‘The Roof Walker’ by Wan Phing Lim14 min read

28 August, 2017 0 comment

Illustration by Su Yeon Hyun

It was a matter of time before Chee Seng’s luck ran out. Rumours were, he had heard from a fellow kitchen assistant, that UK Border officials had paid a visit to the rival Hong Kong Pacific Eating House just around the corner on Victoria Street. Fifteen workers were found to be without papers and sent straight to a detention centre in Sheffield. They were held for two weeks before being deported back to their home countries, their passports blacklisted by the Border Agency. Fifteen workers.

Seng felt a shudder as he braised a piece of beef tendon in a dim sum basket. His days and nights were spent inside the four walls of Wing Tai Restaurant, located on Manchester’s busy Oxford Road, dubbed Europe’s busiest bus route. In fact, he had become a bit of an expert in rolling out xiao long bao skin, steaming aubergines to fry with salted fish, and dishing out chilled mango puddings that came straight from a warehouse in Warrington. He had fancied himself as a bit of a sous chef.

After closing time, Seng removed his apron and went out the back door. He said goodnight to the head chef, a stout man from Hong Kong, and headed straight to Grosvenor’s Casino across the road.

***

   Seng arrived in 1993 from Simpang Ampat, a small town in northern Malaysia. His father had been a fisherman and his mother a fruit seller at the wet market. In June that year, he hopped on a plane to Heathrow and never looked back. In London’s Chinatown, he went from restaurant to restaurant looking for a job before working as a dishwasher at Golden Jade Restaurant on Gerrard Street.

There, he had met a girl from Shandong whom he fell in love with, but who later swindled him of £400’s worth of wages, saying she needed to borrow the money for her father’s operation. A month later, she was nowhere to be seen. A similar fate had befallen a few other kitchen workers. Seng decided to leave, for the place held too many bad memories and he moved four hundred miles north to Edinburgh. But the Chinese community was too small, so a year later he moved south to Liverpool. But after the Morecambe Bay cockle-picking disaster of 2004, Seng decided to stay away from port cities and finally settled in Manchester. It was not safe to stay in one place for too long, he thought, and perhaps this had played a part in prolonging his time in England.

***

   It was five thirty in the morning when Seng stumbled out of Grosvenor’s Casino. He did not usually drink so much, but he had lost more than £2000 than night, and his neighbour at the slot machine, a man called Nguyen, had persuaded him to one, two, three, then four pints of Carling.

Seng waved at a passing bus, but the driver flashed his headlights, indicating that he would not stop other than at the designated bus stops. Seng spat on the sidewalk. He stumbled along the cobbled streets of Oxford Road. The protruding stones made him dizzy. He passed a beggar outside a convenience store pleading for spare change, and was almost hit by a red Vauxhall Corsa at the corner of Oxford Road and Charles Street. The driver rolled down his window and shouted at him to go back to China. Seng gave him the finger.

The bus stopped and he got on. It was empty except for an elderly man at the front and a girl towards the back. Seng recognised her at once. She was the girl with the familiar accent – the one that reminded him of home. He had seen her on the 43 route a few times. No doubt she was a Malaysian student – there were three university campuses along Oxford Road itself.

The girl’s eyes were closed, her head resting against the window panes. Her long black hair covered her chest, and she wore a short skirt over black tights.

They were now past the campuses and moving into Northenden. It looked like she had missed her stop. Seng shook her shoulders.

“Hey, miss,” he said. “You missed your stop.”

She opened her eyes, jumped up and pressed the alight button. She got down and Seng followed her.

***

   Mei Ling – an all-too-common name for a girl from that side of the world – lived in a student tower block called St. Martin’s, and as she could not regain her balance on and off the bus, she gladly leaned on his arm as he walked her to her room on the 20th floor.

Ling insisted that he stayed, so Seng slept on the floor next to her medical textbooks underneath the bed. When he awoke, he was greeted by a pair of creamy white legs. Ling, in her panties, was reading from a book on her thighs, with her legs on the desk.

He felt an erection and quickly stumbled to the bathroom along the hall. Seng went into a cubicle to ejaculate into his hand. A girl had come in and he waited until she was gone before washing his hands at the sink.

In the room, Ling was rifling through his wallet.

   She was the girl with the familiar accent – the one that reminded him of home. He had seen her on the 43 route a few times. No doubt she was a Malaysian student – there were three university campuses along Oxford Road itself.

