Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Waking Up in the Middle of the Night Story 3



Inside the 7-11 I was still shaken up. Everything seemed bright and, for want of a better word, normal. Unnaturally so. The modernity of the place, the strangely upbeat music coming from the hidden speakers, the cool, fresh temperature; rows of ready made meals and snacks. Beef and chicken stews, curries, cardboard burgers and pasta; sushi wraps, salads and yoghurt. I stood in front of the vast range of chocolate bars looking for something with a strawberry centre, trying to get rid of an image of a man with a severed arm lying beside a river. Focussed on what to buy my girlfriend.

Absent-mindedly I went over to the fridges, took out a Heineken beer can, opened it up and took a sip. My gaze flew over the shelves of noodles, stationery, pet food and bathroom essentials to the middle-aged female cashier. Busy with a clipboard, she didn’t seem bothered that I was drinking before paying. I took in her freshly pressed uniform and wondered if it was her first day on the night shift. The ice cold beer trickling down my throat felt wonderful as I took in another sip.

Looking around for other customers, I realised I was the only one in there. It was almost three o’clock in the morning; who would be around at this time of night? It wasn’t as if we were anywhere near the city.

Okay,” I said to myself. “Calm down.”

It was none of my business and nobody had seen me. I came here to buy some drinks and snacks and that’s exactly what I was going to do. My eyes moved to the cashier, her clipboard, a stack of magazines and the wall of cigarettes behind her.

Get some water, another beer, chocolate bar for the girlfriend, a sandwich or two …” I went over to the snacks section and decided on some peanuts for myself.

Now, what else do I need?” I said loudly with a fair amount of false nonchalance. “Cigarettes of course, got to replenish my stash. And dried mango, that was it.”

I doubled back to the snacks section and picked up a packet of fruity goodness.

With my arms full of delights, I went over to the counter to pay.

Couldn’t sleep,” I said.

The middle-aged cashier replied with a disinterested, “Mmm.”

Must be the heat,” I continued. “Summer, eh? It’s a killer.”

Shit, bad choice of words. I didn’t want to say anything suspicious. Didn’t want her to remember me. Why the hell was I speaking to her at all?

Three hundred and twenty-six,” she replied, making eye-contact for a fraction of a second.

Shit again. Wasn’t expecting it to be as much as that. But no matter. Not as if I couldn’t afford it.

I pulled out a 500 dollar note; handed it to her as the till burst open and she scraped out my change.

Receiving the money into the palm of my hand we briefly made eye contact again: I felt like I should say something more to this lady; no doubt she’d know what to do. Call the police over; she probably even had a button behind the counter for emergencies.

I found a body,” is what I almost told her. “By the stream. Over there, in that direction,” I would have said, gesturing and pointing wildly at the glass windowed entrance.

DING DONG!”

The sound made when the sliding doors are disturbed. Scared me so much, I almost dropped the change all over the counter. But it was nothing but an old man, stinking of rice wine and stumbling in for more. His feet were bare and purple. Sandals, loose shorts and a greyish t-shirt that had seen better days. Let’s face it, everything about the guy told me he had seen better days. His tufts of oily hair, his patchy forehead, his blistered skin and bony joints. His severed right arm dripping with blood. The guy went straight to the booze section, just like I’d predicted, and took up a bottle of the cheapest rice wine there. The really bad stuff that’s only really any use if you use it for cooking. The one that comes in a tall, thin bottle and if you drink the whole thing it’ll get you pissed soon enough.

Circles of blood patted onto the tiled floor, like dripping ice-cream. Pat, pat, pat.

About to approach us, the guy seemed to be struck by a sudden thought. Something he’d either forgotten or just remembered, and he stopped right there, about ten feet from my shadow.

Noodles!” he shouted, then began to laugh. “Forgot the damn noodles, didn’t I.”

His voice was loud and rasping and I stood there, rooted to the spot. Open mouthed and staring, there was nothing I could do to pull my eyes away.

