A short story
At approximately 23:44, on an idle Tuesday night, 143 people converged from 143 different places in Hong Kong. They arrived within minutes of each other and descended down sets of escalators which led to a series of sliding doors. The doors opened up onto a very ordinary subway train in Hong Kong’s rapid transit system. None one of them knew that their two kilometre journey, from East Tsim Sha Tsui station in Kowloon, through the harbour tunnel to Central Station deep below Hong Kong island, would be the furthest trip they would ever take in their lives.
Warren Andrews, 33, a British national and securities trader for a large multi-national bank, was one of them. Making his way through the station, he was exchanging text messages with a girl he met earlier in the week at a club just off Wyndham Road. The exchanges were flirtatious, delicious and inevitably leading to another meeting where they would make good on the subtext in their messages.
As his textual conversation ensued, the train doors closed and the train rolled out of the station towards the subterranean tunnel that connects the mainland to the sliver of land that is the foundation of Hong Kong.
He didn’t take notice of the rhythmic flickering of the lighting in the train car.
He also didn’t hear when a body further up the train swirled about and fainted on the train’s floor.
However, he did notice when the woman opposite him began convulsing, vomiting and collapsing in what appeared to be an epileptic fit.
Warren looked down the snaking passage of the train. Through each open link between the cars, it was bending its spine through the corners of the tunnel, contorting around the rails like a dragon in a parade. As it straightened its back for an instant, Warren could see through the entire length of the train. As far as he could see, multiple bodies were falling down.
He instinctively got up, adrenalin pumping, and gripped the railings. Warren glanced up at the ceiling and at the rhythmic flickering of the tube lighting. Without warning he felt the nausea burning in his chest. A sick feeling drained the blood from his limbs while the pressure in his gut mounted. Unable to hold it down, he felt his franchise burger from an hour before rising towards his throat, into his mouth and into the train. He shook his head, his mind unable to accept what had just happened. Then he looked up at the light one more time.
He was one of the last to fall onto the floor.
As the train hurtled out of the tunnel to cover the last few hundred meters to the station, the driver of the train looked up at the overhead panel of monitors that were displaying the feeds from the closed-circuit cameras in the train. His jaw dropped in horror. His entire chain of cars were strewn with lifeless bodies. In slow motion, he slammed on the brakes and sounded the alarm. The train came to a screeching standstill inside Central Station.
A few controllers walked up to the glass of their observation deck to see why the alarm had sounded. The driver came running across the platform waving his arms at them. He made a sign with his arms that indicated a disaster level incident.
Within minutes, the super-efficient Hong Kong machine had sprung into action, pouring teams of rescue personnel into the biggest subway station in the city. It’s omni-present police officers barked calm but clear instructions into walkie-talkies and at the few late night commuters who were entering and exiting the platform, creating a cordon to make sure the view of the disaster was limited.
The doors had been opened to let the rescue personnel on. From the gaps of the train, a gut-wrenching stench of vomit and sweat drifted into the sanitised environment of the platform.
Stretchers were rapidly filled with bodies and dispatched through emergency exits to chains of waiting ambulances pulling up on the ground level. The subway management wanted the sight of over a hundred unconscious bodies to be cleared as quickly as possible as those few late night commuters in the station already had their camera phones at the ready, snapping away at the chaos.
Life is starting to materialise in my limbs. The prickly, warm viscosity of it begins to fill and animate my muscles. My senses open up as if my brain is a home owner returning to a cabin after a long winter, throwing open windows and wiping down the cobwebs. Light, sound and smell stream into me.
I have no idea where I am. The ceiling is unknown and the sounds, equally unfamiliar. The room smells of disinfectant
This must be a hospital. I gaze downwards towards my feet where they are covered in a thin sheet. At the end of the bed I see a a group of people huddled, each gripping a clipboard. They are all dressed in a palette of white and pale blue and pink colours. I wonder why I appear to be so very interesting to them, as they seem to be observing me very carefully.
I’m not used to waking up like this.
Involuntarily my limbs stir like the airfoils of a jet as it’s rolling towards the runway for take-off.
“Mister Andrews? Mister Andrews, can you hear me?” one of them asks. He is a fresh faced, bright-looking, young Chinese man with heavy black framed spectacles.
At first the words feel foreign — as they often do for a Westerner living in a Chinese city, but this was English, and I was meant to understand all of it. Especially since the young doctor appears to have a Cambridge accent. I am attuned to the sound of his voice, the gentle hum of the air conditioning unit above me, and the rhythmic beeping of the machines monitoring my body’s vital signs.
Perhaps an eternity passes before I respond with a groggy groan.
The vibration from my chest causes a flurry of scribbling on their clipboards. My mind drifts to the other sensory inputs of the room. The coolness of the air flowing from the friendly humming machine above me, the sensation of the bed sheets’ fabric against my skin and the accents of rose in the perfume of the young nurse to my right.
I’m aware of a big goofy grin appearing on my face. A sense of joy, so new, coming from an unnavigable place in me fills me up. I’m at once connected with the entire universe and everything in it.
The team exchanges glances and then they look back at me.
“Mister Andrews, do you remember anything of what happened last night?” the young doctor asks again.
The question prompts my mind back to the past.
The past. A place that I am suddenly unwilling to explore. I feel like a child who has just been let out of an orphanage and who is now being called back for dinner.
The past. Dark, uninteresting and unclear. And unimportant.
Yet, I will myself to search my memory. How did I get into this bed?
The events seem out of focus. When I close my eyes, I can only recall looking up at the ceiling of the train’s car and around me — the flickering shadows of the collapsing bodies around me.
I shake my head. I don’t remember much.
They all tilt their heads down in unison, like a herd of deer sharing one mind, to glance at their clipboards where they make identical notes.
Then the young doctor speaks again: “Mister Andrews, you seem to be fine. But we’d like to keep you here for a few hours. Just for observation, you understand? Just to be sure. Please, try and get some rest.”
