Without a moment’s hesitation, he is off. He slides on his favourite trainers, instantly feeling younger, almost as fit as a fiddle. He gazes back at his wife, her lips forming a perfectly content little ‘O’ and blows her an honest kiss. He almost forgets his trusty stick. Sometimes his age slips from his mind. But, adorning his faded denim baseball cap, he feels at one with youth again.
I dangle my feet over the stone ledge, just skimming the dried-out lily pads, before pulling them back up to attend to a fresh batch of mosquito bites.
It’s a beautiful, lazy Sunday. It’s hot. I feel sticky but I continue on with my reading regardless. I don’t even hear him enter the Pagoda, so light is he on his supposedly youthful toes.
As I turn the page, I hear a small “hello young lady.” I twist my neck fully expecting to see an elderly expat gentleman. My eyebrows tweak in excitable surprise when I realise he is a lot older than he sounded and he is infact a local.
He takes a seat inside the Pagoda and so begins our afternoon back and forth.
He is one of those wise, old Chinese men. The kind with perfectly furrowed brows, the classical nose and a gaze of someone in the know.
He is very curious about my decision to study Chinese. I am more curious about his self-taught fluency in English and his worldly travels throughout the war.
His politeness lures me. I want to hear more tales of his time in India and his escape from China to Taiwan back in 1949. He still loves to travel, I can sense it in his eyes. He tells me about him and his wife’s recent trips back to China. They love to explore.
In the two hours spent chatting with him, there was a lot of time spent on reflecting. As he told his stories of adventuring, he would linger on certain memories, nostalgia dancing across his face. I kept silent, nodding in acknowledgement, eyes lighting up with a positive kind of envy. I didn’t make a peep for fear of bringing him back to our current day.
His eyes never wandered.
When it was his turn to listen, he did it well. He didn’t say much in return but his encouragement was very much present.
But as quickly as our curious encounter had begun, I caught him glancing at his watch and shifting in his seat.
It was like any other day for him. It was four in the afternoon and his freshly prepared dinner would be waiting neatly on the table. He wished me well and hoped we would meet again. Just like that, he was off.
I waited for a while before wandering off to collect my bicycle.
As I raced along Heping West Road, I saw him strolling on the other side. I was about to wave, try and catch his attention, when I noticed the faraway glaze in the eyes- he was still there.
He saw her. He was very much present. He believed it was she that who seemed far away, caught up in this new world she had found herself in. It was a look he recognized, one he longed for, but he knew those days had passed.
He blinked and she was gone, just a flurry of pink flashing in his eyes as he lost sight of her and her bicycle.
Clambering up the dusty stairs, he smiled; he had been there before, and thanks to the young lady today he had had yet another chance to re-live it.
“Life,” he whispered through a little bubble of laughter, “you are a damn, fine thing.”
He could smell the freshly roasted duck sizzling on his plate as he opened the front door. He placed his cap on the hook, slid off his trainers and went over to the window to take his seat. “Lily,” he announced, “let’s take one last trip to India, shall we?”