
‘Do you understand me?’ I say louder.
He laughs and goes back on his chair again.
I grab his collar and pull him back.
‘You little fucking shit…you think this is fucking playtime?’
He looks at me, afraid?
I let him go and return to my seat, stopping the tape, rewinding and recording over.
In box room four, I’m reading the South China Morning Post.
Robert is staring out the window as Andy sits next to him, telling him he can’t take much more of this shit-hole.
In the paper, a German goalkeeper has killed himself.
‘We thought we could get through it, with love,’ the wife said. ‘But it was too hard, you can’t.’
It’s a Thursday again and I’m in bed thinking.
Is it possible to just get up, pack everything and get out of here?
I think of Friday and Saturday and Sunday and next week and the other weeks after that and Christmas and…what’s the point?
Even in a different place, what then?
I picture a different place. Austin, San Francisco, New York, Tibet, Madagascar.
I shake my head and put my face in the pillow.
I remember a film. Jack Nicholson, a passenger, a quote.
‘Everywhere you go, you go within the prism of your own mind.’
In box room eight the students are laughing.
‘Ok, next question…’
I look at page five and see a picture of a box.
‘Casey, do you live in a box?’
Next to the box there’s a picture of a chicken.
‘Are you a chicken?’
‘What would you do if you woke up and you were a chicken?’
We all laugh.
It’s way past 2am and I’m walking along the highway on my way to fuck knows where.
Kwun Tong, Ngau Tau Kok, Pok Fu Lam, I don’t care.
I feel tired. Really fucking tired, but…
Thursday, Thursday, Thursday.
Then when there are no cars I edge away from the road.
I keep walking, desperate to get away from the highway.
I think of the German goalkeeper, that line.
‘It’s impossible, you can’t.’