May was the cruellest month for Mai. She disliked her name as much as she disliked the sliminess of eels, the graininess of chickpeas, her upper lip hair, her periods, Molly showing off the Victoria’s Secret scalloped plunge bralette in the changing room, her profile pic, not having a dad, her mum’s job, her best friend Sophia moving to Cambridge for a better school, the rain, her curly hair, maths, PE, being an only child, and most recently the word ‘referendum’, or as her friends said, the R word.
Born in the fifth month of the Gregorian calendar, she could have been called May – a name of possibility, May Day, blossom, spring. No, it was Mai ending with an ‘i’: she was doomed to say that for the rest of her life. There was a lifetime of difference between the letter ‘i’ and ‘y’. Instead of assimilating into the country she was born in, Mai with the ‘i’ would forever carry an air of foreignness. When she was growing up, she had dreamed that she would live in a real city – not a city of anything – and change her name to May with a ‘y’, or a better one such as Mia, the twenty- seventh most popular name for girls in 2003, the year she was born. From then on, she had imagined, her life would be untroubled by the homophonic confusion that had been defining her. She preferred her mother’s name, Hannah, which at least sounded English (though Granny only called her 霜, which meant frost). Hannah hated Granny calling her Frost, but Granny called her Frost nonetheless because mother and daughter were meant to agitate each other when they were alive and because underneath their agitation was a form of intimacy that would only be understood when one of them was gone.
Mai was brought up with Granny joking about her near-death experiences on a daily basis – how she had slipped on the floor and nearly broken her hip, how the cleaver had fallen off the chopping board and nearly taken her toe, how the burning oil had sizzled up too high and nearly deep-fried her eye, and in a nutshell, how Death had ‘brushed past’ her neck daily in the kitchen of her takeaway restaurant, but time after time she had managed to get past unscathed. ‘Brushed past’ was Granny’s favourite phrase when it came to these deadly close encounters, and since a young age Mai had associated death with something soft, accidental, and ubiquitous, like a cat brushing past her feet before turning into a red carcass on the road, or Granny’s delicate snow-hair massacred by her greasy kitchen. Even the alphabet had to bite the dust, like the Edward Gorey poster on her wall: ‘A is for Amy who fell down the stairs. B is for Basil, assaulted by bears.’ She couldn’t remember when she had crossed out ‘Maud’ to make room for herself: ‘M is for Mai who swept out to sea’.
She thought she saw the sea every day but she always had to correct herself that it was the river’s mouth – brown, muddy, constipated – more like an anus than a mouth. The river smelt differently each time the wind changed. An inland gale would attack her nose with earth and horse- manure, whereas a sea gust would tickle her taste buds with salt, seaweed, and mackerel. On school days when the bus dropped her back in town, she took a detour to walk along the quay, past the Bingo palace, the fish-and-chip shop, the overfilled rubbish bin, and onto a concrete clearing where she could get close enough to the water to breathe in the muddy currents while finishing a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps. Granny said people used to dump whale carcasses along the riverbank, and at neap tide, if you were gifted, you could hear their clicks, whistles, and calls vibrating underwater in the midnight air, as they looked for their lost pods. That was the saddest story Granny told about death. Whenever a seagull on the quay screeched at her, she thought of the ghost whales.
All ghosts must have a past, including Britain and the European Union, Mai thought, as she tried to construct the opening statements for her class debate on the referendum. It was scheduled to take place before the vote the following month in June.
A seagull wailed and shat on a baby in a pram. The mother, with her bleached blond hair tied back in a tight ponytail, looking almost as young as Mai, was yelling curses at the sky. Mai found herself laughing before she realized she shouldn’t be.
‘What the fuck are you laughing at, bitch? Go home!’ Mai turned away. The young mother
sneered at her, calling her all sorts of names.
When Mai told Granny what had happened on the quay, Granny told her that it was rude to laugh at other people’s misfortunes but many people did it anyway.
‘Is the referendum a misfortune?’ Mai asked.
‘Oh, please Mai, not the R word again. I’m sick of it.’ Granny said. ‘She told me to go home. Do you think it’s because I look different?’
‘That could mean anything,’ Granny was putting a huge bag of garlic on the table. ‘We all look different one way or another.’
