Unlucky 13: A Ghost Month to Remember

“That’s where we found him,” says Mr. Hou.

For the last few seconds, his concentration has been wavering as we chat, his eyes flitting back and forth from me to a spot on the kitchen floor over my shoulder. I don’t ask him what’s up – my eyes do .

“I tried to save him.”

I don’t need to ask who him is. I don’t know who he was, I don’t know his name – until now I didn’t even know that he was a he – but I know who Mr. Hou means.

“What happened?”

“He was doing …”

He mimics throttling himself.

“It was a game, you know?”

“A sexual thing?”

“No no. It’s … You know, the young people play this to …”

I twig.

The “choking game” or “fainting game.” I’d read somewhere that young people in Taiwan had been doing this. We did something similar when we were kids but it involved hyperventilating and pushing on the diaphragm. Looking back, it was very silly, dangerous stuff.

In recent years, a variation called “thumb blowing” has become popular in the UK. It involves hyperventilating while in a squatting position, then getting up quickly and blowing hard with your thumb in your mouth to block the air and prevent exhalation.

Some Taiwanese youngsters seem to be practising an altogether scarier version, involving self-asphyxiation using their hands or ligatures tied to door-knobs etc. For this reason, when things go wrong, it can be tough determining whether a suicide has taken place or, perhaps, as I had first guessed when Mr. Hou made the gesture, a case of auto-erotic asphyxia gone wrong.

“Maybe that’s why your cat is so unhappy,” says Mr. Hou, watching Polly skulk listlessly into the quietest corner she can find. “Animals can sense these things.”

I tell him that I doubt that the reason that my cat is agitated is because she is being plagued by the troubled spirit of a young man who died on my kitchen floor three years ago. I reckon it’s probably because of the crash-bang-walloping that has turned my small unapartment into a Keith Moon solo.

I’m calling it my unapartment because it was never actually mine. It hovered tantalisingly just beyond my stubby fingertips for a month, only to be snatched away like a fly-fishing lure. I’m being thrown out, you see, and the thrower-outter – a miserable harpy named Ms. Weng – is the antagonist of this tale.

۞

Three months ago, just before I flew to Mallorca with my sons to spend a couple of weeks with their grandparents, I finally found a new flat. I was coming to the end of my contract in a musty old hole in Danshui and decided I didn’t want to wait the last couple of months out. Aside from the dank air, it was an entomologist’s research centre: an infestation of drain flies in the bathroom, fruit flies any time I left fruit or veg out, bedbugs in the sofa bed, and ants swarming over even the tiniest speck of food that I has missed while cleaning up after cooking. Cockroaches, I take as a given, and I had to splat only three or four during the summer, which I considered pretty good going.

Another important factor was my kids. The place simply wasn’t big enough, the air was no good for my eldest’s asthma, and it was a real slog for them every other weekend. They live with my still-not-quite-ex wife in Toufen (頭份), Miaoli County (苗栗縣) and get the bus (coach to Brits) up on their own. Another hour out to Danshui on top of a couple of hours up the motorway was understandably making visits to the old man a drag, as if hanging out with your dad all weekend when you could be kicking it with your mates wasn’t bad enough.

I’d been looking for about a month and had already had to deal with some fuckries, most notably a Ms. Huang who had taken an NT$5,000 deposit for a rooftop flat near Qilian (其哩岸) MRT, then buhaoyised me with some cobblers about not realising I’d sent it, despite the fact that I’d phoned her a couple of hours earlier to confirm it had been wired to her account. I was on the high speed rail down to Taichung to watch England scrape past Wales when she called to say she’d given the place to someone else. A couple of weeks later the same flat was back on 591.com, the housing Web site. I think my prevarication over her nosey enquiries about my financial status had made her skittish.

Then, out of the blue, just as I was about to depart, a Facebook friend of a friend posted up details of a place in Zhishan (芝山). I immediately messaged him, went to have a butcher’s and said I’d take it right then and there. It was pretty much perfect for me – located a couple of minutes from the MRT, more than spacious enough for my needs and with two long balconies on each side. In addition to my own spawn, I’ve accumulated a mini menagerie of beasties, and this place also suited those needs.

