The young Chinese chef slices the skin from the duck, his knife moving with a speed far beyond the capability of can-opening cooks like me. Jackson tells a story, but I watch the knife, half hoping the chef will slice his finger off. Jackson, with the son-of-heaven smile that first lured me out from behind a bank counter ten years ago, ensures I’m served first. He tickles the small of my back. I can’t believe I ever doubted him.
‘All that weight I lost trekking on the Great Wall,’ says Stevie, the English woman, through a mouthful of duck skin. She slaps a flat T-shirted belly. ‘It’s all coming back to me now.’
I met Stevie for the first time tonight. She was the one named months ago in the email, but Jackson doesn’t know that. All I needed from him back then was a simple denial. She’s young. Pretty in a farm-fresh way. But she has cricket balls for cleavage, I tell myself, and an accent that could blast open a coal mine.
‘Ness, you’re not eating,’ says Jackson.
The chef retreats past red-painted walls to the kitchen and I taste the duck skin. I was told in the taxi that it was the supreme imperial delicacy. I don’t like it. Smells as good as chicken roast, but it’s too fatty for me.
I shiver in my satin floral and see that my skin is a matching purple. I lost out in social musical chairs when the seven of us arrived and had to sit opposite an empty chair downwind of the air conditioner.
‘Want my jacket?’ says Jackson.
I like this new Jackson. I kiss his cheek despite the stubble. That’s new too, as is the mid-life fringe.
At least the empty chair means I have a clear view through the window of another party. Eight men are sitting smoking in the courtyard in the humid, spotting rain, with ‘Russia’ written on the back of their red jackets. I’m wondering which Olympic sport might cater to smokers. As a team, they are too small to be weightlifters; too hefty to be cyclists; too drunk to be competing in the athletics the next day.
‘The doozy on the Chinese driving test,’ Jackson is saying, ‘was about what to do after an accident. Someone is lying bleeding on the ground. Do you: a) drive away; b) put your hand in their pocket to see if the guts have fallen out; or c) call the police.’
‘To see if the guts have fallen out?’ cries Stevie.
‘As God is my witness,’ says Jackson.
‘What’s the answer?’
I drink my beer too quickly. I won’t remind my fellow diners that this is the first time I’ve eaten Peking duck. Jackson’s colleagues are serial expatriates with multiple passports and preferred business-class seating. They’ve been working here in Beijing on the Olympic television coverage for months, but this is my first trip to China. First trip anywhere, actually. This morning I braved the crowds at the Summer Palace, taking my time in the Dowager Empress’s Hall for Happiness and Longevity – the first place in China to have electric light, imagine that. I touched the walls, hoping some happiness and longevity might rub off on me. The Hall housed an embroidered screen of a rising phoenix surrounded by a hundred birds. Phoenix for the Empress, dragon for the Emperor – symbols of harmonious union.
The waitress arrives with two bamboo steamers full of pancakes. Next come the slices of duck meat. I copy the others, wrapping the duck in a pancake and smothering it with hoi sin, cucumber and spring onion. I think of the phoenix – the body of a duck with the feathers of a peacock – and eat it. The duck tastes better than its skin, like turkey with cranberry sauce. This I can eat.
Outside, the Russians cheer.
I drift out of the conversation – camera crews, support services – and turn to watch a Chinese family at a table near ours. A toddler slips between the chairs, his bottom swinging through the hole in his pants. Jackson has told me the Chinese consider nappies to be unhygienic. What he hasn’t told me is what happens when the toddler springs a leak. I try the tricks I think a child might like – winking, sticking my tongue out – but there is no reaction. He is thinking deeply about something, and it is not about a brunette with the beer moustache at the other table. At least his mother smiles at me. Suddenly she grabs the toddler and whisks him through the door. I watch them pass the Russians on their way to the toilets. Someone near me catches their breath.
‘No relationship is perfect,’ Stevie is saying. ‘Happiness depends on how much imperfection you’re prepared to put up with.’
What’s this? How have they travelled from pancakes to platitudes? Stevie is near tears and the others are concentrating hard on their food. Jackson’s face is even more obtuse than the rest.
‘Ness, has anyone taken you to Jenny Lou’s?’
It takes me a second to realise the American opposite is speaking to me. He has a pleasant face but the eyes of a drinker.
‘I don’t think I’ve met her,’ I say.
They all laugh and I know I’ve been exposed.
‘So who is she?’ I say, and they laugh again.
‘It’s a Western grocery store,’ says Stevie. ‘Same as April Gourmet’s. Jackson’s got us buying Australian cheeses there.’
‘How patriotic,’ I say.
Stevie leans forward. Do I sense a collective intake of breath? Beside me, Jackson is still.
‘The closest Jenny Lou’s,’ she says, ‘is not far from you and Jackson in Chaoyang Qu. I think…’
She sits back in her seat. Looks are exchanged. Happily, more beer arrives. All this food and drink would have pleased the Empress, I think.
The mother and toddler are back and the family gathers up the accoutrements of baby-life and leaves. I choose this moment to exit too, my bladder unused to so much beer. When I step outside, the heat is welcome and real, and the rain feels like the break in a heat wave at home – a blessed release after days of unbearable edginess.
