by Keith Addison
Hong Kong Life magazine Oct. 1994-Jan. 1996
The Valley of the Lost Decade
How to Spend 12 Weeks in Bed
Pass the Doggie Bag
If Pigs Could Fly They Wouldn't Need Cars
Stealer of Souls
On the Slow Train with a Skinful of Wine
The Neighbourhood Dragon
From 1994 to 1932 in Only Three Minutes
Singing and Laughing
Have Nose, Will Follow
Harrods to Sell Elixir-of-Life
Galahad's Secret Mission
Escape to Shangri-La
Put it in Your Pocket
What Johnny Should Have Said
The Cockroaches Went in Two by Two
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
A Complaint to the Inspector of Thunderstorms
I had a deadline to catch that evening, with quite a lot to write still -- no time for fooling around. But that's what I was doing: lolling about, smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee -- what did I care about gross, mundane things like earning a living?
___Lots actually, I cared lots, but some things you can't fight. Things like thunderstorms, one of which was bearing down rapidly on this small house on its isolated Lantau mountainside, and I'd had the foresight and wisdom to switch off the computers and unplug the telephone line, which left me with nothing to do.
___Things like foresight and wisdom don't exactly come easily, I find. This particular dose of these fine things had arrived unwonted upon the horns of a bolt of lightning during one of the killer storms that swept in on the tail of Typhoon Helen a couple of weeks earlier.
___I like a good storm, so I was outside watching the lightning crashing about in the hills, and getting very wet. Then it started getting closer, so I ran for the house. I'd have been quite safe but for a rogue flash that arrived much sooner than it should have -- the storm wasn't overhead yet, but this bolt certainly was, with an immense clap of thunder at almost the same instant. I nearly made it -- I had the door open and I was halfway in when it hit. My hand was on the door, which is made of steel, and it was wet.
___What happened next is very clear in my mind -- a total blank, lasting a few seconds I suppose, and then I was lying on the floor, shaking, and cursing foully. Some people just don't have any gratitude: I wasn't dead, I wasn't even hurt, but I was annoyed. Still cursing, I got up, went to the still-open door and yelled: "Who the HELL do you think you are?" A second sizzling bolt and a bone-rattling explosion more or less brought me to my senses: I leapt back inside and slammed the door. "Sorry!" I heard myself say, and slumped into a chair, still shaking.
___The full force of the storm arrived, a mad thing roaring and crashing in the night, with hardly a pause between the thunderbolts. I'd recovered enough to pour myself a double single malt when I noticed that, inside the house, all was silent. A CD had been playing, but no longer: the stereo was dead. So was all my computer gear -- then I remembered I'd switched it off some time earlier (nasty moment there).
___The storm from hell eventually passed, and I switched things on again. Fiddling with the sound system produced no response, it stayed dead, damn. Computers, drives, printer, fax, answering machine, telephone all worked, my snazzy new high-speed modem worked. Or at least the LED lights came on when I flipped the switch -- all of them, and stayed that way no matter what I did, failing to blink on and off in their usual cheery fashion and display reassuring messages such as "OK" and so on. But it had been switched off, how could it be damaged? An hour earlier it had been working snazzily.
___"Was it still plugged into the telephone line?" came the e-mailed question from the manufacturers in California via my less snazzy, slower, older modem. Well, yes. Ah. The lightning went up the telephone line. Never mind, they'd tell the local agent to replace it. Which they did.
___While I was at the agent's I met another man replacing a wrecked modem. He told me he'd so far lost two modems, a fax machine and six telephones in thunderstorms. He lived in Saikung, which is almost as uncivilised as Lantau. On the ferry coming back to Lantau I met a third man, who said he'd lost every bit of gear he had except his video.
___So thus it was that, foresight and wisdom acquired, all was unplugged and I was twiddling my thumbs as the storm approached, deadline notwithstanding. What a storm it was too, as bad as the other one, I really enjoyed it. And for all its efforts, it left me unscathed. Instead, it took out a couple of junctions on the overhead powerlines, in Pui O, Tong Fuk and elsewhere, leaving swathes of Lantau without power, including my swathe.
___Sudden darkness, spasmodically lit by lurid bolts of lightning. I found a torch, located some candles and checked the fuse box, but none of the switches had tripped. The storm passed, the rain stopped. I plugged in the telephone and called the power company. Engineers were locating the fault, they'd call me when they knew how long it would take.
