“Calm down now,” Umbra said as she wiped away Thomas’ tears. “Let’s play a game. It’s a secret though. You mustn’t tell anyone about it.”
After that Thomas wanted to play every night, so Umbra would get up from her roll up mattress on the floor beside his bed and move the lamps around to cast shadows on the wall behind them. Then she’d lie beside him and wrap her thin arms around him.
“You start,” she’d say, “make me a shadow.”
His hands were a muddle.
“What’s that?” Umbra asked.
Her hands moulded his. The shadow formed a sinuous feline shape, Thomas’ little finger sticking out to form its tail.
She placed one of her hands over the other and a dog appeared on the wall. He could see every detail of it, even though it was in silhouette; its shaggy fur, its lolling tongue, the wag of its tail. It cocked up its ears and chased the cat, leaping from wall to ceiling. Thomas squealed and clapped.
“What next?” she asked.
His hands wiggled.
“Is it a fish?”
He nodded, well pleased that she’d guessed.
“Let me see,” Umbra mused as she gathered together the strands of scattered shadows in her fist and fashioned them into a seal that fell into a graceful arc as it dived, the boy’s minnow in its mouth.
“Now, little man, copy me.”
She taught him how to make shadow puppets. A rabbit with index and middle fingers for ears, a swan whose neck was formed from the curve of the wrist and feathers from fanned out fingers. Bears, ducks, turtles, even an elephant with tusks.
“This is my favourite,” she said as she made a pair of birds on a bough. “Watch.”
Her projections were as different to his as a child’s plasticine figure is from an artist’s carving. The bough was in flower and the birds cocked their heads as if listening to each other’s song. Then the impossible: the birds divided and divided, becoming a flock that took flight. Fluttering wings covered the wall in an explosion of feathers.
“Now, that’s enough.” she kissed his forehead when the shadows had taken up their former shape. “Sleep now.”
When he was older he thought about trying to tell someone about her but he knew that he wouldn’t be believed, even though every part of it was true.
“Pleasure or business, Mr. Leung?” The desk clerk smiles at Thomas.
He used to work for a multinational that sent him to quell corporate uprisings, navigate difficult negotiations and strip out smaller companies. His wife, Viola, doesn’t know that he has a new job, one that he’s even better at than the last one. His wife calls him a cold fish which, he supposes, is why he’s so good at this work.
“You’re a new guest to us. Is this your first time in Hong Kong?”
“No.” His English accent is the product of the finest International School that Hong Kong has to offer, which makes it difficult to place. “I grew up here.”
It’s the city where he lost his childhood, if that’s what growing up is.
“Welcome home.” The clerk hands him the key card.
Thomas has been here for two weeks already, staying in a third rate place under an alias while he gathers information. He’s glad to be checking into somewhere more comfortable. The Ritz-Carlton Hotel occupies the top seventeen of the one hundred and eighteen floors of the International Commerce Centre, the ICC, on Kowloon. His room has a view. It’s spectacular.
Hong Kong is a city where peaks rise from the sea, layers of them that fade to soft greys in the distance. Thomas remembers Umbra telling him she’d never seen anything like it, a place where so many mountains had drowned. Tower blocks flourish amid the lush greenery. It’s vertiginous as it lacks the space to sprawl.
From his window he looks out on Victoria Harbour. The water’s busy with freighters coming in from the South China Sea, their cargo parcelled off onto smaller boats that are pulled along by sturdy tugs whose paths criss-cross cruise ships and ferries.
Enough. Time to work.
Thomas lays out his gear on the bed and assembles what he needs. He catches the Star Ferry over to Central, the part of Hong Kong island that’s the bloodless, beating heart of the economy. Its towers are clad in gold, silver and copper facades that look burnished in the sun. The city reflects itself. He has dressed like all the other men who are piling out of work onto the elevated footbridges. The man Thomas is looking for, Mr. Tsang, is crossing a bridge below him. He’s nondescript for someone so powerful man, revelling in his anonymity.
He should be more careful, Thomas thinks.
