Suzhou was a city under construction. It wanted both to be a quaint city in the glare of Shanghai; and an urban metropolis with the best of everything. Or at least everything Chinese, which is a major difference. In the north, it had older buildings, that could be resembling the old style – both of the quaint old style that one might think of as the old imperium, and the hustle and bustle style of the old republic – think of a picture in the style of the 1920s, with even the people having touches about their persons. But in the southern part of their was a huge block of new buildings, each one more impressively designed than the last – not in the Western style with business at its core, but with the gleam of technology and style, and show we say panache about the different protrusions, which were being noticed in Beijing as too much individuality then was good for them - spiraling up past the dyne haze that enshrouded everything in pollution. They were planning to build a massive skyscraper, but as yet, this was still a plan rather than being built. But the design was there for something resembling the new China. Though most people if they knew of the town still thought of the pagoda buildings and large bridges over canals decked with willows and ornate Chinese scholars rocks, in a dreaming like rendition from some illusion of a another time. Eventually the tallest of the contemporary Chinese was built, though many of the residents whispered that it looked like a pair of pants, rising above the rest of the skyline of the city – standing as it did over the new buildings, and the older buildings which littered the innumerable canals that came about from the dozens of lakes which formed the basis of the city.
But where they sat right now was in the northern part, unperturbed by the skyline, and dominated by buildings which bore a strong resemblance to what was imagined as the late Imperial style, though even in this district there were bustling signs of improvement going on. One could tell this, setting as they were in a tea shop, by how different it was, for example, in the next town over. The difference is that Chinese delicacy is different from westernized delicacy, and people were to be taught the later, and value it, more than the former, which they would in time call inferior, or at the very least quaint. For example all of the furniture was modern; as opposed to sturdy but old. Old would not due. As if the country boy from far away was dazzled by a huge metropolis, someone has CS Lewis gave the horse and his boy.
What he saw was a town in, but in a large scale. When they stopped outside the tea shop, they were engaged by the site – in the distance – of a view very large towers, about 4 kms away. But near where they entered in, all of the buildings were five or six stories tall. This was a town in Chinese parlance. It was rather larger than town in American, but not overly much so: the scale of the buildings was taller than America, but not so much so that the world seemed out of place. He thought: Oh how I wish that my words could flow like the text of some piece of Ken Burns, who picked from all the world the smallest gems to illuminate. There was not much to do except sigh, and think this would be in retrospect somehow better than it was in the incident he lived in. their was no music added on, nor a collage of pictures, nor famous speakers mouthing the lines. It was plain, really to be dressed up, and become a collage that would resonate. It was a picture, or phrase, ready to be dressed up like a doll. How slowly and how artfully was the dross of real, ready to take on the shifting shimmering light that is bestowed by the light of cinema.
He turned to her face, and looked at her for a long time – at least this was one image that real life offered which so only glanced, in a protruded slumber. The ability to drink in enough of a face – or indeed any other thing – until your mind has had enough. At which point, there was no point but to speak, and unburden his mind with only a few – he would be careful not to do more than a few – of the choicest tidbits of what could the called memory. And for the first time he wished had smoked, because in a black and white flick, that drawing in of breath would be the dénouement, with which his face as a picture could begin to ready an explanation. The cigarette would dangle between his two fingers, as it was in focus for just an instant - but, he did not smoke, nor in most circumstances would ever wish to do so. Oh, the delicious magic agony that he would forgo.
“Suppose you wish to know what happened in 99 and 2000, because I know that I would keep silent about it. There was much that I could not explain, or even intimate that I had anything to explain which was of value. There were people all around me who were not as they seemed to be, and I did not even know who they were.”
“I could tell that there was something cramped inside you, though I knew I could not speak of it. It made me depressed, especially when we were together, and not, in London. I could see your face, but I could not reach out and touch it. I think that is the best way I would say it in English.”
And nodded by half, but also ran down the list, making sure they were things he was going to say. Each one a specific item, with a specific reason for being aware it was.
“It is like breathing out and in, there is not much to say, truth be told. It is the exercise – the direct exercise, if you will – of actually coming to terms with it and saying it. The first thing, is that I know who the program director was, or rather I knew his real name – because if you have access to the database, you can look up who has accessed – or at least the address – of all the record of birth, and the record of death, in a very short space of time. And that person is probably the one who absconded with the name.”
“Would I know this person?” Her eyes became sharp and focused, as if there were something she wanted to conceal.
“No, the name is not important. But that no one else had access to all of the keys, said that they were after bigger things. A man worth 2 million, is nothing to them.” then he spun out the redacted version of events that he wanted to tell: all the little details which hid the finer nuances that he wished not to tell, he told her about his colleagues: the tall old man who had grabbed this position because it would make him money; the younger man with the BMW top down 5 series, when actually he wanted to be in sales; the young man who was taking a break from Mexico city, and all of the tribulation and temptations of being in an environment where he could look but not touch the 20 something females – they were there for the bosses; and the Indian woman who sounded thin on the phone, but was fat in real life – all of the details which obscured the one thing that he could never say. The one thing he could never even think about; their lives no question that the cable companies money came from outside the US.
It was hard not to think that “outside the US” meant China, though he was loathe to think about it. Bureaus die when the structure of the state collapses they are as helpless and unfit for independent existence, as a displaced tapeworm, or a virus that has killed the host. There was something distinctly wrong with the image of her, and the tumbling out the paper where each step brought him closer to something he did not want to hear. Companies that owned companies which owned companies and their fingers were in the mix of the ownership of the cable company; and eventually, everything disappeared, vanished in smoke, as though everything was a Ponzi scheme. And, their was no clue as to who was pulling the strings.
