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One for My Baby

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Man and Boy and Man and Wife comes the charming story of a widower who doesn't believe you get a second chance at love. Full of biting social commentary and overwhelming emotion, One for My Baby is a warm and witty novel of love, family, sex, and Tai Chi.
Returning to London from Hong Kong after a brief, idyllic marriage ends in tragedy, Alfie Budd finds his world collapsing. Believing his chance for love has passed, he takes comfort in fleeting ...

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Overview

From the bestselling author of Man and Boy and Man and Wife comes the charming story of a widower who doesn't believe you get a second chance at love. Full of biting social commentary and overwhelming emotion, One for My Baby is a warm and witty novel of love, family, sex, and Tai Chi.
Returning to London from Hong Kong after a brief, idyllic marriage ends in tragedy, Alfie Budd finds his world collapsing. Believing his chance for love has passed, he takes comfort in fleeting affairs with his students at Churchill's Language School while watching his parents' marriage, his grandmother's health, and his career ambitions rapidly deteriorate. But then Alfie meets two people who help him to start healing: the old Chinese man he sees practicing Tai Chi in the park every morning and a single mother who needs Alfie's help in completing her education. Soon, our bereft widower is learning much more than Tai Chi and falling for one student above all others. But can Alfie give up meaningless sex for a meaningful relationship? And how much room in our hearts do we really have for love?

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Heartbreakingly universal and full of killer lines on love and love loss."
Financial Times (UK)

"Refreshing...Parsons spins a nicely written tale [that] will have readers pondering the complexities of modern families."
Star-Telegram (Fort Worth, TX)

"You will find it impossible not to become immersed in and touched by this story of love, sex, tragedy, and redemption."
Daily Mail (UK)

"Another winner."
Booklist

Publishers Weekly
This third novel from the author of the immensely appealing Man and Boy is the amusing story of sad sack Alfie, who has returned to London from Hong Kong following the death of his wife, Rose, the one and only true love of his life, in a scuba diving accident. Alfie, 34, is given to making sensitive, introspective remarks such as "she was my reason" and "That's what love did to me. Love messed up my heart." An affable enough fellow, he's barely living life in his skin as an English language teacher at Churchill's International School, narcissistically sleeping with his students while trying to cope with his parents' breakup and his grandmother's illness and death. Of course, he gradually comes out of his sleepwalking existence to recognize the error of his ways and begin down a path of spiritual fulfillment that includes tai chi instruction and the insight of professional TV wrestler the Slab and his book, Smell the Fear, He-Bitch. There are some lovely moments in the novel, when the author subtly reveals the details of Alfie's loss, mixed in with some clever humor, such as when he plays on the class differences between Alfie's lawyer pal Josh and Alfie's cleaning woman girlfriend, a romance that heads somewhat predictably in the direction of Pygmalion and Educating Rita. At its best, the novel is enjoyable fluff. One only wishes the author had created in Alfie a more dynamic character worthier of the reader's sympathies. (Mar. 23) Copyright 2004 Reed Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
The third from the English author Parsons (Man and Wife, 2003, etc.) is a maudlin tale of loss. The high point in Alfie Budd's life came in 1996 in Hong Kong. The 32-year-old expat British teacher was enjoying his polite students after five rough years in a London high school, and he was savoring life in a special place (the Brits turned over Hong Kong to the Chinese in June 1997). Most important, he had met Rose, the love of his life, a young and exceedingly smart corporate lawyer, also from England. His first glimpse of Rose and her "bucktoothed grin" came on the ferry. (Cling to that image, for there won't be many others.) Though no beauty, Rose is adorable. The two soon marry and then, just as soon, Rose is gone, dead in a scuba diving accident. Alfie goes into a long funk, and two years later, in London, he's still inconsolable, unemployed, and living with his parents-until his father destroys his own happy marriage by decamping with the very pretty Czech au pair. Doesn't his father understand that "you get one shot at happiness"? Now Alfie has lost domestic stability as well as losing Rose; the only thing left is his beloved grandmother Nan. But Alfie finds some stirrings of life when he starts teaching again, foreigners from all over. Rose had married him because he was nice, but now he turns quite naughty, bedding four of his students in quick succession; his fifth target, a feisty English cleaning lady, holds him off. Maybe Alfie has more in common with his horny old dad than he thought. A more promising diversion is learning tai chi. Alfie's instructor, restaurant owner George Chang, heads a happy three-generation family that Alfie can only envy. And then it's time for yetanother loss as Nan bravely, graciously, succumbs to cancer. Alfie wears his heart on his sleeve as he narrates this generous serving of mush. Agent: Caradoc King/AP Watt
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743236096
  • Publisher: Touchstone
  • Publication date: 3/1/2005
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 352
  • Product dimensions: 0.79 (w) x 5.00 (h) x 8.00 (d)

