We go up into the grey tower of the concrete stairs and you can smell the carroty smell of everybody’s sweat.
I have a drink from my canteen.
Wham! Somebody punches my back – water chokes up into my nose. Stephen’s grinning, but he’s so fast he’s already back in line with Indeep and Michael. The house monitor tells me to stop messing about.
In the classroom we sit on the cool, brown floor under the big ceiling fan.
Mrs Owen looks at us and says:
‘Horses sweat. Men perspire. And women glow’. Then she just starts reading from the storybook.
I think about horses, sweating and snorting. Is it rude to say sweat? But Mummy says everyone sweats a lot in Hong Kong and it’s a bloody awful country where you’re always hot. It’s funny to say women glow. Mummy has a special smell from her lipstick and because her clothes are always clean.
I eat fishfingers and tomato sauce, then sit with Sharky on the floor. Sharky’s asleep, but still if you stroke him in the right place on his tummy, his leg moves up and down.
There’s the echoey sound of keys jingling and unlocking the security gate, and Sharky jumps awake. Daddy comes in with his briefcase. I can smell Daddy’s sweat, which is a man’s smell, and the leather smell of the briefcase. When I’m older I will have a briefcase. Sharky starts whining, because he always thinks it’s walkies when Daddy comes home. He lies on his back.
‘He’s asking for love,’ I say.
Mummy comes and kisses Daddy. ‘No, he’s surrendering to the head of the pack.’
‘Yes,’ says Daddy, ‘we’re all dogs to him!’ and his laugh jumps out of his chest like a cough, like when he laughs at the television. He unlocks his briefcase and gives me a packet of bubblegum cigarettes, the ones with a picture of a camel, like he smokes.
I walk down the hill to school, wearing my water canteen on a strap. It’s cold from the fridge and makes a wet patch on my shorts.
When we line up in the playground, Mrs Owen says:
‘What’s this! Couldn’t you wait to go to the toilet?’ She talks in a funny voice, which Mummy says is Welsh.
At morning break, Indeep, Michael and me line up behind Stephen to buy barbecue flavour crisps at the tuck shop. Then I see Kalman. He’s from Norway and he can’t speak English very well. He has round cheeks and a white face.
I whisper: ‘Let’s play Spastic Police!’ This is a really funny game where we get Kalman to chase us and say he’s the Spastic Police. It’s the main game we play with Kalman.
We run away and he chases us, going over and over again: ‘I Spastic Police! Spastic Police!’
We get out of breath because we’re laughing so much. Stephen’s in front because he’s the fastest runner. We dodge through girls playing skipping games and hopscotch, and that clapping game:
‘Ooh! Ah! I lost my bra! I left my knickers in my boyfriend’s car!’
After a while we stop because we’re too hot. I have a drink from my canteen. Stephen goes to the water fountain. He never puts his mouth next to the tap like everyone else, he lets the water go up into the air and catches it in his mouth.
‘What shall we do now, man?’ he says. Mummy says not to say “man” like an American, but we all say it at school.
Stephen is half Chinese. He’s small and thin, but he’s fast and he likes showing off his moves: kicks, punches and chops. The Chinese boys always say they are faster and stronger than the Europeans, which is what we are. Stephen’s father is a cross-looking Chinese man with a sideways hairstyle and a grey suit. His Mummy is a nice Australian lady with red hair who smiles a lot. She’s got freckles on her arms and her neck. Once, I saw Stephen’s hair in the sunlight and it was a bit red too, not black like other Chinese people.
I take the canteen off my mouth and see Kalman looking at us, because he probably doesn’t know the game is finished.
Then somebody snatches the canteen off me.
Stephen is running with it under his arm, like in American football. Now I have to run too, and I don’t want to, I feel slow. But he runs into the little square bit at the side of the playground, the bit we call the Boxing Ring, and I think: this time I will be lucky.
He throws the canteen up over my head to one of the others. The water comes out shining and I can feel drops like rain.
‘Come on, man,’ says Stephen. ‘Don’t wet your pants again!’
Heat goes all over my body like a blanket. I’m only looking at Stephen, but I know everyone is looking at me. Waiting.
I don’t know what to do. But I know I have to do something.
