Chinese Whispers (edited and updated, 2021)
This is the story I read live at the ABC Reading on 26th August 2021. I understand not everyone could hear it due to technical issues so here is an updated version. The original draft was posted in 2006 and remains one of my favourite stories of my own. Not sure why but it is.
Chinese Whispers (edited and updated, 2021)
I guess there was no way of knowing that things would turn out like this. As I stood and stared out across the moonlit, mountain vista, I reflected back on what had led up to this moment. When you're a mile high in the sky the air seems so much clearer and your thoughts become crystallised like a moth caught in an arctic freeze.
I was just twenty-years old back then and making my way in the world as a trainee doctor. My gap year at university had thrown up a placement in a small, Chinese town in Sichuan Province. That first day had been hard, harder than I'd ever imagined. It was one thing doing a 12-hour shift, it was another thing trying to expand on my rudimentary Chinese at the same time. By the time I'd finished I was as tired as a beat-up dog and as hungry as a horse. Standing on the steps of the hospital, the adjacent street was busy with a mix of cabs, bicycles and a plethora of more traditional rickshaws. I needed to find a place to eat so I decided to flag one of the many two-wheeled carts that were jostling for business (if indeed you do flag down this mode of transport) and take a more leisurely route to a restaurant. On that first day the conversation with the rickshaw driver had been minimal and I was grateful it had been so.
Life can be like a hamster's wheel at times. Caught up in a perpetual exercise in peddling, the next few weeks felt like a blur. The world continued to spin on its axis, I continued to work what seemed endlessly each day treating one patient after the next. The pattern of using a rickshaw continued. After all, it was pretty cheap. By now, however, I'd struck up a kind of friendship with one of the drivers. I hadn't expected this at all but Chan was a friendly sort and as keen to develop his own pigeon English as I was to improve my basic Chinese. He was a happy soul, always smiling as he chuntered with other drivers, passers by and, of course, myself. I'd estimated his age as somewhere in the late forties but he turned out to be older than this. Somehow I thought he'd grown quite attached to me too although I had no foundation for this belief other than gut instinct. We talked about all sorts of things; the weather, the local characters, even a little politics although Chan was always pretty guarded fearing the local police and their rather brutal methods of law enforcement.
Those weeks turned to months and it wasn't long before I had been in the town for a whole year. By now, Chan and I had struck up a friendship of sorts, one founded on mutual need and a respectful interest in each other’s culture. I had discovered that he was all alone in the world, as was I. The difference between the two of us was that he had been married with a son. One day, he had returned home to find his wife distraught. It turns out that their five-year old boy had been playing merrily in the street one minute and he was gone the next. After many hours of searching, he couldn't be found despite the help of numerous neighbours. The various posters that followed did not reap the reward they sought and reporting the matter to the police proved pointless. Rumour had it that an organised gang had abducted the boy to sell on to one of the many rich, childless couples in the North. Worse still, the community had their suspicions that many of the local police were in on the trade and that the only justice they would find would be their own, home-grown vigilante brand. This would hardly help when their child was thousands of miles away in a different town.
Chan's wife had never come to terms with the abduction. Their relationship had become strained and eventually Chan returned home to find an empty flat one night. His wife had left without so much as a note. One of the neighbours claimed to have seen her leave with a tall, thin man with a moustache. Chan had assumed the worst and that she had found someone else although his own ambivalence suggested that he had never been the same after that fateful night himself. I hadn't really got that level of tragedy in my own life to trade off against Chan's story. In hindsight (everything is so much easier with hindsight), I had been the lucky recipient of an archetypal, middle-class English upbringing full of privileges that Chan could only have dreamt. Still, he loved to listen to my stories of middle-England; of leafy, country lanes and Oxford, morning dew. Chan just loved that whole English thing. I'm sure that it was pure escapism for him in his dreary, Oriental existence.
I can still remember that fateful exchange now like it was yesterday. We were riding along one evening having shared a joke when I grinned and said "We get on so well, don't we Chan?" His head had turned ever so slightly to the side although I couldn't be sure he had understood completely. "I'm sure you'd take me to the moon and back if I asked you to." I had muttered by way of follow up. Chan just carried on in his own sweet way.
In a clearing not far from the cliff edge, the old Chinese man picks up the first piece of wood and lays it down as his foundation. There isn't much light to work with as the night sky turns into a velvet blackout. The lights from the village on the other side of the gorge casts just enough illumination to be able to see the clearing. He has started but this may take a while. This may take years, in fact.
That wonderful year flew by so quickly; far too quickly as luck would have it. I can still vaguely recall boarding the flight home with a heavy heart and an air of despondence. I'd seen Chan one last time and explained that it was time for me to go home. He looked dutifully sad. I couldn't be sure whether it was because it was the end of our time together or because it would mean the loss of a regular cab fare. Either way, I would miss him.
