By Simon Berry
Satisfied I’d gathered all the dead leaves and twigs into a neat pile, I swept them into the Lane Crawford tote bag. The weeds poking their way through the cracked concrete around the edges of my plot had already been uprooted and bagged. Done with the mechanical aspects, I took a moment.
The black and white photo on my tombstone was getting a little faded, though not to the point of needing replacing. Maybe in a few years. Or I could just abandon my final resting place. Allotted when I’d died in 1966, it was intended as a permanent home for my dead self. But it was just an empty hole beneath the marble slab like an unseen cavity in a molar. So I was keeping my grave for the sentiment. Feeling nostalgic was strange given the utter terror I’d experienced on waking up (if that was the right term) in a coffin under a too-heavy-to-move stone block. Claustrophobia had accompanied me on my transition. My grieving widow had gone for the cheapest available coffin so smashing my way out of the flimsy casket had been easy enough. But clawing my way around the edge of the slab had taken forever. The flowers were long dead by the time I got to the surface. So, no. I’d only surrender my little piece of Hong Kong if the Hong Kong Chinese Christian Churches Union decided to bill me for the privilege of inhabiting their turf. And what then? Whoever dug it up wouldn’t find a body; only a broken casket. It might almost be worth it, to see the headlines and speculation about the empty grave. I chuckled at the thought of priests scratching their cassocks and performing exorcisms. More rational minds would blame medical students in need of a cadaver.
The girl fussing with fresh chrysanthemums (to my forget-me-nots) in the pot on the adjacent tomb glanced my way.
Thinking I’d disturbed her, I promptly apologised. “I have some good memories.”
“Your grandfather? Great-grandfather,” she corrected herself after looking at the dates. There was a discernible twang to her speech.
“Yes,” I lied, already feeling uncomfortable. Outwardly unchanged from when I’d resurfaced six decades ago, I didn’t look old enough to have been alive in the year my supposed great-grandfather had died. And with that one word, I ran out of conversation.
Grave sweeping at Ching Ming was a social occasion for the living. Having no other reference points, I wasn’t sure if the dead should view it the same way. Some years it seemed pathetic, others a bit masturbatory, but I came every year. No one else was going to.
She stood there, looking from me to my headstone and back again, until I began to worry she’d noticed something was amiss. Remove the moustache from the man in the photo, ruffle the slicked-back hair and my resemblance to my photo would be uncanny. Sixty years on and I didn’t look any different from the day I’d died.
Like me the girl was also on her own, though I was sure for very different reasons. She had the poise of someone waiting for something and I suspected that something was me. Making an effort, I introduced myself. “Marcus.” Like much of my existence it was both the truth and a lie.
Slipping the brush inside my tote bag I placed the accent as Australian. Somehow we got to talking as we made our way up the hill to Pok Fu Lam Road. Fit frame with shoulder length black hair and silver spectacles; I felt an attraction that went beyond having someone to talk to, if only for a few minutes.
When we got to the top, she suggested a coffee. Surprised that a woman would invite me out on such scant acquaintance (or at all), I instinctively countered with dinner. Instant misgivings were quashed when she accepted.
Wendy and I swapped phone numbers while we waited. It gave us something to talk about. She confirmed dinner Friday week as she slipped her phone back into her purse. I made the pretence of tapping digits into my contact list but had to memorise her number.
My bus arrived first. I offered to wait, but she told me not to be silly and gave a hesitant wave as my bus inched back into the traffic.
A couple of stops later and the bus was packed. People were standing but no one took the empty seat next to me.
It had been a rather sad moment when no one had come to sweep my grave on the first Ching Ming after my death. Years of neglect later, my wife and children had passed on in the usual sense and my grandchildren had done the next best thing and gone to Toronto. Canada was a place where I could not easily follow. Would not rather than could not. I wondered if there was another generation or two and if they ever mentioned me at all.
Wendy was going to Melbourne for a week. Airports were places I tried to avoid. Walk through the scanner and … no heartbeat. Sniffer dogs loved me though. I got pulled aside for a pat down every single time. I didn’t mind. Some months it was the closest I got to socialising.
Although I was as dead as a grey-and-white ghost, I didn’t look it. I told myself over and over that there had to be others like me out there. No decedent is an island and all that. But my belief had never been vindicated. Nearly sixty years after crawling out of my grave and I’d met ghosts aplenty but year in and year out I was the only dead person wielding a small broom and putting fresh forget-me-nots in the stone pot. The ghosts? Wretched company. There was dead and then there was more dead and the more dead envied the less dead.