That was the deep secret: he suspected her. Though he did not know how. Then he waited, sitting in his seat, across from hers. Examining her face, remembering the instant where there was a feeling that he did not understand, but was a shock rolling up from beneath the of the stomach. Then everything was calm. Now there was no flaccid role of thunder, no trepidation in her voice, nothing whatever to remind him of what just came before. And then slowly and hesitantly, reached out with his two hands to take hers, and embrace them. And then just afterwards her eyes met his, and their was questioning in both of them. There was a gap, that they could not, quite, reach – though both tried. Another one wanted to fear the worst, but the both did. Each one was gnawing though they did not know at what.
He shook his head. “There were times when I doubted everyone, please forgive me. I know not what I was thinking at the time.” and with that he took a sip of tea, and she did right after him. And suddenly they were in tune again, each one stretching away from the gap of moments ago. It was if it had never really happened at all. After a while, they picked up the pieces and went out in two the Suzhou sun, and took in the warmth that it brought them. And for a moment, there was nothing wrong; for a moment, all suspicions drove away like the highway slipping smoothly along the night sky in another place far away. This sense of coolness, and of warmth, mingled in his cheeks – though he did not know how it did so.
For a moment she looked at him, and sighed; though he did not know from what the sigh came from. It was a breeze from the willows; coming and going with no pattern; with no remorse. It was like a scene from the city, in that modern style – and all the faces have not one trace of lightness about them. Then they walked out of the tea enriched aroma, and in to the outside air, with nothing decided. It was as if the equilibrium had not been resolved, neither new if they would pull pretensions down, even though they kissed from time to time. Each kiss was a question mark, rather than an exclamation point. Each time they were hoping that some resolve would come, and they would settle in together. And each time there were questions that did not have words to answer them.
Along the street, where the pavement crumbled and waited for the new to come across the old, each one was looking downwards, not up, not at each other. Until finally they were trapped in their own heads, trying to make what had happened. But no motion came to them, individually, or in a bit of innocent unison. Then she took a side street, and made her way around the traffic. It was a dirty side Chinese street, which is to say not anywhere near as bad as an Indian Street, but nowhere near as clean as a corrupted American Street. These things have values all around, people in China do not die, or live, on this street – where as in India they did both – but men would fight on this street, as they did a century ago on American streets. What was true on American streets in Chinese streets, was the foul odor of rank and turbulent garbage, where there was no clue as to what anything was before it had gone bad.
He picked a side some of the worst bits – he guessed they were excrement from the very poorest of the poor. He had been in China for, and new the technique of crossing a side Chinese street to get to where you were going to; but he did not expect her to be in that class of people. It was a signal that she was acclimated to the procedure. And that told him something about her that she had not ventured to explain. It is a very long story, because she was big, and therefore, one would assume, that she would never set foot on such a thorough fair. But you would be wrong. It then occurred that she might have learned indirectly, and he then had a vision where her older brother was very thin and did such things, and he taught his younger sister about them. The vision of her as a little child – in a living room perhaps - taking in images on a clean floor, absorbing all that was required in circumstances that she had not yet been accustomed to. But she would be told anyway, because one never knew when those things would be required. It is also why she was fed – two parents, desperately trying to erase the distant past, when everyone except a few high communist party officials were malnourished. The fat before the lean, as if the ravenous wolves were there, no Time for looking up as Muir did.
Then he focused outwards, and followed her into the normal street, gently stepping over a broken weary man – who was no more than 40 – and in a wretched set of blue overalls, that were quite worn. It was obvious that he had been drunk, but was clearing out of it. Just in the nick of time he noticed that he was actually awake – and reached out to snatch his leg.
Presumably to bring him down on to the drunkards level. But he was too quick for that, and rotated his whole step forward, and managed to gash his booted foot down on to the individuals face. Then there were five or six police officers – or train officers - who were drawn in to the commotion. They did not have time to see very much – but the drunkard was obviously known to them, and they pulled out clubs and simply beat him. Neither he nor the woman were asked any questions, in all probability, from the train officers point of view, there was nothing to be asked. They slipped away, and left the train officers to do what they wanted to do. And it was obvious, have a good time doing it. It was odd, the moment of action was extremely brief – but it resonated through his mind in a dozen different ways, as if he were perfecting the motion, delicately mastering all the intricacies – to find the right one. Even though it was done.
There was a bridge to where the trains board, it was high and outside – And though painted white, it was shadowed. It was also old in a new kind of way. Quickly scurrying, they made it to the first class waiting area - within minutes the train that they were taking arrived, and they found themselves in with the first class customers. He did not dismiss what happened, but it was obvious - as a foreigner – there was no doubt that he was not bothered.
Then they were off, steam coming from every engine that they passed – he could not help but feel that this was an exhilarating feeling, though he knew that for most people it would be a humdrum affair. Along the way buildings dominated, being very high, though not as high as the Bund – the old center of town in Shanghai– but they stretched on for as long as they could see. It would be almost quarter an hour before the city would die down, and they would pass apartment buildings, and then through the lower line sections of town. Then they had made the escape from Suzhou, wondering if those men were drunkards or merely playing at such. A bit older and he would use some mode of ex-quiescence, but he was from the generation that found such things repulsive. Just a few years older then him, seniors in high school would use them quite a lot, which immediately sent repulsion down the spine of many of the younger generation that was forming, like a vision of Dante, in the Purgatorio.