Summer Shorts: Esther in Shanghai

Trailing classes – flash fiction by Kerryn Leitch


Esther landed in Shanghai with four bags, one husband and zero Mandarin. The air was frigid and zero was also the number of coats she had. She appeared on her well-heeled foreign hosts' doorstep wearing the entire contents of her backpack including a Bolivian alpaca hat, an Indian shawl and a tshirt with an outdated political slogan.

She waited patiently on the threshold exchanging glances with herself in the polished brass door plaque. Embossed in black was the arabic numeral 2 and a Chinese character which she traced with her finger. “Hao,” said the husband, “it means number.” “Two hao, two hao, two hao,” she fogged and traced.

Beneath the crowning glory of a gargantuan and grotesque chandelier were three silk rugs, only one of which the Mexican holiday boarder was allowed to walk on. Esther would periodically hear the clatter of claws on floorboards each time Taco, the boarder, transgressed and was forcibly ejected from forbidden territory.

They were friends of friends of family of husbands, introduced here, in their Xanadu, propped atop stools at the island bench with tea and cucumber sandwiches like the Famous Five on completion of an adventure. Esther stared at Taco willing her to lead them to the secret escape passage or alert passing smugglers that she was available for kidnapping.

The matriarch played tennis and had visited the Taj Mahal without seeing poverty, an art not appreciated until seen in all its air-conditioned hotel shuttle bus glory, though her greatest triumph had been leveraging her long legs for a miniature man of means. She took it upon herself to prepare Esther for her forthcoming life in the kingdom of central significance.

“I've lived here for five years and haven't learned the language. No need. These five sentences are all you need. One – nee how, that's hello. Two - sheh sheh, thank you, not that you'll need it, the people are so rude. Not that you can blame them, it's a barbarian culture. Soooo different to the Japanese. You know, they're famous for being polite, but here,” dramatic pause, “they spit in the street.”

She gave a second pause for impact, to which Esther offered only a thin-lipped smile before returning her attention to the chihuahua. “Three – far pee ow. Stops the cab drivers ripping you off. Four – door show chen, how much is it? And most important, five – taiguile!” This spat from her lips with the impeccable pronunciation of a Dongguan brothel proprietress negotiating a bulk price for wet wipes.

Esther took out a matchbook sized notebook and took to it with a pencil stub. Surrogating pencil for cigarette, Esther surveyed her doodle of Taco flying into the chill Pudong night on the contraband silken chariot. “You must do lunch with the ladies before you leave,” her mentor said, satisfied that her knowledge was being transcribed, and left the room.

There were three of them, two lissom and one stout – stereo sound and a subwoofer. They stabbed at the shared dishes with forks and drifted from boast to boredom and back again.

“If my ayi keeps topping up the handwash with water I'm trading her in for an upgrade.”

“That's a coincidence that your housekeeper is also called Ayi.”

“It's not her name, it's her job. She's an ayi.”

“Oh, I assumed because you all call her that. How long has she worked for you?”

“Two years. It took me a whole year just to train her how to clean the grout, I've invested in her now.”

“And you've never asked … ?”

“So Esther, what does your husband do?”

“We're both teachers.”

“And he's taken a job at a Beijing university?”

“We're both starting at the university in February.”

Forks dropped.

“You're working? … In China?”

“I'd go a little stir crazy otherwise.”

Glances were traded.

“Is Beijing anything like Shanghai?”

“God no, it's dreadful.”

Esther's chest finally relaxed, and she inhaled the smoggy possibilities.

Kerryn is a Beijing sidekick – her costume is lousier than the hero but she gets the best one-liners

This story was an entry for Beijing Cream's Flash Fiction for Charity competition