Published in memory of 黃時森
Like all stories that fail the Bechdel Test, this one began when I left for London one November with a crush on a guy. He was a gold trader. I had met him in Sydney while he was back visiting his folks. He had winked and said, ‘Come to the motherland sometime, I’ll show you around.’ There was no reason to like him except that developing a crush would help me avoid writing my next book.
It was a pleasant autumn. Brexit was in the pipeline. We went to Highgate Cemetery and saw where Karl Marx was buried. Karl’s tomb was a fat, bronze head sitting on a pedestal. A German tourist standing next to us pointed out prominent Marxists who had been laid to rest nearby.
‘Everyone wants to be buried close to Karl,’ he said.
‘Workers of all lands unite,’ I replied.
We moved on to the British Museum. We looked at artefacts stolen from various countries, which the British refused to return. At the Parthenon Marbles, the trader turned to me.
‘The guy who took these from Athens was Lord Elgin. His son, also a Lord Elgin, burnt down the Old Summer Palace in Beijing.’
‘Those Elgins,’ I said. ‘They really got around.’
‘Here’s a little tidbit for you,’ said the trader. ‘My great-great-great grandfather was a British officer who helped torch that palace. Feel a bit guilty about it, actually.’
He looked at me as if I could offer absolution. I made the sign of the cross.
‘Wouldn’t it be funny if one of your Chinese forebears was at that palace when it happened?’
‘I don’t think they were palace people.’
‘Got any mad family stories from the villages?’
‘We’re either palace or peasantry, right? I don’t know much about my family. I did have a grand-uncle who went missing before the Second World War. I heard he was probably killed. That was in Malaysia, though. He was meant to marry my grandma. When he went missing, she married his brother, and they became my grandparents. That’s all I know. I think about him sometimes… About the life he could have led.’
‘It’d be British Malaya, though, wouldn’t it?’ said the trader. ‘I think you’ll find it wasn’t called Malaysia until 1957.’
‘Well, ’63,’ I said. ‘But let’s not split hairs.’
Later, he summoned a cab for us.
‘Your stop,’ he said, scrolling through his phone as we pulled up outside my hostel.
That was the end of that.
There was nothing else I could think to do but wander around the country examining the graves and former homes of famous writers. I saw where Plath ended her life, where Orwell, Dickens and Christie lived, where Tolkien and Dahl were buried, where Keats lay on his green sick bed. I thought I could revive my love for writing by seeing where it had died.
I went to Old Spitalfields Market and put my name on a clipboard for a session with Kabir, who read tarot cards. I told him I couldn’t write, that I had bad luck with men, and that I’d been mooching around cemeteries as a result.
‘What’s wrong with me?’ I asked.
‘It’s all material in the end,’ he said. ‘Think of Nora Ephron.’
I thought of Nora Ephron. Also dead.
‘Here we have the Hermit, the Devil, the Emperor and Justice,’ he said, looking at the spread. ‘For you to move forward, you need to acquaint yourself with the past. The things that haunt you. Gaps in your history. In the meantime, if you like cemeteries, you must visit William Blake. He’s just blocks from here. The poet who talked to angels!’
I followed his directions. Blake sat next to Defoe on one of the stone paths that divided the cemetery. Next to them were some black bins and a witch’s hat. The bins were emblazoned with fancy coats of arms.
I sat on the footpath next to Blake, among the yellow leaves, and said I was sorry I had not read his work, but I was sure he was very good. Afterwards, I realised he was buried metres away from where I’d been sitting. I had been apologising to a disembodied headstone.
On Brick Lane, I came across a Japanese kimono dealer. She had set up shop in the courtyard of an old brewery.
‘I thought you were Anna Sui,’ she said. ‘My gay friends are big fans of hers.’
‘Why, thank you. First time I’ve been mistaken for someone stylish.’
The racks were full of colourful kimonos, but there was one odd coat among them, shorter than the rest. It was black cotton with red and white stripes, and bold white lettering. The dealer said it was an old fireman’s jacket, called a shoubou-happi, worn to lift the spirits.
Down the right side of the collar it said ‘班長’, meaning ‘Leader’. Down the left, it said ‘松戸市消防団’, meaning ‘Matsudo City Fire Brigade’, and on the back, in a big white circle, was ‘松戸’ for ‘Matsudo’.
I put the jacket on, opened my wallet, and said to the dealer, ‘All yours.’
