Adult second runner-up: Whispers, by Liam Beale
As my eyesight fades I often imagine myself exploring the various locations that I can recall in intimate detail. I could, for example, quite happily and instinctively find my way around the small fishing town I was born into, if it still stands – up to the little outlooks me and a friend would share a tent upon – as well as numerous European airports I have been forced to wander between delayed flights.
Then there are the dark rooms, both those of my student days in the West and the ones I assembled myself when setting up shop in Shanghai. These cramped spaces felt so much an extension of my body that if I were now to close my eyes, and centre myself, my hands would know to find the enlarger on the left, and the safelight on the right.
This inability to forget is, I suppose like photography, a matter of mental inertia; a refusal to really internalise the fact and flow of change. Perhaps it’s something more intentional; a tantrum against inevitability.
Such rambling comes across as quite gloomy sometimes, so the Photographic Society often reach for another quote of mine:
Photography is, to me, like whispering a little secret into the darkness.
They used that – whispered secret – as the name of the tour we made in the mid-50s, which reached Hong Kong in spring 1955. I can place the year because Einstein had died that April, speaking his final words in a language none present could understand. They were lost forever.
That’s the photographer’s guilt and frustration; a young photographer is desperate to capture that which would be lost to time. Gradually, he learns to merely see.
From my chair by the window of the exhibition hall I observed with interest what Hong Kong had become: Nathan Road curling away from us had become cluttered with the Humbers being pumped out from Gilmans, a little policeman directing them from a skeletal pagoda.
Children, knowing themselves to be invincible, darted across the road. Boys struck poses, sucking chicken bones as if they were cigarettes whilst girls sitting regally allowed their mothers to fuss over their hair.
Old men, crooked and retired, now rested, watching the new wave of workmen pick up their tools. With spine-warping loads on their shoulders they added to the buildings. Monolithic shadows crept on with the day.
Visitors came to see my pictures, but most of them only meandered, dawdled, and left, as is common. Only one individual figure snagged my attention. He had paused in front of my very favourite picture, and pivoting on his heels slightly, he seemed almost unable to say goodbye to it. This was encouragement enough for me to finally stand from my chair.
‘Was this one taken on a Brownie?’ asked the young man, softly.
It might have been. I couldn’t remember the details – The picture was of a friend I had lost contact with – a young woman in a cheongsam embroidered in plum-blossom, strumming the strings of an upright pipa with a tabby cat sitting beside her. The young man’s wife began tugging at his elbow, but before he left he made a quick deduction that from the length of her sleeves and the low hem of her skirt – From the crisp, short curls of her hair – that it would have been in the 1920’s that I first encountered ‘The Pipa Girl’ –
Now it was me that was stuck in place.
Had it really been 30 years?
That would have been when I had just graduated, and had flown back to Hong Kong to visit my father.
I remember meeting her on a night in which I was feeling particularly fragile – one in which me and my father’s rickshaw took an unexpected turn towards Sai Wan. My father’s colleagues met us in Shek Tong Tsui, and led us to a large mansion there, one with two great oak doors, beside which I briefly caught the words –
The young man is first to whip…ggggggggggggggggggggggg
These doors parted and the clamorous noise from within escaped. It was like a farmyard of squabbling, as several, perhaps dozens, of women all in their coloured dresses excitedly rushed around the balconies above us.
The plumpest woman there ushered us on, ruffling in her hand a bouquet of pink ribbons – dangling them in front of the men she passed as if to tease them. We were led to our room and table where I was hit by a wall of strange, intense smoke wafting from the men slumped in the corner. As I sputtered my father discreetly passed the plump woman a wad of bills, for which he was given his own ribbon.
He lay it on the table and sheltered it with his hand. From there I watched his tired eyes scan over the classic-tinged décor, until finally they rested in the corner towards the girl playing the pipa. He frowned.
‘She’s dreadful.’ he mumbled.
I smiled and nodded, but was secretly charmed by her. She was clearly already pregnant, and it was easy to imagine that one day her bulging tummy would push the pipa from her lap entirely. I found her playing quite sweet in a naive way, but there was definitely something unfortunate and strained to her voice. It was garbled. In fact, she sang with an accent. Which was it? Shandong? I found it remarkable that all of the other patrons allowed her the quiet in which to perform.
Whilst she sang a ballad about springtime my father and his colleagues spoke about the stagnation and inevitable collapse of Hong Kong if it failed to shake off capitalism. It was the type of talk I had long learned to shut out, and instead watched the other patrons.
There was one dapper old man, in the middle of the audience locked in an intimate moment with the singer. He looked to her, unblinking, with the light from his candles swelling in his tear-filled eyes. As if receiving a coded order from her he pulled the pink ribbon from his breast pocket, abandoned it upon the table and stood to leave, nodding to her as he tucked his chair away.
‘What are you drinking?’ My father’s colleague asked.
‘Me?’ I asked stupidly.
My father waved down a waiter and ordered a whole bottle of rice wine.
‘He’ll need the courage,’ he said.
The professors laughed.
I listened to the girl singing. She was no longer from Shandong. Judging by her accent she was now from Sze-chuan. I think I recognized this song – It was motherly. Almost a lullaby.
‘Oh,’ said my father, ‘Is it bedtime?’
