Short fiction by Michael Salmon


Another meal together. They couldn’t simply spend the evenings ignoring each other. Gary still wanted to complain a little.

“Why don’t we find a new place, outside the complex? I’m starting to feel like I’m living in a fortress. Let’s go somewhere out on the streets, you know?”

“Fine,” his cousin replied. “I know a good place.”

They walked to the back of Charlie’s apartment block, around the high metal fence you couldn’t see through. The buildings dropped in height and grew darker, and the streetlights changed colour, orange instead of white. Charlie suggested they take the bus a couple of stops, but Gary just wanted to be outside and see the Beijing back alleys, roads he had never been down in the two weeks he had already spent as his cousin’s lodger.

An arrangement made under duress, it seemed. Charlie had lived in Beijing for six or seven years, as far as Gary knew, teaching and translating, keeping to himself. But it wasn’t as if Gary couldn’t fend for himself; he had been round various parts of the country on holidays before, even lived in Shanghai for a few months. Not enough to impress his reluctant host, however, who looked down on his scarce Chinese and, well, his enthusiasm, was it?

They walked by houses with tumbling slate roofs and drawn blinds, an occasional newsagent, tobacconist or sex shop dotted between. The primary schools and health centres were already locked for the night. Night watchmen sat alone in illuminated booths, reading newspapers or else staring out into the street, gauging the night for trouble. None seemed likely to come; the streets were quiet save for the buzzing of scooters in the distance, always a few roads farther on.

The area was neither poor nor rich, Gary thought. He kept recording details, the rare signs of movement and life, as they passed, while Charlie walked a stride or two ahead, quiet and straight.

After fifteen minutes walking they emerged on a main road. Here, suddenly, people conglomerated and burst across roads without traffic lights; taxis dropped off and picked up; the pavement had small arenas for sport, exercise, and outdoor seating. The air smelled fresh and damp, as if water was nearby, some low canal going green with weeds and algae.

Most importantly of all, hundreds of places to eat – by far the majority of the shops were restaurants or window stalls for takeaway. Gary and Charlie turned left and brushed by the entrances, waiters running inside and out, and they could see food on tables, bright dishes, rice bowls, tea pots in the more expensive places, metal cylinders full of wooden chopsticks in the cheap ones, yellow-walled, crowded, paper table coverings, dirt on the floor, meat on racks, cigarettes steaming, kitchens open, the walls adorned with calligraphy and pictures of farm animals and menus all in Chinese characters and photos of the food. Each restaurant seemed in the middle of a celebration.

Gary asked his cousin why he hadn’t brought him here before. He didn’t get a clear answer.

“You see that place with the jiaozi sign?” Charlie shouted over the noise. “That’s where we should go.”

“What sign, where?”

“The red one, that one.”

Inside, the restaurant was cloudy with condensation – wet ceiling and walls, trickling down and being mopped up by paper towels all along the window sill. Every dish was served too hot to touch and still soaked with steamer water, bursting out with mist every time one of the couples or family groups who surrounded them picked up a dumpling and bit into it, panting from the temperature and then laughing together. Gary smiled at this too, looking at the wall displays of immaculately photographed dumplings, trying to spin his chopsticks on his fingers, holding up and sniffing the vinegar bottles.

Charlie looked uncertain, awkward in this new, different environment. When the waiter approached, he spoke with the fewest words possible. This is what I want. 

Gary insisted they try a whole bunch of different kinds even though Charlie thought three jin would be way too much food. It would be a bad idea. 

If I could speak Chinese like that, I’d do it all the time, Gary thought. Ask people how they are, how’s life, how’s business. What was the point of this reluctance to fit in, this refusal to enjoy being in China?

“Hey, see what I’ve got,” Gary said as they waited. He withdrew a tiny plastic container from his jacket pockets – a Chinese chessboard. It was a travel set, with a creased plastic sheet which had the grid lightly printed on top.

“Cool, huh? I bought it last weekend, it was only three kuai. Playing back in the apartment is fine, but really we should be playing outside, like the Chinese do.” Charlie looked doubtful. “Come on, you don’t want a rematch before the food arrives? I’ll give you a decent game this time.”

“Um, that’s ok.”

“Why not?”

His cousin shifted in his seat on the other side of the table. “It just seems like – drawing attention – there might not be time.”

“What’s the worst that could happen?” Gary asked, annoyed suddenly.

“… people will see it as some kind of statement, I don’t know, I don’t mean to be a –”

“So, someone might come over and speak to us, is that what you’re afraid of? Mate, we live here.”

“Speak to us?” Both their tones had quickly changed. “They’re not going to speak to you, are they? It’ll be me that has to speak.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, fine.” Gary went to put the set away, and then stopped and left it on the side of table, unopened but visible through its clouded plastic case. The food arrived, and the waiter put the three bowls piled with dumplings down in the middle, the potential playing-area gone.

Gary laughed without humour. “You’re right, we ordered too much.”

