Hong Kong

[The section presented here shows you just how bad things got when William first arrived in Hong Kong]

On the plane, I tried to take stock. I was suddenly on my own, and I really didn’t know how to do that. But, I told myself, I had been on my own before. In Australia, when I had split from Tim and Al, it had been down to me to work out where to go, what to do, how to get money, how to survive. But in Australia everything was so transparent; I had no problem finding ideas. Working on a banana farm was just one of the first of them. I had been in the country quite a while at that point. I had worked in a kitchen in Sydney. We had met people who had done bar work in Brisbane, who’d gone into the Outback and found work on sheep farms, or grass cutters in the suburbs, prawn trawlers, berry pickers, chambermaids, telesales. Just by being there a short time the options had opened up. And I thought, hey, won’t they open up for me in Hong Kong?

But I had arrived in Australia with two outgoing, dynamic guys. Piss-artists and dope-heads, but they were sociable and unconscious of any thought of timidity or caution. They just went and did stuff, spoke to people, asked questions, made friends and created opportunities. And Australia was an English speaking country; if you wanted to know if a bar needed staff, you went in and asked, if you wanted to find out the best way to make money in a town, you talked to the locals or to other backpackers in the hostel. I was flying into another unknown Asian country. I was flying into another place where I wouldn’t be able to speak with the locals, where I would be lucky to find a friendly face – a foreign face. That nasty little racist was popping up in me again, because I knew that the one thing I wanted to see around me was a swarm of white faces, all blethering in English, or even German or Swedish, there would still be a chance we could strike up a conversation, find a point of commonality, communicate and maybe I could find out what the hell I was going to do there. I didn’t even know whether it was a country or not. Was it part of China? Did it stop being a country when it left Britain? And then the thought came, did that mean I needed a visa to go there? I hadn’t even considered this, hadn’t thought to ask in the travel agent’s. When we left Australia, we just bought our flights right through to Korea and then this one back to Hong Kong.

I was going home. This was the one thing I had to reassure myself with, that and a whisky I took from the trolley. I was going to get a ticket to the UK, travel back to Scotland, settle in with my mum and go for the cosy, cosseted easy path I should have been on a few months ago. Except that when I counted through the money I had from Mr Bang, and did a few calculations, I started to wonder if I would be able to afford a flight. At a pinch I might – at a very very tight pinch. In fact, I started to think my best bet would be to just stay in the airport and see if I could get a standby ticket right away. Off one plane and on another. Within a day, I could be back in Britain. But hell, would I even have enough money for a train or a bus ticket from London up to Glasgow? Even getting from Heathrow into London was expensive.

And that was when the reality check started to click in. I was stuffed, for sure. Just as I’d been worrying about being stuffed in Korea, I now realised I was stuffed pretty much anywhere. I had gone off for my great adventure and was coming back with nothing. Not even the fare for a bus ride home. After more than a year away, I was going to land in England and have to try to hitchhike from Heathrow back to Glasgow. I had nothing. Nothing to show for my time. My Times. The time of my life.

Not even any friends.

Friendship had seemed like the most important thing. It had driven me to Korea. If I thought back, that was what had driven me to Australia as well. I went with the two blokes that I thought I called real friends, with a hope that the travelling life would lead me to find more. And it did. I lost Tim and Al but survived because I found more. I went with friends to Korea, and now I had blown them off. I had left one languishing in jail, for all I knew she could be banged up for a long time, or deported. Deported quickly. That would the quickest, the safest, the best way for her to get home.

But what about the one? What about the one that I lost before I had even got on a plane for Korea? It was the loss of Beata that burned me most. Burned inside me worse than the alcohol in my gut. I had done the worst to Orla, deserted her at a time when she needed me, when she needed someone who was a true friend, but still that nasty slip of betrayal that I had carried out on Beata burned like acid left on my skin.

