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Sport 2: Autumn 1989

Ian Wedde — from Chinese Opera — a novel-in-progress

page 143

Ian Wedde

from Chinese Opera
a novel-in-progress

The lanes of traffic that came down the Cambridge Terrace throughway to Wakefield Street often backed up across the end of Courtenay Place, and if the wind was blowing along that way you'd see a pall of smoke from the stalls that were jammed in there fanning across the vehicles.

Not a lot of the people in the cars would have been going in to the Courtenay stalls, and fewer still up to the gaming precinct. Some of them might have been looking for something to entertain themselves up towards the Barbary Coast. But these kinds of visitors would mostly come at night. During the day the Place was traded in by people who lived on that patch. The commodities, information, and products that were later made available to punters were sorted out by day. It wasn't a place for bargain-hunters.

It had once been my natural habitat, you might even have said I'd been the unofficial vizier of the place. I'd sometimes looked up it the heli-cabs delivering execs to the rooftops of the media towers there, and thought how class was now organised according to those who never set foot on the ground and those who never got off it.

But down there in the Place I'd ruled wisely, you might say, and when I finally gave it away not even my enemies had anything to gain from harming me. Whereas the media was always full of sensational stories about the fates of those whose off-the-ground existences were as carefully guarded as the bloodbanks they bought policies in. I'd never had any protection to speak of, no more than was prudent, and now here I was entering a new youth of consciousness.

Gabber's speciality was real information. He was as at home in the city's computer terminals and cables as Mack was in drydock sailors' fantasies of rum, sodomy and the lash. He would take the material put out for public consumption in the papers, radio, television, teletexts, and whatnot, and he'd find sources. Then he'd compare the differences in facts, tone, emphasis, and work out who was gaining, why they were, and what.

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Usually neither extreme was much use by itself — Gabber's gift, apart from his ability to hack, was that he could read misinformation not for itself but for its purpose and advantage. The truth itself didn't matter. What mattered was knowing who was scoring. That was the real information.

Of course the people who controlled the information, or who were involved in the misinformation war, all had Gabber types on their payroll. But Gabber's services were at the disposal of those 'who never got off the ground'. He was a Place veteran.

Gabber is also a philosopher, and to entertain himself during his work he collects little bits and pieces of media junk and runs them through for laughs, wisdom, or any kind of theoretical kick.

Even while he's hard at it, he's always talking out the comer of his mouth through the bottom part of a face that's been remade so often I reckon his hairlines have all disappeared together off the top of his head, and his tits should be where his ears are.

Gabber's pretty old by any standards, but he certainly lives in the Now. He'll have half a dozen screens going at once, some video or other for entertainment, some good music, and photocopies of the day's clippings, together with fax printouts and the like, dangling in bunches all around him. And he'll be yapping away through skin so tight the teeth are always grinning; and keeping an eye on the street to see who's passing by.

When he saw me that day I came to pay a special visit, the grin seemed to find a place to go for a moment, and I saw him looking out at me with eyes as big and wet as a night marsupial's. Then the grin came on again, like something luminous on a screen, because Gabber was already talking even as I came in out of the smoggy glare.

Now what's this I hear, Gabber wanted to know. They say Frank's lost his place, he's walking around like someone with a lot of lost time, he doesn't see where he is and his clock's stopped, if he's got friends they wouldn't know it because he's forgotten, what's up, Frank, who's wearing the clothes you have on, anyone I know? Would I remember? You want to remind me?

I showed Gabber Mrs Malena's postcard, and a couple of clippings I'd got out of the morning paper.

One of the clippings was a blurry photograph of a very small boy, maybe three years old, wearing a full miniature military uniform, with braids looped across the chest, medals, and a visored cap with lots of stuff around the crown and a big badge in front. The kid's page 145mouth is a weaner's mouth — I mean, he's only just getting one that talks and chews rather than sucks, if you know what I mean. His pouty bottom lip is hanging off his little teeth, and his eyes are very dark and, though I don't like supposing that eyes have expressions, his seem sad and scared.

The message with this snapshot, which I clipped from the personal notices section of classified ads, read 'Happy Birthday Jason — from Dad.'

