It had been 50 years since Bill Cassell had set foot on Shek-O Beach in Hong Kong. He was still a young man when he’d walked onto these sands all those years ago. Although well preserved he’d lost along the way all those things that define you as a young man – ambitions, dreams, hope, confidence and the infinite belief that everything would work out for the best. Now he stood on this empty beach clinging to his last remaining hope. A hope so thin and futile he felt ashamed at how pathetic he’d become in his old age.
50 years ago on this beach he’d been stopped by a young Chinese girl selling hats. He’d looked at her and everything had changed. It wasn’t just her obvious beauty, there was something else about her – perhaps her calmness, perhaps the wisdom in her twinkling eyes, her joyous laugh, the feeling that he meant something to her – that suggested there could be a purpose in his meandering and confused life. He’d bought the hat he didn’t need and they’d chatted. They’d also laughed and enjoyed each other’s company for what may’ve only been 10 minutes in total, and then she’d bid him farewell and walked away. But had never left him. He’d promised to come back and see her tomorrow but his Aussie buddies had gotten him drunk that night and he slept all the next day, nearly missing his night time flight back home. Since the encounter there’d not been a day when he hadn’t thought of her and wondered how she was. He hoped maybe she’d thought of him too. Such are the dreams that torment old men.
Where had 50 years gone? Oh that’s right, he’d returned to Australia, and married a safe convenient woman approved by everyone as a “good catch” and had then worked his guts out to buy a home to make sure his marriage remained safe and convenient. Then children had come along and gone. And finally, so had his wife, taking the safe and convenient home with her. He was now standing on the beach at Shek-O a laughing stock to his own logic but he was too old to care anymore. And it was almost dark.
How come 10 minutes had meant so much in his life and 50 years hadn’t? Perhaps it’s one of the cruel jokes God plays on us. Penalizing us for not following our instincts and wasting our lives in safety. Surely He gave us a life to live, not to hide in. Bill had discovered this wisdom all too late and it was in the knowing that the severest pain comes.
He asked some of the bar people overlooking the beach whether they remembered her. But most couldn’t understand him. In the nearby village a wise looking old Chinese medicine man listened patiently to Bill’s story all the while looking intently into his sad eyes. Bill guessed he too couldn’t understand a word and was trying to decipher meaning by other means. When Bill was finished his manic raving, the old Chinese medicine man smiled and nodded his head. Maybe he was used to silly old Western men retracing their bad decisions and too kind to tell the latest lost soul that it was gone. Gone, gone, gone.
Bill walked back to the beach as if it might miraculously manifest her. And there he stood for hours until it was night. He did the same thing the next day and then next day. His skin was burned red by the lack of a sun hat. Or someone caring enough to offer him one. By the third day some locals had gathered to watch this strange man pacing up and down the length of the beach, fully clothed.
A curious old local lady asked the Chinese medicine man to explain what was happening. And in his Mandarin tongue he answered, “If you hold onto your dreams too long they damn you to hell.”
The old Chinese lady looked back at that stranger on the beach as if she vaguely understood. She’d once sold sun hats there and had waited for weeks for a boy to return and be her friend. He’d seemed like such a nice person. And was so full of enthusiasm and dreams. But she was wise enough to know that it’d been in another life, or so it seemed.
On the beach, Bill Cassell paced ceaselessly, searching for his youth and driven made by longing. Trapped in the hell of his own making. And ranting at the deserting tide.
(c) Frank Howson 2015