Zhen – Delays
“All warfare is based on deception.” (Sun Tzu, Chpt 1, 18)
I have been in this bar so many times, it’s like reading the same book again and again. The pages are grubby and hold no surprises. I’m here alone tonight, hoping beer will wash my irritation with Sun.
My head feels like it’s being split with each bass thud, makes it hard to think. DJ’s all sound the same don’t they? Just different posters. Stupid names; DJ Missile, DJ Jam.
Each drink purchase is studied, timed. I switch to cognac from the cheap beer. I work out each glass of cognac costs me four point one hours of my meagre wages. This is not to be taken lightly. But I don’t care anymore. It relaxes me, softens the sound of jackhammers in my head. The bartender pours a small stain of four hours labour into my glass, I wince. Here’s to my family-friendly fiance who has been so busy at work I’ve been stuck at my parents for two long extra days. He thinks his meetings with his boss are more important than moving me into our flat.
I swig another small mouthful of cognac and message my friend Mei to see how she is. But there is no reply.
Some cheap looking girl moves in front of me and eyes a foreigner. She must think I’m competition, but I don’t have the required layers of makeup. I wear jeans, not a short skirt. And I don’t like foreign men, not like that. The foreigner smiles at her, doesn’t see me. His eyes move down her legs to her high heels. We are playthings to them. He is like a child.
The cheap girl, in heels that are more like school made stilts, stumbles onto my toes causing a sharp stab of pain. Worse, I see in a quick machine gun fire of strobe that she’s stained the toes of my favourite shoes. I try to push her away but end up stumbling myself. Too much cognac and out manoeuvred, I fall off my stool and onto my feet, but kick out at her as I do. Mud that always seems to be caked to the bottom of my shoes stains her clothes, makes me smile. My handbag strikes the foreigner in the side. He doesn’t notice though, he is too busy trying to scoop up the heeled painted doll falling at his feet. He looks like a baby happy with a cheap breakable toy. You get what you pay for, right?
I feel more lost than when I arrived. Drink has clouded me. I feel like I’m sinking inside. More music, too loud. I have to get out so I head toward the flood of light spilling from the exit. There are lots of people between me and the coat rack. I’m going through my pockets looking for the tag. Hair is in my eyes, sticky with sweat. People behind wait for me, watching.
A foreigner stumbles ahead of the queue, with a small group around him. I can’t see his face clearly. He has sandy coloured hair that was once styled in some sort of business cut, but it’s now slightly overgrown. I see a flash of dark eyes. His clothes look cheap, but I notice an expensive pair of shoes, one of the brands Mei goes on about. He looks bored, numb. He’s too drunk or too clueless to see a system and pushes ahead of me.
I must have drunk too much, I am never so direct with strangers, “Wait, line up. They are getting my coat.” I feel blood rush to my cheeks as I say this, want to rewind that last moment and keep my mouth shut.
He mutters, “Doesn’t even seem to be a line, don’t know how you can tell.”
I push hair out of my face, fold my arms, “Foreigners often miss the obvious.”
He rocks back on his heels now, steadies himself on the counter. I see him examine my face. The group with him has drifted off toward the door. He doesn’t seem to care, says to me, “I’ve fucked up. I…” He looks down at his shoes, takes one hand out to steady himself against the wall near him. He splutters, “I didn’t mean it quite like that…” The words run together like ink. I wince at the toxic smell of what he has drunk, I can smell it from where I am.
I pull back a little, “I don’t talk with drunks.” I regret starting this, look over his shoulder hoping someone will come back with my coat. I fold my arms and stand there, hoping I can escape quickly. My bravery is evaporating.
He grunts, points his finger at me, trying to end the tense silence between us, “You know… I’ve seen no system in this city so far… crazy drivers, brave cyclists…”
He stops pointing when he realises I won’t respond. People are looking, I just want to go home now. He turns away from me, sighs, runs his hands through his hair, says, “Sorry.” I glance at him, he looks lost. I feel a flicker of pity for him.
I mutter, “You’ll feel better tomorrow.” He doesn’t reply.
