I went to the table and laid a large gift next to her handbag, disposing of the question of money beforehand so that it would not ruin whatever moment we might share after the event.
In the humidity, the standard hotel flowers placed against the panes looked like things made out of a delicate rare stone. The corrugated leaves of geraniums as strange as small cabbages, the petals lying along the sills, and at around three the storm reached a crescendo. I let her sleep for a while.
On the night table her vanity bag sat with its clips opened, a hairbrush handle and some scented antiseptic hand wipes protruding. She snored lightly. Who was she? Dao-Ming Tang. An invented name, a circus name.
I wanted to leave, but there was no point running. And I could breathe in young skin, which is a nectar that becomes forbidden around the age of fifty-five. Gandhi sleeping between two young girls.
When she woke, she opened her eyes and they looked straight up at the lamp. She talked.
She said, "I thought you were very distinguished when I saw you sitting there with your yellow gloves. I've never seen anyone wear yellow gloves in a casino."
"They're my good-luck gloves."
"They're splendid. Only millionaires play in gloves."
"Is that right?"
We spoke in Cantonese, a slippery language for the white man, and she added, "They have those pearl buttons." "Got them made in Bangkok."
"Not really. Classy would have been Vienna."
"Vienna?" she murmured.
Because it was just a word, and Vienna doesn't exist in the Chinese mind.
"I thought," she said, "you were a real gentleman. Like in the films."
She used the English word, gentleman.
"Yes, a gentleman."
A gentleman, then.
"Maybe," she said very quietly, "you'll look after me." "Is that what gentlemen do?"
She turned and laid her head against my shoulder.
"You're being modest. I know you are a lord."
There was nothing to say to this, and I let it go.
The prostitute and her client: the conversation of millennia.
Where are you from? What do you do? The pleasure of lying. The woman, who is from a village in Sichuan called Sando, unknown to the masses. The lord, who is from a village in England where his father runs foxes and where the houses have pointed roofs, just as the films suggest. The lord and the whore.
"My village," she said, "has a temple with three stupas. I send money back every month to the monks so they can put gold on their deer. The temple has golden deer on its roof."
"You send money every month?"
She was quiet. I drank from the opened half bottle of wine, sitting on the edge of the bed while she watched me. I was glad that the darkness hid from her the quiet ruin of my body, and that because of the rain we did not have to talk much.
"You must have a lot of money," she said later on. "To stay in a place like this. All the other men run out of money."
"I win and I lose, like everyone else."
"Lord Doyle," she laughed.
"It sounds silly, doesn't it?"
"No," she said. "It just sounds funny. Not silly. I'm sure you win more than you lose."
"I practice every day."
"I saw how you play."
"How is that?"
"Like a gentleman. Like you don't care. Like tossing something to the wind."
"Yes. Careless like a lord."
She smiled behind her hand.
"It's not what you think," I protested. "I'm not what you think."
"I know," she countered. "I'm not as silly as you think I am."
Who could say where her curiosity about me came from? It was an instant mystery whipped up out of nowhere. You might even call it an instant liking, a sympathy that had blown up in a matter of seconds like the affinity that blossoms between children in the space of a single minute.
Excerpted from The Ballad of a Small Player by Lawrence Osborne. Copyright © 2014 by Lawrence Osborne. Excerpted by permission of Hogarth Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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