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Anne Townsend

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

I’ve never been happier than in Country X

We’ve all encountered them on social media. In my case, that would be Facebook. But I suspect they adopt a similar tone on other forms of social media. You know the type. They’re living in a small town Two Handsin the US, or in Boston, Perth, Vancouver, Wimbledon, or even Sydney. And they’re not happy. We know this because happy people don’t spend all day on the internet. More to the point, happy people don’t feel the need to make snide comments, again and again, about the country they used to call home. And even more to the point, happy people don’t need to tell you how happy and at peace they are in their new home, and how proud they are to be a permanent resident of Country X, Y, or Z. Happy people are engaged in the politics, the economy, the social life, the nature and the general buzz and vibe of their new homes. They’re out there. Engaged. They are not slagging off Jacob Zuma, or smiling about the devaluing of the rand, or/and sneering at the corruption. That’s not engagement, people. That’s obsession. Now that you’re a thirty three hour flight away from the man we call our president, don’t you have better things to do than to list all his evils?

Because here’s the thing about long-term snideness. It’s corrosive. Regardless of how justified your target, it’s the snideness that depletes. (Yes, I know. As in really, really know). So every time you have a strong urge to take one more dig at us, to mock us just that one more (teensy) time, rather snatch a sharp little kitchen knife off your Australian or Kiwi kitchen counter. And then nick yourself on the arm. Just a little scratch. Once it starts hurting, nick yourself again, a little deeper this time. There you go. That’s corrosion for you. It hurts. Now go outside and plant a tree in your New Country. Meet a local. Spend a dollar or a pound on something indulgent. Hug that strong new currency of yours in your Gorgeous New Country. You CAN do it. We are rooting for you. It takes guts, discipline and an iron will. But from behind our electric fences, high walls, and in my case, my very own security guard metres away from my front door (yes, isn’t that fabulous?) we are cheering you on.

You CAN do this. Go and be happy. Somewhere Else.

Chapter One, Passionate Nomad

Ch 1 Mountain

Photo credit Anne Townsend @ Vredehoek, Western Cape

Fruit (4)

Photo Credit Anne Townsend @ Bangkok 2016

A distant and gentle universe

On the first of May I sat in the front seat of a truck, wedged in between my dog and K, hurtling over De Waal Drive overlooking the City Bowl, the place I used to call home.

And it struck me that I was not only homeless but keyless.

Five minutes earlier I had dropped a large bunch of keys, that had been part of my life for twenty three years, into my postbox. The postbox that for the past month belonged to the new owner of my (actually her) flat that I had occupied as a tenant for one month post transfer. I should have had another set of keys made, I cursed. I could have fondled the keys and looked at them until the reality of the situation had sunk in.

I was being driven to my (temporary) new abode in Kalk Bay by K, who used to work as a para-medic in his old life in Zimbabwe. Every time I twisted my stiff neck to look at P, the mover, sitting at the back of the truck, on top of my desk next to my fridge, I said to K:

‘Are you sure he’s OK?’

‘Trust me’, said K. ‘He’s fine. Just trust me.’

Only once we were at the top of Boyes Drive, overlooking the south side of my hometown, the side that was soon to be my new home, did we hear a frantic banging on the roof of the truck. P was being swung from one side of my desk to the top of my fridge and he was frantic.

Kalk Bay lasted less than a fortnight. I received my new keys many hours after I arrived as my new home was still occupied by the previous tenant when I knocked on the door. A long-haired woman cradling a baby sat on the bed where mine belonged. As I sat outside for the next six hours, I ate a bunch of bananas, played with my dog, and watched the tenant, the son-in-law of the woman on the bed, wheel his possessions from my (new) home to his (new) home, around the corner up a steep cobbled-stone lane.

From the moment I put my flat on the market I started seeing homeless people everywhere. When the agent showed prospective buyers my flat, I fled to the closest park and hung out with the vagrants. When I checked my mail at the library, more often than not I found myself next to a homeless man from Malawi.

Now I have a new rented home in Muizenberg. As I type this I see cars and trucks crawling along Boyes Drive in the distance; from the front window I see the traffic circle at Sunrise Beach. Trucks gliding along the back drop of mountains. When I drag myself outside, I cross the vlei over a wooden foot bridge, past kite flyers, dog walkers, kayaks, hang gliders and young couples on wooden benches. A brisk walk through the old village and around the corner I find Muizenberg beach.

The beach I’ve been avoiding for three decades.

