VS Pritchett Prize 2017 winner: "The Hikers" by Emily Ruth Ford

In the winning story, reprinted here, a woman hiking with her husband in the Hong Kong countryside reflects on her troubles

February 03, 2018
Walking in the Hong Kong countryside
Walking in the Hong Kong countryside

Across the night harbour, Hong Kong glimmers. The boat carves foam as it pulls away, juddering across the waves under a starless sky. Lana reaches down over the side, feels her hand drag in the spume, watches the Disneyland skyline recede in the distance. Winking glass shards, metallic boxes piled up like a child’s playset. The Bank of China tower slants jaggedly upwards. Bad feng shui, the South China Morning Post said when it was built. Thin top like a screwdriver drilling out wealth. The HSBC building cowers next to it, glowering recipient of a downflow of bad qi. One window in there is her office. Welcome to Hong Kong, Ms Zhang, we’re glad to have you.

Where they are going, high in the New Territories, it is different. The other bankers rarely make it that far, up there near the Chinese border, the tourists, never. Water slaps against the sides. Forty minutes pass; land looms into view. The boatman cuts the engine. He steps out into the sea, hauls them up onto the beach.

Adam tosses a fifty at him. You took a long route around.

Ng gau chin, the boatman says to Lana. Not enough money.

She shrugs at his glaring face. I don’t speak Cantonese.

The boatman shakes his head, but he doesn’t complain.

They pitch their tent in a half-moon of sand and fuel their bodies for the ascent: crab claws cooked on a paraffin stove, stolen sachets of chilli flakes. She licks Adam’s fingers clean. Guilt coils in her stomach: 300 calories, 400? She strips and dances naked on the footprintless white; throws her yoga-sleek body in cartwheels under the almost-full moon, an imperfect circle. Wonders if he is watching; thinks: here is a place for ritual. At Cambridge she studied Classics, Bacchus and Dionysus, Latin tracts and Greek tragedies. Now she studies money, its flows and currents, its corporate gods. Monday to Friday, seven ‘til seven, legs stiffening to torpor under her desk. At night she maps the trails as if cramming for exams.

Hiking is their thing. First it was his thing but now it is her thing, too. They target mountains like big game trophies: Sunset Peak, Lantau, Tai Mo Shan. They return on the last ferry soaked in sweat, peel off heavy boots and collapse into bed in their Sai Ying Pun studio, where the estate agent got them a great deal. Hong Kongers don’t want to live here, they think the coffin shops bring bad luck. But Sai Ying Pun very popular with foreigners. They unclench red feet and lie sweating under the air con. Breathe out as it sucks the moisture from their bodies, issuing crisp, artificial dryness in return.

* The beach is empty, moonlit, theirs. They sit together on the sand, Adam’s arm around her naked shoulders. Something in his touch feels distant, remote. She orders the thought away: stop being neurotic. He loves her. He married her. Five years ago this month. Streaks of phosphorescence flash in the waves and disappear. An eerie blue-green, like the Aurora Borealis. Otherworldly. She shudders at the memory of their honeymoon, a hundred miles from Reykjavik in a Corsa with no snow tyres.

Adam, I think we should turn back.

It’ll be fine.

I’m scared.

Don’t be a pussy.

When they skidded off the road and into the ravine, neither knew the number for the Icelandic emergency services. A passing farmer hauled them into his trailer, their bodies shaking, teeth chattering. He felt for broken bones without saying a word, face aghast at the twisted wreck.

No cars here. Lana kisses Adam’s ear. He doesn’t respond. She gets up and stands ankle deep in the water, watches her feet, distorted and fluid like wet paint in the tide. They walk back up the beach and unzip the tent. Climb into a shared sleeping bag, Himalayan standard, microfibre technology. All night she lies awake, the sand a wall of concrete against her back. Adam snores like a wounded animal. She admires his sleeping profile: her husband, handsome, impressive. The South China Sea wind streams fine particles through the tent, grinding her exposed skin raw.