Of course, I do understand. The city’s authorities are not going to take any chances with me. I’m getting the very best care they can possibly administer.
I nod in agreement.
They file out of the room in an orderly fashion.
I close my eyes and listen to their hushed chatter in Cantonese drifting in from the passage. Cantonese, always so foreign to me, at once sounding sparkling and beautiful — like music. I ride with the endless strings of tones, rising and falling rapidly. Like birdsong.
The discharge process is lengthy. The hospital seems nervous about letting me go. They double-check everything. Even with all the papers signed, somebody checks my blood-pressure one more time, just before I walk out the door.
The young doctor is standing by, reminding me one last time to take some time off of work.
“Mister Andrews. Recuperate. Rest,” he says.
I just nod. I want to get out. I want to feel the sun on my skin.
Finally, I make it through the sliding doors and into the outside world. As I step onto the curb, a cab slides up in slow motion to whisk me away.
I say my address mechanically: “Ap Ba Din Kai, ‘mgoy.” The driver grunts and puts his foot on the accelerator, lunging us forward so that we get sucked into the traffic outside the hospital. The standard, red Toyota Crown Comfort joins up with its endless stream of identical brothers and we swirl down the tar like a stream of blood cells.
I’m instantly aware of the fact that time has slowed down. My window, mounted in the back left door of the taxi becomes a screen on which a wonderful music video plays out. Right, in the middle of one of the world’s most frenetic cities, leaves gently fall from trees, commuters run as if captured in an action replay to catch slow creeping buses and cabs. Pedestrians stride like gods over sidewalks, past endless rows of boxy shops and parlours.
I’m disappointed when the film closes out with a sweeping cinematic shot of the entrance of my apartment block. The metallic letters, spelling out the name of the building, gleam in the light of the spring morning sun.
The last thing I feel like doing is resting and recuperating. There is more energy in my body than I have ever experienced before. My mind feels sharp and focused.
I get into my shower and feel the jet of water droplets smashing against my skin. Each one has an impact. Each one explodes, its constituent parts flying in all directions.
I smile to myself, mostly because I am already smiling and then I smile, because I am smiling. My meta smile breaks into a gallop of a giggle and then thunders ahead in a burst of uncontrollable laughter.
Light-years away, in my kitchenette, I can hear the ring tone of my phone, but I don’t turn off the shower to go and answer it like I would have before. The electronic tones add to the poetry of the moment.
Eventually I can hear it beep one more time, registering the presence of a voice mail message, somewhere on a server of my mobile network — destined for me to download and digest it.
I finish my shower, dry myself and look at phone’s screen. The number is not known to me so I dial the short code to access my mailbox. There are a few older messages — all from my employer trying to enquire why I didn’t come in — and one from the caller of a few minutes before: “Mister Andrews, hi, my name is Lana Taylor. I’m a reporter for the Post. We’re doing a story about the incident on the MTR and I managed to get your number. I would love to talk to you. Please call me on …”
I hang up to interrupt the recording.
I have seen that name in print in the Post.
The smell of paper and ink.
I hurriedly get dressed for work and leave.
On the trading room of my employer, I manage to navigate my way to my desk without much fuss. Of course, by now, my colleagues know that I was on that train that made it onto the front page of the Post.
However, the statement of the transport management corporation gave them all the information they needed about the incident. The subtext and language of it informed them whether to upgrade or downgrade its stock. In my world, that is all that matters.
Any interest in my well-being is a thin veneer of sociable courtesy. I have worked in this business long enough not to care about that.
I pick up my copy of the paper and scan through it. The statement explains, in very carefully chosen words, strung together in cautious sentences, that there was a power surge in the electric cabling inside the Central tunnel. This, in turn, affected the normal functioning of the circuit that powered the lighting tubes inside the train. The abnormal voltage caused the strobing effect of the lights that had the “unfortunate effect” of inducing epileptic seizures in all the customers. Of course, they avoid words like seizure, and describe the convulsing, vomiting bodies as having “fainted” and only “momentarily”.
The statement is laden with apology and an assurance that the cabling had already been replaced during the night and that such an incident would never occur again within the bowels of Hong Kong. Next to the statement is a report by Lana Taylor. It too is very thin on detail as no officials within government or the management of transportation corporation wanted to comment beyond the official statement.
I fold the paper away and turn to my monitor. The screen is filled with the usual numbers and codes, indicating the ever fluctuating values of global indices and equities. As I look at them now, they appear very different. All activity around me blurs out of focus as I notice — for the first time — the most incredible patterns, structures and rhythms rising from the tables of digits. Connections I have never seen before, materialise in front of my eyes.
Without taking my eyes away from the screen, I pull my notebook towards me and I start making notes. Without looking at the paper I draw what I am seeing.
After a few minutes, I switch to my email client and write detailed instructions to my floor manager. I hit the send button, switch the terminal off and leave the office without saying goodbye to anyone.
I need to feel the sunshine on my face.
I start walking through the IFC Mall along one of the bridges that leads into the central part of Hong Kong. I follow the tram line eastwards towards Wan Chai — the dirty underbelly of the city. Metre after metre turns into street block after street block.
Slowly, as the day starts to fade, the shuttered-by-day parlours and drinking pits of Wan Chai stir into action. Young Filipina and Thai prostitutes begin to line Lockhart Street, advertising for their clientele with stockinged legs and higher-than-hip skirts. Between the strip bars there is a cacophony of Filipino dial-home services, watch-shoe-handbag repair stands, mini-grocers, convenience stores and tiny eateries packed with bright lights and loud patrons. In Hong Kong, all of life’s needs are available on the same menu.
I turn right and continue under the main overhead walkway that connects Immigration Tower to Wan Chai MTR station and I make my way towards Queen’s Road. Here I turn east again and follow the arterial further towards Happy Valley and then rise up with the gradient up as the road climbs towards the Tai Tam Reservoir on the hilly curtain between the concrete city and the sprawling, lush suburbs that dot the jungle in the south.