A date with a breather. Socialising with the dead was easier; among my own kind there was nothing to hide. I could be myself. At least I had imagined it would be but, as I hadn’t, I didn’t actually know. If it ever happened we’d end up being the old geezers in the Hong Kong Club boring everyone (and ourselves) with tales of the era when smoking was a pleasurable social rite. Regardless, I’d sworn never again after my last date with a breather had ended with me being thrown overboard from a junk off Sai Kung. There had been a lot of screaming involved. After a bottle of Banana Boat found its mark, I stayed on the bottom and confused the local marine life by walking back to shore along the trash-carpeted seabed. How long ago was that? I wasn’t sure but there had been a different flag flying over Government House at the time.
Question of the day: was I ready to try again?
With that disaster as my most recent romantic entanglement I wasn’t sure. I wanted someone to talk it over with. Therapists for the post-living were pretty thin on the ground (or below it for that matter), so at sunset I went back to the cemetery to congress with my go-to posse of ghosts.
“Can’t call them ‘girls’ nowadays,” the ghost of the old school principal Mabel lectured me as she drifted gently in the night breeze. “Might offend ’em.”
In my time no one would have been offended but ‘my time’ had slid into history’s rear view mirror half a century ago.
“So, watch’ya gonna do ’bout the girl?” Mabel got to the point without waiting for me to reply. “Crawl back under your slab?” She sniffed which didn’t mean much – she’d died of pneumonia and was always hacking and sniffing.
“Been a while? Need some practice thinking those impure thoughts, my son,” said Sebastian trying and failing to calm the local tabby while it hissed at me. The late priest wasn’t wrong.
“Getting out would be good for me,” I decided.
“Let us know how it goes,” Mabel insisted as I left. Sebastian promised to pray for me which was generous of him since he’d converted to atheism after finding post-mortem reality quite different from what he’d sold his congregation.
It was getting late when I changed into a lounge suit and went for a drink in the Captain’s Bar. They’d redecorated since my last bender here. Taking a small table in the corner, I sat back intending to people watch, listen to tête-à-têtes not meant for my head and pick up contemporary conversational gambits. Larry arrived with my cocktail l’aviation just as a short man, ash pale with black eye shadow, walked past me to greet similarly fashionable friends at a larger table with one-armed hugs. Not a lot of people were wearing jackets and even fewer sported a tie. Feeling self-conscious, I resolved to tone it down for my dinner with Wendy. A navy yachting jacket would work and maybe I could forgo the tie. Maybe.
A woman approached, interrupting an internal monologue on the importance of accessorising a gentleman’s wardrobe with an appropriate tie. She was too tall to be called short and not tall enough to be memorable on account of her height. Understated makeup and minimal jewellery kept my attention on her high cheekbones and layered shiny black hair. Like me, her attire was a little formal by the standards of the now. A lawyer or some other professional. Inviting her to join me, I signalled for the waiter and asked what she would like. She clarified that she wasn’t here for drinks. “On the clock,” she explained.
I wasn’t so out of touch that I didn’t understand. “My apologies. I thought you were a lawyer.”
She laughed, well half a laugh. “Hard to tell the difference most days.” She hadn’t taken a seat but she hadn’t walked away either.
Larry was hovering. Whatever the waiter thought of a hooker soliciting business in his prestigious establishment he kept it to himself. It was awkward but I wanted someone to talk to, so I invited her to join me.
“Take a seat. Please.”
We ordered drinks and exchanged names. I was pretty sure Jessie was lying but couldn’t complain without being a hypocrite. As we chatted, there was a wariness in Jessie’s smile as though she sensed something was off about me.
Thoughts of getting a hotel room were dismissed in favour of the comforts of home. According to Jessie it was the customer’s choice so I gave the taxi driver my address.
The neighbour’s dog started howling before the lift doors opened on my floor. I could live, if you’ll pardon the expression, with the wretched graveyard tabby hissing at me but the schnauzer just wouldn’t shut up. It was like my own personal poltergeist, announcing my presence night and day. The beast’s owners weren’t too happy and were spending a fortune on obedience lessons, dog therapy and noise cancelling headphones. I’d ordered some of the latter myself but they were all wireless these days and I hadn’t figured out how to connect them. Perhaps Jessie could include tech support in her customer service plan.
Mrs Schnauzer apologised for her pet. “I’m sorry, Marcus. Harley’s not normally like this.”
There was a question amidst the lie but I was pretty sure Mrs Schnauzer would prefer not to know. I gave her a smile to show I wasn’t upset while she wrestled the pint-sized Hell Hound into the lift.
The lift doors closed behind me, cutting off the wailing while I fumbled for my keys.
Chez Marcus was a large, recently decorated Mid-Levels apartment. Jessie blinked when I paid up front and raised an eyebrow when I counted out the brown bank notes. I wondered what I was doing wrong. If she wanted payment in Bitcoin I couldn’t deliver. Covering my uncertainty I turned to my vintage Dual turntable with the huge collection of vinyl arranged by year in the wall racks built around it. I asked if she preferred Sinatra or Billie Holiday. “Can’t go wrong with either,” I said but got neither as Jessie was already loosening my tie.
