Typhoon - Excerpt

Opening chapter - On the Beach

Professor Wang Kaixuan emerged from the still waters of the South China Sea shortly before dawn on Thursday 10 April 1997. Exhausted by the long crossing, he lay for some time in the shallows, his ears tuned to the silence, his eyes scanning the beach. It was 5.52 a.m. By his calculations the sun would begin to rise over Dapeng Bay in less than fifteen minutes. From that point on he would run the greater risk of being spotted by a passing patrol. Keeping his body low against the slick black rocks, he began to crawl towards the sanctuary of trees and shrubs on the far side of the beach. 

He was wearing only a pair of shorts and a thin cotton T-shirt. All of his worldly possessions were otherwise contained in a small black rucksack attached to the makeshift raft which he dragged behind him on a length of twine attached to his leg. The plastic containers that had floated the raft clattered and bounced on the rocks as Wang inched inshore. The noise of this was too much; he should have prepared for it. Twenty metres short of the trees he stopped and turned. Sand had begun to stick to his damp, salt-stiffened fingers and he was aware that his breathing was hard and strained. In the half-light of eastern Shenzhen, two hours earlier, Wang had attached a cheap kitchen knife to his calf using a stretch of waterproof tape. It took all of his strength now to tear the knife free and to sever the twine so that the raft was no longer attached to his body. 

Kuai dian, he told himself. Hurry. Wang cut the rucksack free and tried to sling it across his shoulders. It felt as though he had been drugged or beaten and a grim sense memory of the prison in Urumqi crept up on him like the rising sun. The rucksack was so heavy and his arms so tired from the swim that he felt he would have to rest. 

Jia you. 

Keep going. 

He stumbled to his feet and tried to rush the last few metres to the trees, but the rucksack tipped on his back and Wang fell almost immediately, fearing an injury to his knee or ankle, something that would hamper him on the long walk south across the hills. Imagine that, after everything I have been through: a tendon sends me back to China. But he found that he could move without discomfort to the nearest of the trees, where he sank to the ground, sending a flock of startled birds clattering into the sky. 

It was six o'clock. Wang looked back across the narrow stretch of water and felt a tremor of elation which numbed, for an instant, his near-constant dread of capture. He reached out and felt for the bark of the tree, for the sand at his feet. This place is freedom, he told himself. This shore is England. Starling Inlet was less than two kilometres wide, but in the darkness the tide must have pulled him west towards Sha Tau Kok, or even east into the open waters of Dapeng. Why else had it taken him so long to swim across? The professor was fit for a man of his age and he had swum well; at times it was as if his desire to succeed had pulled him through the water like a rope. Wiping seawater from the neck of the rucksack he removed several seals of waterproof tape and withdrew a tightly bound plastic bag. A few minutes later he had discarded his T-shirt and shorts and dressed himself in damp blue jeans, a black cotton shirt and dark sweater. On his feet he wore grey socks and the counterfeit tennis shoes from the market in Guangzhou. 

Now I look like a typical Hong Kong Chinese. Now if they stop me I can say that I am out here watching for birds. 

Wang removed the binoculars from his rucksack and the small, poorly bound volume on egrets posted to him from Beijing three weeks earlier. The back of his throat was sour with the salt and pollutants of the sea and he drank greedily from a bottle of water, swallowing hard in an effort to remove them. Then he looped the binoculars around his neck, placed the water bottle back in the rucksack and waited for the sun. 

Lance Corporal Angus Anderson, 1st Battalion Black Watch, three months into the regiment's final tour of Hong Kong, walked along the path from Luk Keng. This was magic hour, before the heat and the mosquitoes, before cockerels and barked orders and discipline punctured his private dream of Asia. Breathing the cool salt air, he slowed to an easy stroll as the first rays of the dawn sun began to heat the surrounding hills. One of only six Black Watch soldiers assigned to patrol the border in support of the Hong Kong Police, Anderson had been dispatched by an immigration inspector to make a brisk check of Starling Inlet before returning to headquarters for breakfast. 'Sometimes they try to swim,' the inspector had told him. His name was Leung. There were purple scars on his hands. 'Sometimes they escape the sharks and the tide and make their way on foot to Tai Po.' 

Anderson took out a cigarette. The sea was calm and he listened to the rhythm of the water, to the cry of a cormorant on the wind. He felt a strange, anarchic impulse to strip out of his uniform and to run, like a streaker at Murrayfield, down into the lukewarm freedom of the ocean. Six hours earlier he had helped to untangle a corpse from the coils of razor wire that stretched all along the land border from Deep Bay to Sha Tau Kok. His commanding officer called it 'Chateau Cock', like a bottle of cheap claret, and everybody in the battalion was expected to laugh. The body was that of a Chinese peasant girl wearing shorts and flip-flops and he could not erase from his memory the picture of her pale neck twisted into the fence and the blood from her arms which had turned brown in the sulphur glare of the floodlights. Would this kind of thing end after 30 June? Would the eye-eyes stop coming over? Leung had told them that in 1996 alone the Field Patrol Detachment had arrested more than 5,000 illegal immigrants, most of them young men looking for work in the construction industry in Hong Kong. That was about fourteen coming across every night. And now the FPD was facing a last-minute, pre-handover surge of Chinese nationals willing to risk the phalanx of armed police massed on both sides of the border in the slender hope of vanishing into the communities of Yuen Long, Kowloon and Shatin. 

