One small island, six troubled lives, and the storm of the century is on its way.In one of the world’s most vibrant international cities, present day Hong Kong, the lives of six people become irreversibly intertwined. The past is catching up with those running from it, while the futures of others hangs dangerously in the balance. But who knows the most? And what will they do to keep it that way?
Sunflowers Orphanage, Tianjin, Mainland China.
The recent past.
Only bad things happened when it was this hot. Bathed in sweat, Li Wei felt a sense of dread in the pit of his stomach as he ambled towards the office. Once inside, he knew his gut was right.
His boss, Miss Beverly, and her co-worker Nick had already mentioned the little things: a dripping tap, a squeaking ceiling fan, the ripped curtain that let in too much sun. Wei was doing his best to fix them all before someone boiled over.
The faster he worked, the hotter he got. The sweat dripped into his eyes. No one noticed.
It was a Tuesday morning in August. When his handyman work was done, Wei did the usual thing and collected rubbish from the kitchen. As he left the building, he heard the tapping of keyboards and the shuffling of paper coming from Miss Beverly’s office and hoped the sour mood had passed.
But then the telephone started. It kept ringing, all morning, which was very unusual. He could hear its shrill cry from outside and whoever answered it – probably Miss Beverly – kept slamming the receiver back down. When he went back inside to fetch his rucksack, the frustration in the office was as thick as the air was humid. As he left, Wei’s footfall on the parquet floor seemed louder than normal and he willed it to
be silent, just this once, worrying the noise would be the final straw for Miss Beverly.
Summer fever, his mother used to call it. Now he knew why. There were omens everywhere.
That evening, when the damage was done, he blamed himself for all that went wrong; for not acting sooner.
Just before lunch, Wei had skulked away to prune the bougainvillea clinging to the chicken-wire fence separating the orphanage from the alleyway behind. Even then, he could still hear the office phone ring and ring, over and over.
Someone slammed it so hard that Wei jumped, pricking his finger on a thorn. He watched the blood swell and bubble on the surface. It was the same colour as the flowers he held in his other hand.
Wei went back to work, but not long after, he heard Miss Beverly yelling in Mandarin, then English.
Wei saw an old utility vehicle parked outside the front gates. That was nothing unusual. Deliveries came throughout the day. Clothes and toys, from charities mostly.
The deliveryman was standing very close to Miss Beverly.
She pointed a finger and the man squared his shoulders. Wei stood taller.
“No, no, no,” Miss Beverly said in a calmer voice. “Do you think I’m stupid?” She tried to say something to the
deliveryman in Mandarin but reverted to English.
“We warned him,” the man snapped.
The deliveryman was tall, with a large chest that he pushed out as he towered over Miss Beverly. He had very short hair and Wei could see the sparkle of a gold watch on his left wrist.
He also wore thick-rimmed black glasses, like Superman. Wei had watched the movie on a DVD.
Wei had seen such trouble brewing when he was growing up. Once, in his rural village, a heatwave caused his best friend’s grandmother to go mad. She had stabbed her daughterin-law for overcooking breakfast and then killed herself, in front of her entire family. Wei’s mother was sure the heat had created a devil, although his father disagreed. He said the woman had been insane since birth.
The door to the orphanage squeaked open and closed. Nick came outside holding a cup of coffee. He stomped over to Beverly and the man, Nick’s blond hair shining like a lantern in the sun. They all talked at once in English, but much of it was lost on Wei. All he could tell was that Nick was trying to keep the conversation calm, as was Nick’s way. Maybe the man had forgotten to deliver something important. They were
low on toilet tissue and vegetable oil, for one thing.
Wei shrugged and decided it was too hot to stand there in the sun listening to them argue. He took a bottle of water from his rucksack and sat down under his favourite tree, to the left of the courtyard. In front was the main gate and, to his right, the arched doorway to the orphanage, painted bottle green by Wei himself just days before.
It was pleasant in the shade and he felt the stress of the morning fade away. Even better, if he sat very still, a light sea breeze was making its way through the tall buildings that fronted the orphanage.
Wei closed his eyes and listened to the children singing a morning song. He smiled to himself at their innocent words.
Tài yáng dāng kōng zhào. The sun is shining in the sky.
Huā’ér dui wǒ xiào. The flowers are smiling to me.