He follows Mr. Tsang to the escalators. There’s eight hundred metres of them in segments, all covered, crossing the narrow streets on their ascension to Victoria Peak. They’re a radical solution to the weariness of commuters who have to scale the steep hill.
Thomas has done his research. He knows where Mr. Tsang is going. Thomas gets off at Hollywood Road and overtakes him. Instinctively, Thomas moves out of the sunshine and crosses over to shade where he feels less conspicuous. He walks with intent, ignoring the antique shop windows, crowded with curios and trinkets.
His destination is the Man Mo Temple. They are the gods of Literature and War, respectively. He finds temples less forbidding than churches, even though his family are Christian. People wander in and out, carrying shopping bags as though calling on an old friend. Discarded incense wrappers litter the ground around the trestle tables outside where they’re being sold. Old fruit is dumped in bins, having once been left as offerings.
Thomas likes the gloomy red and gold interior. Giant incense spirals that take weeks to burn hang down from the ceiling. Sandalwood smoke stings his eyes. It’s busy, filled with people who’ve come to pay their respects to their dead and disrespectful tourists taking photos. He lights incense for Umbra, not knowing if she’s alive or dead. He owes her a lifetime of remorse. She owes him, too.
Mr. Tsang enters. Thomas waits for him to finish, watching his mouth moving in a prayer. Then he follows him out onto the street, letting him walk along for a while. Mr. Tsang’s shadow stretches out along the pavement in front of him, his soul going ahead. Thomas closes the gap between them on silent shoes.
Mr. Tsang turns, confused that Thomas is so close but he doesn’t understand why. His eye will have seen what’s odd and his subconscious will have registered it but his mind has yet to understand. Thomas doesn’t give him time to think about it.
“Mr. Tsang.” Thomas seizes his hand like he’s a friend that he’s not seen in years. “Please accept my condolences. Your father was greatly respected.”
Thomas presses his hand over their combined fists in a gesture of sympathy. “I met him in Beijing . . . ”
The pressure of Thomas’ hand triggers the mechanism on top of the gaudy ring he’s wearing and the poison tipped spike is released from the band and punctures Mr. Tsang’s palm. It’s a scratch but it’ll suffice.
Mr. Tsang flinches and pulls away, putting it to his mouth. All the better for Thomas’ purpose.
“I’m sorry,” Thomas says smoothly, glancing at his watch. “I must go, I’m late.”
He turns and leaves before Mr. Tsang has a chance to stop him. He’ll be dead within the hour. Mr. Tsang’s assassination is a warning. Thomas doesn’t know why. It’s none of his business. The concoction he’s used is so potent that he’s taken the antidote, just in case he accidentally stabs himself. It’ll be easily identified at toxicology but not so easily traced back to a source. This is his favourite kind of kill. He’ll be well away before Mr. Tsang’s death throes start.
Thomas slips the ring off and puts it in a plastic case in his pocket.
He’s well acquainted with all kinds of murder and how to hide them. Pseudo-suicides, sex games gone awry, allergic reactions. Mock muggings that leave him standing over a body in the gutter. Thomas dislikes the last one as it reminds him of what Umbra said.
“This is Umbra,” Thomas’s mother said. “She’s here to help us.”
Help. His mother, Mai Yuen, needed a lot of help. She would’ve had a flotilla of staff if she could. The staff themselves were cheap. The real luxury was having the space in which to keep them. By law imported servants had to live with their sponsors and so there was only enough space in the apartment for them and Umbra. Thomas’ parents were affluent, not uber wealthy, living in a city where extended families often lived in just one room.
Mai Yuen always complained about Umbra. She would’ve preferred what she had herself as a child, an amah, some Chinese spinster consigned to a life of drudgery. Instead she made do with a series of foreign domestic ‘helpers’.
Mai Yuen had left Umbra at the door to Thomas’ room. He looked up to see a woman, like all the others. Or nearly. Big dark eyes and bang straight hair. A velour tracksuit and flip flops. The scar on her left cheek marked her out as different. It was jagged and ugly.
“I don’t want you,” he shouted at her. “I want my daddy!”
