All I Ever Wantedbybeachbum1958©
I was playing outside, pestering the frogs and newts in the little pond at the end of the garden, when I heard Gran calling me. As it usually meant I was in trouble, or she wanted me to do something, I burrowed further down into the long grass; frogs and newts are more interesting to 8-year old boys than chores, or a telling off; besides, I had almost captured a beaut of a frog to show off in school the next day.
"Harry! Haaarrryyy! She shouted from the doorway, "I can see you, come here, now, your fathers' on the 'phone! Hurry up!"
Dad. That was a different thing, a call all the way from Hong Kong! I jumped up, running back to her, to grab the handset from her and blurt out "Dad! Are you coming home soon?!" His voice was clear but far away, not as loud as I hoped, but I could still hear him clearly. "Harry-Boy, I'll be home in a few months, late summer, once the handover goes ahead, in the meantime I've got to make sure my replacement is up to speed, and that all we've removed all the government paperwork. So, I'll see you in July, OK!"
I was over the moon, Dad was coming home! To be honest, I hardly knew him, but his infrequent visits to England always meant a great time for me -- we'd go anywhere I wanted, he'd spend hours with me poring over my Airfix plane kits, helping me glue, paint and string them up, and try to play Super Mario against me on my old Nintendo. I lived with my grand-parents in deepest Staffordshire; Dad lived and worked in Hong Kong. My mother had died when I was born, so Gran was my mum as far as I was concerned.
I gave the 'phone back to Gran, grinning madly, and went running to tell Grandpa, Dad was coming home!
For the next few weeks, I was wound tight, counting down the days to his arrival. Grandpa told me that Dad would be leaving within a few days of the handover, whatever that was, so after watching the ceremony on July 1st, 1997, trying to spot dad among all the officials, Grandpa sighed, said to me, "Harry, it's all over now, no more Hong Kong the way I remember it. " I asked him what he meant, and he told me some of his war stories, about the battle of Hong Kong, and something called 'Black Christmas', and his life as a prisoner, in a camp in Burma; old news. Grandpa was concerned about how dad would fit in here; he was born and bred in Hong Kong, schooled in England, but had worked in the Hong Kong Police all his life. He spoke Cantonese, Mandarin and Hokkien fluently, and was completely at home in the company of his Chinese and Ghurkha police officers; more so than when he was back in England.
2 weeks later we were waiting at Heathrow for dad to arrive. Just when I thought he'd never arrive there he was, grinning from ear to ear, shaking hands with Grandpa, hugging Gran, and lifting me up to bear-hug me and ruffle my hair.
On the drive back, Dad told us about the handover ceremony, about meeting Prince Charles, how bad he'd felt watching the 'Britannia' sail away from Victoria, flags dipped, taking way the last Governor, Chris Patten, his boss, and how sad he felt, now that his home was gone forever, at least the way he knew it. Now some Chinese government political appointee had his job, his Chinese officers, all friends, had done a bunk to Singapore or Taiwan, getting out from under the PRC before it was too late, all his Ghurkha police troopers had gone to Singapore, Oman or Brunei, and it was all over. He sounded sad, and I remembered what Grandpa had said about him.
Life at home soon settled down. Dad got a job with the Ministry of Defence in Lichfield, and we all lived together in the big house in Bilbrook, near Wolverhampton.
As time wore on, though, Dad became quieter, more reserved, his willingness to play with me, or sit with me diminishing, and, as I got older, I grew away from him, as we gradually discovered we really had nothing in common, nothing to talk about, and no interest anymore in talking to each other. Gran saw this, but there was nothing she could do; it was obvious what was wrong, but there was no way to fix it.
By the time I was twelve, Dad and I had effectively stopped communicating. We weren't hostile or anything, it was just that the meagre store of things we had in common was depleted, so we just nodded to each other in passing, were polite and courteous at meals and so on, but really, we were done with each other, two strangers.
I had been sent to a boy's boarding school, and, because it was in Shropshire, just 30 miles away, I would come home at weekends, spend time with the grand-parents, and hang around with some of my old friends. Then, one these weekend, I felt an atmosphere as soon as I walked in. There was something up; Gran was tight-lipped and angry-looking, Grandpa looked confused and upset, and Dad was even more uncommunicative than usual, face set and distracted. After a day and a night of this, I'd had enough, so I braced Dad about it, everybody walking around angry, the house virtually silent.
