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.