Saturday, 9 December 2017

The old summerhouse – a Christmas story

Turning the key in the lock, the old man opened the door to the welcome warmth of the house, and closed the door on a cold Christmas Eve. He recalled the days when Midnight Mass really took place at midnight. But, to avoid drunken revellers joining in, for the last few decades it had taken place early in the evening. He also recalled Midnight Mass with his wife and their row of children, all glassy-eyed and dozing off, thinking of Santa Claus rather than the Saviour of the World. Now he was alone, his wife long dead and his children gone. Christmas Day was almost the only time a few of his children came to visit with their children, although he had long since stopped preparing Christmas dinner. He found this a hard time of year. When he was working, it was the one time he was guaranteed to be at home for any length of time. His wife had loved Christmas and the effort she put in on Christmas Day was enormous. He used to help, but he preferred to watch as she enlisted the children in small tasks such as decorating the cake and putting the final decorations on the tree. Now the house was empty and, apart from his memories, all he had to remind him at this time of year were cards sent to ‘Robert and Davina’ by people who had not bothered to update the lists on their computers when they printed out their labels. He always sighed at the thought but could not resist picking these cards off the mantlepiece and looking at them. The pain of missing her these twenty years was an experience of sadness at the loss but also gratitude for the pain of still longing to be with her.

He poured himself a glass of whisky and sat by the fireside, surveying the Christmas cards and recollecting Christmases past. The family had few traditions but any they had were related to Christmas. One tradition, developed after the children had mostly left home, was that he and his wife used to go out to the summerhouse and have a drink when the Christmas preparations were done. It did not matter how cold or how late, they took their drinks to the end of the long garden and sat for a while with the light on in the summerhouse and the doors closed. There was something special about sitting in the pitch-black garden with the warm glow from the summerhouse lighting up a small semi-circle of the lawn. Their habit amused the children who arrived late on Christmas Eve to see the light on at the end of the garden and the kitchen table laden with food.

Looking at his whisky he realised that he had forgotten to get a jug of water to dilute it. He went to the kitchen and ran the cold tap. Looking up at the kitchen window, down the garden into the dark night he saw something that took his mind off his whisky. The light on the summerhouse was on. ‘Impossible’ he thought. Since his wife died he had rarely used the summerhouse and not at all for at least a decade. She had loved the summerhouse and he had built it for her. Now it reminded him of her and it was too painful. Lately he stored things there such as garden tools he rarely used and, in doing so, he simply opened the door and threw them in. The old cane chairs were still there and a pile of old books, half-read by his wife, lay on a small table. The wood on the summerhouse was bleached and bent with the sun and the windows were opaque with spider webs.

‘Impossible’. This time he said it under his breath. He looked away and then looked again to ensure that it was not just a reflection. He turned off the kitchen light to see better and, without doubt, the summerhouse light was on. The grass around it was illuminated and he could see the frost was forming on the grass, glistening. He opened the back door and, breathing in the cold crisp air, he stepped out and walked carefully up the garden, towards the summerhouse. As he approached he was in no doubt that what he was seeing was real and moved closer. There was someone sitting there, which made his heart miss a beat, but he kept moving closer and then slowly opened the door.

She was older than he remembered, with greying hair and her face more wrinkled. She wore a long white dress that he did not remember, and which seemed poor protection against the cold. But she looked up and smiled and he knew it was her. The summerhouse was tidy, and the windows were crystal clear. One of the books was open on the table. ‘You’ve tidied up’, he said, and she smiled again. Sitting down on the wicker chair next to her he stared in disbelief. Tears began to roll down his cheeks and she reached out and took his hand. He truly believed he had never been happier.


Next morning the children and grandchildren began arriving, letting themselves into the house. The first to arrive shouted through the house to see if he was there but were not surprised to find the house empty. He always went back to the church for the Christmas morning Mass and then took a long walk in the local park. He preferred to return to a full house and pretend to be surprised that anyone had turned up rather than greeting them as they arrived. The morning went on and the families worked together to get food ready and prepare for Christmas Dinner. Still their father had not arrived, but they decided to open the champagne anyway. There was none in the house, but they knew it would be chilling outside in a box by the kitchen door. His son opened the door and the box was there. He took out a bottle and, glancing down the garden before closing the door, he noticed the summerhouse door was open.


