How many times can we love -- truly love -- in the course of one lifetime?
Alfie Budd found the perfect woman. Then he lost her. And he doesn't believe you get a second chance at love.
Returning to London after a brief, idyllic marriage overseas, Alfie Budd finds his world collapsing around him -- his parents' marriage, his grand-mother's health, his own ambitions for his career. If only he could pick up the phone and call his beloved Rose, the wife he lost. But Rose is gone forever.
Believing his chance for love has passed, Alfie takes comfort in a string of fleeting affairs while he teaches at Churchill's Language School. But then Alfie meets two people who help him to start putting his broken heart back together.
One is George Chang, the old Chinese man he sees practicing Tai Chi in the park every morning. Surrounded by his strong, loving family, George Chang teaches Alfie more than Tai Chi.
The other is Jackie Day, a single mother who needs Alfie's help in completing her education so she can go back to college. But what happens when the teacher starts falling for his student?
Can Alfie give up meaningless sex for a mean-ingful relationship? Will he ever have a family life like the Changs'? And how much room in our hearts do we really have for love?
Like his runaway bestseller, Man and Boy, Tony Parsons's new novel is full of laughter and tears, biting social comment and overwhelming emotion. It is a book about love, family, sex, Tai Chi and the human heart.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Tony Parsons is one of the bestselling authors in the world. In the 1970s, Parsons was a music journalist for NME, the British equivalent of Rolling Stone. In the 1980s, he won numerous awards for his work as a roving reporter. In the 1990s, he became one of the most familiar faces on BBC television and started writing fiction. His semiautobiographical novel, Man and Boy, has been published in 36 countries and is a winner of the UK Book of the Year award.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
There's something wrong with my heart.
It shouldn't be working like this. It should be doing something else. Something normal. More like everybody else's heart.
I don't understand it. I have only been running in the park for ten minutes and my brand-new sneakers have luminous swoosh signs on the side. But already my leg muscles are burning, my breath is coming in these wheezing little gasps and my heart -- don't get me started on my heart. My heart is filling my chest like some giant undigested kebab.
My heart is stabbing me in the back.
My heart is ready to attack me.
It's Sunday morning, a big blue day in September, and the park is almost empty. Almost, but not quite.
In the patch of grass where they don't allow ball games, there is an old Chinese man with close-cropped silver hair and skin the color of burnished gold. He has to be around my dad's age, pushing sixty, but he seems fit and strangely youthful.
He's wearing a baggy black outfit that makes him look like he is still in his pajamas and he's very slowly moving his arms and legs to some silent song inside his head.
I used to see this stuff every day when I was living in Hong Kong. The old people in the park, doing their Tai Chi, moving like they had all the time in the world.
The old boy doesn't look at me as I huff and puff my way toward him. He just stares straight ahead, lost in his slow-motion dance. I feel a sudden jolt of recognition. I have seen that face before. Not his face, but ten thousand faces just like it.
When I lived in Hong Kong I saw that face working on the Star Ferry, saw it driving a cab in Kowloon, saw it looking forlorn at the Happy Valley racecourse. And I saw that face supervising some Bambi-eyed grandchild as she did her homework in the back of a little shop, saw it slurping noodles at a daipaidong food stall, saw it covered in dust, building spanking new skyscrapers on scraps of reclaimed land.
That face is very familiar to me. It's impassive, self-contained and completely indifferent to my existence. That face stares straight through me. That face doesn't care if I live or die.
I saw it all the time over there.
It used to drive me nuts.
As I struggle past the old boy, he catches my eye. Then he says something. One word. I don't know. It sounds like Breed.
And I get a pang of sadness as I think to myself -- not much chance of that, pal.
I'm the last of the line.
Hong Kong made us feel special.
We looked down on the glittering heart of Central and we felt like the heirs to something epic and heroic and grand.
We stared at all those lights, all that money, all those people living in a little outpost of Britain set in the South China Sea, and we felt special in a way that we had never felt special in London and Liverpool and Edinburgh.
We had no right to feel special, of course. We hadn't built Hong Kong. Most of us hadn't even arrived until just before it was time to hand it back to the Chinese. But you couldn't help feeling special in that bright shining place.
There were expats who really were a bit special, hotshots in lightweight Armani suits working in Central who would one day go home covered in glory with a seven-figure bank balance. But I wasn't one of them. Nowhere near it.
I was teaching English at the Double Fortune Language School to rich, glossy Chinese ladies who wanted to be able to talk to round-eye waiters in their native tongue. Waiter, there's a fly in my shark's fin soup. This is outrageous. These noodles are cold. Where is the manager? Do you take American Express? We conjugated a lot of service-related verbs because by 1996, the year I arrived in Hong Kong, there were a lot of white boys waiting on tables.
