Birthday

That evening, Lam went to pick up Grace from her mother’s apartment. She was standing outside the building when he arrived, wearing all black and scowling into the middle distance.

“You’re late.”

“Happy birthday, kiddo.” He tried to give her a hug, she slouched away from him.

“I hate it when you do that.”

“Do what?” Lam stood back, feeling appalled without being able to say why.

“Call me ‘kiddo’.”

“But I’ve always called you that.”

“Yes, and I’ve always hated it.”

“I am your father, Grace. Maybe I have your best interests at heart by calling you something you don’t like. I’m preparing you for future disappointment.”

She didn’t laugh. Maybe when he thought he had been joking, he hadn’t.

“Anyway, happy birthday.” He tried beaming at her. He knew he didn’t really have the sort of face that radiated jollity to those surrounding him. “I brought you this.”

He produced a small plastic bag from his jacket pocket. Grace sniffed.

“Didn’t you have time to wrap it?”

“It’s what’s inside that counts. Go on, look.”

She took the bag, reached in, brought out the watch.

“Calvin Klein.” She peered at it, then dropped it back into the bag.

“You’re not going to try it on now?”

Grace sighed. “I’m already wearing a watch, Dad.” Then, seeing the disappointment on him, “maybe later on.”

He wondered whether a watch was the right present for an eleven year old. No, twelve. Grace was twelve, wasn’t she? He tried to remember which year she was born, failed inexplicably. A year to the day after he’d married her mother, which was impeccable timing, although as a result of trying to blot every memory of that woman out of his life, he could no longer remember which year it was, even though Grace was there as an aide-memoire.

Still, he should try to make conversation. Ask after her, or whatever one was meant to do. Attempt some semblence of pretence that he and his ex-wife still saw one another as people instead of problems.

“How come you’re waiting up here, instead of upstairs?”

“Mum didn’t want you to come up. She’s busy.”

“Oh. Have you had a nice birthday then?”

She looked down, ground her toes against the pavement.

“Her new boyfriend is here this week. She wanted me out the way, I think.”

Lam felt like stamping his foot petulantly, took a moment to wrest control back. He wasn’t jealous – what did he have to be jealous of? – but it felt like she was being calculatedly cruel. Not just to him, but by sending Grace to wait outside like her daughter was running an errand for her. *Here’s the case of disappointment for you to pick up.*

“Never mind” he said, trying to inject some cheer into his voice, “I’ve got a treat for you tonight.” He ushered her to the car.

Two hours later, Lam wondered who had made a mistake. Had he been a bad father, for having to work all day and only get to see Grace at seven that evening? Should he have bought Grace a different present? A doll? Make-up? A pop-up book? Trying to understand what your child wanted was some sort of mistake. Giving her a watch she probably thought was a counterfeit seized in Tsim Sa Tsui was, on balance, a mistake. But these things seemed dwarfed by Lam thinking his daughter would enjoy an evening of cabaret in a basement up the hill from Hollywood Road.

Those things were better classified as errors, he thought – symptoms of thoughtlessness or a lack of time to plan adequately. What they were enduring now seemed to be much more active; the sort of thing that really did constitute a mistake. A great big, trying-to-put-both-of-your-feet-into-the-same-leg-of-your-trousers-and-then-claiming-you-intended-that, obstinate, thundering mistake.

Or perhaps Lam was just realising that he hated magicians.

The evening had begun badly. After they’d parked in the bottom of the International Finance Center and ridden the escalator up the hill into Midlevels, they had arrived at the club to find the show had already started. As they walked into the club (scarcely more than a room downstairs from the street, with a blue curtain covering one wall and a ring of mismatched wooden chairs around the stage), Lam became aware that the room was almost empty. If it wasn’t for the presence of a man on stage, talking into a microphone, he would have assumed the night had been cancelled, and they would have left and done something more pleasant.

Instead, he and Grace had sat down, near to an old German with a distressingly unkempt beard, beige shorts and socks pulled up to his knees, and in front of an embarrassed looking couple. The five of them were the entire audience, for an evening that turned out to demonstrate the difference between exclusive and unpopular.

The first ‘act’ they sat through was a man who was rather too pleased with himself for being from England, and who went on at length about how clever he was, how feckless people in Hong Kong were, and how stupid it was to have different levels of typhoon warnings issued by the Observatory. Lam had never before thought that somebody would think it was stupid to have more than one level of typhoon warning (it seemed quite sensible to him to differentiate between ‘approaching bad weather’ and ‘everyone is about to drown’) so this came as a surprise. He was more surprised, on reflection, that anyone would think people would want to listen to somebody espousing this belief, or, apparently, that anyone would think it was funny.

One person found the man funny, but unfortunately it was the man himself. He made himself guffaw, or snicker, or giggle after almost every remark, until after about ten minutes (and who knew how long he’d been going on before they arrived) he clambered down from the stage, to be replaced by a young woman playing an acoustic guitar and singing badly about her lost lover.

Perhaps it was avant-garde. Maybe he’d unknowingly purchased tickets for a sort of post-modernist comment on the relation of the artist to the audience in performance, questioning traditional views of objective standards in dramatic arts. But probably not. Lam didn’t have much time, given his job, to keep up with developments in the arts, but he knew when something was being done competently, and the parade of idiots before him weren’t making a special comment on their existence.

Grace picked at the dirt under her fingernails.

Third, there was a belly-dancing diplomat. Each person came to the stage in silence, announced themselves into the microphone, did their bit and then wandered off again. The belly-dancer had said she worked at the US Consulate, but that might have meant she cleaned the toilets, or it might have meant she was a senior contributor to American strategy in Asia. Either way, she didn’t dance very well.

