Tabula Rasa

I stirred and half opened my eyes as a smiling violet-uniformed Thai air hostess informed me personally of our arrival. There was nobody left on the plane and I had no recollection of the flight. I stood, stumbled, and blinked, still only semi-conscious and of heavy head. The air stewardesses looked concerned and whistled sound towards me: sir, sir, sir like a motorcyclist lightly revving a bike at a traffic light. But I had to sit, no energy … And then there was a light in my eye, and a Chinese doctor above me flanked by two fit-looking soldiers. There was a duty free bag beside them containing a carton of 555s and a litre of Stoli. The room was clinical and bright, a dentist’s parlour, and the doctor was talking in Chinese. He managed a little English, stuff of alcohol with stern expression but perhaps a modicum of empathy. I nodded and stood from the bed. ‘Yes, I’m ok,’ I lied hoarsely, coughing to clear the mucus build-up in my throat. My legs were almost failing me, my throat now raw and I felt my eyes roll, slow, like snow falling through a paperweight. I motioned for water and one of the soldiers obliged, handing me a small bottle from a small white fridge. I didn’t have the energy to unscrew the top and again the tall, immaculate Chinese military man assisted. God, I was in bad shape, worse than living memory. And here I was, in cold grey China, on the morning of New Year’s Eve at the death of another bewildering, crippling year. I put the bottle to my lips, sipped, then gulped, bowed my head as I sat down again on the green mattress and raised my hands in thoughtless imitation of Munch’s Scream. The doctor sat without words and looked at me sadly as the soldiers stood upright and healthy like twins, like the prototypal genetic specimen of the new bold China. I asked if I could go, pointed to the door, and the doctor nodded. Then the two soldiers marched across and hooked an arm under each of mine and I didn’t attempt to stop them, I let them carry me out the door, and into a wheelchair waiting outside in a long corridor misty with vacancy but for the blinding strip lights on the ceiling. Was I dead? I wondered foolishly as they pushed me along in dreamlike abstraction, around a corner where immigration officials appeared, glanced and then ignored and I was shunted into a room and placed before a middle-aged man sat behind a large mahogany desk. He had a solid mound of black hair above slight eyes and rectangular glasses, green military knit, shuffling papers, raising one eye to size me up before returning to the papers. I noticed my passport amongst them. I sat there nonplussed, wrecked like a stroke victim, and again began dosing off. The man behind the desk asked what had happened in a brisk English public school accent and I stirred, surprised at the voice I was hearing. I breathed so deeply that I yawned before apologising and proceeding to tell him that I took a couple of sleeping pills because I was afraid of flying. At that point he opened his top drawer and pulled out a small packet of familiar looking but much depleted Xanax tablets and asked the only question he could. I agreed that they were what I had taken, and he asked me what they were. I told him, and informed him of the laws both allowing and prohibiting their sale and possession. I informed him of my requirement to take them for anxiety attacks. I claimed to have no idea about the laws in China but figured they would be the same as Thailand, and that I was now aware of the dangers of mixing them with alcohol. The chat was waking me up fast. He asked me why I was in Shanghai and what I planned to do, especially as I had arrived on a one-way ticket. I told him I was fascinated by China and planned to spend a month or so travelling there. I couldn’t be sure at that point how much, if any, of it was true, or if it all was. He asked if I was ok to walk and I was. He opened my passport and stamped the page beside my visa, closed the travel document, placed the packet of Xanax on top of it and slid them both across the desk. ‘Follow these men to the exit and enjoy your stay in China.’ I thanked him honestly and repeatedly but my heart sank at the state I had allowed myself to get in. I  almost wanted him to be a bastard and lock me up so that I’d have something to roar about, a cardboard reason for my despair, but he was pleasant and understanding and I felt a rising river of guilt edge closer towards its banks. The closest people in every aspect of the world were the two soldiers who, God be my witness, saluted me as I hobbled passed them, each holding open one of the double doors  with rigid authority and I grunted and coughed and didn’t quite release my thanks. Another green-clothed man with a beret stood before me with my bags and ushered me out the front of the airport towards the taxi stand where a bulky fellow with white gloves and a shabby blue suit bellowed cold air into the icy breeze, doing a little keep-warm dance with his feet. He threw my bags into the boot of the taxi and when they didn’t fit he made them fit. It was fucking freezing outside Pudong and the air was as stiff as frost but it shook off the residual sedation of God knows how many pills – was I trying to kill myself? My mood was somewhat bolstered by restored freedom, though, and I smiled at the sight of three cute winter-clad girls rolling their suitcases out the terminal. I handed over paper with details of the hotel I booked. The driver’s brief examination and subsequent nodding expression told of a positive match. And twenty minutes later we were lost and he was out waving the paper in the cold, birch-lined avenues which all looked the same to me, the same as the last time I was in Shanghai, the same lost feeling. Dirty-suited peasants swarmed around, each with a different opinion of my hotel’s location. I could have slept but the taxi was freezing and the taxi driver kept talking to me in a language I didn’t understand. Up and down we went, down the wrong side of a one-way, up the right side, back out asking for more directions. I didn’t care at all about the meter ticking over as the driver fumbled his way to the hotel. It was almost amusing. I pulled on a jumper from the bag next to me and warmed up slightly, just enough to close my eyes, again.

