Living on the edge.
I had been brooding on a beach on Lantau Island for several days, alone, until Jack happened by and sat down not far from me. Some vacationing schoolgirls soon arrived, assumed we were brothers travelling together, and invited us to join their Steamboat cook-up. They had noticed me earlier when I had been buying some beer at a store by the trail head. Now they suggested that if I shared my beer with them they would share their food with us. We’d all have a pleasant evening, eat, drink, sing some songs, and look at the stars.
Before Jack or the schoolgirls had arrived, I had already drunk the beer by myself for lunch. I told the schoolgirls so. They soon left.
They had all been quite pretty. It was unfortunate that I had drunk all the beer.
I was now sitting and brooding as before except that Jack was still there. We had not spoken to each other, but he had witnessed my inability to respond to opportunity—I could have offered to get some more beer, the trail head was only twenty minutes away, yet I had sat there dumbly. I felt embarrased. It was getting dark, and as Jack and I sat swatting mosquitos, we finally struck up a conversation. He said, “It’s a shame you drank all the beer by yourself”.
I knew that what he said was true but to dismiss any ideas of regret, to defend my inaction, I blurted out that I didn’t like people much anyway. He was quiet and then he asked me seriously “What’s the point of that?” I didn’t know.
Jack was about eight years older than me and had been the all-Ireland wheely champion. He was a motorcycle mechanic, but really he wanted only to be a traveller. He had no money and so had to be very creative in how he got around, but he did get around. He had no set agenda, he just looked for opportunities to continue on to somewhere else.
He was headed for Hong Kong to see if he could score a ride from an Irish freighter in the harbour. It came from Cork, his home town, so he thought he might have a chance. It didn’t pan out, but Jack was unfazed. When I met up with him on shore he asked me if I wanted in on his next opportunity, whatever that might be. I said yes.
Jack liked to ask people questions, constantly. Even when he irritated people, he still managed to dig out useful information. In a bar he found out about something called a “Milk Run”. He got a contact address, and he clued into the necessity for the both of us to buy new shirts before we auditioned as potential runners.
We bought our shirts, went to a small hotel room and were deemed acceptable. We watched some suitcases being packed, and then we went to the airport and flew to Seoul.
A couple days later we flew on to Taiwan, then back to Hong Kong, and then on again. As we moved from country to country, in our luggage and on our bodies were manageable amounts of various currencies and high price luxury items (Rolex watches and Hasselblad cameras), or goods restricted for political reasons (silk or mushrooms from China) . The idea was to exploit currency restrictions just within the tolerance of the law.
I guess that was why it was called the “milk run”, as opposed to the “illicit contraband that will get you imprisoned or executed run”.
The runners on the milk run received free travel, accommodation, a small stipend and whatever they might make on the side. Although it was a little alarming, not knowing if the goods were tampered with prior to their packing, or if we were being set up for a sting/kickback thing with the authorities, we still had a great time. As long as we acted stupid, obstinate, and forgetful, everything seemed to work fine.
We were pretty confident. Packing our dirty underwear on top of the goods and drinking as much as possible on the flights, getting lost in terminals looking for toilets. The customs officers were just happy to be rid of us.
On the last trip, in Seoul waiting for a cab with Jack and the contact, at the last moment I jumped into a different cab with a girl I had met the night before. We were all supposed to go together to the airport, but the girl wanted to accompany me by herself, or that’s what I thought she was saying. We couldn’t actually understand each other. It seemed logical to me, more romantic. Inspired by Jack, I was trying to respond to all opportunities openly and immediately. It seemed to be working for me, so I thought nothing of it and accepted the moment and took the other cab without a word.
Later, Jack told me how the contact thought I had double-crossed him. He seemed frightened. Afterwards, when he saw that I was at the airport and everything was as per usual, he was still ill at ease. He kept looking at me, his pupils dilated, shaking his head and mumbling stuff.
It seemed like the right time to stop.