Vredehoek is a distant and gentle universe.

It was my prison too.

At Knead I watch the wetsuits on surfboards, and everything I own in the world is a ten minute walk away. Knead feels like my personal local café. Which it is. On previous visits, I was a day tripper at Surfer’s Corner. Now the surfers are day trippers visiting my neighbourhood.

I don’t need to move to a small town. Muizenberg, Lakeside and Marina da Gama are already small towns attached to a larger city. The City Bowl is a congested, expensive and in places very beautiful region where I no longer live. And even though only a week ago I told someone it felt like an amputation, today I feel unburdened and elated.

Home is where my fridge lives. Home is where I write. Home is where Mui Mui snores. Home is my present view of a tall hedge, a green roof with a white chimney, the twin peaks of the mountain and a telephone wire occupied by a long row of birds.

Muizenberg, despite a torrent of reservations and prejudices, and years of snide comments about how much I loathe hippies, is my new resting place.

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Why does Pam have an oval face?

IMG_0019[1]Why does Pam have an oval face and is that her mouth that’s moving?

How I wish I was joking. But no, this was winter in rural China, late 2002. I was teaching at a boarding school in Jiangsu Province and my new neighbour/co-teacher had returned early from her trip to Chengdu to see the pandas. Pam was a Harvard Law student and this was her gap year, after three years at college. She wanted to improve her Mandarin and take a breather from a ghastly relationship with a man that, as far as I could tell, should have been in prison.

‘But he stole all your money!!’

‘Yes, but I don’t want to see him go to jail.’

‘But he stole all your money!!!’

Other than this, Pam and I got on as only NBF’s (New Best Friends) in the Middle of Nowhere could. My former colleague had been fired – that’s another story for another time – and Pam had gone traveling, leaving me in my massive, very cold apartment, during the school holidays. It was an ordeal leaving the front door as I got too much attention (the only Westerner in town) and my desktop computer with fast-speed internet beckoned.

For four days I’d been on a British chat forum, in-between listening to Cape Talk and mailing friends. Hunched up in my freezing study, overlooking the flooded rice paddies, I listened to Lisa Chiat warning motorists traveling to the airport that there were cows wandering along the N2. Occasionally I would defrost a baguette in the microwave and open a tin of tuna followed by a few chunks of Cote d’Or chocolate, bought on my monthly trip to Carrefour in Shanghai. One night I put the chocolate in the microwave and told my online friends about my instant chocolate mousse.

The TV shows were in Mandarin, I’d read all the books I’d ordered on www.amazon.com, my Australian friend, Mark, who commuted between Sydney, Shanghai and Gugao, our neighbouring town, was in Australia, and I had literally not spoken to or seen another human being for four days. My doorbell rang, and there stood Pam.

‘Can I come in?’ she asked. ‘I’ve got so much to tell you!!’ She was wearing a cuddly woollen jacket and a knitted cap.

I was in shock. She wasn’t a square screen with words moving along a white A4 page. Sounds flew from her lips to the sides of my face but in my numb, dazed trance all I could think of was how to get her from my front door to hers. As I type this I marvel at how lucky I was to have her living one metre away, just the two of us on the sixth floor of an apartment block. It was like Friends or Melrose Place. Except that my British chat forum buddies were compelling. We’d been discussing a meet-up over Christmas at the Randolph Hotel in Oxford and I was being chatted up by a dude who fancied himself an eco-warrier.

But what about the luxury of a much younger foreign friend who could tell me first-hand about a part of China I’d never visited? (Pam was 22, I was 40).

It was too real. It was an effort. It was human contact. It was mouths moving and lips shaped to convey facial expressions. I ushered Pam back to her empty Arctic apartment with a few words: ‘I’m having a hectic debate with a couple of British dudes; it’s about the environment. I’m about to make my final points!!’

Shortly thereafter my year in China was at an end. Pam stood outside blubbing in the courtyard as Lily and I climbed into the school mini bus. I was wearing a full-length black coat; Pam was wrapped in a duvet. It was 6:00am and Mr. Shen, our neighbour from the fifth floor, was hauling my luggage into the boot. ‘I don’t know what I’m going to do without you,’ Pam said. That was the last time we saw each other.

