An extract from ‘Under the Dragon’

The girls swarmed up the scaffolding, stacks of bricks and palettes of mortar balanced on their heads, bodies swaying under the weight, building the five-star hotel. They dropped their burdens on the upper floor, where tourists would one day dine in the skyline restaurant, stretched their stooped spines then climbed back down to collect the next load. If they could afford them the older girls, who were aged up to eighteen years, wore working gloves. The younger ones covered themselves in thanakha and copper-skinned tracks of perspiration lined their slender arms. Ni Ni didn’t bother with either precaution. She let the cement dust dry her hands, her fingers become calloused and her skin grow dark from the sun.

Law San’s second cousin had been kind to her, giving her work, favouring her above the other applicants. He appeared to be patient too. The first time she had held a brick she had dropped it, sensing the scorching heat that had baked it. Law San had warned him of her physical tenderness so he waited, without shouts or complaint, as she steeled herself and picked up the coarse, clay blocks one by one. She eased eight of them onto her improvised turban, balanced the load with her throbbing hands then mounted the bamboo steps. Ni Ni taught herself to bear the splinters and sprains, to endure the chafe of masonry, and soon the rough labour began to scour the sensitivity off her fingertips.

One hot morning when Ni Ni was emptying baskets of concrete into wooden frames, casting the pillars which would contain the hotel’s executive business suite, she felt his eyes upon her. The attention unnerved her but she was anxious to please him so hurried her work. She tripped over a loose metal rod and dropped her basket. Its wet load slopped across the scaffolding, fell two storeys and almost hit the site supervisor, a starch-white English architect who managed the project for its overseas financers. In an instant all movement stopped. The ant column of children froze on the ladders. Carpenters held their hammers in mid-stroke. Shovels hovered above sand piles. It was as if the workers were machines that had been disconnected from the electricity supply. Law San’s cousin waited until Ni Ni found the courage to lift her eyes.

‘Come and see me at the end of the day,’ he said. It surprised her to detect a hint of satisfaction in his voice.

The afternoon dragged, weighing down on her like a double burden of gravel, and everyone avoided Ni Ni. She kept herself busy, pouring twice her daily quota into the frames, trying to regain Law San’s cousin’s approval. He did not speak to her, nor even glance her way, and it was only long after the other girls had left to go home that he called her into the office. She waited, standing, while he completed the daily report.

This is an awkward situation,’ he pronounced, laying his leaky biro onto the blotter. ‘I gave my word to my cousin that I would help you…’ He sucked on a cup of stewed China tea. ‘…but this morning’s unfortunate incident has created difficulties for me.’

‘I am grateful to you for your kindness,’ insisted Ni Ni, her breath shallow and sharp. ‘I am truly sorry for my error today.’

‘The supervisor was furious,’ continued the cousin, ignoring her distress, ‘more angry even than he was the day the swimming pool cracked and would no longer contain water.’ He plucked a single green tea leaf from between his teeth. ‘I tried my best to pacify him.’

‘I apologise for the trouble that I have caused you. If you wish it then I shall leave.’

Law San’s cousin rose to his feet and slipped around the desk. He considered Ni Ni’s poor, dusty clothes. ‘Your figure would be flattered by a finer longyi, Ni Ni.’ She found his manner immodest and lowered her eyes. ‘One made of silk, perhaps?’ He stepped closer, running his eyes over her. She turned her head away and for a moment he did not speak. ‘Your hands,’ he then asked in a tone at once both casual and calculated, ‘are they really so sensitive?’

‘Not now,’ lied Ni Ni, with hardly a breath. ‘The work has hardened them.’

Law San’s cousin twisted around to reach for the tin tray on the desk. A second tea cup, chipped but unused, rested on it. ‘Let’s see then,’ he proposed, holding the tray between them, ‘who last drank from this cup? A man or a woman?’ When she did not respond he ordered, ‘Take it.’

Ni Ni took the cup and rested it in her palm. She ran an index finger around its rim and stroked its side with her thumb. ‘A man,’ she answered.

‘Correct,’ laughed the cousin. ‘A man who drinks from two cups. This man.’ And he stretched to take her hand.