Perhaps it was only for selfish reasons that it hurt me so badly; I cared for her, loved her and wanted her only so I could feel better about myself, feel like I was a good, lovable person. I needed to feel loved and appreciated, to have my ego flattered by the company and care of a person I admired and cherished, that person who I quickly became so in awe of.

Was that it then? Did I have no true friends because I was incapable of being true? Everyone saw through me for the selfish person I was, and I was finally working it out for myself. I had begun to believe that it was Davy who was the pessimist, who was the paranoid one, who gave voice to the worst possible aspects of me, to the worst possible outcomes of any given situation, but here was I working it out for myself. Working out what a dreadful little shit I was. Useless, unlikeable, treacherous and, undoubtedly, dull.

And I didn’t even have Davy. I didn’t need him. As he might say, ‘Fuck him. He’s a fuckin arsehole anyhow.’ Stupid, little, nasty, foulmouthed, degenerate… whatever he was. What was he? Shit. What was he? I still didn’t know and had been with him for so long it seemed I had stopped asking myself that question. I had let Davy come in to my life and I had let him take it over. No, I hadn’t. I had kept control. No, I was taking back control. This was me taking control.

Only I didn’t know what the hell to do.

Or maybe I did.

I was going home. I would do the one right thing and get on a plane that took me back to Britain, get home to my mum and make sure that I was there for her, there to help her. She needed me, but she had let me go to do the things that she could see I wanted and needed. She had been selfless, and I had been selfish again. I had put my aspirations and pretensions and simple base desires before my responsibility and duty as a son. A loving son. I did love my mother, but perhaps for too long I had just loved myself too much.

*           *           *           *

I sought out the transfer desk as soon as I got off the plane in Hong Kong and asked if there were any flights leaving for the UK that night. There were, but I was also politely informed that without a ticket there was no way I could fly, and there was no way I could buy a ticket on this side of passport control.

The airport was vast. I had to walk a long way, scale escalators, wait in queues for driverless trains and then join the push at the bottom of more escalators. It was also pristine. It seemed far newer than the airport at Pusan, Seoul too, and though there were posters in Chinese, even a few in Korean, there were far more in English. There was something reassuring about the fact that all passenger announcements were given in English before Chinese. The noise of the massed movement of people resounded off the high roof, and that mass was made up of almost as many white and black and brown as the north-east Asian crowds of Chinese or Koreans. Again, I was conscious of the encroaching racism of my thoughts. In that moment, I didn’t give a damn. I felt that I had been the victim for long enough. I wilfully and happily told myself I just wanted to be away from everything that was foreign and unfamiliar and challenging and uncomfortable that I had experienced in Korea. Christ, I wanted a pint and roll of battered haggis next to a hefty plate of overcooked chips smothered in vinegar. I was letting myself be the Brit abroad, but I revelled in it because I was on a route to the place where all of that would be a reality. I could start worrying about getting my morals and opinions back in gear once I was safely on home ground.

My moment of exhilaration ebbed as I stood at the back of another long queue. The counter had Visitors written above it. The queues for Hong Kong Residents and Permanent Residents flowed quickly. Suited Chinese businessmen, camera carrying travellers, noisy families and quiet old couples ran up to those counters, flashed some sort of ID and were through. I watched impatiently as our immigration officer took his time to scrutinise every passport and each bit of paperwork passed to him. He looked long and hard at each face. I began to worry about what would happen if they didn’t let me through. One or two people were directed away by officers with extra badges on their epaulets. What would happen to me if I was led away? I could see myself being led down off a plane back into Seoul airport and not knowing where the hell to go from there.

The queue grew thick behind me. Lots of nationalities looked at their watches and twitched in place. Some sat on their bags.

The man in front of me was Asian, but I was certain not Korean or Chinese, perhaps Malaysian or Thai, I had no idea, and he was carrying a incredible amount of hand-luggage. The officer asked him several questions that I couldn’t hear. They were going to drag him off, I was sure. It wouldn’t be a good omen if the guy in front got dragged away.

