By Peter J. Phillips
When the Hong Kong Amateur Thespian Society (HATS, dropping the K) announced it was staging Macbeth over Easter, no one was more excited than Ms. Ellie Gould. Having long dreamed of playing Lady Macbeth, she began using her English classes at Fragrant Harbour International School to prepare for her audition. The English as a Second Language students were baffled when she cupped her breasts and yelled about the milk of human kindness. Likewise when from close range she implored Kenny Wong to screw his courage to the sticking place. They were positively terrified, however, the day she hurled a hapless doll – the baby with boneless gums – with such force its head came off on hitting the wall.
Wary of the play’s famous curse, Ms. Gould insisted on her students calling it only “the Scottish play”. Anyone who disobeyed the edict – Kenny Wong, for example – was made to run outside the classroom, spin around three times, and spit on the tiles. When they knocked on the door to ask for re-entry, there was often an unimpressed cleaner mopping up their mucous behind them.
At home, Ellie was even more disciplined in her preparations. With the exception of her morning’s raisin toast, she eliminated carbs from her diet, and restricted her alcohol consumption to Thursday night drinks with the girls. She borrowed every available film version of Macbeth from the school library, making detailed notes on the actresses’ various interpretations. She decided that at thirty-four, she was beyond the youthful sensuality of Francesca Annis in Roman Polanski’s 1971 film – especially the nudity of the sleepwalking scene. The more mature Judi Dench, however, was well within her range. She held onto Trevor Nunn’s 1978 classic, in which the Dame co-stars with Ian McKellen, through half a dozen overdue notices.
Increasingly, Ellie heard the spirits that tend on mortal thoughts speak to her. She saw her name finally up in lights, or at least on the Coming Attractions chalkboard at the Fringe. Then, three days before casting, after a sweaty session of yoga, Ellie came home to an email that plunged her world into thickest night. Mark Pinkerton, director of HATS’ Macbeth, was returning to New Zealand to tend to his brother, who had suffered a retinal hemorrhage during a routine bungee jump. Clive Fairweather, stalwart of the amateur drama scene in Hong Kong, would be his immediate replacement.
Clive Fairweather – just reading the name unfixed Ellie’s auburn hair and made her oft-broken heart knock at her ribs. He was many things, this Clive. A Mancunian who’d cultivated an Oxbridge accent, despite only making it as far south as Warwick for university. A walking wardrobe of paisley shirts and scarves – which he wore year-round, even through Hong Kong’s summers.Someone who referred, over ristretto shots, to Beckett as “Samuel”. Clive was all these things, and Ellie’s ex.
Their candle had been lit at a cast party for a Fairweather-directed production of Streetcar – Ellie had played Eunice – and extinguished not six months later, when Ellie caught Clive pants-down in a stairwell with Blanche du Bois, aka Doris Wang. The memories were painful; she had believed they’d be together till dusty death would them part. Equally painful, though, was Ellie’s realisation that her dreams of playing Lady Macbeth were now over. Clive Fairweather, like Malcolm to Macbeth, was the step on which she would fall down.
“You can’t let him win,” said Amanda, after Ellie was cast as Witch 1, the accountant Nancy Poon as the tyrant’s Lady. It was only Wednesday, but the Thursday night drinks girls had convened a special session to discuss the situation. They were sipping appletinis at Hormone, a new bar in Hong Kong’s SoHo.
“Hell no you can’t!” said Tash. Despite being Hampshire-born and bred, Tash spoke like a child of the ghetto when riled. Sometimes she threw in a “sista” or “mm-hmm” for extra effect.
“It was humiliating,” said Ellie. “He came up to me, Doris Wang on his arm.”
“I can’t believe he’s still with the little tart,” said Amanda. “Don’t tell me she got a role – after the Streetcar fiasco.” On opening night, Doris had muffed the play’s signature line, declaring that she’d always depended on the kindness of doctors, not strangers. Most of HATS assumed she’d disappear after that, and for a while, she did. But from the moment she stole Clive off Ellie, she was landing roles again, albeit backstage ones.
“No,” said Ellie, “she’s doing make-up, though.” Tash placed a finger in her mouth, as if to vomit. “Anyway,” said Ellie, “get this. He says, ‘I know you’re disappointed, but I wanted the Macbeths to be young, sexy.’ ‘Young?’ I said. ‘You realise Nancy Poon’s older than me?’”
“Not to mention the lisp,” said Tash.
“‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but she doesn’t look it, does she?’”
“He said that?” said Amanda.
