For your delectation, here is another short story from the pen of Trevor Hay ……
We are like sculptors, constantly carving out of others the image we long for, need, love or desire, often against reality, against their benefit, and always, in the end, a disappointment, because it does not fit them.
Anaïs Nin, The Diary of Anaïs Nin, quoted in Christopher Ondaatje, ‘The Blue Nude’ from The Last Colonial. Curious Adventures and Stories from a Vanishing World.
I am looking at a faded black and white photo. There I am, standing, second from left, second row from top in a group of twenty year old men, and there are our instructors, sitting behind a board that says ‘7 Platoon, B Company, 2 Recruit Training Battalion, First Intake, 1968’. And there is another photo in the battered shoebox, taken about a year before that. It got me thinking about how much had changed, not just in fifty years, but in the year or so between photos.
Summer 1967. Everything was perfect. I went to a town hall dance, the band was playing ‘Strangers in the Night’. I asked a girl to dance, she consented. She accepted too when I suggested a coke – always the clincher – and, most telling of all, she agreed to my escorting her home after the last dance – a ‘modern waltz’ – slow, with lights dimmed, permitting heads on shoulders etc.
From one photo to the next I experienced a few weeks of bliss, followed by a year of misery after it all ended abruptly, and, for me at least, mysteriously. I went on wondering what had gone wrong until my cultivated introspection was replaced by the fatigue evident in that feeble attempt to smile for the platoon photo. The 1967 photo was taken a couple of weeks after the dance, at what we used to call a ‘cabaret’, an ungainly event that took place in a big noisy hall where you sat at a long trestle table awash with foaming, spilling beer jugs and occasionally got up and did the twist or got into a brawl – 1920s Vienna it was not. I don’t remember knowing anyone else there so I presume she invited me to go with a group of her friends – and someone took our photo.
But Janine is not in the photo. She has been surgically removed by my mother, who took the opportunity of my sojourn in National Service to remove an entirely superfluous girl from a picture of me that she otherwise really liked – she said she could see Tom in it – my Uncle Tom who had been killed by the Japanese in New Guinea, so I think there was more to it than just liking the photo. She didn’t have any animosity towards Janine, but as she said to me while the picture was still intact, ‘You will have a dozen of those my lad, before the right one comes along.’ But I can still see her, freckles and all, and her lovely, subdued smile. Just the thought of her brings back long afternoons on the beach in Brighton, in Adelaide, and late evenings, still on the beach in Brighton, and those curious breakfasts she taught me to love – sausages, coon cheese and coke. We never ‘slept together’ – well, not exactly. I had a bed made up in the lounge in her parents’ house, so I didn’t have to go all the way back to Port Adelaide on the train at night. She used to bring me those wondrous breakfasts early in the morning before her parents got up, nicely laid out on an aluminium tray, souvenir of Tasmania, which was about as far as anyone went in those days. As for me, I had gone to heaven.
I remember standing in a phone box, ringing her after it all went suddenly wrong. Things were so different then, I guess almost incomprehensible to the modern young lover – no mobile, no text, no email, not even, in my case, a house phone or car to bridge the gap of time and space. There were two booths in the old PMG public phone box up on the main road but one of them didn’t work. There was a freshly minted decimal currency twenty cent piece jammed in the slot, so I had to wait for somebody in the next booth to finish. I remember thinking how incongruous it was that while I was nearly fainting away from anxiety, semi-trailers were still rumbling up and down the Junction Road as if nothing was happening, for crying out loud – and I had to wait ten minutes listening to someone babbling about the price of things since they replaced Cruikshanks’ Grocery with a self-serve store: ‘Bev doesn’t even serve you any more but that hasn’t stopped them putting things up, even Velvet soap and Bex powders.’
Finally, after I almost climbed over the top of the previous occupant before she had time to marshal her handbag and get out of the booth (‘do you MIND?’), I asked to be put through to Janine in the typing pool, negotiating a disapproving public service gatekeeper, a female eunuch if ever there was one. Janine came to the phone but snapped at me that she couldn’t talk now, and I, ever the romantic who believed nothing mattered but the urgent truth of true passion, pleaded – demanded – to know what had gone wrong between us last weekend. No doubt the little queue that had assembled outside the box were keen to know too. As it happened, the phone call itself went horribly wrong. I ended up saying something like ‘I don’t get it – you practically throw yourself at me and then you drop me cold…’ followed by her indignant ‘Oh thanks very much’, (click…more coins in the slot, another strained but polite request to be put through, this time haughtily refused by the galley mistress…`This is a workplace, young man.’ Did she really ‘throw herself’ at me? I could not have chosen a worse thing to say, although I didn’t mean to say anything like it, didn’t even think anything like it…or did I? I guess I had cut straight to the core of the matter – in this case my hurt and bewilderment at the sudden rejection – but then I had also cut straight to the core of her own fragile self-image. Things had been wrong from the start on that last Saturday night we spent together, and I should have learned then, for use on later occasions in my life, that the best thing to do in these circumstances, the truly romantic thing, is just to make a dignified retreat rather than press for answers, making everything worse.
