‘The Night of Hungry Ghosts’ was shortlisted for the 2019 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.
Ten years on, it is the seventh month and, by chance, it is the fifteenth day. Today ought to feel auspicious, but as Li Wei steps off the train onto a windy platform, mostly it just feels cold. The salt breeze plays with the trailing chest-strap of his rucksack, slapping it across his face. Seagulls shriek. His eyes glance left and right with deliberate casualness.
About a dozen people are heading towards the exit and he assesses how none of them share his skin tone, his features, and even though the reassurance is likely false, it allows him to relax, a little. Some appear to be returning home, dressed more for town than the hills and coast. Others sport colourful jackets with logos and an outdoorsy look, and, perhaps, have come for the same reason as him. The same, yet different.
He is the last to leave the station. The afternoon has barely started and he proceeds at a leisurely pace, turning right along the narrow pavement, reaching a car park which sits on the corner where the river Kent spills out into the sea. The train, its two carriages, is just now reaching the far end of the viaduct and he stops and watches until it vanishes from view. He presses on, the walkway following the curve of the estuary and broadening into a seaside promenade. The arc of the bay opens out. The tide has receded, leaving behind glistening sands, the surface sculpted by the undulations of the waves. On the horizon, the grey sky presses down to meet the dull roll of the ocean.
The meeting point is by the pier, according to his emailed instructions. He has a mental image of a wooden walkway stretching out into the water, the structure housing whizz-around rides and stalls selling garish sweets. Nothing like that here. To one side of the road is the sea and to the other a row of colourful shop-fronts, places selling cards, ice-cream and paintings, leading up to a pub on the corner. No amusement parks, no patterned beds of flowers.
This is different to what he knows, but still… Familiar echoes stir in the sweep of beach and grey-green of the waves. In the scent of salt, the bluster of the wind and the cries of gulls.
His canvas shoes slap against the paving as he approaches a small jetty with stone walls. Stone pillars guard the entrance and a metal plaque confirms this is indeed the pier. A short way out and the construction opens into a letter T. Wooden benches face the sea, but he remains standing, looking back along the promenade. It is unlikely he has been discovered, followed. Unlikeliness is scant defence against the fear he has learned to live with, carrying it always inside, because what choice, really, does he have? He stares ahead until his eyes ache and his legs – baggy shorts billowing around bony knees – are turned to goosebumps. He has time to spare and he crosses to the far side of the road, seeking refuge in the steamy warmth of a cafe.
He orders at the till. The woman asks, ‘Are you here for the cross-bay walk then?’ as she pours hot water into a pot.
His smile fixes. She means nothing by her question, will forget him before his tea is drunk, but he does not want to admit to his reason for coming, not yet.
Taking a seat in the alcove window, he sips black tea. His bag sits at his feet and he thinks of the things inside, objects which seemed to have a solid purpose as he packed them up, but which now seem thin and insubstantial. He longs to be back on the small train, the route turning inland, heading to Lancaster, and then the intercity to London where he can slip into the shadows. His thoughts drift. Minutes stack up. The last of the tea is tepid and bitter. Beyond the window, people are gathering. The scheduled start looms and he stands, making his way to the Gents where his face reflects ghost-pale from the mirror.
Outside and the air is newly cold, the light dull. His eyes flick left, then right, but he sees nothing to raise alarm in the slow stream of tourists browsing the small shops, or amongst the brightly clothed crowd who pack tightly around the pier. He crosses over towards the chatter and laughter. A man stands at the centre, white hair wisping free from his cap, hands holding a folder with a tick-list of names. He is dressed casually, but carries an air of officialdom which makes Wei long to vanish. The man looks his way and smiles. ‘You’re here for the walk?’
‘Yes.’ The word escapes before he can catch it.
Wei hesitates though his response is already determined by the information he used on the website form. He remembers chancing upon the printed leaflet, how it was pinned up in the kitchens, corners curling with grease and steam, and he happened to stop and look. ‘Wang Yong.’ For the next few hours this is who he will be; it isn’t as if Li Wei are his birth-names anyway.
‘Nice to meet you Wang,’ the man says. ‘I hope you enjoy the walk.’
Time passes. No one moves. His discomfort grows. He feels the disconnect, actually being in this place after a gap of ten years, looking out over the sands which he returns to night after night in his dreams. Sometimes it is the rushing waves, sweeping his feet from under him, which waken him in sweat-drenched panic. Sometimes he is lost in the blackness, or his legs are struck, or he is sitting in the 4×4 with the engine cutting out. Other times those featureless men spring up from the inky depths. Sometimes it is the man, Zhang Qiang, whose cruel smile appears from nowhere.
