Halloween Masquerade

Gate-crashing the China party – fiction by Isaac Beech

 

Seb Spatt got his first Anti-Social Behaviour Order, the infamous “Asbo”, for spitting over a railing at Alton Towers amusement park, without seeing the middle-aged lady with the perm below. It was also the first Asbo paperwork at Hampshire Constabulary where the name and the crime read the same. The next year, Seb Spatt got booked for indecent dress (long story), shoving a Streets album down his tracksuits in HMV, and buying shots for minors in a pub at 20% mark-up to cover his own poison.

When Seb Spatt got a black eye and gave a busted lip in a fight with a bouncer (long story, other guy’s fault), he didn’t bother turning up to the station for his summons. That was it. The last straw. Nothing else for it now. His only choice was clear.

Seb was going to China.

They didn’t stop him at either airport, he held his breath when he walked under the fever camera, and the passport chump fingered and stamped his tourist visa. When he passed under that metal arch and was through, it was the same feeling as pinching something and getting away with it. It was a rush. Seb’s brother’s mate’s Chinese mate Da Gwo was there waiting for him, although he hadn’t brought a sign and didn’t know what Seb looked like, so it took a bit of shouting to find him.

Smog everywhere. Smog up the expressway, where it flows among tollbooth bottle necks and the honk honk honk; smog down the byroad, where it rolls low past street food steam (did that one say “Stinky Tofu?”) and more deathwish drivers. Smog smothering the neon lined street where Da Gwoh lives, outside the third ring road – only six of them, less than Milton Keynes – and clinging to the balconies of the dirty high rises. As dusk fell early and they turned into the apartment block lot, Seb thought it looked like smoke machine fog in a gig or a horror show, and realised it was Halloween.

Da Gwoh took Seb for a Tsingtao around the corner, and taught him his first Chinese character, the one that looks like a kebab and means kebab. Pictographic language, innit? After a breather in a public toilet (long story, shouldn’t have stopped for that tofu), they smoked some knock-off cigarettes on the curb, cancer in a stick really, when three girls dressed in leather mini skirts walked past.

Sensory overload had been a problem for Seb’s first few hours in China, between the traffic and the air and the noise. But this was different, the jetlag was playing in his favour, and everyone knows if there’s one day you can act like a goon it’s Halloween. So with an “Oi, Da”, a nudge in the ribs and an artful incline of the head, they followed the party-bound, leather-bound girls. Ta ma de, Da Gwor muttered under his breath. What does that mean? It means “fucking hell”. Seb mentally noted it.

The girls went into a plush-looking club down the street, and Seb slipstreamed in behind them past the list (years of practice), with Da in tow. There was a corridor, and the floor shook a little more with each step, with each muffled bass thump from behind the red door at the end. Seb was getting the same tingling he had got at the airport – an invincible feeling, like no-one could touch him.

Jimmy Saville slapped him on the arse just past the door. “Jim’ll fix it! Jim’ll fix you up! Oooo, look at that little slab of rump! Blehblehblehblehbleh.” He boggle-eyed Seb from under his peroxide mop, squeezed and held, and shook his man cleavage like he was getting ready to twerk. Seb tightened up like a clam under attack – “oooo, he’s clenching this one!” – then pivoted away into the party.

Near Jimmy there was a stripper Dumbledore, the leather girls, a guy with every member of KISS painted on his face at once, some fucked up hentai shit, two Snookis eying each other angrily, and some World of Warcraft orcs it turned out Da knew. The music was cheesy but sub-woofed, the lights were flashing, the sweat was dripping off the walls, the drinks were free, the shots were flowing, one and the next and the next and the last one and the one after that.

Seb was in China! This was meant to be an authoritarian state and that. Restricted. Censored. Seb had changed his password on Gmail to a word that wasn’t password before flying here, just in case. But it didn’t feel unfree. The exact opposite. It might be the caramel-and-apple vodka, but it felt like he could do what he wanted here, in ways he couldn’t back home, and no one would call him out on it because no-one knew him. Beijing already felt like a big, dirty party he was crashing.

– I LIKE YOUR COSTUME, MAN. A button-up in thick frame specs was next to him at the bar.