That was where they found him, his hand outstretched and sitting motionless but smiling in the wicker chair. The place was dusty and full of tools and the other chair was piled high with junk. They did not notice that one of the books on the small table was open.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Encountered briefly

off the Heathow Express, he made his way to the concourse and strode to Terminal 3.
It was June and this was the sixth of his monthly visits that year to Hong Kong to check up on various business interests and ensure that his retirement funding was safe. Terminal 3 was like a second home and he moved towards the front door instinctively and confidently. He did not see her.

Past security and through the perfume vending shops and caviar counters, he wound his way through the causal travellers to the Cathay Pacific lounges and waited by the lift. She was some way behind, watching him carefully, deliberately holding back making sure he could not see her.
The boarding call for Cathay Pacific CX250 went out in the airport but she was already at the gate, waiting. Passengers started arriving and she moved to the furthest corner of the area near the gate, watching. The queue of economy passengers was beginning to grow, her queue, but she was in no hurry to join. She watched the corridor leading to the gate and soon spotted what she knew to be the first and business class passengers arriving - suits, smart luggage and attitude. After a few minutes she saw him, striding down to the gate, relaxed - probably quite drunk - and heading to the short queue of priority passengers. The boarding staff were looking intently at computer screens, swiping themselves in and out of the glass door leading to the gangway waiting for the cabin crew to declare the plane ready for boarding. The call came to start boarding and the priority queue began to move. When he had boarded, she moved to the end of the queue of economy passengers.
At the end of the gangway he showed the smiling Chinese lady his boarding pass, stepped on to the plane and turned left. Settling down, he sipped some champagne, flicked trough the various magazines and checked the selection of films on the TV set. His mind was far from anything that was going on behind him.
She stepped on to the plane and turned right.
The twelve-hour flight was punctuated by dinner, drinks and films for both of them. He thumbed through some documents and checked a few details on his laptop. The week ahead was as familiar to him as having breakfast. Always the same. Same hotel, same colleagues to meet, same restaurants and then the inane expats who knew he'd be in town eager to see him for a drink and tell him about how wonderful life was in Hong Kong. Truth is, they were bored stiff. He knew that but he played up to them; they had contacts and contacts were everything in Hong Kong. And then there was her. He always thought about her when he was travelling because he was usually leaving her or returning to her and either way, memories were evoked. Anticipation and reflection are two sides of the same coin and his life was spent flipping that coin. Casually turning the page of the in-flight sales magazine he decided not to buy anything...there was always next time.
She hardly slept. Between films and trying to read she stared forward at the curtain separating the economy and premium sections of the plane. She knew he was there and had to overcome the temptation to go through and see him. She wasn't ready and she knew he wasn't either. She thought about him and realised this was his life. She too knew about the two sides of the coin, except that she was not flipping it. Instead, she felt flipped. She looked back to what she had left that morning and fretted over the details of locking the house, cancelling the newspapers and packing. She drifted off to sleep, could not be roused for breakfast and only woke when one of the cabin crew asked her to fasten her seat belt for landing. This unnerved her as she wanted to be well prepared for landing. Instead she had a book to pack, shoes to put on and a passport to locate.
'Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to Hong Kong International Airport'.
The seat belt sign went off and he was up and ready to leave immediately. A few minutes wait and then the smiling Chinese lady bade him good morning and he stepped on to the gangway. He was in the airport in seconds and heading to passport control; today the flight had docked at the 'low' gates so he only had to walk a few hundred yards to the gates where his Hong Kong frequent visitor barcode would let him through in seconds.
She was panicking, the economy passengers could not leave until the business class passengers were off and the curtain - which had been closed at landing - remained closed. She was not near the front either. Eventually she left the plane and she started running towards passport control. There was no sign of him. The passport queue was growing and she joined it and snaked her way to the booth.

Finally, she was in the baggage hall but he was already through. She had no bags to collect so she ran to the customs gate and though into the main. airport. And then she saw him.
Leaving the customs hall, he scanned the crowd at the barrier and slowed down until he saw her. A well attired and beautiful young Chinese girl ran to the end of the barrier and when he reached her she flung her arms round him and they kissed.

They walked out into the main hall, he with his arm round her, talking animatedly, and then they stopped. He pulled her towards him, cradled her head in his left hand and pushed her hair back out of her face and kissed her affectionately on the forehead and then on the lips.
'Hello darling' the familiar voice at his shoulder said. He let go of the girl and looked round.

'Who is she?' said the girl. He did not answer.

'I'm his wife' the woman replied for him. 'You're always telling me I should come with you on your business trips' she said to him 'so I thought I'd come and surprise you. Looks like I did.'

The story continued…but the marriage did not.

