Today’s story by Mal Brouwer is a cautionary tale about love and the power of food….
Marilyn is very well travelled. She was born in Newcastle has lived in Paris, Ibiza, Mallorca and Oman before moving to Dubai. She now lives on the Isle of Wight just eight miles across the Solent to my own home town of Portsmouth. Her stories all have a twist in the tale and this one is no exception.
No. 39 by Mal Brouwer
Soo Ling had quite the tiniest, most delicate hands Harry Booth had ever seen. In fact Soo Ling at sixteen still had the form and figure and innocence of a pre-pubescent child. Normally Soo Ling did not leave the kitchen. She sat high up on an old wooden stool pinching and filling the tiny fragrant dim sums that her uncle’s Chinese restaurant had become famous for. The speed with which her child like fingers formed the perfectly shaped balls and fluted their edges was dazzling. Soo Ling could produce so many dim sums that her uncle had begun packaging them and supplying to other Chinese restaurants. But he never supplied them to restaurants in the same area. Chang knew he had something special with Soo Ling and competition was fierce, and getting fiercer on the Costa Del Mar for Chinese restaurants. What happened to Soo Ling’s dim sums in Madrid or Barcelona, Chang did not care but here in Callala, The Golden Dragon would be the only restaurant ever to serve Soo Ling’s exquisite dim sums.
Harry Booth was one of Chang’s best customers. A large, coarse man of florid complexion, Harry Booth over indulged in most things in life that were bad for him namely food, alcohol and women of dubious repute.
Chang despised him. He despised his loudness, his greed, was disgusted by the pouches of fat that strained at Harry’s shirt front. Chang hated the way Harry called him Charlie and slapped his back. Chang even hated the way Harry flamboyantly over tipped making sure everyone saw the notes piled carelessly on top of the bill. But Chang bowed, opened the door when he saw Harry coming, soothed him to the best table and attended to his every whim. For Chang could do obsequious with the best of them. Then as Chang reached the entrance to the kitchen, smiling all the time, he would shout in Mandarin to his son Wen, “The fat white pig needs serving.”
But what Harry Booth loved the most were Soo Ling’s dim sums. He ordered them by the dozen and then ruined their delicate flavours and colours by drowning them in soy sauce. It was after more than two months of gorging on Soo Ling’s dim sums that Harry Booth thought to question their origin. Chang clearing Harry’s soy sauce drenched plate disguised his distaste masterfully. “My niece, Soo Ling,” he bobbed his head respectfully and indicated towards the kitchen, “special recipes from her village in China.”
Harry had straightened up carefully placing his third brandy back on the now stained table cloth.
“Niece?” He clasped Chang’s arm, “niece? You dark horse Charlie; I didn’t know you had a niece!” Harry surveyed his guests sitting around his table. “And here we were thinking they came deep frozen all the way from China!”
Chang gave a polite smile and started to move away but Harry held on to his forearm.
“Not so fast Charlie! We’d like to meet her wouldn’t we?” Harry’s guests, knowing who was paying the bill, nodded in unison. “What’s her name Charlie?
Chang hesitated before replying. “Soo Ling” he finally said quietly, a tiny tingle of foreboding tickling his spine.
“Come on then Charlie, bring her out! We’d like to congratulate the chef!” Harry’s face was flushed and there was a faint layer of perspiration on his brow. Chang had always considered him as a damp man. Even in the coldest weather Chang had imagined Harry’s clothes sticking to him, his shirt transparent with sweat under his jacket.
Chang hesitated again and arranged his features into the impassive Oriental Harry expected. “Soo Ling, very busy… very shy.” He amended
Harry’s bonhomie slipped, just long enough for Chang to note, just long enough for Chang to register the coldness in his eyes before Harry with an overloud laugh remonstrated. “Come on Charlie, we won’t bite. I promise to be gentle with her…”
The sexual overtone was not lost on Chang. Afterwards of course he cursed himself for not thinking fast enough, for not sending out Mae Lee, a chubby, wholesome woman of indeterminate age who would have killed Harry’s interest stone dead. Instead, inwardly fuming Chang with an unaccustomed curtness had ordered Soo Ling off her stool. Despite the heat and smells of the kitchen, Soo Ling arrived at Harry’s table as clean and calm as a porcelain doll, her white blouse immaculate, her long black hair tied back from her small, smooth, beautiful face, her tiny hands clasped in front of her.
Harry surveyed Soo Ling with something like awe. “By God, she’s a beauty Charlie! What are you doing hiding her away in the kitchen? You should have her serving on tables! You’d make a fortune!” Harry’s eyes hadn’t left Soo Ling’s face. “In fact Charlie, I insist that she’s my personal waitress.”
