A Love of Numbers

A Love of Numbers

Five, nineteen, twenty and forty-four.

I played with the four numbers in my head while I wrote them down and passed the order through the hatch into the kitchen. The first thing I noticed was obvious: the fourth number is the sum of the first three. Five, nineteen, and twenty together add up to make the forty-four, but that wasn’t good at all, in fact it was very worrying. The word for four sounds like death in Cantonese so forty-four, well, that’s double death. Doubly unlucky. I looked again at the customer but she seemed in good health, a young woman about thirty, but then you never know what’s around the corner, do you?

“About ten minutes,” I told her, as I adjusted my ponytail and re-positioned a hairband. The woman took one of the plastic seats beneath the picture of night-time Hong Kong. Five, nineteen, twenty and a forty-four – sweet and sour pork, lemon chicken, beef with black bean sauce and one fried rice. Gweilo food. At least the woman didn’t order chips with curry sauce, but then it was only early evening; the chips and curry sauce brigade didn’t usually come in until the pubs closed. Five, nineteen, twenty and forty-four. With the five, nineteen and twenty adding up to forty-four, you’d think that together with the forty-four itself that would be even worse – twice the bad luck – but two lots of forty-four are eighty-eight and instead of being doubly bad that’s the opposite. A really lucky number, double wealth. Perhaps I should have told her to buy a lottery ticket?

Dad rang the bell and passed the food back through the hatch, I checked the order before giving it to the woman. Five, nineteen, twenty and forty-four. Nineteen minus five is fourteen – another bad number. The first time my parents took me back to Hong Kong to visit family we’d had to stay in a hotel and I didn’t understood why the floors went from twelve to fifteen missing out both thirteen and fourteen. On the other hand, being more positive about things, twenty plus forty-four is sixty-four which is eight squared. If eight is a lucky number then surely lucky squared must be off the scale? I smiled at the customer who mumbled a word of thanks as she left.

*

I’ve always liked numbers. I enjoy finding patterns and connections between them. When I was younger it used to drive my parents crazy, though you’d think they of all people would have approved, especially since it was probably Dad’s doing, even if he didn’t realise it. Horse-racing, that was his thing, he was always poring over the Racing Post. Mum used to say that you could take the man out of Hong Kong but you couldn’t take Hong Kong out of the man. We went to Aintree once for the Grand National, I must have been about ten, and I was fascinated watching the bookies and the odds. I think that’s where it started. Inevitably none of my friends shared my passion for maths, but Lingtao, the winter I knew him, he seemed to understand. At least he didn’t think it was completely weird.

*

Mum and Dad bought the Dragon Moon when they came to England in 1990 after Tiananmen Square. They’d never heard of Morecambe, had to look it up on the map, but Dad had a cousin who owned the takeaway and wanted to retire. It was in the West End, not the smartest of areas – we were next to a tanning shop – but good for both regulars and seasonal trade from holidaymakers. I was only five at the time so I don’t really remember much about the move, though I do remember spending the first winter trying to stay dry and warm, waiting for a summer that had been promised but which never seemed to come.

Mum and Dad knew next to nothing about running a takeaway and the first couple of years were tough for them. Mum cooked and Dad looked after the accounts and so on. They had to get to grips with both a new business and a new country at the same time as bringing up a young girl. I think it’s only now that I’ve started to appreciate just how hard it must have been for them. For me it wasn’t so bad; being young I adapted and didn’t know much different anyway. I was picked on a bit at school, told I wasn’t British, a few slitty-eye comments and so on, but then the girl with the hearing aid was bullied and if anything she got it worse. I learnt to ignore it and they left me alone after a while. Whatever, I enjoyed school, I was good at most things but it was maths that I loved the most.

When I was younger I wasn’t allowed to work in the takeaway every evening, “Jin-Lin, time you did your homework” was the regular refrain, but on Fridays and Saturdays they needed the extra pair of hands. Now that I was in my gap year I worked most evenings, trying to get some money together before going travelling in China; Mum and Dad wanted me to visit some relatives, go see the ancestral village. I think they worried that I was forgetting I was Chinese. I wasn’t that fussed myself, but happy to go along with it as I could see how much it meant to them.

*

It was a Friday evening in late November when he first came into the Dragon Moon. I’d put up some Christmas decorations myself, a bit early perhaps but they made the place look better. A little tinsel above Hong Kong harbour added extra glitter to the scene, the more-money cat had a sprig of holly, and a small artificial tree stood on the counter. I don’t know about three kings from the Orient, but here was a young Chinese man wearing a dirty grey tracksuit and an LA Lakers baseball cap. He looked barely any older than me; twenty or twenty-one at most.