I was a little different from my colleagues. It seemed like all the other teachers at the Double Fortune Language School -- our motto: "English without tears in just two years" -- had a reason to be in Hong Kong, a reason other than that special feeling.
There was a woman from Brighton who was a practicing Buddhist. There was a quiet young guy from Wilmslow who spent every spare moment studying Wing Chun Kung Fu. And there was a BBC -- British-born Chinese -- who wanted to see where his face came from before he settled down into the family business on Gerrard Street in London's Chinatown.
They all had a good reason to be there. So did the expats in the banks and the law firms of Central. So did the other kind of expats who were out on Lantau, building the new airport.
Everyone had a reason to be there. Except me.
I was in Hong Kong because I'd had my fill of London. I had taught English literature at an inner-city school for five years. It was pretty rough. You might even have heard of us. Does the Princess Diana Comprehensive School for Boys ring any bells? No? It was the one in north London where the woodwork teacher had his head put in his own vice. It was in all the papers.
If anything, the parents were more frightening than the children. Open evenings at the Princess Diana would find me confronted by all these burly bruisers with scowling faces and livid tattoos.
And that was just the mothers.
I was sick of it. Sick and tired. Sick of marking essays that began, "Some might say Mercutio was a bit of an asshole." Tired of teaching Romeo and Juliet to kids who laughed when one of the Shakespeareans at the back inflated a condom while we were doing the balcony scene. Sick and tired of trying to explain the glory and wonder of the English language to children who poured "fuck," "fucking" and "fucked" over their words like ketchup in a burger bar.
Then I heard that a Brit could still go to Hong Kong and automatically get a work permit for a year. But not for much longer.
It was around the time that one of my pupils' parents -- one of the dads, funny enough, a man who was permanently dressed for the beach, even in the middle of winter -- had a Great Britain tattoo on his arm and it was spelled wrong.
"Great Briten," it said, just below the image of a rabid bulldog wearing a Union Jack T-shirt that was either cut a bit snug or a few sizes too small.
So I got out. Deciding to really do it was the hard part. After that, it was easy. After twelve hours, four movies, three meals and two bouts of cramp in the back row of a 747, I landed at Hong Kong's old Kai Tak Airport, the one where they came in for a heart-pumping landing between the forest of skyscrapers, close enough to see the washing lines drying on every balcony. And I stayed on because Hong Kong gave me that feeling -- that special feeling.
It was a long way from "Great Briten." It was another world, when what I wanted most in my life was exactly that. Yet it was another world that made me love my country in a way that I never had before.
Hong Kong made me feel as though my country had once done something important and unique. Something magical and brave. And when I looked at all those lights, they made me feel as though there was just a little bit of all that in me.
But I didn't have a real reason to be there, not like the BBC guy who was looking for his roots and not like the people who were there because of Buddha or Bruce Lee.
Then I met Rose.
And she became my reason.
The old Chinese man is not the only sign of life. On the far side of the park there are some Saturday-night stragglers, a bunch of bleary teenagers who still haven't gone home.
The members of this little gang are every shade of the human rainbow, and although I am very much in favor of the multicultural society, something about the way these lads are casually spitting on the pigeons does not make you feel overly optimistic about mankind's ability to live in peace.
When they clock me struggling their way, they exchange knowing grins and I think: what are they laughing at?
I immediately know the answer.
They are laughing at a red-faced, panting, fat guy in brand-new running gear who clearly had nowhere to go on Saturday night and no one to go there with. Someone who gets a lot of early nights. Someone who is not special at all.
Or am I being too hard on myself?
"Check the cheddar," one of them says.
Check the cheddar? What does that mean? Does that mean me? Check the cheddar? Is that new?
"He so fat that he look like two bitches fighting under a blanket, innit?"
"He so fat he gets his passport photo taken by, you know, like, satellite."
"He so fat he get fan letters from Captain Ahab."
As a former English teacher, I am impressed by this casual reference to Moby-Dick. These are not bad kids. Although they are roaring with laughter at me, I give them what I hope is a friendly smile. Showing them that the cheddar is a good sport and knows how to take a joke. But they just smirk at each other and then at me. Smirk, smirk, smirk, they go, radiating equal measures of youth and stupidity.
I look away quickly and when I am past them I remember that there's a Snickers bar in the pocket of my tracksuit in case of an emergency. Watched by a tatty gray squirrel, I eat my Snickers bar on a wet park bench.
Then for a long time I just sit twisting my wedding ring around the third finger of my left hand, feeling lonelier than ever.
I met her on the Star Ferry, the old green-and-white, double-decker boats that shuttle between Kowloon on the tip of the Chinese peninsula and Hong Kong Island.