The second clipping I showed Gabber was from the In Memoriam section of the paper. It read, 'In memory of 15,000 Polish soldiers executed by the Soviets in Katyn Forest in 1940. Let not their lives, which we on this earth consider lost, be in vain, Rather let it be for Justice, Freedom, and Peace in Poland and throughout the world. — Inserted by the Polish Ex-Servicemen Association in New Zealand Inc.'

I wondered what Gabber would make of the Polish Association's memory. I thought he might wonder if Jason's picture meant something else than what it seemed to. I wondered if he had any ideas about where Tonga was. But I kept my trap shut and waited for him to finish looking at my items.

He pushed them around in front of himself for a bit. When he looked up at me again his smile had managed to stretch itself into a thin down turned hoop.

What do you take me for, Frank, an oracle? Who's Mrs Malena? Who's Jason? Do you know any Poles, Frank? Then the smile came back on like a visor opening, not that cheerful really. This isn't like you Frank, you used to know your mealtimes, you never needed any help before Frank, tell you what, why don't you go and get your cup read?

I'd never seen Gabber angry before, so I didn't really know what to do. There was a bit of a silence during which the various screens and things in Gabber's place yabbered away. The music was Mozart, if I remember — Concerto for flute and orchestra No 1 in G Major — some things last, even if patience and friendship don't.

When Gabber still didn't say anything, but just looked at me with that grin on his face, I began to leave. But before I got to the door, he grabbed me by the back of the shirt.

Not a word, Frank?

And when I realised I hadn't said a thing, I sat down in the spare chair. I imagined myself walking in to my old mate's place, plonking page 146some funny items on his console, not saying a word, and then leaving. I must have done something similar at Mack's the other day.

It's okay, Gabber, I said. But I was beginning to think it wasn't. I just needed to have a yarn, I said.

Strong silent type of conversation, Frank.

Usually Gabber lived up to his name and just went for it, and I didn't know what to make of the way he was acting. And he didn't know what to make of me. So instead I just went right into it.

I used to be able to tell the difference, Gabber.

Yes, you did;

No one ever fooled me. They gave up trying.

You were the best.

'Were', Gabber?

Sure. Didn't you retire?

Retire what?

That seemed to shut Gabber up again. Then I swear I saw a movement through his face, like a wave, passing just under that tight skin, fast, as though his brain had shivered.

You lost it, didn't you Frank? Not time, but what? The difference?

I reckon I just stopped doing it, Gabber. I just stopped paying attention. I was just passing through, Gabber, those days I used to come and see you.

Retirement blues, Frank? You ever thought of a hobby?

I knew that was a Gabber joke, but I picked it up anyway. I've been going to the Opera a fair bit, I said.

Down at the Oaks?

That's the one.

My God, Frank, what makes you want to do that, all that yowling, like a bunch of cats around a rubbish bin, surely the neighbourhood has more soothing entertainments to offer a retired trader?

Once again I ignored the sarcasm, which still wasn't like the Gabber I knew. I think it's got something to do with the lead singer, I said. Her name's Madame Hee.

So it's love, Frank? That I owe this visit to? What do you want me to tell you? Remember Turandot! Puccini? The 'Chinese Opera'? Where all the princes get their heads whacked off because they can't answer the Chinese Princess's riddles? That what you had in mind, Frank?

There's riddles all right, Gabber, I said. And I damn near did get page 147my head whacked off the other day. Here, try these again, then I'll tell you the rest. Where's Tonga, Gabber?

Tonga is a concept, said Gabber sarcastically. It is constituted in language. The language is used by people whose ancestors developed the concept 'Tonga' through many many generations. Their dead are buried in the concept, Frank, and through myth and the language of myth they have come to attach it to time, place, and value. Then there's another Tonga, Frank, the one consistuted by borrowers of the concept, which is to say by borrowers of the name, which is to say by those who don't use the name's language as inheritors of the myths it tells.

Gabber's grin went damn near round his head.

But Gabber, I said. There's more of them living here than there.

