BAME Prize 2017: Duty Free by Kit Fan

Shelia is trapped in the present like most of us.  She hears all sorts of funny words the girls have said at the counter to describe the famous whisky from Laphroaig – firm, dignified, nutty, mouth-coating, autumnal – but none is more effective than ‘potent’, when their perfectly manicured nails point at the Mull of Kintyre, the legendary one and wholly Scottish penis, and within a well rehearsed second the girls blush in unison at the customers, who are often well suited middle-aged business men flying solo and yearning for the warmth flowing from their mouth to chest to groin, coming from a wild, wind-swept, solitary place, rather like a child wishing to be somewhere far away where the old Peter Pan is still consumed by wanderlust.  Laphroaig is on Islay, isn’t it?  Men often ask.  Sorry, the girls’ faces blossom.  Nothing flies off the shelves as quickly as a suggestive smile, a harmless pretence that has everything to do with sex just when it can’t happen.  Since the opening of HK International Airport one year after the Handover of the last British Colony to the Chinese, this trick has never failed, not even once, the girls claim, not even with gay men.

Shelia tasted it once.  A bottle had slipped off a customer’s hand while he was flirting with the Mull of Kintyre.  She was sent to mop up the mess.  A generous drop of whisky was left at the bottom of the broken bottle.  She hid it well and drank it all when nobody was around in the locker room.  It tasted somewhere between estuary and blood.  The broken glass cut her lips.  She liked the manly, extravagant taste.  It reminded her of her husband’s penis.  Ex-husband, that was.  But penis nonetheless.

She sees penises every day.  An occupational hazard, the younger cleaners moan.  Since the notice ‘PLEASE BE AWARE THAT FEMALE CLEANERS OPERATE IN THESE FACILITIES’ has been deployed, men seem less bothered about being seen.  Sometimes at the urinals they lock their eyes on hers, as if she is a tap or hand dryer. It makes her self-conscious about her colour and status.  In the end, everything boils down to colour and status.  But after years of being seen as something she is not, gradually she accepts their glances and stares like a god accepts graven images.

She starts again.  The mop erases the yellow drips around the urinals.  The brush eases the black marks off the loo.  No water stains on the mirrors.  Hand soap refilled.  Air fresheners.  Her initial on the rota at the back of the door.  4:30pm.  S.

The ones at the departure gates are the filthiest.  When men rush, they have the luxury of peeing everywhere.

She enjoys the relative tranquillity after departures.  At the heart of the eighth busiest airport in the world, there is one time and one place where she can efface her entire existence: between 5:30 and 6:00pm in the smallest men’s toilet by Gate 215 after the final call for Frankfurt at 5:15.  This is when the cleaners are changing shifts and the supervisors are having a cup of tea together in the lounge.  She times it to the dot and parks her trolley at the door of Gate 215 toilet.  As if playing truant, she locks herself in the only cubicle, sits on the toilet lid, hooks her phone onto the airport’s free Wi-Fi, and checks the lottery numbers.

She started buying the lottery three years ago when she became an airport cleaner.  Born in August in the year of the Dragon, she has too much fire in her astrological line-up.  The constant movement of people, like a watermill, is supposed to balance her chi.  The benefits of water are further enhanced by the airport’s distinctive location, her fortune teller claims, on a man-made island that catches the cool prevailing wind from Australia in the summer.  Southwards, it is protected by the Tian Tan Buddha on the hill of Ngong Ping.  Westwards, the calm estuary of the Pearl River flows by.  Northwards, the South China Sea opens the city to the world.  Wherever she goes she is surrounded by water and people wealthier than her, two symbiotic forces she is keen to align herself with.

So far, she hasn’t struck even the brim of the jackpot.  Luck is a participatory thing, she tells herself.  She needs to be in it to win it.  Once or twice every year she wins a few hundred consolatory dollars that make her feel alive like the morning dew sizzling in the sun.  Every other day, she isolates herself from dirt and people, typing into her online account the six numbers drawn from her and her son’s birthdays, plus the lucky dip number which is always the present date.  It’s the present that counts – one of her mottos that she has nobody to share with.  She could set it to auto-play, repeating the numbers perpetually in the lap of the gods.  Yet she believes in typing them in herself, the two sets of birth dates entwined like a double helix floating in the universe of probability.

