Stranger than fiction

This story had its genesis on a ferry returning to Hong Kong from the outlying island of Cheung Chau. It was a Sunday, late in the afternoon. The ferry terminal was crowded and we couldn’t get window seats. I looked around and noticed an elderly man sitting by a window in the corner, apparently making notes. Later, as the ferry ploughed its solitary furrow through the still waters of the bay, its gentle undulations caused my mind to drift, and speculate on what he was writing…

He could never understand why some people would pass their time on a journey reading a book or a magazine. Okay, if you’re on a plane at 30,000 feet and there is nothing to see outside but blue skies above and white clouds below; maybe then, reading becomes an option. But even then, there is so much going on inside the cabin: the impatient passenger demanding instant service; the child who has waited until the last minute to announce his need to go to the toilet and is now dancing from one foot to another behind a queue of three other people; the arrogant teenager who has leaned his seat all the way back and the muttering accountant behind him who is trying to eat his lunch with the tray rammed hard into his chest; the middle-aged tourist flirting with the pretty stewardess while his wife fumes alongside him; and the girl in the headphones singing along to the music, unaware that the whole cabin car hear her. This was so much more entertaining than any book you could read. Besides, who can concentrate, surrounded by all that activity?

Someone once said that the journey is more important than the destination; and while he found himself reluctant to support that assertion categorically – because he hadn’t put it to the test – he was in no doubt that the journey, itself, had its own, intrinsic value. So, passing one’s time in transit reading a book was, to him, akin to jumping straight to the last chapter of the self-same book without reading all of the scene-setting and character-development and plot-creation that leads, inexorably, to the climax of the work (assuming that one is reading a work of fiction, which, in his observation, most people who read in transit seem to read). So it struck him as ironic that a person would ignore the real-life crescendo that the journey represents in favour of some fictional crescendo that one can only experience vicariously.

Of course, he didn’t just observe. Oh no! He always carried with him a notebook in which he would scribble down all the little details that struck him as significant as the journey unfolded. Not that he ever did anything with all these jottings. In fact, when the notebook was full, he’d put it away and start a new one; and maybe never open the completed one again. He had an excellent memory for detail; so he really didn’t need the notebooks. Anything that had happened in the last 10 years, he could recall with even more detail than he had been able to scribble down at the time; and anything that happened more than 10 years ago, even the notebook could not stimulate recall of the details that hadn’t been captured. So, unless he stumbled upon a notebook in the course of a search for something else, and happened to open it and read a passage at random, his moving finger, having writ, moved inexorably on. His wife, who was one of those people who read books in transit, was irritated by this apparently pointless jotting; and in moments of stress would ask him: “Why do you fill up all these notebooks with stuff that you never read? What is the point of it?” His answer was simple, and elegant in its logic: “It is the act of writing that cements the details in my memory so that I have no need to refer to the notebooks.” Her response to that was sublimely pragmatic: “Then why do you need to keep them?” And he, at this point in time, had not come up with a satisfactory answer to that, except to say that it was a form of insurance against an unexpected lapse in memory.

But the simple fact of the matter was that he enjoyed observing, and recording his observations; and it was a less destructive and less expensive hobby than gambling or drinking or golf; and the supply of things to observe and record seemed inexhaustible. Even commuting to and from work, on the same bus, day after day, week after week, year after year, there were always subtle differences to catch his attention: chance encounters; elaborate farewells, quarrels, and people waiting for other people. He liked the chance encounters best; the expressions of surprise and delight on the faces of the protagonists. And it seemed to him, based on his many observations, that the intensity of the expression was commensurate with the unlikelihood of the encounter.

