Midnight on MacDonnell

Brian Howlett


Tuesday, May 23

            When it pours on six million people for thirty-six hours straight and when the storm gets angrier not weaker, then the raindrops have no choice but to multiply. Magnify. What starts as nuisance pinpricks on your bits of exposed skin turn into bowling balls falling from angry heavens. Slamming your arms. Hammering the back of your neck. Violent every one. There is no escape. Heads are down everywhere you turn. Nothing but umbrellas and trench coats. Rushing into the MTR. Fleeing from the office into the taxi. Enduring the minutes, not embracing the days. The roads run menacingly like polluted rivers, their surfaces pummelled by the torrent.
            It is not like the rain back home, whichever direction you might point. You choke on it here. You wake up at three in the morning and it’s the first miserable thing you hear as you stagger to the toilet. You are under assault. You are living in Beirut. Your skin is being punched a tiny million times. So you retreat for the first time into your own little world, in a place that never learned to give a shit about your privacy.
            The conversations normally screaming all around you in high Cs that pierce your eardrums like needles are quieted. The lovers huddling in their parks and along their sea wall on either side of the harbor demonstrating their passion out loud right in front of you have disappeared. You often wonder, ‘are they making love for my benefit, or their own?’ The Star Ferry continues its crossing but it is empty, and dodging bigger waves than its engines have known. The alleyway restaurant tables hold no bowls. The coffee cans filled with ‘clean’ chopsticks in the centre are gone. The chairs are turned upside down so you can see the dirt lining the legs of each.
            The lights in the skyscrapers bleed into the skyline under mossy skies, even though your watch reads noon. The adrenaline rush you feel the moment you leave your flat for another day on the roller coaster is muted. The city becomes a ghost of itself, half asleep.
            Except for the construction workers who continue to ascend the bamboo scaffolding hundreds of feet above, untethered, wet bare feet uncertainly gripping wet bamboo, adding another storey to another tower. When one falls to his death, will he beat the raindrops to the ground?
            The rain chose to fall particularly hard between Robert and Doris, drowning out each from the other for the first time in their relationship. They, too, had surrendered. Retreated. Gone was the tight promising embrace upon leaving the flat in the morning, and Doris’ bright rundown on the day she had planned before her. Gone was the desire to hear more about what each of them had done when they reunited back on their balcony at the end of the day to toast their view of Hong Kong harbor.
            And as each moved further into themselves, the doubts increased. Should they have gotten married in the first place? Wasn’t she rather young? Should she have followed him halfway around the world, setting up their first home in a place so foreign, in spite of the fact there were streets named after kings, queens and lords? Would she be able to resume her own career when his contract expired and they returned to London? Would her parents forgive her? And would they be able to make real friends here? And would that be enough?\
            So when they stepped out of the movie theatre, with Chow Yuen Fat’s manic gunfire and the clang and whistle of bullets raining down upon the Triad gang members still ringing in their ears, they instintively popped open their umbrellas.
            But oh. The rain had stopped.
            Doris was the first to notice. She lifted her head into the neon night sky and closed her umbrella for the first time in what felt like weeks. She found Robert’s hand.
            “Are the clouds gone too?” she said.
            Robert looked at his wife. Her luscious blond curls were hanging limp in the heat, but otherwise dry.
            “I can’t tell,” he said. “It’s too dark to know.”
            They remained standing at the theatre door. It was their habit to leave the theatre before the credits rolled, to gain an advantage on the exiting masses. They had quickly grown to love the local cinema, but Robert still wasn’t comfortable being one of the few foreigners in the crowd.
            He lifted his arms, the sweat already forming in his armpits mere seconds from leaving the air conditioning.
            “Let’s walk home,” Doris said.
            “All the way uphill?”
            “I’m tired of the cabs,” she said. “Besides, who knows how long this will last?”
            “You mean, ‘us’?” he said, smiling weakly.
            “Don’t be such a troll,” she said, and started walking. He loved watching her walk, especially here. Her beauty normally parted the crowds. She was the exclamation point on everything the Hong Kongese held aloft as the definition of a Western woman: tall, blonde, big breasts, sharp nose and big, bright blue eyes. Kim Basinger in “Batman.” Tonight, the sidewalks were still empty. She was all his. The glaring, gawdy neon signs in Causeway Bay became a shadow of themselves as lovely Doris stole their ugly light.
