By Rita Kelly
[Rita Kelly is half Polish half British (Irish-Welsh actually), was born and grew up in francophone Belgium, and did her earlier studies in Poland. She is now a research student in the School of English, working on narratives of the Opium War.]
It happened to me last year when I was living in a studio in Sai Ying Pun. What compels me to tell this story now? Perhaps that’s how long it has taken me, one year, to be able to look at it as a funny episode rather than a hellish experience that struck me as the height of bad luck. Perhaps it is only now that I see this real-life event as providing me with a story better than fiction with which to entertain my fellow alumni. Besides, as a literature student, I enjoy not only reading ut also telling a good story.
Last ummer, I was spending the remaining days of my vacation in Belgium when I was woken up at 5 a.m. by a long-distance call from Hong Kong. My friend Meilin, whom I had asked to keep an eye on my place while I was away, was on the line, her voice at a higher pitch than usual and in which I immediately detected panic. “Your flat’s been flooded from the toilet!” It took a moment for the information to sink in and for me to realize what Meilin had just said: my flat had been flooded with shit. Seriously?! I mean, flooded is bad enough, but from the toilet?! Can these things even happen?! My friend then filled me in on all the details: the whole of my studio (not just the bathroom) was covered in a two-inch thick sludge, a quantity so big it had probably accumulated over at least a week. My first question to her was: “What’s the damage?” (I was trying hard to remember where I had left the library books. Were they all on the shelves? Had I left some on the floor?). Meilin’s response summed it up rather aptly: “It stinks!”
Apparently, there had been a structural problem in the building and the contents of everybody’s toilet had ended up in my flat – which remains a mystery to this day for I was living on the second, not the ground, floor. The person in charge of the flat not only deemed it unnecessary to react immediately when informed of the situation – after all, what’s the hurry? Why get excited? There’s no danger in having a mountain of faecal matter lying around for days in the heat of July but then, when something had to be done, decided the best solution was to get someone to scrape up the mess by hand. No pump, no professional cleaning, just one very unfortunate worker removing heaps of shit with his bare hands. Looking back I can only be (selfishly) grateful my friend was there to ake care of this matter for me, because if I had come back to an excrement-filled flat after a 12-hour flight from Europe I might just have called the firefighters. Instead, and fortunately for me, I came back to a place reeking mainly of bleach.
But my story doesn’t end here. When I came back, the problem had yet to be solved. My flat was no longer a sewer but fixing the pipe required the cooperation of all the people living in the building, most of whom turned a blind eye (and a blocked nose!) to the problem until, eventually, their toilets started malfunctioning as well. At some point, my upstairs neighbour came to see me. He was accompanied by a worker who wanted to check the building’s main pipe, which could easily be accessed through my kitchen window. The worker slipped out of the window onto the roof of the neighbouring building and started fiddling with the pipe. In a twist of events that continues in the line of the absurd and the improbable, the pipe suddenly burst, its contents splashing the worker and covering him from head to toe in … urine! Speechless and stupefied, as if trapped in some Kafkaesque world, I watched the worker, unperturbed, his clothes soaked with piss, as he climbed through the window back into my kitchen, wiped his face with one of my towels and grabbed my phone with his hands still dripping. I did not know whether to laugh or hit him. I opted for feigned indifference. After this incident, and following some very unpleasant exchanges with the people in charge of the flat, I fled. Fortunately, the academic semester had not yet started and I devoted all my time and energy to finding a place as far removed from this frightful mess as possible. I decided the sea was a safe enough buffer and moved to Lamma.
At the risk of being accused of seeing metaphors and meanings where there are none, I can’t help but wonder at the irony of this happening during a particularly difficult time for me, especially with respect to my thesis writing. I would not venture to directly compare facing a mountain of shit with doing a PhD, but both can be pretty overwhelming and both can seem insurmountable. Writing early drafts certainly challenged my sanity and (yes!) gave me the feeling that my mind was sometimes flooded with a lot of unnecessary shit rather than the clear, brilliant ideas I so hoped for. You might see my experience as an awful and atypical difficulty faced by a non-local postgraduate student living in HK. Or you could see it as symbolic of a more common obstacle faced by most postgraduate students during the initial stages of their thesis writing. This is not to say that it’s all smooth sailing after that (far from it!), but the work does become less messy and the effort more rewarding.