His wife was one of those people who seemed to attract chance encounters; which was surprising since she always seemed to have her face buried in a book. He wondered how many more she might have had if she’d looked up a little oftener. Sometimes, he felt the urge to ask her: “What is so enthralling about that book?” but he knew it would only provoke an argument so he’d return his attention to his observations and let the urge to confront her dissolve in the wealth of goings on. Then again, the odds of the chance encounter were tilted in his wife’s favour since she had far more friends than he had; plus she came from a much larger family that had spread itself around the globe. On a trip overseas one time, she bumped into former colleague not 100 metres from the hotel in which they had just registered. On another occasion, she chanced upon a former classmate on Chang’an Boulevard in Beijing. But the most extraordinary encounter of all was when she met her cousin from Canada in an oasis in the Gobi Desert, when neither of them knew that the other was in China. The mathematical probability of this happening was infinitesimally small, given the time and distances involved and the fact that her cousin’s journey had been delayed due to their vehicle breaking down. That one went straight into his notebook!

But he, himself, was not immune to the chance encounter. He had crossed paths with an acquaintance unexpectedly in Paris on one occasion; and had run into an old friend in a beer hall in Munich on another; but his own favourite chance encounter took place in Madison, Wisconsin. He was visiting the university there for just one day as part of a research project. His hosts had invited him to lunch but he had declined their offer because he had made a prior arrangement. This had seemed quite incredible to them but one of the really nice things about folks in Madison, he found, was their sense of humour; their ability to laugh at themselves. When he arrived from Chicago late on the previous evening, he had noticed T-shirts for sale with the inscription “my dad loves me so much he went all the way to Madison to buy me this T-shirt.” Madison is somewhat off the beaten track and the people of Madison know this and can laugh about it. This is why they were more than a little surprised to hear that he had made prior arrangements for lunch. Who could a visitor from another country possibly know in Madison? The answer was that his wife’s sister knew a Postgraduate student from Japan who was studying there and had arranged for them to meet. But that was not the chance encounter. That happened after he had met the Japanese student. They were walking through the campus, headed for the Student Union, when he saw a familiar face coming towards him. As they approached, he said simply “Good afternoon”, whereupon the owner of the familiar face looked up and replied in similar fashion; and they both carried on walking as if the meeting had taken place on familiar territory.

If his hosts in Madison were surprised that he had a prior engagement for lunch, his lunch partner was even more astounded that he had met someone he knew in Madison when she had been lead to believe that he was a stranger in town. And he, himself, was more than a little tickled by the nonchalance of the encounter. But the fact was that they had never actually met before. Having worked for so many years at the same university in Australia, they had seen each other around campus on many occasions; but since he was a numbers man and his compatriot was a biologist, there had been no reason for them to be introduced. And had this encounter not taken place in such unexpected circumstances, they would probably have passed that day without acknowledging each other.

The recollection of that moment always made him smile. The world is such a strange place; and people are even stranger beings. How could a work of fiction ever be considered a substitute for real life?


6 thoughts on “Stranger than fiction

  1. Yet another lovely story, Keith. Sometimes, the world we create via words can be richer and more exciting than real life. Other times, the mundane truly reflect the way things are.

    Given that this is HK, I could speculate several things this man is jotting down. Lottery numbers to buy, horse racing tips, mahjong strategies, real estate calculations. And the list goes on. I’m not stereotyping but in HK and China, it is a high likelihood. Wouldn’t it be great to be able to go back in time and ask? 🙂

  2. I delight in the picture and your entry into the man’s mind, not the least because it could be my own mind you have entered. I am a journal-keeper, a note-jotter, and for many of the same reasons your character reports: once I have written it, I’m likely to remember it, and what I don’t write never seems “real” to me and slips from memory; besides, it is all so fascinating, I don’t want to forget, and taking notes is way of expressing gratitude for all of it. So the better life is, the more I want to take notes. However unlike your gentleman, I do actually throw my books in the trash once I’ve filled them. You do a fine job of creating a character to go with the picture, and I want to do more of this with my own blog, so thanks for the inspiration!

  3. The world sure is strange and such chance encounters cement such an idea. I was looking up to the top floor of the house I had lived in 35 years ago in Amsterdam trying to detect if my old buddy was home, when my childhood friend from Zurich passed by, totally unexpected and what a coincidence. When life is full, rich and good, reading can seem like a sinful distraction. You have a wonderful way with words.

  4. Seems to me, that you, me, and all the photographers, are that man. Not for us the reading on the train. We look at what’s around us. We are endlessly fascinated and jot down what we see, digitally…

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