Hong Kong, 1985
‘Hold on, everyone!’
The boat, a traditional Chinese junk, hits the wake a second after the warning and pitches hard, knocking over one of the ice buckets and spilling out an almost empty bottle of white. A tall man, tubby and sunburnt, staggers past and just manages to seize the rail before he’s tipped over the side.
‘Watch out, Charlie – with the amount you’ve drunk you’d sink like a stone.’
Philly, sitting neither with the men nor the women, and gripping an oversized beaker of Chardonnay, wishes that he would.
Charlie wipes his brow in mock relief and collapses down into the male half of the circle of bare-footed friends all seated on the lurching floor, grabbing the loose bottle as he does so.
‘Why can’t they have lifejackets onboard? Even for the kids?’ a woman with crimped red hair asks the other wives, to general approval; but then someone asks if anyone’s seen The Breakfast Club yet and the worry is soon forgotten. Philly ignores the conversation and pulls her wide-brimmed hat further down over her face, trying to hide her feelings about being here. Then she downs the rest of her drink.
‘Anyone want a top up?’ asks Charlie.
‘Me,’ says Philly. He thinks about tossing the bottle over but doesn’t trust her to catch it, so passes it along the line. Adam, who is sitting the closest to Philly, intercepts the bottle before it reaches its destination.
‘Are you sure you need any more?’ he asks her. They’ve been married for six years now, and he’s never seen Philly like this. Something has changed in her over the last few months.
She stares at Adam from behind her pink mirror-lens sunglasses, then moves her mouth towards his ear, lifting the brim of the hat so she can get closer. ‘I’m only drinking,’ she whispers, ‘because you made me come on this fucking day out.’
The red-head looks over at Philly and catches her eye with a questioning gaze. Philly quickly turns away, angry that this woman would dare to judge her. She has no clue about what they’ve been through since Meg arrived.
Adam knows better than to say anything; he tops up her glass and launches himself back into the conversation, something about the Madonna playing on the silver boombox that Charlie’s brought. Not that Philly cares. She turns her head to look at the glinting sea and notices that they’re passing the south east tip of the Island. Within an hour or so they’ll be at Clearwater Bay, ready for a very late lunch. God, she’s bored. And worried.
‘Where are you going, Philly?’ asks Adam. His wife has unsteadily risen to her feet and is heading to the ladder that leads down from the sun-scoured top deck.
‘To check the kids.’
‘Honestly, they’re fine. Stay up here and finish your drink.’
‘I want to see how Meg is.’ He puts an arm out to grab her ankle.
‘Please, Philly. She’s OK, I promise.’
‘What about Tom?’
‘He’s fine too. Look, I’ll check on them, you sit back down.’ Reluctantly she does so, but something is beginning to foam inside.
Adam drops onto his reddening belly and peers through the hatch. ‘Everyone alright down there? Bugger.’ His sunglasses have fallen down. ’Novi? Novi! Please could you pass up my shades? Yes, there, just at the foot of the ladder.’
Novi is Filipina, about forty years old, with long black hair and a thin, serious face. Finding her has been a Godsend, Philly thinks to herself; she is kind and engaging with the children and stays calm whatever the issue. Which is why Philly believes her when she says there’s something wrong with Meg. Not that Adam would ever hear it. How could he when he fought so hard to save her?
Philly looks down at her bare crossed legs, hating every second amongst these strangers. Adam was never going to miss Charlie’s birthday, but if only she could have left the children behind. And why were they the only ones to have brought someone to help? There are far too many youngsters for one person to keep an eye on, and all the other adults are up here, getting drunk. It’s typical Adam, completely irresponsible.
‘So how’s it going with Meg?’
Philly snaps out of her thoughts. ‘Sorry, what was that?’
‘Meg – how is she coming along?’ It’s the red-headed woman again. She has freckled brown skin, and her neck is long and thin, like a mushroom stalk.
Philly’s jaw instantly tightens. ‘Why do you ask?’
‘It’s just that I know how hard it can be to adopt an older child, especially if you already have one of your own. They can get very jealous.’ She is holding her white wine in both hands, swaying in time to the waves as the junk chugs forward.
‘What’s it to do with you?’ Philly tries to snatch a glimpse of her daughter as she speaks, but she can’t see her through the hatch.
’Well, nothing really, I just heard that she had a few issues and was wondering if you needed any help. I’m a child psychologist, you see.’
’Sorry, who are you?’
‘Beth, Beth Talbot.’
‘We’ve not met, have we?’
‘No, Philly, but I’ve heard a lot about you. Hong Kong’s a small place.’
‘Well, Beth, let me tell you something about us. We don’t need your fucking help, we’re fine as we are.’
The circle recoils.
‘Oh, I’m sorry, I…’
Adam breaks away from his conversation with Charlie. ‘Philly, can I have a word? Now.’
She heads down the ladder still glaring at the woman. As they step onto the main deck, which is enclosed from the sun apart from the open stern, she looks over at the dozen or so children playing together. Novi is attempting to keep things under control but some of the kids are playing rough.
Tom stands at the stern rail. He has his father’s pale green eyes and mullety, Nordic blond hair, but none of his confidence: he wants to join in with the bigger boys, but instead he nervously twiddles with his special Lego man, unwilling to make a move. Meg is sat colouring on her own, looking like the perfect little girl in her bright yellow swimsuit and pink Alice band. But Philly senses something’s not right and walks over to her.