– WHAT?

– WHAT?

– YEAH, THANKS.

– SEAN, CHECK IT OUT. THIS GUY CAME AS A CHAV.

– SICK! Another Oxbridge turned to look at Seb and did the Booyakasha hand snap, without it making any sound. HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN IN CHINA?

– SIX HOURS.

– SICK! WHERE ARE YOU FROM?

– TUNBRIDGE WELLS.

– FUCKING SICK! WHAT DO YOU DO IN CHINA?

– PROBABLY GOING TO TEACH ENGLISH.

Obxridge went quiet, got up close, and gave Seb a green shot, like it was a consolation. “Drink this. I made it. I made it myself. I’m a mixologist. I studied molelucar bio-diagnostics at uni. No, seriously. I studied moleculolar bio-diagnostics. I made this drink. Drink this. I fucking love you man. Whas your name?”

Seb downed the shot.

– Seb.

– WHAT?

– SEB SPATT.

A man with long black hair who was ordering a drink to the other side of Seb turned to face them. He was pale as powder, looked in his mid-thirties, and pulled off not wearing a costume with more natural confidence and magnetism than anyone else dressed up in the room. He looked at Seb askance.

– Wait. Hold on a moment. Hold on just one moment. You’re Seb Spatt? The Seb Spatt?

Seb’s first reaction was that he was in trouble. The thrill of being a newcomer in town came with a certain vulnerability, and this man had a calculating look to him. Plus the way he pronounced Seb’s name sounded funny, like he had a cold. Was he the secret police? Did they know about his Asbos? The whole point of coming to China was a blank slate. But Seb was too far gone to care.

– Yeah that’s me.

– Are you with these guys? Follow me. There’s some people I want you to meet.

Seb ditched Oxbridge and trailed the black-haired man down the side of the dance floor, mouthing “catch you later” to Da Guo and his mates. He followed through a curtain into an alcove, where a three sided purple suede sofa had nestled itself into the club like a sprawling octopus. On the table, a menagerie of bottles peacocked their bright colours and labels, and the people sitting around them were decked out just as glamorously.

– Guess who I just picked up at the bar? Wait for it. This guy … is Seb Spatt.

The man’s American accent twanged, but again he pronounced Seb’s name funny – more “Seg” than “Seb”. All the Very Important People echoed the mistake, along with “No shit!” and “Oh. My. God.” Seb instinctively enjoyed the attention, and would have thought more about why he was getting it, but that last green shot was starting to bubble inside him uncomfortably.

– Holy, like, fuck. I thought you didn’t come out without a mask on or something.

– So, are you going to tell us your name? Is it secret?

– I love your costume. It’s hilarious.

The questions pinged at him, and Seb felt himself swaying back, unable to process. It felt like there was an acrid foam congealing on top of the other fluids in his gut bag. Long-hair cut in.

– Fellas, calm down. We’re not going to ask for his real name. Let’s do introductions one-way for now. This – is Jared, who owns the place as you know. This – is Jun, whose shindig this is tonight as you know. This – is Lucy, who edits Jing! as you know. This – is Beibei, who, well, you know who she is. Camille, Dominik, Faye, Ritch, Megan, Paela, Marillyn, err, Joe. That’s Xiao Wei. I’m Kim, I work with Lucy.

Seb nodded his head in the general direction of the sofa, concentrating on not throwing up. The names washed over him like tequila, but among the parade of masks and wigs, eyeliner and v-necks, one face stood out. Light Chinese skin framed by sheer black hair with a fringe. Lips dripping red, curled at one side. A skeletal eye, bones picked out artfully with face-paint, the other burning at him with what Seb thought was distrust, but also, somehow, a challenge.

Thankfully, Seb’s presence was all required, and conversation began to buzz without him having to offer more than the grunts he was capable of. A thin stemmed, oversized glass of red wine had appeared in his hand. The sight made him queezy, but the ladies eyeing him in his peripheral vision seemed to confuse his need to puke for brooding silence. He looked for the nearest bog, but was inexplicably sitting in the middle of the sofa, legs tight against the table of booze.

– So, how long have you been in Beijing? It seems to suit you here.