Her nose wrinkled when she lifted her face to kiss me. I’d have to invest in mouth wash when date night rolled around. “Sorry. Which flavour would you prefer?”
“Breath mints? Cherry is good.” I suspected the smile was for the implicit promise of repeat business rather than my empty gallantry. We were both a little drunk which smoothed over the awkwardness (on my part) of bedding a stranger.
Afterwards Jessie placed one hand on my chest. “No heart beat.”
I could feel her heart racing. Her muscles tensed but she didn’t pull away.
“Does it bother you? It should.”
Jessie made no move to leave. “Most of the guys I go with are stiffs. The girls too.”
I was still confused over when it was acceptable to call women girls. I would ask her about that later, if there was a later.
She was only just getting started with the questions. “Do you do this often?”
“Not since I was married.”
She lifted her head to look at me.
I explained that my wife had died two more husbands, several lovers and three decades after my own demise.
She relaxed a little bit. “How long have you been like this?”
I confessed to passing away in 1966.
“Sixty years? You’ve been dead sixty years!”
“Well, yes and no.” My mortal life might have ended then but I didn’t. Disentangling myself from Jessie and the cotton sheets, I brought one of my photo albums back to the bed. We flicked through the yellowing pages and I told her the story of my life and my death. Therapy could come in surprising forms.
“What do you miss most?”
There were so many answers to that question.
Conversations that weren’t tedious by repetition or punctuated with selfies and texts. A better time when I could smoke a cigar and people thought it fashionable rather than repellent. When I could enjoy the spice-and-leather smoke sandpapering my throat and lingering on my lounge suit. How long since I’d been to a decent cigar bar, smoked Cohibas and imbued Macallan 12 Year Double Cask until the small hours? Arturo Fuente Don Carlos were well represented in my humidor. Some nights I’d sit on the balcony, single malt by my elbow and stogie in hand and gaze at the stars until the dawn chased them away.
Instead of whining about the simple pleasures, I said nothing until Jessie asked if I did Halloween. She smiled showing her dimples so I humoured her. It was the one night I didn’t have to worry about being outed. Finally something to thank the Americans for. When Hong Kong had got into the swing of things, I’d gone zombie. Did the makeup and everything. But just once. The faux rotting flesh in the mirror was my nightmare – the terror that my mostly passable body would start falling apart. Vampires had been my monster of choice since then.
Perhaps sensing allhollowtide wasn’t a good subject, Jessie was quiet for a while. When I didn’t speak, she ventured again. “You must have led an interesting life? Being around for so long?”
That was true – between the thirty-one years of my life and the fifty-seven years of my death I had more memories than most.
I’d been on the streets for the Double Ten riots 雙十暴動 in 1956. The fun had started in Tsuen Wan and spread down the Kowloon Peninsula to Nathan Road. Throwing rocks had been exciting but I couldn’t for the death of me remember which side I’d been on. The jeweller whose window I’d smashed probably didn’t care. That was the time I’d felt most alive. Being on the streets when things were happening.
I went on a bit about the Hong Kong of my living years. But my life hadn’t been that interesting (career, marriage, children and drinking). After talking about seeing the Beetles (minus Ringo) in 1964, I ran out of things to say.
“Do you still have a job?”
Not because I needed the money but because I needed the company. It’s hard to make friends when you get past a certain age. Even harder when breathing is strictly for appearances. The people I felt least uncomfortable with were local writers and a poetry group. Being different didn’t matter, albeit within limits.
I’d once had a corner office in Swire House which had been pulled down and rebuilt in glass and blandness. But I couldn’t keep up with … well just about anything. Archives were the one thing I’d been sufficiently good at to cling to an unnecessary conventional pay cheque a little longer. I knew where everything used to be. On shelves. In vaults. Where things were now? In bits and bytes in the cloud. When my skill set had gone the way of farriers in the age of the automobile I’d quit, only to be bored and lonely.
Now my office was a barstool at the FCC. I could write my column and imagine myself being part of the conversations going on around me.
“I write a weekly piece for the SCMP about yesteryears. Called I Was There – it’s a nod to the truth in a post-truth world.” As a boy, I’d seen the Japanese flag raised over Government House and the Japanese flag being pulled down and I’d written about the emotions I’d felt. I wrote about a lot of things, some of which I’d actually seen and done. Some of which I’d read about. Some of which had actually happened.
“What did you die of? Or is that a rude question?” Jessie didn’t look up from putting her details into my phone. Touch screen was a classic dead people problem – I had to rub my forefinger against my trousers to warm it up before I could do anything.
Her question wasn’t so much rude as awkward. I didn’t know much about protocol in this area.
She waited. Listening was an important part of her job.