            He still hadn’t come to terms with her beauty. He had hoped that moving here would help him grow more comfortable in her presence. But not so far. Only the storm had brought him a little separation, and a brief respite from the nagging worry.
            At his stag back home, Robert’s best friend Nigel had confessed six beers into the celebration that none of his mates could understand how on earth someone like her had agreed to marry boring, bureaucratic Robert. It was true. How did he manage to convince her? Worse, did she see things that way?
            “How many bad guys did Chow Yuen Fat kill tonight?” he said.
            She stopped. “I don’t care, it’s all like one big beautiful ballet, isn’t it? You, you probably counted not just the bodies. But the bullets. And maybe the hookers.”
            Five hundred and sixty eight. Bullets. She knew him well. He was too embarassed to tell her she was right. How many movies had Yuen Fat already made this year? Five? Six? Over-exposure isn’t an issue in a place where too much is never enough, he supposed.
            Doris knew he would follow her, and she turned up the first side street. Climbing.
            “Watch your step, love,” was all he could offer. What an inept, weak, bureaucratic thing to say.
            The voices that had been muted these past days were making themselves heard again, from the balconies above them and through the open windows that they passed, like birds in trees after the storm.
            A young couple came running out from a restaurant, both bumping into Doris, neither apologizing. She towered above them. How different we are from these people, thought Robert. Living together and so separate. The young man was greeting the change in weather with a hysterical torrent of words, and his lover joined in. Doris stopped to listen. Robert caught the young girl’s eyes for a moment and she blushed.
            “I missed that, can you believe it?” Doris said. “Who knew? Their voices used to drive me mad. Now it’s like music. It’s like I can almost understand them.”
            She suddenly wrapped her arms around him, but he pulled back instinctively. She pushed him away angrily. “Christ, Robbie. Enjoy this! Nobody cares what we’re doing.”
            He tried to approach her again, weak with embarassment, not passion. But she turned to continue up the road. “Don’t worry,” she yelled back. “I won’t try and kiss you out here again. My mistake.”
            Weather the storm, thought Robert. He gamely followed her, and, stupidly, offered her guidance yet again. “You don’t have the right shoes on for this, sweetheart,” he said. “Are you sure we shouldn’t grab a taxi. They’re everywhere at the moment.”
            “You’re right.” And with that, she took her shoes off.
            “Doris!”
            But she was already far ahead, and well above him, as the street began to incline.
            “We can not walk all the way home. Fuck!”
            He caught up to her at the light. He took his jacket off. She was already sweating through the back of her dress.
            “You’re being unreasonable. There’s a phone booth. Let me call William for a pick up.”
            “Unreasonable’s not so bad for a change,” she replied. She turned left, continuing up Morrison Hill Road.
            “We’ll get a cab at Queen’s Road, then. That’s fine,” he offered.
            “Mm-hmm.”
            The lights of the malls and towers fell away. It always impressed Robert how quickly the residential streets took over from the chaos of downtown. Doris stopped again.
            “Listen!”
            The clatter of mah-jong tiles falling on a table on a balcony somewhere above them rained down.
            “I missed that, too,” she said.
            “Okay, love.”
            She moved faster now in her bare feet, dodging the people emerging from their flats. Morrison Hill turned into Yat Sin, then Oi Kwan. William had driven Robert home from the office on this route many times, but he had never walked it. On foot, the details emerged. The trees and courtyards and swimming pools came together to create an actual neighborhood. He could hear dogs barking. TV’s were playing. He imagined the pictures of Tiananmen Square, likely still filling people’s living rooms in spite of the fair turn in the weather.
            Doris took his hand. Their pace slowed. He stopped fighting the sweat that was coming through his shirt. But the harsh lights of Queen’s Road East were soon upon them again.
            “No taxi, okay?” she offered up, now more by way of negotiation than command.
            “I’m good,” he said. “Let’s turn off at Kennedy.”
            “But that’s the long way,” she said, smiling.
            “I know when I’ve lost.”
            She dropped his hand as they crossed the busy main street. It was strange not seeing the windshield wipers of the cars moving. But they still had to guard themselves from the splashing of passing tires. The water was coming down the hill fast, spilling over the gutters in places.
            Robert found cover and courage in the light and noise. “I have to tell you something, Dody. Turns out we may need to stay a bit longer.”
