Fiction / June 2015 (Issue 28)

The Last Blog and Testament of the Shui Gui

by Phillip Donnelly

Ghosts make terrible students. Never tutor one of them. No matter how much they hound and haunt you; no matter how much they whine and howl. Just say "no" to ghost pupils.

I know you don't believe in ghosts. Few Westerners do, of course. But the Chinese believe. Always have done. Confucius himself says that we should "respect ghosts and gods but keep away from them." But what can you do if they won't keep away from you?

Anyway, if you're reading this blog post, it's because you knew me once. You want to know why I left my shoes on the beach and swam out to sea; why I shuffled off the mortal coil to swim with the fishes; why I let the black sea take me.

So, rather than leave a riddle, and so that the blameless can live free of guilt, I'll leave this blog post. It's a will of sorts, I suppose, this last blog and testament. Having nothing of value to give, I can bequeath only my story. Apologies to those of you who might have been expecting a larger inheritance. Rolling stones gather neither moss nor money.

As you may or may not know—since I lose touch like snakes shed skin—I moved to Cheung Chau, one of Hong Kong's outlying islands, about a month ago. I was looking for lower rent and lower stress. I still needed to work in Hong Kong but I couldn't take living there anymore. So, I moved from the island to an island, from the island at the edge of a continent to an island at the edge of an island.

Take every image you have of Hong Kong and Cheng Chau is the opposite. There's no traffic, no skyscrapers, no fighting for pavement space. It's charming, in a nineteenth-century kind of way.

For such a tiny place, it's got a lot of names. Literally, it means Long Island. Most call it Bone Island, because of its shape. One morbid student of mine warned me that many people call it Ghost Island. That didn't worry me, of course. I had no time for the spiritual or the spectral. I'm a man of atoms, an atom man.

How happy I was in that first week: swimming in the South China Sea every morning, pedalling along Peak Road in the afternoon, ferreting my way around all the tiny alleys and backstreets in the centre of the island.

The first thing I noticed was how many cemeteries there are. Many Hong Kong Chinese choose to be buried here. It's got good feng shui, apparently. The deserted granite cliffs on the north and south of the island are dotted with graveyards. Headstones, each with a dour photo of the departed, stare out to sea from prime real estate. The less wealthy dead have to sprawl behind them, wedged into suburban necropoles. The underclass have no sea view at all. They're poured into urns, stacked on top of one another in tenement towers. Catholics have their own cemetery, too. We segregated ourselves, in death as in life.

The graveyards didn't bother me. They never have. From my maudlin teen ramblings through Dublin's Glasnevin Cemetery to my pretentious twenties in Père Lachaise, I've always felt more at home with the dead than the living. You don't have to bother with small talk. There's no hidden agenda with a cadaver. The dead don't want anything from you. Well, not usually.

I soon found out that Cheng Chau was called Ghost Island because of its "suicide holidays." It started in 1989, when a woman, dressed in a traditional red costume, stabbed her son to death and then hung herself. The Bella Vista Villas witnessed many similarly gruesome deaths afterwards. Dozens of desperate souls ended it all, in grotty little rented rooms, in the shabby holiday flats that hunch over the northern part of Tung Wan Beach. "Copycat suicides for the terminally unimaginative," I remember writing, in one of my more callous blog posts.

Unable to move onto their next life, the spirits linger on in Cheung Chau. Ghosts ramble and rumble through the narrow alleys and lanes. They're most often sighted at dawn and dusk, or in a fog.

I didn't believe a word of it. The more ghost stories there were, the cheaper my rent would become. "Let the sheeted dead squeak and gibber in the Cheng Chau streets," I wrote.

But then I met one. Yes, I met one. I can imagine the faces you're all pulling now. I know there's no point trying to convince you that I haven't taken one magic mushroom too many, so I'll just continue with my story. I've got a tide to catch, and she-who-must-be-obeyed is waiting for me. I must push on.

"What do ghosts look like?" you want to know. Forget the ball and chain cliché and all that white sheet nonsense. A ghost is a projection, a mirror image of the person in life, so they look just like everyone else. Maybe a little greyer, a little blurrier around the edges. The projection fades and the image gets fuzzier, in time, but for a year or so, you'd never know they were dead. Not by looking at them.

I certainly saw nothing odd in her, not at first glance. She was sitting across the aisle from me in the ferry, staring in my direction. I assumed she was looking out the window and tried not to catch her eye. She looked like most teenage girls in Hong Kong: long black hair, immaculately combed; olive complexion, slightly whitened; a slender lithe body, like a cat. Her face was more intense than normal though. I remember noticing that.

The ferry docked at eleven o'clock at night and everyone got off. I inched my way off the crowded gangplank, then moved through the crowded centre of the island, passed food stalls on one side and convenience stores on the other. After about five minutes, the crowds thinned out.

