Mike McClelland

Olive Urchin

Detailing the arrival of Olive Urchin

At the tippity-top of Hong Kong island, above the treeline of wealth that prevents the common folk from setting down roots in its soil, there is one thing that all homes large and small contain: a maid; and one such maid will be the focus of this tale that I have long wanted to tell.
  Olive came to live with my family on my tenth birthday. I am embarrassed to admit that, in many ways, I thought of her as my birthday present. My parents had fired our previous maid Ginger just a week before. Ginger had been with us for nearly the entire time we had lived in Hong Kong, almost two years, and I missed her terribly. Following my mother around to all of her appointments, massages, and teas was exhausting.
  The day before my birthday, I overheard my mother on the phone. It was impossible not to overhear phone conversations in our apartment. Though we lived in the Mid-Levels, which was “almost the best part of Hong Kong,” according to my mother, our apartment on Conduit Road was about a fourth of the size of the house we’d had in Boston. I could tell my mother was talking about a maid because she and her friends didn’t use names when she talked about Ginger or other people’s maids. Only pronouns.
  “Okay, but is she Malaysian? I just can’t handle Malaysians. They can’t take directions. So disrespectful.” Ginger had been from Kuala Lumpur.
  “Oh. Vietnamese? You know, I just don’t know. My father served in Vietnam. You know what they did to Americans there, don’t you? Those people just don’t value life the same way we do.”
  “Oh, she’s that young? Her parents weren’t even in the war? How old is she?”
  “Yes, I’ve seen her picture. She’s light-skinned for a maid, which is good. Oh, that’s why you called her Olive? Because of her olive skin? I’m not sure I’d call it olive, but I see what you’re doing there. I was so sick of people staring at Ginger with my kids, like I’d let some street person kidnap them. And she’s not too pretty, which is good. Ha!”
  My mother’s laugh was more of a squawk than a laugh. It served as punctuation. She never laughed in the middle of a sentence, only to end it.
  “Okay, well, you owe us after how Ginger worked out.”
  “Five thousand a month? That’s five hundred US. Does everyone pay that much?”
  “Okay, fine. We’ll do forty-five hundred. That’s my limit. You know, we’re giving her a roof over her head, too. Free rent. You know?”
  “Okay, bring her by tomorrow. Dicky will be distracted by the party and Barney’s going to drop the girls off at the Corneys’ house for the day.”
  “Why are you telling me that? I know about Sundays off.”
  “Ginger said that? Ginger is a lying thief and that’s why she’s back in Malaysia. I always gave her Sundays off. You ask these people to do one little thing. You know how it is.”
  My mother hung up, and I heard her in the kitchen, fiddling with the dishwasher. A few turns and cranks and then the click-clack of heels across the tiled floor after she gave up.
  A new maid. I was so excited. A new friend. She would take me to school, watch me during the day, make my meals, and take me to my friends’ houses, if I had made any friends. I’d spent all of my time with Ginger. She and I would walk the dog together every evening. Actually, we’d walk the quarter mile up the road to the walking path that led to the top of Victoria Peak and sit on a bench. Ginger would send text messages and I’d play on my Nintendo DS while our Samoyed, Fledermaus, sniffed around the ferns.
  I woke up late the morning of my birthday. It was July and school was out for the summer. It was cold, our apartment at its usual sixty-eight degrees, despite the temperature outside approaching a hundred. In our time in Hong Kong, I had discovered it to be the coldest city I had ever visited. It’s natural temperatures soared high, but every home, shop, school, and taxi, and subway had its air conditioning set to frigid temperatures. Boston, in my memory, was like the center of some nostalgic sun.
  I wandered towards the kitchen, hoping to get to the living room unnoticed, where I could turn on my Playstation 2 and get my headphones on before my mother noticed. I rounded the corner into the kitchen and found my mother dramatically turning the knobs of the coffee maker, demonstrating for the girl standing next to her.
  “Dicky! Happy birthday, my love!” my mother squealed when she saw me, and click-clacked across the kitchen to wrap me in her arms. She smelled like her dress-up perfume, and the fabric of her glittery top scraped against my cheek as she hugged me.
  She gestured to the girl, who reminded me more of the older boys at my school than of a girl. She was tall for an Asian girl. She was wearing brand new sneakers, which made her a little taller, but not nearly as much as my mother’s heels made her. Her face was handsome, plain, and angled like a tortured video game hero’s. Her hair was cut short, curling around her ears, each of which had a greenish stone poking out of the lobe. She was wearing a short-sleeved, blue button-down shirt that fit her well across her broad shoulders but at the chest and waist looked about three times too big. It had a patch on it that said “Mrs. Mann’s Maids” in fancy cursive. Her arm muscles were taut and round, and I wondered if she played sports at school. Her black skirt was also too big, held on by a thin gold belt that she kept adjusting, like something itchy on a Halloween costume.
  Her presence made my mother, with her big lips and big boobs and perfect makeup, look even prettier. “Darling, this is our new domestic helper, Olive. Say hello to Olive.”
  “Is Olive your real name?” I asked her. Ginger’s real name had been Batrysia, and my mother had yelled at her for telling me. I figured I would get it out of the way early this time.