At 5:55, she has an expired Milky Way, one of the perks of cleaning the Duty Free Galleria.  She swipes through the photos on her phone, mostly selfies badly taken by her son.  Her face is often squeezed to the right-hand corner of the pictures, looking frigid and ballooned like a pufferfish at a sushi master’s knife.  She finds it awkward seeing herself in photos and mirrors.  It’s as if a lookalike has stolen her life – strolling in the park, getting messy with ice-creams – and she is living this other life that’s left behind.

At 6pm sharp, she emerges from the Gate 215 toilet, as invisible as other cleaners, but scot-free.

Maybe I’ll win tomorrow, she’s dreaming, guided by the trolley in her hands.

When she is back at base, her supervisor asks if she can do an extra shift this evening from 8 to 12pm.  There’s an incident at Terminal 1, a commotion, people say, and additional cleaning staff are required to stand by as the airport is on amber alert.  This usually means blood on the floor.  Shelia hesitates but the pay will be doubled.  She agrees on two conditions: 1. she is given a dinner-for-two voucher at the sushi restaurant in the departure hall; and 2. a temporary security pass is issued to her son so that he can wait in the lounge and have his favourite sushi during her extra shift.  She always has the upper hand when it comes to this sort of negotiation, as all the other cleaners are squeamish about blood, including her supervisor.

When Shelia appears earlier than expected at the M-café in the check-in hall, Mrs Fan, her son’s private tutor, is relieved.

‘I need to talk to you in private’, Mrs Fan says.

‘I’ve got the tuition fees for this month’, Shelia says.

‘Don’t worry, it’s not about money.’

Shelia knows perfectly well that in Mrs Fan’s world everything is about money.

‘Sunny, come.’  Shelia waves at her son who hesitantly acknowledges her existence.  ‘Here, get yourself an ice-cream.  I need to talk to Mrs Fan.’

The boy jumps off like a sparrow to the end of a long queue.

‘I hope Sunny is not causing any troubles’, Shelia is being extra polite and cautious with Mrs Fan.

‘No, he’s doing well.  His English grammar has improved a lot.  I’m very impressed by his use of gerunds in composition.  I’ve no doubt he’ll do well in the entrance exam.  But … what can I say … I’m too embarrassed to say it really.’

‘I beg your pardon, Mrs Fan, has Sunny done something naughty?’

‘OK, Shelia, I’ll say it as it is.  You see that man sitting there?  Don’t look at him directly!  There, at the ten o’clock position.  See?’

‘The man in the dark blue suit with his laptop?’

‘Don’t catch his attention.  Do you know him?’

‘No.  Why?’

‘Sunny said that man is his father.’

Shelia pauses in order to control her irritation.  She refuses to respond.  She has nothing to say.

‘I’m sorry if I’ve offended you.  I know that man can’t be Sunny’s father.  I mean there is little family resemblance there.  Sunny must have made a mistake.  It’s none of my business really.  Except that Sunny says the man took a photo of him while he was in the toilet.  Not an indecent photo, I gather.  But, still …  Sunny says the man transferred the photo from his phone to his laptop.  He also says the man is secretly watching porn when nobody’s around.’

‘How could Sunny possibly know all that?’

‘We’ve a three-hour lesson today and the café was quiet so we’ve stayed here.  Sunny went to the toilet two or three times.  He only told me this half an hour ago.’

‘Did this man follow Sunny to the toilet each time?’

‘I don’t think so.  I think he was already in the toilet when Sunny went in.  Sunny says he saw his photo on the man’s laptop.  He persuaded me to pretend to go to the toilet to have a closer look at the man.  So I did.’

‘What did you see?’

‘Nothing.  Just when I came close to him, the screen of his laptop went blank.  Sunny says the man pressed Ctrl-Alt-Delete.’

‘What’s Ctrl-Alt-Delete?’

‘I haven’t a clue.’