“He did, and Doris Wang was grinning the whole time.”
“Unbelievable,” said Tash. “Can I ask, has he ever cast a non-Asian in a lead?”
“Once,” said Ellie, “in thirteen productions.” The once was the 2004 musical Clive wrote and directed about the SARS virus, called ‘We Will Exhale’. The non-Asian was his sister, Lucy, who was visiting from Manchester at the time. She played the heroine – a bisexual doctor who saves Hong Kong, in between snogging someone like Doris Wang or Nancy Poon, Ellie couldn’t remember exactly.
“What are you going to do?” said Amanda.
“What can I do?” said Ellie, rolling a cashew between her thumb and forefinger. “Stab him in his swinish sleep?”
“His what?” said Amanda.
“It’s a quote,” said Ellie, Amanda’s face blank. “When Lady Macbeth’s convincing Macbeth to kill Duncan.” Blank still. “My point is, either I quit the play – which you’re right, is letting him win – or I do my best to ignore him and see it through.”
“Whilst devoting yourself wholly to Clive Fairweather’s utter destruction,” said Tash.
“I don’t think so,” said Ellie.
“I’m serious,” said Tash, electrified. “Think of all the hard work you’ve done. All that yoga.For what? So you could learn the downward dog? Clive Fairweather has to pay.”
“Tash, do you remember the last time I tried my hand at revenge?”
“That wasn’t revenge. That was letting off steam.”
The night after she’d caught Clive with Doris Wang, Ellie had gone out with Tash and Amanda and drunk until dawn. They decided to call Doris around five, Ellie screaming racist epithets down the phone and questioning her repeatedly as to whether she was there and then sucking Clive’s cock. She broke down during the final stages of the call, accusing Doris of tearing asunder the greatest romance since Bogie and Bacall, before realising she was talking to the engaged tone. The next day, Ellie was summoned to appear before the HATS executive, where she agreed to write a letter of apology to Doris and Clive in order to not lose her membership. She didn’t want to risk similar humiliation, but Tash was determined.
“Ellie,” said Tash, “tell me what you feel when you think about Clive.”
“I want to kill him.”
“But then I want to shag him. God I want to shag him.” Ellie’s bottom lip was trembling. “I know it’s wrong, but we were good together.”
“Were good together,” said Tash, empathically. “Were. But now, now you’re a mess because Clive Fairweather’s a two-timing bastard. Do you think he’s thinking about how good you were when he’s tupping Doris Wang from behind?”
“Tupping?” said Amanda.
“Means shagging,” said Ellie. “From Othello.”
“I’m sick to death of it,” said Tash, drumming the table so hard that the appletinis nearly spilled. “The city’s full of them. Losers back home who come here and start acting like goddamn rock stars.” This was one of Tash’s favourite rants, how Hong Kong was full of western men with Asian fever. She unleashed it after every break-up, including her most recent one – from a Qantas pilot called Wayne. “They think they can spit us out whenever they like – they’re not going to spit us out. Not on my watch, sista.”
“Tash, enough,” said Amanda, conscious of nearby tables glaring at them. “Are you okay?” she asked Ellie.
“I need to…” Ellie said, before finishing her sentence by pointing to the bathroom.
On the cubicle door was an ad for cherry-flavoured vodka. Ripe for the picking, the caption said. Typical, Ellie thought, another reminder of Clive. He’d impressed her early in their relationship with his passion for Russia. Told her about reading Tolstoy on the Trans-Siberian, stalking the ghost of Raskolnikov along the canals of Saint Petersburg.Or just, “Petersburg,” as he called it. They’d made promises to see Red Square together – at Christmas time, Clive had insisted, “the real Russia.”
The scenes kept playing, so Ellie closed her eyes, hoping this might erase them. She let her hands bear the weight of her appletini-laden head and counted back twelve British monarchs to Anne. Composure returning, she looked at the vodka ad once more, only to find that somewhere between George IV and George III, the model had morphed into Doris Wang, except with bigger, riper breasts. Doris Wang. Mere remembrance of her name filled Ellie from crown to toe topful of direst cruelty. Tash was right: Clive Fairweather should pay. But Ellie wondered whether she had the spur to prick the sides of her intent.
“We were thinking,” said Tash, upon Ellie’s return. “What if you got into his flat?”
“And did what?” said Ellie. “Put Ratsak pellets in his cereal?”
“I hadn’t thought of that, but I like it.”
“Someone once put food dye in the showerheads at uni,” said Amanda. “April Fool’s prank. I was bluish for a week.”