Her friend and the boyfriend had picked me up from home. Janine was in the back of the friend’s Mini Cooper. I remember I didn’t like this friend but I don’t remember why – I don’t think she liked me either. Things didn’t seem quite right even then when I climbed into the back seat with Janine. We went to the drive-in – something with Sandra Dee and Bobby Darin and a beach ball, I think. Normally I wouldn’t have seen any of this absurd excuse for a film – well, excuse for ‘heavy petting’ in a dark and secluded place – but I got to see a lot more of that execrable movie than I would have hoped for. By now I knew there really was something wrong but I had no idea what.
During the week, while she was confined to bed with a mysterious female condition, and after I had been ushered into her ailing presence by her doting mother, she suddenly propped herself up on her pillow, beckoned to me to come closer and whispered that we had ‘great plans’ for the weekend. I remember too – how could I forget? – that she wanted me to know she was on THE PILL, but it was for problems of the kind she was now suffering, not for anything, you know, – else – and she just wanted me to know that, in case I heard from ‘someone’ (probably her previous boyfriend, whom I happened to know quite well) that she was on the pill. And why would he have known, I now ask myself, although I didn’t think of it at the time? The funny thing is, it never occurred to me to think she might be ‘easy’ or that she ‘slept around’ just because she was on the pill, but maybe she was anticipating that I might get some sort of notion of the kind into my head. On top of all this she also told me her friend had a rather roomy flat somewhere that we could all retire to after the movie.
But in the drive-in, which should have been a perfect trailer for the main attraction, Janine was silent, not wanting to be touched, despite the fact that you could hardly avoid intimacy in a Mini. I asked what was wrong and she said something about being molested in the subway that afternoon. That was as far as I got with my enquiries. So, although we shared a bed later, we were at cross-purposes all night, and she hissed at me that she did NOT want to become a mother just yet. I wondered what had happened to the pill. How could she become a mother? Wasn’t it ‘safe’? Wasn’t that the point of telling me about it? And I didn’t see what the subway had to do with it. I left in the morning after a long and sleepless night, first facing a very unresponsive wall, finally admitting defeat and stumbling to a sofa that might as well have been a bed of nails.
I remember I had no idea where I was when I walked out the door because I hadn’t paid any attention the night before, and I was expecting a lift to the nearest station, maybe on Monday. I can still feel that awful sensation of going so abruptly from the prospect of ecstasy to being irrevocably locked out and lost. But before I left I met two lads my own age who had come to the house early that morning. They said they were on leave from Nasho for a few days and they had come to see the girls. They seemed disappointed to find me there. I told them I was going in myself with the first intake next year, expecting some kind of camaraderie. They both told me, emphatically, to do anything I could to get out of it. It sounded something like ‘Don’t go out on the moors alone at night’ and it was the first time I really felt that it might turn out to be a bad experience rather than just an ‘Experience’. I was hopelessly romantic about that too. I would come back all taciturn and hard-bitten from the war and be a famous realist writer like Ernest Hemingway or Norman Mailer. Me the realist! – but I had outgrown Byron and Shelley in English III because they talked too much. I didn’t take too much notice of the dire warning, but as I look now at the platoon photo I feel there was something fateful about their presence that morning – it was a kind of prophecy, or maybe some kind of oracle-like irony practised on the eternal heedless youth, a lesson about the thin walls between bliss and misery in this life.
My illusions about the army took a fatal hit with the first morning parade at Puckapunyal, but I hung on to my idealised notions about that tragic, thwarted, ‘brief encounter’ with Janine. I suppose I just wanted to believe it had been perfect and that somehow it was I who had ruined things in my urgency and anxiety. Ruins are such romantic things. I harboured the remnants of the shattered dream and nurtured them with my own self-scourging misery until the army made me too tired to dream about anything except discharge, two very long years away. I think now that I was gazing at myself in a mirror of sorts, or more to the point perhaps, gazing at my half of that mutilated photo. When I look beyond the photo and into my back-lit cave of memory I see other things now – why did she tease me with that thing about the pill and then, a few nights later, say she didn’t want to be a mother just yet? Had she regretted her invitation, was she unable, despite the libertarian ethos of the 60s, to break the shackles of that ancient slur about appearing to be a ‘slut’? Did she fear that someone who knew her might talk about her provenance with the pill? Or did I just not get it when she tried to tell me how she had been affected by the creep in the subway? And it didn’t help that I was unable to stifle that outburst in the phone box, something ugly that came straight up from the depths of sexual conventions and roles we had both been brought up with, attitudes that lingered long after the advent of the pill – and are still with us.