‘What are you drawing there, Meg, darling?’
‘Philly, come down below, will you?’ growls Adam.
‘Wait,’ she shouts, before toning things down to talk to her daughter. ‘Let me see what this is.’
Meg looks up at her and their gazes lock; as they do, a shiver rattles along Philly’s spine. The girl’s eyes are blank; there’s nothing behind them, just a window onto emptiness.
Philly breaks the stare and picks up the book. The picture is of a stick-boy holding a tiny figure, but the boy is coloured red and a dozen crudely-crafted knives are sticking out of him.
‘Meg! You can’t draw things like that, you naughty girl.’ Philly smacks her hand and takes the book away. ‘I’m just going to have a talk with Daddy, then I’ll be back and you and I are going to discuss this.’
‘Sorry Ma’am.’ Philly turns to see Novi. ‘Ma’am, sorry, can you take my place a moment? I need to go to the bathroom.’
‘Philly!’ Adam is halfway down the stairs to the cabins.
‘Hang on, Novi, I won’t be a moment.’
The bed takes up most of the room of the cabin they’ve stepped into. Philly refuses to sit down – she is standing with her arms crossed – and so Adam has to contort himself to shut the door.
‘Philly, what was all that about with that woman?’ He sounds composed, as he always does, but she can tell from his eyes that he’s angry.
But not as angry as her, thinks Philly. She swallows before she says anything, pushing her rage back down into her stomach. It’s all so unfair. Adam dragged her away from her life in London to be here, then he pushed Meg onto them. “He’s so kind, always thinking of others;” she’s sick of hearing people say that of her husband. Well, why can’t he be kind to her for once, to hang out with her friends and not make her go on drunken junks? Maybe even to go back to just having three in the family – would that be so bad?
‘People have been gossiping again. About Meg,’ says Philly, trying to contain herself.
‘What about her?’
‘That she’s got problems, that there’s something wrong with her.’
‘But you think the same.’
‘That’s our problem, nobody else’s’.
‘No, it’s not our problem, because it’s not true. She’s seven years old, for Christ’s sake, how can you say a kid’s weird at that age? Considering what she went through before we got her, being treated like a piece of crap in that care home – I’d say she got off lightly.’
‘OK, Adam, look at this.’ She shows him the drawing. ‘Now tell me there’s no problem.’
He looks at it for a second before tossing it onto the bed. ‘A thousand kids have drawn the same. I know her, she’s a good girl, despite what she’s been through.’
‘You don’t know her like I do.’
‘Yes, I do.’
‘You don’t, Adam, you’re always at work. I can’t leave her alone with Tom, he’s only four. He’s not strong enough to defend himself against her.’
‘I’m not having this conversation again. That was an accident.’
‘She almost blinded him.’
‘Not on purpose, they were just fighting over that stupid Lego thing, like all kids do. You’ve got to get over this insecurity about her; just because she’s not blood doesn’t make her any less our child.’
‘Tom doesn’t go around scaring the shit out of other kids.’
‘They’ll warm up to her eventually. You know what girls are like.’ They’re interrupted by the sound, through the adjoining wall, of the lavatory flushing.
They hear the bathroom door open, and someone heads up on deck – and then there is a scream. Adam and Philly freeze for what feels like minutes as they try to understand what’s going on; then the junk lurches around, knocking them both onto the bed. Feet start to pound on the wooden deck above as the adults rush down the ladder.
‘Adam! Adam! Are you down there?’ It’s Charlie. There’s an urgency in his voice that neither have heard before.
‘Yes, we’re in here,’ shouts Adam, and Charlie clatters down the stairs.
The door slams open. ‘Is Philly with you?’
‘Yes – what is it?’
‘Have you got Tom?’ Charlie’s eyes are rapidly scanning the cabin, left, right; he looks behind the door.
‘No, he’s upstairs with the others.’
‘What do you mean?’ says Adam, but Philly has already roared past them onto the main deck. She sees her helper by the open stern, holding, gripping her daughter. Novi is shouting: ‘What did you do? What did you do? I left you just for a moment.’
Meg looks up at her silently.
The rest of the children have been corralled into the corner by one of the fathers; some of them are crying, all have faces burned with shock.
Three of the men from upstairs are hanging off the side looking down into the churned-up water. ‘Can you see him? Anyone, can you see Tom?’
‘Meg!’ Novi, her face full of horror, lets the girl go and Philly grabs her daughter by the shoulders and spins her around to face her.
‘What happened? Where’s Tom? Meg, answer me!’
‘Adam, no!’ shouts Charlie but Adam has already dived into the sea.
‘Meg, please, what did you do? Tell me!’ Philly is becoming hysterical. Meg slowly opens her hand and the Lego man falls onto the floor.
SD Olsen is a British-born, Singapore-based writer and commentator specialising in all things Asian – normally non-fiction articles, but more recently fiction too. His first short story, “The Samaritan,” appeared in the Quarterly Literary Review of Singapore. Before this he was a soldier, a tech entrepreneur, and an aspiring actor. Follow him on Twitter here.