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Nothing Broken : Chaz Brenchley

After long search, I found my sorrow in Hsimenting, standing in a puddle of light.

It was about four in the morning and it was raining and the sky was dark, the city not. The clubs and the burger joints were all closed, and the cinemas and boutiques, the music stores and karaoke bars; they were closed, but their lights still glowed and burned, still flashed and flickered and ran liquid in the toxic air. The plaza was empty, the streets were all but empty, only the messages were left to talk to me, logo as lingo, and I wasn’t listening.

I’d been driving all night, and now I was walking: T-shirt and jeans, hands in pockets and shoulders hunched, head down. I wasn’t hungry, and I didn’t want a drink. I was tired in that focused, concentrated way you get from too long focusing, espresso-tired and fizzing with it; I needed bed and sleep, but not alone.

Some nights, some days you just have a yen for company, and it doesn’t so much matter whose.

When I saw Shei that first time, he was simply standing still. The rain was warm and not heavy, at least not in any way that Taipei understands rain to be heavy - hell, I was out in it myself, and glad to be so - but he was getting thoroughly and deliberately wet, as if that were the point of being out.

Other people are strange by definition; anyone strange enough to stand out in their strangeness in the rain is best avoided - unless you’re young, and a stranger yourself, and looking in some unquantifiable way for some unquantifiable change of fortune.

I could have crossed the road to keep myself out of arm’s reach, harm’s reach; I did not.  I could have stopped to talk to him, but I didn’t do that either. I might have flicked an eyebrow in a conspiratorial, all-wet-together kind of way, only that his eyes were fixed firmly on his feet where he stood in a puddle.

No silent meet of minds, then, no swap of smiles, nothing but the sheen of the neon rain where it slid across his shoulders like a cape - except that as I passed - as I tried to pass - he thrust out an arm without looking, curled it around my waist without an invitation, stopped me dead.

And then lifted his head, met me eye to eye, smiled and said hullo.

‘Er, hi...’

Some of the clubs and restaurants had barkers on the street to chivvy potential customers inside, some had doormen to keep them out; I’d been manhandled by both, but this was something other. He was too light in his body and way too pretty for a doorman, even if there’d been an open door. Those same qualities might have made him a fine barker, but, again, no door, no business to be touting for. Just me, passing by.

Perhaps I should have crossed the road after all. Arm’s reach, harm’s reach...

‘Where are you going?’

I shrugged. ‘Nowhere special.’

‘Good.’ Almond eyes and a wider smile: perhaps he was touting after all, perhaps he was touting himself. I relaxed and waited for whatever might come next, sales pitch or other better offer.

He was wearing a neat leather cap, a silk shirt buttoned to the throat and wrist, jeans and heeled boots all in a deep fresh unfaded black. Sodden black tonight, but he looked as though he would always look this way, new clothes worn punctiliously, almost like a uniform. That and the cap made him look almost like a chauffeur; cap and heels and the whole particular ensemble made him look almost like someone’s erotic dream of a chauffeur, but that was my job, or near enough mine, the next best thing.

‘My name is Charles,’ he said, ‘Charles Lee.’

‘I doubt it,’ I said, smiling back. ‘Ch’ing wen, Li Hsiensheng, ni mingtzu chiao shenme?’

‘Ah! O mingtzu chiao Shang-Hui, but nobody uses that.’ He slipped between Chinese and idiomatic English without a blink. ‘Charles is the name on my card. Anyone I’m not doing business with, they call me Shei.’

‘Are you doing business with me?’

‘I’m not sure yet. Would you like me to?’

‘Depends. What’s your business?’

‘I’m a fixer.’

Made sense to me, this country was full of middlemen, agents, negotiants, jobbers, people who knew people who would know the man you want; ’I’m sorry, then. Look -’ I spread my arms wide to show him my body, my life by implication - ‘nothing broken.’

‘I can fix that.’

‘Nothing to fix.’

‘Really? Ah, well then. Call me Shei.’

‘Fascinating to meet you, Shei.’ In the little Chinese I knew, ‘shei’ meant ‘who’, which seemed fittingly mysterious; but no doubt it meant a dozen other things as well. Chinese is like that; all its codes have mystery built in. Everything’s contextual, subjective, mediated, and strange. ‘I’m called Alex.’

‘I was sure you would be. Where are you going, Alex?’