This is what I hate. I get so angry, my hands go into fists, so tight it hurts my fingers, my mouth goes all fierce, like Sharky chewing a bone. I’m not really doing these things, but sometimes I do them, after, in the mirror. Why do people bug you, on purpose, taking your stuff, poking, pinching, running away, just making stupid jokes and laughing. I DON’T LIKE IT.
Somebody shouts ‘Fight!’
Stephen smiles as if it’s funny. ‘Yeah, we can fight – if you want to! My dad -’ he whirls around, kicking, ‘is like Bruce Lee. He’s skinny but he has the POWER.’ He does fast karate-chops in the air. ‘Like me!’ He rushes and stops right in front of me. ‘Who is your dad like?’
A girl says, ‘Ironside!’
Everybody laughs. It feels prickly behind my ears.
‘Come on,’ Stephen does more karate-chops. ‘You want to!’
‘OK,’ I say, because I can’t think of what else to do. My voice sounds strange.
I put my legs apart, like in comics. Stephen dodges backwards.
‘At lunchtime, man!’ He pretends to head butt me and runs off.
When we go back to the classroom, my stomach is falling and falling, like when a plane is taking off.
A real fight. Like on television.
Stephen is my friend. But I hate him when he does stupid things. I want to go home. But we have to do it, because I said.
I see cowboys hitting each other in the saloon, breaking glass. Stephen’s face. Daddy, shouting and pointing his finger. Boxers in the ring. Muhammad Ali. “I am the greatest!” I can feel the punch, coming from my arm, firing like a missile. Stephen’s face, smiling, with his big teeth: then the punch.
Face: punch. Face: punch. PUNCH.
And the punch makes me feel a bit sick, because it feels real; even though I have never really punched someone.
Mrs Owen stops talking and tells us to carry on. Everybody else is working. Stephen is working. I don’t know what we are supposed to be doing.
Hell’s Bells. That is a swear, but I am desperate, and I go to Mrs Owen’s desk. The whole saying is Hells Bells and Buckets of Blood, and Mummy and Daddy both say it.
‘Please can I go to the toilet?’
Mrs Owen does not smile. She has a beaky nose. ‘Have you got a bladder problem?’
The word bladder makes a picture in my mind like a sausage-shaped balloon.
The boys’ toilets stink. I go to the end toilet and lock the door. It isn’t a bladder problem.
It’s better if you go to the toilet during lessons, because no one will be there. There are gaps at the tops and bottoms of the toilet door. People can look under, and they can hear the noises, and sometimes the locks are broken.
My body jumps, by itself, without my mind telling it to. Like when somebody pokes or tickles you.
A Chinese boy is looking over the top between the cubicles.
‘There’s no paper in here. Can I have some of yours?’
He must have been there all the time and I didn’t know. I tear off a load of paper and stretch my arm up, but I still have to stand up off the seat and try to keep my legs together.
I don’t move or make any noise until I hear the boy go.
Mrs Owen doesn’t look at me when I get back. Stephen is saying something to the others and they’re laughing.
Time has gone slow like a tortoise. I don’t want it to get to when I have to fight Stephen. But, also, I want to go past that time. Like driving past it in a fast car, into the future. To bedtime. Mummy making the sheet straight, kissing me goodnight. The noise of the air conditioner, which we are only allowed to have on at night. The time when sleep takes over your mind and you don’t have to remember anything.
The bell rings. Stephen doesn’t look at me.
All the classes in the school are going down the stairs, like an army of children, and I get stuck behind everyone.
Suddenly I think: I don’t know where we are supposed to go. Then: Will there be people watching? Of course there will be.
I’m trying not to think about Mummy or Daddy, but you can’t stop your mind from making pictures. I can feel the bone all around my eyes, because underneath your skin you have a skeleton’s face.
Then of course I know where: the Boxing Ring.
I just look at my feet as they walk, like a soldier marching. Left – Right! Left – Right.
I turn around but the sun blocks my eyes so people look like shadows.
I turn round again double-quick and throw my fists up in front of my face like a boxer. This is it –
‘Ohhh, man! You want to box? You want to box? Ohhh, man.’ He’s laughing. ‘I am the greatest!’
Stephen is laughing and laughing. He grabs my shoulder –
He’s just leaning on me. While he laughs.
‘That was so funny, man! We followed you all the way from the stairs! The way you were walking!’ He marches his feet like a toy soldier.
