Ren might have stayed in the city had he known the reason why he left it. A note had come. Pack lightly. Tell no-one. It will be worth your while.
The old man wanted to see him.
Ren and the old man went way back together. He was curious about why he wanted to see him. He had heard that the old man was ill. It was hard to imagine him other than as a warlord in his prime. Ren put some rice and dried fish in a cotton napkin and tied it to a pole. He set out early on a Saturday morning not sure whether it was loyalty or curiosity powering his steps.
The trail through the Wong Nai Chung gap to Repulse Bay was dusty. As Ren skidded down its ravines in his rubber sandals he began to sense that he was neither here nor there. The old man’s mansion overlooking the golf course would be no more than a pause for him no matter how welcome he was made to feel. After the civil war had ended, he had failed to settle into anything stable. He was at a point in between things but quite sure that his lack of a clear destination was mostly his fault. He would not change anything to leave this drifting state. He considered it a rare quality to look at the world and look at oneself at the same time.
The night before he had taken a whore to his bed. He had bumped away on her for some minutes, as she looked straight through him with an unmoving smile. Her eyes let nothing come near and so guarded her. Her clawing and wriggling beneath him gave her daring, a wildness that made Su Ni Su memorable. Her boundless energy meant that she did not seem like someone who needed a resort, or some kind of break from how she made a living. Ren wondered if her happy place was far away as his seemed, whether hers too surfaced occasionally only during sleep. Whatever her cause of disconsolation, it dimmed her young face with lines of tiredness.
Ren took himself by surprise by ending with a low, sharp gasp. He watched her face drawn into a faint smile and he saw a subdued light behind her eyes for the first time. Her waiting for him to remove himself took an eternity because there was no smile back from him, or sigh of relief, only his body's slow strain against gravity in retreat from her. The old bamboo sleeping mat pinched at her shoulders until in the corner of her eye she finally saw his glistening spine sitting upright, and she rolled over and touched his side. He did not respond. A clean tracing of blue neon crossed the bed to tell them they could be strangers again. She asked if she was needed for anything else. He sat there with the night closing in, not expecting to care or feel, or be asked anything more. He held a quarter of a bottle of rice wine up against the street light, poured a small glass, drank it, and held it up to the light again. He finally asked Su Ni Su if she would go to the local shop to fetch him another.
She returned with a fresh bottle, shared a glass with Ren, took her fee and left. And that was the end of that, or so Ren thought.
Su Ni Su wanted to bubble up in Ren's thoughts but he kept her at a distance. Arriving late in the afternoon, Ren rang a bell to sound his arrival at the old man's house. An amah appeared at a gate and ushered him along a spongy garden path, through the house with roughly hung calligraphy on the wall and on to a balcony flooded in late light looking down to a prim pond in blue shade stippled by lotus shoots. Peonies fell over steep curbs and a formal rose garden completed the scene. This was a Chinese idea of a Western garden. The old man waited there for him on a cane chair lounge. He waved hello and ventured to Ren to sit down with him. The old man offered next to no pleasantries. He was close to death but closer to bedtime. He got down to business.
‘Do you remember the house outside Canton, Ren?’
‘The one next to the reedy lake?’
‘That’s the one’.
‘You let me hide out there once. You could see for miles around’ Ren recalled.
‘I miss that house’ said the old man. ‘When the communists found me there they called me ‘man-eating landlord’.
Ren smiled thinly. ‘They have a name for everyone. I was ‘parasite lackey’.
Tea was served by the amah.
‘Do you like to remember your lackey days, Ren?’
‘Of course. The freedom’.
‘Could you find your way to the old house again?’
Ren squinted. ‘A senior cadre’s family have the keys now’.
‘They do. But I have unfinished business.’
The bullfrogs in the pond croaked.
Ren had to shout over the din. ‘It has been years. We lost the war, boss. What business could there be?’
‘My parrots’ yelled back the old man. ‘My pretty parrots’.