Wang Bang: Who Stole the Romanian's Wallet?

Translated by Nicky Harman and Yvette Zhu - From Issue 13 of Chutzpah!


SHUANGXI RAN DOWN the winding stairs. She hadn’t stopped to wash her hands, and the baby oil on her palms made the Edwardian banisters in the Balsam Chinese Medicine and Massage Parlour shine like pig’s blood. She hadn’t changed her shoes either. She was wearing flannel tiger-head slippers brought from home a few years ago. The tiger head was still intact but the rubber soles had been chewed by the landlord’s loony dog. She was reluctant to spend money on a new pair: even dead people’s slippers from a charity shop would cost £2 and she’d rather spend the money on a couple of classes at the “English Corner” Conversation Centre. This pair were fine for doing massage, but walking in them was like walking on banana skins and they were even more slippy when she was going downstairs. She’d just got as far as the second floor when she collided with a bushy Christmas tree with sharp, pointed plastic leaves that nearly spiked her in the face.

“Hey . . . Where the hell you off to in such a hurry?” The face that poked out from behind the tree belonged to the Hong Kong maid, Porky, and was as round and brown as an omelette cooked in one of her beloved non-stick pans.

“Porky! What are you doing with that tree?”

“Boss lady wants it downstairs.”

“Isn’t it last year’s tree?”

“We use the same tree every year! It must be five years old by now.”

“Let me by, I’m in a hurry!” cried Shuangxi. With a huge effort, Porky pushed the tree against the wall and made two inches of extra space. Then she lapsed into a brooding silence.

“Forget it, you go down first, I’ll carry it for you.” Shuangxi picked up the tree.

“Okay, I’ll wait for you downstairs.” Porky’s frown relaxed. She bent down, lifted and eased the great rolls of fat around her ankles, then she began complaining that their tight-fisted boss was asking her to cut paper napkins into snowflakes for window decorations, before she finally gripped the banister and took the stairs one step at a time. Shuangxi followed anxiously. Prince William, the black cat, suddenly scurried past their feet on his way up to the rooftop, where he could skitter around in London’s first snowfall of 2012.

By the time Shuangxi was outside the door of the Balsam, the Romanian she had been pounding and kneading was sitting dazedly on the tube headed for the airport. After the trauma of the previous night, followed by that last hour of complete relaxation on Shuangxi’s massage table, he felt limp and droopy. But he couldn’t let himself drop off––he was too uptight about the trip to do that––so he used hunger to stay awake: he imagined delicious things, like his wife’s breasts, blood sausage, baked carp and, oh, those delicious fat pumpkins. “Our pumpkin fries are better than English chips!” Every time he pitched up in some nameless, canal-side town and was forced to eat at the chips stand, he said this to the sellers, but they just nodded absentmindedly.

Even though the chips in England were barely edible, he had to come back after Christmas to find a new job in a new city. He was over forty, and his CV was mostly filled with spells of unemployment. How would he ever find a better job than the boat repair shop? “That damned Peed. That miserable, god-damned idiot of a dog, destroying my future like that! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!” He closed his eyes, swearing under his breath. Swearing banished drowsiness, but the pain in his spine returned, the nerves dancing under his thin skin. He began humming his favourite Rumanian folk song “Românește”. He liked weepy songs, even when he was in a good mood.


SHUANGXI CHASED AFTER him all the way to the tube entrance, her tattered slippers sinking into the dirty snow. She was frozen, but she could see a few hookers, tottering in skyscraper heels, their thighs bare, who were shivering even more than she was. She picked up a free newspaper, folded it into a hat to keep the snow off, and started running back. “Who knows, that loaded Romanian may have gone back to the Balsam another way . . .”

But there was only old Doctor Wang standing at the front desk, using an old pair of scales to weigh out dried herb roots which he would pass off as ginseng. Shuangxi hung around a bit then decided to go back to her room. Just then, Jessica came out of the kitchen with a steaming bowl of Shaanxi beef paomo, improvised from chopped-up pizza dough, vinegar and chilli bean sauce. “Try some!” she cried, then went on to complain, “Business is lousy at Christmas! I only had two customers. I got five pounds from one and seven from the other. He was only going to give me five, but he dropped two coins. I got down under the sink, scrabbled around for a bit, then made as if I’d pulled a muscle in my back. So he had to grit his teeth and let me keep them. How about you? How much did you make in tips this morning?”

There were eleven masseuses at the Balsam, two of whom Shuangxi took pains to avoid. One was the eccentric Jessica. According to her, she had gone from Shaanxi to Fujian in the 1990s, then from Fujian to England. She came with only a bottle of water, some ship’s biscuits and a bag of diapers, spending twenty-one days in a container ship. Then she walked from Bristol to London, spent six months with only the Thames to bathe in, lived in Hyde Park where she fought with feral cats for food . . . and survived. The job she was most proud of was as a butcher in a Cantonese restaurant. This part was true. Her fingers were covered in scars that marked her glorious defeats at the hands of Cantonese people, roast duck, and pineapple skins. What was scary about her was not her past but the fact that she was a kleptomaniac. Every month or so she’d go to the public toilets in supermarkets and parks to steal toilet paper and liquid soap. Every week, she went to churches and stole candles. She even lifted non-skid mats from children’s playgrounds and roses from the squares after Remembrance Day. According to her, the number of men she had stolen from was more than she could count.