It is only spring, but the humidity and the pace of my walk is making my body sweat profusely. Very quickly my drenched shirt and trousers start clinging to my body. But as I gain altitude, catching the last rays of the setting sun, a cool wind blows to cool my body down again.
I smile at the perfect balance of everything — the beautiful, self-regulatory system of the planet and my own body as a part of the system.
I start to make the descent into the night fall and a half-an-hour or so later I reach the crooked shoreline of Hong Kong Island. My route passes by Repulse Bay, the Hong Kong Country Club and I walk all the way to the bustling little coastal village of Stanley. Here I pause to smell the flat ocean and then walk back to the main road to stick out my open hand to hail down a cab back to Prosperity Towers.
I settle into the back of the cab, my body tingling from the exercise. The cab driver pulls away, alternating on the accelerator and brake pedals to lunge the Toyota forward in bursts of metres.
As we hug the corners of the coastal road back to the city, I notice the flashing red light of my Blackberry. I pick the device up and look at the handful of new emails from my colleagues on the trading desk.
I quickly scan through them. They are filled with expletive, superlative congratulations. It appears that my trades this afternoon has made my employer and some of its high end clients a very, very large profit today.
I close my eyes, completely unaffected by this.
I have my date tonight.
Eileen is the girl I have been texting with for a few days. This includes the few minutes before I found myself in a heap on the floor of a speeding subway train deep under the waves of Victoria Harbour.
We met at Dragon-I last week Thursday. Through the haze of alcohol and adrenaline, we managed a lovely chat and then shared a deep drunken kiss on the dance floor. Of course, we exchanged numbers.
Since then, I have had an on and off dialogue with her that has lasted for almost 100 hours. Our conversation picked up from where we left off, laden with innuendo and building a tension that we both needed release of. It stopped abruptly when I stepped on that train. Except for one cautious “are we still on for tonight?” that beeped an hour or so ago.
“Sure. 9pm,” was replied.
Now, at 21:08, I find myself outside my favourite Vietnamese restaurant on Wellington Street. She’s late, but I’m shuffling along the queue of patrons, waiting to be seated anyway.
The noises coming from the street, the surrounding blocks — and the deep recesses of Hong Kong are awe inspiring. I close my eyes, rock forwards and backwards on my feet and take in the auditory pulse of the city.
Somebody taps me on my forearm as it is folded across my chest. I open my eyes. It is a woman, late twenties, with creamy cocoa coloured skin, jet black hair and two rows of perfectly white teeth behind an inviting smile.
“It’s me!” she exclaims as if she was a magician in a show, pulling a white hare from a top hat.
I feel a frown on my face as I am trying to figure out who this person is who clearly knows me.
Oh. It’s Eileen.
I realise that I completely forgot what she looks like. All this time, I was texting with a mental image of somebody who never resembled reality.
There is no doubt, though. Eileen is beautiful. Straddling the fine line between exotic and accessible — as only the woman from South East Asia can.
“Hi!” I reply. She gets on her tippy-toes and gives me a quick full kiss on the lips. The smell of her perfume, her freshly showered and shampooed hair jams into my nostrils. In between the fabricated scents, I look for hers — in vain.
“What happened to you yesterday!” she exclaims without a hint of a question in her voice.
I never texted her about what happened.
“Oh, battery died,” I lie. “And then, I just got really busy at work today.”
She shrugs. “So. Good. To. See. You. Again.” Every word is accentuated.
The waiter seats us and we start ordering a few dishes. A shared bowl of Pho Ga. Grilled shrimp. Beef in lotus leaf. Salads.
Eileen talks without cessation as I relish the taste of every dish. The tastes are indescribable and even though I patronise this place at least once a week, I am tasting each serving as if I am dining here for the first time.
As the empty dishes are cleared, I pay the bill and we take the famous Mid-Level Escalator a few blocks up to have a drink at one of the tiny bars that line the longest vertical travelator system in the world.
During our ascent, I find myself constantly amazed that Eileen does not stop talking for a moment. I smile as her words paint fleeting images of her work as a fashion assistant, her shopping trips with girlfriends and a holiday she was planning in Tokyo.
We make our way into the crowded bar and sit down at a small table. Rounds of drinks follow, mostly for her, as I suddenly find the smell of the alcohol overbearing. She clearly does not notice that I have been nursing the same Vodka Tonic ever since we sat down in the bar.
As she fills up on glass after glass of Australian Sauvignon Blanc, her words and stories and images become less coherent. My eyes search the little strip across from the escalator. Typically Hong Kong, a Thai massage parlour, a hardware shop (still open) and a tailor studio is squeezed in below an interior decorating studio.
The place is packed with stereotypes. Visiting businessmen scanning the place for young Asian women, circles of laughing expats and of course, me.
My body is tingling and I am searching for the intense desire for her that I felt last week. Eileen is reaching the same level of inebriation that she was at when we kissed on the dance floor last week. Her body language is opening and she has her hand on my knee, while her foot, now out of its heel, is on my shoe.
“Hey,” I say, interrupting one of her stories. “Do you want to come have a drink at my place. It’s just one block up.”
She hesitates for a moment, looks at me and then smiles.
“Sure.” There is a little bit of fake bravado in her voice.
I pay the bill and we get back on the escalator. A cool breeze is blowing and I put a protective arm around her shoulders, shivering under the thin fabric of her dress. We turn off the escalator and walk the last block to Prosperity Towers — only one of the many constellations of flickering lights in the cosmos of skyscrapers — on the hills of Hong Kong’s Mid-Levels.
We take the elevator up to the apartment that the bank rents on my behalf. I unlock the door and she walks in. As is usually the case, with new visitors, the view of the city outside the floor to ceiling glass takes her by surprise.
