I was coming down with a cold. My throat felt raw and my forehead was burning. Determined not to miss out on a single hour in Chengdu, I dragged myself around the city alongside Steve, slurping giant bowls of hot soup noodles and watching grubby street kids playing elaborate games of hide-and-seek in glass lifts outside a gleaming shopping mall. We visited the centuries-old Wenshu Monastery, failing to spot the NO PHOTOS sign and casting disappointed frowns across the faces of two monks who were lighting incense and praying to Buddha statues. In the outdoor teahouse behind the lofty Thousand Buddha Peace Pagoda, hundreds of grey-haired people in their sixties and seventies were laughing and gossiping on bamboo chairs, clinking cups and clicking chopsticks over toy-sized plates of delicate dumplings. We passed a dingy restaurant where half a skinned white dog hung by his jaws from a butcher’s hook. His legs were stiff and bent at the knees, giving the cruel impression he was leaping for a ball.
With the autumn temperatures falling by the day, I was pleased when we found ourselves a pair of heavy coats for the onward journey – a cheap parka for me and a green communist-style army jacket for Steve. In the military surplus store where we bought Steve’s, the gentle old man with liver spots on his bald head formed a misguided impression that I could interpret Mandarin, and relied on me to translate everything to Steve. I was slumped in a chair, a little feverish, and hoping we could return to the hostel for a nap soon.
“He says do you want this hat to go with it?” I bluffed, as the man pushed a furry brown trapper with earflaps over Steve’s head. It wouldn’t go on properly and sat perched atop his hair like a cinema ice-cream tub.
“He says it looks good on you, but I disagree, I’m afraid,” I said, giggling. “Ah, now he says that the coat can button round the inside of your leg – ”
” – Woah there!” said Steve, as the old man knelt down, grabbed Steve’s inner thigh and began demonstrating the extra warmth afforded by the coat’s inner legflaps.
But then I failed to understand the next part of the conversation and my fraudulent Mandarin was uncovered. “Sorry, no,” I said, shaking my head.
Perhaps thinking I spoke a little-known dialect, the man scribbled a few Chinese characters on the back of a crumpled receipt and looked up at me questioningly. “Sorry, no,” I said again, although I had a distinct feeling he wanted to discuss the possibility of Long Johns. We paid for the green jacket and left the shop, with the man chuckling and shaking his head after us.
This is an extract from Marie Kreft’s book, Love on a Third Class Ticket, due out in the autumn.