It’s written in pencil on a sheet torn from a Winnie The Pooh writing pad. He’s doodled a pair of glasses onto both Pooh and Piglet:
‘Hi, Ryan, I’ve went to Scotland for 2 days, Lake District (for 2 days), London for 5 days, York for 2 days,
ENTRING BLACK HOLE
I’ve went to LegoLAND AND THE EDINBURGH DUNGEON!
Also in the envelope is a picture of a man shooting egg-sized bullets, shouting the words, ‘Saving private RYAN!!!’ There’s a thin strip of pink paper with the word Jeffrey written on it and a folded piece of card with this:
Are you upset about the world trade centre collapse? (YES/NO/A LITTLE SAD)
When you reply, send this card for me, goodbye!!!!!!!’
I was eighteen when the above hotchpotch of notes arrived. Fully-loaded with visible cheekbones and three A-Levels, the world was my oyster. But I was struggling to crack the pissing thing open. The official post-college summer plan was to get a job and save for uni. That’s what everyone else was doing. Only, I didn’t want to go to uni. And I didn’t want to go to work. What did I want? Not sure. I made a half-arsed attempt to play along with the official plan, regardless. I got a summer job in McDonalds to see me through to the autumn semester. Grim. But it would only to be for two or three months. I could handle that, couldn’t I?
‘We have a little saying here at McDonalds, mate,’ said our spiky-haired manager who drove a used sports car and generally behaved as though he was manning the ground floor of the New York Stock Exchange, ‘if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.’
‘That’s not a McDonalds saying,’ I said. It sounded cheeky but that hadn’t been my intention. I thought I was genuinely enlightening him about the origins of the quote. He took it as a challenge to his glorious leadership and, like his hair, things became spiky (and shit) between us. And so, eight hours deep into my ‘three-month job’, the kitchen’s heat proved too much and I got out of it.
Things were getting desperate. If I was going to keep up the pretence of wanting to go to uni, I’d need another new job. Time was running out. There was a summer camp near my mum’s house. Part Byker Grove, part Why Don’t You?, it was situated on the grounds of an old private school. Not much was known about it other than ‘they were always looking for cleaners’. I called them from a phone-box. Within an hour, I was pressing the buzzer on their big electronic gate and watching it creak open. An impossibly friendly man called something like Hobie or Chod ran to greet me. He shook my hand up and down and gave me an impassioned tour of the camp: the amazing climbing apparatus, the fantastic multi-bunk-bedded dormitories, the dilapidated, but nevertheless great, staff hut (with Sky TV!), and the awesome canteen. He showed me everything except the one room I needed to see: the cupboard where they stored the Dettol. I kept quiet. Walking me back to the electric gate, he asked when I wanted to move in. I replied with something along the lines of ‘never’. But all instructors have to live on site, he said. Oh, I said. You do want to be an instructor, don’t you, Ryan?
I moved in the next day. To a new life. I may have been encircled by high fencing and locked behind an electronic gate, but I was free. I’d been swiped from the wild and locked in the zoo. And I liked it. Being penned in wasn’t without its charms. There was nothing to think about other than the day in front of you. Yesterday and tomorrow became vague, transient concepts. Today was king. The world was the summer camp and the summer camp was the world. It was peculiarly liberating. I could finally understand why all those poor fools moved so merrily to Jonestown.
The staff were given three canteen meals a day, a nametag and a red t-shirt. In all honesty, what more could we want? And, thankfully, there was nothing untoward going on. There were no references to an all-knowing, enigmatic leader and no early morning guitar-led prayer sessions in worship of free, expressive love. It was just a hoot. Plain and simple. And the work was a doddle. Unlike McDonalds, this kitchen was totally heat-free. Basically, you wandered around being friendly to the kids. You kicked footballs, threw frisbees, told jokes. It was organised mayhem. Disneyland without rides or parents. There were kids everywhere you looked. In their hundreds. Running up and down corridors, skipping across courtyards, shouting out of windows. And in the evenings, when the kids were asleep, we went to the pub and got as drunk as our pocket-money-wages permitted.
Our guests came from all over the world. The whole camp was like one big casting room for a live performance of Earth Song. We were more ethnically diverse than Sesame Street. Ghanaians, Indians, Chinese, Russians, Americans. Even the staff contributed to the melting pot. Many were from New Zealand, but there were also French, Spanish, Germans, Brazilians, and the obligatory couple of Brummies. And then, of course, there was me. Born globetrotter. I could see the back of my mum’s house from the staff room window.