*****************************************************************************

Many decisions lie ahead: whether to buy a car, where to rent while I look for a permanent home, whether to buy a house in Paarl or a flat in Woodstock.  (They cost the same.) But far more important, I’ve come to realize, is whether I continue to live in an internet-free home. Can I continue to sculpt a working life around a home that doesn’t encourage screen addiction? Without it, my days are textured and unpredictable. I’ve got my life back. When people warn me against Marina da Gama (Remember, it’s an island), or moving to Paarl (Won’t you be isolated?), what I recall is that screen addiction separated me from the good stuff. So no matter where I live next, if I end up spending my days with my oval face draped over a black keyboard, I’m going to be wasting my life.

‘Listen with your chest. You will feel a pendulum swing within you, favoring one direction or another. And that is your answer. The answer is always inside your chest. The right choice weighs more. That’s how you know. It causes you to lean in its direction.’ Augusten Burroughs, Stories for Christmas: You Better Not Cry.

I’ve been known to grapple with the pendulum and shove it in another direction. The bulk of my energy is then directed at trying to keep the pendulum in place.  Recovering alcoholics go to incredible lengths to design lives around their sobriety. They ditch jobs, homes, old friends and relationships, and cultivate new lives around that one non-negotiable: no alcohol allowed. And their lives flourish and prosper.

I don’t need to give up the internet. All I need is an internet-free home. The longer I stay off-line, the more vivid life becomes. The blurred vision caused by white noise and online static gives way to crisp and sharp focus. I feel more. Both the agony of moving and the exhilaration of living in a home surrounded by the blinding beauty of my country.

Life minus the buffer of screen addiction.

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Photo Credit Anne Townsend

Why I love Cape Town

An Update from Jeremy in Johannesburg:
My Cape Town tour ended up being a whirlwind whistle-stop tour of 2 days.  We ended up doing vineyards, Cape Point, Kalk Bay, and then I found myself on a flight back to JHB. I did not have a chance to see anyone really – except my 2 aunts and their kids.

After letting out all those skeletons a few months ago, I again realized that I am happy to wash my hands off of Cape Town and am at peace never to see the place again.  The 2-day tour was just enough time to rush in, land, keep busy, and leave.  I didn’t want to connect with anyone or anything – it was too painful.  I wanted it to be like a business trip I often take: go in, rush-rush-rush, leave.  No time to take in the surroundings or connect.

What I found though, was that something has changed – I was so proud of the incredible natural beauty of my exquisite city; I wanted to show these foreigners everything, and I took them into the Cape Flats where we ate home-cooked food served by aunties out of their kitchens. I was proud of it all.  I didn’t feel the need to stick within the City Bowl/Atlantic Seaboard perimeter as I always used to, only stepping outside the border to quickly visit a family member, and then rush straight back.

It reminds me of a time I was on board a BA flight to London on business.  As I was boarding, I noticed a Cape Town friend on the plane so during the flight I was on my way to go say hi. The cabin crew member asked me where I was going and I said, “To economy class – I saw a friend of mine there”.  She responded, “Urrghh…, be careful, it’s dangerous out there – and take a glass of champagne because it’s so fabulous being here!”

This is how I felt when visiting Cape Town in the past, ensuring I step out quickly because ‘it’s dangerous out there’ and always carrying my glass of champagne.  Cape Town has grown up, I thought, people have matured, and the people I’d rejected stood with open arms, waiting to see me.  I could see in their eyes the joy of having me around.  I’ve realized that the reasons for my rejecting others had nothing to do with them, but everything to do with me.  It has nothing to do with residing in Cape Town but everything to do with what was residing in me.  I don’t know if I’m completely over everything, but what I do know is that the ‘eina’ feeling of Cape Town has started to ease.

Am I feeling like packing up and moving back?

No.

But I’d like to visit more often, much more often.

Photo Credit Anne Townsend

ART (2)ART (2)ART (2)

Quirky kitchen begs for creative overhaul

Have you noticed how city folk who move to small towns beg their old friends to visit?

The shrillness of the invitation terrifies.

I’m not ready for small town life.

My flat has been sold and several options beckon. A townhouse in Plumstead, a cottage at Marina da Gama, a mountain-facing flat in Fish Hoek.

Truth be told, none of these appeal. They terrify. Change frightens. Moving appalls.

Trust the process, well-meaning, settled folks advise.

I text myself sound-bites of wisdom and save them in my Nokia Inbox. At night, sleepless with relocation angst, I stare at the words glowing in the dark.

Once I accept the truth of transience, my struggle melts.

Solutions often arise from a state of alert calm as we gain a different perspective.

Stop thinking and talking about it and there is nothing you will not be able to know.

I snatch these quotes from books with ‘Happiness’ in the title, or from articles accompanied by a photo of the Dalai Lama.

