Fiction / August 2008 (Issue 4)


The Smell of Fresh Grass

by Ken Kamoche

Auntie is steaming ha gau dumplings for a late breakfast. The smell of prawns and vinegar fills the air. I stand in the doorway and watch her pour herself a bowl of congee. She scowls at me and asks what I want.

"Where's Ah-Pah?" I ask.

"How the hell should I know?"

I hate her when she's like this. Trouble is, she's always like this. I try to reason with her, the way Ah-Mah used to haggle over prices in Kowloon wet markets. She's not interested. Her face darkens. Her lips are razor sharp. This must be how sharks look when about to strike. I have to speak to Ah-Pah today. Maybe if he’s by himself he’ll talk to me. I’ve made my mind up. I'm returning to Hong Kong. I should never have come to Denmark.

"He must have told you where he was going?"

She takes the ha gau out of the wok and places them on the Ikea dining table. Then starts to unwrap a char siu bau that's bigger than a tennis ball and sets it on the wok. She replaces the lid and glares at me, hands akimbo. God, I hope I never have to see this noodle shop again.

"And even if he did, why should I tell you, Lisa?"

"It's important, auntie."

She stares at me as if I'm an irritant wasp buzzing around her face but lacking the guts to sting. Then she explodes into laughter, head thrown back and mouth open wide enough to take a whole char siu bau. Her laughter reminds me of horses neighing at the Happy Valley racecourse as jockeys ready them for a race. I pick up a laminated menu and twiddle it round like a scorecard. I’m biting my lower lip, restraining my horse.

"You think he cares about you? He wishes you never came to Copenhagen!"

My head spinning, I hurl the menu at her. It ends up in her congee. She stamps her foot on the floor and glares at me above the rectangular glasses that make her resemble a witch in a horror movie. Her lips curl downwards in the scowl that always follows her laughter.

"I don't believe you!"

"Ho, ho! And why you think he sold your flat, eh? So stupid, la!"

"Just tell me where I can find him, and I promise I won’t bother you again."

She sits down and starts to eat her dumplings, her back to me. I’m standing at the door staring at this little mean woman who ensnared my father and brought him all the way from Hong Kong into this dull, cold country. What did he ever see in her? Was he so desperate after Ah-Mah left him that he was ready to settle for anything? Did he fall for her lies that she was a rich businesswoman? 

"Get out of here, Lisa," she yells. "You'll find your father killing himself in Christiania!"

"Where is Christiania?"

"How the devil should I know?"

I know she's lying. She has lived in this city for decades. She takes the char siu bau out of the wok and starts to poke into it with chopsticks. This must be how she tortures Ah-Pah in his sleep, poking him in the ribs with her red nails. Why do I have to call her auntie, anyway? Just because she sleeps with my father, she thinks she’s my replacement mother and can order me about!

"Should never have come here," she seems to read my mind. "You don't belong here, Lisa. You'll never make it. You can't even do anything useful in the shop." She wants me to be her slave. Washing dishes. Cutting the meat up. Defrosting dumplings. She's right. That's not for me.

"Don't worry, I won't be here much longer." She might as well know now.

Her laughter follows me down the cobbled pavement. If only Ah-Chen were here.

I get off the metro at Christianshavns and peer at the street names. Danish names are so difficult to read. Torvegade. Dronningensgade. Lille Sondervoldstraede. I need to ask someone the way. I hate doing that. Makes them think you're a clueless tourist.

"Excuse me? Where is Christiania?"

"Down Badsmandstraede, to the bottom. Then left."

"Thank you!" I start to cross the road.

"Be careful! Could be illegal."

I find it difficult to understand the Danes sometimes, especially their jokes. Did he say bad men's street? Illegal? I'm taking measured steps, and long, deep breaths. I stop before I get to the end of the road. All I see is water ahead of me. Part of the canal, or the sea. I have no idea. I stand there like a fool, trying to figure out which way to go.

"You lost?" The voice makes me start. I turn round and see a black man grinning down at me.  
 
