‘No, it was nothing physical, it was the helplessness, the knowledge they could do what they liked with you, that abiding anxiety, those leaps of fear whenever they called your name.’
Extracts from Chinese Spring
By Christopher New
Published by Saraband
They nearly always went out together now, as though, Lai-king thought, that was somehow safer. At least she wouldn’t come home to find him gone. But now that he’d been back several weeks and the police were no longer there downstairs, she began to feel that wouldn’t happen. The more certain they were they weren’t being watched, the more they felt able to go out. Not just briefly to shop, but also to stroll about the streets in the evenings when the heat had faded, although it still lay heavy over the city, a sullen polluted haze. Usually they only walked along the Bund, where the air was cooler and a little cleaner, and they could look out over the river at the new glittering city of Pudong. But sometimes they would walk all the way down to People’s Square as far as Da Shi Jie, which Guodong’s father often used to talk about. The Great World, where in the old days you could get everything you wanted, from sex and drugs to food, acrobatics, opera and plays. Most of it had been closed for years now, a lifeless relic, and there were only a few fashionable shops left, selling tea and whatnot on the ground floor.
Sometimes they thought they were being followed, sometimes they weren’t sure.
Life was almost normal, and yet they both still felt a hand might be laid on Guodong’s shoulder at any moment. Was that why he’d lost interest in reading? He sat about all the time, gazing at nothing, or occasionally going to the window to see if that unmarked police car was there again. Sometimes he did pick up a book, but then he laid it down after a page or two. It was as if he couldn’t settle to anything because he was waiting for that sudden knock on the door. Even his nearly finished anthology of world poetry, which he’d been working on forever – even that didn’t interest him now. It lay there untouched in his rarely opened computer like a toy he’d outgrown. What had happened to him during those weeks in detention, what had they done to him? He wouldn’t tell her, he could only repeat, ‘Nothing really. It wasn’t too bad.’ Was it like that when soldiers came home from war, she wondered, bearing scars they could not show, tales they dared not tell?
But in the deep of the night, while she lay asleep beside him, he would often start awake, a trembling of anxiety in his stomach, as if he was still there in that cell, the light glaring in his eyes, a guard banging on the metal door with his baton. Yes, he heard that harsh clanging in his head. Or as if he was back in that bleak room again, being questioned once more. Sometimes he wondered what it was, why those memories disturbed him so deeply. He hadn’t been beaten after all; he wasn’t locked up with murderers or drug-runners. The worst was that he didn’t always get his heart pills.
No, it was nothing physical, it was the helplessness, the knowledge they could do what they liked with you, that abiding anxiety, those leaps of fear whenever they called your name. And in the end he had broken, something in him had snapped. He’d tamely agreed at last, agreed not to go back to the village, not to put another ‘subversive’ petition online. Yes, that was what had broken him. But he’d thought it was either agree or be sent to a labour camp, and he didn’t think he’d survive that. Not at his age. But that had crushed something in him. He was ashamed; humiliated and ashamed.
‘What’s going on over there?’
They were driving through the crowded streets of Sai Wan on their way to Central. Mila pointed. ‘China Liaison Office. A protest of some sort. Look at the police.’
‘On China’s national day as well.’ Dimitri slowed down. ‘Let’s take a look.’
Mila glanced at her watch.
‘Just for a moment,’ he said.
He found a space on a side street between a moneychanger’s, where a pale young man with small rimless glasses surveyed him indifferently through a barred window, and a massage parlour’s narrow entrance, brightly illuminated footprints flashing on its gaudy sign. Did people really go for a massage, or whatever, in the middle of the morning?
‘It’s not a parking space,’ Mila warned him.
‘It’s a public holiday. The police’ll be looking for demonstrators, not peaceful parking offenders.’
They started walking back towards the massive building. ‘Are you all right to walk this far?’ Mila asked.
‘I’m supposed to be better, aren’t I?’
She smiled, a wince of a smile, and looked away. She thought Dimitri was breathing harder already, and slowed her steps.
A ragged group of some fifty people – old, young, smart, untidy, long-haired, short-haired – were shouting slogans outside the sternly locked and barred entrance to the Beijing Government’s headquarters in Hong Kong. Some of them, he noticed, were waving the old colonial flag with the Union Jack on it. TV cameramen, reporters, a small crowd of onlookers and a posse of police officers looked on with what seemed impassive, even bored, faces. ‘I am a Hongkonger!’ some of the demonstrators were chanting, and ‘Give me back Hong Kong!’ Dimitri saw a big-character poster held high and crooked for a moment. We have the right to vote for our future! Some demonstrators were kneeling by the gates, offering mock funeral gifts for the ‘dead’ Hong Kong government. The onlookers watched with only casual interest, as though it was a street show they’d lingered a moment for and would soon forget. And there was a self-consciousness about the demonstrators, as though they felt they might look foolish, might even be so. One young man waving the old colonial flag seemed almost embarrassed. And yet all they were asking for was what people elsewhere took for granted – an independent government they’d elected themselves. But why wasn’t everyone on the streets? Why did people walk past – he saw them now – as the wealthy walked past beggars, as if they hadn’t seen them, yet with a faint uneasy sense of guilt or shame?
Chinese Spring by Christopher New is published by Saraband, priced £8.99