Five, four, three, two, one, and… Clash! The spoon smashes onto the tiled floor, bounces off a table leg and clatters against the hard, echo-creating ceramic again before noisily spinning around a few times and coming to rest. Tony the motor-skills-deficient waiter squats down and fumbles with the silverware, dropping it once more to produce an ear-skewering, hangover-crushing, metallic crescendo. Relative silence returns, and agonized winces slowly fade from the faces of a dozen or so fragile Foreign Correspondent Club members.
It was 8.31 and 17 seconds when the cutlery fell and the peace of breakfast was shattered. It is almost always exactly 8.31 and 17 seconds, with variations of up to three seconds either way. On rare occasions Tony goes a day without dropping a knife, spoon or fork – but he is guaranteed to let two fall together, right on time, the following morning. Those in the know go elsewhere for their congee to avoid the unbearable extra clatter.
Or they arrange their schedule to turn up at 8.32, which is when perfectly formed Administrative Officer Winky Ip makes her graceful entrance and slides into the seat opposite me with a gentle but unmistakable waft – bergamot and ground iris root – of Eau d’Hadrien. She reaches down and, with a slightly unladylike jerk, pulls off a black Bally Basail pump and examines the sole. She tuts loudly at the viscous, dark brown smear.
“I’ve got that stuff on my shoes, too,” I tell her. “Everyone’s having to wade through it all over Central this morning – it’s like a sort of sickly-sweet smelling glue spread over the sidewalks and streets.”
“Oh, this is nothing,” the delectable civil servant replies. “There are huge piles of it in parts of Causeway Bay and Wanchai.”
“So what are you going to do about it?”
“The Environmental Hygiene Branch, you mean? What are the Environmental Hygiene Branch going to do about it?”
“Well,” she goes on, “that’s a good question. They could just start cleaning it up with detergent, though it would take a while. There is talk of getting some special sort of bacteria that breaks it down so it just washes away over time. But several senior members of the administration are arguing that we should just leave it where it is for the time being.”
This sticky goo smothering the city is, of course, grief. A bit of anger is mixed in, but it’s mostly grief. At least, that’s the official explanation. But there is something slightly rancid about it, and I can’t help getting a whiff of officially nurtured, community-wide victimhood of the sort that conveniently diverts attention away from other woes. For once, our leaders are presiding over a people in full agreement on something. And, even better, that something is governance in another place that is so appallingly wretched everyone is suddenly glad to be in the Big Lychee.
“In fact,” Winky adds, “one or two officials have suggested that we manufacture and spread more of it around.”
With that in mind, Chief Executive and professional mourner Donald Tsang himself, having been talked out of being photographed lifting the bodies into coffins, is suggesting that the Hostage Crisis Tragedy victims be interred in Tribute Garden, the non-civil servant version of Gallant Garden, resting place of those who died while performing exceptional acts of bravery. If Donald further awards them posthumous bravery medals, they will qualify for permanent burials and not be dug up for cremation after the usual six-year stay under precious ground.
Who will dare suggest that getting taken hostage by a demented Filipino ex-cop with an M-16 does not take exceptional courage so much as terribly bad luck? Still, I have no hesitation in nominating them for Gold Bauhinia Stars, for outstanding, if involuntary, contributions to improving the government’s public approval ratings.