THE GREAT HONG KONG SEX NOVEL BY GEORGE ADAMSCOPYRIGHT GEORGE ADAMS 1993
13. COMING HOME TO ROOST
The next thing that happened and the way it all ended are events I will have to try and reconstruct the best I can. It was all a little confused in the end and when the final disaster happened I was in no fit state to notice much at all.
Someone once told me that the Chinese don't know forgiveness, they only know revenge. This is one of the explanations for the backwardness of the mainland, it is said. People play a lot of games and engage in a great deal of feuding instead of getting on with life.
Clarissa was brought up by people on Lantau who had experienced none of the dubious benefits of Communist reform or of British colonialism. They lived in an island reservation like pampered curiosities. Her people were, in some respects, like those roots of ginseng preserved in wine. But that didn't really tell the whole story. They were more than aboriginals, they were more than cultural relics. At first sight, they resembled rarified crystals of quartz or granite, hardened and refined by years and years of resistance to the outside world. You could turn them this way and that and see all of Chinese village life for two thousand years reflected in their curious ways. On closer examination though, you saw that they weren't crystals at all but colourful fungi that clung to damp and murky earth. Lantau people have had little resistance to progress and willingly surrender their young people to the town. The island is full of ghost villages and old people. The culture tht you took as something hard and resilient is nothing but a thin layer of mould, waiting for money and convenience to blow it away. Revenge too is a crystal that looks like something brilliant and desirable but which crumbles as soon as it is touched. Clarissa - like so many of my clients - pursued it as intently as if it were a diamond.
The great hope for Clarissa was in her religion (she was a Seventh Day Adventist, as I recall) but she obviously hadn't picked up much from her churchgoing. She didn't know the first thing about turning the other cheek. After a week the phone calls started again but this time they were quite calm and strangely more menacing. There were also fewer of them. The last call, about the tenth since she had jobbed my flat in Tsim Sha Tsui, was very strange indeed. She began by apologising for all the things she had done to me. Then her line changed. Nothing she had done so far could make up for what I had done. It was all a kind of rehearsal for something else, she said. She had friends. They would do things right. Then, because she had evidently said too much, she changed to apologies again and gave me to understand the matter was over. She had been naive, too trusting and she would know better next time. She would never trust a foreigner again.
Clarissa really was confused. I could see the many facets and layers of her polarised character battling for control of events even as she spoke. There were switches and reversals even in the space of a sentence. It was hard to follow her in the end. I just didn't know what she wanted to say. More than anything else though, I got to know - during that last call - just what that old chestnut called face really means. She had lost a lot of face by being exploited by me. The worst thing for her was that I had turned the tables. Instead of being the fly, I was the spider. Would-be spiders can't take that at all.
I remember the first moment I knew I was being followed. I was looking around Sincere department store at Central one lunchtime, fighting my way through the feeding frenzy of shoppers attracted by the sales. I was looking for a plain tennis shirt, something without a crocodile or a duck or a brand name on the left breast. Manufacturers were getting wise to people like me and were embroidering the brand name in the same colour as the shirt. I still preferred not to advertise clothing companies without some kind of retainer. The other problem was that XL for the locals is about M in the non-vertically challenged and fully-limbed world. Newcomers to Hong Kong frequently buy M and XL on trust, believing these symbols to be international standards. On the other hand, some sales staff in Hong Kong have made the first adjustment to this problem and produce elephantine sizes - if they stock them - whenever a foreigner darkens their doorway. As a result of naive reliance on sales staff or clothing labels, rookie foreigners in Hong Kong run around in clothes either skin- tight or two sizes too big.
But I digress. The first thing I noticed about my tail was that he had white shoes. Larry had warned me about men in white shoes. It was a dead giveaway, he said, sure proof that the feet inside belonged to a triad member. My man was standing near the doorway looking towards me, trying to appear vague and bored. For a moment, I thought he might be some nascent homosexual or a mainlander in Hong Kong on a jaunt. Some mainlanders have never seen a foreign devil and Hong Kong was really traumatic for them. As for the homosexuals, there were too many in Hong Kong - and rampant types more than nascent ones - for me to give stares or even pouts from men much attention.
The reason I knew my man was following me was because he shifted position every time I moved. When I went into the changing cubicle to try on an unpromising garment in mauve, he stood by the ready-made pinstripe suits looking as nonchalant as Salman Rushdie in a mosque. He was an ugly individual, half-sized even for a Chinese, with hideously pock-marked features which looked Cro-Magnon even in the most charitable of lights. He was carrying a portable telephone so thick and heavy it must have been some kind of world coverage prototype with reserve batteries attached. His hair was permed and his flashy sub-Hawaiian T-shirt yearned for the wash.
The shirt I was trying did not fit and I handed it back to the sales girl. She took it with a frown and I walked to the door hoping that I was wrong about the man in white shoes. Outside, another suffocating day was being served up to Hong Kong's suffering humanity. You could never get used to it. I felt myself breathing deeper as I dodged the crowds of office girls in sensible skirts and ambitious young men in ill-fitting junior exec suits. Real executives don't walk anywhere in Hong Kong, so what you see on the streets at Central is usually second class.
My man would have been second class anywhere. He was so afraid to lose me, he almost bumped into me when I stopped for a moment to admire something in a shop window. He had lit a cigarette, perhaps in an effort to look casual. I stopped in the entrance of an electronic goods store and gave him a hard stare. He produced a folded-up newspaper from his back trouser pocket and pretended to study the racing form.
"Nice day," I said, walking up to him and tapping the newspaper.
"Very good," he said with a smile and quietly strolled away.
I found his retreat strangely comforting. Something told me that when Chinese thugs - or thugs anyhwere - want to do you in, they just do it and run away. Only amateurs advertise their intentions. I had also heard that hit men could be recruited from the Philippines or Guangdong for two thousand dollars and a full English breakfast. Although the tradition was that foreigners were never touched by the local brigands, there had been exceptions.
Walking down Queen's Road towards the underground, I noticed nothing new or remarkable. I remember feeling relaxed - as if what had just happened hadn't happened at all. My mind was racing however. It had to be Clarissa. Although I had come across a lot of pathological characters in my time, the actual manifestations of their disease always shocked me somehow. I wondered whether the man in white shoes was a friend of hers or had been specially hired to put the wind up me. It was illegal of course. Criminal intimidation. If I called the police, I wondered what I could say to them. The man in fact hadn't done anything you could arrest anyone for. I didn't think the police would take me seriously. I would be another crazy gwailo thinking he was being followed. But maybe the fact that I was a criminal lawyer might get me more attention.
With such thoughts in my mind, I was standing outside the MTR, portable phone in hand. I was going to call Larry. When the chips were down, Larry would know what to do. The only problem was knowing where he could be found. There was no point trying to get him in the office before three and he wasn't at home so I would have to try his pager. I was just looking through my little address book for the number when the next goon showed up. This guy made me shudder more than the first one. The reason was that he looked more real. He appeared older than Mr White Shoes and was obviously in very good health. There wasn't a pock mark or pimple to be seen anywhere on his face. He was wearing a nice suit and those expensive tinted spectacles that adjust to the light. He was carrying nothing but a little Gucci grip bag. His hair was nicely slicked back and he looked as if he had done a bit of body-building in his time. All in all, he might have been a regular businessman if his shoes hadn't given him away. They were too pointed and too shiny, the kind showbiz types wear on stage. They were shoes I'd seen all over, in London, in Frankfurt and now in Hong Kong. They were the shoes of crooks who had never been caught.