This half-photo is only a fragment of a fragment, but it makes me think about what I knew then and what I know now. It would have saved me a great deal of trouble in my later life if I had learned a lesson from it. What is it that we do when we ‘fall in love?’ When I look at the bisected photo, producing a neat image of me, pre-National Service, enshrined in my mother’s rather ill-fitting recycled frame, it makes Janine more visible than if the photo had been left untouched. I see the crocheted shawl she is wearing, and the freckles around her neckline, and that lovely smile (half-smile?). Maybe there is a shadow of sadness or anxiety there, something I hadn’t really noticed before. But she is still an illusion.
Maybe when you are ‘in love’ with someone, as opposed to loving someone, it is your own need that takes over. That need thing can cut the object of your affections out of the picture as surely as my mother’s scissors. Back to 1968. I see ‘Nat’, third row from top, fifth from left. We called him that because his name was Cole…Nat ‘King’ Cole. We all had silly nicknames. It made me think of that deceptively simple but utterly haunting old song of his, ‘Nature Boy’, and the final lingering note and psalm-like lyric – ‘The greatest thing you will ever learn… (pause)… is just to love …(pause)…and be loved in return.’ There is a fifty year pause between these photos…am I there yet?
My Grandma’s last gift conveyed wishes and hopes far beyond my four year old understanding. She was just sixty three. She had made me a stuffed and sewn black cat, a ragged little rascal with white cotton whiskers and blue cotton eyes, and I named him ‘Felix’, after a similarly quirky, streetwise little black cat who featured in comic books and cartoons of the time . I didn’t know then that ‘Felix’ means ‘lucky‘, and I don’t suppose Grandma knew either. She gave me the cat just before my fourth birthday because she knew she wouldn’t be around in late April. It was a final birthday gift that compressed a great deal into the body of one little cat – a good luck wish for a life yet to be lived, a life beyond her imagining; regret for all the loving moments and occasions that she would never share, and a fervent hope that my life would be better – and luckier – than hers. Felix has been with me ever since, through the innocence and dangers of childhood, the arrogance and thoughtlessness of youth and the joys and tragedies of adulthood. Now as my years mount alarmingly, well past Grandma’s span, shadows of mortality wake me in the night as rudely as a bright light shone suddenly on my bed by an intruder.
I thought again of Felix last week as I heard the tears of a little girl whose pet cat had been run over. Some hours after I heard those tears I happened to be in Hawthorn, and I passed a Chinese antique furniture shop. I went in, although there was absolutely nothing in the window or beyond that excited my curiosity. The shopkeeper paused from some repairs and there was a pleasant smell of varnish and freshly planed wood in the shop. He invited me to look around and I wandered up and down three flights of creaky stairs and poked my nose into several rooms crammed with furniture, including some fine pieces; chairs, wardrobes and carved trunks, but nothing special. On the way out I stopped to peer into a grimy glass case with a clutter of unremarkable Chinese figurines; porcelain, cloissoné and so on. There in the foreground was Guanyin Pusa, the Chinese Bodhisattva, Goddess of Compassion. I asked the shopkeeper to take her out for me and he explained apologetically that she was only brass, not bronze and not really old, maybe a hundred years or so, towards the end of the Qing Dynasty. There was a special discount. I liked her proportions and colour so I – well, here I must pause. My Chinese friends tell me that one should never say, at least not in Chinese, that one has ‘bought’ Guanyin Pusa. You must invite her to reside with you, in your heart. So I invited her accordingly, paid the shopkeeper and left with the goddess, wrapped rather ignominiously in an oily scrap of Chinese newspaper.
