by Amal Chatterjee
The windows shudder as another train roars past. Through the grey-streaked glass, he sees the city growing, cranes yellow against the sky, towering over the already giant blocks that have risen while he's been at his desk. Or so it feels, each day stepping out into a city just that fraction more different, each month clearly a little more, every quarter changed, every year almost renewed. It wasn't always like this, for years things were static, greying, decaying, the vast barges that ploughed the muddy river setting an example in streaked rust and grey. They still sail but neon taunts them now, daring them to take up the challenge.
But not here, not in this office. Not at his desk. Straightening the pile of paper in his tray, he feels its substance. These are no fleeting digital records, recalled and changed at the tap of a key, here they keep the old time, substantial, reliable. Until damp or rats ... but by then it will have long been consigned to the archives, beyond the reach of men. The future might loom outside, but here paper and ink still rule.
He squints at the invoice. Roman characters intrude among the solid, familiar words. Like the neon, they encroach, even on the doors of the building now, coarse, without beauty, two, three strokes at most, meaning nothing in themselves. He cannot see their attraction, the underscoring of every perfect word with these alien, foolish things. Civilisations aren't built on sounds, they are built on words, solid, dependable, reliable. Like paper and pen, instruments tangible that not to be replaced by ephemera. They should not be.
Across the city, where line 5 meets line 1, which intersects with line 4, which runs rings around the city, she clutches her bag close, you never know these days. The underground isn’t what it used to be. She half smiles to herself. Used to be? There were no trains, not for the likes of her. She took the bus, waited at the stop, come rain, come shine, come summer, come winter, jostling, hoping against hope most of the time that she'd get a seat.
Her stop, a stop indistinguishable from almost any other. Taking exit 7, she rides the escalator to the surface, newly paved and shiny, yet another mall, people walking as traffic flies by on an overpass high above. Signboards everywhere. Isn't it odd how the English words look the same? She can read the script but the letters are too close together for her liking. She has plenty of time to learn, if she wanted to, but she doesn't, not even when she's on the floor, bored half the day, rushed off her feet the other half.
The windows she passes are crowded with colours and things unimaginable, a riot of objects you never knew you needed but can't live without now. Wouldn't it be easier if they had some plain things still, for the people who didn't care about colours, shapes, smells? Instead there are floors of everything you could possibly want for your house, shoes to fridges, food and everything in between. Except pets. Not even birds. Not that she ever wanted one, or he either, but that would make this place complete.
On her lunch break, she slips away to her indulgence, a bowl of noodles at the stall at the back. The old woman who presides over it doles out generous portions for five yuan, gives her regulars a little bit more. Ignoring the others, labourers, management trainees, off-duty security guards, she sucks down her share, gets back to the floor just in time for that woman, a regular drill sergeant, thinks she's management even though she's only a floor supervisor. A little authority can go to someone's head, you'd think this place mattered. The girls teetering on heels so high they can't walk, boyfriends – what happened to fiancés? – at their sides, swaggering in fancy clothes, not a care in the world except their phones and cards and money. That's all it is these days, money. No struggling, just buying. How the world has changed.
The day drags on, the afternoon, though you can't tell from the light, there are no windows here, she relies on the clock on the wall. She's lucky, her shift is normal hours, not too late. When the time comes, she is out the door as fast as anyone. The others linger, chatting, knowing their husbands and boyfriends are upstairs on scooters and motorcycles, but she has no-one waiting.
She joins the river pouring down underground, is borne along through the security gates, the ticket barriers, down the escalator, is washed onto her train. There, under the watchful eyes of the models in the advertisements, she hangs on a strap, waits patiently for the moment to move to the doors, to disembark, to be borne upwards, up, out onto streets lit orange-red by sodium vapour.
A short walk and she's home. He isn’t, she has a half hour of peace and quiet before he’ll come banging in, dropping his briefcase (why doesn't he get another one, seven years and counting, it's falling apart!) anywhere and crashing about the apartment like it's a mansion and they have a servant.
Last Sunday, she treated herself to a new handbag, deep dark red, one she’d coveted for for long. She'd nursed it in the quiet of her corner on the couch, springs poking through, cushions placed strategically, adjusted often, for comfort. He, hunched in his sunken armchair, newspaper, cigarette, television, all at the same time, had barely noticed.
She makes tea, settles at the table, scans the paper. A fire here, a mine disaster in Russia, the Americans are complaining about something, a famous TV star (whom she’s never heard, she doesn’t watch those new-fangled programmes, shiny and alien) is distraught, not getting married, her boyfriend has been cheating on her. People cheat, she thinks, and it's news? She drinks her tea, enjoying her moment of peace.
