The hard hotel bed and its heavy-togged duvet was an art of convalescence for the next three days of pain and cold sweat. I rose only to go to the toilet and was in and out of sleep continuously for the first forty-eight hours. The tranquilised pain was receding slowly but I was weak and delirious, three shattered ribs and the nerve-ending of a broken incisor kept me from any quality rest. I watched CCTV 5 over and over, mythological tales of great Chinese armies and warrior legends mixed with similar fables regarding current affairs, repeated throughout the day and night. I thought about Suzi. I couldn’t accept she had been kidnapped right in front of me, and conceded her a fraud, another rung on the ladder towards hate and misogyny. I took a mental decision to write it off, forget about it, and look no further for explanation than the likelihood that some kind of boyfriend had seen us together and got jealous, and viscous.
Mid-afternoon on the 4th of January starvation and thirst forced me to the dark, it had no light, natural or otherwise, restaurant downstairs, where I secured bread, margarine, sanitised water, and a train of frightened glances. The blue beavers at the front desk asked me something about my bill and I just said ‘yes, yes’ before returning swiftly to my room. Outside, a heavy-clothed hard-Red-Indian-faced Chinese guy was up a tree with a noisy chainsaw, scything mechanically through branches, killing the great plant’s symmetry. I mentally attempted to picture him holding a guitar instead, the guy singing to its notes, a Christmas carol maybe, as the busy street below smiled slightly as they shuffled past him, like extras in a old film in the first days of colour television. They all seemed to shuffle along in China, I observed before the daydream fragmented back to reality. And there I was again – they, me, the foreign generalisation I could never elucidate or specify. I guess that’s why they call them generalisations, I thought to myself, and it saddened me, like back in Bangkok I was merely a farang, no nationality even, just foreigner. And we do the same, do we do the same? Aren’t we all the same, cut differently only by money and matter and the black death of flags and the bleak future of history? – a human generalisation: first they will have hope and then they will lose hope, then they will pretend they have hope and will manufacture hope through their gods and their children and worse still through love, but really, all they could hope for is to die in their sleep. These wild thoughts made me nauseous. I pulled the curtains shut and rolled slowly beneath the covers, thinking that another night and I could make it on the train to Hangzhou; it was only two hours away and the New Year’s human traffic would have subsided.
Fuck it, I’d had enough of the depressing mattress. I got up slowly, showered gently and ignored my ills as best I could, got dressed in the best clothes I had: white linen Calvin Klein shirt, very slightly blood spattered still from a disagreement with a Ukranian bar owner; my best jeans, and fuck it too, I thought, the sunhat works with the broken tooth. I was aware that my ear was still bloodied and swollen, the right lobe about twice the size of the left, but other than this I was good, ‘fuckin’ fine,’ I told the mirror defiantly – no more sulks from the sulky invalid. The good thing about the beating was that it demolished my two-week-binge hangover, I was too preoccupied to be bothered with the tremins and mental sickness which would have lurked demanding and demonic, had everything been, alright.
