This is the first chapter of a novel that I have been working on in the genre of young adult romance. Your comments and feedback would be greatly appreciated. I intended to complete the book as part of NaNoWriMo, but this month has been so busy (my husband just did a 100km hike for Oxfam!) that it’s been difficult to get writing time in lately. So instead I am aiming to finish it by the end of January, and I’ll share it with you as it takes shape.
Tiare steadied herself on the back rail of the chair and sat down as the old ferry rocked back and forth on the harbor. She watched as tourists scrambled for the best seats around the perimeter of the boat – already posing for photographs against the backdrop of the glass and steel skyscrapers on the island across the water. The boatswain unfurled a giant hemp rope curled on a steel post jutting from the dock, and the smell of diesel floated through the air on the sea mist as the ferry lurched forward.
She looked out toward the horizon wondering what her friends back home were doing now. Thursday, 4 p.m. Olivia was probably at Bailey’s house, she thought. Doing homework or listening to music. Or maybe they would be talking about the blue light disco that she would be missing out on now that she had moved country to Hong Kong. Thinking about them made her homesick and lonely. Here she was, surrounded by people, but she didn’t know a soul.
“Enough of that gloomy thinking,” she heard her mother’s sparkly voice repeating itself in her head. “You’ll make friends soon, and think of what wonderful experiences you can have in the meantime. Get up, get off the couch and discover your neighbourhood,” she had said, pulling her off the sofa and handing her a map.
So here she was. She knew her mother meant well, and it was hard on her to move so often too. They’d both been happy in Queensland – going to the beach in the afternoons, swimming in crystal clear waters that were often home to pods of dolphins and fairy penguins. In winter they’d gone to see movies, or shopping in the mall. They’d had a lot of fun together.
She remembered the day her dad had come home to announce another move. His eyes had shone at dinnertime and he’d had a cheeky look on his face. He’d tapped a glass with his fork. “I have an announcement,” he’d started, waiting until his wife and daughter put down their utensils and looked at him intently. “I’ve received a promotion to be the cultural ambassador of Australia, based in Hong Kong,” he had said, beaming from ear to ear.
The mother and daughter had looked at each other. The mother had smiled from ear to ear, but in her eyes something slightly forced, and caring was evident. She was gauging her daughter’s response, as was the father – whose eyes hadn’t left her general direction since he’d started talking. “Congratulations Dad,” she’d said, mustering all the enthusiasm she could into her voice. “That’s great news.”
Tiare closed her eyes. She didn’t want to think more about the two months that had passed since that day. Saying goodbye to her friends, telling her school teachers she’d be leaving (again) and the long process of packing up her belongings. She shook her head, as if shaking off a thought; took a deep breath and opened her eyes. The ferry began the process of docking at Central and she stood to get ahead of the crowd so she could be one of the first off the boat onto land.
Standing high on the pedestrian overpass surrounded by the tallest skyscrapers she had ever seen, Tiare took off her backpack and fumbled inside for the map her mother had given her. Spreading it out over the steel ledge, with a backdrop of a construction site and a giant working crane, she took in the street names and locations. Pedder Street, Queens Road, Connaught Road, Stanley Street, Wellington Street…she didn’t know any of these names. Hollywood Road, she read. At least that name sounded familiar, she thought, and packed up her map to head in that direction. Maybe there would be Chinese movie stars there?
The overpass was crowded with people heading toward different destinations. She watched as an Indian couple walked by, dressed in traditional clothes. She had on a sari, long pants down to her ankles and a swathe of silk covered in sequins and jewel-like pearls that swirled in a riot of pretty colours and patterns. The skin near her ribs was exposed, and the red tick on the lady’s forehead held Tiare’s gaze for more than a moment, but they quickly passed by in the opposite direction, before she had even had a chance to take in the man’s appearance.
No sooner than they’d gone, than she saw a beautiful Asian lady dressed in a tailored pair of slacks, looking elegant, slim and tall. Tiare’s eyes followed her long shape, so different to her own rounder form, the start of a womanly curve. As she continued to walk, she saw a man sitting on the edge of the path, with only half a leg, no teeth, and one stubbly arm poking out of his shirt. He was also very different to her, and not nearly as lucky. Before him sat a steel bowl, and passersby threw in coins. She reached into her pocket and stooped down to make a donation too.
