The Border Town

by Cid Andrenelli

They crossed over the border in the early morning and found the Pah Sung Hotel. Beyond the battered café tables there was a reception desk in a dark corner where a man stood watching them. He had large bags under his bloodshot eyes and his skin fell in folds from his chin to his neck like a fat man who had starved too fast. There were girls up and down the staircase that led to the hotel rooms. An elephantine man stumbled down the stairs with his eyes half closed and he had a little girl under each arm propping him up, their heads poked out from under his armpits as if they were carrying him along. The man was propelled over to the desk and the girls started nattering loudly.

Jin Yu turned to Mandy, ‘I don’t know what name he’s checked in with, he told me he’s in room thirteen.’

‘Lets just go up and look for his room.’ she pulled his hand.

He didn’t want to leave Mandy alone and he didn’t want Hoi Fat to meet her. ‘I’ll go and find him and then we’re out of here. You wait for me in the café.’ he told her.

‘I want to come too.’

They went upstairs and walked down a long corridor. Some of the doors were wide open with people wandering in and out of the bedrooms. They saw card games in dark rooms with the curtains still drawn and smoke hung like thick grey smog. Other doors were shut and they couldn’t find Hoi Fat’s room. In the end Jin Yu gave up and went back downstairs to the man at the reception.

‘You are his friend?’ the man smiled slyly, ‘We don’t have room thirteen. Tourist no like thirteen, say unlucky.’

‘So is he in room twelve or room fourteen?’ Jin Yu wanted to get it over with. It would never be easy with bloody Hoi Fat.

‘He can’t pay room, no money.’ the man told Jin Yu, ‘He say friend pay when coming. He have room outside, more cheaper.’

The man led them back through the café and out through a side door. He pointed, ‘You see rooms down there? End one on left.’    

There was a small stony courtyard garden with patches of grassy mud. It was filled with old plastic chairs and tables and a rusting motorbike with no wheels. A lonely cricket chirped somewhere between the straggly grass and white sunlight broke through the heavy black clouds making a beautiful sunbeam. There was a guava tree by the wall and a light breeze blew through the branches raining white petals upon them. Mandy reached up and stroked the clusters of yellow tipped stamens like tufts of wild cottonseed hair. The fallen fruit lay around them exuding a strong sweet musky odour. The end room door was open and a faded flowered curtain billowed in the doorway, he stepped through and was hit by a blast of hot air.

They found Hoi Fat hanging dead in the room. He’d hung himself from the ceiling fan. His features were engorged, his skin blue, his face was covered with blood splattered marks from burst vessels and his eyes were red. His swollen tongue hung from his mouth, there was a puddle of urine on the floor and shit in his underpants and down his legs. Jin Yu turned to run out the door but Mandy stood in the way.

She held her hands over her nose and mouth and spoke to him through her fingers. ‘There’s a message on the mirror.’

It was there, scrawled in tiny writing with a felt tip pen.

Sorry to make you come all this way, thought I could hack it but now I’ve got the heebie jeebies and have to finally get my face back.

 Just leave me here with the passport, so they know who I am, and burn the uniform and please throw the gun in a lake on your way home. I don’t want problems for old Dixon, he’s not a bad chap he kept up his side of the deal. Really sorry you wasted your money, suppose I could have hung myself in prison, would have been cheaper, any guard would have bought me a rope for fifty bucks.

See that’s my problem, I’m wishy washy, want to be daring but cant face the music, escape from jail and too scared to be free, not after having signed the rape stuff, some how I’d have been made to pay for that too, might as well just get it over with.

Well fat boy, Thanks. You were and will always be a true friend, the only one I’ve ever had, you’re a gentleman and a scholar and all that.

Jin Yu stood staring at the message, the aroma of urine and shit faded and he could smell something smoky. Mandy had lit mosquito coils and placed them in the doorway.

She looked at Jin Yu and murmured, ‘I’m sorry.’

It’s not your fault.’ he told her, ‘I wish you’d waited in the café.’

She sighed, ‘We have to clean the mirror. I’ll do it.’

Jin Yu wondered how they could talk like this, like it was nothing, why they didn’t scream and shed tears or beat their chests or run away. Mandy went into the bathroom stall; it was separated from the room by a dirt grey curtain. She returned with handfuls of wet toilet paper and she began to rub the felt pen off the mirror.

She said, ‘The jail guard uniform is in the bathtub and there’s a gun.’