Soon after I got back home I had a phone call from the little girl’s mum, almost unable to speak for her sobbing. I offered a rather futile response as she took on her daughter’s grief, blaming herself for letting the cat out on the street, wailing her apology to the soul of the innocent creature whose life had been crushed under the wheels of a gleaming monster flashing heedlessly through a peaceful residential street. After the call I made a sudden connection between the compassion I felt for the little girl and the newly installed figure in my study, now in pride of place on my desk. I went to check on her, switched on the light and was startled to find a tear-drop-sized golden glow emanating from between the finely arched eyebrows of Guanyin Pusa. Of course, some parts of the figure are polished brass, and I guess this ‘third eye’ is no accident or miracle, but other sections – her robes, her lotus platform, her sceptre – although highly polished, do not shine. Guanyin’s glow greets me now every time I enter the study; well yes, I admit it only happens when you switch on the light, but maybe compassion is always a reflection of some sort of light. However, the meaning of her name, Guanyin, is ‘She who Heeds the Sound of the World’. I realised that, whatever form my response took, including finding – almost seeking out – Guanyin in that shop, I was also listening to the sound of that little girl’s suffering and the anguish of her mother; the sound of the world.
Guanyin Pusa and Grandma’s cat are both with me now in my study as I write. The little girl’s Mum has found (I will not say ‘bought’) another little cat and, at my suggestion, they have named him ‘Felix’.
Trevor Hay, September 2017.
If you have time to browse, make a coffee and enjoy a short story from the pen of the talented Leigh Hay.
An Overabundance of Coffee Tables
Giovanni has been watching the rain now for half an hour. Business is slow today. Sundays can be like that.
He looks around the coffee shop to see if anything needs doing, and decides to wipe table surfaces one more time. Not because they’re dirty, but because some action is required to alleviate the boredom. Boredom is very Australian. Giovanni has spent a decade watching them come in, sit with a coffee, play with their iPad, check social media or do the crossword, and then want a chat rather than go home. They never say what it is they’re going home to.
Giovanni reflects that he had never been bored in Italy. He isn’t even sure there is a word in Italian for boredom. Farm work had taken all his father’s time and a great deal of his―always something to do, always a shortage of money, always poverty. Grinding poverty had sapped his parents’ youth and threatened to do the same to him. He needed to make a move.
Si, reflects Giovanni, who reverts to his native Italian when he’s in nostalgic mood, emigrating had saved him. Mind you, emigrating had also brought its own kind of poverty in the early years. It had taken forever for him to save enough on labourer’s wages to even think about buying a small business. First purchase had been a milk bar in Brunswick – a down at heel shop where he felt married to the place, working 24/7. But…and here he manages a smile…it had brought Giulia to him. She had walked through those flapping plastic strips one warm spring day, looking a million dollars in her floral dress, pert breasts standing to attention. Hair like silk, dainty ankles…boy she’d been a looker. Two weeks of stealing time for weekend matinees, ballroom dancing at the local town hall and some stolen kisses behind her mother’s hydrangeas, and he’d known she was the one for him.
Here he stops to glance out the window. Plenty of traffic, no custom to speak of. Maybe he’ll make a flat white just for himself? He turns and saunters back to the industrial sized Delonghi and begins to steam some milk. Who knows how much longer he’ll have this place anyway? The Council has made it clear―a new freeway is in the planning and his coffee shop is slap bang in the middle of the proposed development. The truth is he won’t mind selling up, but the local residents have formed a lobby group to oppose the development and retaining his coffee shop is crucial to their opposition. Do gooders, yeah, but they haven’t even stopped to ask what he thinks. He is beginning to feel like a pawn in a very intellectual game, one he doesn’t understand.
His thoughts return to Giulia. “You’re a long time dead”, she used to say. And now she is. His beautiful girl is gone and now it’s just him, and the shop, and a pack of middle-class intellectuals who seem to think that erecting a barricade of coffee tables across the road is going to stop progress.
The bell above the door jingles. Oh God, here comes Cecilia. She’s OK…bit of a talker but at least she knows when to shut up and is unfailingly polite enough to ask after his health.
“Hello lovely lady”.
Cecilia beams. “Always good to see you Giovanni” she returns, heading across the café to the machine.
“You want your usual?”
She nods. “Thanks”.
Cecilia is of indeterminate age, but attractive enough. Giovanni is not sure what she does for a living, but thinks it maybe something clever. Melbourne Uni is just around the corner after all, and she looks the type. She’s a bit of a yuppy but Giovanni figures there’s something a little more down-to-earth and sincere about her than most of his customers.
“So has Jack told you about the latest with the Council?”
Giovanni isn’t sure he wants to hear, but feigns interest anyway. “No, haven’t seen Jack lately. Why you asking? Is something new about to happen?”
“No, no new development. But the petition will be presented to Council at their meeting next Monday”.
