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.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Unfinished Story #2

I’ve sprawled out on the seat of the train, but I don’t know this yet.

There’s the sound of white noise. An intense, thunderous burst of hisses and booms - my eyes open and immediately I’m groping at the control panel in my wrist.

“F***ing thing,” I say.

Digging my nails further into the skin I manage to switch off the main circuit. A hush as my eyes adjust to the empty carriage.

Silver walls dully reflect the artificial light. The air is murky and damp. Strange, as these trains are usually air conditioned. It must be on the blink. That or a deliberate act of vandalism.

My hand moves to the holster under my coat, and my gun is still there. I take it out, checking the settings, then lay back, gazing up at the ceiling’s videoscreen to see an image of doves flying above. A moment later they morph into bats, then stars, then footballs, and then as the map of our progress is displayed in a brilliance of colour I see that we’ve just past Kowloon.

“Shit.”

I sit up, look left and right to double check that I am alone. A humming from the train replaces the silence, and as I stand the humming becomes louder. My stress levels have increased and there’s the beginnings of a headache.

“What the hell?”

Instinctively I look to the control panel in my wrist to see how long I was out, but it’s off, because I switched it off, and when I painfully turn it back on using the manual lever the display reads four zeros, which blink at me stupidly.

I press the call button and a distorted image of Frank appears on screen for all but a few seconds before fading into nothingness.

“F***ing thing,” I say again. So what now?

Saturday, 29 August 2015

Unfinished Story #1

Nothing overly special going on in my last class. I write a couple of sentences on the board, then get them to repeat a few times in between throwing a ball at each other. They take out their books, write a few more similar sentences, do the spelling test, we read a story about a cat getting stuck up a tree, play a game of Marco Polo and then I’m outta there.

It’s Friday night and I’m in the mood to get wasted. Like there’s anything else to do? I hear myself thinking. Heading home amongst once so unfamiliar surroundings, I marvel at how quickly one adjusts to this new environment. Crowds of dark, smiling faces, side stools selling everything from fried intestines to confectionated chicken feet to mango and ice cream kebabs. I purchase a king sized plastic cup of tapioca milk tea; already immune to the stink of steaming, putrid drains, I happily sip at my beverage, dodging through the rush of scooters, taxis, bicycles and car horns. If you’ve ever been there you know the score. We’re in any Asian city so I may as well leave it at that. You’re far from home, and how quickly us foreigners fall into the expected stereotype of becoming alcoholics in a distant land. A niche we fit into so well. For those of us who are able to survive out here for more than a year of this weirdly addictive loneliness, it is but a necessity.

Beneath towering Skyscrapers, I continue my journey home. Attractively modern buildings mix with shorter, more hastily built concrete obscenities - and these in turn seem out of place next to the few remaining ancient temples that shine with a proud but humble determination amongst the glittering neon lights. Wading through this regular conglomerate of ancient and modern, of past, present and future, I’m making my way into a Seven-Eleven to grab a bottle of local medicine wine, a preheated chicken burger and packet of chocolate corn chips. For me the place is a whirl of incomprehensible language, both audible and visual, but being used to such an environment, I’ve found there’s something relaxing about it too. I stand apart, and mostly I’m ignored. I’m like a ghost, coming from a different world, another dimension, and due to my ignorance I’m able to remain in that world apart. I slide silently amongst the other customers, happily immune to the surrounding babble. This is the way it’s always been, and this is the way I like it.

Whilst queuing up to pay, I’m therefore disturbed and rather put out when I receive a tap on the shoulder from a girl standing behind me who’s keen to ask where I’m from.

“Where are you from?” she blurts, in a twangy accent. High spirited, false friendliness; it’s