"Tell him!" snapped Gran, "You had no problem telling us! What's the matter, afraid of what a twelve-year old will think?" OK, this didn't sound good, and it didn't sound like Gran -- she was really steaming mad.
"Harry," began Dad, "You don't remember your mother, but I do, and I loved her very much. When she died, I was devastated, I loved her so much. When I went back to Hong Kong, I met someone, someone I liked very much, someone who helped me when I needed to have somebody. Can you understand?" I thought I did; he had a girlfriend out in Hong Kong, so what, big deal, yadayadayada.
Gran was still looking mad, and cleared her throat meaningfully when dad looked like he'd dried-up.
"There's more, Harry," he went on. "The ...person, the lady I met, we sort of...fell in love, and we were living together. For seven years."
Seven years? Why had he never said anything before? Not that I really cared; Dad was now so distant from me that this was starting to sound like none of my business. He looked me square in the face. "Harry, we, this lady and I, we had a child, a daughter, your half-sister."
I was stunned; I hadn't seen that one coming, and my astonishment must have shown, because Dad hurried on.
"Her name is Sai Fong, she's ten years old, and she and her mother live in Guangzhou. I'm telling you this because her mother is very ill, she's dying and I want Sai Fong to come and live with me, with us. Her mother's from the provinces, so she has no relatives in Hong Kong, and she'll be alone, I can't allow that; she's my daughter, I won't abandon her like that." Gran snorted and stalked out of the room, Grandpa trailing after her, casting apologetic looks at Dad and I.
My head was reeling; I had a sister? A half-Chinese sister? Was this why Gran was spitting? Dad was looking closely at me, waiting for me to say something, but I was still trying to digest this. Eventually I asked him "Does she want to come and live with you? You haven't seen her for four years; does she remember you at all? Does she know about me, us, everything?"
Dad just said "Yes to all of those, Harry. I call her every evening, to wish her a good day at school, and to tell her I love her, because I do, just like I love you; you're both my children, and I want you both near me. And she wants to meet her big brother. She needs us, her family, you and I."
A sister! I had no hang-ups about the fact she was mixed-race, half the boys in my school were Chinese, Korean or Japanese, their fathers managing the electronics factories in and around Telford, so I was unworried by the race thing; it was the sister-thing that threw me. A sister, a younger sister!
"Dad," I said, "How long does her mother...." I trailed off, not knowing how to finish the sentence.
"A few weeks, maybe a couple of months," replied dad. "Sai Fong is going to need me, and I need you to be OK with this, I've been trying to work out a way to break it to you, you managed to do that quite well by yourself!" he smiled, thinly, but it was a smile, the first genuine smile I'd seen from him in a long, long time.
"I was a little, no a lot, shocked, when you told me, but I guess I'm OK with it; it might even be fun to have a kid sister to boss around!" I grinned , over the surprise, and curious as to why Gran was so mad. I asked him, and his expression became set again. "Your grandmother thinks I've brought shame on the family, having a mixed-race child, and out of wedlock!" This made no sense to me; many of the people I knew in and around Wolverhampton and Telford were of mixed parentage, and my Gran's attitude was...just weird, a little frightening in its intensity. In all the stunts I had pulled as a little boy, all the things I'd broken, or lost, or damaged, I'd never seen her lose it like this, so hostile and unforgiving.
"She comes from a different generation, Harry, it's how she was brought up. Don't judge her by today's standards; that's how it was in her time, that's what she learned, and that's how she'll stay. She's already made it clear that Sai Fong is not welcome here; that being so, I'm in the middle of buying a place near Cosford, and the three of us will live there, if you have no objections."
I had no objections; in the grand scheme of things, where Dad lived was of no real relevance to me; I lived in a boarding school, only ever coming home at the weekend, so where I came back to for the weekend only was immaterial. Dad was the one with the problem; how was he going to deal with a ten-year old girl and work, so I asked him.
"We'll be having an au-pair living with us," he replied, "a student from Scandinavia, she'll handle the daily routine for Sai Fong, and, because she's required to have the weekends free for study, I'll manage that, with help from you, if you're OK with it. It's not like Sai Fong's a baby or anything like that, so weekends together shouldn't be too much of a crisis! How does this fit in with your weekend plans, Harry?" As my weekends usually consisted of me lurking in my room and sleeping late, it wasn't too much of a burden, it could even be fun to have someone around other than Dad to talk to.
