In front of an old brass-door lift, beneath large brightly lit chandeliers and the dulled glow of a hundred accompanying spotlights, stood an Indian-looking man so thin that I mentally observed his long arms as birch tree branches, his hands and fingers as twigs coming from them. Two girls sat behind reception, the black of their hair and blue uniform fabric on their shoulders the only visible signs of life. Separating us was a large Persian carpet of reds and blacks which swam through the wide foyer and up the central staircase. As the revolving door came to a standstill behind me I walked towards the old lift man who immediately raised a genuine wide-eyed welcoming smile. ‘We have the Piano Bar here sir,’ he said pointing to another stairwell beside the lift, ‘or our very good bar on Five sir.’ I loved the ease of his welcome, the ease of the Asian welcome, no spins of suspicion or codes to be cracked, just ‘Bars on One and Five’ and enjoy if you may. I returned his smile with my own sanguine affection and without speaking, spread out my palm to a five-fingered salute. The old man pulled across the clattering brass door and ushered me inside before him. He retracted the door with a learned finesse, a calmness and professionalism which made me feel hopeful somehow, but I can’t explain why. We exchanged a brief chat about his origins and reason for being where he was, but before I could learn more than Punjab, the beauty of the man’s smile, and his lack of access to dentistry, the doors were again being opened by this feather of a human being, his white shirt hanging loose as it would clothing a large crucifix. I handed him ten kuai and clasped my palms together in front of my chest where a handshake would have probably been more appropriate. Soft, haunting female vocals came from the left side of the fifth floor corridor and I walked hurriedly in their direction, thirsty for alcohol after only a short drive.
The room was large and dark with seven or eight circular tables dressed in warm, spilling candles and occupied by glowing-faced European and North American youth in threes, fours and fives, chatting and laughing like you should if you could. A drum kit, amplifier, and microphone stand lay empty in one corner, a small, bright and well-stocked bar facing it. A girl had her head in a magazine on the bar, behind her a large digital clock said 9.35 P.M., and to their left was the city itself, the Bund, the Pearl of Shanghai, shining brightly against the dark night sky. As I walked towards the bar taking in this view through seven-feet-tall window panes, I felt the first of many pangs, a heartbreaking feeling of everything left, lost and gone, the reality of life becoming death, the death of life, I had to be strong for the death of life, to accept it, and just then she lifted her head I couldn’t care less. It was as if she was coming slowly out from underwater, her silk black hair tied in bunches, then her full, dark eyes, gleaming coyly and confidently, above a pouting, playful effrontery for a smile. As our eyes met I knew, having no idea what It was I knew, that I knew, and more so, I knew she knew too. What she knew, though, was a different kind of knowing, and life has taught me well as to its motives. Hers was a slyer, more calculated knowing – the purr of a cobra dressed as a kitten. But of course I wasn’t to know that at the time.
There was another guy at the bar, an early-middle-aged white guy wearing only a black bathrobe and slippers. He had greasy shoulder-length wavy black hair and his face looked both drink barraged and scarred. He motioned for another neat Bacardi as I prolonged our stare unintentionally, the girl breaking off eye contact and happily tendering to his muted request without conversation or payment. ‘Hello, how are you?’ she asked me abruptly, perhaps in the way an old girlfriend who’s long since moved on might ask. Her fists were clenched gently as a seat for her chin and her elbows rested on the bar. She wore a black Lycra top which I tried not to look at. ‘Better,’ I told her, doing my confidence no great turn by answering in an unusual way. ‘Better? Why better?’ she asked as I knew whe would. ‘Better now that I’m here. It’s cold outside,’ I said, mimicking a teeth-chattering shiver. ‘Where are you from?’ She had no haste in doing her job. ‘Hmm, Tequila, I’m from Tequila, in Mexico,’ I mouthed, beginning to ramble nonsense, my nerve not holding up as the alcohol left my blood. ‘You want a Tequila?’ she hit back quickly, as if she thought I hadn’t understood the question amid Norah Jones’s summery voice which reverberated in contrast to the darkened room. ‘And whatever you would like,’ I offered, in a way I thought was a bit too sleazy. She smiled, stood up and thought about it for several seconds, one finger on her lips, deliberately cute, eyeing the bottles of hard liquor. ‘Okay, let’s have a Tequila together!’ she enthused. I smiled at her warmly, fuck she was beautiful.
Jerry came from a poor family really, not rich, but she managed to travel nonetheless. She was quick to tell me she had no boyfriend and was a bit lonely in Shanghai, and I was quick to appear fraudulently indifferent. She was 24, and in Shanghai to study an MA in English Studies. She had no friends really, she’d only been there two weeks. No dates to speak of and no parties to attend for New Year, the staff in the hotel were getting together for a drink later but all the boys were apparently only after one thing. ‘Not all the boys,’ I half lied.
