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Authors: Tony Parsons

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One for My Baby

BOOK: One for My Baby
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TITLE: One For My Baby

AUTHOR: Tony Parsons

PUBLISHER: Harper Collins

COPYRIGHT: ©2001

ISBN: 0 002 26182 0

ABEB Version: 3.0

Created: 2004/6/26 @ 12:27

 

 

An mdf Scan & Proofread.

 

One For My Baby

Tony Parsons

 

 

 

For my son

part one: I like you, you’re nice

Eat the Cold Porridge

“You must eat the cold porridge,” he told me once.

It’s a Chinese expression. Cantonese, I guess, because although he carried an old-fashioned blue British passport and was happy to call himself an Englishman, he was born in Hong Kong and sometimes you could tell that all the important things he believed were formed long ago and far away, like the importance of eating the cold porridge.

I stopped what I was doing and stared at him. What was he going on about now?


Eat the cold porridge.”

The way he explained it, eating the cold porridge means working at something for so long that when you get home there is nothing left to eat but cold porridge.

And I thought – who did he share a flat with out there? Goldilocks and the Three Bears?

That’s how you get good at something, he told me. That’s how you get good at anything. You eat the cold porridge.

You work at it when the others are playing. You work at it when the others are watching television. You work at it when the others are sleeping.

To become the master of something, you must eat the cold porridge, Grasshopper.

Actually he never called me Grasshopper.

But I always felt that he might.

And I tried hard to understand. He was my teacher as well as my friend and I always tried to be a good student. I am trying today. But I can’t help it – somewhere along the line I took eating the cold porridge to mean something else. Something completely different from its Chinese meaning.

Somehow I got it into my thick head that eating the cold porridge means being in a time of suffering. Living through hard days, months and years because you have no choice.

I got the cold porridge of the East muddled up with the bitter pill of the West. Now I can’t tell them apart.

That’s not what he meant at all. He meant giving up comfort and pleasure for a greater good. He meant deferring gratification for some distant goal.

Eating cold porridge now so that you will have something better tomorrow. Or the day after tomorrow. Or the day after that. It’s got nothing to do with Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

But I guess the concept of self-sacrifice is easier to grasp if you were born in one of the poorer parts of Kowloon. Where I come from, they don’t really go in for that kind of stuff.

Eating the cold porridge – to me it means enduring something that has to be endured. More than that, it means missing someone. Really missing someone.

The way I miss her.

But she is gone and she is not coming back.

I know that now.

I will never kiss her again. I am never going to wake up beside her again. I am never going to watch her sleeping again.

That perfect moment when she opened her eyes and smiled her slightly goofy smile – a smile that seemed to reveal as much gum as teeth, and a smile that always made me feel as though something inside me was melting – I definitely won’t see that again. There are ten thousand things that we are never going to do together again.


You’ll meet someone else,” he tells me, with all the patience that my real father could never quite muster. “Give it time. There will be another woman. You’ll get married again. You can have it all. Children and everything.”

He is trying to be kind. He is a good man. Maybe this is what he really thinks.

But I don’t believe a word of it.

I think that you can use up your love. I think you can blow it all
on one person. You can love so much, so deeply, that there is nothing left for anyone else.

You could give it all the time in the world, and I would never find someone to fill the gap that she has left.

Because how do you find a substitute for the love of your life?

And why would you want to?

Rose is never coming home again.

Not to me.

Not to anyone.

And perhaps I could learn to live with it if I could resist this ridiculous urge to phone her. Things would be more bearable if I could remember, really remember, that she’s gone and never forget it.

But I can’t help it.

Once a day I go to call her. I have never actually dialled the number, but I have come pretty close. Do you think I need to look that number up? I don’t even have to remember it with my head. My fingers remember.

And I am afraid that one day I will call her old number and somebody else will answer. Some stranger. Then what will happen? Then what will I do?

