The Loan

for Wilma & Merly, my 妹妹

Chan Lai-tai tugged at her skirt belt as she readied herself for work. No way to cinch it tighter. Should losing only five pounds make such a difference?

Xiong would repay her today. He had brought it up this morning, the only thing he said after kissing her, just before dashing out to catch the early train to Guangzhou. Never time to make love when he was in a hurry. Did he remember his keys? He’d left a set in Guangzhou last trip, and she’d had to scramble to make him a new one. So forgetful! But that wasn’t important because something else nagged. What? Something at work? Her boss, Mrs Lung, was playing catch-up after her trip to Thailand. Which meant, as usual, that too much work got piled onto Lai-tai. 

As she headed towards the MTR, she felt in her jacket pocket for the ticket. Its magnetic stripe caressed her finger, reassuring that yes, Xiong couldremember if he chose to do so. All it took was a row – and it had been nasty, loud, her slamming the door on the way out – when she accused him of taking her tickets because he couldn’t keep track of his own, and worse, not telling her, causing her unnecessary stress and embarrassment when she stood at the barrier searching for her ticket, holding up the line behind her. 

Or had he simply not found this one in her jacket? 

The MTR hum momentarily stilled her own and Ma’s unrelenting voices. Did I work so hard after leaving China just so my daughter would be worse off than a prostitute? At least a prostitute only sacrifices her body. Her mother, a first wife, walked out on Lai-tai’s father some thirty years earlier after he’d married a siu tai-tai in the late sixties, back when concubine marriages were still legal. She later refused to ever let him meet Lai-tai, with whom she had been pregnant at the time. Ma was apoplectic when she first learned that Xiong already had a wife and family in Guangzhou. Now, over two years since Lai-tai first got together with Xiong, she thought it was clear he really loved her and couldn’t do without her. Yet Ma wouldn’t relent. Stupid girl, you’re young, only twenty-nine. Intelligent and pretty, a good figure except when you don’t eat enough and lose too much weight. Don’t do this to yourself. Don’t waste your life. 

Didn’t his love count for anything? 

She arrived early at work but already, Mrs Lung was there. If only she could beat the old dragon into the office! Just once. After four years, Lai-tai had almost quit trying. 

Her boss glanced up at her as she settled at her desk. ‘Oh, so early. Yang Xiong must be in Guangzhou, hah? She always used his full name, assigning him a distinct, yet somehow tenuous, reality. 

‘Only for the day. He’s back tonight.’ 

‘Oh yeah?’ But she left it at that. 

Lai-tai tried to ignore the unspoken jibe, that Xiong knew where his dick slept best. Her boss could be crude. Fei Loong Pao who’d sleep with you? All the staff called their boss ‘fatty dragon dumpling’ behind her back, the homonymic pun on her name being too irresistible. She was just jealous. Lai-tai tried to imagine that mass of middle-aged womanhood having sex with her hen-pecked, emaciated husband. Grotesque. She set about her day’s work. It bugged her how everyone exaggerated her ‘situation’. Even her older sister, Lai-li, who usually was an ally against Ma, derided her. It’s already 1998. Don’t you know concubines are unfashionable now? They belong in the Mainland, not here! Besides, for all his big talk about business and Guangzhou ‘connections’, he’s just another ‘big six bumpkin’ struggling to send money back home. Lai-li was too mercenary and insensitive for her own good, which was why, at over thirty, she was still without either a husband or regular boyfriend. Probably jealous, Lai-li having once had designs of her own on Xiong before she found out he was married. Lai-tai hadn’t told her about the loan, afraid of her censorious laughter. Her sister simply no longer had proper feelings. 

Her sister would laugh even more if she knew how much Xiong actually expressed concern for her. He said Lai-li, who managed sales for a very successful Chinese electronics manufacturer in Shenzhen, needed a less stressful job. It was true her sister worked extremely long hours. Between business trips to China and Europe as well as all the entertainment of buyers in the evenings, she hardly had time for herself. But when Xiong recently suggested Lai-li should come work for him, she angrily squelched that idea. If he needed a loan to keep his business going, then the last thing he could afford was to employ her sister who made very good money at her job. They had fought over that. Bitterly. She hated it when he condescended because he was twelve years her senior, saying she didn’t understand how business worked, because after all, her work experience was only in companies with limited potential. He had vision. He was trying to expand internationally, to Europe and even America, unlike Fei Loong Pao’s small trading company which only sold trinkets around Asia. It was so unfair! He had no real idea what her employer did, how she sourced and produced promotional items for large Asian companies, because she knew many purchasing and procurement managers. Lai-tai knew how profitable the company was, unlike Xiong’s business. His failing business. 

At around a quarter to one, just before lunch, Xiong called, surprising her. Peter, the IT guy from shipping, was standing by her desk, but she signalled for him to come back later. ‘Don’t tell me,’ she began. ‘You have to stay the night, don’t you?’ This had been the case the last three trips, always with some ‘urgent’ excuse that sounded fake. 

‘Why do you always think the worst? I said I was coming back and I am.’ 

The hurt in his voice got her the way it always did. ‘I’m sorry.’ Another apology, even though she told herself she would stop apologising to him. Yet somehow, he’d done it again, made it seem entirely her fault. 

‘I just need your help.’ 

She bristled. ‘What is it this time?’ 


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