The spring mornings are the best. It’s not cold and it’s not hot. When the sun rises it’s nice and warm. When I leave home it is still dark but the air is still. Not like in the winter when it’s cold, sometimes lightly snowing, the wind turning my cheeks bright red. All the other children laugh at my bright red cheeks. They say I look like the little boy in our story book. His rosy red cheeks and red bobble hat. My bobble hat is pink though. I still wear it in the spring, I can take it off when the sun comes up.
The road is clearer in the spring too. There’s no fog, I can see where I am going. Some people are frightened of the dark but not me, I love it. The start of my journey is up the steep hill, my legs still not awake. By the time I reach the top they feel better, there are more hills but it’s that first one I hate. At the top of the hill I skip along the side of the valley. If I fall I will end up in the river, I can’t swim, but I do it every day so I know that I won’t fall. If my mother or grandmother saw me they would never let me go on my own.
I skip along the side near the valley because on the other side is trees. Trees that go back as far as the bottom of the mountains. I know I said I wasn’t scared, but the trees scare me a little bit. Only a tiny bit. I can hear things moving around, the leaves rustling, strange sounds from things I can’t see. Sometimes stones fly out from the trees too. I can only imagine what is throwing them. Maybe it is monsters, but I am wearing the necklace my grandmother gave me. She said if I wear it the monsters won’t be able to get me.
Past the trees, on the other side of the deep valley, my journey’s end comes into view. High in the mountain. Still another two hour walk away. The bridge marking the halfway point. Crossing the bridge I can hear the sound of the water below, the snow having started to melt on the mountain tops. Still too dark to make anything out, I imagine there is a big troll sitting below. He is not a bad troll though, he is a good one. He watches out for me every morning, making sure I get across safely.
Over the bridge is where I start to get scared. I know he’ll be there waiting for me. Sometimes he just sits in the middle of the road, other times he waits in the bushes and rushes out. He knows, he knows what time I arrive, he knows there is no other way for me to go but along his road. I can see his dark shape in the road. As big as me, sitting there plotting what he will take today. Each day I pray that a car or a bus will come along and frighten him away, but it is too early, none will come.
As I get nearer I feel his eyes on me. Looking up and down, looking at my hands, looking at my pink bobble hat. The hat is no good to him. He can’t eat it. I pick up a rock from the floor, he knows what I will do, so he remains in the same place, not even flinching. He senses my fear, he knows I won’t throw the rock, he takes advantage of my inability to hurt anything. Suddenly, he moves, bounding towards me, ready to snatch what he can. My mouth dry, wanting to scream but knowing it is of no use, he will only scream back at me.
And then, a miracle, two lights appear on the road. The whole road illuminated. His size has diminished, he doesn’t look so big anymore. He doesn’t look so scary either, his fur patchy and old looking. He stops, turning back to look at the car coming along the road, the first I have ever seen here at this time of the morning. I laugh, I’ve walked this road on my own for two years. Each morning when I arrive here it’s still dark. The large, dark figure that tried to steal my food, steal my books, scared he would one day steal me is just a small monkey. Now it is him that is scared.
He flees into the bushes and the car passes by, the two lights winding down the road and over the bridge. I carrying on skipping my way up the mountain road. Smiling and laughing to myself at how silly I am. I’m 8 years old and I’m scared of a stupid monkey. I won’t tell my classmates though, I’ll still pretend that there is a monster on the road. Tomorrow I will bring a piece of bread for him. He must just be hungry, stupid monkey.
Inspired by my time living in India where I shared the local children’s hatred of monkeys!
The train rattles by just outside the window. The vibrations going right through my body, the hair on my arms standing on end. What idiot though it would be a good idea to build this place next to the train tracks? Every sound is irritating, even the children playing outside, and they’re not even that noisy. This is supposed to be my hideaway, the place where nobody can annoy me. Today it’s not even that. I’m waiting though, waiting for the postman to bring me my lifeline. Maybe that’s why I am so irritable. Yeah that’s why, just need to calm down a little but, he’ll be here soon.