A voice at his left ear, like the first hit of a new drug. She was sitting right next to him.

– Lucy, from Jing!. She held out her hand, black nails sharp and neat.

Something was rising inside Seb’s stomach. He wasn’t sure if it was butterflies or vodka. Her accent was softly American, her eyes black and poker. He took the hand by reflex, but wasn’t sure how or why he said what he did.

– Seb. Six years.

– As in Sebastian? Seb. I see.

By some charm of the gods, Lucy’s attention was called away and she turned her scented hair on Seb just as he raised his glass to his lips, felt his throat puff up, and vommed a globule of green goo into the wine. When Lucy turned back, he inclined the glass so she wouldn’t see the floater in it, and with her eyes on him expectantly, sipped at the vomit cocktail.

– Well, Seb, I have to go now. Maybe I’ll see you again. For now, I hope you have a good night. Of course, that rarely seems to be a problem for you.

She smiled at him, and then wasn’t there any more. Seb tried to make sense of the last half hour – but it was too much effort. With the mixology out of him, Seb felt good, like being carried on a wave. Half a day in China, and he was notorious! There had been a definite note of infamy to the way he was introduced. But better to be bad and known than good and no-one.

And he was on the dance floor, and its centre. The DJ gave him a shout out: “Seg Spatt is in the rooooom!” He saw Kim talking to the girls in leather, and they looked in his direction. Sweat stuck to him. People stuck to him. Two jokers came up when he was taking a breather (cigarette) and asked him if he had any E. Seb fished out a couple of small white melatonin pills his mum had given him for the flight, to regulate his sleep cycle. “Good night,” he told them. “YOU HAVE A GOOD NIGHT TOO MAN!” they shouted back, popping the drowse hormones.

A Chinese girl was talking to him – one of those three he had followed here. She was five and a half foot, and three of them were pure flesh. From the top of her boots up her thin legs to the hem of her skirt on her thighs. From her hip line to the cut-off corset clinging to her belly. From her crushed breasts up her collar bone and neck to her wispy features. She was smiling at him, Seb thought, but he was pretty far gone by now and it was hard to tell anything anymore.

***

Light was shining into Seb’s eyes. That would make it morning. The double punch of jetlag and hangover floored him, but it turned out he was already lying down. In Da Guo’s spare bed. An empty corset dangled off one end of it. The girl once inside it was sleeping in a huddled corner of bed and wall. Seb had fitfully dozed the venom out of his liver, but his brain was still woozy from it. Yesterday had been a forty hour day, it felt like midnight but the sun was up, and this was somewhere between Tunbridge Wells and Beijing.

The first thing Seb did was fire his laptop up in bed, and Google “Seg Spatt”. Google was slow, then asked “Did you mean ‘Seggspat’?” Seb clicked yes, and the page went nuts. The hit results had a lot of zeros. The top site itself took up a couple of inches. The image results below were all of Chinese girls. It was referenced in the New York Times, and a bunch of blogs with China in the title. Seb went down the rabbit hole.

The strapline of Seggspat.com was “White outside, inside yellow”, with a transracial kama sutra cartoon floating to one side for those who didn't get it. There were hundreds of posts, and each was a different conquest. Seb clicked on one, and scrolled down past detailed description and scores. The comments count was in the three hundreds. There were a lot of swear words and abuse. With a new queasiness in his belly, Seb began to read – but then the door exploded.

After a minute of violent banging, Da Guo shuffled past the hall in his briefs, shouted shay?, then opened the door.

It was the police. A police woman, to be precise. A middle-aged, terrifying police woman. She pushed in and started shouting at Da Guo. She came into Seb’s room and started shouting at Seb. She pointed at the girl, she pointed at Seb, she pointed at Da Guo, who talked in between her shouts. The girl was hiding under the sheets. While the policewoman pulled her out, Da Guo looked at Seb and said ta de ma.

– I know, Da. Right? Fuckin' hell.

– No, not ta ma deTa de ma. It’s her mother.

Seb gulped with his eyes. His first twenty-four hours in China were not even over. But he had a creeping feeling that his China story, unlike the massage parlour on the corner, would not have a happy ending.

Isaac Beech is the walrus, coo coo cachoo

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