Arien followed the crowds into
the Hong Kong shopping mall. He revelled in the paradox of the people jostling
around him, combining the anonymity of the city with the intimacy of rubbing
shoulder-to-shoulder. The hot November sun cradled him in his shorts and
t-shirt. He had left dark nights and a house for one in an English village. The
holiday was his rebirth.
Inside the mall, he heard
chanting and looked up to the rows of shops towering above him. Teenagers
dressed in black and wearing face masks thronged the staircase leading to each
floor. He watched them from the safety of a clothing store, envious of their
solidarity with each other. Their slogans were a mixture of Cantonese and
English, referring to names he could not pronounce. Nodding with an approval
that disguised his longing, he bought an extra pair of underpants.
At the MTR underground station,
Arien stopped and wondered if he was still at home, hallucinating under the
cocoon of his duvet. An English police officer, wearing dark green overalls and
carrying a gleaming plastic riot shield, was giving orders to a line of Chinese
Their eyes met and the English
policeman advanced towards him, his riot shield swinging against his overalls.
Arien cradled his shopping bag,
the underpants his talisman. Do you speak English? he asked the
policeman, taking care to mouth each word clearly and slowly.
Of course I speak
English, the policeman replied. I was born in Tooting.
Arien considered the obvious.
Are you going to arrest me?
The policeman eyed the shopping
bag. Not unless youre hiding petrol bombs. Enjoying your
Im not on holiday.
Ive come to paradise.
Thats what I said
at the Handover. But I couldnt leave with the rest of the
Behind him, someone made a joke
in Cantonese and the policeman laughed. Arien thought that the joke was
directed at him until the policeman waved him to pass, his attention fixed on a
pair of teenagers coming out of the MTR station in matching black.
Suddenly feeling lonely, Arien
retreated to a Starbucks outside the mall. Standing in line, he waited to order
a coffee and spied on the drinkers at the table.
Name? the barista
asked, a felt tip pen poised over a polystyrene cup.
The barista wrote two
characters on the side of the cup that looked like a pole waving a flag next to
a tent. Thats Cantonese for luck, he said. Bring the
cup back for a four dollar saving on your next order.
Arien took the cup and weaved
through the tables to the empty seat he had seen.
A girl was reading a book on
her own. Half a title in English peeked out from under her thumb. Her hair was
cut into a bob and her skin was smooth like sunlit silk. A cartoon kitten was
drawn on the rucksack propped on the seat next to her, its paw swiping at a
strap. Arien thought the girl was impossibly beautiful.
I love little cats,
he said to her and patted the rucksack.
The girl looked up from her
book. Do you want travel directions? she asked.
Ive already arrived
where I want to be. He sat down and placed his shopping bag on top of the
Youre from the
UK? The woman half-closed her book.
The land of rain and warm
beer, he replied with a mock sigh.
I would emigrate if I was
given the chance. But your government denies us visas.
I didnt need a visa
to come to Hong Kong.
You dont have the
Mainland looking over your shoulder.
Arien turned his coffee cup so
that the Cantonese characters faced the girl. Your English is
Not as good as it could
be. Im studying English at the University of Hong Kong. She eyed
the coffee cup.
I studied English
too. He held out his hand. My names Arien.
That doesnt sound
In Hong Kong, we
dont quite know if we belong to the colonial past or the promises of the
future. Arien doesnt sound English either.
My parents wanted to be
You have a Hong Kong
sense of humour.
He bowed. I like to be a
Ah. The girl
opened her book to continue reading.
Arien leaned sideways to her
table. Whats the book?
A study on
Which of his books do you
He looked at her blankly.
All of them.
They are easier to read
for older people. The books are too long.
Arien rang his fingers through
his hair, conscious that grey roots might be showing. We could meet up to
discuss why longer books are more entertaining.
Im not too sure. I
have essays to write.
A black t-shirted boy with a
broken pair of glasses held together by white tape came into the Starbucks and
started shouting at their table in Cantonese. The barista propelled him to the
You know that boy?
Arien asked Elisabeth.
I do need to consider
Dickens more carefully, she replied. Lets meet
He tapped the cup. My
squiggles are working.
For one of us.
Luck can spread. Where
can we meet?
Do you know Hong
Only in my
She scanned the exit. We
can meet here. I dont live far.
The barista returned and spoke
to the girl in quiet Cantonese. Arien sat waiting patiently, his eyes fixed on
Elisabeth picked up her
rucksack. Eleven oclock tomorrow.
I wont be
She peeked outside the exit
then disappeared into the crowds.
