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|Kitty's dilemma grows worse as she no longer knows what to think of Mr Ford.||
The 'Alleluia' chorus echoed through the house. Ah! Xiao Mei is here! Kitty thought, expecting one of her little friends from Sunday School whom she had invited to come borrow books that afternoon. She and her father were among the few people left who still owned books instead of listening to stories over built-in computer chips in their ears. "I'm coming!" she called, quickly pulling open her desk drawer to fetch a choose-your-favourite-flavour lollipop. Then she rushed down the corridor to the front door and opened it wide.
On the other side stood a nasty surprise.
She was glad that the mosquito net was between them, humming with electric charge to keep off insects and – she hoped – suitors. Kitty quickly stuffed the lollipop into her skirt pocket, feeling the blush creep across her cheeks. "Mr Ford?" she said, trying to sound as indifferent as possible.
"Uh… good afternoon, Miss Harris."
"If you're looking for my father, he's in the chapel up the hill. Our old gardener is being baptised." She started to close the door.
"Wait!" he exclaimed quickly. She opened the door again, hoping that he noticed her pained face expression. If only he could go away… "I only came to leave something for your father," he said.
Yeah, right. More like you came to stare at me some more,Kitty thought. Sorry, she added to God, but you seriously can't expect me to like him!
"Could I give it to you now, so you can pass it to him later?"
Suddenly, Kitty saw Mei Ling turn up just behind him. The expression on her friend's face made her instantly wish that she was a few metres underground with a fair layer of earth between herself and Mr Ford. The naughty glint of Mei Ling's eyes was not at all encouraging in this situation.
"Hello!" Mei Ling exclaimed in her rarely used English. "Aren't you Mr Ford?"
"Er… yes, I am," he replied. The only good thing about Mei Ling turning up right now was that he became nervous too, Kitty decided.
"Kitty, why do you let him stand outside? He can have some tea with us till Han Mu-Shr comes home, can't he?"
"Um… I suppose he can…"
Mei Ling walked up to the door and pushed aside the mosquito net. Kitty regretted not fixing the lock on it two months ago when it first broke. Now all she could do was stand aside and watch as her friend led the worst villain on earth right into her house. How could she do this, let a man into the house when they were just two girls all on their own?
"I'll go make the tea," Kitty announced quickly. Westerners didn't usually enter kitchens unbidden, so she might just find an excuse to stay in there for the rest of the afternoon, away from him.
"Oh, no need!" Mei Ling exclaimed, reaching into her bag. "I was just at the Cha Shuei Restaurant and brought something back for you and your father, but since he's not here…" She dumped three large self-refrigerating cups of cold milk tea onto the table.
Kitty raised her eyes to the ceiling. Father, will you let me die? Please? But God seemed to be having the same ideas as Mei Ling, and left her to suffer. First her father's matchmaking attempts only a day ago, now this! Why is everyone against me? she wondered.
"Kitty, why don't you get some of those cakes you baked some time ago?" Mei Ling suggested. She turned to Mr Ford. "She's a great cook; she can cook both Western and Asian dishes perfectly!" She steered Kitty to the kitchen.
"We need to have a little talk later…" Kitty muttered, glaring at Mei Ling as she took the cake out of the refrigerator.
Mei Ling only flashed back an evil grin, saying, "See how useful my mother's matchmaking techniques can be?"
"You're making my life miserable!" Kitty dumped some slices of cake onto three plates, then returned to the living room. She headed for the only armchair, wanting to avoid the sofa where Mei Ling had asked Mr Ford to sit. But Mei Ling was faster, and quickly snatched the armchair for herself. Not letting herself be defeated, Kitty took one of the chairs from the dining table. She sat down triumphantly, sticking out her tongue at Mei Ling in a way that Mr Ford wouldn't see. Her friend replied with a 'Don't-be-so-childish' glare before turning to Mr Ford.
"So, you're here on business?" she asked. Mr Ford simply nodded, probably just as taken aback at Mei Ling's behaviour as Kitty was. Kitty almost felt sorry for him, but caught herself just in time. "I heard from Han Mu-Shr that you saved Kitty from drowning – so you were also on the robot ship from England?"
"Yes," Mr Ford replied. "Robots are very unreliable objects; I can hardly believe people were stupid enough to try and put a whole ship under their control." He shrugged. "Most of the robot business is only looking for money nowadays, instead of finding ways to make robots more useful and helpful."
Kitty found herself nodding in agreement. She quickly stopped.
"But isn't your company the leading robot firm?" Mei Ling asked.