The truth was that he didn’t know what he wanted. At four, all he knew was that he was angry.
“He’s not here,” Umbra said, “and I don’t know when he’ll be back, he has to work, so stop this.”
Umbra was impassive, just like his father. That stopped his screeching.
His mother would’ve tried to placate him with He’ll be back soon, I’m sure, before she got bored and drifted away. A tear ran down his face. Umbra seized him and her hug was fierce, unlike his mother’s limp, insipid embraces. Umbra made him utterly hers in that moment and ever after.
Umbra had been with them for three months when Thomas’ father, Chun Hin, came home. It was his birthday.
The apartment was all clean lines, almost masculine. Mai Yuen’s art books were arranged in piles, topped with antique lacquered boxes. A set of oil paintings from the gallery where she worked. Celadon pottery. There was hardly anything of Thomas’ father there.
“Who’s this?” his father asked.
“Umbra.” Thomas was keen to show her off.
Umbra put down the cake plates and forks.
Mai Yuen held the cake slice poised over the cake she’d bought. She was glossy, her hair smooth, lacquered nails and her lips painted. She looked like a polished stone.
“You can go to your room now, Umbra.” Mai Yuen dismissed her.
“Where’s Daddy’s cake?” Thomas asked.
His mother had ordered a patisserie creation covered in whipped cream icing and decorated in gold sugared almonds. It was far too large for the small family.
“Look, this one has Daddy’s name on it.”
“No. Where’s mine?”
He wanted the cake that Umbra had helped him to make. It was a misshapen heap of chocolate and sponge.
“Don’t be silly.” She widened her eyes at him.
He leant over and shoved her cake off the table. The stemmed cake platter shattered on the floor, the cake smashed up.
“Can’t you control him?” That was Chun Hin.
Thomas shouted for Umbra. She hovered in the doorway.
Mai Yuen was wiping the cream that had splattered over her shoes and up her legs. His father was out of his seat, seizing Thomas’ arm.
“I just wanted a nice night with my family. Is that too much to ask?” He was talking to Mai Yuen. “And you,” his grip on Thomas tightened, “go to your room.”
“I want Umbra.”
“No.” Chun Hin pointed at Umbra. “You, to your room too. Stay in there.”
“She sleeps with him. It’s the only way he’ll settle.” His mother’s face looked blotchy.
Chun Hin rounded on her. “No wonder he acts like a baby if you treat him like this.”
He threw Thomas on his bed and slammed the door. The boy shrieked and shrieked. When his mother came in she didn’t look polished anymore.
“Stop it,” she hissed. “You’ve ruined everything.”
It only made him shriek more so his father came in an, took off his belt and hit him. It made a cracking sound as it made contact with his back. Thomas glared at him in shocked silence and then started to shriek once more. Chun Hin raised his arm again.
“Please, no more.” Mai Yuen got down on her knees, her head bowed. “Not tonight.”
He stared at her. Then he walked out, slowly, the belt still in his hand trailing on the floor behind him. She got up and followed him in silence. When he passed the door to Umbra’s room which was in sight of Thomas’ room, he opened the door.
“Go to him. Keep him quiet.”
Umbra lay down on the floor beside Thomas.
“I want him to go.”
“He’ll leave soon enough. He’s just another thing to be endured. I’ve seen much worse.”
“I hate him.”
“Calm down now,” Umbra said as she wiped away his tears. “Let’s play a game. It’s a secret though. You mustn’t tell anyone about it.”
Work’s done. Time to play.
Thomas chooses a bar called Ciacada, overlooked by the escalators, its doors open wide to the street. He likes its lighting, diffuse and safe enough for him to feel comfortable.
There’s a girl in the corner. She’s not a dead ringer but she’s close enough. He catches her eye. She says her name is Lunette, her glance flicking from his eyes to mouth and back again. He buys them Belgium beers and they talk. He makes her laugh. He knows how to pass as human. He does it every day.
They find a love hotel. Lunette picks a room from a laminated brochure while he pays. The Underwater Fantasy room is more tasteful than Thomas expects, despite the mermaid costume in the wardrobe. As he hands over a roll of bills to Lunette he remembers what Umbra said. Better to be one man’s whore than many’s.