I think that at just that moment, the real truth of my Hong Kong existence hit me like a hammer blow. Hong Kong was unreal, the stuff for writers of cheap shockers. Maybe that's why there were so many writers around who didn't write anything. Hong Kong reduces you to a sort of silence. You may come to Hong Kong wanting to write a novel. Only later do you realise that you're actually in a novel. And when you're in a novel - pressed in the pages and caught between the lines - you don't have much time for reflection.
My man knew I had seen him. He wanted me to see him. There was a ghost of a malicious grin about his lips when he finally disappeared into the crowd funneling into the MTR. I didn't like that grin. It was the grin of someone who enjoyed his work.
I finally got through to Larry's pager. When he called back, it was clear he had had a good lunch. He began with a belch:
" What's up?"
" I've got to see you. I'm being followed."
" Has she got nice legs?"
" No. It's for real. They look very nasty too."
" Where are you?"
" There are lots of people there. How do you know you're being followed?"
" How do you know when your head aches?"
" OK. See you in the Mandarin coffee shop in half an hour."
The Mandarin was just emptying itself of its lunch time crowd when I arrived so it was easy to find a seat. I waved away the menu when it was offered and stared at the flowers in the little bowl before me for a long time. I thought of telephoning Clarissa and having it out with her but quickly abandoned the idea. Lots of drama was what she had wanted all along and there was no point in pandering to her at this late stage. Nevertheless, I was more than a little intrigued about why she had gone so far and what demons I had stirred when I so thoughtlessly rejected her. It would have been good to have heard the whole story. " It isn't funny," I said when Larry arrived, beaming from ear to ear. " I think they mean business."
" Oh, come on. You're losing your sense of humour. Who do you think put them up to it? Cowper-Gee or that mad Chinese woman.?"
He grinned again.
" I think it's almost certainly Clarissa. She's been sounding more peculiar than usual recently and she did mention something about having friends."
" Oh," he said unconvincingly," that's nothing. Just threats."
" Look, Larry. You don't have to pretend with me. We both know it's serious. They're after me and I'm sure of it."
" Steady on. You need a drink."
Larry summoned a waiter and ordered two scotches on the rocks.
" Want me to do some digging?" he asked at last.
" Yes. In the meantime - and don't smile again or I'll kill you - I'd like somewhere safe to stay."
" Why don't you go to stay with Sam?"
" You must be joking. She'd probably murder me in my sleep."
" All right. I'll see what I can do. Can I borrow your phone a minute?"
He dialled a local number and had a short conversation in an overly distinct kind of pidgin with someone obviously quite hard of hearing. The same person at the other end of the ether was told to expect a guest for a few days and to arrange the usual precautions, whatever that meant.
" Do a lot of this do you Larry?"
" Happens all the time," he said, handing me back the phone.
" Where am I being shipped off to exactly? Po Toi? Ping Chau? The Soko Islands?"
" Oh no. Them's the first places they'd look. No, there's only one place to go to if you really want to disappear in Hong Kong."
" Where's that?"
" Chung King of course. They'll never find you there. Martin Bormann has a penthouse."
There was no sign of our men in the underground. That fact didn't offer us much comfort however. Down in the crowded air- conditioned catacombs, we could have been followed by a hundred unseen hitmen. As the train straightened in the middle of the tunnel on its smooth glide to Tsim Sha Tsui, I looked down the floodlit carriages in both directions. There was the same mass of dark heads, the same short hairless arms clutching the metal bars above like apes at the zoo. The odd startled foreigner eyed me sardonically above the throng in an odd moment of solidarity. For whole moments, I was back to normal.
Coming out of the underground, the streams of people seemed suddenly threatening in their mobility, weaving about us in slipstreams and eddies. Larry eyed me oddly for a moment and he wasn't smiling. He really was taking me seriously.
" What's the name of the place?" I asked him as he was catching his breath at the top of the staircase.
" Balmoral Raj Guest House. Run by a Mr Daswani. Decent cove, actually. Used to be in the police before independence in '47. Loves the British."
" And how come you know him?"
" Oh, let's just say some of his friends and relations have trouble with immigration every now and then."
" Are you sure he'll have room?"
" Sure. The new intake sleeps under the bed in case there's a raid. Don't let that put you off. You're more than welcome. There's always room for one more at the Balmoral Raj."
One of Mr Daswani's friends was waiting for us at the entrance to Chung King Mansion. For a moment, I thought he was one of the restaurant touts because he was holding a grubby set of business cards in one hand. He was quite a young man wearing some kind of ethnic garb with funny baggy trousers. His large unshaven face flashed us a wide smile as we approached.
" Very wonderful to see you again, Mr Snowdon. You are looking splendid, I think."
Larry smiled briefly before he replied.
" Azmy. How did you get back in? I did eveything I could..."
" No trouble, Mr Snowdon. I take new passport photograph and try again."
" Allow me to introduce a very good friend of mine," Larry said, turning to me with exaggerated deference. " Mr Nigel Trelford. I want you to take special care of him."
I felt a greasy hand briefly grip mine. Azmy beamed like a brothel-keeper with the fleet in town. As I caught the garlic and onion odours of his fetid canine breath, I immediately decided to bolt the door of my room and sleep on my wallet.
" Couldn't we move on a little? Half Kowloon knows I'm here I'm sure, " I hissed impatiently.
" Lead on, Azmy," said Larry.
We were now in another world. Chung King was less a ghetto, less even an enclave. It was more an actual piece of Bombay or Islamabad, an island of South Asia in Tsim Sha Tsui. Most remarkable of all, there were no locals at all to be seen, not one. From the Chinese world of Nathan Road we had entered the Black Hole of Calcutta via the Arabian Nights and the Taj Mahal. The transformation was radical. Curry took over from the gasoline in the air; costumes changed from conservative business suits to turbans, gowns and thongs; the Golden Mile became a bazaar. As I stood there in my suit and tie, gasping for breath in the hot still air, I half expected Bob Hope and Dorothy Lamour to appear around the corner or to be offered dirty postcards by a ragamuffin Moorish boy.
" We'll soon know if the goons turn up," I said to Larry as we moved towards a listless crowd of backpackers and muftis waiting for the lift to arrive. Monochrome images of lift interiors flickered on clapped-out mini monitors above us. The people in the lifts, displayed televisually, looked like startled astronauts.
" I hope so for your sake," said Larry.
Suddenly, as the lift doors closed, I thought I heard someone call my name in the crowd waiting for the other lift. I gave a start and gripped Larry for a second.
" Steady on, Nigel," he said. " What's the matter?"
" Nothing much," I said, attempting some kind of composure. "I thought I heard something."
" You really are in a bad way," said Larry.
Azmy smiled broadly once again, revealing a layer of permanent-looking green gunge just below the gum line of his front teeth. He said something I just couldn't work out in his funny colonial English. It sounded like " just in time for tea" but I may be wrong. I had no idea what nationality he was nor what stories he had to tell. He could easily have been an extra in any film on the Middle East or India, comic or tragic. I imagined him chasing Sid James or Milton Berle through a crowded market in Marakesh or being garotted with his own sweaty turban by James Bond. All in all, he was the funniest thing I had come across for years. It was such a pity I didn't have time to get to know him better.
