On our first evening we waited for the boat to take us up river to the markets. I’d remembered the light at dusk, how it seems to last hours, how it makes everything richer, and then dips too suddenly into night. I’d wanted to show it to Ant. We stood on the pier and watched the fishing boats coming and going, and people milling around the top-end hotels on the banks. The smell was salty, spicy. There was a Swedish guy, who had a beautiful girlfriend, and they were relaxed, not tired of life. They were chatting and laughing and messing around on the pier.
I asked him if he’d take our picture. We stood on the edge of the pier, together, in the half light.
“Honeymoon?” he said.
We looked at each other. “Er…no” I said, a bit awkwardly.
“Just in love?”
“Er…yes, I suppose so”
There was an old man sitting in the shade, writing furiously. He had pages and pages of handwriting next to him, black ink on slightly yellowed paper. We walked past him. I didn’t say anything. Ant looked at me.
An hour later, we walked back past him again. He was still there, still writing.
“I think he’s writing to the love of his life, who he had to leave behind. He writes to her once a month every month, and has done for the last sixty years. He writes about his life and his dreams and his stories.”
“You’re such an imaginator”
“Ant, that is definitely not a word”
“He’s probably writing to his mate, telling him about the hot women he’s seen on holiday”
I’ve since looked “imaginator” up. It’s a word. It means one that imagines.
I had come here before, twelve years ago. I’m not one for nostalgia, so we stuck to different parts of the city, making different decisions, having different adventures. Last time I came, I was with a friend and thought I knew everything. I remember I saw a monk buying toilet roll and felt surprised. I understood then how young I was. I remember I saw things and talked to people and took risks and wrote everything down in an endless quest to understand, to experience, to learn. This time around I did the only thing you can do in a foreign city, which is be yourself, an outsider, and look in.
We turned onto a street. “I’ve been here before”, I said. It was a long street, with a temple on the left and a lot of traffic. I walked along the street, glad I’d grown up a bit, looking around for what had changed, thinking about the past. I looked down, and realised I was wearing the very same shoes I’d worn on the same street twelve years ago. In that time I’d graduated, started work, got married, a whole list of things, but none of them as important as learning how to give myself a break. I was a different person, a happier person, wearing the very same shoes.
“Ant! Ant! Pee on my face!”
There weren’t many people on that part of the island. But there were enough. He emerged from the water, and ripped off his mask and snorkel.
“Pee on my face. Do it. Now. It hurts. It really hurts”
“Anna, I am not going to pee on your face”
“A jellyfish stung my face. It really really hurts”
“Let me see. Yes, I can see. Stop panicking. Stop moving about. Look, the shore is close. Come with me”
“I can’t feel my face”
“Come with me. It’s okay. You’ll be okay”
And because he was calm, I was too. He handed me freshly-cut pineapple to distract me from making further sex tourist-like announcements.
It worked. The pain went away.
I spent twenty minutes in the busiest part of Chinatown not moving a muscle. I was watching a man with a wok, standing next to a stall piled high with vegetables. He’d rinse out the wok. Season it. Put the wok on the flame. Add meat. Scoop up spices, fling them into the wok, flip over the meat. A lady, maybe his wife, would scoop up greens and hand them to him. He’d throw them in the wok and the flames would leap up into the sky. Thirty seconds, and he’d scoop out the food, onto a plate and hand the plate to the waiter, maybe his son. He’d rinse the wok. Season it. And repeat. And repeat. All night. It was a kind of art.
“What are you reading?”
“Frenchman’s Creek by Daphne du Maurier. It’s about a woman who flees the empty life in London she despises and her boorish husband, and escapes to Cornwall, where she falls in love with a pirate who pillages the Cornish coast. She dresses as a cabin-boy and goes on adventures with him”
“It sounds made up”
We wandered along the beach trying to find the right spot to take a picture of the sun setting. I stood on the dirt track looking out at sea. Ant walked onto the sand, and turned away to adjust the camera settings.
In the time he turned round, the sun, the enormous, dark red sun that turned the sky so many shades of pink, had dropped behind the horizon.
He turned back to me. “It’s gone”, he said.
So I described the sunset to him. Being an imaginator has its advantages.