Friday, 29 October 2010

Winter in the tropics

Jane, the children's art teacher, tells me it's winter. She must be right. Under my stare, the humidity needle slid back down to 40%. The temperature needle followed suit and backtracked too, then steadied itself defiantly just below red.

If I doubted the dials, the evidence is in front of my eyes. On my morning shop I watch the fashion girls stride past in their wraparound woollens and thick lined military boots. Their dark eyes are fixed ahead to their own distant horizons.

They stride past me, as I stand at the corner shop, and I can see they ignore it all. The broken up pavements of the island, the holes in the road, the narrow streets with tin roofs and plastic flapping awnings, the free ranging dogs, the grubby road workers in hard hats, and the young men who sit astride their village vehicles in the way Clint Eastwood might straddle a horse: one hand on a thigh and a downward glance of cool contempt.

The girls march right past them. They pass the elderly woman with the crumpled face who sells beancurd and onions from her squatting position on the corner; the waiters lifting breakfast dumplings from wet bamboo steamers; the old men in torn cotton tee shirts who sit of a morning on the steps of the place that I can never tell: I don't know whether it's a local bar, a shop, or a community meeting point.

Those fashion girls march through it all. Shoulder bags swinging, hands in pockets, faces expressionless. Their course is set for the island's pier. Here they catch the half-hourly boat for the glitzy life on Hong Kong Island. It's a mere twenty-five minutes away by ferry, and the sea route's the only way to get there. But what it is to be over there! There you can live out a life on the parade paths of the shopping malls.

And the huge public information display at the island pier ticktocks between the time and the temperature. 8.35: 29C.

These Hong Kong girls in their dark tights, heavy coats, fur lined boots, striding through the morning heat haze. I think, you need to be in a northern climate to wear your belted booted wool. You need to feel where the mulchy end of autumn meets the sharp edge of winter. You need to feel real, raw air on your face; not the synthetic cold dry wind chugged out from overworked beige air conditioning units set to high cool, with a thermostat dial fixed to 3, and the air swing jammed on.

In England, at this time, I bet it's cold. You breathe it in, that cold; feel it like a slice to the inside of your nose and cheeks and throat. It's exhilarating. You need your fingers held then in gloves and mittens, and all the better if you have a child hand to grasp. Their hands are warm and you get to laugh at their red button noses and pinked cheeks as you make your way gingerly down the frosted back lane.

I hold that thought in my head for a moment while I lift six eggs from the basket at the grocer's and watch the Hong Kong glamour girls stride past. This year, that's all an English winter is: a memory. And I've probably made it better than it is. The children don't let me hold their hands now, not even when I put out my outstretched fingers to cross the icy roads.

Making things better than they are is what fond memory and homesickness does. I know that by an English February, I'm weary of the limitations made on me by short days, cold mornings and permanently wet wellingtons. I'm wishing it would end and I'm willing spring would come. Respite comes in the form of birthdays. Other celebrations I make up deliberately to pass the time.

But I'm missing some of it. The first days of winter in England are chilling and thrilling. The best days are spent crunching across some field where we can examine frozen clumps of soil, bare twigs, rocks, and tilted horizons meeting a bright blue sky. I can point and say, that's our destination, and it's hidden only by the clump of trees on the left and the dip and curve of land to the right.

Better still, I don't much care what we wear, so long as it's dry and warm. I pick up old jumpers from the one pound bins at the charity shops and think, those will do well for muddy field walking. I can throw them in the back of the car and keep them there for when we set our sights on that direction and I need another layer; one more to add to the two and the woolly vest already padding me out. With two pairs of socks and the scarf Squirrel brought home one day from the market, that will make an outfit, and it won't matter that the socks are odd.

I have to let it go, just for this year, and only imagine the cloud of ice air forming from my breath in an early morning. The children are still happily dressing in their English summer frocks, careless of the thinning, fading red print roses, now creeping up from their knees to their thighs. Me, I'll put on the same worn cotton tops and the brown linen skirt where the stitching is unpicking at the hem. It's lasted all summer. No matter. In this Hong Kong winter, it probably has a few more months yet to run.


Big mamma frog said...

oh you paint such a romantic picture of an English winter.

Yes, this time of year is lovely here: that tingling morning feeling, somewhere between dew and frost, chilly nostrils, fences that steam as they warm up in the morning sun, a sense of connection with the changing seasons.

But somehow (for me at least) the crisp buzz of autumn is always tainted by the knowledge that it's just a glittery precursor to 3 months of grey blanket. I might hang in there for Christmas (just) with it's replica sparkles and lights, but after that it's a long long time til Spring.

I hope we have snow here again this year. I hope the country crawls to a standstill in calf-deep white snow like it did last winter. Anything but grey.

Grit said...

you are right, big mamma frog. the grey. i miss out the grey.

sharon said...

Isn't it funny the the things you miss. Never mind, you'll be back in the UK soon enough and by then you'll be so used to the heat that you'll be wearing those woollies all through the Summer too. Actually I seem to remember doing just that when we were there even before exposure to the Antipodean Sun ;-)