Someone comes with my coat and I take it off her, anxious to flee. In my haste I stumble, and he lurches to help me, grabs my arm. I jump away and move toward the door. I feel the air from the outside smother the sound from the club behind me. It shrinks it to monotone.
He follows me outside. I stumble to the head of a taxi queue and try to muscle my way into a taxi to get away from him. I hear him from behind me, “There’s a system, a line…” His interruption has prevented me from being pushed by three women I have offended as I take their place in the taxi queue. He looks happy seeing this revenge and leads me away before they vent their rage at me.
He says, “I’d buy you a drink, to say sorry, but I don’t have any money left.”
He must be lying, “How can a foreigner not have money?” I grunt.
He smiles, looks at my shoes, “Well, not all of us have money to burn.”
I should walk away, but I don’t, I stand on the edge of the street not in a line for a taxi and not walking away. I can’t explain why I don’t want to move or why half of me stops the other half from moving, a stalemate. I say, “Well, you must have something, you couldn’t have swum here from your country.”
I hope he will walk away, but he chuckles. I see a flash of those eyes and I look down at the pavement, and he says, “My company paid for the ticket and set me up, so… no great swimming skills.” He tries to say something else but the wind picks up and we both recoil as the cold hits us.
We shuffle back away from the road toward the door where there is some shelter. I notice, with enough light now from the light in the doorway, that he is unshaven. “You don’t need to buy me a drink, I’m used to foreigners.”
He raises his eyebrows, “Used to arrogance?”
I nod, “Yes.” My cheeks flush and I turn away from him, my arms folded and pressed against my breasts to hold the warmth in.
He says, “Funny, I was just thinking you were arrogant.” I grit my teeth, want to yell at him but I am incapable of even grasping at an English word to respond.
He finds a business card and holds it in one hand in front of me, “Well, I should give this to you. They say that’s the right thing to do here.” I feel my eyebrows arch. Such thick skin; ‘the nerve’, as they say in foreign movies. It says, ‘Golden Dragon Property’ above his name, Lindon. He works for them.
I snatch it quickly, my upbringing forbids me from leaving it in his hands. I pull too hard and he topples forward, almost falls to the street. I leave, turn my back on him, heading for the subway as rain starts to fall. I only get a few metres form him and he yells, “What’s your name?”
I wonder why he cares. I stop and turn around. Rain starts to prick my face with icy water and I breath hard, “Zhen Yi.” The rain gets heavier and I rush away.
I look back as the subway entrance looms up in front of me and see he is following me. I notice, in the rain that’s fanning out on the road, the mud from his shoes is leaving a trail behind him. He looks like a child, a large clumsy child. I being to laugh, a real laugh. I’m more used to giving ‘show faces’ and deceitful body language. That is my life. Smile to the right people, strategic-emotional-display. But this laugh is real. I put his card into a pocket, careful to remember where I put it, and disappear into the subway.
Later on the platform I see him squinting in the glare of fluorescent light. We don’t talk. He has retreated into himself anyway, is far away. I turn to go to my side of the platform and I am happy a train glides in right away. I don’t look at him again, I just turn and disappear into the carriage.
My phone begins screeching. It’s Sun, I see his name on the screen and I’m relieved to hear from him. I want to hear his voice after everything that’s gone on tonight. The night has flushed out the frustration. Was I bitch to him? Should I be a more supportive fiancé? There are ads for bras opposite me, Sun sounds perfect, as usual. His voice deep and calm. He apologises for being out so late again. He has signed a big new contract. Says this one will “change everything” but I’ve heard this before.
I say, “I’m not feeling well baby. I need to be in our own place. My parents are driving me crazy…” I listen to his voice, my toe aches from the club. The foreigner’s smile is everywhere I look in the subway. It’s the only thing I can see and I feel terrible for this small emotional betrayal of Sun. I don’t even know why I would think about that stupid arrogant man.
The train gathers speed as we head away from the station, Sun is saying, “…and you should make sure you keep warm, it’s starting to rain they say, and I hope you were careful with-” but as the train disappears into a tunnel we lose our signal. His voice disappears mid-sentence and my shoulders go slack. I sink back against the door. I look forward to being surrounded by him, smelling his skin. But I won’t see him again tonight, and I will be with my parents.
