Summer Shorts: High Spirits

Steady your liver – flash fiction by Amy Daml


“Gum bay!”

Paul filed the word away. He was pretty sure it meant “cheers”, and he was pretty sure he would need to use again it in three ... two ... one –

“Gum bay, gum bay, gum bay!”

Two weeks into his new job in China, Paul was well on his way to fluency. He’d already learned “shay shay”, which he alternated with his newly acquired “gum bay” when toasting the officials, each one egging him on with complements about his impeccable tones and pronunciation. More important than either of those words, however, Paul had learned the phrase with the golden touch – “la may". Using it brought on uproarious laughter, followed by a tightening proximity to the girls in the office. Even his boss had blushed when he tried it out on her. At the banquet, it opened the floodgates for more toasts.

The “gum bays” rounded the table like a game of telephone, with each participant required to pass the toast on to the next person, and the message losing more clarity with every iteration. Paul tried to sit down after every toast, only to be pulled back up by a different, slurring, red-faced official wanting him to down not just a glass, but a small pitcher of liquid resembling the taste and smell of rubbing alcohol.

Paul had been tricked into opting for the local spirit he now knew as “by jew” due to a mistranslation of the word as “white wine”, which had sounded quite refreshing on a summer evening. He didn’t understand how the officials could prefer it to a nice scotch or a cold beer, nor did he understand why they seemed to be racing to get drunk off of it. Half of the dinner party had already passed out under the table or on their coworkers' shoulders. The other half seemed moments away from dropping like dominos.

They were hell-bent on dragging Paul with them. After violently clanking glasses with Paul and showing him the empty bottom of the glass, each official would run back to the group and giggle like a schoolgirl playing truth or dare. Then another would wobble over, fill Paul’s pitcher, and challenge him to drain it.

Paul’s dinner neighbor, who preferred to go by her English name, Strawberry, leaned over to translate the scene for him – bets were being wagered as to who would be the champion to drink the resilient foreign beast under the table.

Now, Paul was well versed in the art of drinking, ever since his older brother had bought him his first beer. The "by jew" may have numbed his taste buds but not his wits. He scanned the smoky room full of grotesquely rotund men with puffed faces and pale dress shirts tucked into high-waisted pants. There would be no champions tonight.

Target practice on Paul let up immediately with the clinking, and near smashing, of a single wine glass by a dirty fork. Strawberry leaned back over to identify the speaker as the Deputy Secretary of the Ministry of Propaganda, Culture, Art and Ensuring Harmonious Society with Foreign Friends. Paul didn’t catch the rest of the title. Strawberry summarised the key points of his speech for Paul: 1) Mr Deputy Secretary is very good at his job; 2) China loves its foreign friends; and 3) Everyone should work harder at their jobs.

Bored but relieved at the break in “by jew” power drinking, Paul rotated the table’s lazy susan to position the dessert watermelon in front him.  Dinner had consisted of every innard of every animal, endangered or otherwise, followed by incessant alcohol. He was starving.

Paul gnawed at the watermelon rind as Mr Deputy Secretary was forced to wrap up his speech by nature’s merciful gift of the hiccups, followed by mild gagging and vomiting into his napkin.

Paul exhaled heavily. Finally, the night was over!

But then Paul heard a whisper of a new word, one he had come to dread even more than "gum bay" – KTV.

Amy Daml is a host of the show EZ Cafe at 91.5 FM

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