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Island Person

By Karen Cheung, first published in The Oxonian Review, 29th August 2023

Every autumn, Sze took a trip to the island to prove she was still capable of being alone.

The island was a thirty-minute ferry ride from the central business district, low houses dotting swampy hills that overlooked large bodies of water. The residents of the island were expats who could not adjust to the city’s suffocating apartments after a childhood climbing cypress trees in Florida. There were more blonde children on the island than anywhere else in the city. But Sze loved the island. It made her feel like she had left Hong Kong.

Sze met the landlord of her holiday rental outside the pier, a tanned forty-something woman wearing track pants and a windbreaker. Nearby, the sea moved in gentle teal shapes, tiny mountains that rose and fell against the breeze.

'You’ll have the whole place to yourself all week,' the landlord said, handing Sze the keys. She told Sze she was from Beijing, but had lived in Hong Kong for over a decade. She would be staying with her son’s grandmother that week—that was what she said, not her mother-in-law, meaning she was either widowed or divorced, Sze thought. Sze was welcome to call her if anything went wrong in the house.

A shrill bell went off, and a group of children ran onboard the swaying ferry, shrieking. Sze sat next to a tall white man in rollerblades, then watched a woman on the overhead television put on an inflatable life jacket and blow into an orange whistle. The line of buildings on the peninsula faded against the horizon, and Sze fell asleep in the cradle of the waves.

Sze had always wanted to live on the island. After a childhood spent in the abrasive shopping district of Wanchai, she wanted to leave behind its tar-stained pavement, the unceasing road construction, and stream of office workers. She became obsessed with the idea of waking up to morning birds and falling asleep to the cry of crickets. The rent on the island was a few thousand dollars cheaper than in the city for twice the square footage. The flats had balconies, sea views, and the occasional wasp nests. But the last ferry left the city at half past midnight; Clement would not be able to get home if he worked late at his due diligence firm.

On the island there were no cars or even paved roads, only rickshaw-sized vehicles that drove through lush woods. At the mouth of the main village was a property agency where a young man in flannel pants sat behind yellowing stacks of papers, typing into an ancient, bulky computer. Next door, a waiter at an al fresco restaurant was bringing out steaming plates of salt-and-pepper squid to elderly customers in sandals. The rental was up a steep hill half an hour away from the pier, on the second floor of a village house that stood right behind a grave covered in weeds.

Sze took off her boots and surveyed the space around her. The apartment was decorated with rustic wooden tables, and on the coffee table there was a triptych of photographs of a small boy in a skiing outfit. A series of trinkets sat in a neat row atop a piano: dolls and plastic figurines in Mongolian dresses, a brochure for a show at the Pompidou, and various guide maps for museums in Athens and Istanbul. Sze had not been to any of these places.

Sunlight spilled into the room, pooling on a white desk. The large windows stretched from one end of the wall to the other, and outside, there were jade green trees and the ocean at a distance. It was the closest approximation to a cabin in the woods one could find in Hong Kong. She unpacked her midi keyboard and set it against the wall. Now she was all alone.

* * *

After Sze had settled into the rental, Clement met her by the pier on the island. 'Hi again,' Clement said. 'Let’s go to that Sichuan place around the corner?' He was in his work clothes still, a crimson tie choking his neck. Around them, the frogs croaked in the drains, their song small fissures that split through the air. They walked down the stretch of the dock, listening to the soft wash of the waves as kids sped past them on skateboards. Sze had forgotten that Clement had plans to come to the island for dinner until a recurring calendar alert came up on her phone about their regular Saturday date nights. They had installed it at the recommendation of their therapist. Clement would have dinner with her before leaving her here for the rest of the week.

Clement ordered braised eggplants and fish head soup off a greasy menu at their regular restaurant by the waterfront. There was a blues band playing next door at the pub, but only the low bass notes drifted over to where Sze sat. Clement was telling her about the discrepancies his accountant found with a catering company partially owned by a legislator. They were legally obliged to flag it, Clement said, but he was sure nothing would happen. You could get away with anything in Hong Kong these days with the right political allegiances.

'Sorry, I’m probably boring you,' Clement said.

'No, not at all,' Sze replied. The music was getting louder, and the bouncy guitar chords and growling vocals barged into the quiet space between them. She tapped to the beat under the table, suppressing the urge to hum along. It was a blues standard: 'I’m Ready'. Sze’s father had loved Muddy Waters. After her father passed away a year ago, Sze found herself constantly classifying all the music she came across into whether it was something he would have liked.