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

guest story - On the Button by Rachel Carter


“Zophar, listen.” Luna crouched before him on the pavement. “You can get out whenever you want, okay?” Zophar nodded, looking past his mother to the others. His body was poised in politeness towards his mother but in anticipation of the other children, his eyes looked ahead to his new schoolmates and he willed her to say goodbye.
“Did you Anti-Germ your hands?” Another nod.
“Where are your disposable toilet seat covers?” Zophar patted his backpack.
“And mask? Remember which pocket?” More nodding.
His father opened the driver door of the car and the airlock was released with a Clop. Shhhhhhhh. He stepped out carefully, holding a green canister, spraying into the air as he approached.
“Another squirt of Pollute Repel for luck.” He misted the air around Zophar’s head and tiptoed back to the car, as if trying to avoid making contact with the ground.
“One last button test, perhaps Luna?” he called, slipping back into the car and sealing himself in.
“Yes. Quick button run-through,” said Luna. “Tell me again.”
“Emergency Back-Off spray, emergency water purifying tablet.” Zophar’s fingers ran downwards over the buttons on his blazer at speed as he rushed through the list.
“Emergency anti-viral pill, emergency contact button, emergency detox spray button.” He touched his cuffs next. “Panic buttons. Now can I go?” The five-year old jiggled impatiently.
“Anytime at all, if you are worried,” continued Luna, “if someone touches you, if someone coughs near you, if the toilets are dirty. Any reason. You hear me? We’ll get you out straight away. Just press those cuff buttons. And when the car brings you back remember: shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off, then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer and don’t touch the cruise control in the car on the way home. You hear me?”
“I know, I know, you said. Now can I go?” 
“Okay.” Luna kissed the air, not touching Zophar. “Go baby. Take care. Remember: buttons!” She mimed pushing buttons as he ran off. “And don’t run or you’ll fall and touch the ground and I’ll have to take you home!”
Luna clasped her hands in front of her chin. “Good luck. Come home safely,” she whispered.
Zophar scampered up the steps as fast as he thought he would get away with. He was more happy and excited than he could ever remember being. This was better than birthdays. There were other children here. The entrance was massive. It took up one whole side of the building.
“Prevention Pharmaceutical’s Academy of Learning and Science welcomes you all and asks that when you enter the building, you do not share a door pod with anyone else,” came a voice from within the walls.
Robotic eyes shifted around and each pod spoke instructions through hidden speakers as one hundred children at a time were allowed to enter the first segment where they were instantly separated by screens that held the children in stalls as they were scanned for identification and viruses.
Immediately three boys were locked in and a voice told them to wait until cars arrived to remove them.
Some newcomers were familiar with screening and airlocks. They stood patiently while the eyes and scanners moved around them. But the others, from older housing out of the city had not experienced Entrance Pollution Prevention.
Zophar could hear cries of “I want to go home,” “I don’t like this,” while others sobbed and tried to back out.
Luna had told him about the entrance and how other boys weren’t used to it. “They’ll soon get domesticated,” she had said. “Everyone learns eventually.”
Next they were filtered into a huge glass cube. It was one of six on three levels. A voice told them to wait for the professors to collect them.
In this mix of trained and untrained five-year-olds, the difference was obvious to Zophar: the untrained boys had less shiny clothes and they didn’t have emergency blazer buttons. Zophar worried for them. But they didn’t look bothered. A few of them started talking to each other and they even tried to talk to the trained boys. Luna had said to keep away from untrained boys because they weren’t treated. He wondered if it would be safer to hold his nose then he wouldn’t be sharing their air. He held his breath for twenty seconds and gave up.
An untrained boy had been watching him. “I can hold my breath loads longer than that.”
“Ludo’s the best at holding his breath. He swims underwater,” said another boy.
“He goes swimming?! Wow…” Zophar stared.
“Ye-ah, loads of us go. It’s really good for you.” The boy threw off his blazer and mimicked breaststroke. “Gives you strong muscles. My dad said so.”
Zophar, Ludo and some others took off their blazers too, giggling as they ran in circles pretending to swim.
“Why are your buttons so big?”
Zophar turned to see Ludo wearing his blazer and fiddling with the cuff buttons.
“No! Don’t!”
The airlock opened and a robotic sensor promptly identified Zophar’s blazer. Ludo was shunted gently towards the door pods.
“Please wait until your car arrives,” said a voice.
From the door pods Ludo was directed into Zophar’s family car and within minutes he was lowered out at Zophar’s house.
A woman’s voice from a wall speaker said he could try school again tomorrow and she was glad he was home. “And remember:” she said, “shoes in the porch, through the first entrance door, blazer off then through the airlock and straight to the arrivals shower. Don’t come in with your shoes and blazer on.”
Luna waited outside the bathroom with clean towels. She stared; horrified at the sight of the strange, untreated boy and then she hyperventilated.
Zophar’s father left Ludo in the entrance while he arranged his collection. Then the house and car were treated before the car was sent to collect the right boy this time. It had all been too risky and too stressful – Luna would home-school Zophar from now on.