“Stupidity, I suppose. Got drunk after a show at the Sun Ya Hotel in Kowloon. Went dancing on the stage and twirled right off the edge. Broke my neck. I remember my wife laughing her head off while she had her hand in my boss’s trousers and that was the end.”
Haunting my widow had been the first thing I’d done after I’d surfaced. She’d screamed when I’d walked in on her in bed with said boss. He’d had a coronary and she’d hit the bottle. It hadn’t made me any happier about the whole business.
When Jessie asked me whether I did this often, I shook my head. “It’s been a while.”
“Have you dated living people before? I’m not the first am I?”
So I told her about Heather. Dating was usually a nightmare. For them. Being old I’d had longer to practise the pickup lines and knew when to make a hasty exit. Problem was, I was only firing blanks these days. Kinda made the whole exercise a bit pointless. Until I’d met Heather. Red hair and Goth as fuck. She did it for me. Introduced me to modern music like the aptly named Cure and even more aptly named Joy Division. Even liked me cold. She preferred it that way. Aircon was great. A dead lover she could spoon with was the best. But she’d moved on. Rather, she’d grown up, let the hair dye fade away and allowed most of the facial piercings to close. She’d become respectable. Talked about buying a bar. She’d said her goodbyes, given me a hug and got on a plane to Honolulu. I hadn’t seen her again. That had been in the eighties. Heather had been followed by the junk fiasco and that was it. “I haven’t tried dating since.”
“So, next Friday? Plenty of time to give you a refresher course.”
Jessie adjusted my tie. “Let me know how it goes.” She’d been here every night since she’d picked me up in the Captain’s Bar but now all her stuff was in a small suitcase by the door. She’d opened the windows to let her scent dissipate, wiped the bathroom sink for stray hairs and bribed my part time domestic to keep her mouth shut. No reminder of Jessie’s presence would be left behind to call for an explanation if Wendy decided dessert was too soon to say good night. I handed Jessie a wad of banknotes as we separated at the taxi stand.
It wasn’t until I was seated in the Lobster Bar that I realised I’d no idea how much cash I’d handed over for Jessie’s tuition and tech support. It wasn’t important.
I was early, because that was how my mother raised me. At least, that’s how she would have raised me if she hadn’t passed away when I was a child. Never keep a woman waiting. The wait was a short one. Rising to my feet we exchanged pecks on the cheek. Making sure I didn’t smudge her makeup or breathe decay over her. A cherry-flavoured breath mint every forty-two minutes did the trick though it ruined the taste of the martini (dry with a twist). I provided symbolic but unnecessary assistance by holding her chair while she sat. Some women appreciated the gesture and others were offended by it. And you never knew until after the event. Wendy was indifferent.
Bubbles and small talk. Avoid politics unless she brings it up and then agree with her. Agree with everything she says. Be a ‘yes’ man. Be someone she thinks she can control. All the little reminders Jessie had drummed into me during our week together. I’d draw a line at pairing Cristal with beef vindaloo if it ever came to that but otherwise followed Jessie’s instructions. I was prepared. I’d read the newspapers in print (I feared for the day when everything was on-line only and Jessie wasn’t around) and I’d talked with my posse at the cemetery again.
The waiter took our orders. I had to eat lightly. Fermentation in the digestive tract took longer than it should. Per Jessie’s suggestion I pretended to be a vegetarian to win a few points but was shot down when she ordered the ribeye rare and a bottle of Margaret River shiraz.
I asked Wendy about her career (an actual lawyer) and told her about mine (journalist). Wendy complained about being thirty-two, divorced and her fragile hope of being made an income partner next year. She was a year older than I’d been when I died but it felt like I was robbing the cradle. Being a hack for the fourth estate didn’t impress because the money was low. I excused myself as best I could. “I suppose I’m fortunate that I don’t need the income so I can throw myself into something I enjoy.” I wasn’t sure if she heard me. When she wasn’t checking one or the other of her phones, Wendy was more interested in talking about herself and her career prospects than listening to me. “Can’t have kids until after I’m made up or it’ll never happen.”
I could have told her that was a non-issue but there was no point in interrupting her typing another e-mail that was more meaningful than the man who’d gone to the trouble of selecting his best Hermes tie for the occasion.
It went well in the sense that it didn’t go badly. But it didn’t go anywhere either. I put Wendy in a taxi, warmed up my finger and called Jessie to report.
“How did it go?” she asked.
I told her there hadn’t been any screaming.
“So will you call her?”
“I don’t think I need to.”
About the author: Simon Berry is a recovering lawyer who calls Hong Kong home. His short stories have been published in CultureCult, Mystery Tribune, MetaStellar, The Chamber and numerous Hong Kong Writers Circle Anthologies. His novels A Wasting Asset, and A Debt To Pay are available on Amazon. He is working on his next novel.
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