Some stories are so excruciating that one assumes they must be urban myth. But this story, I assure you, actually did happen.
And although it was some time ago, and took place outside of Beijing, it has that unmistakable ring of veracity to it. In addition, it was my friend Leslie who related it to me. And with a name like Leslie he’s hardly a liar, even if he did extract some joy from his poor friend’s woegeous misery.
But I’m jumping ahead, as I want to account for why this Beijing tale should come to mind.
Its trigger lies in County Clare, during an inauspicious evening with grey skies outside. I had rented the last room in a Spanish Point hotel catering largely for Continental tourists with concerning coiffes.
The last room was a single one, containing one single bed.
There is something sorrowful in the sight of a single bed. It not only confirms that one is alone but also dashes every hope that the situation could change. No matter how good the chat at the bar may go, with a single room booked, it ain’t going nowhere.
My friend Tom, an inveterate traveller with work, once described how his employer attempted to reduce costs by requiring its staff to book single rooms for business travel. He opposed this move strenuously, and at a visceral level.
‘I haven’t slept in a single bed since I was seven’. If there’s no one to love as the night draws in, at least one can mark an absence with some extra space.
As it transpired, my county Clare hotel delivered some of the best trad Irish music of my trip. Three girls and a guy, none over 20 years old, playing really beautiful music in that way of wizened pros – intense, calm, fluid and disquietingly unemotional.
A booming German gentleman came up and requested ‘Paddy’s Green Shamrock Shore’.
The female fiddlers listened to his request carefully – it was semi-shouted, but with heavy accent – and said sorry. They didn’t know that one.
He returned to his seat, only to reappear one minute later. He was not to be dissuaded.
‘Fuck you!’, he started.
The girls each looked at him, startled. I was all ears, wondering where this would go.
His request had now become a question.
It finally emerged that our German visitor wanted them to play The Foggy Dew. They smiled and agreed, of course, to play it, keeping their giggles until after he had gone.
Only then did those brilliant musicians fully become the teenagers they also were. Animated by a simple Fuck You.
Leslie’s friend, Conor, had been in China for almost a year. Long enough to know the city, its mood and especially its people. His relationship with Audrey (Chinese women often choose Western names nothing like their own in Mandarin) was ongoing for about five months. He was head over heels. Smitten. But he controlled himself, as somehow he knew pace was the right approach with Audrey. She was quite into control herself; no surprises. She was a woman to take the lead.
Along with friends, they took a mini-bus out to the Great Wall one weekend. It was an exciting and packed day, moving here and there in the bus. Audrey didn’t know everyone; some were his work colleagues whom she was meeting for the first time.
At one stage in the afternoon, Conor and Audrey were sitting on the bus alone. It was unclear whether his colleagues would rejoin the bus to return to Beijing, as they lived in a different part of town. Audrey seemed intent on figuring this out.
Then suddenly, a change of tone.
‘I love you’, she said.
It was so crisp and immediate it took Conor unawares. She looked at him, gently, but also clearly expecting a response. He looked back, into her deep black eyes.
‘I love you too. I’ve loved you for months’
There was silence. Audrey slightly cocked her head, computing what had just been said. Although her English was somewhat accented, her fluency was near perfect.
She repeated her statement.
‘Ah luv you’, she said. He heard the accent more clearly now, but was not dissuaded.
He relished the idea of talking about their love and where it might bring them. He simply smiled. Acknowledging.
This time more deliberately, Audrey spoke again.
‘All of you? Are all of you coming back to Beijing in the bus?’
Brian McIntyre. August 2013
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About Rothar Republic
My name is Brian McIntyre. During late July and August 2013 I am cycling the coast and borders of the Republic of Ireland, and using the opportunity to raise money for charity (The Peter McVerry Trust).
In the lead-up to the 100th anniversary of 1916, I’m interested to see how our little country is doing. Cycling its perimeter, observing and talking to its people, is my own way of taking the lie of the land.
I figure this is a 27 day-long expedition covering about 2,200km.
All monies go directly to the Peter McVerry Trust which supports young homeless people in Dublin to break the cycle of homelessness and move towards independent living.
If easier, consider sending me a pledge through private message.