I haven’t eaten for a day or two either. I sometimes forget I haven’t eaten, it’s become a habit. I want to say I’m destitute but you can’t really say these days can you? People just laugh and say you’ve no money and it’s your own fault. It is in a way, I spent all my money the other day when I went to the pub. Am I not allowed a night out though? I’ve been looking for work for months and months, does that mean I can’t have any fun? It’s no wonder there’s so much bitterness and resentment round here. Everyone’s skint and waiting for someone else to do something that makes them feel better about themselves.
That’s my resentment coming through now. That’s a bad sign. I usually just get on with it all. The last few weeks though I haven’t been coping so well. Isolated myself in my little flat. I don’t want to see anyone anymore. I tell myself it’s because they annoy me, deep down I know it’s because I am embarrassed. I’ve let myself go. I’ve let my beard grow, I’ve not been washing my clothes. At least it gives them something to talk about, hey? When I was doing well for myself they didn’t want to know, now things aren’t so good they’re lining up to have a pop.
Funny thing is, they’ve been doing this their whole lives. Sitting in on a Monday morning waiting for the postman and his little brown envelope. The brown envelope containing all the money you have for the next two weeks. For me it’s only been a year. I should be grateful, but I don’t feel grateful. I hate it, I hate everything about it. Going to the job centre every week to tell the woman that you have been looking for work, that you’re doing everything you can while she looks down her nose at you. I had worked all my life. It’s humiliating. They don’t see that though, to those people in that office your just a scrounger. Someone who can’t be bothered to work.
As if I haven’t lost enough already that I now have to lose my dignity. When I pick up the newspapers and see the front pages complaining about people stealing money from the state. What do these people know? The other people around here, they’re good people too, I know I was angry at them, but that’s just me, I get like that sometimes. None of them would do it if they didn’t have to. They’ve no choice though, they live by that brown envelope that drops on the floor on Monday mornings. If it doesn’t come that’s it, you’ve no money until it’s all sorted out.
I’m ranting now. I never used to do that. I used to be happy. Another train rattling by. They’re endless. I wish for one day they’d just stop the line, no trains, just for one day. The postman should have come by now. As soon as I have my money I’ll go and buy a loaf of bread, a packet of bacon and some milk so I can have a proper cup of tea. See, it’s those simple things you miss when you’ve got nothing. I’ll go and wait outside the door until he comes, he’ll be along in a minute. I’m not so irritable now, the though of tea and sandwiches has brightened my mood.
I see him coming. Coming from around the curve in the estate. The strange design of the buildings giving it a dystopian feel. I learned that word yesterday. I had nothing better to do than read the dictionary. That word stuck out though. These grey and dreary buildings that were supposed to bring people so much joy look otherworldly. They certainly don’t help when you’re feeling like this anyway. The postman walks past me without so much as a smile. No brown envelope, no smile, nothing. My dreams of a cup of tea broken.
I go inside and grab my jacket, yet another train shaking the windows. Looking out the window at the tracks I wonder to myself if that is my way out. Jump on a train and go far, far away. I don’t have any money though. My stomach is now starting to hurt. I reach down to the back of the sofa to see if any money has fallen down. Nothing. Not even a penny. I look at my television and wonder how much I’d get for it. I stop myself, I always said I’d never sell anything I own. I don’t own enough to be giving it away for a lot less than it’s worth.
I slam the door shut, the lady standing outside next door gives me a funny look. I ignore her, walking quickly back down that curve that the ignorant postman came from. I let out a massive breath or air and look up to the sky as I am walking. Begging there to be someone up there that’ll help me. It starts to rain. I’ll take that as a no then. I can feel tears starting to form in my eyes. How has it ever come to this? I quicken my pace not really sure where I am going, walking faster just makes me feel like I have somewhere to go. Small things, hey?
