By Chitralekha Basu
Not sure what they did with my tongue.
I mean I got all my teeth back. Even the ones I didn’t particularly care for. Disinfected, rinsed with hydrogen peroxide and handed back to me in a transparent inter-locked plastic envelope containing my details. For a while it did seem my extracted dentures could stand in for me, in case I couldn’t be particularly bothered to show up at an interview, maybe take the questions on my behalf from one more pesky teenager in skinny jeans and a thigh gap large enough to view the new Ferris wheel at Victoria Harbour. God knows where they hire these kids from – a factory for producing assembly-line hacks somewhere in Dongguan, for all I care to know, going by that faux American accent. And not knowing a thing about the person you go out to interview is, doubtless, an essential qualification a two-bit hireling might have.
But where did my tongue go?
Never mind. Maybe I’m better off this way, after all. Didn’t someone say the enemy of writing was talk? David Malouf. The bugger was bloody spot-on. It really is a criminal waste of time, especially if you’re talking to uninformed reporters, which you are. I mean, is there a choice?
To be fair, not that many of them swung by my door in the last few years. They will now. Soon. Who knows, maybe tonight? A writer losing his tongue is like a fast train losing its sense of direction. Both are way more useful than when they were whole. It’s a week’s supply of stories for the local rags. In the least.
Besides, if I did have my tongue I would probably have bitten it off at this moment. These builder guys are a riot, I tell you. Well I obviously can’t say it out loud, now with my tongue gone – sent off into the great unknown to seek its calling I suppose. But that’s the point, you see. What they did to my good old home of so many years makes speech redundant.
In fact, I should probably call it my ‘new’ home although this is where I have lived since I was a boy. That was a while ago.
I was brought here to this address on top of the ugliest hill in Kwun Tong on a sunless afternoon in mid-August – tossed like rubbish into the dung pit by a bus that swerved round the bend and left as soon as it came, probably the last such to service what lay at the other end of human habitation. I swear there was nothing at all to suggest anyone other than us, two adults and their offspring with vaguely human features, had ever been in this area – between a rock and seven buildings with massive featureless facades and tiny button-hole windows looking out on a landscape in which every pebble and tree and trash bin with separate containers for bio-degradable and other waste was marked with blue-gray blotches of liquid cement. Not even a dog. Or a discarded tampon. Even birds would go elsewhere to shit.
‘Hello stranger, can I give you a hand?’
What’s Jerry doing here, wearing a pair of canary yellow Bermudas at ten-thirty in the morning, looking like a splotched egg yolk? And look at those aquamarine and blue floral printed shirt and flip flops with matching straps. Maybe someone should tell him the trip to the beach is off.
‘You think this is your chance, eh?’
Is this what my handwriting looks like? I swear it was pretty decent the first time I had a crack at it, which was almost as soon as I was able sit up without help. Doctor Lam marked me ‘outstanding’ under motor skills. ‘Although I imagine you can’t help it,’ he said. ‘You writers have to keep using your hands like wild escargots got to keep chomping down the garden. It’s pathological.’
He took his vocation rather seriously, this Doctor Lam. I mean the other vocation, trying to be clever and original. And so bloody colonial of him! Wild escargots indeed. Ceilidh and bagpipes. Breakfast with black tea. Florence Nightingale meets Reginald Jeeves at Tuen Mun Hospital. I wish someone told him the handover took place in 1997. Finished. Sealed and delivered.
He’d blushed like the insides of a ripe watermelon when he told me about being ‘a bit of a Sunday writer himself’. ‘Don’t worry, you won’t find pages from my memoir rustling in your oesophagus,’ he’d said, wiping his nose.
I’d probably looked a bit doubtful at this point, so he said, ‘I care far too much for my work to let them be ingested by a poet, even if I was looking for literary criticism.’
Whew. That was a close shave then.
‘Come on old chap. Give your dirty old mind a break. I was just trying to be helpful for Jeez’s sake.’
What does the old Jerry-can think he’s up to, trying to act so familiar? He showed up a few times at the hospital. It was bloody intrusive. I was under heavy sedatives most of the time, with less demonstrable reaction in me than an amoeba. I wouldn’t have allowed my mother into the ICU if I could help it. If she were still around that is. Still, I would like to respect the gesture shown by people coming to see me at the hospital – even if it were random blokes I could have bumped into in the park, the sort who – I could give this to you in writing, if you like – won’t be able to tell a thesis from a prosthesis. All the same it’d be a serious mistake to read my tolerance towards them then as a sign of my being generally, you know, available to every stranger who might like to take me up on the offer of having a chat over a cup of yuanyang that I never made them in the first place.
‘Well, that was really thoughtful of you, Jerry. But I think I can manage on my own.’
Now that looks like an improvement on the last. Maybe I got a bit distracted the last time. Thank god, I didn’t break the pencil. I mean you’re gone for just twenty-six weeks and when you get back your home of thirty-six years looks like a jar of marshmallows.
Jerry stepped up and took my hand. He’s quite amazing, this Jeronimous Rastapopoulos, setting fresh benchmarks in brazenness, I must say. Just because I’m in a wheelchair, he thinks he’s got the license to paw me. At this rate I’ll probably find him in my bed tomorrow morning.
