4 JUNE 1971, Page 28

PASSAGE TO THE EAST ,

(1) A nervous lady travelling alone

CHARLOTTE HOUGH

`But if I have to change planes at Hong Kong I shall lose all my luggage!' I said neurotically.

They all assured me that I wouldn't, but I said it again when I had to leave it at the weighing-in place by the bus. 'Look,' said the man kindly, 'This will keep it safe and sound. It can't come to any harm with this on it.' He wrote 'svo' in black chalk on a yellow label and fixed it so rapidly to the handle of my suitcase that 1 couldn't see the movement of his hand.

'You're so quick,' I grumbled, 'You aren't giving it enough thought.'

'Madam, trust me,' he said patiently, as to an idiot child. 'I promise you, this case, this here case, will follow you like a little lamb, from plane to plane, from clime to clime. Look at the label. Look at the label!'

It was gone, for good or ill, like a little boy on the school train. In the plane I settled down to enjoy the journey.

How far was I going, asked the stewardess. No I didn't mean it! I couldn't be! She was aghast, amazed. It was as though I had decided to go to an outer planet. Well, all the stewardess could say was she didn't envy me she must say. She herself had done only half the distance once as a passenger and got very ill.

III with what?

They said she ought to go to hospital but she filled herself up with penicillin.

Penicillin?

Yes, she was so ill you see. Luckily she always carried some with her.

Lightly I begged her to desist. What an ex- traordinary thing though! I must be more adventurous than I thought!

. . . On the other hand, let's face it, perhaps the idea was ill-conceived. It was ob- viously more of an undertaking than I had been led to expect. Foolhardy really. The whole enterprise was ridiculous in the ex- treme. After all, why should I stand up to it better than she did? I was—good Heavens!—about twice her age for one thing.

We got off at the transit lounges, which were inclined to be a trifle bare and dull. I looked at the lavatories and judged the coun- tries by them. Germany miles the best, Turkey not good. Stewardesses came and went. The ill one gave me a pitying glance when she left. I gave her a hard, Lady Hester Stanhope one back.

After the first night the long-distance passengers physically began to wilt, and mentally to divide into those who remained cheerful throughout and those alarmingly apoplectic ones who muttered, 'Bloody fools!' under their breath and sent the food back. The latter it seemed to me, watching carefully, were the teetotallers.

Above the clouds appeared the distant Himalayas, crowned by Everest. Presently I looked down upon the mouths of the Ganges, Then, mile after mile, after mile, lay the golden untrod beaches of Bengal, backed by dark green wastes of virgin forest. In my lap was Agatha Christie. By my side a businessman. Below, it gradually flattened out and became Siam. How neatly they had dug their canals! Like Martians. On the

canals sampans floated. On the banks stood little houses made of rushes or paper. There was something reassuring about these haat° Aapien.v goings-on.

At the souvenir shop in Bangkok I was offered a stuffed mongoose locked in mortal combat with a rampant cobra. The whole edifice rested on an artistic woodland base with flowers and bits of wood.

I wanted it desperately but would it not be foolish to part with £7.50 at the very start of a holiday? Would I be allowed to take it on the plane with me? If so, would it seriously, even dangerously, inconvenience my next door neighbour? It dominated. In any room it must be a major eye-catcher. Would the family object to it? Would they adore it as I did? Would it be inhumane to deprive them?

I counted my money and hadn't enough. There was a cobra alone for £5. I could manage that but could I also then afford a taxi to my hotel should there be no bus? If I only knew the distance between airport and hotel I might estimate the fare. If that hotel had not reserved me a room I should have to find one, and another taxi,'and more money. Anyway, if one worked it out, I was only dropping 25 per cent and losing the mongoose, which was 50 per cent of the whole. Irresolute I looked round, longing for a companion who would tell me what to do.

There was only a burly red-faced fellow- passenger buying an indecent statue at vast expense. I urged a mongoose and cobra instead. Grinning sheepishly, he explained that the statue was for a friend.

By the time we reached Hong Kong I had become fond of a ventriloquist who might have lent me the money, but it was too late. His face had gradually, stop by stop, become more and more familiar, almost beloved, as all the others changed. He was the only other Londoner going through to Australia.

We arranged to see Hong Kong together after I had rescued my luggage. Ever pessimistic, I suggested he ought to look out for his, too. Just in case.

It was very hot. My friend was charming but rather fat. We searched amongst the terminating luggage and found my case, cheap and flimsy, but securely locked, because my mother had miraculously found a key which fitted it. It looked comfortingly familiar, an old friend of bygone days, but

the yellow `SYD' label had vanished and been replaced with a pink 'HONG KONG'.

complained to an apologetic Chinese girl called Anita, but her services were more urgently required by the poor ventriloquist, who stood apart, his good-humoured comic's face heavy with rage and despair. He had discovered his own two trunks and brand- new suitcase, all still yellow-labelled svo and for that reason all broken into and robbed.

Anita was kind and fluent. 'London lug- gage marked for Sydney sometimes suffers in this way,' she explained, 'With so many stops the culprits are difficult to trace.' However, she would find him some rope because, the lock had been removed entirely.

Trembling, he looked for his little boy, Charlie, and his mermaid, Marina. There they still were, confident and snug, gazing up at him from their specially designed wooden box. Nobody had wanted them.

I entrusted my suitcase to Anita, and each of us looked deep into her oriental eyes. She was soothing. All would be safe, all dealt with immediately. She would secure the bags. catch the thief, arrange the flight to Sydney, 'everything.

I threw a glance of pain at the ven- triloquist, hot and lonely, going through his things and trying to remember what he had started off with, and went out alone into the streets of Hong Kong.

It was very dusty, with roadworks. Instead of traffic islands there were piles of rubble. One ran from one to another to save one's life. Little shacks were built on the pave- ment, with washing hanging on strings above. The clothes which I had worn at the beginning of the journey were no longer suitable. A beggar with a wooden bowl and something wrong with his eye, attached himself to me, never allowing more than about ten inches to come between us. The houses overhung the road, the shops overflowed into the gutters. Everybody was undoubtedly and absolutely and in- comprehensibly foreign.

I found the ventriloquist sitting in the airport lounge, looking apprehensive. Anita had been cool and kind and seen to everything but the spell of the adventure had slackened. Now he was beset by general anx- ieties. He had been obliged to leave his wife for four months in a new house in a Yorkshire village. They had no children and as yet no local friends. Presumably she would miss him. Very much. He didn't know where he was supposed to stay in Sydney, though he hoped his agent had made ar- rangements. But had he? Would he be met at the airport? If he was going to make guest appearances on Tv would there be one for the first night? My God, he hoped not.

I knew that other people tasted life in Hong Kong in all its myriad colours, formed relationships, struck bargains, dealt with beggars, were brave and decisive. They would be ashamed of scuttling back to the airport lounge one instant before they had to. I was ashamed of it myself!

Silently I pined, for the mongoose and the cobra. We nodded together pensively, full of self-doubt.