This story isn’t a pleasant one and it doesn’t have a redeeming ending. Sometimes, when I’m working on a main character for a larger story I write shorts like this, to get more insight into how that character would react when the shit hits the fan.
I know it doesn’t seem a very nice thing to do, but writing a complex character means that I have to throw everything at him or her, to find out where the high points and the breaking points are. This, then, was an exercise in breaking the lead character and seeing if he’d recover from it, and how long it’d take him, and how he’d do it. In this story, he hasn’t recovered even though the years have passed. Life can be like that.
This short is a bit clunky. I didn’t go back to smooth it out because it served its purpose and it led to another short I’m in the process of writing but which is, I think, a pretty controversial subject. We’ll see about that one.
This story comes with multiple warnings:
:::Death::: :::Bigotry::: :::Racism::: :::Loss of a child:::
Have you ever lost something precious to you, really lost it with no hope of recovery, and yet you can’t quite reconcile that it’s gone? I understand that feeling because it happened to me three times. The version of me that I am now is not the one I thought I’d become, because life can strip away the things you thought you’d grow old with.
I was working in Italy on a four-month consulting project. The Italians are a lovely people, and I will ever have a place in my heart for them and their culture. However, their sometimes chaotic way of doing business is what led me to be there in my capacity as a business rescuer. I was the guy who went in before the liquidators, who often appointed me in a last-ditch attempt to turn a promising if badly managed business around.
By the time I was three weeks into my work I had already drawn a few conclusions. Italians are very welcoming; they are willing to change anything as long as everything they want stays the same, and I needed some space to myself. If you let them, these naturally gregarious and family oriented people will have you eating enough food to feed a battalion, and there won’t be a second when you have time to be lonely – not even when you’re in the bathroom.
So, one night after work I made a quick escape from the office and I decided that I was just going to walk, and breathe, and be. After half an hour I thought I’d have a light snack in a cafe and then have an early night. I walked past several cafes that didn’t excite me, and then I found one that did. Walking inside, I was seated in a small downstairs alcove, tucked under the narrow stairs that went up to the mezzanine, a much larger open space.
Mid-way through my entree, a 40-strong group of Chinese people came into the cafe and began trundling very loudly upstairs, where they became even louder. By the time my main meal arrived I was seriously considering leaving; the noise was incredible, and it spilled over the bannister and fell to where I was seated. I didn’t begrudge those people their noise and enjoyment. I just wanted something different.
The bathrooms were downstairs, and over the course of that first quarter of an hour perhaps half a dozen people came down to use them. They were all friendly and polite, smiling and nodding to me, and making gestures that showed me they were aware of the noise and sorry for it. “Mei guanxi!” I said, smiling, to the obvious delight of the last person who apologised to me. I had said, in Mandarin, “No problem.”
Upstairs, the word must have spread that a ‘laowai’, a ‘foreigner’, had spoken Chinese. In the mid-1980s, not so very long after China under Deng Xioping had ‘opened up’, it was still rare for a non-Chinese to speak Mandarin. They were all suitably impressed. I was about to leave when a young Chinese woman came to my table and, in broken English, invited me to join her group. “We so noise!” she said, smiling. “Xie xie,” I said. “Mei wenti. Wo xiao lai le!” Her eyes went wide. I had thanked her, told her it was fine, and said I was just about to leave.
What I didn’t tell her was that I thought she was beautiful. We spoke for another five minutes or so, her in broken English and me soon running out of the smattering of Mandarin I knew. She left when a sullen man came down and was quite rude to her. In those days, no mainland group travelled without a member of the Communist Party, and that member was all-powerful. She had given me her business card, and scribbled her name and address in China on the back of it in Pinyin: Anglicised Mandarin.
We kept in contact over the next three years through sporadic and painstakingly translated letters. To this day I suspect half of them were routinely intercepted by Chinese censors and never made it to their intended recipient.
I took a contract in China, helping to establish an English language bureau for government officials. I also took it because it put me closer to the girl who became my wife. That was a difficult time for a Chinese woman to marry a foreign man, and many obstacles were placed in our way, but love really does find a way. We married in China, and then later we married again in Italy, so that my friends and family could be present. Most had been denied entry visas into China because our interracial marriage was problematic to the Chinese.