Wei clenches his hands, keeping his grip on the present.
‘OK everybody.’ The guide’s voice cuts through Wei’s shifting thoughts. ‘Can you gather in close while I run through some important safety notices.’
Stick with the group. Don’t wander off, hang back, or stride ahead. Don’t bunch up: spread out and spread the weight. If you encounter sinking sand, shout and wave to get attention, but don’t struggle.
Wei swallows down the rising bile.
The man points out the young volunteers, dressed in yellow fluorescent jackets and smiling wide, then he takes the lead and the crowd follow him, as if he is the head of a New Year Chinese Dragon. They head away from the mouth of the estuary, sticking to the pavement and then a tarmac path. Their destination lies across the bay, but first they need to skirt round the outflow of the river. Wei keeps to himself, neck hunched like a heron into his rolled inwards shoulders, eyes alert. Invisibility is an art and he has had many years of practice. They reach a headland and the path peters out into a rocky shoreline. Further on, the guide stops and everyone waits to allow the drawn out string of walkers to bunch up again. Impatience bites. Get on with it. Get it done with.
The guide is speaking again, his words windblown, but the meaning is clear enough. From here they will abandon the shore. They will head out due west across the sands, towards the sun which is already dipping past its peak. Wei tracks the line of the man’s hand as it sweeps round the bay, naming the towns. Morecambe. Wei thinks of the tired seaside town with its smell of chips and doughnuts, its paint-peeling attractions, its out-of-season B&Bs where ten or more could sleep to a room and no questions asked. He follows the hand as it points to their destination. Grange-over-Sands. Kents Bank. Small places whose lights he saw twinkling in the distance on so many nights. The man indicates the laurel branches, laid out to mark the way. Everyone should remain within the double lines, remaining safe on these treacherous sands with their swift tides, false banks and sinking mud.
This guide is appointed by the English Queen. He has decades of experience and has trained up his volunteers to defy the dangers. The walk is for those who belong here, people whose lives are important.
‘I’d advise removing shoes and socks now,’ the man says.
Reluctance tugs. He should turn around, head back, catch an earlier train. Yet he finds he is copying the others in taking off his canvas shoes, tying the shoelaces together and slinging them around his neck.
The buzz of excitement grows as the group start picking their way between the stones and onto the beach. Wei breathes in the stink of seaweed mingled with salt. He thinks of all those other times as he propels himself forward, stepping from the solid world onto the sand, whose giving wetness triggers the reflex of sensory memory.
The sand is firm beneath his heels and broad toes. The water sits thinly on the surface. This is only sand. Only seawater. Only a walk across the bay which is familiar and not. That night, they had driven out in the 4×4, just as they had done before, except this time they had no guide, no gang-master, only instincts and inexperience. What choice did they have? He slings his rucksack properly across both shoulders as his spine remembers the crouching ache, the stoop and pick, the pull on the rake, the resistance and give of the cockle bed; his fingers recall the chilblain itch, the sharp edges of the shells of gold; his ears remember the whistle of wind and the rattle of the wire basket as he shook away the undersized spats. Muscles recall the weight of the sacks, eyes the darkness of the sky and the scattering of pin-prick lights on the horizon. This wouldn’t be forever. Get through tonight and another night and another, and at some point the endless nights would come to an end. They told themselves this so that they could carry on.
What were his thoughts that particular night? What banalities did he exchange? These details have been erased like footprints.
The group has spread out within the boundaries of the laurel branches. The sand gets steadily wetter, softer, stickier, his toes sink further. Ten years have passed. A tin anniversary of lives swallowed.
A small stone lodges itself between two of his toes and Wei bends to remove it. A shadow creeps up on him. When he stands, he sees a woman has drawn up alongside him. She smiles at him, the kind of stretched-wide smile which says that she notices how he is different but nonetheless he is welcome.
‘Lovely isn’t it?’ she asks, her voice artificially slow and raised, her hand wafting vaguely.
He nods and braces himself for further questions.
‘Such a fabulous opportunity.’ She chooses to believe he is here for the same reasons as her, for the novelty, the anecdote to retell, to raise money for charity. ‘Where are you from?’
‘London,’ he says and that part is true, but it does not sufficiently answer her question. ‘My family are from Taiwan.’ That part is not true. He was given a whole history to memorise, minute facts he has mostly never used.
‘Interesting. D’you still visit?’
‘Not since I was little.’ He holds out a hand to demonstrate a height.
‘Is it beautiful there?’
‘It is very modern. Industrial.’ True of his hometown also.