I walked off down the lane. A white man, passing by, grinned and said, ‘Ni hao.’
Back home in Sydney, haze from bushfires covered the sky. I started to develop a rash. The redness started under my arms, then spread all over my body to form one triumphant welt.
It was night. I went to a nearby Emergency Department. A mainland Chinese couple came in after me. The woman was wearing a striped shirt-dress and carrying a Bulgari handbag. Her boyfriend trailed after her in a black Justin Bieber T-shirt that said ‘STAFF’ in tall white letters.
She was nursing an index finger, alternately whimpering and throwing a tantrum at the guy in Mandarin. We ended up sitting together in a small room where junior doctors attended to us. They fed me a cocktail of antihistamines.
Bulgari kept shouting at Bieber. There was a spare seat next to me, but Bieber stood right up against the wall behind us as though trying to disappear into it. I sat there balancing out the scene—performing the good Asian, silently reading Blake.
After half an hour, my rash still hadn’t gone down. The doctors, confused, sent me home with a vague diagnosis and a prescription for more drugs.
My GP couldn’t offer me an explanation, either. He ordered me a blood test, gave me a referral to the best allergist in the city, then flew off to a Thai resort for the summer.
It was a particularly hot December. After the blood test, I could barely get out of bed. I had nausea, headaches and fevers. The rash was still unbearably itchy. I took cold showers, to no avail. I swallowed handfuls of various antihistamines, most of which made me more sick.
I was spaced out and too tired to write. I did some proofreading jobs to keep the money coming in. My flatmate went interstate indefinitely on a job, leaving me with a silver tinsel Christmas tree, bent in the middle, that she’d filched from an office party.
A month passed. With it, New Year came and went. I didn’t leave the flat except to go on a few air-conditioned shuffles around the local shopping centre. I wore my fireman’s jacket—my new favourite thing. I picked up groceries, and all sorts of useless skin creams. I wandered from Kmart to Target to Muffin Break. I went home and lay in bed and streamed episodes of Episodes.
One morning, I woke and found myself covered in streaks of blood—all over my arms and legs, neck and face. I’d torn skin during the night without even waking up. I went online and ordered white cotton gloves to wear as I slept.
But with gloves on, a recurring nightmare began. I was locked in a cupboard in a burning house in the midst of a world on fire. I would jolt awake and struggle to get back to sleep. I became accustomed to reading news articles on my phone between two and four every morning. One article reported the discovery of the grave of Matthew Flinders near Euston Station in London during excavation for a new train line. I wondered how many people still gave a shit. The man had gone to sea inspired by Robinson Crusoe.
Days later, the gardener for our tiny block of flats died. Somewhere, a poorly constructed brick wall had fallen on him. But it was too soon to replace the guy, and the bushes outside my windows ran wild. Their new leaves stretched upwards and began to shroud me from the light.
In the middle of February, the allergist finally had an opening. By then, my welts had subsided and a persistent itch remained. On the wall of the allergist’s office was a hand-drawn picture that said ‘OXFORD’ at the top. He reviewed my blood test results, which showed nothing of significance. His best guess was that I simply had a chronic rash.
‘It’s a condition you flirt with, get engaged to, then marry,’ he said as he ushered me out.
I would become a woman betrothed to her illness.
That night, the other scratching started. It woke me up at three o’clock. Too loud to be a cockroach or a rat—more like human nails. I turned on my bedroom light. The scratching was coming from the inside of my wardrobe. Prolonged, deliberate clawing. I stared at the wardrobe door, paralysed. For a few minutes the sound continued, then stopped.
I woke up at the same time each night to this terrible noise. It shifted places. Behind the bedroom door. Inside my dresser. I snatched open all the drawers, but there was nothing in them but badly folded clothes.
Then it began inside my mattress. Whatever was in there started plucking the springs inside, too.
I moved to the couch. The nails ran loud under the floorboards beneath me. I tried to sleep with all the lights on. Whatever this was, I wanted to be able to see it. Then the lights began to blow, one after the other. First in my bedroom, then in my flatmate’s room, the bathroom and in the kitchen, twice. Four nights later, only the lamp next to the couch remained intact.
I bought new bulbs, plus a white battery-operated nightlight in the shape of a sparrow. Its black eyes watched over me. The lamp died, then the bird did too.