* Dawn breaks on the ocean. Their tent floods red. They sit up, yawn, pull on stiff hiking boots. Adam tears open a Nutrigrain from his backpack and offers it to her. She shakes her head, says you know I don’t like strawberry, slugs a milky can of Nescafe: sweet, lukewarm. He unwraps a tiny package, swaddled in cellophane inside a sandwich bag. Extracts a strip of paper printed with Hello Kitty faces, a dotted line dividing it into squares.

Is that what I think it is? she asks.

He grins. Abandoned villages are wild when you’re high. Three hundred micrograms. It’ll last seven hours, or eight.

Are you crazy?

We’re going to three thousand feet. It’ll make the high higher. He laughs.

Hello Kitty stares up at her from his left hand. She takes the last slug of coffee, crushes the can with her fingertips.

It’s fine, he sighs. Just something to heighten the buzz.

Let’s walk a bit first, she says. Cover some ground.

OK. He puts the tabs back in the sandwich bag and unfurls the map. Google does not work out here; in any case, Adam likes to be old school. Lana follows his footsteps as they set out up the trail, focusing on her breath as they attack the steep slope, the beach disappearing, trees getting denser, path winding upwards and inwards. She forgets which way is north. The sun is high now, coaxing sweat from his back until he drips with it. He is handsome even from behind. Light filters down through the canopy, stippling the sandy path. Spaghetti-limbed monkeys dangle from branches, miniature offspring clinging to their bellies. A snake slides across her path, a rope of iridescent blue.

Her muscles spring into life. Blood flows faster. She looks down, admires her lean brown arms. Hiking sets them apart. Out here, they purify themselves. Not like their colleagues who never leave the island, working ninety hours a week, sleeping all Saturday in matchbox apartments off the outdoor escalator: ride down for bonuses, up for excess. You can buy anything in this city, whatever you choose to consume. Hong Kong loves only money. She sees the other bankers with their Thai masseuses, with their Indonesian strippers and thinks: gross. A few streets away from her office in Wan Chai, young girls with haunted faces throng bar doorways, laughing nervously, texting on their phones.

They are different. A thousand miles across the border is a village where everyone has her surname. One day she will visit. Adam seems at home here, he took to it fast. Especially the weekends. Champagne brunch at the Hyatt on the fiftieth floor, where the view from the terrace is insane. Look out over the harbour to the bobbing yachts; cut crisp lines of nose powder on five-hundred dollar notes. Watch the crumbs float serenely over the edge. More, the city screams, have more. More and more and more and more. Go home at 4 p.m., sleep it off. Wake up late evening, hungry. Drop three days’ salary on steak and Malbec at Tango. Call it date night. This money would go on tax in London, Lana. It’s practically free. Poke at the meat until blood bubbles out of the sides. 600 calories, 900 with sauce. Eat only spinach.

* They’re into the undergrowth, late morning now. Her breathing grows hoarse as the ascent steepens. Why does she put herself through this? The air crackles with insects. Up here, on high ground, it is cooler, forest-damp. Spiders drop without warning, black masses in her face, catching in her hair, scuttling back up their silk-webs. This hike is their hardest yet. She thinks that every time. Her calf muscles ache and contract.

When it seems the climb is endless, the trail levels out into a kind of purgatory. At a green pool they stop in the shade, set backpacks down. Adam takes out a map and compass and frowns. She glugs from a half-litre bottle of Pocari Sweat and pulls on a pink fleece. They must be halfway now. Surely just another hour.

It’s so cold up here, she shivers.

Now, Adam says, his eyes greedy, fingers impatient, reaching into the backpack, unbundling the cellophane package. Hello Kitty, garish squares. Now it’s time for some fun. His eyes bore into her. Come on, you big wuss. You only live once.

She shakes her head.

God, my wife’s boring.

He’s joking, she thinks. He doesn’t mean that.

Suit yourself, he says.