It can strike at any time, this urge to call her. If I’m happy or sad or worried, I suddenly get this need to talk to her about it. The way we always did when we were – I nearly said
lovers
, but it was that and much more.

Together. When we were together.

She’s gone and I know she’s gone.

It’s just that sometimes I forget.

That’s all.

So now I know what I must do.

I must eat the cold porridge, and fight this overwhelming urge to reach for the phone.

one

There’s something wrong with my heart.

It shouldn’t be working like this. It should be doing something else. Something normal. More like everybody else’s heart.

I don’t understand it. I have only been running in the park for ten minutes and my brand-new trainers have luminous swoosh signs on the side. But already my leg muscles are burning, my breath is coming in these wheezing little gasps and my heart – don’t get me started on my heart. My heart is filling my chest like some giant undigested kebab.

My heart is stabbing me in the back.

My heart is ready to attack me.

It’s Sunday morning, a big blue day in September, and the park is almost empty. Almost, but not quite.

In the patch of grass where they don’t allow ball games, there is an old Chinese man with close-cropped silver hair and skin the colour of burnished gold. He has to be around my dad’s age, pushing sixty, but he seems fit and strangely youthful.

He’s wearing a baggy black outfit that makes him look like he is still in his pyjamas and he’s very slowly moving his arms and legs to some silent song inside his head.

I used to see this stuff every day when I was living in Hong Kong. The old people in the park, doing their Tai Chi, moving like they had all the time in the world.

The old boy doesn’t look at me as I huff and puff my way towards him. He just stares straight ahead, lost in his slow-motion dance. I feel a sudden jolt of recognition. I have seen that face before. Not his face, but ten thousand faces just like it.

When I lived in Hong Kong I saw that face working on the Star Ferry, saw it driving a cab in Kowloon, saw it looking forlorn at the Happy Valley racecourse. And I saw that face supervising some Bambi-eyed grandchild as she did her homework in the back of a little shop, saw it slurping noodles at a
daipaidong
food stall, saw it covered in dust, building spanking new skyscrapers on scraps of reclaimed land.

That face is very familiar to me. It’s impassive, self-contained and completely indifferent to my existence. That face stares straight through me. That face doesn’t care if I live or die.

I saw it all the time over there.

It used to drive me nuts.

As I struggle past the old boy, he catches my eye. Then he says something. One word. I don’t know. It sounds like “
Breed
.”

And I get a pang of sadness as I think to myself – not much chance of that, pal.

I’m the last of the line.

 

Hong Kong made us feel special.

We looked down on the glittering heart of Central and we felt like the heirs to something epic and heroic and grand.

We stared at all those lights, all that money, all those people living in a little outpost of Britain set in the South China Sea, and we felt special in a way that we had never felt special in London and Liverpool and Edinburgh.

We had no right to feel special, of course. We hadn’t built Hong Kong. Most of us hadn’t even arrived until just before it was time to hand it back to the Chinese. But you couldn’t help feeling special in that bright shining place.

There were ex-pats who really were a bit special, hotshots in lightweight Armani suits working in Central who would one day go home covered in glory with a seven-figure bank balance. But I wasn’t one of them. Nowhere near it.

I was teaching English at the Double Fortune Language School to rich, glossy Chinese ladies who wanted to be able to talk to round-eye waiters in their native tongue.
Waiter, there’s a fly in my shark’s fin soup. This is outrageous. These noodles are cold. Where is the manager? Do you take American Express?
We conjugated a lot of service-related verbs because by 1996, the year I arrived in Hong Kong, there were a lot of white boys waiting at tables.

I was a little different from my colleagues. It seemed like all the other teachers at the Double Fortune Language School – our motto: “English without tears in just two years” – had a reason to be in Hong Kong, a reason other than that special feeling.

There was a woman from Brighton who was a practising Buddhist. There was a quiet young guy from Wilmslow who spent every spare moment studying Wing Chun Kung Fu. And there was a BBC – British-born Chinese – who wanted to see where his face came from before he settled down into the family business on Gerrard Street in London’s Chinatown.