Clement was now talking about the Russia-Ukraine War. Sze had already read most of it on BBC News, but she nodded as he spoke over the music.

Sze and Clement had met in university, where they lived on the same floor of a student dormitory. In the second week of her freshman year, she had wandered into the kitchen at 1 a.m. craving a late night snack when she found Clement there in his boxers, pouring himself a glass of milk. She opened the fridge to look for eggs she could steal off someone and replace in the morning, but there was nothing but a shrunken apple, several Tupperware boxes, and three cartons of milk.

'I know a place that does fried chicken legs and doesn’t close till three,' Clement said. It was the first time he had spoken to her. 'I’ll put on jeans and meet you back here in five minutes.' It wasn’t a question; he always knew what she wanted before she did.

Sze had studied music and, in between classes, taught piano for three hundred dollars an hour. Clement was a finance major and captain of the university’s debate team. On weekends, he took her out to restaurants in SoHo. Sze learned the word souvlaki, ordered shrimp cocktails at hotel bars, and ate real carbonara at an Italian place. Clement didn’t mind that she ate her spaghetti like they were noodles instead of twirling them on a spoon, and let out a light, easy laugh when she told him she once thought there were restaurants with five Michelin stars.

In Sze’s third year, her mother called to tell her that she was waking up to scarlet paint outside the door of their walkup building. Sze’s father had always been knee-deep in gambling debts. He was at the horses every week, the only semblance of routine that had existed in their household. He came home drunk on Skol beers but unlike other people’s fathers, never once used a clothes hanger on his daughter.

'I can help. You can always pay me back later,' Clement said. They were sitting on her bed in their underwear at the residential dorm where they lived.

'I can’t,' Sze said. 'I can’t borrow money from anyone, ever.'

'I don’t know what I’m supposed to do,' Clement replied.

After graduation, Sze moved home to Wanchai. Her father got off the couch and left the apartment every Wednesday and Sunday for the racecourse. Sze ate fishball vermicelli with extra pickles and read Mrs. Dalloway by the living room window. In the evenings, very tall women with hair down to their waists stumbled into alleys on the arms of drunkards with rotten teeth. Topless, bony old men with sharp elbows carried baby blue cylinders of gas up the stairs while young insurance agents in suits emerged from shiny cars carrying life-size cardboard cutouts of themselves.

On a Saturday in November, Clement drove her to a remote coastline in Stanley. He led her down the steps towards the sea and, at a pavilion at the edge of the water, presented her with a ring. Two months later, Sze and Clement knelt on both their knees and offered ceremonial tea to their parents, and Sze stopped eating carbs to fit into her dress.

It was a spring reception by the water, just warm enough to wear a sleeveless mermaid dress. Their guests ate canapés on the grassy lawns and drank sparkling wine; several were throwing up by mid-afternoon, hoping to consume enough alcohol to make up for the hefty cash gift they handed over at the entrance. Every now and then, women in maroon coats and velvet cardigans made their way over to the couple demanding attention, their phoenix brooches glinting on breast pockets. Sze had forgotten if they were Clement’s relatives or her own cousins on her mother’s side thrice removed. She had not seen half of the guests before, not even on Lunar New Year.

A fake lash was poking into her contact lens and her eyes watered from the wind. Sze felt herself dissociating, like she was watching someone else’s party. She held tighter onto Clement, who was wearing a navy suit that clung snugly to his broad frame, his teeth straight and freshly whitened. 'This is so tiring,' Clement whispered, and she smiled, like he had given her permission to stop pretending. They were the only people in on the secret.

* * *

Sze and Clement hiked up the hill to the flat after dinner. Now that it was dark outside, without the view of the trees and the water, the apartment suddenly looked sinister. The light in the toilet was dim and sometimes blinked. It reminded Sze of a ghost movie she had seen as a kid, about a spirit that had drowned in the tank at the roof of the building and haunted the residents through the water pipes.

'Can you stay until after I take a shower?' Sze asked.

'I can stay with you till the last ferry,' Clement told her, pulling her in for a hug. She sniffed the back of his neck. She still liked the way he smelled, which was a relief.

Sze took off her top and yoga pants, twisted the knob till the flame lit up in the heater, and stepped under the shower. She could hear discordant piano notes coming from the living room. Clement was playing a slow, sorrowful tune she had never heard before on the piano.