Chang’s mouth tightened imperceptibly.
“So sorry, Mr Booth, only experience with dim sums, not waitress.”
“Rubbish Charlie!” Harry didn’t bother to take his eyes from Soo Ling. “It’s not rocket science; she only has to bring a few plates out to my table.” Harry winked across the table at his brother. “And no-one will mind if she drops them eh?” Harry’s brother guffawed on cue, and Chang, although not entirely sure of the double entendre, was entirely sure of Harry’s disrespect.
“What’s your name darling?” Harry addressed Soo Ling’s silent form. “Your name?” He prompted. Soo Ling shook her head and looked at her uncle in incomprehension.
“Me HARRY” Harry pointed to his chest and repeated, “HA-RRY”. He pointed at Soo Ling’s budding breasts. “YOU?”
Soo Ling looked at her uncle again and then at the floor.
“She doesn’t speak English.” Chang’s voice was as cool as he dared. “But her name is Soo Ling.”
“Well Suzie, you’re a cracker that’s all I can say and I expect to see you again next Monday.” Harry nudged Chang’s arm. “Eh, Charlie? I need a table for twenty about 8.30 OK? Thought I might bring the Rotary lot here. Big spenders Charlie. That should make the old tills rattle eh?”
Chang bowed, more to conceal his dislike than out of any sense of servitude or gratitude. Chang and Harry might be cultures apart, but they were both businessmen, linked irrevocably by a common, unbreakable bond- the making of money in the best way they both knew how. And at this base, fundamental level, Harry and Chang understood each other whatever the language barrier.
Over the weekend Chang weighed up his options. He decided that family loyalties must dictate, at least initially his course of action. After all Harry had been drunk, may well have forgotten his interest in Soo Ling the minute he had left the restaurant, had not been serious about Soo Ling waiting on him.
But Harry hadn’t forgotten, almost before Chang had seated the members of the Rotary Club, Harry had impatiently demanded Soo Ling’s presence.
“So sorry, Mr Booth,” Chang dipped his head, “Soo Ling ill. Soo Ling in bed tonight.”
Harry had sat back in his seat and stared at Chang. “Well, that’s most unfortunate Charlie.” Harry indicated around the table. “See most of my friends here only came to see Suzie. I’ve told them so much about her and her dim sums….Well there’s no point in ordering them tonight is there?” Harry’s face hardened. “They won’t be fresh will they?”
Harry dismissed Chang with a wave of his hand and Chang sent Wen out to serve Harry’s table for the rest of the evening. There was no tip. As Chang escorted Harry and his friends from the restaurant as he always did, Harry turned at the door. “I hope Suzie is better by Friday, Charlie.” Chang nodded. “We’ll have to get together sometime and you can let me into your secret of how you get all your staff work permits…” Harry let the threat sit in the midnight air. Chang nodded once more before backing through the doors into the warmth of his restaurant.
Soo Ling served on Harry’s table the following Friday evening. Harry left a tip large enough to cover the wages of one of Chang’s waiters for a week. Harry had been uncharacteristically subdued throughout the evening, his normal loud ebullience notably missing. He had however, regarded Soo Ling thoughtfully, with worryingly for Chang, (who had kept Harry under the closest observation) a sober, intense seriousness. Chang had also noted the improvement in Harry’s table manners, the lack of chow mein and oyster sauce on his tie and had been unable to ignore the heavy, eye watering odour of expensive after shave. Chang wondered sourly if Harry had bathed in it. But he had not touched Soo Ling or been suggestive in any way. In fact for Harry, he had behaved impeccably.
And that, for Chang, was the most worrying aspect of it all.
Harry began coming to the restaurant two, three times a week. Soo Ling would silently appear at his table writing down the numbers in Chinese from the menu as Harry pointed to them. He always ordered at least three portions of no 39, Soo Ling’s mixed dim sums, just for himself. For his guests he insisted they ordered even more. And all the time Harry stared at Soo Ling with a dogged intensity that made Soo Ling’s skin shiver and raised Chang’s blood pressure alarmingly. And still, Harry’s behaviour remained beyond reproach. He began to introduce Soo Ling to his guests with an awkward almost adolescent courtesy. Once Chang was sure that Harry had almost blushed when Soo Ling bent a little close to put down his plate and then late one evening when one of his friends had grabbed harmlessly but drunkenly in Soo Ling’s direction, Harry had half risen from his seat and bellowed for him to get his hands off her. In the embarrassed silence that followed, Soo Ling had slipped away with her head bowed back to the kitchen and had not reappeared to say goodnight. That night Harry’s tip had been enormous and he had gruffly apologised to Chang for his friend’s behaviour. Chang had seen the half plea in Harry’s eyes and felt ice form in the pit of his stomach. Harry the boor, the insulting buffoon, Chang could almost cope with; Harry vulnerable, pathetically infatuated with Chang’s niece, was infinitely more unpredictable and therefore without doubt, a far more dangerous proposition.
