From Other Voices, Other Eyes by David Nunan

Chapter 4

One for the road

Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over, she became a butterfly.
— Barbara Haines Howett

She was feeling the strain before they left Yung Shue Wan Main Street. They had left the Central Ferry Pier late, all because of Howard, who had been detained at his office, despite the fact that it was a Saturday. They could hardly leave without him because it was his company that owned the junk. They could see it bobbing some way off on the water with a flotilla of other junks, bob, bob, bobbing. Existentially futile captures it perfectly: she must remember that for her diary. Every now and then, one of the wooden vessels peels away from the flotilla and lurches drunkenly towards their pier. Once it has been secured, a group of passengers detach themselves from the waiting throng, scramble aboard, and secure a seat, either at the front of the junk, in the larger rear deck, or on the roof. It was a complete mystery to her how the junk and the boarding party managed to pair up: just like a mother goose and her imprinted chicks, she thought. Meanwhile, they wait, wait, waited.

Ryan wouldn’t hear of it when she voiced the thought that she might stay in the flat out of the heat. His response was predictable. “Howard went to a lot of trouble to get the junk. It’s very competitive, particularly on the weekend. This is supposed to be a welcome-to-Hong-Kong treat for you.” She refrained from pointing out that it was less than a week since she’d arrived from New York, and was still jet-lagged. Add to that a hangover and lack of sleep thanks to the welcome-to-Hong-Kong office party he’d arranged for her the night before. “You can’t call yourself an expat until you’ve done a weekend junk trip – it’s a rite of passage.” She had no intention of ever referring to herself as an ‘expat’, but didn’t want to start a fight, not at this embryonic stage of their new life together, so she kept her mouth shut.

When Howard eventually turned up with his wife and daughters, he was suitably effusive in his apologies. Ryan made the introductions, but she failed to catch the wife or children’s names. Ordinary and unmemorable names, like the people themselves. While the introductions were taking place, another couple joined them as well as a family consisting of parents and two children. She had noticed them loitering on the pier, but as Howard was the common link, had no idea that they were part of the same junk party. The young German couple was on a short-term visit to Hong Kong. The husband was doing some sort of consulting work for Howard’s firm. The family was Australian: the parents large and overweight, and the children heading in the same direction. They were sloppily dressed and had harsh, nasal accents that she found unpleasant.

Howard, who had removed his jacket and tie, strode to the end of the pier and began flailing his arms in the air. One of the junks immediately detached itself and ploughed through the choppy water towards the pier. Getting aboard was tricky, and the Fat Family’s son almost ended up in the water, which would have been no great loss to humanity, she thought. She imagined that the father, Bruce, or Dave, or whatever he was called, would be one of those financial advisers whom she’d been warned about, and the wife would list her occupation as ‘domestic duties’.

Once on board, she sat at the rear of the junk, a little apart from the oth