She pulls a face in sympathy, as if people need beauty more than they need work. ‘Are you staying in the area long?’
‘I go back tonight.’ The journey will break in Lancaster and he will have five hours on the platform, the gap between the last of the small trains south and the first of the Intercities. ‘You?’ Over the years, he has learned that when someone asks a question, mostly it is because they are interested in their own reply.
She launches into a complicated account of her ten day holiday, the different places she will stay, the things she hopes to do and see. ‘Do you know the Lake District?’ she asks, gesturing towards the blue profile of mountains in the distance.
‘I do not know.’
‘Small scale compared to where you come from, I expect. Taiwan is very mountainous, isn’t it?’
‘Yes. It is a very mountainous island.’ The phrase is from the material he was given.
‘What do you do in London?’
‘I work in Chinese restaurant.’
‘Really?’ Surely, she cannot find his answer as interesting as her exaggerated expression suggests. ‘In SoHo?’
‘And you enjoy it?’
‘Yes.’ He provides the answer she expects. He thinks of the clinging smell of fat and spice from the kitchen, the pain in his back and feet at the end of his shift, the bleating demands of customers, the shouted instructions between the chefs, the sizzling and clashing metal, the companionability of sitting drinking lukewarm beer after the customers have gone, the blankness of his bedsit, the flash of neon lights through threadbare curtains, and the lonely hours between shifts.
It is a better life than before.
‘How did you find out about…?’ she begins. He hears someone call a name and her head turns towards a group of other women, who look exactly the same as she does. ‘Just a minute…’ she calls in their direction. ‘I’m sorry…’ she says in his.
‘A leaflet,’ he says. ‘It is perfectly OK.’ He smiles and slows his pace, allowing her to break free, to return to her friends, and he feels the release of being on his own, of not having to face question after question. He remembers back. He tries not to. The questions which were repeated and repeated.
They had kept coming to his hospital bed where he lay awake night after night, events on jumbled playback in his mind. He had not wanted to say anything, longing to sink deep into his own silence. Later they took him to a safe house and advised him not to go out, and each day they turned up with food and questions and a translator, everyone noticing him, all so deeply concerned, now that his companions were dead.
I should have died too. The thought was ever present. It is wrong that I lived. His survival felt more curse than luck.
The police in their ordinary clothes – everything about them so calm and reasonable – had pointed out that he was here illegally. That he would be a target of the snakeheads simply by virtue of being alive. Easier to presume that he would talk, than to verify if he had not.
We can offer you a new life. He was numb and dead. Offer protection.
On and on, the mosquito drone of voices. What happened? Give us names. Tell us places. We can help you.
Deported home, or let loose here, how long would he have survived before being tracked down? I should have died. Yet still he felt the thirst to live. He gave them what they wanted. In exchange he has been gifted a ghost of a life, with death lurking round every corner – whether behind bars, or freed, Zhang Qiang is not someone likely to forget – but it is better than no life at all. He thinks so.
The surface film of water deepens, lapping over his ankles, splashing his knees. The wind cuts colder. People roll trouser legs up further and wade thigh-deep through gullies. They hug arms around their chests and pull faces and laugh as rogue waves roll in higher than they expect. The clouds have thinned allowing bursts of sunrays which shimmer across the sands.
That night, lights had sparkled across the bay, but he kept his head down, intent on his task, with time going by and no way to measure its passing, other than the weight of his sacks.
The first cry of warning sounded like a seabird, a sound beyond words. He heard the engine starting up, and then the headlights illuminated the black surface of the sea, the waves sweeping in on both sides, leaving a narrow strip of ever diminishing land. He hauled the sack over his shoulders, bending under the load.
Several of them arrived back at the vehicle, dragging their pickings with them, still thinking their night’s work mattered, calling out to the others, not yet realising that they were already out of time. The car was surrounded, the sea lapping higher up the tyres with every ticking second. They couldn’t tell, not easily, which was the quickest, easiest way to shore, the town-lights flickering in all directions round the bay. He read the panic on others’ faces, heard it in their voices, felt it rising within. We go. Now! Now! Now! Only half of them were returned. They could pick up the others en-route. The 4×4 lurched into motion. It plunged forward into the sea. Wan Shui was driving, little more than a teenager and looking younger still. The wheels sank. He tried to reverse. The water continued its relentless flow. The engine spluttered, then died. The headlamps went out. They clung to one another as they abandoned the vehicle. He took three steps, feeling the shock of ice half way up his thighs. Hands slipped through hands. He picked a light at random, started wading through the inky blackness towards it. His feet slipped from under him. His body was buffeted by the rushing waves. He gulped seawater. He was going to die. His feet reached the sand. The waves were up to his waist. He was numb with cold. Noise filled his ears. His mouth and nose and eyes and lungs stung with brine. His arms and legs were too exhausted to continue struggling forward. Let it be, let it be.
