Chapter Twenty-Six

The White Ship


And when my ship with sharpened prow shall pass

across this silvered surface of candelabra glass

a flying wind shall carry high my song,

the drifting wave my farewell sigh,

and bear upon the wings of air

a small cloud shadow on the glistening sea.


And when across your house’s roof this thought shall glide

remember then the mountain and the moon,

the terraced temple that overlooked the sea

and may that self-same breeze’s voice

that whispered there, acacia wise, that night

grow again in both our silenced hearts.



Yannang and I sat down at a table at the Peak Café. The town was disagreeable from the heat and we had come up high in search of coolness. Hibiscus flowers and tapering bamboo leaves adorned the bushes and low hedge around us, while far away below lay the dark slopes of the Peak and the blue channel of Aberdeen, with emerald islands shining on the sea. A light breeze fanned our heated cheeks and we relaxed into our chairs, filling lungs with air sweet with the scent of mountain vegetation blown from over the waters. We fell into a long silence while the waiter brought us lemon tea and an ice cream apiece.

“It is a strange occasion,” said Yannang. “I find it impossible to discover what I feel.” His eyes shone with the bashful twinkle that rose in them whenever he wanted to say something springing from his inmost thinking.

“Most things can be expressed, at least in part,” I said. “What do you mean?”

“True – but only poets with a special genius can express some things truly and do them justice. The rest of us can only labour at a wording that is hopelessly inadequate.”

There was a long pause. I fell to musing. Bamboo and hibiscus flowers, the last time, how strange, why oh why? Bamboo and hibiscus and the light breeze drifting up from the valleys and trailing pennants from the peaks. Surely again, next week, I shall be here with him, everything as now. But no, not so, the ship, tomorrow – O my dear bamboo and hibiscus with the breeze’s voice within you, why is this so?

“You see, I feel kind of lost.”

“Lost!” I smiled. “So shall I be in a few hours’ time. Is it because I am leaving?”

“Yes,” he said, with the release of tension known to those who struggle to disclose a deeply-felt confidence.

“You see, you and I have spent a lot of time together lately. Macao, Castle Peak and our walks together. Suddenly it all stops. Often friends need not meet for a month or so and it makes little difference but we know this is not like that. When the ship sails it will be years certainly before we see each other again. We have known this last meeting must come but, now that it has, the thought of it is very sharp and sudden. It all ends, now, in a few moments and there will be only the dream and an occasional letter. Suddenly it stops. It is a kind of being lost.”

He was smiling, as if this was any normal occasion. He talked with precision, only his eyes betrayed the depth of his feeling and they were bashful because of that. I was silent for he was talking as I wished to do myself; he was doing the work for both of us. I waited while the sunlight laced the paving stones with a dance of bamboo shadows.

“This friendship is very curious. We come from continents apart with all the centuries themselves between us. Our language, customs, ideas, all are different but somehow we have achieved a kind of miracle. We understand each other. It is all so easy. Yesterday when you put those 300 dollars into the savings bank for me, it seemed quite an easy thing to do. Suddenly it happened there at the counter. Suddenly I have some money, for the first time in a long while. But I did not realise it then for it was just part of our moving together. It was one of the things we did as if in a dream. Then all at once I realised; it is a big sum for me. Yes, indeed I will use it carefully. But all these things run together, part of our knowing one another.”

“Almost like a pattern, as if preordained,” I said.

“Almost. What strange kind of Yin Yuen [karmic effect] brought us together, from so far, from such coincidences? Yes, it really is like a miracle.”

“You see,” I said, “When I read your article in the newspaper that evening – when was it? As long ago as December? How fast the months have flown! It seemed that in the writing there was some quality that appealed to me at once, a kind of restraint, compassion or pathos in so few words – just that last paragraph. Looking at them now they mean little but, at that moment, I resolved to write to you. I remember admitting to myself it was just a chance. There was something there which told me you possessed some quality I needed to know. Perhaps it is compassion, your love of nature, a kind of simple ingenuous charm you have – I don’t know – nor do I care so long as it exists.”

“So really it is neither our conversations, nor the topics we discussed, nor our ideas that mean so much as our companionship with one another,” said Yannang. “You have shown me to myself what my thoughts are! You can express myself to me!”

“But really I am expressing myself to you!” I said laughing.

“It is strange!” said Yannang. ‘Strange’ in his vocabulary meant anything curious but also rather wonderful. We had both fallen into using the word in that sense. Other words between us had also discovered special meanings. For instance, ‘idea’ most usually meant those deeply felt things that spring from our inmost character rather than simply thoughts running through our minds.

“It is strange to me too,” I told him. “You see I am a much happier person now than when I came to Hong Kong a year ago and it is through my Chinese friends and especially yourself that I have discovered that happiness. There is a quality in your company that brings a calmness to my mind. When we express our ideas to one another, there is a kind of synthesis, a building-up and a reaching out into a wider understanding. We seem to have discovered a true mutual empathy, as if we were mirrors to one another.”