"Well, yes… I know that over here we have an especially bad reputation, but right now my brother and I are beginning to take over the company and reform some things. That is actually one of the reasons why I came here, to see what should be changed about the way Fordbots is being run. We know that in the past the company was run with only the intention of making money, whatever the cost, so we have decided to see what can be changed."
"Why, you've found the right person, then!" Mei Ling exclaimed. She poked Kitty with an elbow. "Kitty is an expert at shouting matches with Fordbots people, aren't you, Kits? She has lots of opinions which she's been trying to make heard for the past ten years!"
Kitty only blinked a little before asking herself whether this was some sort of dream or if it was a cruel joke. But then again, it was far too serious to be a joke, and the screeching cicadas outside were giving her enough headache to notice that this could not possibly be a dream.
So was that supposed to mean that Mr Ford, owner of the Fordbots company, was actually really interested in her opinions and the opinions of the poor people?
"Go on! Say something!" Mei Ling whispered.
But just then, Mr Ford glanced up at the old-fashioned clock hanging on the wall and quickly stood up. "I… I should be going. I have a business appointment down in the city which I shouldn't miss."
Mei Ling looked disappointed, but she didn't miss the opportunity to force Kitty to see him off at the door. "It would be bad manners if the lady of the house didn't give a proper good-bye to her guest!" she hissed as she gathered together the plates again.
"I didn't even invite him!" Kitty retorted.
It was a hopeless matter. She could do nothing else but follow Mr Ford to the door. "Sorry about my friend," she said as she pulled open the door. "She's a little crazy."
"Oh, it's all right," Mr Ford said. He tried to push aside the mosquito screen but winced as he shocked his fingers instead.
Kitty smiled and opened the mosquito screen for him. "My father does that every time, don't worry," she said. Then, "I do hope this wasn't too weird for you!" she exclaimed. "My friend is just… she's overexcited. Westerners are still pretty rare here, so…" She stopped. She knew she couldn't fool him; it was too obvious what Mei Ling was up to, everyone could see that. "I just hope she hasn't… I mean…"
Mr Ford looked slightly amused at her painful attempts to finish at least one sentence.
At last, Kitty took a deep breath and said, "If you like, I could show you around our community centre tomorrow. You could get to know some of the people, and they could tell you the things you want to know – only if that's okay for you!" she added quickly.
Mr Ford looked thoughtful for a while. Then he nodded and said, "All right. Tomorrow morning?"
"Yes," Kitty said quickly. "Good-bye." She watched from the door as he crossed the small garden, then disappeared down the road.
"I knew you like him," Mei Ling said just behind her. "Just like you, isn't it, taking a date to the community centre."
"Mei Ling! How dare you!" But Kitty couldn't help giggling.
"Do I have to wear this type of thing?" Kitty stared at herself in the mirror. "I'm going to work, not to some… some dance event or robot exhibition!" She winced as Mei Ling started spraying her with perfume. "Do you want to stink the children out of the house or what?"
"No! Now hold still so I can do your hair!" Mei Ling said, grabbing a comb and a very fancy colour-changing hair ornament.
"I'm not a doll to be dressed up! We're going to be late!"
At last, they were out of the house, Kitty almost losing her balance because of the high-heeled shoes Mei Ling was making her wear. She sat at the back of Mei Ling's motor scooter, hoping that her dress wouldn't tear on the ride. It was actually one of her mother's old dresses, which she would hate to ruin – especially if she ruined it just because of Mr Ford! Though by now, she didn't even know what to think of him anymore.
"You know Papa won't agree with me marrying for money," Kitty said once they stopped at the next traffic light. "He thinks it's wrong."
"Of course it is! And of course you won't!" Mei Ling exclaimed, adjusting her pollution-repellent helmet. "I'm just getting you to like him enough that you can marry him for both!"
"At least you admit it!" Kitty grumbled.
She was glad to get off the motorbike when they reached the destination – it had started to get tired and whine, and a hungry robot was really not the most pleasant thing to encounter, especially if it was one as insistent as Mei Ling's. While Mei Ling looked for spare sesame oil, on which most machines ran nowadays because petrol supplies had been used up, Kitty hurried to the community centre building.
"You're late," one of the other workers commented. "And what are you dressed as today?"
"Talk to Mei Ling about that!" Kitty huffed, dumping her things on her desk. She grabbed some packets of instant food powder from a drawer before rushing into the small kitchen to make porridge for the toddlers.
"Don't mess up your dress," Mei Ling said as she came in after her. "You'd better go wait at the door, he's supposed to be coming every minute now."