Shuangxi didn’t want to get involved in a conversation, so she said, “Not much . . .” and turned to go. But Jessica caught her by the sleeve, “Come on, taste this. It’s real Shaanxipaomo! Shit, wait till I save enough money to open a shop. You know, Sainsbury sells pizza dough near its sell-by date for twenty pence. One pizza dough makes five bowls of paomo, and at five pounds a bowl . . .”

“You’re not afraid of poisoning people?” Shuangxi said, without interest.

“For god’s sake, pizza dough can be frozen for up to three years! What’s to be afraid of? The companies that sold tainted milk powder weren’t afraid. So how much did you make in tips this morning?”

“Two pounds,” Shuangxi said honestly, and shot up the stairs next to the front desk.


BACK IN HER room, she closed the door and took from her pocket a crumpled plastic bag with a wallet crammed with notes inside. She tore the wallet open and sorted the bills out one by one––eight ten-pound notes, six twenty-euro notes, two five-euro notes, and a Halifax cash card. She counted it in dismay. “This is a helluva lot of money! It must be his entire month’s salary. How on earth could he be such a fool? I should never have dragged him in here for a massage, poor man. It must be this terrible cold weather that got to him!”

The weather really was bad. There had been snow flurries since early morning and it was so cold that the stone statues on the street looked as if they wanted to tear the coats off the pedestrians’ backs. Even so, Shuangxi had still gone out touting for customers, clutching a stack of flyers advertising massages. Hardly anyone was braving the cold, so Shuangxi had immediately noticed the Romanian standing in front of the Hot Dog BaoziShop, weighed down with luggage and plastic bags, and looking sorry for himself.

She hurried over with her flyers. “Good morning, Merry Christmas. Would you like a massage? Computer neck, mouse hand, rheumatism, slipped disk, sciatica, PMT, anything inflammatory, a massage can cure it!” Shuangxi rattled off eagerly.

“No, no . . .” the Romanian shook his head, “I’ve got a flight to catch at two o’clock. I’ve got to get back to Romania for Christmas.”

“Oh, Romania? That’s a great place. I really like Romanians.” Shuangxi really did like Romanians. In Chinatown’s attic rooms, she often gave massages to Romanian hookers. They knew how to dress and how to enjoy life better than Chinese hookers, and gave good tips. Their English was easier to understand than British English. “You’ve still got a few hours before two o’clock. Come and have a rest at the Balsam Massage Parlour. It’s just around the corner. It’ll only take a few minutes. It’s snowing so hard, standing here you’ll freeze to death.” Shuangxi said with real concern.

The Romanian stood holding the flyer Shuangxi had given him, his back pain making him look as decrepit as a ship with a broken mast. Finally he gave in to Shuangxi’s enthusiasm––he would treat himself to a massage.

He paid £35 at the front desk, and followed Shuangxi up the stairs. This was the first time he’d been to a massage parlour. Except for the weird snake-like things steeping in the medicine bottles, there didn’t seem to be anything to be afraid of. Shuangxi’s room was spotlessly clean: a massage bed, two chairs, and a stainless steel cabinet with three shelves, neatly stacked with towels, Kleenex, a CD player and CDs, newspapers and magazines, tea, instant noodles, chocolate, a thermos and paper cups. The Romanian relaxed.

In order to get home two days early for Christmas, the Romanian told Shuangxi, he had worked day and night without a break to get a boat ready for a Christmas Eve dinner cruise. He forgot to mention that this job at the mobile boat repair shop was the best work he had had in five years. Before this, he had been unemployed for almost a year …

“Less talking now! Have some of this tea. This is Chinese jasmine tea.” Shuangxi gave the Romanian a cup, and poured herself a cup too. “I’m so sorry, I haven’t eaten anything this morning. I need something hot to line my stomach before I give you a massage,” she explained apologetically.

“No problem, take your time . . .” The Romanian sipped his tea and went on with his story.


YESTERDAY AFTERNOON, JUST before dark, the Romanian had given the deck its last coat of paint. He found an old board and wrote “Wet Paint”, even painting a pirate skull underneath, before contentedly going back to pack in the converted truck where he slept. The next morning, he would take the train from Basingstoke to London, and catch the two o’clock flight from Heathrow to Bucharest. Just as he finished packing the last of the gifts, he heard a bark. He recognized it as Peed, the repair shop owner’s new French bulldog. He had heard that this was the stupidest of all breeds but had never believed it. This was going to change his mind though. Peed had fallen through a hole in the ice, and was desperately scrabbling at the “Wet Paint” board, which he had dragged in with him. The Romanian, alarmed, yelled for help then realized that he was the only employee left. His boss, a middle-aged widower who was always forgetting to shut his dog in the house, was at that very moment speeding up the motorway to Manchester, having just been told that his mother, who was in a mental hospital, had tried to commit suicide for the fifth time. Too many patients and too few staff , grumbled the nurses defensively when they called him.

“. . . so I jumped into that filthy water full of bird-shit and pulled Peed out,” the Romanian went on. By then, the dog was a frozen lump, its belly streaked blood-red from heroic British paint, its paws as black as the fingers of German soldiers at Stalingrad. He inspected it nervously, opening its eyes to check its pupils; he even thought of giving it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Finally he wondered if he should call a vet. But, no, he couldn’t do that, the boss mustn’t know. His instinct told him that he needed to cover this up if he was going to save his job. Then he remembered his old mate from home, Cabbage. Cabbage had taught himself veterinary medicine twenty-odd years ago. He had even cured a cow of epilepsy. Cabbage was working as a chauffeur and carer for a man with Alzheimer’s, not far from Basingstoke. When the Romanian phoned him, he promised to come straight away.