I began to entertain a theory that either I was being haunted by a ghost or I was a repressed teenage superhero. I ran this theory past my friend Kazumi, who dropped in one Wednesday after work with some lotion she thought might help. She was a pharmacy technician. She had a white boss who liked to bow and call her Madame Mao.
‘Have you been anywhere spiritually dark?’ she asked, rolling a cigarette on the kitchen table. ‘You could have brought someone home with you from your trip.’
‘I felt sick in some of the cemeteries but not all.’
‘You went on holiday and spent it in graveyards?’
‘If it was Marx who followed me back here,’ I said, ‘he’d be fucking disappointed.’
‘What’s the story with that jacket you’re wearing? How old is it?’
‘Hot, right? I got it in London. It belonged to a Japanese fireman.’
‘Oh my God, Julie.’
‘You think it’s haunted?’
‘I don’t fucking know.’
‘It’d be my kind of luck. Trying to attract a live man but ending up with a dead one.’
Kazumi started telling me about a friend of hers in Japan. They’d known each other since they were four.
‘She collects antique dolls and kimonos. And she can sense if something has negative energy or not. Like, recently, she bought a kimono off eBay. It came in a glass case. She had a bad feeling about it. Tried to send it back. The seller wouldn’t take it.’
Kazumi tapped her cigarette on the lip of her glass.
‘She once bought an old ichimatsu doll—you know the ones? They look like babies and they’re dressed in kimonos and only really rich families could afford them? Creepy as fuck. She got the doll in its box, and when she looked into its eyes she knew something was wrong. So she took the kimono off and she saw this big nail pierced right through the doll’s chest. She gave the doll to someone who still wanted it even though the thing was fucked. They offered her cash, but she refused. She even has her own ghost, ever since she was a kid. She felt the hands of a man fondling her in bed once. She didn’t tell her mother about it until years later. And you know what her mother said? “The same man touched me too.”’
‘Fucking hell, Kazumi.’ I was getting chills. ‘Goodbye, sleep.’
Kazumi got out her phone and googled the Matsudo City Fire Brigade.
‘It was established in 1948, after the war, but nothing on this jacket indicates its age. Hard to know who your guy is. It’s rare, though, to find a man these days who is so reliably around. He’s definitely a keeper.’
An uncle of mine from Kuala Lumpur was visiting Sydney on business. He wanted to see me. I dragged myself out of the flat and took a train into the city for a late-night coffee in the lounge of his hotel.
‘I think I brought a ghost home from London,’ I explained when he noticed me scratching my arms. ‘It came free with a jacket.’
He raised his eyebrows.
‘London, huh? You should ask Ji Gong about it.’ He was referring to the Chinese god. ‘Your aunt is at the temple tonight. I’ll WhatsApp her. She can call you when she gets to the front of the line.’
He pulled out his phone and sent a text.
‘In the meantime,’ he said, ‘I have something for you.’
He had with him a photocopied scroll of paper. He rolled it out, covering the coffee table between us. We put tealights on each corner to weigh it down. It was a copy of the plaque he had just installed on the family crypt in Malaysia, outlining in Chinese five thousand years of the history of my mother’s side of the family.
‘You worship the West,’ said my uncle, ‘but you don’t know what it has done to your own family.’
He put on his reading glasses and we pored over the scroll. He translated. King, something, Silk Road, something, something, military general. It was going to be a long night.
‘Can we skip to the end?’ I asked. My uncle peered over his glasses at me, looking less than impressed. ‘Do you have anything on the grand-uncle who disappeared?’
He moved his finger to the last quarter of the text.
‘He came to British Malaya from China when he was a small child. But while he was growing up, China was invaded by the Japanese. So, starting in high school, he raised funds to help China defend itself. All across British Malaya, people like him stood on the tops of cars protesting the Japanese invasion and asking for donations. The British, of course, controlled British Malaya. They started arresting people like your grand-uncle.’
‘Why were they so bothered by random protesters?’ I asked. ‘I mean, they weren’t the target, and surely they weren’t happy with Japan either?’
My uncle looked up from the scroll.
‘They were short-sighted—just scared of internal instability. In the end, they put your grand-uncle and other Chinese men on a boat moored in the Malacca River. Your grand-uncle said to his mother: “Great Mother, you delivered me through your womb, but I am a child of the Chinese government. Don’t feel sad about me. The Chinese people will not allow China to be conquered. I am sacrificing myself. It is my glory to fight for China.”
