Tuesday, 14 May 2013

Handover (an extract) by Paul Blaney

Read by Brad Powers

In Macau he found a hotel on the beach. The first room they showed him had no windows but from the second, on the sixth floor, you could just see the sea. He paid in cash from the envelope Elaine had given him and went straight back out. It was already dark when the taxi dropped him in the centre of town. He set off on foot with a mind to buying some clean clothes—Bossini or Giordano—but his feet took him elsewhere, away from shopping, along cobbled streets that wound and narrowed and pulled old churches from their sleeves until he was properly lost. Turning down a street of electrical shops, he was startled by a mournful blare that issued from each—bagpipes!

There was a barber’s shop. He went in and sat down and had a shave. He’d walked far enough. What he needed now was drink. There was a bar on the corner, dimly lit, with loud music. It was full of people, Europeans and Chinese, holding glasses and smiling. He sat at a table drinking whisky and everything around him was nicely dislocated. Shining faces, blank eyes. He was getting towards the place where he wanted to be, both here and not here.

The evening stretched on and he was in bars and nightclubs, never stopping for more than one or two drinks. Sometimes he followed a crowd of people to the next place, feeling almost one of them; sometimes he found his own way. Everywhere he went televisions beamed pictures live from Hong Kong, but the music was loud and the screens were high up on the walls. If, now and then, he did glance up, the images were strange and far away: rain and speech-making, flags and umbrellas, soldiers goose-stepping across a stage and still more rain, the lovely daughters sobbing, the prince and the nice big boat. He grew more intent on his drinks—Elaine and this afternoon in his flat, that was receding now too. Whisky-and-sodas and a pack of Chinese cigarettes, red bamboo design with a black panda.

Back in his hotel room, he pushed the window open and looked out. An orange moon, like half a grapefruit, had floated up over the sea. He lay down on the bed but he wasn’t ready for sleep. His body was exhausted but his mind was wired enough for both. From his back pocket he drew the passport, not his but the other. He opened it to the back page and lay staring at Jane.

A knock then and an old Chinese man put his head round the door, smiling but not meeting Rob’s eye. “You like girl?”

He bought one for an hour.

He dragged off his shoes and reached for his cigarettes but already she was there, slipping in at the door and out of her clothes and into the shower, sitting herself down on the end of the bed. Naked and wet, she was very young and not at all pretty, chewing gum, drugged like a cow. Rob leaned against the wardrobe to look at her, slanting eyes and tobacco-coloured hair.

It all went very quickly from there. First he stepped across and slapped her, once, twice. She cowered but made no sound as he caught hold of her shoulder. He gave her a sharp push so that she fell across the bed. Again her unfocused eyes registered no surprise. With an effort, she raised her head to look back up at him, try to guess what he wanted.

Then he was on top, hands pinning her arms, pressing her to the bed, pressing his lips to her body. And she fought him. She sighed and gave little tuts and waves of the hand as she twisted her head on the pillow, averting her mouth. “No kiss,” she breathed. “No kiss.” But he saw irony, too, in her eyes. She was challenging him to go further, further. To let go of himself, to take it all the way. He penetrated her but still he went on teasing, caressing a breast, licking a neck.

Finally, feeling the approach of a climax, he forced his palms under her, gripped a thick haunch in either hand. He forced her to rise as he descended, acting out both their parts at once. From the corner of his eye he saw her face and it was her, wriggling beneath him. He came with his hands locked around her neck, calling out—“Jane!”—above her strangled screams.

The door burst open and the old Chinaman was there with a baseball bat. Rob leapt to his feet and stood in the bathroom door, his arm raised defensively, trembling, imagining the bat striking, the arm breaking. The Chinaman hissed something sharp at the girl who started dressing on the bed, tripping and falling as she struggled into her clothes. There were stripes on her neck, blue and red. At last she got the skirt done up and stumbled out the door. The Chinaman spat on the bed and stared hard at Rob with the bat still hovering. He spat again and went out.

Rob slid down the wall to the floor. The Panda cigarettes were there beside him. He smoked one and then another. They were strong and nasty and he felt a weight in his head like sand sinking through water. Two steps short of the basin he vomited across the bathroom floor. He hauled himself up and onto the toilet. He sat there slumped and wretched but the soiled white tiles throbbed like lungs and he was forced to stand. As he did so he met his own hunted face in the mirror. Now he remembered it all.

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