He smiled at her, a big, gummy smile, which made her feel both warm and strangely scared.
She hurried on. The path continued past an Apple store, where she could see hundreds of people shopping for the latest iPhone, before coming to an intersection. Looking up to the signs, she followed the arrows that said “Escalator”. She had heard about this escalator – the largest of its kind in the world. Looking up at the mountains that could be seen from behind the sky-scrapers, she was glad that she wasn’t going to have to walk those steep looking hills.
Looking ahead, the entire path was flanked on either side by groups of dark haired women, sitting on cardboard boxes, sheets and newspapers, like they were in a little temporary city of their own. Some of them had tied the box edges together to create a wall around their group – 5 people here, 10 people there and further along one very large group playing bingo were also walled in. She could hear a language she didn’t understand as she walked past, and looking down could see home-cooked food that she didn’t recognise.
What were they doing there? she thought. Was this some kind of peaceful protest? Further along she heard some of the seated women speaking in English.
“So I said to her, that’s just too funny..” a woman was laughing, loudly, the group also smiling at her story.
Tiare interrupted. “Excuse me,” she said, stooping down so as to be at the same height as the seated women. “Can you tell me why all the people are gathered here?”
“Oh you don’t know?” said one of the ladies wide eyed. “It’s our day off. We are domestic helpers from the Philippines,” she said, running her finger under her chin to adjust her pretty white head scarf.
“Yes, we come here to enjoy each other’s company on our day off,” said another lady, dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, her long black hair blowing in the breeze she created by fanning herself with a Christian pamphlet.
“Oh, I see,” she said, smiling at their friendliness.
“Would you like a sweet?” the lady in the headscarf offered a container with pink and white jelly-like treats. She was about to refuse when she remembered her mother’s lecture on trying new things, and doing new things to ‘get the most out of life’.
“Oh thank you!” she said instead, and picked a pink one. She slid it into her mouth, and could taste coconut, rice, and roses in a soft custard-like texture. “Wow that’s delicious,” she said. “Thank you!” She reached into her backpack and pulled out a tiny Koala bear that she’d picked up at the airport. “This is for you,” she said. The ladies smiled in astonishment. Their heads grouped together over the souvenir.
“Oh it’s so cute!” one exclaimed.
“Look, it clips on!” said another, opening its little furry arms to attach it to her shirt.
“It was nice to meet you,” Tiare said, getting the urge to continue along her journey. “Enjoy the rest of your day off!” she said, standing up and swivelling her backpack over her shoulders, and wiping her slightly dusty, sticky hands on her jeans.
They smiled at her and waved as she left. She smiled the biggest smile she had felt since she arrived in the country, but walking further along her mind filled with questions. Why did the women choose the footpath to meet? Why were there so many domestic helpers in Hong Kong? What do they actually do? It puzzled her to think that life could be so different for so many people, right here in the same town. She realised she had a lot to learn about this new place if she was going to understand it. If she even wanted to understand that is.
She still wasn’t sure if she was going to stay, after all. She had told her parents she would try it out for 3 months, and they’d agreed if she really didn’t like it, she could go back to Australia and stay with her grandmother, and finish school there.
So far, she had been very bored at home. Their new house wasn’t nearly as large as the one they’d had in Australia. They didn’t even have a back yard to play in, or a garden. In fact, you couldn’t really even call what they now lived in a house, really. They still each had bedrooms of their own – her brother Calum, and her – but they were perched up high in the 37th floor of a green tower.
Her dad had spoken about the new home as if it were the height of luxury.
“It’s ultra-modern, and has a club house, a pool and Jacuzzi, a private gym,” he had said, emphasising the word private. Secretly she had thought she might even like to go to the gym, and try doing some of the exercises she had watched on Youtube – the ones that made thighs longer and leaner. Then she had gone into the gym and discovered that it wasn’t private at all. In fact, anyone in the entire apartment block could go there at any time. The same deal with the pool, which all but shot down her hopes of ever going there. There was no way she was going to be caught dead in a swimsuit when all her neighbours could see her.
