Murphy felt the change as soon as he stepped into Chinatown. It was one step from the streets of Brisbane. It was also a giant step back into the village of Jiangdu, in Eastern China.
He reflected that smell was the major trigger of memory. He drew deep breath, and took in the smells of Asia. The scents that he loved so much. The spiced foods, the incense, even the smell of waxed paper.
He looked to his left, and for a moment saw Constance. Of course, she wasn’t there. He guessed she was somewhere in China but couldn’t be sure. They had crossed the boundaries of cultural difference, but those boundaries had come back to tear them apart.
He had met Constance on the first day of school, during his third trip to China. She had been in her second year of university, and had brought her young cousin to enrol at the special high school. The high school was special in the area, because they had a western teacher. Murphy was the teacher.
Murphy had gone there to help the headmaster with enrolments. All eyes were on him as he walked into the room, because he was the solitary westerner living in the town. His blonde hair and blue eyes made him stand out even more.
His eyes had met with Constance straight away, and her amazing beauty stunned him. She had smiled with nervous courage, and walked to him. Her English was flawless. “Hello. My name is Constance. I am very pleased to meet you,” she said.
“Wŏ búhui shuō Hànyŭ (War boowee shaw Hanyoo),” he had said, with the same automatic response he made every time someone in China spoke to him. He realised his foolishness. He had answered her English with “I can’t speak Chinese.”
She beamed with genuine pleasure. “Your Chinese is very good,” she said. He had thanked her, noticing that teachers and students alike wore wide grins of humour at his faux pas. They wondered if the foreign teacher had found a special friend. He knew he was the centre of attention everywhere he went in the town. Many people wanted to be his friend. They wanted to be with him. It was like having an exotic pet, something no one else in town had.
Murphy enjoyed this, and played along in the spirit of things. He had spoken for a while with Constance, and found he enjoyed her company. They had agreed to meet later at a tea house called Cháguan, where many visiting westerners liked to meet. Murphy had become enthralled, and every weekend had made the three hour bus trip to the ancient Chinese capital, Nanjing, where Constance now lived. During those ten weeks, he learnt her story.
She had been born in a small village in the western provinces of China. She had been the first child, and may have been lucky to be alive. Some parents are still believed to kill their first born if it is a female child, and try for a male heir later. This is a tragic consequence of China’s one-child policy. This way is becoming rarer, as China becomes more westernised. In Constance’s village, it is still practiced. She had never known her older sister, born two years earlier. That sister had drowned , by “accident” while being bathed in the river.
Her village was very poor. Sometimes, her parents would not eat, so that their daughter would not go hungry. Often, Constance starved as well. The whole village sometimes starved, victim to the long, harsh winters, that would kill the food crops. The twenty-three family members that lived in her grandparents hut would huddle together at night, to keep each other warm. Some of the family had frozen to death, even while huddled. The temperature sometimes didn’t rise above freezing point for weeks. Her younger brother had died like this, in Constance’s arms.
Her parents had sacrificed much for her, now that she was their sole child again. They had gone without luxuries, so that she would have the best available in the poverty they lived in. They had hidden away money and silver, and worked long hours so she could go to school. When she was old enough, they had sent her away to the city. She would go to university, learn English and get a good job. She would not live in poverty like the rest of the village. She would have a good life.
It had taken her four days to travel to the city. That had been three years before she had met Murphy. She had not seen her family since, but sent money to her parents whenever she could. It wasn’t much, because students do not earn much, and education took most of her money. One day she would bring them to the city, she said. Murphy kept silent, knowing this was not going to happen. Still, he could not kill her hope.
Constance told Murphy often of her dream that they would marry, and she would go back to Australia with him. She knew her parents would be happy that she had a much better life in the west. They both knew this would never happen. Still, he could never imagine how devastated he would be when she was gone.
One morning, he woke to hear her talking on her cell phone. He had never seen her display sadness before. Maybe even fear. She had showered alone, and had come back to the bedroom. They had been careful never to spend the night together in the village where he lived. The authorities frown upon such relationships. It was the first time he had ever brought her to his apartment. It was also the last.
There was passion in her kiss, and she told him she would always love him. They could not see each other again. He asked her why, but she left without answering. He had never seen her again. Her university den mother had told him there was much trouble, and he should not look for her. She had left the city, and he should forget her.
He never forgot her, but he knew the risks to each of them if he looked for her. The principal of his school, who was also the head of the local communist party, told him she was safe, and working for an engineering company in Beijing, a thousand miles away, and lost amongst 14 million people.
His mind wandered back to the present. He was at an Asian supermarket in Brisbane’s Chinatown again, holding a packet of the noodles that Constance liked most. An old Chinese woman was looking at him, and smiling.
“You are thinking of a special woman in China,” she said. Murphy nodded. “She is safe. Be happy when you think of her. Think of her often. She thinks of you.” Murphy wanted to ask the old woman how she knew this, but decided to just accept it. Some things just are, and you didn’t need to find a reason. He smiled at the old woman, and walked away.