‘The boat was filled with Chinese men. Many were singing a Chinese song. When the song was over, they shouted to their parents: “I will be back after fighting the Japanese. Do not worry!”
‘Overnight, the boat went to Singapore, where they were put in prison. Then they were sent to Hong Kong. There, your grand-uncle joined the Communist Party. The men on the boat were distributed into the provinces. Your grand-uncle ended up in Chongqing, where he died in battle with the Japanese.’
My uncle paused with his index finger on one of the characters.
‘He was… How do I say this?’ He opened a translation app and looked for the right term. ‘An anonymous martyr. He died without name or honour. No one knew he had sacrificed his life for China. Eventually, the Japanese invaded British Malaya too. They threw Chinese babies into the air and spiked them.’
I watched our blond waiter serve tea at the next table. I felt like crying.
‘Well,’ I said, ‘at least it took two imperial powers to kill him.’
My uncle’s phone rang. It was a video call. He spoke briefly to my aunt, then passed his phone and earphones to me.
My aunt waved. She focused the camera on the medium at the temple—a man in a trance who was channelling Ji Gong.
‘Quick, ask your questions,’ she said. ‘There’s a big queue behind me.’
The waiter arrived with a second round of flat whites while I began talking to god on WhatsApp. I asked about my strange illness. My aunt translated.
‘The jacket is definitely the problem,’ she said. ‘You have a sixth sense, but it’s undeveloped. So you’re just a big idiot who goes around collecting ghosts you can’t see. Why do you take what isn’t yours?’
‘It looked cool?’ I said feebly.
She relayed instructions for getting rid of the spirit. They were pretty involved.
‘Can I write a story about this?’
‘Stories,’ said my aunt. ‘That’s all you think about!’
The god chuckled.
‘Well, I’ve been stuck lately,’ I said. ‘I’m desperate. And, by the way, how come William Blake could talk to angels and I can’t?’
‘“Oh no, I only got a ghost!”’ said my aunt. ‘“Oh no, I’m so stuck!” Are you on a boat to China being sent to your death? No, you are not.’
She looked down at me through the phone and made a face.
‘He says you’re banned from cemeteries for two years. You’ve had a Japanese firefighter. What kind of man-ghost do you want to bring home next?’
‘A South American?’
It was early March, unseasonably hot. My skin still bothered me. I wanted to shed it like a snake, step neatly out of it, start anew. Following the instructions my aunt gave me, I lay the jacket out on the front lawn, facing upwards.
‘It’s not you, it’s me,’ I said.
I had to leave it there for seven days, whatever the weather. If the jacket disappeared, I was not to go looking for it.
For days, the jacket baked in the heat. No one asked why the hell it was there. A FedEx envelope from my aunt arrived, containing three paper talismans. I burned one and mixed its ashes in a bucket of water, then added a makrut lime and flowers in five colours. In the shower, I tipped the bucket over my head, exclaiming at the cold. I burned and drank the second talisman with water. Like clockwork, I continued to wake up at three in the morning, but to dead silence.
One night it rained heavily. I stepped over the jacket on the way out to fill a prescription. When I returned, the jacket had found its way to the entrance to the building, under cover. I lifted it with a rake and moved it back.
I’d been hoping the jacket would vanish rather than creep back in. My aunt had said that if didn’t disappear, I’d have to take the third paper talisman, hold it above the jacket, move it in three wide circles, then burn it on the road. Then I’d have to pack up the jacket and send it back to the dealer with no return address.
I imagined what it would be like, burning the talisman on the road in front of my flat, behind the ute belonging to builders working on the new duplex opposite. The duplex owners had partially moved in. A porcelain statue of the Virgin Mary gazed out from their front window, spreading her white arms, pitying all.
On the last of the seven nights, I woke up as usual. I went to the entrance, turned on the light, and looked out across the lawn.
The jacket sat up. It filled out, as if worn by an invisible person, who proceeded to stand and walk out the front gate, away from the flats. Sleeves swinging, the jacket floated down the curving road until it merged with the night.
‘Jesus Christ,’ I said.
The Virgin Mary across the street, tastefully illuminated, pursed her lips.
I stood there for a while after the jacket had disappeared. Then I went in to find a notebook and sat on the front steps writing until sunrise.
At nine, I met Kazumi for breakfast. The itch was gone.