Being around children was comforting. Wei had never had much of a childhood. He was left to his own devices from the age of six or seven while his parents worked. He escaped to the city as soon as he’d turned fifteen and took the handyman job in the orphanage within a week. Miss Beverly said he was their oldest
child. She hugged him sometimes, despite the fact he stank of rotting vegetables and nappies from carrying bags of rubbish all day. One day, she told him he was kind and that this made him special. He liked Miss Beverly. Her smile always reached her eyes.
He would never leave the orphanage. It was his home now.
Wei had just nodded off, a fresh dream of tall mountains and a speeding car edging its way into his subconscious brain, when he heard Miss Beverly. She was yelling, very loudly.
He had never heard her shout before.
He sat up and rubbed at his eyes. He heard Nick’s booming voice.
“That’s it!” Nick said. “No more! Go!”
Wei stood too quickly, almost falling over. He saw Nick put up a fist in front of the man’s face. The man pointed something at Nick.
“You have no business here!” Nick yelled at the man in Mandarin. “Put that away!”
That was when Wei saw the new girl, Nick’s friend, come out of the orphanage door, edging the older children inside as she did. Ever since she’d arrived to visit Nick at the orphanage the day before, Wei had been mesmerised. She was in frayed denim shorts and a T-shirt, and Wei kept his eyes trained on her long, lean legs.
“Get back!” Nick called to his friend.
“Why?” she cried. “What’s going on? Nick?” She had reached him and was trying to grab at Nick’s shirt, but he
shrugged her hand away and hissed something in her ear.
Miss Beverly took the new girl’s arm and the two walked backwards very slowly. Wei followed them towards the schoolhouse.
It’s the heat, he wanted to say.
Wei caught up with Miss Beverly and the new girl.
“Do you need help?” he said, a little breathless. They had stopped near the doorway.
“Wei,” Miss Beverly said to him in a whisper, “go inside and call the police station. Now. Okay? I’m right behind you.”
She smiled at him, a kind of annoyed grimace, as though he wasn’t moving fast enough. He widened his eyes and ran.
From Miss Beverly’s office window, he could see the far side of the courtyard, but the gate was hidden from view unless he leaned the top half of his body out of the window.
He hoped the deliveryman had gone. Nick was respected.
He had done a lot of good. Maybe Nick had paid the man off.
But just as Wei hung up the phone, the new girl screamed.
She called out Nick’s name and, a few seconds later, Miss Beverly stumbled into her office with the new girl in her arms.
The two of them were sobbing.
Wei smelled a musty heat coming off their bodies and wanted to be sick. Outside, he heard the front gate slam
against the broken metal lock and the roar of the truck as it drove away. Miss Beverly told the new girl to sit down. She slumped to the floor, her head in her hands.
Wei bent down and gently rubbed her folded arms. But then he saw the blood. A sticky cobweb of deep red staining her shirt. Wei gasped and pulled his hand away, but it was too late. The blood had coated his palm.
“I think he killed him,” the girl whimpered.
Wei shook his head. “What do you mean?”
The new girl stayed silent. She was shivering.
“Stay here,” Miss Beverly said, rushing back outside.
Wei went to the window and pushed at its timber frame.
He inched himself through it. Surely Nick had hurt the bad man. Surely Nick was stronger.
But lying on the ground like a discarded jacket was Nick, his blond hair soaking in a pool of black blood. The pale-blue coffee cup lay cracked into two perfect halves next to one outstretched arm. Miss Beverly kneeled over him. Her body heaved before placing a hand over her mouth. Behind her, several of the older children were weeping loudly, their cries shrill in the still air.
“Bring the children in, Wei!” Miss Beverly called out in between sobs. She didn’t take her eyes off Nick’s body. Wei did as he was told.
* * *
A week later, the new girl had gone. The police had spoken to Miss Beverly not long after the ambulance had taken Nick’s body away. Miss Beverly made Wei promise to never tell anyone what happened or what the deliveryman looked like.
And he didn’t.
Sometimes, Wei heard Miss Beverly talking about Nick on the phone, but she always whispered. Afterwards, she’d whimper a little.
Over time, life went back to normal, for Wei and the children anyway.
But Miss Beverly, she stopped smiling.
Thank you, Suzanne Harrison and Legend Press
About the author
Suzanne Harrison is an Australian journalist and Editor who has lived in Hong Kong since 1999. She
currently works freelance writing lifestyle and news features for the South China Morning Post.