They all had a good reason to be there. So did the ex-pats in the banks and the law firms of Central. So did the other kind of ex-pats who were out on Lantau, building the new airport.

Everyone had a reason to be there. Except me.

I was in Hong Kong because I’d had my fill of London. I had taught English Literature at an inner-city school for five years. It was pretty rough. You might even have heard of us. Does the Princess Diana Comprehensive School for Boys ring any bells? No? It was the one in north London where the woodwork teacher had his head put in his own vice. It was in all the papers.

If anything, the parents were more frightening than the children. Open evenings at the Princess Diana would find me confronted by all these burly bruisers with scowling faces and livid tattoos.

And that was just the mothers.

I was sick of it. Sick and tired. Sick of marking essays that began, “Some might say Mercutio was a bit of a wanker.” Tired of teaching
Romeo and Juliet
to kids who laughed when one of the Shakespeareans at the back inflated a condom while we were doing the balcony scene. Sick and tired of trying to explain the glory and wonder of the English language to children who poured “fuck”, “fucking” and “fucked” over their words like ketchup in a burger bar.

Then I heard that a Brit could still go to Hong Kong and automatically get a work permit for a year. But not for much longer.

It was around the time that one of my pupils’ parents – one of the dads, funny enough, a man who was permanently dressed for the beach, even in the middle of winter – had a Great Britain tattoo on his arm
and it was spelt wrong
.

“Great Briten,” it said, just below the image of a rabid bulldog wearing a Union Jack T-shirt that was either cut a bit snug or a few sizes too small.

Great Briten.

Sweet Jesus.

So I got out. Deciding to really do it was the hard part. After that, it was easy. After twelve hours, four movies, three meals and two bouts of cramp in the back row of a 747, I landed at Hong Kong’s old Kai Tak Airport, the one where they came in for a heart-pumping landing between the forest of skyscrapers, close enough to see the washing lines drying on every balcony. And I stayed on because Hong Kong gave me that feeling – that special feeling.

It was a long way from “Great Briten”. It was another world, when what I wanted most in my life was exactly that. Yet it was another world that made me love my country in a way that I never had before.

Hong Kong made me feel as though my country had once done something important and unique. Something magical and brave. And when I looked at all those lights, they made me feel as though there was just a little bit of all that in me.

But I didn’t have a real reason to be there, not like the BBC guy who was looking for his roots and not like the people who were there because of Buddha or Bruce Lee.

Then I met Rose.

And she became my reason.

 

The old Chinese man is not the only sign of life. On the far side of the park there are some Saturday-night stragglers, a bunch of bleary teenagers who still haven’t gone home.

The members of this little gang are every shade of the human rainbow, and although I am very much in favour of the multicultural society, something about the way these lads are casually gobbing on the pigeons does not make you feel overly optimistic about mankind’s ability to live in peace.

When they clock me struggling their way, they exchange knowing grins and I think: what are they laughing at?

I immediately know the answer.

They are laughing at a red-faced, panting, fat guy in brand-new running gear who clearly had nowhere to go on Saturday night and no one to go there with. Someone who gets a lot of early nights. Someone who is not special at all.

Or am I being too hard on myself?

“Check the cheddar,” one of them says.

Check the cheddar? What does that mean? Does that mean me? Check the cheddar? Is that new?

“He so fat that he look like two bitches fighting under a duvet, innit?”

“He so fat he gets his passport photo taken by, you know, like,
satellite
.”

“He so fat he get fan letters from Captain Ahab.”

As a former English teacher, I am impressed by this casual reference to
Moby Dick
. These are not bad kids. Although they are roaring with laughter at me, I give them what I hope is a friendly smile. Showing them that the cheddar is a good sport and knows how to take a joke. But they just smirk at each other and then at me. Smirk, smirk, smirk, they go, radiating equal measures of youth and stupidity.

