Part 1 is here: https://seanhoganblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/19/long-march-short-story-part-1/
Part 2 is here: https://seanhoganblog.wordpress.com/2016/04/20/long-march-short-story-part-2/
The bus has pulled into a small station. It’s not a city, but the bus isn’t going any further. The driver is pointing at the door, making a ‘walking’ gesture with his fingers. I wanted to at least get to cities or towns that were large enough for me to be able to be unnoticed. There’s no way I won’t escape attention in this place. The people standing around the small station staring at me. There’s no smiles, it doesn’t even look like curiosity either, if anything their stares are full of contempt.
There’s a small shop selling water and cigarettes, the owner joining in with the staring. I walk over to it and buy a bottle of water. He asks me where I am going in a thick accent that I can barely understand. I smile, “ting bu dong”, “I don’t understand”, I tell him. He laughs, turning to the other people while pointing at me, telling them I don’t understand. Having bought my water I am unsure what to do next. I need to look like I’m going somewhere.
There’s a map on the crumbling brick wall of the station. I walk over to it purposefully, my audience having now grown. The map means nothing to me, I am illiterate. I look back at my watchers and smile. Nothing in return. There are no buses in the station either, the one I got off having already left. I am starting to think I am going to have to wait until the next bus turns up and go back to Shijiazhuang. I had been on the bus that got me here for close to seven hours.
I hear a ‘hello’. I ignore it. Thinking it’s just one of the locals trying to be funny. I hear it again. I turn around and there is a girl standing in front of me. She is unusually tall for a Chinese woman. She is smartly dressed. She almost looks as out of place as I do. If you took away my white skin.
“Why are you here? No foreigner has been here before. They called me from the school to come and talk to you. They think you are lost but you don’t speak Chinese, so they can’t ask.”
I look back at the now even larger crowd. I don’t think my welfare is their concern, I’m thinking it’s more likely they think I am a spy. What worries me most is that some local cadre now knows there is a foreigner in his village. How likely is it that he’s going to seek advice from someone his senior? I’m not in the modern China seen on television anymore. I’m in a small village where Mao is still worshiped and foreigners are seen as imperialists looking to bully the People’s Republic.
“I think I took the wrong bus from Shijiazhuang. My student gave me a piece of paper with a village written on it, he said the bus driver would take me there. I had planned to go and see his family.”
Playing the dumb foreigner seems like the best thing to do.
“Do you have the piece of paper?” Suspicion.
“No I think I lost it on the bus.”
“There is no hotel here, I do not know where you can stay.”
“Can’t I pay someone to drive me to the nearest city?”
“Now is too late, too far, they won’t take you.”
“I’ll pay how ever much they want.”
“First I will take you to my friend’s house, he is a leader, he will help.”
The last place I want to be going is a ‘leader’s’ house. She has the look of a schoolteacher, she doesn’t appear to be too compromising either. I follow her as we walk to the outside of the village. There is a large house sat in the middle of a field. We walk up and enter, she tells me take off my shoes. There are people sat down in a spacious living room playing cards. None seem surprised to see me, my arrival obviously known in advance.
There is a portrait of Mao on the wall, a small, fat balding man sees me looking at it. “Very good!” he says while making a thumbs up sign and pointing at the picture. Next to Mao is Stalin and next to Stalin is Karl Marx. One of the men looks up from his card game and says something I can’t make out to the girl who found me. She turns and looks at me, turns back to the man and tells him she thinks I am French, but maybe Russian. I know my countries in Chinese.
“Where are you from? Russia?”, I’m stuck in a room with what looks like the local Communist Part leadership, there are pictures of Mao, Stalin and Marx on the wall, I have no idea where I am geographically and now they think I am Russian. I’ve nearly forgotten that I’ve been accused of murder and I am trying to flee the country.
“Yes, I am Russian, but I went to school in England, that’s why my English is so good.” This could be a good way to lessen suspicion.