The lift doors opened on the sort of corridor only found in Chung King mansion. The air was suffocating and the floor was littered with old newspapers. It was also rat-infested to judge by the large saucers of poison pellets in every corner and doorway. At the end and to our left, above a glass door obscured by grimy lace curtains through which rows of Christmas fairy lights sparkled intermittently in unseasonal greeting, hung the rusting metal sign of the Balmoral Raj Guest House. Azmy scampered ahead of us to ring the bell. It was, naturally, a resounding Big Ben chime. The door opened and Azmy ushered us in with a slight respectful bow.
" Mr Snowdon. How nice to see you again."
A small Indian man, elderly and worn, suddenly appeared in the doorway beaming in greeting. He had a thin wiry appearance and his shabby clothes hung on him as if worn by a scarecrow. His face changed in a moment and was replaced by a look of intense and rapacious guile.
" Mr Trelford," said Mr Daswani, proffering an emaciated hand, " I have heard so much about you."
I looked around me for a moment taking in the scene. The cramped entrance area of the Balmoral Raj had a makeshift counter at one end and was home to several pieces of ill-matched heavy furniture, some in cheap leather whilst others were covered in dusty taffeta and plush. Yellowing posters of London traffic scenes and monuments adorned the walls. Behind me, a number of oversized goldfish gasped for oxygen on the surface of an algae- laden tank whose clogged-up filter bubbled silently amongst murky ferns and weeds.
" Mr Trelford would like to take it easy for a few days," Larry said.
" The usual arrangements?" asked Mr Daswani, now looking for all the world like Wilfred Hyde-White playing Fagin.
There was a pause. Mr Daswani's right hand twitched slightly.
" And the usual payment?" he asked at last.
I reached for my wallet and produced two five hundred dollar bills.
" Don't foget to ask me for the receipt, sir, " said Mr Daswani and led me towards my room. Negotiating the jutting edge of the counter and stepping over a strategically placed plastic spittoon, I followed Mr Daswani down a narrow dusty corridor. The passageway had two or three partitioned rooms on my left side. The doors were ajar. Inside the rooms, small crowds of dark- skinned men of Asian and Arab origin looked up at me for a moment as I passed. All had tired, desperate eyes like men in the condemned hold. When the momentary novelty of my passage was over, they resumed their dozing, gambling or aimless staring.
" How many guests do you have at the moment, Mr Daswani?" I asked when we halted at the end of the corridor.
" Oh, many, many. They are all old friends. My humble guest house has many friends, from all over the East. I am a very lucky man."
The room I was led into could have been the amah's room in a particularly cruel Hong Kong household. Cramped, dingy and decrepit, there was hardly room to lie down in. There was however a bed, a tiny bathroom, a working air conditioner and a few hangers behind the door so, in a sense, I considered myself lucky.
" This will do nicely, " I said, trying to sound breezy.
" Luxury," said Larry with a smile.
" This better not be some kind of joke," I said to Larry when Mr Daswani was out of the way.
" Not at all. Look upon it as deep cover. The deepest there is."
" And what are you going to do in the meantime?"
" Oh, I'll ask around, as I said and report back as soon as I hear anything. My advice is not to go out and to lock the door. If the police raid the place, tell them you're trying to get away from the wife. They'll understand."
When Larry was gone, I took off my jacket and lay back on the musty-smelling bed, feeling intensely sad but contemplating everything except suicide. I have never contemplated suicide. Suicide, to my mind, is such a waste of opportunity. I have determined that if I go violently and suddenly, I want to take a select list of people with me. The list includes accountants, Americans, Margaret Thatcher, virtually all my fellow lawyers, Barry Manilow, people who wear dark glasses in the street when it isn't sunny, people with surnames for first names such as Crawford and Scott and certain local politicians, especially those in the Liberal Party. The list is headed by all doctors and psychiatrists whether they have treated me or not. When I run amok in survivalist uniform, they are the first people to lock up in my underground bunker. I think that is as it should be. It certainly gives them greater motivation to cure me and to be accurate - if not entirely fair because no doctor can be fair in such matters - with the bills they present.
After a while, I got up and walked into the lounge. The opportunities for entertainment at the Balmoral Raj appeared to be limited to the telly and to cards. Some instinct told me not to play cards with Mr Daswani or the cargo of the partitioned rooms. So I was reduced to sitting on a sticky leather sofa listening to Mr Daswani's memories of the Raj and his reflections on the state of modern Britain. TVB Pearl was blaring from a colour (blue and red only) television propped uneasily on the large green fridge, next to a scratched and pitted microwave oven.
" The problem with England," Mr Daswani explained slowly with great seriousness and concern, " the real problem is the wogs. The country is full of them, from Bengal, Sri Lanka, Bombay, you name it, you see. Terrible, isn't it? They don't speak one single bloody word of the language and expect the Queen, God bless her, to look after them with their stinking breath and toe rags. Whatever next?"
" But they seem to do a lot for the economy. They work very hard," I replied with aimless idealism, to keep the conversation going.
" Work? With their bloody newsagents' and off-license Cyprus sherry! Is that work? Is that work good enough for the Queen? No, I would love to live in England. It is my country, you know. I am British and proud to be so. But nowadays it is a burden to be British, I tell you."
I didn't feel like eating much so contented myself with the few sandwiches and cup of tea Mr Daswani made for me in his kitchenette cum bathroom. The neatly cut sandwiches were surprisingly good. The same couldn't be said of the tea. Thrice strained and rusty tasting, it had a workhouse flavour to it, a taste that brought home to me the misery of a night in Chung King. About midnight, TVB at last presented its late news flashes. These came as no compensation for the merciless way the station had drawn out the film with endless commercial breaks. With a nod to Mr Daswani, I slunk off to my room. There I undressed, folded my suit neatly, and fell onto the bed, exhausted.
Just as I was finally falling asleep there was a knock at the door. I was uneasy for a moment until I heard the Indian accent. It was Mr Daswani.
" Sorry to disturb," he said as I eased open the door a little to reveal his thin silhouette in the dimly-lit corridor outside." I just wanted to know... whether you would like me to call you someone to keep you company. A girl perhaps... I know a very good number."
Under the circumstances, I politely declined.
14. THE MAN IN THE THE PINK SATIN CAMISOLE
That night I had a vivid dream. It was just the sort of dream to throw at a therapist for interpretation and I have tried it on a number of them whilst I have been inside. They never get it right. In my dream, I was a child holding a small plastic dish in my hand. Inside the dish were a number of expiring goldfish, some mutilated and bandaged with fragments of brightly coloured cloth. I took the small creatures and put them into a soup bowl of fresh water. They revived and started to move. From the soup bowl I poured them into a tank with lights, aerator and filter. The fish thrived.
The air conditioner was blowing full blast when I woke but still the air in my room was heavy and humid. It was eleven thirty and I had slept fitfully for ten hours. I showered under a stream of lukewarm water and dressed in a hurry. After some hesitation, I put on my suit and tie again. They made me feel more secure. I wanted a drink of tea or coffee desperately so I found my way to the lounge. Mr Daswani was standing behind his counter trying to persuade a large cat to eat a sliver of fish. The crowds of boarders had gone.