Meet the Author

Tony Parsons is the author of two international bestsellers, Man and Boy and Man and Wife. A former music journalist and television personality, he lives in England with his wife and daughter, and he has a son from a previous marriage.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 1

There's something wrong with my heart.

It shouldn't be working like this. It should be doing something else. Something normal. More like everybody else's heart.

I don't understand it. I have only been running in the park for ten minutes and my brand-new sneakers have luminous swoosh signs on the side. But already my leg muscles are burning, my breath is coming in these wheezing little gasps and my heart — don't get me started on my heart. My heart is filling my chest like some giant undigested kebab.

My heart is stabbing me in the back.

My heart is ready to attack me.

It's Sunday morning, a big blue day in September, and the park is almost empty. Almost, but not quite.

In the patch of grass where they don't allow ball games, there is an old Chinese man with close-cropped silver hair and skin the color of burnished gold. He has to be around my dad's age, pushing sixty, but he seems fit and strangely youthful.

He's wearing a baggy black outfit that makes him look like he is still in his pajamas and he's very slowly moving his arms and legs to some silent song inside his head.

I used to see this stuff every day when I was living in Hong Kong. The old people in the park, doing their Tai Chi, moving like they had all the time in the world.

The old boy doesn't look at me as I huff and puff my way toward him. He just stares straight ahead, lost in his slow-motion dance. I feel a sudden jolt of recognition. I have seen that face before. Not his face, but ten thousand faces just like it.

When I lived in Hong Kong I saw that face working on the Star Ferry, saw it driving a cab in Kowloon, saw it looking forlorn at the Happy Valley racecourse. And I saw that face supervising some Bambi-eyed grandchild as she did her homework in the back of a little shop, saw it slurping noodles at a daipaidong food stall, saw it covered in dust, building spanking new skyscrapers on scraps of reclaimed land.

That face is very familiar to me. It's impassive, self-contained and completely indifferent to my existence. That face stares straight through me. That face doesn't care if I live or die.

I saw it all the time over there.

It used to drive me nuts.

As I struggle past the old boy, he catches my eye. Then he says something. One word. I don't know. It sounds like Breed.

And I get a pang of sadness as I think to myself — not much chance of that, pal.

I'm the last of the line.

Hong Kong made us feel special.

We looked down on the glittering heart of Central and we felt like the heirs to something epic and heroic and grand.

We stared at all those lights, all that money, all those people living in a little outpost of Britain set in the South China Sea, and we felt special in a way that we had never felt special in London and Liverpool and Edinburgh.

We had no right to feel special, of course. We hadn't built Hong Kong. Most of us hadn't even arrived until just before it was time to hand it back to the Chinese. But you couldn't help feeling special in that bright shining place.

There were expats who really were a bit special, hotshots in lightweight Armani suits working in Central who would one day go home covered in glory with a seven-figure bank balance. But I wasn't one of them. Nowhere near it.