Cecilia glances up from the table by the window just long enough to thank Giovanni for the coffee.
“Nothing to eat?”
“No, nothing to eat, thanks.” She scans his face.
“I must say Giovanni, you haven’t really seemed that enthused lately. Is the prospect of being bought out too painful to even think about?”
At this point he can lie and say yes. Or he can hedge his bets and say he needs more time to think, or he can tell the truth. The first two alternatives are by far the less complicated. Telling the truth would mean admitting that he’s lonely, that life is for the most part the pits, and that he’s had enough of serving long blacks to customers. At this point, Cecilia will probably ask more questions, probe deeper, possibly want him to confide in her and he’ll end up spilling all his little Italian Borlotti beans over the coffee table. She might also extract from him that he’s even contemplated returning to Italy to spend the remainder of his life with what family he has left in Milan.
He looks her in the eye―and decides to spill the Borlotti beans. “God help me if she can’t keep this to herself”, he thinks.
Giovanni retrieves his coffee and sits down next to Cecilia. The spilling takes a good hour, in which time there are miraculously no new customers. In the most articulate English Giovanni can manage, he covers his emigration, marriage, the pain and sorrow of no kids, and the fact that he couldn’t give two hoots whether the council buys him out, whether a petition is presented on Monday night, or if the said freeway falls in the proverbial heap, never to raise its ugly head again.
It’s all said. He’s exhausted. He lifts his head from the coffee dregs to see tears in Cecilia’s eyes.
“I don’t know what to say”, she offers timidly. “Everyone thinks you’re gungho about this and Jack has been talking about asking you to plead your case in the council chamber. “
Giovanni sits, unable to offer any more. Cecilia covers his hand with hers and gives his fingers a slight squeeze.
“Do you want me to talk to Jack?”
Giovanni shakes his head. “No I should do this”. But his courage deserts him as he speaks, and tears find a path to his shirt. Cecilia is immediately on her feet, arms encircling his shoulders, her soft wool scarf caressing his by now very wet cheek.
“It’s OK Giovanni”. She repeats this over and over, a mantra of soothing.
Giovanni is suddenly ashamed and somewhat embarrassed. Why the hell? Whatever made him do what he just did? Men don’t behave like this…well maybe in Italy they cry, but not in Australia. Just not cricket, as they say.
“I am very, very sorry Cecilia”, he apologises. “Please if you would forgive me”. He’s silently hoping she will now leave the shop and they will never have to refer to this scandalous little episode ever again. He feels he’s used up her good nature. Simpatico taken to the extreme.
But Cecilia has other ideas.
“Giovanni, if I stand by you, if I come with you on Monday night, would that help?”
Their eyes meet.
“And”, she continues before he has a chance to say a word, “if we were to occasionally go to a film together or a nice Italian restaurant in Lygon Street, or just a few more coffees away from here…..would that help lift your mood?”
Giovanni can’t believe what he’s hearing. Company? Coffee? A woman in his life again?
“That would be very nice”.
“Good”. “Then let’s get this abundance of coffee tables ready to hit the road”.
For our readers delectation, a short tale from Trevor Hay written during his recent visit to China. As they say in our local bookshop, enjoy!
The Fox-Fairy Sting
Trevor Hay, Beijing, Good Friday, 2017.
(Copyright Trevor Hay 2017)
Many ‘old China hands’ hint of a brush with the hulijing, the’ fox-fairy’, a vixen in human guise, of ravishing and irresistible beauty and insatiable sexual appetite , who is said to haunt the towers and walls of the Imperial City as well as some favoured old courtyard houses of the kind now all but vanished. But the Chinese word that is usually translated as ‘fairy’ is a bit misleading, to say the least. This foxy lady is no Tinker Bell. John Blofeld, writing about his time in Beijing in the 1930s, relates a friend’s story about the strange death of a student, as a result of his addiction to just such a being.
About ten years ago I was living out in the country close to Tsinghua University. One summer, a student living near one of the hotels there died rather suddenly. According to the university authorities this poor guy, P’an, had been suffering from a bad case of T.B., but had successfully concealed it from them until a few days before his death. The men sharing his hotel, while confirming this, hinted pretty broadly that the illness had been aggravated by the guy’s uncontrolled indulgence with a lovely but mysterious prostitute.
Prostitute? Not exactly.The hulijing is more like a mix of genie, succubus, courtesan and vampire – vampire in the sense that she must sup on men’s souls in order to sustain her immortality.