“What is this? A frat movie?” said Ellie. “Tash, I agree with you. Clive’s a total wanker and I’d love nothing more than to see him suffer. But I’m not about to commit break-and-enter in the name of some juvenile prank.”
“You could go onto his computer,” said Amanda.
“I don’t know, update his Facebook status to say he loves sodomizing small animals.”
“This is ridiculous. I’m not breaking into Clive’s flat. End of story. Shall we order one more drink?”
Or why not two? They drained them quickly, and as Tash and Amanda did the sums of splitting the bill, Ellie stepped outside for a cigarette. She’d quit two years ago, but allowed herself slip-ups on nights like this. The mid-winter night was chill, a low mist dimming the brightness of the street lamps. No, Ellie told herself, you won’t be breaking into Clive’s flat.But what if you used a key?
She had achieved spare key status a mere month into her relationship with Clive, a point she’d made vigorously to Doris Wang that night on the phone. He’d asked for it back after the break-up, but Ellie told him she’d thrown it out. Surely he hadn’t changed the locks. For a start, with a new play and girlfriend to direct, where would he find the time?
“That last appletini,” said Ellie, as a cab whisked the girls to lower terrain. “Big mistake.”
She gazed out the window, block after auspiciously named block of flats whizzing by. Inevitably, her thoughts returned to one name – Double Happiness Mansion, Clive’s place. She wouldn’t be going there to cause trouble, she decided. Just to inhabit the space one more time. To see if being there might give her closure, allow her to say goodbye to the story that once was.
“Oh darling,” said Tash, as the cab pulled up outside Ellie’s building, “do keep us updated.”
“Yes,” said Amanda. “Hang in there.”
Thursday night drinks were abandoned due to Wednesday’s caucus, giving Ellie time at home to strategize with take-out and plonk. Midway through the second bottle, she determined the deed should be done tomorrow, when Clive would be at work. ’Twere well it were done quickly, she said to her bowl of noodles.
The next morning, she called in sick to school. Unlike England, there was no such thing as a mental health day for teachers in Hong Kong, but there was ubiquitous dodgy street food, meaning you could play the diarrhea card at least twice a term. At ten a.m., she called Clive’s landline to ensure he wasn’t home, then before she might let “I dare not” wait upon “I would” – like the poor cat i’ th’ adage – she downed three shots of vodka and headed out.
The access code for Double Happiness Mansion was unchanged, and as Ellie waited for the lift, she was relieved that the doorman didn’t seem to recognize her. That said, he hadn’t seemed to recognize her the entire time she was with Clive. Or maybe it was the Yankees cap and Jackie O sunglasses, the ones Ellie wore every time she had diarrhea, that safeguarded her anonymity.
Ellie rang the doorbell to Flat 12S, and after waiting a good two minutes, slid the key into the lock – slowly, carefully – like a game-show contestant with a one-in-four shot at a million. It turned, and as she opened the door to her past, she called out hullo in a plummy, nervy voice. Nobody answered; she was in.
Walking around the flat, its walls adorned with framed playbills, Ellie reflected on how absurd Tash and Amanda’s suggestions for pranks had been. Food dye in the showerhead?Crazy.Tash’s latest brainwave,tabled via email yesterday, was to plant condoms filled with mayonnaise behind cushions so that Doris Wang might discover them and think Clive was cheating. GET A LIFE!!!, Ellie had replied, with that many exclamation marks. She was determined to make the girls think she would never consider the kind of mission she was presently undertaking.
She did all the Goldilocks-type things first: looked in Clive’s medicine cabinet, to confirm he still had toenail fungus; looked in his freezer, to see what brand of vodka he was enjoying. The whole time, she was careful not to leave any traces of her visit. When she sat on the couch, for instance, she perched on the very edge, letting her feet take most of her weight.
It was on this couch they had first made love. The music of Shostakovich had been their soundtrack, and now she wanted to play the opus one more time. Problem was, she’d never known which of Clive’s seven remotes operated the CD player, and she wasn’t about to experiment today. So she hummed the music as best she remembered it – prelude or fugue, it didn’t really matter – and even though part of her was acutely aware how pathetic this was, another part of her felt home, whole.