I turn out of the housing estate, slowing down my pace. Walking quickly not having the desired effect, I know I have nowhere to go to. I stop at the bridge looking back along the outside of the houses and flats. Am I the only one? Or does everyone feel like this? A high speed train flying under the bridge breaks my thoughts. Maybe I was right, the train could be my way out. I don’t really have much choice now do I? I can’t keep living here like this? I climb onto the wall of the bridge. I can hear a slower train approaching, waiting until I think it’s close enough. And then I jump.
Feature image by Oxyman (Own work) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/) or CC BY 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons
Another cigarette burns in his hand. Even though he sits down all day, it is tiring. Tiring because not much happens. Only at certain times is he busy, the rest of the time he just sits there smoking and watching the small black and white television. Willing each person that passes to come in to the shop. Even for a few minutes, just to have some company. His favourite time is when the foreigners finish class, he can laugh and joke with them, ask them about their country. They will sit and smoke with him, sometimes have a beer.
Outside the shop is a building site. They are building a new subway. He remembers the times when there were no subways, people rode their bikes, caught the bus if they were lucky. The new pavements and roads covering up the city he remembers from his childhood. The long days giving him time to reminisce. The days that were more difficult but they were more innocent. Money wasn’t the only thing driving people. Now he makes money but has no time to spend it. No time to eat with his friends, closing the shop has become unthinkable.
A small child comes into the shop with her mother. A red scarf wrapped around her neck. Red, the colour that became such a large part of his life. Not just his everybody’s. This child here in front of him buying sweets will skip off happily to school, unaware of how it was just a short time ago. Thinking back to the time when he was young and there was no school, only political education. School was for the bourgeoisie, the reactionaries. A time when school children and students packed their bags and headed to Beijing to join rallies and denounce people. A time that shouldn’t be looked back with fondness but he does.
One of the foreigners from the university walks in. His Chinese is broken but understandable. The shopkeeper says ‘hello’ getting a smile from the tall black haired European. He buys a packet of cigarettes and hurries off, the shopkeeper wondering why they always seem so rushed. It wasn’t so long ago that he had never seen a foreigner before, now he sees them all the time. Maybe when he did have class he should have learned better English. Still, what use would it be to him now?
A young lady comes in, not long after the foreigner has left. She wants to know if there is somewhere nearby that she can fix her phone. He points her across the road, watching as walks off without a thank you. He shakes his head, they should take the phones away from young people. It’s all they seem to do. He laughs to himself as he reaches back behind his counter, grabbing his cigarettes and the phone that he bought last year. At least he knows how to say thank you.
He gets up and stands outside his shop. Passing the time. Waiting for the next person to come in so he can try and strike up a conversation, hoping they will stay just a bit longer. The streets are quiet, the midday sun keep people inside. He sits back down and turns on his small black and white television. Another drama about the war. A single man killing forty Japanese soldiers. Bringing up a new contradiction for him. The small timid Japanese girl that visits the shop each evening, always polite, always asking how he is. The television telling him he’s supposed to hate her, but he can’t bring himself to do it.
Three more foreigners come in. They call him ‘the boss’. These are his favourites. They ask him questions about himself. They offer him cigarettes, standing outside the shop smoking and laughing together. They tell him stories from their own countries, why they’ve come here. He still can’t understand why they would come here. Leaving countries that are developed, have lots of money. They come here to learn Chinese, but they never say why. It’s always the same answer, they’re not sure, they just want some adventure. He can’t understand why anyone would want adventure.
The migrant workers outside are sitting down having finished their work for the day. Drinking rice wine and smoking cigarettes. Far away from their families and home that they only visit once a year. They come into the shop to join him. Some company at last. The workers are symbols of modernity. They build the new subways and new roads, the new shopping centres. They are the same age as him, as they drink and smoke he wonders if they have the same contradictions as him. Do they look back at a time that was more harsh, less free with such nostalgia? Do they struggle to understand this new world too?