When I get off at my stop, rain has started to descend in heavy sheets. At home I clear my pockets. All the paper has formed a soft mess of running ink and pulp. There is no number left. I’m relieved about this, almost happy.
Why would I want some arrogant foreign man’s phone number anyway?
Lindon – Foam realities
“Knowledge of the enemy’s dispositions can only be obtained from other men.”
(Sun Zi, Chpt. 13, 6)
I have been hired much like a mascot on a sports team to smile and drink and show my face at ceremonies, not to actually work. I have the foam model in my head, but there is no “nail house” on the model so I have escaped today, slipped out of a press conference between camera flashes and toasting glasses and managed to get a taxi; we are speeding out across endless overpass toward the site, Chinese news blaring over the car’s speakers. I must get a look at this nail house for myself, size it up and give them their marching orders.
I sit in the back, sandwiched with the young guy they have given me to translate, his eyes permanently attached to his mobile phone. I don’t know his name and he doesn’t seem to care too much to know mine. I notice another taxi travels behind us the whole way and stops a block ahead of us as we arrive and I wonder, in a made-for-TV moment, if I am being followed. I watch an old guy get out of the taxi clutching a shopping bag wander off ahead to a small row of shops in the distance but he doesn’t look back.
I leave paranoid thoughts behind and stride across the road through the torn muddy shreds of earth left in machines wakes. Blue construction steel fence has enveloped the site. I duck under a loosely chained driveway in the centre on the front side of the fence next to the company logo and I smile to myself as the translator trips on a rise of mud as he texts and walks- serves him right.
Once inside I stop, trying to take in what I see, startled. There are two deep round pits that all this construction rises out of; behind this, in the distance is a block of apartments that have, on the plans at least, already been removed but they are still partially standing. I see only two cranes installed to service the ten stories of the building that has currently been started in the pit to the left of me; there should be more machinery, more activity. Workers accommodation, at least, has been built at the far end of the site, opposite me- small white sheds are piled on top of each other, some sort of makeshift kitchen next to it billows smoke. Some of the bottom sheds have been made with what I assume are the bricks of the houses already demolished.
As I look around men stop around me – one guy stands in front of me to my left and a couple thrust pages at me that are tattered and torn. I ignore them for the moment taking in the nail house in front of me. I’d pictured a house or two standing amongst machinery but this is so much more than that- there is an island of land left in the middle of the second pit, and a narrow land bridge has been left to connect it to where I stand.
Sitting on top of that is a house, a regular terrace house that’s had other buildings obviously demolished around it, but this one has been spared, left intact and it’s perched up on top of the island like a rotten tooth. An old man shuffles around on the roof, piling up stones and rocks. He has red flags flying from makeshift beams of wood from the corners of the roof and he stops when he sees me and stares in our direction, peers at us like we are somehow the odd ones in this scene. The translator shuffles up beside me breathing heavily from the short walk and doesn’t seem to be at all taken aback, like what is in front of us is an ‘everyday’ occurrence.
Voices now attract my attention. I count over a dozen people wandering toward me. One guy has an ill-fitting security uniform on and a jar of tea in his hand and they all talk at once at me. The guard points back at the gate and I shrug and yell, “I don’t understand…” I wave my company ID at them, hope this scares them off, intimidates in some way. A dog starts barking from within the house in the pit. The translator looks at me for direction but I shrug and move closer to the earth bridge that connects the nail house to the edge. The small crowd that has gathered follows me.
As I stop on the land bridge itself to take a couple of images with my phone, the translator pulls on my sleeve, “We should go back, let others deal with this.”
The people who have followed us start to back up, won’t set foot on the bridge. I pull away from the translator, say, “I just need to let them know a couple of thingd, I’ll be all right.”
He laughs “Mr, the on-site office is over that way…” He points back behind us and I notice the small crowd are looking at each other- some smile and I wonder what these smiles mean.
“I won’t take long.” I start to walk across the land bridge. No one, including the translator, are moving with me; they stand watching like they are looking at an accident, but this suits me, it makes things less complicated. I notice a camera crew have run up behind the crowd but they keep their distance as well.