“Hello,” I said, looking up from the book I was reading. “What would you like?” He looked a little lost, unsure of himself, so I thought I’d try a little Cantonese. That elicited a response of sorts and he answered in what I assumed was Mandarin, but my Mandarin was somewhere between sketchy and non-existent so all I could do was to just shrug. The young man took out a notebook and wrote something down before passing it to me. This wasn’t much better as I couldn’t read much Chinese so I handed him the English menu, and while he puzzled over that I retrieved an English-Chinese dictionary from the downstairs cubbyhole that served as an office. We finally settled on an order for char siu rice and beef with ginger that he seemed happy with. When he came to pay I saw him counting out coins from an old purse leaving not much left when he’d finished.

He didn’t appear again over the weekend, but I found myself thinking about him. It was unusual to see someone Chinese in the takeaway. Not that there wasn’t a healthy Cantonese community in the town, but they’d normally cook real Chinese food themselves rather than pay for our Western-styled menu. There was an even larger Chinese population in Blackpool, but I was never allowed to go there. Mary Yang once told me that there were lots of Chinese students in Lancaster, she even said that she went out with one of them one time, but I didn’t believe her since her parents were even stricter than mine. Then again she always seemed to have a boy on the go, so who knows?

But he was there again the following Friday. This time wearing jeans and a Manchester United shirt; van Nistelrooy, number ten – a really boring number. During the week I’d been trying to master a few Mandarin phrases:

Ni hao,” I said. It’s actually not that far removed from hello in Cantonese but the tones are different. It turned out though that he’d been learning some English.

Ni hao – hello,” he replied, the “hello” being broken and uncertain, but definitely English. He’d brought his order written down, in Chinese again, so I got the dictionary out. There was some strange stuff that he wanted, things we just don’t get asked for in Morecambe, things we didn’t offer, but in the end we managed to agree on beef ribs and noodles – seventeen and thirty-seven, both primes. Money seemed tight again so I added stir-fried vegetables to his order without saying anything. While we waited for the food I asked his name.

“Lingtao.”

“I’m Jin-Lin, in my family anyway. Everyone else calls me Julianna.” I could tell that this was lost on him so I just repeated my Chinese name. “Jin-Lin,” I said, pointing to myself. “What do you do?” I asked. “Are you a student?” To be honest he didn’t look much like one. He didn’t understand my question, so I got out the dictionary again and showed him the Chinese for student: 学生. Lingtao shook his head, took the book from me and tried to find something, but without success. All I could tell was that he was some sort of worker. He tried to mime it, tried to act it out like it was Christmas already and we were playing charades, but it looked as if it was something agricultural, as if he was picking vegetables, which didn’t make much sense in December.

The food arrived through the hatch putting an end to any further attempts at conversation. Lingtao smiled a gentle, shy smile as he left.

*

During the week, Mary and I walked into town to do some early Christmas shopping in the Arndale and I asked her what a young Chinese man might be doing in Morecambe. She thought he might be something to do with the new industrial units on the bypass. “Anyway,” she said, “why do you want to know? Is he good-looking?”

“No,” I replied, probably too quickly. “Hey,” I said, wanting to change the subject, “I’ve never noticed before that the road to Lancaster is the A589.” There was a road sign for the main routes out of town.

“OK, you win.” There was a hint of friendly exasperation in Mary’s voice. “What’s so interesting about 589? Is it a prime?” She knew my ways.

“No, nearly though, 587 is prime. But the third digit is the square of the difference between the first two.” Mary rolled her eyes.

Anyway he wasn’t good-looking, not at all. Just interesting, looked like he was lost in a world he didn’t know anything about. But for some reason I found myself wanting the week to end, for Friday to come round. I was convinced he would be back at the Dragon Moon.

And he was. Come Friday and Lingtao was there with his order. This time though he’d written it down in English, mangled English admittedly, but clear enough.

“You’ve been learning English?”

“I try … a little. But very hard.” His voice sounded different when speaking English. Softer somehow. Hesitant, uncertain.

“Do you have a teacher?”

“No. I have book, learn from book.”

“You need a proper teacher, not a book.”

“You?” Lingtao said. “Will you teach?”

“Yes,” I replied, before I even knew what I was doing. I’ve no idea why I said that, it’s not like I have any special gift for teaching or anything. I guess the obvious reason was that he seemed to like me, which made a welcome change. Geeky Chinese girls with a passion for maths didn’t get much attention from the boys in Morecambe. Mary had a slim figure and the confidence that goes with good looks; I wore glasses and talked about the Fibonacci sequence. Anyway, I thought maybe I might pick up some Mandarin for my travels.

