The English Teacher
Colin gave all the girls in his class the names of women who had broken his heart (Jenny, Rachel, Magda) and the boys the names of friends who had died, (Steve, Matt, Damian). When he ran out of dead mates – it wasn’t right to have so many at the tender age of 42 – he named them after people he wished were dead (Roger, Chis, Sebastian).
He named the student he liked the most, a quick witted 15-year-old named Chen Ong, Julie, because although Julie broke his heart, she didn’t really mean to, and he thought it was only fair to name this larconic teenager, who was bound to go on to break a few of her own hearts, after the woman who came to him in the strangest of dreams. Every roll call was a walk down a memory lane of sex and sadness.
He also warmed to a slightly geeky kid with a stutter he named Richard, after a bloke who had bullied him in high school. Richard was on the “wish he were dead” list – as far as Colin knew he was happily married and living in Katanning. But as this new Richard, whose real name was Ma Chao, earnestly took notes in class and perfected his English by obsessively watching an odd assortment of Hollywood films for a 15-year old boy (Titanic, The Color Purple and The Parent Trap were among his favourites), Colin warmed to him, and by association the name Richard, which for Ma Chao he shortened to Richie. This confused the student even more, who really wanted to be called Jack.
Giving the students English names was actually quite fun, but teaching English was not. Colin took the job to get away from where he had been. He hadn’t particularly cared where he ended up and as it turns out the universe dumped him in Beijing, a city that came in and out of focus, as if a giant lens was adjusting and readjusting itself on the metropolis, a characteristic which Colin felt meant it was a place that understood him more than just about anywhere else. On a Monday, he could wake up and see the buildings opposite his apartment block with hard edges and crisp colours. But on another day, a Thursday, for example, after a night at Lakers which was best left forgotten, he could wake up and the buildings would have soft outlines and be a comforting shade of grey – softened by the fog and appearing particularly sympathetic to Colin’s thumping head. Colin was the only person he knew who felt relatively kindly towards the Beijing pollution.
He took a deep lungful of it – car exhaust and dust, as he flagged down a taxi on Dongzhimen.
“Sanlitun” he said to the driver, who pulled away from the curb and started the short journey to the expat hang. Colin, when he did go out, usually preferred the dark alleyways and pokey drinking holes of the Gulou area. Where you stepped over Chinese toddlers playing with toys and their grandfathers playing Mahjong to get to a watering hole run by some American or Australian expat, a little slice of New York or Melbourne in old Beijing. Where you could sit at the bar and make friends with half the room by your second drink. But tonight was not for the dark corners of Gulou, tonight he wanted to get lost and the only place to do that was in the anonymous neon glare of Sanlitun.
The cab pulled up at the main intersection. A mad convergence of street food sellers, taxis, street walkers and American students on a big night out. Bicycles and rickshaws jostled for space and cars opened their boots to reveal an odd assortment of treasure and junk with which to lure passerbys. Jewelry, laser toys, paintings, Colin had even once seen a stuffed goats head being sold next to a bunch of beaded necklaces and wooden carvings.
He ducked into the first bar, wanting to get away from the street, and blinked as the room came into focus. Sad couches in garish colours were arranged around low tables. There was a small stage in the corner where a middle aged man was singing a Chinese song on a karaoke machine, eyes closed, fists clenched, lost in emotion.
He took a stool at the bar and ordered a whiskey and coke. The alcohol washed over him with the first sip, he closed his eyes, the karaoke sounded a little better, the throbbing in his temples receded. He indicted to the bar tender for another.
When he had first walked in he had barely registered the other foreigner sitting at the other end of the bar, a pink blob in the corner hunched over his drink, but now he felt a presence beside him, a fleshy grin and sweet meaty breath inches away from him.
“Colin? Colin Lawson? Is that you?”
Colin blinked at the stranger, he could feel the synapses in his brain warming up old routes, the little neurons started to whir and click, finally hitting the box that stored adolecense, high school faces. He peered at the man and looked past the fleshy jowls and pink nose and saw the ghost of a teenager, a sneering face, a taunting nickname a…
“It is you! Holy shit, Bumsmack!! I never thought I’d see a familiar face in this Goddamn city!”
It was the nickname that did it.
“Richard,” Colin managed to spit out. “It’s been a while.”
“Haaa!” Richard clapped him on the back. He was wearing a badly fitting business shirt and slacks. Colin could see the yellowing sweat stains on his collar.
It had been over 20 years but in that instant he was transported back to 17, to the smell of dried grass, packed lunches and wet wool.
Colin slowly registered that the karaoke singer had switched to that song from the Titanic. He tasted the sweet, cheap alcohol coating his mouth and stickiness of the bar stool beneath him and felt himself move back to the presant. He was 42. He was in Beijing. He blinked. Richard was still standing in front of him.
“Colin fuckin’ bumsmack. I haven’t seen you since high school. You went to Perth for uni right?”