My watch said 4.30 when I awoke. It would take me a week to set the time local. I eventually ghosted to the toilet and pissed a heavy flow of rusty orange urine down into the mirrored-white ceramic bowl. My bladder’s relief turned attention to a heavy throbbing in my head and the shaking of my hands. I began to wretch, arching forwards onto my knees on the cold-tiled floor, immediately letting loose with loud canons of acidic fluid and stomach bile, the pain unbearable at first but receding with every convulsion. I spat the last across the toilet seat and stood to the sight of yellow lights and dizziness, holding onto the faux-marble sink unit I dried my tearful eyes with the hair on my forearm. I walked heavily back through to the bedroom and its kind white duvet and crawled beneath it, shivering. By 6.15 (according to my own watch) I was singing and crying, freezing, dancing, and scribbling terrible lyrics in ode to lost love. The vodka was going down neat, as it was the flavoured variety. Already mixed, I reasoned cheerily before throwing back up the first and second shots. But soon after, like it always did, the body began to accept its poison, and more so began to enjoy it. The hotel room was small, clean and modern, and already cluttered with my life, everything I had. But those things I didn’t need either, I thought to myself as the drink took hold, all one needed here was a bottle and a ski jacket, and maybe a gun. Perhaps I could trade everything for those three things. I started shadow boxing for the WBC Middleweight Championship of the World. Left, right, left, big right, it’s over and he’s done it, he’s knocked out Taylor in only his 15th professional fight, and to think he only took up boxing at 27, well that is remarkable. And I was on to my first defence of my title, another easy KO for the IBF version of the belt, Arthur Abraham of Germany, my victim. I fell back breathing heavily and lit a cigarette, turned on the TV and tuned in to the one and only English station in China – the soulless CCTV 5. Apparently over a hundred miners were trapped down a mine somewhere near Siberia. Shamefully, this made me feel better.  

I showered quickly as if I would miss out on something, and changed into two t-shirts and a blue chequered shirt, food-stained jeans and a ragged blue cap. I complemented no real stereotype, I reckoned, as Accidental Babies played with funereal sadness through the speaker phone causing a brief few tears to roll down my cheeks. I needed more vodka before facing the outside world and poured a large glass and looked for a place to hide my wallet, determined not to go out and lose everything on the first night. I settled for the inside of a shoe, immediately lambasting the lack of ingenuity. I got back to the vodka and this time the tears were those of twisted stiffened face and neck, contorted grimace and the razorblade bitteness of evil toxins. Finally the muscles loosened and the ethanol exhalation was almost poignant in its relief. The heavy door slammed shut behind me and I walked the two floors down to reception; two young front desk girls in blue sweatshirts and rosy cheeks gave directions to a brown-silk-haired-poet-type of the central European tweed and scarf variety, his age not more than mine, his face purer, gentler, less hit. My own face was sponged in alcoholic redness, a combined problem of the tropical heat and the obvious, but I reasoned the sub-zero end-of-year wind chill would add a glimmer of health to the contrast. The foyer was dotted with dated computers and young western girls and boys with fast-cold hands typing and keeping everyone updated on their adventures. I thought cynically, unfairly, that they were masked behind the veil of the truth – disguising the boredom of travelling when the sights have been seen and the grandeur of everything promised slips carefully into the file of just another fucking city on the road back home, nothing more than a conversational stack for dinner parties and bragging rites until fast-food kids and the end of the start. I guessed nobody would be writing that.  

