Brig took a seat near a window that looked down the narrow street, really more of an alleyway, known as Lan Kwai Fong. He nursed an HK$60 bottle of Carlsberg. It was 6:30 p.m. China Standard Time and Tommy was late, but Brig wasn’t upset. How could he be? He had known the man less than twenty-four hours, but already Tommy was his best friend in the world. Hell, he was his only friend! It was sad, Brig pondered, his only friend was an old Chinese guy he had met less than twenty-four hours ago, and Brig was drinking a bottle of beer he was counting on his new friend paying for. However, these challenges and tribulations only strengthened his resolve to push on and figure out a way to reach Everest.
Brig’s new strategy was simple but admittedly flawed. Yesterday, Tommy had said they had discussed going to Everest together and that he was“genuinely interested” in joining Brig. His words,“genuinely interested.” Brig would work that angle and try to convince Tommy to pay for both of their trips with the assumption that Brig would eventually pay him back. Which he wouldn’t because he’d be dead. He would leave that part out.
At around 6:45, three men entered the restaurant and scanned the room as if looking for someone. Brig was so out of it the previous night that he couldn’t remember what Tommy looked like. He sat up higher so that the men could get a better view of him, in case one of them was Tommy. Sure enough, the older man waved and walked towards Brig, followed by the two younger men.
“Brig! How are you? Have you eaten rice yet?” Asking if a person had eaten their rice yet is one of the common greetings in Hong Kong.
“Of course not, I’ve been waiting for you, my friend! ‘No money. No talk.’” Brig replied, using a common Cantonese refrain. “Am I right?”
Tommy burst out laughing, “Yes! You speak the truth!” Tommy turned to address his friends, “This is the foreigner I was telling you about. He speaks Cantonese. He’s special.”
“Aiya! Don’t speak this way. I am nothing special. Please, let’s sit down.”
Tommy introduced his friends as Johnny and A-fai. A-fai didn’t have an English name, nor did either of them speak English. They ordered beers and Tommy asked for menus.“I’m buying,” Tommy announced. Brig noticed that Tommy’s left arm and hand were bundled in gauze and braced against his chest in a freshly wrapped sling.
“What did you do?” Brig asked with genuine concern.
“Oh, it’s nothing. Just a stupid accident,” Tommy replied and called the waiter over to take their order.
As they waited for their meals, Tommy explained that Johnny and A-fai knew lots of people in the area and prodded Brig to retrace his steps from the night before. Laughing nervously, Brig explained how he was looking for a woman named Ho Ngaahk Lohk, an ex-girlfriend that had returned to Hong Kong. Of course, neither man admitted to knowing the woman. Brig then described his stolen backpack. Gratefully, Tommy didn’t share the amount of money or information on the other items Brig had lost but emphasized the importance of getting Brig’s property back. Johnny and A-fai assured Brig that they would do what they could to help him get his stuff returned.
Their meals arrived with a bottle of Baiju, a clear Chinese liquor made from distilled glutinous rice. The last time Brig had consumed Baijiu was with his old friend Danny Wong, and memories of painful hangovers made him smile. Brig let out a mock cry of astonishment as he pointed to the bottle’s label that showed that the alcohol volume was 52%.
“Are you kidding me?”
Tommy and his friends laughed as they realized what Brig was referring to. “That’s right. This is a powerful alcohol and used to celebrate important occasions.”
“Oh yeah? What important occasion are we celebrating?”
Tommy set-up the shot glasses and opened the bottle as he spoke, “I have decided to join you on your trip to Mount Everest.” Brig’s heart skipped a beat. “Tommy, you know I no longer have the money to make the trip right? Every dollar I have to my name was stolen.”
Tommy ceremoniously poured the clear liquid into four small shot glasses, “Brig, my new friend. Not to worry. Of course I know that you’ve lost your money. Hopefully we will find it. But I’m impressed by your determination and I’d like to help you. I am not rich, but I have enough money to get us both to Everest and back. We will not be staying at 5-star hotels, or eating and drinking like we are tonight, but we will get there. You’re a smart young man, you’ll figure out a way to pay me back some day. Now, let us enjoy tonight, for tomorrow we start our journey.” Tommy held up his glass to toast the occasion. His friends did the same while shouting “Yam Bui!” (Cheers!)
“Wait. Tomorrow?! Seriously?” Brig lifted his glass cautiously. This was what he had wanted, but so soon?
“Yes. Why? Are you busy?” Tommy asked sarcastically.
Brig looked at each of his drinking partners considering his options, as if he had any.
“Yam Bui!” Brig enjoined, signaling his agreement with the proposal. The alcohol hit the back of his throat like a red-hot branding iron, the heat spreading quickly down his throat and into his gut. Brig’s eyes watered and he coughed. He blinked his watering eyes and took a deep breath, trying to reset his system. When he opened his eyes again, he saw that his glass had somehow, magically been refilled. Tommy and his friends were already raising their glasses for a second round. This is going to be another long night Brig ruminated, comforted in knowing he had arranged passage to Everest. It had been a while since he had felt this at ease with a group of people. Some of it was surely the Baiju, but more than that it was that those three men who spoke no English. They seemed genuinely interested in him. They laughed at his jokes, they made fun of his Cantonese, and they put their arms around his shoulders as if they had been friends for years.