Lunette strips down, bathed in soft blur light. She sits on the edge of the bed, open legged in bra and pants that are no more than gauzy triangles. He lets her unbutton his shirt and kiss his chest and stomach. A sigh comes from deep inside her, as though she genuinely desires him. She reaches for his fly but he stops her. He’s not ready yet.
He slips his hands inside the thin pieces of fabric and works the flesh beneath. That distracts her. He pushes her back, tilting her head away from him. At that angle she looks more like Umbra which makes him suddenly hard. He tears open a condom packet and throws the empty wrapper on the floor. She reaches up to help him put it on.
“No, stay there,” he whispers. “Just like that.”
Lunette bites her lower lip as he plunges into her.
It’s easier with her than his wife. Easier to imagine that it’s Umbra beneath him. When Thomas climaxes he thinks he feels something but he’s not entirely sure.
“The next few days are very important.”
Thomas sat opposite his mother. Mai Yuen had no idea just how important, how long a shadow those days would cast.
A row of low copper lampshades hung over the dinning room table, casting soft, diffuse light. The city outside the window was vibrant in neon, rather than garish. A hierarchy existed on Hong Kong island. The closer to Victoria Peak the property, the higher up the social scale the owner was. The Leungs, who lived in Dragonfly Mansions, were sufficiently placed to have a view.
“Your father’s coming home. He’s back tomorrow night. There’s an important dinner that we’re going to on Monday evening.”
Umbra brought out their meal, placing a bowl of broth before Mai Yuen who took it without thanks.
“You’re sixteen, Thomas. It’s time that you started to behave, especially when your father’s back.”
“I do behave.”
“No, you provoke him.” He watched as she took a spoonful of the clear liquid with soundless delicacy. “You’re doing it now instead of listening. No wonder he never wants to come home.”
She glared at Thomas as he slurped his noodles.
“Don’t make him angry. I’m busy tomorrow at the gallery so I’ll have to pick up some shoes to go with my new dress on Sunday.” She put down her spoon as if laying down a weapon to negotiate a truce. “Come with me and I’ll take you to the cinema on the understanding that you’ll be good while he’s here.”
Umbra’s shadow stretched along the floor. It gathered together the multiple, muted shadows cast by the various lights. Mai Yuen’s shadow was transformed into a parody of a preening woman at a dressing table, as if she were no more than Umbra’s puppet. Thomas didn’t smile. He’d learnt to hide his amusement at Umbra’s jokes.
Umbra’s shadow reached out and ruffled Mai Yuen’s shadow-hair until it came out of its smooth knot. It surprised Thomas. He hadn’t realised that Umbra could exert such an effect because his mother turned to look in a mirror, frowning as she tried to smooth down her already perfect hair.
There’s something that Thomas is putting off.
He sits in tatty dim sum restaurants that serve the finest food in the city. He drinks espresso martinis. He buys his wife expensive shoes that look exquisite and crippling. He’s missed this king of cities. Its plazas and alleyways contain everything. As much as he understands its rhythms, he doesn’t belong anymore.
He tells himself that he’s looking for Umbra. He watches the crowd. Foreign bankers, men and women in suits that look the same regardless of whether they work in Hong Kong, London or New York. Then there are the young fashionistas. This season they’re eschewing Gucci for Harris Tweed. The Chinese mainlanders that can afford to stay here are easy to distinguish because of their expensive, tasteless bling, having grown rich on corruption, mining and property speculation. Their wealth will be gone within a generation because of ridiculous spending. And finally there are the helpers, peripheral and unseen, wheeling prams and carrying shopping.
Wherever Thomas is in the world, he seeks Umbra’s face. Or he hopes to find someone like her, someone with a denser shadow that could turn abruptly in his direction, recognising that he’s different.
If he ever saw such a person he would ask them if they could fix him.
