Chell & Me
“Look at the size of it!”
“It’s a fucking monster!”
“Kill the fucker!”
“Where’s the spray? Where’s the fucking Baygone? Quick before it gets away!”
The cockroach was large. Over two inches long. I’d seen larger, but not right here in the flat. I’d never really liked insects, but since I’d started having to share my living space with them it had become personal. I’d spent a considerable sum of money on Baygone sprays, one for each room of the house—the living room, bedrooms, toilet and shower. I didn’t bother getting one for the kitchen, as no one ever used it, with the exception of the odd cup of tea. Even the girls didn’t cook.
I had one can of Baygone and Chell got another from the shower. Executing a pincer movement, we closed in on the lumbering insect, the spray mushrooming up from the lino in noxious grey clouds. The cockroach quickened its pace and made a nifty change of direction, ducking Chell’s plume of Baygone and heading straight for his feet. Chell screamed and leapt out of the way and onto the sofa but, with great presence of mind, continued unleashing the poison gas in the cockroach’s direction. I pursued the fleeing insect, but by now the whole room was misty with Baygone and it had started to catch on my throat and sting my eyes.
Chell had had enough. He leapt off the sofa and ducked into his room, only to return seconds later with his boots on.
“Where is the fucker?”
“He’s heading towards the kitchen.”
Chell strode purposefully to the kitchen and I heard a number of stamps before he returned, one boot dangling from in his hand.
“Look at fucking the mess it’s made.” The insect’s thorax and abdomen lay twisted and oozing between the treads on the sole, its antennae waving like branches in a gentle breeze.
“You know you shouldn’t squash them. They release their eggs on impact and before you know it you’re up to your neck in the little shits.”
“It gave me no option. We unleashed so much Baygone on the fucker, it nearly finished us off. My lungs are fucked.”
“These are hardy creatures we’re dealing with. The only living thing to survive the atomic tests on Easter Island.”
“Remember that one we tried to drown in the sink?”
“I’ll never forget it. We had to burn it on the gas ring, eventually.”
Chell nodded ruminatively. This exchange was typical of our post-operational debriefings. We would talk through the machinations of the battle, place it in the context of previous engagements, always talking up the strength and resilience of the opposition.
“I don’t think inhaling Baygone’s very good for you,” said Chell. “It’s making me feel a bit queasy.” And with that, Chell dropped the boot to the floor and exited the living room at pace. The subsequent heave and splatter confirmed he was vomiting in the shower.
He returned wiping his mouth, his brow sweaty. “If you’re still coming, we should probably get going.”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I’m not sure it’s my kind of thing. Anyway, I’m still feeling rough from last night.”
“I know what you mean. It should be OK, though. We’ll get a taxi over there and stop for some beers on the way.”
“Is that a good idea?”
“Dunno. It’s the only idea I’ve got, though. If we have a few beers by the time we meet the kids we’ll be a bit more relaxed and everything will be fine.” Chell generally felt—and was generally proved correct—that whatever unpalatable situation presented itself, if you could ingest alcohol beforehand everything would work out fine, more or less.
I knew—and Chell knew—that I would eventually agree to go along with him, but I sought additional assurances anyway. “I’m not sure. I don’t really like kids. They’re a bit weird.”
“I know. That’s why we’re getting some beers on the way. You’ll feel more relaxed, you’ll communicate that to them, and they’ll think you’re great. Kids are like dogs—show them fear and they’ll have you. Let them know you’re not scared of them and you’ll have them eating out the palm of your hand.”
“Come on, let’s go.”
“OK, then. But I’m still not sure.”
* * *
Driving through the concrete, glass, and metal Hong Kong streets on a Sunday afternoon with a cold can of Tsingtao in my hand and several more sitting in the
footwell, I started to relax.
Last night had been a typical Saturday night. Chell and me had been working at the restaurant until 1 a.m., had some free beers in the restaurant bar, then headed out to catch a couple of happy hour drinks at some of the trendy watering holes in Lan-Kwai-Fong, before inevitably pitching up at The Big Apple.