He was waved through. He took a while to bundle up his variety of bags and stepped away. I almost clipped his heels in my impatience to confidently slap my passport on the counter. The officer took it without looking at me. The stub of my boarding card was tucked inside, and I regretted that. I thought that if they were going to deport me, perhaps I could claim to have travelled from Europe. The officer put my passport back up on the counter, put my pass stub on top of it, and waved a hand over his shoulder. I was unsmilingly being ushered through.

And the airport on the far side looked just like the airport before – shiny and clean, overbright and full of shops. The stamp in my passport said that I had been given permission to stay for six months, which seemed like a unnecessarily long time. I knew I would never need it.

My backpack was already circling the carousel as I approached. I grabbed it and swung it onto my back, then decided to get a trolley. The climate and the job in Korea had meant a new wardrobe of clothes, and they weighed some. I was too weary to fight the burden.

The vast hall of the baggage claim gave way to tall doors that slid automatically as passengers moved through. I followed the crowd. The doors gave into a narrow corridor with a high glass wall on one side. Beyond, were crowds of people, the mass of loved ones, restrained by a thin rope cordon. I had to walk the length of the glass, visible to everyone, and a disappointment to all. I was walking through a scene from too many movies, except there was no-one to jump the barrier, run across the open space and embrace me. No kiss, no flowers, not even a sign with my name on it.

I pushed my trolley through the crowds and made for the information counter, an island in the middle of the arrivals hall. An attractive, immaculately made-up and surprisingly tall young Chinese woman smiled as I approached.

‘Good evening sir.’ Her uniform was much friendlier than the one worn at passport control, sky blue and designer styled.

‘Hi. Good evening.’

‘I… I was hoping to…’ Her smile didn’t falter as I scrabbled for my purpose. ‘Where can I buy stand-by tickets?’

‘I’m sorry sir?’

‘Eh, stand-by tickets. I want to buy a flight to the UK.’

‘I’m sorry sir.’ Her smile did not crack. ‘But our ticketing office is closed for the day. I can give you a list of the airlines’ booking websites, or you may wish to visit a travel agent in town.’

‘In town?’

‘In town. Or if you wish to return tomorrow, the ticketing office opens at nine am.’ She leaned towards me and said conspiratorially, ‘But sir, I think you will find the ticketing office too expensive. I would suggest you find a much better price in town.’ Then she pivoted back again, and smiled.

‘Em, then I guess I’ll need to find a room for tonight.’

‘Hotel reservations and transportation desk can be found in the centre of the arrivals hall.’ She swung an arm towards a distant desk.

A shorter, less pretty, less smiling woman sat behind the hotel information desk. She didn’t acknowledge my approach.

I coughed. ‘Hh-hmm.’

She was reading a lurid magazine, all bold coloured Chinese writing and cartoon illustrations, and didn’t look up.

‘Excuse me,’ I said.

I startled her. ‘Yes?’

‘Hi. Em, I need to find a room.’

‘Yes?’

‘Could you recommend a good place for me to stay tonight?’

‘Yes.’ She pointed to a small stand full of leaflets and brochures.

‘No, eh… I was kind of hoping you could recommend one. I don’t really know anything about Hong Kong and…’

‘How long you stay in here?’ She pulled out a leaflet for a very plush looking hotel. The pictures showed a towering block and a gilt lined reception hall, spacious rooms with a view.

‘How… Sorry, how much is that?’

‘Two thousan dollar.’ The mention of money brought the first hint of a smile. Her teeth sat at odd angles to each other.

‘Hong Kong dollars?’

She nodded slightly.

‘That’s…’ I was unsure what the Hong Kong dollar was worth. I had seen some figures at an exchange counter and had started to figure this was a good deal, pleased that I might get a big of comfort for my short stay. It might be worth it after all.

The woman interrupted my thoughts. ‘What money you have?’

‘Eh, US dollars.’

‘You pay two-hunned and fifty US.’ Her smile spread a little wider. Her teeth blackened towards the gum.