" Good morning, Mr Trelford," Mr Daswani said warmly. "It's breakfast you're looking for, is it?"
I nodded esuriently.
" Just on the other side of the corridor. My nephew has a very nice eatery. Full English breakfast: marmalade and bangers. Very reasonable."
I nodded and walked to the door. Just before my hand reached the handle, I turned and asked:
" Any news from Mr Snowdon?"
" Yes indeed. You should be calling him as soon as you are awake."
I walked to the telephone on Mr Daswani's desk. Somehow, my portable didn't function well in Chung King.
" Larry, what gives?" I asked a sleepy voice at the other end of the line.
" Bad news, Nigel. They're after you."
" How do you know?"
" I know. Everybody knows. I don't know what you did to this girl but she's really got it in for you. She's put up quite a lot of money, apparently. Her family's helping her out, they say. It all looks pretty nasty."
" Good God. what can I do?"
" Do? Well, you could always apply for protective custody, I suppose.
" I'd be debarred."
" Not necessarily. You're in Hong Kong you know. As long as you don't touch anything underaged and promise to give back some of the loot, you can go on practicing law for ever..."
" It's out of the question."
Suddenly, I had an idea.
" Do you know any bodyguards?, " I asked, doing my best to sound serious.
" Oh yeh. Know lots of those. Bit pricey mind you."
" Well find one and call me back. If I'm still alive."
I slammed down the telephone, then wished I hadn't.
" Things are a little sticky, I think," said Mr Daswani, stroking his cat's matted fur slowly, almost sensually for a moment.
" You might say so," I replied abstractedly.
" If you will take my advice, you will have nothing to do with the Chinese. They are a very bad lot. I remember buying my first bicycle from a Shanghaiese trader. It must be forty years ago now. He said it was a new model with self-inflating tyres, can you believe. I rode it home through the streets of Delhi and everyone was laughing at me. I was puffing and panting up the hills, trying to get the heavy machine home without any air in the tyres. I kept looking down waiting for a miracle to happen. Only when I was at home was I realising what had happened. The Chinaman was too lazy to pump up the tyres. Can you believe that? They tell you anything, you see. You cannot trust them."
" Yes, you may be right," I said and strode out into the corridor in search of full English breakfast. I had remembered to take my wallet and telephone with me just in case Mr Daswani might want some casual advance payment or a deposit for the same.
An illuminated sign which had not been in place when I arrived now flashed the legend: BALMORAL RAJ EATERY - ALL DAY BREAKFAST AND SPLENDID TIFFIN in lurid blue and gold above the doorway opposite the guest house. Suddenly, the opaque smoked glass door opened and Azmy stood before me.
" Good morning sir. A table for one, I think?"
Azmy was wearing a soiled white shirt and a bow tie. He had also ¨still not found time to shave. He led me to a table covered by a white plastic table cloth by the window. A smeared laminated plastic menu informed me that the FULL ENGLISH BREAKFAST (eggs, sausage, bacon, tomato, beans, chips and rancid grease with tea, toast and marmalade) cost thirty five dollars. For some reason, I ordered one without hesitation.
My telephone rang. It was Sam. She had been round to the flat to get some more of her things and wanted to know if I wanted to keep any of the potted plants. I said she could have them all except for the rubber tree. As for the records, all the vinyl was mine and she could have all the pop CDs. Amazed that I could decide things like that so well so early in the morning, I quite lost my sensation of dread for a moment. I even tucked into my breakfast plate with something like a hearty appetite. Life, for several whole seconds, seemed good.
Then I noticed him. In the far corner, partially hidden by an air conditioner outlet, was the man in the sub-Hawaiian T-shirt. I couldn't see his white shoes but I was sure he was wearing them. Guys like him never took them off. With eyes as swivelled as his were, it was always difficult to know whether he was watching anything but I guess he had been looking at me for some time before I decided to look back. He didn't seem threatening, merely bored, as if he were waiting for his wife to come back from the john. The only sign of unease was in the way he gripped his portable phone, his short fat fingers twitching slightly with tension.
I had to think quickly. It was no use making a bolt for the door, as he might decide to do me then. The kitchen might not have an independent exit so I was left with the toilet. Even if it didn't have an exit, it might at least give me time for a good cry. Then I had a brainwave.
I picked up the menu and called Azmy. He strode towards me, beaming with anticipation.
" More baked beans, sir?" he asked, eyeing my plate with concern.
" Not yet thanks. Azmy, out of interest, is there a way out of here, perhaps through the toilet?"
" No, sir. Only through the kitchen. Do you want to see?"
" No. But you can do something for me. Don't look now but there's a Chinese man in the corner after me. Now walk over there with a large pot of tea. When I pick up my telephone, drop it all over him. Then I'll make my move for the kitchen. If you can keep him here in the restaurant for a minute, I'd be very pleased."
" Say no more, sir."
It worked like a dream. The tea was hotter than I actually thought necessary to judge by the pain on Mr Hawaii's face and I ¨was in the kitchen before he had even begun to realise what was going on. I quickly bolted the door behind me. Turning to look for the exit, I noticed four or five Indian guys standing in front of a big black gas range, sweating profusely in the close atmosphere that stank of curry and burnt butter. They smiled broadly and ushered me to the open exit.
I ran as quickly as I could down the staircase, dodging baskets of refuse and skidding occasionally on unidentified pools of sliminess. The staircase got dirtier and more congested as I approached ground level and there were two or three street sleepers stretched out on the last landing, their pitiful belongings gathered around them in neatly tied bundles.
At last I was on the stifling mezzanine floor of Chung King trying desperately to mingle with the crowd. Only then did I become aware of how conspicuous I was in my smart city suit and tie. I would have to go to earth pretty fast if I didn't want to be found in a hurry. In the end, there was only one place I could think of.
Walking briskly along Nathan Road towards the harbour, I fended off the copy watch touts with more vehemence than usual. Fortunately, I didn't have to walk far. Just before the first hotel, next to the stall selling vibrators and pornographic playing cards, was an underground massage parlour Larry had once recommended for some harmless fun. It was noon so it was just opening. I ran down its thickly carpeted stairs, my mind racing for the next move.
" Two hours, sir?" the not unpretty girl at the counter asked hopefully.
" I'm sorry. I don't have time for J. Arthur this afternoon."
" J. Arthur? Sorry. I don't know..."
" Forget it. Just a joke."
The girl looked at me in amazement for a few moments, then pointed me towards the changing room. There was no one inside save two teenage male attendants and an old man who kept pointing to my feet and smiling hopefully.
" Food sclape," said the old man at last.
" Oh, no thanks."
I deposited my clothes in the tiny wooden locker but hung on to my wallet and phone. You never know when they might come in handy.
The place was like the other sauna joints in town - all white marble, badly-fitting shorts and bubbling steam. The flabby attendants looked on, diligently committing my appendages ¨to memory as usual. I sat in the hot pool for a few minutes wondering what I would do if the hoodlums showed up. Perhaps they would do it just there, where I sat, and the blood would fill the pool, just as they do it in the gangster movies. I had to phone Larry. I needed the bodyguards fast.