Doesn't make any difference, said Gabber. Theirs is still different from yours. Always will be. Even if you retired there, Frank, and learned to order the tray breakfast in the very language of myth itself, Frank.

So there's a difference.

There's a difference.

And that's what counts.

Call it a differential, grinned Gabber, beginning to enjoy himself at last. Think of it as a force that stretches location between writing and speaking. How'm I doing? Will I get the Princess?

What about the kid? Jason?

What about him?

Is he real?

Gabber looked at the poor little sad fellow with the weaner's mouth and the ridiculous military uniform. He was shaking his head. I reckon this one's real, he said. There's no code here. This kid's dad wants him to be a dictator. A Samoan dictator.

Where's his Samoa, Gabber?

Aha, said Gabber. His is mental. It's silent. Not written, not spoken.

Not like Mrs Malena's Tonga?

No. Not like that at all. Gabber looked at me hard, his grin gone again.

So there's another difference?

Haven't lost your touch, Frank, not yet.

I was close. Wait on, now, I said. What about Poland? Where's the Katyn Forest?

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The Katyn Forest, said Gabber, is a fold in history. It's myth. It can attach itself to either the spoken or the written word. It exists without time, that's why it's survived. Myth, that's built-in Expectations. That's longevity without drugs. Christ, Frank, what are you after, friend? You haven't gone off at all. You were playing possum, Frank.

I don't know what I'm after, Gabber, I said. But I certainly got woken up the other day.

Well, I did the riddles, said Gabber. Do I get the Princess?

Turandot, was it?

The Princess of ice and death, Frank.

I don't know about that, Gabber, I said. But I reckon this one might be the last riddle of all.

How's that, Frank?

I actually felt embarrassed, and I could see that old Gabber got a kick out of that. I don't know, Gabber. I guess it should be sex, but that seems a long shot. I mean, it's been...

It's been a few years, said Gabber dryly.

I don't have to tell you, I said. But listen, that Madame Hee — it's like I want to get inside her, Gabber. Not, you know.

Not you know.

I was really floundering. It's like I have to get in there, Gabber. There's something I have to find out. I've been walking around in a trance for so long, and then I just started going down there all the time. I couldn't help it. I needed it just as much as the Expectations, Gabber. I couldn't stay away from the place. I'd be there two, three times a week. Just looking at that Madame Hee, Gabber. Wanting something. Wanting to find something. Wanting to get into her.

Gabber was looking at me with his jaw dropped as far as the skin would let it. Good God, Frank, he said. You want to know what I think? I think that, at the age of one hundred and twenty, Frank, you're looking for your mother. You want to find your mother. I can't believe it.

I couldn't either. But when I left Gabber that morning and headed off down toward the Opera, I could feel my heart thumping away, I felt excitement and anticipation, I didn't feel nearly as stupid as old Gabber seemed to think I should.

But then, I couldn't be sure whether Gabber was having me on or not. I may still be the best at telling the difference, but Gabber was always the one who could fool me, even years ago. Now, I thought page 149he was on the level, though it disgusted him in a way. I didn't really care, though. I was on my way to the Opera, and I was wide awake again.


It was good having that talk with Gabber. I think I knew what he was on about. It'd been years since I'd felt so up and down — excited one moment, scared the next. Probably not since I'd been an adolescent, which bears some thinking about. Or maybe not since I'd been a little kid, which might be even stranger — about the time Mum took off and I went to live in Uncle Geek's junk shop in Kilbirnie. The knowledge of all that had been folded away for so long that it would be an understatement to say I never thought about it — I didn't even seem to have, or to need, the equipment to think about it with.

But, true to form, old Gabber had hit the spot, somehow. He usually did. He really was a kind of oracle, and maybe he didn't understand the messages he gave out, but all that eavesdropping on lies, or let's say on the beneficiaries of falsehood, which was one of Gabber's phrases, had given him a knack.

So I left his place feeling my age again, not in that kind of anxious state you get into when you're younger. I remember it was really stinky in the Place that morning. There must've been a bad convection, the smog was sitting right down on the rooftops, it was going to take a real Cook Strait blow to shift that and bring back the blue. All the snacks braziers and the home-made generators were pumping smoke and fumes, and quite a few people had masks on. I've never needed one myself, but that day I could feel the bad atmosphere burning my throat. I went flat-tack down to the Chinese Opera, where the air-conditioning was pretty good.

