Not many migrants from China, or elsewhere, settled in Scotland during the sixties. (I remember my surprise and delight when, on my last visit, in 2010, the proprietor of a Glasgow Indian restaurant spoke to us in broad Glaswegian!) Attitudes are changing, but Scots tend to want to keep Scotland to themselves, guarding their customs fiercely. And why not?
Imagine, then, the desperation of a fifteen-year-old orphan girl from a small farming village in Jilin Province China, who finds herself alone (except for one uncle) in the bustling town of Paisley, Scotland. Some things would be familiar to her – the poverty, the cleaving to tradition, the love of music and storytelling but I feel sure she would have some difficulty finding her place in this new world.
Tianyi is indeed a small fish from a provincial backwater who finds herself swimming in the much bigger sea of Ferguslie Park with all the excitement and danger it brings. This is my first draft of her story. To see how it worked out, you’ll need to order a copy of Caught in the Long Grass (available May, 2020.)
Built in the twelfth century, the imposing grey-stone building with tall arched windows and a square tower perched midway along its roof was one of the holiest and most historic buildings in Scotland. After her first visit, Tianyi often came to the Abbey to pray for the souls of her family. She pushed open the massive wooden door that led into the nave and entered.
It was tranquil and calm under the tall vaulted ceiling, and Tianyi sensed the presence of the Christian God she’d learned about at school. Sunday service wasn’t for another hour, and the church was empty save a few tourists listening to the organ music and admiring the intricate carvings on the ancient Celtic cross.
Tianyi walked along the central aisle past the choir stalls until she reached the East window depicting the ascended Christ. Her heart sang with compassion. A vision of the loving Father holding his crucified Son in his lap filled her mind, and she knelt to pray. Dear Father; please take my family into your arms. They are not Christian, but they are good people.
She did not consider the fact she’d prayed the same prayer to the Lord Buddha earlier that morning to be an issue. As far as she was concerned, all deities were joined in spirit, and by praying to more than one, there was a better chance of being heard.
She moved on until she came to the tomb of Marjory Bruce, the Princess of Scotland and daughter of Robert the Bruce, the famous heroic king. As was often the case, the sarcophagus was decked out in wildflowers, and Tianyi added her posy to the floral display. After The Ugly Duckling, the story of Marjory Bruce, who died nearby after falling from her horse, and whose unborn child survived to later become king, was her favorite. It reminded her of the folktales of her childhood in Jilin.
Tianyi sat on a nearby chair, appreciating the delicate colors radiating through the stained-glass windows onto the bluestone walls and flagstones around the tomb. It was peaceful to sit here amongst the noble people, warriors and abbots of the past, but the old church also had a dank smell about it that reminded her of the boat.
Tianyi breathed deeply. The ancient church smelled musty and damp – just like the boat.
Her mother had protested the vessel was too small, little more than a wooden fishing boat, but her father had replied she knew nothing of the sea. The captain had assured him he had made the journey many times without incident. ‘We have no choice in any case,’ he had said. ‘I have paid the money. Either we go now, or we stay and starve.’
Her mother looked wearily at the two children standing beside her, shivering in their peasant clothing, and nodded her assent.
Tianyi is a character in the novel, Caught in the Long Grass.
The East Wind
They were ushered below decks by a crewman and told to remain there until the craft set sail. When her eyes became accustomed to the gloom, Tianyi saw that the hold was jam-packed with men women and children. They huddled together, clasping their few possessions to their chests, and all seemed as frightened as she was.
The East Wind took three weeks to cross the South China Sea. During daylight hours, the captain would allow no more than a dozen passengers on deck at one time. In this way, he hoped to avoid notice if a warship from one of the countries with competing territorial claims spotted them.
The weather was rough, and many fell sick. Each day, Tianyi’s mother and the other women would lower buckets of seawater into the hold to clean it. Despite their efforts, it was never enough to take away the nauseating smell of vomit and human waste.
When they anchored off a small island on the coast of Indonesia, they were forced to remain below decks in the foul air for two days while the boat took on fresh water and provisions.
Two weeks later, as they neared their final destination off the coast of Western Australia, they were confronted with the raging seas and howling gale of a category three cyclone.
The captain tried to outrun the storm, but the mainsail snapped, and the boat swung broadside into the wind, heeling over. The engine was powerless against the fifteen-foot-high waves, and the craft tilted grotesquely before crashing onto a jagged reef. The Indian Ocean gushed through a rupture in the hull, and the passengers in the hold panicked.