We lived in Australia for the next five years. My wife was treated dreadfully by her own people because they saw her choice as being an abandonment of her nationality. It separated her from her family, which wasn’t easy, but it introduced her to freedom, which took her a while to get used to. In 1993, our daughter Helen was born.
In 1996, with China now clamouring for ‘foreign experts’, we returned there, reuniting with Chris’ family. It’s a strange quirk of Chinese thinking that to marry a foreigner is seen as something of a betrayal, and yet Eurasian children are so incredibly loved it’s hard not to let them be spoiled by it. Helen, very fortunately, got her mother’s looks, but there were definite traces of me there. Her blue eyes and more European features contrasted beautifully with her Chinese skin tone and black hair. She was tall, lean, and straight-legged, even as a child.
Under the terms of my contract I worked away a lot, but I always came home as soon as I could. Chris and Helen were my real life. 1998 was the beginning of a very awkward period for us. Chris, who had always loved Helen so incredibly, began speaking dreadfully to Helen and, for the first time, roughly slapped her on occasion. The first I knew of this was when I came home from a typical journey away and Helen ran into my arms at the door, crying “Daddy, save me!”
She was inconsolable. Something had happened, I just didn’t know what it was. Chris seemed vague and ragged, and I wondered if life as a foreigner’s wife here was worse for her than she had let on. Over the next eight months, her relationship with Helen deteriorated badly, to the point where I really had to intervene. I became so frustrated with Chris that, in truth, I began thinking about divorcing her, if only to save Helen from the beatings Chris was inflicting on her while I was away.
One night, after Chris had been particularly spiteful to Helen, I put our girl to bed and fell asleep in the chair next to her. I felt Chris’ presence at the door and I roused myself. She just stood there, looking at me, one hand on the door frame and the other holding a bloodied tissue. I stood up, shocked, and I went to her. She hobbled back into our bedroom and fell on the bed. She was pale, her nose was bleeding, and there was blood coming out of her anus.
Chinese doctors of Western medicine were not well trained in those days, and what equipment they had was cast off old junk, bought cheaply on the secondhand international market. After many misdiagnoses, and when Chris had become too sick for air travel, the right diagnosis finally came in. She had a primary brain tumour and secondary cancers in her bowel.
Soon, it became bad. I had to, with a breaking heart, send Helen to stay with Chris’ sister in another city. All these years later and it can still make me cry when I recall the look on her face as she left. What can I say? I did the best thing I could, but that didn’t make it easy. I had to send Helen away for her own safety. As Chris’ brain tumour devoured her, her behaviour toward Helen became dangerous.
Please, don’t think badly of Chris. I have never known anyone with the capacity to love that she had. I think badly of the tumour, because that’s where it all came from.
Soon enough, Chris’ condition became worse, and then it became dire. I had my employer to deal with. He appeared to be concerned, but he wanted his pound of flesh. Another Chinese dying in China was of no real concern to him, but having a foreigner was how he derived exorbitant fees that were fuelling his car and buying his home. I still can’t bring myself to describe, without loathing and absolute hatred, the shit he put me through during that time.
I was with Chris when she died. It wasn’t pretty, and she was so far gone from who she really was I don’t think she comprehended much. I knew my Chris, the real one, would never have said to me those things she did, near the end. No one will ever know what her last clearly thought words to me were, but I can tell you that they were all that stopped me from following her into oblivion, and they saved my life a dozen times in the years afterward.
Helen and I went back to Australia. Neither of us could settle, though. She had always been a daddy’s girl, but now she was so highly strung that I couldn’t even leave a room without her following me. She cried a lot, the poor little kid, and I trod a very fine line between telling her about how much Mum had loved her, and what the tumour did, and leaving her to process it all. After three months, we took a trip to England. I have a friend there, Kris, whom I’ve known for decades. I don’t know what it is with those two, but she and Helen were absolutely nuts about each other; they always had been.