The key in the lock and the door opens. It’s him, of course. His case drops on the couch (her couch), he drops into his chair, lights a cigarette. Now that they've forbidden smoking in the office, he makes up for it with a vengeance at home. He must have lungs as black as the ones they show on the health advisories but he doesn't cough like others do.
He spits into the bowl beside him. Uncouth, he knows, but it's just the two of them and they know each other's ways.
Two rooms is all they have, the television takes up almost an entire wall, not that it's big, it's the wall that isn't. An ancient video player in the cabinet below, carefully draped against dust. They never used it much before, they use it less now, never really. Once upon a time she'd recorded speeches and dancing but now there are channels aplenty. They didn't watch the old tapes, do they? They could get rid of the lot and the machine too but who'd have them? Not anymore, no-one.
His cigarette finished, he kicks off his shoes, there’s a hole in his right sock, his feet are into slippers right away. She's finished her tea and has put the rice in the cooker. Dinner is to be leftovers from last night, the night before. A few greens, beancurd, spicy sauce, flecks of meat, mapo tofu from the stall at the end of the lane, the wizened countrywoman who runs it isn't a bad cook and she's cheap, almost enough not to make it not worth cooking but a few coins saved each day adds up, he does work with numbers and isn't a fool. Twice a week, no more, the other days she cooks, often for two days because she doesn't care for cooking and, he suspects, she eats enough at lunch.
Tea, he'd like tea now but either he makes it himself or he asks her and he doesn't want to do either so he doesn't have any.
While she's showering he reads the paper. Another good year for the economy, sales are rising, exports are good. Millions of tonnes of this or that now, all figures and data. He likes it, better than the old days - how many truckloads in a tonne? - but he does miss the tone. Now it’s just facts, nothing to take pride in, information not achievement. All these Japanese and American ideas. Fancier yes, more complicated certainly, but so what? Are they better?
He hears her coming out, puts the paper down and goes through. She's sitting on her side of the bed, at that dresser (an extravagance if there ever was one but at least it's still going strong after twenty five years), arranging herself and her face. His clothes have been laid out, the polo shirt he bought last month, the trousers he's had for years but are still good, the creases she's ironed in are sharp. Matching socks and the black real leather shoes, shining. That last he has seen to, he always has. First a wipe, then a soft cloth with the polish. Wait, then buff like your life depends on it. Like he used to in the Army.
Her dress is on the line she hung up for the purpose, letting the wrinkles out. If you hang it in the morning, it's ready by evening.
She eats on her own. They don't share meals, their schedules don't allow it. Once upon a time, when they worked in the same factory, they did. When they met, courted, when they were both young and impressionable. Not any more. Not often.
When he's washed, hair still wet, he sits in his vest and shorts and eats. Quickly, it is something to be done, not to be lingered over. She has left tea for him, thank goodness, he washes down the hastily chewed food with it. It's nearly time to go. He can hear her behind him, she's putting on her shoes now. The ones with the small heel, open toes. Those they bought last year in the sales, a good buy, it's worth having shoes to be proud of. She puts the bag on the couch, the red bag, waits while he dresses, runs the comb through his hair. He ties his shoelaces and stands up.
They are ready.
On the train, neither speaks as they tap their cards on the turnstiles, they exchange not a word as they wait on the platform. They could be strangers but for the fact they step in together, stand side by side, almost touching but not quite. So close that had they really been strangers, they would have exchanged looks, curiosity, irritations or attraction perhaps. But they aren't, they know exactly where the other is, how close, so that’s all there is to it.
The keys on his belt loop are safe between them, no nimble fingers can extract them without alerting two people. Familiarity, he thinks, but still does not look at her.
The stations slip by, passengers alight and disembark. In her bag are two umbrellas, two plastic flasks of tea. He has his cigarettes in his shirt pocket but he won't light one for a while. There are some traditions he keeps, between dinner and bed-time he doesn't smoke at home. They must have agreed some time. They used to agree on things.
Exit 7, up past the hole-in-the-wall shop selling phone covers and hair bands and whatnot, straight along Hengshan Road, past the market and the tables on the street, big bowls of broth and dumplings and late eaters at the tables. A noisy group of young men, their shifts done, dig into bowls of food, slurping loudly. They walk past, close enough to be a couple, far enough not to make contact. Except when he touches the small of her back just like he used to, to guide her across the last junction, out of the path of a trawling taxi.
The water feature is on, liquid light cascades down the feature that he once tried to fathom but gave up on after a while. Two guards, grey uniforms crumpled halfway through their shifts, lounge on the rim of the pond, bottles of green tea by their sides. One smokes, the other looks at his shoes.