Thursday, 2 February 2017

Unfinished Story #3 part 1


Tuesday

London to Beijing. January. 2004.

I look down through the window, beneath the clouds at the rough, mountainous terrain of Mongolia, wondering what it would be like to crash land in the middle of nowhere; if I’d end up having to eat any of my fellow passengers; whether we’d get rescued by a bunch of tribesmen on horseback; or pretty tribeswomen who’d take us back to their tents, forcing us to be their slaves.

The girl beside me is Asian, fairly attractive, and I guess she’s just entered my daydreams.

She’s from Beijing, her name’s Anna, she’s the same age as me and has been studying in England for over a year. We talked about how I’m now doing what she did. Except it’s kind of the opposite. Ha ha. I’m on my way there, she’s on her way back. Ha ha. Except she’s been learning English and … well, I’m a teacher and she’s a student so that’s kinda flipped around too.

“A teacher?” she asked, impressed.

“A TEFL teacher,” I replied. A twenty-two-year-old English teacher, trained for one month on a Mickey Mouse course with a Mickey Mouse certificate in his backpack, about to start his first real job in Asia’s famous capital. And ever so slightly shitting himself.

“So, can you speak Chinese?”

“Yeah,” I say. “A little.”

“Ni hao ma?”

“Ni hao.”

“Ni chu Beijing jiao yinwen duo jiu?”

I’m having to use my phrase book to write this down. My Chinese isn’t as good as all that and rather embarrassingly I had no idea what she was on about. She laughed though, a little patronisingly, and explained that she’d asked how long I’d be teaching in Beijing.

“Six months,” I replied, to which she feigned mock surprise.

“So short.”

Anyway, I’m not going to write the whole conversation down. We swapped emails and chatted for a while about the places I should visit, things I should eat and how as an Englishman I’d be happy to know that the beer is cheap. How I’m starting a Masters next autumn but six months feels a long time for me because this is my first time to be going abroad for more than a couple of weeks.

Eventually we ran out of things to say, which was a bit awkward, so instead of trying to keep our conversation going for the rest of our fourteen-hour flight, I pretended to fall asleep until she actually did fall asleep and now I’m writing this - staring out the window, feeling kinda lonely, deciding, albeit weirdly, that I’d much rather eat her than some dead old person.

Thursday, 5 January 2017

Waking Up in the Middle of the Night Story 2


Still feeling the pangs of thirst I was thankful for the slight gust of wind blowing once I was outside. There was a cool, welcoming hush from the trees that seemed to offer excitement too; and I remember it was necessary to catch the iron gate at the last minute to stop it banging shut with a clang. It was as if I was being reminded to appreciate the wildness of outside.

I looked up and down the lane to see there wasn’t a soul in sight; although a second glance caught the familiar stray cat watching me from under one of the few parked cars along the way; two oval eyes reflecting the moon, stars; and a soft glow of street lighting.
 
I often enjoyed this time of night, the comfort of being alone; unnoticed by the neighbours. It had become my street; my world: quiet enough to detect the trickling of water from the stream; I could see bats swooping overhead; insects were crackling, buzzing and tap-tapping away in their nocturnal chorus.
 