"I think I know where you going, love." His voice is too soft for such a big person. He's over six foot tall, huge muscles sticking out on his arms. A chest as broad as a tree trunk looks ready to burst out of the skimpy t-shirt. Foot-length dreadlocks fall like a mop across his shoulders. 

"Je peux vous aider, mademoiselle?" 

He sees the perplexed look on my face and laughs.

"I'm sorry, I guess I'm lost."

"No problem, mademoiselle. Toumane, that's my name. Hi."

"Hi, I'm Lisa."

He says he's from Mali. I've never heard of it.

"Is it near South Africa?"

He bursts out into head-thrown back laughter, just like auntie, but without the rough edge.

"Ah! Ah! Naw, naw, my dear! Miles away, so far away. You see darlin', Africa is so big. Mali is in West Africa. And where you from?"

"Hong Kong," I whisper, and my face turns hot with embarrassment. He probably thinks I’m ashamed to come from such a tiny place, compared to his Africa.

"Come with me, Lisa" he says, "I know where you're going. Everybody round here looking for Christiania. It's the place to be."

I follow him like a child, as if I'm under a spell. How could he possibly know where I'm going? Some African juju thing?

"Right here, love."

It looks like a market, music blaring from little wooden shops run by black people with dreadlocks and long-haired Danes in over-sized jackets and surplus army boots.

"Reggae music, man," says Toumane. It's new to me.

The shops are more like ramshackle kiosks. Their wares are displayed prominently on a sloping counter. I ask Toumane what's that strange greenish-brown substance.

"Grass, man."

"Grass?"

"What do you call it in Hong Kong?"

The smell hits me. I begin to recognize the burnt-leaves smell at the karaoke in Yau Ma Tei, where I used to work. Ah ha! Illegal! I can't believe they're selling and smoking it so openly here. I thought that only happened in Amsterdam. We walk around the market. There are open-air pubs everywhere, full of people puffing away and knocking back pints of Carls Special and Tuborg.

Toumane has appointed himself my tour guide, talking incessantly about the market, which he says is actually a city within a city, teaching me the correct pronunciation of the wares on display, the names of the reggae songs blaring from each kiosk.

"Tourist or customer, Lisa?" he asks. I shake my head.

"You?"

"Moi?" He's laughing and pointing at his chest, which makes me laugh. In Hong Kong people point at their nose. 

"Depends. When I have good music, drink strong beer, voila! A joint is not too bad, ma cherie. Pas mal du tout."

"Actually I'm looking for my father."

"He's a tourist?"

I shake my head. No, maybe a sort of reluctant tourist. What would he be doing here? That woman of his is playing tricks on me. Who does she think she is, stopping me from talking to my own father? Your father is too tired now, let him rest. His back is in pain. I know, that's why he's always asking me to walk on his back. But it doesn't do any good. He needs a good massage in Hong Kong, or across the border in Shenzhen where it's much cheaper. He just sits there all day, hunched in the rocking chair, lost in thought. You'd think he was deaf and dumb. Is he dreaming about Ah-Mah? Why can't he just forget her? She broke his heart for God's sake.

I spot him. When did he take up smoking? But, that smell, that thick smoke? It can't be Ah-Pah. He's sitting straight-backed. That’s not possible. He seems to be smiling, nodding to that music with loud hypnotic rhythms.

Got to have kaya now.
For the rain is falll-iiing.


"Bob, man, the best." Toumane punches the air the way tennis players do when they score a point. I've no idea who's Bob. 

"Bob Marley, man. Got to have kaya now, for the rain is falll-iiing."

It must be about thirty degrees today, and there's not a cloud in the sky.

I've never seen Ah-Pah this relaxed. He seems to be wrapped up in a fantasy. Will he recognize me? I turn to my tour guide. "My father, I ..."

"I'll wait for you."

Ah-Pah is puffing away like those rowdy customers at the karaoke. My heart sinks. Did auntie put him up to this?

"Ah-Pah?"

He looks up and runs a hand through the few strands of graying hair that still cling onto the spotted scalp. He doesn't seem surprised to see me, as though he has been expecting me. Then I realize he doesn’t recognize me. I sit beside him, fanning the smoke away with my hand.