  My mother’s eyes and lips opened in her fake surprised look, all perfect “O” shapes.
  “Dicky, that is very rude. Olive is the name she has chosen to use here and we will respect her decision.”
  “Ginger said you made her use a different name,” I pointed out.
  “Richard, that is enough! It is easier for them if we let them choose a new name for the themselves.”
  She turned away from me then.
  “Olive, you’ll need to take Fledermaus for three walks a day. Take Dicky with you if he’s around. He needs the exercise.” She tossed a look back in my direction, challenging me to talk back. “There are poo bags in the front closet. You’ll also need to take a water bottle with you to clean the sidewalk off with if he piddles.”
  She continued showing Olive things in the kitchen. I grabbed a Pop-Tart, and set myself up on the couch, ready for day of video games. I was going to put my headphones on, but I found myself curious as to what my mother would say to Olive and eager to hear if Olive would say anything in return. There was something exciting about Olive. She was like a mixture between a boy and a girl. And her face was completely blank. Everyone my mother knew had huge reactions to everything. They said “Oh my God” to everything my mother said. And my father was always either laughing or pretending to listen while doing something else. Olive’s face was present and emotionless.
  Eventually my mother led Olive through the living room, continuing her list of instructions and explanations. “My husband, Barney - call him Mr. Bumble - often works late, so you’ll have to cook meals that can be easily reheated. And I work from home. I design handbags - so you can reach me in the case of an emergency, but I don’t like to be disturbed during office hours.”
  I rarely saw my mother in her office, what could have been the largest bedroom in the house but instead held her “mood boards” and the two handbags that she had made and not thrown into the trash somewhere in the process.
  “And this,” my mother told the still-blank-faced Olive while opening a door on the other side of the living room, “is your room.”
  Olive’s room was also the laundry room, and had a single bed, a miniature refrigerator, and a nightstand in addition to the washer and dryer and ironing board that folded out from the wall. It had white tile floors and one small, circular window that faced the side of the building next door. It was the smallest room in the apartment, the next smallest being the guest bathroom.
  After they’d done the rounds, my mother returned the living room with Olive in tow, and sighed heavily, like she’d just finished a particularly difficult task. “Okay Olive, that’s all for now. I’ve left a list of important rules, numbers, recipes, and things like that in your nightstand, so have a look at that. You’ll need to clean things up before Dicky’s party this evening, which starts at six, and make sure he’s showered and dressed in the outfit I left on his bed. I’ve got to get to my massage, so if you try to call and I don’t pick up, you’ll know why. The girls are at the Corneys’ house. They have your cell number so make sure you have it on you. You can meet the girls tomorrow and we’ll go over their schedule and changing times, etcetera etcetera. Do you even know etcetera? Listen to me! Ha!” My mother turned to me.
  “Dicky, am I forgetting anything for Olive, sweetie?”
  I shrugged and tried to focus on my game, but I was enthralled by Olive’s silence, which was obviously unnerving my mother.
  “Oh! Yes, I left a box of hand-me-downs under your bed. Some old things of Ginger’s, and some of Dicky’s, which should fit you. He’s grown out of a lot of things lately. Ha!”
  Then she was gone and I was alone with this new, silent person.
  Olive looked around for a moment, sighed deeply, and sat down next to me on the couch. She laid back and rubbed her eyes with the meaty parts of her palms, which made her arm muscles look even bigger than they had before. Her legs were spread wide, like a boy would sit, and she seemed loose and limber where she had seemed taut and rigid just moments before.
  She looked at the television and then at me. “What are you playing?”
  “Final Fantasy 12,” I told her, knowing she wouldn’t know what I was talking about.
  “Really? The last one I played was ten. Well, ten-two, actually. Which was weird, wasn’t it? Why wasn’t that eleven?”
  “You play video games? How?” I didn’t mean to say how, it just came out.
  “You mean, how could a poor maid afford to play a video game? Well, I wasn’t rich growing up, but I had four brothers and sisters, and a Playstation was a pretty good way to get one present that would make all five of us happy. And my dad knew a lot of rich people from the hotel he worked at, so, now that I think about it, he probably got it secondhand.”
  “That is so cool. Do you want to take a turn?” I didn’t have any friends that played video games.
  “I’ve got to do some sewing. So how about I sit here while I sew and watch you play. Then we can both decide what you’re doing to do. That way it’s like we’re both playing.”
  This was awesome. I hadn’t had anybody to play video games with in years. My dad had played with me back when I first started, racing against me in Mario Kart and stealing the controller from me to “show me” how to beat the bosses in Chrono Cross. But, especially after we moved to Hong Kong, he had less and less time to play video games with me. He was always at the office, and, when he wasn’t, he was sitting in his chair, drinking wine and playing on his laptop.
  “But, I’m going to need a favor, Dick. You’re going to have to show me the places your mom will look to see if I’ve cleaned.”