I was teaching English at the Double Fortune Language School to rich, glossy Chinese ladies who wanted to be able to talk to round-eye waiters in their native tongue. Waiter, there's a fly in my shark's fin soup. This is outrageous. These noodles are cold. Where is the manager? Do you take American Express? We conjugated a lot of service-related verbs because by 1996, the year I arrived in Hong Kong, there were a lot of white boys waiting on tables.

I was a little different from my colleagues. It seemed like all the other teachers at the Double Fortune Language School — our motto: "English without tears in just two years" — had a reason to be in Hong Kong, a reason other than that special feeling.

There was a woman from Brighton who was a practicing Buddhist. There was a quiet young guy from Wilmslow who spent every spare moment studying Wing Chun Kung Fu. And there was a BBC — British-born Chinese — who wanted to see where his face came from before he settled down into the family business on Gerrard Street in London's Chinatown.

They all had a good reason to be there. So did the expats in the banks and the law firms of Central. So did the other kind of expats who were out on Lantau, building the new airport.

Everyone had a reason to be there. Except me.

I was in Hong Kong because I'd had my fill of London. I had taught English literature at an inner-city school for five years. It was pretty rough. You might even have heard of us. Does the Princess Diana Comprehensive School for Boys ring any bells? No? It was the one in north London where the woodwork teacher had his head put in his own vice. It was in all the papers.

If anything, the parents were more frightening than the children. Open evenings at the Princess Diana would find me confronted by all these burly bruisers with scowling faces and livid tattoos.

And that was just the mothers.

I was sick of it. Sick and tired. Sick of marking essays that began, "Some might say Mercutio was a bit of an asshole." Tired of teaching Romeo and Juliet to kids who laughed when one of the Shakespeareans at the back inflated a condom while we were doing the balcony scene. Sick and tired of trying to explain the glory and wonder of the English language to children who poured "fuck," "fucking" and "fucked" over their words like ketchup in a burger bar.

Then I heard that a Brit could still go to Hong Kong and automatically get a work permit for a year. But not for much longer.

It was around the time that one of my pupils' parents — one of the dads, funny enough, a man who was permanently dressed for the beach, even in the middle of winter — had a Great Britain tattoo on his arm and it was spelled wrong.

"Great Briten," it said, just below the image of a rabid bulldog wearing a Union Jack T-shirt that was either cut a bit snug or a few sizes too small.

Great Briten.

Sweet Jesus.

So I got out. Deciding to really do it was the hard part. After that, it was easy. After twelve hours, four movies, three meals and two bouts of cramp in the back row of a 747, I landed at Hong Kong's old Kai Tak Airport, the one where they came in for a heart-pumping landing between the forest of skyscrapers, close enough to see the washing lines drying on every balcony. And I stayed on because Hong Kong gave me that feeling — that special feeling.

It was a long way from "Great Briten." It was another world, when what I wanted most in my life was exactly that. Yet it was another world that made me love my country in a way that I never had before.

Hong Kong made me feel as though my country had once done something important and unique. Something magical and brave. And when I looked at all those lights, they made me feel as though there was just a little bit of all that in me.

But I didn't have a real reason to be there, not like the BBC guy who was looking for his roots and not like the people who were there because of Buddha or Bruce Lee.

Then I met Rose.

And she became my reason.

The old Chinese man is not the only sign of life. On the far side of the park there are some Saturday-night stragglers, a bunch of bleary teenagers who still haven't gone home.

The members of this little gang are every shade of the human rainbow, and although I am very much in favor of the multicultural society, something about the way these lads are casually spitting on the pigeons does not make you feel overly optimistic about mankind's ability to live in peace.

When they clock me struggling their way, they exchange knowing grins and I think: what are they laughing at?

I immediately know the answer.

They are laughing at a red-faced, panting, fat guy in brand-new running gear who clearly had nowhere to go on Saturday night and no one to go there with. Someone who gets a lot of early nights. Someone who is not special at all.

Or am I being too hard on myself?

"Check the cheddar," one of them says.

Check the cheddar? What does that mean? Does that mean me? Check the cheddar? Is that new?