I got down onto the floor and began meowing at the cat, trying to get it to come out; then giving up, let out a sharp hissing sound and watched, satisfied, as it scampered away, fast as a lighting bolt.
 
In the distance a dog was barking; then further still the noise of a car engine; ever so faint; but audible all the same.
 
I made my way to the end of the lane, walking freely and zigzagging around, picked up a stick, and then was searching absent-mindedly for snakes; maybe a rat: something interesting amongst the tall grass separating the road from the stream. The moon was clouding over but it was easy to see nevertheless: Despite there being no lights coming from any of the houses around, the line of lamp posts stood tall and proud. Like a troop of night-watchmen protecting the sleeping residents of our neighbourhood; guiding my path to the more inhabited, more civilized part of town. They nodded down to me with a wise understanding, an appreciation of my need to be on a mission for some thirst quenching rations.

In spite of myself and this thirst I lit another cigarette, the smoke hitting the dryness of the back of my throat with a bitter, though not altogether unpleasant sensation. I added a deep breath of humid air, opening my mouth wide, savouring the taste of microscopic water droplets on the back of my dry tongue. I allowed my mind to carry me briefly to the fresh air-conditioned oasis of Seven-Eleven, where along the wall fridges held all assortments of beers, juice, flavoured milk, a range of cool teas and iced coffees.

My thoughts concentrated towards the familiar ding-dong sound on entering, the trendy late night radio that would be playing. Not long now, I told myself. Gonna get myself a beer I reckon. Some fruit juice for after. A couple of bottles of water for the fridge and maybe a treat for the girlfriend: one of those chocolate bars with a soft pink strawberry centre. As for me I had a strange craving for some dried mango; something to suck on and chew whilst sipping the cool beer.

Imagining the condensation from the can (drips of water forming on the surface as soon as it was in my warm, sweaty palm) I hit at the grass once more, lost in deliberation, not noticing the man until I was almost upon him; almost tripping over his crumpled, awkward figure.

There was a pool of dark black liquid beside him which I immediately took to be blood. Allowing my eyes to further scan the scene I saw redder colours on the tips of the grass surrounding his body. His head was twisted sideways in an unnatural position and his left arm had been half severed from the torso; a wound I guessed to be the source of all the blood.

Somehow knowing that he was almost certainly dead I lightly kicked at his legs nonetheless: and then unashamedly was poking his face with the stick; just to be sure.

All this didn’t make me feel as disturbed as you might think. Most likely the reason for this is because he was old. Sixty or seventy at a guess. Also he was wearing a dark suit like bodies are often dressed in when you go to an open casket funeral and I was bizarrely drawing similarities to a great uncle who I’d only ever seen in such a state of death.

But unsurprisingly, after a few seconds had passed the reality of the scene finally hit me. In sudden shock I stepped back and dropped my half finished cigarette in the grass. Then swing around, searching for a sign of anyone nearby; curiously hearing a sudden splash of water from the other side of the river; and the noise of running footsteps which I couldn’t be sure was my imagination or not…

There was no one in sight though. Only the sounds of the insects, distant vehicles, dogs barking, my own breathing and the scratching of flint from my lighter as I sparked up a fresh cigarette, wondering what to do.

Saturday, 3 December 2016

Unfinished Story #3 part 2


Wednesday

Should I be describing Beijing airport in some great detail? What can I say? It’s an airport. (Although possibly that’s a description in itself – no big difference from Heathrow except the signs are all in Chinese – that and the fact there were lots of fit girls wearing long military jackets, standing about not doing much and I think they were airport staff).

To be honest, having not had a cigarette for over a day and having been bored off my arse on a plane with no in-flight entertainment, I was too busy searching for a smoking room to take any of it in. Robotically following the other passengers to baggage claim and the rest of it, still with no luck on the smoking room front, I found myself at the place where I was supposed to be being picked up, looking for my name amongst the cardboard signs held by a scattering of dishevelled looking Chinese men.

Looking for my name. My name. First name, last name, then the name of my school. Possibly the name of my country would be enough? But no, nothing.