She hadn’t always been so self conscious, but lately her body had been changing in ways that made her feel like wearing baggy t-shirts. She’d started wearing a bra a few years ago, but these days, her body just felt even more alien to her than it had then. It was like she was transforming into a woman, but she really wasn’t ready for that change. So she just ignored it happening, and tried to draw as little attention to (what felt to her like) bulging hips.
She’d also discovered that her dad’s description of the house itself felt like a sales pitch more aligned with a used car salesman than someone she loved and trusted. Living on the mainland China side, it did have a lovely view of Victoria Harbour from the windows in the loungeroom, and she liked being able to watch the lights come on across the water looking out to the island of Hong Kong at night. She did enjoy the way the reflections shone across the currents and eddies, in a ripple of rainbows. She also liked the light show that came on every evening at 8 p.m. – the biggest light show in the world, the guidebook had said. It had become a handy way to tell the time. Suddenly all the thousands of buildings across the harbour in the Central business district would light up and flash in a perfectly timed performance, as would those down the shoreline on the mainland side in the Tsim Sha Tsui area where busloads of Chinese tourists would flock to watch.
She had gone to watch it too, but now was happy to see it from their loungeroom. So it did have some plusses, but on the whole, it wasn’t anywhere near as good as home was. And her father’s description of the size of the rooms in particular was very exaggerated. She felt at times like she was in nothing more than a cubby house. Her wardrobe was half the size of what it had been at home, and there was no room for anything else already. Their kitchen was so small that if two people were in it at the same time, they bumped into each other. She thought of a saying she had heard someone back home say.
“There’s not enough room to swing a cat.” And there wasn’t. Not that she would ever like to swing a cat anyway.
She sighed to herself, and wondered if she would ever really like this place her parents seemed so excited about.
She continued to walk along the pedestrian overpass, noticing little shops selling Chinese gifts, a tailor selling Scottish kilts and lots of intricate artwork covering the walls in designs of birds, plants, fish and other worldly creatures. She stopped to admire a picture of a cat smoking a large pipe. At home, this kind of artwork was quickly covered over with graffiti tags, she thought. Here it looked untouched, and a little note from the artist asked the community to respect it. Maybe they did? It really added some character to the walls, she thought. She admired the creativity.
The elevated sidewalk had now entered an entirely new area. She was no longer above a major highway, but little alleyways with hundreds of signs jutting out from the buildings advertising everything from handbags, tailors , food to who-knows-what in jaunty Chinese script that she couldn’t read. It was as though the signs were over-excited pre-school children that had learned new tricks and were desperate for her attention so that they could show off. Each sign tried to jostle into prime position in front of her eyes. Each one tried to outdo the other in colour, style, shape. Each puffed out its chest and jumped on the spot saying ‘Pick me! Pick me!’ she thought. She was amazed at how crammed together the buildings seemed, even more stuck together than the Lego-land cities her brother built, and even more fake looking. Yet they were real.
The escalator could be seen ahead, rolling up the steep gradient until it disappeared like a long black snake sliding off into the grass. She hopped on, holding on to the rail tightly and watching as shop window after shop window passed by. Inside one she could see feet sticking out, resting on pillows in a long row, being massaged by attentive ladies in uniform. She couldn’t see the bodies the feet were attached to as they were covered by a curtain, and she laughed to herself imagining tired feet taking themselves off to the salon for massages and nail polishes, without their bodies.
Another shop showed a children’s party in full swing. Balloons festooned the room, and children chased one another around a table, whistles in their mouths. In yet another, she could see adults painting, one creating a sunny landscape while another was drawing a smiling cat. She’d like to go to that shop, she thought.
Dresses, shoes, handbags, sportswear…she continued to float past the shops as if by magic, transported by the marvellous escalator. She was so entranced by a traditional building, that had old gold and green ceramic dragons across its facade, and happy looking red lanterns on every light fitting, that she almost missed her stop and continued up the escalator, but just in time she saw the sign for Hollywood Road.
Stepping out onto the ground at last the heat rose up to kiss her cheeks. Tiny beads of sweat gathered on her brow, and she could smell a fragrant mix of spices coming from a nearby restaurant. She wasn’t hungry, but the smell made her curious. She carefully walked along the narrow path, stopping at a tiny table that held tester hand crèmes in lavender and mint, where she paused while slipping one oiled hand over the other and getting a sense of where she stood, enjoying the luxurious scents rising from her hands.