“Oh my God,” she says. She goes to stand by the glass, her softly lit image looking back at her as she takes in the view of the city. I walk up next to her and look at the view so familiar to me. The massive pulsating advertising boards. The little lights of the junks and ferries and cargo ships that dot the dark sea around the bright city. I have looked at this view so often. But now, for the first time, I notice a living, breathing organism. And from here, it seems sick to its core.
I feel my frown returning. I’m trying to make sense of my observation, but just then, Eileen turns to me and pulls my face towards hers. She kisses me sweetly.
I relent and enjoy the kiss. Her lips are soft and tender and her tongue — darting and firm — quick to seek out my own. I hug her deeply as our kiss meanders, feeling her relax in my grip. The soft kiss spills into more urgent passion, like an inevitable tide rising.
We collapse on my couch. She gets on my lap, her knees either side of me. Now she is in control. She unbuttons my shirt and then pulls the one piece dress over her head. She unhooks her bra to reveal two perfect and petite breasts.
I can feel the heat rising in my body. Shirtless, I launch up whilst she clasps her legs behind my back. I walk her to my room feeling her wetness on the skin of my stomach through the lace over her crotch.
At the bed, I throw her down and start to unbuckle my belt — urgently. She locks my gaze with her black eyes and starts smiling at me. As her lips part to reveal her teeth I notice that her fangs are covered in saliva. She starts growling and squirming on the bed. Instantly, her entire skin is covered in a fine fur. She lifts her hands up to me and from underneath the thickening layer of hair I notice perfectly manicured claws.
In an instant all the blood drains from my body. I stammer back on my feet, trying to gain control of myself and as I look back at her she is transformed back into the gorgeous young woman that I wanted to have sex with. But now, I clearly have no ability to do just that.
In the fog of the damp, spring morning air, I slice my path down the hill — all the way from Prosperity Towers towards Central where Hong Kong’s banks congregate like a herd of elephants. Hungry, thirsty, mighty.
I feel light and strong. The air, tasting and smelling of the sulphur of China’s neighbouring Guangdong province was warming up. As my legs do the mechanical job of transporting me across the escalator, up and down the little interlinking staircases and walkways, my mind begins to enjoy the thought that the same air I am breathing may have once been in Confucius’ lungs. Or Buddha’s. Or Jesus Christ.
Actually this is funny to the point of being unsettling. For the last 33 years of my life, my mind has not functioned like this at all. These thoughts would never have crossed my rationalist mind. Before I stepped on that train.
Something in me is so vastly different. Different and good, I think. Except, of course, for last night. I have to force my unwilling mind to examine the events of last night. Never before has my body disobeyed my brain. And never before have I experienced a vision like that before. Or have I?
Were the patterns I saw in the numbers on my screen real, or imagined?
Out of habit I hop off the escalator at a little coffee shop at the edge of Soho. Here I normally have a coffee and read the paper before I head into the office.
I walk in and Jimmy, the barista, greets me. He immediately starts preparing my usual order.
My hand goes up. “Jimmy! How about a tea today?”
Jimmy laughs. “You not feeling well, Boss?”
I smile. “I feel good man. I need to lay off the coffee.”
“Sure, health kick.”
He hands me a steaming mug of peppermint tea and I go to my normal table. I take out my copy of the Post and settle in to scan through the day’s news.
One article catches my eye — firstly, because of the headline indicating that it is about the incident on the train. Secondly, because it contains the picture of a woman with a big open, beaming smile, surrounded by a bunch of school children all holding up drawings of a dragon and a boy. There is something magnetic in her smile. I can’t stop looking at it.
Then I notice the byline of the reporter. Lana Taylor. The memory of her voice on the recording on my phone is instantly with me. The modulation of her voice — clear in my mind. Her accent — hmmm, mid-Atlantic?
I read the copy carefully.
This was the story of a teacher in Sheung Wan. Peggy Lam. She was also a passenger on that train. And since she has woken up, she has not been able to stop writing. She has written at least five fables and have had her junior school classes in rapture with her flights of imagination.
In an insert block next to the copy, the Post has reproduced one of Peggy’s stories:
The Little Dragon
By Peggy Lam
A long time ago, in the Valley of Dragons, there was an egg. It was fiercely guarded by its mother, because her hopes were inside the thin shell. For weeks and months she protected the egg, keeping it warm.
One morning in the spring, she heard a faint movement inside the egg. She kneeled beside it, her eyes wide open in anticipation. The movement became more intense, causing the egg to roll around slowly. She held out a protective claw to make sure it stayed in one position.
After an eternity there was a conscious thud from inside the egg. Instantly, a tiny crack, not thicker than a hair, appeared on the surface. Then another crack. And another. The shell weakened until finally a tiny claw tentatively emerged from the opening. The mother’s eyes softened as she noticed the incredible detail of it. It felt around, feeling the outside air of the earth for the very first time. There were a few more convulsions inside the shell until it was smashed to pieces.
Her baby was fully formed and perfect in every way. She only briefly glanced away to make sure nobody else was around and then fixated her attention back on the baby dragon. She edged closer to her now squealing offspring. She put a protective claw over him and pulled him closer. He sighed a little happy breath.
The little dragon grew fast, quickly learning how to fend for itself. And as it grew it took its place in the dragon community.
He relished in the stories of the elders. About a time before time, when his kind were the ferocious kings of the earth, roaming the planet as its kingdom, breathing fire and ruling everything that inhabited the earth.
The little dragon wondered why they couldn’t breathe fire anymore. He often asked his mother about it and every time she just said that these were just legends and that he would be better off spending his time honing his hunting skills and making sure he stayed away from the human villagers in the Valley who wouldn’t hesitate to kill a dragon.
But he couldn’t forget. He searched within himself for the fire. Trying everything he could, breathing in as much as he could and trying to push the fire from his belly. But nothing could come out.