‘Here, grab my arm. We got a new lift in the building. The wheelchair could get a bit jerky when we cross the threshold.’
‘I still got my legs,’ I wrote, filling up a page of my spiral jotter with letters that could have been carved with a lump of charcoal on the walls of a cave in the Neolithic age. ‘Or did you think I was wearing a prosthetic pair like the thing inside my mouth?’
‘You think you could do this on your own? That’s terrific!’ said Jerry. ‘Let’s step back and give the old boy a chance then.’
He’s trying to patronise me now. It’s amazing just how many people in Hong Kong live on the dole doing nothing, getting into other people’s spaces, trying to get some of their own rubbish into others’.
I tried getting up. A few times. Why does my backside feel like I am lugging a block of granite with my medical history carved on it? They took a slice from my hip and had it grafted on my epiglottis. If anything my rear should have felt lighter.
Jerry slid his hands underneath my armpits and tried hauling me up on my feet, casually, like he was hitching up his trousers. My eyes nearly popped out the sockets. The bits and bobs floating inside my brain swirled before settling back, coagulating again, in a treacly mass. A schnauzer yelped somewhere. I was being walked away, carried, more like, past the chartreuse slides and aquamarine artificial knolls, the painted images of birds and grasshoppers on the boundary wall. The staff from the hospital in powder blue uniform stood back in a single file in front of the row of sickly trees with strawberry pink cement rings around them. They could have started chanting Baa Baa Black Sheep on cue for all I cared.
‘Come on, now, don’t fidget. Easy does it,’ said Jerry. He still had his arm around me, my right shoulder twitching under his steady grip. ‘All this is going to get a lot easier once the physio calls on you, which should be tomorrow. Until then if you need anything just give us a shout.’
Is he trying to be sarky, or deliberately obtuse? I mean I know what he means and I suppose I should be beholden to him for offering to fill in for my missing valet-cum-personal security man, but in the least he could have shown a little more sensitivity in choosing his words. Did he never go to school or what?
‘Probably better to get the wheelchair back in here,’ said Jerry. ‘We change into another lift on the fifth floor, and it’s quite a walk from this one to the next.’
So this scintillating, Fur Elise-playing glass capsule isn’t going to take us all the way up to my flat, after all? That’s reassuring. I thought we were in the middle of a never-ending Hello Kitty Party.
‘Did they knock down things inside my flat?’
‘Oh, no, no,’ said Jerry. ‘They’ll come to your part of the block later. They’re doing the other half now.’
‘I’m going to sue the Hong Kong Housing Authority, if I find a crack on my wall...’
‘I can assure you, your home’s just the way you left it. I had it cleaned last weekend.’
‘How did you get the keys?’
‘Oh I borrowed the spare from the admin office downstairs. After all these years living under the same roof I sort of owed it to you, did I not?’ said Jerry, purring like a town cougar in faux fur. ‘You should have seen the mountain of book lice we cleared.’
I had always suspected one day the bugger would make a pass at me. Just didn’t expect him to be so brazen as to try it now when I’m obviously vulnerable. I mean physically. Didn’t he say he used to be in the police? Well, if they fired him – which is what they likely did for what’s a former state servant drawing a pension doing here in a public housing estate in Kwun Tong when he should have retired on enough money to buy an apartment in Pok Fu Lam – there’re no points for guessing why that might have happened.
Heaven knows where he is wheeling me to now – through this tunnel between endless walls of thin wood announcing the opening of store after store in cursive psychedelic lettering. And why on earth is he being such a show-off? Will somebody tell him it’s only a wheelchair, not a Formula One Renault? Having spent twenty-six weeks strapped to a hospital bed I could probably put up with a five-minute delay in reaching my flat, unless Jerry’s sinister plot includes getting us both killed by letting this never-ending congress of beams, boards and vinyl sheets painted over with images of pouty, ponytailed women with napkin-ring waistlines come crashing down on us.
And, we’re out ... of the labyrinth of luminous, pictorial burrows, that is. Hooray, my dying day’s just been postponed.
‘Those are mirrors in there,’ said Jerry, pointing to the walls and ceiling of the new lift we just transferred to, drawing my attention to the wonders of Alice-land, discreetly hidden under corrugated sheets of paper taped on them at the moment. Not sure who I must thank for sparing me the infinite reflections of myself like a gagged and bound culprit and old Jellybeans all smug and pleased with himself staring at me from the walls and the ceiling. The floor was a damp sheet of un-varnished plywood, already cracked and flaking in places. The lift wobbled on its way up, stopping at every floor to seesaw a little more, its doors sliding open to let in more willing passengers on this joyride, although no one came.