All I really want is to live in the same place, keep my dog alive forever and never grow old.

All people ask for are the simple things in life. Keep our loved ones safe, never sell our homes and provide cash for the basics.

Death, funerals, Sold signs, poverty, overdrafts, dental implants, grey hairs, removal trucks. These things appear out of nowhere.

Trust that the universe has its own order, someone sends me via Yahoo. I seldom trust; I dread, I fear, I know that bad things happen.

The universe has no order. Nelson Mandela died. Cemeteries lie scattered the world over. Lovely people end up in coffins.

Real estate agents make for scary companions during transition. As neighbours withdraw and my furniture finds new owners, women I know only by their online profile coo into my voicemail. Are you free tonight? We could meet at 7pm to view cottage with sea view.

Somewhere my new home rests, waiting for me to find it, says Norman at the Spar. Norman owns so many properties my head spins. He shows me pics of his latest acquisition on his i-Pad. The owners cried when they moved out after twenty five years, he tells me.

Thanks, I feel better now.

My current home has been an anchor for over two decades, and I still remember our telephone number in Argyle Road, 021-689 2333, where I spent the first eighteen years of my life. These are minor details, vapid technicalities. My new home needs to know where to get hold of me so that we can merge and move in together. Vredehoek will always be home, just as Lamma Island still feels like home. I bristle at the thought of strangers living in my cottage at 26 Rouwkoop Road next to the Rondebosch railway line in St Andrews Road.

In 1989 I moved out after eight years, never to return.

Soon I will have as many homes as Norman. Former homes, current homes, future homes. Fantasy homes recommended by Berenice and Indiana from Seeff and Remax.

Quirky kitchen and garage that begs for creative overhaul.

Stamp your loving touch all over this eccentric one-bedroom with view of spacious parking lot. You won’t regret it.

Other people are stuck. My life flows.

That’s as long as I stick to the messages in my Inbox. Nokia always know where I’m at.

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Photo Credit Anne Townsend

Flowing water and finch nests

‘There’s lots to write about in Darling. The locals drink and fight and last week a woman murdered her husband. Knifed him to death! Stabbed!’

‘Wow. Actually, I’m not here to write about Darling. I’m looking for a quiet, internet-free cottage where I can put my head down and write.’

‘You wouldn’t believe how much material you’d find in this small place. The drinking! The politics!’

I look at this woman, who hasn’t stopped talking since I arrived. Her husband has had a stroke, his speech is impaired, and his shoulders slump. She talks about him, over him, around him, but never to him. The receptionist at the Darling Tourist Bureau has sent me here. It’s 2011, I am a screen addict living in Vredehoek, and I need a quiet place in a small town to live out my urban fantasy of the writer’s life.

I know for sure that the room this woman is offering me is not the space I need.

I explain but she interrupts again.

‘There’s Mrs Roux down the road. She has a room!’

‘I want a cottage for my dog and me. An internet-free cottage far away from people.’

She’s already on the phone to Mrs Roux, and now I am being ushered into the garden, a stream of writing topics gushing from her mouth over my head into the shrubbery. Her husband has wisely retired to his room. I regret not saying goodbye to him.  He looked exhausted, frail, and kind.

I drive to Mrs Roux’s house on auto-pilot. It’s four houses down the road.

I don’t want a room in a trim suburban house with a picket fence.

I want to drive out of Darling to some place where sane people live. Listeners.

Mrs Roux doesn’t want to let out her room. ‘My daughter-in-law needs it,’ she explains. ‘But I’ll show you anyway.’ She is wringing her hands and I remember the flurry of words that left little space for Mrs. Roux’s replies.

The house smells of Jeyes Fluid and Handy Andy. It’s white-tiled, scarily minimalist and belongs on the set of Wisteria Lane. My cottage is on a hill, surrounded by tangled trees and flowing water, finch nests and baboons. It has knobbly wooden floors and wild fennel sprouting from tall grass on the banks of a river.

‘Errm, I’m not really looking for a room in somebody’s home. I need lots of space and preferably I won’t talk for days on end. So sorry to have bothered you.’

Mrs Roux sees me off to my car. As I get in, the words tumble out.

‘She doesn’t listen. I did tell her what I need but she didn’t hear me.’

‘Yes, yes, I know. She’s like that.’