At the side of the pool there was an old guy investigating his scrotum with vivid interest. He looked like a camped-up Frankie Howerd, all wrinkles and secret lusts. I got out of the pool and stood there for a while watching the pink flesh of my body glisten and smart. I felt more relaxed now. They could take me any time. Frankie Howerd looked over at me for a moment, all mournful and world-weary. Perhaps his number was up as well.
In the end though, it's the body that rules events. Resigned to my fate and willing to bite a cyanide capsule if there had been one lodged in my teeth somewhere, you can't beat the urge to go to the john. All things being equal, the sphincters have the edge.
I found my way to the sanitationally challenged gents' and took a pew. The door closed comfortingly on my crisis for a while. I sat toying with my portable phone, scrolling past the numbers of the girls on the digital display, wondering morbidly who would turn up to my funeral. As their names and numbers flashed onto the tiny LCD screen, I half saw their faces, their bodies, their smiles, the look they had when I told them we were through. In melancholy and in reminiscence there is a kind of safety. In happiness you always feel a little anxious that it can't last. If I kept my thoughts on the past, even with a dozen hoodlums chasing me, nothing could harm me.
Or so I thought. When I saw the shiny shoes of the hood who liked his work sidling past my cubicle, I nearly fell off my throne. There's something ignominious about being wiped out whilst on the closet, so pride and self-esteem made me think fast. Any moment now my man was going to kick the door open and slip me a stiletto. There was only one thing to do.
I decided to squat on the toilet just like the locals. It got my legs out of the way and maybe my man would figure I wasn't a gwailo. It was a cheap trick but one I thought more than worthy of a Hong Kong barrister. I held my breath and waited.
It worked. My man inspected the vacant closets and left.
I was still in a tight jam however. If my man had asked around, he knew I was somewhere in the building. He was probably going around the massage rooms right now, looking under the towels for a shiny, frightened Englishman. It made sense for his friend to be watching the changing room. Models and film starlets excepted, people don't get very far in Hong Kong without their clothes.
I pulled up my pants and opened the door. I had to find some clothes and a weapon, then make a fast exit. All that's pretty ¨hard to do when you're practically naked in a gentleman's toilet, armed only with a towel, a wallet and a portable telephone.
Yet fortune again smiled upon me. In the cubicle next to mine I spotted a mop. Mops usually have handles. Mop handles can be pretty mean weapons. I knew that from my games with the neighbourhood kids when I was little.
I eased open the door of the cubicle and found all the equipment the cleaner needed for the gents' on his annual clean-up: mop, buckets, substances in plastic bottles. Hanging on the nail behind the door were a few old bits of clothing and a folded holdall. The holdall was one of those Guangzhou express jobs in red white and blue. Some people call it a Manila suitcase as it's very popular with maids taking home presents to their families on Smoky Mountain. It holds about as much of anything you could possibly want to take anywhere. What I took to be a collection of clothes was simply a single crumpled pair of short black silk amah's trousers. They looked as if they might fit me if I didn't mind a few strategic rips and tears.
I slipped into the trousers and felt them give in the groove of my arse and at my right hip. I felt with my hand but fortunately there wasn't too much of my buns exposed. Having solved the problem of trousers, there remained the thorny question of covering my torso. In the brilliant clarity of nascent madness, the solution suggested itself immediately.
The Manila suitcase, I now saw, was a garment waiting to be born. Removing the stitching either side partly and at the bottom totally, I fashioned the most ingenious model of emergency Third World apparel. When I put it on over my head through the large hole at the bottom, eased open the zipper at the top and slid my arms through the little gaps I had ripped out on the sides, I had a colourful and practical waterproof jerkin destined to be the envy of all my friends. The one drawback was that it didn't do too much for my figure. It did however match the sauna's red flip flops.
Mop in one hand, wallet and telephone secured in the pockets of my amah's trousers, I tiptoed to the main door, eased it open a little and looked back into the changing room. The Hawaiian T-shirt had emptied my locker and was going through the pockets of my jacket and trousers. He held the jacket up to himself and looked into the mirror. I saw him mentally shortening the trousers a foot and removing most of the length of the jacket. He folded, then rolled the clothes carefully into a neat wad. Slipping off his scuffed white casuals, he tried on my heavy brogues. My man seemed to like brogues. Despite being abouteight sizes too big for him, he took to them like a fish to water. When he bent down to fasten the laces, I knew my moment had come.
Charging from the toilet like a bat from hell, the mop caught my man neatly in his diminutive scrotum and caused him to double up ¨with pain. I struck him again with the mop handle across his neck and he dropped to the floor, moaning in voluble Cantonese. I rushed past him into reception, found the way clear and ran up the stairs feeling a keen rush of victory.
Leaving my mop jammed in the doorway, I stood in steamy Nathan Road for a moment taking stock of my situation. Passers-by - tourists and locals alike - gave me a wide berth. I did however detect looks of reassurance on many faces when I reached down to readjust my portable phone.
" Hey man," an American voice said behind me suddenly.
I turned round. The tall, skinny man addressing me looked like a Chung King backpacker just arrived from Afghanistan. He had the usual weird sandals, baggy shorts, ethnic embroidered T-shirt and silver earring.
" I'm looking for a chemist."
Resisting the urge to rush off for a moment, I replied in my best plummy, helping-the-tourists voice:
" Well, Watson's is just on the other side of the street, about fifty yards..."
" Watson's?" the man said, picking carelessly at a scab on his exposed upper thigh.
" Is that a dive or summink?"
" No, no. It's, you know, a drugstore."
" Hey man. You're pullin' my chain, man. I wanna get down, man. I need to score. I wanna chemist man."
" Sorry. Can't really help you, " I said and bolted towards the Sheraton.
Already there was the ghost of a plan bubbling in my cranium. I just had to jump into a taxi and head for home. I could call Larry on the way and get the bodyguards into position. Then, perhaps, I would call the police.
I stopped in Middle Road and tried to flag down a cab. Next to me at the side of the road was a Japanese couple in late middle age with half a dozen plastic bags either side of them. It was then that I had another brainwave.
" Konichi wa," I said to the bemused tourists and bowed a little. "You want holdall? I have holdall," and I pulled off my jerkin to show them.
The gentleman smiled briefly and turned to his wife.
" It's very good. Very modern. Great souvenir."
" Ah, souvenir," said the man suddenly, warming to me through his gold-rimmed spectacles. " You have souvenir?"
" Yes," I said, "try this one."
I thrust the bag over the man's head through the bottom end and closed the zipper tight. He thrashed around blindly for a moment. His wife meanwhile gripped her handbag tightly and shrank back in terror. As she started to scream, I reached down and grabbed two or three of the plastic bags. Then I ran on.
For some reason, my bare torso did not frighten passers-by as much as the Manila jerkin had done. I could have been a British soldier on a binge or one of the tackier tourists cooling off for a while. Even now, I belonged to the Hong Kong street scene.
But not for long. Halting in the entrance to the Sheraton briefly, I looked into the bags I had stolen. The first contained a dressed Chinese paddy doll in a plastic container. The second bag held a pair of Nike trainers five sizes too small. Only the last bag had something I could possibly wear.