‘Oof.’ My guilt-edged fantasy vanished. ‘I think that’s a bit out of my range.  I’m a backpacker, you know?’ I pointed at the pack on my trolley. ‘Budget traveller. I need somewhere cheap and cheerful. Do you have any hostels?’

She raised one eyebrow and sucked through her teeth. She closed the brochure, put it back on the stand then said, ‘You go Chung King Mansions.’

‘I’m sorry?’

‘You go Chung King Mansions. Cheap hostel there. Many budget there.’ She pulled a map leaflet from under her counter and circled an area. ‘Here Chung King Mansions.’

I looked at the map. It didn’t mention any mansions.

‘Chung King… Mansions? Is that some kind of big house?’

‘Yes. Big house, many rooms. Very… budget.’ Her lip curled on the word budget.

‘And it’s in this area here.’ Her lip curled a little more. ‘OK, how do I get there?’

‘You want car?’ She reached for a phone.

‘Eh, no, I don’t think I could afford that. How about a train or a bus?’

‘You go information.’ She waved her hand in a listless imitation of the gesture that had brought me over to her and returned to her comic.

Smiler at information gave me the bus number that would stop right outside Chung King Mansions. I had to hope that it was clearly marked, but I guessed it must stand out from the other buildings, to qualify for the mansion bit.

I changed a small amount of my dollars then walked to the bus stop. Outside, I was surprised that the temperature was higher than it had been inside. The air felt close, like a stuffy room. I pulled my sweatshirt off before hefting my pack onto the double-decker bus where I was immediately cold in the airconditioning that blasted out of vents all through the bus.

I dropped my pack into a raised baggage area and then approached the driver. ‘Hi. Em, I want to go to Chung King Mansion. Do you stop there?’

The driver grunted, ‘Nn,’ and tipped his head back.

‘Chung King. You know it?’

‘Nn.’

‘Can you tell me where to get off?’

‘Nn.’

I sat in the front row so that I was near my bags and to the driver when he called my stop. Very few passengers were on the bus when it pulled away.

Towering lampposts lit the motorway we drove along, giving great splashes of yellow over the seamless concrete. We were the only traffic. I had anticipated Hong Kong hitting with an overload of buildings and traffic and people, but the road ran along the foot of a looming hillside, green in the area caught by the streetlamps but blackening as it rose away. On its slopes, there were no sprinklings of light to indicate any houses or other roads. The hill sloped to the shoreline that the road followed on my side of the bus. On the black depths of the ocean there were a number of large boats, tankers I could guess. Many had lights on but none showed any activity. Further still, a distant coast had smatterings of pinprick lights. Perhaps this was the centre of Hong Kong we were heading toward. I was reminded of the lights of Ardrossan I had once watched growing distant from the back of the Arran ferry on a night crossing I had made with my parents and sister. They were scattered, unimposing, and as we drew further away from the mainland they appeared delicately beguiling. We called them fairy lights and even though Arran was our holiday destination, I wanted to travel back, towards the lights. But, for the approach to a major city, my current journey did not seem nearly impactful enough. Pretty, but no drama. Then we rolled onto a high suspension bridge and suddenly an expanse of water stretched away where the dark hillsides had been, and beyond that there was far coast lined with a sparkling array of skyscrapers. We were still long distant, but it was clear that these were the monolithic towers of the Hong Kong stereotyped by travel brochures and filmmakers.

The bridge itself was lit with sparkling lines of white lights running along the tension lines of its suspension.

