Now with added visual aid

Originally posted on Some Short Stories:

dad HK_1-2

I’m not sure if it was the bacon or dad’s aftershave I smelled first or if I heard his voice before either. ‘Come on, time to get up, washed and dressed. I’ve got a cowboy’s breakfast on the go for you.’

Outside my window the distant neons were off and there were no cars or people moving around to add anything to the concrete urban neighbourhood. I had never been up before Kowloon was awake and it felt very strange as the greyness of early light made everything lack colour.

I got to the table as dad brought out two plates of food which he placed on folded newspapers next to the mugs of milky coffee already there. We smiled at each other and got stuck in to the Cowboy’s Breakfast. Bacon and eggs with baked beans that had been cooked in the bacon fat and a slice of bread…

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The One Armed Bandit

The One Armed Bandit


It had been drizzling all day, and the afternoon turned into the evening without anyone noticing. Inside, the pub made a nice warm and dry change to the outside. We ordered our pints and sat near the radiator and the pool table where a couple of lads in Saints tops knocked the balls around.

“Bloody weather!” The Judge said, keeping his eyes on the game. “Rain stops play, Al. No work means no money. Thanks for the beer. You alright for the next shout?” All the time he watched the balls whiz around the baize and disappear in the pockets.

“No worries judge. I work indoors and always get paid.”

“That’s right you always do. Got any baccy?”

I passed over a pouch of Old Holborn and some papers. He made a fat one and I compensated for it with a skinny. We lit up and watched the last few balls disappear.

“Do you want to take these two?”

I had watched them play and knew I could.

“Sure. How do you want to play it?”

“Play one and lose then play another for the kill.”

The last ball went down and I approached the Saints fan who won.

“Fancy another?”

“Oh no. Thanks mate but we only came in for one game and a pint now we got to go home, see.”

“Oh come on just one game.”

“No sorry, mate. We gotta go, see.”

They put on their coats, drank the last dregs and went outside.

I looked at The Judge. He wasn’t happy. “Fancy a game anyway?”

“Yeah, alright. It’ll keep us in practice for the next one.”

We played a couple of games and I fed twenties in to the mechanism and shoved it hard to release the balls that thundered down to the end of the table. It was one game each and I racked up the balls for the decider, won the toss and broke. I was playing OK but The Judge was getting better and sinking everything. There were only three yellows left and I had only potted one red when the door opened and mixed a little of the cold damp outside air with the comfortable warm and smokey pub atmosphere. Two men walked in and looked around. One had his coat hung pretentiously over his shoulders, or so it seemed. He glanced at us and watched The Judge play a shot and miss. His friend bought the drinks and they sat down and watched us play. Both were well groomed and had short moustaches. After my shot the one with the coat put his money down on the pool table.

“OK if I play the winner?”

“Yes of course.” I said “It will probably be him the way I’m playing tonight.”

“I don’t mind. Either one.”

The Judge loosened his game up and I nearly caught him but then he won. I knew what he was doing.

“This should be a piece of piss.” he said quietly to me.

“What do you mean?”

“Well they’re obviously a pair of arse bandits. Who ever heard of a bandit being good at pool.”

“I thought they looked like army or something.”

We had a side view of The Judge’s opponent as he took of his coat with a swirling motion, like a matador performing with his cape, to reveal a tartan shirt tucked in to cords.

“I told you.” The Judge smirked

His opponent turned around and walked to the pool table. There was something wrong. I got it first then The Judge latched on.

“He’s only got one arm!”

His empty sleeve was precisely folded and pinned just under the armpit.

“I can’t play him. You’ll have to.”

“What do you mean?”

“He’s only got one arm..”

“You said he’s easy to beat because he’s a bandit.”

“I didn’t know about the one arm then.”

“So. He’s a one armed bandit.”

The one armed man looked over at us. “Aren’t you playing?”

“Yes of course he is.” I said.

“Good. How about a wager?”

“Oh I couldn’t do that.”

The barman shouted “Bullshit! You do it all the time.”

“I don’t have any money left.”

“You can owe me” I said

“Great. Then let’s say a nice friendly fiver.” His friend gave a fiver to the barman and I followed suit. I wondered if I’d ever see that blue portrait of the Duke of Wellington again.

The Judge racked up and broke. A yellow went down straight away but he couldn’t get a second. It all looked pretty safe though.

The one armed man walked around the table and looked at all the balls then got out a matchbox and placed it behind the cue ball, rested his cue on it and carefully played a stroke. A red went off two cushions and then sank swiftly into a centre pocket laying the cue ball up for the next pot. It was a beautifully planned and executed break, played with just a matchbox and one arm. He played off cushions when the cue ball was hindered by other balls and played most strokes so that wouldn’t happen. I was mesmerised. The Judge looked the most uncomfortable I’d seen him. I left my tobacco near him and he smoked two rollies. There was only the black for the one armed man to pot. Even I could have potted it with one arm and no matchbox. The Judge was sunk. The Judge squirmed. The Judge was angry. When the black fell in the pocket the man’s friend and the barman applauded. I joined in. The Judge glared at me.

“Oh come on it was a great display.” I took back my smokes and shook the one armed man’s hand, and his friend’s. “Wow. That was amazing.” The Judge turned toward the door putting on his coat and said “Thanks for the game. You coming, Al?” I had no money left to stay in the pub.

“Yeah, sure.”

I never saw the one armed man again.