Thomas’s parents seemed so old to him when Umbra started to work for his family but his mother was only twenty-five and his father thirty-four. Thomas only knew him through the women in his life—Mother, Umbra and then Marcia. Chun Hin was a stranger that came in and out of the apartment in Dragonfly Mansions demanding to know why he wasn’t doing better at school and making Mai Yuen more fractious than normal.
Thomas used to go to his father’s closet, trying to fathom who his he was. All his clothes were sealed in dry cleaner bags. He tore one open and put his face against Chun Hin’s jacket but all he could smell were wool and chemicals.
The closest he’d ever been to his father was that weekend, when he was sixteen and he didn’t even know Thomas was there.
Thomas had gone out to a Mandarin tutorial that morning but halfway there he’d called the man, claiming sickness. He felt unsettled and wanted a morning alone with Umbra while his mother was at the gallery and before his father’s flight landed.
A mop and bucket were abandoned in the hall. His father’s suitcases were close by. He was back earlier than expected.
Thomas slipped off his shoes and stood, listening. Nothing. He walked through the kitchen. A half drunk cup of tea sat on the work top. Thomas put a hand around it. It was cold.
Umbra’s door was ajar. Thomas could hear breathy moans and soft cries coming from within. In that narrow gap he could see his father. Chun Hin’s white shirt was tangled around his torso, his trousers and shorts pushed down around his thighs. The muscles of his buttocks strained with each thrust. Umbra head was tilted at an angle that made the sinews of her neck taut. Her eyes were closed.
An involuntary thrill shot through Thomas’ groin. When the sharp spasm passed a dull ache remained. He hated that watching them could make him feel that way, hated what his father was doing to Umbra and that she was allowing him to.
Thomas imagined himself a man because he’d had sex with older girls and drunk beer late into the night, but he wasn’t yet man enough to understand the meaning of the shadows on the wall. Umbra’s wasn’t entwined with Chun Hin’s but was sat in a corner with its arms wrapped around its drawn up knees.
“Your mother wants you to go out with her today. Remember?” Umbra asked, as if Thomas could forget.
Umbra was laying out breakfast trays for his parents who were still in bed. It was Sunday and she would have to be gone before they got up.
“Yes.” Thomas nodded, unhappy. He didn’t know how to act with any of them after what he’d seen.
“He’s only here until Thursday. The time will pass quickly.”
“I don’t care when he leaves.”
“Don’t upset them. It’ll only make your mother unbearable for weeks.”
“Will you always be there for me?” Thomas blurted out. “Will you promise that you’ll never leave me?”
Will you always put me first?
“That’s an odd question.”
She was stalling, knowing that words like always and never should be handled with care.
When he was younger she would stand behind him whenever he was frightened or sad, her arms forming a protective circle around him and her chin resting on the top of his head.
He’d been too tall for this sort of comfort for some time but now he was sat down in front of a bowl and soggy, uneaten cereal, she held him. He could feel her breasts against his back, her warmth burning him, and it made him furious.
Thomas stared out of the store window into the mall. Potted orange trees were festooned with red envelopes. A man played a piano under a herd of horses. It was a few weeks before the advent of the Year of the Horse. The largest one was twenty feet high, red velvet, with a golden bridle and saddle. The others were an array of sizes and colours, some satin, some mirror glass. A few had wings or a unicorn horn.
“Will these match my dress? I think they’ll look nice with the earrings that your father wants me to wear. The diamond and pearls ones.”
He turned to look at what his mother was wearing. Black ankle boots, the leather cut away in delicate patterns, the heels golden spikes. A shop assistant brought her more boxes. Mai Yuen tried on another pair, ignoring the girl because she was young and beautiful.
“What about these?”
The sandals were intricate constructions of straps and buckles that wound around her ankles.
She’d promised to take him to the cinema but now it was too late for the film he wanted to see. He wasn’t interested in her shoes. He didn’t really care about the film either. He cared that she made so few promises to him and never kept any of them. He kicked out at the wooden panelling. Everyone turned to stare.
Mai Yuen came over and shook him by the shoulders. “You’re an ungrateful little brat. Now sit and wait.”