I wandered amongst the thinning crowd, feeling ever so slightly at a loss, confused and dazed, but not quite willing to take in my situation just yet; I decided to instead resume my search for a decent place to have a cigarette; then noticed that half the men in the airport were indeed smoking exactly where they stood. In fact, there was so much smoke in the air that I could hardly believe I hadn’t noticed this before.

It was a short time later that Anna and who I assumed to be her family came into view, marching together in a bustle of delighted exhilaration. Grandparents, parents and a couple of sisters I imagined, babbling away in enthusiastic tones. I drew on what must have been my third cigarette, watching them, wondering if I could, if I should break up the happy reunion to ask for help – and yes, this is exactly what I should have done, but instead, as I caught her eye I simply waved, and she waved too, and that was it.

This was, however, the moment when I threw my cigarette down and decided that enough was enough and something had to be done. Searching through my rucksack I found the name and address of my school written in Chinese. How hard could it be to get there? All I needed was a taxi.

And that’s exactly what happened. Walking towards the exit, I was all at once being hassled by a number of “drivers.” I use inverted commas here because rather than a taxi, the car I ended up in was a black unmarked car. But I got a good price I reckon. He had pulled out a little cardboard sign with prices on and insisted that 800 yuan was the cheapest he’d go, but I knocked him down to 300, which I was quite proud of.

The drive there was fairly non-eventful. No paddy fields or rice farmers outside because we were after all in the heart of the city. He offered me a cigarette, asked me where I was from:

“English teacher!” he shouted. “Very good!”

Then he went into Chinese and the rest of our conversation became guess work, with me nodding my head and saying, “Hao,” at what I hoped were the appropriate moments.

*

This day comes in two parts. The first, which you’ve just read, was written outside the building of what should have been my school. Rather than going in straight away I sat on a bench by some rock gardens to gather myself together and write about the little disaster that I’d so cleverly overcome. I thought that was it; that I was home and dry; about to meet new friends and colleagues, start my new life and that pretty soon I’d be going out to dinner, few beers, telling the story of how briefly I’d been stuck in Beijing, a stranger in a huge city, not knowing anyone, unable to speak the language, and with very little survival experience.

Ahhh, shit! You’ve guessed it. That’s exactly where I’m at now.

Must have gone in every room of the building. The odd looking foreigner with his piece of paper and broken Chinese:

“Where the hell is this school? Face to Face English. School. Xiue Xiao. English school. Face to Face. Wo shi yinguo laoshi. I’m an English teacher. Face to Face. School. Help.”

Gave up finally because what else could I do? Need to find a hostel, find someone who speaks English. Some other foreigners like myself. That’s my job for tomorrow.

As for now I’m sat in the most amazing hotel room you could imagine. View from the double windows is like some sort of sci-fi movie. Had McDonalds for dinner, which I took up here and ate on the balcony. Then watched a Chinese dating show on telly, had a bath, and have been drinking green tea and reading my book, feeling like a king on this huge double bed.

So I guess it’s not all bad. Just a little scary.

*

Okay, one more entry for today. The most beautiful, and let’s face it, the sexiest girl I’ve ever been within spitting distance of has just knocked on my door. When I opened up and saw her I just sort of stood there gawking, and probably dribbling at the mouth; but then reminding myself that she was in fact a real person and had probably got the wrong room, I politely told her as much. Didn’t speak Chinese, just said, “No,” and, “Sorry,” and pointed to my room number, gesturing with my arms that it wasn’t this number that she wanted.

Anyway, thought I’d write this down. Having trouble sleeping to be honest.

Also, the thought has hit me that possibly she did have the correct room after all and I just turned away the girl of my dreams.

Monday, 14 November 2016

Unfinished Story #3 part 3


Thursday

Went to find my school again today, but still no luck.

Okay, let’s start at the beginning. I woke up with the intention of finding a hostel so I could use the internet there, meet some other foreigners, etc. Then I realised that I needed internet to find a hostel. I haven’t got any lonely planet book or anything like that – definitely should have come more prepared.