“I rubbed myself and Peed dry with a towel and we sat next to the stove. I even heated up a chicken leg, in hopes that the smell would wake Peed up.” The Romania said sadly. But Peed never regained consciousness. It was a few hours before Cabbage rolled up, the old man he took care of sitting in the back seat. Cabbage sniffed Peed from head to toe then said solemnly that Peed had died from paint poisoning, not hypothermia.

“Cabbage told me to throw Peed back through the hole in the ice. I was scared, so in the end, Cabbage picked up the body and tossed it out just as if it were a cast-iron ball . . .”

After Cabbage had driven away with his charge, the Romanian felt Peed’s accusing eyes still on him, looming out of the fog like the “eye” scars on a pollarded tree trunk. The wind whistled and pounded the truck. The foxes that normally stayed well hidden were out and skittering around the ice hole. Close to midnight, he’d had enough. He shouldered his bags, stumbled away from the repair shop and caught the last train to London. Someone told him there was a 24-hour McDonalds in Chinatown, so he came.

“You understand? It’s not that I didn’t want to save Peed, but I just couldn’t manage it . . .” The Romanian finished remorsefully and looked at her. The only word Shuangxi had really grasped from his story was “dog”. She nodded, and fetched the Chinese-English Dictionary from under the massage bed. She found some words and showed them to the Romanian, meaning to say something like, “You’re so right. Chinatown’s Hot Dog baoziare a lot nicer than McDonald’s hot dogs!”

The Romanian smiled sadly then collapsed onto the massage bed. Shuangxi used every ounce of energy she could muster to pull his painful spine back into its S-curve.

“How long is the flight to Romania?” Shuangxi asked as she massaged.

“An hour and half. No, wait a moment . . .” The Romanian calculated, then said, “98 minutes.”

“Wow. It’s much closer than China!” Shuangxi replied in the flattering tones she had learned to use with guailoclients over the years. Her hands pushed and pulled at his vertebrae.

“You are really strong,” the Romanian sighed. “This must be the Kung-Fu people talk about.”

“These are pressure points. Chinese medicine has been using them for a few thousand years. If I don’t press hard, it won’t work.” Shuangxi said with satisfaction. Then she showed off her “iron palm” technique, slapping the Romanian’s back until he begged her to stop. She laughed merrily and thought to herself that she hadn’t had many clients as innocent as this one––most of the men came to jerk off. She had spent most of her time these past few years, dealing with these thirsty beasts, trying to distract them with chatter while she gave them a comfortable massage, trying not to anger them. Chinese Kung-Fu, huh! Even if she had the skill of Bruce Lee, who would care? She suddenly felt stupid . . . she had no reason to be so pleased with herself.

Before he left, the Romanian tipped her £2 in appreciation of her “Kung-Fu”. He put a few coins in his coat pocket, his tube fare. Then something occurred to him and he took his wallet out again and pointed to a picture in the plastic sleeve, “See, these are my two boys. They’re at middle school in Bucharest, but they’ll be back home in the village by now . . .”

Shuangxi saw the Romanian off down the stairs and watched him disappear in the snow. “What a wally,” she thought to herself.

She went back to her room, opened the curtains, and began to tidy up the massage table. Under the towels she found a white plastic bag. She opened it. Inside was a half-eaten Chinese Hot Dog baoziand the Romanian’s wallet with the picture of two boys, about five and seven, hanging from an apple tree like two little monkeys.


SHUANGXI PUT THE wallet inside the chocolate box in her cabinet. If the Romanian came back for it, she would calmly take it out of the box and give it to him. It would look more honest than taking the wallet out of her pocket. The thought put her mind at rest. The box was still half full of chocolates, so she ate one. It tasted odd, perhaps because it was long past its sell-by date. Before coming to England, Shuangxi had heard that food quality regulations in the West were very strict. In China, food two months past the sell-by date was treated as no different from stuff that was a couple of days out-of-date. So in London she always bought reduced-price items in the supermarkets and there was never any problem. She ate another chocolate from the box.

The chocolate stuck to her teeth in two hard ridges, and she worried away at it with her tongue. Just then there was a knock at the door. Ah, maybe it was the Romanian. But it was her friend, Xiajie, the hooker from next door.

“What’s up with you? You look flustered!” Xiajie asked.

“Oh, nothing. I’m just a bit tired. I just finished with a Romanian, his back was so stiff. Haven’t seen you in a few days, how’s business?” Shuangxi didn’t want Xiajie knowing about the wallet and changed the subject.

“Why do you work so hard? Just jerk him off and be done with it. I’m dead tired too. I had a johnnie last night who brought his pills with him. Every five minutes he needed a glass of warm water, then he had to go and piss. It was almost three in the morning and still he hadn’t finished.” She bent down to rub her thighs, which were covered in goose bumps.

“It’s Christmas. All the guailowill be at home for Christmas dinner with the family. Why don’t you have a break?” Shuangxi suggested.

“Yeah, if I could get the curse over Christmas, that would be perfect. I wouldn’t have to waste any days. I’ve been to see that Doctor Chen and I’m taking herbal medicine to regulate my periods but it’s no damned good. What a fucking con. If I come on over Christmas, let’s go to BuckinghamPalace!” Xiajie said. Every time she mentioned BuckinghamPalace, her eyes lit up like stars.

