The night I got lost on the way home from China- part four

“…. Your dead friends meet.” E.N.

Most of us live our lives in cycles that run from the novel to the routine like the eddies in a fast flowing stream. We try something new, scare ourselves a little, and then pull in our familiar things around us like a nest.  A process continually moving from intimidation to boredom, the cynic might say. Then we do it again.

I fell into a pleasant routine.  Most days Alan went to work and I went out exploring.  Some evenings we ate at home, some we went out for dinner.  In what passed for the fancy restaurants of Lishu they would bring a fresh pack of cigarettes to your table when you sat down and open it up with a flourish like they were opening a good bottle of wine, the cigarettes unfolding like a blossom opening- and the cigarettes were free and kept coming. At the time I genuinely found this to be impossibly sophisticated, even when I was sitting at a plastic table on a lino covered floor in a not too clean room with bare concrete walls.

Things were good.

Tom, the other VSO volunteer working at the university, and Alan organised a Halloween celebration for the students. They had to make it somewhat educational but they also made it fun. It was interesting to see the students getting so much enjoyment out of bobbing for apples. They seemed so young but they but they had lived lives harder and more bare than most of us know. They appreciated the silly, childish things because they had too few of them and too much real life and responsibility. They lived in Spartan dormitories with no running water and most of them had very little opportunity to see their families. They took any chance to have some fun with an enthusiasm that was infectious. I also got the impression that they liked the way Alan and Tom treated them. They spoke to the students like they were adults, while the university authorities tended to deal with the students as if they were still school children- very little mixing of the sexes, no opinions necessary. Alan was always inclined to defend China against verbal attack back home but that was more to do with challenging the ignorance and arrogance he found coming from the West than any naive belief in the Chinese system- “Socialism with Chinese characteristics.” He was very aware of how easy it was for someone to be sent to “dig a swimming pool in Tibet” without warning.  Alan just didn’t like the idea of a one-sided conversation.

When the time was approaching for me to leave I got Alan to walk with me to the top of one of the mountains that surrounded the town. Through the shanties, up the slopes past the cave houses (where the sight of us frightened one poor family inside until the father bravely came froth to greet us and ascertain if we came in peace), past a graveyard and a temple to a place at the top where you could stand on a path that seemed to run through the clouds endlessly in both directions. For a moment you felt like you could strike out and walk through China for at least the rest of your life.

It wasn’t easy to get Alan up there, but it was worth it. We talked up there. About anything and everything, about a future we only had the vaguest ideas about. I knew I was off to Japan to work for a year in a few months and he would be home in Ireland before than. We’d meet up again on home turf by 2004. Maybe Cabra Park would be looking for residents.

I took the bus back to Beijing, completely the opposite of the experience of the train journey.  On a long train journey you get to romance the country, on a long bus journey you worry about the toilet breaks and that strange dead smell.

I had a couple of days to wait before my flight. I stayed in an international tourist type hostel this time and it made be long for the migrant workers’ establishment. I watched and talked to the other ‘travellers’ and found them rather self-regarding and pointless. Of course what really bothered me was that I was obviously no different from any of them. The day I left Beijing I was glad to be leaving, to be moving, following the steps and stages of travel, on my own.  The bus to the airport, no more getting ripped off by taxi drivers, paying the departure tax first so I didn’t get sent back to do so later, the routine of getting through security, finding the gate, getting into the rhythm of the machine, was all comforting.

I thought about Alan as I went, wishing him luck til our paths crossed again.

The plane got into Amsterdam in the late evening. My tickets had been very cheap and here was where I paid the price. My connecting flight didn’t leave until the next morning and the airport didn’t stay open all night. I was going to have to go into the city to stay the few hours, get some sleep somewhere cheap and get back again for the plane pretty early next day. Not a problem for the intrepid wanderer you might think but destiny had a small adventure planned- at least that makes what followed a bit more grand sounding.

I don’t know to this day if I got on the wrong train or just stayed on too long but very soon I realised that I should have been in downtown Amsterdam by now but looking out the window I was passing little suburban towns. This really got to me. I was tired and on the way home. I didn’t want to be in Amsterdam or anywhere else that wasn’t the plane to Dublin at that point and I didn’t feel that I had the physical or psychological resources to deal with this situation right then. Still, that’s what heroes are made of right?

This hero sat procrastinating for a while. Should I stay on a stop or two more, maybe the airport was further outside the city than I supposed. Should I get off at the next opportunity, the airport couldn’t be that far from the city. Well, in the end I just had to do something and the only something I could do was get off the train. I did.

I was in a small suburban station and it was about ten o’clock at night. There was no one around. I found a timetable I could read and figured out that I could get a train back to the airport in the early morning. I still couldn’t figure out the name of the place I was in though. For a long time after I told people it was Rotterdam and they looked at me funny. Apparently that didn’t make any sense. It made some kind of sense to me though, like the title of a ballad. I went for a walk and found the main street. It seemed to be a town about the size of Bray. I found a place to stay, a small hotel that was very expensive- I couldn’t help but let it bother me that one night there was costing me as much as all the money I spent in China.

