Before crossing the bridge, and therefore being officially in the realm of ghosts, Mr Wu sought to placate any wandering spirits my making a small offering. Searching through his pockets he came upon some loose change, a piece of chalk, some old and withered betel nuts, bicycle clips, a pitted wooden pocket-knife, cigarettes and a lighter bearing the slogan, ‘compliments of the Lucky Fortune Casino, Macau’. This wouldn’t do at all thought the worried Mr Wu. Searching deeper inside his jacket pockets he came across an article about his goats that he had cut out of the local newspaper and an old tortoiseshell comb that had once belonged to his father. Mr Wu was aware that most of the people buried in the graveyard could best have been described as poor in life, but what self-respecting ghost would accept a comb, some cigarettes and a newspaper story about goats in return for safe passage through their haunted domain? He was pretty sure that he wouldn’t, should he be dead that is. Feeling at a complete loss and contemplating making the embarrassing journey back through the village Mr Wu glanced down and saw that he had forgotten to take his second best watch into account. Most of the ghosts here would never have owned a watch during life, never mind a gold plated wristwatch with sweeping second-hand and day and date display from the Seiko watch company of Tokyo, Japan. This wristwatch held a special place in Mr Wu’s heart. Although he had a much finer example of the watchmaker’s art hidden safely behind the loose board in the goat shed, this one was special.
Twenty-five years before Mr Wu and Three Ears were loyally serving their country on the island of Kinmen. At that time it was not the quiet tourist haven it is today, rather it was the flashpoint between the two Chinas and the primary focus for Mao’s bombardiers. Much of the soldier’s time was spent underground listening to the incoming artillery barrage, but thankfully both sides were Chinese, so therefore quite sensible, and the bombardments generally followed a regular well-defined pattern with neither side shelling the other during mealtimes or inhospitably late into the night. Mr Wu served as the Quartermaster’s corporal and had a very comfortable, secure and profitable stay on the fought over island. Three Ears however, was a gunner and spent most of his time servicing, cleaning and regularly firing his Howitzer towards the city of Quemoy. The fact that nearly all of his shells landed in an abandoned sewage plant 20 kilometres outside the city would have pleased most of the conscripts as death by war was such an unlucky way to die. During mess and when they were off-duty the two classmates spent their time together, writing letters, smoking and of course gambling.
It was during one of their off-duty dice games that Mr Wu came into possession of the gold plated wristwatch from Tokyo, Japan. Three Ears had been on a very unlucky losing streak and it was still two weeks from pay day and though both were like brothers Mr Wu would not extend any more credit to his home boy. After consulting his pocket almanac and burning a little ghost money Three Ears offered to stake his beloved wristwatch to enable him to win back some of his lost fortune. Mr Wu readily agreed and the outcome was that three hours later Mr Wu could tell the time at will, whereas Three Ears had to ask someone.
No matter how scarce money had been during the years following his discharge, Mr Wu would never for one minute have contemplated selling his prized possession. Three Ears was well aware of this and though never a word was spoken, not a day passed that he did not think of ways to regain his cherished timepiece.
It would still be a few hours before the moon was up thought Mr Wu as he unfastened the faded gold clasp on his watch; rather on Three Ears’ watch. Mr Wu had always told himself that he would return the watch to his friend when the time was right. That time however had never been right and now, though he still viewed the watch as only a temporary possession he could not foresee a suitable occasion on which he could restore to his friend his property.
Mr Wu ran through a few of the possible scenarios:
Oh, Three Ears, here’s that watch I won from you all those years ago’.
‘Three Ears, I’ve been meaning to give you this, but it must have slipped my mind’.
‘Hey Three Ears my old mate, remember that watch, well it is about time I gave it back to you’.
Or, he could be honest and say: ‘twenty-five years ago I cheated you out of your most precious belonging and it is about time that I told you the truth and returned it to you’. This last admission of guilt would not come easily as both he and Three Ears knew he had been cheating that day on Kinmen, and each of them did not want the other to lose face, as they knew it would be the end of their friendship.