“You have a son,” she said.

Seng nodded.

“Yes.”

“How old is he?”

“Sixteen.”

“Where is he?”

“In Malaysia.”

“What’s his name?”

“Winston.”

“Sounds old-fashioned.”

“Like the cigarette.”

“Don’t you want to see him?”

“I can’t,” he said.

“Why not?”

“His mother wouldn’t let me.” He was impressed by how quickly he came up with that.

“Are you divorced?”

“No.”

“Then don’t you have the right to see your son?”

“I guess. But I’m here.”

Ling narrowed her eyes. Seng had to be at work by ten o’clock, so he asked for his wallet back. He checked to see if any money was missing, but he couldn’t remember how much he had paid for the Carlings last night, or if Nguyen had paid or if the beers were on the house.

***

   Seng told himself to be careful of a girl who would invite a stranger into her room, look through his wallet then slip in a paper with her number on it. Nonetheless, he thought about Ling’s long black hair, small lips and creamy white thighs all morning.

Seng hissed. The blood dripped onto the spring onions, creating a Christmas-like ensemble on the chopping board. Seng had sliced his finger, and the Chinese lady next to him frowned through her mask.

Over his lunch break, he sent her a text. Hi Ling, nice meeting u. It’s Seng frm last night, rmb? 🙂

A reply came. Yes, how r u? Come over again tonite?

Seng almost dropped his chopsticks. After closing, he packed leftover char siew from the restaurant and headed straight to St. Martin’s. There was always excess food in the kitchen. Outside, he let himself in by tailgating a couple of girls. But in Ling’s room, he saw at least ten other boys and girls crowded inside, each holding a can of beer in their hands.

“Seng!” a shout came from the corridor. It was Ling, and he almost fell over as she hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. Next to her was a girl with a boyish haircut and a small face. Ling held her hand and introduced her as Sam. They both wore bright red lipsticks and similar crop tops that exposed their belly buttons.

“Guys, this is my friend, Seng,” Ling announced to the crowd. “He works at Wing Tai.”

There were shouts of cheers and slaps on his back.

“Do we get free food?” came a boy’s voice, and laughter from another corner. He thought about Winston. Would he grow up to be like any of these boys? At any rate, he could not afford his son an education in England.

Seng smiled and held up the packet of char siew in reply. Perhaps he was the token old guy, or perhaps, he just didn’t know what girls Ling’s age were thinking anymore. Still, it was better that he was here than in the casino.

He got himself a drink, but his mobile phone rang. It was his sister, Luan.

“What’s all that noise?”

“Hold on.” Seng went out onto the corridor. “Hello?”

“Are you in a club?”

“No. What’s up?”

“It’s Winston.”

“What about him?”

“Broke his arm again in a gang fight.”

“What?” Seng felt a numbness in his head and fumbled for a cigarette.

“What are you doing? You not working tonight?”

“It’s two in the morning,” he said.

“Oh, sorry. I forgot. So he’s at the hospital and you need to wire over some money.”

“How much?”

“I don’t know. He’s going to be in a cast. Five thousand maybe?”

“Five…” he said. Fucking thousand ringgit.

“That’d be enough. He has to have an operation tomorrow. They’re inserting a metal disc into his wrist.”

Seng felt sick at the words ‘metal disc into his wrist.’ He was always nauseous around blood or descriptions of injured body parts. By now, he had walked up the stairs onto the open rooftop of the building. The wind was strong and Manchester city was below. He couldn’t feel his legs anymore.

The last time he was on a rooftop, Winston was only a month old. Seng had stood there holding the wriggling crying thing, wanting to crush the little skull with his bare hands.

“Seng, are you there? Could you be a responsible father for once?” Luan asked.

But his mother had come up onto the rooftop that day, and Seng quickly put his cigarette out, blowing the flecks of ashes from the baby’s crying face. Downstairs, Winston’s mother was sitting in the bedroom, watching a Cantonese drama with a bolster on her thighs.

“Am I not working my ass off here?” he said to Luan. “You think I like standing in that kitchen all day long, knowing that I could lose my job anytime? I send money over every month, so how am I not responsible, you tell me.”

Luan became angrier. “For starters, you’re not here taking care of Winston. You left, then Fei Fei left. And now he’s running with all sorts of company thinking he’s the next leader of Gang 24.”

Seng closed his eyes and massaged his throbbing temples.