Olive masters the mundane

  Olive quickly became a part of our daily lives. She took to her daily tasks quickly, and, by her third day, was accomplishing everything Ginger had and more. After a week, her routine ran like clockwork. It would change slightly when school began again. I’d have to get to The American School in Happy Valley by eight and my sister, Essie, would have to get to nursery school by nine. Then she’d only have Sophie, my eight-month-old sister, to look after during the day. The streets of Central Hong Kong would also be busier. Many of the really rich people, the people who lived at the very top of Victoria Peak, left Hong Kong for July and August because it was too hot. They would go to France or London, or visit family. These were the same folks who spent December in Switzerland or Norway. These were the people my parents aspired to be.
  Olive’s current schedule, however, involved a lot of me. Ginger had pretended to like my company, but I could tell she was happier when I wasn’t around. I’d sometimes come home from school and find her doing dishes or making dinner with her headphones on, dancing around the kitchen. She’d have her eyes closed and she’d move so freely, like a piece of pasta rolling around in the butter on the bottom of a dish. Then I’d say hi and she’d straighten up, take her headphones off, and put something that I liked on the radio. I’d tell her to listen to her music, that I didn’t care what she played, and she’d say, “Oh I like this a lot. It’s hip. This is what the kids are talking about in school, right?”
  If Olive changed around me, however, it was for the better. When my mother was around, which was often, Olive would move through the apartment as silent as a cat. When it was just her and me, though, she was different. She’d pretend to struggle with her chores, lugging the vacuum cleaner around like it was a bag of rocks and wiping fake sweat from her forehead. She would watch me play video games and quiz me about what was happening. Once, early on in her time with us, she was in another room and yelled, “Are they talking? Tell me what they are saying!” I read the lines of dialogue to her. I was nervous. I was a good reader, really good for my age, but reading out-loud made me embarrassed.
  “You’re reading like a list of ingredients. Read the characters. I am here cleaning up your dirt. The least you can do is entertain me!”
  My cheeks were bright red, but we were alone in the apartment. I spoke in the most raspy, evil voice I could come up with: “Give me the crystal! I will seal you away in the dark realms for eternity!”
  “Oh, is that the bad guy? Very scary,” Olive said as she dusted knick knacks and picture frames.
  “I command you to stop. I am the queen of this land,” I continued, now in my best princess voice.
  “Oh, she sounds tough. Like me!”
  From then on, I would narrate my video games to Olive when we were alone together. I found myself choosing to play games with more dialogue so that I could perform for her. She would always ask me questions about the characters, the worlds the games took place in, and the items I would use.
  Olive would wake up every morning at 5:30 and prepare breakfast for everyone. One morning, I got up to go to the bathroom and saw her in the kitchen, a towel on her head, mixing eggs in a bowl, setting bread on a plate in front of the toaster, stirring formula in bottles, and shoving them in the refrigerator.
  My dad woke up every morning at six-thirty, his eyes puffy and red, and Olive would throw the eggs in the pan and toast the bread, and have him fed and out the door. Olive would never linger while my parents ate. While my dad wolfed down breakfast with CNN International blaring on the television, she’d take Fledermaus for his first walk of the day. When she returned, she’d wake Essie and Sophie and feed them. Essie always demanded that her orange juice be served in a champagne glass, and Olive would refer to her as “your highness” and then would read to her while she balanced Sophie on her hip.
  After the girls ate, Olive would pick an activity for the girls — which usually meant keeping the baby on her hip and finding something for Essie to color — while she mixed a smoothie for my mother. She wouldn’t dare wake my mother directly, but the blender was loud enough to do the job. My mother would shuffle in, grab her smoothie, and then shut herself in her office to “check emails” for a couple of hours, which I knew from spying meant either napping on the daybed or buying shoes on the internet.
  When I’d wake up, Olive would make a show of how late it was, and then have me assist her in making whatever I wanted for breakfast. I think if I’d thrown a tantrum she would have immediately just made it for me by herself, but I liked being near her and I liked learning to do things in the kitchen. My parents had cooked when we’d lived back in Boston, and I had always loved watching my dad cut meat and make sauces and my mom chop vegetables and mix salads. They hadn’t cooked since we’d moved to Hong Kong.
  Then, while I ate, Olive would either sew or, if my mother was walking around, clean things in the kitchen. Olive had a cycled cleaning schedule, making sure that every inch of the apartment was scrubbed at least once a week, but she would always do the kitchen, my parents’ bathroom, and all of the mirrors if she had free time because those were the places my mother would notice first.
  Eventually, my mother would leave for an appointment, either for coffee with a friend or a massage or a visit to Harbour City or Pacific Place, her favorite malls. Sometimes she would take Essie along with her in a stroller, leaving Olive with me and the baby. On rare occasions, my mother would stay at the apartment, sitting in her office and cutting inspirational pictures from magazines or talking on the phone with the accountant. I always felt weird with my mother around. If she saw me playing a video game, she would tell me that I should be reading a book, which I preferred to do at night. Or she would ask me to help with her mood boards, ask me about tennis lessons, or ask me if I had heard anything from my friends about what their parents were up to.
  On these days, Olive would ask me if I wanted to run errands with her. We’d take the Central Escalator down to the wet market on Graham Street, where Olive would pick still-living seafood out of small aquariums in front of open-air shops. When the fishmonger wasn’t looking, she would tap the side of a container with her foot and wash the disturbed fish swim around. Then she’d choose the ones she wanted.
  “How do you know which ones to pick?” I asked her once.
  “You need to look in their eyes. If the eyes are clear, the fish is still alive, which means it will be freshest.”
  She went silent for a moment, like she was debating whether to keep talking. Then she turned to me and said, “Plus, you should always look something in the eye before you hurt it.”