Right away I got my first test of the new consciousness reconditioned courtesy of Gabber. I paid my money to Half Ton Jack who runs the ticket window of the Opera, and he caught me looking at him. In the past, maybe, I'd just been going in like a ghost, hardly there, certainly not looking, not until I got inside to my possie by the drapes at the back.

Yes? said Half Ton, pushing his big face up to the window. It was hardly a polite enquiry, that wasn't why Half Ton got employed at the Opera. A lot of punters came in there thinking 'Chinese Opera' had to be a front for something else, or that it was the name of a club that specialised in something or other, God knows what — it page 150would be interesting to hear what some of the optimists expected of 'Chinese Opera'. Public executions, maybe, with a sex denial motif for the wankers out there — frustration and punishment, even castration, it was all familiar enough up the Barbary Coast, even the way Gabber had read it off that Turandot by Puccini.

But anyway, some of the punters got strange when they realised it was genuine Chinese Opera they'd paid for, and not some live sex act with a chopping block, say. You can understand their feelings. The Chinese Opera wasn't for everyone. It had its cult following, like everything, and it had its faithful Chinese audience, and there were some unexplained regulars like myself, and a steady stream of entertainment tourists and exoticists, so to speak. Half Ton Jack was there to deal with the other element, the one that couldn't hack the realisation that Madame Hee wasn't something else, at least not in their terms.

Half Ton could cope. In the neighbourhood, he had a reputation, strangely unconfirmed considering how obvious you'd think he'd be, for taking on contract jobs. People said he killed by sitting on the victims. An embellishment, silly in my opinion, was that he also farted. I have to say, though, that this rumour was a powerful pacifier when Half Ton was around. The thought of him sitting on your face and doing one could spoil your whole day.

What grabbed me that day I went down to the Opera after my philosophical session with Gabber, was that I remembered that Half Ton Jack used to be called One Ton Jack, and his name got changed when he had a bowel bypass operation.

He lost a lot of weight, they say, but I wasn't looking at him to see whether I believed that. I was, thanks to Gabber, wondering what would happen to people like Half Ton when the time came to get reconstituted at the Last Judgement. Would he get his piece of intestine back?

It was really only a kind of joke, the kind of more or less silly thought that sometimes occurs to you and makes you have a bit of a laugh in public, but it led on to a bigger question, which is why I was gawping at Half Ton there in his little den with its floor covered in sandwich wrappings. I suddenly found myself thinking, vis a vis the whole 'difference' thing that Gabber had put me back on to, about all the people around who have hearts and kidneys and God knows what else from some organ bank, who've had thousands of little plugs of new hair zotted into their heads after their hairlines got face-lifted page 151right up into thin air, who have those new improved 'cultured' organs that they're talking about these days. And what about the people who've bought identities, that's a commodity traded in Courtenay Place, and a big earner, too — new name, new address, new I.D. and, most important, new past. Then there were lots of rumours about genetic engineering and about androids, but that was one area where all you ever heard were disaster stories. The one I liked best was when they tested these cloned chickens on a whole bunch of Malaysian life-term prisoners, all men. The idea was that these chickens, which were grown out of a culture and then fed on some combination of a bacterially produced protein and their own recycled shit, would be able to provide the starving masses with chicken dinners. So they fed the birds to these lifers out there in Kuala Lumpur, and the poor bastards all developed secondary female sex characteristics, and of course became sterile. Well, maybe that wasn't so bad, it would solve a lot of problems with the population issue in the poor countries — chicken dinners and sterility at a stroke, and it would probably stop them wanting to fight each other as well.

But never mind that. What Half Ton Jack did, was he raised my consciousness another notch, so to speak. I was entering the Opera with these kinds of thoughts in my head — and looking at the monster in the ticket booth with a stupid grin on my face.

Sorry, I said to him. No offence. You just reminded me of something, that's all.

