Paul lay still on his bed, held his breath, and listened. All he could hear was the low, monotonous hum of the fans. He lifted his head from his pillow a little. Listened. Wasn’t that the first bird calling? The sound came from the other side of the small valley; a faint, lone chirrup, so tentative that Paul was amazed that it hadn’t been silenced on its way to him. It was a good sign. It meant that dawn would soon be breaking, that in the village the first cock was crowing, and would be followed by others in intervals of seconds. It meant that in a few minutes the birds in his garden would also start singing, that he would hear the clatter of his neighbors’ crockery and pans. That the night was over. That he no longer had to endure the voices of the darkness.
Life goes on, Paul!
Meredith’s harsh voice. Over and over again. Paul waited until the first rays of light fell through the wooden shutters and her voice had fallen completely silent. He pushed aside the mosquito net and stood up.
He made his bed, rolled up the tent that protected him from the mosquitoes, switched off the fans, went down to the kitchen, put some water on to boil with the immersion heater, went up again to the bathroom, and turned on the shower. The water was too warm to be really refreshing. It had been a typical summer night in the tropics, hot and humid; he had perspired a lot despite the two fans standing at the foot of his bed. His neighbors thought he was crazy
because he refused to install an air conditioner even in the bedroom. Apart from old Teng, he was the only one on the hill who abstained from this luxury of his own free will.
Life goes on.
He hated those words. They embodied the unspeakable injustice and the utterly appalling, monstrous banality of death. Everything in Paul strained against it. There were days when he felt that every breath he took was a betrayal of his son. Days when the survivor’s feeling of guilt threatened to overwhelm him, when he was not able to do anything other than lie in his hammock on the terrace.
The fear of forgetting anything. Justin’s sleepy face in the morning. His big blue eyes that could shine so brightly. His smile. His voice.
He wanted to do everything he could to prevent the clamor of the world from covering up his memories. They were all that he had left of his son. He had to hold on to them until the end of his life; they were not just immeasurably precious to him, but also extremely fragile. They could not be relied on. Memories were deceptive. Memories faded. Memories evaporated. New impressions, new faces, smells, and sounds layered over the old ones, which gradually lost their strength and their intensity until they were forgotten. Even while Justin had still been alive, Paul had felt this loss: a pain that he had felt almost daily. When had his son spoken his first words? Where had he taken his first steps? Was it at Easter on the lawn at the country club or two days later on the trip to Macau, in the square in front of the cathedral? When it happened, he had thought he would never forget, but two years later, he was already unsure of the details. This loss was only bearable because new memories with Justin formed every day as the old ones disappeared. But now? He had to rely on the memories he had. Sometimes he caught himself searching for a few moments for Justin’s voice, closing his eyes and having to concentrate until Justin appeared before him.
To stop the memories from being extinguished, he wanted to protect himself from everything new, as far as that was possible. For
getting would be betrayal. That was why he had moved to Lamma shortly after his divorce and that was why he rarely left the island, and then only very unwillingly. Lamma was quiet. There were no cars, fewer people than anywhere else in Hong Kong, and hardly anyone that he knew. His house was in Tai Peng, a settlement on a hill above Yung Shue Wan, ten minutes from the ferry terminal. It was hidden behind a formidable wall of green bushes and a thick bamboo grove at the end of a narrow path.
He had set himself a daily routine. He woke at dawn, drank exactly one pot of jasmine tea under the parasol on the terrace—never more, never less—practiced tai chi on the roof for an hour, went into the village to make his purchases, and ate at the same harborside restaurant—always the same mixture of vegetable and shrimp dim sum with two steamed Chinese buns stuffed with pork. Then he carried his shopping home, after which he went on a walk lasting three to four hours. Every day, this took him past the small plots of land in which old men and women were weeding, breaking up clumps of earth, or spraying their greens and tomato plants with insecticide. They greeted him with a nod and he answered with a nod. He was safe with them. They would never think of speaking to him, let alone of engaging him in conversation. He carried on walking to Pak Kok by the sea, took a wide arc back to Yung Shue Wan, and then went halfway across the island to Lo So Shing Beach, which was almost always empty, apart from on a few weekends in summer. Paul went swimming for exactly twenty minutes. Then he sat in the shade for half an hour, sometimes longer in good weather, and looked at the sea, always relieved by the familiarity of the scene. Or he closed his eyes and meditated. There was nothing unexpected to fear here.