"Your back. It seems ... okay?"

He sucks his lips, staring into space. I might as well not be here. I can't remember a time when he really talked to me. Not a single gentle word. Only criticisms and accusations. And recently there hasn't even been any of that. Just a dead silence between us. Maybe I should buy a joint and smoke my troubles away.

I used to think he was the stranger. He and his woman. But it seems I’m the stranger now. They fit in better than me in this city. They have their noodle shop. They have each other. And they don't need me. Now that they have my money.

"Smoking this ... helps?"

"In this place, no bad back."

Bad men's street. But no bad back. So that's alright, then? My stomach muscles tighten. I don't know if it's anger or the smell of this horrible grass. I'm afraid I'm going to throw up.

"Ah-Pah, I'm going away."

He doesn't respond.

"I'm leaving."

"Oh, see you later."

"I'm going back to Hong Kong."

He inhales deeply and shuts his eyes, as if he's trying to shut me out. There's no need for that. He shut me out of his life a long time ago.

"To do what! Hong Kong is finished! Economy's terrible. This return to China is no good. No good." He frowns. Like auntie. I can see why they put up with each other. They've become one and the same.

"There's nothing for me to do here."

"Many things to do, but you're too useless! No brains. Not like your brother."

I've heard this before. More often than I care to remember. But I've never been able to understand why he thinks Ah-Tim is smarter than me. I don't like discussing Ah-Tim with him. But something tells me it's time to get this off my chest. Now that I'm going. And won't be seeing him again.

"Ah-Pah, what exactly does Ah-Tim do for a living?"

He stares at me as if I’ve asked him who he is. He clears his throat and spits into the bushes behind us.

"Businessman, what do you think!"

"What kind of business, Ah-Pah?"

He dismisses my question with a downward wave of the hand, as if he's swatting a mosquito.

"If he's such a smart businessman, why is he always borrowing money from me? And he never pays back."

"Ah-Tim borrows money from you, huh! What money do you have?"

"For years, ever since he finished middle school."

"Nonsense!"

"Of course he wouldn't tell you. Just like he wouldn’t tell you how he makes his money. Smuggling cigarettes. Illegal betting. Horses. Drugs. Football. Illegal car parks. Gambles it all away in Macau. And then comes begging. Oh Lisa, my big sister, please, you can’t neglect me. Just a few big ones before Friday. I've had enough of him. Your precious businessman son!"

He stares at me with such venom in his eyes I can almost physically feel his hatred. I move to the end of the bench.

"Lying! That's not Ah-Tim!" He goes into a coughing fit.

"It's the truth, Ah-Pah. Ask him what happened to his best friend, Ah-Man. You remember him don't you? Our neighbor in Kowloon City. Same triad. Ah-Man was arrested. He's in Pik Uk now. Two years already. Ah-Tim was very lucky, he was in Macau gambling when the police found all that counterfeit money. Ask Ah-Tim where's Ah-Man. Ah-Man covered for him. Otherwise he too would be in prison now."

His face is all puffed up and about to explode, like in the cartoons. There, I've just blown away his old-age pension.

"Just jealous!" he spits the words out the way he spits out fish bones, the head bent close to the table so that his chin seems to be jabbing into his chest.

"Jealous? You think I want to be a criminal?"

"He's my son. He's a man! You're just ... just ..."

"Just what, Ah-Pah? Just a girl?"

Even now, he still can't utter the words that have troubled him all my life, from the day he walked into the hospital and the nurses said, "you have a beautiful baby daughter!" He took one look at me and slumped into a seat, as if someone had just died. Ah-Mah always cried when she told me that story.

His chin is now nestled in his chest. He's breathing too fast. Like a man who has just completed a marathon. This is not good. He has a bad heart.

"You've always known he's a useless shit, haven't you? That's why you forced me to sell my flat and give him the money. Lisa, no need keep flat in Hong Kong. Property market collapsed. Sell. Invest in noodle shop! Help Ah-Tim with his business."

