Five nights consecutively, Hu Tien listened to the piano playing across the street. Chopin's Polonaise in D minor, Op. 71. One of Chopin's most physically demanding pieces. He peered through the window blinds. There's a woman on a bench, her hair and face obscured by a black lace mantilla shawl. Hu Tien could see the downward arch of a nose, the trace outline of lips, the swaying of her shoulders. Austere, yet with a trace of femininity. She looked so utterly European, foreign and inaccessible. A feathery feeling blossomed in his throat, like a cough wanting to be released.
She must've played Chopin before this, but he only noticed the night the proprietress of Hunan Garden, a Chinese woman with a perennial toothpick in her mouth, had fired him without ceremony. Another illegal immigrant was willing to work for less.
Now Chopin's Nocturne Op. 9, No. 2 in E flat. Pianissimo, pianissimo. Hu Tien's fingers twitched. The tendon in his wrist jerked. He didn't switch on the lights even as dusk faded into night. Once, he too had played the piano in a vortex of delirium. Rachmaninov's Piano Concerto No. 2. The Harbin Summer Festival. He was eleven. He won first prize. He'd grown up with Chinese literati traditions — calligraphy, Chinese poetry, ink painting, but when it came to music, his father only wanted him to learn dead white men's music.
Mayflower turned him down for a waiter's job. China Garden said no vacancy. Sheng's Teahouse even asked for a C.V. That night, Hu Tien tried to read his flat-mate's engineering books. His other books — books from his past — gathered dust in bulky blocks. He had brought Dreams of the Red Chamber, other Chinese classics, surveys of Chinese ink painters like Pan Tianshou and Wu Guanzhong. His particular favourite — the writer Lu Xun's short stories. But now, he couldn't bear to read them. They felt surreal, from another life which he couldn't equate with this one.
He lifted the slat of the blinds, a hot flush pollarding his cheeks. Op. 25 no. 5? Or was it 11? Once, he'd have pinpointed immediately. Her notes were played as the light dance steps of lovers, subtle, yet with controlled savagery. His throat opened. Her silhouette was stark against the pall of yellow light from her lamp, her lace-covered shoulders rising and falling, and the muscles in his twitch in response. He could see her flying fingers.
His gaze tracked a woman coming out of Waitrose, a bag of shopping dangling from her wrist. Tall and gaunt, her shoulders stooping, her wispy blond hair tied back in a ponytail. He recognised her by her lace mantilla shawl. A quickening, received like an electrical jolt, travelled up his oesophagus.
She was wearing a shapeless denim smock which came down past her knees and emphasised her scrawny ankles. She walked slowly, almost dragging her feet. Her eyes swept pedestrian traffic, then slid down to the pavement. But her face — Hu Tien gasped at its grace, its architectural remoteness, its pathetic beauty.
He rose from the bench and followed her. He didn't mean to accost, merely to get close. She became aware of the sound of his footsteps and halted, turning slightly. Hu Tien also stopped. Then, she hastened her steps. He quickened his to match hers.
She turned around. Her face had an implacable pall. But her eyes gave away her fright. "I don't know if you speak English. Stop or I'll call the police."
Hu Tien did not move. Did not speak. She had these violet eyes, and they spoke of turbulence, tunnels, the seduction of amnesia, a desire to escape borders.
"I listen to you play." It emerged as a squeak, but she heard it. "I am your neighbour." She gazed at him steadily. The violet eyes told him she had heard and understood every word.
"Yes?" she said. It sounded at once like a query for reassurance and an invitation.
"I also used to play at concert level," Hu Tien said. "They called me a prodigy."
A few days later he borrowed five quid from his flat-mate for a bunch of tulips. Buzzed her doorbell and waited. Scratched his shin with the toes of the other foot. Waited.
"It's me, your neighbour."
There was a pause on the other end. Hu Tien shifted his weight from one foot to another. His voice betrayed a desperate note. "You said I could come, do you remember?"
Her living room was boxy in the slanting afternoon light, the wall paper yellowish and faded. An ornate lamp — the same lamp that had illuminated her every night — now Hu Tien was finally able to see it in entirety. It had a fat angel holding a lyre as a base. The house was overrun with bric-a-brac. Messy. Papers everywhere. Dust on the countertops. One sofa, with burnt patches on its frayed arm. He glanced out the window. His own window with its closed panes looked completely foreign from this angle, unrecognisable as his home.
She came back into the living room, bearing a tray with tea things. When she'd opened the door earlier, he'd thrust the flowers at her. "I want play Chopin together." The door, which had opened a crack, widened.
As if they'd never been interrupted, she resumed the thread. "My husband is not well. He's resting now. But if you like, I shall play for you."
Without her mantilla shawl, she looked unbearably vulnerable to him, older than before, no longer so European, so hawkish. Hu Tien cast his eyes around, looking for her shawl, although he wasn't sure what he'd do if he saw it.
"My husband was a music teacher. He used to give lessons here. The awful caterwauling one's ears were subjected to." She laughed; her laughter had a dry, medicinal quality. "So excruciating." The bones in her face shifted.
She patted the seat next to her. Hu Tien froze.
"I can't play too loudly." She smelled of lilac, and felt, next to him, slight and fragile. Her fingers grazed the keys, almost stroking them. "My name is Ernestine. Call me Ernie."
Then she began playing. This close, Hu Tien could mark every change. Her pinky moved to cover the mistakes of the fourth finger. Her muscles tensed at the harder sections. Sometimes she closed her eyes. Her nostrils flared at sharps. The heat from her body made the scent of lilac stronger. When the piece dribbled to an end, Hu Tien was startled awake. Her fingers touched his hand clasping his knee. "I was once a child prodigy too," she said. "You see, I can see that about you right off. It's in the twitch in your finger muscles when I play. As if we're playing together." He realised that this close, it was the first time his fingers hadn't tangoed in imaginary performance. He'd been lost in memory. But she saw. She saw and understood. His gaze came to rest on the joint between her shoulder blade and neck muscle. Her skin was so white, the ridge of her collarbone so sharp.
Ernestine abruptly lifted her head. She got up without another word.
Hu Tien finally registered the wheezing coughs coming from within the house, a feeble masculine voice calling 'Ernie'. He followed, pulled by an undertow of intimacy. From the doorway to the bedroom, he watched her bending over a cadaverous man, lifting his head as he coughed into a towel already stained. The room smelled awful.
Both Ernestine and her husband turned to look at him. The man too lifted his head. Though ill, his gaze had a frightening intensity. "Who are you?" he barked out then lapsed into a violent bout of coughing.
What Ernestine did next would forever be a moment Hu Tien kept returning to, its inexplicable wounding. Her eyes, so lovely earlier, turned hostile and bitter, her neck tendons rising in relief. She gave a short, staccato scream. "What do you want? Take what you want, but please, my husband is sick. Please don't harm us."
Hu Tien stumbled backwards. He tripped over the carpet, brushing his way back out into bright sunlight. Right before he left, he'd caught a glimpse of her luxuriantly foliaged back terrace — a neat oriental garden, a miniature ornamental bridge even – a Zen oasis contained within the beating heart of a European city. And her gardener. He'd caught a glimpse of her gardener, wearing a floppy hat, bending down, tending to the plants, the tableau marred only by his dark skin.