"He so fat that he look like two bitches fighting under a blanket, innit?"

"He so fat he gets his passport photo taken by, you know, like, satellite."

"He so fat he get fan letters from Captain Ahab."

As a former English teacher, I am impressed by this casual reference to Moby-Dick. These are not bad kids. Although they are roaring with laughter at me, I give them what I hope is a friendly smile. Showing them that the cheddar is a good sport and knows how to take a joke. But they just smirk at each other and then at me. Smirk, smirk, smirk, they go, radiating equal measures of youth and stupidity.

I look away quickly and when I am past them I remember that there's a Snickers bar in the pocket of my tracksuit in case of an emergency. Watched by a tatty gray squirrel, I eat my Snickers bar on a wet park bench.

Then for a long time I just sit twisting my wedding ring around the third finger of my left hand, feeling lonelier than ever.

I met her on the Star Ferry, the old green-and-white, double-decker boats that shuttle between Kowloon on the tip of the Chinese peninsula and Hong Kong Island.

Well, that's not strictly true — I didn't really meet her on the Star Ferry. We didn't exchange names or numbers. We made no plans to meet again. I was never much of a pick-up artist, and that didn't change with Rose. But the Star Ferry is where I first saw her, struggling through the turnstile with a huge cardboard box in her arms, balancing it on her hip as she stuffed a few coins into the slot.

She joined the throng waiting for the ferry, a Westerner surrounded by every kind of local — the smart young Cantonese businessmen heading to their offices in Central, the chic young office girls with their cell phones and miniskirts and swinging black hair, the shirt-sleeved street traders hawking up phlegm the size of a Hong Kong dollar, young mothers and their beautiful fat-faced babies with startling Elvis forelocks, the tiny old ladies with their gold teeth and scraped-back white hair, Filipina domestics heading for work and even the odd gweilo (white ghost) tourist quietly baking in the heat.

Her hair was black, as black as Chinese hair, but her skin was very pale, as though she had just arrived from some land where it never stopped raining. She was dressed in a simple two-piece business suit but the large cardboard box made her look as though she was going to work in one of the little side-street markets above Sheung Wan, west of Central. But I knew that was impossible.

The ramp clanged down and the crowd charged onto the Star Ferry in typical Cantonese style. I watched her wrestling with her cardboard box and noted that her face was round, serious, very young.

Her eyes were too far apart and her mouth was too small. But you would have believed that she was beautiful until she smiled. When she smiled — quick to apologize after smacking some Chinese businessman in the back with her box — the spell was immediately broken. She had this bucktoothed grin that stopped her from being any kind of conventional beauty. Yet something about that gummy smile tugged and pulled at my heart in a way that mere beauty never could. She was better than beautiful.

I found a seat. And seats were going fast. She stood next to me, smiling self-consciously to herself as she clutched her box and the ferry pitched and heaved beneath her, surrounded by the raven-haired crowds.

It is only a seven-minute journey between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, the shortest sea voyage in the world, one brief kilometer spent weaving between junks, barges, cruise ships, tugs and sampans. But it must feel like a long time when you are carrying a box that is almost as big as you are.

I stood up.

"Excuse me? Do you want a seat?"

She just stared at me. I was really quite thin in those days. Not that I was Brad Pitt or anything, even during my lean period, but I wasn't the Elephant Man either. I wasn't expecting her to faint, with either desire or repulsion. But I expected her to do something. She just kept on staring.

I had assumed that she was British or American. Now I saw, with that hair and those eyes and those cheekbones, she could conceivably be some kind of Mediterranean.

"You speak English?"

She nodded.

"Do you want to sit down?"

"Thanks," she said. "But it's only a little journey."

"But it's a big box."

"I've carried bigger."

That smile. Slow, though, and a bit reluctant. Who was this strange guy in a Frank Sinatra T-shirt (Frank grinning under a snap-brim fedora in an EMI publicity shot from 1958, one of the golden years) and ragged chinos? Who was this man of mystery? This thin boy who was, on balance, slightly more Brad Pitt than Elephant Man?