So for a while we stayed with Kris, and I took Helen to a lady who is a marvel of modern humanity and an in-demand therapist for kids who’ve lost a parent. Me? I was dying inside; I see that now, but at the time I sucked it up and just put one foot in front of the other.
A chance remark one day while I was shopping led to a more serious discussion a few weeks later, and a month after that I was the owner of a business that would keep me local and close to home. A year later I bought a Grade B Listed home that was built before Captain Cook landed in Australia. We were home.
In the thirteen months between arriving and buying our home, I enrolled Helen in a local school. She didn’t fare so well at first and, as events will show, neither did I.
Mothers are supposed to be the fonts of kindness, aren’t they? Perhaps the ones at the school didn’t get that memo. I dropped Helen off and picked her up, and it wasn’t long before the rumours began. Was I divorced? Separated? Can you believe that some yummy-mummy-on-the-make asked my 7-year old child those questions? It got worse; much worse.
Because of Helen’s ‘exotic’ looks there were a few nasty comments about me having married a mail-order bride. Now, let’s see … I am Welsh but I was living in Australia. I met a Chinese woman in Italy. I didn’t buy her because, you know, buying people is slavery and my own people have known 900 years of that under the occupation of the English, so I’m somewhat sensitive to human ownership and servitude. What that comment was really about is that I am white and my wife wasn’t. What was worse, was that those gossipers were taking it out on a child. Heroic, I know.
At a play group I took Helen to, some awful woman glared at me, the only male, all the way through. By the end of the week rumours had reached me that, in her expert opinion, I was ‘grooming’ my child and maybe, just maybe, others. Yes, she was accusing me of incest and child molestation. Her evidence? I sat in a chair and watched my daughter play with other children of her own age. Want to know what I did? Nothing, until after I put Helen to bed, and then I went to my room and cried my eyes out. Until then, I never knew a human body could shed so many tears.
A few of the other mothers were outraged at what that woman had said, but they voiced their opinions very quietly. See, as a man, and a single one, I am a natural target for misandry. I’m single, the thought process goes, so I must be a molester. It wasn’t the last spiteful and unfounded comment aimed at me, but I think it was the one that hurt the most. The first cut is the deepest, and all that.
I really didn’t know what to do. Should I even dignify a comment like that? Ignore it and carry on? Hide, for Helen’s sake? There isn’t a rule book for things like that. A little later, in some sort of flag-waving sop from the ‘open-minded’ mothers, I was invited, with Helen, to other childhood events. For the first four times I dropped Helen off and waited outside in my car until she was ready to leave. It was months later I found out that awful woman had called the police because she was ‘concerned’ that a ‘stranger’ was ‘loitering’ outside. The police drove by, I remember seeing the car, but they didn’t stop.
“I think you’ll be safer inside,” one of the mother’s said to me on the fifth visit. I told her, honestly, that the awful woman was in there and she upset Helen (who had heard the rumour but not understood it’s meaning). I thought it might be better to stay outside. Finally, I went in, and I felt immediately embarrassed. Everyone was trying too hard to show how supportive and evolved they were, and it was cloying.
The awful woman made a waspish point of asking Helen not to play with her child. Helen looked confused and hurt. Who does that to a child? Well, no one attacks my cub. Not ever. I went to Helen, picked her up in my arms, and said we had to go. I looked directly at the awful woman and in a voice pitched to carry I said: “Paint your house.” She looked stunned that I could actually speak, or perhaps that I had dared speak to her. “Paint your house, because a year from now a judge will be awarding it to me in damages,” I said. Helen and I left.
Look, I’m not the most wonderful guy in the world, far from it, but I have learned from dread experience that if I genuinely care for you, you can count on me to be there no matter what. People who disapprove of me call me stubborn. People who know me call me loyal. I am, I believe, a man of my word. So from that understanding you’ll see why I kept my promise to the awful woman.
Within a week I had started legal proceedings. Within a month, at my request, Helen and I had been interviewed separately and together by Child Services, Helen had ‘seen’a doctor, if you know what I mean, our home and our lives had been turned upside down, and here’s a complete truth. ‘Services’ were so impressed with us, and me, that later I was asked if I would consider being a foster father / big brother to children in trouble. It’s highly unusual for a single male, especially in my age group, to be asked that. I have fostered three children, all of whom have gone on to really make something of their lives, and none of whom were molested by me.
