The alarm rings again, again I put it on snooze. It was a rough night last night, they won’t mind if I’m 15 minutes late. I’m getting too old for this now, I’m not sure how long I can keep it up. The alarm again. I get up out of bed and look out the window. I can barely see the apartment block across the street from me. The smog is the reason I won’t stop smoking, there’s no point, the air is like smoking a pack a day anyway.
I look in the mirror, underneath my eyes are dark black rings. I look like I’ve aged about twenty years in the five years I’ve been here in Beijing. I came here with good intentions, teach for a year or two and carry on travelling, but I’ve got stuck. Not only have I got stuck, I’m becoming one of the bitter, alcoholic expats that I said I’d never become. I hate this city, I hate the people, I’m starting to hate myself.
My job in Happy Giraffe English school involves me holding up flashcards for an hour, repeating words such as ‘apple’ and ‘banana’. If I’ve not drunk myself into a stupor the night before I might even prepare a game. There’s not much happiness at Happy Giraffe. The money is good though, that’s what I keep telling myself, I might hate it but I have saved a decent amount of cash.
I throw on my clothes, making no pretense of being a teacher. Jeans, a t shirt that has I ♥ BJ written on it and an old pair of trainers. I pick up my cigarettes and light one as I’m walking down the stairs to get a bowl of noodles before I start a happy day at Happy Giraffe. The air is thick, it’s hot and it’s humid. Not the weather to have a hangover in. I order a steamed bun and some noodles in broken Chinese. The owner still laughing in amazement that I can speak a little Chinese after five years. A joke that doesn’t get old for him.
I think back to five years ago when I first got here. Everything was amazing. Everywhere you went people would buy you drinks, the expat community was large, you could pick up girls anywhere you wanted to. An average looking guy back home, being told you’re handsome all the time is flattering. For the first two years it was great. After that I grew weary. What you thought was amazing back then now seemed so fake.
I know I’m coming to the end of my time here, but at the moment I’m not quite ready to let go. Another year of Happy Giraffe and I’ll go somewhere nice. Maybe Vietnam or Thailand. Somewhere I can see the sun. Maybe even South America, Asia might not be so good as I’m sick of eating fucking noodles and rice. In fact I might just go home, if I go somewhere else I might end up killing myself.
My hands are shaking as I use the chopsticks to pick up my noodles, I can smell the alcohol sweating out of me too. I wonder why the parents send their little princes and princesses to a school with teachers looking the way I do. I’ve never even had a warning, not even a subtle hint. They don’t do subtle here though. If they wanted me gone they’d make an excuse and I would have to pack my bags.
My phone rings, I pull it out and see it’s one of the other English guys I know, we were out last night together. No idea why he’d be phoning me at this time though.
“That girl you were with last night, did you take her home with you?”
“I don’t think so, I woke up on my own this morning, I’m pretty sure she didn’t come back with me.”
“You better hope you didn’t, mate. She’s fucking dead.”
“Fuck off, mate, it’s too early for this.”
“I’m fucking serious, she’s dead. The Chinese police came to my apartment this morning, they wanted to know who you were. The guy at the bar of that club we were in, I know him, he told the police he saw you with her last night. I’ve told them you’re just an acquaintance. Did you kill her?”
“Of course I haven’t killed her! I told you, I don’t think she came back with me. Even if she did, why would I kill her?”
“I don’t know, I’ve been here for years and met a lot of fucked up people, you know that yourself…”
“Listen, I didn’t kill anyone. I’ll just go and see them, tell them I didn’t go home with her and everything will be fine.”
“Chinese Old Bill don’t work like that, mate. You’re their suspect, they have a 99% conviction rate. If they can’t find anyone else you’re fucked. This is an execution squad job.”
“I’ve just woken up, I’ve got a hangover, and now you’re telling me I’m going to be facing an execution squad. Seriously, you’re over reacting. There must be CCTV somewhere.”
“CCTV will go missing if they can’t find anyone else to pin this to. Look, go to the police station. I don’t think they’ll keep you in straight away, they’ll take your passport though. Unless you want to go on the run?”
“Why would I go on the run? I haven’t done anything!”
“Go to the police station, if they let you out, we’ll see what help we can get you. Hopefully I’ll speak to you later.”
Happy Giraffe has just become a place I really want to be. Everything is running through my mind. Did I take her home? I’m sure I didn’t. I know I didn’t, I remember falling on to the bed and I was on my own. If I haven’t done anything surely they can’t pin anything on me. The embassy will help. Then again what if I go to the police station and they don’t let me out again? If I run then they’ll surely think I’ve done it.
I’m still entertaining the possibility that this might be a joke, a wind up. We’re always winding each other up. I also know that John, the guy who’s just phoned me, doesn’t do jokes. I wouldn’t usually go out with him but he was the only person in the bar last night and we decided to go to a club. I don’t know him well enough for him to try and pull a prank like that.