A gap year is on the cards, and wild plans are incubating. Will I attend a Saying No Workshop, or will I offer Saying No Workshops? My four years at UCT were sadly barren, despite the voluptuous setting, fascinating lecturers and riveting course material. Mired in addictions (Obex, gym, dangerous men, fast cars, and Maynard’s wine gums – you’d be amazed at all the things on offer at Rustenburg Pharmacy) there was little time left to savour and absorb campus life. So now, at age fifty three, my PHD in LAAN (Looking after Anne’s Needs) is timely, challenging and rewarding.

I hope to qualify with distinction.

Feb Bookslive TodayFeb Bookslive TodayFeb Bookslive Today


Use Close. It takes away the pain.

‘The work we were born to do is calling to us, but are we listening? I sometimes wonder just how good we are at listening to ourselves. I often imagine that we ask to be shown what to do in our life, but sit there with our fingers in our ears, scared to hear. We may not heed our own unhappiness, illnesses and frustration as a call to change either our situation or our perception. We carry on as if those signals were a nuisance rather than our body’s and heart’s way of telling us that we are off track. Yet our body does speak our mind, often very loudly, but sometimes we have to be truly desperate before we listen to ourselves.’ (Nick Williams, in The Work We Were Born To Do)

Is it really that simple?

I had to very almost be killed in a mini bus accident in Hong Kong, and to be diagnosed with adult-onset asthma and given an asthma pump, before I resigned from a job in a city that, months after I left, was listed as the seventh most polluted city in the world. Within six months back in Cape Town, my respiratory problems disappeared.

I had to sprain both my ankles, a few weeks ago, to realize that I can survive six days without home internet. That the longer I stay off-line, the more interesting and joyful life becomes.

As I scurried down Derry Road to check my mail at Wizards, I cursed my decision. You checked your mail last night, you can go without checking it, turn back, go home, this is a silly idea, you’re wasting time you could spend writing, gardening, resting, sitting on a bench eating the two seedless naartjies in your bag, it’s such a lovely ….’

Crack. Sh*t. Darn. Ouch! F*ck. Another crack. Eina!!! What just happened?? If I had a car and home internet, this wouldn’t have happened!!!Tai Long Wan

Screeching tyres and brakes, a head peering through a cracked mini bus window: ‘Are you OK? Can I take you to the day hospital? You OK?’

For the next two weeks, old injuries float back as I rest, nap, wake up in pain, sit upright and remember. Falling off my bicycle in Rouwkoop Road, early eighties. I still have the scar. A woman walked over to me as I lay curled up in the gutter. ‘Are you OK?’ she asked. ‘I’m fine!’ I hissed at her in fury. She stared at me in horror, walked off. ‘You need stitches,’ my mother said when she saw me days later. ‘You’ll have a scar on your knee, you’ll regret it later.’

No stitches. No regrets. But why did I bite that woman’s head off when she came to help?

Singapore, 1996. I slip on white tiles as I walk out the shower. I lose consciousness, dislocate my jaw, I have a bruised face for months. When I arrive at the government hospital on a Friday night, I am rushed to Emergency. The person I am dating is inconvenienced by my fall ~ he was waiting at Boat Quay with the other architects over cocktails. ‘You eat terribly’, he tells me over lunch weeks later. ‘My jaw is dislocated,’ I say. ‘Yes, but still.’

It’s 2008. I am walking away from the French School, on my way home to Pokfulam. The large, safe bus doesn’t arrive; I opt for the number six mini bus. The road is slippery ~ light rain and an oil slick on the curved downhill from Repulse Bay. The driver loses control, we spin around, the bus jams into the rock face, twirls again, and now we’re headed for the cliff. As we slide towards the cliff, I think clearly ~ this is my last view, for Hong Kong, not bad. Azure sea and a valley in the distance.Nothing to do, but relax. Last thought as we approach cliff, If anyone could see me now they’d see the eyes of the Chinese prisoners about to be executed.*

The bus twirls away from the edge, we are slung across the narrow mountain pass. We get out. No words. Cell phones appear. A Filipino woman comes to me, ‘We could have been killed.’ I laugh. ‘That was close.’

Long queue of cars snaked along the road. Two beautiful men (perhaps French? they have that look) are cruising down in a Lamborghini. The one in the passenger seat is closest to me. ‘You OK?’ he mouths.

‘No.’ I move my fingers across my neck. Shake head. The  car slides downwards, I see the back of their heads.tai-long-wan-hk

I walk home, an hour of dazed stumbling. Don’t mention it to anyone. Stay locked in my apartment. On Monday I tell a colleague. ‘You OK?’ ‘Not really.’