As he started growing he slowly forgot about the fire and heeded his mother’s advice to focus on being a dragon. Hunting everything he could — and hiding.
But one day, he was spotted by a human. A young boy, on a walk through the forest rounded a path where the dragon was stalking a deer. They were both so surprised to see each other that they were frozen in time. They just kept looking at each other, each one too petrified to make the next move.
Slowly the boy spoke. And by magic, the dragon understood the human words. He replied in the same tones, echoing the words of the boy. Then the dragon flew away really quickly.
For the next few weeks, both the dragon and the boy thought only about their meeting. And as if by magic, one day, they both decided to return to the same path — at the same time. They approached each other and the boy started talking again. The dragon was able to respond and they had a basic conversation. For the next few months, until the next winter, the boy and the dragon met everyday and they became great friends.
One day the boy told the dragon that his village might not survive the winter as their crops had failed and they didn’t have enough wood to warm their homes.
The dragon had grown very close to the boy and the plight of the humans was of great concern to him.
As the cold of the winter set in, he secretly followed the boy home to the village. In the dead of the night, all the sound disappeared into the rising blanket of snow. The dragon hid in the dark until all the villagers were asleep.
Guided by the Dragon Spirit he walked onto the square where there was a big stake. He closed his eyes and thought of his love for the boy. The icy snow fell on his scales. He felt alive. And then, from deep within him he started squirming, like he did that morning when he pierced the egg shell. Slowly, an invisible shell dropped away from the dragon. He opened his eyes, and felt a warmth deep inside his belly. It was his love for the boy. He opened his mouth, breathed in a deep breath, and flared his nostrils.
Then he exhaled a long clear stream of fire. It was pure and hot and instantly lit the stake. The dragon felt an intense happiness with his own surprise.
Then he fluttered from house to house, lighting each house with the eternal flame inside his belly.
In my chair, with the wind at approximately 6 knots in a north, north by north-easterly direction, humidity at 68%, and temperature at 21 degrees Celsius, I close my eyes. The story pushes everything around me even further into the distance, and at once, even closer. I feel an indescribable connection to the teacher. It stretches eternally into the past and simultaneously into the future.
I need to talk to her. Obviously I could get her number from the reporter who called me.
The Blackberry is next to me, the light flashing. I quickly look at the new batch of emails that came in overnight. A slew of mails from my colleagues in New York and Tokyo who learned of my windfalls the previous day and now wanted my view on the market’s movements of the day. But I don’t reply. I dial the voice message service and listen to Lana Taylor’s message again. I scribble her digits down and then punch them into the device.
Her phone rings. Then, click, followed by a sleepy voice. “Lana Taylor.”
“Hi. Lana. It’s Warren Andrews. You left a message for me.”
There is a hesitation. “Oh, yes. Yes! Hello! Thanks for returning my call!”
I wonder why she sounds so grateful to hear my voice.
“So, I read your story today. About the teacher.”
“Yes, Peggy. Well, I was hoping you could put me in touch with her.”
She’s pausing. Obviously, thinking.
“But I’d like to talk to you first.”
I know why she wants to talk to me. But I pretend not to.
“I’d like to talk to you about what happened on that train.”
I bite my lip and say “You know what happened on the train.”
“In fact, Miss Taylor, I believe you spoke to the MTR people yourself?”
“Strobing lights. Seizures. It’s not hard to figure out.”
“Actually, Warren, may I call you Warren?” She doesn’t wait for permission. “Actually I’d like to talk to you about what’s happened after the event.”
“I’m not following.” But I do.
“I’d like to know if you have experienced … any changes … in yourself?”
“That’s an odd question, Miss Taylor.” It’s not.
“Warren, I will give you the teacher’s number. But please talk to me. Something weird happened in that train and I’d like to figure it out. Most of the local Hong Kong people who were on the train are too shy to talk to me. From what I can see you were the only Westerner. Something weird happened with some of you after the strobing and I would like to find out more about it.”
As she talks, I consider the fact that I could probably locate the teacher myself. It wouldn’t be hard. Time consuming, perhaps, but not impossible.
But there is something in Lana Taylor’s voice.
Maybe she holds the key to my own understanding of what is happening.
I wait for her at a trendy lunch place on the terrace below One International Finance Centre — the towering phallus on the edge of Hong Kong island that contains so many of my types. A cool sea breeze miraculously finds its way through the maze of alleyways and narrow walkways to cool my skin as I lean back in the chair. I have my eyes closed and enjoy the feeling of the warm rays on my skin.
Sitting in this position, I reflect on my current state of being. I’m surprised on so many levels. For a start, the sensation of the sun’s rays on my skin gives me more joy than the professional success I have achieved in the last two days. I have always been a gifted trader, but in the last two days, since I woke up in that hospital, my performance has been exceptional.
As I aimlessly ponder these matters, I hear my name. My eyes open and I look up at her. Her head is eclipsing the noon day sun so I can’t make out her features.
“Lana Taylor,” she says and holds out a tiny hand. I get up and now see what she looks like. We are very different — her and I. She is wearing a very simple T-shirt with a trendy motif emblazoned on the front. Her denims are scuffed and her bare feet are slipped into simple flat sandals.
I can tell she is using the fragment of the second to size up my character too. My casual, but corporate uniform of suit trousers and smart shirt complemented by a jacket.
“Nice to meet you,” I say. She smiles, unclips her hair and let her red locks fall free. She shakes her head once or twice to straighten them out, putting the clip in her mouth while she re-bunches her coif behind her head. She removes the clip and then refastens the whole lot.
“You too,” she says. “Thank you for agreeing to talk to me.”
My eyes won’t move away from her. I find her fascinating. And I’m not sure why. Normally I don’t socialise with people who don’t move in the same professional circles as I do. Sure, in Hong Kong, the expat circle can be small, but the conventional wisdom in my industry is that we are special. And we certainly don’t associate well with the bohemian types.
