An Extract from The Russian Concubine
Junchow, China, 1928
Lydia glanced round at the street she had sneaked into, narrower and meaner than the others. And a flicker of anxiety crawled up the back of her neck like a spider. It was more an alleyway than a street and lay in deep shadow, too cramped for sunlight to slide in. Despite that, lines of washing stretched across it, hanging limp and lifeless as ghosts in the dank heat, while at the far end a man under a broad coolie hat was trundling a wheelbarrow towards her. It was piled high with dried grass. His progress was slow and laborious over the hard-packed earth, the squeal of his wheel the only sound in the silent street.
Why so silent?
It was then she spotted the woman standing in a squalid doorway, beckoning. Her face was made up to look like one of the girls that Lydia’s friend Polly called Ladies of Delight, heavy black paint round the eyes and a slash of red for a mouth in a white-powered face. But Lydia had the impression she was not as young as she would seem. One red-tipped finger continued to beckon to Lydia. She hesitated and brushed a hand across her mouth in a childish gesture she used when nervous. She should never have come down here. Not with a pocketful of money. Uneasily she shook her head.
‘Dollars.’ The word floated down the street from the woman. ‘You like Chinese dollars?’ Her narrow eyes were fixed on Lydia though she came no nearer.
The silence seemed to grow louder. Where were the dirty ragamuffins at play in the gutter and the bickering neighbours? The windows of the houses were draped with oiled strips of paper, cheaper than glass, so where was the sound of pots and pans? Just the squeal, over and over, of the barrow’s wheel and the whine of black flies round her ears. She drew a long breath and was shocked to find her palms slick with sweat. She turned to run.
But from nowhere a scrawny figure in black stood in her path. ‘Ni zhege yochou yochun de ji,’ he shouted in her face.
Lydia couldn’t understand his words but when he spat on the ground and hissed at her, their meaning was only too clear. He was very thin and despite the oppressive heat he wore a fur cap with ear flaps, below which hung wisps of grey hair. But his eyes were bright and fierce. He shook a tattooed fist in her face. Stupidly her eyes focussed only on the dirt beneath his torn fingernails. She tried to think straight, but the thudding of her heart in her chest was getting in the way.
‘Let me pass, boy,’ she managed to say. It was meant to be sharp. In control. Like Sir Edward Carlisle. But it didn’t come out right.
‘Wo zhishi yao nide qian, fanqui.’
Again that word. Fanqui. Foreign Devil.
She tried to step round him but he was too fast. He blocked her way. Behind her the squeal of the wheelbarrow stopped, and when she glanced over her shoulder the woman and the wheelbarrow man were now standing together in the middle of the alleyway, swathed in dark shadows, watching her every move with hard eyes.
A thin hand suddenly clamped like a wire noose round her wrist.
She panicked and started to scream. Then the demons of hell itself seemed to let loose. The street filled with noise and shouts as the woman ran forward, shrieking, on hobbled feet, and the man abandoned his barrow and hurled himself with a growl towards Lydia, a long curved scythe at his side. And all the time the old devil’s grip on her wrist tightened, his nails sinking like teeth into her flesh the more she struggled.
With no sound a fourth person stepped into the street. He was a young man, not much older than Lydia herself but tall for a Chinese, with a long pale neck and close cropped hair and wearing a black v-necked tunic over loose trousers that flowed when he moved. His eyes were quick and decisive but there was a stillness to his face as he took in the situation. Anger flared in his dark eyes as he stared at the old leech hanging on to her wrist and it gave Lydia a flicker of hope. She started to shout for help but before the words were out of her mouth the world seemed to blur with movement. A whirling foot crashed full into the centre of the old man’s chest. Lydia clearly heard ribs splintering and her tormentor was sent sprawling on to the ground with a yelp of pain.
She stumbled as he fell, then caught herself, but instead of fleeing, she remained where she stood, eyes wide with astonishment. Entranced by the movements of the young Chinese man. He seemed to float in the air, hover there and then swing out an arm or a leg as fast as a cobra strike. It reminded her of the Russian ballet that Madame Medinsky had taken her to at the Victoria Theatre last year. She’d heard about such fighting skills but never seen them in action before. The speed of it made her head swim. She watched him approach the man with the scythe, swing backwards with elbows raised and hand outstretched, like a bird about to take flight, then his whole body twisted and turned and became airborne. His arm shot out and crashed down on the back of the man’s neck before the scythe could even begin its swing. The Chinese woman’s red mouth opened in a wide scream of terror.
The young man turned to face Lydia. His black eyes were deep-set, long and almond-shaped, and as Lydia looked into them an old memory stirred inside her. She’d seen that look before, that exact expression of concern on a face looking down at her in the snow, but so long ago she’d almost forgotten it. She was so used to fighting her own battles, the sight of someone offering to fight them for her set off a small explosion of astonishment in her chest.
‘Thank you, xie xie, thank you,’ she cried, her breath ragged.
He gave a shrug of his broad shoulders, as if to indicate the whole thing was no effort, and in fact there was no gleam of sweat on his skin in spite of the speed of his attack and the stifling heat in the alley.
‘You are not hurt?’ he asked in perfect English.
‘I’m glad. These people are gutter-filth and bring shame to Junchow. But you should not be here, it is not safe for a …’
She thought he was going to say fanqui.
‘… for a girl with hair the colour of fire. It would fetch a high price in the perfumed rooms above the teahouses.’
‘My hair or me?’
Her fingers brushed aside one of the locks of her unruly mane that had fallen loose from under her hat and she caught the stranger’s slight intake of breath and the softening corners of his mouth as he watched. He lifted his hand and she was convinced he was about to put his fingers into the flames of her hair, but instead he pointed at the old man who had crawled into the shadow of a doorway. A black earthenware jar stood in one corner of it, its wide mouth stoppered by a cork the size of a fist. Bent double with pain, the man lifted the jar and with a scream of rage that brought spittle to his lips, he hurled it at the ground in front of Lydia and her rescuer.
Lydia leapt back as the jar shattered into a hundred pieces, then her legs turned weak with fear when she saw what burst out of it.
A snake, black as jet and over three feet long. A few seconds, that’s all it took for the creature to slither cautiously towards Lydia, its forked tongue tasting her fear in the air. But abruptly it swept its head in a wide arc and disappeared towards one of the cracks in the wall. Lydia almost choked with relief. Those few seconds were ones she would not forget.
She looked back at the young man and was shocked to see his face had grown pale and rigid. But his eyes were not on the snake. They were fixed on the old devil where he lay hunched in the doorway, staring up at them both with malice and something like triumph in his eyes.
Without dropping his gaze, the young Chinese said in a quick urgent voice, ‘You must run.’
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