He’d asked me that already. Bad manners to give him the same reply twice. ‘Not sure, really. I thought I might go to Juliana’s, try my luck.’ This time of night, you could be twice lucky: if you were young enough and cute enough, they’d let you in for nothing so long as you went home with anyone who asked. I didn’t need to be picked up, but sometimes someone else’s bed, someone else’s breakfast is a clincher.

‘At least one of us has sense to get in out of the rain. But you don’t have to go that far. Come and drink tea with me.’

Did he mean at his place? It didn’t seem likely; the Taiwanese I knew were so used to going out for everything, they’d have trouble boiling a kettle. But, ‘All the tea-houses are closed. Aren’t they?’

‘Somewhere in Taipei,’ he said, ‘there is always a tea-house open. Come.’

And he took my hand, his slim fingers settling happily into mine, and he led me out of Hsimenting and out of all the maps I’d memorised, out of all knowing altogether.

Not sure what I wanted, only that it was probably not tea, I went with him nonetheless.

I knew the basic grid of the city and the major roads, but ten minutes’ walking with Shei had me thoroughly lost, among dark and narrow ways and enigmatic store-fronts. I’d never known a city where rich and poor rubbed shoulders quite so closely, or with quite such unconcern. Street-stalls and beggars’ kitchens, fortune-tellers and shady, unguessable businesses clustered in broken concrete alleys in the shadows of the best hotels; five-star luxury was only a few minutes in Taipei traffic from the brothel of your choice. That much I did know: it was a journey I made daily, back and forth.

He brought me to an unmarked door, rapped lightly, pushed it open; we walked into smoke and lamplight, the staccato frenzy of mah jong tiles. We squeezed cautiously between tables - at least, I was cautious; he was graceful, carefree, why would he even think of knocking a corner or a bamboo leg? - and came through a curtain into another room, where the tables were empty and the smoke was at least camphor-scented, where we could drip and steam in the fug. This wasn’t a tea-house, in any sense I knew. A century ago, it would have been an opium den; even now, I wouldn’t have laid money against it.

Still, Shei had words with an old woman in a shady corner, and she did bring us tea. Indeed, she brought us all the makings: the kettle and the spirit-stove, the bowl of leaves, the tiny pot, the jug and cups and waste-bowl on a tray.

Shei did everything properly and so did I, sniffing and sipping and offering honest compliments, and for the first time it didn’t feel like a ritual. Whatever those neat, unfussy hands did that night was significant, it mattered. And the tea was hot and bitter with a caffeine buzz, and he’d been right about that too; this was what I needed, this for now. What later, we could find out together.

‘So you know all about me, Alex,’ he said, filling, pouring, passing, letting me see the gleam of the lie in his smile, ‘and I know nothing about you. What do you do here?’

Often I said I was a language student, but I wouldn’t give him lie for lie: where was the fun in that? Besides, he’d heard my Chinese.

‘I drive,’ I said, ‘for one of the barbershops.’

Sometimes I said for a businessman, which was true, but misleading. There are two kinds of barbershop in Taipei, and close shaves are a specialty of both, but only one of them will cut your hair. That’s the kind with clear glass windows, where you can see it happening. The other kind has dark glass or mirror-glass or no glass at all, no windows. And men on the door, perhaps a neon butterfly above, a queue of taxis in the lane. My own establishment had a private entrance for favoured clients, and a limousine to fetch them to and fro. That was my job; they liked being driven by a white boy, and put up with the inconvenience - ‘Please be patient’ and ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know where that is’ were my first two Chinese phrases - for the sake of the face that came with it. I wore black gloves and a deferential air, I opened doors and bowed a lot, I made like a Regency coachman with a Lexus, and they lapped it up.

For a moment, Shei looked almost startled. Then a twitch of an eyebrow, an amused confusion, a simple ‘Why?’

‘For the money?’ I suggested.

‘No’ he said firmly. ‘Not that.’

Well, perhaps not. ‘I don’t know, then. It suits me, is all. For the moment. I’m just waiting for my opportunity.’

‘What to do?’

‘I’ll know that when I see it.’ I did believe in fortune, in chance arising. ‘It’s why I came here, for the opportunities.’ I’d come to deal cards in a casino, but the barbershop was better. Casino management was always watching, always on guard; private enterprise was a sackable offence. Barbershop clients talked to me sometimes in the house or in the car, they talked to the girls and the girls talked to me and no one minded. Possibilities abounded.

