Shanghai Railway Station is seconded only as the busiest place in the world by Beijing Railway Station, maybe Bangladesh. At Spring Festival there are stampedes, eyes clawed out, and deaths. Outside the dark glass facade was a large concrete square strewn with people, peasants, their lives wrapped up in multicoloured nylon tied to bamboo carrying rods, beleaguered simian squats and intent paranoiac stares beneath the ever dull sky. Beyond and among was a plethora of taxis and their drivers, snide-looking touts, duty-bound commuters, and common thieves. The communist rail staff shouted and cursed – authority ruled that bamboo wasn’t allowed past the entrance and people struggled hard to accept or understand. Li Chen had given me her seat number and carriage, her sister was seeing her to the train and I wasn’t allowed to be seen with her yet. I decided I wasn’t allowed to be in state I was in so I dropped half a xanax to deal with the commotion and the hangover.
I purchased my ticket with relative ease in the ‘foreigners only’ line where grubby queue-jumpers were thrown from by the irate officials. I ascended an escalator and quickly found my waiting room. Inside the large hall, rows of blue plastic seats led to different turnstiles for different destinations. Men gagged up choruses of mucus, the large cylindrical metal ashtrays swimming with phlegm and sodden tobacco. The women threw in their own gargles and spits, though with less vigour. Li Chen had voiced her distaste for the practice but then I heard her denial in the toilet earlier in the morning. Spitting was very normal, just something you do. Some guy started spitting, way back with the swords fights and the temple and the pony tails, and someone else did it and off it went, and they built rails for the train. Not unlike the worship of the saviour – word of mouth, literally. I spotted her standing half way down the aisle, and she locked eyes immediately and smiled with excited alarm. Her eyes widened in tandem with her smile and I smiled back, but I was smiling more for me than at her. I felt luck with me again. She was luck. A girl, who must have been her sister, was sitting below her, on the floor, reading what looked like a cartoon book. They both donned the common black, long, black blackness, black hair, black. It seemed to be a middle class symbol almost, or maybe the starving people just had greater concerns. She continued staring and dilated her whole eyes twice more, so I returned the gesture and added a wink. The xanax was kicking in and I was becoming suitably unconcerned about the noise and impatience surrounding me. The lines were filling up as barging and angry shouting began. And for what? I wondered, as I was told there was no standing allowed on the train, and everyone needed a numbered ticket. One point four billion numbered tickets. I sat down and lit a cigarette, coughed up my lungs with an over-the-top throat grumble, spat it out and chuckled as it landed in its very own phlegm disco, realising that I choose not to spit, because spitting is, apparently disgusting. And I guessed the truth was usually somewhere in between.
I wandered across to a dirty little kiosk where they sold what looked like meat sticks in boiling water and vacuum-packed chicken’s claws. I bought both, for lack of any other activity. I wondered how to eat the claw, then thought what a fine birthday or Christmas gift it would make. I was in good spirits as my hangover wilted under the calming pharmaceutical drowse, the shouting travellers now fully muted in my humdrum. I caught myself in a mirror and looked at how far my ambition and recklessness had taken me: I was better than average looking with steely blue eyes, and mousey, messy short hair. My stubble worked well with it but would itch in a day or two. My shoulders sat strong and in proportion with my starved body which had lost its stomach paunch, and the white t-shirt and jeans look got many a bewildered glance from crunchy-faced and tense layered-up hat-and-scarfers – nosey as hell, the Chinese. It wasn’t too cold, though, either that or I had relaxed into a lie, relax into my lie, I mouthed to the mirror as my tooth looked back at me three times its normal size. That would have to be my first mission in Hangzhou.
The turnstile opened and the pushing and shoving recommenced with more vigour. Women and children seemed easier to push out the way and made for easy targets. I saw Amie looking back from within the crush, but she didn’t spot me, right at the back of the line. I calmly pulled my case after the mass of bodies had been squeezed into single formation, handed my ticket to the iron-faced woman behind the turnstile who ripped it and threw it back in my hand. Platform A was right down the steps into the open air. The real station was black-and -white cinema from yesteryear, the huffing of engine smoke and the loading of cases and cargo, high and wide traditional cream-coloured carriages, mementos of the great railways of the real days when railways really meant something and so did leaving. I pulled my case into carriage 12 and the interior pulled me back into modernity. The Chinese knew how to do their trains, I thought, although Amie had told me she was scared to go on them because back in the old days they used to crash all the time and her great grandmother died in a head-on collision. But China had changed, she told me, not like the old days.