Her box was full of files, manila envelopes and documents with fancy red seals. So she was a lawyer. I felt a flash of resentment. She probably only talked to men in suits with six-figure salaries. And I was a man in a faded Sinatra T-shirt whose wage packet, when converted into pounds sterling, just about crawled into five figures.

"I don't think you're meant to offer your seat to a woman on the Star Ferry," she said. "Not these days."

"I don't think you're meant to offer your seat to a woman anywhere," I said. "Not these days."

"Thanks anyway."

"No problem."

I was about to sit down again when an old Chinese man with a nylon shirt and a racing paper shoved me out of the way and plonked himself down in my seat. He hawked noisily and spit right between my Timberland boots. I stared at him dumbfounded as he opened up his paper and began to study the runners at Happy Valley.

"There you go," she laughed. "If you've got a seat, you better hold on to it."

I watched her laughing her goofy laugh as we came into Hong Kong Island. The great buildings reared above us. The Bank of China. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The Mandarin Hotel. All the silver and gold and glass office blocks of Central, and beyond all of that, the lush greens of Victoria Peak, almost lost inside a shroud of tropical fog.

I was suddenly gripped by the fear that I would never see her again.

"Do you want a coffee?" I said, blushing furiously. I was angry with myself. I know women never say yes to anything if you can't ask them without going red.

"A coffee?"

"You know. Espresso. Cappuccino. Latte. A coffee."

"Come on," she said. "The seat was good. The coffee — I don't know. It's a bit predictable. And besides, I've got to drop this stuff off."

The Star Ferry churned against the dock. The ramp clanged down. The crowds got ready to bolt.

"I'm not trying to pick you up," I said.

"No?" Her face was serious and I couldn't tell if she was making fun of me or not. "That's too bad."

Then she was gone, swept off in a tide of Cantonese with her cardboard box full of legal documents to the wharf and, beyond that, the business district of Central.

I looked out for her on the Star Ferry the next day, and the day after that, and the day after that, expecting to suddenly find her smiling at someone she had struck with a large box of legal documents. Or — if I was very lucky — to strike me with her cardboard box. But she was never there.

Not that I had any slick new pick-up lines.

I just wanted to see that smile.

It was a Friday night and the penthouse bar of the Mandarin Hotel was crowded and loud.

I couldn't really afford to drink up there on what they paid me at the Double Fortune Language School. Yet once in a while I liked to get the lift to the top floor of the famous old hotel and watch the sun go down over an ice-cold Tsingtao beer — the best beer in China. It was a special treat.

But tonight, as I sipped my beer at the bar, some goon from back home started spoiling everything.

"As soon as the People's Liberation Army march in, you watch everyone in Central head for the airport," he said. "And it will serve the buggers right. Hong Kong was a fishing village when we arrived and it will be a fishing village when we leave."

He had a voice on him that cut right through me, full of private education and a lifetime of privilege and dumb words spoken with all the confidence in the world. His voice reminded me that not everything I hated about home had a bulldog tattoo.

"Give this place back to the great unwashed and just watch them kill the golden goose," he said. "But of course the great unwashed will eat anything."

I turned to look at him.

He was at a window table with some girl, trying to impress her. The girl had her back to me. I really didn't notice her at first. I saw only him — a beefy young man in a pinstripe suit, fair-haired and fit from a diet of red meat and rugby and Church of England hymns. A slab of pure British beef, with possibly just a touch of mad cow disease.

Beefy was making no attempt to keep his voice down. The young Cantonese bartender and I exchanged looks as he poured me a second beer. The bartender — just a kid — smiled sadly, not quite shaking his head, and something about the infinite gentleness of his gesture pushed me over the edge.