I arrived in Beijing on the eve of the ‘Sweeping Tombs’ Festival, and I can at least say that the legacy of Chinese custom is still highly visible in the mass internal migration of Chinese visiting their hometowns and ancestral villages to pay their respects at the tombs of their forebears. I joined in mourning – in my fancy – for the departed soul of ‘Old Peking’. I took two old China hands with me, John Blofeld and David Kidd, in the form of their ravishing descriptions of the city’s sights, sounds, smells and secrets, from the 1930s to the 1940s, from before full scale Japanese invasion to the establishment of the People’s Republic. I had the idea I might follow their tracks through the turmoil and ugliness of modern Beijing in search of fragments of the past. But, despite tourist precincts, Old Peking is as elusive as a hulijing, with little more than a glimpse of her now and then, disappearing over a wall in her favoured form of exit from the scene of the crime. I saw her old haunts many times, going back and forth into the city from a new eastern suburb near the airport, after we emerged from an apparent blizzard of fluffy white seed cases flying out of the millions of poplars lining the road. I frequently sped past the glittering Lama Temple, or the ancient observatory with its astrolabes and armillary spheres stuck on top of a fragment of the city wall just visible from The Avenue of Eternal Peace and various sections of the dizzying ring roads; or the Old Zoo, with the Garden of Perfect Brightness just behind, its smouldering embers of memory of foreign destruction stoking contemporary fires of patriotism; or the Tibetan-style White Dagoba rising up out of Beihai Park – but there was something else I just could not pin down; something I almost remembered, something I should have been able to see, some fleeting thing that wafted the scent of the hulijing past my nostrils, but when I lifted my head there was only the last tuft of a foxtail disappearing over a wall into one of the few remaining four-courtyard houses.
I resolved to take one more visit to the Palace Museum (usually called ‘The Forbidden City’ but the ‘forbidden’ part is right inside the complex of palaces, reserved for the emperor, retinue, concubines etc.). I would have to be content with intangible remnants of the past, like the half-festive, half-solemn mood that descends on Chinese people during Sweeping Tombs Festival – a bit like Good Friday, which incidentally is today, as I write. One other thing reminded me of the persistence of heritage. I had trouble convincing my hosts at the university that my two signatures on the authorisation for my accommodation were signed by the same person. It seems their minds were back there in the days of seal stone and stamps. I have yet to figure out why they would imagine someone was forging my signature in order to pay for his accommodation at the Friendship Hotel, but there you are. Some bureaucrat, not unlike the ones we have at home in our universities, decided he knew best – that the two signatures appearing on my two signed documents were not the same. Maybe I was the male version of the fox-fairy; they didn’t usually do anything too malicious if you treated them with respect, they could live in your garden for ages and do no great harm, although they were often guilty of utterly pointless pranks, which is the only kind of motivation I could imagine for this signature nonsense.
I purchased my ‘old person’s ticket’ (senior concession) for the Palace Museum with proof of age provided by passport, and entered. Tian’anmen Square and the gate itself just didn’t have much impact this time, but I stood wondering at the Meridian Gate for a while; so massive and mighty, high and wide. How interesting that the first ranked scholar in the national exams was the only one other than the emperor himself allowed to use the central gateway from this structure – at least on his way out of the exam quarters; and he could marry a princess too while he was about it. There is a street I remember near the southwest part of the Imperial City Wall, named after one such scholar, but then re-named ‘New Culture Street’. There is still, in spite of recent Chinese history, including the appalling cruelties of the Cultural Revolution, an abiding attitude to scholars, well maybe not scholars exactly, but to teachers. One’s old teacher is a revered figure in one’s life, up there with parents and ancestors, and now that I am an old teacher in both senses of the word, I am even more privileged than before. This attitude has been evident throughout all my time in China, going back to my stint as an English teacher in 1981, but I remember the undercurrent of memory of what happened to the college principal in 1966, on that very beautiful traditional campus in Nanjing.
I made my way round to the ‘Treasures Gallery’, and into the Hall of Clocks, which includes an elaborately carved Chinese pavilion-style clepsydra, a huge water clock, built in the workshops of the Qing court in 1799. The clock itself consists of a succession of copper bowls arranged like a waterfall, each bowl ushering water via a dragon’s mouth into the bowl below. A little drum-shaped boat floats on the surface and somehow (don’t ask me how) registers a reading of the time on an arrow shaped tablet held in the hands of an official time-keeper. It made me think of the Jade Fountain, the pure mountain spring that once emerged from the Western Hills somewhere beyond the Summer Palace, leading water through the mouth of a gate into the canals, lakes and moats of Beijing – providing much of the ‘power’ of the city according to principles of geomancy or ‘fengshui’. These are the shades of the past that an old romantic must try to invoke if he wants to feel something of Blofeld’s ‘lingering splendour’. However, I felt a sense of cold disappointment in the overall spectacle of the Palace Museum; no hand of the past on my shoulder as I walked, no ring of ancient ritual from the flagstones beneath my feet.