The Big Apple was not one of Hong Kong’s more select locations. Its clientele comprised Filipinos, backpackers and other itinerant Westerners, a smattering of Chinese and sometimes a contingent of off-duty soldiers from the Blackwatch regiment, at that time still garrisoned on the island. Entry was free, drinks comparatively cheap, and the music was the kind of undiscriminating chart rave that appeals mostly to the very drunk. Last night the Blackwatch were in and this always piqued the atmosphere—a horde of tattooed, lager-fuelled Scotsmen, trained killers, intent on unwinding after the rigours of regimented army life. Thankfully they left early, probably heading off to one of the strip clubs that the Wan-Chai district is famous for. Chell and me stumbled out of the Big Apple around dawn and made the two-minute journey back to the flat.
Neither of us had managed to pull. This wasn’t entirely unusual, though Chell had found the Big Apple to be a relatively fertile hunting ground in the past. I had only managed to pull there twice—well, if I’m being honest, just the once.
She was a Chinese girl who called herself Annie. She was tiny—less than five foot tall—and, by my standards at least, quite pretty, though when she spoke she revealed stumpy grey-brown teeth. Her English was very broken, but she spoke enough to get us through the evening and back to my flat around the corner. I spoke no Cantonese, other than a few phrases that are useful when dealing with taxi drivers. We had sex, but she wouldn’t stay the night. It might have been the squalor of the flat, or maybe she had to get back to her parents—I don’t think she was very old.
There was another time with a stunning Filipino girl. I can’t really count this as pulling, though, as I had to pay for the privilege. It’s not something I would normally do. Chell had already gone off with some Scottish girl and I was in The Apple on my own, very much the worse for drink. So drunk in fact that I remember almost nothing of the evening, and certainly nothing of the sex. The events of the evening are like a bad magazine photo-montage. I remember us dancing together. I remember us kissing in the club. I remember she told me her name was Marilyn. I remember us getting into a taxi. I remember us getting a room in a hotel. I remember ordering champagne from room service. I remember the two of us in the shower together. And after that I don’t really remember anything. The next morning she was gone. Over the course of the evening I had spent the best part of HK$5000, practically a months’ wages, excluding tips.
Chell was luckier with women than me. I’m not sure exactly why. If these things come down to looks—which I realise they don’t always, strictly speaking—then I would say he was at a disadvantage to me, and I’m no oil painting.
He did have this kind of magnetism, though, but it’s hard to put your finger on it. Thinking back, I reckon his magnetism was all wrapped up in his childishness. Not childishness in a negative way, exactly. It was more about his impulsiveness, his impetuosity, and the bizarre obsessions he would harbour.
For instance, he was always talking about becoming a scaffolder. Ever since he arrived in Hong Kong he’d been obsessed with scaffolding. Hong Kong was still a growing city—still is, probably—and all over there were buildings in various stages of construction. The weird thing was that although the buildings were often state-of-the-art skyscrapers, all glass and steel, they were constructed within bamboo scaffolds. It looks flimsy and jerry-built, but apparently it’s stronger than metal and, because it’s supple, it’s more robust when the typhoons blow in. Probably most people who come to Hong Kong from the West think it’s a bit odd, but with Chell it was a genuine obsession. He could spend hours watching people constructing it, clambering over it, hoisting stuff up it. He even went to an employment agency to see if he could get work as a scaffolder, but they turned him down because he didn’t speak any Cantonese—well, only a few phrases useful for dealing with taxi drivers.
Anyway, whatever the reason, whenever his girlfriend Shirley wasn’t around, Chell seemed to be quite a hit with the ladies—not just the Chinese and Filipinos either. It was Chell’s girlfriend Shirley we were on our way to visit. She shared the flat with us, three other blokes, and another girl. She was a qualified nurse but worked as a nanny. It paid better than nursing, apparently. One thing about the job was that she had to live in. This was good in the sense that it got her out of our cramped, dirty flat—but bad in the sense that she had to live with strangers who sometimes treated her like a servant.