I look away quickly and when I am past them I remember that there’s a Snickers bar in the pocket of my tracksuit in case of an emergency. Watched by a tatty grey squirrel, I eat my Snickers bar on a wet park bench.

Then for a long time I just sit twisting my wedding ring around the third finger of my left hand, feeling lonelier than ever.

 

I met her on the Star Ferry, the old green-and-white, double-decker boats that shuttle between Kowloon on the tip of the Chinese peninsula and Hong Kong Island.

Well, that’s not strictly true – I didn’t really meet her on the Star Ferry. We didn’t exchange names or numbers. We made no plans to meet again. I was never much of a pick-up artist, and that didn’t change with Rose. But the Star Ferry is where I first saw her, struggling through the turnstile with a huge cardboard box in her arms, balancing it on her hip as she stuffed a few coins into the slot.

She joined the throng waiting for the ferry, a westerner surrounded by every kind of local – the smart young Cantonese businessmen heading to their offices in Central, the chic young office girls with their mobiles and miniskirts and swinging black hair, the shirt-sleeved street traders hawking up phlegm the size of a Hong Kong dollar, young mothers and their beautiful fat-faced babies with startling Elvis quiffs, the tiny old ladies with their gold teeth and scraped-back white hair, Filipina domestics heading for work and even the odd
gweilo
tourist quietly baking in the heat.

Her hair was black, as black as Chinese hair, but her skin was very pale, as though she had just arrived from some land where it never stopped raining. She was dressed in a simple two-piece business suit but the large cardboard box made her look as though she was going to work in one of the little side-street markets above Sheung Wan, west of Central. But I knew that was impossible.

The ramp clanged down and the crowd charged onto the Star Ferry in typical Cantonese style. I watched her wrestling with her cardboard box and noted that her face was round, serious, very young.

Her eyes were too far apart and her mouth was too small. But you would have believed that she was beautiful until she smiled. When she smiled – quick to apologise after smacking some Chinese businessman in the back with her box – the spell was immediately broken. She had this buck-toothed grin that stopped her from being any kind of conventional beauty. Yet something about that gummy smile tugged and pulled at my heart in a way that mere beauty never could. She was better than beautiful.

I found a seat. And seats were going fast. She stood next to me, smiling self-consciously to herself as she clutched her box and the ferry pitched and heaved beneath her, surrounded by the raven-haired crowds.

It is only a seven-minute journey between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, the shortest sea voyage in the world, one brief kilometre spent weaving between junks, barges, cruise ships, tugs and sampans. But it must feel like a long time when you are carrying a box that is almost as big as you are.

I stood up.

“Excuse me? Do you want a seat?”

She just stared at me. I was really quite thin in those days. Not that I was Brad Pitt or anything, even during my lean period, but I wasn’t the Elephant Man either. I wasn’t expecting her to faint, with either desire or repulsion. But I expected her to do something. She just kept on staring.

I had assumed that she was British or American. Now I saw, with that hair and those eyes and those cheekbones, she could conceivably be some kind of Mediterranean.

“You speak English?”

She nodded.

“Do you want to sit down?”

“Thanks,” she said. “But it’s only a little journey.”

“But it’s a big box.”

“I’ve carried bigger.”

That smile. Slow, though, and a bit reluctant. Who was this strange guy in a Frank Sinatra T-shirt (Frank grinning under a snap-brim fedora in an EMI publicity shot from 1958, one of the golden years) and ragged chinos? Who was this man of mystery? This thin boy who was, on balance, slightly more Brad Pitt than Elephant Man?

Her box was full of files, manila envelopes and documents with fancy red seals. So she was a lawyer. I felt a flash of resentment. She probably only talked to men in suits with six-figure salaries. And I was a man in a faded Sinatra T-shirt whose wage packet, when converted into pounds sterling, just about crawled into five figures.

BOOK: One for My Baby
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