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A Tattoo In The Snow

No-one will remember that winter as very cold but, as I stood by the paraffin heater in the vintage clothes shop, pretending to browse bowling shirts, I thought I would freeze to death. Outside most of the snow had melted leaving slush lining St Mary Street in the gutters and near the buildings’ walls. I had found the slipperiest part of the pavement and did a weird electrified bop and crashed to the ground. Nobody had seen but I was still blushing. My coat and turned up jeans were cold and wet.

I’d never seen the guy behind the counter before and he’d never seen me. He eyeballed me and must have wondered why the kid with the steaming leg could take so long to choose a shirt. I could have picked one under pressure and walked out but I wasn’t dry or warm enough yet and I needed the money for a tattoo.

I had no idea what. Not many people had them back then. Only servicemen past and present, convicts and hard cases. Dad had five. I wanted one. He had ships, swallows, anchors and other sailor paraphernalia. Later he got his first wife’s name covered and a new rose with mum’s name underneath. I looked around for inspiration. None came. I was getting drier and warmer and more impatient looks so I drifted out in to the cold and walked up the street and slowly around the corner to Zak’s

I looked at the designs in the window and tried to peer over them to see what was going on. I couldn’t. The view was blocked by boards. I saw some drawings I could imagine on my arm and stepped inside.

There was no buzz of needles and the air had a memory of cigarette smoke mixed with an inky smell. The floor was unswept and the furniture basic. On two chairs two men sat with secretive smiles looking at me.

“Good morning”

One of them looked at his watch. “Yep, still is. Just about. What can we do for you young man?”

“I want to get a tattoo. But I’m not sure what.” I noticed a jaguar leering at a girl pinned up next to an eagle. “How much is that one?”

“Fifty quid”

I looked at the eagle again. The men had started talking but I wasn’t paying much attention. I thought I heard the words ‘hospital’ and ‘coma’ but  I wasn’t sure.

A mermaid sat on an anchor and waved to me. Another just lounged on a rock and stared silently.

“…all because of a dirty needle. Poor bastard had to have his arm cut off.” I started listening more intently. “As long as you wipe the needle on your trousers or spit on it. Should be alright.”

“How much are the mermaids?”

Both men were amused at my outburst. That’s what it was, an outburst.

“The mermaids? Twenty five.”

I looked around.

“Listen, nipper, you want to come back when you’re sure you want one?”

“I’m sure. Just don’t know what to get for the first one. I don’t have much money.”

“The basic ones on that wall are cheap.” Zak offered.

The wall was full of scrolls with peoples names. There were blank scrolls and ones with ‘Mum’ and ‘Dad’ and one had the person’s birth and death dates like a tombstone. I thought about the rockabilly ones I had seen. Cats playing double basses, Dixie Flags, Meteors logos, South Coast Rockabillies. They were all way cooler than what Zak had to offer.

I saw a blank scroll I liked and asked the cost.

“Business is slow today. So to you, a fiver.”

I sat in the chair waiting for every pain hell’s dentist had to inflict. Zak made a great play of getting set up. It really was a slow day. He dropped a needle. I looked down at the unswept floor where it lay and saw him fumble for it, eventually picking it up after collecting all sorts of dirt. He slowly put it near the gun and then laughed and threw it back on the floor. The gun was already set up and ready to go. Zak and his friend chortled heartily.

The needle started buzzing and I looked away to start with. The pain wasn’t as bad as I had thought, kind of a sting more than anything and I looked at what was happening. It was strange to watch the buzz turn in to a black outline.

“The black hurts the most” he said, “how are you doing?”


“Do you know what name you’d like written, or shall we leave it blank?”

I imagined walking around with a blank scroll. Like a hopeful loser waiting for Miss Right.



“Yes. Mother” I figured that would be a classic tattoo and appease mum if she ever found out.

Zak was all seriousness and professional while he worked. I soon started to not think about it being done. I thought about what dad might have said. I once asked about his tattoos. The oldest ones had become blurred and the writing only just legible. “I was young and stupid” he had said. But then not long after he got the rose with Angela written underneath. Not long afterwards he had died.

I looked at the progress my tattoo was making. The excess ink was wiped away to show the design was just about complete. The needle started again. It began scribing an M.

What would dad have said. Maybe that I was young and stupid. It was one thing for a sailor to get tattooed but anyone else just looked like a con. Or a hard case. Maybe if I had been built like my dad I would have started brawling in pubs and bars. Maybe that was an old sailor thing too.

“The colour now. It hurts less than the black.”

“How come?”

“A different needle”

I looked at the colour needle. It was wider with two points. Zak worked on the green.

I thought about dad’s. They were black with no colour. I don’t remember ever seeing any colours on them. They must have worn out quickly or always been plain black.

My favourite was the Cutty Sark style ship with HOMEWARD BOUND written underneath.

Once, when we were on a family holiday in Thailand, a shrivelled and salty brown old man sat on the pavement and waved at dad and pointed to his tattoos. “Me too” he had said toothlessly and rolled up his sleeves to reveal designs that had shrunk and distorted beyond recognition decades ago. I looked down and saw his legs had the same type of markings.

I looked down at my nearly complete tattoo and wondered what it would look like when I was sixty five, or even forty. Dad hadn’t made sixty.

I wondered what he would have said to me as I walked home in the melting snow with my new tattoo. I think he would have understood.