Clement, too, had been classically trained in piano as a child, but stopped playing seriously after he attained Grade 8, which Sze achieved when she was sixteen. 'She has such long fingers,' her father had said to her mother when she was five. 'She’d probably make a good pianist.' It was one of her earliest memories. And with that passing comment, Sze had begged her mother to sign her up for classes at the local trade union branch, which offered music classes for cheap. Her father loved music, and often had old vinyl records lying around the house, even though they did not have space for a record player.

But there had been a sleek, upright piano at her childhood home, a gift from her mother that felt lavish given their finances. They inexplicably placed it against a wall with a window, blocking the flow of light into her room. The window had faced out to the adjacent office building, so close Sze could often see workers feeding paper into the copier and emerging from the pantry with a fresh cup of coffee.

After Sze moved out, she found out that her father had been stashing forgotten items behind the piano. His debt receipts and porn DVDs; the report cards from the year she had almost failed math; the painting of a lake she had made at the age of ten in art class for her parents. It brought her an unbearable shame, the way that everything her father had tried to hide or thought unimportant was on display for everyone else to see through the window.

The last time she visited the flat, Clement had fished the canvas from behind the piano, gently scraped away the dust, and hung it up at their flat next to a frame of their wedding photograph.

'It’s time,' Clement now said as Sze came out of the shower, kissing her lightly on the lips. He stood up and made his way to the door. 'I’ll see you in a week.'

* * *

A month before this trip, the temperature had dipped and Sze realised it was September, already too cold to go into the water. During the day at work, Sze recited word-salad artist statements to collectors at the white cube space where she was gallery assistant, and when she returned home she wiped down surfaces and watched reality shows. She unlocked her phone and scrolled through her photo gallery at her desk. She could remember almost nothing about the past year. Time was moving too quickly, and she had not been living. It was clear that she was due for another trip to the island.

The first time Sze had run away to the island was over a decade ago. Sze had been in her final year in university, still living in the dorm even after Clement moved home to his parents’ three-storey village house in Sai Kung, tired of the antics of the freshmen class. Just before reading week, a career advisor had arranged a meeting with Sze to discuss her options; Clement had already secured a job at an accounting firm. In the university administrative office, a woman in red-rimmed glasses had earnestly asked Sze, 'What will you do with a music degree? What are your plans for the future?' Sze stared at her for a few minutes, then ran out of her office. She sat on the stone rim of the fountain in the courtyard, tilting her head back to force down gulps of air until she was dry heaving.

Sze thought then of her old piano teacher, Mrs. Lee, who had given her lessons since she was five. Mrs. Lee looked like the careless outline of a person whose maker had forgotten to colour in, and her skin was drain water grey, the result of a lifetime spent in a small, windowless room with white-corked soundproof walls. Had Mrs. Lee the kind of enemies Sze’s father attracted, she could be stabbed and nobody would hear her or notice her absence for days.

Later that afternoon, Sze found a holiday rental on the island on Airbnb, and booked it on an impulse. She had not visited the island before and only knew it as a tourist attraction, but she wanted to run away, though she wasn’t sure from what, exactly. Two days later, she was stuffing hoodies into a pink backpack and boarding a ferry to a home owned by an architect who rented out her spare room. A large tie-dye cloth hung on a white wall, and there was a small front yard with little pots of basil and chilis. But mostly the architect was alone, reading or walking her tiny white dog. The wifi was so sporadic Sze had problems loading her social media. She wanted to be this woman, a person who needed nobody.

But on the third day of that first trip, Clement had come to check in on her. 'I’m not really an island person,' Clement told her, as they walked to a waterfall in the rain listening to Ryuichi Sakamoto on their portable speaker. The island was perfect in October: the worst of the tropical insects had retreated, and they could hike for hours without breaking a sweat. On the way back to the village, they stopped by a grandma’s streetside stall and bought bowls of tofu dessert. As the children around them squirmed in their seats and knocked over spoons, Sze and Clement held hands across the table as mouthfuls of cold, syrupy pudding slid down their throats. Though her days were still foggy with anxiety, Clement’s presence steadied her.

Clement stayed overnight. When the host left that evening for a midnight rave on the beach, they fucked on the single bed, her face softly pressed onto the pillow. Afterward, their blankets scrunched up and trailing off the edge of the bed, she laid there with her ears to his chest till she fell asleep. When she walked him to the pier the next day, she was suddenly tearful. 'I’m not going to see you for another four days. That feels like such a long time,' Clement said.