One of the card players looks up and starts speaking in what I can only assume is fluent Russian. I know no Russian. I don’t even know how to say ‘hello’. I smile and laugh at him. Looking back at the girl I tell her I’m actually French, I was just joking. She rather unnervingly tells me not to worry, none of them can speak French. She motions for me to sit down. I take a seat, sitting there while they continue their card game.
After half an hour of being ignored they finally finish their game. The man who appears to be in charge tells the girl to tell me to follow him. We walk into an office. Smoky and smelling of rice wine. He sits down on a big chair, clearly aware that he is in charge in this situation. Through the girl he asks me questions.
“Why are you in our village? It’s a long way from any of the cities.”
“I told her, a student wanted me to visit him, he wrote a town name on a piece of paper and somehow I’ve ended up here. It’s a big mistake. I just want to go back to Shijiazhuang, maybe someone can drive me there.”
“Today you stay at my house”
“Thank you for the offer, but I really should be getting back home”
“No problem, today you stay at my house. Tomorrow you can help me.”
“How am I going to help you?”
“No problem, you will help me.”
I ask the girl how am I going to help him, she says she doesn’t know. She says that I shouldn’t refuse him, in her words “maybe he will make big problem for you”. I am exasperated. Exhausted too. I look at him and nod animatedly, “mei wenti, mei wenti”, “No problem, no problem”. He says something to the girl. She tells me she’s going to take me for dinner. The man is going out somewhere, we’ll come back later.
She takes me to what I assume is a restaurant. It’s just a small brick building with a large charcoal barbecue. There are pieces of meat in small green baskets. She tells me to select what I want to eat and put it in the basket. I know better than to ask what each one is. The whole time the lady cooking the meat keeping one eye on me. I hand her the basket and smile a forced smile. She snatches the basket, spits on the floor and carries on with her cooking. We sit down.
“You still haven’t told me your name…”
“My English name is Lily. What is yours?”
“I know you are not French. I told them I thought you were Russian because they don’t like Americans. English and American accent I can not tell the difference. I was trying to help you”
“I’m not American, I am English. Even if I was, surely they can’t be that dangerous?”
“He is a powerful man in this village, outside of the village he is not powerful but here he needs to show he is powerful. Not everyone here is well educated, maybe if you were American there would be no problem but I am not sure. It is better to be safe. I don’t believe your story either.”
This village schoolteacher seems pretty switched on. She doesn’t hold back either, when I look down I can still feel her eyes on me. If she knew I lied the first time, what can I tell her that she will believe.
“I decided to leave the city for a few days, I got lost and ended up here. That’s the truth. Look is there no way you can get me out of here without having to stay at that man’s house?”
“No, not now. If I let you go maybe he will cause me a problem. Anyway I told you, it’s too late, nobody take you to the city.”
Our food arrives. I pick up something that looks like intestines. She smiles for the first time since we met. Perhaps it’s my chopstick skills. I am trying to think of a way to charm her into letting me leave, at the same time I’m wondering what kind of problem this guy might cause her.
“Your friend, why is he so powerful?”
“He is the village leader. I work in the school, I try to help my students as much as possible. This means I need to help him too. If I don’t help him then maybe we receive a little less money, maybe they won’t build the new basketball court. I feel you have been in China for a long time. I am sure you understand.”
“I understand. What am I going to help him with though?”
“I am not supposed to tell you. I think maybe tomorrow he has a meeting, it is a business deal, he wants to take you and pretend you are his foreign adviser. ”
“What kind of business deal? I know nothing about business.”
“No problem. Just sit there, say nothing, it will be okay. They will probably know you aren’t his adviser, just go along with it. You understand?”
“Then he’ll let me leave?”
“I think so”
After finishing our meal we walk back to the house. This time it is empty. She shows me to a room and tells me sleep. She will come back tomorrow. I lie on the bed. I have no way of getting out of this, and now that I am lying here, I feel the situation could be worse. If anything I feel safe. I just need to sit in an office and pretend to be some kind of expert. I drift off into a much needed sleep.