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Goblets and The Riverside. A Rockabilly’s Tale

You know, in those days, Goblets was much, much cooler but then again so was I and so were my friends and the people we knew. Rockabilly refugees from pubs that once throbbed with the sounds of double basses being slapped. The Marsh and The Albert, like bookends, by the Itchen Bridge. The pubs flooded with quiffs that spilled out on to the surrounding pavements and up the stairs of the newly opened bridge, young rockabillies drinking, smoking and talking music and classic cars and arranging visits to the all-nighters in Bournemouth.

But those glory years were so short and the pubs changed hands and we few who had yet to get married and settle down now mixed with punks who still believed it was 1978 and greboes who wanted a change from the biker and metal pubs and we all crowded down the stairs. Everyone was alternative and no-one was a trendy or a casual or a soul-boy, for they had their own pubs. There were older people who dug jazz and came to listen to Monty Worlock play on Wednesdays. They too were alternative.

It was on one of the jazz nights when someone I didn’t know said to me “I’ve drunk the tequila with the worm in”

At first I wasn’t sure if I had heard it right or where the voice had come from. “It’s supposed to have hallucinogenic powers.”

I looked at his jet black hair pomaded perfectly and his less than sober face half contorted with what I think may have been a grin or just an all knowing grimace given power by alcohol fueled bullshit. I said nothing and just let him talk. “I was in Mexico in a diner eating chili. Could have been beef but most likely donkey or even dog. This big bastard slaps me on the back and calls me Ingles and hombre and shows me the bottle of tequila with this worm in it”

“What kind of worm?”


“What kind of worm? Like an earthworm?”

“Are you taking the piss?”

Actually, I was, but I answered “No, man. The only one I saw was in a cartoon. A little drunk worm in a bottle.”

“Christ’s sake. Like a bloody big, big maggot. You need to see the world and live. Anyway I was in this bar eating guacamole. This big, bloody great Mexican dared me to eat the thing. The bloody worm.”

“No shit. Did you?”

“I never back out of a dare. Never. I chewed the little bastard and swallowed it and washed it down with the tequila. No salt. No lime. Nothing. Straight out the bottle. Next thing I’m on the pool table trying to shag the pockets and seeing cues turn in to snakes and the guacamole turned into a vat of boiling puke and the mexican looked like Carmen bloody Miranda. Tutti frutti hat, the bloody works. I was freaked. Shit! Never again. Never.”

He finished his bottle of Grolsch and ordered another and a tequila. The shot glass wasn’t full for long and slammed on the bar so hard that everyone at the bar stopped talking and laughing and looked at him and then laughed and talked about him. After a swig of Grolsch he swayed and pouted a lip.

A fresh din came down the stairs and some of my friends joined me and eyeballed the drunken adventurer and gave me ‘who’s this?’ looks.

After some drinking and fat chewing we swung over the Itchen bridge on a city bus and joined the throngs who ventured out on a work night to dig the rhythm and blues disco at the Riverside club. The old chain ferry converted in to a nightclub. Not long after, in the height of summer, on a warm humid night, someone left an electric bar fire on full and sent  the place to ashes. It was an alternative place and when it went so did most of the scene. But that was yet to happen and as we poured in the place, me, The Judge, Kenny the Killer, Vic with the Hovis sized quiff, jumping John the human pylon, big Bob, and an army of others it was even cooler than us or Goblets and folks of both gender filled the dance floor and the bars. There were the guys from rockin band Get Smart and over there a couple of the old Swing Easy group. People dispersed and regrouped and drank and beaucoup fat was chewed and gentle bullshit was dispensed.

I found a pew on the stairs that led nowhere and eyeballed the talent and the general melee. The dance floor swayed and bopped to the music and laughter came from every corner. Well nearly every corner.

A lone figure drank in the shadows and then, when the DJ played Louis Jordan’s Saturday Night Fish Fry, he emerged. Tanned and athletic looking but all the time watching. Watching everyone. Watching for what, I didn’t know. Not then I didn’t. I did later, but not then. And then he was on the dance floor doing the actions to the words. Especially when Louis Jordan sang about fists flying. Like a man possessed. I looked around the room. It seemed like I was the only one who had noticed this crazy dancer. I continued watching him and then, when the next song came on I looked around the room.

There was a girl by the bar I thought I knew but wanted to know better. I took a drink for courage and was going to set off when his face was right in mine.

“You taking the piss?” the crazy dancer now had crazy eyes about six inches away from mine.


“You taking the piss? You were watching me.”

“I watched everyone. It’s an interesting pl..”

His fist hit me hard and quick and for a moment there were many colours flashing and my focus went west and my face went east. I looked up and he was gone. Blood was dripping down my shirt.

The mens was way too bright and just as busy. I got a few fish eyes and some whispers and then someone asked “who did that?”

“I don’t know. He looked either tanned or mixed race or something. In a white T-shirt.”

“Oh, shit.” He left in double time.

I was still trying to stop the flow from my nose when two giant, muscled rockabillies I knew on nodding terms came in. I nodded to their reflections in the mirror. They ignored it and took to the urinals, now and then looking over their shoulders at me. In walked the crazy man.

“You want to start something?”

The muscle-billies watched me and stood by the door.

“No. I just want to have a good time.”

Cue punch to the stomach. If I was a fighter I would have ignored it, thrown punches and waited to see what the muscle-billies would have done. As it was I pretended it hurt more than it did. Doubled over, my nose started bleeding again.The procession walked out with meaning.

Back in the dark of the main part of the club, the crowd still shunned the limits put on them by the morning that waited. I looked around and found the Judge getting personal with a girl in denims and a ponytail.

“Jesus! What happened to you?”