When I was at university in China studying Chinese there was a small shop just outside the gates. When I had time I would sit with the owner and talk with him. He would often talk about how much simpler life used to be, even if it was of a worse standard. He took great curiosity in us foreigners too, always asking questions. He inspired me to write this, having lived in China for six years I often wondered how people of a certain generation who lived through poverty and the Cultural Revolution view and cope with the sudden changes they’ve been through. 老板儿 (laoban’r) is Sichuan dialect for ‘boss’ or ‘owner’ which is what most people called him.
The tall trees of the jungle go on as far as I can see. The sounds of exotic birds, the screeches of the monkeys fill the air. Alerting all the other animals of the presence of a young boy. Looking up I can see thin rays of light penetrating the thick canopy. Shadows dancing to and fro, from branch to branch, from tree to tree. I can hear the sound of a river in the distance. The sound of its flow soothing. I walk towards it, stepping slowly through the forest, taking it all in.
Reaching the river I sit down by the banks. Rain suddenly starts to fall, the sounds of water against the leaves getting closer and closer and the downpour washes over the forest. A giant leaf above my head serves as my umbrella. The animals hiding in among the trees. The giant droplets fall on the river, splashing. Some hit a shape in half submerged in the water. A crocodile. Moving towards the bank on the other side where a deer has braved the rain to get a drink of water. A monkey calls out, the deer flees back into the jungle, the crocodile thwarted.
He slinks back into the river, drifting closer to the place where I sit. The monkeys above getting louder and louder. The birds are screeching now too. The crocodile stops, floating in the middle. I can feel his eyes on me. Waiting for me to make a mistake and walk towards the water. Ready to pounce, me replacing the deer that he just missed out on. I stay seated, frightened but unable to move. A movement on the other side catches his attention and he turns away from me lazily, almost disinterested.
Then the rain stops, as suddenly as it had started, releasing me from my sudden paralysis. The rays of light creeping back in. I turn back to continue my journey deeper and deeper into the unknown. The monkeys above following me from above, curious and vigilant. I find a clearing and stop to rest again. There is a silence, the monkeys stop their chatter, staying deathly still in their branches. I catch a glimpse of orange passing close by. The unmistakable shape of a giant cat appears in the clearing. Her beautiful stripes and round eyes, paws big enough to kill me with one swipe. She lies down, taking no notice of me.
My mouth is dry and my hands are shaking. Trying not to move in fear of waking her anger. This what I’ve come here to see. I’ve entered her home and she has appeared. She yawns, baring her teeth, then looks towards me. There is no anger in her eyes, no sense of fear. Her look is calming, my hands stop shaking, a sense of relief passes over me. She gets up again and walks back off the way she came. She knows I mean her no harm, she allows me to be free to wander her forest.
The monkeys start up their chatter again. No longer worried about the tiger, taking interest in me again. Probably wondering why she left me alone. I stand up and walk back towards the river. Standing by the bank, looking for the crocodile. He is nowhere to be seen. I want to tell him that he can’t hurt me, he can’t catch me. I have the protection of the lady of the forest. She has given me her approval to roam freely. I sit down again, in the same place as before and listen to the river flowing, the monkeys are quiet. The peace and quiet, the hypnotic sound of the river sending me into a deep sleep.
As I awake I am back in my classroom. All the other children with their heads still down, down but listening. Listening to our teacher. The teacher we all love so much as he tells his story of jungles and animals and places so far away. Places we can only dream of ever visiting. The stories taking us away from the crowded classroom to our own personal jungles, our imaginations sparked. Each Friday afternoon he tells us a story, the one time of the week where we can find our own personal solitude.
The small lady picks up another plastic bottle from the floor. Another bottle closer to being able to eat tonight. The bag full of plastic she is carrying around is almost as big as her. Alone they are worthless but together they’re a meal. She has spent all day wandering from one end of the city to the other. A path she knows too well, one that starts first thing in the morning and finishes well after the sun goes down. People never stop throwing away their rubbish and she never stops collecting it. To them it is just rubbish, to her it’s a lifeline.