I left the Palace by a side road flanked with blooming peach and cherry trees, walked out into Beihai Road (North Sea Road, after the nearby lake) and stood wondering how I might kill time. I was to meet a student for a Peking Duck dinner at the Minorities Park, but it was only four thirty, and we would not meet until 6:30. I tossed up between finding a coffee shop around here to wait, or getting a taxi and going to the restaurant, maybe walking around the park a little. They have transferred all kinds of minority artefacts and buildings here, including some Mongolian yurts and wooden stilt houses of the southwestern hill tribes – even some Maori-reminiscent totem poles and canoes of the indigenous Taiwanese minority. While I was weighing things up, a young woman approached me with her iPhone. If she had said ‘Where are you from?’ I would have assumed she was a prostitute, and walked away, but she said, smiling disarmingly, ‘Are you lost? Can I help?’ so I told her I needed to get to the Minority Park. She looked it up on her phone and asked ‘Would you like me to call you a cab?’ So clear, so idiomatic. I told her that her English was great, she must have spent some time overseas. She seemed pleased, although not flattered, and said she had never been overseas, but she didn’t tell me how come her English was so good. She was waiting for her parents, they were going to meet in a restaurant in the street. I said I thought I might have a coffee or beer somewhere nearby before getting a taxi and she said she had a while to wait so she could accompany me if I liked. This was a bit unusual, but her manner suggested she was one of those Chinese girls who simply defy one’s notions of the conventional – there are plenty of them. The problem is, although there are prostitutes everywhere (they tend to dress very modestly and wear glasses in order to look respectable) there are many genuinely friendly girls who just want to practise their English or help a tourist, or give a good impression of the motherland, or all of those things. The last thing I want to do is to be rude or unresponsive in that situation. So I decided I would go with her.
She chose a teahouse that looked very much like ‘Old Peking’, a little shop with red lacquered double doors with papered lattice windows, a single story place, with a battered pedicab leaning against a plane tree on the footpath. We were ushered into a very poky room with a dilapidated sofa, no chair. The thin plywood leaves of the door were swiftly, almost furtively, closed behind us. There were movie posters on the wall, including Gregory Peck and Audrey Hepburn in Roman Holiday and Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump. There were a couple of microphones in the corner, and some sort of audio gear, so I decided it must be a down market Karaoke joint. This might be a booth of the phone-box kind you sometimes see in Chinese railway stations. I started to become a little uneasy.
The girl was no more than twenty I decided, and quite beautiful, in a refined, almost severe, rather than pretty or girlish way. She was direct in her manner too, nothing of the coquette about her. She asked if I wanted tea, but I said I would prefer coffee. To my surprise she suggested we have both – I mean that I should have both, while she had only tea. This was a new one on me, but I went along with it. She asked which kind of tea I wanted and I said, because it was the first thing that came into my head, ‘Longjing cha’ (Dragon Well tea). She ordered some other kind of tea (well, I think she did) and some buns and cakes which I didn’t want. Some kind of candied peanuts also appeared. The coffee was horrible so I switched to tea. I wondered if this was the reason for ordering both. I took a mouthful of the Dragon Well tea and decided I didn’t want that either. I don’t think she ever told me her name, and I certainly did not tell her mine, nor did we exchange cards or use our phones to scan QR codes for the WeChat app. I told her I was working in Beijing for a museum group. She didn’t appear unduly interested in this but remarked on my girth and said that a ‘big belly’ was a sign of success if you were over forty, and even a woman should have a big belly after forty, otherwise it looked like her husband did not ‘treat her well enough’.