The current tenant – we’ll call him Tim – had two months remaining on his lease and said I could move in at the beginning of August and pay him the two months’ deposit that he had given the landlord when he had moved in three years earlier. After that, I would re-sign in October. You’re probably already starting to get an inkling of how things went pear-shaped.

It wasn’t just the flat that was spot-on. The timing couldn’t have been better. I’d told my Danshui landlord that I’d be out by 10 August, and Tim and his heavily pregnant wife were moving down to Dakeng, Taichung at the beginning of the month, coincidentally just a couple of doors down from Faf, one of my best and oldest mates. (To continue the strange symmetry, he was my childhood next-door neighbour in London.)

This was a big weight off my mind. I knew I’d be in a pecuniary bind on my return from Spain as I would miss two-and-a-half weeks of classes, meaning I’d have less than half my monthly salary to come back to.

The one slight downside was that the place would be completely empty when I moved in, but I looked on this as an opportunity to make it my own. It would definitely take me a while to accumulate all the furniture and appliances, but I already foresaw myself staying here quite a while. Over the past 10 years in Taipei, I hadn’t been in any one place for more than a couple of years, and most of these relocations were, for one reason or another, forced on me.

Apart from a few hundred books and my creatures, I didn’t have much to move and reckoned I could take stuff bit by bit on the the MRT over the course of a week or two.

This I did on my return, carrying some seriously hefty loads, and being questioned by cops in the process after some busybody alerted them to the odd foreigner with three massive hold-alls. My post-Spain swarthiness and raggedy beard probably didn’t help matters.

۞

“The agent is trying to get hold of you,” Tim messaged me on Facebook. “She says your phone is off.” It was. I explained that I was back and forth between the two flats and had left my charger in the new place while cleaning up and spending my last few nights at the old one.

Then. “I’ve got some bad news. She says the landlord wants to raise the rent.”

“You know this is kind of my limit, Tim.”

“Yeah, I know. I explained you don’t have a lot of money. I think you can negotiate with her, but try to stick to 15,000. Another thing. The flat is a ghost house. It’s xiongzhai in Chinese. She lied about that when we moved in, but the neighbours told us. Try to use that if she won’t budge on the rent.”

Eventually I get Ms. Weng’s text asking if she can come round on Friday morning. We confirm 10 am.

۞

Embee’s dead. I don’t want to believe it but eventually a flurry of missives from around the world confirm it. I spend the next couple of nights trying to make sense of it with old friends. I’m in bits for days, crying suddenly on the MRT, in the street, minutes before class.

The night before I have to meet Ms. Weng, I’m up all night video-chatting with mates who offer to contribute towards my ticket back to the UK for the funeral. Faf has also offered to chip in. He’s just had a baby boy and returning to Blighty is unfeasible.

It’s 7 am by the time I’m done reminiscing and arguing about Brexit. There’s no way I can sleep – I certainly won’t make the appointment if I do. I head straight for the new flat, shower, grab some breakfast and potter about the flat waiting for Ms. Weng.

From the offset, she’s acting weird. She’s walking from room to room – all two of them – and snooping around like she’s sizing up its potential as a place to stash some illicit cargo. There’s a guy in Dennis Taylor specs shadowing her like an expectant John on his way to a Wanhua backroom for a rub and tug. He’s non-stop nodding at me, his lopsided lips halfway between obsequious grin and Ruprecht-the-Monkey-Boy leer.

Aside from cursory salutations, neither of them has said so much as a word to me.

“Who’s this?” I ask.

“Oh, he’s my husband.”

“Yes, I’m her husband.”

She begins to survey the piles of books that constitute 90 percent of my earthly possessions.

“Are those books yours?” she asks in English that sounds better than my Chinese.

“Yes. Sorry, are you looking for something?”

“No. Just looking.”

She seems to be going to great lengths to avoid the point of this meeting.

“So, Tim says the landlord wants to raise the rent.”

“Uh,” she says, using the Chinese monosyllable for assent that, even after all these years, always sounds uncouth to me. There is no good reason embedded in the hermeneutics of onomatopoeia as to why this should be. It’s hardly as if the reduplicated “uh-huh” is objectively more polite.