After we rolled off the bridge we became enclosed on both sides by towerblocks and didn’t once pass again through an area of open space or even low rise. Suddenly we were delving right into the middle of what I had expected – an unremitting urban sprawl that went up and up, and left little space for air or breath or freedom. The streets now were populated. Taxis and cars ran alongside us, crossed before and behind us, got in the way, overtook or idled below our speed. People were on the streets. Asian people. Chinese people. I didn’t see any white faces in the streets we ran through for a long time. Every second shop front seemed to be open and serving food. Mostly I saw people plunging their chopsticks into wide bowls. In front of some stores there were the charred and flattened carcasses of ducks and geese held high in the windows with butchers hooks twisted through the necks, their heads and feet still attached. The bus gradually filled. Again, no European faces. My wishful easy, cosmopolitan experience was diminishing. A feeling that I had run to something all too familiar began to slide over. There was a pattern of emotion being repeated in my guts: bewilderment, confusion, fear and too much, just too much to take in. I was driving further and further into the dense depths of an unknown city, being overwhelmed, and this time there was no-one holding my hand, no-one to build a sense of excitement with.  Instead, the insight grew that I was being punished for what I had done or failed to do in Korea. I was going back to face my sins, and this time I had to do it on my own.

A leathery old lady sat down next to me, plastic bags bunched on her knee. She pressed in tightly against me, smelling strongly of damp fish. I was forced to jam my knees up against the plastic barrier in front. She began to suck on her teeth and twist at whatever dinner remained between them with a toothpick. As we drove further, the streets grew busier and neon bright. More and more shopfronts opened up, bigger and bigger stores. I began to see brand names I recognised: McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Levis, and a Disney store with the disconcerting image of a life-size shining plastic Yosemite Sam in full cowboy gear standing outside next to Bugs Bunny dressed as a Mandarin king.  A plastic American pistol pointed into the face of a Chinaman rabbit.

The bus stopped and the driver hollered something in Chinese. Nobody reacted, but the driver waited. He leaned round from his cab to look up the bus and shouted again. The old woman elbowed my ribs. Without removing the pick from her teeth, she said, ‘You, Tsim Sha Tsui?’

I looked at the map I had been folding and creasing in my hands. The circle marked for Chung King Mansions was next to an area name, Tsim Sha Tsui.

‘Oh, I think I am. Thank you.’ She nodded and shifted her knees out of my way. ‘Thank you.’

I bumped the old woman’s tooth-picking elbow as I squeezed past.

The driver grunted at my, ‘Thank you,’ and closed the doors before my foot had left the step.

I stumbled onto a busy pavement, people pushed in both directions. Constant heavy traffic trundled behind me. I found my balance and surveyed the street in both directions. The way I had come was a long straight road with huge signs hanging out over the street, vast Chinese characters lit up in every colour. The way the bus had gone seemed to give off to a river or lake; there was definitely water down there and on the other side I could see some of what appeared to be the glistening buildings I had glimpsed from the bridge. I look at the signs hanging over the street. Some had smaller English writing under the Chinese: Chinese Product Store, Rolex, Topless Bar. There was no Chung King Mansions. I cursed getting off the bus without actually checking if we were at the right place. I thought I’d best wait til the same number bus came round again, hope that I could get a driver or a passenger who spoke enough English to guide me to the right stop.

‘Hello, my friend. You want a suit?’ A Chinese guy called to me from the steps of a shop. He was holding up laminated cards that had catalogue pictures of western models in suits. ‘Very cheap. We make in one day for you. You want suit? Come inside my shop. Right here. Come inside.’ A stream of people passed between us. The tailor’s windows were dressed with manikins in stiffly creased business suits.

‘Sorry, no. Not right now. I’m looking for somewhere.’ I turned away and looked up the street for the bus.

He stepped from the shopfront towards me. ‘You come look suit, later you look somewhere.’

‘Ach no. I’m alright thanks.’

‘Come, you come.’ He took hold of the sleeve of my sweatshirt. ‘Sit down in shop. You bag very heavy.’

‘Please, no, I just… I need to find a place called Chung King Mansions, alright? I’ll come back to your shop another time.’

‘Chungking?’

‘This Chungking. This. Here.’

Next to the shop was what appeared to be an arcade of cheap stores and currency exchange. I looked above the door and read a small embossed plastic sign, unlit and undecorated. Chungking Mansions.

