Sarah Howe, Loop of Jade

Crossing from Guangdong

Sarah Howe

Something sets us looking for a place.
For many minutes every day we lose
ourselves to somewhere else. Even without
knowing, we are between the enveloping sheets
of a childhood bed, or crossing
that bright, willow-bounded weir at dusk.
Tell me, why have I come? I caught
the first coach of the morning outside
the grand hotel in town. Wheeled my case
through the silent, still-dark streets of the English
quarter, the funereal stonework facades
with the air of Whitehall, or the Cenotaph,
but planted on earth’s other side. Here
no sign of life, save for street hawkers, solicitous,
arranging their slatted crates, stacks of bamboo
steamers, battered woks, to some familiar
inward plan. I watch the sun come up
through tinted plexiglas. I try to sleep
but my eyes snag on every flitting, tubular tree,
their sword-like leaves. Blue metal placards
at the roadside, their intricate brooch-like
signs in white, which no one disobeys.
I am looking for a familiar face. There is
some symbol I am striving for. Yesterday
I sat in a cafe while it poured, drops
like warm clots colliding with the perspex
gunnel roof. To the humid strains of Frank
Sinatra, unexpectedly strange, I fingered
the single, glossy orchid – couldn’t decide
if it was real. I picked at anaemic
bamboo shoots, lotus root like
the plastic nozzle of a watering can,
over-sauced – not like you would make at home.
I counted out the change in Cantonese.
Yut, ye, sam, sei. Like a baby. The numbers
are the scraps that stay with me. I hear
again your voice, firm at first, then almost
querulous, asking me not to go.
I try to imagine you as a girl –
a street of four-storey plaster buildings,
carved wooden doors, weathered, almost shrines
(like in those postcards of old Hong Kong you loved) –
you, a child in bed, the neighbours always in
and out, a terrier dog, half-finished bowls
of rice, the ivory Mah Jong tablets
clacking, like joints, swift and mechanical,
shrill cries – ay-yah! fah! – late into the night.
My heart is bounded by a scallop shell –
this strange pilgrimage to home.

*

The bus sinks
with a hydraulic sigh. So, we have crossed
the imaginary line. The checkpoint
is a concrete pool. The lichen-green uniformed
official, with his hat brimmed in black gloss,
his elegant white-gloved hands, his holstered
gun, slowly mounts the rubber steps,
sways with careful elbows down the aisle. I lift
this crease-marred passport, the rubbed
gold of the lion crest – a mute offering.
Two fingers brace the pliant spine, the thumb
at the edge – an angle exact as a violinist’s
wrist – fanning through stamps to halt at the last
laminated side. He lifts his eyes to read
my face. They flicker his uncertainty
as he makes out eyes, the contour of a nose:
half-recognition. These bare moments –
something like finding family.
The mild waitress in Beijing. Your mother…
China… worker? she asked, at last, after
many whispers spilling from the kitchen.
Or the old woman on the Datong bus,
doubtless just inviting a foreigner to dinner,
but who could have been my unknown
grandmother, for all I knew or understood.
She took a look at me and reached up
to grasp my shoulders, loosing a string
of frantic, happy syllables, in what
dialect I don’t even know. She held my
awkward hands, cupped in her earthenware
palms, until the general restlessness showed
we neared the stop. As the doors lurched open,
she smiled, pressed a folded piece of paper,
blue biro, spidery signs, between my fingers,
then joined in the procession shuffling off. Some,
I realised then, were in hard hats, as they
dwindled across the empty plain, shadowed
by the blackened, soaring towers of the mine.

*

Something sets us looking for a place.
Old stories tell that if we could only
get there, all distances would be erased.
Wheels brace themselves against the ground
and we are on our way. Soon we will reach
the fragrant city. The island rising
into mist, where silver towers forest
the invisible mountain, across that small
span of cerulean sea. I have made
the crossing. The journey you, a screaming
baby, made, a piercing note among grey,
huddled shapes, some time in nineteen-forty-
nine (or year one of the fledgling People’s
State). And what has changed? The near-empty
bus says enough. And so, as we approach,
stop-start, by land, that once familiar scene –
the warm, phthalo-green, South China tide –
I can make out rising mercury
pin-tips, distinct against the blue
as the outspread primaries at the edge
of a bird’s extending wing. So much
taller now than when I left
fifteen years ago. Suddenly, I know –
from the Mid-Levels flat where I grew up,
set in the bamboo grove – from the kumquat-
lined windows on the twenty-fifth floor,
tinted to bear the condescension’s glare –
you can no longer see the insect cars
circling down those jungle-bordered boulevards.
The low-slung ferry, white above green,
piloting the harbour’s carpet of stars,
turned always home, you can no longer see.

~

Published in Loop of Jade (Chatto & Windus, 2015).