Discarding the cardboard and cellophane gift wrapping it came in, I found an interesting pink silk garment in my hands, a camisole with straps and a sort of garter belt, it appeared, at one end. It also had hard brassiere cups at the top, the sort Jane Mansfield might have worn in her heyday. Desperately, I slipped it on. It was a tight fit but better than nothing at all. Pink was never my favourite colour and the straps were dangling but, all in all, I merely looked strange rather than bizarre. In the heat of the chase, with people milling about me and the humidity slowly causing my mind to atrophy and blur, I actually thought my camisole quite fetching.
My next move was to cross the road and find a taxi. I ignored the little illuminated red man and rushed to the opposite pavement, pushing a few startled locals to one side as I veered left towards the harbour. I now saw taxis stopping in front of the Pensinsula and was just about to join the short queue when I spotted Hawaiian T-shirt coming down the lobby steps towards me with a look of enraged Blutlust on his repulsive face.
Running round the fountain, I was once more in the main road, heading towards the Star Ferry as quickly as my rubber thongs could carry me. Just as I reached the YMCA, my telephone rang. I pressed the dial and lifted the phone to my face.
" Hello," I said breathlessly.
" Hello, it's Dorothy," announced a calm, high treble voice. "Where are you?"
" In Kowloon, " I panted.
" Are you busy?"
" You could say that," I replied.
" I want to see you tonight."
" Not really possible, darling."
" Why not?"
" It's a long story."
And I rang off.
15. A FAIRLY HONOURABLE DEFEAT
Avoiding the underpass, I ran over Kowloon Park Drive dodging the buses and minicabs. Drivers cursed me colourfully as I passed. I looked over my shoulder for a moment. My man, blocked by traffic, was speaking into his huge portable phone on the other side of the road.
" Come on, I'm ready for you, you mean bastard," I shouted defiantly, my mettle up and running and adrenalin coursing through my loins and chest.
" What's wrong mate," asked a large, friendly-looking Australian tourist in shorts and bush hat as I was leaping over the wire fence and tearing my trousers around the groin in borderline indecent exposure.
" They're after me," I said with a terrified expression, pointing over the road with a trembling digit of my right hand.
" Yeh, the abos get you like that sometimes," the man replied and patted me on the shoulder in a warm and ridiculous gesture of solidarity.
I looked at the man's large red face for a moment trying to think of a reply. Nothing came and as the man in white shoes was now half way over the first of the roads in the dual carriageway, I decided it was time to make myself scarce.
" Try and head him off, will you?" I shouted after me.
" Will do, mate," said the Australian as naturally as if I had asked him the time of day.
There was one more road to negotiate before I reached Star House and of course the little illuminated man was on red. I looked behind me. The Australian had picked up my man by his shoes and was dangling him over the green railing outside the charity craft shop. One white shoe came off and my man careered into the road. A number two double decker swerved and missed.
At last I was at the barrier of the lower deck entrance to the Star Ferry, fiddling in my wallet for pieces of small change. I had no coins at all so I walked up the counter of the small snack bar and bought one of their famous blueberry muffins. I nibbled it thoughtfully for a second before throwing it away. Then the change was counted out before me. I left everything but the dollar and twenty cents I needed.
" Thank you, sir" said the Filipina assistant with a brief admiring look at my bodice. I stuck my wallet in one of the cups of the bra and walked to the barrier again as naturally as my tranvestism would allow.
The bell was ringing and the barrier was about to close. I ran on ¨tirelessly, desperate to reach the ferry in time, past the illuminated signs, past the Weigh Yourself machine, past the wrinkled attendant in his camp sailor's uniform, through the final chink of the barrier, just as the gate was about to be slammed closed.
On the ferry itself, installed as inconspicuously as possible in one of the side seats, next to the deafening engine room, I wasn't alone for long. This was despite my attempts to flatten the bra cups of my chest and to cross my arms resolutely, if a little unnaturally, over the ripped crutch of my silk trousers.
From the side of the ferry, by the gangway, I was being watched by the oddest of Hong Kong's street sleepers. His body encased in a collection of oily rags apparently stuffed with newspaper, it was nearly impossible to discern where dirty skin and soiled rags met. With a Ho Chi Minh beard and his matted grey hair, he looked like a Chinese Ben Gunn. I smiled briefly as I pictured such a character running up to his rescuers on a castaway island, entreating them for a piece of toasted bean curd. The smile of course was my big mistake.
" Very good," the man said, shuffling towards me with one thunb raised in apparent appreciation of my pink camisole.
" I like. I like very much."
And he fingered the material with his grubby paws, leaving streaks of grime in his wake.
" If you follow me home, you can have it," I replied, trying to sound natural.
" Is very good," the man said again in his sibilant, slightly infantile English and foamed slightly from his disgusting hairy maw. The people around us meanwhile were trying their hardest not to look.
" You like woman?" Ben Gunn asked suddenly.
" Less and less," I said. " The truth is, at the moment, I feel I could do without them. Just for a while, you know."
" I-like-woman," Ben said slowly and deliberately, his tongue licking both his lips and several vomit-encrusted hairs of his beard in a kind of earnest appraisal of the situation.
He placed one hand on my thigh and gave me a disingenuous leer.
" You woman," he said finally, pinching my thigh between two of his long black fingernails.
My telephone rang and I politely lifted Ben's paw from my upper thigh just as it was about to wander to my privates.
It was Larry.
" Where are you Nigel? I can hardly hear a thing."
" I'm on the Star Ferry. "
" Are you alone?"
" Practically, yes."
" I mean, are you still being followed?"
" I lost one of them at Star House. I don't think there's anyone on the ferry with me."
" Well, here's the plan. If you can make it to Pedder Street, I'll be waiting with a taxi. I've got a few good boys with me. One of them used to be a shark hunter. I can't wait for long, mind you. What time is it now?"
" Two thirty."
" OK. Just make it to Pedder Street and your problems are over. Good luck."
There was a hiss in the ether and he was gone.
Ben Gunn meanwhile had begun to fall asleep, no doubt dreaming of pink lingerie. He lay slumped up against me, one arm clasped affectionately around my waist. I did not think it wise to wake him. Meanwhile, the ferry was approaching Victoria and I felt safety loom up before me like a glow of radiant celestial light. As the disembarking crowd gathered around myself and the street sleeper, I began to be admired by all manner of strange Chinese gentlemen in off-the-peg suits. I glared at them like tramps and maddies do and watched their tiny eyes vacillate uneasily behind their expensive spectacle lenses.
The gangplank dropped and I rushed away from Ben Gunn before he could awake and claim me. For a moment, I basked in the anonymity of the crowd, enjoying the way it released me from the weight of being Nigel Trelford. In a very vivid sense, another goldfish was being revived.
I walked dizzily down the steps and picked my way through the crowd of self-important people rushing to appointments, homes, girlfriends and the other lures of vibrant Hong Kong. I was jostled and pushed, sneered at and despised. I remember beginning to feel sorry for myself and I was just about to buy a can of Carlsberg to soothe my spirits. As I was fiddling in my wallet for a bank note in front of the little snack bar at the lower deck entrance, the final great trauma of the afternoon got under starter's orders.
