Fiction

Passing judgement

THE TWO JUDGES sat on an enclosed veranda. The apartment at the end of the peninsula looked over the West River to a row of ugly factories on the Chinese side. This was the less fashionable side of Penha Hill, although when Judge Luis Oliviera moved to the apartment sixteen years earlier the all-night ferries from Hong Kong would dock at the wharf below. The view then had a certain charm. There were no factories across the river in those days, and no need for the security bars welded across his windows. Now all Macau's manufacturing had moved across the border and he had to protect himself from the city's only remaining industry – gambling and its criminal baggage. Civil servants in the higher echelons occupied mansions on the other side of the hill, which enjoyed the quieter view over the Pearl River. Quieter, until the recent massacre of the bay.

On this Tuesday Luis had invited his colleague Henriqué Gomes to lunch. They looked out through the bars.

'It could rain again,' Luis said, his voice rising to a hopeful note. He did not want to go to the opening of the new High Court.

'Even if we have a typhoon it looks bad for us not to appear,' Gomes warned. He cut himself another slice of goat cheese. At forty-five, he was the youngest of the Portuguese judges on the bench, though more than a decade older than any of the new Chinese judges. He reminded Luis of Pavarotti, not only because of his thick black beard but because he was large and loud. Gomes was generally amusing company, though on this occasion Luis wasn't looking forward to spending the afternoon with him at the opening.

What a spectacle it would make, all the territory's judges revealed for what they were: sycophants, fawning around the president. Each of them, Gomes included, wanted to impress the president of the republic with their great importance in this tiny fishbowl. They sought to improve their prospects for senior appointments when at the end of the year they returned to Lisbon.

Luis had no intention of returning. A few experienced judges would still be needed here.

He'd been invited by members of the Sino-Luso Joint Liaison Group to stay on after the handover to train the new Chinese judges. This was a task the current government had overlooked. Until a decade ago, no one had seen the need for a law school in Macau. After all, all the Portuguese interested in studying law went to Lisbon. Now the first crop of local Chinese students had graduated from Macau's new law school. They were young and too inexperienced to make sound decisions about people's lives. Someone had to help them. Someone had to instil in them the beauty of the law. To administer Portuguese law, you first had to understand how Portuguese live in the world. They had to learn to think like Portuguese.

He would begin with lessons on how to recognise good wine. They would listen to music, talk of history and literature, and come around slowly to other things that mattered. Only when his students had the feeling for what it was to eat and breathe and live in the Portuguese world would he mention the law.

He would prefer to stay home today, listen to opera and finish the good bottle of red wine he had opened.

As well as cheese, the plate he had put out for lunch held Parma ham, chouriço, artichokes, olives and, in honour of Gomes, pastéis de bacalhau, small parcels of creamy shredded cod with a crisp deep-fried crust. Luis watched his colleague slice yet another hunk of cheese and add it to his plate. The meal was too small for him. It was Luis's habit to eat only a light lunch, but Gomes needed something more substantial.

'This is too simple,' he apologised, making to rise from his chair. 'I will cook pasta.'

Gomes laughed. 'Sit, sit, sit. I don't need to add extra weight to my judgements.' He patted his stomach. 'I worry about you, Luis. You should find a nice girl to cook for you. It doesn't matter, Chinese or Portuguese.'

'I like to cook. I'm good at it.' He gave Gomes a satisfied smile.

 

LUIS HAD DISCOVERED that many nice women in late middle age liked to take cooking classes. He had flown to Paris, Japan and Thailand to attend cooking courses, as much to meet pleasing women as to learn new culinary skills. Women who liked to cook generally liked to eat too. He'd had no trouble at all finding pleasant dinner companions, some of them willing to try something more adventurous than coq au vin or sushi rolls. He had no great passion for any of these women, but they made life alone tolerable. He was happy alone. Besides, Luis had felt more alone in his marriage.

He'd had just one great love in his life. That marvellous and brief affair ended his marriage. He'd made the mistake of following the tradition of men in his family and marrying a much older woman. The partnership had worked the way he expected it should until, on a trip back to Portugal, he met a Brazilian dancer in the transit lounge of Frankfurt Airport. He changed his flight and flew with her to Paris, abandoning the Lisbon leg. It was the only time in his life he'd made a decision that he didn't weigh.

Thinking back to that affair, he had no regrets. It was the only time he'd lived what he thought of as a Big Life. The small things no longer mattered, the daily realities that ground him down, the predictability of an otherwise scripted life. In the end, though, all it freed him from was his wife and beautiful children. She took his son and daughter and returned them to Portugal. Often Luis reminded himself that he believed in just punishment.