“How much do you think it might be?”

“Not sure.”

“Not sure?”

“Uh.”

“Well, when might I be able to find out?”

“Not sure.”

“Well, I don’t have a lot of money”

“Uh.”

To demonstrate my poverty, I show her the flat-screen TV that I’ve just brought in a holdall on the MRT, and tell her that everything she sees in the place right now arrived there the same way. Here, she does actually react with surprise. “You brought this on MRT?”

“Uh.”

But she still refuses to get into the rent issue, insisting she needs to consult the landlord. The landlord’s in his mid-80s and I find it hard to believe that he would suddenly start upping the rent now, but there’s not much I can say at this stage. As she makes to leave, I play the ghost house card.

“Ms. Weng, I know this is a xiongzai.” Her upper lip wibbles. I notice it.

“Who say that? We no actually sure,” she rejoins; then in instant contradiction: “Anyway, that happen over three years ago. In Chinese culture, that means it is OK. It is no longer a –”

“Ms. Weng, I’ve been here 15 years,” I tell her, making it clear that I know full well that a shelf-life on hauntings is not a thing (even though it would be little more preposterous to me than other local ghost-related beliefs).

She almost sprints down the stairs. Dennis Taylor is as tight to her arse as a reggae dancehall grinder, nodding Churchill-dog style all the way down.

“When can you tell me,” I call after her.

“Not sure!”

I’m exasperated. “Then, why did you come here today?”

“I had to meet you, right? I don’t know who’s living here.”

“Right. Fair enough.”

Later, I realised her last response – on this first and last time I would ever see her – actually revealed something that I should have confirmed with Tim from the beginning.

۞

Eventually, Muvva Writing Baron convinces me that going back is not a good idea.

I think one should give more attention to people when they’re still alive,” she tells me, adding with trademark irreverence:I personally couldn’t give a toss who comes to my funeral. People only attend funerals to ‘pay their respects’ for their own gratification/peace of mind, anyway.”

She’s known Embee almost as long as I have – 25 years – and watched us grow up together, and while she’s deeply saddened to hear the news, she points out that “no-one is so bothered when you get to my ripe old age and older.”

Finally, the knockout blow: “You cant afford to go and the money would be better spent on your family – and I don’t include myself.”

She’s right, as usual. I haven’t a pot to piss in. In fact, she has just sent me a grand sterling for furniture. And, things are about to get worse on the financial front.

۞

Tim messages me the day after my frustrating meeting with Ms. Weng. I’m at the Danshui hovel. “Have you spoken to the agent?”

“Not since yesterday.”

“Then I’ve got some bad news.” This is starting to get normal.

 I sit down on the bedbug sofa-bed. I’m drunk and volatile. What can bad news entail after what has just happened? One thing, as far as I can see, and I don’t have to see too far.

 “The agent says she’s not going to renew the lease”

 “Whaaaat?!”

 “I’m so sorry, man. I’ll help you find somewhere else.”

He sends me 591 links, but I’m far too miserable to even look right now. I have, Tim tells me, two options: leave now and get my two months’ rent back or stay and get a month or nothing depending on how quickly I can find another place. Obviously I have nowhere to go right this minute. I message Weng thanking her for contacting Tim rather than telling me face-to-face and accepting her kind offer to let me stay until the end of the lease. Irony’s not a big thing in Taiwan, but given the context, she could hardly take me seriously.

A while later, I get:

“Sorry!”

Later still – I don’t know when – I’m god-knows-how-many-sheets-to-the-wind, busting early 90s British hip-hop, thinking of summers at Aylestone playing fields with Embee and Marley D, another fallen warrior, bawling into the special offer Pilsner Urquell that Family Mart are doing for just a couple of weeks this summer, understated green cans that annoyingly always sit tepid on the shelves at the front rather than cooling in the fridge, and I send her the following:

“Let me tell you, I’m quite a well-known writer in Taiwan and this case will definitely get some publicity. A story on 凶宅 for Taipei Times will be cool.”

