China Sketches: Company

i) Years ago, coming out of a Shanghai subway station, David passed a man dressed in what looked like dirty blue medical scrubs. Squatting on the pavement, under a street light, the man had a basket of live crabs in front of him. For whatever reason, David looked back and saw him pick up his basket of crabs and shuffle off. Either the authorities were coming or he was calling it a day. The basket brimmed with crustaceans and one fell out into the gutter unnoticed. Go for it mate, chance at freedom.

At the Bulldog, David ordered a draught beer and the Filipina barmaid had a smile for him. Appreciated. Around the bar guys in their forties, fifties, and sixties talked football or sat in sour alcoholic silence. Some became animated when it was their turn at darts or pool. The Filipino band blasted out covers of Aerosmith and Guns n’ Roses. David nursed his beer and thought about shifting to an intern bar in the French Concession, where at least they’d have chicks.

He noticed the guy next to him had placed a biography of Julius Caesar on the bar.

How’s the book? David asked.

Sorry mate, did I have my back to you? Yea, not bad.

He had a cockney accent and grey hair slicked back off a crisscrossed forehead.

I’m reading about the greatest generals of all time Caesar, Patton, Hannibal, and Napoleon to find out how their tactics can be related to business.

You in business?

Was in the hospitality trade for forty years. I can walk into any restaurant or bar and tell you what’s wrong. The boss here has no idea…driving people away. This band and the inattentive staff. Watch your bill too! But there are no working girls here, so no dramas with the wife.

You live around here?

Yea, I’m retired. My wife’s local to Shanghai. I lead a privileged life, but the wife’s a tough assignment. She’ll tell me something cost one thousand RMB when she knows I’ll see it as three thousand on the credit card bill later. Lying is no problem for her. Most of the time, I’m in this place, especially when she has the in-laws around.

Why did you get married then?

Well mate, like most guys, I married for regular sex. I still enjoy sex. Not like when I was your age mind, when I could’ve done it with a tree.

What’re you drinking?

Vodka, cranberry juice and water. Single shot. I’m not invincible these days. A while back I cut my foot on some glass at home. Deep cut, but didn’t worry about it. Next thing I know it’s hurting like hell. Streptococcal infection, twelve days in hospital…

The cockney’s eyes flitted around the bar, watching who was doing what, thinking about who he’d like to fire if he were in charge. A great lunk of a beer-gutted man came up to him and said: Nick you’re up! I’ve lost. He’s unbeatable that guy. The lunk nodded over to a skinny white-haired man chalking his pool cue, anticipating his next victim. The type who travels after retiring to conquer pub pool tables the world over.

Sorry squire you’ll have to excuse me, time to play a little pool, said Cockney Nick, looking like a chuffed little boy, full of confidence he could knock the shark over. He left having no idea how much this friendly interaction meant to David, who was a lonely ant.

With the subway closed, David decided to walk back to his apartment. It was late and the streets quiet. On Nanjing West Road, beautiful movie stars faced off on opposing billboards. Li Bingbing, her face long and sophisticated, advertised a Gucci watch and Fan Bingbing, usually round-faced and bubbly, demurely championed L’oréal lipstick. Ants of a superior class to the guys at the bar. David felt guilty for having that thought.

ii) Early in the morning, David got a bottle of cold green tea from the store. A wonderful drink green tea, it’d been there for him over the years when coffee wasn’t treating him well, and this was one of those times. Bottled green tea had even helped him pick up girls in Shanghai.

Some girls jumped with fear when he asked them questions on the street, others radiated human goodness. One rainy afternoon, he stopped an attractive woman and asked her to tell him whether his green tea bottle contained sugar or not. That was his usual ice-breaker. He told her he couldn’t read the Chinese-only label. Most women took a backward step when approached, but she came forward and sheltered David under her umbrella. She told him in clear Mandarin the tea didn’t have any sugar and pointed out the characters indicating this. David asked her where she was going, and she didn’t flinch on realising he wanted more than just information about tea. She was twenty-eight and it was autumn, but her flower-patterned dress made David think of youth and summer. She had crow’s feet when she smiled, unusual for an urban Chinese woman her age.

They went to his apartment on Dongchang Road. The place was a tip. She didn’t mind. On the twentieth floor, the windows didn’t shut properly and in the evening the temperature dropped and the wind whistled in. They huddled under his duvet. Her skin was so smooth David could barely get a grip on her. He felt full of euphoric energy after she left the next day. But by the evening, he had a burning sensation down under. He called a friend to get advice. The friend found it hilarious. A big help.

David didn’t know which hospital to visit, so went to the nearest. He took a bottle of green tea with him. He was addicted to the stuff. The doc, making conversation, told David he preferred Chinese-style green tea to Japanese-style. David said he couldn’t tell the difference. The doctor educated him. Chinese green tea is made by putting the leaves straight into the cup, while the Japanese grind the leaves up first. The Chinese style has a more traditional taste! Traditional. That world was like a weapon in Asia, traditional food, traditional parks…traditional bloody toilets.

After a brief inspection, the doc told David I’d need to do a urine test to figure out what was going on with his burning urethra. A year before, a local journalist had gone around various hospitals claiming pain while peeing. When sent to do a urine test, he poured green tea into the vial. Based on the analysis of these samples, they prescribed him antibiotics at several places! It didn’t give one much faith in the health system. Sure enough, the doctor gave David antibiotics. They didn’t clear up the problem. At the time, watered-down antibiotics in China were rumoured to be a problem.

David got things solved down in Hong Kong. The doctor was Indian. He didn’t want to take a look but told David he’d got an infection from messing around with Filipinas. David tried to correct him but he wasn’t having it. The doctor screamed to his nurse in Cantonese to give David an injection. David didn’t like that doctor, but the infection was gone the next day. He had liked the green tea doctor in Shanghai.

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