I received an awful letter from the awful woman, through her solicitor, which sort of apologised in a ‘you can’t be too careful’, ‘considering the welfare of the child’ way. The weak piece of shit. It read like an apology wrapped in an accusation and finished off with a vague suggestion that the woman was a hero and an angel. I sent her solicitor an envelope full of paint colour swatches and nothing else.
We came to court. Her evidence didn’t take long to present, because she had none. I, on the other hand, had the might of the local school, the local mothers, Child Safety officials, a doctor’s report, a psychologist’s report, and a solicitor who was genuinely outraged on my behalf. The defining moment, however, came from me.
In giving evidence I said: “I am husband to a dead wife, and father to a living daughter. I am not what you have accused me of, and I will not be that for you.” I never took my eyes off that awful woman.
I won. The judge even particularly mentioned the paint swatches and added with a smirk that it was a nice touch. I was awarded costs and I had waived damages just before we went into court. I wanted that awful woman to think, until the last second, that her vicious mouth had cost her her home. In the event, she was completely ostracised and less than a year later she and her family had moved to the other end of England ‘to take up an offer of work that was too good to refuse.’ She was a liar to the end, and probably still is.
No one really knew how to approach me after that. They all wanted to congratulate me, as if I’d won something rather than defended myself and Helen from truly vile comments, but I pretty much kept to myself for a while. Helen was invited everywhere, in a show of ‘motherly’ support, I suppose, and it was good for her so I encouraged it. For myself, I remained a small target.
I had date offers from some lovely ladies, but my heart just wasn’t in it. I worked, and I grew close to the guys I employed. Their families became an extension of mine, and I felt like I was finding a modicum of peace. I don’t cry often, and it takes a lot. One comment that did get to me, however, was when a really nice woman very innocently said she thought I was in love with a ghost, and that for Helen’s sake and my sake I should move on. That hurt me deeply, and it still does, probably because there’s more than a little truth in it.
In 2002 Helen came home with a temperature. I had always been hyper-vigilant with her health, so off to the doctor we went. Bacterial meningitis. She cried through the tests, sniffled through the week, and rallied after that. She had all the usual symptoms and I had all the usual doctor’s assurances. We were good. She had a few nights of bad headaches, the poor little thing, and I had a sore neck and back from sleeping in the chair in her room while she recovered. I went downstairs to make myself some tea, and then I smelled a very strong waft of vomit. I raced upstairs, and poor little Helen had unloaded all over her bed. She was really pale, and it scared me.
In the time it took me to get downstairs, call an ambulance, and get back to her, Helen had stopped breathing and she died. I did CPR. I did everything, but everything wasn’t enough. The ambulance officers worked on her, but in the end their ambulance became a hearse.
I gave the business to the men who worked for me. Their friendship has endured the years, and seeing their kids grow and go off to university or into the workforce has been good for all of us. I sold the house; you know why. For the next eight years I stumbled around the world, staying long enough to see every one of the friends I have come to love, but not long enough to love them more, before returning to Australia.
I’ve taken massive damage, I know. I’ve killed my own life; I know that, too. Every time I try to get it started again I do really well for a while, and then I get scared. I quit my job, I leave my home, and I travel some more.
I had it all, and I lost it all, and now something inside me is so broken I can’t stand to have any more of any thing. I meet my immediate bills, and that’s about it. The part of me, the really smart part, knows I can make a comeback if I try, but I’m all out of trying.
I know how to love, but I don’t know how to let anyone get close to me anymore. Want to know what my dearest friends call me? ‘The Invisible Man’, because they never know when I’m going to disappear again. They’re all on the other side of the world; I’m not close to anyone here. Maybe one day, if we’ve been friends long enough, I’ll come to love you, too. I’m really good at loving people. But you know what? You can’t rely on me to be loved back. I can be your friend, and I think I know how to be a good one, but I can’t ever be the one you really love.
I will not be that for you.
For Chris and Helen. I will love you through lifetimes.