Anderson lit the cigarette. He couldn't see the sense in chogies risking their lives for two months in what was left of British Hong Kong. There wouldn't be an amnesty on eye-eyes; there wouldn't be passports for the masses. Thatcher had seen to that. Christ, there were veterans of the Hong Kong Regiment, men sitting in one-bedroom flats in Kowloon who had fought for Winston bloody Churchill, who still wouldn't get past immigration at Heathrow. Outsiders didn't seem to realize that the colony was all but dead already. Rumour had it that Governor Patten spent his days just sitting around in Government House, counting down the hours until he could go home. The garrison was down to its last 2,000 men: everything from Land Rovers to ambulances, from coils of barbed wire to bits of old gym equipment, had been auctioned off. The High Island Training Camp at Sai Kung had been cleared and handed over to the People's Liberation Army before Anderson had even arrived. In the words of his commanding officer, nothing potentially 'sensitive' or 'hazardous' could be left in the path of the incoming Chinese military or their communist masters, which meant Black Watch soldiers working sixteen-hour days mapping and documenting every fingerprint of British rule, 150 years of naval guns and hospitals and firing ranges, just so the chogies knew exactly what they were getting their hands on. Anderson had even heard stories about a submerged net running between Stonecutters Island and Causeway Bay to thwart Chinese submarines. How was the navy going to explain that one to Beijing? 

A noise down on the beach. He dropped the cigarette and reached for his binoculars. Then he heard it again. A click of rocks, something moving near the water's edge. Most likely an animal of some kind, a wild pig or civet cat, but there was always the chance of an illegal. To the naked eye Anderson could make out only the basic shapes of the beach: boulders, hollows, crests of sand. Peering through the binoculars was like switching off lights in a basement; he actually felt stupid for trying. Go for the torch, he told himself, and swept a steady beam of light as far along the coast as it would take him. He picked out weeds and shingle and the blue-black waters of the South China Sea, but no animals, no illegal. 

Anderson continued along the path. He had another forty-eight hours up here, then five jammy days in Central raising the Cenotaph Union Jack at seven every morning, and lowering it again at six. That, as far as he could tell, was all that he would be required to do. The rest of the time he could hit the bars of Wan Chai, maybe take a girl up to the Peak or go gambling out at Macau. 'Enjoy yourself,' his father had told him. 'You'll be a young man thousands of miles from home living through a little piece of history. The sunset of the British Empire. Don't just sit on your arse in Stonecutters and regret it that you never left the base.'

The light was improving all the time. Anderson heard a motorbike gunning in the distance and waved a mosquito out of his face. He was now about a mile from Luk Keng and able to pick out more clearly the contours of the path as it dropped towards the sea. Then, behind him, perhaps fifteen or twenty metres away, a noise that was human in weight and tendency, a sound that seemed to conceal itself the instant it was made. Somebody or something was out on the beach. Anderson swung round and lifted the binoculars, yet they were still no good to him. Touching his rifle, he heard a second noise, this time as if a person had toppled off balance. His pulse quickened as he scanned the shore and noticed almost immediately what appeared to be an empty petrol can lying on the beach. Beside it he thought he could make out a second container, perhaps a small plastic drum - had they been painted black? - next to a wooden pallet. So much debris washed up onshore that Anderson couldn't be certain that he was looking at the remains of a raft. The men had been trained to look for flippers, clothing, discarded inner tubes, but the items here looked suspicious. He would have to walk down to the beach to check them for himself and, by doing so, run the risk of startling an eye-eye who might care more for his own freedom than he did for the life of a British soldier. 

He was no more than twenty feet from the containers when a stocky, apparently agile man in his late forties poked his nose out of the trees and walked directly towards him, his hand outstretched like a bank manager. 

'Good morning, sir!' Anderson levelled the rifle but lowered it in almost the same movement as his brain registered that it was listening to fluent English. 'I am to understand from your uniform that you are a member of Her Majesty's Black Watch. The famous red hackle. Your bonnet. But no kilt, sir! I am disappointed. What do they say? The kilt is the best clothes in the world for sex and diarrhoea!' The chogie was shouting across the space between them and grinning like Jackie Chan. As he came crunching along the beach it looked very much to Anderson as though he wanted to shake hands. 'The Black Watch is a regiment with a great and proud history, no? I remember the heroic tactics of Colonel David Rose at the Hook in Korea. I am Professor Wang Kaixuan at the university here, Department of Economics. Welcome to our island. It is a genuine pleasure to meet you.' 

Wang had at last arrived. Anderson took an instinctive step back as the stranger came to a halt three feet away from him, planting his legs like a sumo wrestler. They did indeed shake hands. The chogie's closely cropped hair was either wet or greasy; it was hard to tell. 'Are you out here alone?' Wang asked, looking lazily at the colouring sky as if to imply that the question carried no threat. Anderson couldn't pick the broad face for northern Han or Cantonese, but the spoken English was impeccable. 

'I'm on patrol down here at the beach,' he said. 'And yourself?'