In which the rules of Hong Kong Sundays are established and promptly broken

  Sundays were Olive’s day off. It was a rule in Hong Kong that all of the maids got the entirety of Sunday off. My mother, for some reason, rebelled against this idea. I think she knew she shouldn’t, but, like picking a scab, she couldn’t help herself. She had argued with Ginger about it on more than one occasion. I had thought that she’d be better with Olive, particularly as Olive did twice as much work during the week as Ginger had ever done. At first, she had let Olive have her day. Olive would dress in her clothes from home, beautifully sewn tunics and light pants, grab her phone and her book bag, and get on the escalator down the hill. I had seen what the maids did on Sunday. It was amazing. They covered every inch of public space in Hong Kong with sheets of cardboard and then sat on them. Some would fold the edges up, and the maids would look like butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers bobbing on the cement sea of Hong Kong. They’d gather in groups, some as small as three and some as large as thirty and play cards, eat, nap, braid each other’s hair, and all sorts of other things on their little cardboard picnic blankets. Olive told me that some girls got up as early as three in the morning in order to get the best space for their friends.
  The Hong Kong government had a special rule that applied to the construction of buildings. Depending on the amount of space the building took up, the owners of the building had to offer a corresponding amount of public space as a form of payment to the city. So, in addition to the sidewalks, bridges, parks, and walkways, you would find groups of maids on the roofs of skyscrapers, in the lobbies of malls, and even on the little platforms between sections of the Central escalator.
  They did this in every inch of Hong Kong, from Hong Kong Island to Kowloon to Lantau to Lamma. Apparently, they even did it in the New Territories, a massive spread of land on the mainland side of Hong Kong beyond Kowloon and, according to my mother, beyond civilization.
  Eventually, Olive made friends with other maids, particularly with a few Vietnamese girls, most of whom worked further down the island from us. Her closest friend, Diamond, the only one who also worked on Conduit Road, would often walk back with her late on Sundays. I would watch out the window for Olive, eager to catch a glimpse of her under the streetlights. She and Diamond would walk up the hill, cheeks red from the sun (“and cheap beer” my mother said once), arm in arm, swaying and smiling. I was so jealous.
  After a time, my mother began to infiltrate Olive’s Sundays. At first, it was requests for little favors, asked in a baby voice late on Saturday night. “Olive, sweetie, would you drop this package off at the Chesterton’s on Hollywood Road on your way to play with your friends?” was the first request.
  Eventually, she dropped some of the sweetness. “Olive, since Barney’s out of town on business and I’ll be watching all three kids tomorrow by myself, can you pick up these groceries on your way back home tomorrow?” She handed Olive a list.
  Olive didn’t complain, but we all knew that Olive had shopped ahead on Saturdays so that we would be set for Sunday, and that she didn’t come back until around nine, hours after the grocery store closed on Sundays. I waited all day to see if Olive would finally rebel and stand up to my mother. Still, I was happy when she appeared at six on the nose with a few bags of groceries. She had chosen us.
  Olive came into the apartment, blank-faced, and emptied the bags of groceries. She kept her shoes on, which I had never seen her do. My mother appeared and said, “Olive, thank goodness you’re home. Can you please take those filthy shoes off? Essie wants me to play Barbies with her but Sophie’s giving me so much trouble. Can you take them off of my hands for a little while? I have to get some work done. Today has been a complete write-off.”
  Olive never changed her expression. It was obvious that she had been planning on unpacking the groceries and heading back out. She went to the door, took off her shoes, neatly stacked them in their drawer, and returned to the kitchen. She took Sophie from my mother and continued to unpack groceries while balancing the baby on her hip.
  Several weeks later, Olive was folding laundry on the couch next to me while I played a video game. Olive was asking me about Ivalice, which was the world where Final Fantasy 12 was set. My mother padded into the living room, her robe wafting around her in the air conditioning like a royal vestment. “Olive, I’ll need you to take Dicky to his tennis match tomorrow morning before you go out and play.”
  Olive stiffened momentarily, then nodded and grabbed a pair of my mother’s underwear from the ironing board, folded it into a tiny square, and placed it into the basket with the rest.
  “Is that okay with you?” my mother asked, though I am sure she’d seen Olive nod.
  “Yes, Mrs. Bumble,” Olive said.
  “Okay great. Barney and I have brunch with the Corneys tomorrow, and their nanny is going to watch Essie and Sophie. They have a maid and a nanny! Can you imagine the luxury? I would get so much more done. Dicky needs to be at his match at ten. You can just drop him off and Barney will come and get him after brunch.”
  The next morning, Olive had me up and dressed for my match by nine. She made me breakfast and then grabbed my tennis bag and marched me out the door. We walked up Conduit Road to Old Peak Road. Old Peak Road was insanely steep, and I got winded just walking up the small part of the road where Conduit met Old Peak and the LRC. The LRC was the Ladies Recreation Club, which was not just for ladies, despite its name, and, according to my mother, was the “most prestigious athletic club in Hong Kong.” I was a part of a tennis club there, and, even though I sucked, my mother decided that it was a good networking opportunity for her and my dad to meet other parents of kids my age. However, they had never been to a match.
  “Olive, will you stay and watch me play?” I asked. I didn’t want her to go and play with Diamond. I didn’t want her to like Diamond better than me.
  Olive smiled and said, “Of course I can.”
  She followed me inside. A woman at the front desk caught up to us and whispered to Olive, “Miss, I’m afraid your attire does not meet the dress code. If you’d like, you can purchase something from the pro shop.”
  This kind of phrase would have horrified my mother. I had seen it before, like when we’d arrived at a restaurant that required a reservation and did not have one. Olive just laughed.
  “Can you tell me what part of my outfit is breaking the rules?”
  The woman looked at Olive, in her peach tunic, calf-length pants, and sandals, as if she were insane.
  “I am afraid that shorts and t-shirts are only permitted for those participating in sporting activities, and closed-toe shoes are a requirement for everyone, outside of the showers.
  “It’s okay, Olive, you don’t have to watch me,” I told her.
  Olive looked around, surely seeing all of the lighter skinned members breaking the rules.
  She turned to me and said, “I’ll be right outside. I’ll meet you afterwards.”
  “But don’t you want to go meet your friends?” I asked.
  “I want you to go and have fun, and I’ll be here when you’re finished.”
  She turned to the attendant. “Is it okay if I wait outside for him?”
  I was down 3-0 by the time I heard her. Olive was standing on the top floor of the parking garage attached to the LRC, wedged in between a Jaguar and an Escalade, waving and cheering. “Hit to his right side! It goes into the net!” she yelled.
  She must have meant his backhand. I wasn’t good enough to execute this plan very well, but I lost more respectably than usual, 6-4. I hit all of my serves to his backhand, which was, in fact, pretty bad. I found myself playing much better with Olive watching, running for balls I usually just let land. Olive cheered loudly, her accented English echoing through the court, and the parents of my opponent watched her from their seats with their mouths hanging open.
  Afterwards, Olive walked me back home.
  “You are very talented,” she said to me as we walked.
  “I haven’t won a match yet.”
  “You were close. If you keep exercising, you’ll get those extra balls and win. It’s like a video game. You use strategy and beat your opponent. You’re a natural.” She seemed exhilarated by the experience.
  We got home around one in the afternoon. Olive didn’t leave to meet her friends. Instead, she sat next to me and sewed while I played video games. When my parents returned home, my dad swayed back and forth as he told me how the measure of a brunch spot was the quality of their Bloody Marys, and that I should never forget that.
  Olive walked into the kitchen, and I heard her greet my mother. My mother spoke to her in one of her loud whispers: “Olive, we received a call from the McCallisters. Dicky played their son in his match this morning. They said that you were acting in an entirely inappropriate fashion today. I am so embarrassed. I am shocked by your behavior.”
  I was angry for Olive. I wanted to go and confront my mother. But I just sat there, raging. I expected Olive, as always, to give into my mother. To apologize. But this time she did not. I gasped when she said, “Today was my day off. I was not working for you there. So how I acted in my free time was not your concern.”
  My mother didn’t speak for a moment, and I guessed that her face had gone red as it did when she was angry or embarrassed.
  “Olive, you were representing this family in a negative way. You were setting a bad example for Dicky. That is unacceptable.”
  “Mrs. Bumble, do you know what a bad example would be? Breaking the law. And, by asking me to work on Sunday, that is what you are doing.”
  Even my father had perked up. He sat up in his chair, and looked towards the kitchen. I had expected him to rush to my mother’s defense, or at least look angry. Instead, he looked scared, like he was wondering if he could sneak away without being noticed.
  “What is it that you want from me?” My mother’s voice was more of a yell now. “I feed you, I clothe you, I put a roof over your head. What do you want from me?”
  From her volume and gasps for breath, it was evident that my mother was in full performance mode. I was sure she had her arm to her chest, grasping her heart as she did when she was at her most dramatic. It was also clear from her tone that her question was rhetorical, but Olive still chose to answer her.
  “What do I want from you? More, ma’am. More time. The time I am owed.”
  I could tell this hit a nerve. “More time. You want more time? In addition to free room and board, free clothes, and a salary? And you’re asking for more time?”
  Olive’s voice was an ocean of calm in contrast to my mother’s gasps and wails.
  “Yes. Please, ma’am, I want some more.”