The other three blokes we lived with worked in bars and restaurants, just like Chell and me, and the other girl worked as an escort in a gentlemen’s club. That’s about the best paying job you could get as a girl in Hong Kong (outside of proper jobs in banking and the legal profession, of course). There’s no prostitution involved—well, not in the strictest sense. She was paid to wear saucy costumes and to talk to Chinese and Japanese businessmen mainly, making sure they bought plenty of expensive booze. A lot of them were creeps, but she said some were nice and there was one—Johnny Ho—who she used to meet out of work. He would take her shopping and to expensive restaurants on her days off and he drove her around in his Porsche. I don’t know if she ever slept with him. She said the busiest night of the week was Monday, because the clients had spent all weekend at home and would come to the club to get away from the wife and kids. Depressing stuff, if you stopped to think of it.
The plan was to get a taxi over to Shirley’s, pick up the kids, and take them to Ocean World, some sort of water-themed adventure park. I’d never had much experience with children and was frankly not looking forward to it. I’ve never been sure what to say to kids, or what tone to take with them. It’s embarrassing doing all that babytalking. But as the Tsingtao began to settle in my stomach and top up the residual alcohol in my system, my worries began to subside and I started to relax—just as Chell had said.
“How do they do it? I’m completely baffled. Before I leave, I’ve got to find out. Mate, do you know how the trams steer?” Chell was addressing the taxi driver. “We’ve been watching them and they don’t seem to have any sort of steering wheel and there’s no points in the tracks. Do you know how they steer?” The taxi driver gave a cursory glance over his shoulder and then returned his gaze to the road. Chell gave me a knowing look. “Inscrutable, aren’t they?”
“It’s what they’re famous for.”
“It’s British craftsmanship we’re talking about here, mate. Quality engineering,” said Chell, by way of mitigation.
Hong Kong’s British-engineered tramway was another of Chell’s obsessions and, like the cockroach slaughter, it had become a Hong Kong tradition for the two of us. Chell had an enquiring, though not very orderly, mind and at his instigation we’d sit for ages at a junction in the tramlines trying to work out how the trams steered when approaching a fork in the tracks—one track going straight, the other peeling off to the left or right. It sounds stupid, but just by looking you can’t work it out. The drivers don’t appear to be doing anything and there’s no visible steering wheels or levers. And when you examine the tracks, there aren’t any points or similar mechanisms that could explain it. When we traveled on the trams we used to peer over the driver’s shoulder—still no clues. We must have spent hours studying the trams and neither of us had managed to cobble together any remotely plausible theories. I can’t believe there’s any great mystery or secret to it. It’s just that neither Chell nor me knew the answer.
If Joey had still been in Hong Kong, he might have known. But as usual in Hong Kong, just when you meet someone you genuinely get on with, they up-sticks and go traveling. Joey had only been working in the restaurant for three or four months before he scraped enough money together to go to Australia for the surfing—he was from Northumberland and used to surf off the North Sea coast. He did have an additional revenue stream, though—knocking out pills to the ex-pat community. In the short time Joey was at the restaurant, he became respected as the font of all wisdom and could be relied upon to settle the factual disputes that arose between the staff and even some of the regular customers who came to know and trust his encyclopaedic mind.
Joey had solved Chell’s other Big Question with very little effort. After opening a bank account at the HSBC headquarters, Chell had become fascinated by the escalators. The building is one of those inside-out ones, where you can see all the pipes and cables and stuff on the exterior. On the inside there’s an atrium (I’d heard the word before, but didn’t know what it meant until Joey explained it—the same goes for scatological, diaspora, and atavistic) with glass escalators taking you up to all the floors. Chell became obsessed with watching the escalators and started to wonder how they could travel at the same speed regardless of how many passengers they were carrying. Though not thoroughly schooled in scientific matters, Chell correctly observed that this phenomenon contradicts basic laws of physics. Chell and me expounded countless, largely unscientific, theories to explain the conundrum, before Joey explained it was all done with gears and torque. Even now I don’t understand the mechanics, but he used the example of a cassette player that keeps the tape moving at the same speed across the pickups, no matter whether the spools are full or nearly empty. To be honest, I’m still a little hazy on the science of it all, but at the time I understood Joey’s explanation perfectly.