Luan said: “You’re never around. You didn’t even come for Mum’s funeral. That’s the kind of son you are.”

“You know why I couldn’t come. I could never have come back to England if I left.”

“Forget it.”

“I’m here because I’m earning British pounds, for God’s sakes. Isn’t that good enough?”

In the end, she said: “He’s your son. You decide what you want to do.”

***

   Seng was still on the rooftop when Ling saw him huddled like a ball on the concrete.

“What are you doing up here?” she said. “Let’s get you out of the rain.”

This time, he had to lean on her arms. The partygoers had left except for Sam, who was asleep on Ling’s bed. Seng took off his shirt and hung it over the radiator. He opened another can of beer and sat on the floor.

   The last time he was on a rooftop, Winston was only a month old. Seng had stood there holding the wriggling crying thing, wanting to crush the little skull with his bare hands.

The lights in the room were off except for a small lamp by the window ledge. Ling’s family photos were on display. She came from an affluent family, he could tell.

“What were you doing on the rooftop?” she whispered.

“Talking to my sister.”

“Your sister in Malaysia?”

“Yes. My son is in the hospital. Again.”

“What happened? I can help, I’m a doctor.”

He snorted. “He got into a fight. And you’re not a doctor, you’re a medical student.”

“Same thing,” she shrugged.

Ling pulled a blanket over her thighs and sat down next to him. It looked like they were picnicking on the floor.

“When was the last time you saw him?”

“When he was two months old.”

“Two months old?” Her face twisted. “You said he was sixteen now.”

“Yes.”

“So you haven’t seen him in sixteen years?”

He nodded, sipping his beer. “Can I smoke in here?”

“No. You’ll set off the alarm. Sixteen years,” she gushed. “I would be like, forty by then.”

Seng shrugged. He took another swig of beer, then rested his head against the wall. There was too much on his mind tonight. He looked at Ling and stroked her thigh, but she stared at him.

“Seng.”

“Huh?”

“Don’t.”

“Why not?”

She turned to look at Sam.

“Don’t tell me, you’re a lesbian?”

Ling laughed, then put her arms around his neck and rested her head on his lap. Seng stroked her hair instead, curling them around his fingers.

“You’re just saying that so I won’t touch you,” he said.

“You’re touching me now.”

“Why are you lesbian? You’re a pretty girl.”

There was a long pause. “I hate guys. I hate my father.”

“Why?”

“He always wanted me to be what I don’t want to be. Like becoming a doctor.”

“Why are you telling me all this?”

She looked up at him. “I don’t want Winston to hate you.”

Seng tipped his can of beer.

“Besides,” she stood up. “You’re too old for me.”

***

Illustration by Su Yeon Hyun

The next day was a long one in the kitchen, but Seng was determined to get through it – dicing, slicing, and braising his way into the future. After the night of the party in Ling’s room, he felt it was better if he hung out in the casino instead.

Soon, it was summer and fortune was still on his side. The money had been wired to Malaysia, and Winston was due to arrive for a short holiday so that he would “stay out of trouble,” as he had told his sister. His offer to fly Winston over was met with surprise, but no one complained.

On the day of his arrival, Seng had taken the evening off after much wrangling with his manager, who had known him for a long time but still did not treat him with any form of leniency. Winston was due to touch down from a layover in Doha any moment now.

“Pa,” he heard a voice.

Winston wore a cast on his right arm, looking like Seng, standing as tall as Seng. The boy whose skull he had almost crushed in his hand on that rooftop, whose name was chosen from as trivial a thing as a favourite cigarette brand – he might as well have been named after a favourite shoe. How had he known that this was his father?

Winston was tanned and he wore a cap so Seng couldn’t see the shape of his head. His dark brown eyes were alert, and he shifted his weight from left to right as though waiting for his father to speak first.

“Any trouble with the arm,” Seng pointed. “At security?”

“No,” he said. His voice was gruff, and his jaw set.

“And the bags?”

“No.”

“C’mon now,” he said, putting his arm around the boy and taking the luggage from his hand.


Wan Phing Lim was born to Malaysian parents in 1986 in Butterworth, Penang. Her short stories and poetry have been published by Catapult (USA), Monsoon Books (UK), Buku Fixi (Malaysia), Ethos Books (Singapore) and Math Paper Press (Singapore). She currently lives in Penang. (Website: wanphing.com; Twitter: @wanphing)

Illustrations by Su Yeon Hyun

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