“Don’t know if the boss will give me time off,” Shuangxi said apologetically. “How about Chinese New Year? Let’s go then.”

“Okay, Chinese New Year.”

“Good. I’ll bring my Pastry and you bring your Sparky. That way there’ll be someone to buy food and someone to pay for drinks!” Xiejia smiled craftily.

Pastry was Xiajie’s new Chilean boyfriend, and worked as headwaiter in a restaurant. Shuangxi had only met him once. His face was bony and sallow, like dried beancurd, and his stomach wobbled like precariously balanced scales. Her Sparky’s real name was Kalama. He was apparently from Libya, and had been found by an Italian NGO washed up on a beach, severely dehydrated and covered in stinking seaweed and plastic trash. As an unskilled labourer and with unemployment so high, it was a miracle that he got a six-month visa to stay in the UK. A year later, he became an illegal alien, tagging along with some cowboy electricians working near Chinatown. If immigration laws didn’t change for the next fifteen years, he would get permanent residence. He was smitten with Shuangxi. His devotion made him tongue-tied so he was forever tripping over his words. He said he knew what her “job” was, but it didn’t bother him. He was so anxious to please, he even stole a kiddies’ balloon and gave it to her. He used to lie in wait for her at the door of the Balsam. He even promised to marry her after he got his residence. Whenever Shuangxi thought about the pair of them, Pastry or Sparky, she promised herself she’d never marry again.

“Shuangxi, do you have any Chinese music? I want some for the guailojohnnies. My iPod’s been broken for weeks.” Xiajie began rifling through Shuangxi’s cabinet. Afraid that she would discover the wallet hidden inside the chocolate box, Shuangxi pushed in front of her and picked out a few CDs. “How about these? Walk Gracefully Once. Or this one, The One I Love the Most Hurts Me the Most.”

Xiajie shook her head, “Don’t you have something more up-to-date? These are older than my underwear. How about something by Chris Lee and Jay Chou?”

Shuangxi didn’t pretend to follow the latest music and said honestly that she didn’t have any. But Xiajie wasn’t about to give up. Her orange fingernails tapped rhythmically along the shelf and moved closer to the chocolates.

“What’s inside here?” She finally reached the box and was about to open it. Shuangxi grabbed it from her and threw it into the bin in the corner.

“It was from last Christmas, the sell-by date was a year ago. I forgot to throw it away.” Shuangxi was not a good liar and her face flushed as red as a monkey’s bum at the words.

Xiajie had to leave it at that, although she was still suspicious. She picked out A Chinese Ghost Story, and was about to leave when she found a chocolate wrapper stuck to the sole of her shoe. Now she was not just frustrated, she was wild. “Mean bitch,” she muttered. “All right, you pig away in secret! If they poison you, will I bother to burn spirit money for you?” And she slammed out of the room.

Shuangxi felt as if a bucket of chili oil had been poured over her and her face flamed.

Before she came to work in the Balsam, people were always telling her she should work as a hooker. She didn’t want to. She was over 30, and besides, if anyone from her village found out, she’d never live it down. Then someone said, why not work a masseuse? If you want to be a hooker and a model of chastity too, that’s the way to go. The more skeletons on guard at the door of the shop, and acupuncture posters and suchlike in the windows, the more complete the cover. No need to drink or play games with the clients––you just put your white coat on and wiggle your arse. No need for much skill at massage either, just a pair of hands that can work up and down like a piston and jerk the client off in one great spurt . . .

“So do I need to sleep with the clients?” Shuangxi asked.

“The massage room is like a snail shell, nobody knows what you’re up to in there. The client pays at the front desk, thirty-five pounds per hour. You get fifteen, the massage parlour gets twenty. That’s three times the rate for washing dishes. Hand jobs are ten pounds, paid in the room, tips extra. It’s up to you if you want that tenner or not. And it all comes to you, the massage parlour doesn’t get a look in.”

Shuangxi liked this answer. Actually, people like Xiajie and the Romanian girls really thought she slept with her clients, but Shuangxi never tried to disabuse them. “Keep stum” was her motto for surviving in Chinatown. Just in case, one day, they turned on her as an outsider and kicked her out. As long as she never worked as a prostitute, she could still keep her ideals.

How come she was not afraid what other people thought but couldn’t be honest with Xiajie? Shuangxi picked the chocolate box out of the bin and returned it to the shelf. She sat down on the massage bed, staring blankly at the crumpled jacket in the corner, its folds looking like a tiger one moment and an alligator the next, thinking hard. Hmm . . . Chinatown was a tricky place, all right. You never knew who your real friends were.


SUDDENLY, THE SOUND of Does God Love Me?filled the room. Had someone left their phone behind? Alarmed, Shuangxi looked around for it. In the end she discovered the internal phone was ringing. Someone must have changed its ringtone. When she picked up, Porky, at the front desk, shouted into the phone:

“How come you took so long pick up the phone? I made some brisket stew. You want some?” Shuangxi had always loved brisket stew and was on a mission to consume as much of it as was humanly possible. She sprinted down to the kitchen and Porky gave her a large bowlful. As she watched Shuangxi eat, she complained, “Hey, I’m about to get fired.”

“What happened?” asked Shuangxi, gravy dripping off her chin.

“I dunno. Maybe because I’m too fat.”