Well, that's not strictly true -- I didn't really meet her on the Star Ferry. We didn't exchange names or numbers. We made no plans to meet again. I was never much of a pick-up artist, and that didn't change with Rose. But the Star Ferry is where I first saw her, struggling through the turnstile with a huge cardboard box in her arms, balancing it on her hip as she stuffed a few coins into the slot.
She joined the throng waiting for the ferry, a Westerner surrounded by every kind of local -- the smart young Cantonese businessmen heading to their offices in Central, the chic young office girls with their cell phones and miniskirts and swinging black hair, the shirt-sleeved street traders hawking up phlegm the size of a Hong Kong dollar, young mothers and their beautiful fat-faced babies with startling Elvis forelocks, the tiny old ladies with their gold teeth and scraped-back white hair, Filipina domestics heading for work and even the odd gweilo (white ghost) tourist quietly baking in the heat.
Her hair was black, as black as Chinese hair, but her skin was very pale, as though she had just arrived from some land where it never stopped raining. She was dressed in a simple two-piece business suit but the large cardboard box made her look as though she was going to work in one of the little side-street markets above Sheung Wan, west of Central. But I knew that was impossible.
The ramp clanged down and the crowd charged onto the Star Ferry in typical Cantonese style. I watched her wrestling with her cardboard box and noted that her face was round, serious, very young.
Her eyes were too far apart and her mouth was too small. But you would have believed that she was beautiful until she smiled. When she smiled -- quick to apologize after smacking some Chinese businessman in the back with her box -- the spell was immediately broken. She had this bucktoothed grin that stopped her from being any kind of conventional beauty. Yet something about that gummy smile tugged and pulled at my heart in a way that mere beauty never could. She was better than beautiful.
I found a seat. And seats were going fast. She stood next to me, smiling self-consciously to herself as she clutched her box and the ferry pitched and heaved beneath her, surrounded by the raven-haired crowds.
It is only a seven-minute journey between Kowloon and Hong Kong Island, the shortest sea voyage in the world, one brief kilometer spent weaving between junks, barges, cruise ships, tugs and sampans. But it must feel like a long time when you are carrying a box that is almost as big as you are.
I stood up.
"Excuse me? Do you want a seat?"
She just stared at me. I was really quite thin in those days. Not that I was Brad Pitt or anything, even during my lean period, but I wasn't the Elephant Man either. I wasn't expecting her to faint, with either desire or repulsion. But I expected her to do something. She just kept on staring.
I had assumed that she was British or American. Now I saw, with that hair and those eyes and those cheekbones, she could conceivably be some kind of Mediterranean.
"You speak English?"
"Do you want to sit down?"
"Thanks," she said. "But it's only a little journey."
"But it's a big box."
"I've carried bigger."
That smile. Slow, though, and a bit reluctant. Who was this strange guy in a Frank Sinatra T-shirt (Frank grinning under a snap-brim fedora in an EMI publicity shot from 1958, one of the golden years) and ragged chinos? Who was this man of mystery? This thin boy who was, on balance, slightly more Brad Pitt than Elephant Man?
Her box was full of files, manila envelopes and documents with fancy red seals. So she was a lawyer. I felt a flash of resentment. She probably only talked to men in suits with six-figure salaries. And I was a man in a faded Sinatra T-shirt whose wage packet, when converted into pounds sterling, just about crawled into five figures.
"I don't think you're meant to offer your seat to a woman on the Star Ferry," she said. "Not these days."
"I don't think you're meant to offer your seat to a woman anywhere," I said. "Not these days."
I was about to sit down again when an old Chinese man with a nylon shirt and a racing paper shoved me out of the way and plonked himself down in my seat. He hawked noisily and spit right between my Timberland boots. I stared at him dumbfounded as he opened up his paper and began to study the runners at Happy Valley.
"There you go," she laughed. "If you've got a seat, you better hold on to it."
I watched her laughing her goofy laugh as we came into Hong Kong Island. The great buildings reared above us. The Bank of China. The Hong Kong and Shanghai Bank. The Mandarin Hotel. All the silver and gold and glass office blocks of Central, and beyond all of that, the lush greens of Victoria Peak, almost lost inside a shroud of tropical fog.
I was suddenly gripped by the fear that I would never see her again.
"Do you want a coffee?" I said, blushing furiously. I was angry with myself. I know women never say yes to anything if you can't ask them without going red.
"You know. Espresso. Cappuccino. Latte. A coffee."
"Come on," she said. "The seat was good. The coffee -- I don't know. It's a bit predictable. And besides, I've got to drop this stuff off."
The Star Ferry churned against the dock. The ramp clanged down. The crowds got ready to bolt...
"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.
Book Description HarperCollins, 2001. Hardcover. Book Condition: New. Bookseller Inventory # DADAX0002261820