Starting our second
beer of the morning, we began to talk about our plans. I’d
been in Hong Kong for about fourteen months, Chell for nearly eighteen.
I think we’d both planned to work in Hong Kong for six months
or so, earning enough money to fund a jaunt around Asia—Indonesia,
Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam. Cambodia was just opening up at that
time and people had started to talk about Laos, a country I’d
not heard of before. Unfortunately, every time we got some money
together we’d blow it on a big night out, or worse, just fritter
it all away. We’d been to the Philippines together and spent
a few weeks in Thailand, but it wasn’t quite the same as the
months of bumming around we’d dreamt of.
A lot of people in Hong Kong got caught in the same trap. You’d meet them everywhere. People who’d probably come out fresh-faced and idealistic, who had ended up staying years, drifting around the bar and restaurant scene, drinking too much, losing the plot, becoming embittered. We were determined not to let it happen to us, but in the back of our minds I think we could both feel things slipping away from us.
“I’ve got a new plan,” announced Chell with a grin. “That whole South-East Asian thing, it’s been done to death. Everyone’s either going to or coming back from Thailand or Malaysia or wherever. We don’t want to be following the common herd. So I reckon we should have a rethink.”
“India?” I asked.
“Dunno.” I said, after a brow-furrowed pause.
“The Trans-Siberian Express.” Chell made the pronouncement with all the gravitas of someone declaring they’d discovered a cure for cancer.
“I’ve heard of it, I think.”
“It’s a train,” explained Chell. “It goes from Beijing to Moscow.”
“I know. The plan is we spend a month or two wandering around China, get the train to Moscow, with maybe a cheeky stop-off in Siberia, a few days in Moscow, then St. Petersburg, then we’re into Europe proper. We can go to Berlin, Prague, Budapest, wherever. But then—and this is the beauty of the plan—we head to Amsterdam. The Dutch all speak English and there are loads of bars, full of British punters. So we’ll have no problem getting work.”
“Sounds good to me. What’ll it cost?”
“We can get to grips with the small print later on, but I reckon a couple of grand each should cover it. If we run out of money we can always get a job on the way.” This was typical of Chell. He would decide on a plan of action, then manipulate or fabricate the facts to suit him. He knew, and I knew, that he had no idea how much it would cost, or whether getting jobs en route was a feasible proposition. The plan was thin, to say the least.
“Sounds good. Count me in,” I said.
“Good man,” said Chell.
We were midway through our third can of Tsingtao when we reached our destination.
“Sup up, we’re here,” said Chell, horsing down the remains of his drink.
“I’m not sure this is a great idea. I’m half cut already and it’s not even lunchtime,” I said.
“A spot of food is what we need. I’ll get Shirley to rustle something up. We should really get a few more beers in, too. The last thing we want is to be dealing with a creeping hangover. Not when we’ve got kids to look after.”
Chell rang the doorbell. A little girl opened it and announced in a shrill, piping voice, “My mummy’s in India!”
Although accustomed to the non sequiturs of a protracted drinking session, I was slightly taken aback by this greeting. Luckily, it didn’t put Chell out of his stride.
“That’s why we’ve come to take you to Ocean World! Is Shirley in?”
Shirley seemed pleased to see us. It must’ve been hard living apart from your friends all week, spending all your time with someone else’s children. “Big Apple last night? You’re nothing if not predictable. Do you want something to eat?” Shirley called for Susan the Filipino maid and asked her to make up a platter of sandwiches for the kids and us. “And some crisps?” suggested Chell.
The house was in Stanley, a salubrious area popular with wealthy ex-pat families on Hong Kong Island. It comprised a series of luxury high- and low-rise apartment developments with a proliferation of swimming pools, patios, terraces, and roof gardens. It had the air of a millionaire’s retirement village.
The children—Harry and Sofia—were aged three and five. The alcohol had loosened me up considerably, but as soon as I tried to talk to the kids I faltered.
“So, what’s your mum doing in India?” I asked.
Sofia just glowered and pushed a chewed morsel of ham sandwich out of her mouth so that it landed with a plop on the table.