* * *

Over the years, whenever Sze had felt stuck, she would take short trips to the island alone. On the island, she ordered noodles in homey diners and marched through the woods. She drank cold beer with a beanie pulled over her ears. She roamed the narrow streets alone with the confidence of someone who knew she had a home to return to. By the fifth day, she would start to miss Clement.

Before this current trip, Sze had told everyone at work that she was going to the island to make songs. But she also really came here to miss Clement. She had not been able to miss Clement in a while, and she was becoming an almost desireless creature. He snored next to her through the night and left the door open when he took a shit. Sze read about couples who had broken up during the pandemic because they could not stand being in lockdown together, and others who had split because they could not bear the physical distance between them. But how do you know what the optimal amount of distance is?

Sometimes, when they were at his country club for dinner and the waitstaff called her Mrs. Liu, she suppressed an urge to laugh. She felt as though she was playing a decades’ long pretend-game called marriage. But Sze wanted to be a priority in someone’s life, and she knew that Clement, even when he no longer would hold any affection for her, would still stay with her. And that would give everyone else the illusion that she was somebody capable of being loved, validating the worthiness of her existence in this world. Sometimes she wrote songs about him, reinventing their love story in her head into a romanticised version that could sustain this real-world marriage she sometimes felt ambivalent about.

When she told Clement she would be leaving for a week, Clement said okay and nothing else.

* * *

'So which village are you at?' the woman at the cart noodle place on the main street asked. Sze heaped teaspoons of chili oil into her bowl. Unlike the restaurants in the city centre, the noodle place had character: the woman and her husband sometimes closed shop for entire weeks without prior notice. The islanders seemed bound by different rules from the city dwellers in Hong Kong.

The woman wore large glasses, and her hair was tied back in a neat ponytail. 'I don’t actually live here,' Sze said, her throat dry. The woman wiped her hands on her lace-trimmed apron, immediately uninterested. The villagers of the island loved gossip, but only when it was about each other. Sze had not spoken to anyone in three days.

For the first two days on the island, Sze only wanted to distract herself from intrusive thoughts. When night fell, she didn’t read or watch anything on the list of books and documentaries she had made before the trip. She listened to old podcast episodes. She watched late-night talk shows on her computer even as she showered. If she let her imagination drift, she would start thinking about the water ghost that was coming in through the tap, or how the dolls on top of the piano would move when she wasn’t looking. She drank herself to sleep.

But in the morning on the third day, she played the piano freely, practising old tunes from her childhood: Bach, Schubert, Chopin. At home, it had been difficult to play with Clement close by; her self-consciousness carried into her performance. She knew that he could hear her every mistake, because Clement was only a little less technically skilled than she was. She realised this the first time they sat side by side before a piano, in a rehearsal room she had rented in their university in their final year, after he had played Debussy's Arabesque No. 2, from memory. Sze had then realised she could spend her whole life playing the piano, and still only be incrementally better than him.

It was after she and Clement had married that Sze started writing music on the weekends. She knew she would always be leagues behind the professional musicians performing at the cultural centre at Tsim Sha Tsui, but maybe she could learn to have a different relationship with music. She didn’t have to perfect somebody else’s songs, taming her fingers into obedience. She didn’t want to be the person she had been in her teenage years, biting into the flesh on the back of her hand or slamming it against the keys when it refused to play the exact notes on the score, frustrated by the limits of her body. Instead, she could now sit by the piano for hours, playing sequences of random notes until something sounded good and stuck. She could record it, then play another layer of soundscapes on top of that original loop, record that too, and then hum a melody for a vocal line, fill it in with words. There was no burden of tradition; no rules.

Here, on this island, she could make anything, free from the punishing gaze of other people. She could be anybody she wanted to be.

* * *

Sze bounced the demo versions of the songs she had written, and listened to them on her earphones as she walked down to the village for fresh groceries. Tall trees paled in the morning light, and blooms peeked out of fences against the low hum of the ocean. She sang different versions of the lyrics as she picked up bruised tomatoes and instant curry bricks, tweaking the words under her breath as she moved through the aisles.

Late in the afternoon, Sze sprayed her legs with mosquito repellent and took the path that forked away from the village. The landlord had told Sze that there was a smattering of isolated beaches around the apartment. Sze followed the turquoise railings along the path, walking under the webs of branches that enveloped the corners of her vision. The sun cast patches of light on brick walls and stone entrances.