No, this is too much, I thought, putting down my Tsingtao. It wasn't just that Beefy was insulting the residents of Hong Kong. He was also doing the dirt on the special feeling that I got when I looked at all the lights. The barman's eyes told me to leave it.

Too late.

"Excuse me. Excuse me?"

Beefy looked up at me. So did the girl. It was her. And she shone.

I mean she really shone — the sunset, made spectacular by toxic fumes pouring from the factories of southern China, was throwing the last of its technicolor light across her face.

It lit her up.

Beefy was as blond as she was dark, they looked like some kind of couple, perhaps in the early days of an office romance. At least in Beefy's tiny mind.

"What?" he said. Rudely.

"Look at you," I said. "I mean, just look at you. They give you a company flat and a Filipina maid and you think you're some kind of empire builder. Who are you this week, pal? Stamford Raffles? Cecil Rhodes? Scott of the Antarctic?"

"I'm sorry — are you insane?" he said, uncertain if he should laugh out loud or punch my lights out. He stood up. A big bastard. Plenty of contact sports. Hairs on his chest. Probably.

"Calm down, Josh," she said, touching his arm.

You might have tagged him a chinless wonder but you would have been dead wrong. He was all chin. His kind always are, in my experience. All chin and nose. His noble snout and jutting chin seemed to compress his mouth into a thin, imperious, mean little line.

If anything, he was a lipless wonder.

"We're guests in this place," I said, my voice shaking with something that I couldn't quite identify. "Britannia no longer rules the waves. We should remember our manners."

His lipless mouth dropped open. And then he spoke.

"How would you like me to teach you some manners, you awful little man?"

"Why don't you try it?"

"Maybe I will."

"Maybe you should."

"Oh, shut up, the pair of you," she said. "You're both going home one day."

Going home one day? Going home? That had never occurred to me. I looked at her and I thought — home.

Then I looked at Josh. And after staring each other down for a bit, Josh and I felt like idiots and realized that we weren't going to beat each other up. Or, rather, that he wasn't going to beat me up. She finally shoved him into his chair. Then she smiled at me with that goofy grin.

"You're right," she said. "We should remember our manners." She held out her hand. "I'm Rose."

I took her hand.

"Alfie Budd," I said.

I even shook hands with old Josh. The three of us had a drink and, as Josh and I avoided eye contact, I told them about my job at the Double Fortune Language School. She told me about their law firm. Josh kept consulting his watch. Overdoing it a bit, I thought. Deliberately showing me — and her — that he was bored beyond belief.

But she smiled at me — that smile, those teeth, those baby-pink gums, effortlessly taking possession of my heart — and I felt it, I really felt it.

That somewhere in this world there really was a home for me to go to.

This is the way it starts. You look at someone you have never met before and you recognize them. That's all. You just recognize them. Then it begins.

Rose suddenly slapped the table.

"Oh, wait a minute," she laughed. "I remember you."

It shouldn't have worked. Her friends all thought she was too good for me and her friends were right. Rose was a Hong Kong Island girl. I was a Kowloon side guy.

She had a career. I had a job. She had dinner in the China Club surrounded by big shots. I had Tsingtao in Lan Kwai Fong surrounded by my fellow small fry. She came out to Hong Kong with a window seat in club class. I had an aisle seat in economy.

At twenty-five, Rose was already a success. Seven years older than her — and starting to look every day of it, what with the humidity and the Tsingtao — I was still waiting for my life to start.

She lived in a small but beautiful apartment on Conduit Road in the Upper Mid-Levels under the shadow of Victoria Peak — expat heaven. Security was a twenty-four-hour Gurkha. I had a room in a shared flat in Sai Ying Pun, rooming with a couple of my colleagues from the Double Fortune, the BBC guy from Gerrard Street and the Wing Chun man from Wilmslow.

Our place was one of those firetrap rabbit warrens with walls so thin you could hear the family down the hall watching Star TV. Security was a sleepy Sikh who came and went as the mood took him.