To the left, the hill slid away into what looked like a restaurant and eatery section of the road. To the right, she could see red lanterns bobbing in the breeze under the street lamps, and curious sculptures of tigers and mythological dogs standing in front of ancient looking stores. Straight ahead, a narrow laneway disappeared into a haze of wafting smoke. She decided to cross the road and see what the laneway held.
Standing at the top of the concrete stairwell she looked down the steep cobblestone lane to see a small temple with coiled incense burning slowly. Curious, she took one step closer, then another, revealing a square altar painted in the brightest red she’d ever seen, brighter than a fire engine and richer in colour than a mid-summer rose. Sitting on the altar, delicious looking apples, peaches, oranges and pomegranates were arranged in pyramids of three, six and nine, flounced by gorgeous chrysanthemum flowers in bright yellow. In the middle, a female deity statue held a scroll in one hand, and a ribbon in the other.
“Ahhh, you’ve come at last,” a voice behind her said, startling Tiare, and making her jump.
“Oh, hello. Umm, yes. I just saw this from across the street and I,” Tiare explained quickly, backing away from the altar she had been inspecting so closely.
“You’ve come to make an offering to the deity of good fortune,” interrupted the old lady, her wrinkled face breaking out into a welcoming smile. “Good girl. Well let me help you.”
Tiare felt a bit uncomfortable and anxious. What did ‘You’ve come at last’ mean? As if this lady had been waiting for her? How silly, she thought. Maybe she had misheard her. Also, she really hadn’t come to make an offering, and really was only curious. Still, it wouldn’t hurt to try it, she thought. What’s to lose?
“What year were you born missy?” the old lady asked, rummaging through a drawer and pulling out a selection of cardboard animals.
“No, on second thoughts, don’t tell me. Let me guess. Hmmm…” she said, peering closely at the girl.
Tiare stood still and let the old lady inspect her. She stood up tall, her dark hair falling in soft waves around her face prettily, framing her cheekbones and accentuating the deep V shape of her chin. The wizened woman took a step closer and brought her wrinkled old hand up to touch the soft skin of Tiare’s almost 18 year old face. She pinched her cheek lightly, but for some reason, all fear and trepidation had been replaced by a deep sense of trust for the old woman.
“Let me see your eyes..” she requested. Tiare complied, opening her gold flecked green eyes wide and allowing the woman to peer into them, so close she’d have been able to see the smattering of distinct freckles that danced across her face.
“Well, there’s no doubt about it m’dear. You’re a Dragon if ever I’ve seen one,” the lady said. “1997 right?”
Tiare gasped involuntarily. How did she get it right?
“Aha! Just as I thought,” the lady continued, not noticing that she’d neither confirmed nor denied her suggestion. “Yes, I can tell. You’re flamboyant in your own way. You’re charming. You have a certain enigma about you that draws others in.”
Tiare smiled. Maybe that was true.
“Well this year is sure going to be an interesting one for you. Your year, the Dragon year is coming don’t you know? You’ll have a good year. Generally, the Dragon year will be your best. BUT…” she said, rummaging through a drawer and pulling out a gold and red striped paper Dragon. “You’ll need to be careful of a few things too. You have to be careful not to be too emotional, as that may eventually hurt you because it will impact your relationships. You have to be careful not to be too stubborn, or that may eventually go against you. Lastly, you have to make the most of your opportunities, or else your luck might turn for the worse, “the old lady paused, and jiggled the Dragon in her hand. “Shall we burn this Dragon to the deity of good fortune so that she might smile on you through your challenges?” she asked, looking at the girl expectantly.
Tiare had a lot to take in. Some of what the old lady said resonated with her. In fact, it could have been her mum or dad talking, but hearing the words from this temple attendant, here in a strange new place, gave her something further to think about. Maybe her challenges were not hers alone, but actually a part of a larger picture? She thought. Perhaps many others faced these challenges – because they too were headstrong, creative, emotional, and passionate individuals. Maybe it had something to do with being a Dragon after all? She thought about how she had fought with her parents about the move to Hong Kong, and how emotional she had been at leaving her friends. She thought about how stubborn she had been even very recently, because she was still angry about moving. It was weird that this lady had mentioned these things straight away.