The sun is high in the sky, an unusually cloudless day. The sun burning her already tanned skin. She looks withered and old but has the strength of a young boy. Days of dragging bags around does that. She walks the street slowly, eyeing each person closely to see what they hold in their hand. A man with an empty bottle changes his direction slightly, heading towards the rubbish bin. That tiny deviation alerting her, she backtracks towards the bin, taking it from his hand before he has time to put it inside. His surprise and anger turns to pity as he sees her toothless smile.
She walks among the new buildings, the signs of modernity, the signs of money and prosperity. Money and prosperity that will never be enjoyed by her. The advertising boards selling new houses and new apartment complexes, places she’ll never be able to enter. New foods that she’ll never taste, remaining nameless because she can’t read. Each day is the same, but still she walks. Not giving up on her life, fighting to survive in the new world that has left her behind. The young people who might have helped her in the past look down in disdain.
She crosses a bridge, looking down below at the people waiting for the bus. All on their way to somewhere important. Or maybe even not so important, but on their way somewhere. The young people dressed in their new clothes, suits and summer dresses heading to work. As she looks down at them she wonders about her own children. Where they have gone, what they might be doing now. At each bus stop she passes she looks at every face carefully, studying it in hope of some recognition. That’s what keeps her going, hoping one day she’ll find those that abandoned her and she can forgive them.
Walking gives her time to think. Time to forget, time to appreciate. She has no more spite left, no more hate. Her simple life, laborious and often fruitless, still allows her to hold on to life. Each bottle, each piece of plastic is a goal to reach. Closer and closer to filling her sack. A full sack and a full stomach. Energy revitalised and ready for the next day. Even if it is raining or it is cold, there is no excuse. When you are hungry it’s just what you do. Hoping the next day will bring a surprise. Lots of bottles or even some money that has fallen on the floor.
The day drawing to an end she sits down on a bench, her precious sack next to her. Proud of her days earnings. Her toothless grin still there. She watches the world go by, enjoying the short time where she has no worry, her days work done, the small bowl of rice not far away. She looks at the people passing and wonders if they see her, do they notice her? What do they see? A sad old lady sat on a bench. A man with an empty bottle approaches her and leaves it on her sack, he smiles as he walks away. At least some people notice her.
This was inspired by an old lady that I used to see when I was studying at university in China. She would spend all day walking around collecting bottles and bits of plastic that she could sell. I once saved up all the bottles I had and gave her two bags full and the smile and appreciation was something that has stayed with me. Sometimes she would pick weeds from the lawn to make a soup from. The whole time she would never stop smiling. I had been going through a hard time and seeing her smiling each day inspired me to keep going.
If you’d like to sign up for a free copy of my upcoming book of free short stories (An extract of which is here) just enter your name and email below and you will receive it on 23rd August.
Behind the screen I am anything I want you to think I am. I post pictures of me smiling, pictures of me posing. Pictures of the beautiful dinner I’ve said I just cooked. I post pictures of friends I say miss so much. I post pictures of holidays and distant places I say I am going to. I tell you when I am happy, why I am happy and what is going to make me happy next week. Five pictures a day, waiting anxiously to see if people will like them. Clutching my phone, waiting for the little red number to appear on the screen.
I count my friends, thousands and thousands of them. Most of them are only brief encounters, sometimes not even a hello. Just another number that makes me feel as though I am wanted, needed, popular. I like what they say not because I agree with what they say, most times I don’t even read it. I like it so they notice me. If I don’t like them I can be cruel too. The attention doesn’t just have to be good. Bad attention is better, it’s even more attention.
I tell everyone how sad I am when the latest celebrity dies. A person I don’t know, a person I’ve only just heard of. I have to show my grief for them though, join in with everyone else. Private grief, private recognition of someone’s achievements no longer suffices. I have to let everyone know. It doesn’t matter that I never cared for that person before. All that matters is belonging and being accepted. Or maybe I will say I hated them, perhaps that will make more people listen.