Monday, 17 April 2017

The thirty-second

Jet lag was setting in but he had been told not to give in to it. He turned left out of the Holiday Inn on to Nathan Road and walked towards the harbour.

His wife was up in the room, snoring, unconscious.

In less than a minute the sweat was trickling down into the small of his back. It was his first time in Hong Kong. His eyes felt like there were grains of sand in them. Boarding the BA flight at Heathrow had seemed like the start an adventure; now he was already dreading the flight home.

The pavements were thronged and the massive TV billboards at the end of Peking Road were flashing bright light and booming out adverts.

'Hello'..'hello sir'...'you from England?'

He turned towards the person greeting him. A small Indian man was smiling at him and offering him a card.

'Copy watch? Copy Handbag for your wife?'.

'Tell you what, I've just arrived, I'm very jet-lagged and tired and my wife is sleeping. I'll just take a card if that's OK and I'll come and see you tomorrow'. He took the card and walked on unsure if he meant what he said or not – jet lag was leading to confusion and he just needed some space.

'Very good price sir, very cheap.' 'Copy Rolex.'

'Are you still here?' I thought I said I'd see you tomorrow. I have your card so I can easily find you.' He held up the card to look at it and it was snatched back.

'I can show you. Now. Copy watch sir.'

'OK - show me one. But I'm not buying tonight.'

He expected that the man would roll up a sleeve or produce one from a pocket. Instead the man raised his hand up and waved. Two more Indian men appeared and the man was off, waving his card and calling 'Copy watch' at the next western passer-by.

'So, you want copy watch, sir?' One of the Indian men said.

'Er, no!' I just asked to see one but I'm OK now, I'll just go back to my hotel,' He could see the entrance to the Holiday Inn from where they were standing.

'Come with us, we show you copy watch sir'.

'But I don't...' he had no choice, with one of the Indian men at either side of him he was too tired to resist being led off the main drag, into an alley and up a flight of steps. The metal door at the top yielded to the two sharp taps from the man in front and he was led into a small stuffy room filled with other Indian men and a few local Chinese.

The door closed behind him and he knew now there would be no escape without a purchase.

'What do you want sir?'

'Well, nothing really. I just asked to look at a copy Rolex. I don't know if I want to buy.'

'We give you very good price.'

'I'm not promising to buy, I have no money with me'.

'You can use credit card sir'

'I don't have that either...'. but he petered out realising that the bulge in his breast pocket was obviously a wallet.

'No way! I'm not handing over my credit card.'

'No need to sir, we take you down to ATM to get cash. One at corner of street.'

'Fuck this' he thought 'why did I get in this mess?'

'So, here is copy Rolex, very good.' and he was shown a watch.

He had no idea what a Rolex looked like but this looked like a nice watch with a crown logo on the dial and a small magnifier over the date. The seller turned over the watch to show the exhibition back. Glass showing the mechanism – the sure sign of a fake. But they knew he had no idea what he was doing and he was quite impressed.

'OK, how much?'

'Twelve thousand Hong Kong'

'Fucking what?'

'Is cheap, sir.'

'It's not far off a thousand pounds, bloody hell.'

'It's cheap. Rolex costs many thousands.'

'This one costs many thousands. Bloody hell, I had no intention of spending that much on anything.'

It was like they were just ignoring him.

‘I’m going now?' he tried to be assertive.

They really were ignoring him, just carrying on sorting out watches and texting on their phones.

'Can I at least sit down?' The heat and humidity were really crushing him and he felt nauseous. He looked round the room. No free seats and nobody was offering him one.

'Twelve thousand Hong Kong, you have cash?'

'No, I don't.' At least that offered him a way out of the room.

'OK, come with us.' and he followed two men down the steps, with one behind him.

He considered making a run at the foot of the stairs but the two men in front stood very close to him and the one behind stayed within a step away. In any case, his legs felt like jelly.

There was nobody at the HSBC ATM and he meekly inserted his card and entered his PIN. He was pushed aside and the rest was done by one of the men who took out twelve thousand Hong Kong dollars, put it in his pocket and handed over the watch.

He was standing alone within a second.

‘At least they’re honest.’ he thought, ironically, as he retrieved his card from the ATM.

Dejected but glad to be free he returned to the hotel and got into bed with his wife.

Next morning, he was awake before her, thinking about the previous night.

She rustled slightly as she woke and asked him the time.

'Eight thirty.' he glanced at his new watch.

'And what's the date? I've lost track already.’

He glanced at his watch again, 'It's the thirty-second of July'

'Bastards.' he thought, and flung the watch across the room.