I ring Apple at Happy Giraffe, I tell her I’m sick and can’t come in, she tells me that I had better come in, they had something to discuss with me. I tell her I’ll be in a little bit later. The police must have been to the school too. Why have they been to the school, my mate’s apartment, yet not mine? Then I remember that I didn’t register my new apartment. If they looked up my passport they’ll have another address.
This is one of them moments when you know you shouldn’t make rash decisions, but the rash decision seems like the easiest. Right now, in my mind, I have the choice of running, or going to a police station. Walking into a police station in a country where they have a 99% conviction rate and where foreigners are not flavour of the month could have bad consequences. Possibly fatal.
I phone a friend. Without telling him the situation I’m in, we arrange to meet in an hour. Somewhere just outside of the city. A tea house that I go to when I need to get away from the city. My friend is a rational person. He’ll give me good advice, probably to go to the police station and sort it all out. That’s what I want to hear. That’s why I have phoned him.
“I know why you’ve called me here, I know what’s happening. You need to run.”
This is what I didn’t want to hear. My most rational friend now seems to be completely irrational.
“I called you because I thought you’d tell me not to run. Talk some sense in to me. Where the fuck am I supposed to run to?”
“I’m not sure. Look, you walk into that police station and you’re not coming back out again. If you do get convicted for it, even if they don’t execute you, you’re going to go to jail for a long time. I know you didn’t do it. I’ve known you for too long to believe you killed someone. They however don’t like murder, they don’t like foreigners and you were the last person seen with her. They’ll create evidence if they have to.”
“This is ridiculous! Even if I do run, I don’t know where to go, how will I even get out of the country. By running I’m admitting I did it!”
“Look, this is one of the most fucked up situations I’ve ever been involved in. I’m still telling you to run. If you run, get out of the country, get to an embassy, explain your situation, they won’t send you back. If you stay and walk into that police station there is a very good chance your life is over.”
The absurdity of my situation is becoming more apparent. Last night I went for a few drinks with a friend and now I’m being told I need to get out of the country because some girl I don’t even know has turned up dead. As far as I can remember I only spoke to her briefly. All three of us left the club together why aren’t they suspecting him? I’m a fugitive. Where will I even run to?
“Head to Vietnam. There has to be an embassy in Hanoi.”
“How would I even get down there? It’s 2,000 km away. I can’t buy train tickets because I didn’t pick up my passport. I can’t go back to the apartment now. Even if I get as far as the border how am I suppose to cross it?”
“Parts of the border aren’t heavily policed. Someone down there will smuggle you across. There’s a Vietnamese girl that works in the massage parlour I go to, she said it costs £1,000. Get as much money out of the bank as you can. They’ll cancel your card at some point. You’ll have to try and get buses through the countryside. Think of it as your own Long March.”
“They’re even more suspicious of foreigners in the countryside. Someone will find out and realise it is me. This is beyond bizarre!”
“Buy a razor, shave your hair off, shave your beard off. Buy some new clothes, pretend you’re a backpacker. I’ve never given anyone advice on how to be a fugitive before because I’ve never fucking been one. Seriously, mate, you’ve got to run. If you get across the border you’ll be safe.”
“And if I get caught I’m dead.”
So now I am on the run. I have to make it 2,000 km to another country by jumping a border. The TV, papers, internet will be full of my picture, and I have to go unrecognised in parts of the country where they’ve probably never even seen a foreigner before. My phone rings, it’s Happy Giraffe again. I throw the phone into a bin. I shake my friend’s hand and walk away.
The outskirts of the city are dusty. There aren’t many people around and I need to find a bank. I ask one of the old ladies selling steamed buns on the side of the road where the bank is. She smiles and points me in the direction of one. Doesn’t look like I’ve been on television yet. I take as much money as I can out. The daily limit is £2,000. I am not going to use the card again.
After taking the money out I walk over to a small shop. I buy a cheap razor, some soap and another packet of cigarettes. I am tempted to get a beer too, but now might not be the best time to sit on the roadside sipping Tsingdao beer. I take the razor and soap to one of the public toilets that are ubiquitous in China. Just about managing to make a lather I make a terrible mess of shaving my hair and beard. Little nicks everywhere, now I look like I’ve been in a fight. I do look different though. That’s one good thing.
I realise that I shouldn’t have thrown my phone away. I don’t have a map. All I know is that I need to head south. It also dawns on me that I never learned to read Chinese. I can speak a little but I can’t read it. There won’t be any English signs in the countryside. I’ve got £2,000 in my pocket, a packet of cigarettes and, after my shave, I look like I’ve developed a deadly disease. I walk towards the bus stop on the start of my own Long March.
Hope you enjoyed, part 2 will be tomorrow. This story will carry on for the next week, so 7 parts in all.