Reading it back, it’s got a distinctly do-you-know-who-I-am? tone to it, but it was a desperate last gambit. She wasn’t to know that by “well-known” I meant “vaguely familiar to a handful of Taiwan-based Westerners.” Anyway, my barking is hollow: I search ghost houses in Taiwan and find this fascinating Taipei Times piece, which details some of the infuriating consequences of this hocus-pocus. As it’s written by the guy to whom I usually pitch my story ideas, my trump card is about as useful as Donald.

I also find the following Web site: www.unluckyhouse.com. Tim had earlier referred to the existence of such databases. As the Taipei Times story explains, in Taiwan, superstition is legislated. House owners have to reveal any ghostly goings-on if they’re selling property, but not so landlords who are renting. Still, as I later discover, it is considered very poor form to hide, let alone deny this stuff.

I scour the site and a similar one for my unapartment. As far as I can see, it’s not listed. Time to hit the neighbours up.

۞

“Penniless, but never

Theless,

Nobody tess

Yes I smoke

Cess

My life’s been

Distressed …”

6 August

Herbie Baron06/08/2016 22:09

hey

can I get an iphone?

James Robert Baron 06/08/2016 22:11

Mate, I’ve just found out I can’t live in the new place, having moved all my stuff there. The landlord is basically throwing me out. I’ve spent 12000 already on moving and new things

Herbie Baron 06/08/2016 22:11

what!!!!! why cant you stay???!!!

James Robert Baron 06/08/2016 22:12

Long story … Tell you when you up come this weekend.

Herbie Baron 06/08/2016 22:13

Oh. This weekend …

۞

Old Man Kuo is shovelling pigs’ trotter into his cake hole. I’m doing the same with almost the same. The Taiwanese are very particular about the parts of a pigs foot and what I’m eating is, I think, technically the shank. Kuo has the flabby, fatty end of the foot.

I’ve got the small plate up against my face, slurping the gravy, the nest of sliced ginger squashed against my scouring-pad chin. Like the several weeks of waggon-riding I’d enjoyed since returning from Spain, my recent return to vegetarianism has shuddered to halt.

Kuo is going about his scoffing his swill in a slightly more civilised fashion, holding the plate up close, but using the chopsticks to pick up the individual pieces of gelatinous pork. I catch his eye from across the restaurant. He nods and jabs a chopstick towards his chin. Eventually I realise he’s trying to alert me to several strands of ginger that are now hanging from my beard like baby squid tentacles. I nod back appreciatively.

I’m sitting near the counter of the Formosa Chang eatery round the corner from the unapartment and, as he pays up, Kuo approaches, leans over and plonks a hand on my shoulder. “I’ve spoken to the landlord,” he says. “He’s 83, you know?” I’d heard older, but go on. “He doesn’t know anything about raising the rent.”

As I suspected. From the beginning, I’d found it odd that an elderly fellow like this would arbitrarily jack up the rent with no warning. Mr. Kuo has just confirmed: The agent is looking to make a little earner on the side.

“The old man, he says you need to negotiate with the agent.”

I thank Mr. Kuo for his help, but tell him it’s too late. I’ve just signed a contract for a new place, paid the deposit, bought a couple of air conditioners.

“Oh, that’s a shame. I’m sorry about all this.” There’s something else. He’s reaching. Then, finally: “That flat. Are you scared about that?”

“No. Most Westerners don’t care about that stuff.”

“Oh. Me neither. I used to be a policeman, you know.”

۞

Tim comes up from Taichung with his wife to grab some bills from the unapartment. We’re standing outside comparing notes on what an incorrigible harpy Ms. Weng is, when he innocuously inserts the following into the conversation:

“After we’d moved to Taichung, I told her that you were moving in …”

After? My pal the Cynical Saffa had actually raised this issue from the get-go. “Make sure, the landlord knows about this, bru.” (He didn’t and wouldn’t say “bru” but I’m slinging it in there for authenticity.) I’d foolishly assumed Tim had okayed everything from the start. I mean, who wouldn’t do that? Apparently not Tim.

He’s very apologetic and clearly knows he’s fucked up.

“You should’ve told her, man.”

