There is such a thing as aiming too high, I believe. We are fallible creatures, and those of us who strain for perfection always fall short. We need to cut ourselves some slack now and then, go easy on ourselves. I saw this clearly with Peter and his damnable gift. But could the poor man see it? We never see ourselves in the round.
When I first met Peter I was new to Hong Kong, still full of the energy and optimism that defined the young expatriate in those days. It was in the T–. Office, an obscure branch of government that issued licenses which are now no longer required. I had breezed in confident of the privileged treatment due to a member of the colonial class as it was then. Sure enough, I was nodded to the head of the queue, but what surprised me was that the efficiency of the place was general, it applied to all. My inquiries were capably dealt with by the smiling counter assistant, and while I sat waiting for the manager she dealt equally capably with those coming after me. I was rather admiring the way her hair framed her pretty face when I was interrupted by a soft male voice – “Mr. Blake?”
I jumped up and admitted to my identity. The manager – as this Chinese gentleman turned out to be – bowed, extended a soft hand, and said what a pleasure it was to meet me. Bemused, I followed the slight figure in his sensible shoes who even then walked with a limp. He opened a door, apologizing for the bareness of the accommodation. There was indeed only a small table with a couple of chairs, on one of which I sat.
The official sat on the other, and apologized again, this time for not introducing himself. He made good the omission by saying that he was Peter Ping. “I know that sounds funny in English,” he explained, “but it is a respectable Chinese name. However, that is neither here nor there to you; you have come for your license, am I right?”
I admitted this too, rather taken by his manner. Peter had a slim oval face, in those days still topped by a cap of black hair, and he smiled deliberately as he spoke. His voice was very soft, almost feminine, and with an exaggerated intonation as if he were entertaining a child – which, in a sense, he almost was. Later he became a kind of uncle to my own children. The only thing was that when not smiling the corners of his mouth would droop. It was as if a hidden sadness lurked in Peter’s soul.
On that first morning, though, Peter was all sunshine as he explained the process to me. I had in fact gathered the gist of it already, but being young I had questions about things that were not very relevant, and grievances about other, unrelated branches of government. Peter dealt clearly and concisely with my questions. When it came to the other branches, he asked for my patience. “We have come far” (he generously grouped himself with the other departments) “and we will come farther, just give us time.”
I emerged with my youthful indignation mollified and holding a form which, after submission to the young lady counter assistant, promptly came back stamped and certified. I was then the proud possessor of a license and would be sent a reminder shortly before it was due for renewal. There was even a sticker to advertise the fact that I had one, and on the way out, a sweet from a bowl on the counter. Altogether, the experience was a refreshing change from my other dealings with government in this town, or indeed elsewhere.
It all made such an impression on me that I became a kind of ambassador for the T–. Office, urging my friends to apply for a license even if they did not really need one. Accompanying my friends to the office, I got to know Peter quite well – and also the young lady assistant, whose attractiveness struck me more and more. To cut a long story short, the following year I married her. Of course, Peter and his staff were invited to the wedding.
It was typical of Peter, mischievous uncle that he was, that at the wedding reception he produced ‘licences’ that he had prepared for each of the guests. And he went round so solemnly showing each guest how to put the thing on, that most ended up with a ribbon and a tag around their necks. The hired car I drove off in with my new wife had its own plaque: ’Licensed by the T–. Office’.
I had had a wonderful time at the reception, and as we rattled along in the car, trailing cans and stray ribbons, life had never seemed so good. Of course, this being Hong Kong, the drive didn’t last long. Soon we dispensed with the car and boarded a ferry for Macau. As I sat in the cramped ferry seat, I remembered that I had left behind Peter’s license plate. And the good fortune left us too, for we were never again as happy as we were that day.
Yet then the worst still lay ahead. The quarrels with my wife were just tiffs, it seemed to me. When the flat became intolerable, I would ask Peter out for a drink. And this shy official, once alone outside his office, revealed a new side to his character.
For one thing, he was a remarkable raconteur. His stories of incidents in government were a delight, especially when he acted out the roles of those concerned. He never accused his fellow officials directly, but the ease with which his portrayed characters accepted a bribe made his views clear enough. And he obviously saw himself as the guardian of the sacred flame. You have to remember that Hong Kong was then only just out of the worst period of excess, and many officials had been let off simply because the authorities could not arrest them all.
