CONSUMPTION: A NOVEL
The plane’s interior was a false night created by closed haloed shades and dim lights, time skewed and suspended. In the final leg of its flight from London to Hong Kong, the 747 flew high above the meandering rivers and fertile deltas of China’s Hunan province, wings exposed to the blistering sun.
Sara Sexton shifted her feet around in the cramped space in front of her, just a step to the left and then to the right, squelching up and relaxing her toes, pivoting her heels. She hoped not to wake the German man who spilled over their shared armrest into her seat, but she needed some relief from the pins and needles of what her friend Martin called cattle-class seats. Passengers in aisle seats stand and walk the corridors when they needed to move. Although Sara was only five feet two and a half, her petite frame felt restricted.
The long line of ceiling lights began to flicker on, one fully illuminated then the next stammering before lighting up. Passengers stirred, yawning, hands and arms raised, stretching out their spines. Velcro closures were ripped apart, plastic bags rustled, porthole window shades lifted to the sun. The coffee a steward handed Sara smelled reasonable. The German stirred back to life.
For the briefest moment, she caught the aroma of Stavros’s coffee, the strength of the day percolating through the dawning house, the first whiff of promise. Caught off guard, for that moment she was on the myth-filled island of Ikaria, her jewel in the Greek archipelago, where she’d lived for the last year wringing every possible drop of joy out of her days and nights.
She looked down at her tray table. Stavros wouldn’t call such a brew coffee. She took a sip: bitter and burnt. The bad taste hung in her mouth, the brittle emotions of the last few weeks lodged in her throat. She would not let them go. Not here. Not now. What time was it in Greece? She looked at her watch, still turning on Greek time. Twelve o’clock. Midday. In the two weeks since she’d left him, she’d crisscrossed time zones… maybe it was midnight? What did it matter? All of that was the past. She’d made her decision. What difference did it make what time it was in Greece?
After the breakfast trays were collected, quite a few people headed back to the toilets, clutching kits or hairbrushes. Apparently most passengers felt compelled to emerge in an airport after an exhausting flight looking as if they had just slept in a five-star hotel. Sara felt no need for such absurdity, which was just as well since the German’s tray table was down, bearing fat sausage sandwiches he’d pulled from his travel bag. Martin would forgive her ragged appearance. After twenty-odd years of friendship, they’d seen one another in worse condition than hers at the moment. She turned away from the German and looked out the window.
Martin had moved to Hong Kong when he was twenty-three, just four years ago in the summer of ‘91. Despite their living in different countries, they grew closer, accommodating the new circumstance as if it were merely another change in a long line. Since leaving Tasmania to study at The Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology–RIM-IT, as Martin called it–he’d worked as an interior designer in the Melbourne office of CBL and Associates, an internationally burgeoning architectural firm. He soon became bored with the “small-fry” jobs, and on a Monday morning after a boozy, contemplative weekend, he delivered the company’s directors an ultimatum: transfer him to the new Hong Kong office, or he’d resign.
Knowing it was better to keep an ambitious and talented player on their team than have him work for the competition, the company directors transferred him immediately. As much as Sara hadn’t wanted him to leave Australia, she supported his decision. Martin was restless, driven and hungry for success with a ferocity unlike anyone else she’d ever known.
This was the first time Martin had lived outside Australia. There were no e-mails then, faxes were still business-only, and international phone calls were well outside mid-twenty-year-olds’ budgets. So Martin and Sara exchanged long, handwritten letters, his running amok with an appealing brittleness.
Sara, there are piles and piles of rubbish in the streets, bamboo scaffolding strapped onto high-rise buildings that just keep growing. Thin Chinese workers scamper up and down and all around. On street corners, men squawk and argue and then laugh. Everything is carried in worn wicker baskets. There’s a fifty-story building on the verge of Victoria Harbour, Jardine House, dotted like a domino with rows and rows of porthole windows. The Chinese–a notoriously superstitious race–call it The Building of a Thousand Arseholes.
The smell of tightly packed people, the humidity, the Chinese cab drivers who burped and farted with no apology, the rats who overran the streets after dark–all rated lengthy descriptions. And, of course, there was the crush of “six million people on a pinhead.” It was a long way from the sparse population density of Tasmania.
All the Chinese workers in the office have taken on western names like Mee Ling Wong took hers, Susie Wong, in The World of Susie Wong. Do you remember that movie? Yesterday afternoon, our office secretary Constance Chan, who barely speaks a word of English, buzzed me.
“Jesus Christ in reception for you.”
I thought it had to be some kind of joke. He slipped me his business card and there it was, plainly written in bold and embossed type:
I took him to my office and viewed his swatches. They were hardly heavenly creations, nothing at all redeeming about them.
Soon after, Martin received an invitation to a dinner party at a prestigious mid-level address, located in the first few rows of high rise built behind the island’s central business district, just before the arable land gives way to Victoria Mountain’s steep slopes and jungle. The hostess imported Italian designer home wares. They had met at a gallery opening. The invitation pleased him, the first social invitation he’d received since arriving in Hong Kong.
He found a dozen people seated at a formal dining table–other business people, some hairdressers, a sprinkling of French, Italian, Canadian, British accents–expatriates who’d lived in the Far East or Hong Kong for years. Their conversation revealed them to be old friends, Martin the only newcomer. But Martin did what Martin did easily, intermingling, neither invasive nor withdrawn, until he found his footing.
High point of the evening? Two Filipina waitresses ceremoniously brought a huge silver tray displaying a roasted pig, the complete carcass. With visible effort, they heaved it up onto the center of the dining table, the fat still hissing and spitting. Evidently it was to be carved by the hostess in situ, like some pagan ritual.
At the head of the table our hostess, beaming ear to ear, lowered her dark eyes towards the pig, which lay facing her, its teeth snarling.
“You’ve forgotten the apple!” she shrieked, slapping the table with her hand. “I told you about the apple.”
A servant winced and walked back through the swinging doors. A moment later she reappeared with a shiny green apple. But in the heated confusion caused by Hong Kong’s language soup, the waitress stood with the apple in her mouth and the carving knife and fork held up beside her face.
This place is a madhouse. I wish you were here.
Reading such letters, Sara concluded that not only was Hong Kong a madhouse, it was, for Martin, a source of endless amusement.
The drone of the plane’s engines changed. Sara felt that first eddy of deceleration in her stomach. Kai Tak’s infamous runway, reclaimed from Victoria Harbour, was impossibly short. The plane dropped as if its wings were ripped from its back, through the whipped-cream clouds into stained, humid air. It scraped past high-rise apartment buildings, down, down, down.
As the plane touched, bounced, and landed, she felt a wave of excitement, the first in weeks. It would be good to see Martin. It had been two years, and so much had changed. Had she made the right decision to leave Stavros and Greece? She had no idea, all emotion bottled and corked. She could have taken a plane directly back to Sydney but at the last minute had decided that only Martin could help her sift the myths from the facts of her time on Ikaria and so she’d booked this stopover. Martin had been busy all year and hadn’t had the time to come to Greece.
The engines roared in reverse thrust. From the rear galley, something crashed. An untethered plastic cup bounced along the full length of the aisle. It was an unusual overture to Hong Kong, where things normally remained in place, safely secured.