Their conversation fizzles out as Sunny flies back with a chocolate sundae, destroying the brown ice mountain with his busy tongue.

The silence between the two women has gone unnoticed and dissolves into the ambient airport noise – the crowd, announcement, air con.  Sunny fixes his eyes on the life-sized model of the Wright Flyer suspended above the check-in hall.

‘Sunny and I are very grateful for your help.’  Shelia returns to being extra polite and cautious.

‘Not at all.  It’s my pleasure to teach Sunny.  He’s a gifted boy.  I’m sure he’ll do very well in the entrance exam.’

‘It’s all down to your time and effort, Mrs Fan.’

‘You know me well enough.  I mean it.  He’s a special boy, especially in algebra.  Way ahead of his year group.  Have you had the chance to look at the leaflet I gave you last week about the scholarship application to the boarding school in Stanley?  Sunny seems to be keen.’

‘No, I haven’t yet.  But I certainly will.’

‘Please do.  The school has a specific admissions policy favourable to immigrants.  I mean Sunny’s background will appeal to them.  I don’t mean to be rude but I think you can take advantage from being who you are.  I know this sounds calculating but we’re talking about the future here, Sunny’s future.’  Mrs Fan gathers her bag and Shelia hands her the envelope with next week’s tuition fees. ‘Thank you.  Very well then.  I better be off.  See you on Thursday, Sunny.  Same time and place?’

The boy nods, digesting the words said and unsaid between his mother and his private tutor.

Mother and child say nothing to each other as they pass through the security gate using the staff entrance.  Sunny has done this before with the temporary security pass, and most of the guards know the boy anyway and wave him through.

In the locker room, Shelia fishes out the tablet and hands it to Sunny.

‘Why are you angry at me, Mummy?’

‘Why did you tell Mrs Fan that man in the café is your father?’

‘I didn’t!’

‘Has Mrs Fan lied to me then?’

Sunny looks away in order to keep his silence.

‘So have you lied to me?’

‘It’s a white lie.’  He suddenly speaks in English.

‘What’s a white lie?’

‘It means it’s harmless.’

‘How can saying such a thing be harmless?’

‘I know she feels sorry that Dad is gone and I feel sorry for her feeling sorry for me, so I make things up to make it sound unimportant.’

Shelia is trying to keep her silence but can’t look away from Sunny, who is burying his chin in his chest.

‘Did the man really take a photo of you in the toilet and download it onto his laptop?’

‘Yes.’

‘What should we do about it?  Do you want me to report it to somebody?’

‘Nothing.  It’s just a photo.’

‘What’s Ctrl-Alt-Delete?’

‘To make something disappear.  Like logging off.’

The boy turns on the tablet and sits on the bench.  Shelia puts on her blue cleaning apron.

She sits next to her son, retreating into herself.

There is no physical movement in the room.

Apart from their breathing.

For a second the locker room goes pitch dark.

Sunny’s face is glowing in the white light from the tablet.

He waves his hand in the air and the motion sensor catches life again.

The light’s back.  Shelia sits there as before.  Sunny goes back to his game.

Time passes with or without the pair being together.

‘You’ll be hungry, so eat without me’, Shelia hands the sushi vouchers to her son whose face glows from the inside.

‘Thank you, Mummy!’  He wants to hug her but she’s already in work mode.  ‘I can wait, mummy.  I’m not that hungry.  I just had an ice cream.’

‘It’d be nice to have sushi together.  But I don’t know when I’ll be free.  So don’t wait too long for me.’  Shelia notices she’s letting her son drift away again.  ‘I’ll try my best.  Get a table for us for 8:30.  I should have a 30-minute break then.’

‘Deal!’  Sunny smiles and returns to the game.

‘Stay in the lounge until then and I don’t need to tell you to behave.’  She gathers her things for the trolley and heads for the door, leaving her son with the tablet.

When Shelia arrives, part of the East Wing in Terminal 1 has already been cordoned off by the airport security.  Four policemen are on guard with automatic rifles.  The crowd looks exhausted, like caged flightless starlings unable to swarm.  All the flights there have been delayed and people adopt different survival strategies – some lingering around, some eating non-stop, some camping on the floor – but nearly all are fixed to their mobile phones, finding refuge in the internet. There is a faint tension in the air, the smell of human disorganisation that no air con can filter out.