Standing by a stall purveying some Chinese elixir made of turtles or something equally disgusting, rare and endangered, was none other than Clarissa Leung. That afternoon, in the glare and heat of a Hong Kong summer, she looked like a case study for the Castle Peak asylum admissions ward. Her hair knotted and shiny, her face plastered with misaligned make-up and her body bedecked with an assortment of creased castoffs of yesteryear, her whole presence screamed dysfunctionality like a hawker at his barrow. Notwithstanding her bizarre appearance, she did not look threatening, at least not to a dispassionate observer. Her clothes - if not her eyes - indicated you were dealing with the type of person you would lead gently to a white van after she had willingly swallowed a small yellow tablet or two. Yet, for all that suggestion of harmlessness, in a very real sense I knew she was dressed to kill.
Clarissa did not see me for several seconds. She was too involved in savoring the elixir, sipping it langorously as if it were my own blood. When she saw me, frozen as I was like a rabbit in the headlights of an oncoming container truck, she became equally impassive for a moment. Then the passion began. Beginning at her eyes, which flashed and hardened with deep-seated hatred, her face began to colour with a succession of purples and pinks which I could just discern in the odd translucent patches where the war paint had worn thin. Her body stiffened and the dish she was holding fell to the ground with a crash of glass and porcelain.
" Nigel," she shrieked, one hand raised in a crazy gesture of quasi-damnation, " I want to kill you. I want to kill you now."
Just when I was considering having it out with Clarissa there and then, I saw she was not alone. The man with the shiny shoes was with her. He had been hidden by a few of the elixir guzzlers but they had moved on when they heard his mad companion shriek. He was now clearly exposed, standing at Clarissa's side and fumbling for a hard object he kept inside his jacket, just below the left shoulder...
I ran towards the subway leading to Statue Square, past the old men with the rickshaws, picking my way between horrified passengers alighting from taxis. Just as I entered the subway a single gunshot rang out. Ahead of me, people were now hurrying out of my path with looks of terror on their faces. My heart raced, my knees wobbled and my head swam. If I had not been pursued by a revengeful harpy and her hired assassin, I might have been falling in love.
Just as I emerged from the subway, where Filipinas by the walls either side deafening me with their voluble chatter and a newspaper seller shuddering behind his stall when he spotted me, I felt a curious feeling of elation, even euphoria coursing through me. In a very real sense, it was more wonderful than falling in love.
I ran over Chater Road, avoiding the traffic which streamed in impatient columns around me, and reached the entrance to Prince's Building. An elderly expatriate lady in a fur stole opened the glass door, sneered slightly and marched on with a determined stride. Meanwhile, my feeling of elation grew and began to take on a weird feeling of triumph.
I now saw before me, in piercing detail, the faces of the women I had loved, scorned and abused, the fingers raised in anger and the tears which gathered in their large brown slanted eyes. I felt stabs of remorse and pangs of pity. I relived the victory, the wonder of bedding them in all the locations I had ever campaigned against them, the women of Hong Kong. In the background of my vision, a swirling surge of music, rhythmically confused but entrancing in its breadth of expression, pounded and throbbed in a never-ending succession of melodies.
Running round the corner, past Alexandra House, I was now approaching the tram stop in front of Landmark. At last words, wonderful words came to my lips, at once sensationally new but strangely familiar. I passed the expensive boutiques with the first of the words practically forming in my throat. Now running up Pedder Street with, I could feel, a look of divine inspiration on my face, I mouthed the beginning of a phrase which was forming in my brain with the penetrating clarity of a clarion call.
" I love..." But nothing else came for a while. "I love..." and still there was nothing to follow. I tried once more and as my legs began to give way and my lungs burst with the debt of oxygen I owed them, the phrase - all of it - came forth with the urgency of an orgasm.
"I LOVE HONG KONG", I cried as I collapsed into the arms of two amazed policemen.
16. IN THE DEBTOR'S PRISON
They're very good to me in here. I can come and go as I wish and they'll bring me anything I ask for, within reason. They brought me some new batteries for the dictaphone today. They like me to keep busy. They think I'm some kind of writer. I suppose I look seedy enough by now.
St Barnabas', where I am now, is more like a hotel than a hospital. Unlike most hotels, you have to pay in advance or at least prove you can pay. It's the same story in all of the private hospitals in Hong Kong. I call it a debtor's prison, the place people go to make good for the indulgent life they've led outside. They wheel them in here all the time: young executives with heart conditions, police superintendents with collapsing livers, bored expat housewives confused about the dosage of their medicaments. And people like me. The doctors hate people like me. They look at the charts and the chemical analyses and see you're just an emotional wreck. Then they can't wait to get rid of you.
One evening, when I was feeling sad (it took me a little time to find the right word. The shrink is very keen that I find the right word.), I telephoned one of the callgirl agencies and asked for something special. When I gave them the address they said they couldn't provide their services to hospitals or prisons. I thought that a bit uncharitable of them. After all, it's the people in hospitals and prisons who need a bit of the other more than ordinary folk.
So I just have to be content with my memories and the occasional interlude with Dorothy. She's been very kind. She types up the memoirs every week and it's no trouble for her to find a book or a magazine I want. She was there when I came round from the sedation. The company has given her indefinite leave to look after me. Actually, I think it's to make sure I get some work done while I'm on the mend. The company's very happy I haven't lost my facility for totting up the bills.
Larry's been in a few times. He's absolutely amazed Dorothy hasn't deserted me now I'm on the way down. He's a cynical old sod really. His version of the story is that he was waiting for me on the other side of the street when I collapsed in front of the two policemen. He saw me fall and did all the necessary. I was in a bad way so the policemen insisted I checked into the hospital. I really don't remember a thing about it all.
Clarissa hasn't been seen or heard of. The gunshot I heard was all in my imagination it appears as nobody else heard it. I'm beginning to have an open mind on these things. In any case, the police explained what I already knew. It isn't against the law to chase someone. It's what you do when you catch them that may be criminal. I've decided not to pursue the matter.
Cowper-Gee sent a postcard from England. The picture showed some deer in Richmond Park. He was very upset to hear about my ¨problems, he wrote in his hilarious way. He hoped I would get well soon and then we could have a serious chat. He was sorry we had got off on the wrong foot.
The shrink is a real wimp of a guy, British, and about five feet two. He pretends to be supercilious and whimsical but really he's just round the bend. I think he probably whacks off to my memoirs just like the shrink at St. Clare's. He must have a very dreary sex life. He got very upset when I asked him whether he uses electrodes. I congratulated him on being angry and told him to express his feelings more.
The thing that I can't stand about the shrink is that he's so serious really despite all the battiness. I joked about thinking I'd heard something before, calling it deja entendu. He nearly fell off his chair. He went on and on about the brain cell synapses and their role in deja vu. I pressed on and pointed out that you could have deja mange, deja bu, deja senti, deja reve, deja dit, deja porte (a terrible ailment for fashionable Hong Kong women), deja paye (a great Hong Kong favourite) and of course deja foutu (when you're going through the same routine with a different bird).
Another bone of contention was the dream of the expiring goldfish. My interpretation ran like this. Our dreams and desires are slowly expiring goldfish. All of our goldfish are in childhood. It is our duty to reverse the suffocation we have imposed on them in adult life, to make them swim again as they should. The shrink didn't see things my way at all. He said that the dream was about the things I had done to myself. I played along with him for a while. You're forced to. If you don't cooperate, he can stop giving you the pills.
* * *
Dorothy's brought me a lot of books. I particularly liked One Hundred Years of Solitude. It's marvellous to see the doctors' faces when they see me reading it. I've also taken a liking to reading Kafka. His German is quite easy. Despite everything people say about him, Kafka was a great comedian.