I should have gone to bed but instead I thought I’d have a drink. I like sitting at bars in foreign countries and I used to like smoking there. This bar was dark wood and I especially like that. I had a lager and spoke a little to the barman and then decided to go for a walk before bed. This turned out to be a mistake.

I was enjoying that peaceful feeling you can get walking about after just the one drink, looking around, not thinking about anything much and enjoying your own company- it’s the kind of feeling you get with a gentle acid trip but, in truth, far superior -when some men who were fixing a shop sign on the other side of the road started shouting across at me. I looked over there in a friendly, distracted sort of way. Then things took a turn with which I was all too familiar and for which, I admit, I was not in the mood.

Sometimes they catch you off guard, they do and those are the times you get most angry. There were three of them, big in a superficial sort of way, which means they had worked the muscles that show, the biceps, pectorals etc. in the gym and they were tanned. They were shouting something about “Jack the Muss” or something. I hadn’t seen the movie “Once were warriors” at that time and I had no idea what they meant specifically but I understood the tone, the body language, the fact that trouble was a foot.

I smiled in a tolerant way and kept moving. They crossed the street. It’s important to understand that what happened next wasn’t a fight. A fight can be a good thing, or a bad one. It can be a contest or a pointless extension of ego and insecurity. When three make it impossible for another one to get out without a beating or doing something to stop or minimise that beating, it’s not a fight, it’s a crime and if you start that process you have to accept the outcome.

I got back to the hotel place not too damaged but it brought back memories.  The last time something like that had happened to me, no I don’t like that cos I’ve never been anyone’s victim, had happened in my life, was off Geraldine Street in Phisboro. Four men in a car had jumped me. The first punch broke my jaw. I still have problems with it sitting here writing this now. I took that guy away from the others into a garden. I knocked on a door and hoped someone would open, call the police, but no one did. I threw him on the ground and hit him. His companions pulled me off and we fought. I got by far the fuzzy end of that lollipop but they quit first, got in their car and drove off. I chased that fucking car down the street screaming at them that nothing had even started yet. They didn’t stop. They didn’t have the guts for what they started but my jaw is still dodgy on the left side.

I went back to the hotel and bed but, over the following hours, the adrenaline slowly left my system and memory, that equally potent and tricky hormone, started to take its place. Now’s not the time to talk about the detail of those memories but they caught me up and caused me trouble for some time afterwards.

Months later I was in Japan. Specifically, I was sleeping on a mattress on a dark wood floor in a dark flat in Ichikawa-shi, – one of endless small towns swallowed in the vast expanding gut that is Tokyo city.  At that point I had a small table, a table-lamp, a second hand copy of ‘The Tailor of Panama’ and a blue mobile phone which was the most ahead of its time piece of technology I’ve ever owned. Japan was way ahead in those matters. It must have been the 24th of March and I was already used to minor earthquakes.

The news of Alan’s death came in the form of a text message from our mutual friend Tony.  I looked for confirmation from Tony and contacted my parents too. Found out it was true- Alan had died in a fire in his flat in China.

I went for a walk.

Go for a walk around where you live in circumstances like this and you’ll instantly know if you’re living in the right place. I was definitely not. I wanted out of Tokyo. I went down to the railway tracks, a place I have always felt comfortable in any city, sat there and cried.  Then I went back to the flat, cleaned up and went to work.

That night I spoke some more with my parents. I realised that I wasn’t going to be able to afford to get home for the funeral. These little things can make you bitter. I imagined Alan dying in a blaze but I later found out that the fire was small. It had simply burned material on his couch which released poisonous gas into the room and had suffocated him. Next time you hear someone talk about ‘health and safety gone mad’ think of that and be grateful that people’s lives are considered worth protecting from pointless and avoidable death.

Now, I am ashamed that I didn’t make it to his funeral. My parents went and stood for me. The service had quotes from Jesus (‘store up not riches on earth’. Alan’s Mother told me that she had worried about him not saving up for the future. When he died he had about a tenner in the bank and owed nobody anything.) and Mao- Alan would have like that sense of mischief.

Alan raised some money for the university in Lishu through the school in his hometown of Castlepollard and in return the students made banners with decorative Chinese characters to be hung in the school.  I hope they’re still there; I like the idea of axioms from Mao’s ‘Little Red Book’, for that was what they were, hanging from the walls of a Catholic School in Ireland.  I like the idea of two obscene ideologies being used to represent something as decent as human fellow feeling and cooperation across cultural and economic divides. Alan spent his life working for such straightforward, important and decent things and I’m proud to have known him. He was also a good friend, a great man to spend time with and the world, and my little part of it, is the poorer for his absence.

Everything in this series of posts entitled ‘The night I got lost on the way home from China’ makes up a true story. It’s important to understand, however, that both parts of the phrase ‘true story’ are equally important. I’ve told things as I remember them and memory and imagination are intimately linked. Any errors of fact are entirely my fault. Alan Ball was a bigger and more complex person than my stories can express of course. Other people will have other stories to tell. He made my story that much more rich and interesting and for that as well as his warmth, kindness, wisdom and wit I’ll always be grateful.