What with all the drinking it had required, we hadn’t actually been making any money on the milk run. Jack was very low and, being Irish, had no chance of being repatriated. The Irish Government thought it would only encourage their citizens to take irresponsible vacations if they offered emergency repatriation.
We had fallen far. We were on the verge of forging university degrees so that we could teach English.
We had both met many teachers of English. We had seen how they lived. One fellow, a former mercenary, had reduced himself to giving out horrible English names to female students as a lark. “Yeah, Ethel, that’s a popular girl’s name”. He was bitter,viscious, bored and boring. The only joy in his heart was in disdain.
As it happened, Jack ended up with enough money to buy a ticket in Beijing that went all the way to Helsinki. I had enough to buy a Chinese bicycle. We parted ways.
I peddled south transformed. I was relieved to be alone again.
Things went well. I experienced some unexpected and beautiful moments in China. I was alive to those moments in ways I had not thought myself capable of. Some months later, I overheard someone talking about sexuality and art. It was in Kota Baru, Malaysia and I was recovering from being run over by a car while trying to ride another bicycle from Singapore to Bangkok. I was lying on my back in a guest house, sticking to some sheets (the car had dragged me beneath it for a while and I had lost a fair bit of skin on my back). I met the woman who talked about sexuality and art. I experienced true love.
Later, I followed this woman to Paris, where she had gone to study dance. On the floor of a dance studio changing room, where we were sleeping at the time, I asked her to marry me. She hesitated slightly, because she wasn’t entirely convinced I was sane. I assured her we could always get a divorce. She opened herself to the moment and my logic, and said yes. I felt incredibly lucky.
We couldn’t get married in France because of the impenetrable bureaucracy, so I headed back to Canada to prepare for a visit from my bride the following summer. On the way, I met up with Jack in London. He was driving a gypsy cab, a right-hand drive Mercedes that he had somehow acquired on the continent and brought to England. He had just recently gotten married.
He had married a Thai woman who was the girlfriend of a gangster. The marriage was to enable her to obtain an Irish passport so that she could continue to live in London. The deal had been that Jack would meet her for the one and only time in the church where they were to marry and then never see her again. I don’t think he got paid very much for his part—his passport. Unlike me, where the option of divorce had helped to cinch the proposal, Jack, being both Catholic and Irish, was forfeiting his only chance at marriage.
Just before the wedding he decided that he would like to, at least, say a few words to his wife. He did, while being watched over by several representatives of the boyfriend’s family. Somehow he managed to get her phone number. At the time we met he was secretly carrying on an affair with his wife. She lived in a deluxe house boat on the Thames at the whim of her boyfriend. Jack too, was in love.
Two years later, my wife and I had now married and were trying out actually living together. It was a very exciting and equally terrifying experiment for the both of us. We were young and hoping to become the people we thought we saw in each other’s hearts. We were trying to live together and yet be better individuals, some place in the world. It was difficult, and a retreat into our bitter, simpler, self-satisfied and less vulnerable selves was always a possibility. I had moments of despair that tempted me with a cosy respite into a kind of superior fatalism. But I’d hear “What’s the point of that?”, and I’d have to agree.
We tried to visit Jack in Cork. He wasn’t there. He was off on his own somewhere in the Andes fixing motorbikes, as far as his family knew. They made us most welcome.
Jack was, of course, still married. He had brought his wife for a visit to meet his family in Cork the year before. In telling this to us, his mom tried to sound supportive, but she was a little confused about their living arrangements.
We stayed the night in Jack’s old room. It was hard to sleep, because there was something lumpy in the bed. At first light we investigated and found a petrified piece of toast with jam. I wondered aloud to my wife if this had been Jack’s and if perhaps it was to be her only, and my last, contact with him. I then noticed a trophy on the top shelf of the otherwise bare room. I got up to have a look and was delighted to find inscribed on the base “All-Ireland Wheely Champion”. I felt very lucky. I still do.