Tianyi was knocked to the floor by a wild-eyed man forcing his way through the crowd trying to escape to the deck above. She lay stunned for a moment.
She heard her father’s voice over the chaos and tried to stand, but lost her footing as a wave struck the boat and water poured into the hold. Her father emerged from the gloom and gathered her in his arms, then waded through the calf-deep water towards the stairs. Tianyi looked around for her mother and younger brother Shiou, but both had been carried off by the crush of people scrambling to get to the deck.
Father and daughter clambered out of the hold and were instantly set upon by the wind. The rain stung Tianyi’s eyes, and she held her father’s hand tightly, fighting to keep her feet. The storm lessened momentarily, and she heard him shout, pointing to where Shiou and her mother were clinging to the mast.
The family huddled together briefly, gathering solace from their reunion. Fellow passengers grasped at steel hawsers and capstans to prevent themselves from being tossed overboard.
Tianyi’s father looked to where a cluster of male passengers and crew were fighting over the few remaining life vests. Tianyi watched her normally-placid parent run into the pack, kicking and screaming like a jackal as he heaved at one of the jackets.
He staggered back towards his family, blood running from his nose, the trophy grasped firmly in his hands. Looking despairingly at his wife and daughter, he placed the jacket over the head of his son.
Tianyi smiled uncertainly and reached out to embrace him.
A gigantic wave tore the boat away from the rocks and catapulted it head over heels, tossing everyone on the deck into a churning, foaming nightmare.
The category 3 cyclone tossed everyone into the churning sea.
When the ship’s mast slammed into her chest, Tianyi was thrown clear of the rocks and knocked almost senseless. Her legs became entangled in the stays, and she flailed her arms in alarm as she felt the sea pull her down.
Tianyi chest heaved. She tried to remain calm and hold her breath for as long as she could while searching the water above for signs of rescue. But eventually, the instinct to breathe took command, and she sucked in mouthfuls of the salty water. Her thoughts drifted, and she became limp.
She was insensible of the steady hand that grasped her hair and dragged her clear of the ocean. Her rescuer, a sailer from the shipwrecked East Wind, hauled her onto some nearby flotsam, then pointed towards two women treading water about twenty yards distant.
He shouted something incomprehensible and dived overboard in the direction of the struggling pair. The torrential rain and choppy sea made it difficult to follow his progress, and Tianyi soon lost sight of him. Dazed and sick, she clutched at a forestay and watched as passengers and crew struggled to stay afloat.
Tianyi caught a glimpse of her mother and father as they rose high in the swell of a vast wave. They disappeared over the crest, clinging to each other, then reappeared, gasping for breath.
Her mother screamed soundlessly into the wind as the first shark bit into her leg. Her father desperately tried to free his wife, kicking wildly at the creature. A second animal took him from behind.
In horror, Tianyi watched her parents separate, mouths agape and hands stretching towards each other as they disappeared beneath the waves.
Not long after, through her tears and the soaking rain, she glimpsed Shiou’s tiny figure hoisted high on a wave. Her brother disappeared amid phosphorescence as the wave crashed over him but then re-emerged, his life vest keeping him afloat.
Tianyi left her sanctuary and struck out towards him.
She was only a few yards away and could see the hope manifest in his eyes when his face twisted in agony and shock, and he was pushed clear of the water by a monstrous fish.
In a frenzy, Tianyi scrambled back to the driftwood, expecting with every passing second to feel the shark’s teeth sawing at her legs. Finally, she dragged herself on top, shivering from the cold and distress.
For four hours, until the helicopter arrived, she clung to the wreckage, menaced by the circling predators.
On to Scotland
Tianyi was taken to Royal Perth Hospital and treated for hypothermia and shock. It took several months of invasive therapy before she could sleep through the night without the black, fathomless eye of the Great White tormenting her soul.
When her treatment was complete, the doctors pronounced her as healthy as she was ever likely to be, given her horrific experience. The Australian authorities placed her in a detention center for asylum seekers while they worked out what to do with her. Two months later, they tracked down her sole living relative, and she elected to join her mother’s brother in Scotland.
The abbey organ played the first notes of Bach’s Toccata, and Tianyi opened her eyes. She shivered involuntarily. The girl would never forget, but every day she lived, the memories became a little less raw.
For a long time after her release from the hospital, she’d felt there was nothing worth living for. Her uncle had proven to be a kindly old man, and she was very thankful for his help and affection, but it wasn’t until she’d met the boy, Archie, that her life took on a semblance of optimism. Now, when she slept, she found that not all her dreams were black and savage.
To be continued…