I gave him the news of my bruise and he was keen on the idea of search and destroy and mete out justice. I told him we’d play it cool and I just wanted to go home and sleep.

Outside, Kenny the Killer served up a pavement pizza and gave us the thumbs up.

All-in-all, I guess it was a good night

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A Midlife Teacake

They had been together a long time but were no longer a couple. He wondered why they still went places and he knew that, really, it was so he could feel better about breaking her heart and if they stopped going places it would break all over again and he couldn’t do that. She was the only one he had loved and still loved in many ways but not the way that make two people a couple.

She still made him laugh and chatted easily about everything though sometimes his mind drifted off while she talked about people he had never and would never meet. She was doing that now. He read a tea-room menu which she hadn’t even looked at and decided on a toasted teacake. She would probably want the same.

‘It’s such a cosy place here’ she said.

‘It’s a lovely place to sit in the warm and recharge.’

The waitress came over to take the order. Her deeply tanned skin, aqua eyes and black hair complimented her perfect teeth and curvaceous body. When she smiled it made his heart palpate. ‘this will all be spoiled when she speaks’ he thought.

‘Good afternoon, I’m Lisa. What can I get for you?’, Lisa asked with a slightly husky, intelligent voice that came from somewhere west of Hampshire.

He smiled and gave the order and as usual his companion questioned Lisa in such a charming way that the two were soon friends. He watched on and felt a strange sadness grow. A sadness that he had suppressed for a long time, but Lisa’s beauty had magnified it and now it couldn’t be ignored, all he could do was study it enlarged before him. And there it was. He would never be with someone as young and beautiful as Lisa ever again. Not on natural terms. Terms without payment either as blatant as prostitution or surreptitious as being a sugar daddy. He was too old.

She talked with Lisa a little more and then, when Lisa walked to the counter leaving behind a trail of femininity and perfume, she told him how pretty Lisa was.

‘Yes, she’s breathtaking.’

‘Well I don’t know about breathtaking.’ She then went on to tell him about someone she met on the bus and he was back thinking about Lisa who popped in and out of his periphery. He had to concede that rightly or wrongly he had always considered the Lisas of this world out of his reach. He had been this woman’s faithful lover for a very long time and now he was her good friend. There was no time or place for other women. If a Lisa type had liked him he would never have known. He would never know. He was totally out of practice with women. He couldn’t imagine being with any other woman, never mind someone like Lisa. He guessed there might still be some hope, after all, when they had first met, twenty years ago, he had been in his twenties and she was twice his age.

Lisa came with their food and smiled and said ‘Enjoy’.

As he buttered his teacake he realised he was dreaming to think of capturing a young woman’s heart. He heaped on the jam and listened to his friend talk about an operation she had read about in the Telegraph.

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The Triad Who Loved His Mum – Another Hong Kong Story

Dad liked to unwind when he came home from work. A shower, talcing, and fresh clothes followed by fifteen to twenty minutes alone with his thoughts on the balcony, drink in hand. The drink was never hard liquor or even beer. He either had a mug of tea or coffee both in their hot and iced forms.

One hot and sticky Hong Kong evening I asked to taste his iced coffee. I had been standing silently next to him in imitation of his unwinding stance, leaning against the rail. On the pavement four floors below people were walking around trying to cool off. There were lights on in many of the flats that faced us on the other side of the road and from all around were the smells of cooking and night time noises. The loudest noise was the sound of the Mahjong game three flights up – the almighty shuffle preceding every game and the laughter and bragging and analysis that followed. Dad flicked his cigarette stub over the balcony and into the thick, sticky air. The red glow described an arc and then disappeared. He handed me the big beer mug with the iced coffee and I took a swig. Its bitter and cold taste was revolting.

“Don’t you like it?”

“No. Its gross!”

“Gross? You don’t have a poker face do you? Don’t ever play games for money, you’ll end up broke. Hear those noisy sods three flights up? The wealthiest of them probably never pulls a face. You screwed yours up like a chicken’s backside.”

I laughed my very loud laugh and dad laughed also. A cockroach flew past below us. It was huge. “Did you see the size of that cockroach?”

“Cockroach? More like a Spitfire. Come on lets go inside, dinner’s ready.”

“Do the men upstairs gamble on their games?”

“One thing you can rely on is that when Chinese men play games, they’ll end up gambling. In the market near my office, they gamble on orange pips.”

He let this hang knowing I’d ask what he meant. “On orange pips?”

“What they do is take bets on how many pips an orange will have. They then cut the orange open and count the pips.”

“What if no-one guesses right.”

“Then the kitty builds. Someone will guess sooner or later. Oranges only have a certain number of pips.”

“Do you ever bet on pips, dad?”

“No, son. Look, the dinners on the table and your mums standing there looking at us.”

We went into the air conditioned flat and closed the balcony doors.

We started eating dad told us of something that had happened at his work. His Portacabin office was in the centre of the wide Waterloo Road and he could look out his window and see the busy traffic, and the bustle of Kowloon life. That day he had just finished a report and was looking out his window when he saw a little old Chinese lady trying to cross the road. No one was stopping for. No one would. Dad got out of his office and walked in to the road with his arm outstretched like a traffic cop. A few drivers honked and cursed him but he stood his ground and beckoned the old lady over. She crossed to the middle of the road and he asked if she was alright to continue. She didn’t understand but pointed to the other side of the road. He did the same again stopping the traffic going the other way,  to curses and shaking fists. She thanked him by nodding and smiling. He was about to go back to his office when he heard someone shouting, “Excuse me. Hello!” A man, beautifully dressed in a tailored suit and Italian shoes, waved at him. Dad shook the mans manicured hand and noted his immaculately coiffed hair and the way he dripped gold and wealth and taste. “I just want to thank you for helping my mother cross the road.” he said and smiled to show a couple of gold teeth. “That’s OK. Don’t mention it.”  They exchanged pleasantries and the man went on his way.