“What do you say?” the lady asked expectantly, her eyes sparkling, and her words breaking through the swirl of thoughts that raced through the girl’s head.
“Oh, umm, yes,” Tiare answered. “Yes, I’d like that., ” she repeated, with more enthusiasm.
“Good girl,” the old lady smiled. “That will be fifty Hong Kong dollars please,” she added, turning her back and taking the paper Dragon toward the altar.
Tiare hadn’t expected to pay for anything at a temple, and took a moment to process that detail. She’d been warned about getting ‘ripped off’ by ‘unscrupulous operators’ by her dad so many times that she felt sure she would meet one sooner than later. So she did a quick calculation in her head, and worked out that that the lady was asking for about 6 Australian dollars, less than it cost for a ham and salad sandwich at the school canteen.
“Sure, ok,” she said, reaching into her jeans pocket to pull out her purse, and handing her a blue-green note. “Let’s do this,” she said.
“Wait here,” the old lady said, putting the note in her pocket and leaving the Dragon on the altar in front of the deity. She shuffled down the far end of the small temple, disappearing behind the first row of spiral incense that coiled three metres from the ceiling in a plume of hazy sandalwood scented smoke.
“Have you been in Hong Kong long?” the temple lady shouted out in a voice that gave away the fact that she was bending over something, or exerting herself in some way.
“No, only one week,” replied Tiare, who was curious about what the lady was doing.
“Perfect,” the woman said. “Then this will introduce you to the old souls of the island. It will make them wake up and take notice of you.” She called back in a bright voice.
Tiare wasn’t sure she liked the sound of ‘old souls’ taking notice of her. Although to others she didn’t seem like the shy type, she was actually a quiet person that preferred to go unnoticed if she could help it. Except in Science class, when she loved to talk her way through the entire lesson rather than be bored to tears by cells, or equations, or how heat moves through one article differently than another. Actually, that’s exactly what she thought of when she considered ‘getting noticed’. To Tiare, getting noticed equalled getting into trouble. She tried to avoid trouble as much as she could, but sometimes it just seemed to catch her out.
“Is that a good thing?” Tiare asked. “I’m not sure I want to wake up any old souls,” she said in a voice that trailed off with nervousness. “Let them rest,” she added.
The temple attendant reappeared from the coils, carrying a bright red tin cauldron with some difficulty as it was glowing hot from the fire in its belly. She stumbled over to the concrete floor in front of the altar, and placed it heavily on the ground with a groan before standing up and putting both her hands to her back.
“I’m not as young as I used to be,” she said, stretching her spine. Straightening, she reached out to the table and picked up some fake paper money which Tiare could clearly see the words “Hells Bank Note” and turned to throw it into the fire, sending a giant lick of flame up into the air, temporarily lighting up the dark corners of the low ceiling.
“My girl, not everybody that comes to this island greets the old souls, but they are aware of every new soul that enters these waters. So introducing your self is the proper thing to do now isn’t it?” the old lady implored, sounding perfectly rational.
Tiare considered that statement. This visit to the temple had suddenly turned from a good luck offering, to a meet and greet of the old souls of the region. It sounded a bit creepy, but she really didn’t feel like she could back out now. Besides, maybe it was rational? Maybe it was the polite thing to do. Her father was always telling her that good manners will help her along in the world, wasn’t he? Tiare smoothed her fingers across her chin and lips, resting her thumb under her chin as she thought.
She turned her head to the side, her face slightly glowing in the firelight. She looked as though she might get ready to leave, when the old lady said; “Do you like firecrackers?”
That surprised her. Firecrackers weren’t allowed in Australia.
“Do I ever!” she said keenly.
“Let me warn you, these are very loud,” the woman said, pulling up a string of red tubes from the nearby table. The strand was long enough to reach the ground, and each tube was at least a centimetre wide. “They are designed to wake up the spirits after all. Would you like to put them into the fire?” the lady said, handing over what looked like 50 crackers. Tiare looked from side to side, thinking someone responsible might appear from out of nowhere and yank them out of her hands.