The breeze tossed the hibiscus blooms and it seemed as if my mind jumped with them through the last few years.

“At school in my last year, I had a friend whom I idolised, thinking him perfect, wise and beautiful. Really he was not so; he was young, impetuous, hearty and athletically brilliant as a young English schoolboy should be. I expected qualities from him he could not possibly possess. Really I was projecting upon him some personality out of my imagination. Naturally enough no friendship based on such expectation could succeed or develop, so it simply fell apart and I became very distressed and filled by needs I did not understand. Looking back now it seems as if the person I saw in him was actually an idealisation of my own character – or, perhaps, of what I would have liked to have been. In the break-up of that friendship I seemed to lose myself. Then, during my years at university, I found little in life but materialism, although I strove to pierce the wall that seemed to surround me. The interesting thing is that out here, among my Chinese friends, I have found a calmed mind and attitude that has seen reborn in me a sense of values. Indeed, it is through you that I have found myself, that more serene other self, which I appeared to have lost years ago. No European has been able to do this for me.”

“Yes, that is true for me too. I have several very good Chinese friends but not one of them has been the same revealer of me to myself as you have been. It is a curious thing this for it seems that each of us had to find the other to fulfil some capacity within us.”

Whatever the explanation of our friendship may have been I knew that in our conversation we at last understood each other fully and shared the inestimable value each had brought into the other’s life. Maybe we could invoke other explanations but really there was little point in pursuing them. There it was. Somehow out of the obscurities of space and time we had come together. Perhaps love is not too great or difficult a word to use for it.

We walked around Lugard Road, the wind whistling in the needles of a fine horsehair tree as we sat for a while in its shade. Cloud shadows dappled the evening sea and beyond the broken-headed peak of Lantao, the sky glowed orange, wraithlike clouds turning from pigeon grey to soft pink. For the last time, maybe forever, we watched these things, talking quietly as if tomorrow we could see each other again.

Standing before the black, wet rocks where a small waterfall cascaded through overhanging ferns and mosses into the mountain forest below, Yannang turned to me.

“This is a precious time. We shall remember it and value it always. Now, as we stand here, it seems in some way quite ordinary for we are not really worried any more by the passing of time. Yet soon it will have gone and then, indeed, it will be precious. Even as we stand here it becomes so.”

I am not good enough a poet to express the living joy and sorrow of those last moments together. The landscape assumed a brilliant, dancing delicacy that maybe transcended its real self. The grasses sighed and, below mountain and cloud, the great harbour spread below us rippling with waves.

“There is a curious sensation of space,” said Yannang. “The little boats crawl like insects on the water – you know the kind that run across calm pools on mountain streams. And there are the big ones, so still, sitting deeply embedded in the sea. All that collection of light and colour...”

We fell silent and after a while I remarked, “The big, white ship at the Kowloon wharf is mine. Tomorrow, at noon, she sails for England.”

“She is very large, she must go quickly,” said Yannang.

“For some days I shall be lost too,” I said, “Yet perhaps it is not really being lost for, if we think of it this way, the energies of the seas, rocks and islands are the same as those of our two minds. When we think of one another those energies are disturbed and we can know that somewhere, somehow the other will at some time know and understand the feeling.”

“I cannot yet think that way.”

“No – in reality neither can I!” We laughed.

“Actually, there is a great difference between what one can say to comfort oneself and what one is capable of feeling. We shall be lost for a time, however we like to think we can feel about it.”

Coming down off the Peak we passed the tragic remains of a gun site shelled by the Japanese not so many years before. I thought of the officers and gun crew who had been there then. By a trick of fate I had been spared that kind of sorrow. After a while I said,

“I am thinking of the moment we say goodbye! What shall we do? Shake hands and smile conventionally, I suppose, knowing that there is no more to be said and that nothing more can be done. Perhaps this evening in our conversation we have said all that needs to be said in time.”

“That is lucky. We are taking it easily, I think,” he said, his eyes shining.

And so it was, after the university compound, the bus ride through the crowded, noisy streets, at last we agreed.

“At the next stop.”


“It is a strange goodbye. One of us simply gets off the bus!”

“Life is like a bus ride in which one meets many passengers.”

“True – here two bus rides come to an end.”


The agonising passing of time, the tension waiting for the bus to shudder to a halt.

“Well – goodbye – here I must leave the bus – both buses.”

“Goodbye, John.”

I stepped off and turned to move. He glanced once after me still smiling and waved. Then, at the same moment as he looked away, I turned and went. I flicked my screwed-up ticket into the air and, passing into one of the arcades, knew not and seemed not to see or feel where I was going.