“This was the kind of man who doesn’t pull funny faces when he plays games for money.” Dad said looking at me. I wondered if the whole point of his story was to tell me about keeping a straight face.

When he got back to his office my dad’s assistants looked a bit panicked and asked what the man in the suit wanted. He told them what had happened. “But Joe, don’t you know who he is?”

“No, who?”

“He’s the boss of the local Triads. You’ve got a good ally there”

We all looked at dad amazed. In my eyes he had gained an extra hundred points on the coolometer just by acting like a boy scout. I told my friends at school but they didn’t believe me.

A month later he came home and skipped the unwinding and poured himself a glass of brandy. “What’s the matter Joe?” mum asked.

Dad had gone into the market to do some fruit shopping and watch some pip betting when suddenly there were shouts and screams and tables and stalls flying and Chinese profanities and knives and hatchets flying and men crying and bleeding and oranges being stamped into the ground and faces being kicked and eyes swelling and the stall he was next to got tipped over and it was then he unfroze and started to try to move to safety. None was available and so he and a couple of others ducked behind an overturned stall that had once sold rice. A young boy and his sister cowered near to my dad and he looked at them thinking I’m just as scared as they are.  Then out of the blue came a pocket of calm. The fighting was a little further away. My dad looked out from behind the stall and saw it continue what would have been two stalls down. He felt a hand on his shoulder and got ready for his first fight in thirty years when he was a brawling stoker fighting in nearly every port they docked. “Hey relax!” Came the voice, totally calm and oblivious to the butchery going on around. It was the Triad. “Come with me. You’ll be OK.” He and a couple of others ushered my dad to safety.

“What was all that about” asked dad.

“Oh, just a bit of market politics.”

Again my dads cool points mounted and again when I told my friends they didn’t believe me.

Some time later my brother threw a party and our flat was packed. Most of his friends were unknown to the rest of the family and so after a while my mum wanted to know who everyone was. He gave her a quick run down of everyone except the two men on the balcony quietly smoking and watching everyone who came in. They were about ten years older than his friends and very well dressed. No one knew them so mum asked dad if he did.

Dad was playing host and building a Bloody Mary at his newly built bar, which had every bit of paraphernalia a bar should have.

“Remember my Triad friend? Well I saw him the other day and we were talking and the conversation got round to the party. He reckons that if you give a party in this area you’ll always get gatecrashers. Not just spongers but quite nasty types. Those two are here in case of trouble.”

“How much is this costing?”

“Nothing. The man loves his mother I guess.”

The evening was in full swing and I didn’t want to go to bed when mum said I had to. Some of my brothers female friends liked my chubby cheeks and kept giving me pinches on them. I was trying to protest my case to mum when two strangers joined the party. No one knew them and my brother asked them to leave. They pushed past him and started eating the food. The two on the balcony came in and talked to the gatecrashers who ignored them and made for ‘Joes Bar’ as the sign above my dad’s head read. Within two steps both gatecrashers were on the floor and being helped up and out the door by the two men who were then gone for fifteen minutes. When they came back they went straight to the balcony.

They stayed there until the guests had thinned out. They were offered food and drinks but would only accept cokes. I wanted to go to bed even less now and it took a long time for me to sleep. I kept thinking about the events of the evening and how I could tell my friends and how they would believe me. Then I decided it didn’t matter if they believed me. I never told them.

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Cowboy’s Breakfast – A Hong Kong Story

dad HK_1-2

I’m not sure if it was the bacon or dad’s aftershave I smelled first or if I heard his voice before either. ‘Come on, time to get up, washed and dressed. I’ve got a cowboy’s breakfast on the go for you.’

Outside my window the distant neons were off and there were no cars or people moving around to add anything to the concrete urban neighbourhood. I had never been up before Kowloon was awake and it felt very strange as the greyness of early light made everything lack colour.

I got to the table as dad brought out two plates of food which he placed on folded newspapers next to the mugs of milky coffee already there. We smiled at each other and got stuck in to the Cowboy’s Breakfast. Bacon and eggs with baked beans that had been cooked in the bacon fat and a slice of bread and butter placed on the top.

‘I suppose this means you’ll be farting all day.’ he said grinning.

‘Not as loudly as you.’ we both laughed and ate more beans.

We drove along and  spoke now and then to comment on the radio. There were more signs of life as Kowloon woke around us and started it’s daily bustle. Men on bicycles jostled with cars and swerved around market traders pushing carts overbalanced with stock and men carried cages of live birds. A man pushing a steel barrow full of boiling water stepped out in front of us and dad broke and swerved and only just missed him. The barrow man shouted abuse in Cantonese and was stunned as dad replied in the same way. ‘Silly bastard,’ he said turning to me ‘that was almost the end of someone’s breakfast noodles.’

Travelling down Waterloo Road and getting nearer to Dad’s office at the crossroads with Nathan Road, the neon signs were off but still seemed magical piled on top of one another where familiar logos mixed with mysterious symbols advertising unknown things. The further we went the more signs there were until it was impossible to make out one from the other without stopping and looking. The population increased with the advertising and the more familiar busyness of Kowloon business was in full swing as we parked down a side street reserved for MTR staff. It was more of an alley than a street with only one or two doors down the whole length and no windows. It was a good spot; nothing could be thrown or dropped down on to the cars.