The noise – chak-a-chak-chak – drew in closer. A circle of light lit up the sea. Something luminous and yellow bounced down in front of him. Pure chance that he had been spotted.
Ahead of him are two volunteers in fluorescent yellow. He thinks about pure chance. That he came upon the leaflet which someone had pinned up on the staff notice board, this walk to raise money for disabled Chinese children.
Chance. That the walk happens to be scheduled for this, the fifteenth day of the seventh month, the month when ghosts are free to roam the earth, those departed without the proper rituals, those unable to find peace. The fifteenth, the day for offerings. And, as it happens, coinciding with a day off.
Chance. That a week ago he dreamt once more of the sands and in the morning when he burned incense at his small shrine, his bowl of ashes reached the point of overflowing. Later that day, a letter arrived from the police. We thought we should inform you… Zhang Qiang has been released and deported home to China, ten years deemed sufficient to atone for twenty deaths.
Coincidences are signals from the universe which can guide us towards our destiny. He remembers his grandmother and her many sayings, the superstitions he no longer really believes and yet which return and haunt him.
The group has been walking for several hours and the afternoon is slipping into evening. Their destination lies ahead, the long finger of land which someone points at and names as Humphries Head; to the near side is the cluster of houses amongst which lies the railway station from where a train will deliver him back to his ghost-life.
His legs ache. The insteps of his feet ache. He can feel the ingrained phantom ache in his shoulder, spine, arms.
Voices ring out over the sands, the sound of happy accomplishment, the task nearly complete, good food and a comfortable bed lying ahead. If he is to act, he must take his chance. Now! Now! He slows down, holds back.
The volunteers assigned to the group laggards have lost interest with the end so clearly in sight; a young woman in a yellow jacket is deep in conversation with a young man.
He waits until he reaches one of the channels through which water rushes out to meet the inflow of the sea. He pauses to let others pass in front, making as if to roll his shorts up higher. Then he crouches down with his back to the throng of people and to the land. He opens himself to the elements, the sand wet beneath his feet, the breeze in his hair, the salt in his nostrils; he allows memories to flood in. The cold. The dark. The glittering lights. The greed of the sea.
He unzips his rucksack and takes out a paper bag, reaching in for a handful of rice, unfurling his body to stand tall and hurl the grains into the wind, scattering them in all directions, distributing food to the hungry ghosts. He feels it as a fool’s errand, but still, what is there to lose?
Next he takes out the ashes of his incense. Some of the bodies were never found, never burned, the ashes never scattered. He throws the cinders out after the grains of rice. He opens himself to the sorrow for what was, so many lives taken.
He crouches down low again. The lanterns he bought are hardly traditional, but they will suffice. Each plastic lotus flower comes in a garish colour. He picks one out along with the matches. He strikes, sees the spark, but it doesn’t settle into a flame. He tries again and the match breaks. Again and again until finally he cups the flicker in his hands and he lights the candle nestled in the middle of glossy orange petals and he sets the flower gently into the stream of water. He holds his breath; it looks certain to capsize, or to ground itself on the bank, or the flame will be blown out. But then the flower steadies itself, it catches the drift of the current and he watches as it begins to move away towards the sea which is steadily coming in to meet it. He counts.
Several attempts and he lights another lamp and sets it free.
He gets into a rhythm, managing the matches better, and with each flower he tries to conjure the particular person. He tries to remember as much as he possibly can – names, faces, their stories of home and of their journey here – before all is forgotten.
The last is for himself, the name he no longer claims.
He has reached the end. The lit lanterns will guide lost souls to the afterlife. He needs to believe this, needs to lay things to rest within himself: the guilt of the survivor; the fear of living which sometimes burns stronger than the fear of being dead. The lamps form a pretty glowing trail. If he waits, he might see them extinguished, signifying that the ghosts have found their way. Just as he must find his.
He stands, legs stiff and sore. He turns. He feels the hunger of life in the whip of salt air on his face, the curl of toes into gritty sand and the soreness of overused muscles. He follows the last straggles of people in towards the shore, a lone figure out on the sands, exposed to what may come.
His rucksack is lighter; otherwise nothing has changed. But he senses the shift, the small beginnings of something, a gaining of substance, gravity holding his feet solidly to earth. Death is not the end; it is part of life. His time of bardo must finish as he properly inhabits this new form.