‘Are you cold?’, I asked the old man in the wheelchair. ‘Not as cold as I could be’, he chuckled. I picked up the grey blanket at his feet and put it back on his lap. He stared ahead so I ignored him and waited for the next lake ferry.
Next day, he was there again. I sorted his blanket out and joined him staring at the lake. It was early still and thin ribbons of mist hung over the cold lake. The villages on the other side were hidden behind the fog but the mountains had already caught the sun. The bright white peaks promised a fine day.
‘Stunning, eh?’, I said.
The old man looked at me for the first time; his wide brimmed Savoyard hat tilted back. ‘Every day is different. The lake is never the same’. He nodded at the mist. ‘They are the spirits of the deceased’. I nodded. Why not? Then he added, ‘you don’t believe that do you?’. He stared at me intently and I shrugged.
‘I’ve seen these on Lake Toba on Sumatra; they scared the willies out of me. They build these big pyres for the dead and the smell chokes you. The fire goes on all night but in the morning it has died down and all that is left is that sliver of smoke that drifts over the lake. It comes back every morning.’
I wonder what he saw as he told me this, that old man. He seemed cosy enough in his thick navy woollen coat and his blanket but he was clearly somewhere else.
‘Do you travel?’ he asked.
The question surprised me. It so happens that travel is all I do. I was only home for a week and tried to make the best of my leave. Every day I crossed the lake by ferry to drink a hot chocolate at the café in Nernier, a small and lovely old port. Then I came back and worked on my car, a 1962 Shelby Cobra. It was still in pieces and will take me another 5 years at least to fix up, but together with my lake trips, it’s the perfect break for me.
‘Yes, quite a lot. I’m off to Hong Kong next week’.
He continued staring at the lake but there was a new intent in his eyes.
‘I love Hong Kong’. He smiled. ‘I lived there for a year with a Chinese lady. I bet she’s still there. Tao Yin. She was lovely’.
I smiled at him. Funny old man, I couldn’t have guessed by looking at him, sitting there all snugged up in his wheelchair. I’ll be like him one day, I guess. I shivered.
‘Can I come with you?’
I tensed. ‘What?’
‘Can I come with you?’
I laughed and shook my head. The old man stared at me and didn’t smile. Just then my ferry came and I wished him a nice day. As I boarded the boat, I could feel his piercing stare in my back and I shivered again.
The old man was there again the next day. He didn’t say a word. I greeted but didn’t say anything else either. We stared at the lake which was clear this morning. The morning clouds around the mountains had already burned off and the lake reflected a perfect postcard scene. The sun was already on the jetty. The ferry arrived.
Just as I moved to board the ferry, the old man coughed and said, ‘Have you thought about it?’. I held my step, considered answering but instead, I walked on. I felt bad and stupid. I could just have told him.
I’m sorry to say that this scene repeated itself another three times. I began to dread going for my hot chocolate but since this was my one and only week off, I pursued my routine and even though I tried to ignore this part, I had this guilt feeling nagging in the background.
On my last day, he wasn’t there. At first I felt relief and then, I felt even worse than before. I could have just told him and given him at least the pleasure of a morning chat. I didn’t see the lake that morning and it wasn’t until I heard a cough that I looked up. I saw the old man shuffling along the jetty towards me. He was walking with a stick and although he walked slowly, he seemed quite steady. As he reached me, he put his hand inside his coat and pulled out a fat envelope. He thrust it to me. I was surprised by his strength as he pushed the envelope against my chest.
‘You’re flying first class, and I’ll pay your hotel as well’.
Looking back, I’m still not sure why I just accepted it. During the journey he proved to be a lot more mobile than I thought and his generous tips had the airline and hotel staff doing circles around him. The first class trip with Cathay was an experience but it was easily outdone by the Superior room in the Peninsula in Hong Kong. He even apologised for taking the suite for himself!
The first few days he stayed in his room and took everything on room service. I went to see him a couple of times a day but he was in excellent spirits and I had nothing to worry about. Whilst he got over the jetlag, I got on with my meetings and was quite enjoying my stay in Hong Kong. As strange a companion as he was, it was a pleasure to have him around.
After a few days he started leaving the hotel. He had convinced a bulky porter from the hotel to accompany him, no doubt through lavish tips to the hotel manager and the porter, and he got himself wheeled around Kowloon and Hong Kong Island. I’m not sure how they coped with the crowds and the busy roads but whenever I met up with him at night, he was in fine spirits. In the evenings he took me to great restaurants and it was clear that he knew this city well.
‘I want you to find Tao Yin for me’.
We were sitting in the Peak Café on the island and I had been listening to the birds in the tropical canopy just below the restaurant.
‘I have an old address but I suspect you’ll have to dig around.’
This time I didn’t hesitate. ‘Of course, I will do that’. He went on to describe Tao Yin and I listened intently. Although I was sure she would have changed beyond recognition, perhaps other people might recognize her from the description.
I extended my stay in Hong Kong and was beginning to enjoy my new career as a sleuth as I tried to track Tao Yin down. Once you leave the main drags in Kowloon, Hong Kong becomes a labyrinth of old buildings with confusing corridors and alleys. Thin sweaty Chinese men look at you suspiciously as you squeeze past a stack of tea chests and the shrieking yells of their wives has you wonder who is more in trouble, you or the men. Children and chickens litter the buildings and there is a pervasive smell of food in all its stages of preparation and decay.
But I was loving it! My search for Tao Yin didn’t go very well at first, in part because I don’t speak Chinese other than a dozen words. In time I learned to say ‘Where is Tao Yin’ and showed them a photo of my companion in the days he had been in Hong Kong. Every time I showed the photo, I noticed how much we were alike and I had to keep reminding myself that I wasn’t looking for a young Tao Yin whom I would loved to have met but a much older version of that lady, for my friend.
When I finally located Tao Yin in Kwun Tong, I was almost disappointed that my search was over. It was hard to recognize her from my description but it was definitely her. When I mentioned the name of my friend her old eyes sparkled and she spoke to me in perfect English. She was living with her unmarried daughter. If the daughter had inherited her mother’s looks from before, I could see why my friend had fallen in love with her. Although her face was flat and round like so many Chinese women I had seen, she had the most loving smile and deep caring eyes. I recomposed myself and set about explaining why I was there.
The next day we all met up. We had agreed to meet at the jetty next to the Star Ferry, at the end where there aren’t too many people. Tao Yin and her daughter were late and I had left my friend in his chair overlooking the harbour, as I walked back to get him a bottle of water as it was very hot that morning. As I returned I noticed that Tao Yin and her daughter had joined him.
‘Are you cold, dad?’
A woman in her mid forties picked up the blanket at the feet of the old man and put it back on his lap.
‘Not as cold as I could be’, he mumbled.
An elderly lady joined them. ‘How is he, love?’
‘Not sure, he must be cold. He’s been sitting here just mumbling to himself. Perhaps we shouldn’t take him anymore, I’m not sure it is good for him‘
The elderly lady put her hand on the old man’s shoulder. ‘Let’s go old boy, let’s go home and have a hot chocolate. See if we can get the old banger started first’.