Paul lay still in his bed, held his breath, and listened. All he could hear was the low, monotonous hum of the fans. He lifted his head from his pillow a little. Listened. Wasn’t that the first bird calling? The sound came from the other side of the small valley; a faint, lone chirrup, so tentative that Paul was amazed that it hadn’t been silenced on its way to him. It was a good sign. It meant that dawn would soon be breaking, that in the village the first cock was crowing, and would be followed by others in intervals of seconds. It meant that in a few minutes the birds in his garden would also start singing, that he would hear the clatter of his neighbors’ crockery and pans. That the night was over. That he no longer had to endure the voices of the darkness.
Life goes on, Paul!
Meredith’s harsh voice. Over and over again. Paul waited until the first rays of light fell through the wooden shutters and her voice had fallen completely silent. He pushed aside the mosquito net and stood up.
He made his bed, rolled up the tent that protected him from the mosquitoes, switched off the fans, went down to the kitchen, put some water on to boil with the immersion heater, went up again to the bathroom and turned on the shower. The water was too warm to be really refreshing. It had been a typical summer night in the tropics, hot and humid; he had perspired a lot despite the two fans standing at the foot of his bed. His neighbors thought he was crazy because he refused to install an air-conditioner even in the bedroom. Apart from old Teng, he was the only one on the hill who abstained from this luxury of his own free will.
Life goes on.
He hated those words. They embodied the unspeakable injustice and the utterly appalling, monstrous banality of death. Everything in Paul strained against it. There were days when he felt that every breath he took was a betrayal of his son. Days when the survivor’s feeling of guilt threatened to overwhelm him, when he was not able to do anything other than lie in his hammock on the terrace.
The fear of forgetting anything. Justin’s sleepy face in the morning. His big blue eyes that could shine so brightly. His smile. His voice.
He wanted to do everything he could to prevent the clamor of the world from covering up his memories. They were all that he had left of his son. He had to hold on to them until the end of his life; they were not just immeasurably precious to him, but also extremely fragile. They could not be relied on. Memories were deceptive. Memories faded. Memories evaporated. New impressions, new faces, smells and sounds layered over the old ones, which gradually lost their strength and their intensity until they were forgotten. Even while Justin had still been alive, Paul had felt this loss: a pain that he had felt almost daily. When had his son spoken his first words? Where had he taken his first steps? Was it at Easter on the lawn at the country club or two days later on the trip to Macau, in the square in front of the cathedral? When it happened, he had thought he would never forget, but two years later, he was already unsure of the details. This loss was only bearable because new memories with Justin formed every day as the old ones disappeared. But now? He had to rely on the memories he had. Sometimes he caught himself searching for a few moments for Justin’s voice, closing his eyes and having to concentrate until Justin appeared before him.
To stop the memories from being extinguished, he wanted to protect himself from everything new, as far as that was possible. Forgetting would be betrayal. That was why he had moved to Lamma shortly after his divorce and that was why he rarely left the island, and only very unwillingly. Lamma was quiet. There were no cars, fewer people than anywhere else in Hong Kong, and hardly anyone that he knew. His house was in Tai Peng, a settlement on a hill above Yung Shue Wan, ten minutes from the ferry terminal. It was hidden behind a formidable wall of green bushes and a thick bamboo grove at the end of a narrow path.