            She took his hand again, and turned to face him. “Why do we say ‘may’ when we mean ‘do’. Why are we so polite, even to each other? “Why do we say ‘we’ when you mean ‘I’?” It never failed. When she drew close, and he could feel her warm breath, he grew instantly aroused. The finger going over the match. He stepped back.
            “Tiananmen is stirring the bloody noodle pot,”  he said.
            “But that’s a good thing, right?” She challenged him to disagree.
            “Of course. Democracy. It’s a clear win for everyone. Perhaps China will change, I don’t know. But it’s not our game anymore.”
            “The lease is the lease,” she said. “It expires, Britain leaves. Nothing to it.”
            “I don’t know. I mean, yes, of course we have to leave. China will be seeing us onto our planes that very day. But you know bureaucracy. Change is never good. Especially as it affects the handover.”
            “Who moves slower,” she asked. “Us. Or China?”
            “I give up.” He smiled. “We’re still a few blocks from Conduit. And it’s going to get steeper. You sure we don’t want a taxi? This might be our last chance.”
            “You can do it,” she said. “Come with.” She walked away from him, confident he would follow. One block up, they turned from the glare of Queen’s Road onto the softer light of Kennedy Road, and the darkness quickly enveloped them once again. The apartment buildings grew larger and more luxurious the higher up the Peak you went. Even though the rain had stopped, it was quieter here.
            “A bit longer. Does that mean one year. Two?”
            “Not even. Maybe. Hard to say, really.”
            The road worked left, then right. It crept along like a river flowing uphill. Defying the odds.
            “I hate it here, even tonight when it’s beautiful,” she said.
            “I hate it, too.”
            “No you don’t. This is a dream. A driver. A boat. A maid. You could never have this back home.”
            It was a bit like Christmas, he had to admit.
            “In London, we’ll be peasants,” she said. “Just like everyone else.” On their right, a black hole could be seen up ahead. Hong Kong Park. Whenever Doris drove past, she would roll down the windows. The fragrance was luxurious. Even though they were a block away, they could already smell the riot of Camellia, Azalea, Magnolia, Hibiscus and Melastoma. The same flowers offered up to emperors centuries ago.
            “Who will take care of you, love?” she asked.
            “What do you mean?”
            “I have to go back. I can’t be this ‘me’ anymore. No work. Babysitting our friends. Drinking so much. Acting so rich.”
            “Seriously, it won’t be that much longer.”
            “I know. And I will have things ready for us when you get back.”
            “This is crazy.” His heart was racing. Not just crazy, but chaos!
            “I have an offer with a design house,” she said. “I’d be mad not to accept.”
            They were above the Park now. It was so dark down there. Only the faint outline of the paths could be seen. How many lovers had come out of the rain and were huddling on its benches and around its fountains?
            “I’m not living here without you,” he said. But his voice was weak. Uncertain.
            “We need more drama in our life, Robbie,” she said. “Not Tiananmen drama. That’s not real. I mean for us.”
            She stared down into the black hole of the park.
            “All the rain these past few days, it’s felt like the end of the world,” she said.
            “Hopefully that’s it for the typhoon.” He was still processing what she had said. “Let it go blast Taiwan now. Good fucking riddance.”
            “But it felt good, too,” she said. “Weird, isn’t it?”
            She started walking again, this time faster. Her naked feet churned the pavement and it looked to Robert as if she was willing the entire planet to spin faster just from under the power of her two beautiful legs. He would normally enjoy the view, but instead he turned back to the Park sleeping at his feet. Was it the birds he could hear down there? Crazy. It’s night time. His heart was racing and he couldn’t stop from sweating. Maybe the storm had turned everything upside down.
            “Robert,” she called back to him. “It’ll be fun. You can call me and we can have sex over the phone. We’ve never done that.”
            He looked at her.
            “It’s time we do, don’t yout think?” she continued.
            Was that really his wife up there? Why was she such a stupid fucking bitch sometimes? She expected him to start after her, but suddenly all he wanted was to stay put. Rest. Enjoy the night air.
            “Robert!”
            He just stood there, looking at her. This was the first marital showdown that he was actually interested in winning. He got to thinking, what would it be like here without her? Would it be so bad? He could make an entirely new roster of friends in mere weeks. He could start over. Switch from the yacht club to the rugby club. Move flats, even. Maybe something on the south side near Stanley. Live a bit of the beach life that his fellow Brits were so awful at.
