The expatriate's Sophie's Choice
As an expat, the older you get the more you dread the midnight phone call that prompts a dash to Chek Lap Kok and the hasty flight home into the teeth of a raging family crisis.
Unless you are one of those people who actively dislike their relatives so much that they choose to live 7,000 miles apart, the distance never gets any easier.
It becomes most acute when one or both of your elderly parents become ill, or worse. Unless you are lucky enough to have caring dutiful siblings living near the aged Ps, the worry nags and gnaws. As much fun as living overseas in an exotic place like Hong Kong is, there are always the people and place you left behind.
Cathay Pacific gouging
Sadly time catches up eventually, regardless of wishful thinking, or trying not to think about it.
Before Christmas the dreaded call came: "Dad's ill." That became Dad's eating turkey tucked up in bed. Then, Dad's in hospital. Next one announced he was about to be wheeled into surgery. Don't dash home, said Mum, I'll keep you informed. Dad is nearly 81 and has survived everything from heart bypasses to cancer, falling off horses, being trampled by cattle, breaking his back and latterly, diabetes. Even cats only have nine lives and I reckon he's used up more than that. I got straight onto the phone to the Marco Polo Club at Cathay Pacific. The emergency was explained. It was January 5, they said the London flights that night were full, except for one or two seats in Business Class, at HK$110,000 return. What! That's the cost of a First Class ticket normally. So much for your friendly caring, gouging local airline. A call to travel agent Fortuna Travel produced a quote of $55,000 - exactly half - for that self-same business class seat to London that night. I know Cathay is no charity, but double the price?
Go for the coach
To cut a long story short, I avoided Britain's floods and cancelled trains by taking the three-hour National Express coach ride from Heathrow to Taunton in Somerset - £23 (HK$294) - compared to the train fare of £82. A taxi would have cost 180 quid - about HK$2,500.
Inside the high dependency ward in the huge National Health Service hospital in Taunton I eventually found Dad, somehow alive after an 11-hour operation. Things did not look good. Several days have passed. He is now in the men's surgical ward, cheerful but still perilously ill. The doctors warm that anything could happen at any moment. I want to be there as much as possible, but visiting hours are short and strict, 2-4pm and 6-8pm. This requires wasting the two hours in between, traipsing around the draughty corridors or drinking endless cups of coffee in the canteen. And trying to prevent Mum, aged 82, from worrying herself to exhaustion.
To stay or go?
Meanwhile, my other life and work are thousands of miles away in Hong Kong. No work, no income. There's a limit to how long I can afford to stay away. So, what to do? If I go back to Hong Kong, Sod's Law means disaster will strike and I will have to jump straight on a plane and fly the 13 hours back again. If I stay here, it's company for Mum and I get to spend precious time with Dad. He knows I should be at work and keeps urging me to go home. Added to that, the longer I stick around, the more he thinks I'm just waiting for him to croak. Its starting to feel like Sophie's Choice.