Arien darted after her with the
book. Youve forgotten your Dickens, he said to the sea of
faces flowing past. He kissed the front cover, imagining her bob of black hair.
Paradise was being fortunate to him; Elisabeth would have to meet in the
morning if she wanted her book back.
The receptionist at his hotel
looked up from a television screen showing the riots. Sir is being safe,
I hope? he asked. The news reports are showing troublemakers only.
Hong Kong is calmer without students.
Ive already found a
student at her calmest, Arien replied. His stomach rumbled.
Ill need room service this evening. Something thats a mixture
of Chinese and English.
In his room, Arien showered and
lay on his bed to absorb the early evening breeze. He opened the book and
started to read. Fifty pages later, his chin nodded against his chest and he
jolted himself awake. Air conditioning was what he needed to keep himself
alert, he decided.
A knock on his door broke his
concentration at the half-way point of the book.
Enter Mrs Dickens,
he called out.
A waiter came into the room,
holding a tray and shivered. You want air conditioning repaired, I can
arrange, he said.
You local people can only
think about superficial comforts, he replied. He took the tray from the
waiter and removed a silver lid covering a plate. Fish and chips, and a mound
of gleaming seaweed stared back at him.
He resumed reading and wiped
the pages clean with every second bite of the fish. Elisabeth would be insulted
if he returned her book covered in crumbs.
The following morning, Arien
woke up, changed into his new underpants and left the hotel at ten oclock
precisely. Rioters dressed in black ran past him, pursued by police holding
batons high in the air. Arien drifted through them, unawares. In his mind he
rehearsed his answers to questions that Elisabeth might ask about Dickens. He
wanted to impress her with his commitment to her studies. The prospect of
returning to a life alone in England appalled him. Life without crowds would be
unbearable, and especially without Elisabeth.
He arrived at the Starbucks
half an hour early and settled down to wait with a cappuccino and a reassuring
glance at the book. An hour later, he busied himself with the index. Elisabeth
would have stayed at her home late, preparing for their encounter like him.
They were both diligent people who did not want to make mistakes.
Ten minutes later, Elisabeth
slipped into the coffee shop. She tucked a black t-shirt into her rucksack.
I was delayed in the mall, she said.
Thats my luck
again. I had more time for reading. He handed her the book.
Lets go for a walk
along the harbour, she said.
I was thinking we might
be going to the library together.
You want to go to the
The council closed my
village library last year. I have to go into town for my renewals.
The English and their
creature comforts. You have no idea what you are missing.
I have every idea,
Arien replied and slipped his arm into hers.
Quiz me on Little
Dorritt, she said and unhooked their arms, but so gently that he did not
What inspires you the
His view of England, of
A paradise gone
Two protestors in black sprayed
graffiti on a concrete pillar. They waved at Elisabeth.
Hong Kong is such a
welcoming community, she said to Arien and reversed her direction away
from the protestors.
Everyone ignores me at
home. Arien gave the protestors a thumbs up.
They paused at the harbour
front and watched a cruise ship leave, its decks empty of passengers.
Hong Kong has no tourists
coming anymore, Arien said.
All except one.
I travel where the heart
Did Dickens say
Arien racked his brain over his
midnight reading. He was afraid to say Yes or No out of fear that Elisabeth
might correct him. He said many things that are wise about
Indeed. She fell
silent, waiting for him to provide an example.
I could admire the view
forever, he said, edging closer to her.
Did Dickens visit the sea
in England? she asked, moving away from him in parallel.
He could have gone to
Brighton. There are half-hourly trains from Victoria.
You know more than my
I exist to serve,
Arien said, pleased at Elisabeths reply. He turned towards her and looked
straight into her eyes, confident that he was reading the signs correctly.
Dickens wrote love stories too.
Youre suffering the
effects of delayed exposure to tear gas. She broke eye contact and
checked her phone. I should be getting back to my flat.
Essays to write. You
deserve a prize.
Ive been falling
They left the harbour and
walked inland through a rabbit warren of skyscrapers, shuttered for the
weekend. Arien breathed in the sunshine warming his face. I could never
go back to the cold, he said.
Youd miss the snow
and the rule of law.
Id miss talks about
At the University they
are thinking of removing him from the syllabus in favour of African freedom
Ive already found
Maybe the planners will
realise the example will be dangerous and change their minds.
Elisabeth jangled her
keys outside a block of flats. This is where I live, she
Arien inspected the rows of
windows towering above him. A sign advertising a flat to rent in English with
Cantonese characters underneath swung as a woman brushed away cobwebs from a
balcony above. None of your neighbours are lonely. I live on my own in
the UK, he said.