‘I’ll get slaughtered in the debate if I don’t get a grip on the R word.’ ‘I can’t help, Mai. I’m not political.’
‘The head-teacher says everyone is political.’ ‘Well, he’s wrong.’
‘It’s a she.’
‘Oh, pardon me. Is he what people these days call transitioning?’
‘No, Granny! My head-teacher is a woman.’ Mai was annoyed and amused.
‘I have nothing against women being head-teachers.’ Granny banged a head of garlic with the cleaver and it exploded into cloves like a bomb.
‘Why did you say he then?’ ‘Isn’t it the default pronoun?’
‘No, my default pronoun is she.’
‘OK, clever clogs. Do you want to help me with the garlic or not?’ ‘Are you going to help me with the debate?’
Granny had told Mai many times that the success of her chicken chow mein depended entirely on piling on the garlic. When she’d first come to Britain and opened the takeaway in the sixties, garlic was a rare, exotic ingredient much discriminated against by customers. But she had insisted on putting it in, initially using a whole unpeeled clove just to flavour the oil. Gradually, as the years went by, she introduced more garlic, from the discreet and finely-chopped to the less reticent
thinly-sliced. The dish had taken over forty years to evolve to its current form: a whole clove, thoroughly fried, golden and crispy on the outside, sweet and mushy on the inside, as bold and naked as a new-born child. There were six of them in her signature dish.
‘People’s taste changes over time,’ Granny said. ‘Perhaps you could use garlic as an example in your debate?’
Mai laughed and started dividing the garlic into two opposing teams. Following a structure as old as the British Parliament, the garlic puppets debated the EU membership fee, trade, sovereignty, immigration, borders, jobs, security and Britain’s place in the world. Mai conjured up the NHS, the battle-bus, Obama, and Turkey, hopping from one example to another as her eyes did when checking photos online. Granny was gripped by Mai’s passion and edginess. It was as if Mai
was possessed by the news vortex, regurgitating the voices she had heard here and there to create a collage. It was not unlike cooking.
Granny listened so carefully that the cleaver, instead of chopping through the spare ribs, nearly took the top of her thumb off. Blood poured from the small cut.
When Mai dressed the wound with iodine and plaster, she stared into the deep-furrowed wrinkles on Granny’s face. It looked like a felled tree revealing its growth rings.
Mai took the apron and the cleaver and chopped her way through two kilos of spare ribs, while her grandmother was prepared the marinade with orange peel, ginger, and five-spice powder.
‘Are you Remain?’ Granny asked, mixing the marinade into the ribs. ‘Of course! But I’ve been put on the Leave team. It’s so annoying. I think I’m going to lose. It’s so difficult to argue for the other side when you don’t believe in it.’
‘It’s equally difficult to believe in anything these days,’ Granny said.
Mai knew the kitchen like the back of her hand. Although the stainless steel worktop had lost its shine, the well-equipped, compact kitchen was meticulously clean and tidy. At the end wall stood a Victorian kitchen dresser filled with a fine collection of blue Wedgwood plates depicting oriental scenes of pagodas and willow trees, and an old man with a goat-beard holding a child’s hand and walking on a bridge over a stream full of fishes. They looked so foreign to Mai and so unloved in the fluorescent light, although she knew her grandmother treasured them because they had been wedding presents.
Mai took out the pre-prepared ingredients from the fridge and lined them up in an order only intelligible to her Granny. She loosened the noodles with her hands under the cold tap like washing her hair. This after-school routine had long become a physical memory as close as the bond between them. They had been stealing these intimate hours from some god.
‘What do you believe in?’ Mai asked.
Granny pondered for a while and said, ‘The future.’
Mai looked across to the other end of the small kitchen and caught her grandmother’s stooped posture, rubbing the marinade into the ribs as gently as if singing a lullaby to a baby. Under the harsh fluorescent light, her Granny’s shrivelled body looked like an old cashew nut that had been left in the cupboard too long and had lost its sweet crunchiness.
‘Don’t tell your mother that we spoke about the R word,’ Granny said and disappeared into the storeroom.
Mai walked home by the waterfront. Under the yellow sodium streetlamps stood a statue of yet another middle-aged white man, while above his head, the Union Jack hung as motionless as an old closed parasol among an assortment of flags from other countries in the European Union. She saw two teenage girls as floppy as jellies, one drinking from a wine bottle and the other one half- collapsed on the kerb. She didn’t quite dare to look.