A black guy and a white guy played pool beside the bar. Cues and laughter in hand, blonde and brunette on the bar stools: something about – ‘and yeah yeah,’ and a chorus of ‘oh no, no,’ in loud and corny London street speak. Two gents sat behind, framed with holly and reindeers, faces close together, older, forties, greying and refined; exchanging half-sniggers and more drawn out I knoooows, as said at the billiards table. A large TV screen was wall-mounted front and centre and the otherwise dark space was obstructed by benches and tables, yellow circular ashtrays and empty napkin holders. I stood at the bar and surveyed the prices and the options as the not-Chinese, Nepalese? bartender stood on his toes and stretched to place glasses onto the top shelf; Shirley Bassey, for some reason, added to my funeral mood from the speakers in each corner of the room. ‘Yes, Sir?’ ‘A large Tsingtao,’ I ordered for price more than anything, a double vodka was hitting 50 Kuai, which didn’t make for a good currency conversion. The brunette of about 21, straight out of uni, straight into size 14 jeans and a black jumper which barely made it over her waist, hiding D, E, breasts which hung low, looked in my direction for a blink, taking note of my accent, I reckoned, for I wasn’t cute, not today. But give it an hour! I laughed inwardly as my delusionary thoughts  began rearing themselves gleefully with the vodka now comfortable in my bloodstream. I thanked the Nepalese guy for the warm, I had forgotten that about China, beer, and wondered where indeed he played tag. ‘Where are you from?’ ‘Himalayas,’ he replied with pride and polish. ‘Nepal?’ ‘Yes, near Kathmandu. And you?’ ‘Yeah, it’s something I ask myself often,’ and the brunette did her glance dance and she didn’t care for roundabouts especially in pleasantries. ‘Edinburgh, Scotland,’ I said like a good old city-state Yank and he said ‘Oh,’ and the blonde wanted a beer and the brunette did her glance again and the boys were laughing again, at a shot gone wrong. I lit a cigarette and it tasted good while the Tsingtao would have tasted good cold. The revolving doors outside the foyer revolved heat and shiver, relief and shock. I was ill-equipped to deal with the cold and had forgotten the information given to me about pubs and clubs for the midnight hour. The drink had capped my new thinking that the world wasn’t scary at all so I drank up, walked outside and waved down a taxi in the dark.  He swerved across the road to the kerb and I gave him the card I had picked up three years before from the Astor House Hotel. We set off and maxxed out at 30kph. Strangely slow driving. Another interesting idiosyncrasy for China, and paradox for Asia, and you would think it safe, but the shouting and swerving and fanatical horn hitting seemed most unsafe. We passed grocery shop after grocery shop, moon cakes dressed in red, some hair salons with high-quiffed young locals getting loose on their custom, restaurants packed behind windows streaming with condensation, a gazing cold queue outside a pizza joint, all with hands in pockets like the beany-hat vendors selling CDs and DVDs, cigarettes and oranges and hot chestnuts in front of the inviting convenience store light. We looped up onto the almost empty highway and still didn’t increase speed, my attention as much on the click, click of the meter as it was on the biggest urban construction site I had ever witnessed. Shanghai had the big city medal assuredly by the neck, 60-storey apartments stood ubiquitous like huge dominoes waiting to fall. I could see the Jin Mao in the distance and then the pink light of the Shanghai Pearl and we were on the right road at least. We turned off the highway at 45 Kuai, again with a bizarre delayed reaction swerve The grubby turtle-necked taxi driver chain-smoked, coughed and sneezed,  and spoke to me in strange argumentative-sounding tone. A few side streets filled with darkness and but for the light from the back of kitchens, chefs out smoking, more birch trees less striking and more tangled in the dark, and suddenly we were there, much quicker than I anticipated. We came to a halt outside the seven-level Victorian edifice of Astor House Hotel where I had stayed with Vince, what seemed like a lifetime ago. I paid the driver and left the car, breathing in the freezing air as I walked briskly towards the hotel entrance. I laughed to myself in recognition of everything been and gone.  Everything was going to be ok. Hell, I was almost happy.

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