These days his life and needs were not complicated. With a good job, relieved by the occasional cooking holiday, he was content. Besides, a little discomfort made life more interesting. Although, of late, he had read and pondered the poetry of Camilo Pessanah, the lawyer-poet who'd lived in Macau and was buried up the road. His poems spoke of men who 'wander and languish in distant climes'.

Gomes wiped his mouth with a napkin. He went on, heartily, 'You are not yet fifty, Luis. Yet you are like someone ready for the grave. Look how you live! This is too sad.'

The room, Luis admitted, was charmless. Uncluttered to the point of bare. But he had no need to fill the apartment again with plants, art, antiques and Chinese rugs. Why recreate a life he'd already lived? His furniture now was government surplus: two green vinyl sofas, a dining table of unremarkable wood, half a dozen hard-backed chairs, two of which they now sat on, and an ugly glass-fronted cabinet that held small gifts people gave him which he wouldn't otherwise know what to do with. On display was a plastic model of a British Airways plane, a cut-glass rooster that caught rainbows of light, three small porcelain figurines of the Chinese immortals, a tiny Eiffel Tower and the three bronze monkeys: speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil. On either side of the cabinet were the speakers of his most valued item: a good stereo. Playing as they ate lunch was Turandot, which he had flown to Beijing to see performed in the Forbidden City.

'It's time you found somewhere more cheerful,' Gomes suggested.

But Luis was listening to the music. 'Perhaps the opening won't last too long,' he said. 'It is time we went, if we must. Are you ready?'

 

LUIS LEFT THE room to slip on his judicial robe. When he came out, Gomes was also robed, examining himself in the hall mirror. He held his head high in profile, as if practicing a theatrical role.

They went outside and waited in the wind, their robes flapping around them. The security guard spoke into a walkie-talkie to summon Felix, the driver. Luis's silver-grey Mercedes pulled up beside them.

Felix drove them down the hill, past the governor's gelato-pink house and onto the Praia Grande. It turned onto the new reclamation and squelched across the mud to the new High Court building. Fellow judges lined up along the road, their gowns lifting and flapping like crows, greeted them as they stepped out.

Behind his colleagues a group of photographers and journalists blocked the entrance. One reporter, a big man with unkempt straw-blond hair, came towards him. 'Asia Review,' he introduced himself. Luis was stuck between Gomes and the road, unable to move quickly along.

'I'd like to get your opinion, judge, about Beijing's challenge to Hong Kong's court of final appeal?' The reporter had him pinned. 'How will that affect Macau's legal system?'

'The situation is different,' Luis said. He was conscious of his rusty English and wished Gomes would move his large frame out of the way so he could move on. 'The same thing can't happen here.' He was ninety-nine per cent sure of this.

In truth he knew that Beijing's intervention in the case in Hong Kong was serious, but he was conflicted. He expected that Macau's incoming administration would ask him to sit in the new court. He didn't want to jeopardise his chances or cast doubt on the authority of the court. In any case, the situation in Hong Kong, which involved mainland Chinese overstaying their visas and claiming residency rights, was unlikely to happen in Macau. 'People go to Hong Kong because they want to make more money,' he told the reporter. 'Here, they make less than they can on the other side of the border.'

'Unless they're involved with the casinos and Triad activities,' the reporter said.

The sound of the motorbikes saved him. The official party was arriving. Luis excused himself and, with a swish of his robes, joined the other members of the judiciary lined up like birds on a wire. He knew his evasion reflected poorly on him. Later, he'd like to find the reporter and explain the situation more thoroughly, he told himself, following the procession into the building.

The parade continued down the centre aisle of the courtroom, around the horseshoe-shaped bench where he and Gomes took their seats on tall black leather armchairs behind brass plates engraved with their names. Only then, he reached into his pocket and pulled out his reading glasses. In front of him was the president's speech, which he began to read. By mistake they had given him the English version.

Luis ran his eyes over the text. It announced the final separation of the courts from Portugal.

...I signed the decree published today in the Diário da República which as from June 1 gives the courts of Macau full and exclusive jurisdiction. This guarantees that the residents of this land will find not only sufficient supervision of their rights in Macau and its courts but justifiable motive to trust them, as it is the courts that will guarantee that Macau is a territory under rule of law and its unalienable underlying principles. These courts are, and will continue to be, served by judges who are independent, irresponsible and unremovable...

'Irresponsible!' Luis began to chuckle. He pointed out the mistake to Gomes. 'It should say not responsible, which is different.'

Gomes frowned, reminding Luis of the solemnity of the occasion.

Luis caught the eye of the reporter from Asia Review. He nodded at the paper and winked.

In slips of the pen there was often a grain of truth.

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