Last, Ellie went to Clive’s bookshelves; literature had always been their bedrock. The shelves were filled with the usual staples: Kafka, Proust, the Russians. But amongst the tomes were dozens of chapbooks by obscure Asian poets – “game changers,” Clive had called them. It was his ownership of these books that made Clive proudest of all, and the zeal with which he spoke about them that convinced Ellie he was her soulmate. In England, she had lived four staid years with the librarian from East Hove Grammar School, Gareth Egan. He was a bore, but at the time, the most well-read man Ellie had known. All that changed when she met Clive Fairweather, who could quote poets from Bangalore to Baghdad.
Ellie took from a shelf ‘The Wetness of Rain’, by a Singaporean bard known only as Enjambment. Clive had read poems from this book to her the first night they’d made love. She read the penultimate stanza of the titular poem, still tagged with a post-it:
The man discovers himself naked
in a monsoon of driving nostalgia,
the memories soaking
setting him free.
She turned the page, where the final stanza would describe the naked, nostalgic man running through tropical rain. Ellie Gould, read a note written in pencil, June 29th, 2011. What could this mean? Did Clive record the names and dates of consummation of all his lovers alongside the poems he’d read them? Was there a book somewhere on these shelves with Doris Wang’s name in it too? Or was it possible, just possible, that he’d connected with Ellie specially? That he’d written her name, her name only, as proof – for tomorrow, and tomorrow, and tomorrow – of their bond?
Ellie grabbed a handful of chapbooks, then another, flicking through them frenetically for more names and dates of conquests. She found none, only asterisks, squiggles and underlines marking Clive’s favourite images. New possibilities revealed themselves, and Ellie began seeing a future with Clive once more. Maybe not one to the last syllable of recorded time – not yet, anyway. But one, at least, where she imagined making peace with the idea of forgiving him.
Rehearsals began the following Monday. The first night, Clive – as was his custom – spoke individually to everyone with a speaking part. To Ellie, he reiterated that he understood how disappointed she was to have missed out on Lady Macbeth, but said that he considered the witches even more important in Macbeth’s downfall. He pledged that he was committed to bringing out her best.
She’d heard it all before, and normally it sounded pretentious, rehearsed. But now – with the intelligence garnered from her covert operation – she wondered if yes, maybe she did matter to him. She wanted to ask him, before her hopes swelled too much, why he had written her name in that book and nobody else’s. But doing so would necessitate a confession, and already her excitement about her discovery was counterbalanced by significant pangs of guilt. So instead, Ellie decided to play the innocent flower, at least until the production was over. She vowed to keep secret the Promethean knowledge she’d stolen from a chapbook called ‘The Wetness of Rain’.
“This is the best HATS production I’ve worked on,” declared Clive, in a speech after week one of rehearsals. “The way we’re going, we might end up on tour. Shenzhen, Guangzhou…”
The morale of the cast was high, but Ellie detected a lack of conviction in Clive’s voice. A fortnight later, at a cast dinner in Lan Kwai Fong, he asked her to join him on the terrace for a cigarette. She could sense he was starting to panic.
“It’s Nancy Poon, isn’t it?” said Ellie.
“How hard is it,” Clive said, “to say the bloody letter ess?”
Earlier, he’d spent an entire session with Nancy working on the Lady’s famous “Was the hope drunk?” speech to Macbeth, a pivotal section of Act I where there are more than a dozen esses in her opening ten lines. He tried everything, including at one point holding her legs as she performed a handstand, to help her over the mountain. But still, she kept saying that Macbeth’s ambition was thleeping. And that wasn’t going to cut it on any stage.
“I could’ve told you weeks ago that Nancy wasn’t right,” said Ellie, trying not to sound triumphant.
“I know. As things stand, unless we make changes, we have a catastrophe brewing. The critics will murder us.” By “critics”, Clive meant “critic,” singular – Boyd Lonigan, lawyer and part-time reviewer for Hong Kong Happenings. “Ellie,” said Clive, “I want to ask you something.” Ellie sensed this was the moment she’d been waiting for, when finally Clive came round.
“It’s okay,” she said, “for the good of the show, I’ll do it.”
“You don’t mind?”
“Nobody plays Lady Macbeth like me.”
“Whoa, hold on. That’s not what I’m asking. Much as I’d like, I can’t sub Nancy out now. For a start, the fliers are already printed. No, I have an idea to give the show an edge.”
Now, when anyone in amateur theatre uses the word “edge”, they’re almost certainly referring to nudity. There’s no easier way to have your show branded “brave” and “courageous” than to flash some skin. So it was with Clive, who explained to Ellie that instead of three witches, he wanted Macbeth to visit three pole dancers.
