The ground roars and trembles, tipping the surging crowd down the narrow escalators. The train to Guangzhou rumbles into Hong Kong station. We obstinately hold our ground and move steadily towards our cabin. The uniformed woman gestures irritably. ‘Upstairs’, she says.
I, personally, am anything but irritable. Upstairs. And facing forward. We’ve expressly requested that we face in the direction the train is going so China won’t go backwards.
We sit down victorious and look across the table that’s more like a railing to the two empty seats facing us. What poor sods will be staring at us while they reverse into China we wonder.
As if summonsed, here he comes, the first one; a massive Norseman in a lightweight grey suit with long wispy grey hair tied back, an enormous swaying girth and pale giant’s feet clad in Teva-type open sandals – a modern take on Viking footwear.
“I can’t believe zey have zis upstairs ,” he breathes precariously, all his weight and substance struggling to lose momentum.
“I haven’t seen one of zees before”. His ‘zees’ randomly remind me of California, Schwarzenegger , and Scandinavia in general. He has a giant chiseled face you could clamber over and large pooling eyes that look out of his face like a trapped child. They are kind eyes, kind and mildly astonished, like he’s been let out of school early and told to go play.
Seat number two arrives, a dapper, only slightly portly Irish man, pink around the edges. He navigates past the Norseman squeezing himself down for a heartbeat before attempting a wild-eyed escape.
‘I think I’ll, uhh, I think I’ll just sit down over here until someone comes’ he says, barreling across the aisle and collapsing into a single renegade seat I am sure has a rightful owner.
Two minutes later the escapee is back in the fold, a Starbucks coffee in his hand.
‘ I veesh I could get one of zose’ the Norseman annunciates soulfully staring at the Starbucks coffee cup as though it were a miracle.
‘There’s one downstairs where you walk in’ the Irish man says, marginally irritable, still struggling with the space allocation.
The Norseman beams or rather radiates, rearranging the chiseled landscape of his vast and beautiful face. His stomach lies on his lap like an anesthetized animal, large but no longer posing a threat. Could he be a lecturer at some university? He looks like an academic. His suit is light and ironic, not a businessman’s suit.
The Irishman has adjusted. He unzips his brown leather jacket and pulls a spiral bound notebook out of his briefcase. The notebook says Calessa.
“I work in textiles. I sell women’s clothing. “
Michel and I close our kindle apps on our iphones and settle down. This could get interesting.
I’m Patrick he says. I’m Christian says the Norseman. I’m Gail, I say. This is Michel.
The train chugs and takes off.
I forget to look at the scenery.
Do you do this trip often then? Do you live in China?
“Aw no. This,” gestures disparagingly out the window with his thumb.
“THIS is work! Hong Kong? Now that’s home.”
Sits back. Leans forward. Carries on.
“ See I was born in Ireland. Went to school there, then with unemployment at 25% I came over to the United States. Lived in New York City for 15 years. Met a girl there. Filipino. Married her.
“I’m 42, but I look 52. She’s 32. We were OK in NY but here in Hong Kong, everyone has something to say. I look” he glances around for comic effect, “I look just like one of those old guys who come over and get themselves a local girl half their age. She could be my Filipino maid! My wife’s American. Makes her crazy”
“I can see you travel all over ze world,” The norseman offers sagely, “ but vere” he brings two giant pale hands together in an oddly feminine gesture, “ does your heart live?’ He holds his palms against his huge pillowy chest where his heart most likely is. He twists in his seat and surveys his neighbor with sad damp eyes. Is he a priest, I wonder? Is he a man of the cloth?
Patrick turns down the corners of his mouth but his eyes are laughing. He is bubbly, loquacious, is our pinkish Irishman. Loves to talk.
“So I worked in Manhattan. Women’s clothing, design you know. Multimillion dollar company. Right hand man to this crazy rich guy. Been going to China now for twenty something years.”
“Last three years, my own company. Clothing. Doing pretty well, I have to say… Prett-ty well.”
“So what ez it like – you know, working with the Chinese? How ez it? You have been doing zis for zo many years what is zis experience like?” Perhaps he is a researcher, an anthropologist…a philanthropist? An ist.