            “Bastard,” she said finally, and then disappeared around the turn. Alone, he took his shoes off, and then his socks. He cooled down. But the moment he lost sight of her, he started missing her. Shit.
            He dropped his toes into the water running down the gutter. He would help her find a job here if that’s what she wanted so bad, even though money was the last thing they needed. He could no longer hear the birdsong in the Park. Maybe he was imagining it, after all.
            He turned up the road, and sprinted to catch up, finding her well up on MacDonnell Road. The hill here was intense. She was stopped, talking to someone. Robert recognized Clifford, one of their American friends. He was a least six and a half feet tall. Robert wondered what that must be like here, always towering above everyone, including your fellow expats. Clifford looked down at Robert’s bare feet.
            “What the fuck has gotten into you two?” he asked. “Didn’t I see you like that last night at “97”? No shoes?”
            Robert felt like an idiot. “I suppose,” was all he could offer up.
            “Are you heading to the beach or something?” Clifford continued, laughing.
            Clifford made him nervous ever since he admitted to Robert at a party one night that he dabbled in heroin. “Don’t believe what they say,” Clifford had said at the time. “Horse is manageable. Lots of successful people use it and work every day, you’d be surprised.” When Robert told Doris later, he had expected her to be horrified. But instead, she was fascinated.
            Doris was staring at the bag in Clifford’s hand. The cheap plastic was straining to contain what looked to be at least twelve cans of Carlsberg, piled like little emerald green bricks inside.
            “I literally bumped into him leaving the shop,” she said.
            “God I missed the fresh air,” Clifford said. “Not that it’s that fresh, mind you.”
            “Absolutely,” Doris said.
            “Thank Christ the shops are open late. Catching up on lost business, I suppose.”
            Clifford was what they called a ‘Belonger’. He had been here for seven years, and now enjoyed permanent resident status. Robert, of course, knew exactly what that new government status meant, but no one else cared about the ins and outs of the territory’s Inland Revenue and Immigration regulations beyond what impacted their own visa allowances. Besides, Clifford was a bit older than their gang, and no one quite knew what he did, apart from the occasional publishing scheme and freelance travel writing gig. Back in Britain, he would be the kind of guy to draw the government’s attention. But here, he was just one of many. And like many, he always seemed to be on the cusp of something great. He had that west coast American optimism about him. He spoke in what he called ‘AustralAmerican’. ‘Dude’ this and ‘mate’ that.
            All discovery and potential.
            Except for the bag he was holding. Twelve beers at midnight don’t tell a very optimistic story. They clearly weren’t for any party, or Doris and Robert would have heard. And they weren’t for tomorrow. You could see it in his face. The thirst.
            “Are you on a deadline?” Robert asked.
            “Always on a deadline, mate. Publishing’s a bitch,” Clifford said.
            Robert looked at his wife. A rare look of concern had come over her face. Maternal. It was unexpected, so naturally it broke Robert’s heart. He forgot about Clifford, and he suddenly thought, maybe he needed to just quit his job, and go back home with her. Get out of here.
            “Clifford,” she said, taking his free arm. “Come back to our place, why don’t.”
            “Now? Maybe another time. What is going on with you two, anyway?”
            “It’s still early, it’s not a night to be alone,” she said softly. Then she turned to Robert. “Nobody should be alone here.”
            Robert smiled. Hopeful for the first time since leaving the theatre.
            “It was just another typhoon, Doris. They roll in like this every few years I reckon,” reasoned Clifford. “Sure this one was a bit of a bugger, but nothing that needs celebrating, really. You Europeans embarrass us,” he said laughing.  
            He turned to leave them, but she took his hand, insistent.
            “We’re just a few blocks away,” she said.
            “And the rain has stopped,” added Robert. “We can sit out on the balcony. “
            “We have a killer view,”  said Doris brightly.


Brian Howlett’s “Midnight on MacDonnell” is the sixth story of a collection to be published so far. “Conduit Road” is a connected collection of short stories inspired by his time living in Hong Kong during the Tiananmen student protests of 1989. This and other unrelated work has been published and accepted in sixteen journals in just the past two years, including Limestone, Penmen Review, the Adirondack Review, the Tulane Review and The Manhattanville Review

He lives and works in Toronto, Canada with his wife and two children.