And so it was settled. Suddenly, in the space of a day, I had a sister and a new home; I told Dad I wasn't sure about coming home the following weekend, though, I'd had enough surprises today, God only knew what'd get sprung on me then! He laughed out loud, the first happy sound I'd heard from him in years.
Dad and I collected Sai Fong from Birmingham International, the escort from the airline checking our identity documents carefully against the photographs and documents Sai Fong had before releasing her into Dad's custody; she hadn't seen him since she was six, so she was a little scared, nervous. She and Dad cried a little, and she hugged me tentatively, probably feeling as weird about me as I was about her.
She was tiny, much shorter than I thought a ten-year old would be, but very cute, a little pixie of a girl, European features mixed nicely with her Chinese heritage, long wavy hair a deep chestnut like mine, soft and fine, not thick and straight like so many of the Chinese boys at school. She had grey-hazel eyes like me, with very fair, pink-tinged skin, and she looked like one of those porcelain dolls you buy in the heritage gift shops, or one of those little oriental super-hero girls on the Saturday morning cartoons. I had asked Dad what was her proper ethnicity, as she obviously wasn't pure Chinese, nor was she English, and Dad told me that, if people asked, and if I felt like telling them, the proper designation for Sai Fong was 'Eurasian', not that it was anybody's business but her own. I decided that, if I was going to be a proper big brother, I would have to watch out for her, and if anyone was rude enough to ask her a question like that, I would make sure to ask them why exactly they wanted to know.
The drive from the airport to Cosford wasn't too bad, the M6 motorway behaving for a change, the M54 almost deserted, as usual, and we arrived home in about an hour. Our au-pair, Hanna, a friendly Danish teenager, quickly took charge of Sai Fong, getting her bathed, and fed after her long flight, and into her pyjamas. Sai Fong sat with us for a while before bed, and we tried to talk. She was almost painfully shy and only answered in whispers, but I was surprised at her English -- she spoke fluently, with no hesitation, but with an accent, of course. When Dad spoke to her in Cantonese she was a lot more forthcoming, and they chatted away, with Dad telling me what she was saying. He made me blush like a beetroot when he told me she had told him she was proud she had such a handsome older brother! She told Dad about her mother's funeral, and he had cried a little, Sai Fong sitting on his lap hugging him tightly around the neck, and even I had felt a little teary. Dad soon recovered, and took Sai Fong up to her room, to tuck her in and read to her until she fell asleep.
Gradually, as the weeks progressed, Sai Fong lost her shyness around me, eventually actually looking me in the eyes when talking to me. I saw the changes in a series of snapshots, one weekend at a time, until at last she was completely at ease with me. Some evenings, she would sit upright on me, cross-legged on my lap, tracing my features with her fingers and comparing them with her own, pulling my nose and tugging at the corners of my eyes to make them look like hers, and giggling while she did it. One time, trying to be more in-tune with her heritage, joking with her, I hugged her and told her I was her 'Gwai Lo' brother, a term I'd gotten from one of the boys at school; she gasped, saying it was a bad name, that it meant 'Ghost' or 'Demon' Person, that it was an insult, and that I must not say it again.
Other times, she would sit next to me and ask her to read her one of her stories, usually some kiddie story about goblins, or witches and wizards, magic, that sort of stuff, but I eventually managed to get her to listen to, and read, the Pooh stories, and my all-time favourite, 'The Wind in the Willows'; every weekend she would request that I read her a chapter a night, and when we finished it, on to some of the other children's classics I had loved so well as a little boy -- The Hobbit, The Little Grey Men, The Narnia books, Carbonel. Dad was happy that we were bonding, and I was pleased that she took so much care of my old books, always waiting for me to come home so we could only read them together.