“Mummy’s working in India, isn’t she, Sofia?” said Shirley.
“Yes, she’s making law in India,” said Sofia.
“Mummy’s a lawyer. A very good lawyer, isn’t she?”
“Mummy’s a law-er,” said Sofia, starting to push the chewed up remnants of the ham sandwich around the table.
“Don’t worry, you’ll get the hang of it soon enough,” Shirley tried to reassure me.
“It’s very hot today, isn’t it, kids? Do you want something to drink? I think we could all use a little drinky to cool us down,” said Chell.
“Would you two like something to drink?” Shirley was addressing Chell and me.
“These sandwiches are a touch on the dry side. And it is a very hot day,” said Chell.
Susan brought us a two bottles of Heineken Export and the kids each had a carton of Ribena.
After another bottle of Heineken for Chell and me, we hit the road, bound for Ocean World. Shirley drove the family Mercedes—Chell sat in the front and I was wedged in the back between two buckled-in baby chairs. I thought I should try and make an effort with Harry and Sofia. They weren’t the greatest conversationalists, but Harry responded well to tickling and Sofia was keen to give me a thorough rundown on the life and times of her dolly—an ugly thing, pink and skinny, with coarse fishing-line hair.
I was making progress and starting to enjoy myself. So much so, in fact, that when we got out of the car I found myself skipping around the car park with Sofia running behind me, clinging onto the bottom of my t-shirt, shouting, “Giddyup! Giddyup!” We were pretending I was a horse and she was my rider. I was evidently already drunker than I thought.
“What did I tell you?” called Chell.
* * *
We’d done the chair-o-planes, helter-skelter and been on some rubbish hovercraft bumper car things and now Chell was taking Harry and Sofia on the log flume. I went to buy some drinks. At the refreshment kiosk I got some water for Shirley, orange juice for the kids, and San Miguel for Chell and me—it was the only the beer they served.
“You’re getting quite good with the kids,” said Shirley.
“They’re all right, aren’t they? It makes a bit of change from going to the races or just getting bladdered in some bar and going for a curry.”
“Bloody hell! That’s a first! I thought that’s what you two like doing the best.”
“Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy a drink as much as anyone. All I’m saying is it’s nice to have a change.”
“I know what you mean. I’m getting a bit sick of Hong Kong, to be honest.”
“You’re not thinking about leaving, are you?”
“Dunno. Maybe. I’m not sure what Chell would think about it.”
Until she said that, it had never occurred to me that Chell and Shirley were planning any kind of future together. Whenever we’d talked about our plans of traveling together Shirley’s name had never cropped up. Any opportunity to sleep with other girls he took. I probably saw more of Chell than she did—we lived together, worked together, and drank together. Shirley mostly stayed on the other side of the island and only saw Chell when she was between assignments, or came over to Lan Kwai Fong to meet us both after we’d finished our shifts.
“Do you think you and Chell will leave together?” I asked.
“Oh, I wouldn’t worry. You can come along wherever we end up going. We’ve become a bit of a threesome anyway, by the looks of it.”
“You don’t mind that, do you?”
“Not at all. Luckily for you I’m not a very clingy girlfriend. Lucky for Chell, too, I suppose.”
“Where do you fancy going to? It would have to be somewhere we could all get work.”
“I know. There’s plenty of options, though. Singapore, Australia, New Zealand. Maybe even South Africa.”
“Would they be any better than here, though? Singapore is supposed to be a sterilised version of Hong Kong. And as for the others—I don’t like Kiwis, Aussies, or Springboks.”
“Fucksake, have you listened to yourself? What did you come traveling for in the first place? You and Chell form your own little clique and distance yourself from everyone else. Travel is supposed to broaden your horizons, but for you and Chell it just reinforces all the petty prejudices you brought away with you.”
“Where do you want me to start? OK, you’ve already admitted not liking a significant proportion of the developed world residing in the Southern Hemisphere.”
“Well, there’s no limit to it is there? Germans and Austrians. Swiss. French and Italians. Americans.”