‘Many nice suits inside. You come, you come.’

‘No, I don’t need a suit.’

I look up at the outside of the building. Airconditioning units had left dark stains streaking the walls of the old multi-storey block. It was no stately home.

I said to the building, as much to myself, as much to the tailor. ‘I just want a room.’

The guy flicked the laminates behind his back. ‘Room, I have room. Come, my friend. Come.’ He grabbed my elbow and tried to direct me up the stairs.

‘Eh, no, hold on. Can you just wait? I need a moment.’

Around the entrance there were other small signs, some for restaurants, some for shops but others like Peking Guesthouse, Super Hotel, Royal Inn Guesthouse.

The tailor pulled on my arm. ‘My room good. You come. You come.’ My shoulder ached in its socket from his tugging.

‘Wait. Wait. No. Can you just leave me alone?’

‘You want room?’

‘I do, but I don’t want one from you.’

‘My room good.’

‘You’re not going to get many guests if you’re that pushy.’

‘Good room.’

‘Go away.’

I had to push past and give a side-swipe with my pack for him to get the message. The best escape seemed to be directly into the Mansions. Immediately, an Indian-looking guy accosted me with a business card for a guesthouse. Before I could respond, another tout came at me.  The wide area between rows of shops was busy with gaggles of Chinese, Indians and Africans.  Corridors went off to the sides, with further shops and food stalls. From every space, doorway, recess and nook someone came at me with a business card.

‘Hey you. Hey you.’

‘Backpacker. Backpacker hostel.’

‘You come my hotel.’

‘Guesthouse. Clean guesthouse.’

‘Hello. Hello.’

I had found my cosmopolitan hub, and it was terrifying.

I grabbed the card out of the hand of one man. ‘You. I go with you.’

It still took several moments and a lot of shouting from the guy whose card I held before the others backed off.

The card read Chungking Deluxe.

‘Is this cheap?’

‘Yes. Very cheap. Very clean. Very good.’

It also said, Block C 12/F.

‘Block C? How many blocks are there?’

‘Five block. Block A, block B, block C D E. You take the elevator over there or over there.’ His brisk movements didn’t indicate anything that looked like a lift. ‘But we go block C. Elevator here.’

He led me deeper into the building until we approached a pair of elevators, both with a huddle of people around the door.

‘This, even number floor. This, odd number floor.’

We waited. And the guy said nothing more. He looked Indian, was about the same height as me, sported a close-clipped beard and was wearing a grandfatherly combination of checked shirt and grey cardigan. I guessed he was in his twenties.

‘Are you from India?’

‘Nepal.’ He said it like two words, Neh-Pahl, but nothing else.

We waited. I took off my pack and put it in front of me, resting against my legs. More people gathered round the lift, some trying to get in front of us. The Nepali guy spoke to one of the people pushing in, in his own language, and the other guy barked back, pushing harder. They both laughed.

Eventually one of the lifts appeared. I made to pick up my pack, but my tout said, ‘No this one. Wait.’ I wanted to suggest we just get that one and walk up or down a floor, but the press to the opening doors was so great, I was glad not to try to board, especially when I saw that the descending lift was full of people who wanted to get off. No-one made any effort to get out of their way and the people at the front were already trying to get on. People pushed in both directions. An old Chinese guy in a hanging string vest angled a set of flattened and string-tied cardboard boxes at the door and just went for it, digging the sharp edges of his load into anyone who got in the way.

We waited. After more pushing we were the last two to squeeze inside the lift. As I stepped on, a harsh buzzer sounded. I immediately stepped out again and the buzzer stopped. Me and my pack were too heavy, but the tout grabbed a strap on my shoulder and pulled me inside. ‘Come. Come.’ The buzzer grated in the tightly enclosed space. My pack could barely fit inside the doors, but while the buzzer went, they wouldn’t shut anyway. I was about to protest, to step out and head for the stairs when the Nepali began to jump up and down. Someone else’s hand went up and slapped the metal walls. Two or more people began to rock the whole lift from side to side.