She talked of problems with her family, them not understanding her, her father trying to run her life. I empathised well and suggested a couple of B52s which she poured readily, hiding under the bar to drink, she couldn’t be seen drunk on duty. When she came back up giggling and walked off to clear tables, promising to be back in a second, I stared with a mind of an addict, the fix before my eyes, bent over stretching tight denims, her buttocks round and firm, in perfect proportion. Her eyes gleamed like the first long summer’s evening as the shadows of candles danced against the dim light on the long lemon-coloured side wall, their dancing gentle and playful, drowned in seduction. She came back and rested her elbows on the dark-wood again, fluttering long black lashes and smiling delicately through those pout rose lips. I remember thinking that if I was offered her and her only at that very moment, for the rest of my days, I would have taken the offer without hesitation. ‘Do you want to do something after you finish here?’ A tense moment passed as she rolled her bottom lip and rolled her eyes upwards and then from side to side. ‘Why not?’ Why not, Why not, Why not, Why not! ‘Cool. What time do you finish?’ ‘We close in half an hour.’ ‘At 11?’ ‘Well, it’s 10.30 now and …’ ‘Perfect.’ ‘Where are you taking me?’ I asked her. ‘Where are you taking me?’ she replied cheekily. ‘Here’s a guide with bars and clubs in it. You look at that while I clean up here.’
I sat there painting life and happiness with this girl; cars and children, birthdays and funerals, the changing of hair colour, the glances of time, the headstone and the afterlife, I told myself this was it, I was in love, it was fate. And I remember a dark voice shoot back that I was desperate, deluded, but I expelled it from my mind with a schoolteacher’s dismissal. I sat at one of the tables and drank beer till eleven, just one cigarette, trying to look controlled. She said she had to cash up in the back but I was fine to sit, as the other patrons were politely asked to leave and ‘enjoy happy new year’. I sat like a gent, even in my shitty clothes, until Jerry said zai jian to the male voice that replied something in English from behind the door. She appeared as before but bagged, scarved, and wearing a boot-length black coat. I told her she looked like a polar bear and she laughed and said why and I said she didn’t really. ‘So, where are we going?’ I asked her, handing her the gig map having taken in little of its content. And for a girl who had only been there two weeks she knew the scene. ‘I look at these a lot but I haven’t really been out here,’ she insisted. We decided on Shaman. A one-off night, soul-trance, open until four, free for girls, expensive for me, and not far. The lift guy had finished so we took the spiral staircase and on reaching the bottom she didn’t flinch at the looks of the navy blue suits at the front-of-house whose faces went from aghast to smiles to aghast again as I linked her arm jokingly. The front doorman nodded his apparent approval as we left, a taxi there waiting, Jerry dispensing firm directions, talking of quick routes, or at least that’s what I thought. People shimmied by soberly on the pavement, headed towards People’s Square where fireworks would soon send bouquets of colour over the huge metropolis. We sat in the back and the driver took off like a toddler with stabilisers, before turning left over the bridge across from the Bund and its lush views of lit-up buildings and river reflections, before cutting right and into territory unseen. I looked her in the eye and gently said ‘Happy New Year’. Her eyes smiled across at my own. I leant forward and she thought about it for a second but then broke off, inhaled deeply and told me to take things slowly. I paid the guy his seventy, made mental note of the scam, and helped Jerry to her feet and the outside world. I felt like I had known her for years.
A large queue of loud stargazed Chinese guys stood sultry and impatient outside the club. The nylon banner above the door had lost two corners but was still S-h-a and half an m, so I guessed we were in the right place. Suzi Su, as I decided to call her, Jerry was too masculine, was straight across talking to the Stalingrad-duffled bouncers at the door, and no sooner after she was there, were we inside. ‘Couples don’t have to wait.’ ‘Great, so we’re a couple?’ ‘Hmm, no,’ she said with a seven-year-old’s directness. ‘Good. I was hoping you wouldn’t fall in love with me.’ I won’t.’ And we walked through a large curtain, and fell down a chute a million street and city memories long, the curtain flapped back and Lionel Ritchie came out from the ashes of the techno-squander I’d heard from outside. Hello, no less. And oddly, everyone knew it and started singing and dancing badly and it was ten to twelve and the crowd were drunk and swaying, boys with girls and guys leaping about and the girls gossiped and modern China was born before me as a tall, beanpole teen in a blue basketball shirt high-fived me, smiling the smile his forefathers weren’t allowed to. Suzi Su kissed me lightly on the cheek and pulled me to the bar as Lionel got to – … in your smile, and he couldn’t have been more right. We ordered beers and tequilas and took to a floor of strobe and rampant liberty, Suzi Su soon drink damaged, inhibitions evaporating. It was the song before New Year and God knows what the soul-trance thing was about because Kylie Minogue gushed out Can’t Get You Out of My Head and then the crazed DJ interrupted, shouting backwards in Mandarin and the club roared almighty and I pulled her towards me and we kissed, people nudged and bounced, and I had no right to but I glanced her left breast with my right hand and she didn’t seem to mind, nor did she want to stop kissing. I got some more tequilas in and we kissed and danced more to odd eighties and Mandarin Anthem and she agreed to some kind of home so after a few more shots we negotiated the now black curtains and the cluttered double doors and eventually the cold street of Shanghai, taxi stand in the distance. And then, like it always does sooner or later, whatever the rules or the game, it all went wrong. She doubled over and was sick on the pavement, at first just a little, then flumes of liquid. And they intervened, pulling her away from me, leading her to a waiting taxi. Did they know her? Was she being kidnapped? I lunged aggressively, there were screams; the opening and closing of another taxi door; the pack moving in with snarling eyes; arms and legs; cymbals; fireworks.