I awake to someone shaking me. I am not sure where I am or who the person shaking me is. After a few seconds I come around and realise that it is Lily shaking me. She stops when she sees I have woken. I look out the window and see it is still dark. I have had little sense of time since leaving Beijing.
“We will leave.”
“It’s still dark, the meeting can’t be now”
“No, I will take you to the city”
“What about the meeting? I thought he’d…”
“Don’t worry, he still hasn’t come back. I will take you, forget about the meeting.”
I get up, still dressed. She takes me outside where there is a car parked. We get and she drives off. I’m still confused. Yesterday leaving was going to put me in some kind of danger, now she seems to be willing to take me away. I want to ask questions but don’t want to ask in case she changes her mind. I’m on the run anyway, it doesn’t matter much to me.
“I told you don’t worry.”
“I’m not worried, I just wish you’d taken me away yesterday. I kind of feel like you are exaggerating how powerful this man is.”
“I told you, here he has power, outside not so much. I want to leave.”
She wants to leave? Now I am starting to worry.
“What do you mean you want to leave? You live here.”
“Yesterday you never asked me any questions”
“I don’t really ask questions, your life has nothing to do with me. I just thought you were a teacher who lives in a small village. You only came and spoke to me because you can speak English.”
“You don’t think it’s unusual that my English is so good but I work in that small school? In that small village?”
“Not really, if I’m honest I was only worried about getting myself out of here”
We have driven some distance from the village. The lights have faded into the background. The road we are on is dark, I can’t make out anything.
“I used to work in Shanghai. I was a teacher. That’s how I knew you were an English native speaker, I’ve met many foreigners before. When I was in Shanghai I did something shameful.”
“I’m grateful for you taking me away, and I understand that you shouldn’t really be doing it but I am not interested in your life story”
“It doesn’t matter, I will tell you anyway. I lost my job in Shanghai. I came to work in a small city near here. That man, he goes to the city often. His wife lives there, but he doesn’t go to see her. He goes to the bars. One night I met him. He told me I could have a job in his village teaching the children English. He said he would pay me more. Also, I would have to live at his house…”
“Okay, I understand, you are his mistress. I thought face is important here?”
“They think I am his wife’s sister. She is not from the village, they wouldn’t know any different.”
“When I first came to this country everyone kept telling me how traditional they were. I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s all a load of shit.”
“Maybe, I don’t care about face. I did a stupid thing. Now I want to leave.”
“Where are you going to go?”
“I don’t know. I know you are running from something, maybe your girlfriend?”
“I am just travelling Lily, I’ll probably head to Vietnam.”
“Why don’t you have any bags?”
“I lost them.”
“You are full of shit too. I have no passport so I cannot go to Vietnam, but let me travel with you a little way. My life is boring, yours is exciting.”
Her English seems to be improving the more she speaks to me.
“My life isn’t exciting, Lily. It is really, really fucked up. You don’t want to travel with me. In fact, I think you should drop me off in one of the nearest cities and then go back to your little village.”
There’s a tear in her eye now. At any other time I would tell her to leave. That would be my advice to anyone in her situation. Right now though, I don’t want anyone with me. I want her to hate me, I want to persuade her that travelling with some guy that she’s just met is not a good idea.
“I know, you think I am crazy. I don’t want a relationship with you”
“I’m glad to hear it. Look, drop me in the city and you can stay there. You don’t have to go back, you just can’t come with me.”
She doesn’t reply. The sky is bright now. I don’t even know which city we are heading to. I am trying to tell myself that Lily’s problems are insignificant. I don’t need to add to my own. Even though I am sitting in it, and have been sitting in it for the last couple of hours, it only just comes to my attention that Lily has a car. She wants to run away from the ‘leader’, I want to get out of the country. If I am with someone it would also be a lot less suspicious.
“Look if you’ll travel with me to the nearest city to the Vietnam border you can come.”