Rose hadn't drifted out to Hong Kong, not like me. She was a corporate lawyer who had been sent out for a year by her London firm — she called it the shop — to cash in on a market that, in the last year of British rule, was booming like never before.

While I was struggling to pay my rent, behind the closed doors of Central fortunes were being made. Hong Kong was screaming out for lawyers and every day more of them came through the fast track of Kai Tak Airport.

Rose was one of them.

"I would still be making the tea in London," she told me on that first night after Josh and I decided to have a drink instead of a fight. "Getting my bum pinched by some fat old man. Out here, I matter."

"What is it you do exactly, Rose?"

"It's corporate finance," she said. "I help firms raise money with share issues for Chinese companies. Initial public offerings. Fire fighting, they call it."

"Wow," I said. "Brilliant."

pard

I had absolutely no idea what she was going on about. But I was genuinely impressed. She seemed like more of a grown-up than I would ever be.

Most of her colleagues — those loud boys and girls braying in the penthouse bar of the Mandarin every night, ignoring the sunset over the harbor — had an amused contempt for Hong Kong.

They saw a street sign for Wan King Road and howled about it for the duration of their stay, as though Hong Kong existed purely for their amusement. They collected and drooled over all the evidence of Hong Kong's madness. And there was plenty.

The local brand of toilet paper called My Fanny. The Causeway Bay department store — a Japanese store as it happened, but let that pass — where they sold truffles named Chocolate Negro Balls. The popular Hong Kong antifreeze spray known as My Piss.

And I laughed too when I first saw the ads for My Piss — I'm not saying that I didn't. But the lipless wonders never stopped. Sooner or later you should forget about My Fanny and go look at the sunset, go look at the lights. But somehow the lipless wonders never got around to that.

Rose wasn't like the rest of them. She loved the place.

I don't want to make her sound like Mother Teresa with a briefcase. The Cantonese can be an abrasive bunch, and confronted by a sulky taxi driver or a rude waiter or a pushy beggar, Rose was quite capable of feeling all the helpless frustration of any hot, tired expatriate. But the bad feelings never lasted for very long.

She loved Hong Kong. She loved the people and — unusual for a woman with her job, her salary, her skin color — she thought it was right that they were getting the place back.

"Oh, come on, Alfie," she said one night when I was going on about the special feeling, and how I didn't want it ever to end. "Hong Kong might be a British invention. But it has a Chinese heart."

She wanted to find the real Hong Kong. Left to my own devices, I would have nursed a Tsingtao in Lan Kwai Fong and looked at the lights. Left to myself, I would have vegetated quite happily in the unreal Hong Kong, convinced that the special feeling was all I needed to know.

Rose took me deeper. Rose took me beyond the lights. As she did so, she turned affection into something more. For Hong Kong. And for her.

She took me to a temple behind Central where everything was red and gold and the air was choked with incense as little old ladies burned fake money in huge stone drums. Through the perfumed mist you could just about make out two brass deer gleaming on the altar.

"For longevity," Rose said, and when I think about Rose talking about longevity now, it makes me want to weep.

Back in the days we thought would never end, she took me to places where I would never have gone without her. We had dim sum in a restaurant near my flat where we were the only gweilo. We walked the narrow streets between apartment blocks covered in TV aerials, potted plants and washing lines. She took my hand and led me down sunless alleys where toothless old men in flip-flops bet on two crickets fighting in a wooden box.

And I met her from work and we took the Star Ferry to Kowloon and a cinema where it seemed that every mobile phone in the audience never once stopped ringing. Everyone else I knew would have been maddened by the experience. Rose rocked in her seat with laughter.

"Now this is the real Hong Kong," she said. "You want to find Hong Kong, mister?" She raised her hand to the symphony of mobile phones. "This is it."

Yet she loved doing all the British things. Every Saturday afternoon, after she had finished work — the shop expected her to work half a day on Saturday — we had high tea at the Peninsula Hotel, looking out at Central on the other side of the harbor as we sipped our Earl Grey and tucked away our jam scones and noshed our little sandwiches with the crusts cut off. Once or twice we even watched Josh and his hairy-arsed friends playing rugby and cricket.

