Creative non-fiction / May 2008 (Issue 3)

From the Roof Garden

by Mike Bishop

Evening. I'm sitting in the roof garden of my home overlooking Discovery Bay Marina and the South China Sea beyond. The myriad lights of Hong Kong Island glitter in the distant east, those of Peng Chau and Lamma Islands ahead to the south. I spend a lot of time up here, sitting by the table where we sometimes eat, my chair angled for the view, of which I never tire. I have with me a paperback thriller, a notebook and ballpoint pen (to jot down any serendipitous thoughts or ideas that might occur to me while I'm up here), a bottle of tawny port and a Havana cigar—the perfect way to end the day.

I've broken off reading for a moment, as I do periodically, to watch the passing ocean traffic, marked by the boats' navigation lights. A couple of far-off fishing junks with their booms extended look like gargantuan water beetles in the gloom. Ubiquitous ferries, their windows aglow, shuttle passengers between the islands. A marine police launch drops anchor offshore to remain on stand-by overnight. And closer by, a dinghy, ripping a high speed arc across the bay, heads home to the marina, its tinny strident outboard engine mimicking an angry hornet.

A deeper, thrumming, sound suddenly erupts on the roof in front of me, my eyes reflexively registering the blur of its airborne source. The unidentified flying object blunders into the jungle of palms and shrubs that occupy a deep bay on one side of the roof, clattering noisily among the branches and foliage. After a few moments of this it emerges again and thrums across to my side of the roof where it bounces among the ficus trees before crash-diving onto the floor in the shadow of the table.

By now, I have associated the various clues and realise what the creature is; various species of flying beetle are fairly common at night here, and they all seem to share the same predisposition to career into things like clumsy aircraft transports whose radar has gone haywire. I lean forward to look down at this one, which is roughly the size and colour of a small nutmeg, then reach out to touch it with my finger. It doesn't move, and I fear it may have made its final flight, plunging to its death on the concrete landing strip of my miniature Mato Grosso roof garden.

I pick the beetle up between finger and thumb and place it on the wooden table where I can see it better in the light from the wall lamp by the doorway. It remains motionless in a space on the tabletop defined by my possessions: the thriller, my notebook, the port bottle and wineglass. I watch the creature carefully for signs of life as I smoke my Havana, but after five minutes or so there is still no movement. Then, impatient, and with the wilful detachment of an inquisitive child, I hold out the cigar, bringing the tip incrementally closer to the inert insect. When the beetle suddenly flinches I snatch back my cigar with a piercing jolt of remorse. Startled into momentary action, but unharmed, the beetle immediately resumes its subterfuge and lapses into suspended animation again. I poke it gently with my finger, then pick it up again to make a closer inspection. Undeterred by my effrontery, the beetle resolutely continues to play dead.

In its own dun way, it is a beautiful creature. In contrast with its robust tank-like body, its head, proboscis and legs are surprisingly delicate and elegant. Its hard wing casings look like dusty bronze, while its fat underparts are a sort of glossy cream colour. Despite its admittedly impressive thespian efforts, this insect looks to be in the prime of life. I set it back down on the table and, puffing on my cigar, settle down to wait. As I regard the scene on the table before me I am reminded of one of those old still life paintings, and for the moment that is how things remain—quite still. The colours, though, seem somehow larger than life in the unnatural effulgence of the roof garden: the multihued illustration on the front cover of the paperback thriller; the surface of my notebook, glossy red with the word "notebook" printed rather unnecessarily in huge black letters across it; the translucent hunter green of the now empty port bottle, and in my wineglass, the port's liquid amber glow.

At length I bore of waiting and return to the pages of the thriller. Around half an hour passes before I detect movement on the periphery of my vision. Presumably satisfied that all is now safe, the beetle, like Lazarus, has come to life and is making a painfully slow pilgrimage across the table in the direction of the port bottle. When it reaches its goal—an oasis of dark green shadow cast by the bottle—it sort of snuggles in against the glass and settles once again into immobility, apparently unaware of my presence. I wonder if this might be a metaphor for the way we humans live our lives, oblivious to the mildly interested scrutiny of some greater intelligence?

Deciding that the beetle has had its nocturnal foraging disturbed enough for one night, I gather up my things, switch off the lights, and descend through the roof door into my own inner world.

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