“I didn’t think it would be a problem,” he says. “It never has been before.”

I have to look away for a moment. Then back at him. Then at his wife. They both look mortified. I’m brewing, but throwing a strop now won’t do anyone any good.

۞

I teach every evening between 6.30 and 10 p.m. I have done for years, but friends still call and message me during these hours. “Oh, Thursday, too?” Every day. “And, Friday? Since when?”

For the last couple of weeks, my students have been getting constant updates about my trials and tribulations. It’s a chance for me to vent, and most of them seem to enjoy the hammed-up exasperation of my rants.

Ms. Weng has basically refused to give me an explanation as to why she is throwing me out. In fact, she won’t even engage with me. My attempts to communicate with her have been rebuffed, with the exception of one curt exchange in which she confirmed I would have to be out by October at the latest, and that if I found a place by September, she would give me a month’s deposit back. Tim has faired only marginally better. She actually speaks to him, but remains obdurate as a rock.

The new place is nice – nicer than the unapartment on the inside and just down the road at Shipai. It’s one of those illegal rooftop flats that the city government is meant to be cracking down on – foreigner apartments as Tim calls them – so the landlord immediately tells me she can’t provide me with household registration in the event of me wanting to send my kids to the local school. I’m a little concerned by this as I have tentative plans to have my boys with me at some point in the not-too-distant future, but I’ll have to figure that out later.

She’s nice, Ms. Liao, and gives me the keys before I’ve even handed over the deposit – only a month, another Brucie Bonus. The Cynical Saffa reckons something’s amiss. He always does, mind, but since he’s already 1-0 up in this whole sorry saga, his gloomy prognosticating acquires renewed legitimacy, at least in his eyes.

The new place is in a nice neighbourhood full of gnarled, crippled old fig trees, smalls parks and disorderly gardens spilling from balconies and front porches. It’s quiet at night. The rubbish truck sits out next to Beitou Sports Center for an hour-and-a-half in the evening, giving me enough time to dump stuff before work. I’d never even heard of such an arrangement before. I’m already starting to like the area it more than any other I’ve lived in in Taipei. Ms. Liao gives me a couple of luffa (絲瓜) and a box of fancy pineapple cakes with dried-egg centres when she comes to collect the rent, two days after its due.

Before class on a Tuesday last month, two days before I’m set to move the heavy stuff, I compose a final missive to Ms. Weng. I start in dodgy Chinese and, as the effort taxes me and I feel my frustration building, finish in English.

I tell her that I now realise Tim hadn’t informed her about my moving in, that this was a mistake, but that her refusal to even discuss the matter has been utterly perplexing and that her sending me packing has caused me serious stress, not to mention ripped a hole in my pocket. I’ve had to buy two new air conditioners and pay to have everything moved – since the move from Danshui, I’ve acquired a washing machine, fridge, wardrobe, bookcase, a double bed mattress and a single bed frame. I’m supporting my kids and my still-not-quite-ex-wife on a pretty meagre income and this whole debacle has been a real headfuck.

All this means nothing to her, I’m sure, so I finish with something that I know will:

 Tue, 30/08/2016

我跟房東聯絡發現不是他要漲價. (I’ve been in touch with the landlord and found out it wasn’t him who wanted to raise the rent.)

So that’s yet another lie. I guess you wanted to make some money for yourself.

As I’m finishing up that night, I see she has replied to my text:

 20.05

你到底想怎麼樣? (So, finally, what do you want to do?)

 20.05

 不然給你租好了。(How about, we just let you stay?)

I’m agog. Is she taking the piss? After weeks of deaf ears, she’s now saying I can stay. I ask a couple of mates with decent Chinese whether this might be some facetious parting shot, an attempt to mock me now that she knows I’m on my way. When I think about it, though, she doesn’t actually know I’m leaving.

I ask her if she’s kidding, and she replies by indicating that her intransigence was a result of my raising the ghost house issue. “If you really like to stay the house, we wish you really like it and stop thinking 凶宅 [ghost house].” She tells me this pissed her and the landlord off, that I was being “thankless” (I have to admit, I quite like that one), and that I can stay if I desist from my otherworldy antics.