“Just try to pay off one of my staff,” Peter would warn me, only half joking. “You’ll be clapped in jail before you can say, Jack Robinson!” But the thing was, the T–. Office processed license applications so efficiently you could hardly have gained an advantage by offering a bribe. And I think this extreme efficiency was Peter’s undoing. Sometimes there has to be a little slack in our lives, a little redundancy.
Time passed. You can say this for marriage – what with the ups and downs of the relationship, the in-laws, the children, the paraphernalia of the home, time passes quickly. One day Peter had been visiting us and seeing his mouth dragging more than usual at the corners, I said I’d accompany him back to the MTR station. He had a bag with him, and although he had taken out a toy to give to my little son, I saw that there was something left inside.
Peter suggested we stop at a nearby bar. As soon as we were seated and had given our orders to the smiling Filipina there, Peter opened his bag and brought out a small white box. It stood on the table, dull in the half-lighting. At Peter’s gesture, I picked the box up. It was surprisingly heavy, and I fumbled with the flap. At last, I had it open and gingerly tugged at the tissue wrapping inside. Impatiently, Peter pulled off the wrapping himself and set the object down with a thump.
I looked at it. It seemed to be no more than a plain glass tumbler, although rather thick and heavy. “Well,” I said, “at least we have something to drink from.”
Peter’s expression made me feel like a boy that has spoken out of turn. I looked contrite, and he gravely explained that he’d received the glass from a client. He then fell silent.
“So is there anything wrong?” I asked. I looked again at the tumbler as if it might hold some devilish property. But it just stood glinting on the table, replete in its own solidity.
“Listen!” said Peter, and he flicked it with his finger. An unexpectedly fine note resonated from the glass.
“Crystal!” said the Filipina, who had just arrived with our drinks. Then she returned to the bar and chatted with other Filipinas who had somehow gathered there.
“Without a doubt,” Peter said. He leaned forward, running a distraught hand through his hair. “I did not think of it at first, in fact, I did not even open the box for a while. But he gave it to me for a reason. Don’t you see?”
“Now hold on,” I said, trying to calm him. “Even if it is crystal it’s not that valuable.” I was not familiar with the prices of such things but I recalled my wife buying a crystal ornament for a friend’s birthday, which meant it couldn’t have cost much. “And what could he expect from you anyway?”
“You don’t understand.” Peter buried his face in his hands. “It’s the principle.”
Questioning him, I found out that the client had merely left the bag in the interview room, and Peter had discovered it afterwards. “Then you haven’t accepted it!” I said triumphantly. “Just hold it for him to collect. Or better still, mail it back to him.”
Peter just shook his head. It was too late. That should have been done at once; if it were done now, it would look as though he were asking for more.
This seemed far-fetched to me. But there was no convincing Peter.
“Well, can you give it away?” I asked. “Then you wouldn’t haven’t derived any benefit from it.”
Peter shook his head: “I would have enjoyed giving a gift. That is a benefit.”
“It’s a pretty insignificant one,” I retorted. “And damn it all, man, you haven’t got any advantage to confer on him anyway! Anyone can get a license from the T–. Office!”
Anyone…. Peter was silent. But I could see from the downturn of his mouth that I had said something dreadful. Hastily I tried to retract. I extolled the virtues of the Office, the impression it had made on me, its exemplary staff – even (I shuddered inwardly) my wife.
It was all in vain. “Yes, yes,” Peter said, “you are so kind, so kind.” He packed up the wretched tumbler and put it back in his bag. I walked out with him past the Filipinas who clustered and chattered around the entrance of the bar like so many brightly-colored birds.
The trouble was that I had queried Peter’s value. I had suggested that he was not worth a bribe. And in the end, I realized that this was true. What is the value of a license that anyone can obtain? I think the Government eventually came to the same conclusion. If only Peter had made it more difficult if he had injected a little bureaucracy and obfuscation, if his assistant had asked me to come back the following day…. Then he would still be the head of a flourishing office, and I a happy bachelor. But it was not to be.
