chinese whispers - extract
She sits in the lobby watching the Western
women drift by, heady strands of exotic scent lingering in their
wake. They mask their age with dyed blond hair and painted faces,
drape themselves in haute couture and walk with style on heels
that would kill. Skin as pale as ivory, eyes green or blue or
hazel. Startling. Bizarre. They have everything she aspires to.
Money, men, carelessness with a freedom they take for granted.
But it is an aspiration she will never realise. For she will
never see tomorrow.
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She catches a glimpse of her reflection. So much light and glass,
polished steel and shining marble. She is everywhere she looks.
And, by contrast, she is shocked by her plainness. It is only
too apparent to her, even beneath the veil of make-up; the slash
of red on her lips; the eyes she has tried to make seem a little
less slanted; the curl she has attempted to tong into limp black
hair. She feels dowdy, ugly.
She becomes aware, then, of a man leaning against the desk at
reception undressing her with his eyes, anxious to catch hers
so that she knows what is in his mind. He is not ashamed of his
lust and it makes her uncomfortable. She has good legs, long
and slender. Her skirt is short to make the most of them. But
she uncrosses them now, and presses her knees firmly together.
She knows what it is he wants, and she knows it is not her.
A voice speaks her name. Close by. Soft, gentle. She turns, startled
by its intimacy, and he is smiling down at her. He is older than
she imagined, but his hair is full and dark and he is not unattractive.
And there is something reassuring about his being Chinese, too.
She jumps to her feet, drawing full lips back over white teeth
in her brightest smile. He will be no ticket to a better life,
but neither will he make false promises, and he will know the
value of the money he puts in her hand when it is all over. So
simple. The undulating melody of her cellphone bringing his response
to her two-line ad in the Beijing paper. A price agreed, a rendezvous
arranged. She glances over her shoulder as he sweeps her towards
the revolving door, and sees the disappointment in the eyes of
the Westerner at reception. Unfulfilled fantasies. And she feels
the power of denial.
She is shocked by the cold of this late fall night, lulled into
a false sense of warmth by the extravagant heating of the foreigners'
hotel. The municipal government has only just turned on the city's
heating system, a week later than usual to save money. She pulls
her leather jacket more tightly around herself and slips her
arm through his, hoping it will be warmer in his car.
But if he has a car, it is nowhere nearby. They walk east on
Jianguomenwai for a long time, late night traffic dwindling on
the boulevard, the occasional bikers drifting past them like
ghosts in the dark of the cycle lane. All the time he talks to
her, like he has known her for years. About some new restaurant
in Chongwen district, a hat he bought in Wangfujing. He is easy
company, but she wishes they would reach his car soon. The digital
display on the clock on the far corner of Dongdoqiao Road, above
the Beijing Yan Bao Auto BMW franchise, shows a quarter past
midnight. It flashes alternately a temperature reading of minus
two. The lights go out in Sammie's Café, which claims
to be the place in Beijing where East eats West. The last burger
chomping patrons have long gone, probably on the last subway
train at eleven-forty. The gates of the Beijing Subway are drawn
now and padlocked, the ticket hall beyond brooding in silent
darkness. The sidewalk is deserted here, shutters drawn on supermarket
windows, a news-stand battened down for the night. Gold characters
on red hoardings reflect light from distant street lamps. Xiushuimarket.
Silk Street. A gaping black hole leading to a narrow alleyway
where stallholders closed up for the night hours ago.
To her surprise, they turn into the tiny market street, and are
swallowed up immediately by its darkness. She hesitates, but
his grip on her arm only tightens, and her surprise turns to
alarm. She wants to know where they are going. Where is his car?
He has no car, he tells her, and he cannot take her home. Here
they will not be disturbed. She protests. It is too cold. He
promises to keep her warm. And perhaps another hundred yuan...
She is slightly mollified, and reluctantly allows him to lead
her deeper into the alley. Here, in the day, thousands of people
clamour and haggle for bargains, stallholders shouting and spitting
and throwing the dregs of cold green tea across the flagstones.
She has been here many times, but never seen it like this. Cold,
deserted, shuttered up. Above the stalls, on the east side, the
lights of apartment buildings seem to plunge the alley into even
deeper gloom. On the west side, three-storey luxury apartment
blocks lie empty, as yet unsold. She glances back. The lights
of the boulevard seem a long way away. Up ahead, the street lamps
lining the road outside the US Embassy Visa Office seem feeble,
devoured by the night.
Her eyes are adapting now. She can make out signs for silk carpets,
fresh water pearls, "cloisonné", seal carving.
She wishes she were somewhere else, fulfilling the fantasies
of the man at the reception desk, perhaps. In some warm hotel
They are almost at the far end of the alley when he turns her
into an opening, and she feels the freezing cold of metal gates
pressing up against her back. She feels his breath on her neck,
lips grazing her skin, and she tenses for the inevitable. It
never gets any easier. But he steps back and says she should
relax. He takes a pack of Russian cheroots from his coat pocket
and his lighter flares briefly in the dark. She fumbles in her
purse for her cigarettes and he lights one for her. She is still
shivering from the cold, but less scared now. He leans against
the wall, talking about the demolition in the north of the city
and the new apartment blocks they are building there. He blows
smoke into the air and watches it drift past a banner forbidding
smoking. He asks her where she lives, and if she has a day-job.
And she tells him about the antiques stall at Panjiayuan, and
about her mother, and has no inkling of the contempt he has for
her. She thinks his smile reflects his interest. She thinks his
eyes are kind.
She finishes her cigarette and he tosses his cheroot into the
darkness. Embers scatter as it hits the ground. He steps closer,
a hand slipping into the warmth beneath her jacket, his hand
searching for small breasts pushed up into fullness by the Wonderbra
sent by God for Chinese women. Hot breath on her face. She can
smell the bitter smoke of his cheroot. His hand lingers only
briefly at her breast before gliding up to her neck, fingers
softly encircling it as he finds her lips with his and she chokes
back her repugnance. Only, she has no breath. And she cannot
speak. And for a moment she wonders what has happened to her,
before realising that his fingers have turned to steel and are
crushing her windpipe. She struggles to free herself, but he
is far too strong. His face is still close to hers, watching
as she fights for a life that is fading so quickly. His eyes
are wide and full of something she has never seen before. She
cannot believe she will die like this. Not here. Not now. Lights
flash in her eyes, and the fight in her starts to ebb. Too fast.
Too easy. All too easy. Then darkness descends like a warm cloud.
And she is gone. To a place she has never dreamed of.
Her slight frame has become a dead weight in his arms, surprisingly
heavy in lifelessness, as he lowers her to the ground, arranging
her carefully on the paving stones. He glances quickly each way
down the alley, and can hear the guard stamping his feet just
beyond the far end of the market street, where embassyland stretches
off into silent darkness. There is a frisson for him, knowing
that there is someone so close. So oblivious. It somehow emphasises
his superiority. Crouching beside her, he looks at the dead girl
on the ground and runs fingertips lightly over the features of
her face. She is still warm. Blood still oxygenated. There is
a tiny smile on his lips as he draws the knife from beneath his