“Cool,” she said excitedly when she realised that wasn’t going to happen, “Do I put them in all at once?”
“Yes, just throw them in, and then get out of the way. Remember to cover your ears!” the old lady grinned.
Tiare hovered over the fire, and then tossed the crackers in, wiggling her hands up into the air as soon as they were released, before jumping back in a way that made her look very child-like and a bit scared. She scrunched up her face and screwed up her eyes while covering her ears with her hands. One second, two seconds, three seconds passed and nothing happened. She opened one eye, then the other, before straightening upright and looking at the old woman, who still had her hands over her ears.
“I don’t think they’re working,” she said, in a whiney voice, her shoulders slumped in disappointment. She walked toward the cauldron. “Maybe I..” she started, but was interrupted by the most ear splitting screech followed by a loud bang similar to a gun going off.
“Ahhhh!” she screamed, jumping back again and covering her ears. The noise continued, a thunderous applause of crackers, louder than an orchestra of banging drums, more ferocious than a 12 gun salute. The squeals keened through the air, splitting it into smaller pieces that seemed to get stuck in her ears like food in between her teeth. 10 seconds passed in a chorus of explosions and sparks danced merrily. Then suddenly, it stopped. Blue haze and the smell of burnt matches filled the air, mingling with the incense.
Tiare looked at the old woman. “That was great!” she said, eyes sparkling.
“Oh we’re not finished yet,” she replied. She handed her some paper in the shape of gold squares. “Burn this,” she said. Tiare quickly separated the papers and threw them into the already flaming fire. Tiny pieces of gold stardust flew up into the air, and the lady gazed into the haze as if in a trance.
“No, I can’t see it yet. More,” she said, handing her more papers to burn.
She repeated the activity. This time Tiare pulled apart each piece of gold before placing it on the fire. She loved seeing the glitter swirl up out of the flames. She thought she’d never seen anything so pretty, but she really couldn’t tell what the old woman was looking at so carefully.
“Oh I see…” the lady said when all the paper was gone. “I see….I see…” she repeated, wringing her hands and wrinkling her brows. “I see,” she said again.
“What do you see?” asked Tiare, her eyebrows knotted together in a frown.
“All will be revealed in time my dear,” the old woman answered cryptically, as she opened a draw from a long lacquered cabinet decorated with intricate paintings of lotus flowers and ribbon like patterns. “But I’d like to give you a gift,” she said.
A gift? Wow, thought Tiare. She really wasn’t expecting a gift, but then, she hadn’t been expecting any of this either. She was really quite glad she’d got up off the couch.
“But this isn’t an ordinary gift my dear. This comes with some responsibility. It’s a gift from the old souls for your future travels.”
The lady laid a black and gold shiny box on the altar behind the paper Dragon and opened it up, murmuring something the girl could not understand. She clapped her hands three times, then removed the box, turning to face Tiare.
Inside, Tiare could see small compartments filled with different amulets. One had a Buddha sitting in lotus position, on a leather thong. Another had an Ohm symbol etched into glass. Her eyes skipped over these, and rested on a glowing, plain translucent stone. Her fingers reached down and touched the smooth surface. “Is it a moonstone?” she asked in awe.
“No my dear, but you have chosen wisely. This is an antique white jade amulet, once worn by a royal family member in days gone by. Some say it has magic in it, or at least, has a power that cannot be denied,” she said in a low, serious voice.
Tiare was mesmerized by its beauty. It seemed to glow from the inside, not in a sparkly way like other jewels she had seen, but in quite an other-worldy way, that gave weight to the woman’s claims, but of course, Tiare didn’t really believe her. Who would give away something so precious? To a stranger, none-the-less?
“Here, let me help you put it on,” the old lady said, moving around so that she was standing behind her.
“Where ever you go, go with all your heart,” she said, placing the cool stone on her chest, and fixing the silver clasp shut.
“Your vision will become clear only when you look inside and learn the true language of your heart, “she said, gently turning the girl’s shoulders so that she turned to face the old woman. “Some live in a dreamland, always looking outside of their own self,” she said. “But some take a real journey, and travel in the heart’s realm, and those people become truly awake.”
“This stone will ensure you remain true to the path of your heart,” she continued. “Listen to it carefully and let it guide you.”