It was fun to do these typically British things not because they reminded us of home but because we had never done any of them at home.

Cricket, rugby, sandwiches with the crusts cut off — who knew about these things? Not me. And not Rose, whose nonpartisan accent disguised the fact that she came from a pebble-walled duplex in a modest corner of the Home Counties. Nothing had been given to Rose. She had earned it all with education and hard work.

"So where exactly did you lose your Essex accent?" I asked her once. "University?"

"Liverpool Street Station," she said.

In Asia we found both the real Hong Kong and a Britain that we had never known.

Rose loved all of that.

And I loved her.

It wasn't difficult. The only difficult thing was working up the courage to call her after she gave me her business card in the bar of the Mandarin. It took me seven days. Right from the start, she mattered too much to me. Right from the start, I could not imagine my life without her.

Because she was beautiful, smart and kind. She was curious and brave. She had a bigger heart than anyone I have ever known. She was good at her job but her sense of worth didn't depend on that job. I loved her for all those reasons. And I loved her because she was on my side. She was on my side without conditions, without get-out clauses. It's very easy to love someone when they are on your side.

Once, when we were all on the roof of the China Club, Josh said this interesting thing — probably a first for old Josh — after a few too many Tsingtao.

"If Rose met God, she would say: why are you so nasty to Alfie, God?"

He said it in this shrill, girlie voice and everyone laughed. I smiled, trying to be polite to the blockhead. But my heart beat a little faster. Because I knew it was true.

Rose was on my side in a way that nobody had ever been on my side. Apart from my parents. And my grandparents. But they were sort of obliged to be on my side. Rose was a volunteer. She cared about me. Those kids in the park — the cheddar gang — would laugh at the idea of a woman like that caring about a man like me. But she really did. I'm not making it up.

And by loving me, she set me free. Free to be myself.

There was a dream I had once had in London — the dream of trying to be a writer — that I had never really had the guts to pursue. Rose made me believe that if I was prepared to put in the hours, I could do it. I could become a writer one day. She saw not only the man I was, but the man I could be. By loving me, she made me believe that my dreams could come true.

That's why it is all so difficult now.

That's why I have to force myself to carry on today.

Because for a little while back there, I had it perfect.

The old Chinese man has finished his slow-motion dance.

As I jog past him for the second time — well, by now it's actually more of a slow shuffle than a jog — he looks at me as though he has seen my face a thousand times. As though he recognizes me too.

He speaks to me again and this time I understand exactly what he's saying. It's not breed at all.

"Breathe," he says.

"What?" I say, fighting to catch my breath.

"Not breathing properly."

"Who?"

"Who?" he snorts. "Who? You — that's who. Not breathing right. Too shallow, your breathing. No good. No breathe, no life."

I stare at him.

No breathe, no life? Who does he think he is? Yoda?

"What's that?" I say finally, not too friendly. "Some, like, wise old Chinese saying?"

"No," he says. "Not old saying. Not wise old Chinese saying. Just common sense."

Then he turns away, dismissing me.

So I try it as I run out of the park. Inhaling deep, filling my lungs, feeling them expand, letting the breath seep out. Doing it again. Inhaling, exhaling. Slow and steady.

Kicking through last year's leaves, making myself take another breath.

It's not easy.

You see, she was my reason.

Copyright © 2001 by Tony Parsons

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Sort by: Showing all of 2 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted October 13, 2004

    Another Parsons Gem

    This is the 3rd Tony Parsons book I've read and it is just as enjoyable as the others. The circumstances are different but the message is the same...love and relationships are what counts. As an American who vacations in London, the settings are also a way for me to reconnect with the City.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 8, 2002

    One of the greatest books I've ever read

    Nothing made me smile, cry and laugh at the same time... The book is outstanding...

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