An important segment on handbags, details of which the canny reader will remember

  After that, there was a throat-tightening amount of tension in the room whenever my mother and Olive were both in it. Olive was given her Sundays off, but my mother made sure to complain about “the lazy maid” in every conversation on the phone. Olive acted as she always had, curious and inquisitive with me, Essie, and Sophie, and with a face of stone around my mother. One morning, my mother’s friend, Patrice, came to our apartment for coffee. Olive laid out a spread of coffee, tea, and pastries, and then disappeared into her room to do laundry. Olive asked me to play with Essie and Sophie in their room. If my mom had asked me, I would have thrown a fit.
  I could hear mom and Patrice in the kitchen, gossiping about their friends, complaining about how hot Hong Kong was in the summer and about all of the Asians in Central who had no sense of personal space. I asked Essie what she wanted to play with and she said “Barbies!”
  I preferred Barbies to trucks, but I had outgrown both by that point. Still, I pulled Essie’s box of Barbies from the shelf. I set Sophie on my lap, where she belched and cooed, and began to take the Barbies out, one by one.
  As we played, I heard Olive enter the kitchen and offer more coffee to Patrice and my mother.
  “Patrice, I didn’t even tell you that Olive is from Vietnam. Weren’t you just there?”
  “Yes, it was divine!” Patrice replied. Patrice always spoke to everyone as if she were speaking to them from across a crowded room.
  “You know, what always strikes me about Vietnam is how French it is,” Patrice continued. “It’s like a little French oasis in Southeast Asia. So lovely and colonial. Don’t you think, Olive?”
  I didn’t hear Olive say anything, but my mother said, “Patrice, I don’t think Olive is from that part of Vietnam.” They both laughed.
  Then, and I had to ask her later what she had said, Olive said, “Oui il y a encore une grande influence française au Vietnam. Pour de bon ou de mauvais.”
  This time my mother said nothing but, Patrice, delighted, exclaimed, “Olive! Vous parlez français?”
  “Oui, madam. More coffee?” From Olive’s tone, I could tell that French lessons were over.
  I continued to play with the girls, but kept an ear to the door. After more gossip, Patrice said to my mother, “Oh Stephanie! I almost forgot to tell you. I was talking to Arthur about your hobby and he said that his colleague Rose is creating a new handbag line, and she wants it to represent flavors from the various parts of Hong Kong. It would be for next year’s summer collection. And she doesn’t have anyone from our circle, if you will, so your chances will be that much better. Rose will be looking at portfolios next month. Just call this number and tell them Arthur referred you. That will get you an appointment, no questions asked.” I heard clinking and crunching as she searched around her handbag.
  “Here’s Rose’s card.”
  My mother must have been genuinely excited because she didn’t use the shrill fake-happy voice that she used when my sister showed her something she finger painted or my dad told her about a new account his agency had won. Instead, she sounded like a little girl, whispery and breathless. “Oh my goodness, Patrice. This means the world to me. Really. The world. I’ll call her tomorrow.”
  It was moments like this that I wished I knew my mother better. I knew that she hadn’t been born rich, though she’d taken to it naturally. I knew that it had been her dream since she was a little girl to be a designer. I knew that she had gone to school for design in New York and that she’d worked briefly as an art director at an advertising agency, where she’d met my father and they’d fallen in love and he had swept her off of her feet. They had married quickly, and, nine months later, I was born. Since then, she had been working from home on her business, drawing and sewing and collecting. When I was really little, I remember her doing it all the time. But, in Hong Kong, where she had more time, she did less.
  “Well, it’s just a referral, doll. And Lord knows you’ll get no credit for it. But it’s a foot in the door. Now, did you hear about the Wongs? Remember the wife, Kitty, the very-articulate Chinese lady? Yes, they were at the Schmidt’s Memorial Day party. Yes, the one with the boxed wine. My God, did Lara really think we wouldn’t notice if she put it in a punch bowl with some fruit slices? Well, the Wongs got their daughter a Hong Kong passport through a loophole, but Kitty only has a Chinese passport, and now…”
  They continued to chat. Olive came in to check on us, balancing a basket of laundry on her hip and smiling. Essie and Sophie had both fallen asleep, Sophie in her crib and Essie in a pile on the floor. I was pretending the Barbies were warriors waging battle against an invading troll brigade. I asked Olive, “Would you ever think about making purses? You sew all the time. It sounds like that lady Patrice knows wants designers from every part of Hong Kong. You should go!”
  To my surprise, Olive laughed.
  “Can you see me showing up there at the same time as your mother? She would kill me. Or fire me. Probably kill me because then I’d be fired, too.” I just stared at her. I’d never heard her say anything about my mother before. She usually avoided the subject.
  I expected her to say, “let’s just keep this between us,” like Ginger would say when she said something bad about my parents. Instead, Olive straightened up and said, “I forgot myself for a moment. It’s not my place to speak to you about your parents. My apologies.”
  “It’s okay, Olive,” I said.
  “No, it’s not, Dicky. That is not how this world works. You need to learn that.”

