I didn’t pay much attention when Emily the plain, single, late-30s senior accountant at S-Meg Holdings announced a few weeks ago that she would be resigning. I managed to avoid the farewell meals and photo-taking she insisted upon – until she dragged me out for a one-on-one lunch and made a waiter take a snap of us. I didn’t have much interest in asking what she would be doing next; nor did I listen to the gossip about the skullduggery or misdemeanours that supposedly caused her departure. And I didn’t take it very seriously when, towards her last day in the office, she said something about how I should come out one day to see Tung Chung, the spacious garden city where she lives next to the airport. Nor did I pay much attention when she also mentioned that an array of relatives from the UK would soon be in town for their annual remind-the-kids-they’re-Chinese visit.
And then, yesterday morning, I get a phone call asking what time I will be arriving. A sister has gone to church, a brother-in-law and his sons are going to the cinema, another sister is at the shops, her father is hovering somewhere in the picture, and, Emily adds, she will meet me at the MTR station. We will have lunch, look around, and then have tea. What I should have said, a couple of weeks ago when the idea came up, is: “No, I can’t possibly ever set foot in Tung Chung,” and give a highly plausible reason – something to do with debt-collectors, perhaps. But it seems I had committed myself. I had nothing else to do.
On the train at noon, I puzzled over why she would invite me, a far-from-close former colleague, to what sounded like a family event. If she had designs on me, we wouldn’t be spending the day with relatives – so no need to leap from the Tsing Ma bridge. Then it occurred to me that maybe I was intended to act the role of boyfriend in order to deflect the annual barrage of nagging she must get from family about still not being married. This is the scenario of a hundred comedies because it happens. There might even be a few hundred bucks laisee in it for me.
At a quasi-Vietnamese restaurant in a shopping mall, Emily reveals all while her older sister slurps soup. She is already married. It happened secretly in Bali a few days ago, in the company of her whole family. The twist is that her new husband is a widower with two young children, and there is resistance among his former in-laws, as well as some embarrassment among her own clan. Under pressure, she thought it best to leave gossipy S-Meg. My job, after a decent interval, is to let the truth be known in the company so the slanderous theories being circulated by Ms Fang the hunter-killer secretary can be laid to rest.
We inspect the happy couple’s new, still-unfurnished apartment, half way up and along the huge curve of high rises overlooking the airport. Although it looks like one development, there are two projects here: one by Cheung Kong (dogs allowed) and one by HK Resorts (no mutts permitted). The latter, I am told, is favoured by former Discovery Bay residents because they are familiar with, and like, the HK Resorts management style. After everything else I have heard today, this sounds unremarkable.
At tea in a noisy yum cha place, I meet the rest of the relatives, including Lancashire-accented children, and the new Mr Emily, complete with two young daughters – themselves Canadian by upbringing and now preparing for life with a new language to learn at school and a new step-mother. Mr Emily is a thoroughly nice guy, and I have to struggle to avoid asking him what on earth he sees in our pleasant but rather self-centred and slightly boring ex-senior accountant.
“You may be wondering what I – a complete stranger – am doing at your family gathering,” I tell everyone when asked to say a few words. “I know I am.”