I look through other people’s profiles and see what they have and they haven’t got. See what they have been doing and what they haven’t done. Achievements and stories that I wish they hadn’t, not because I begrudge them, just because I haven’t done it myself. The happy, smiley photos. Annoying me because so many people like them, like their happiness. They like my happiness too, I just want them to like it more. Always craving more recognition.
And when I put down the phone, or turn off the computer, none of these people matter to me. They can’t see what I am doing now. They don’t care what I am doing now. Neither do I care what they are doing. The recognition, the likes, the attention is all for nothing. On there I am only what I want them to see, I am not the person that my family knows. I am not that person that craves attention. I wish I would take off the mask forever, but I will put it back on tomorrow and be the person they don’t know.
I know that Joe is well and truly fucked. There won’t be any leniency. There was resignation in the way he lived his life. He knew his time would be up soon. I feel sorry for him, although he seemed the kind of person that wouldn’t be too welcoming of others pity. I could have been joining him had I not decided to go back to Lily, so she really has saved my life. I’m sure Cherry will be delighted at the outcome, although she won’t have Joe’s money anymore, or the free drugs.
The fact that I was framed by someone for murder hasn’t really sunk in yet. I should be relieved, I am relieved but probably not as much as should be. It took being framed for murder for me to get away from a situation that I hated, one that I said I would leave so often yet never had the courage to do so. Lily doesn’t seem to keen on the idea of running away to Nepal. It’s probably a stupid idea. I’ve gone from one extreme to another. Not having to the courage to leave to wanting to cross borders illegally even though I can now do it legally.
“Tomorrow we go to see the Big Buddha. Then we go to Nanning. You can go to Vietnam, I will go to Guangzhou or Shenzhen and think about what I want to do.”
“I thought you wanted to travel some more?”
“I do, but first I want to think about it. Maybe I am starting to think I have made the wrong decision. I did not like living there in the village, but it was safe and I had security.”
“You’d take security over enjoying your life? You think he cares about you? You’re just some kind of trophy to him Lily. Go, leave, go where ever you like but please don’t go back there.”
“Why do you care so much now? I go back it is easy for me. I want to leave, I want to go travel. But on my own? Where will I go? I have nobody, only myself. When I am old there is nobody to look after me. If I go back then I will have more money.”
“I thought you were different. I honestly thought materialism didn’t bother you. As usual I am wrong when trying to judge a person’s character.”
“You think? I just said I want to leave. But to want to have some safety and be able to look after myself is materialistic? When I grew up I had nothing…”
“So you should know that you can be happy with nothing…”
“I never said I was happy. You don’t know what it is like to have nothing, you will never know. You will always have someone there you can fall back on. I don’t have that. I wish I had the chance like you, but I don’t have that chance. You can go where you want.”
“So can you, you just need to take a risk.”
“And you? You live in Beijing for five years, get fat, drink beer, sleep with women. You can do that at home. Where is the risk in that? You are comfortable too, I don’t think you will even go to Vietnam. I think maybe we have wasted both our time.”
“We’ve only known each other for one week. How is that a waste of time? You are right though, I was comfortable in Beijing. You know what? I used to enjoy it. In Beijing I could be someone I wasn’t at home. I had attention, it was easy. I wasn’t happy though, that’s why I am saying you shouldn’t go back there. You need to be happy in life. You’ll live there unhappy and then look back at this time and regret it all.”
“Maybe you are right, but I can only make this decision. I am confused. You have shown me a new world where I am free. I thank you for that, but maybe this week is enough. Maybe now it is time to live in reality. Now I go to sleep, I don’t want to speak about this anymore.”
I am glad she wants to sleep because I don’t have the energy to argue. I feel as though the relief is finally hitting as I fall into a deep sleep.
Lily wakes me. My head feels clear. Clearer than it has been for a long time. We go downstairs and eat breakfast. She still looks thoughtful. I avoid asking her questions, I understand that what she is trying to decide is not easy. I am still trying to work out what I should do myself. I have money, I could just go back to Beijing and get my passport and then go. Travel freely until my money runs out, directionless but without any worries. At least I would feel more fulfilled than I was.