It was only when faced with his own primordial superstition and fear that Mr Wu actually admitted to himself that the watch did not belong to him, and moreover, he had cheated his best friend in life from the one thing that gave him status on Dragonfly Mountain. Mr Wu knew that ghosts can read minds, especially the minds of the guilty, so he decided, albeit reluctantly, that he would somehow restore the watch to his friend before the night was over.
With this promise officially stated out loud before the entrance to a graveyard Mr Wu knew that his physical offering could merely be a token. So, he took his father’s tortoiseshell comb, the newspaper article about his goats and the loose change from his pocket and left them in a neat pile next to a papaya tree growing out of the concrete next to the bridge. With a few brief incantations and more elaborate gestures for protection Mr Wu raised his chin and set off across the stone slab bridge.
Mr Wu’s eyes adjusted slowly to the dimming light as he headed deeper into the graveyard. Once inside the line of stunted Acer trees that formed the outer perimeter he had to rely totally upon the red candles that glowed inside glass jars that relatives of the residents had placed on either side of the headstones. The candle light flickered erratically highlighting the inscriptions carved into the heavy granite stones. Here and there Mr Wu had to tread carefully as pieces of masonry and toppled headstones littered his path. Visibly shaking and repeating a Buddhist Sutra taught to him by his grandmother the goatherd moved forward, often feeling his way from grave to grave trying to reassure himself that he was still on the right path.
The twin points of candle light in the near distance that had been illuminating Mr Wu’s path suddenly, and for no discernable reason went dead. Mr Wu now felt more alone and scared than ever before in his life. He cursed his misfortune, he cursed Rosa Hung and he cursed Three Ears’ haunted watch! Trying to calm himself Mr Wu reached out to find a grave to sit upon so he could take stock of his situation. The relief that only a smoker understands came over Mr Wu as he found his cigarettes and souvenir lighter inside his jacket pocket. Mr Wu wrestled in the darkness with the flimsy packet of the ironically named Long Life cigarettes before the paper finally yielded and he spilled the contents all over the pathway. Always being careful with his finances Mr Wu found temporary relief from his fear as he sought to find every one of the lost smokes.
Mr Wu tried in vain to swallow but his mouth was too dry. He moistened his lips with the tip of his tongue and carefully placed his cigarette in the side of his mouth. Looking around he realised he could see nothing, absolutely nothing. The heavy inky heat of a Taiwanese summer’s night enveloped Mr Wu totally. He tried to flick his lighter into action but the sweat from his hands just made the roller go round and round without making a spark until it too was sodden with sweat. Mr Wu rolled the lighter down the inside of his trousers trying to dry the flint. Finally after more than a dozen tries he managed to create a few small sparks. Hoping frantically that his little plastic gift from Macau still held some gas he raised the lighter to his face and tried again. Success first time, and Mr Wu lighted his cigarette and pulled the smoke deep inside his lungs in a vain attempt to satisfy his nerves. Feeling steadied by the effects of the smoke Mr Wu tried to assess just where he was inside the cemetery. He knew that towards the centre of the middle pathway there was an old well which in days gone by people would use to draw water in order to clean the graves of loved ones on the day set aside for this in the Taoist calendar. But even as a child he could remember this as an overgrown eyesore with creepers choking the brickwork and wild bamboo growing out of the cracked lime mortar.
Mr Wu engaged the flint on his lighter and a flame appeared instantly. He moved the flame slowly around him at head height until he came to the black polished gravestone that he was leaning against. Out of curiosity he shone the flame near to the chiselled calligraphy that laid out the details of the occupant. Mr Wu recoiled in shock when he saw the name on the gravestone. The lighter had become very hot and Mr Wu could no longer keep the flame alight so he dropped it down onto the grave canopy and rubbed his fingers against the pain. Slowly, he reached towards the vertical headstone and tried to trace the indented words with his outstretched fingers. He made out the name quite easily as the stone was relatively fresh and the calligraphy still crisp. Mr Wu felt for his lighter and checked again with the benefit of light, but, there could be no mistake, he read the name out loud; Wei Bao Sway.