The buzzer stopped. The doors grated closed, clipping my pack and we began to ascend with squeals and crunches from the wheels and cables of the lift.

It took a long time to get to our floor. I had to get out every time someone disembarked. More people boarded. There were seventeen floors in all, and the lift still looked full when I backed out at the twelfth.

An older man, I guessed Nepali as well, sat at a desk just outside the lift. He looked up from a newspaper as I stepped out. The doors closed with the tout still inside. He didn’t acknowledge my departure, just reached forward to press one of the floor buttons.

‘Room?’

‘Eh, yeah. If you’ve got some available.’

‘Yes, of course, of course.’ He wasn’t best pleased at being taken from his paper.

I followed him through a doorway into a very narrow and dimly lit corridor. He pushed open a door and flicked on a light. Inside were several bunk beds. Groans and a couple of shouts of ‘Oi!’ went up.

‘One night, sixty dollars.’

There was barely any space between the beds, and the floor was covered in people’s belongings.

A standing fan stood at the far end, and in the beds there was a lot of bare flesh, trying to get some sort of coolness in the oppressively humid air.

‘Switch the fucking light off,’ someone shouted.

I backed away. ‘No. I don’t… This is…’

The hotelier pointed to a top bunk just inside the door. ‘Not this?’

‘No.’

He clicked off the light.

A voice said, ‘Bastard,’ before the door shut.

‘You want single room?’

‘How much is that?’

‘Two-hundred dollars. Two-hundred and fifty with airconditioner.’

I had no idea of what that was worth, but I could say only, ‘Two-fifty is fine.’

We crossed the lift lobby and went in to an equally narrow corridor on the far side. The room had a bed, two hooks in the wall, and an airconditioning unit hung in the window.

I squeezed past him and dropped my pack into the room.

‘You pay?’

I dug out my notes and found that I only had just over two hundred on me. ‘Sorry, eh. Can I pay you tomorrow?’

‘How long will you stay?’

‘Just one night.’

‘Then you pay now.’

‘No, but…’ I couldn’t face leaving now that I was in sight of a bed. ‘I might be staying longer, I’m not sure. If you let me pay tomorrow, I’ll pay for two nights.’

‘OK. Give me this now.’ He took two red hundred-dollar notes from my hand.

I dropped onto the bed and pressed my head down to the pillow. My body ached against the stiff mattress. Every ounce of me had been drained; my eyelids were painfully heavy, but sleep did not come easily. There was too much going on: the aircon rattled and buzzed; distant traffic continued to roll and roar; there were shouts, laughter and drones of foreign voices. A pollution of lights worked through the slats of the Venetian blinds: neon from the streets, the spotlights on the skyscrapers, streetlights, car lights flashing by. And, when I closed my eyes, a flickering zoetrope of images from my day scattered past: Orla, Korean immigration, Hong Kong immigration, airports, streets passing the window of taxis and buses, and a locker door shutting with a metallic clang. I couldn’t switch off.

I was at the end of a long and tumultuous day of escape, but I felt no safer, nor happier, nor more free.

*           *           *           *

Early in the morning, I was snapped awake by raised voices and banging doors. I felt poorly rested and didn’t know if I had the balls to face whatever crowd was causing the clatter from the hallway, so I decided to stay in bed. There was a deep ache in my back that needed more rest.  However, I was now conscious of the hardness of the bed. My last food had been tiny and plastic – the in-flight meal on the plane – and my stomach was protesting. I decided that I would need to bring calories into my body, hope that they could energise my muscles to fight off their pains.