They didn’t speak as they ate. Gary worked through the jiaozi without looking up, too fast, wanting to finish them all, to get the meal over with and to prove he hadn’t been wrong. His insides were heavy, and steam came from every mouthful.

When he looked up at Charlie, he saw blood trickling out of his cousin’s nose, on his septum, trickling off to one side of his lips. He was still chewing, not realising what had happened. Gary pointed, and at that moment Charlie must have felt it – the awareness made it suddenly stream. Fat red drops splattered the table.

“Shit.” Charlie grabbed a napkin and held it to his nose, and it immediately turned red. “It’s the heat, it’s too hot.” Heads turned towards them. One of the serving staff ran over, and Charlie spoke fast. His accent sounded snarling, more like the true Beijing rasp. Gary still hadn’t moved or said anything. “Pay the bill,” his cousin said. “The toilet’s outside somewhere.”

Charlie’s chair clattered over as he raced for the door outside. Gary realised he still had food in his mouth, unable to swallow. And then he relaxed and asked for mai dan, and the man nodded and strode off. Blood had spread across the paper tablecloth.

The waiter came back and said something. Gary sat mute. The man gestured to ask if Gary wanted the leftovers packed up to take away. They still had a plate and a half untouched. He felt too bloated to even think about it. “Bu yao, chi bao le,” he said, pleased to remember the expression. I’m full. The man picked up the plates and gave him a look: what does being full have anything to do with it? But Gary didn’t want to eat these things again anytime soon. He left the money neatly on the table. Then his mobile rang. It was Charlie. “Bring some napkins,” he said. “There’s no paper here. It’s on the right.”

Gary pulled a dozen from the dispenser on the table, pocketed them, and left. He couldn’t see Charlie anywhere. He turned right up a narrow alley, but there was no toilet, no sign for a toilet. More boarded-up windows and doors with peeling paint, single front steps that took up half the width of the passage. The buildings were either half-made or half-collapsed, missing bricks from walls and dead quiet with people sleeping inside, air ebbing in and out. No lights until the furthest point. He headed towards its glow, stepping around food bones and smashed up fruit. The floor felt hot.

At the end was a green curtained doorway, the same material for restaurant entrances and old men’s coats, the quilted, plasticky tank-green that came out in the winter.

“Charlie?” he called.

“In here,” came the voice.

Behind the fabric was his cousin, head inclined to keep it from touching the filthy ceiling. He was letting his nose run into the public toilet’s hole, which looked like a swimming pool foot-wash, a step down into liquid, except for the brown shit and vegetable scraps, and a vertical streak of black blood on the surface.

“Take them,” Gary said, thrusting the napkins into Charlie’s damp hand. An electric light buzzed above them that seemed too bright, or maybe it was only that Gary had just stepped in from the night. There was barely room for both of them to stand on the surface above the pit, squashed together at one end of the stinking room. It was hard for Gary to inhale without his diaphragm lurching. Mosquitoes whined around his ears.

“I’ll leave you to it, shall I?” Gary stepped back outside. He took a few deep breaths and calmed down.

He felt an impulse to record some details in a place like this. You needed to appreciate it, not just turn up your nose. He took out his phone and began taking photos – the peeling stickers on the doors, the smudged food on the ground, the alley with its tips of corrugated iron. When he looked around again he saw Charlie staring right at him from the doorway.

His cousin seemed disgusted at the presence of the phone, which Gary didn’t understand. Why would you judge me for taking a few photos? Gary wanted to ask. Where was the harm in that? And yet Gary still felt like he’d been caught doing something wrong.

“Listen, I mean – It wasn’t like I was going to ask you to take one of me …”

It was meant as a joke, but Charlie simply held out his hand, offering to take the phone. Gary handed it over without thinking, surprised by the gesture.

In one motion, Charlie swept back through the curtain and threw the phone into the toilet pit. It slid under the surface and was gone.

Gary looked on aghast. For a moment, he was too shocked to say anything. What had he done to offend anyone? Was Charlie afraid the locals would think he was looking down on them somehow? Who was Charlie to take offence on others’ behalf, anyway? Did he think he was one of them?

“Nobody was going to see …There’s no-one watching.” It was an apology.

Charlie shrugged. “Now you have something to write about on Facebook.”

And then Gary was shouting abuse at a retreating figure. His cousin was striding back down the alley, disappearing into the dark.

At the main road, catching up: “What the fuck is wrong with you?”

Charlie ignored him completely. “I suppose you know which bus to take home? Or should I lead the way again?” he finally said.

It pulled up as they spoke. There was nothing to do but be swept on by the crowd. Charlie took the one seat that was available, holding the red and white paper towels like a facemask, staring out the window or, no doubt, watching the reflection of the faces looking at him from behind. Gary stood in the aisle and rocked with the motion of the vehicle.

Michael Salmon was born in London but has been living in Dalian a while. He used to write about China, education, books and other stuff at Fight the Landlord

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