‘I’m surprised that Immigration lets you stay.’

‘My boss fixes that.’ Every month he took my passport, and brought it back with a fresh renewal stamp on the visa.

‘Ah. I was about to offer my professional services, but a boss always has the advantage.’

‘I don’t have to pay my boss,’ I said. ‘And I’m not sure I could afford you.’

‘I’m sure you couldn’t,’ he said, and his hand touched mine as he took my cup away from me.

Shei’s apartment was a world apart, two worlds: through guarded gates into a courtyard of gravel and shrubs, with high-rise blocks at designer angles on every side; a lift up to the penthouse floor, and then through a fire-door and up a final flight of stairs. Out onto the roof, and here was a simple breezeblock structure, straight and square, in brutal boxy contrast to the smooth expense of the building it sat on.

Shei slid back a glass door, left his boots on the step and beckoned me inside, saying ‘You don’t have to...’

But this much I’d learned at least, that I did have to; I was balanced on one foot already, struggling with laces. These were my work shoes, black and polished. If I’d known I’d be going home with a Taiwanese boy, I’d have worn slip-ons.

In my socks, then, I stepped blindly into Shei’s home. It was a step in the dark, as it ought to be; he hadn’t turned a light on. His hand found mine and drew me forward lightly, teasingly through one room and into another. Wall-to-ceiling window here, no curtains: the city’s glow, light pollution reflecting off low cloud was bright enough to show me racks of clothes and mirrors leaned against the walls, a futon on the floor. That was as much as I needed to see, all and more than I was looking for.

Candlelight came later. Candles and questions, sliding over the surface or digging deep, one thing leading to another and moods shifting like flames in a draught; and one of the questions he asked me was: ‘So you’re a driver? You pick men up and take them home again. Do you do anything else for them, in between?’

I smiled where he could feel it, my mouth against his shoulder, and I said, ‘I fetch them drinks sometimes, or cigarettes, or anything they want. Another girl. So far as I know, my boss’s clients just like girls. Or they go somewhere else for a boy. Not to us. Why, would it bother you?’

‘Nothing bothers me,’ he said, shifting his arm a little beneath my head, nudging me in a little closer. ‘If something’s wrong, I fix it. So what about you, Alex? Your clients just like girls, but what do you like?’

‘What, can you fix me if I say the wrong thing?’

‘Of course.’

I like this, I thought, elastic skin that smells of tea-smoke and spices, muscles like rubber, hard as tyres and soft as sorbo, bones that flex and slide beneath. I like long fingers and a fugitive mouth, I like to feel myself caught where I thought I was chasing; I like to feel secrets in the bed between us, all the questions you’re disguising and the truths that I can’t find. I like you, Charles Lee, Li Shang-Hui, Shei, however many names you want to hide behind.

 ‘Nothing to fix,’ I said again, the second time that night. ‘Not yet. But will you break my heart?’ And then, with my hand spread across his chest to feel the steady efficiency of his own, I added, ‘Please?’

Every young man should have his sorrow, but it’s probably best kept hidden.

I shouted Shei through the streets and from the rooftops. I made all the noise a young man can. I guess I was pleased with myself, with my dodgy job and my darkly glamorous lover, and I wanted to draw people’s attention to how deeply cool I was. What can I say? I was young, I knew nothing.

Shei knew it all by instinct; he didn’t even need the shades he wore, everything about him said shady.

Me, I had to keep saying it aloud, and loudly.

Even so, most of the fuss I made was to have people looking at Shei by my side. He was iconic to me, and I wanted everyone to see that, to share my sense of wonder. We’re all of us stardust, but he still glimmered; he carried some echo of the shine.

Whatever, I was rowdy like a champagne bottle all shook up, fizz and froth and happy spillage. Shei seemed to enjoy being tolerant of my excess; I know I enjoyed how quiet and still he was, against my pop and bubble.

Even my boss noticed. One day he whistled me into his office and said, ‘This boy you’re spending all your time with, I hear he’s a fixer?’

He must have been asking questions. Fool that I was, I loved that, I felt flattered by reflection, Shei’s shadowy reflection onto me.

‘That’s right,’ I said.

‘Who does he work for?’

I grinned. ‘I asked him that, one time. He says he works for money.’