His cheeks burnt at being reprimanded like a child, especially in front of the young, pretty assistants. His mother threw down the shoes that she was carrying. The girl knelt down to pick them up.
“I’ll take the boots, the sandals and the grey suede pumps. I want them delivered. Tonight.” They were approximately three thousand dollars a pair. Mai Yuen was a conspicuous spender.
The girl packaged the boxes with ribbons so that they looked like presents, not purchases.
Thomas left the shop ahead of his mother, willing himself not to cry. Her heels clipped along behind him. They left the mall, heading back to Dragonfly Mansions.
Thomas heard the collective sound of women when the mall doors slid open.
It was a hum, as though a great flock had gathered. Every Sunday, in every season, thousands of helpers were evicted from where they lived. They had a day off but nowhere to go so they communed all over Central’s walkways and squares. They sat on corrugated cardboard or used it as windbreakers. They covered themselves with blankets. They knitted, they played cards, they sang and danced.
Thomas knew they were the reason why his mother hated shopping on Sundays. It was in the way that she held her head up, refusing to look at the women beneath her. Pinoy girls, she’d call them, a phrase for domestic servants from the Philippines that smacked of insult.
Among all those Pinoy girls was Umbra. Thomas stopped. She stood there with a young man, a year or two older than Thomas. He had Umbra’s wide smile. He sat on a wall and she stood, her chin resting on the top of his head.
Thomas could feel his mother hovering at his elbow, her body turned in the same direction as his. She put a hand on his shoulder but he stepped away from her, unwilling to be comforted or consoled. Umbra was the only person who normally touched him and he didn’t want to share her. Not with his father and not with her son.
Mai Yuen’s dying. She’s been dying for years but now Thomas thinks it will be very soon.
He can’t put it off any longer. He flies out tomorrow.
The foyer attendant at Dragonfly Mansions watches him as he walks to the lifts. It’s a relief to be inside the air conditioned building after the humidity and the sun.
A helper lets him into the apartment.
His mother’s on the sofa, swaddled in cashmere. The joints of her hands are blown out in gnarled lumps, her fingers slipping sideways at the knuckles. Rheumatoid disease has wracked her joints, her lungs and kidneys. She has an artificial knee and shoulder joint. The light’s clarity is unkind to her thinning hair and papery skin but she’s made an effort, all coiffed and made up. It occurs to Thomas that he could be kind and give her a death that’s as quiet and comfortable as falling asleep but decides against it. One of his rules is that work should never be personal.
He hands the flowers—tea roses which are her favourites—to the helper. It’s what people do in these circumstances.
“Come and kiss me.”
Her perfume’s an overpowering a mix of ambergris and jasmine, that she’s worn in an attempt to mask the smell of her demise.
“How are you?” he asks.
She shrugs and he doesn’t press her.
“Nice of you to come. It’s been so long.” At least two years. “How are Viola and the children?”
“Fine.” Viola is so like his mother. Thomas wonders if that means he’s like Chun Hin.
“And your father?” She can’t help herself.
“I called him about six weeks ago but he was in Taiwan. I spoke to Marcia instead.”
Mai Yuen looks out of the window, down on the other apartments and across the bay to Kowloon’s waterfront.
“Men can do that, I suppose.” Her eyes are hard and dry. She’s bitter that, at ten years her senior, her ex-husband has a new life with a lovely young thing. “A father again at sixty. Well, it won’t be him looking after it anyway. How’s your work?”
“That’s something then. Do you like what I’ve done with the place?”
Thomas gives the apartment a cursory glance, deliberately disinterested in the décor as his mother is in him. Her flawless taste lacks personality. The neutral palette is accented with beiges and browns, colours dubbed mocha and caramel by the stores to make the prices more palatable.
They talk nonsense over tea. The machinations of the residents committee, the new developments on Kowloon and the unseasonable hot weather. All the while Thomas thinks about the desolation and destruction of family life. How they have trampled one another.
He waits until the visit’s nearly done to make what he’s really come here to ask her sound like a throw away comment. It’s not from sensitivity. It’s just that she’ll be more likely to talk.
“Do you remember Umbra? Whatever happened to her?”