Adam tears the paper down its dotted parting and delicately places a square on his tongue. She grabs the other one before she can think better of it. Sucks the stupid cartoon cat until it dissolves into nothing. Tastes the bitter chemicals, an alien wash in her throat.

He smiles, raises an eyebrow. Good girl.

She lies back on the grass. Minutes pass. She rolls onto all fours on top of him, her knees framing his. Tugs at his drawstring shorts, makes her eyes round, imploring. As she goes in to kiss him, he moves his face to one side.

We can’t do it here, he says.

Why not?

Someone might find us.

There’s no one here to find us.

Just enjoy the trip, will you.

She rolls away from him. The sting of unwantedness spreads over her body. It’s because she is fat, she thinks. She tugs her denim cut-offs down bone-thin thighs. Lies back on the ground, gazes up at the trees. The sky still looks the same. Perhaps the acid won’t work: relief. Looks down at her stomach, taut and tan, twin muscle gaps running like valleys through her abs. How much weight will she lose on the hike? Two pounds, three? Back in the apartment, her digital scale waits for her, a small chrome judge.

In Hong Kong you get fit or you get fat, her boss told her when she arrived. Lana watched the older woman pinch a ridge of flesh above her pencil skirt in disgust. Or you get divorced. This city kills marriages. Too much temptation. Men come here and... you know. Her boss gestured to the slim, coal-haired women sitting behind computer screens. She nodded, disappointed, thinking: she sees me only as British, not Chinese.

You get fit or you get fat. She refuses to succumb. Skips meals and asks their Filipina maid, Joramae, to prepare steamed vegetables in mason jars; reminding her weekly to use less oil. Meets divorced women at brunches, younger than her. Drinks champagne, avoids the croissants. Listens to their stories, thinking that won’t happen to me; thinking, my marriage is better, stronger, not like yours.

* They pick up the trail. Her hamstrings start to twang. She elongates her stride and banishes hunger from her mind. Once a month she eats dim sum with her grandmother in Tsim Sha Tsui, explaining the business of hedge funds in broken Cantonese as she plucks sticky turnip cake off passing trolleys, tasting it greedily, needily, grabbing at custard buns gently steamed in bamboo baskets. Presses their smooth surfaces with a chopstick, oozing warm, sugared, golden yolk. Basks in her grandmother’s comforting instruction, Sek fan! a command from childhood, permission to indulge. It is the only time she eats joyfully, unthinkingly. You get fit or you get fat.

* Around midday, the forest trail opens out into a wide hillside, majestic. A vast white crescent governs the mountain, a sweeping curve of cement gazing out to the ocean.

That’s wild, Adam says, walking over to inspect.

Looking around there are smaller structures, too. Slight half-moons of white cement, dazzling in the sun. She shields her eyes. The same Chinese character, , decorates them all, painted in red in the centre of each crescent, and and and . He walks back to her.

Looks like an amphitheatre, he says. Weird. It’s so remote.

They’re tombs, Adam.


There’s a family buried here, see the character, that’s their surname.

Isn’t that the same as yours?

Your Chinese is getting better, she says, and draws in the air. Yes. Zhng. Coincidence.

* Early afternoon and things start to shift. Consciousness is a miracle of evolution, she decides. The canopy is marvellously alive: birds and spiders, sun-speckled leaves. Colours brighter than she has ever seen. Her mind is a kaleidoscope. Full, full of everything. Why has she never tried acid before? Because she allows fear to govern her life, that’s why. No longer. Adam is singing up ahead. He opens doors in her mind. She is lucky to have him. A butterfly flutters by on a gossamer zip-line, mesmeric. Another life, a butterlife. It is conscious too, it is radiant like her. A fragment of the universe, a symbol of something she has yet to discover. She stops and sits down on the trail.

I have to write things down, Adam!

We can’t keep stopping. We’ll never get there.

There are butterflies in the trees. They are talking. I can hear them.

Let’s get to the village.

