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Time and Tide

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“I’m causing you such trouble.”

Yuddy says it like he’s sorry, but Tide knows he’s not. There’s a gleam in Yuddy’s eyes. Amusement, maybe. Certainty, perhaps.

Yes, thinks Tide; it’s certainty. Yuddy had the measure of him the first time they met. The second time, too. Tide dislikes the idea that his actions are so transparent, that his character is revealed so easily. He’s not a wandering solitary bird, like Yuddy. No. He’s like a wild goose or a swallow, migrating to a pattern, following another’s lead.

He sits in the darkness, the train rattling from side to side, making them sway like dancers. The pain in his shoulder is less intense now. It was only a shallow wound, just the tip of the knife slashing his shirt, breaking his skin. The blood has soaked into his vest. It’s clammy against him, the fabric stiffening in places as it dries. His injury is nothing compared with the gunshots he fired. He wonders if he killed anyone. Possibly. Probably. The worry thrums at him like the clack of the train wheels over the rails.

“It’s no trouble,” he says, and sees Yuddy smile. “No trouble at all.”

* * *

A new day. Another ship. At the back of his allotted locker he finds an old almanac, its pages creased, the cheap print smudged across thin, yellowing paper. The Book That Knows All. His mother used to buy a copy every year, an event she anticipated with as much enthusiasm as the New Year mah-jongg game with her neighbours. She’d bring home the almanac and set it on the couch beside her and just look at it while the clock ticked behind her. Then she’d lift it, weigh the book in both hands, and remark that the coming year would surely be good.

She’d flick through the pages and warn him of inauspicious days so he could be vigilant at work. Occasionally she’d pick out the day most suitable for a wedding, and she’d slide her gaze to him with a smile, her eyebrows tilting in question.

He never returned the smile. Not at the time, not when she was looking at him for an answer. He smiles now, though. He wanders through the almanac and smiles, riffling past advice four years out of date. He can’t remember if he paid attention to the unlucky directions back then. He doesn’t recall if meetings on June 3 brought him good fortune. He holds the almanac to his face and breathes in its wisdom, its scent of damp paper and ink and glue, and holds onto the memory of gold-washed days threaded with simple happiness.

* * *

“I don’t want to cause you any trouble,” Su Li Zhen says as they walk through empty streets thick with night and humidity. She says this every time they meet. It’s like a ritual, an acknowledgement that she’s disturbing his work even though it’s his duty to protect people like her—people who need his help.

“You won’t,” he tells her, same as always. “You don’t.”

Her bag swings by her side. Her skirt looks soft, a colourful print, flowers on a white field. It reminds him of porcelain. He wants to tell her that, but stays silent. They walk past decaying houses and around the slick of puddles, following the same route he treads every night. The breeze brings heat and sea-scent, fingering its way through the palm trees.

Time is measured differently when he’s with Li Zhen. When he walks the beat alone, he checks his watch at regular intervals, noting the time he arrives at certain destinations. When she’s with him, he measures his journey in terms of how much she speaks. Sometimes she says nothing beyond a greeting and a farewell. Those are the bad nights, the long nights. Other times she talks like a stream picking its way around ice, stop-start, stop-start. Those nights are easier, though they pass quicker.

Tonight she’s quiet, her gaze fixed on the ground. She only looks up when he halts outside a tenement and checks the paperwork tucked into the police box. She watches him sign his number—6117—then asks, “Do you suppose it’s easier being a number rather than a name?”

He considers. “Sometimes.” It’s not a good answer. He tries again. “Numbers are anonymous on the face of it, but this number is tied to me.”

She makes a sound. Her head dips, her hair falling forward to cover her face. He knows she’s thinking about her ex-boyfriend again. Everything comes back to that guy. He doesn’t understand how the boyfriend could have got so under her skin that she still connects him with almost everything in her life.

“You should let go,” he says. “Forget him.”

She sniffs, raises the back of her hand to her eyes, her mouth. “I’ve tried. I can’t.”

“Try again.”