He followed her inside the
lobby, waiting for the reply to his mildest of hints.
My neighbours are experts
in gossip. Elisabeth nodded at an old woman sitting on a deck chair. She
stopped outside a flat with a number two painted to its door. Thank you
for your conversation about Dickens. I recommend an Uber to the airport. The
train will be disrupted.
Nothing can disrupt my
journeys. Im the most determined of travellers. He shook her hand
Outside the block of flats,
Arien took a photo of the To Let sign with his smartphone. A couple passed him
wearing black t-shirts and holding hands. He blew them a kiss and waited for
his Uber to arrive, the destination his hotel instead of the airport.
The receptionist waved at him.
Would Sir like to order lunch? The chef is excited to be thinking of
further culinary masterpieces.
Im too busy for a
The receptionist shook his head
and returned to his computer.
Inside his room, Arien opened
his laptop and emailed the estate agent the photo from his phone. An
out-of-office message pinged moments later in his In Box. He continued with his
next email, announcing regretfully that he would not be returning to his work
selling science textbooks on Monday. In a postscript, he asked for a reference
written in simple English that companies in Hong Kong could understand without
translation. With a twirl of his fingers, he gave notice on his rental
agreement for his house. For a finishing touch, he cancelled his return flight,
accepting the administration fee.
Back in reception, he coughed
in front of the computer. The emails had made him bolder; he had passed the
point of no return.
Has Sir changed his mind?
Shrimp and chicken balls with curry sauce, perhaps? the receptionist
I need to extend my
booking by one night. My estate agent is closed for the weekend, Arien
Is Sir moving to Hong
Sir is relocating to
Paradise, Arien beamed.
Macau is excellent for
I was referring to love.
At my age you cant afford to be cautious. Heres a tip for your
troubles. I wont be needing these anymore. Arien fished in his
pocket and handed the receptionist a twenty-pound note.
Returning to the block of
flats, he glided through the protestors as if he was a knife cutting butter. He
whistled a love song he thought he had forgotten from ten years ago to drown
out the chants in Cantonese.
In front of the door marked
Number Two, Arien rehearsed his speech. He was giving up his life in England to
ensure that Elisabeth could flourish with her English degree. He would
encourage her concentration by studying with her in the evenings. The flat
available for rent in the same block was his, so she would not waste time
cooking for herself.
A kiss on the cheeks to
celebrate might be in order, but nothing more adventurous. She had her essay to
He knocked on the door and
dropped to his knees.
Elisabeth opened the door.
Arien looked up, ready with his declaration.
Through the gap of her knees,
he could see the boy with the black t-shirt and the broken pair of glasses from
outside Starbucks. He dabbed at his cheeks with a tea towel embroidered with a
kitten. The white tape that held the frame together was speckled with drops of
We thought you were the
police. Xin was hit in the mall, Elisabeth said to Arien.
The boy held aside the tea
towel, revealing a gash. Thank you for helping my girlfriend with her
Dickens. Do you also know First Aid? he asked.
Arien rose to his feet.
You locals should learn to look after yourselves. God knows weve
tried hard enough to make you independent, he replied.
Returning to the mall, he
pushed through a crowd of protestors to find the line of green overalls.
The English police officer was
picking at a crack in his riot shield while a group of policemen watched,
making suggestions in Cantonese. You again. I suspected Hong Kong was
contagious, he said to Arien.
Arien straightened his t-shirt
and stood to attention. I wish to report two terrorists, he
Only two? You should go
back to your hotel. The paperwork will keep you behind for months. The
English police officer took a roll of tape from a Chinese policeman and fixed
it to his shield.
Arien tapped the riot shield
with his finger. The students were making petrol bombs, he said
The suggestions in Cantonese
from the policemen drifted into silence.
Youre still sure
you want to get involved? Not suffering sunstroke, by any chance? the
English policeman asked.
Arien nodded proudly.
Ive never been surer of anything in my life. He showed the
photo of the To Let sign to the policeman and gave the number of the flat.
The English policeman sighed
and spoke in rapid Cantonese to the green overalls around him.
Arien returned to the Starbucks
and ordered a cappuccino.
special? the barista asked.
I forgot my cup but
Ill have your squiggles. You local people are endearing with your
superstitions, he replied.
He looked around the tables
while his coffee was being prepared. A girl was sitting on her own reading a
textbook. His view of the cover was unobstructed.
When his cappuccino was ready,
he sauntered over and placed his cup on her table, the characters facing her.
I used to be a salesman for Chemistry textbooks. With luck, I could offer
you the inside track, he said to the girl.