“I can’t tell you. Have you read this book Mr China?
“I’m looking at this book and I’m turning the pages and I’m doing, “ he nods his head over and over.
“I’m going like, yeah.”
Nods the head
“I could have written this!”
“I tell you they will cheat. They will lie. You can’t turn away for a minute.”
He’s whispering now. Fiercely. He’s looking around. We all are.
“I’m an Irishman. I come from Ireland. We’re the most un-PC country in the world. We know what our shortcomings are. We know how to laugh. These people!” Throws up his hands. Smile never leaves his face but now his eyes are two fierce buttons.
“They just…I ...they’re bloody impossible,” Falls back, exhausted.
“But what can you do? You have to play the game. You just can’t be straight. They say one thing they do another you say one thing you do another…it’s what you have to do to survive.”
“Do you ever go back to Ireland?” The Norseman asks.
“Ireland. Awww…” He softens up again.
“At least five times a year. I have to go and see my customers in New York. I do everything you see. I’m the salesman, the accountant. I do my own sourcing. I go to NY then I come home via Ireland. I’m a bit of history buff you know. World war II especially, for some reason. I collect things. I have this collection and I keep it in this, this facility up in the mountains in county Wicklow. I like to go and visit it.” Beaming now.
A collection. A collection of what?
“What sort of things do you collect?”
“See this, you see this.” Thrusts a cell phone at us with a photograph of an army vehicle.
“This is a kubelwagen!”
“The real thing. I collect them. I do ‘em up. Keep them in this warehouse – temperature controlled. There’re 43 so far, all circa 1940’s, forms of transport, tanks, guns.”
He goes pink, pinker, right to the rim of his hair, lifts his hand scratches his head. Is embarrassed. Is in love.
“What can I do? My wife knows I’m crazy, she knows it’s my thing.
“When I go to Ireland I phone my brother, I have five brothers. I tell him, y’know…” he giggles.
“I say, ‘Come, we’ll take the tank out’.”
“I’m busy building this bunker thing. This great big facility right into the side of the mountain – it’s an army thing…” The blush continues. We are all of us delightfully aghast.
I turn to Christian who has been interrupting sagely but inappropriately all the way through. What kind of gigantic academic can be this socially obtuse I think.
“So Christian, what do you do? What brings you here to Hong Kong?” I am certain he has a story.
“Well I’ve been out of ze world for two years.” There is a long, rather odd pause while we all digest this.
“Out of the world?” I ask.
Again a pause.
“Well it’s like India.” And I know this can’t be the answer.
“You went to India?”
“I liked it zere. I am going to move zere.” Uncomfortable pause full of something like gravitas.
“ Norway -- my country.” He makes a sweeping gesture of disgust.
“It can go to Hell.” His eyes look mildly surprised as though they are watching from the sidelines and can’t quite believe themselves.
“Yes, but what brings you here?”
“My vader is somezing of a historian and, well, China is ze oldest civilization in ze world,” he says, hands up, protesting the banality of such a persistent need for explanation.
He leans forward, elbows planted on the geography of his considerable knees. His rhythm is just out, so you can’t read it.
“I have zis psychiatric problem, you see.” He nods, looks me straight in the eye.
“My government doesn’t vant me here. They don’t vant me out of ze country.” He looks away.
“Zay tried to stop me…zay didn’t vant me to get out…but I did. I am not supposed to be here.”
“Oh well,” another dismayed gesture.
“When I was there zay, the government, zay were a trouble for me. Zay were a trouble for me, and I… I, was a trouble for zem. The last time I was zere… I burnt my house down. “ This time the gesture is nonchalant; what to do? What to do?
“But, you see, in India – I like it zere -- I take my medication, and if I can stay away from alcohol I can be okay. I can be okay. Ze mania is not so bad.”
The train slows down.
Is this our stop?
We shake hands. Have a nice life. The Irishman moves quickly and away. He comes back
“In all the excitement, I forgot this,” he says, waving his briefcase.
I turn to the enormous Norseman, standing now.
“Enjoy your adventure”, I say, retrieving my tiny hand from his.
I look into his eyes, I still see the child trapped there, adrift in an unruly tumble of dreams.