“Since when did cleaning need a good figure?” Shuangxi said sympathetically. All the same, she couldn’t think of a way to help Porky to dissolve that worrisome fat. Porky had been at the Balsam for many years, pushing dirt from one side of the room to another, taking out the garbage, making tea . . . and so on. She lived alone in the basement with all the junk. If anyone asked why she didn’t go back to Hong Kong, she would retort:

“What would I do back in Hong Kong? Live on benefit? I can’t speak English, and I’m too fat . . .” The last few years, she hadn’t even been able to squeeze into the toilets on trains.

The kitchen door burst open while the two were commiserating. Jessica flew in like a football. Hard on her heels came the big girl from Shandong, Alice, waving a huge fist in the air: “You thief! I’ll kill you!”

Shuangxi spat out a mouthful of half-chewed beef and prepared to wade in to stop the fight. Porky sat down hard on the floor and cried shrilly: “Oh dear, another fight, another fight . . .”

Shuangxi felt she had to go and help Porky to her feet first. In the few seconds it took her to do that, Alice had banged Jessica’s head down onto the chopping board, smearing a colourful mixture of tears, snot and make-up over her face. “Fucking bitch! Don’t you dare nick my clients! This’ll teach you!” Alice punched and kicked Jessica until she was too tired to go on. Then she turned around and glared at Shuangxi and Porky, who was still trembling in fear. “You saw anything?”

Shuangxi shook her head.

“And you, Porky?” Alice smiled sweetly to Porky. “Tell me, what did you see?” Porky shook her head violently. After Alice had left the kitchen, Shuangxi waited for a while before going to Jessica and helping the dishevelled girl up. Sensing that, for once, she had someone’s sympathy, Jessica wailed loudly before allowing herself to be comforted. Shuangxi led her to her room where she applied cottonwool soaked in safflower oil to her bruises. Jessica’s chin was so badly bruised it had swelled up like a purple aubergine.

The second person Shuangxi avoided at the Balsam was Alice. Alice was an illegal. Her status seemed to have hardened her heart to any feelings of kindness she might once have had. One time, she set fire to Jessica's hair with a lighter, another time she tried to push a masseuse under a tube train.

“I never stole her customers. Why would I want to steal her customers? That Lawrence of hers, he’s as tough as old boots, why would I want him? I tell you, Shuangxi, Alice is nuts. We can fight heaven, earth and each other, but we can’t fight nutters, right?” Jessica went on lambasting Alice until she saw Shuangxi's chocolate box.

“I only had a bowl of beef paomothis morning, I could really do with something sweet now . . .” she wheedled.

“You shouldn’t eat so many sweets. Look at Porky . . .” Shuangxi said impatiently and carried on wiping the floor. “I really need to get to work. You should go back to your room.” Jessica reluctantly stood up.

Shuangxi opened the door and there was Alice, looking like a black thundercloud in a clear sky. She had a sly, lopsided smile on her face, as if a cigar drooped menacingly from one corner. Shuangxi was momentarily at a loss. Jessica looked like she wanted to dive into Shuangxi’s pocket to hide. Alice and Shuangxi glared at each other and there was a long pause. They might have been playing Eagle Grabs the Chicken. Then Alice turned and swept away.

Does God love me? Does God love me?” Shuangxi’s phone rang again. This time it was Miss Li at the front desk with a request for a house call in Kingston. The person had asked for Shuangxi by name. They’d given her an hour and fifteen minutes to get there.

“Hurry up! Take the tube to Waterloo, then the train to Kingston. This is the address. Don’t be late. It sounded like someone important.”

“Don’t worry,” Shuangxi said cheerfully. “I’m leaving now!”

Shuangxi liked to make house visits (the hookers called them “take-away” calls). She enjoyed tubes, trains and buses. It got her out of Chinatown for a bit and made her feel like she was in a foreign country. Today she might have been in a snowy fairytale. Rather than behaving like a typical Chinese tourist taking cell phone pictures everywhere, even down to the signs like “Danger of Death” on electricity poles, or the “Shallow Water, No Jumping” sign by the river, she sat quietly in the carriage, sometimes even closing her eyes. She had made progress with her English––she could understand the tongue-twisting place names on station announcements––and felt quite proud of herself.

It was not until she got to Waterloo that she remembered she hadn’t left a message at the front desk telling the Romanian to call her if he turned up. Then it occurred to her that he would already be on the plane by now. Even so, she was still worried. Good thing she had locked the door and the key was in her bag. Only Prince William the cat could get in, and only if he jumped through the window. But Prince William never showed any interest in a massage room that had nothing in that he could play with, like flowers, a mouse, a ball or a gecko. Shuangxi had had that particular massage room for three years. The two years before that, she’d been in South London where the clients were mostly labourers, and more infrequent than an elderly hen’s eggs. Getting a tip was like squeezing toothpaste from an empty tube, and she wasn’t able to save much money. At the Balsam, the clientele was more mixed. There were office workers from Soho, restaurant owners and tourists, some from Europe, others from Japan and China who came for foot massages. She could save a few hundred pounds a month. When she’d saved enough, she would go to a school, learn a skill, get a professional qualification written out in English . . .

Shuangxi took out the massage room key and squeezed it, feeling its solidity for the first time. A pink rubber piggy was attached to the key ring. It felt like mochi, soft and smooth. It was a gift to herself she had picked up in a Chongqing flea market on her 18th birthday. She had had many keys since then but the pink piggy was a talisman that went with her everywhere. She held it in her gloved hands until it was warm before putting it back into her bag. She got on the train and sat in a corner, munching on some pickled red peppers and looking at the falling snow. The red peppers provided her with a trickle of warmth, like a cheap, portable heater in this cold, gloomy city.