“Umbra?” She says the name as if it’s of no consequence, and in her studied nonchalance is the full weight of her years of feeling alone.
“She had a son, didn’t she?” He pours them both another cup of tea. “Where did he live?”
“No idea. It was a long time ago.”
“It was my fault.” He tries to disarm her with honesty. “I hid your earrings in her room.”
“Of course you did. She had too much to lose to do something so stupid. You were furious that day when we saw her with her son. Did you imagine that you were the centre of her universe?”
“You sent her back, to somewhere dangerous, because Dad was sleeping with her.”
“Yes but it wasn’t just that. You always looked at her like she was your mother. You always wanted her, never me.” She snorts. “We’re a fine pair, aren’t we?”
There was no solidarity in that comment. Even if there was, she was right. Thomas doesn’t know how to let her in.
“You were such a precocious child. You remembered every slight. You bore grudges. You never liked to be with other children. All your rage disappeared when Umbra left. Your father said you became cold, like me.”
“How would he know? He was never there?”
Thomas wasn’t trying to make her happy but that pleased her.
“I love him. Or I did once. To the point of madness.” It took Thomas a moment to realise that she was talking about his father. “I was too young to understand that he puts women in different compartments, one for pleasure and the other for procreation.”
Thomas is his opposite, which is why Umbra has become everything. He’s confused her in his mind even though she wasn’t his mother, sister or lover. It’s too many roles for one person but his every memory of emotion relates to her. He imagines her at forty-six and him at thirty. An age difference to cause comment but not an unimaginable one. Sometimes he marries her. Sometimes he kills her. He’s used every connection that he has but he’s never found her. He’s even asked his father at one of their rare father-son lunches but Chun Hin’s fork paused, then he continued to eat as though Thomas hadn’t spoken.
The helper comes in and puts down a tray of pills and a tumbler of water.
“Later,” Mai Yuen tells her.
“No,” the woman insists. “Now.”
Thomas is impressed at how his mother complies, the fine gold bangles tinkling on her bony wrist as she lifts the glass. She lets the helper arrange the cushions behind her.
At least his mother has her. He shouldn’t begrudge her that.
Thomas lay on his bed, facing the wall.
Chun Hin had gone out hours before. He hadn’t shouted or slammed doors, he’d simply walked away from them all, having somewhere more important to be. Oh, the luxury of just being able to get up and leave.
Mai Yuen sat in the lounge, still wearing her new dress with a deep plunge at the front and pattern cut boots. Her metallic eyeshadow was smeared by tears. She stared at the wall, the television muted and the colours bright in the darkened room.
Her earrings were on the coffee table. Each one was a diamond stud from which a pearl dangled by a gold chain.
Earlier, Thomas had hung about in the doorway of Mai Yuen’s bedroom, drawn by the sound of slamming drawers. The room was wallpapered in embossed grey silk with mirrored wardrobes that reflected her. Her jewellery case was open and there were boxes piled up on the floor. She knelt on the floor, rummaging through boxes. Chun Hin was downstairs in the lounge, on the phone.
“Have you seen my earrings?” she asked.
A ruse on Thomas’ part.
“The pearl drops your father bought me from Japan.” She opened another box and then threw it down in frustration. “He expects me to wear them.”
Thomas shrugged. Then, Little Judas, he said, “Have you looked in Umbra’s room?”
Mai Yuen froze, another box in her hand, looking at him. The idea gathered enough momentum to get his mother to her feet and send her marching from the room.
The earrings were there, in the folds of one of Umbra’s cheap sweatshirts. Glamorous and opulent, they were a ridiculous thing for a woman in her position to steal. Mai Yuen flew at her, screaming and pulling at fistfuls of Umbra’s hair. Chun Hin had to pull her off.
“I didn’t take them, I swear.” Umbra addressed Chun Hin directly.
“You have to be gone in the morning.” He still held Mai Yuen in his arms, his arms across her chest like iron bars. “It’s out of my hands.”
“I can’t.” It almost sounded like an apology.