Two years later I am in Hong Kong on holiday. Lunch with former colleague who recently totalled his green Jaguar (think Inspector Morse) on exactly the same spot. Oil slick, slippery road. He’s unscathed. Car is a write-off.That’s a hell of a corner, we both laugh.

On my sixth day of bed rest in my quiet home, I remember 1985. I can date this fall as I was doing my **HDE at UCT, prac-teaching at Hoërskool Voortrekker. As I rushed home from Rondebosch Station, I slipped and sprained my wrist. I ignored it for days ~ I used to stare at my injuries wondering how they got there. Living in my head kept me numb to pain ~ it takes two weeks of rest in 2014 for old injuries to arrive.

The dog therapist, in 2011, prescribed Rescue Remedy for Mui Mui. ‘She gets too involved with my students,’ I explained. ‘She used to be cute but now she’s dominating the sessions.’ Rescue Remedy never worked. When I tutored a French pharmacist, ‘I prefer Mui Mui lively,’ he said. ‘She’s like a clock!’ My dog has a habit of whimpering at the end of the hour. If the student doesn’t leave, she starts barking.

I dig out the Rescue Remedy, for shock, anxiety, sleeplessness, and after two weeks of bed rest, I feel as if I’ve been on a Thai island swaying in a hammock surrounded by coconut plantations, sipping those cocktails with the little umbrellas sticking out next to the maraschino cherries.

‘Arnica’, says Ann from the Spar when I finally get out and about. ‘It’s what ballet dancers use. I fell off a ladder once, bruised all over my legs, Arnica took away the pain after a few days. Chinn’s Pharmacy can deliver, if they know you.’

‘You must be careful! It’s sore, I know!’ says Anne from the Laundromat.

‘Close’, says the mini bus driver.’ Use Close for the pain. It’s the ointment for the painful feeling.’

You OK? Yes, really.

*When I lived in Jiangyan, (2002), I visited Shanghai once a month for food supplies from Carrefour Supermarket. Walking from the bus terminus downtown, I passed the police station. Outside were posted the faces of the condemned. China executes more people in one year than the rest of the world put together. The prisoners are photographed before execution, the photos posted outside. The faces were not inscrutable this time. Their eyes told the story.

** Higher Diploma of Education, University of Cape Town (the entire year felt like a drawn-out form of self-harm)

Photos of Hong Kong downloaded from Google.

Friends that fall off the radar

‘Why is everyone smoking? And why are they all in black?’

Mary Lee. Fresh from Hong Kong. She’s Welsh. Ethnically Chinese. She doesn’t eat rice.

We’re at Nanjing Airport, surrounded by paddy fields, about to spend two weeks together over the Lunar New Year. Nanjing, Xi’an, Jiangyan. I’m her host in the mainland.

Three months I’ve been here, and I don’t know what she’s talking about.

The cab driver smokes, hoots, swerves, cracks open pumpkin seeds. Mary clutches me. ‘I’m so stressed. What’s he doing?’

We order high tea at the Nanjing Hotel. Vanilla cake, petits fours, dumplings, spring rolls, baby eclairs.Red roses

‘I’m not earning much, we’ll have to stay in three star hotels,’ I tell her.

Mary pauses. I don’t think I’ve ever heard her disagree with anyone. She uses silence rather than the mainland laugh which means, ‘You’ve got to be joking, never.’

We lie on our beds and talk for five hours; there are two years to catch up on. We visit the Terracotta Warriors, I am pick-pocketed in Xi’an, we munch toffee apples in the park, haggle over antiques in the Muslim Quarter, followed by five days in Jiangyan. My American neighbour is obsessed by Mary. ‘I like petite girls,’ he tells me. We go ballroom dancing. My boss does karaoke, we present him with red plastic roses.

‘You’ve changed,’ Mary says. ‘You’re happy.’

I see her off at the taxi rank. Wedged in tight, the passengers are mainly men, in thick black coats. ‘This is a nightmare, Anne! How long to the airport?’

‘These are your people, Mary. It’ll be cool. Enjoy the drive. Four hours and you’re on your way home.’

She mails me from Hong Kong.

‘It was incredible. Thank you.’

When I return to Hong Kong in 2003, mutual friends tell me, ’She had such an incredible time. Her best trip ever.’

I’ve never written as much as that year in China. Nothing mattered as long as I could write it down.

Mary saw the change.

I wonder where she is today, and whether she still doesn’t eat rice.

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