___This house isn't habitable without power. Normally, you can close all the windows and doors and have the aircon on, which also cuts the humidity and stops the rot eating your clothes, shoes, books, slides, camera lenses, skin and so on, or you can open the windows and switch on the ceiling fan, which is pleasant, but in the evening you have to burn mosquito coils if you want to stay alive. But without the fan, and no breath of a breeze, you start to choke on the fumes from the coils.
___So I fled -- I needed some supplies and the Mui Wo supermarket was still open. The steep path leading up from the house was a dark, rushing torrent but I made it to the top, glared at my defunct Land Rover, parked there for weeks without a carburettor, and set off on the 10-minute walk down to the bus stop.
___As usual, a bus went past just as I reached the main road, with the stop around the corner. The drivers daren't stop, because if they pull up more than 15.375 millimetres from a designated bus stop an over-enthusiastic policeman will leap from behind a bush and fine them for infringing the law (there just isn't enough actual crime on Lantau).
___I waved at the driver, he waved back. I walked up the road to the stop. Another bus came, but it was full of holidaymakers. The buses are supposed to mesh with the ferries, with packs of them rushing back and forth every hour, but it's hard to discern a timetable: sometimes you can wait half an hour and then one or more buses will amble up five minutes after the ferry's already left. A third bus arrived, not quite full, and I climbed aboard.
___I did the shopping and went to find a taxi. The bus stop on the way up bears no spatial relationship to the one on the way down: it's a long, steep climb from there, especially with four bags of supplies and the week's laundry (and a twisted knee from slipping on the path). There was a queue at the taxi stand, and no taxis. It was 8.45. By 9.30 only two taxis had come and gone. Then the buses pulled in to meet the ferry, and most of the taxi queue gave up and rushed to get on the buses before all the seats were taken by the crowd from the ferry, leaving only me and a couple of teenage girls in front of me.
___The buses departed. The ferry departed. Silence fell. We waited. The girls were eyeing me, sort of surreptitiously, and whispering. They looked nice enough, two city girls, well turned out in their casual gear, and I'd been about to ask them where they were bound, with a view to sharing their taxi, but this put me off.
___It seems they were deciding that I wasn't a policeman. One of them produced a crumpled-looking cigarette, which they lit, producing a cloud of acrid smoke. I sniffed in surprise -- they were smoking a joint! They both started flapping ineffectually at the smoke with their hands to make it go away. I couldn't help laughing at them: "What are you doing, you silly girls, are you crazy?"
___They grinned at me and offered me the joint. "No thanks! Where are you going?"
___They were going camping, they said, at Tong Fuk, carrying exactly nothing except the joint. I saw some people approaching. "Put it out," I said. They did. The newcomers stood behind me in the queue, a woman and an older couple. A few minutes later a taxi arrived and the girls climbed in -- now was my chance, but somehow it seemed like a very bad idea to get in that cab with those girls. "Be careful," I said as they waved goodbye.
___We waited, and waited. "Where are you going?" I asked the woman, thinking I'd share my taxi with them, if it ever came.
___"To Shap Long," she said. That's in Chimawan, quite a long walk from the bus stop in Pui O, but they weren't carrying anything, and the older couple were hardy islanders, fit and strong. I'd thought she looked familiar -- I lived in Shap Long 14 years ago, she was an ex-neighbour.
___"Would you like to share my taxi?"
___"No," she said. I blinked. "We want to go first, my parents are very tired. There's no room for you and your bags, you can wait."
___My mouth fell open.
___"No, you can wait," I said when I got my breath back. "Or you can walk, if you like."
___She glared at me, mouth clamped shut, chin thrust up aggressively. She's a better act than the two girls, I thought, and laughed. She flinched and turned away.
___Then a taxi arrived and she started forward to grab it, but I was quicker and blocked her. She started to argue but I stared her down. She stood there glaring in anger as I opened the door, got in and pulled my bags in after me, not taking my eyes off her until I'd shut the door. The driver glanced at me in the mirror and chuckled. "Lai Chi Yuen," I told him, and the cab pulled off. I'd waited an hour and a half.
___The lights were on again when I got back home.
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