Lana stands up and follows him again. Is Adam angry with her? Does he even like hiking? She hates it, if she’s honest, hates it most of the time, but the lie that she loves it runs through their marriage like a vein, so deep it has become truth. Hiking is what they do together, like sashimi and Danish crime dramas. Like moving to Asia.

It’s a great opportunity, Lana. They’ll double my salary. You can get to know your Chinese side.

But our lives are in London. I’ve never been to Hong Kong.

Where’s your sense of adventure?

She looks at his glistening back, upright, determined. Adam is purposeful even without purpose. In London they were happy; now he strides away from her. He must be shagging someone else; one of those skinny UBS bitches. Amber. Sophia. Tears fall down her face. He never loved her, not really. Always trying to change her. Short hair doesn’t suit you. Be more assertive. You should do weights, not cardio. Cut carbs after 6 p.m. It’s not like she doesn’t try. She’s at her thinnest since their wedding. He turns around.

What’s wrong?


Why are you crying?

I don’t know.

It’s just the tab, he says impatiently. Trips take weird turns. You’ll be fine.

She rubs her face with the hem of her fleece.

* The wind picks up. This is wrong, the butterflies whisper. You’ll never get out this way. The border’s back east. Lana watches as her left foot crunches an unseen caterpillar, spurting acid green slime. It breaks her heart. She looks up at a tree and screams.

Adam jumps around. What the hell?

We’ve gone wrong, she says. We passed that tree hours ago.

Don’t be stupid. I know where we are.

We’re lost, she says.

He sighs. You’re paranoid. I should have known acid was a bad idea for you.

It’s not the acid. We’re fucking lost. Why do you never listen to me? Remember Iceland?

Adam shakes his head and sets off up the trail. Do what you want, he says.

* They find the village in the late afternoon, as the sun heads for the horizon. An ancient gate stands guard, shaped like a giant pi, five faded characters painted in red across the top. Welcome to Sei Wong Shan, she translates hesitantly. Her voice doesn’t sound real. The colours are fading now. We made it, she says, searching her feelings for triumph.

It’s getting late, Adam grumbles. We’ll have to use headtorches on the way down. He wanders through the gate, down a path flooded with brambles. She holds back, watches thorns scrape his bare legs, eliciting blood. Follows him, treading gingerly. The village is small, five houses or six. Overgrown, falling down. Flickers of white paint adorn the tatty daub structures. Once, this place was inhabited. Who were its residents? No matter, they are her brethren. She is a ghost too, at peace with history, at one with the world and—

So fucking creepy, Adam says.

I think it’s magical.

I wonder why everyone left, he says.

They couldn’t survive out here. Had to move to the city,

I’m going to piss in the bushes.

Lana nods and wanders into one of the houses. The chill grabs her like a cloak. The cloistered air is freezing, damp. A rusted wok sits in one corner, a limbless wooden chair resting its back against the wall. The kitchen? She bends down in the dust. A faded exercise book on the floor, its cover illegible and torn. A family lived here, children. She picks up a burnt-out incense coil. Patchouli. The peals of a windchime fling through the damp air. She turns around. The place is frozen with history, dark with ghosts. They are trespassing, here, in this village, in this city. The doorway beckons, a rectangle of light. She heads back out of the house, turns the corner to face an elderly Chinese woman, standing fierce and still. Tiny like a child, the image of her grandmother, same white hair and clouded, rheumy eyes. The old woman smiles at her, gentle, pitiful.

Lana lets out a cry.

There you are. We need to get going. Adam says. He pulls the elastic band of a headtorch tight. Takes another out of his backpack and presses it into her hand. This place is weird.

She looks around. Her head is swirling, feet blistered and raw. The sky yawns ultramarine. From where they stand, three thousand feet up, she can see out over the hills, to the South China Sea. Across the water, the city lights gleam. Their flat is down there, somewhere. It feels like weeks since she saw it. How long before an empty home becomes abandoned?

I’m staying here a little longer, she says. You go on ahead.