Even he looked around to see her target. This time it was one of the men smoking their pipes in the matted area. One slowed his inhale. The imbecilic smile fell from his face and he began mouthing along to the song, shaking his head. Finally he too- after an internal battle – placed his pipe and ribbon on the ground, and stood to reclaim his coat.Something in that ribbon had appeal to the men, because many made sneaky moves towards it, as if it were a strip of meat between a pack of dogs.
But just before the tension peaked, the ribbon was scooped up by the plump woman as she pulled out a string of ten or so girls weaving between the tables and finally ensnaring ours. My father pried open my fingers, and poked his ribbon into my hand.
‘Pick one.’ He said ‘Remember the number.’
‘P-Pick a …what?’
Some of the more confident girls giggled into their sleeves. That ribbon in my hand, I realised, was their convoluted ticketing system for ‘buying’ a girl: they each had a similar ribbon around their arm, which displayed a numbered badge.
My father, his face and eyes completely reddened by the alcohol, said nothing. He only looked down grimly towards his empty glass.
The circle of girls smiled. The tighter circle of men nodded knowingly.
Escaping their eyes I looked up to the pipa girl, wishing our eyes would meet. But they didn’t.
She steered the song into a new key.
I drank up some courage.
After enough pats on the back I wound up upstairs walking the sloping corridors where ribbons hung from the doorknobs of occupied rooms. Giggles, groans and murmurs bled through the walls. A tabby cat observed my pacing from the one seat there. To calm my nerves I stooped to say hello to it. In the darkness of its sleek eyes I saw my forced smile droop.
Then I was struck by another possibility –
I could just lie.
I considered sneaking out to a hotel, returning in the morning.
‘Are you lost?’
The cat dropped down and ran to the feet of the pipa girl, who had drifted up behind me.
‘Oh no,’ I answered, flashing the ribbon, ‘I’m from downstairs.’
‘Whenever anybody stops to play with the cat…’ she said, ‘they’re lost.’
She gave me time to reply, but I couldn’t.
‘Follow me,’ she demanded.
I marched after her, the cat returned to its chair.
‘What’s his name?’ I asked
Her room was barely a cupboard, almost a perfect cube. All she had was a chair and desk upon which she had methodically laid out the ribbons she had collected. When she lit a tiny oil lamp its glow showed the mould on the walls.
‘He doesn’t have one.’ she mumbled flatly. ‘He’s deaf. There’s something too sad about naming deaf cats.’
I had my spine flat against her door, my pulse reaching my fingers as they clung to the doorknob.
‘Was that your father you were with?’ She asked.
Agitated, she sniffed. Through the cracked mirror of her desk I saw the corner of her lip was puffed up, a slight purple tone glowing from under her makeup. There was something slightly erratic in the movement of her eyes.
‘And he put you up to this?’
‘I’ve always felt rather sorry for men,’ she started, while gingerly reaching out for my ribbon, ‘It’s like their heart and soul are just a limping foot, dragged behind the march of…’
When I snatched my hand back, I must have hissed, because she yelped, shielding her abdomen with one arm, her face with the other. Squeezing that ribbon, feeling its weight, I began sniffing, aching and burning at the eyes.
Before long I was apologising and wiping my eyes with the cuffs of my jacket. She rose and took my head to the embroidered flowers on her shoulder. I sobbed there, like a bullied schoolboy; uncontrollably.
‘You can trust me,’ she added in the softest whisper.
I remember, even in that dingy room being terrified that anything louder than a thought would somehow reach my father. My lips forgot the shapes of speech. But pulling each word from me I suddenly understood what he had always suspected:
I’m in love with my best friend.
He’s a… …boy.
The light from her oil lamp faded. With that, I found myself alone in the exhibition centre, looking out onto the night sky. Darkness, my element, gave me a canvas upon which to think, albeit uselessly. In that glass I saw a man sallow, haggard from decades of self-burying; I’d walked the path, married, and had children of my own. In turn I myself had set paths for them – either out of love or a lack of imagination.
Beyond my reflection I saw the dust of construction seep from the alleys. Having withstood floods, wars, and occupations the whole country now seemed to swell with desperate, adolescent potential.
But my heart ached to picture her – the girl that I had spoken my little truth to before boxing it away like so many undeveloped negatives.
I saw her, aged like myself, limping through the folds of the city.
The theme of the story is more geared towards gender relationships than capitalism, so would be good to introduce the theme within these observations. Maybe something that resembles a pink ribbon
Or to ‘marry’ the themes of gender and the development of the country somehow… Thinking of focusing on male labourers, construction workers, the difficulty of it.
I don’t actually understand what you are saying…
Jonas was asking about the Revolution in the title.
When I started out my thinking was that the rapid growth of Hong Kong was itself revolutionary, but this mark doesn’t seem to have been hit. Might be the answer to these last words not really clicking for me.
I’d like to somewhere say that the father believes Hong Kong is destined to failure. Draws attention to the theme of it growing.
I feel like ‘extended’ and ‘upwards’ are not the right words now. Especially since you deleted ‘descend’.
Maybe directly saying it is growing will work
Yeah, and I feel like the line ‘the country was the real revolution’ is really naff. I’d rather the exact adjectives painted this picture without having to state it bluntly.