Toby decided, as a high point of Bob’s visit, to charter a junk to explore the islands along the southern coast of China and around Hong Kong for a week or two.
Holly was persuaded to go along although she was not interested in spending too much time doing what the brothers might want to do. “I’m not one who likes roughing it, as you know,” she said, “Junks look awfully dirty and I’m not sure I have the right clothes.”
Holly came from an upper class family in Guildford, Surrey. She had met Toby in a theater club and fallen in love with his worldliness and his intention to immigrate to the United States. She had never quite expected that would lead to Hong Kong and its poverty. Since they had arrived she had always been looking forward to getting back to the States – perhaps to Washington. “When are we going back to civilization?” was her constant theme.
Finally, she had agreed to the junk excursion thinking vaguely that it might be like one of her family’s summer yacht cruises around the Isle of Wight. She was not prepared for any confrontation with nature and the elements or, as it turned out, with a Chinese junk and its crew.
Bob, Toby and she joined the junk in Lai Chi Kok where the boat lay tied to the wharf among tankers and freighters. When she saw the craft Holly knew that the trip was a dreadful mistake and the three boarded only after Toby refused to take her sudden onset of sickness seriously.
Lying at berth against the modern vessels, the junk had appeared just that: junk, a wooden relic of questionable seaworthiness and, perhaps, not all that clean. They sat on a hatchway to watch a boy raise a small forward sail … sufficient to take them into the main waterway. The vessel edged away from the wharf and rolled into the waves of the straits.
The junk was old: its hull nearly eighty feet long and thirty or more wide in the beam creaked at every roll. As they moved away from Kowloon into open water, the main lug sail towered fifty feet above the deck – a brown tattered piece of canvas spread between six immense bamboo stringers held to the mast by loose hoops of iron. The prow rose above the waves in snub-nosed defiance. It carried a forward lug, slightly smaller than the main sail. On this junk, oddly, the forward sail, just recently replaced, was virginal white. It marked the boat as a rarity … one on which some repairs had been done.
The stern of any junk is its mark of distinction and this one was no exception. From mid-ships aft the stern rose in a gentle curve until it towered fifteen feet above the waves. The decks tilted upwards with such a curve that Toby felt he was climbing to the sky when he went aft. The stern carried a third lug sail – a smaller shabbier excuse for a sail, patched and repatched so that it was impossible to identify which piece of the canvas was original.
Inside the stern castle there were several decks: living quarters. They had slept on mattresses placed directly on the deck: Toby and Holly on one side of the junk and Bob a few feet away on the other side of a canvas curtain, probably a spare sail. The division was private because the junk was so noisy. Wood rubbed on wood throughout the frame. The junk squeaked and wheezed its way through the pounding seas. If you couldn’t see another person, then you certainly couldn’t hear them.
On the top deck a large stone fireplace was set in a large water-filled tank to protect the deck from the heat. Several huge woks were used for cooking and one of the crew sat squatting by the fire surrounded by his piles of vegetables as he cooked most of the day. The meat, chickens, lived in wire cages tied outboard under the overhang of the top deck until they were called upon to be sacrificed.
Somewhere up forward the remainder of the crew slept. There were three of them besides the cook: one boy and two old men. The old men were brothers, joint owners of the junk and co-captains. They were indistinguishable from each other: brown and wizened, each sporting a small wispy beard and each dressed in grey-blue cotton shirts over creased brown trousers.
Being co-captains they were in constant argument: over which sails should be raised or lowered; over which side of an island to sail; over whether to run before the wind or heave to for a while; or whether to come or go. They hissed and shouted at each other, raising a fist and shaking it vehemently with another burst of ancient Chinese. After a such an outburst Toby saw this performance as something that came with the junk – part of the scene, for, if they were confronted by the cook, the boy, or one of their passengers, the two old men acted as one with unanimous reactions and replies.
At the beginning, Holly had been rigid with disbelief that she had agreed to such a trip and furious that Toby had ‘been so insensitive.’
He is always acting as if I don’t exist, she thought, arranging trips into the Territories or across the island without caring whether I want to go or not.
His running too annoyed her. It is totally selfish especially as he persists even when I have arranged something for both of us. He even refused to go to the ‘Repats’ party last week because he wanted to prepare for some race or other, she remembered.
It was only later in the sunny warmth of a soothing swell on the ocean, and later still when the sunset was unbelievably vast across the horizon that even Holly relaxed enough to enjoy the days.
As for Bob, he’d taken to the trip like one born to the ocean. After being withdrawn and part stranger during their short visit to Beijing, he became lively and outgoing on the junk and on the islands that they visited, just like the brother that Toby had known in their schooldays back in Wales.
First they sailed through the eastern islands of Kau Sai Chau and its small neighbors. They were mostly uninhabited and the trio lounged on the open sand, ate cold stir-fry supplied from the woks on deck, and explored trails and small hills to look at the distant views. The days remained sunny and the three reveled in the remoteness from the cares of ‘civilization.’ They felt that they were acting as indiscriminately as the pirates of the Chinese seas.
Bob had been in his element. He had been a bundle of energy: helping the crew to raise sail; helping the cook to prepare vegetables; planning the next island exploration; and wandering across foreshores beachcombing for wild and wonderful shells and stones. His oldest shorts and an old pair of Brooks running shoes seemed to have been his only baggage. They were certainly all that he wore. At the end of a particularly strenuous day he would lie on the sand or the deck and sink immediately into a deep sleep. An hour later he would be ready to go again as vital as ever.
Toby remembered later that there had been no sign of anything wrong.