There were posters on the walls with the word Leave in different colours and fonts. Although the lettering was different, their messages were not dissimilar.
Her mother had texted to say she would be home late, so Mai turned on the microwave and heated up the sweet aubergines with minced pork that her Granny had especially made for her. She left her mother’s portion in the fridge.
When Hannah came home, Mai was sound asleep.
That night, two hours or so past midnight, her grandmother died in her bed. The coroner later confirmed she’d had a heart attack. A sudden, sharp pain must have hit her, as there were signs of struggle in the bedclothes.
When Mai let herself into the takeaway restaurant through the backdoor as usual the following day, Granny was nowhere to be seen in the kitchen. She went upstairs and knocked on the bedroom door. No answer. When she opened the door she saw the old lady lying on the bed, twisted on herself like a barbecued king prawn.
She sat on the floor near the bed.
She wept. She panicked. She became breathless. Then she went downstairs and rang 999.
She gave her name and the address.
She heard her own voice swallowing tears. She called her mum. Answer phone.
She tried again. Answer phone. She left a message: Granny’s dead. I’m at the takeaway. She waited for the police and the ambulance.
She couldn’t make herself go upstairs again.
She looked around and found everything in the kitchen in its usual place. She should have been peeling the garlic with Granny at this very moment. She cried fluorescently, non-stop.
She stopped crying when the police and paramedics arrived.
She followed them upstairs. Granny was there, unchanged, unmoved, like a discarded mannequin in a bin.
The paramedics had to ease the duvet out of her tight fists.
The next day Mai couldn’t find her voice. When she opened her mouth, she felt gagged by an invisible hand seizing her throat and putting pressure on her lungs, as if something as misplaced as a ghost whale was beached in the middle of her chest. She looked everywhere – in her mouth,
on her tongue, in-between her teeth, on the internet, in the lines of her favourite songs – but it was nowhere to be found. Mai thought it was one of her idiotic performances. After all, how could
you possibly lose your own voice overnight? That invisible hand must be one of her own hands squeezing the common sense out of her. But everyone said that she was in shock, and the mass- diagnosis was confirmed by the school counsellor, a devotee of ‘The Seven Stages of Grief’ in which the first stage was apparently shock, though it had nothing to do with the loss of speech.
‘When people are in shock, they are lost for words.’ The counsellor explained authoritatively.
Mai could do nothing but listen to this crap.
In fact, she realized that listening was a zillion times harder now she was deprived of the power of speech –
She’s like weird isn’t she not being able to speak
(Fear no more the heat o’ the sun)
I heard she found her granny like dead in bed
(Death lies on her like an untimely frost)
I lost my granny last year I managed to speak alright
(Speak the speech, I pray you)
Not everyone is the same like you emotionless bot
(Make passionate my sense of hearing)
She’s a Maibot
(I must be cruel only to be kind)
She looks sick and pale we should buy her like mascara
(All that glisters is not gold)
Do you think she’s possessed like Asian people believe in these things
(The spirits of the dead may walk again)
Remember she does look yellowy in the school photo
(The complexion of a devil)
The thing is she’s the one who has done all the work for the debate
(Give every man thy ear but few thy voice)
We just need to detach her from her mouth
(In limited professions there’s boundless theft)
There were things that Mai could hear and things that she couldn’t. The things she wished she hadn’t heard she tried to delete and the things that she wished she could have heard she made up.
She sat in the classroom attacked by sounds that would normally have fallen beyond the circumference of her attention: a page being turned, wind on the roof, time ticking, gulls shrieking as they headed inland, the inaudible boredom of learning, over-accentuated consonants, the way English sounds when you can’t speak it.
Suddenly Mai could smell garlic, and there was her grandmother, fuzzy at the edges, standing in the corner next to the whiteboard, neither noticeably interested nor distracted, looking at a poster about the Referendum debate. She was freed from the past, with no sign of the present.
Mai raised her voice to call out. Her mouth opened wide in the stagnant air of the class which was too bored and sleepy, desperate for the apparently endless first act of A Midsummer Night’s Dream to come to a close.