I get up before he can respond. My heart is on fire. That flat was the only thing I had. A gift from my Ah-Chen. He called it our little love nest. So many dreams beckoned ahead of us! It was easy to forget he would never leave his wife. I only agreed to the sale to give Ah-Pah face, so he wouldn’t be too dependent on that woman. But I don’t even think his name is on the deed of that stupid noodle place.

A man walks up to me, with a big smile on his face. I ignore him and walk on. Then I hear him call my name. I stop and face him.

"I'm so sorry, I ..."

"No problem, Lisa. I see you have things to handle."

He cannot understand what I’m going through right now. He walks me back to the metro. He seems to have little to do. I ask him what he does for a living.

"Musician, Lisa. I'm a musician." He gives me a card. "Chez Afrika, the club where I play. Please come and see us some time. Best African music in Copenhagen. I promise!"

Ah-Pah and auntie are doing their best to ignore me. Auntie is not even yelling at me any more. She seems to have found a new happiness, which she's trying hard to hide, now that she knows I'll be leaving. She got at least half the money. Most of it went to pay the loan sharks who've kept her in business. But they've nearly ruined her with the interest charges. Some of the money helped her diversify. She started to offer yuhk si chau mihn, deep fried noodles with shredded pork, and chau fahn. Fried rice. Chau fahn becomes The Special. A real local favourite down Lisvaeksgade.

I have a reservation to fly in two weeks' time. Can't get a job here. And auntie expects me to slave for her, even while she refuses to make me a partner. One evening as I walk in I find them arguing. They have no shame. There's a customer waiting for her take away chau fahn. They go quiet when they see me. They're talking about Ah-Tim. I ignore them and head upstairs. But I can still hear angry voices. I can’t stand it. I grab my purse and walk out.

That's when I remember the musician guy. I search in my purse for his card. It's a ten-minute walk. The sun is still shining at nine. That's the one thing I like about this country. It gets dark very late in the summer. But the shops are closed and all you see are people milling around, going to restaurants and pubs. They drink an awful lot in this country, it seems. Hardly surprising, it's the home of Carlsberg.

The streets are filled with girls in mini-skirts and high heels. Men in shorts and t-shirts. They're drunk, or looking forward to getting drunk. Wide grins plastered across their faces. It's like a carnival, people wearing their smiles like masks. You don't know who is beneath the mask. Not that it matters. It's just like being back in Lan Kwai Fong. The African club is in a narrow street, tucked away between pubs and restaurants. I walk through the door and find an empty table. The place is only half full. The music reminds me of that reggae at Christiania. 

I'm still wearing my dark sunglasses and a cap. Toumane doesn't recognize me. He's playing something that looks like a banjo, or a guitar. I've never seen anything like it before. I order a glass of white wine and listen to the music for twenty minutes. It has strong rhythms, and the singing sounds haunting. If I stay here long enough I could get hypnotized. During the break, I take off my sunglasses. Toumane sees me. I'm impressed he remembers my name. He says he's been waiting for me every night for two weeks.

I sit through another set. They finish at 10.30 tonight. Another band will take over at eleven. I want a change of scene. So we find another pub down the road. Toumane tells me stories of African village life and music, and the names of the instruments his band play. The kora, djembe, ngoni, the balafon. 

He talks excitedly about traditional Malian music and the soulful Bambara elegies. He's like a teacher explaining things to a child. How the roots of the 21-string kora go back to the reign of the 13th century King Sunjata Keita. He describes the differing tempos of the Malian and Gambian kora styles. When he explains how his band infuses African rhythms with Chicago blues through the acoustic bass, I give up. I smile, quietly sip my white wine and follow the hand gestures, since the words don't make much sense. For about two hours, I forget the troubles with Auntie, the aloofness of Ah-Pah, and even the receding memories of Ah-Chen.

Toumane seems so organized. Although his family are in Africa he calls them all the time. They're close, and he has his music. Out here so far away, his music is all he has. He doesn't even have a girlfriend. He says he has no time for romance.