THE TRAIN ARRIVED in Kingston. It was a place that stretched Shuangxi’s imagination to its limits: the haunt of squirrels and deer, of mysterious Jews and socialites wearing lacy veils, upper-class folk on horseback wearing pocket watches and pausing to admire the sunset, and petit bourgeoisjoggers with towels slung around their necks and heart-rate monitors on their arms.

Shuangxi finally got there, puffing and panting, seven minutes late. It was a mansion with a fountain in the front garden. She’d never been on a house call to anywhere as grand as this. The marble steps leading up to the pool were frozen, but water still gushed from the fountainhead. A Rottweiler and two King Charles spaniels lay in wait behind the front door, watching the maid walking down the long drive, and waiting for the precise moment when she unlatched the gate to discharge a volley of furious barks. Fortunately, Shuangxi had never been afraid of dogs. She greeted them briefly and they calmed down. The woman was dark-skinned, probably Southeast Asian, and was dressed in a cashmere sweater and trousers with sharply-ironed creases. She had the polite manners of a wealthy family’s maid. Shuangxi took off her coat and followed her into a small drawing room with a very high ceiling. The maid brought her a cup of English tea and asked her to wait there before disappearing down the long hallway. On the wall hung a smoky, gloomy oil painting of a half-naked woman lying on a huge bed surrounded by dwarves combing her hair, holding a mirror, pouring water and cleaning the floor. The white cat she held in her arms was the only bright spot, but it had disturbingly red eyes, like those terrible commemorative photos where someone has forgotten to correct the red-eye effect. Shuangxi looked at the painting as she sipped her tea. The tea-sipping was a habit she had picked up from her ex-husband, an alcoholic who peed in the sink when he was drunk and lived on benefits. He was also violent, and a year after Shuangxi arrived in England, she had been forced to seek shelter in a battered women’s refuge. He had looked down on Shuangxi because she swilled her tea instead of sipping it, didn’t put the toilet seat down, put the grocery bags on the left side of the escalator and so on. One by one, Shuangxi had changed these habits. Initially she was trying to please him, but later, under his constant scrutiny, this new body language became automatic. Still, it was not enough to save a marriage that had lasted less than a year.

She had drunk half her tea when a tall English woman in her thirties, wearing a floral silk dressing gown tied casually at the waist with a gold satin cord, came in. “Do you speak English?” She asked.

“A little, not very good. But I study English every weekend at the ‘English Corner’ Conversation Centre . . .” Shuangxi replied humbly.

“It doesn’t matter. Our maid Afrina is from Malaysia, she can speak a little Chinese. Her grandfather’s Chinese, she can translate for you.”

“Yes . . .” Shuangxi nodded, a little embarrassed. She thought back to what she had just said. Had she mispronounced something? Got the grammar wrong? She often confused “she” and “he”, “potato” and “tomato”, “kitchen” and “chicken”, but she hadn’t used any of these words in her reply! She was taken upstairs into a room with full-length bay windows, where a handsome, bare-chested Englishman lay on a giant sofa watching TV. Shuangxi thought he looked exactly like Tom Cruise.

“This is George, my husband. Lately he’s been getting pains in his back and legs from playing tennis, and this morning, when he got out of bed, he wrenched his neck . . .”

George turned stiffly, forcing a smile and holding out his hand. “Hello, it’s nice to meet you,” he said politely. “What’s your name again?”

“Daisy . . . that’s my English name.” Flattered by his attentions, Shuangxi hurriedly extracted her right hand from her bag to shake his, then added: “But most of my clients like to call me by my Chinese name. My Chinese name is Shuangxi, which means double happiness . . . ”

“George, she’s already more than ten minutes late. I think we need to get a move on. Don’t forget, the concert is at five thirty,” the English woman cut Shuangxi off.

“Okay, Okay!” George muttered.

Shuangxi was a little annoyed, but did not dare answer back. She opened her bag and placed a towel, a bottle of baby oil, a bottle of bone-setting oil, a bottle of safflower oil, a bag of paper towels and a bag of wet wipes neatly on the coffee table.

“No, no, don’t use those. We have special massage oil and clean towels,” the English woman cried. A few moments later, the maid came in with a large, snowy-white towel and a bottle of French lavender oil.

“Afrina, put the towel on that daybed.” The English woman instructed. She turned to Shuangxi. “Is that all right?”

Shuangxi nodded. She had just finished laying out the towel when the two King Charles spaniels, which had somehow sneaked into the room, jumped up on it. Rather than reprimanding them, George sat down between them and petted them. Their coats had an almost waxy shine.. Handsome, rich man and pedigree dogs . . . Shuangxi had only seen anything like it in movies and magazines. She gazed, fascinated, at the scene.

“Daisy, do you mind washing your hands first?” The English woman said, interrupting her train of thought. She followed the maid to a bathroom down the hallway. The bathroom floor was covered in a thick white rug. Afraid of dirtying it, Shuangxi insisted on taking off her shoes before stepping inside. While she was washing her hands, the maid asked where she was from, how long she had been in England, did she like it here, and so on. When she heard about Shuangxi’s disastrous marriage, she said comfortingly, “I know a Filipino woman whose British husband hit her too, and blinded her in one eye. But, like with you, Immigration gave her permanent residence. An eye for a visa is a better deal than a never-ending marriage, right?” Shaungxi didn’t answer her directly. She didn’t like to think about the past. If a recollection suddenly caught up with her, she would force herself to make a mad dash past it.