The Mass Transit Railway had offices sited where every major station was being built and dad’s patch, as he called it, looked after Yau Ma Tei and Mongkok. The site smelled of clay and cement dust and so did dad’s portacabin site office, which was empty except for a filing cabinet and three desks and chairs and a spare chair for visitors. I sat at one of the desks and watched dad go through reports and make notes for a while, then I stared out the window watching the people go past. An increasing flow of black haired heads bobbed up and down in a river that ran parallel to the traffic that was building. Each one had a story, each one had things to do. I sat at the desk and opened up a comic. It was only half past eight. Dad had said it would be a long day for me, the ceremony was still a couple of hours away and the blasting wasn’t until tonight.

‘I think I will go home later on and come back for the blasting tonight.’

Dad looked up from his report and nodded. ‘We’re meeting your mum for lunch. You can go back with her and make your own way here tonight. We’ll go on a site walk in a little while.’

I got back to my comic until two men walked in the office. Both looked Chinese but one, a stocky man with a pock marked face, was much darker. The other was small and slim and pale with a horsey face. Both wore shorts with their open necked shirts and both wore glasses. ‘Good morning, Gange sin-sam.’

‘Jo-san’ dad replied and introduced me to them. Mr Pang, the darker one, and Mr Kwok. They smiled at me and said good morning and I replied with the shyness of a twelve year old. ‘He’s come to see the ceremony’, dad explained.

‘Oh very good,’ Mr Kwok said nodding his head at me, ‘you like pok?’

‘Pardon me?’ I didn’t know what pok was.

‘Pok, pok. You like pok?’ he repeated and stared at me.

I blushed confused. He just sounded like a chicken to me.

‘Mr Kwok is asking if you like pork.’ prompted dad.

‘Oh. Yes. Sorry, yes I do.’

‘You in luck. Lots of pok at the ceremony. And beer, lots of beer. But you too young to drink beer.’ They all laughed like it was a real knee slapper. Mr Pang didn’t say anything but smiled a lot and laughed the loudest.

They started talking work and lost me in jargon but I listened anyway, proud to hear the respectful way they spoke to dad. After a while another three men came in to the office and, after being introduced to me, joined in the conversation which was getting noisier. I took it as a good moment to get rid of some of the gas that the cowboys breakfast had built up hoping no-one would hear. The only thing louder than my fart was the silence that followed. Everyone turned and looked in my direction. I had never felt hotter or redder.

‘No more cowboys breakfasts for you.’ dad said opening a window, and everyone laughed as they piled out the office in double time.

‘You can see whose son he is.’ Mr Pang shouted through laughter.

I was at the front of the crowd that had gathered to watch the ceremony. Murmurs in sing song Cantonese mixed with the steady hum and occasional roar and frequent horn blowing of the traffic. The labourers were burning incense and offering the roasting pig and fruits and beer to give thanks for the completion of one phase of the work and the start of the next, commencing with that night’s blasting. Dad and some of the men leaned against the railing sipping beer and watched each stage. The burning incense and the joss sticks between praying hands filled the air with a spicy oriental fragrance that overwhelmed the clay and cement powder smell that still clung to everything. The pig was being turned on a makeshift spit over a fire contained in a cut down oil drum. Every now and then the smell of it’s fat being cooked and it’s meat heating would waft over and shoulder the over smells out. It was almost the same as a Sunday roast smell and I grew hungry. The oranges and other fruits seemed like an afterthought, bits and pieces discarded from the market. Dad looked over and smiled and beckoned me forward. I had one of the first cuts of meat and it taste delicious and better than I had imagined. He reached in to the ice bucket filled with beer and pulled out a bottle of cream soda and handed it to me, to the amusement of the workmen, and then looked around at the crowd.

‘How many air cons tonight Mr Pang?.’

Mr Pang looked in to the faces that watched the ceremony. ‘I think three.’ Mr Kwok concurred and the other men started to make bets. I didn’t know what they meant but was too busy watching everything to bother asking.

The second time I woke that Saturday it was to mum’s perfume and voice. ‘If you want to go to your dad’s site you better wake up now. There’s a sandwich and coke for you on the table.’ How did I let myself fall asleep? One minute I’m listening to records the next mum’s waking me up. The repetitive click of the record player sounded like someone tutting.

The ice cold coke and gammon and pickle sandwich was delicious and I wolfed it down so I could catch the bus. Taxis were cheap but I wanted the viewpoint from the top deck to people watch and get a better view of Kowloon after dark.

I carried the food parcel mum had made for dad and got a seat on the pavement side. The lights were all lit now and they cast a multi-coloured glow over the crowds of people. The bright lights coming out from the shops made the differential between night and day harder to make at street level. The bus went past a small side street market where strings of lights helped people decide what to buy and so that egg buyers could see through the shells to make sure the eggs were fresh. I never understood how they could tell.

The bus bounced and shook along Nathan Road and stopped. Everyone was told to get out if they wanted to get off anywhere close as the roads were blocked because of the blasting. That’s how a nearby bilingual translated it for me. Some roads had been blocked causing a jam of horns and shouts and sing song Cantonese profanities. I got off the bus and joined the throng of elbows, arm pits and hot breath and made my way to dad’s office.

When I got there dad was on the phone to mum. I put the parcel on the desk and sat down opposite.

‘Have a good rest?’