Returning to England was a chore although things did pick up for me a few months later. One wintry night in a country pub in Oxfordshire, I met Angie. She was a student too and we'd even been at the same University. Whilst we couldn't ever remember meeting there, we got on from the first second. Within a year we were married; inside two we had had our first child. Following my graduation, my subsequent job at a prominent London hospital had, at first, been everything I had been working towards. My eventual status as a neurosurgeon had brought with it a large salary, big house in suburbia and Saturday nights in with the neighbours drinking my drinks. It was all pretty soulless really. As the months went by, I spent longer and longer at work and my marriage became more distant by the same degree. With an uncanny parallel to Chan's life, I returned home one day to find a note on the kitchen table. It turns out that my wife had been seeing the local tennis instructor and had decided to set up a new life with him. I was the victim of a cliché. This might have been bearable had she not taken my son with her leaving me alone in the world, once again. Even in those darkest of times, I couldn't help but think of my Chinese friend all those thousands of miles away in the East. We were kindred spirits; both of us no longer had a wife and child.
I continued to live and breathe my job. If anything, I worked harder than ever, immersing myself in operation after operation, patient after patient. The loss of my family turned me into some kind of recluse. I couldn't bear the thought of letting anybody get close to me and so the best years of my life simply glided by.
Time flies when you are having fun and even when you are not it can go damn quickly. Before I knew it, I was in my forties, middle age raging around my schedule like an ageing bull in a fortified China shop. It was at this juncture where I had started to evaluate like most folks do at this stage in their life. So far, my life hadn't amounted to much. Reflecting back I could only remember one time when I'd truly been happy and that had been that year in Sichuan Province.
Many years had gone by as the tower continued to grow. Storey after wooden storey took the construction to new heights. The ladder that ran up the side of the tower seemed desperate to get to the very stars themselves. There never was a question as to why but simply more a question of what and when. The sky got closer, the moon shone brightly. He would return one day.
As I clambered on to the plane bound for the Far East, just for a moment it felt as though all of my problems had drained away. The hospital in the small, Chinese town had welcomed me back albeit for a salary of peanuts. The altruist in me had decided that money was the root of all evil after all.
That first day back proved somewhat frustrating. Whilst the actual shift itself went well enough, when it came to clocking off time and an opportunity to eat, I couldn't find Chan. It was the same again the following day and the day after that. I began to think my friend had suffered a nasty fate.
After what seemed an age of fretting, eventually one of the rickshaw drivers informed me that Chan had disappeared to a mountain-side retreat a few miles out of town. Nobody had seen him in some months. I found myself a local guide who agreed to take me to where Chan reportedly was for a negotiated fee that was fairly lucrative in these parts. After my next shift, I had decided to pursue my friend and track him down like the dog he wasn't.
On that particular night, the moon was already prominent, a silvery ball beaming like a shiny, silver coin on a satin sheet. The journey took longer than I thought it would but then we did veer of the proverbial beaten track. As we made our way towards a clearing in the woods, my guide geared up to take his money and return home. The night had an eerie feel to it with the sound of silence broken only occasionally by the nocturnal night-life on the prowl in the undergrowth. Following the departure of my guide who had had enough by now, I walked the remaining few yards with a certain amount of trepidation. This became justified as I broke through the last few trees to be met by a sight that I could never had envisaged. It wasn't enough that there was a stunning mountainous backdrop to the sight in front of me. As well as that there was the tallest wooden tower I had ever seen in my life. I set about searching the surrounding area to find Chan but without success including the small, wooden cabin that sat on the edge of the clearing. If Chan wasn't up the tower then I had probably struck out again. Maybe this wasn't even Chan's place at all and I had, in fact, been duped by everyone concerned.
I started to climb the wooden ladder that had been nailed to the various layers along the outside. I couldn't see the top, so tall was this tower but when you are in the middle of nowhere without an alternative then climbing seemed the only option really.
Standing at the top, he can see for miles. The gorge below housing its canape of forests, its confluence of rivers, its villages set on the side of mountains and in the valley itself. Lights blink in the darkness; a sign of life slicing through the darkness. Life and strength was now ebbing away. The path had been long and hard but it had been worth it. He crouches and waits. He can do no more.
As I lurched to the top, by now I felt decidedly cold. I couldn't be sure how high up I was but the views were breath-taking. When I finally did make it over the metaphorical parapet, I began to think of myself as some latter-day, oversized gorilla on the summit of the Empire State Building in Manhattan. Perhaps a little too grandiose and maybe an insult to the gorilla. In the corner I could see my friend, Chan. He had his eyes closed and his legs crossed in the Lotus position. This was a hell of a climb to simply meditate but then I hardly appreciated the nuances of the Buddhist religion. Above me was the moon almost within touching distance. I reached up and for a moment, the moon appeared to be cupped in my hand. Of course, it was a trick of the light but a pleasant trick at that and one that made me stop and think. At that instant, Chan opened his eyes and, for all the world, looked like the oldest man in the world. He hadn't shaved in days, the bags under his eyes sagged and his whole demeanour took on the equivalent of the Wall Street Crash. "You came after all?” he sighed in his broken English (funny how quickly you forget when you don't practise something regularly). His eyes glanced at the floor, the question more rhetorical than enquiring. "Yes my friend, I came back.” I replied. He turned and looked out at the valley below and smiled. I looked at him, then the moon and finally at the scene all around. I wondered if I could ever be as truly happy as this again.
Image free to use at WikiCommons https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Sunrise_above_the_clouds.jpg