So, two days later, on the Sunday, we met outside Brucciani’s. It wasn’t exactly ice-cream weather but it wasn’t too bad so we were able to walk along the seafront; the amusement arcades shuttered up for winter, guest houses either closed or with very optimistic “Vacancies” signs. I don’t know how much I was able to teach him – frankly I think he probably did better with his book – but I’d brought along the dictionary and we managed quite well considering.

“Where in China are you from?” I asked.

“Fujian.”

I wasn’t certain, but I thought that was somewhere on the coast, just up from Guangdong where I knew my family came from.

“By the sea?”

“No. But sometimes I go sea.”

We sat on a bench looking out over the bay; the tide was in covering the mudflats. There was a seamless transition of shades of grey from sea to sky; you could see that it was raining in the Lakes – big surprise – but it was still dry for us. For the time being anyway.

“Is the weather better there?” I asked. When in doubt you can always rely on the weather as a source of conversation; who says I’m not British?

“Sorry?”

“Does it rain as much in China as it does here?”

“Yes, more, and sometime…” I could see that Lingtao was struggling to find the words he wanted, “Some time there is … big … wind…”

“Ah, a storm.”

“Yes … no … more than storm.” Lingtao took the dictionary from me and looked up what he wanted to say: “Tai … foon … almost like in Chinese, taifeng.”

“Ah,” now I understood, “a typhoon. No, we don’t get those here. Just lots of rain and then more rain.” And no sooner had I said that when the rain came on and we took refuge in an old dilapidated shelter, the walls of which were covered in graffiti that I thought it better not to try and translate. A seagull that had been picking at a chip bag nearby looked at us with displeasure at being disturbed and flew off. “But it can be lovely in summer.” I tried to explain how the bay could look when the weather was playing ball, how when the sun shone the mudflats had a silky sheen to them. Dad used to say they were the colour of Hong Kong milk tea.

We met again a few times before Christmas. It wasn’t always easy because Lingtao seemed to work irregular hours and I was in the Dragon Moon most evenings, but during the day was okay. I usually told my parents that I was with Mary; an inner voice told me not to tell them about Lingtao, that they wouldn’t approve. Slowly, with frequent reference to the dictionary, I started to learn more about him. He was nineteen and had been in England since August. His parents were farmers in a village that was five hours by bus from the nearest town. The last two harvests had been destroyed by floods and they’d had to borrow just to get by. Many of his friends had gone to the big cities to try and find work, but Lingtao had come here with the hope of making some money to send back. I asked him once about how he’d travelled to England – I couldn’t work out how he’d been able to afford the flight – but he didn’t understand my question, or at least he pretended not to, I wasn’t sure which. It seemed like he didn’t want to tell me everything.

I shared with him my hopes and dreams. I told him about my plans to go to China in the summer and he offered to give me his parents’ address; I told him about going to university the following September, my love of numbers. I was pretty certain he didn’t take all of that in, but I didn’t mind. He seemed happy to sit and listen to me while I rabbited on, which was more than most people did. The last time we met before the holidays was Christmas Eve and there’s a lot you can make out of that date. I pointed out to him the easy things; the day – twenty-four – is twice the month, twelve. Add together the digits for the day and you get six, which is the lowest perfect number and twice the sum of the digits for the month. Then you can bring in the year: 2003. If you multiply the first and last digits you get six again, or you can take two cubed and get eight, which is the same as the product of the two and the four from the day. I could go on and on, and probably did, but Lingtao just sat patiently and listened. When I finally paused to take a breath, he smiled and said simply:

“You like numbers very much.”

*

I didn’t see Lingtao over Christmas and New Year. Business was always too good over the holidays to close completely, but on Boxing Day we visited my father’s cousin and his family in Chester, and on New Year’s Eve we stayed open late to make the most of the partygoers. We sold a lot of chips and curry sauce that night. In fact I didn’t see him again until later in January when he came into the Dragon Moon.

It was obvious that something was wrong. He was always slightly built, but now his face seemed gaunt. I asked him what the matter was, why hadn’t he been before.

“Boss very bad. Makes us work in bad weather, I always cold and wet.”

“What is your job?” I asked. “I still don’t know what you do.”

“I don’t know how to say it in English… We go to sea and collect these … people eat… No matter, I don’t talk job, I have gift.” Out of nowhere Lingtao brought out a small parcel, neatly wrapped and tied with a ribbon. “I say thank you for English teaching.” I untied the ribbon and opened the parcel, inside was a lovely old Chinese abacus. “You like? Gift for girl with numbers.”