‘Mum told you?’

‘Sure, but that’s alright I had a crafty kip too.’ Dad ate his sandwiches and when he got to the cake there was a piece for me to and we washed it down with building site coffee. It was wet and warm and did the job but I decided I would only drink it again if I had to.

Dad smiled, ‘bacon for breakfast, pork at the ceremony and now gammon sandwiches. Good job we’re not Jewish or we’d starve’. He checked his watch. “They’ll clear the streets soon and I’ll need to make my presence known, but you have to stay here. Have a look outside if you like but don’t leave the portacabin area. The siren will blow then there’ll be three blasts and then they’ll sound the all clear. Don’t worry you won’t miss anything, you’ll feel and hear the blasts right here.

Dad put on his hard hat and left me on my own. I looked out the small window to see the  crowds being herded back down the street. I went outside to get a better view. The air was warm and humid, and sticky and thick, and made all the smells, aromas and fragrances from the building site, restaurants, market stalls and nearby flats seem heavy. The hum of voices was receding and all the traffic had stopped and, with it, all the horn blowing and shouting of irate drivers. Everyone was braced for the blasts. I went back inside to the air conditioner whose low and ever present hum seemed like the loudest noise for miles. The second hand of the electric clock didn’t want to break the calm and it travelled noiselessly too.

The siren sounded louder than I had imagined and I flinched. It was like one from a war movie. Perhaps it was used when the Japanese had invaded. Then it was back to the unnatural quiet which lasted less than a minute before the roaring rumble, which seemed to come from directly below, shook the office and rattled the window mesh. Another quiet pause then a second rumble, this one further away but still loud enough to make the windows rattle again. The third pause was shorter and the third blast further away and the quiet that preceded the all clear was less quiet as life got back to normal. I went outside again to find the street back to thriving; it hadn’t taken people long to get back to doing what they were doing. The blasts were another quirky but normal occurrence in Kowloon

Dad approached with Pang & Kwok. ‘Hello Paul’ they said in unison.

‘Did you like the blasts, son?’

‘It was exciting and strange because I couldn’t see what was happening but I could feel it when everything shook.’

‘Let’s all go inside and wait for the air con figure.’

We went inside and I asked, ‘what’s this air con figure you keep mentioning?’ The three of them smiled.

‘ We have to tell everyone in the area that we’re going to blast, for their safety, as well as giving the siren warnings. They use that to get ready in a different way. If they need a new air conditioner they’ll loosen the fixings on theirs and when the blasts go off push the old air cons out on the street and claim it was the blasts fault. It has been known for people who don’t have an air con to get an old one from a skip and just chuck it down and pretend it was theirs.’

‘And they get away with that?’

‘All the time. It’s cheaper and easier for MTR to give them a new one than taking everyone to court. What’s the record Mr Pang?’

‘Six in one night.’

The figure didn’t come through until the next day. It was a hot time of year and the record was broken. A total of eight were claimed. I laughed. I loved Hong Kong.

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One Saturday In March

Spring came early and by late March it was warm and the people outside the window had stopped walking hunched against winter. The postman, aided by a lighter Saturday postbag, was also walking straighter but walked straight past the house. Paul watched him just in case he had missed a letter. He wasn’t expecting anything anyway. He got back to his cereal in front of Saturday morning TV and wasted a few hours before going out.
Mum was cleaning out the pantry ready for dad to bring home the shopping. He had got in to the routine of taking Paul’s sister to work in St Mary’s on a Saturday and buying fruit and veg at the market there before doing the rest of the shopping in Shirley. She went with him if she could and told Paul how, after the first two times, dad made friends with the stall holders who he had charmed and joked with and now were willing to give a little discount here and there.
Mum was cleaning, dad was shopping, sis was working and Paul was eating Rice Krispies and watching TV. Sixteen and lazy and people watching too. Like the two fellas across the street, leaning against their car and acting cool. The Olympus Cameras sun visor strip across the windshield of their Vauxhall Viva told him that they were the geeky type who think they’re cool.
The man two doors down from them washed and polished his car as he did every Saturday morning. The cigarette he held between his lips bobbed up and down as he made figure of eights with the cloth and Turtle Wax and looked incongruous to his immaculate belongings. His house and front garden and the woman he called ‘The Wife’ who held his baby he called ‘The Lad’, were all as fresh, crisp, sparkling and scrubbed as his white Nike trainers, Levi 501 jeans and Man Utd football top.
The old lady next door walked to the front of her garden and started playing around with the roses. It was something to do while she watched the neighbours. She was braver and cared less about what people thought. Paul hid behind the anonymity of the net curtains.
He was anonymous and safe in a way that a teenager takes for granted because the security is planned and paid for by someone else and there seems to be no end to it. Mum was cleaning out the pantry for the shopping dad was buying and the people outside and those on TV were acting as they should.
And then it changed in less than half an hour. Just as the man packed The Wife and The Lad in to his shining car, a policeman stopped his motorbike outside the old lady’s house. The Olympus boys looked over and the immaculate family watched as they drove off. ‘What could she have done?’ Paul wondered, but the policeman got off his bike and walked back to Paul’s and looked at the number on his door and then walked up his path and rang his doorbell. He rushed and opened it and looked up to the large form that blocked out all the sunlight and seemed even taller with the visor up on the helmet he still wore.
‘Good morning, young man. Is this the home of Charles Frederick Loveless?’
Paul had to think twice, everyone called his dad Joe. ‘Yes that’s right. Is there something wrong?’
‘Are you his grandson?’
‘No, his son.’
‘Oh, I see. I’m sorry. Your dad’s been in an accident and I need to speak to your mum. Is she here?’
‘Yes, just a miniute’ but he didn’t need to call her she was already coming to the door.
‘Mrs Loveless?’
‘Yes. What’s the matter?’
‘I have some bad news. Your husband has had a traffic accident.’ She seemed to now what was coming but her eyes pleaded with the policeman to say something else. ‘I regret to have to inform you that he died at the scene.’
Outside people carried on living and on TV the laughter continued. Paul switched it off.