She takes out a notebook from her bag and asks: “May I ask why you wanted to get hold of the teacher?”
I look at the notebook. It makes me uncomfortable. I’ve been hesitant to talk to the reporter just on a human level about something this personal. But that notebook is a gateway to the newspaper’s pages — and infamy.
“I don’t know really. That’s the honest truth. I guess I just felt a connection. Maybe because we were on the same train?”
“Really,” Lana says. It’s hard to know what she thinks. There is no inflection in the word. It is more like a bridge to let me continue.
“When I read her story this morning, it just sort of clicked with me.”
“Hmmm,” she says.
We sit in silence for a few seconds. Then she asks: “Do you think something — supernatural happened in that train?”
I frown. I know where I stand on the question of supernatural. All of it — mostly bullshit. Yet, now that she poses the question, I find that I’m not sure.
I sit forward and lower my voice. Naturally, she leans in too.
“Something happened. Something bizarre.”
Lana is nodding.
“I can’t explain it.”
She uncaps her pen and pulls her notebook closer.
“Look,” I say, changing my tone and sitting back in my chair again. “I agreed to talk to you. But I don’t want any of this to appear in the paper. My job would be at risk.”
She looks up at me and makes eye contact. Then she bites her lip and puts the pen and the notebook back in the bag. It disappears like light into a black hole.
“Okay. We just talk first.”
“Good,” I say.
“Then tell me. What happened?”
I pause. “I think this is why I want to speak to the teacher. Clearly something fundamental happened to her. Something happened to me. Perhaps if we talk to each other we can unravel this mystery.”
“Sure,” she says softly.
“I can’t explain it. I feel better than ever. I feel connected to everything. The world looks different. I have tons of ideas flowing through me all the time.”
“Are you still you?”
What an odd question — I think — but perfectly natural.
“I don’t know. That is the honest answer.”
We both sit in silence. Her mind is clearly ticking over, trying to figure me out. And I am realising that I am now — for the first time in two days — giving a name to the incident on the train and to a fundamental shift in me.
Lana breaks the silence: “Of course it would help to meet the teacher. I have also obtained the numbers of some of the other passengers. But only the ones from the hospital where you were taken. I have a good contact there. But the ones who were taken elsewhere — I’m not so sure.”
“It would be weird if every single one of us is affected.”
“Yes. Then that would be very strange indeed.”
At this point Lana’s phone rings. “Lana Taylor,” she answers.
She nods. And speaks. Nods. And speaks some more. The notebook makes a re-appearance from the black hole and a few notes are scribbled. Then she hangs up, wearing a big smile.
“That was another one of the passengers. He also wants to meet the teacher.”
I frown. What is going on?
“I’ve arranged to meet him tonight in Kowloon. Why don’t you come with us?”
I think about it. It is starting to feel like I have taken the first few steps of an incredible journey. And I am desperate to see what lies around the next corner.
I meet Lana again, for the second time today, at the Star Ferry Pier. She is waiting for me near the turnstiles and I have to jog a bit as the next ferry is about to leave. I reach for my wallet containing my Octopus card and swipe it on the terminal to unlock the turnstile. She grabs my hand and we run to make it on Moonstar, seconds before it pushes away from the pier. As we step on to the lower deck of the ferry she suddenly becomes conscious of the fact that she is holding my hand and she lets go. I follow her as she skirts past some tourists who are snapping away at Hong Kong’s postcard skyline as it flickers to life in the dying light of the day.
Big puffs of black cloud rise up into the dusk as the diesel engines fire up to propel the old vessel towards Kowloon. We find a comfortable viewing spot as the ferry starts chugging over the slick. As it does, it occurs to me that we might be passing over the exact spot where my old life collapsed on the floor of that train, tens of metres below the surface of the water.
Old life. Do I believe the change in me is permanent? In an instant I realise that I would be happy if that was the case.
“You’re very quiet,” she says.
I just smile.
She smiles back at me and then looks away across the black sea at the view of Hong Kong. We both continue the rest of the journey in silence. A few short minutes later Moonstar docks on the mainland of China and the platform is lowered over which we stream into the dense urban sprawl of Kowloon.
We follow the tunnel, through the turnstiles into the clearing at the bus terminal.
“Oh. I just realised I have no idea what he looks like,” she says.
“That’s him,” I say, lifting my hand and pointing to a young Chinese man, leaning against a pillar, his eyes closed — a broad smile across his face. I recognise the smile.
“Oh?” she says unquestioningly, then walks up to the stranger, taps him gently on the shoulder and says: “Frederic Ip?”
The young man slowly opens his eyes. “Yes?”
“I’m Lana Taylor. From the Post.”
“Yes, of course. Nice to meet you,” he says. They shake hands.
“Frederic, this is Warren Andrews.”
“Hello Warren,” he says and holds out his hand. As I take it I feel a light shock.
“You were on the train too,” he says and smiles.
“You remember me?” I ask.
“No. But I can tell.”
We agree to go into a franchise coffee shop across the road from the terminal. Lana gets a latte while Frederic and I both get a mint tea. We start sipping on our drinks.
“So,” Lana starts. “How are you feeling?”
“Never better,” he replies.
“Really? Tell us more.”
“I didn’t just wake up in that hospital from fainting. I feel like I have woken up from a very, very long sleep.”
I know exactly what he means.
“And everything that happened before in my life. How I got onto that train. It all feels like it was a dream.”
He turns to me. “Do you know what I mean, Warren? Is it the same for you?”
“I do,” I say. My voice is soft.
“Warren, I’m so happy to meet you. Finally, somebody who I can talk to. Who won’t think I’m mad. This is Hong Kong, man. People think you’re mad if you act different. They will kick you out of society.”
I look at Lana. She is nodding. It seems like we have both lived here long enough to understand the peculiar dynamic of Hong Kong’s culture. Breaking out of the mould is not advisable here.
“But people have noticed a difference, you know,” he continues.