Her grandmother had appeared as abruptly as she had now disappeared, leaving no trace behind and the British Isles still blank and white on the debate poster, as if the country had been mapped with perforated lines ready for a quick cut-out.
Barely anyone in the class cared about Shakespeare, or any appearing and disappearing shapes or forms.
Mai looked down on the page and saw:
We will meet, and there we may rehearse
most obscenely and courageously. Take
pains. Be perfect. Adieu.
She mouthed the words soundlessly as if saying a prayer.
Two more days passed and Mai remained in silence. As her mother and the teachers got increasingly suspicious and wondered whether it was an affectation or something more serious, like depression, and if so, whether the girl should consider taking a leave of absence, the counsellor reassured everyone that the situation was likely to be temporary as it was one of the recognized stages of grief.
‘The cloud of grief over Mai will pass. Her sun will come out again,’ the counsellor forecast confidently and somehow her apparently clichéd metaphor touched the non-believers, including Mai herself.
That night Mai dreamed that she had a perfectly normal conversation with her mother for what seemed the first time. They were in the kitchen and Hannah was making spaghetti Bolognese though in real life she hadn’t a clue how to cook. The sauce infused the room with the sweetness of tomatoes, nutmeg, and minced meat, making the windows weep in a thin veil of steam. Mai sat there looking at Hannah’s back, and said, I asked Granny what she believed in, and guess what she said? She said ‘the future’. What did she mean by that? Her mother stood still in front of the cooker, stirring the sauce with a wooden spoon. Mai waited for a long time but Hannah didn’t say a word. She raised her voice again until she was screaming the future, the future at Hannah’s back, but nothing permeatedthat solid human wall. She woke and found herself drenched in night sweats. She got up and fetched herself a glass of water from the kitchen, before tip-toeing past her mother’s bedroom. Through the door she saw her mother sleeping quietly in bed, her face lit intermittently by the headlights sweeping through the curtains, flooding the room with seconds of sharp, white light like slides of X-rays. Her mother lay as still as a child or a corpse. Her gentle breathing hummed through the valley of her chest, on a reassuringly familiar wavelength. Mai stood motionless as a stone, seeing the words escaping from her brain, now fleeing when they were most needed.
The following morning, she walked past the takeaway restaurant but couldn’t find the strength to insert the key and slip in through the back door as usual.
At school, while her teammates were putting on make-up and doing their hair, she sneaked into the computer room and spent half an hour before the debate typing out the arguments against the motion, imagining herself delivering the opening speech: People’s taste changes over time, as in the past most people used to hate garlic but now most of us think it tastes nice. If we as a people voted to join forty- two years ago, we as a people can vote to leave now because we have changed over time.
She felt as divided as – she didn’t know what. The Berlin Wall came to mind although she had never been to Berlin, never seen the Wall, never quite known what exactly it meant in history. Nevertheless, she liked the sound of it.
The classroom was already fully prepped for the debate. All the tables and chairs had been rearranged and the English teacher had transformed herself into the Speaker, presiding over a pantomime version of THE HOUSE OF COMMONS, which was written in awkward capital letters on the whiteboard. Below it were the words of the motion, in untidy lowercase. As soon as Mai appeared at the door, the whole noisy class drew a deep breath and went totally quiet, as if she
were infectious. She found her chair, and the minute she sat down, the class erupted again, as if her entire existence had been erased.
She looked out through the window to the heavy grey sky and wondered why on earth she was still alive, here, now, in front of people who were going to attack her and tear her into little pieces like creatures you could see in one of those nature programmes with the word ‘blue’ in it that her Granny had loved to watch because she found David Attenborough so sexy, even though she had absolutely no interest in wild life, apart from fantasies of chopping fish or animals up and cooking them in various delicious ways.
Mai was looking for the smell of garlic. She needed those garlic-puppets she’d used to rehearse the debate. She wished she was as dead as the six cloves of garlic in her Granny’s chicken chow mein. She wanted some chicken chow mein right now.
Her opponent’s speech liquefied into a dark, viscous, undecipherable river into which she was edging, step by step, like a scene of suicide.
Suddenly it was her turn. She stood up with her prepared speech and opened her mouth. Nothing.