He caught her eye in the mirror and told her, ‘We can’t burn the uniform or throw the gun, not here, not now.

‘There’s a duty free shopper over there, stuff them in the bag and we’ll take it with us.’ She turned to face him, ‘Look it’s all come off! Do you think the mirror is too clean now? I mean look at the state of the room.’

She spat at the mirror and began to smear it with the dirty toilet paper. Jin Yu went through the ragged curtain and stood staring into the pitted bathtub. He picked up the uniform, the last thing Hoi Fat had worn. The gun lay in the bottom of the bath in a puddle of rusty brown water. He reached for it and gently wrapped it in the guard’s jacket. He took one last look at the pockmarked cankerous bath and ducked back through the curtain. He helped Mandy shove everything into the duty free bag. They both avoided looking at Hoi Fat hanging like a pig on a butcher’s hook.

She whispered, ‘Please don’t do the right thing. Don’t stay around giving statements and don’t try to have him taken home to be buried. Please just do as Fat said. Leave him here with the passport on the bed and just walk out the door.’ she grimaced, ‘Looking at his face now, the photo will do just fine.’

He shook his head, ‘I can’t just walk out. I have to see the man at reception, give him money to cover the hotel bill and plenty extra.’

‘What if he calls the cops?’

‘He wont, I’ll sort it out. You leave first without me.’

No.’ her voice wavered, she watched him as he laid Hoi Fat’s passport on the bed and knew he wouldn’t change his mind. She sighed, ‘OK, I’ll take the bag and wait for you in the car.’

They went through the café and the man at the reception walked slowly towards them. Jin Yu’s heart beat as he watched Mandy keep walking. He watched as she walked through the café tables, not stopping, not turning round just looking straight ahead. She stepped out onto the street and she was gone.

The man was beaming at Jin Yu, ‘So you see your friend?’ he asked.

No, we stood outside his door calling and calling. There was no answer. Maybe he’s sleeping.’ Jin Yu dropped his voice, ‘I want to give you money to cover his bill, somewhere private.’

The man nodded, ‘Sure you can. Come in my office.’

His office was a tiny box room full of beer crates and stacked chairs. Jin Yu handed him ten hundred dollar bills from a wodge he’d assembled for Hoi Fat. The man looked very happy.

‘My friend has hung himself.’ Jin Yu said.

What you say?’ the man gasped.

He’s dead, hanging from the ceiling fan.’

They were staring at each other wondering what would happen next. The man shrugged, his expression cagey as he looked at Jin Yu with a mixture of dislike and distrust.

He grumbled at him, ‘What you want now? Call Police?’

Jin Yu held out the thick roll of bills still in his hand and said, ‘No, you can find him tomorrow.’ He smiled, ‘You’ve never seen me and I never gave you any money.’

It was easy; he’d heard those lines before. The man looked at Jin Yu, he looked at the cash, his fingers closed tightly over the roll of bills and he shoved them in his trouser pocket real fast. Then he smiled revealing three lonesome yellowed teeth like old tombstones in a dirt graveyard.

‘No problem! I never see you. I don’t know you.’ He leaned forward, his face earnest and trusty, his voice was low and snaky now, ‘No worries, no one ever go down there. No cleaning. No room service. Maybe I find him next week.’

Jin Yu left the hotel and stepped out onto the pavement. His heart fluttered and then he saw Mandy. She hadn’t gone to the car but was waiting for him on the street outside the café; her face was white and drawn.

He took her hand and walked quickly away.

 ‘Don’t worry, no one will bother to go in his room for a few days.’ he told her.

 ‘What if the reception bloke mentions us?’

He held her hand tighter and walked faster, ‘He won’t, because he gets to keep the money.’

‘You’re a genius.’ she said, and swung the bag gaily as they went on down the road. 

They drove out of town under the pouring rain, through the mean streets fogged with mountain mist. Pye-dogs scavenged in rubbish heaps, while yellow and orange temple flags flapped in the wind, tied to wooden poles pitched on the side of the road showing the path to the temple. A border town in the wild, full of cafés and slit eyed girls. Street gutters cluttered with peddlers from the countryside, smelling of sweat and fresh cut grass, squatting with their bamboo poles and baskets while they chewed on buns that filled their mouths with sugar. The sun broke through the grey sky, burning through the leaden clouds, drowning the gloomy town in brilliant rainbows, a city in the fog with beautiful flowers.

 

The Border Town

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