“Really? How?” Lana asks.
“You see, I work at a tech startup. I’m a coder. We make apps for smart phones and tablet computers. And right now, I’m working in a team that is pushing out a new type of calendar to organise your time.”
“I see,” she said. But from her frown I can tell she can’t really see.
I feel like I know where he is headed with this.
He closes his eyes for a second. Then continues: “Since the night on the train, I have seen a vision for how this thing can work. Like, on a completely different level. Before, we were making it to help people just squeeze in so much time into their day. But now I’m seeing a way for people to stretch time. I want them to understand how valuable every moment is. Of course, my colleagues think I am mad. But the more progress I am making, the more they love what I’m doing and the more they stay out of my way. But they are getting a bit scared of me.”
“Wow,” she says. Then, the key question. “Frederic, what do you think happened on that train?”
He looks at me. He smiles, and I smile back. I feel extremely comfortable in his presence. Our eyes lock in a deep gaze and I feel a strange sense of connection with this young man. At once, so different from me, but also, exactly the same.
Without looking away, he says: “I don’t know, Lana. But I’m happy it did. And I’m grateful I was chosen.”
It’s the first Saturday of a new existence. Normally I would be at my sports club, having a greasy breakfast to dull my thudding hangover from a Friday night of heavy drinking.
Instead, I find myself on another ferry. This time I am bound for Lamma Island.
A small island, just off the western shore of Hong Kong Island, across the busy fishing harbour of Aberdeen, it is the refuge of Hong Kong’s bohemian population. Less expensive, though less accessible and much less frenetic than the murderous pace of Hong Kong Island. It is a place where more creative types — like Lana — could find a home in this ultra-capitalist city.
As the ferry moors, I step onto the island and walk across the pier towards the little town of Yung Shue Wan. At the point where the pier is bolted onto the rocky edge of the island, I notice Lana — draped over the railing. Her body relaxed, her hair flaming on her head.
“Hi,” I say. I lean in and kiss her on the cheek. There is a strange familiarity that has settled in between us.
“Hey,” she says and hugs me.
For the last two days, we have both worked extremely hard to get all the contact details of every one of the remaining passengers of that train. A huge chunk came from Lana’s contact at Queen’s Hospital, a large number contacted Lana after the Peggy Lam story ran in the Post and the others had to be obtained by sheer brute force and hard work. I didn’t do much trading in the last two days, but since I’d hit my total monthly target in just two days, nobody seemed to notice.
We walk off together through the village, dodging bicycles and pedestrians and men carrying large baskets of fresh fish that were hauled from the ocean only minutes earlier. Strings of seafood restaurants line the walkway towards the little temple where we have scheduled our very important gathering.
As we were walking, I noticed a few other figures striding alongside us. In each instance, I instinctively knew which of them were on their way to the same address for the same meeting. We had all been brought together before, by chance, and now we are coming together again. By design.
Lana and I pause at the entrance of the small temple and then walk into the damp darkness. Under the watchful eye of an inanimate Buddha, quite a few of the 143 are already assembled.
She and I part wordlessly and we start going round, introducing ourselves to the rest. I feel wave after wave of constant surprise at how easily I relate to these strangers. Never before had I really bothered to take an interest in the local people. But now, they are my brothers and sisters.
I sense a kinship with all of them. Only these people understood the fundamental change in me. And me in them. We needed each other to make sense of what was going on in us. And that is why each one of the 143 passengers of that train wouldn’t miss this meeting for the world.
Each one has an incredible story.
Transformation. Awakening. Creativity.
Amy Man, a housewife from Pok Fu Lam, is married to a neurologist at Queen’s. He had spent the entire week, trying to make sense of the inexplicable change in his wife — from a scientific point of view. And now he was talking to Lana, explaining some of his theories.
“Warren, come here,” she calls, waving at me.
I walk up the middle-aged couple and put my hand out.
“Nice to meet you, Warren,” Amy says. Her smile is so warm I want to hug her. Her husband shakes my hand.
“Doctor Man was just telling me about his hypothesis,” Lana says.
“Great,” I say. “I’d love to hear it.”
“I don’t have the answers, Warren. But clearly we need to do more tests. It’s important to understand the underlying shifts that have happened here.”
“But, you know, my colleagues in cardiology, they use magnets to change the settings on an implanted pacemaker. Perhaps what has happened here, is that the flickering light acted like those magnets, unlocking some sort of code in each one of your brains. Flipped a switch. Somehow, perhaps, switched off most of your rational ability and switched on your intuition .. your creativity.”
Doctor Man keeps talking. He is recounting typical symptoms of stroke patients. Making connections between them and us. But at the same time acknowledging that what has happened to us is completely different. There has been no incapacitation. No damage. No disability.
In fact, we are all phoenixes that rose from the 143 heaps of convulsing ashes on a train floor. Bright. Beautiful. Alive.
As the sun followed its arc through the sky, traversing a part of the cosmos it has never been in before, we settle down on the floor of the temple.
Some of the 143 get up to speak. All the stories are different. But the same. We have all let go of the past and of the future. Each of us has become immersed in the moment, and in the moment we have found salvation. Connection with all the genius that has come before and will come after us.
The words of Shakespeare.
The compassion of Christ.
The eye of Michelangelo.
The ingenuity of Da Vinci.
We are all breathing the same air. Striding across the same earth.
We are no longer bound by the mind, but freed by the soul.
We are no longer consumers, but creators.
Poets. Painters. Priests.
As they talk, my eye keeps going to Lana. Her little hand is clamped around her pen as she furiously notes down every story. From her pen a full record of the impact of the lives of the 143 flows onto the pages in front of her.
143 lives. 143 kingdoms.
On that floor, I am now the happiest I have ever been in my entire life. A week goes by where I barely have any contact with Lana. Not because I don’t want to, but because she has been writing the story of her life.