Now she shakes her head, hair whipping across her cheeks, strands sticking to the tracks of her tears. “It’s a defect in me. It must be.” Her words are clear despite her sorrow, as if much rehearsed. “I can’t bear to be without him. I want to stay with him, even if he won’t marry me.”

It’s horrible to hear a woman say such a thing, horrible that she lowers herself for the sake of a man who doesn’t care. He says nothing, just listens, neither encouraging nor condemning. He listens while she spills out her thoughts, the push-pull of her homesickness, her envy and delight in her cousin’s fortune. Perhaps Li Zhen always had this duality within her, he thinks, and her ex-boyfriend brought it out and polished it before cutting her free to stumble and fall.

“I need to belong somewhere,” she says at last, when her words are almost exhausted and the night is almost over. She looks at him. “Where do you belong?”

“Here,” he says. Here with his mother. Here with her.

She smiles a little. “There’s a bird that has no legs. It has to fly all its life because it can never land. It flies and flies, and if it comes to roost, it dies.”

“That’s a lie,” he says. “All birds have legs. It’s nonsense to suggest otherwise.”

“But it’s true,” she says. “He told me. It’s true.”

He holds his tongue. Her ex-boyfriend is a selfish man. Maybe there’s even something to be admired in such selfishness. It’s reprehensible, but at least it’s honest.

* * *

The almanac states that today, moles become quails. At first he’s amused, then he wonders how such a transformation could take place. Moles are deep, dark, mysterious creatures. Quails are itinerant, foolish wanderers. He puzzles over it for a while until he becomes aware of the clock ticking—loud, insistent. He puts down the almanac and gets off the bed, going to the window to look out from this rented space at a city he will never truly know.

The Philippines is exactly as he imagined it. Chinatown is a close approximation of Hong Kong, but crushed, crumpled, whole districts shrunk to one shop, one bar. If he thinks about it too much, he feels uneasy. Better not to think at all, to detach himself from the city, the country, and accept that he’s just passing through.

Outside it’s dark, full night. It’s hot, humid, lonely.

He flicks down the blinds at the window and turns back to the almanac, finding his place to continue his reading. Moles become quails. Still it sounds like nonsense. It was written for farmers, he reminds himself. Farmers, not sailors.

* * *

Aboard ship he volunteers for night duty. He walks the decks, round and round, checking the cargo is secure, checking the empty holds are still empty. Occasionally he sees another crewman on his travels, someone smoking, someone just standing. He nods in greeting but never speaks. Night is for forgetfulness; night is for memories.

He likes to stand at the stern above the great chain of the anchor. When the ship is fully loaded, he has to weave his way through containers and pallets heaped with lumber or machine parts. It wastes time to navigate through the obstacles, but it’s worth it to stand on the ridged metal deck and feel the vibration of the engine and the sway of the waves. He imagines the screw turning in the black depths below him, imagines the blades disturbing the water. He stands and looks back, into darkness, into nothing, and his gaze folds inwards.

He remembers the night he found Yuddy semiconscious on the street. He recognised him, took him in, and Tide wondered at his motivation. He didn’t know if he acted from kindness or curiosity; if he did it for Su Li Zhen or for himself.

When Yuddy woke, he was still drunk. He was the kind of man who said a lot without speaking. Tide liked that about him. Yuddy smiled and put his hand to Tide’s mouth. He never said ‘thank you’. It was as if he’d known Tide would sweep him up from the filthy pavement and bring him here. It was as if he’d expected it.

Tide recalls the rest of that night in fragments, taking each action out and examining it with detachment or longing or anger or amusement, whatever emotion fits his mood. Yuddy was beautiful, selfish and beautiful and lonely enough to invite the embrace of another man. Tide always knew he wasn’t the only man to fuck Yuddy, but at the time it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered and nothing was real. It was like fucking himself, a different version of himself, the self he could have been if only, if only.

By fucking Yuddy he took revenge for Li Zhen’s broken heart; by making love to Yuddy, he reclaimed her from Yuddy’s body and took her for himself.