Her hands were shaking uncontrollably. Her teammates’ faces all reddened with embarrassment.They looked away and completely dissociated themselves from her. The teacher looked concerned but didn’t seem to know what to do.
Mai clenched her fists and summoned all her energy from her feet to her stomach to her mouth. The class sensed her heroic effort and started chanting her name – ‘Mai! Mai! Mai! You can do it!’
She closed her eyes, took a deep breath, and opened her mouth. Nothing.
The words on her script started to blur and disintegrate in front of her eyes into black smudges of unrecognizable, expired things.
She slumped back into her seat, exhausted, deflated, wanting a hole to hide in.
One of her teammates grabbed her script and had a quick scan. She threw it to the others and said, ‘No way I’m saying this rubbish. It’s all about garlic!’ The other teammates took a quick look and were reduced to silent agreement.
The rest of the class went riotously loud and the teacher had to call the whole debate off.
Nobody had won for now.
Through the confusing noise and disorder, Mai heard three distinctive sounds
she swore she would remember till the day she died: the lingering
bass of a foghorn, the high-pitched shriek of a gull, and the desperate
arrhythmic knocking of her trapped heart.
She combined the three sounds in her ears and thought she could hear a ghost whale.
At lunch she tried ringing her mother’s mobile but it was an answer phone. She texted to say she felt sick and wanted to come home.
On the way back to the classroom, the English teacher touched her shoulder gently and said, ‘Don’t blame yourself. It could happen to anyone. Cheer up! It’s your class’s turn to go to the gallery this afternoon. It’s the City of Culture show, remember?’
Mai couldn’t find any words but nodded.
‘You’ll be fine, Mai’ the teacher said. ‘Let bygones be bygones.’
All the good seats at the back of the coach had been taken, so Mai had no choice but to sit on her own in the front. Nobody spoke to her.
The coach drove through some tree-lined streets and past some nice houses but mostly the view was grey, forgettable, and poor, packed with the ordinary council estates and tower blocks at the outskirts of the city. Through a few parked lorries and neatly packed stacks of timber under a tarpaulin, Mai saw a glimpse of the river and a small, orange cargo boat moored at the quay.
The clouds had dispersed, leaving a big, blue, empty sky. The river ran like a mighty brown serpent out to the sea. Between sky and water there was a faint dividing line of land the
other side of the river. The river was gleaming in the sun. The silence was magnified in the broad daylight. It was a midweek afternoon and the gallery was almost deserted. The class was left to browse aimlessly from room to room, walking through the city’s maritime history, stuffy eighteenth-century aristocratic portraits, random medieval icons, and a Turner.
Mai and a few classmates wandered into a special exhibition without noticing that it was special. On two white shelves as big as banquet tables, fifty odd pieces of Georgian and Victorian porcelain tableware with faces of black people painted over them were displayed at eye-level – a jug with the profile of a woman wearing a bright yellow headscarf, a suited man with an indigo tie at
the bottom of a cup, a young man in an orange shirt looking out from the lid of a butter dish.
A scream – long, faint, but clearly from the heart – pierced the gallery silence.
It was Mai’s. She stood frozen in front of the porcelain. Tears drew canals across her cheeks.
Her classmates flew across the room and gave her some tissues but the situation had gone beyond tissues. She felt herself going soft like moss under water.
Holding onto her classmates’ arms, she managed to break her silence and say in a slightly cracked voice, ‘Did you see that blue serving plate with a little white man riding on the shoulder of a big white man that says Rushing to sell his shares at Castleton? My Granny had the same one.’
On the gallery’s CCTV camera, Mai was caught crying with two of her classmates whose names she would forget in the years to come.
But in the frozen frames, Mai kept her eyes open despite the salty tears. The ornate, decorative patterns on the china were thrown into the background, yet each individual black face seemed to be part of a historical fragment, speaking out from the chipped and cracked porcelain glazes. Mai was mesmerized by the clashes of colours, races, cultures, as if the past, present, and future were being stir-fried on that one big dish. The strange plates brought back the child and teenager in her: alone, divided, and only precariously connected with others. She felt sad, naughty humoured, inappropriate, as well as shocked by an unfamiliar a sense of responsibility. Apart from speaking again through her own voice, she wanted to pick up a brush and paint.
That, she thought, would be her birthday present.