Thousands of kids came and went that summer. Two of them made a lasting impression. The first was a tiny blonde-haired French boy called Brett. He was five years old and terrified of the world he’d been cruelly awoken in. He screamed at everyone and everything. For some reason, though, he considered me a safe haven and clung to me like a chimp (the language barrier ensured that we communicated like chimps, too, making noises and pointing at things in the middle-distance). There was something curiously existential about him, as though he might be able to stare flowers into bloom or bring a dead sparrow back to life by stroking it. On Brett’s last day he asked me to walk him to the minibus. At the bus door, he looked up and whispered, ‘I depart’, like a character in a Sartre novel. ‘We’ll see each other again,’ I said, sweeping his choppy blonde fringe away from his forehead. I knew it was a lie.
Also never seen again was Lasting Impression#2: Jeffrey. He was seven or eight and lived in a Hong Kong high-rise. He spoke immaculate English. Wearing a Pokemon t-shirt and mini, science-teacher glasses, he’d follow me around all day, asking questions: how old was I? Why did I always wear socks with trainers? How high could I jump? If I didn’t like Pokemon, what, please, was my view on dinosaurs?
On Jeffrey’s last day, whilst playing fifty-a-side football in a caged hockey pitch, I looked across and saw him, watching. Even though the score was fascinatingly poised at 27 a-piece, I assumed it wasn’t the game that he had come to see. (Football wasn’t really his thing – there were no monsters in it.)
‘Jeffrey, why haven’t you gone?’ I said, running over to him. ‘You might miss your bus.’
‘I’m saying goodbye again,’ he said, pushing his mini, science-teacher glasses up with his index finger. ‘I won’t forget you.’
‘Thank you, Jeffrey.’
‘You have got a big nose,’ he added, for good measure. It was the first I’d heard of it.
Weeks passed. The nights came in. The sun set earlier and earlier, until those long, light evenings felt like a trick of the mind. I left the summer camp. My bank account had been enriched by about seven quid. While my friends went to university, I embarked on a gap year. And not a cool gap year, either. Instead of digging a well in West Africa or contracting some sort of knob ailment in an Australian hostel, I wallowed in the sad romance of a jobless British autumn. My summer confidence had fallen away. I was back to square one. Aimless. Unsure. All that. For my eighteenth birthday I’d received my first mobile phone. My ringtone was set to La Bamba. But it was all a pretence.
Whilst half-reading the ‘Glum & Impractical Jobs’ pullout from a local paper one morning, I was interrupted by the swoosh of our modern-build’s brushed letterbox. Expecting to see nothing but Vision Express circulars and my parents’ credit card bills, I found an envelope with my name pencilled onto it. (The only other post I’d received all year had been McDonalds asking how long I was going to be off work for. Sixteen years, thus far. And counting.) According to the inky stamp on the front, the envelope had arrived via airmail. From the 13th floor of a Hong Kong highrise. It was covered in drawings of planes and sealed with a sticker that said On The Up!
Jeffrey. I’d forgotten that he’d asked for my address on his last day. I read it all, over and over. His address. Sha Tin. The 13th floor.
‘When you reply, send this card for me, goodbye!!!!!!!’
When you reply…
I’m ashamed to say I didn’t reply. I did write something. I even put it in an envelope. As well as circling the YES option to confirm that I was upset by the World Trade Centre collapsing (upset and terrified), I’d added a photograph of me and a picture of the Titanic I’d drawn when I was fourteen. But I didn’t send any of it. I really don’t know why. I meant to. In my mind I have an image of him waiting and checking his Hong Kong highrise postbox every day, waiting for something from a Norfolk housing estate, pushing his mini, science-teacher glasses up his nose in disappointment.
After a number of house moves and general upheavals, I lost Jeffrey’s letter, and with it, his address. All I was left with was a name. It wasn’t enough information to go on; even the heartiest optimist wouldn’t fancy their chances of tracking down a Jeffrey in Hong Kong. It would be like trying to find a needle in a haystack. (I resisted the temptation of the ‘noodle in a haystack’ pun on account of it being a little bit, well, Jim Davidson.) He was nothing but a happy little memory.
Until this week.
Whilst rummaging through the boxes of (figurative) crap in my shed, I found not only Jeffrey’s original letter, but, more importantly, the envelope with his address and surname, sealed by the On The Up sticker. It was game on.
I typed the name into Facebook. Jeffrey Yeung. There were lots of Jeffrey Yeungs. But only one from Sha Tin, Hong Kong, in his twenties…
I sent him a message. Whether it’s the right Jeffrey or the wrong Jeffrey, I imagine my message will freak him out. He might think I’m one of those spam-bots asking for money or trying to get him to visit a dodgy website link (www.hotxxluvbabes.es). I hope it is him and I hope he replies. If he’s forgotten me then my gigantic nose may come to the rescue and trigger his memory. I’ll keep you posted. I’m better at that now.
Until then, I depart.