The heavy door slammed itself shut behind me and I was soon downstairs and Tsingtao-sufficient on a bar stool again. The beer was going down amazingly well and it wasn’t until I lit a cigarette that I convulsed, to the petty horror of an American couple distracted from their map reading. Like everything, it soon passed, yet the glances of other tourists danced slow and surreptitious over my wounds, this time a couple of over-clothed, friendly-looking Scandinavian girls, both overweight, the bright ski jackets not helping. They stood beside me at the bar. I said ‘hello’ and pleasantries ensued. They had their own conversation going, complaining about the cold seemed to be the gist of it, so I decided not to butt-in too much. I told them I thought they’d be used to the cold but as they replied to the contrary a wave of nostalgia came over me. I remembered Sara, the way she was always turning on heaters in spring and summer and I’d wake up gasping for air because she’d be boiling away next to me under a three-storey duvet. I’d hurry to the window and open it wide, wide to the late-night city streets and their lights, sometimes smoke a cigarette before returning to bed. I used to enjoy those cigarettes, the passing of taxis, distant drunken shouts in the night, and the mornings when I’d laugh as she slammed the window shut and hop-skip-jumped to the shower all sleepy eyed, but alert from the natural air. The bar was dark again and the barman was Chinese this time, waistcoat sloppy, shirt hanging, completely uninterested, sitting on a stool, staring straight ahead. The girls sounded like chickens talking, and they too appeared quite distant, one with a clear, bubbling glass, the other, prettier of the two, sculling beer. The place was vacant but for a drab-dressed doorman, a Chinese Dracula type, and the blue crew and their administratitive tasks. People had had their New Year fun, and were either backpacking to the sun or the snow, or back to work and I was glad that wasn’t my reality, broken bones and all. I asked the barman why there were no lights and he just shrugged so I asked the Scandic ski-club, trying hard to keep my tooth lipped. They jumped one step ahead of me – it was depressing, the whole country was depressing according to them and they couldn’t wait to get to Australia, a country for girls apparently. I had nothing to say but to tell them I’d been beaten up and they gasped as if in disbelief. We talked a little and I bent the truth in my favour, doing my best to sound heroic. They were boring as hell, though, so I finished my beer, said goodbye, and walked out to the breeze, the cold the most of my worries and my worries the least, yet my mood was prone to reverse that at any moment.
The bar across the street was lit up past frosty windows and a Budweiser logo and I figured it couldn’t be worse than the hotel and made my way towards the lights. Behind the wooden door was a hard wooden floor and more illuminated beer ads scattered around the brick walls, ten-or-so small benches, two of them occupied by the ubiquitously black clothed, black haired, loud Chinese alpha male. The waitress was cute and wore a fluffy pink mohair sweater. I thought, against my weak will, about Suzi, and against starting conversation. I ordered an imported German beer for an expensive 50 Kuai and she started conversation anyway, with an honest ‘What happened?’ Amie was 22. She had demure, starlit eyes which glittered enchantingly as she spoke, and waves of dark hair flowing into curls. She was a student of English no less, Shanghai girl, liked to practice English with her customers. I became paranoid. What the fuck is going on here? Is someone playing me in some kind of honey-trap game? I took a large slug of beer, and cursed my cynicism. I told her I come to bars to practice my drinking, which sounded lame but she found it amusing. I asked her ‘Why Amie? For a Chinese girl?’ and she said she made it up herself, her Chinese name was Li Chen, and of course that didn’t answer the question, only added to it but instead of pursuit I listened as she told me her modest story of life. Barely minutes later, I was wondering what she’d look like with her clothes off, picturing myself on top of her, sweet moans in the night. The farm on the hill and the kids and the dog could go fuck themselves though because I’d learned my lesson, and she’d noticed the tooth and so it didn’t matter anyway, I thought, it wouldn’t drink tandem with the tipple of her aspirations. I replied to her questions in one-word answers and inappropriate anecdotes – ‘yeah, no boyfriend, yeah right!’ – both of us aware of my sarcasm and negativity, so when one of the Chinese yobs, who were also the snobs, shouted at her for more beer, I smiled an ok, nice to meet you, bye smile and moved across by the window, twirling my beer on a coaster and wondering why I was doing it, concluding I was still too self-conscious to sit still. God, it was shit in Shanghai, I thought to myself. There was nothing to do but this, and that, this – my expensive beer, and that – whatever it was they were doing. I began thinking hateful, jingoistic thoughts as I drank and observed the unfolding melee at the other tables, their benign little movements in the name of ambition, in the name of joy, and comfort and love and money, pathetic little footsteps in the ashes beyond their graves, to nowhere, I thought, to nothing, all in the name of these phoney lives we lead. I was no longer paying or playing, I decided, for I’d paid and been played enough already: 250 Kuai at the entrance to Shaman, attempted murder upon departure. No, that was enough for this gargantuan council estate, I’d leave tomorrow and never come back. Amie returned with a fresh beer, sat down across from me and asked me what hurt the most. I laughed, I honestly thought at that moment something beyond life was going on. ‘What hurts most?’ she asked again … … ‘Everything hurts.’