We get on a bus that takes us to the Buddha. People stare at the me, children tapping their parents and giggling at the foreigner. I wonder if they think I am a little bit fat. It’s different to Beijing. The city is relatively modern but like much here what you see on the outside doesn’t reflect the inside. The tall, modern buildings, shiny new cars and new money hides that some people still have a mindset that is stuck thirty years ago. Perhaps Lily is right. You can’t understand something that you haven’t experienced. The modernity hides the lack of security that people here feel.
We get off the bus and walk into the park. The size of the Buddha shocks me. I had seen it in pictures but wasn’t prepared for how large it really is. We walk around the park and down the side of it and then back up the other side. Masses of people everywhere reminding me of why I want to leave. At the bottom Lily lit some incense and placed it at the Buddha’s feet. She appears to pray. Whatever it is that she’s asking for I hope she gets it.
We leave the park and head back to the hotel. Lily is still quiet. I think there is an inevitability about her going back to the village. My heart tells me I should persuade her not to, while my head tells that it is a decision that she is making in her own best interests. I want to empathise but I can’t.
“Tomorrow I think I will go back to Chengdu. I like it there. I will stay there for some time and think about what I want to do. You can catch a plane or train to Nanning. I am sorry but I will not go with you to Nanning.”
“I understand. I don’t have a passport though, I can’t get on the plane. I will take you to a police station. You tell them you lost it and then they will give you something, maybe you have to get the train though. It’s a long journey.”
“Is there anything I can do for you?”
“No, I just hope you can give me your email. At least we can stay in touch. Oh, maybe you can answer a question. I don’t believe your story. Why you really left Beijing?”
“It’s a really long and ridiculous story. You probably wouldn’t believe me if I told you. I think I will go back there though. There are some things that I need to collect. My passport is in Beijing, it’s not lost.”
“For these few days. Maybe open my mind a little. I think you know I will probably go back. If I go back I will always remember these days. I have not known you for very long but I think you have a big influence on me.”
“It’s okay. You have on me too. One day you can come and visit me somewhere in the world.”
“I will come and visit you in Beijing.”
“I am only going to collect some things, I am not going back to live there.”
“I don’t believe. I think you will stay there.”
Sitting back in the hotel I have a feeling of wanting to be away from her. I had grown fond of her but now I feel myself detaching. Retreating into my normal behaviour when someone I care for is leaving. As she sleeps I take her phone and open my emails. Only one email. It seems that no one is too bothered about my whereabouts or wanted to tell me there was no reason to run anymore. The email is from Happy Giraffe. Apple wants me to come back to work as soon as possible. No sign of her wanting to sack me, she says she’ll give me more pay if I come back.
I watch Lily sleeping. Everything about the whole week has been surreal, even now it is still surreal. It’s like she isn’t a real person, she has just been part of a dream. I want to be emotional but I can’t. I want to be that person in the movies who falls in love with the stranger he met on a great adventure, but the more I think about it the more I want to run. I look at my watch and see it is still only 7.30. There is a bus station close by, I noticed it on our drive here. They must have buses back to Chengdu.
I pick up what little I have. I take a piece of paper from the side table and write a small goodbye note to Lily. I don’t leave my email address. I place the goodbye note on the bedside table as she sleeps. I walk out the door and head downstairs. Back out in the still humid air I walk towards the bus station. A pay rise is starting to sound good. It’ll be different this time. I’ll make more of my life in Beijing, maybe I’ll even start to learn more Chinese. Lose some weight too.
Crossroads. A point in your life where you make a decision. A decision that’ll take you in a different direction from the one you’ve been walking. One that’ll change everything you know. All the comfort you’ve derived from the road you currently walk will be taken away. If you keep on going you’ll always wonder what would’ve happened if you had made that turn. The road ahead is like the one behind you, the shadow of dark clouds, bare and barren. On the road turning off, you can see sun breaking through in the distance. It’s a long walk, the road is broken and rocks block the way, but that sunlight gives a glimmer of hope.