I was getting apprehensive, so I decided we should just take a photo and I would go on my way to the Minority Park. I called the boss lady in and asked her to take a photo of us, a request that is usually met with glee. Not this time. She said ‘No, you can’t take photos in here. We are Buddhists’. So what? I thought. I had, just last week, spent an evening with a group of devout Buddhists from ‘Shangri-la’, the northwest Yunnan Tibetan minority region, who had no such objection. After the boss closed the door behind her I asked the girl, out of politeness, and in order to expedite our parting, if I could take her picture at least. ‘No’, she said, ‘better not. I am a Buddhist too.’ So I asked why Buddhists of her kind imposed such a prohibition on photos and was told it had something to do with stealing souls. This all seemed like a load of Hollywood anthropology to me, something out of an Indiana Jones movie; maybe they got the idea from one of their vintage film posters. It was hardly something you might expect from a modern, English-speaking, cool young thing like her. What was the point of this superstitious double act? Maybe her Buddhism was not all that serious, just a cultural thing, like eating fish on Good Friday. Maybe the boss had triggered a bit of this with her own reaction and she was simply respecting the code of the establishment. I said something to this effect and she appeared to confirm my impression – she ate meat, drank alcohol and was ‘not a nun’. But then she went on to complicate things:
‘We believe we have three souls (she described them all but I don’t remember this bit), ‘and if you take a photo of a person you steal the weakest one. I am myself quite easy to getting this kind of effect. When I was little I was very sick, vomit all the time for no reason, starving. My parents thought I must have a demon in me, but they listened to an uncle who said they must take me to the hospital. I went twice, but nothing worked. Then my father took me to the temple and prayed and made offerings to the temple god. On the way back I was suddenly better. My father believes I must have come too close to an old woman who was without children and she was bitter and evil-hearted, so she was trying to steal my spirit to be her child. You know there are three fires…’
At this point I was hoping she meant to introduce some shred of credible Buddhist philosophy, to do with renouncing desire, anger, ignorance…no, not a bit of it. She told me she never looked back when she was out walking at night, even if she was frightened by a noise behind, because, if she did, one of her fires would go out – from her shoulders, doused by the act of turning her head, it seems. I had had quite enough of this so I said we should call for the bill, and when the boss came in with it, I offered to pay. Usually this would have led to a tussle, because she would expect to pay for the foreign guest, but I felt that, since it was me who wanted the coffee and needed to kill time in the first place, I should at least offer. To my surprise, she did not even quibble. So I picked up the bill, expecting to pay about 120-150 yuan, for a coffee, two pots of tea and some cakes and peanuts. Wrong: 780 yuan. I was shocked. The other day I had spent the afternoon in the fashionable, foreigner-frequented and accordingly -priced Sanlitun area, and had consumed several small bottles of Heineken beer, a couple of lychee-flavoured sangrias and two excellent coffees, accompanied by endless peanuts, and the whole lot had cost me about 240 yuan. And you could go to even an over-priced Peking Duck restaurant near Beihai and have dinner for four and it would still cost between four and five hundred yuan! My unexpected torrent of anger-fuelled Chinese alarmed the boss, who poked her head back into our closet, wondering if I might have been the wrong target.
The girl, quite unruffled, said this place was expensive because I had ordered Dragon Well tea, and not just a cup, but a pot. I could stay all night and drink pot after pot if I liked, there was only one charge for the tea, no matter how times the pot was refilled. That was why it appeared so expensive, but in fact it was quite economical. I said I would only pay half. She readily agreed and then promptly calculated that she had only ordered the cheaper tea, no coffee (although she had the snacks, not me). So I paid 500 out of 780. I was imagining the consequences if I refused to pay. If a policeman was called in by either party I would certainly be held up, miss the meeting with my student that I had been trying to arrange for two months, and it might well end with me being asked why I had not asked about the prices to begin with. I had not even had the presence of mind to insist on a receipt, and was hardly likely to get an accurate one now – and of course there were no photos taken of the Buddhist proprietor or her accomplice, if their fox tails should happen to disappear over a wall. I was not even sure, given the number of look-alike traditional-style teahouses in the street, that I could find my way back to the right one again without an embarrassing degree of trial and error – even if I managed to persuade a policeman to accompany me to the scene of the crime.
In response to my claim that she was up to the old ‘cheat a foolish melon foreigner’ game, the boss produced a menu showing that a pot of Longjing tea was 300 yuan, the coffee was about 80, the girl’s tea was 200 yuan…I don’t remember what it cost for the cakes. When we left, the girl, who did not seem to be the slightest bit embarrassed, took me down Beihai Road to another teahouse to prove that Dragon Well tea is expensive. We saw from their menu that it was only 150 yuan, but she explained that this was only the lowest grade. Then the demon-prone, fire-retentive, Buddhist non-nun offered to call me a cab via Uber, but I declined, waved one down from the roadside and set off along Beihai Road, fuming at my own stupidity. There were not just three fires but four blazing beacons of my own in this encounter and I had ignored them all. What a jerk!
She offered to go with me to a coffee shop, not just to take me to one
She suggested coffee and tea
She did not want me to take a photo of her
She was not at all embarrassed when I offered to pay