Defeated, Kitty walked back to the front door, where she sat down beside a pot plant, arms folded, glaring at the gardening robot which was clipping hedges just opposite her. Probably it was just another cheap robot from the Fordbots company, which Mei Ling was trying to get cheaper now by getting her matched up with Mr Ford.
What if he had been lying about his interest in the poor people's well-being? What if it was just an attempt to get her to like him?
The wind tugged at Kitty's hair, the sun flaming down warmly. She wished she could always stay like this, free and wild like the wind. If she married a westerner, that would mean moving to Europe. She couldn't imagine living in the West; it was bad enough going there for holidays and seeing the way morals had completely disintegrated and disappeared in some places.
And what about her promise? I don't ever want to forget it. Father, help me… sometimes I think I will. Sometimes I even wish I hadn't promised. She picked a leaf and started systematically tearing it apart. The gardening robot stared at her, but since someone had broken its loudspeakers it couldn't give her a scolding. I just ask you to get me out of this mess. Because I don't want to break my promise.
"Do you always dress like this when you go to work?" was the first thing Mr Ford asked her when he arrived.
"And do you usually travel everywhere in a big fancy company helicopter?" Kitty retorted, glaring at him.
"Well, no, not always… it depends," Mr Ford replied.
"You'll have to learn to be less wasteful if you want to help people in this world!" she said, turning around and leading him into the building.
The desks were, as always, in a bit of a mess. Kitty had forgotten to tell everyone that there was an important guest coming, so no one had washed the coffee machine, scrubbed away tea stains or removed the mountains of notes and letters piling up on the tables. The cleaning robot was still being fixed after a nasty incident involving fast food take-aways and cat hair, so the only changes since the last week were a slightly higher layer of dust on the floor and a few additional papers in the "in" boxes.
"Sorry about the mess," Kitty said, discreetly shoving a dead cockroach under a desk with her foot. "We're not usually this disorganised." She gave some explanations on the organisation, which she would have preferred to skip, glancing longingly at a steaming cup of coffee on the desk before her every few seconds.
Next, she led Mr Ford to the day-care area, where Mei Ling and some other workers were busy giving the children breakfast. "This is actually my department," Kitty explained. "I work mainly here."
"You like working with children?" Mr Ford asked, inspecting one of the lullaby-robots.
"Um… yes," Kitty said. "Very much." She quickly led him away to show him the storeroom, hoping that he wasn't getting ideas. Yes, she liked taking care of children, but that didn't mean that she wanted children of her own! The world was overpopulated, so in her opinion it was better to care for orphans and neglected children than getting more into the world. Can't you tell him that? she asked God. But she had a feeling that his reply was, Why don't you tell him yourself?
Kitty spent almost all day showing him the soup kitchen, the counselling area for the unemployed, the emergency home shelters, the old-age home across the road, as well as the sports facilities and tuition classes for school children. At the end of it all, she was just tired. "Everything is still pretty much as it was twenty years ago," she said once the tour was over. "We don't have much money; all we have comes from donations or church collections, so we can't afford rebuilding everything. We're not sure what we'll do if there's another big earthquake in the area…" She shrugged.
"Well, I'll see what Fordbots can do," Mr Ford replied. "Would it be okay if I came again tomorrow? I'd like to bring some people to interview the workers here, and to speak with the unemployed and ask them about their experiences… You know, to show the rest of the world what is happening here, and to think about how one can help."
Kitty stared at him, wide-eyed. "What, really?" She couldn't believe this. She had always thought that rich people were nothing but spoilt and selfish brats. Apparently, Mr Ford was an exception.
She was glad to see Mr Ford's helicopter disappear as a small dot on the horizon. It had been a long day, and she was thoroughly exhausted. "I hope he goes back to Europe soon," she sighed as she sank into her chair and finally treated herself with a nice hot coffee.
"Why ever so?" Mei Ling asked. "Don't you like him?"
"Fine, he's interested in our work and he's offering help. But just because he's nice doesn't mean I'm straight-out going to marry him! So there!" She disappeared behind her coffee cup.
"At least you don't hate him anymore."
"Who says that?" Kitty put aside the empty cup and reached for a pile of papers.
"Well, the way you were talking to him proved quite a lot of things!" Mei Ling had that evil glint in her eyes again. "You like him more than you wish, don't you?"
"Shush! I have to work!" Kitty pretended not to have heard, but she couldn't hide the blush creeping over her cheeks.
"Ha! You like him! I'm going to design your wedding dress now – traditional Chinese style, okay?"
"Aw… fine, then the usual boring European white."
"NO! No wedding dresses! I'm not getting married! Ever!"
"You said that ages ago. You didn't have a Mr Ford then."