Olive, after being goaded by Mrs. Bumble, makes a choice

  After the Sunday disaster, I think that we were all waiting for my mother to snap again. So, when she came home in a rage one Thursday night, it was almost a relief. I saw so much anger on her face as she came through the door that I thought Olive had done something truly terrible, impossible as it seemed.
  “Olive? Olive, where the hell are you?”
  Olive came out from the kitchen, actually looking surprised.
  “Olive. Ashley McCallister told me that she has seen you just leave a puddle of Fledermaus’s pee on the sidewalk right in front of their building.”
  “That’s not true,” Olive said.
  “So now you’re calling my friend a liar?”
  Olive kept her stance firm, but kept her eyes to the floor. I decided to try for distraction.
  “Mom, Olive always uses the water bottle after Fledermaus pees. I go with her sometimes.”
  My mother turned to me and got the look on her face that she used at school meetings, the fake smile and the squinted eyes. “Darling, she does it when you’re there because that’s how people act in front of the people they work for.”
  I would be lying if I said that my ten-year-old self didn’t feel a surge of power being called someone’s boss, but I saw Olive swallow hard as my mother said it. At the time, I thought it was her pride. But I now feel like it was watching her hard work being stripped away. Olive had been raising me in the months she had been with us, and she was watching her work be undone.
  “Olive, I’m sure your mother raised you in disgusting conditions and you don’t know any better, but this is too much.”
  I figured that Olive would just let my mother rant for a while, but she spoke back.
  “Don’t talk about my mother.”
  I don’t know if it is a trick of memory, but I think my mother smiled, triumphant in finally finding something that could rattle Olive.
  “Why? Why shouldn’t I? What kind of woman raises an entitled brat who doesn’t know how to clean up after herself?”
  My mother was rambling, like she herself knew she was going too far but couldn’t stop herself.
  Olive raised her eyes from the floor and stared right into my mother’s eyes. “Don’t you dare talk about my mother.”
  As soon as the word “mother” passed Olive’s lips, my mother slapped her hard across the mouth.
  It was shocking and made little sense. Olive was angry, but hadn’t been rude. I expected Olive to recoil. To put her hands up. To leave.
  Instead, she slapped my mother back. It was quick and loud.
  My mother’s reaction was so overblown that I looked around to make sure that she hadn’t fallen against something and been impaled. She screamed a blood-curling scream, right out of a horror movie, and then gasped, over and over, her lips puffing like one of the fish at the wet market.
  She grabbed me and ran to the girls’ room, shutting us in with them. She pulled me close, hugging me like she hadn’t done since I was little, and pulled her cell phone out.
  She called the police. I couldn’t believe my ears. We heard a rush of footsteps around the apartment and then the slamming of the front door. Then the apartment was silent until we heard sirens several minutes later.