These protestations, of course, are blatant horse-before-cartery: I’d only raised the spectre haunting Zhishan as a desperate last resort. It’s pretty obvious to me that she’s doing a volte face because I have, to employ the old hip-hop vernacular, pulled her card on the rent-raising front.

As I’m lying on my double bed mattress on the floor, next to my single bed frame, trying to find the method in La Weng’s madness, I hear shuffling from across the hall. It’s Mr. Kuo. I’d left my inside door open in the hope of catching him before I left.

“Happy Moon Festival.” I present him with a box of biscuits my school had presented me with a few hours earlier. We dance the customary refusal-insistence jig, though I’m rather more insistent than usual as I really don’t want this sugary, faux-Japanese crud. As we’re jigging, I notice a sticker:

Dear James,

Thank you for all your hard work.

Happy Moon Festival.

TILC

With the deftness of an Egyptian mongoose, I snap it off without the old man noticing.

“I’m sorry I couldn’t help,” he says. “I don’t understand why she’s being like this … I know the landlord, you know. I’ve been here for 40 years. I’m not scared of that place. I used to be a policeman.”

Back on bedroom floor, I message Tim to see what he makes of it all before retiring for the night.

۞

With the rough, the smooth. I’ve been paying off health insurance back payments for my kids and ex for almost two years. These were the last two months, which I decided to pay off in one whack. You can see in the bottom right-hand corner the numbers: 21/21. Finally done and dusted.

۞

I wake rather late and see Facebook messages from Tim. He’s spoken to Weng and she’s for real. “It appears here whole reason for this is that she feels she should have earned an agent fee before you moved in.” The Cynical Saffa had posited this as the source of the contretemps. 2-0. I can see him nodding sententiously as I read the message.

There’s a missed call on my phone and I guess it’s her. I call.

“What do you want?” (She uses the Chinese 幹嘛, which translates as “what’s up/what are you up to?” but which, given her tone and the context, is closer to my translation here.)

“What do I want? You called me.”

“Well?”

“Well, what? I really don’t understand …”

“Do you want to stay?”

Here, I am, as those who have met me even just in passing are likely to affirm, in that most unfamiliar position of being rendered speechless. Although Tim confirmed her about-turn, hearing her say it so matter-of-factly adds another layer of what-the-fuckness to the bullshit she’s pulled.

“…”

“Hello? So?”

“I … Really … What is your problem? It’s too late now. I’ve just paid the deposit on a new place. I don’t understand why you’re doing this. For two weeks, I tried to talk to you, but …”

“So, why you phone me? Just to complain?” she says, switching to English.

Again, I’m slightly flummoxed as I think about this for a sec.

“Well … Yeah, actually. Yeah. I think I’ve earned the right to do that.”

“Whaddyou wan? You wan saahhry?”

“Not really. I mean, not if you don’t mean it; and you obviously don’t.”

“OK, James, I’m saahhry, OK? I’m really saaaahhry.”

Not to be outdone in the OTT sarkiness stakes, I utter the last words I hope I shall ever have to speak to the odious old bluebottle: “Thanks, Ms. Weng. I appreciate your heartfelt apology.”

۞

On my final day in the unapartment, I’m carrying the shelves of the bookcases that I never put back together out the the door to the removals van when I bump into Mr. Hou and his wife. He’s clad in a tank-top (Murican: sleeveless T-shirt) that looks faintly silly on a man of his years, though for those years – I’m guessing he’s in his early-to-mid 60s – he’s in good nick. Caked in make-up, his wife, bless her, looks like the matriarch of a Zhonghe barber shop, though far more cheerful.

“Still moving in, eh?” he says.

“Actually, I’m moving out.”

I explain, taking special care to emphasize Wicked Witch Weng’s role as the villain of the piece.

“What is her problem?” His wife purses her lips and shakes her head like a stingy parent.

Indeed.

He breaks into English, and his English is good, so that’s how we continue. Hou suggests we exchange name cards and pops up to the fourth floor to grab his while I rifle around in my packed bags to find mine. It’s as we’re exchanging cards and he’s telling me about his unfulfilled dreams as a hotelier in an unspecified Western country, that I notice him throwing glances towards the kitchen floor.