Shelia is surprised by the eerie expression of orderliness in people’s faces, as if some shared secret as big as an earthquake has been privatised and carefully managed to minimise publicity.  She has seen strange things in the airport in the last few years – suicide, Siamese twins, rape, elephant tusks, bomb threats, pure 999 gold bars, people-trafficking, Presidents, fire, cadavers, smuggled uranium, a taxidermy peacock, nudity, suspected UFOs, a centenarian and Lady Gaga – but none has given her the goose pumps like being in the East Wing of Terminal 1 this evening.

People move aside as her trolley runs through the T1 walkway.  They look at her and she avoids their eyes.  She realises that she’s a complete outsider here.

One of the security guards she vaguely knows is waving her towards the cordoned-off area.

She follows his directions, thinking she’s in a film script.

He lifts the cordon for her and the trolley to pass.

‘Wait here,’  he says and returns to guard whatever he’s guarding.

Through the rare gaps in the crowd, Shelia can see blood on the floor near boarding gate 46.  Not a fatal pool, but big enough to cause concern.  Paramedics are already there behind temporary white screens.

‘What’s happening?’

‘Some people were refused permission to board the flights.  Then an argument.  Then one thing led to another.  The usual sequence of events when people are angry.’

A woman is crying, a mother, Shelia thinks, with a baby in her arm, being comforted by two flight attendants.

‘Are you OK?’ the security guard asks. ‘You should be able to clean it up once the paramedics are gone.  But it might take some time.’

Shelia nods to herself.

8:30. Sunny’s sitting at the counter and watching a piece of tuna dancing in the hands of the sushi master.  They’ve given him a coke with ice and lemon slices, on the house.  He’s ordered green tea for his mother.

8:45. His twelve-piece chef’s assorted nigiri have arrived.  He’s sipping the miso soup.

8:50. He’s divided the chopsticks.  A waiter helps him pour the soya sauce and mix in a snowdrop of wasabi.  He starts with his least favourite, the raw squid.

8:55. Midway through.  The salmon’s gone.  Tuna’s next.

9:00. The egg’s the last.

9:15. The waiter asks Sunny if he wants his mother’s sushi to be packed up as a takeaway.  He says yes.

9:30. He leaves the restaurant with Shelia’s dinner in a paper bag.

The lounge is closed, or his security pass doesn’t let him through.  Nobody’s around, so he heads to the Duty Free Galleria to see if Shelia’s there.

The place is buzzing with shoppers of so many nationalities that Sunny wonders if this is what the United Nations looks like, recalling the news footage he saw yesterday of a roundtable discussion in the Security Council about a troubled country he’s heard about frequently on the news.  He’s intrigued by the white labels on the table with the names of the countries in black capital letters, names he’s learned in geography lessons but that mean little when they suddenly show on the screen like a quiz – The United Kingdom, China, The United States, Russian Federation As the names flash in his mind’s eyes, the geographical shapes of the countries in the world atlas on the classroom wall reappear like apparitions.

Sunny goes into the Duty Free Galleria and walks down aisle after aisle, browsing the shelves as if he were in the school library.  Belgian chocolates, Japanese green teas, Singaporean beef jerkies, Swiss watches, sunglasses, handbags, T-shirts printed with the Hong Kong skyline, fridge magnets of high-rise buildings, cameras, smartphones, gadgets, and lots and lots of perfumes, cigarettes and alcohol.  So much money to be saved, he thinks.  He looks at the whole aisle of whiskies and picks up the bottle that says ‘Aged 15 Years’.

Older than me? he wonders and shakes the bottle. Brown bubbles are agitating inside the glass.  He sniffs the bottle and it smells of perfume.

A man reaches from behind and grabs a bottle.  Sunny turns around and catches a glimpse of him.  He looks like that man in the café, he thinks, but the man has headed to the cashier.