I paused for a while in Hung Sing Square. At the other end of it, outside a temple, a funeral was taking place. A band played loud music to scare away evil spirits. I couldn't help but notice how much they looked like a mariachi band, with lutes instead of guitars. The music sounded more Indian than Chinese, like they were trying to charm snakes out of the coffin.

The mourners were dressed in white hooded cloaks. The immediate family stood around the coffin. More distant relatives and friends further back. Hell banknotes and papier-mâché offerings were burnt in a large rusted urn, a couple of metres tall. Miniature paper cars, boats and televisions were placed in the urn. The smoke turned white. A ring of monks, in yellow, green and blue silk, chanted pieces of scriptures. Relatives of the deceased bowed again and again, in a ritual I didn't understand.

My eyes were drawn toward the large black and white photo of the deceased on top of the coffin. The ceremony I was watching came at the end of the twenty-four hour wake. I'd passed the old woman's photo on my way to work that morning. She was impossibly old. Her face so deeply lined that a tram could ride along its grooves.

I still felt like an interloper, like a macabre voyeur. I turned to my right. The young girl was still beside me. A couple of metres away, but still staring at me.

We walked together, two strangers, away from the square and past the seafood restaurants in the harbour. She was too close for comfort, so I walked faster, but she matched my speed and stayed beside me. She hummed some awful K-Pop tune I half recognised.

I stopped suddenly, pretending to study a menu, at the last restaurant. She stopped, too.

I felt colder than I should have, like it was ten degrees rather than twenty. My heart began to pound but even my racing pulse couldn't warm me.

"I hate languages," she said.

It wasn't the conversational opener I had expected. I didn't know how to respond.

"Do I know you?" I asked, trying to keep my voice steady. I've had thousands of students, in a dozen countries. They were all starting to look alike.

"All other subjects are 5s. English is 3. Need five stars in English. English is the problem. English is the blame."

"English is how I make my living. I'm an English teacher," I said.

"Yes, you are the teacher. You are solution. Need five stars. You will help me."

She smiled then, with a mouth too full of teeth. The smile was frozen on her face, locked in place.

"I'm afraid I never take on private students," I told her.

This was true enough. I never teach one-to-one. Far too draining, far too intimate.

"You are my teacher," she said. She gave me another one of her awful smiles. "Teach me," she demanded, raising her voice and dropping her smile.

"I'm sorry, but like I said, I never teach private classes. I—,"

"You are my teacher. I need five stars. Teach me!"

The conversation went on like this for a while. Each time I said "no" I felt my body temperature drop a little. Soon my hands, nose and feet were freezing. The cold spread to my arms and legs, invaded my core.

It switched off my brain, and I agreed to teach her. Higher order brain functions, I remember from my psychology degree, are repressed by fear. The amygdala comes to the fore, like some primordial alligator ancestor.

"Tomorrow, tomorrow. I'll teach you tomorrow. Leave me now. Leave me!"

She walked away. The coldness left with her.

Wheezing and shaking, I looked around me. The al fresco diners stared at me, with noodles suspended in mid-air and mouths dropped open. When they saw me looking at them, they looked down and muttered to each other. I'd never heard a group of Cantonese people speak so quietly.

"Gwailo gau cho," I heard one of them shout, when I was walking away. It means "crazy foreigner," or "f**ked up ghost face," to give it a more literal translation.

I got home, poured myself several stiff drinks and tried to sleep. In the morning, the cold light of day and the hangover made me feel braver.

"She was just some teen, driven neurotic by exam pressure," I told myself. If I ever saw her again, I'd just have to stand my ground and tell her I wasn't available. Full stop.

I didn't feel nearly so brave the following night. On the ferry journey home, I kept imagining I'd seen her out of the corner of my eye. I spent the first part of the journey jerking my head left and right, like some junkie waiting for the man, or a schizophrenic listening to the bickering voices in his head.

To clear my own head, I went to the observation deck at the back of the ferry. Spumes of black smoke merged with low clouds. There was a low nasty smell of marine diesel. Hong Kong was far in the distance, its lights twinkling through the smog. It reminded me of the Milky Way (or the Silver Stream, as the Chinese call it). The city was a band of light, with darkness above and below it.

The old ship ploughed through the water, passing tiny islets. I sat on a metal bench and rubbed my eyes. It had been a long day, in the middle of a difficult month, in a not altogether stress-free year. I suddenly felt my age, and felt the weight of an old age to come.

When I opened my eyes, she was sitting beside me, staring at me with those unblinking eyes of hers.

"Teach me. I need five stars. English is the problem. You. You are my teacher."

"I'm not your teacher. I never was. I never will be!" I shouted, standing up and pointing my finger at her.