The following morning, Tim comes up from Taichung to grab the keys and tie up loose ends. He’s given me my month’s deposit and now has to try to get the money back from Weng. Good luck with that. We smoke a couple of cigarettes and bitch about Weng. She calls right then to demand the money for the utilities.

Tim tells her that the bills have never been more than NT$1,600 since he has lived there, and that he will give her that, even though it should be considerably less, as I’ve been there less than a month. She refuses, saying she doesn’t believe him, and that she wants confirmation from the companies concerned. He shoots me a murderous glare.

He thanks me for not losing my rag over the whole thing, which I appreciate and, while I tell him it wouldn’t have achieved anything, I’m actually quietly impressed with myself. We part, reflecting that it’s all now over and that we won’t have to hear from the wretched Weng any more. And that, it would appear, is that.

But …

Later, during a private class, Tim sends me a message. The bill was just over a thou, so the dozy cow did herself out of NT$500. Just after the class has finished, he calls me audibly excited. The cops have shown up. Mr. Hou came home to find Tim and Weng arguing over the deposit and gave the latter a piece of his mind, calling her dishonest about the flat’s xiongzhai status. A row ensued and Tim had to get in the middle before things came to blows. Hou told her to get out of the building as she had no right to be there, Weng responded by calling the police, saying she was being threatened and even claiming they were picking on her because she was a woman.

When the cops arrived, Weng tried to get them to side with her on the xiongzhai issue, which they understandably said wasn’t their concern. Hou deliberately goaded Weng by asking the cops whether they would be filing a report and, if so, whether the xiongzhai claims would be noted. Tim, meanwhile, calmly explained that he just wanted to hand over the keys and get his deposit back, which struck the cops as a reasonable proposition. All the while, Hou was standing in the stairwell smirking and chipping in comments in English, infuriating Weng no end.

“You think I no understand?!,” she screeched.

She finally agreed to return the money, but demanded Tim text her a pre-written message confirming receipt. Sure thing. Hand over the cash and then I’ll send it, said Tim, at which point Weng took out an envelope and hurled it on the floor like a petulant brat. Some notes flew out and Tim checked to see the whole NT$15,000 was there.

“Mr Hou was right,” Tim said. “You should have been more honest.” The keys were next to hit the floor which, considering Weng had just got them back, was just silly.

Outside the police are as bemused by the whole thing as Tim. “Taiwan’s fun, eh?” one of them quipped.

Post-script:

In a short excerpt from a New York Times piece at the beginning of the book Freakonomics, Stephen Levitt recounts a nerve-racking interview for initiation into Harvard’s elite intellectual clubhouse, The Society of Fellows. Quizzed as to the “unifying theme” of his work, Levitt vacillates, hoping to satisfy an audience comprising renowned thinkers from an assortment of disciplines. Eventually the late libertarian philosopher Robert Nozick comes to the rescue, pointing out that Levitt doesn’t need a common thread to make his work important.

Admittedly, there’s a proviso: Nozick suggests Levitt might just be an immensely talented person who takes a question and answers it. I’m claiming neither talent nor an attempt to address any particular issue here. But, as I’ve put this narrative together over the last month, I have started to think about whether there was any point to it.

In the end, I think its worth, if any, lies not in the story itself, but the desire to get it off my chest in a creative way. Moving is a bore, and being thrown out of a place you like after a couple of weeks with no explanation is pretty stressful. The death of my childhood friend hit me with a pain that I cannot remember having felt before. I was close to lapsing back into the self-pity and destructive behaviour that I all too readily allow to take hold when I’m in a dark corner. Instead, Embee’s death has reminded me of how much time I’ve squandered and – a couple of months’ shy of my 40th birthday – how little time we have, and that’s assuming we even get a half-decent innings.

I’m back off the booze and trying to focus on the important things in my life: my sons, my creative productivity and my health – mental and physical. I’m happy with the new place, slowly making it my own and hoping I can stay here for a good while. Polly seems to like it, too. Perhaps Mr. Hou was right.

Oh, please. I haven’t gone native just yet.

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