He pushed his face right up to the window and the little talking-port there. Just tell me it's the last arse you kissed, Junior, he said in his rich-gravy voice, that I remind you of, and I'll find you in the dark.

I could see why his services were valued by the management of the Opera. No offence, I said, have a nice morning. He was sitting back unwrapping another sandwich and he didn't even look at me. I went right on inside through the big dragon's-mouth entranceway. The place was about half full, probably because of the weather outside, the lights were dim, and I could smell it straight away, the ancient and new mystery of the Chinese Opera.

Today's show was one of the Maoist social realist pieces they sometimes took out of the repertoire. Even without knowing it you could guess that the story was probably about a wicked landlord who got his arse kicked by the collective. Time does strange things to value, because without any comment at all the company could haul out page 152some other more or less feudal character, some landlord warlord baron type, and he'd be the hero of some outrageous costume drama in which the peasants, basically, were just the people who did the lights and the special effects.

I sat there while a lot of synchronised dancing with banners went on, and while the orchestra worked its way through what Gabber would probably have had down as the Puccini module in a computerised twelve-track, and I felt cheated. Sometimes Madame Hee wouldn't have a part in the productions, and for some reason I guessed that the mid Twentieth century wasn't her speciality.

But then she did appear, with rosy apple cheeks painted on to that white mask, and with her hair in two braids under a blue fatigue cap. She executed some wonderful dance manoeuvres, which were new to me — I wasn't used to seeing her exert herself like that. She pivoted on the ball of one foot, and her other leg came up so high behind her as she leaned her torso down, that I thought she would surely fall over.

But no, at that moment her voice, which I thought could cut through lies, difference, value, and time, like detergent through grease, pierced the interior of the Opera.

I immediately got up from my seat down the back and stood with one hand wrapped in the heavy red drapes by the door. My heart was thundering away as the spotlight tracked Madame Hee past a giant holograph of a mountain. My heroine was clearly in some leadership role, because she was leading the cadre towards an ominous buildup of forces stage left.

There was something about seeing her in a role that emphasised her youthfulness that made her seem even more artificial than usual, and I have to admit I found this almost too exciting to handle. I was gripping the drapes back there, just totally into the action on stage, when I felt this gust of zoo air on the back of my head, breath like you might expect from something big and stir-crazy.

I already spoke to you, Junior, said Half Ton Jack right by my ear. How come you can't sit down like any normal citizen and enjoy the show?

Hey, I said. I like the view from here. I'm a regular.

Let me tell you about 'regular', said Half Ton. I could feel his body heat wrapping itself around me in the cool air-conditioned interior of the Opera. Today's show is called Taking Tiger Mountain By Strategy, Junior, it's a revolutionary classic, now if you don't like page 153it the regular thing to do is to forget you've ever heard of refunds. The regular thing is not, and a big digestive sigh came right down over my head, to do strange things with the drapes back here, Junior.

Now that really pissed me off. Here I was, at my age, and with my reputation in the neighbourhood, and this talking hamburger was treating me like some juvenile nuisance.

Whoa, now hold it, I began.

Oh dear, said that amazing voice that seemed to be speaking through a mouthful of half-chewed lunch. And then these enormous arms just wrapped themselves around me from behind, I was hoisted up on to the sofa of that great belly, and Half Ton Jack walked me out into the foyer. I been watching you, he said. Who are you? I should know you, right?

Why? I said. Why should you know me? What can I give you? You've got a good job, plenty to eat, a nice cage.

He let that pass. I see people looking at you, he said. They know you. They know who you are. You're somebody.

I was still feeling pissed off, which is unlike me. I wanted very much to be back inside with Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy and Madame Hee. I wanted it so much I felt sick. And I could still feel my heart going. I said, Somebody, hey? Well, these days that's not so hard. I hear they can even clone something human off a steamed pork bun.

Then it went black. I didn't feel any pain at all. When I woke up, though, the pain was awful — it was in my chest, and it was right up through my left foot and arm and into my head. Half Ton Jack had me on the floor of some room, I saw his big joined-together fists coming down at me, and then they stopped just above me. Next thing he's got this mask over my face, it's oxygen, and the pain slowly subsided.