The shortest bit of Kafka I know is a little fable about the cat and the mouse. The mouse complains that as he gets older the walls either side of him keep getting closer and closer. He can see death in the corner he's running towards but he just doesn't know what to do. He asks the cat for advice. "You only have to change direction," she says and eats the mouse.
I suppose things might have been different if, like so many, I had come to Hong Kong and abandoned Sam immediately rather than having her walk out on me. Coming to Hong Kong is a real change of direction after all.
Then I could have met Phoebe or Dorothy or any of the others on a ¨proper footing and lived happily ever after. A lot of guys have done that. The vast majority of expatriate men are quite normal and have a nice relationship with just one local woman in Hong Kong. There are a few things I have to say about them though.
First of all, the women they take up with usually aren't very pretty. They also run the show, more often than not. (No, I'm not rationalising or putting them down. It's just what I've observed, that's all). The guys in question also have something wrong with them. They tend to be shorter, balder, uglier and wimpier than the men back in Europe and the USA. On the other hand, there are an awful lot of short, bald, ugly and wimpy men back in the USA and Europe. The other consideration is that, as Maugham always pointed out (mainly, I think, to account for his own personality), the normal is the rarest thing in the world. People get into relationships to make up for the way they are. That holds good for everyone, wimps and prize guys alike. In actual fact, for local women, wimps are the prize guys. They can get what they want so much better with wimps than with strong, switched on men like me.
Or so I like to think.
* * *
About that time the phone calls dried up. It got so bad that I stopped recharging the battery of my portable phone. I don't know how it happened but I just wasn't the flavour of the month any more. Perhaps all the available girls had been exploited. Perhaps some collective conspiracy called the grape vine had passed the word that I was bad news. I don't know. I do however think that I had quite a lot to do with it myself. I wasn't quite so intent as I had been. In a certain sense, my standards had gone up and I was easily bored with the commonplace.
I remember standing in the MTR one afternoon, Saturday afternoon I think, when the trains were full of people heading off to shop in Tsim Sha Tsui or Causeway Bay or to flop in front of the TV at home. Dorothy was with me. It was the first time I had been out of St. Clare's since I arrived. I looked along one of the benches which normally hold six people. There were five local women on the bench and not one of them moved me in any way. The short noses, the misaligned eyes, the bad skin. They were just ordinary women like ordinary women all over the world. I was no longer in a girls' school at midnight.
I suppose also I had begun to look like the shady lecher I then was. Girls often used to ask me how long I'd been in Hong Kong. The reasoning, I now saw, was that you had better get a Westerner young before he decays in Hong Kong. Every gwailo in Hong Kong is a scoundrel after three or four years.
Along with the fact that my taste and probably my appearance had changed, I also felt less willing to harm women. The hideous forces of guilt rose up to smite me. I had shamelessly ¨exploited the precarious economic and sociological situation of so many women, had played on their naivety and abused their trust. I became more than a little depressed.
* * *
"Goldfish, that's the answer," I said one afternoon after they had taken my blood pressure. I always had an odd swig of whisky before the nurse came round. That drove them wild with anger.
" What?" said Dorothy, more startled than usual.
" I want to farm goldfish. And other fish, of course. Just think of the money I'll make. Pet shops, restaurants, parks and office fronts. The future lies in goldfish."
Dorothy made all the arrangements. There were some decrepit fish ponds up for grabs just outside Shatin. They would be filled in for more garage space unless I acted fast. A couple of million and a lot of barbecued pork for the village elders and the title deeds were mine.
" You're crazy," Dorothy said as I signed the cheque.
" No, Dorothy darling. Chee-sy. Get it right."
* * *
Sam came to see me one afternoon. She took up with a daft guy, an American as it happened, but she saw it would never do. She just wanted to talk and to see if there's any future between us. I said that I don't see any harm in giving it a try. Certainly, I don't want to live with Dorothy.
"Sex is such a funny business," she said, offering me a grape from a large brown paper bag she had brought in together with the newspapers." Rules your life if you let it. Perhaps it ought to after all."
"No, I don't think it should. I've had enough, quite frankly. I'm going to be more economical in future. The desire's still there. I've just got to get the method right."
"But what if you really find that woman you're looking for. Where will it leave me?"
"I can't even tell you how I'm going to feel tonight, never mind tomorrow or next week. The only thing I do know is that we've been together - broadly speaking - for a long time. What's your prognosis."
After that afternoon, things went even better. I just stopped chasing girls, stopped calling and stopped thinking about them. I reasoned that I would come across them all over and those who were interested would just do it. Those who weren't, wouldn't. ¨Maybe that should have been my tactic all along. At any rate, it was the end of cherchez la femme.
Then there was the day I burnt the cards and threw away the address book. They all went down the pan afterwards, just in case I changed my mind: Annas I and II, Annie, the Alices and Angelas, Amanda, the Amies, the Carols, Carrie, Cherry, the Connies, the Cindies, Everlyn, Flora, Jane, Josephine, Karan, Karen, Karin, Karon, Karyn, Karli, Kiki, Lancie, Lena, Lin, Liza, Loletta, Maria, Marcella, Marina, Mary, Michiyo, Miki, Patricia, Phoebe, Rita, Sarah, Shirleys I and II, Vanessa and all the Winnies. Dorothy would always be there (whether I liked it or not) and the rest would call if they needed me.
Sometimes, I wonder what all that phase in my life was all about and whether I'm really out of it. I think we're all just programmed to do certain things, useless things mainly because most of us don't produce anything that will last longer than the next man's memory. Sex is a great release from all that tension of not getting anywhere and not knowing anything. Sex though is pretty useless as only rarely does it bring men and women together. It seems to break them up quicker. It does however produce a few children every now and again and that's something pretty important and wonderful.
I don't think I even learned anything from all that tension, all that disillusionment, all those disappointments and petty victories. I'm certainly not wiser. A wise man wouldn't give up the law to become a fish farmer in the New Territories. I may however be on the brink of discovering happiness just as I'm slowly discovering love.
The real truth is that in life there's only love and discovery and that's all you need to know.
ST BARNABAS' HOSPITAL, HONG KONG DEPT OF PSYCHIATRY
Your patient Nigel Trelford referred to me.
I have read Mr Trelford's Great Hong Kong Sex Novel with a growing sense of frustration. These morbid meanderings are totally unconvincing, however much fun Mr Trelford had in writing them. In the end, as we all know in dealing with such patients, he has deceived no one but himself.
Mr Trelford discharged himself after two weeks in this facility. He says he has a scheme for fish farming in the New Territories. This could of course be one of Mr Trelford's little jokes (see references to goldfish in the later chapters including the chapter written to me.)
Unable to form lasting and fulfilling relationships, plagued by guilt and self-doubt yet increasingly subject to illusions of insight and spiritual renewal, I do not think that the final breakdown can be far away. I for one refuse to treat him when this occurs.
The final line of the memoirs is highly revealing in this respect. What do you think?
In my opinion, the only thing Mr Trelford appears to have learnt, during all of his present troubles, is that nurses don't strip immediately because he's in the ward.
Regards to Sheila,
THE END OF THE GREAT HONG KONG SEX NOVEL BY GEORGE ADAMS