"I want to succeed, Lisa. I don’t want to play in clubs all my life," he tells me. "There's no money in it. Pays the bills, but is that all in life, paying bills? Not enough for me. Pas du tout!"

"What do you want?"

"Sign up with a label and sell CDs! I want the whole world to hear my music. Playing nightclubs is not enough. Not enough!" His eyes are like flashlights.

Tonight I'm in the mood to talk. I don't know why. Maybe it's because I'm leaving. Nothing will matter when I'm gone. I haven't had a single friend the whole time I've been in this city. And now, listening to this musician talk about his dreams exposes the meaningless of my life. Or has it always been like this? Things were good before. Everything changed when that bastard was shot in Mongkok and they all suspected Ah-Chen. Just because they had an argument the night before.

I'll send word, Lisa. I'll send for you. That's what he said before he climbed into the boat in the murky waters of Tai Pang Wan and sailed off to mainland China. I need to lie low until this thing blows over. It never did. Three years now, he's been gone. And my life just went down the drain. I lost the love of my life. Then I lost my flat. And now I'm losing my father. And my mind, unless I can get away from here.

Toumane is staring intently into my face. I've no idea how long I've been talking for. But somehow it feels good. I find a packet of tissues and dry my eyes. I haven't had this much to drink since the karaoke days. I don't know if I can find my way home.

"So sad, Lisa, so sad," says Toumane, over and over again, like a mantra to bring me back to life. There can be no salvation for me now. Even Toumane can see that, and he's a stranger, from a land far away. He's smiling, and the smile seems to be coming from somewhere deep in his head, seeping through the skin. So unlike those masks out on the street.

"Are you okay?" I ask him.

"In Africa when the rains come and quench the earth after the oppressive hot season, and the earth swells with pride like a well-fed lion, that's how I feel, Lisa. Then the grass grows everywhere, green, bright and confident. It defies our heavy feet and grows in the footpath. The smell of fresh grass, oh, Lisa, you bring that feeling to me."

"Your music will always be with you." I know I'll never see him again. And I know it's time for me to leave. He walks me out and hails a taxi, then takes my hand and kisses it, like in old European movies. My head is spinning. A friend at last. But why now, just when I'm leaving town?

"Call me, Lisa, non?" The taxi pulls away before I can say goodbye.

When I get to the shop, it's almost one o’clock. Auntie is locking up.

"What is this!" she mutters under her breath. I’m about to yell something appropriately filthy when I trip over a carton of noodles and go crashing to the floor. The world is darkening and closing in on me. And all I can hear is auntie's laughter, bouncing against the walls of her shop like the sound of pots and pans smashing to the ground.

I wake up late in the morning. It's already 11. I don't know how I ended up in bed. There's a bandage across my forehead. I must have hurt myself real bad. I hear some activity in the shop. Probably auntie making her usual late breakfast. Half an hour later there's a knock on my door. I pretend to be asleep. They've never come to my room before. The door creaks open, and the smell of steamed shrimp dumplings fills the air. I keep my eyes shut. If auntie thinks she can poison me she's very mistaken. I'm not touching her stupid dumplings.

"Lisa, ah?" I open one eye first. With my hangover and the sun shining through the drapes, it’s too painful to open both.

Ah-Pah is sitting on the edge of my bed, holding a tray. He still remembers how I liked my breakfast. A few dumplings. A boiled egg, and hot lemon tea. I sit up and study his bowed head. He has lost more hair in recent weeks. I take the tray and thank him. He nods but doesn’t say a word. He turns to face the window. I eat my breakfast in silence, not once taking my eyes off him. When I finish I try to place the tray on the floor but he quickly takes it from my hand. In that one instant we make eye contact. The first time in weeks, possibly years. He swallows hard. His Adams' Apple seems to do a summersault.

"Ah-Pah, that's the best breakfast I've had in months."

His face breaks into a grin. But he's still not looking at me. He reaches into his pocket and hands me an envelope. When I tear it open he's already out of the room.

Two tickets fall out. One-way to Hong Kong.

One in my name. One in his.

We leave the day after tomorrow.

(First published in New York Stories, 2005.)

 
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