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”.

©Leigh Hay

 

 

 

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

现代北京的狐狸精.

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!

  1. She offered to go with me to a coffee shop, not just to take me to one

  2. She suggested coffee and tea

  3. She did not want me to take a photo of her

  4. She was not at all embarrassed when I offered to pay

The clincher came after the bill had arrived.  She did not object to paying her share. No doubt she would not be paying anything. Her job was simply to get me to pay as much as possible in some kind of low-level extortion racket.

Then on the way back to the ring road, I saw, almost straight away, the Drum and Bell Towers; you can see them standing defiantly against the traffic, against the times, maybe 150 metres apart, in the same plane. That was the thing I was trying to remember, for me the most poignant reminder of Old Peking. I suddenly thought of the fox fairies that were said to inhabit the towers around the walls of the Imperial City and my anger subsided as I realised I might have paid just 500 yuan for the best ‘guided tour’ imaginable, into the strange and sometimes sinister heart of the old city. But unlike the hapless, deliriously addicted victims of old, besotted with the lure of some ‘uncontrolled indulgence’, I will not be going back for more. I can see my fox-fairy still, those eyes as cold and hypnotic as moonlight, searching for her next victim, lest her fires go out.