As I turn my head from them I look up to find the old man but he seems to have disappeared from site. It’s then the first projectile hits me. I am lucky that the first one is just a ball of mud that strikes my leg so it doesn’t hurt too much, but I still stagger a bit with the force and surprise of it. I’m off balance and I lurch toward the side of the land bridge, hands instinctively now over my head waiting for the next blow and I overbalance at the edge. I hear a collective sigh behind me and look down – the drop looks to be about twenty metres and I feel my fingers and toes tingle as I pull my weight back the other way to avoid dropping into the pit. I stumble as I do this and end up on my hands and knees.
Mud covers my legs and looks like it will stain my only suit and I curse under my breath but another projectile hits my head. It’s softer and larger. My legs crumple. Soft mud cascades down my face and brings me safely down to the ground where I curse again. I hear laughter from behind and I turn to hurl abuse at them but as I open my mouth the third projectile hits my back and pain shoots up into my neck.
Another harder object hits the ground in front of me as I try to get up, my eyes foggy with mud. It’s then I hear a loud woman’s voice from in front of me yell “Stop!”
I wipe mud off my face and it drips off the ends of my fingers. I peer through the grime looking for the source of the voice. I can’t see her face under a woollen hat and a hooded jacket.
I can only really see her eyes – they shine somehow out of the cold. She walks from the nail house and the old man trails twenty metres or so behind her, some sort of projectile still in his hand ready for battle.
Anger overwhelms me driven by the pain in my back, “What the fuck was that for?”
She comes closer now, pushes back the hood and she is instantly familiar- the girl from the nightclub. She says, “My father is causing all of us lots of trouble. I’m sorry.”
It takes her a fraction longer to recognize me, but then it’s there in the way her face tightens as I speak, “Your father is mad.”
She frowns, “My father is under a lot of pressure.”
Pain radiates across my back again in a new wave and I wince. “I just came out to chat with him, not get attacked.”
“My father was the one that attacked you, talk to him.” She turns to leave.
“I assume that animal behind you is your father?”
Zhen stops, spins around, “Don’t call my father names, drunk.”
“Drunk?” Mud is trickling into the corners of my mouth, it’s gritty in my teeth. I sneer, happy this has offended her, “You’re just lucky I don’t get the police out here.”
Zhen whistles and I hear the dog bark again. It appears from a hole in the wall at the front of her home and races toward me. I grin despite the pain, pretend the dog doesn’t frighten the piss out of me, “Calling out your attack dogs?” I leer.
Zhen stands opposite me, impassive and the dog, much to my relief, stops beside her. I look back, smiling. The film crew have advanced onto the land bridge and are still filming. I notice a brand on the side of the camera that seems to suggest some sort of local news station so I consider my next words carefully now. I clear my throat, straighten my muddy tie, push muddy hair out of my face and say, “Well I won’t bill you for the dry cleaning I’ll need.”
I hold out my hand to pressure her into a handshake, but the dog darts forward and sinks its teeth into my calf. There is excited chatter from the crowd behind and no one stops to help. I curse, trying to flick the dog away with my hand but only the translator makes an effort and the dog lets go of me to lash out at him. I launch a kick at the dog but my other foot slips in the mud and I end up landing on my backside. The jolt aggravates the pain in my back but scares the dog and I hear clapping from the now excited audience behind.
I keep my voice calm for the cameras, try my best to smile. When I look up at Zhen I notice she is holding her hand over her obviously grinning mouth and I say through gritted teeth, “Just remind your father he only has another forty eight hours to leave. We are behind schedule already and this building won’t stop for him or anyone else.”
Zhen turns and marches away, obviously filled with contempt and hate for me, yet I have sent her a clear strong message; at least I have that satisfaction. I get up slowly, fighting pain and mud. The foam model could not be more false, more unlike this muddy shitty fucking hole.
I get to the road, the crowd stares and smiles at me with my muddy suit and hair and I see a man with a shopping bag watching me from across the street. He smiles at me. He looks like an ordinary person, but he has perfectly straight white shining teeth and he nods his head at me when we make eye contact.