When Shuangxi returned to the room, the two spaniels were still on the towel, and George, his neck bent to one side, was pacing back and forth talking on the phone. The English woman looked at Shuangxi, lowered her voice and said hesitantly, “Are you sure you can correct his neck? It’s not that I don’t believe in masseuses but, you know, George has never been to a Chinese doctor and he’d never go to a massage parlour. This morning, our friend Peter Thomas insisted on giving us your business card. He said you fixed his leg, is that true?” Shuangxi couldn’t remember a Peter Thomas, and did not dare make the sort of joke Dr. Wang from the massage parlour did, along the lines of “Satisfaction guaranteed or your money back!” So she declared stoutly, as if she was in English class, “I assure you I will do my best!”

Just as she had with the Romanian, Shuangxi put everything into this massage. She carefully pressed down on every important pressure point and every stiff muscle. For these blocked joints, she used an “octopus” technique of her own invention. She could feel her hands on fire. However, the woman appeared dissatisfied. She stood close by, eyeing this crazy little Chinese woman with the deepest suspicion, perhaps thinking that this Daisy looked just like a witch in a Hong Kong zombie movie—only not as ugly. How could she possibly be a physiotherapist? Women like this from Soho weren’t real physios . . .

When Shuangxi’s hand touched the elastic band of George’s underpants, the woman indicated with her eyes that Shuangxi should stop there and concentrate on his neck. Shuangxi was overcome with embarrassment. The pressure points she knew by heart blurred in her mind until they seemed like obscure astrological symbols fading into George’s pale, aristocratic back.

“What’s she being so fussy about?” she thought sulkily. “She has a husband who looks like Tom Cruise, central heating hot enough to cook a duck, and even the rug in her bathroom probably cost more than I make in a month.”

“Darling, how do you feel?” the British woman asked after Shuangxi had finished.

“Much better, thank you!” George said, kissing her thin lips. The British woman smiled complacently, as if all this was all due to her efforts. She gave Shuangxi £100 and told her to keep the change. Then she called for the maid to show her out.

When Shuangxi left, it was getting dark. Snow was still coming down heavily and snowflakes stuck to the windows like paper cutouts. Lights blazed out from the houses, framing their interiors like brightly lit pictures, revealing lives that were a world away from Shuangxi’s. In the street, outside the picture frame, it was as dark as a movie theatre. Shuangxi groped her way along, zigzagging through the snow like a beetle that had lost its carapace. Once on the tube she fell asleep, exhausted. She dreamed she was standing next to her grandma’s pigpen, feeding corn to pigs whose bristles shone as if they had just been waxed.


BUT THE TUBE didn’t take Shuangxi back to her grandma’s pigpen. When she opened her eyes, she was back in Chinatown. At an ATM, she ran into an unshaven, runny-nosed Sparky. Shuangxi expected him to pester her as usual, so she folded her arms across her chest, frowned and stared him down in the hopes she could get it over with quickly. But Sparky only gave her a dark look. All that sweet candyfloss he used to talk had suddenly turned to ice cubes. With a cold hello and goodbye, he was gone, leaving Shuangxi craning her neck to stare after him.

More surprising was that someone had opened her massage room door––she was greeted by a yawning black hole. An ominous foreboding swept over her. She rushed to the cabinet and opened the chocolate box. Sure enough, the Romanian’s wallet had vanished.

“Oh, shit! Someone’s stolen it!” Shuangxi cried. Worried and angry, she went to the front desk. There was only Miss Li, playing card games on her phone. “Who opened my room door?” Shuangxi cried, exasperated. Miss Li looked up in astonishment, and thought for a few seconds before answering, “Oh, when you were out, the boss asked Sparky to paint all the lightbulbs in the massage rooms red, to give the rooms a bit of Christmas spirit. So I opened your door for him, maybe he forgot to shut it afterwards. Why?” Shuangxi stared at her blankly and said nothing. She needed a glass of cold water, maybe cold water could help her think. She went into the kitchen where Porky was busy cutting napkins into snowflakes. She ignored her, found herself a glass, turned the tap on and filled it with water.

“Oh, you back? How was that customer? How much tip you get?” Porky asked.

“Porky, did you see anyone going into my room when I was out?” Shuangxi gulped some water and stared hard into the cleaner’s surprised face.

Sparky came to paint and made a mess so the boss asked me to clean up. I thought the room smelled of paint so I opened the door. What’s happened?”

Whenever Porky was surprised, her fleshy cheeks would bulge until they threatened to overflow. Shuangxi shook her head silently. What a bum deal for the Romanian. What a bum deal for her too. The thief must have thought she, Shuangxi, had stolen it. She’d never live it down! Which son of bitch had stolen the Romanian’s wallet?