When I came in on Friday evenings, she would scream and run to me, her little body cannoning into me, knocking the wind out of me, shouting "Harry, Harry, HARRY! Read to me!"So I would tell her 'after supper, princess', talk with her during supper, and wait for her to shower and get properly dried off and dressed for bed. Then I would sit on the bed next to her, and she would tell me about school, her friends, knock-knock jokes, and ask me to read to her while she leaned against me, her finger following the text as I read out loud, until she fell asleep; then I'd tuck her in, kiss her on the forehead and murmur "Goodnight princess, love you." and go spend some time with Dad. This became our evening ritual. I think it would be true to say that Sai Fong enabled dad and I to re-connect, as I fell into the role of Big Brother. I adored her, I enjoyed playing with her, reading to her, answering her questions about my school, my friends, and generally discovering that having a sister, this sister, was just the most wonderful thing; she was my little sister, I loved her, and I would move heaven and earth for her if she asked me. She did have her moments, though, and here would be times when, having missed a home visit because of rugby house-match weekends or rugby training, or exam-prep, I'd find myself on the receiving end of a machine-gun stream of angry-sounding Cantonese the following weekend, followed by the slam of her bedroom door, and the sound of Dad laughing his head off in the background.
I tried to learn Cantonese, so I could talk to her in her own language, but I'm a natural dunce when it comes to languages, and the tutor Dad hired to teach me eventually told me in exasperation that she could not teach me, that I was actually unteachable, and that she would rather teach a cat to swim....
I went to university when I was eighteen, and spent the next two years learning about materials technology. I would come home the odd weekend, and, as I matured, I discovered I could talk to Dad, and we spent a lot of our evenings together chatting about my life, his life, all subjects; besides, Sai was great company; she has a delightful, penetrating wit, an awesome command of the English language, and a lovely, melodic voice with a refined 'Received-Pronunciation' English accent that I, and my friends, find absolutely enthralling; when she's in full-flow, her accent could cut glass at twenty paces. I wanted to be an airframe designer, so I needed a good degree, and the university, the Imperial College, was sufficiently far from home that I had to remain away for extended periods, concentrating on my studies. All was going well; that is, until I got a call from Dad.
"Harry, Sai Fong did a bunk, we had an argument this morning about her going to university, and she took off from school after lunch, have you heard from her?" Jeez, four hours ago! I told dad I hadn't, I would try and ring her, she'd pick-up if she saw it was me, and rang off. I called her mobile, and she picked up immediately.
"Harry! I was wondering when the other half of the double-act would show up!"
"Quit that," I said, relief tempering the worry, "Dad's worried sick, he only just found out you did a runner. Where the hell are you?"
"Look out the window, you silly arse!" she giggled, and I rushed over, sure enough, there she was, sitting on the bonnet of her battered Golf.
"Come on up, princess, tell me what happened," I said, pressing the door release. "Door's open, get up here and call Dad, just let him know you're OK!"
Sai sat down, crossing her legs, me unable to look away as her very short skirt slid even further up her smooth pink thigh, then tearing my eyes away to look at the cheeky grin she had pasted on her face. "Had a good stare? Eeeooow, I'm your sister, you pervo!" I grinned, knowing full well this was just Sai being Sai, she was a beautiful girl, and I guess it was flattering, in a weird and disturbing kind of way, to be the object of such mild flirtatious attention. I always had the feeling that she was just practicing on me, though, building up to something, but what, I couldn't guess.
"So, talk to me. What possessed you to just disappear from Newport and end up in West London, posing outside my front door?" I asked her, knowing as I did what Dad had said, but waiting to hear what her side was.
"I told Dad I wanted to be a graphic artist, and he hit the roof, started going on about how we'd agreed I was going to study nursing at Staffordshire University, when what HE agreed was that I study nursing; I really don't want to spend the rest of my working life staring at bed-sores and bare backsides, and I told him, if I wanted a life surrounded by low-pay, piss and puke, I'd become a pub cleaner, cue massive argument. I'm 18, and an adult, so I left, The End. Dad can be so intolerant sometimes; I wonder where he gets it from! And then he gets you, his number one stooge, to get hold of me; what were you supposed to do; corral me and send me home suitably chastened? As it happens, I've already been accepted at the Slade School, just around the corner at UCL, so you can expect me to be poncing lunch-money off you on a regular basis!"
I was intrigued. "So what gave Dad the idea that you should take up nursing, actually caring for the sick, for real, live, sick, human-type people? Did he not take into account the notorious 'exploding goldfish' incident?" I grinned, Sai's expression becoming innocent and angelic. "That was entirely not my fault, it was a very hot day, I wasn't looking, and it just...happened. Ancient history, but supports my argument. I did consider telling him I was seriously considering a career in pole dancing, the money is bloody amazing, but that vein in his forehead was throbbing, so I walked out before he stroked-out!"