Looked for an internet room in this hotel but couldn’t find one. No restaurant either. Asked at reception but nobody seems to understand anything I’m talking about. I have a phrase book but it’s all stuff like, I need some condoms please, and Have you got something for diarrhoea? and Where can I buy some suntan lotion?

They understood when I paid for another night however. Three hundred yuan, which converts to about thirty quid. Not bad for the size and quality of the room.

Had breakfast in McDonalds again. There’s one near the hotel, you can’t miss it as the only recognisable anything in this entire city. Everything looks like a Chinese restaurant.

Then I caught a taxi and went back to the address of where my school should be. Just to double check if I’d be taken to the same building as I was yesterday. Could’ve walked there from here but needed to confirm the address was right.

No luck again. Same story as yesterday.

There were a bunch of people selling stuff in the street nearby. Saw some baby ducks – who’s gonna buy a baby duck and what for? The rest of it was the usual stuff you get in Chinatown. Ornaments and fancy little boxes for keeping the ornaments in. Nothing especially exciting.

While I was there a sudden panic ensued, which I later realised was because someone had spotted the police nearby. All the sellers hurriedly packed up all their stuff and legged it round the corner out of sight. Quite funny to watch.

 

Friday

Need to get myself a winter coat at some point. The weather outside is pretty cold. Found an internet cafĂ© at least. There’s an email from my school:

Hi Adam.

Looking forward to our meeting you. You first class on January 11. Did you arrive at Beijing yet?

Please reply soon.

Happy.

Not sure how to react to this.  I mean, I was supposed to be picked up at the airport on the 5th of January. No mention of that. But if my first class is on the eleventh then at least I’m not in any trouble. I replied with:

Hi, Happy.

In Beijing now but can’t find the school. What is the address? I’m staying at the Grace Hotel on Fujing Street, Chaoyangmen district.

Looking forward to your reply,

Kevin.

Bought cigarettes that taste of flowers. It was the cheapest pack. Got some beer too and went back to my room. I know I should explore Beijing, make the most of this free time I have, but not in the mood. It’s cold and I don’t really know what I’m doing.

 

Saturday

No entry.

 

Sunday

There’s a writing desk in my hotel room. That’s where I’ve been jotting this diary stuff down. The carpet is dark brown, the bed is huge, high and soft, covered in brown and cream blankets with duvet to match. There’s a coffee table with two wicker chairs, a modern TV; the double windows cover one whole wall of the room which leads to a narrow balcony overlooking the metropolis. There’s about twenty lights in the room which are all turned on using a control panel by the bed.

The bathroom is gold; the bath itself is more like a spa pool than anything else; bubbles can be turned on; there are round neon lights on the bottom of the bath and the thing lights up like Christmas while you’re in there.

Most of the last few days have been spent reading my book, drinking green tea and smoking far too much: on the bed, sat in one of the wicker chairs, out on the balcony, in the bath … I had a few beers in here last night – flicked through the TV channels looking for anything interesting. Mostly watched Chinese cartoons and music videos.

I’m on the fifteenth floor. I take the lift down in the mornings. As far as I know there’s nothing else in this hotel apart from rooms. Gotta stop eating McDonalds.

Handing my keys in for the last time today. Going to a hostel I found on the internet. It’s been nice here in a weird way, but also rather lonely. Time for a new start.

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Story 31 - Soup

Actually did make soup last night. Was going to get a tin of Campbell’s or maybe a box of sachets but Sarah gave me the idea of making my own. She reckoned it was easy enough, just get some vegetables, stick them in boiling water and there’s your soup. Bought a leek, a potato, a tomato and a carrot. Cut them up, boiled some water and threw the lot into it. Added salt, pepper and waited, waited for what seemed like forever for the thing to turn into soup but it never did become anything other than a load of vegetables in hot water. Still had it though, and I guess it was healthy enough, in spite of the fact I was up half the night pissing. (I go in the sink by the way. Not sure if I’ve mentioned this before but during the night I can’t be bothered to walk to the end of the corridor for a leak so I use the sink in my room. Kinda disgusting, but convenience outweighs all that.)

Off to a party at East Slope later. The weather’s nice at the moment. It’s like a beautiful summer’s evening outside.