"Mei Ling, I promised!" Kitty cried. "I can't break a promise I made to God!"
"I'm sure he wouldn't mind if it's for your own good," Mei Ling said, shrugging.
"I thought you only wanted his money."
"Well, but he's giving it to us now anyway, didn't you say so?"
"Well, yes…" Kitty hid behind her work notes again.
"I think he's a very good person, rich or not. He'd suit you really well, you know!"
"I've only known him, um… a week?" Kitty raised an eyebrow.
"I don't mean you have to marry him straight away!" Mei Ling exclaimed. "Just don't immediately say you wouldn't even if he asked you!"
"You know, you're only making this temptation test worse."
"Are you still calling it that?"
"What else should it be?" Kitty exclaimed, almost knocking over her empty coffee cup. "Do you think it's just chance, him bursting into my life only mere seconds after swearing not to marry?"
"How do you know it's temptation and not God trying to tell you something? You don't know, that's just it!"
Kitty groaned, leaning her head on her hands. "Can't you go change nappies and feed babies instead of bothering me about this? I have to finish reading this letter; it's important!"
Lord, why are you doing this to me?she asked once Mei Ling was back with the children. Can't you make it somehow stop? Please?
Kitty shuddered as she splashed water over her face, then stared short-sightedly at her blurred reflection in the mirror. Why did it have to be a nightmare? Especially about that! she groaned inwardly. She held her hand under the automatic tap again, wishing that somehow she could wash away the memory of that dream with water alone. But she knew that was impossible.
She tiptoed quietly back through the silent house, listening to her father's regular snores. How she wished she could be as calm and peaceful as him, sleeping away and dreaming about nice things! She would prefer even his worst nightmares – getting stuck in the middle of an important sermon or using the wedding liturgy for a funeral – to dreaming about her wedding. Yes, her wedding.
Is it really you trying to tell me something, or is this a punishment for some sin?Kitty asked, climbing back into bed. She felt silly; it was the first time in over ten years that she was too afraid to go back to sleep. Every time she closed her eyes, the images flashed back into her mind: Mei Ling and her community centre workers holding up a huge poster with flashing lights and blinding colours spelling out We Told You!!! – Her father looking at her over the top of his glasses, a wide smile playing across his old face as he led the wedding service. – Holding Mr Ford's hand and actually enjoying it! – Saying the wrong answer which she did not want to give ever! – Her father grinning and Mei Ling being reduced to a giggling pile on the floor as he said, "You may kiss." – …
She didn't want to go any further than that. She didn't want to see those scenes ever again! So she just sat there, hugging her knees and looking out the window beside her bed, trying not to remember all the uncomfortable details in the dream.
Worst of all was the fact that she hadn't minded nearly as much as she should have. Kitty hoped that this nightmare wasn't reflecting her true feelings – otherwise how could she live with herself? Am I really starting to like Mr Ford? she asked, looking out into the orange-tinged night sky. Am I starting to fall in love with Mr Ford? How she hated saying those words about herself. For years she had thought that she was immune to such a thing. Apparently, she wasn't…
She felt so horribly confused. What should she do? She didn't want to like Mr Ford. Only a week ago, she had hated him – why the change now?
I promised,she thought. I can't change my mind; a promise is a promise, never mind how handsome he is, never mind how useful he could be, never mind what Papa or Mei Ling think! But would it be a sin to just like him a little? Would it be wrong to get to know him better and befriend him more? There wasn't much to worry about; she knew what she would answer him if it ever came to one specific little question…
Or did she?
"Why weren't you there today?" Mei Ling exclaimed.
"I hab a gold," Kitty said, making a big show of blowing her nose in a Hao Hao's Super Reusable Tissue.
"Ha ha. You were just avoiding." Mei Ling glared at her, hands on hips.
"Anyway, nice job. Mr Ford is leaving. Well, he left an hour ago."
Kitty quickly sat upright. "What? Left?"
Mei Ling rolled her eyes. "Yes, back to England. His father had an accident or something, it was rather sudden. He was hoping to see you, but you of course had to be at home with a cold today!" She glared at Kitty again.
Kitty didn't know what to feel. Happy that someone actually wanted to see her before he left? Shocked and disgusted because of the same reason? Upset because of her own stupidity? Or relieved because of it? Why could she no longer decide what she thought about Mr Ford? Why?
"Well, at least you're happy now, aren't you?" Mei Ling said. "You were hoping so much that he'd go away. Well, here you have it! Happy?"
Kitty just stared ahead. "I… I don't know," she finally brought out, eyes wide as she noticed what she was admitting for the first time not only to Mei Ling, but also to herself. "I really don't know."
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