Sparky! It must have been Sparky! He gave me such a cold look in the street, then scarpered. He’s finally gone off me, hasn’t he? He stole the wallet, he took advantage of me. How dare he pass judgment on me! All that sympathy I wasted on him, a dog would have deserved it more . . . The more Shuangxi thought about it, the angrier she got. Then Jessica came in, looking very pleased with herself, and humming some weird song in broken English. “Hey, darling, I’m so glad you’re back,” she said to Shuangxi sweetly. “Wasn’t it cold out? The snow was so heavy, you must have frozen, you poor thing! How much did you make in tips? What’s up? Who’s been pissing you off?” Shuangxi didn’t answer, only stared at her. Then suddenly she felt something wasn’t right. The aubergine swelling on Jessica’s chin was still there, so were the traces of blood around her eyes and the scratches on her face from Alice’s nails. So how come she was suddenly so happy? The bitch, how could I forget Jessica? Sparky was vile, but compared to Jessica, he was small fry. Jessica was a real pro. She inhabited a different world––she never thought she was stealing. If the door was wide open, she’d just walk in and help herself, that was what she was like. It was as obvious as a flea on a bald man’s head! And she obviously thought we were both thieves. Shuangxi wished she could bang Jessica’s head into the chopping board as Alice had done, but where was the evidence? Jessica was so clever, she’d probably already sneaked the money away to the South Pole! And I don’t even know her real name . . . Maybe Alice knew, she was such a nosyparker she’d dig up your granny’s grave. In fact, maybe she’d done it herself . . . to get her revenge. One day after work, she might force me into some garbage-strewn, rat-ridden corner, and throw that Romanian’s wallet to the ground like a dog’s bone and make me get down on my knees and gnaw it. “You stuck-up bitch!” she’d yell, “you’re worse than Jessica!” Shuangxi squeezed the glass until she thought it would shatter. All the accumulated humiliations she had suffered during her years in England threatened to overwhelm her.

But the glass didn’t shatter, and neither did she. She gulped the water, rushed back to her room and locked the door. The light had turned the room the peachy red of a brothel. Next to the CDs, she saw a scribbled note: “A Chinese Ghost Storywouldn’t play, I swapped it for The One I Love the Most Hurts Me the Most. I’ll give back in a couple of days. Merry Christmas. Love, XJ.” So Xiajie had been here too! Anyone could have stolen the Romanian’s wallet . . . even my friend, Xiajie, or poor, dim Porky, even a client who happened to be passing the room and fancied a peek inside, or the sellers of pirated DVDs and smuggled cigarettes who haunted Chinatown, or my boss, that crafty scrooge . . . Sadness welled up inside Shuangxi.

She was as jumpy an ant in a frying pan over the next couple of days. Unable to concentrate on her work, she gave her clients only perfunctory rubs by way of a massage.

What if she found out who the thief was—then what? Negotiate secretly to get back the money? Call the police? What would happen if the Romanian came back to look for his wallet? What would she do? Lie? Tell the truth? Would he believe it? It was all my own careless fault, she thought . . . Maybe I could run away before he came back? But quit just for this? Right now, even the Brits can’t find jobs, let alone immigrants. There was that nurse––she was an immigrant too­­––who took the call from two Australian DJs impersonating the Queen and asking to be put through to the Princess, she was so afraid of getting fired, she committed suicide . . . What should I do? I can’t trust anyone. Where should I go? So many questions teemed in Shuangxi’s head. She felt infinitely small, and completely trapped. She hadn’t asked for much sweetness from life, but even that little bit was out of her reach.


THE THIRD DAY after the Romanian lost his wallet was Christmas Day. The wind no longer blew so keenly, and finally the snow lay still, like fluffy candyfloss, and the sky reverted to its usual aloof stillness. Lonely snowmen disappeared one by one from the streets. The supermarkets closed early, even the buses and tubes stopped running after 2 pm. The city was noiseless––like a run-down gramophone that needed to be wound by a giant hand to emit even the scratchy hissing of the needle on the record.

Only in Chinatown was it business as usual. The streets bustled with noise and excitement. Shuangxi arrived as usual at the Balsam early in the morning. There were black circles as big as quail eggs round her eyes from three days without sleep. Getting up at midnight in her unheated room, wrapped only in a thin blanket, to boil hot water had given her a cold. But, oddly enough, she was smiling. She separated the massage room key from the rubber piggy, slid the piggy ring onto her thumb, and went up to Miss Li at the front desk. “When you see the boss, tell her I quit. This is the key to the room. Thank you.” Without waiting for Miss Li to recover from the shock, Shuangxi strode out into Chinatown.

Shuangxi walked on and on, as if all the power of her hands and arms had been transferred to her feet. Stopping at an almost deserted crossroads, she felt as if she were wearing a pair of magic skates that were bearing her up into the air. Was she afraid that the eagle would plummet out of the sky and grab her in its claws? Maybe a bit. She didn’t know where she should go, or how far she could fly. When at last she alighted, she discovered she was in Hyde Park, a place she hadn’t been in years. The park was so quiet, she could almost hear the ice thawing on the lake, a secret sound, like fire spitting or the crackling of glaze on a pot. The swans in the lake swam with their wings opened up, like so many white palaces. Crows perching in the treetops looked down animatedly as if this unusual stillness were far more interesting than anything happening in the sky.

Shuangxi slowed her steps and walked on aimlessly, but with a sense of contentment she had not had in a very long time. Under an old tree, she saw a girl of about six or seven, bent over and drawing something on the ground with a twig. Her slender legs and feet were swallowed up inside huge, dirty snow boots. A cloud of fine, curly, corn-coloured hair fluffed out behind her ears.

“Hello. What are you drawing?” Shuangxi bent down to ask. The girl shook her head, then looked up and gave Shuangxi an innocent smile that exposed two rows of neat, white teeth, before going back to her drawing. The twig made a scratchy sound as she made wavy lines in the snow.

“Is this the sea?” she asked.

The girl nodded.

“Very nice.” Shuangxi took the pink rubber piggy off her thumb, warmed it between her palms and held it out. “This is for you.”

I like the sea too, she thought, and walked on.


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The 16th Issue