She thought she was lost, but fifteen minutes later she found the water, close enough to touch it after hearing it call out to her for so many days. At the beach, there was only a couple lying flat on their backs in the sand, listening to music. A horizontal line of orange cut through the cloudy sky. The waves submerged the rocks with its frothy spit, then retreated.

The autumn air was clear but voluminous. Why had she waited so many days to come to the seaside? It had been a fifteen-minute walk away all this time. It was forecast to rain the day after, and she was leaving in two days. Now the sunset was fading and night had drenched the sky.

When she climbed up the stairs to the rental apartment and turned the key, the dolls and the flickering toilet lights didn’t scare her anymore. She could stay here, she thought. Maybe not here in this flat exactly, but somewhere on this island. No-one in her life would ever hear from her again; she would just be this recluse making music in the woods.

It was now the fifth day. Sze still had not begun missing Clement yet.

* * *

Sze made coffee and played one last tune on the piano to the tree outside the window, a song by a musician who had grown up in a cult. Sze had read in a magazine that one of the artist’s albums was recorded entirely at a seaside cottage in Portugal, when she was recovering from a breakup and isolating herself from the world. The song was just five notes in a minor scale that looped over and over for three minutes, a repetitive melancholy that never paused to catch its breath.

Sze closed the lid on the piano. She felt rested, like something inside her had quieted.

Sze took the four-fifty afternoon ferry back to the city, and called a taxi home from the pier. As she pushed through the glass doors to her building, the elderly guard nodded at Sze with a tight smile. Perhaps he'd noticed her absence and thought Sze had run away. She felt conscious about how, in this hypothetical scenario, the guards in the building would all be on Clement’s side. After the Lunar New Year, when Sze had agreed that he would be the one to give out the red packets to the building staff, the guards started addressing Clement as Mr. Liu while ignoring her presence altogether, even when they were leaving the building together.

The apartment was empty: Clement was still at work. There were piles of clothing on the couch, but nothing looked broken. The plants hadn’t wilted and Clement hadn’t burned down the kitchen. But there were things she did not recall seeing before: cabinet locks in the shape of Mickey Mouse heads, for children they did not have. They had to have been put there by the landlord, but they looked like they belonged to somebody else’s apartment, not her own. Sze set her backpack on the floor and began to unpack. Had the cars on the highway always been this loud? Sze checked to see if all the windows were closed, and they were.

Sze took out the trash and wiped the soil residue trailing the balcony floor. She lit a scented candle, sandalwood and jasmine, and made camomile tea. All that was left to do was sink into a warm bath with a book. But as she walked past the coffee table in the living room, she noticed that a vinyl record on top of the glass case of the player was on the verge of slipping out of its frayed sleeve. It was the Japanese version of David Bowie's Aladdin Sane record, one of her father’s favourite albums, a possession of his she had inherited after he died. She crouched over to put it back in place, and when she turned it over she saw that the paper jacket was stained in red wine.

Sze’s call went straight to Clement’s voicemail. Sze grabbed the nearest object within reach and threw it against the wall; she wasn’t sure what it was, but it made a dent on the white paint. Sze called three more times until he finally picked up.

He was at a meeting, he said. He was sorry, although he sounded distracted even as he was apologising. He had had a few to drink because he was working late; he hadn’t meant to spill anything. He’d already made an online order for a replacement copy of the same record; it wasn't the Japanese version, but the tunes were exactly the same. 'It’s just music,' he said. Then, before Sze could respond, he hung up.

The record looked like it was covered in dried blood. Sze knew that it had been an accident, but Clement’s carelessness felt dangerous, like it was emblematic of something larger, and she had chosen not to see it all this time. She ran a bath and cracked open a beer. She felt repulsed by her apartment suddenly, the silverfish and carpet beetles, the endless squeal of the cars and the view of the crowded buildings. Out of habit, she checked her savings again. If she quit her job, she would manage about six months on the island before she ran out of money.

Clement came home just after midnight, his skin sallow and eyes bloodshot. He had not texted to check in on her. Sze had half-expected him to walk in with flowers, as he would after a fight when they first started dating, but he was only carrying his moss briefcase. He removed his jacket, then his pants, and laid it on a pile on the sofa. 'Are you still mad at me?' he asked.

It was only just music.

From the hallway, Sze watched Clement close his eyes under the shower and, moments later, climb under the covers with his hair still damp.

'Come on, let’s go to bed,' he said.

Sze turned off the lights. 'Okay,' she said.