By the time I left my room, no-one was stirring. Stepping out of the aircon cool of my room, I was immediately weighed upon by the humidity. I couldn’t find the old guy, nor anyone else who appeared to be in charge of the guesthouse. The thought occurred to me that I could do a runner without paying the rest of the room, but the following thought of picking up my pack and going out into a hot day with no direct course of action sent me back to get a change of clothes and go find some food. I hadn’t been given a key for the room, but when I went back, I saw that there was a deadbolt with a padlock hanging from it attached to the outside. There was a second deadbolt on the inside as well which I found somewhat sinister – locking yourself away, or others out?

I pressed the lift and waited. I heard the scrapes of its cables and the rattle of the doors opening distantly for a long while before the door at my floor hauled back. The small space inside was packed with a stack of furniture and two sweating Chinese men, no room for another. One of the men reached forward to press a button and they both looked at me blankly as the lift closed again.

I pushed a heavy door into the stairwell and was hit by a stink of urine and burnt plastic. Twelve flights were hard work in that airless space, despite there being windows at every floor. Outside was only a shaft that ran the length of the building with windows and aircon units running up its sides. A distant square of sky appeared at its height, and at the bottom there was a rubble of litter and broken furniture and at least a couple of pieces of luggage. Vandalism and rubbish were spread throughout the stairwell. Despite my hunger, the sight and stench of bins left on some floors put me off trying any of the restaurants whose signs I walked past. On one of the half-landings there were several pieces of cardboard propped into a corner with a blanket on top as if someone had made their bed there. I heard voices and feet above me and a hubbub grew below as I descended. By the time I reached ground, I was covered in sweat and the various foul smells clung to my clothes.

Downstairs was teeming. Where at night, the bright glare of hundreds of electric lights had distracted and confused, the place was now thrown into stark clarity by the day’s strong sun that emanated through from the various corridors. Where I had seen only a warren of shops and stalls disappearing into the building’s bowels, there were now a variety of entrances to the alleys and side streets around the Mansions  – entrances, or many exits for those who had to leave at speed.  Business went on, but less obtrusively. I wandered unmolested apart from one man who walked at my elbow repeating a low mantra of, ‘Copywatch, copywatch.’  I was nervous of any of the restaurants in Chungking, and, once I was able to locate the main entrance, went out into the streets in the hope of finding something digestible.

Just as many people, and more traffic, were working every direction on the pavement and road. The sun was already high and strong, making me regret that I hadn’t brought my shades. I walked in the nearby streets, chocka with shops selling tourist tat and electronic goods, touts stepping out with cards for tailors, or an offer to go up an alley to see some genuine copy watches.  A number of times I caught sight, along the end of streets, over the body of water I had noticed the night before, of the impressively tall and imposing buildings that lined the far bank.

Eventually, I found a pseudo-French patisserie and took comfort in recognisable sweetmeats and brewed coffee.

In front of an exchange counter, I tried to get to grips with the currency rates. The US cash I had could get me about three thousand five hundred Hong Kong, but that would change for a little less than two hundred and fifty pounds. The clerk told me that the pound was strong against the Hong Kong dollar. I could change straight from US to Sterling, but that rate was awful as well, worse than in Pusan.

I went into a travel agent and asked about flights to the UK. In half an hour we went through a dozen different possible routes, the worst of which had six changes, and still I couldn’t make the fare. I was close, but I didn’t have it. The agent suggested I could fly to Bangkok and get a cheap flight from there, but the thought of arriving in another strange, foreign city in a worse financial state than I was now held no appeal.   I cursed Mr Bang, and I cursed my impatient departure from Korea that had left me with not nearly enough money, no-one to advise me how to get out of this situation, and very little idea of how to do it for myself.

Within a day, I was crumbling.

And for the first time, I began to see that I needed Davy. I had shut him in the locker for plenty of good reasons. His prattle, his inane single-mindedness and his general inexplicability were beginning to persuade me that I had lost control of my senses. Locking him away was to prove that I was in control, that I had not lost my mind, or if I had, I at least had the power to take it back.

But Davy would have known what to do. Already I missed him.

And that knowledge, when I saw it, made me determined that I could find a way through on my own.

*           *           *           *

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s