Warily leaving my case in the luggage area, I logged the numbers and found my seat. The train was only half full, but still a man sat cradling his child in my seat. I showed him the ticket and immediately the table across stood up and wanted a look also, as did the two men behind me. They discussed the matter high-pitched for much longer than was needed and it was decided that the man wasn’t even in the right carriage. I wondered if he was even on the right train. I sat down, and looked out the window. Nobody smiled, everyone hurried.
14.12, on the dot, we rolled smoothly out of Shanghai Station. Within seconds, I saw her searching, apologising her way through the carriage. She looked better than the night before, and much better than the morning. More sophisticated, I guess. The black duffel was tied tight at the waist and her jeans clung as skin to her lower leg. Her boots were lower, daintier, less sluttish than the ones from the previous evening. Her make-up wasn’t overdone – light foundation and a glimpse of mascara. I watched the loose guys check out her ass, even though it was heavily covered. I hid behind a discarded newspaper and she passed on by, looking from side to side. I rose and went after her and at the end of the carriage put my hand round her face and cupped it over her eyes. ‘Guess who?’ and she purred as she turned and whispered ‘I don’t know, maybe some guy who raped me last night,’ her eyes as seductive as whisky after a plane crash. I didn’t expect her to say that, and I didn’t expect to like it. ‘I think you liked it,’ I murmured as our lips met and she just pouted them into a cheeky girlie smile, her happy radiance telling me everything there was to tell. We moved her things up to my carriage and sat together locked at the arm, enjoying the moment. Half of the carriage had turned their off switch and were immediately snoring, nasal roaring, no longer able to spit, and I didn’t tell her that the Chinese male was the most annoying and disgusting brand I had met. I didn’t feel bad for thinking it either, I was m sure they felt the same about me with my western bullshit so it was a level playing field, I reasoned. The train glided past Shanghai South Station, coasting along with a silence uncanny. Li Chen needed to sleep too because I was a bad boy who kept her up, and I told her if she snored I’d stick a chicken’s claw in her nostril. She got comfortable on my shoulder and I felt trapped and uncomfortable. We got out of the city and suburbs, good riddance and adios, and the sky looked like it was going to break. Farmland followed farmland and then what seemed like a large town in the making, with streets and streets of modern unoccupied houses, cranes and factory buildings, but with no roads, and no people, just an eerie silence. The sky caved in and bolts of lightning bounced off electricity pylons. I wondered how dangerous that was as my eyes blinked, once, twice…
The tap tap tap again. ‘We are here soon,’ she told me as if we had missed the stop. ‘I’m guessing if we’re here we’re here now, I said a little harshly, the sedation from the xanax mixing badly with an abrupt awakening. ‘Not now but soon, maybe twenty minutes.’ ‘That’s not soon,’ I contested, and she pouted again but this time with stern confusion. ‘I always worry that I will miss my stop and I will end up in a strange place.’ ‘You know what?’ I told her, ‘I miss killing mosquitoes,’ for that’s exactly what went through my mind as she spoke, except ‘miss’ was probably the wrong word. ‘You know, the noise of the hand clap and the quick check for a dead mosquito and god knows whose blood, probably your own, and then the torment if there’s nothing on your palm, the old invisible foe?’ I was babbling. ‘What?’ ‘Yeah, forget it.’ ‘We have mosquitoes here soon,’ she said like a little lost girl, half acting, half hoping I’d stay and be her boyfriend so she could be trendy and date a crazy white guy and parade me in front of her giggling friends. ‘Hmm, I know your soon now,’ I mocked as a queue of eager specimens began cluttering the gangway, awake and vociferous. ‘So, are you coming to my apartment? My parents will not be there for three days so you can stay?’ This was music and news, there was no mention of an apartment before, I had somehow assumed I’d be renting a room. ‘Definitely. Your folks on holiday?’ ‘My folks?’ ‘Your parents.’ ‘No, they live now in a city near Hangzhou. My father owns a small company there. ‘So who do you live with?’ ‘Alone,’ came the gold medal answer and ‘with my cat,’ to silver demotion. ‘Do you like cats?’ ‘Yeah, I love them. They make me wheeze and come out in an itchy rash.’ ‘Oh really? So you will have to stay in a hotel then?’ She teased, I think, and god she was a picture there, so I told her straight-faced as the train began to slow – ‘You’re lovely.’ She gave the look of a girl with her dreams in her hands and said with the faintest of blushes and eyes dropping to the ground, ‘You’re lovely too, but you can’t kiss me in Hangzhou, OK?’ I smiled and held the invisible ray of divinity which linked our eyes at that time. My life was again rolling into an unfamiliar train station in the most foreign of countries, following the scent of a beautiful girl. My injuries were healing fast and Amie’s presence was more than complicit to that end. For the first time in what seemed like a long time I felt that things might work out for more than just a day or a night. And of course, I couldn’t have been more wrong.