Time in the Park
He looked like a small Chinese Buddha, seated as he was, in a pagoda-style pavilion in the park. Everything about him was round — his shiny, bald head, cheeks like apples and chubby fingers that rested over a bulbous stomach, which if he had been a statue, people would have rubbed until it shone for good luck. This small Buddha-figure, however, didn’t wear a toga or loin cloth. Instead, his attire consisted of a white sleeveless vest, brightly patterned shorts and plastic flip-flops one of which lay on the ground leaving his toes to wriggle freely on his opposite thigh.
Nearby, Alex was leaning on a wooden humped bridge overlooking one of those decorative lakes so loved by Chinese artists. She could see the pavilion and its occupant and she sensed that he had been watching her but she pretended not to notice. Or perhaps the truth was that she really didn’t want her own moment of solitude disturbed. In a place like Hong Kong where space was at a premium she felt that for a short time at least this little oasis in the park belonged to her, and only to her, and she was loath the relinquish it.
The day had been its usual dash, pushing through the queues of people waiting at food outlets and cafes in Hong Kong’s Central District, squeezing between the hordes of office staff on Queen’s Road who spilled out of the modern leviathans of glass and steel, jostling with them at the crossing when the traffic lights turned green and then weaving her way through the ambling pavement tourists, before eventually and thankfully entering the relative peace and open space of the park. But even here amidst the greenery there was no escaping the ever watchful windows of those high rise structures as they looked on, jealous of the value of an open space.
Alex wiped her brow with her handkerchief. The weather had been hot and oppressive all morning and threatening purple clouds were now foaming in the distance. There had been a warning of an approaching typhoon from the South China Sea but it was nothing to worry about, as yet. For now in the peace of the park where time stood still, the delicate overhanging trees admired their reflection in the lake, white water lilies sunbathed on their thick green leaves and overhead a bird floated on a thermal, its wings outstretched as if they were painted on to the sky with the strokes of a fine ink brush. It was peaceful and it was quiet. But even as Alex day-dreamed her eye caught a movement in the pavilion, the little Buddha-figure was waving to her. Again she pretended not to notice.
A light breeze rustled through the trees and ruffled the front of Alex’s hair. She raised her hand to pin it back. As if waiting for that moment, a shout came from the pavilion. The little man was now waving and beckoning and calling out to her. Should she just acknowledge his wave and then walk the other way? Pretend she didn’t understand? It was always the same dilemma. In these crowded Eastern countries people craved company; being alone was a state rarely understood. But there was no turning her back on him, not now. Her time alone was over for the day and so Alex walked from the bridge and along the path to the pavilion.
His smile was as wide as his round body and chuckling he slapped the bench inviting her to sit down beside him. It was then that Alex noticed that he was not alone as she had first thought; he had a companion, a skinny, elderly man who wore a slightly crumpled, blue “Mao” suit and cap, a style from the days of communist China and now long forgotten. He was sitting on a cushion on the floor and on his lap he held an Erhu, a two stringed musical instrument sometimes called a Chinese violin. In his right hand a bow rested like a snake on his open palm.
He started to play.
The music of the Erhu spoke from another time, from deep within Chinese culture. Its clear voice mimicked the sounds of nature; the trickling of water, the chirping of birds, the passion of a storm and the cry of a human voice — a landscape of melodies flowing like silk through the air. Passers-by stopped to listen. Old men, whose daily routine consisted of walking in the park with their little caged song birds, paused to listen. Old ladies in pyjama style suits shuffled to a stop, even young fashionable girls lifted their YSL sunglasses to watch and listen. And the sounds of the nearby traffic appeared hushed, respectful perhaps of the ancestral voice.
Alex’s new friend often turned to her and nodded, sometimes whispering to the air in Cantonese. At other times he was engrossed picking some grit from between his toes. Alex hid a smile with her hand. Two cultures so far apart in space and time and yet sitting side by side on a bench in the park.
The music stopped.
Suddenly the modern world came alive once more. There was the harsh sound of traffic and loud Cantonese voices, birds sang from their cages, frogs croaked in the lake and from somewhere there was the trill of a mobile phone. The Erhu player laid his instrument down on the step. He clasped his hands and closed his eyes.
Alex was unsure what to do next. Should she go now or stay? A few moments earlier she had been at one with the music but now she felt uncomfortable as if she didn’t belong. The little round man pointed to her watch. Does he want me to leave, she wondered? But he leaned over, squinting, to look more closely at it. It was a modern white and pink Swatch watch, designed for fashion and fun and Alex enjoyed wearing it. He seemed to like it too as he smiled and pointed at it and then he listened to its ticking sounds. Tick, tick, went the seconds. Tick, tick went the minutes. Time that had seemed to stand so still, so recently, was now racing ahead in the modern world.