I wanted to spend hours with her. Talking about the meeting in the temple. Trying to digest it all. But I understand she has to do this. For herself.
During the week I develop an intense yearning to learn new things. Every evening I try and do something different.
On Monday, I sign up for a life drawing class in Wan Chai. Tuesday, piano lessons in Sheung Wan.
Every time I think of sitting in the waiting room of the piano teacher’s studio before my first lesson, I smile as I realise I was surrounded by frowning 8-year olds all wondering who this silly gweilo (white ghost) was who was trying to learn to play the piano.
And I also begin to learn how to meditate. On Wednesday, I accidentally stumble upon a little yoga and meditation centre in the basement of a popular drinking hole in Lan Kwai Fong.
I got chatting to the yogi and he gave me some good tips for making the most of my quiet moments that I have now learned to love. During my meditations, I discover in myself a seed of interest in sustainable farming. During the days I begin to research the top entrepreneurs in China who are working in this field and I spend most of my time developing an investment proposal for each one of these start-ups so that my clients can invest in them.
On the Friday evening, almost an entire week after the meeting of the 143, my phone rings.
“It’s me.” It’s Lana.
“Done? Done, done?”
“Yes. Done, done. I filed it one hour ago. I guess it’s being subbed now and my editor said it will be in tomorrow.”
“That’s great. Really great.”
“I’d like to see you.”
“Of course. When?”
Twenty five minutes later I am on the last ferry to Lamma. It is a beautiful evening. Unusually for Hong Kong, the sky is clear with just a few blossoms of puffy clouds sailing over the city, their bases lit up from the light of the metropolis below. Above the horizon, a massive moon is rising, its light casting a long reflection over the surface of the water.
I look out of the window and listen to the hull piercing the surface of the ocean. The sea rises and falls next to me in countless slow motion waves. Each one, an individual wave, but each part of the same sea, made of the same water and salt. And each one sinking back into the great beyond to make way for another. Sitting here, looking at the moon, the clouds and the sky, I feel connected to everyone and everything.
The engines of the ferry start to wind down and the craft slows down as it rolls over the lapping waves into the harbour. It moors and I step onto the pier.
She is waiting in the same place as before — and even though it is night time and there is no sunlight bouncing off her hair, she still looks like she is on fire.
I walk slowly and deliberately. I want to stretch every one of these moments — like hooking an elastic band around your index finger and stretching it out — filling it with potential energy.
Then, I stop in front of her.
“Hey you,” she says softly. There is something very different in her eyes.
I lean in to kiss her, but she puts her small hand on my heart to stop me.
“Wait,” she says.
We turn and make our way past the seafood restaurants, filled with punters surrounding round tables creaking under the weight of countless bowls of Chinese dishes. Cheerful laughter rises up from each table into the night. We keep walking and listen as the buzz of the town is swallowed by the quiet of the night. A curtain of silence draws behind us now as we approach the outskirts of the village, where Lana rents a small, typical three storey Chinese villa. We can only hear the roar of the ocean, somewhere in the dark, where it has deposited gigalitres of sea water on the beach since just a few seconds ago.
Wordlessly she takes my hand. The damp humidity of the approaching summer fills my nostrils. The fragrance of the night, combined with the sweet natural smell of her washes over me like a waterfall. Lana leads me into her place and politely, she does not offer me a drink.
She kicks off her shoes and leads me up the stairs. We turn into her bedroom where I sit down on the bed. Standing in front of me, she methodically and slowly starts undressing, baring her soft milky nakedness to me. The magnificent detail of her body is revealed. The folds. The curves. The expanse of skin. The surprising waves of flesh that have to be explored.
I can’t help to think back to the night with Eileen. For a moment I am filled with terror. What if? What if? What if?
But I don’t have time to ponder my fear. She gets on the bed next to me and curls her finger back to invite me closer. I smile and strip my clothes off. I press my entire body against hers, feeling the heat of her skin burning my body. For a moment I feel the same pleasant sensation I did when I first put my palm in Frederic Ip’s hand.
I roll on top of her to kiss her. I look down at her face and see that it begins to transform. She is starting to glow.
Without thinking too much about that, I feel myself sliding into her and as I do, she lets out a sigh. The fear evaporates into the night.
The heat of the light wakes me up as dawn breaks on Lamma Island. I lie awake for a few minutes, listening to Lana’s breathing. Then, I get out of the bed and pull my shirt and shorts on. Quietly, I leave the villa and walk back into the village.
A few late night party-goers arrive back from Hong Kong island on the first ferries of the morning, smashed up by the chemical suppressants of the night.
I arrive at a small supply store and step over a sleeping dog in the doorway. I pick up a bottle of water from the fridge and a copy of the Post. Then I make my way back to her place. I walk back up the stairs and get back into the bed next to her.
I delay reading the paper. Instead, I just look at her sleeping body. Looking at her, listening to her, I feel intense joy.
After a while I prop the pillows up behind me to get stuck into the paper. I follow the lead on the front page to a massive spread inside the Post that contains Lana’s story. It is a full account of the occurrences of the last few days. Objective. Enthusiastic.
She had written about Doctor Man’s theories and postulations, and most importantly covered how each of the 143 have made an impact on their family, workplace and own lives since emerging from that train.
As I am reading it, I can’t help thinking of fire. To be exact, 143 little fires that are burning with a clear, intense energy. I enjoy the image, closing my eyes and processing it. It feels pleasant and true in me.
Then I continue on to read the conclusion. Even though scientists will study what exactly happened that night on the train from Tsim Sha Tsui Station to Hong Kong, the most important question that we should answer is this: How can what happened to these 143 individuals be replicated? Can the transformation that they experienced be passed on to others?
I pause and lower the paper in my lap. Then I turn my head to Lana as she starts to wake up from her deep sleep. But my attention is instantly drawn back to the paper.
I look down at my hands.
The newspaper is on fire.
The 144 is also available for the Kindle.