So, Thomas lay on his bed, having had a whole evening to reflect. Umbra’s shadow slid under the door and squatted over him like a brooding succubus.
“I’m not a thief,” her shadow said. “Your mother must’ve put them there.”
“No, I did.”
“I don’t understand.” Her shadow put its hand to her chest as though he’d just shot her through the heart.
He was sullen when he should’ve been ashamed.
“Thomas, why? Why would you do it? You’re like a son to me.”
“I’m not your son. You’re a servant.” How he envied her boy those Sundays. “And you already have a son. I saw him. You didn’t tell me.”
“My son . . . ”
“You never told me. You’re a liar and a whore.” A recently acquired word that he thought he understood.
“What would you know, little man?” Little man. It was the first time he’d ever heard her say those words with anything other than tenderness.
“I saw you with my father.”
“On Saturday. Did he make you?”
“No. It’s a fair trade. He’s helped me to keep my son in this country. He’s been true to his word.”
“So, you’ve been fucking him all these years?”
“Better to be one man’s whore than many’s.”
He should’ve told her that he was sorry. He should’ve turned off the lights. Her shadow wasn’t soft and deep. It was sharp and cruel.
“You think you’re gown up now? Are you grown up enough to know the truth about me? Where I come from, the world has fallen down.” The Philippines, a beautiful and anarchic archipelago. “I lived with my mother in a village. One day a truck full of men arrived.
“ ‘We’ve come to liberate you’, the leader said.
“We didn’t know that we weren’t free.
“ ‘We are the New People’s Army.’ The leader sat down in my mother’s chair and slapped his knees with his bloated hands. The others leant against the wall.
“ ‘Go to bed, Umbra,’ my mother said, even though it was morning. She held me close, putting her mouth beside my ear.
“ ‘Yes,’ the leader said, ‘to bed.’
“ ‘Go out through the window and hide,’ she whispered. ‘Don’t come back until they’ve gone.’
“Then she took my face in her hands and looked into my eyes the way she did when she told me not to play in the undergrowth because of snakes.
“The truck stayed all day. When I went back my mother was sat in her chair. I’d never seen her so still. I cast my shadow around the room as a troupe of monkeys, trying to make her laugh. When she eventually did get up to turn down the lamps the back of her skirt was ringed with stains.”
If it was possible for a shadow to cry, then it was.
“We moved to the city. I was raped in a stairwell when I was fifteen. He cut my face to prove what he’d do if I didn’t lie still.
“I didn’t want to be like my mother, forever blank and empty. I decided that if he was going to take something from me then I’d have something from him in return. As he zipped up his fly I covered his shadow. I could feel it tear, ripping under the weight of mine. He staggered and then carried on walking.
“That made me understand how it is to violate another person. I felt powerful and controlling. I knew I’d changed him forever, just as he’d changed me. His life would be a dry and joyless thing.
“My country makes monsters of men and women. Now I have to go back there and take my son with me. He’s too soft for that kind of life. I don’t want him to die in a gutter, someone stood over his body. I don’t want him to carry a gun. It’s your fault. Yours and your family’s.”
Thomas could feel her shadow touching his. He wanted to push it off but couldn’t.
“You’re fierce, little man. I’ll relieve you of those difficult feelings. I’m going to take your shadow and you’ll never feel whole again. When you’re older you’ll wonder why you’re different and I want you to remember that I did this to you.”
Thomas didn’t expect it to hurt.
Thomas stands outside Dragonfly Mansions. A girl passes him, dressed in jeans and a Tiger Beer t-shirt. She pushes a toddler that isn’t hers in a buggy. The child twists around to smile at her, his mother-servant. Thomas thinks of Umbra and for the first time he realises that he never knew her son’s name.
Nothing warms him. Nothing fills him. It’s because of Umbra. She’s all the emotions that he remembers but no longer has, except in an abstract form; pity, lust and love. He’s a remnant of himself, a shade of what he might have been.
Sometimes he thinks it’s all so improbable, that he imagines it, but as he holds out his arms, the late afternoon sun on his back, he casts no shadow.
Originally published in Black Static, Issue 44, January/February 2015.