The paved circle is empty still, the music from the great brown soundbox plays to the cobblestones. The old woman with legs so long they seem to reach her armpits is under the trees, stepping her impossible steps. Mincing and prancing, he thinks. She knows the woman once danced in a troupe, performed at conferences, the opening of some festival she can't remember but sounded splendid then but he sees an old woman in loose white stepping without a partner. In the half shadow behind the dancer, the group that practices is testing the water, three or four of them are paced out, the others watch, tap their feet. How many lessons do they do? Some of them have been coming for years, what are they waiting for? No single men come here, except the rough provincial ones.
They take their usual place, on the bench beside the rock sculptures. She hopes she is - and he notices out of the corner of his eye that she is - amongst the best dressed here. A couple comes shyly out into the light, the man's shirt striped, his trousers creased to knife edges. They waltz slowly, delicately, describing the small circle that will grow.
The dancers’ eyes lock, he holds her with confidence, leads her well. They have been doing this for a long time.
He looks at her, the first time since the morning, and she dips her head in a bow. They stand, she carefully hangs her small bag on the fence and they step out. His hand takes her waist, the other raises her arm to line up just so. They are ready, their feet are synchronised, their bodies are as one. The pace picks up, others join, the congregation swirls and the circle is complete, rotating of its own volition, at the speed determined without a word being spoken. It is second nature now.
Absorbed in the dance, in each other, they barely notice the music change, they move as they have for so many years. For, for this hour, they are as they once were, eyes locked, fingers intertwined. In their glances, in their touch, traces remain, flashes electric. Flashes. For an instant she regrets, thinks she sees her regret mirrored in his eyes but no, it is gone.
They dance on, two bodies in harmony. They are in harmony, under the park lamps, the moon a brilliant crescent above the orange-hue of the city lights that spill upwards into dark blue of the night sky. Their city is beautiful again.
On the low perimeter wall, cigarette clamped between my teeth, I watch. They are here every night, almost everyone is a regular here, it is a ritual. For some, it is a tonic, shedding the day, for others, affection, love, perhaps romance even. For others. But for them? They intrigue me, their steps are co-ordinated, they move with the precision, comfort, elegance of people who know each other well, but not with love, not as I know it. Somehow I can't detect that.
The crowd loosens in a lull in the music, they break from the circle and return to their bench. He wipes his face with the large handkerchief, she with a smaller one. They refresh themselves with tea, watch as the next tune begins, the dancers resume. She leans into him, he lets his arm take her weight but then she straightens up, the moment of intimacy almost immediately over. It is too warm, their bodies are close enough when they dance. Not now. Not here. Not anymore.
She suddenly notices the music, it surprises her, she hasn't heard it for a long time. She has been dancing to music inside her head, rhythm without notes, heartbeat without life.
They last the tune, he leads her off again.
This is the moment I have been waiting for, this. I drop my cigarette, crush it under my heel. I am dressed, I will not waste this night. I stand, I approach. They are oblivious. I stand before them, I bow as my father might have before he ... She has no words, I have the element of surprise on my side. The music has begun, I lead, she follows. She was not with him, I know, I have her in my power.
Or do I? She is in my arms but she isn't, not as she should, not the way she was with him. But it is I who lead, not her. We step, I in rhythm, she follows reluctantly. I am not like the others here, I hear the music, I have watched her, I have chosen her! But she does not, even as I try to hold her to the music. I follow, she lags, I compensate. This is not how it should be ...
But I am patient. The man leads, I know my duty, she should play hers.
She strains against me, her eyes, her very being focused on that spot to our left, to out right, behind, before us as I turn her, firmly but tenderly. Tenderness I offer but she resists! I understand, it is unexpected, sudden. She will respond, she will!
Then, in an instant, a diameter from where we began, she slips my hands, tears away. It happens in a flash, I miss the beginning, the follow through I cannot my control. A couple all but collides with me, prances past. They do not know the music, the footwork! But I am distracted, I stumble as she has left me leading with no-one following. I am outside the circle now, it is turning stately without me.
She is by the seat he was. They were. He is not there. She looks in confusion, her bag dangles half-empty, the weight reduced, I can see it from where I stand as it half flaps in the light breeze. She tries to run, her shoes, their little heels of another era taunt her, she tears them off. And is gone the way she came. I could follow her but I do not. That is not my way.
The next evening they are not there. Nor the next, or the one after. No matter, she is not the only one, there are others, ripe for plucking.
© Amal Chatterjee