Detailing Olive and Dick’s correspondence

  As it turns out, it was very easy to have a domestic worker’s visa revoked, particularly one that was accused of a crime. Finding her, however, was a completely different matter. Olive had vanished. She took only her few meager belongings with her. I think my mother was disappointed that she hadn’t stolen anything. She went through her jewelry five times just to be sure.
  My mother was wrong, however. Olive had stolen something. A picture of me, Essie, and Sophie from the bookshelf in the living room. I noticed it was gone and my heart sang. I searched the house for a note, a secret message that she had left only for me, but found nothing.
  Soon we had a new maid, Candy, who was from the Philippines and cost extra because no one else wanted to come live with us. Candy spoke mostly Spanish and loved to sneak me cookies when my mother wasn’t looking. But I could not stop thinking about Olive. I knew she was in Hong Kong. I wrote her letters, telling her how Essie, Sophie, and I were doing, how we missed her, and how we were on her side in the whole slapping incident.
  I decided to take action. I put the letters I had written to Olive in an envelope. I was about to seal it when inspiration struck, and I ran to my mother’s office to retrieve one more item for the envelope. The card that my mother had received from Patrice, the one with the purse lady’s number on it. I sealed it up and wrote “Olive” across the front. I volunteered to take Fledermaus for his walk while Candy made dinner. I walked him up Conduit Road, back and forth, until Diamond came out with her family’s dog, a Shiba Inu named Puffin. She turned the other way when she saw me. I hustled to catch up with her, which was hard because both her and Puffin were in much better shape than Fledermaus and I.
  Finally we caught them and Diamond said, “Please go away.”
  “No,” I said. “I know Olive is still in Hong Kong. Can you give this to her?”
  I handed her the envelope. She just looked at it. “Olive is back in Vietnam. I don’t know her address.”
  “Please give this to her. It’s from me. It’s important.”
  Diamond stared at me for a long time. She was shorter and wider than Olive, and wore much tighter clothing. Her face seemed to fall naturally into a suspicious expression. Finally, she said, “I’ll throw this out for you.” Then she took the envelope from me and walked away.
  A week later, I convinced a very stressed Candy to let me walk Fledermaus by myself again. My mother had been in a daze since Olive had left, alternating between frantic sessions in her office preparing for her big presentation at Patrice’s husband’s company and stretching out on the daybed with a big glass of red wine, staring out of the window. When I asked her if it was okay if I walked Fledermaus by myself, she didn’t answer, so I took it as a yes.
  I waited outside of Diamond’s house until she and Puffin arrived. She said nothing, but walked a long distance down Conduit Road until it turned back on itself and became the pedestrian-only Peak Trail. She and Puffin looked fresh as daisies, but Fledermaus and I were on the verge of death, panting and sweating.
  “Olive sent this from Vietnam. Read it then give it back to me.”
  She handed over a letter.

Dear Dick,
  I wrote you a whole letter saying that I was back in Vietnam. But I threw it away because I don’t want to lie to you. I am still in Hong Kong, living deep in the city on Kowloon side. You know how crowded we thought it was on Hong Kong island? Well, Mong Kok, where I live now, makes the island seem abandoned by comparison! One of the other girls, Jackie, told me that there are 350,000 people per square mile in Mong Kok, the densest it in the world. It pulses with people, making it seem even hotter than it already is. And the air is bad here. I wear a scarf over my mouth while I work, and when I go to bed at night it is black with soot.
  You know, it reminds me very much of the Rabanastre city in your Final Fantasy game, full of high buildings and dark alleys, small shops and interesting characters. How is that going? Please write to tell me what has happened.
  It’s funny how you asked me once if I would make purses. Now I sew knock-off purses all day long. I work for a woman, Fa Gin, who runs many shops in the Ladies’ Market on Tung Choi Street. She calls all of the girls who work for her, most of them former domestic helpers like myself, “her little urchins.” She takes more than her share from the purses we sell, but no one here can sew like me, so I am able to negotiate with her. You must make sure that you hone your talents: your imagination, your storytelling, your kind spirit and listening ear. Someday you may have to depend on them.
  Though most of my days are spent sewing morning into the night, on Sundays I get the day to myself, just like I did when I worked for your mother. Ha ha ha.
  I avoid the parts of the city near the MTR stations because the police wait there and ask women like me for our papers. But I do explore. Most often, I walk through the Yuen Po Street Bird Market, where thousands upon thousands of beautiful birds sing to each other from the cages, strung together along the fronts of shops. They sit there and wait for tourists to come and buy them, to take them away to sit alone in their cold homes. But, when I walk down the street, I don’t think about that. I listen to them sing to each other and watch them groom their beautiful feathers.
  Thank you for the gift in your note, but I do not know if I can use it. Not because it is a risk, which it is, but because your mother gave me much more than she took away. That said, if I have lost so much of my honor already, what would the consequences be of losing more? That is not a good message for me to be sending to you, but I do not want to tell you anything but the truth. I hope that someday we see each other again, but you must not ever come here. Still, if we keep this a secret (and know that I am wrong to ask you to keep a secret from your parents), we can keep annoying Diamond by passing notes through her.