When the blue comes back, my God — especially when it's a good bright Southerly blow that does it. Then you see the cloud cover rolling back like a big grey drape off the sky. The heat and the smog rise up out of the streets, you can breathe. The city looks beautiful around the harbour. The water has that glitter, like crumpled aluminium.

As I remember, that's how it was most of the time when I was a kid horsing about on the beach there at Lyall Bay, or on the swings by the surf club, when I lived with my uncle Geek.

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After Half Ton had brought me round that time I kneeled over in the foyer of the Chinese Opera, it was that blue coming back that I thought of first. Because the pain going away was just like the smog blowing clear. And so as I lay there, the next thing I knew I was remembering old Geek.

Half Ton was pretty good, I had to admit, in his capacity as front-of-house. He had the basic equipment there. I didn't have to explain to him that heart-stops like I just had were not uncommon. It wasn't that much of a worry, but sometimes you'd see an older Expectationer drop — the organ just couldn't hack the maintenance.

He'd given me a pretty massive ding on the chest, that's what the pain was mostly about, but he'd done it right. What impressed me more, was that he'd wanted to. My impression had been that he'd have cheerfully tossed this corpse into the street. But I guess he had an inkling he was dealing with 'somebody' and he didn't want to make a mistake. Back then, I didn't think it was his nature that made him save my life. He went right on acting surly, and even though he brought me a drink of water without me asking for it, he managed to give the impression he rather hoped I'd choke on it.

So there I sat getting my breath back, so to speak, and remembering when I was a kid living with Uncle Geek. I'll tell you what, if we could really organise the way the brain works, we'd be less than human. There's no way any android is going to come up with 'mental events', as Gabber calls them, that could run together spotting the difference, Madame Hee's inhuman voice, a temporary death, the blue coming back, my childhood in Lyall Bay, and the day my mother left me.

But I knew it was just right, then, and I went with it. I could've felt like a moron sitting there replaying all that in the office of the Opera, but instead I treated it like part of what was happening.

What I remember best about that long ago day when my mother shot through, was the way Uncle Geek dealt with it when he came back to the shop from one of his expeditions, and I was still there. My mother usually picked me up from there when she finished work. Aren't you home yet — where is the bitch? says Geek. I've never forgotten that. He didn't really look pissed off, it was just his manner. He always behaved as though time was running out. Never time to cook, we ate takeout food. He only ever caught the second half of soccer games I played in. Used to drop me off at school an hour before everyone else. That's how he was.

The day he came back and found me still rattling around in the page 155junk shop after his minder'd shut up and gone home, he had this kind of 'I told you so' look on his face. If he was sorry for me he didn't show it. He just stood there rubbing his bald spot with one hand and pulling his moustache with the other, showing those big yellow teeth that always made me think of pictures I'd seen of beavers.

Where is the bitch?

And a fair bit later, when I was properly settled in with him and I asked him where my father was, he said he didn't know but he guessed it was a long way from my mother. And that wherever she was, it would be a long way from me.

All summer we used to play down at the beach, us kids. It was just so blue, right out to the horizon, sky and sea. There'd be surf riders speeding along these breakers that just seemed to go on unfolding right across the bay. You'd see the big jets coming down to the airport there, wobbling down out of the sky, all shimmery with heat.

It's amazing how much you can remember. I can even remember the piddly smell by the wall of the surf club. What I can't remember is whether I missed my mother that much. I guess I did. I mean, I guess you'd expect me to have. But I can't remember. When she went, my feelings about her seemed to go as well.

She was pretty young when she had me — two or three years off twenty. I think my father must have been a bit of a deadshit. One day he departed on a Railways bus, I remember that too. My mother must've had a hard time. She kept working, though. And she used to play this game with me. I'll be the mother, she'd say, you be the kid, now act like one. So I'd run around the house banging doors and acting a tantrum, and she'd do this exaggerated mother routine, like, Don't you dare bang doors like that when your father's tired after work! We'd fall about laughing.