My flat looks clean and well-serviced – a bit too neat and precisely-arranged in fact. The furniture and upholstery, obviously freshly-laundered and pressed, looks like they are in a film set from the 1930s, touched up later in a colour lab. The blues look blotchy and too loud after the wash, the yellows and greens are reduced to faint stains of off-white. I’ll wager the Infinite Jerrund was messing with my papers while I was away. He’s going to get it from me when I find out what’s missing. I know the precise location of each book in my library, down to each fucking edition and the publication date. In fact I know exactly where each scrap of paper in this room should be. The Lurking Jerkin can’t expect to get away with messing with my stuff just because he’s fixing supper for me. I could have frigging made it myself, but he insisted. He’s in the kitchen now, cutting up the bread into minuscule cubes, and popping them in a bowl of milk. That execrable mess will go into the blender. He’s also boiled spinach and potatoes. These and slices of feta cheese will have to be shredded to morsels of particulate size and passed through the blender as well. Yuck. And double yuck because that’s the only thing I am able to swallow right now.
I can’t open the window.
I absolutely must have all my windows open when I write. I don’t care much for regulated air and this one, facing the East, must be left open when I wake up in the morning.
I dragged Jerry out the kitchen.
‘Sorry,’ he said.
Well, this is new. All afternoon he was trying to pass himself off as a hybrid avatar of Bruce Lee’s second cousin and Ms Mary Poppins, ready to sort out every bloody problem ever faced by humankind with a click of her fingertips and now poor old Jerryaster is scared to force a window open for fear of what he might see on the other side!
‘Didn’t get a chance to tell you earlier,’ said Jerry. ‘They built a skybridge connecting the next block with this one. Your window was boarded up from the outside. We had to let it go.’
First my tongue and now my window! Looks like letting go is the flavour of the season!
‘Oh, and there’s one more thing...’
I mean, seriously? This Jerrymander has more surprises to pull out his hat? Is there anything else I must give up for the sake of greater common good?
The next thing I know I am on yet another break-a-world-record-or-break-my-bones journey on wheels across the hallway. Careening along the edge of the ramp, we go up by a level, sending up sprays of cement and chipped gravel as the wheelchair lands on the other side. The walls between apartments have been knocked down, the flooring peeled off, the doors and windows are gone. We go skirting past impromptu pillars and partitions, pushed around like corns popping and fructifying inside a popcorn-vending machine. Blue and red insulated wires growing out of un-coated ceilings fling half-hearted hoops in our way. If I survive getting electrocuted, I’m certainly going to get thrown out the giant rectangular cavity of the bay window at the end of the hall, ejected into the evening sky, carried by the winds like a chit of paper fluttering down against a background that seems perennially lit up by the ambient light from who knows where, probably all the way from the Central business district across the harbour.
The moment before he chucks me into the blue vortex, Jerry has a change of heart. He flicks the chair around, parking it at an angle, pushing me up against a pillar next to a naked ledge hanging out over what looks like a sea of rubble way down below but are in fact one and two-storied houses with television antennae and irrepressible plant lives sprouting from the cornices, tearing their way up through tiled roofs, trying to contain un-walled terraces in a natural frame.
Beyond this colony of powder blue human dwellings that look like a giant centipede and the girdle of green with a flaming dragon head made of red salvia and yellow marigolds closing in on it from three sides, a giant transparent globe pops up against the horizon. On its multiple tiers and the glistening white metal staircase, wound round the axis like a DNA structure, I see people, floating down the pellucid, concave surface and accumulating at the bottom, like confetti released in extreme slow motion.
‘Whatever happened to the town centre?’ I didn’t write this on my notepad. Jerry figured this was coming.
‘You’re looking at it now. The new town centre.’
Ah, I see. I suppose, this means the end of the mom-and-pop convenience stores and the old cha chaan teng I would visit late in the afternoon when I gave myself a break from writing. Not that there were a million people who I particularly liked hanging out with at those joints. Still if every cafe in Hong Kong became a franchisee in a global chain, that would suggest a criminal lack of respect for history and not much by way of imagination.
‘Don’t they say, when someone up there closes a window, he also opens another?’ said Jerry. Then he drew a rippling right angle in the air and took a bow like an actor taking the curtain call in an Elizabethan play. ‘I present to you a window on the world, your own private ringside view of a planet in a microcosm. Next time you are looking for inspiration just park yourself here and watch the world go by inside that glass globe.’
‘Glass bowl, more like ...’
‘Erm, bowls are nice, aren’t they? I find gazing at the aquatic life inside a glass bowl very helpful when I’m feeling restless. It takes all the agitation out of me.’
‘You bet it does.’
Chitralekha Basu writes fiction and literary essays. Her book, Sketches by Hootum the Owl: a Satirist’s View of Colonial Calcutta – a re-imagining of the first work of modern Bengali prose written in 1861/62 by Kaliprasanna Sinha - is published by Stree-Samya and carries a foreword by Amit Chaudhuri. Her short stories are anthologized in Memory's Gold: Writings on Calcutta (Viking/Penguin) and First Proof: New Writing from India (Penguin). Her stories, book reviews and literary essays have been published in the Times Literary Supplement, The Independent and The Age/Sydney Morning Herald and most recently in The Caravan magazine, Asia Literary Review, Open Road Review and The Missing Slate. She lives in Aberdeen, on the southern tip of Hong Kong Island, in a high-rise looking out on to the sea.
Header photograph by Akwan Architect CC 2.0