In the hotel restaurant the waiter leads the small man and his wife to their table near us. My travelling companion is engrossed in his newspaper – an English-language one he picked up at reception. I like to look at people and make a mental note of what I see even though I know this annoys him. I am aware he thinks of this as merely staring.
I come up with this description: the man wears a bright orange-purple and white paisley shirt and Calvin Klein jeans tucked into ankle boots. The wife is wearing something vague: beige trousers and one of those easy wear tops that can be washed and dried overnight in hotel rooms and therefore is much favoured by travellers.
The waiter, who is wearing a white shirt and black trousers, stands patiently while the couple take their seats. He turns to the man and says, ‘Arigato.’
The small man gets up again, pushing his chair back so the legs scrape noisily against the floor. ‘No,’ he shouts. He stands in the aisle between the tables.
I have a full view of him as do other people nearby. It seems as if everyone has fallen silent.
‘I am Chinese. Not Japanese.’ He has a very clear, strong voice for such a small man.
‘I am sorry, sher, sher,’ the waiter says hurriedly. ‘I get the words wrong. Arigato for sher sher.’
The small man doesn’t respond. He sits down again.
Most of the people return to their food. One man goes to re-fill his glass with orange juice at the breakfast bar. There’s nothing further to see. I take a breath and turn back to my companion, who is at that moment restoring the newspaper to its natural folds.
‘International incident,’ he says. He looks triumphantly at me as if he thinks he has beaten me to a description. Which he hasn’t.
The long journey
The carved wooden statue has made a long journey. She will have started life as a tree in the forests of Vietnam before being milled and cut into pieces perhaps in a small shed attached to the carver’s property. She was sold in a store in Hoi An.
After she travelled back to Auckland, New Zealand in the hold of a 747 airplane, she was at risk of being confiscated and destroyed by customs officers as a possible bio-security threat. Instead, a customs officer was happy to glance an experienced eye over her before waving her through. Note I say ‘her’ because the statue has mounds where her chest would be. Despite that, her clothing is unisex: a long slim coat, which has pyjama-style trousers peeking out beneath it, a coolie-style hat on her red head. Apart from tarnished layers of black beneath the top coat, almost everything about the statue is red, down to the wooden plinth she is standing on.
The statue resides in my living room, sharing space with a rival – or it could be her lover or husband – atop a DVD stack, also in wood. The statue and its mate were chosen for reasons so banal they seem ridiculous now: to match the décor of the room and to offset the thick black leather couches. They rest in their place beneath a framed black and white print of a photograph by Norman Parkinson, bought for $5 at the Miramar School fair.
Because the room is small, at times chosen objects and ornaments will be swept –albeit reluctantly - into plastic supermarket bags and disposed of to charity shops. Someone else can feast their eyes on these objects, crave them for their homes. The wooden statue has managed to evade this spring sweep for five years now, as has her brother or lover or husband (indeed, the other may also be female; it too has mounds for its chest). In this time, the red statue has somehow obtained a spiritual dimension as she stares out from her featureless face at the room and beyond. Her stance has echoes of a tall concrete Mary, the Our Lady icon, which sits atop a hill in the small township of Paraparaumu.
When the Red Lady made the journey to the “land of the long white cloud”, she left behind maybe 200,000 brothers and sisters, also carved and painted in small sheds, in that equally long and mountainous land. Even in the one store in Hoi An, there were so many they made up a small Red and Black Army. When I went to select her, the black statue seemed to plead to be taken as well.
Now the two rivals for my affection stand centimetres away apart, ignoring each other, protecting me in my small domain.
Kate Mahony has an MA in Creative Writing from the International Institute of Modern Letters, Victoria University, New Zealand. Her short stories have been finalists in international competitions and published in numerous literary magazines including Litro New York, Takahē, Blue Fifth Review, Blackmail Press, among others. Her work also appears in the following print anthologies: The Best New Zealand Fiction, Vol 6, (Random House) Sweet As, Contemporary Short Stories by New Zealanders, Landmarks UK, 2015, Tales for Canterbury, and the Fish Anthology (Ireland), 2015. She lives in Wellington where she has previously taught short story writing courses at the Community Education Centre.