‘Sunny?  Why are you here?’ asks a shop-assistant whose name he doesn’t know  when he’s putting the bottle back on the shelf.  His Mum’s colleague, the cross-eyed one.

‘I’m looking for my mum.’

The place is too noisy to hear exactly what anybody is saying.  Something about Shelia working in Terminal 1.  The cross-eyed woman is interrupted by a customer with a head scarf.  When she turns back after serving the customer, Sunny is nowhere to be seen.

Shelia has lost track of time while mopping the blood.  People stop hanging around and looking away when she starts cleaning the mess.  She often wonders why this precious red liquid inside us causes so much terror when it’s out in the air.  The red pool has turned into dark rust brown, with a thick, glue-like texture.  She has to change the bucket of water four times to get it clean.  The blood has faintly stained the marble floor but nobody can tell that blood was there at this very spot.

It’s 9:35 when she arrives at the sushi restaurant and the waiter tells her that Sunny left 5 minutes ago.

9:40. Shelia can’t find Sunny in the lounge.

9:42. He isn’t in the locker room either.

9:45. She runs back to the sushi restaurant.

9:46. She runs back to the lounge.

9:47. She runs back to the locker room.

9:50. The sushi restaurant is closed.

Shelia no longer knows where she is.  She should have bought Sunny a mobile phone when he was begging for one last week.

At the Duty Free Galleria, there’s panic about further delays and people are grabbing any snack they can get their hands on.

The girls have stopped selling whiskies.  They’re too busy replenishing bottled water, sandwiches, crisps, biscuits and beef jerkies.  Shelia asks if anyone has seen Sunny.  Nobody has.  Her head is banging from within, like a door unhinged by a storm.

‘I did.’  Her cross-eyed colleague says.  ‘He was playing with a bottle of Laphroaig and I told him that you were working in Terminal 1.  I was serving a customer and when I turned round he was gone.’

Shelia runs on the automated walkway, swerving past suitcases and passengers.  Her heart is in her throat.  When she can’t run any more, she stands on the moving walkway, looking around like an eagle for its prey.  The Terminal has got more chaotic since she’s left.  It looks as if more people have been refused boarding and flights are cancelled.  Moving at the speed of a conveyer belt, she doesn’t know what she feels, except that a sense of weightlessness surges up from her feet to her head, cancelling every thought and memory she has owned since she was a child.

She steps off the automated walkway and finds her feet cold as stone.

Am I dead?  she wonders.  She wants death so much at this moment her son needs her most.

She scans the crowds.  People become colours become dots.

Somewhere a baby is crying.  In the midst of all these people waiting to be flown away, in a flash she sees a woman holding her baby at Gate 46, and next to her stands Sunny, as tall as a sunflower, holding a paper bag, near the spot where the blood was cleansed by her hands.

Shelia darts towards Sunny and holds him like never before.  The paper bag drops.  Sunny can hear his mother’s heart pounding through her chest like a lullaby.

They’re holding hands on the automatic walkway.  It was more than a year ago since they held hands like this, the day Sunny learned that divorce was happening to his family.

‘What happens if I get in to the school in Stanley?’  Sunny asks out of the blue.

‘Do you want to get in?’  Shelia edges her tears back into her throat.

‘I don’t know.’

‘Do you want to apply for it?’

‘I don’t know.  Do you want me to?’

‘Yes.’  She says it without thinking twice, like most mothers would do in this situation.

‘Then I will apply.’

The walkway comes to an end and they are left to their own feet.

‘Mum, can I watch the planes take off when you’re having your sushi?’

Before she says yes, Sunny has already rushed to the edge of the double-glazed wall, with his hands touching the toughened glass, his nose and finger prints marking it all over, and his breath forming a faint mist on it.  Someone will have to clean it tomorrow, Shelia thinks.  All human traces need wiping off.  But not now, not her.

Under the sky flashing with signal lights, they watch a Boeing Dreamliner pick up speed on the runway, tilting upwards like a bird of prey and lifting its ponderous body up into mid-air.  It wobbles precariously left and right, right and left, and finally steadies itself against the side wind, following a signal in the charred sky and climbing up into a cloud.

Duty Free by Kit Fan

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