But these were just incompetent, deluded people. The magician was quite something else.

He lumbered onto the stage, an old man in an ill-fitting suit, managing to combine a bad wig with dandruff. Although Lam and his daughter were sat with a whole row of empty chairs between them and the stage, they could still smell the combination of body odour, unwashed clothes and dried fish that had accompanied him.

Mr Cui introduced himself, told them that he had been doing magic tricks for a very long time, and produced some moth-eaten handkerchiefs from one of his sleeves. He kept up a constant spiel, switching between English, Cantonese and a Shanghai-inflected version of Mandarin, talking about how old and wise he was, and how long it had taken to master each of these tricks, his voice rasping over their ears like a painful punishment. Since a typical ‘trick’ involved extracting a rabbit from a hat, Lam was sceptical that these things had taken a half-century of diligent study to perfect.

The suit, and the dandruff, and the wig were quite a lot to take in. The wig was not only unrealistic, but kept slipping further forward on Mr Cui’s head, and Lam found himself fascinated by this. Was it part of the act? Would it slip forward and blind Cui, so that he would fall off the stage rather than magically separate three brass rings? He prided himself on his observational skills (that was, after all, his job) so he was chastened when he realised that the wig had distracted him for five minutes and in all that time he hadn’t noticed Cui was wearing a bright red plastic clown’s nose.

Cui never remarked upon this; it never formed part of his act. He had apparently just decided to put it on, along with a suit a size two small that he’d picked out of a landfill site somewhere, and then heave his overweight frame up onto the stage and start showing rubbish magic tricks to five people he’d never met before. Who were paying for the experience.

Cui leered at Grace with one eye – the other was either glass or he had a terrible squint. He asked her whether she was enjoying the show, and when she didn’t respond immediately to his Cantonese, he tried in both English and Mandarin, as though a language barrier, rather than politeness, was preventing her giving him her opinion.

“It’s my birthday” she said in Cantonese. This was a fair answer, Lam thought, as it avoided engaging with the question Cui had asked. Unfortunately, it did mean that Cui leered some more, and then suggested that he wanted to give her a special birthday present. If he’d said anything lewd then that would have been the second time that day for Lam to have to resist the urge to hit somebody, but instead the magician drew out a balloon from his jacket pocket and began to inflate it. There was a long and embarassing pause, where he clumsily tied the knot, and then an eternity of squeaking as he began to twist and tie the balloon.

The couple looked transfixed. The German appeared to have fallen asleep. Grace looked at her feet as Cui presented her with the balloon, now transformed into the rough shape of the large intestine of something.

“Say thank you to the man” he told his daughter.

“Thank you” Grace murmured.

“Abracadabra!” Cui yelled, producing a coin from behind his ear. The German woke up with a start and squawked at the noise like a frightened animal.

They left shortly afterwards. It was hard to make a dignified exit because they were, after all, forty percent of the audience, but as Grace climbed the stairs out of the basement before him, Lam felt that he was at least saving them from further misery. They crossed the road to a restaurant serving imitations of American food – pizzas, burgers, overcooked pasta.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it?” Lam said, once they’d been seated and presented with their laminated menus.

“They were all so pathetic, dad. And why did you take me there, anyway?” Grace didn’t bother looking at him.

“I thought it would be … fun. You always used to like magic when you were young, didn’t you?”

“Well I’m not young now, am I? And what is this place we’re in now? Is this another special treat?”

“I – uh … you used to like it when you were young.”

“When was that, exactly, dad? Because that seems like a long time ago now.”

“Look, I know it seems a bit odd, but I am trying my best for you. Maybe this isn’t the best birthday you’ve ever had -”

“Which one is it?”

“What do you mean?”

“Which one? How old am I?”

“You’re … twelve?”

He knew instantly he’d got it wrong. She bent her head so she avoided seeing any part of him, and silently began to shake. He wasn’t sure if she was laughing or crying.

“Thirteen,” she said, eventually. “I’m thirteen, and you took me to a crap magician and this. Can we go now?”

As they left the restaurant, the Englishman with an excess of self-esteem was waiting for them.

“Hi, hello!”

“Good evening” said Lam, though he was dubious. It hadn’t been very good so far.

“I’m Alfie, he said. Just wanted to say thanks for coming to our show. I hope you enjoyed yourselves. I saw you had to leave early…”

“My daughter” Lam indicated. “She was feeling tired.”

“Not to worry, big day for her, eh? Anyway, I was just worried because I saw you missed the announcement at the end.”

“Announcement?”

“Yes – we’re having another show next month, and it’s going to be even better than this one.”

“That’s possible?”

“Ahem. Anyway, if you wanted to be the first to know about it, we could take your email address and -”

“You want my email address?” Lam was impressed. He didn’t think this kind of thing could rely on much repeat business.

Grace nudged him in the ribs. “Of course. Give him your card, Dad.”

Reluctantly, he took out a card from his wallet and handed it to Alfie.

“Crikey” he said, reading Lam’s title. “We don’t get many detectives coming to see us.”

“Well, he’ll be back” said Grace. “I’m sure he won’t miss it for anything.”

“Frightfully good English, your daughter” Alfie was saying, but they were already walking away.

“Grace, I thought you didn’t enjoy that?”

“I didn’t.” She scowled at him. “Which is why I think you should go back next time, to make up for putting me through it. Now can we please go somewhere better than this?”

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