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Where Do They Sleep At Night?

Mummy held my left hand Daddy held my right as we walked along Blackpool seafront. They were talking about my brother Ian but the donkeys in the distance, dark brown with straw hats and colourful saddles, were more interesting. ‘It’s rude to ask for things’ mummy had once told me so instead I said “Oh! Look at those pretty donkeys” and listened for their reply.

“I don’t think we’ve given Ian too much” daddy said.

“Come on Joe, we already bought him a new wardrobe and now you tell me you gave him twenty pounds. Why?”

“So he can have a good time. We’ve got to start to show him we trust him. We don’t want him to go off again.”

“But you’ve given him the money to go off”

“We’ll see.”

What has this got to do with donkeys? What new wardrobe? It was the same one that had been there for years. When Ian had gone on holiday I used it as a base for my action man. He camped there for eight weeks. When Ian came back I showed him my camp and he told me to get all my rubbish out of it. Ian was different when he came back. He didn’t smile. He was always lying on his bed smoking and he used his boot for the ash. I asked him where he had been and he told me to go away. Then I told him I thought eight weeks was a long time for a holiday and he used a funny word and hit me hard on my ear making me cry. I ran and told mummy. ‘Stay out of his way. Don’t go in his room’ she said. So I did and didn’t. I only saw him at breakfast. He never spoke, never helped with the dishes and never kissed mummy goodbye. He cheered up a little when daddy told us we were going to have a weekend in Blackpool.

“Those are nice donkeys” I tried again during a silence.

“What’s that son?”

“Those are nice donkeys.”

“You can have a ride on them this afternoon. We have to meet the others now.”

We walked to the chip shop with the Cutty Sark on the window.

“Is that the kind of ship you were on daddy?”

He laughed and so did a man standing outside the chip shop.

“No son, I sailed in big grey metal ones.”

Eric and Isobel arrived and showed me what they had won in the penny arcade.

“Eric wanted to get out a pack of nudie cards from the crane machine thing.”

“No I didn’t.”

They argued for a while until mummy told them to stop. Mummy and daddy didn’t look very happy. Daddy kept looking at his watch and all around him. We had been waiting for ages and we were all hungry and bored. More and more people were going in the chip shop.

“When are we going to eat?” Isobel asked.

“When Ian gets here. Be patient.” Mummy said.

“Might as well take ‘em in now love.” Daddy said and we all went in to the chip shop. The chips were hot and golden and crispy and the salt and vinegar made me thirsty. I gulped down half my orange pop and gasped breathlessly. I was catching up with Eric. Isobel was no competition. I couldn’t finish my chips so Eric did.

“We’ve got to go back to the hotel now kids” Mummy said.

“Why?” we all moaned in unison.

“To have a rest and get changed”


“Don’t ooohh me.”

Mummy took us back to the hotel and when I asked where Daddy was she said he was doing some business. In the ‘boys room’, as mummy called it, I found a toy I lost before breakfast and started playing with it. Eric started to get changed. He opened the wardrobe and stood staring inside. Then gave out a shout “Mum!”

“Don’t tell mummy I was playing when I should have been changing”

“Don’t be stupid, you stupid little boy.” Eric was trying to be grown up.

“What’s happened?” Mummy asked as she entered the room.

“Ian’s clothes are gone. All of them”

I watched mummy’s face change from worried to angry to helpless to upset all in a few seconds and then she began to cry and say Jesus Christ! The little sod. What have we done wrong? I wish Joe were here! I didn’t know what was going on so I tugged on mummy’s skirt and said, “Don’t cry mummy” and began to cry myself. She pulled me close to her and I was enveloped in her pain, her love, her smell of clean clothes, talc and perfume, and it made me cry more. She always seemed to be able to produce tissues like a magician and now she had one ready for me to blow my nose and another to dry my tears. “Don’t cry darling. Mummy’s all right. Wash your face and lie down.”

I did as she said and fell asleep.

When I woke everyone was in the room except Ian. All the bags were packed. Isobel and Eric were playing Ludo. Mummy and daddy were talking quietly.

“Where’s Ian? What’s happening?” I asked not waiting for answers. “Are we going home?”

“Ian’s gone away” daddy explained, “We don’t know where he’s gone but he knows where our house is if he wants to come home.”

“I don’t understand,” I said.

“That’s just as well love.” Mummy replied. “We’re going to the restaurant in a minute and then we’re going home.”

I looked at Eric and Isobel. They didn’t seem to care so I didn’t protest.

It was night when we left Blackpool and I was lost in the magic of the lights. Nobody said anything and nobody was happy. Daddy drove along the seafront and I tried to see the beach but the wall was in the way. “Where do the donkeys sleep at night Daddy?”

There was no reply so Isobel tapped him on the shoulder. “Paul wants to know where the donkeys sleep at night.”

“The lucky ones in a stable, the others under the stars.”

“I never got to ride one.”

“Next time. OK?”

“OK daddy.”

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