The walk back took him over the long ridge of a hill from which he could see the narrow East Lamma Channel that separated the island from Hong Kong. Only seldom did he linger on this path, gaze at the huge container ships with their full loads, and ask himself what their cargo might be and where they might be going. His only companions were stray dogs or the odd homeless cat. He spent
the rest of the day in the garden or on the roof terrace looking after his plants and cooking or cleaning the house.
He did not read a newspaper and had no television; he only listened to the BBC World Service on the radio from seven to seven-thirty in the morning. A day on which he did not exchange a single word with anyone was a good day. A week like any other in which nothing happened to leave traces on his memory was a good week.
He knew today would be more difficult. It was the third anniversary of Justin’s death and Paul planned to travel to Hong Kong Island as he did every year and to climb the Peak.
It was not a good day for a hike. The second of September in Hong Kong was never a good day for a walk. The thermometer by the door showed a temperature of ninety-seven degrees Fahrenheit and humidity of 98 percent. The city was sweating. It was groaning in the heat. Everyone who could do so was hiding in air-conditioned rooms during this time.
Paul fetched a third bottle of water from the fridge for good measure and packed it in his backpack. He was wearing gray shorts and a light short-sleeved shirt. To prevent sweat from running down his face and stinging his eyes, he had tied a bandanna around his forehead. His long, muscular legs were evidence of his daily walks, and he had the flat, toned stomach of a young man. Even so, the climb would require all his strength in weather like this. He picked up his trekking pole and walked down the hill to the village at a leisurely pace. He was sweating even before he got to the ferry.
It was the memory of a lie he had told of necessity that drove him to visit the city and climb the Peak twice a year: on the birthday and on the death anniversary of his son. It was a ritual that he could not even explain to himself; adherence to it had become a kind of compulsion. As if he had to make up for something.
Not long before his death, Justin had asked him if he thought that they would climb the Peak together again one day. The highest mountain on Hong Kong Island had been one of their favorite
outings; the walk around the summit, which commanded views over the city, the harbor, and the South China Sea, had made a great impression on Justin even when he was only two. To Paul, it seemed that the Peak was a place in which his son felt safe. It was a kind of lookout over the world that Justin insisted they visit in every season: in summer, when, thanks to its height, it offered a little relief from the oppressive heat and humidity of the city; in winter, when the wind blew so cold that Justin wore a woolen hat and gloves and they were almost the only people walking around up there; yes, even in spring, when on many days the clouds covered the summit and you saw nothing but mist before you. They had often sat on a bench up there eating and Paul had explained to his son how airplanes flew and ships floated, why the big double-decker buses suddenly looked as small as toy cars, and why stars were called stars and not suns, even though they also emitted light.
Would they make it there together again?
“Yes, of course,” Paul had replied and his son had lifted his head a little, smiled at him, looked into his eyes, and asked, “Really?” Paul had looked into his son’s tired eyes and not known what to say. Did Justin want to know the truth? Did he want to hear no, Justin, no, I don’t think so, you’re too weak for it and I can’t carry you two thousand six hundred feet uphill. There is no hope anymore. We will never stand together on the Peak again and count airplanes, and ships, and dream about gliding through the air like birds and leaving droppings on people’s heads. Of course he didn’t want to hear that. Of course no one in his right mind could have brought himself to tell an eight-year-old that. Why should he? But then what could he do?
“No cheating, Daddy. Tell the truth,” Justin had said in a warning tone shortly after the diagnosis, as Paul, in his helplessness, had tried to play down his son’s condition and babbled away about a bad case of the flu. No telling lies. The truth. He, Meredith, and the doctor
had stuck to it, in as far as a child could understand the kind of destructive force raging in his small body. But this? Will we climb the Peak again? This was not about leukocytes and plastocytes, not about hemoglobin counts and the next blood transfusion. It was a simple question that expected a simple answer: yes or no? Justin looked at his father, his eyes demanding the truth.
“Yes, of course,” Paul said reassuringly, for the second time, nodding. Justin gave a quick smile and sank back into his pillow. It was a little white lie, the right reply—who would worry about it? But Paul could not forgive himself for it. Even today, exactly three years after Justin’s death, he felt the sting of it. He had betrayed his son. He had left him to cradle an illusion, a stupid, ludicrous, completely ridiculous hope, rather than tell him the truth, to share it and make it more bearable that way. A feeling of shame had crept over him, and it had not diminished, no matter how often he had turned his lie over in his mind and justified it to himself. The feeling of despair remained, and with it, the feeling that he had been a coward at a critical moment.