“So the cave in Act IV, for example,” he said, “will actually be a strip club called The Cave. And the cauldron – get this – will be a hot tub. It’ll start with you three in it – double, double, toil, trouble. Bit of girl-on-girl. Then when Macbeth comes in, you’ll climb out and deliver your predictions from podiums. With poles.”
“Not nude, topless. And it’ll be dark, classy. Doris knows someone who can get us a smoke machine.”
“Trust me, Ellie. We need something edgy, something that will make people talk.”
“Something other than how woeful Nancy Poon is.”
Thumping dance tunes echoed around the precinct. Orange light from the building opposite framed Clive’s face, making him look part angel, part demon. He gazed at her with the same intensity he’d shown when he read ‘The Wetness of Rain’. The same intensity that made him write names and dates in books, Ellie thought. It mattered to him – this play, this life. And what mattered to her, was that she could matter to him.
“What music will we be dancing to?” she said.
On opening night, close to a hundred family members, friends and crackpots took their seats at the Fringe. Some of Ellie’s students attended too, lured by her promise of extra credit in English.
The first three acts were abysmal. Not only did Nancy Poon fluff most of her lines, she ate a KFC drumstick too quickly during the Act III banquet and proceeded to hiccup the news that her lord wasn’t well. The one piece of good news for Clive and the cast was that Boyd Lonigan had been delayed at the pub and would only be there for the second half.
At intermission, Clive called the witches together for a pep talk. “Remember,” he said, “you girls are the main event. You set the tone for the whole second half. Are you ready?”
They were. And when Macbeth – Mr. Something Wicked – their way came, Ellie was first out of the hot tub. She climbed onto her podium and started dancing, tiny icebergs of foam sliding down her torso as she swayed from side to side. Her eyes closed, she imagined Clive looking on from the wings, indebted to her evermore. Again, new possibilities bubbled. She might even come clean, one day, about her visit to his flat.
Then, she heard them. Titters at first, then chuckles. By the time she realised the smoke machine wasn’t working, nor the music, the small theatre was a Coliseum of laughter. Ellie looked either side of her for Witches 2 and 3, but they were safely below in the tub, having caught Clive’s frenzied semaphore just in time. Bear-like, Ellie was tied to a stake – or at least draped round a pole – with no option but to dance on.
So dance on she did, heroically, until finally Clive got the P.A. working. Soon as he did, though, the CD skipped to the final track – Rage Against the Machine’s ‘Bulls on Parade’, the song that was supposed to play during Macbeth’s final battle with Macduff. This might have been okay, except that thirty seconds into it, the volume spiked violently, causing everyone in the theatre to jump. Most of all Ellie, who on cue with the lyric “sure to make the bodies drop”, felt her right foot slip off the podium. Before she could grab her pole, she found herself lying in agony across the middle of the stage, one hand clutching a twisted ankle, the other trying desperately to cover her breasts, now illuminated by the house lights.
“You little shits,” yelled Tash, “stop taking photos!” Her plea was directed mainly at Kenny Wong and Ellie’s other students, who were snapping away at the foot of the stage. But Doris Wang was there too, capturing memories of her own. Tash ran to her friend with a shawl, meaning Ellie at least had some coverage as the first aid officer strapped her ankle. Fifteen minutes later, Ellie was passed fit and decent to travel to hospital.
The next day, Ellie hobbled into school on crutches, doped up on painkillers. By period four, she was running on empty. She told year nine they could quietly read their novels all period. Kenny Wong had forgotten his, but Ellie was in no state to reprimand him. She said he could read something on his phone, hoping this might earn her credit.
Twenty minutes into the lesson, Ellie received an email from Clive: YOU GAVE THEM SOMETHING TO TALK ABOUT, ALRIGHT. WE MADE THE POST! There was a link to a review by Boyd Lonigan, his maiden by-line in a broadsheet. Curse of the Scottish play strikes again!ran the headline. THINKING DORIS CAN TAKE OVER FROM YOU, said the last line of Clive’s email, before a P.S. – HOPE TO SEE YOU AT THE CAST PARTY.
So that was that: Ellie was defeated. She’d lost her man, now her role, to a silly, snap-thin girl who didn’t know the first thing about either. With no option but to fight the course, Ellie decided there was one final forum where she could shine. Feeling her woman’s milk quickly taking on characteristics of gall, Ellie rose from her desk and surveyed the students before her. She arched her back and breathed in theatrically.
“Right,” she said, undoing the top button of her blouse, “the sleepwalking scene. Who here has the stomach for this?”
This story was first published in, and is reprinted with kind permission of, Cha: An Asian Literary Journal