He comes close. ‘Did you really think we were going to fight? Did you?’ He’s poking my arm. He’s trying to make me smile but I won’t. But my mouth is turning. There is a breeze on my neck.
This is probably better. Probably. Grownups always say fighting is bad (even though nearly all stories and television are about fighting). But could I beat him? I want to have the feeling of being the winner.
‘Come on,’ he puts his arm around my shoulder, ‘let’s get a drink’.
I am very thirsty. I didn’t bring the canteen because I thought you shouldn’t wear it to a fight, and anyway it’s empty now.
We go in the covered part of the playground with Michael, Indeep and some of the others. I walk to the water fountain.
‘No way, man,’ Stephen pulls my arm. ‘Let’s get drinks from the tuck shop’.
‘I haven’t got any money.’
‘I got money!’ Stephen makes big eyes, gets something out of his pocket and holds it up: a five dollar note. You’re not supposed to bring that much money to school. It is proper money, like grownups have, crinkly, with that funny smell. Money is special because you can buy new things with it. Everybody always wants money. I want it. Mummy always says we don’t have enough money. She also says money is dirty, because lots of people have touched it.
Stephen asks everybody what they want: ‘Coke? Fanta Orange? I’m having Cream Soda – so are you,’ he says to me.
But you’re not supposed to have five dollars, and I don’t know if I want Stephen to buy me a drink –
‘I know you like it!’ he says, and he runs to the little window. He comes back holding all the bottles in his fingers, like milkmen in England.
Cream Soda is delicious, and it has a beautiful smell. It’s icy cold, like a freezing waterfall going down into your chest.
Stephen starts talking about his dad. His dad earns lots of money; they have bought tons of new things; his dad is a really good driver and can overtake six cars at a time. His dad is strong.
‘My dad’s American.’
Everybody looks at me.
‘What part of America does he come from?’ says Michael.
‘San Francisco. He smokes cigarettes and works in a big office. But he’s also a mechanic.’ When I was a little boy, Daddy was always mending the car and there are photographs of me helping him.
‘Really?’ says Indeep. ‘Americans are fast drivers. His dad is probably faster than yours,’ he says to Stephen.
Stephen doesn’t move.
Then he blows loud, spitty raspberries, flicks the Vs at us and runs away.
Indeep and Michael go after him.
I can’t be bothered because I want to drink the Cream Soda. Stephen has left his bottle and I wonder if I would get germs if I drank it. I breathe in, making my nostrils big, and the Cream soda smell fills my head, even into my eyes and my ears.
Sometimes things just come in your mind and you say them because they seem as if they are probably true, even though later you remember they are not true. Being American is good, probably; they are fast drivers and lots of television is American, like “Hawaii Five-O” and “The Streets of San Fancisco”. But then, Mummy and Daddy always say, English (or British) things are better, and Americans have funny names and loud voices and can’t speak English properly.
The door to the boys’ toilets is always open, and the smell of wee pokes up my nose before I even go in.
‘Excuse me Tom.’ Kalman. He looks very serious, maybe cross.
I say, ‘Hi.’
He is pressing his lips together. His cheeks are pink.
He says: ‘You going to beat up Stephen.’
I say ‘Yeah,’ as if I don’t care. Like always, Kalman doesn’t understand, doesn’t know it was all a joke.
‘You don’t do that!’ He sounds like he is going to cry.
‘I DO do that!’ I start shadowboxing, sniffing like boxers on television. I smile because I feel like the winner.
‘No!’ He pushes me against the wall. ‘Stephen is my friend!’ The walls aren’t flat, they have little knobbly bits like Christmas cake icing and it hurts my back.
‘It was a joke, you idiot.’
‘Is not a joke!’
‘Go on, Spastic Police,’ I say.
Then I know what to do.
My arm fires up like a missile, and I see it as it hits.
But Kalman’s chin is like hitting a wall. It was an uppercut, like in comics and films –
Nothing. NOTHING HAPPENS – he hasn’t even –
Seawater. Suddenly. Like seawater. Salty, sore, stinging, hurting pain. My nose, no – my eyes, no – a hot hole, like vomit inside my head. My nose isn’t a shape anymore, it’s a hot blur. Kalman! Stupid, stupid, bloody Spastic Police –
‘Now you don’t do it!’ He shouts, and then runs away.