“I work in a restaurant with an international clientele. I have direct experience of these people every day. All of those groups you’ve just mentioned behave like arseholes in their different ways. I know. I see them every day.”
“But you don’t know them. You just serve them food and drinks. What special insight do you think that gives you? And it’s not just foreigners. You and Chell are still obsessed with the regional rivalries you’ve imported from home.”
“It’s not bollocks! You and Chell are always complaining about the number of cockneys working in Lan Kwai Fong. And those lads from Manchester working in that new cocktail bar.”
“But they’re a bunch of wankers. Regardless of where they’re from, they’re wankers.”
“Is that right? Look, all I’m saying is that maybe you should be a bit more open-minded about things. You’ve got stuck into a routine. Work, Lan Kwai Fong, Big Apple. When was the last time you woke up without a hangover? When was the last time you went somewhere new? Did something different? It’s not really what you came out here for, is it?”
I was on the defensive. Everything she’d said was right, more or less. “We’re thinking about going to China,” I said.
like one of Chell’s schemes. Do you think I’ll get an
Maybe I’d said too much. I was on the defensive again. “Of course. He’s only just mentioned it to me. In the taxi on the way over.”
Just then Chell reappeared, his hair wet from the log flume, Sofia on his shoulders and Harry skipping along by his side, a trail of colourless mucous trailing from his nose.
“Fucking soaked!” exclaimed Chell.
“Chell!” remonstrated Shirley.
“Oops. Naughty boy. Bad language.” Far from sobering him up, the soaking from the log flume appeared to have piqued Chell’s level of inebriation. I handed him a bottle of beer. “San Miguel?”
“It’s the only beer they’ve got,” I explained.
“No Heineken? Bollocks.”
“Chell! Language!” said Shirley.
“Naughty boy, again. The kids enjoyed the log flume. They were screaming like banshees the whole way round. So was I after a while, I couldn’t help myself. What else is there to do?” It was plain that Chell had the bit firmly between his teeth now.
“There’s a roller coaster, but the kids will be too young for that. We could go and watch the Ocean World Show,” said Shirley.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Chell, will you stop cursing!” Shirley had started to adopt the same tone with Chell as she used for Sofia and Harry. She consulted a leaflet. “The Ocean World Show has performing seals, dolphins, a killer whale, and diving acrobats.”
“So, the roller coaster it is, then?” said Chell.
“Maybe we should go to the show. For the kids.” I volunteered. I was sensing an atmosphere developing between Shirley and the increasingly unpredictable Chell.
* * *
Maybe it was the beer and the sun, but I left the Ocean World Show feeling deflated, if not thoroughly depressed.
Firstly there were some divers dressed as clowns, launching themselves into a series of acrobatic dives. The athleticism was undeniably impressive, but I've always hated clowns. I’ve always found something about their crude slapstick comedy painfully unfunny and cruel.
Then we were treated to performing seals and dolphins, followed by Xia-Xia the killer whale. As if the seals and dolphins were not sad enough, the way this enormously powerful killing machine, beautiful and dangerous as an oil slick, was subjugated so totally by the skinny trainer in his cut-off wet suit was truly pathetic. At least Sofia and Harry enjoyed themselves. Chell seemed to enjoy the show, too.
* * *
By the time we all arrived back at the house in Stanley, Chell and me, and Sofia and Harry were all in varying stages of exhaustion.
“It’s all that fresh air. I’m not used to it,” observed Chell.
“Did you put any suntan lotion on?” asked Shirley, her nursing instincts coming to the fore. “You both look a bit pink.”
“I can feel a bit of tingle, now you come to mention it.”
The rest of the evening passed relatively peacefully. Shirley packed the kids off to bed—but not before Chell and me were each given a goodnight kiss.
“They’re all right, aren’t they?” said Chell.
“Yeah, they’re all right.” I said.
The exertions of the day had taken their toll on Chell and me. My forehead and scalp felt singed and the all-day drinking was beginning to catch up with me.
“Are you a bit peckish?” asked Chell.
“Not really, but it might be a good idea to eat something.”
“I think you might be right. Shirley, is there any chance of getting a snack?”