Colin tried to form a response but eventually just sort of nodded. Richard sat on the stool next to Colin and gripped him around the neck.
“Faaaarkin’ hell mate it’s good to see you!”
“What a coincidence huh? What brings you to Beijing?” Colin managed to get out. His voice sounded high pitched, he was speaking too quickly.
“Poo mate, fertilizer, we’re flogging it to the Chinese, they love it. Katanning’s finest shit smeared all over China. I’m back an’ forth these days mate.” He knocked back the last dregs of his Tsingdao, indicated to the bar for two more and handed one to Colin.
“Look mate,” Richard leaned in conspiratorially. “Names Eric, right,” he gave an exaggerated wink. Before Colin could form a query Richard, or was it Eric? Had turned his attention to the door.
“There she is, my beautiful Oriental princess,” Richard greeted a woman walking towards them, Colin guessed in her mid-30s. She was wearing a Cheongsam in a floral patten and sparkly high heels. Her hair was neat and she wore little gold earrings and an open, sweet smile. She greeted Richard with a giggle and he bent down to kiss her on the cheek. When he stood up Richard looked to Colin with what could only be described as a shit eating grin, which Colin figured was about right for a fertilizer salesman.
“Ah Colin, this is Diana,” he turned to Diana. “Colin is an old mate of mine from Australia.”
Diana turned and smiled. “Nice to meet you,” she said. “Eric always says he going to introduce me to Australian friends but he never does.”
“Colin, we, um, we went to school together.”
“Wow! I think Eric was a bad student. He is very cheeky.”
The couple laughed, Colin felt slightly nauseous. Diana excued herself to the bathroom and when she was out of ear shot Richard grabbed him by the shoulder.
“It’s my middle name, white fuckin’ lie mate. But it means she can’t google me,” Richard said in a low whisper. “She thinks I live in Perth, wouldn’t want her stumbling on pics of me and the misses at the Mount Barker races.”
Diana returned and sat next to Richard smiling.
Colin had initially assumed she was a prostitute, but he new realised, with a stab of guilt, that he had jumped to conclusions. They moved together with the easy choreography of two people who had a wanted intimacy. This was far worse, she was his girlfriend.
Colin wondered briefly how on a night on which he had determinedly set out to drink himself into oblivion he had been pulled into this most unsavory of realities.
The karaoke singer had finished and the microphone was lying dormant. Richard leapt from the bar stool. “I’m up!”
He trotted over to the karaoke machine and punched in some numbers. Colin recognised the opening strains of Guns and Roses, Paradise City.
“He sings karaoke?” Colin asked Diana.
“He loves it!” she exclaimed. “Always singing.”
“It’s funny,” said Colin, “He once threw my clarinet off the school bus, didn’t used to be such a music fan.”
Diana’s eyes widened. “Kids do funny things.”
“What’s your Chinese name Diana?” Colin asked.
Colin nodded. “Liu Chenmai? What does that mean? Lotus of the willowing breeze? Brave dragon soldier?
She laughed. “You know Chinese names? It means. Honest Beauty.”
“Honest beauty? That’s nice.”
She shrugged. “It’s a lot to live up to.” A sly smile. Colin, surprised, laughed.
“I guess it is.”
“Co-lin. What does Co-lin mean”
“Ahh, it was my grandfathers name,” I’m not really sure of the meaning. It’s Irish I think.”
“Are you Irish?”
“Only when I’m drinking.”
“Never mind. How long have you known Ri…ahh Eric?”
“About a year. He is staying at hotel my friend works in reception. She introduce us.”
Colin had knocked back the Tsingtao and ordered another whiskey.
Richard had finished doing his best Axel Rose impersonation and had launched into Bruce Springsteen, Glory Days. They watched him in silence.
“Orrrright!” Richard was back. The bartender handed him a Tsingtao and he knocked half back in one gulp.
“Not a bad set of pipes on you there Eric.”
“I’m always better three drinks in mate. Look, I’m bushed, good seeing you Colin might hit the hay.”
“Yeah, what a coincidence huh? And er, nice meeting you Diana.”
She smiled. “You too, Colin.”
He watched them leave the bar and as the door closed behind him blinked. Did that just happen? It felt so surreal.
He put down his drink. The taste was sour, unpleasant. He suddenly wanted to get out of here. He felt his skin crawling with all the seediness of Sanlitun and wondered why on earth he thought getting obliterated tonight would make him feel better and not worse. He walked out the bar and tapped some numbers into his phone.
“Hello? Julie? Yeah It’s Colin, you’ll never guess who I bumped into in Beijing… Richard Boulder…ha! no, not a bit.”
Colin smiled hearing Julie laugh, he wondered why it took him so long to call. She seemed kinda glad to hear from him. It was time to make some changes.
Tomorrow, he vowed, he was going to tell Ma Chao he could change his name to Jack.