I make myself shout ‘I DO do it!’ But then I hold my breath, because it feels difficult to breathe.
I go into the toilets, into the far cubicle, lock the door, close my eyes. My throat hurts when I breathe. I can feel my heartbeat in my neck. I think about dying.
It didn’t work. Nothing works. Even against Kalman. I was the loser. I try my hardest to stop the pictures in my mind of Mohammed Ali or Bruce Lee, because I am not like them, no way.
My face is against the cool tiles and I let my mind float, like when you start to go to sleep. I blow my nose on some loo paper and wet, thin snot comes out, like tears.
There is a very bad smell. There’s always a bad smell in the boys’ toilets, but this is different and worse, it’s making me feel sick. I pull back the bolt on the door and it sounds like a gunshot in a film.
I quickly look in the mirror to see if I look like I’ve been crying, even though I haven’t been.
Then the smell again. Out of the corner of my eye I see something.
In one of the urinals: a long poo like a brown banana.
Home. Mummy is in the kitchen, cooking with lots of bubbling pans.
I am in my room, which is probably my favourite place, and I don’t want anybody to talk to me. Mummy shouts from the kitchen.
‘In a minute can you please take the D-O-G for a W-A-L-K’.
We spell the words out so Sharky can’t understand, because he gets too excited, and starts barking, and his bark is actually quite scary, even though he has bad teeth and can’t bite you properly.
‘Take the walking stick,’ Mummy says from the kitchen.
I get the twisty one that looks like a tree branch. The idea of taking a stick is because of when we lived in Tai Po and there were snakes in the garden. But I think it might be hard to hit a snake with a stick because it would move too fast for you.
Sharky jumps up from being asleep when he hears the lead jingling. He moves around and his paws slide on the floor and it’s hard to clip the lead onto his collar. His neck-fur smells cheesy.
I open the metal security gate.
But then I go back and put the stick down really quietly on the rug so Mummy won’t hear. Because I remember it was the dogs who killed the snakes anyway, and snakes live in the country and we live in Kowloon now, in a flat.
We come out of the lift and the Pakistani watchman says “Hello, sir”, which he always says, even though I am a child.
Sharky pulls at the lead until he starts to choke. He always does that, but you have to keep the lead tight, because humans are the boss, not dogs or animals.
We are at the top of the big hill that goes down to my school, and we go through the railings at the side of the road to get to the bit with just rocks and dead grass where Sharky goes to do a poo.
Next to us there are lots of steps going down a long way to a hidden place underneath the road. At the bottom there is grass everywhere like in someone’s garden in England, or a park, and little hills you can roll down, and in the grass, big blocks of flats, bigger than ours.
This is where the army lives. Our friends the Wetherbys live there. Mr Wetherby is a Major and much older than Daddy, but Mummy says he will never go higher than a Major now. I like visiting the Wetherbys because their flat is big, like a house. The best is going to the NAAFI because you can buy a mug of tea (with two sugars) and a Wagon Wheel, and usually you can’t get Wagon Wheels in Hong Kong.
Sharky finishes and we go back through the railings. The railings are hot from the sun and I lean on them and look straight up in the sky.
The sky is weird. It is just air, but air is everywhere and when it is next to you it doesn’t look blue, and when the sky is over your head, it is blue and has things floating in it, clouds. Sky is only far away, never where you are – except when you’re on a plane, and you can look out of the window and see clouds next to you, and they look like something you could touch or even walk on, but Daddy says they are like steam from the kettle.
So I look up and up and I imagine myself shooting into the sky and the cool feeling of being in the air. I remember coming in to land at Heathrow Airport when we go to visit my Granny. You can see fields, and then streets and houses, all clean and tidy, like a train set. Then you can see cars and people, like toys moving by themselves. That is England.
I look down the hill. No one is there. I unclip Sharky’s lead and start running my fastest. Sharky starts running too, the way he runs, with his legs all on top of each other. We are going back towards my school, but that doesn’t matter because we’re not really going anywhere: we are just going, and nothing is stopping us or making us go. Every time I look at Sharky he has his mouth open so he looks like he’s smiling at me, his claws clattering on the pavement like chopsticks.
We are escaping, into the sky, and the wind rushes over our ears like air conditioning.