Chang worried at the problem like a dog with a bone. He knew it was not something he could ignore in the hope that it would resolve itself or go away. Harry was becoming week by week, more obsessed with Soo Ling and Chang knew there would come a breaking point. In what way the problem would come to a head was something Chang try as he did, could not foresee.
Chang just had a horrible, persistent, presentiment that it would not be pleasant or fortuitous for either party.
It was several weeks later when an almost unrecognisable Harry asked to speak to Chang in private. Harry’s immaculate shirt no longer strained at the buttons and his tie was unblemished by toothpaste or his last meal. Chang took stock of the changes in Harry for the first time. The skin along his jaw line had slackened and had a faintly yellow tinge to it and his eyes looked feverish and unnaturally bright. His usual bluster had completely deserted him and he was as agitated and uneasy as a pubescent teenager.
“I want your permission to marry Soo Ling.” Harry said without preamble.
Chang bent to retrieve an envelope from the floor, more to compose his features from the shock of the one scenario he hadn’t ever foreseen than any innate compulsion to tidiness. Soo Ling indeed! He must be serious. Chang couldn’t remember when Suzy had turned into Soo Ling.
“I know I’m a lot older than Soo Ling, but I am a wealthy man and I will treat her well…” Harry trailed off and looked beseechingly at Chang who suddenly realised that he still hadn’t said a word.
“Soo Ling is sixteen years old Harry. You would need the permission of Soo Ling’s parents in China…” Chang shook his head, genuinely bemused. “Different cultures, different ages…Harry you don’t even speak the same language. How could you communicate? She’s still a child…”
“I will go to China, pay a dowry…Soo Ling will learn English…I can try and learn Chinese…” Harry had the grace to look uncomfortable at his last intention. “I love her Chang, I want to marry her, do the right thing, treat her with respect…At least promise me that you will speak to her, contact her parents?”
Chang stayed silent, staring at this husk of a man standing before him. Finally he nodded. “Harry I will contact Soo Ling’s parents, but you must not hold out much…”
“That’s all I ask!” Harry interrupted. “Just to do the best you can!”
“I will marry him uncle.” Soo Ling said calmly after Chang had conveyed Harry’s conversation to her.
If Harry’s proposition had astounded Chang, his niece’s quiet acceptance stunned him completely.
“Soo Ling!” Chang protested “Harry doesn’t know your parents are dead, you don’t have to do anything, I can prolong this until Harry loses interest. We can work something out.”
“Uncle Chang, it will be alright. Harry can cause you too much trouble if you cross him.” Soo Ling bowed her head respectfully. “I will marry Mr Harry. Don’t worry, it will be alright.”
The wedding was a quiet affair at Soo Ling’s insistence. Harry had lost even more weight exacerbating their age difference shockingly. He seemed to be the only one impervious to the travesty of their union gazing at Soo Ling with undisguised adoration that produced in Chang the same inexplicable unease he had felt at Harry’s first sighting of Soo Ling in his restaurants those few short months ago.
They honeymooned in China. After a week in Beijing, Soo Ling took Harry to her village to meet her remaining relatives.
Soo Ling returned to Spain a widow.
The Rotary Club held a memorial service for Harry in Callala.
“Cancer,” they whispered amongst themselves, “he looked terrible before he left…he’d lost so much weight he was barely even Harry anymore…at least he died a happy man…totally besotted…”
Chang waited four weeks before asking Soo Ling when she was coming back to the restaurant. Trade had fallen off now there were no sightings of Soo Ling or her Dim Sums and the Rotary Club no longer had Harry to drag them along twice a week.
Soo Ling had raised a surprised, delicate eyebrow.
“Well never Uncle Chang. I don’t need to anymore do I? Harry left me very well off so why would I want to come back and sit on that stool in that greasy kitchen making dim sums and pretending I don’t speak English to lecherous customers?”
Chang looked at his niece with dawning horror and realisation.
Soo Ling smoothed down her skirt and smiled shyly.
“Anyway Uncle Chang, could you ever really be sure again what I was putting into the dim sums?”
©Marilyn Brouwer 2004