In spite of my feigned bravado, I was moving away from her. Soon, my back was tight against the ship's metal railings. I looked down. The frothy white water, three decks below, swirled me into dizzyness.

The noise of a door slamming shut made me look away. I saw a couple of passengers staring at me, from behind the window at the top half of the door. The girl had vanished.

I hurried back inside and chased after them.

"You saw her, didn't you? You saw her disappear. You saw her, didn't you?!"

I knew by the look in their eyes that they hadn't seen anyone. Only me. A foreigner shouting at the wind.

I realised then that no one would ever see her. No one except me. I remembered Orwell writing that "perhaps a lunatic was simply a minority of one." I realised, in a very calm and rational way, that the world now thought me mad.

The ferry docked and everyone got off. I sensed people nudging each other and pointing at me. Cheng Chau's a small place. It wouldn't be long before I was cast as the village loony, the strange old man no one talks to. The one mothers warn their children to keep away from.

I walked home, past the restaurants. I knew, without looking, that she was walking beside me. I felt cold, like the cold when you're dead. No matter how fast I walked, the cold wouldn't go away.

Soon I was running, the wind cackling in my ears. She ran beside me, her face as still as always.

It took forever to open the door to my apartment block. Even longer to turn the key in my flat's door. Shaking hands will not be steadied. She was still beside me, humming that awful tune, staring at me.

"Class now," she said.

I poured myself a whiskey first, in the same way that a child would pour himself a glass of cola, with both hands on the bottle and aiming for the middle of the glass, filling it to the brim as quickly as possible.

"Class number one," I said.

What else could I say? What else could I do? I could have run screaming into the night, but she would have followed me.

"Class number one," she repeated.

"Tenses," I said. "Past, present and future. I live, I lived, I will live."

"I live ..." she said, and paused.

A frown crossed her face. It was the first emotion I'd seen on her.

"I live ..." she repeated.

"And the past tense? What's the past tense?"

"I live ..."

"And the future tense. What's the future?"

"I live ... You are my teacher. I need five stars. English is the problem. Teach me."

The lesson continued like this for another excruciating fifty minutes. I drank more whiskey to give me the illusion of warmth. I'd put on so many layers of clothes and gloves that I couldn't even pour. So I just drank straight from the bottle. Again and again, I tried to teach tense and time to someone, to something, that couldn't understand either.

The next night was the same, and the night after that, and the week after that. I gave up going to work and waited for them to dismiss me. It didn't take long.


My one remaining pupil has moved in with me. She never sleeps. When I wake up in the morning, she's sitting at the end of the bed, in a lotus position, demanding to be taught. When I brush my teeth, she's in the mirror behind me, telling me that I am her teacher. When I go to bed, she lies behind me, humming that same old tune. She sucks up the heat of the six heaters I leave on all night. My feet hurt so much I can barely walk. Blackened toenails show the varnish of frostbite.

She's here now, as I write to you. Standing behind me, watching the words appear on the screen. I am her teacher. She studies everything I do. She studies all and understands nothing. She doesn't even understand that I'm insulting her now. Do you, Ice Maiden?

She even studied me when I studied her. It wasn't hard to piece her life together. A little Internet research revealed that her name was Janice Wong. She had killed herself after failing to get into university. Right here on the island, in one of Cheng Chau's suicide villas. Her results were excellent, except for English. English was the problem.

She swam out to sea one night, at the witching hour. When she reached the shark nets, a couple of hundred metres from the shore, she emptied her lungs and climbed down into the abyss. Pulled herself down, climbed down the ropes of the shark net. Soon, she reached the seabed. There, she took the handcuff that dangled from the locked one around her wrist and fastened it to the thick slimy rope of the shark net.

She's been sighted before. Locals call her the shui gui, or water ghost. Parents use her legend to warn their children against swimming alone or going too far away from the shore.

I also found out that her former English teacher had committed suicide shortly after she had. Doctors blamed a bout of acute schizophrenia. He'd gone to Singapore to escape her, but she followed him. As she would surely follow me, to the very ends of the Earth. His suicide note consisted of nothing more than a quote from Woolf's Waves.

"Now there is nothing. No fin breaks the waste of this immeasurable sea. Life has destroyed me."

There's an old Chinese proverb that says that insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different outcomes. In many ways, ghosts are insane. They can't learn. They make terrible students. After me, she will find other teachers. Unless ...

If English is the problem, and I am the solution, then a double death may bring us both peace. The haunter and the haunted can both be released.

You see, friends and former-friends, acquaintances and curious net surfers, I have convinced myself that the only happy ending is a tragic one.

I will swim with my ghost and the waves shall free us. I will teach her and she will learn.

You see, you see, the black sea takes me.

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