When you're a kid, your mother's older — she's a mother, she's another whole set. But my mother was really young, and maybe that's why she invented the game. She could never quite believe she was a real mother. So sometimes she played at it. I think she must've had a good sense of humour. Not that leaving me in the lurch was any joke.

Maybe something happened to her. Or maybe Geek knew something, really, that he never told me. He never made any attempt to find her, which I realised years later was a bit strange. But then he never tried to find me either, when I ran away. He probably knew what I was up to, from a distance. He poked around in most parts of the page 156city, he'd have heard something. He'd have heard from the cops a couple of times, too, during that period in my life.

When the blue comes back, I was saying aloud, just trying the words out because they seemed to have a magic now, when Half Ton Jack came back into the Opera office.

You're alive, he said, making it sound like a disaster. He had a whole bunch of clips and rings in one ear and I was fascinated by the way the flesh had pouted itself around them. You don't usually think of ears as being fat, but even Half Ton's oriental eyes were — they bulged out of his face. Okay, he said, tell me. You think I'm ugly. You'd rather be dead than share the planet with something like this.

I can appreciate a joke, but Half Ton wasn't exactly laughing. I don't think you're ugly, I said. I'm very grateful to you for saving my life. My name is Frank, round here they call me Little Frank. Ask anybody, they'll tell you I can help you. If there's anything you need. I'd like to pay you back somehow.

Little Frank, mused Half Ton in that wonderful voice. I've heard about you. I thought you were a big shot.

He certainly had a way of turning compliments into turds, but I'd begun to get the hang of the idea that the real Half Ton Jack, the one deep inside that enormous body, was basically a decent human being. I could probably like him. I'd just have to get used to his style.

For a start, he said, doing his I'll-find-you-in-the-dark routine and shoving his face up close, you can tell me, now that the show's over, what you were doing at it. You've been here regular.

That threw me, because I'd only just begun to work on the idea that I was doing anything at all, other than go trotting through the routines of the last God knows how many years since I stopped being Little Frank around Courtenay Place. I had something different in mind, I said. Something you want.

Hey, said Half Ton, and he made the word sound as long as a sentence, what I want is, I want to know what's your interest here. What're you doing standing up the back there all the time?

Have you been watching me?

I began to notice. It's my job. What're you looking for? Are you waiting for someone? You using this place for some Little Frank business? Because don't.

I'm retired, I said. I could feel that I wasn't going to escape his page 157patience. The question would be back, and I wasn't ready to go anywhere just yet. The big face just stayed there, waiting. The breath went in and out of it, very calmly, very slowly. I thought, what the hell. My interest is Madame Hee, I said.

Something very fast moved in Half Ton Jack, then. Suddenly the face was several feet away, and if it had seemed expressionless before, or should I say inscrutable, now it was the Great Wall of China itself.

I guess Half Ton's original name, or nickname, would have been spelled Won Ton. That might not occur to you if all you ever saw was the man in the cashier's window. But say something wrong, like it seemed I just did, and you'd find yourself looking at a one man Mongolian horde. Half Ton's reaction to the name Hee was so obvious, and at the same time so hidden, that my first thought was, My God, maybe he's her pimp.

Talk to me about 'interest', said Half Ton.

I already answered your question, I said. I thought Half Ton should make the next move, if there was going to be one.

But he just nodded his head, very slowly. You can go now, he said. Tomorrow they're doing The Romance of the Three Kingdoms with that Cao Cao creep. It's a classic.

Tomorrow I have to go up to the hospital, I said. I resisted the urge to say to Half Ton, talk to me about 'classic'.

Yes, said Half Ton. The. Hospital. Junior. And then, to my amazement, he seemed to smile. Junior, he said, Little Frank, Junior Frank. Junior Frank, one day maybe you can help me.

Maybe it was Half Ton's idea of a joke, or maybe he was being friendly, but those eyes bulging through their slits of fat were paying very close attention to me. There was the speed of his reaction to my interest in Madame Hee to think about. One thing I've learned is, secrets are always worth having a poke at. At least I could try to find out if Half Ton had a secret. And if Madame Hee was it. Or if he was just doing his job. Whatever that was.