Olive, the Urchin

Whereupon Olive Urchin and Stephanie Bumble take divergent paths

  A few days later, my mother came into the apartment looking sadder than I had ever seen her. When Candy saw her, she muttered something about having to fold laundry and disappeared into her room, Sophie on her hip. My father was working late, and I was watching Essie color while I drew pictures of my favorite video game characters for a comic I was working on.
  It was disturbing to see her look so sad. Though my mother was expressive, she rarely showed any real emotion. She walked to the fridge and pulled out a bottle of white wine from inside. It was three-fourths full, and she poured its entirety into a big glass. Then she went into her office and shut the door.
  I thought that maybe I should go comfort her, and ask her what was wrong. But I didn’t.
  When my father came home, he didn’t even say hello. He went straight to my mother’s office and shut the door.
  Through the door, I heard her wail and scream and weep. Eventually, she managed to tell my father what had happened. She had gone to Patrice’s husband’s office, and the woman who she had been supposed to show her purses to, Rose Nguyen, had declined to even look at her handbags.
  She told my father how stupid she was, how she couldn’t believe that she had let herself get her hopes up. Of course this was another disappointment, like everything else in her life, she said.
  Months passed, and my mother sank into a deep depression. Then, one Sunday, I came out to the kitchen to find my mother clutching The South China Morning Post, her knuckles white. I had just settled into my seat at the breakfast table, waiting for Candy to give me something to eat, when my mother threw the paper down on the table and then picked up her coffee cup and hurled it at the wall. Her face was a mask of rage, but I was more used to her angry face than her sad one so it was slightly preferable.
  She stalked out of the room, and I grabbed the paper from the table. It was open to the style section, and there, staring up at me from the page, was Olive. She was working hard at a sewing machine, a fresh tattoo of a songbird on a tree branch stretched across her bicep. Behind her stood a striking Asian woman in a red business suit, looking on with a smile. Above the picture was the title “Real Life Cinderella” and below was a story.
  When I read it, I couldn’t believe my eyes.
  “It’s just the best story,” Nguyen said. “She just showed up out of the blue, with the most beautiful samples. I asked her where she was from, and she said that she knew I was looking to capture all of Hong Kong with my new collection, so why not show the maids? Can you believe it? We all have one or two in our homes but it never even crossed my mind. Brilliant, isn’t it?”
  Nguyen adjusts her pearl necklace before continuing. “I wanted to hire her on the spot. But then came the question of her visa. You see, her last job had gone south fast. She worked for some demon. We all know how it goes. And — this is what is going to make the headlines — we discovered that she is my niece! Can you believe it? We just took a few visits down to the immigration building, and I called my good friend Jiang Shan, who works on the Legislative Council, and her paperwork was all sorted out!”

And Last

  The fortunes of those who have figured in this tale are nearly closed. What little remains for me, their historian, to relate, can be told in few a simple words.
  It has been nine years. Olive, as I am sure you know, is the owner and chief designer of one of Asia’s most famous fashion companies, Olive Urchin. Her company is known for its fair pay and hours, and particularly for its ban on any Sunday work communication.
  Olive and I have remained great friends over the years, and she told me the real story of how she got her lucky break. Rose Nguyen, born Nguyen Chi Long, was not really Olive’s aunt, of course. But when a dirty, underfed Olive came into Rose’s company’s head office, the girl at the desk asking where her mistress was, Rose, by some twist of fate, had left her office door ajar and had heard the Vietnamese accent in her response (which had been, “where’s yours?”).
  Rose took one look at the purses Olive had brought along and offered her a job on the spot. Olive, to her credit, then burst forth with the story of her situation, that her and her siblings had been orphaned and she’d come to Hong Kong as a maid but had committed a terrible crime. Rose, who had wanted to slap more than one Mid-Levels Hong Konger, asked about Olive’s mother.
  “She was quiet. She loved for us all to take a bus down to the markets floating in the Mekong, where she’d grown up, and we’d drink water with sugar cane and peanuts and ride bicycles around the dirt roads. She cooked pho bo at least three times a week. She loved the noise of Saigon. She always told us that we could have the entire world if we worked hard. She worked every day of her life, and she taught all five us a skill that we would be able to use to feed ourselves.”
  At this, Rose smiled, and said, “Olive, it is obvious to me from what you say that your mother and I were sisters. Both from Vietnam. Which makes you my niece. Which means it is my duty to have you with me in Hong Kong as family.”
  This sounds rare, but when anyone has a lot of money anywhere, and Rose Nguyen had a lot of money, even by Hong Kong standards, it is pretty easy to convince the government to give you what you want, particularly Hong Kong’s government. Soon, Olive had her own apartment in Wan Chi, and, soon after that, her brother and sisters had come to live with her. After a few short years, Rose invested in Olive’s own venture, Olive Urchin, and the world knows them as one of Hong Kong fashion’s first families.
  This is Olive’s story, not my family’s, but I will say that my mother and father both stayed true to character. After reading about Olive, my mother did all that she could to have her arrested, fired, deported, and shamed. My father stayed out of her way, glass of wine in one hand and laptop in the other. After a while, when it became clear that Rose Nguyen’s money and word went further than my mother’s money and word, my mother gave up, but gossiped horribly about them for some time until she found herself invited to less and less functions.
  My mother went the way of her friends after that, choosing her opinions strategically and spending her days attending brunches and charity events, though she was more busy with childcare and housework than most of her peers. You see, though the labor may be cheap, the maids of Hong Kong are close-knit and loyal, and my mother was never able to find another one once Candy quit after following a wild goose chase of Sunday errands.
  I don’t know my mother well. I never have. She is utterly foreign to me. But she is not foreign to Hong Kong. She is a part of the world at the tippity-top of Hong Kong island, above the treeline of wealth that prevents the common folk from setting down roots in its soil. Where all homes, large and small, are cages. Cages for the most beautiful birds you will ever see, locked away with no one but each other to listen to their songs.

Mike McClelland

Before becoming a writer, MIKE MCCLELLAND worked as a grave digger, wedding singer, antique salesman, and marketing strategist. He has lived on five different continents but now resides in Georgia with his husband and a menagerie of rescue dogs. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in several anthologies and a number of journals, including Queen Mob's Teahouse, Permafrost, Heavy Feather Review, Brain Mill Press, Cactus Heart, and others. Keep up with him at

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