I knew he worked hard, long and indeterminate hours. There was no point watching the door for Shei. He was late by practice, by nature. It might be half an hour; it might be half a day. He might have been driving across Taiwan, flying to Seoul, dealing drugs or cards or bearer bonds, drinking tea with gangsters or whisky with a minister or simply standing in the rain while neon flickered around his feet. I never asked, he never said, and soon I stopped wanting to know. It was only his presence that I wanted, not his history. And sooner or later - well, no: later, always later - he did turn up, if I only waited long enough at the bar, in the tea-house, in his bed. Sometimes I had to wait till morning, but then I’d wake to find him stretched out long and lean and smiling at me. Always alert, never off-guard, never vulnerable: sorrow doesn’t sleep; you cannot catch it sleeping.

My boss grunted, unamused. ‘I would like to know who pays him. I hear his name, he is mentioned, but his employer is not. And then I see him here with you, I see him talking to my girls or my protection, and it makes me anxious.’

‘He can fix that,’ I said. ‘Talk to him, let him reassure you. He comes here to relax, to have a drink, to wait for me if I’m working.’ And I loved that, those rare times when I’d bring a client in and he’d be there unannounced, unlooked for, looking for me. The girls adored him; the bodyguards and bouncers had an odd respect for him, the broadsword’s respect for the rapier, setting his slender steely flexibility against their weight and strength.

Another non-committal grunt. ‘I do not like to be made anxious, with strangers in my house. My business is troubled already, and that boy is trouble in himself.’

I knew what troubled him, we all did: the economy was teetering, ready to slide, and companies were pulling out, cutting back, going under. Suddenly there were too many barbershops, not enough clients.

‘Shei’s no trouble,’ I said earnestly. ‘He’ll help, if he can. You should talk to him.’

‘Perhaps. Go now. Clean the car.’

Sorrow rises. Like cream, like oil, it slicks the surface of things, of everything, dense and iridescent and irredeemable.

I waxed and polished the car until I could have shaved in its glossy black reflection. I swept the garage and the private lift until our VIP customers’ glossy black shoes couldn’t pick up a fleck of dust. If there were still nothing for me to do, no one to fetch and nothing to carry, I’d use the lift myself, go up to the bar and talk to the girls.

When I was there, they mostly talked about me, except that it was really Shei they spoke of. Like this:

‘You never come to sleep with me any more.’ Siew was pouting heavily, sliding along the banquette until she could lift her legs up and set her pretty bare feet in my lap.

‘Never with any of us.’ Yue was kneeling on a stool behind so that she could work my neck between her hands, letting me feel the nail on every finger like a cat whose paw is not quite paddy, just not quite.

Leaning back into that sharp massage while I tugged and teased at every painted toe, while I pressed my slow thumbs into the arches of delicate feet, ‘You know who I sleep with now.’

‘Ah, Shei...’ I could hear the dreamy smiles without looking. ‘But Shei is a fixer, he is busy all day. Alex is not. He could come to us after.’

They liked to sleep in twos and threes all morning; they liked to sleep with me. Sleep and talk and little more: not for sex, just for company and comfort. Sleep-overs for the post-adolescent, pajama-parties for those of us who slept without pajamas.

‘We usually go back to his place.’ His eyrie, I liked to call it, where he perched to watch the world, to see what he could fix.

‘Not always.’

It was true. Sometimes he was slyly happy to make a space for himself in my life, in my bed. Those nights I’d find that one of the girls had changed the sheets for us, someone had made us a gift of whisky, Shei had dope in his pocket and nowhere to go till the morning.

Come the morning, he’d be off, slipping away before I was properly awake; and then, yes, the girls and I could lie tumbled together like melancholy puppies, drowsy and warm and abandoned. But, ‘You could come to me,’ I said, they used to do that; and,

‘We think you don’t like it, in your bed after Shei,’ they said, and they were right. I needed to know that he was gone, that there could be no sorry substitutes. Nor did I go to them, because I needed to know that he was too significant, that there was no companionable ease with others when he was gone.

We still spent time together, the girls and I; we still splashed and giggled in the hot tub, oiled and groomed each other in the sauna, held hands and promised the world and all her consorts. But I’d taken a step away and we acknowledged that, and mourned it, and I cherished it, and I wasn’t close enough to them any more to know exactly how they felt. Only how they named it, which was sorrow.