Friday, 20 March 2015

Part of novel


The first time we exchanged words a bird died. It had been limping up and down the same short stretch of pavement outside the Little Lamb hotpot restaurant on Shaftsbury Avenue with both its wings clearly broken. Most likely it had been hit by a car. I would’ve helped it; carried it home in a box or called a vet, if it hadn’t been for the fact that my friends had arrived and our table was ready. When I sat down to order I could still see it from the corner of my eye, through the glass door, about five feet from where I was sitting. By the time I left the restaurant it was motionless in the gutter.
            The walls of the Little Lamb are covered in mirrors and there is one small TV attached to the wall. The mirrors give the effect that there is not one but ten or twelve screens, depending on where you happen to be sitting. The mirrors also give the impression there are more customers in the restaurant than there are in reality and that the restaurant itself is much bigger than it actually is. A lot of places use this trick but the TV in the Little Lamb breaks the illusion with its reflected, backwards subtitles which, to be completely fair to the restaurant, probably aren’t that noticeable unless you happen to be able to read Chinese. I can’t read Chinese. But I have a friend who can and one time during a meal in the Little Lamb he told me he was confused about why the subtitles on the TV were back to front. I explained that it was a reflection of the actual TV positioned above our heads and he slapped his forehead like a cartoon character and told me he was stupid and also a little drunk.
On the night the bird died the TV was again positioned above my head. As my friends slid into place around me I watched the report reflected in the mirror. Any thoughts I had about the injured pigeon were soon forgotten in the face of the news with its images of sprawling residential towers shrouded in haze, intercut with seemingly endless crowds of Chinese citizens walking with white ventilation masks strapped across their mouths. These images were nothing new. I’d seen them before and had grown to expect them in pretty much every news item I ever saw about China. Anytime China was mentioned on the news it could be expected to be alongside images of crowds and towers. Only the cookery programmes showed a different side, with misty mountains and temples and old men making noodles in ways that would soon be forgotten when they died. What held my attention on that night wasn’t the news, it was the image of a bright orange circle that for a few seconds took up the whole of the TV screen, reflected on all of the walls of the restaurant. I’d never seen the sun look so circular, and I said this aloud to my group of friends. In response they each turned in various directions to see what I meant. The sun was a uniform deep orange. It was beautiful and it shone over interior of the Little Lamb.
There was one other customer in the restaurant on that night and he too looked up from his table at the many circular reflections. Me, my friends, the waiters and this man all stared in silence at the sun before the report carried on, cutting to an interview with a woman in a suit standing in front of a forklift truck gesturing to some scaffolding. My friends started talking about their workdays and the waiters went back to chatting behind the counter. The man at the other table turned to look at me and he was still looking at me when I raised my eyes again from the menu.
I had in fact seen the man several times before that night. He tended to sit at the same table, often alone, with enough meat and vegetables for one person to dip into the simmering pot of stock. I recognised him because, although he didn’t look at all Chinese, he seemed to be able to speak the language with complete, masterful fluency; something that had made my own clumsy jabbing at the menu seem infinitely cruder by comparison. The other non-Chinese customers I’d observed during the few times I’d been to the restaurant occasionally attempted to speak Mandarin but this generally resulted in the waiters asking them again what it was they wanted, to which they would coyly mutter in English and point at the menu.
I’d been tempted on several occasions to compliment the man on his Mandarin, or at the very least the convincingness of his Mandarin to someone who didn’t know the language, but whenever I’d thought about speaking to him the food had arrived and I was soon occupied with dipping strips of meat in boiling water. The eye contact made on that night was the first time that the man had showed any sign of registering my presence and I wondered then if he too recognised me from my previous trips to the Little Lamb. These thoughts, like those of the injured bird limping to and fro metres from where I sat, were soon submerged in the spicy stock as I tipped first the sliced potatoes and then the balls of beefs into the water. 
One of my friends had been on a disastrous date and she was telling us the details. She had recently visited Iceland and, coincidentally, so had the man she’d been on the date with. You’d assume that this would be a good point of conversation but her date had been violently sick the entire time and hadn’t enjoyed it one bit. She’d told him about the natural beauty of the Blue Lagoon and he’d told her about the unsettled bowel movements he’d had from eating a bad piece of fish. Apart from this he refused to say much else for the entire date, which, we all agreed, was unfortunate. The news had finished and the TV was now showing a Chinese historical drama with a group of men dressed in elaborate period costumes. I watched the drama as my friend continued to talk about her date’s fluctuations between awkward silence and ardent confessions of diarrhoea. The men on the TV were in a forest, squatted down in the bushes. Whatever they were talking about seemed to be important and there was a lot of nodding. I noticed that the man on the other table was also watching the TV, his mouth open and his chopsticks frozen in place, inches from his face. There was a mushroom between his chopsticks that slipped from place and landed on the table with a small splat. When this happened the man awoke from his reverie and moved the fallen piece of food to the side of his table. With the mushroom cast aside he looked in the mirror to see if anyone had noticed his lapse in concentration. This was the second time we made eye contact.  
            At one point the man got up and, after speaking to the waiter, went into the back room. I started to talk about China. I told my friends that although I’d never physically been there and although I knew little to nothing about its history, I was certainly a fan of the food. It’s a big place, someone told me. They have many different types of dishes. I agreed with this and waved my hand at the hot pot, explaining that hot pot is popular in Beijing but lots of Chinese food in London is Cantonese because of the connection to Hong Kong. One of my friends changed the subject and started talking about how there’s a great deal of construction work going on in China. They are always building so many buildings. Lots and lots of buildings. I responded that there are lots of buildings in London as well, waving my hand to the street. There are new skyscrapers and new apartment complexes being built all the time. What about The Shard? The Gherkin? Is it really all that different? The man who had been sat at the other table must have been listening from the back room because he emerged at this point and walked towards us.
            It is not the same, he told me. London is locked down. It is fixed. There may be new buildings but they are growing like moss on a turtle shell. In China the ground is moving. It shifts beneath your feet.
          We didn’t know what to say to this and after standing in silence for a few seconds the man went back to his table. We continued to eat and then I asked him from across the room if he was from China. He nodded. He said he had lived there as a boy. I didn’t know what to say to this either, so I smiled and finished my meal. He was still sat at the table when we collected our coats and paid the bill. I tried to make eye contact with him again when I moved towards the exit but he kept his eyes fixed on the reflected TV screen, still showing the men dressed in historical costumes. I closed the glass door and, parting ways with my friends, stepped over the corpse of the bird.

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