“It’s beautiful, Lingtao,” I said, and I wasn’t just being polite. It was simple and elegant, made of some dark wood. No unnecessary ornamentation, functional, but the beads slid so smoothly and satisfyingly. “You shouldn’t have, but it’s lovely. Where did you get it from?” It wasn’t the sort of thing you see in the shops in Morecambe.

“From one of my friends.”

I really didn’t know what to say. I was so embarrassed, but it was so beautiful. Better than any of the rubbish presents I’d got for Christmas from my family.

“What do you want to eat? No need to pay, whatever you order.” It seemed the least I could offer; I could easily hide it in the evening’s takings. Besides, I’d been feeling guilty that Lingtao seemed to be spending what little money he had in the Dragon Moon.

“No time,” Lingtao said. “I have work tonight.” It was gone nine p.m. “I come again Friday and perhaps we…” And then he did something so simple, he took my hand and held it, that’s all. We hadn’t so much as touched before, nothing, but that touch… I was suddenly very conscious of the fact that Dad was only the other side of the serving hatch. Lingtao let go of my hand and left without saying another word.

How slowly the following week passed. I think even Mary knew that something was up. She tried to interest me in her new boyfriend but my comments were half-hearted. I wondered if I should buy something for Lingtao, what he might like, or was I being too forward? Had I already been too forward? Did he have ideas? Did I? I tried to forget about him and just get on with the routine of the week. Swimming with Mary on Monday; Mary chattering away while we changed and left our clothes in lockers, a brief chill passing over me as I noticed that my locker was number fourteen.

Wednesday morning and the calendar on the kitchen wall stared at me. No, that’s not right, stared is too passive a word, it shouted at me: 4 February 2004 – 4/2/04 or 4/2/2004. The numbers were insistent, ringing in my head, drowning out the radio and Mum’s inane breakfast chatter. Four, two, two and four. Ignoring the zeroes a numerical palindrome. Four divided by two is two, two times two is four. Two plus two is four. Four. Four, four, four, four. The number taunting me. Death. Death squared. Death to the power of death.

I spent the whole day convinced that something horrible was going to happen. I worried about Mum and Dad, were they okay? Should I say something? Warn them? When nothing did happen there was almost a sense of anti-climax; I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed. But I’d forgotten, I was as much English as Chinese, perhaps it was something to do with being around Lingtao and thinking about him, I’d forgotten my English side. It wasn’t just the fourteenth floor those hotels were missing, it was also the thirteenth. The next day was the fifth, of February, 2004. Five plus two plus two plus four. I didn’t need the abacus to add them up.

*

Later, when I heard the news, I knew at once that Lingtao must have been one of them. Now I understood what it was that he did, how he had come to the UK. I couldn’t help but see him in the cold and the dark; confused and scared, waters rising around him and his friends, trying to get back to safety but being pulled by the currents. What did he think about in those final minutes as he tried to keep his head above water? His parents? The futile journey in search of a better life? I wondered if he thought about me and then felt more ashamed of myself than I’d ever been before. For months afterwards I couldn’t look at the bay without seeing that night in my mind’s eye, still can’t in fact. Sometimes I would dream about it; I’m walking along the beach when the tide comes out of nowhere and I can feel the pressure of the water pushing me over and I have to scramble to safety. I couldn’t really explain any of this to Mum and Dad. Like everyone in Morecambe, but especially us Chinese, the thought of what happened is terrible, but I think they were puzzled about why I seemed quite so upset.

I never did make it to Lingtao’s home village; my parents planned the trip for me down to every last detail. But I saw enough places in Guangdong that can’t have been that much different, little villages away from the big glitzy cities. Small-holdings where a family lived in a couple of rooms; places where half-breed dogs scavenged rubbish tips for food. Towns where the main industry is recycling electronics and toxins pollute the soil. Places that have been overlooked in the rush for the future and that drive people to try and find something better in the unlikeliest of places, like the mudflats of Morecambe Bay.

These days the abacus goes with me everywhere, my fellow students at uni thought it was very funny. Such a stereotype; the Chinese girl with the abacus. Now I use it to keep track of my money, flicking the beads back and forth with a practised finger, and when I do I think of Lingtao, his broken English and his soft smile.

Graeme Hall is a novelist and short story writer. He has been a prize winner with the Black Pear Press short story competition and the Ilkley Literature Festival. His story "The Jade Monkey Laughs" won the English section of the 2017 Macau Literary Festival short story competition. Currently writing his second novel, Graeme also writes and blogs on music at: http://www.dongraeme.blogspot.co.uk/ Graeme lives in Yorkshire with his wife and a wooden dog.

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