Peter was already on the downward spiral. Outwardly he was still cheerful, but inwardly the gift was undermining his strength, as cancer eats away from within. The client never returned – indeed, why should he? – but in Peter’s mind, this just confirmed the notion of an advantage satisfactorily received.
The gift itself he carried it everywhere in his bag. He would take it out and gaze at it mournfully. Once, in my flat, he put it on the coffee table. Then, half-ironically, he said to my son, who was playing with my baby daughter, “Look what uncle’s got!”
The tumbler gleamed malevolently on the dark wood. Quite suddenly, my little boy strode up with all the decisiveness of his three years, seized the tumbler, and hurled it at his sister. There was horrid thud as the thing struck her, and then silence. As I sprang up in horror, the worst part was the silence. When small children are hurt, there is a pause, a drawing of breath, and then a great wail. But my poor little girl was knocked cold. I was distraught, I did not know what I was doing, and it was Peter who, through tears, stopped me picking her up in case bones were broken. And then my wife came in.
I think that was what saved my daughter. My wife gave a scream that would have wakened the dead, and was more than enough to rouse a concussed child. My daughter groaned, she drew breath – and then came that blessed wail. I hugged her, hugged Peter, and even hugged my son who was as frightened as anyone at what he had done. Only Peter had the presence of mind to call the doctor.
I did not see Peter for a time after that, long after my daughter’s scar had reduced itself to an accusing red mark on her forehead. I suppose I blamed him for the incident, although it was not really his fault. My wife would not accept him in the house. In any case, I was quite frankly too busy working and fighting with her to think of him.
Yet one day I was walking along the Tsim Sha Tsui waterfront when I heard my name called in a quavering voice. Even then I did not recognize Peter and had passed the slight bent figure before I realized it was him. How he had changed! The poor man was stooped and bent to one side by the weight of the bag that he carried.
I asked him how he was. “Nothing to complain of,” he said, trying to smile. He could not manage it: half his mouth was permanently twisted downwards, as if by a stroke. Concerned, I took his arm and relieved him of the weight of his bag. We walked a few paces together and found an empty bench. There, in a weak voice, he told me the story of the past few years. The Government had closed the T–. Office; he had been pensioned off – the terms were nothing to complain of – and now he had nothing to do. I could see that he was still fretting over his imagined misdemeanor. He kept glancing down at his bag.
I tried to laugh the whole thing off. “Why concern yourself with that now?” He did not respond. On impulse, I seized the bag and pulled out the hateful box. Tearing it open, I gripped the hard unyielding glass and flung the cursed thing into the sea. The box I rammed into a nearby waste bin. “There!” I said, sitting down again beside Peter.
His mouth twisted, and he shook his head. How can that help? his gesture seemed to say. We sat a little longer. Then we rose and parted. I tried to think of something encouraging to say but failed.
I needed encouragement myself, goodness knows, as I went through the divorce, and then married again. This second marriage proved to me finally the futility of human endeavor. My new wife was quite as annoying and unsympathetic to me as the old, and she swiftly turned from an entrancing young thing into a fretful shrew.
I heard in time that Peter had had a second stroke, and did not recover. Later, I went to pay my respects. He had of course not been buried – Hong Kong hardly has room for the living, let alone the dead – and my visit was to the house of rest in Kowloon where the urn containing his ashes stood in a little compartment in the wall alongside thousands of others. It was the final ordering of his affairs, perhaps a fitting end for someone who had presided over the files on all those license-holders. At any rate, Peter was at last at peace, free of his gift as he was of everything else.
And with his passing, the burden of the gift seemed to fall on me. I regretted casting it into the sea, for in its malignant round perfection the thing was a link to the people in my life, seemingly a key to the problems that harried me on all sides. As I took the Star Ferry back to Hong Kong Island, to my home and the misery that awaited me there, I looked at the sea undulating in the wake of the ferry and thought on the peace that must lie beneath that dark water.
Matthew Harrison lives in Hong Kong, and whether because of that or some other reason entirely his writing has veered from non-fiction to science fiction, and much of his current writing is literary. He has published numerous short stories and is building up to longer work as he learns more about life. Matthew is married with two children but no pets as there is no space for these in Hong Kong.