One of my earliest encounters with a long time resident was when I came across an English hairdresser from Essex who had lived in the village for more than twenty years. The first time we spoke he was propping up the wall in front of the single story house in which he now squats. He used to rent the place but hard times descended upon him when he lost his super glamorous job as chief stylist at one of the most famous hair salons in Hong Kong, all for being unreliable and less than sober on the job once too often. Over the following few months he gradually donated all of his life savings to various bars and sauna houses around town which had the unfortunate consequence of rendering him unable to pay the landlord’s rent. He decided to stay in his house until he was asked to leave, not least of all because he had nowhere else to go and the fabulous “in crowd” that had previously swooned over him, dropped him like a hot potato as soon as his bank balance turned red. Many years on, he has not been disturbed in his home since (other than by a burglar who dropped by a couple of months ago, stealing his only remaining valuable possessions; his Gucci watch and two Cartier rings). It is a little inconvenient living there now though, as he has no gas, electricity or running water, but, he keeps sitting outside during dry days and chatting to people who pass by; people like me on their way to town.
The house is resplendent with its peeling pink masonry paint, flaking away in the humidity and its corrugated tin roof, massively rusted and allowing the rain to leak in. The exterior front garden of the house is decorated festively sporting the corpse of a seven month old Christmas tree, an ornate Chinese bird cage (without residents), a string of fairy lights which no longer twinkle, two large bamboo poles painted bright red, a burgundy bathroom sink which gathers water and mosquitoes, some potted orchids, large pots of lilies and a wooden frog which sits on the wall next to him.
The “patio” of the house is famous. Located opposite the front garden and on the bank of the river is a clearing which is home to three chairs nestled under the shelter of a giant fir tree and a large flowering azalea. These kind of chairs are usually to be found local Chinese restaurants - ones with metal frames and brown plastic seat cushions. Hanging over the chairs, dangling from the fir tree are two hand-made red lobster pots which at some point belonged to the local fishermen but were “acquired’ and presented as a birthday gift to him one year because the colour matched the garden bamboo exactly. At any time of the day many of the retired villagers can be found sitting on those chairs enjoying a pit stop and perhaps even cocktails before lunch, beer for breakfast, afternoon drinks, or, when money runs out towards the end of the month, cheap Chinese rice wine with a dash of grapefruit juice to take the edge off the corrosive taste of the wine. Over drinks they catch up with gossip, put the world right again and silence the memories that haunt them.
“Oh Hello! You’re new here aren’t you? Don’t mind me I’m drunk, dear!” Those were his very first words to me at ten o’clock one Tuesday morning only a week after we had arrived in the village. “What’s your name?” He asked and when I told him he went on to explain that I would have to tell him my name every time we met because he never remembered names either because he is too drunk or not drunk enough and really I should not take it personally if he forgets mine.
My second chat with him was very informative. “You wear mascara, don’t you” he said, “Not like most of the women who live here. They don’t bother wearing make-up or blow drying their hair and it only takes ten minutes. They should get up earlier! Well, I notice these things and I can tell you blow dry your hair and wear mascara.” I agreed that I do both things.
“One coat, let it dry. Two coats, let it dry and three coats is just right! It may make you look like Dusty Springfield, but what the hell at least you will be noticed”. I had to admit, I had never looked at it that way before. “Even though I am very gay, dear, I don’t wear make-up myself, but, I know how it should be applied”. Somehow I didn’t think this meant he was any happier than the average man. “What’s your name, I’ve forgotten?” He said, and so ended our second meeting.
I see my hairdresser friend very often as I have to pass his place to get into town from my house. He has introduced me to many of the passing locals, some share a drink with him and others just stop to chat and offer him their time. He confided to me one day that he has to stand outside and talk to people because sitting in his dark, damp and mercilessly hot house all day drives him mad. Several times I have noticed that if he sees me approaching from within the darkness behind the front door he rushes out to talk to me. He has mastered remembering my name at last and one day he told me that he is going to get a job. That was six months ago now.
On days when I do not see him propping up the wall or on the patio I worry in case something has happened to him. This happened a couple of weeks ago, he wasn't there as usual and I wondered if he was ill. The next thing I knew there he was in the queue at the supermarket. He was counting his pennies for a wire scrubber because he let his only pan boil dry on his recently donated camping stove whilst cooking potatoes for lunch. He had fallen asleep from too much booze and so the pan was black.
I am always impressed by the kindness of the neighbours in the village. People bring him lunch and take him out for dinner, invite him in for a cup of tea, and to family BBQ's on the beach. They leave bundles of warm clothes for him in the winter and t-shirts for him in the summer. They drop off hong bao's stuffed with dollar bills for him at Chinese New Year and beautifully wrapped presents and bulging hampers for him at Christmas. Everybody knows that when he gets the small amount of monthly cash which is his pension, he will spend it within a week on drink and visiting the sauna houses and that he cannot help himself. They know that the middle to the end of the month is the hardest and hungriest time of all for him and always offer him a hand.