It’s not the only crossroad you’ll come across. You just don’t know when the next one will appear. Everyone wonders why you keep on walking that same road. What your reluctance to turn is. They don’t stop to wonder why they too walk the same road. Their road might be brighter, the clouds may have already parted. But they don’t think that they walk the same road because it’s the easiest to walk. It’s the one you know, you don’t need any sign posts to follow it. You don’t need any guidance. You don’t have to climb over rocks or go on detours.
You know that when you make that turn, everything will change. All that you know and feel won’t be the same again. The straight road, covered in cloud looks shorter and the grey shows no sign of ending. But it’s what you know. You know how it feels to walk under the grey clouds. The broken road may have sunlight at the end of it, but the broken roads, the rocks in the way, are all things that you are not familiar with. They are problems that you don’t know how to solve. Problems you are not sure if you can solve. Is that sunlight in the distance worth the risk?
And there lies the problem of walking the same road. Your familiarity with it has bred self doubt. That self doubt doesn’t want you to make a turn. It wants you to keep going. It doesn’t want you to realise that you can solve those problems, you can go around the broken road. With each step down your new path, with each problem solved, getting nearer and nearer to the sunlight the self doubt slowly fades away. Fades away to walk along that lonely grey road on its own as you walk towards the sunlight with growing confidence, feeling taller and taller.
Problems become adventures and self discovery, things you never knew you could do, places you never dreamed you would see litter your new path. That grey, dreary, lonely road you walked for so long becoming a distant memory. The time you spent walking it waiting for a crossroad to appear. The times you spurned the chance to turn because you were too comfortable in what what you knew. Your only regret now is to wonder why you didn’t make that turn earlier?
Did you hear? Her husband has left her, he’s taken the kids too. I’m not sure why. I know the woman that lives next door to her and she said they are always arguing. Something about money, he’s always saying she doesn’t do enough around the house. That she doesn’t look after the kids properly. I am not sure I believe that though. Whenever I see her she’s seems to a nice lady. She takes the kids to school everyday. I know her husband goes out to the pub a lot too. Likes to have a drink, when he comes back that’s when they argue. I feel sorry for her really.
Did you hear? That woman that lives over the road. Her old man came back from the pub the other night and they had an argument. He walked out with the kids the next morning. She seems a bit lazy. I see her taking the kids to school, but what else does she do? I reckon he’s right to have left with them poor kids. What kind of role model is that, a mother that sits around the house all the time? He’s lived around here for years, I know he likes a drink or two but surely a man can have a drink now and again. I bet she’ll try and take all his money off him.
Did you hear? That girl that lives next door to your sister. Her husband came home from work the other day, he’d been working all day and she started an argument with him. Poor fella. She’s always starting arguments your sister says. I seen those kids coming back from school on their own the other day as well. Lazy woman couldn’t even be bothered to pick her own children up from school. She’s never had a job either. That poor man, all he does is work, he comes back late at night looking tired and she starts an argument. I hope she loses everything.
Did you hear? That woman down the road. You know the one who was men coming in and out all day while her husband is at work? You know the man, works all the time. You never see him in the pub either, really nice. Yeah, well, when he came back from work the other night she hit him. Told him he was lazy and useless too. What right does she have to do that? Those poor kids, I see them out on the streets living like they’re wild. She never takes them to school either. The cheek of the woman, she’s having all these fellas around while he’s at work and then she hits him when he gets back. I hope she loses those kids, horrible woman.
Did you hear? My husband ran off with the kids yesterday morning. I don’t know what to do. Everyone is blaming me. The looks and the remarks when I walk down the street. I just want to cry. For ten years I put up with it. Every night he would come home drunk. Me treading on eggshells, scared in case he’d hit me. Then he finally did. All these years of looking after the kids, trying to do what’s best for them. That’s how he repays me? I have no chance though, he’s lived here all his life. They’ve damned me already. I’ve lost everything I have and not a single person believes me.