“I’ll speak to Susan and see what she can rustle up. Do you want a couple of beers as well?”
“Go on then,” said Chell. “Doesn’t make sense to start abstaining now does it?”
After Susan had brought us some sandwiches and some more beers, she retired to bed. According to Shirley, she and her husband, who had a cleaning job in one of the big banks, had three children back in Manila being looked after by Susan’s parents. They had been in Hong Kong for two years sending most of their earnings back to her parents so that eventually they would be able to build their own house and move back to the Philippines.
“Poor sods,” muttered Chell.
“I think I’d better get off to bed. That food has finished me off.” I said.
Shirley showed me to my room. It was the master bedroom, Harry and Sofia’s parent’s room. On the bedside table was a picture of an attractive woman, I assumed the mother, at what looked like some sort of garden party sharing a glass of champagne and a joke with a young Lady Diana Spencer.
* * *
“The bastard’s wet the bed. Is it OK if I sleep in here?” It was Shirley.
I had no time idea what time it was, or how long I had been asleep. I grunted my assent. She slipped in the bed beside me, her thighs damp and slightly cold.
I can’t remember if it was me who made the first move, or Shirley. Maybe it didn’t happen quite like that anyway. Whatever, as Chell slept on in a bed of his own piss in the next room, Shirley and me had slow, sleepy, drunken sex on clean, cool sheets.
* * *
The next morning I awoke to find Shirley slipping out of the bed, awkwardly naked, slipping a t-shirt over her head and sliding into her knickers, her body tense and closed.
“What time is it?” I asked.
“It’s still early. I’ll have to check on the kids. And see what state Chell’s in.” She slipped out the room, closing the door noiselessly.
* * *
Some hours later I woke again to hear the theme music from Postman Pat blaring from the television downstairs.
Chell was sitting in the living room with Sofia and Harry, all three of them drinking glasses of Ribena.
“All right, mate?”
“Do you want some breakfast?” It was Shirley calling from the kitchen, from where I could faintly hear a washing machine churning.
“S’all right. I’m working the lunch shift. I’d better get a move on.”
“I’ll come with you,” said Chell. “We’ll get a taxi.”
We said our goodbyes to Shirley and took a taxi straight to the restaurant. On the journey across the island, Chell talked about his plans for the Trans-Siberian Express. He was now contemplating buying some cheap consumer durables to sell for vast profits once we hit Moscow. He didn’t mention whether Shirley would be joining us and I didn’t ask.
* * *
But me and Chell never went on the Trans-Siberian Express. A couple of weeks after the day out at Ocean World, I got a phone call from home. I didn’t want to return, even for a funeral, but there was no real option so I booked a plane ticket with a return scheduled for the week following the burial.
It was strange being home at first, seeing all the people I’d grown up with and revisiting all the places I used to go. It’s a cliché, but things really don’t change very much when you go away. At first I was resentful and condescending. Everything felt like it had become stuck, just like I remember feeling before I left for Hong Kong. But after only a few days my feelings began to change. On the day I was supposed to take my return flight, I rescheduled. Finally, I cancelled my ticket altogether.
It was only from this perspective that I saw Hong Kong for what it was—drudgery. The long hours, the split-shifts, the six-day week, the menial work, the bad wages, the filthy living conditions, the permanent hangover, the insects, the heat and humidity, the dirty air, and, worst of all, the sheer mindlessness of it all. Admittedly, it was an exotic location, but it was drudgery nevertheless.
Shirley came back a few months after me and we met up a few times. Like me, she had grown tired of what was supposedly a new and exciting life morphing into cartoonish version of the lives we had left at home. She told me Chell was just the same as ever, or maybe a little worse than before—he’d got involved in a fight with a taxi driver which had resulted in a broken hand and a date in court.
I wrote to Chell a few times and got a couple of postcards in return. And then nothing. Maybe he found out I’d started seeing Shirley, but then again I’m not sure if it would really have bothered him.
I remembered his birthday, though, and sent him a present. It was a book—An Illustrated History of the British Tramways by T.P Davies. I’m not sure there was any information on how trams steer, just a load of old photos and reminiscences from the good old days.