Afterwards, they avoided each other’s gaze and drank and talked about nothing important. When the first creep of daylight showed through the window blinds, they looked at one another and agreed that what had passed between them was meaningless; something they would both forget.

Tide still remembers. He can’t let go.

* * *

Patrolling the streets one night, he finds a stray cat. It’s standing in the middle of the road, crying, but it falls silent at his approach. The cat is handsome, pale and with thick, fluffy fur. Although it’s out here all alone, it must belong to someone—it’s wearing a red collar with a silver bell.

He crouches beside it, holding out a hand. The cat strolls over and sniffs him, then butts its head against his curled fingers. It accepts a caress, but it doesn’t tolerate his fumbling at its collar. The cat lashes out, scratches him, draws blood. It hisses and runs off, bell chiming.

He never finds out who owns it. An animal like that, surely it’s a pedigree. He makes a few enquiries amongst his colleagues and around the neighbourhood, but no one reports the cat missing. He begins to think of taking it home as a companion for his mother. She’s always wanted a pet, something for her to talk to when the pain of her illness wakes her at night, when he’s at work and can’t sit with her. A cat will do nicely.

He saves some food for it from his evening meals. Each night, he drops the food and waits for the cat to accept his offering. After a few weeks, the cat is the one waiting for him, ears pricked, head high, meowing its demands. He knows he’s being used, but it makes him smile. It’s only an animal after all, and he’s doing this to be kind.

One night the cat isn’t there.

He finds it later, dead in the road.

When his mother asks about the pet he’s promised her, he buys her a yellow canary in a blue cage. The bird has a sweet voice and brings her much pleasure. A cat, he decides, would have been too troublesome.

* * *

The ship ploughs on, wearing a path through the sea between Hong Kong and the Philippines. There and back and back and forth, the journey becomes a blur, the cities interchangeable. When he goes ashore these days, there’s so much he doesn’t recognise. He walks out to his old neighbourhood and looks for the apartment he shared with his mother. He stands on the street and smokes a cigarette, staring up at the balcony. The new tenants have a green sunshade in the windows. After a while he starts wondering if his memory is faulty. Did his mother have a green sunshade? Was their balcony so close to that drainpipe? Is it even the right apartment?

He’s pleased when the ship leaves again. It’s easier at sea. He’s anonymous there, reduced to a duty. He patrols the decks, stepping over warped planks and globs of tar, breathing in sea spray and cold. He checks the wooden cargo crates against the manifest and finds himself pencilling a number over and over: 6117. He can’t remember what it means, but he knows it’s important.

The taste of salt water on his lips reminds him of Yuddy, and he pauses, staring back at the distant glimmering lights of Hong Kong. Time flexes and he steps outside of himself, sees the trajectory of his life, his desires. He is a wild goose flying, migrating from one place to another without thought, obeying the most basic instinct. Little wonder he took flight with Yuddy, for when one bird takes to the wing, the rest follow.

He stands at the stern, fingers pressed against his mouth, recalling the taste of Yuddy’s kisses and the colour of his blood.

* * *

Yuddy is searching for the second bottle of wine when he finds the almanac. He’s slipped down beside the bed, pulling the sheets into an even worse tangle than the one they’d made together, and then he comes up clutching the wine in one hand and the thick yellowed book in the other.

“An almanac,” he says, getting to his feet with a grace that belies his drunkenness. “It’s yours?”

Tide nods. “I found it on the ship.”

Yuddy turns the almanac, cracking the spine right back, careless of the few fluttering pages that work free of the binding glue and fall to the floor. “I used to believe in this stuff once. I thought it would help me find the things I’d lost.”

“Your family?” asks Tide.

Yuddy is silent, staring at the book, bouncing it so the spread pages flap like the wings of startled birds. “You can’t predict anything,” he says at last, and snaps the almanac shut. He studies the front cover. “It’s an old one. 1956. Why keep it?”

Tide shrugs and tries for a smile. “Maybe I’m not ready to let go of the past.”

“The past is over. It can’t be changed.” Yuddy weighs the almanac in his hand, then drops it into the bin. “You don’t need this,” he says. “Forget it.”