The Russians’ table is strewn with empty dishes and they are sitting back under a tree hung with red paper lanterns. One of them, a man with a shaved head and broad face, winks at me as I stumble out. He has the even, white teeth of a wealthy man or a gangster. His eyes travel from my face down to my feet. As I walk by, I sense his eyes on my back.
When I emerge, the shaved Russian stands and displays his teeth.
‘Goot ev-neeng,’ he says.
His teammates pause with their glasses mid-air.
‘Hello,’ I say. I don’t feel threatened. I am too old and weary for him; too muscularly deficient, too vocationally bland.
‘I have watched you,’ he says in his deep accent. ‘Will you permit me to buy you a drink? Promote international harmony?’
‘Thank you but my friends…’
He meets my eye. ‘Your friends,’ he says, ‘do not see you are gone.’ I look through the window. I feel like a voyeur, or a burglar, looking in from the darkness on a houseful of merry guests. Stevie’s arms are raised like a bird in flight and they are all laughing – even
Jackson has permitted himself a smile.
‘One drink,’ I say to the Russian. ‘In the spirit of Olympic cooperation.’
All eight of them make a great show of gallantry, moving aside their glasses, their plates and themselves to make room for me. They smell of Chinese food, beer and something else exotic.
‘I am Yuri,’ says the Russian.
‘Vanessa,’ I say.
‘Ah, the butterfly.’
He smiles at my surprise. He is right – my name is a genus of butterfly. I look at him more closely and see that though his eyes are strong-willed steel, they are also intelligent, and though his lips are thin, his mouth is generous. His hands, which lie palm-down on the table, have long fingers. A blue tattoo twists around his wrist.
‘Chinese say butterfly is symbol of young love,’ he says and those lips curl upwards.
I realise I am enjoying myself, sitting in the heat and the rain, watching his hands and trying to guess the mystery ingredient to his smell.
‘But in my language, butterfly means dusha – the soul,’ he says. Neither leather nor citrus. It is more like the earth. Like animal.
‘You want beer, Butterfly?’
Through the window I see Jackson has changed places and is now sitting next to Stevie. They are talking – Jackson’s fringe obscuring half his face – their eyes centred on a spot midway on each other’s clavicles. Damn shame, I think, I have not yet mastered the art of slicing the skin from Peking duck.
My Russian studies me and I see he is as focused as the Chinese toddler, making a choice as to whether he will make a fool of himself or not. Finally he winks and points to his colleagues.
‘Russian mafia,’ he says. ‘You want the man killed?’ At his words, the rain stops.
He slashes a finger across his neck. ‘The woman, too?’ A switch is flicked. Something stops in my chest.
Outside my vision there is a sudden fluttering and falling – the wings of a hundred birds, the shards of a broken cocoon – and all the things which have been denied have been made undeniable and real by this stranger. I want to run. The alcohol rises in my throat.
Drive away. Drive away. Fly away.
‘Dusha, don’t go.’ Yuri stands and takes off his red jacket and shoes. He wears track pants and a thin white singlet. ‘Don’t go. I am sorry. Watch. Watch! ’
He speaks in Russian to his team-mates who stand and start stripping down. All have chest muscles like stylised armour and thin waists. Yuri puts his hands on the bench beside me and, shifting his weight, he begins to lift his legs which are as taut as wire.
I can’t speak. The shards are still falling.
Yuri’s legs rise further. Up, up, like the hands of a clock. I glance nervously towards the waitress.
‘Chinese love gymnastic,’ he says. ‘Gymnastic is Chinese culture, too. Thousands years old. Entertainment for Emperor. Good preparation for war.’
His body is now aligned in a handstand. Another team-mate puts his hands on the bench and pulls himself into a handstand. Then another and another. Surrounding me are eight inverted gymnasts – human perfection – as still and silent as terracotta warriors. Yuri breaks the pose, springing backwards off the bench. He lands and springs again and his body twists like a rope in the air, too fast for the eye. He lands at the entrance gate and reverts back to a handstand, stepping up onto the doorway which is raised to keep out evil spirits.
‘Watch! Watch! ’
Up and down he steps. His friends break their handstands, and one springs onto the branch of the tree. He holds his body and brings his legs up. A third is on the courtyard’s cobblestones. On two hands he spins himself and his outstretched legs in a move which seems impossible. Another walks the balance beam on the bench. One Russian back-flips past the toilets, slipping slightly on the wet stones, and another takes a run up and cartwheels through the air. They whoop. Above me the Russian in the tree hangs suspended, cross-like between branches. Yuri tumbles back over the stones and leaps onto the table. Glasses slip sideways.
The Chinese chefs and waitress are clapping, and Jackson and his friends have spilled into the courtyard.
‘Ness, what the hell?’
‘Come,’ says Yuri and he holds out his hand to me. I shake my head.
‘They are watching,’ he says.
His hand seems enormous, as large as a lake full of koi, and his palm glows with the light reflected from the red lanterns. The red light creeps to his wrist and awakens his tattoo, turning it purple. Its fins shake and its tail swirls, it bites, and for the first time in months anger surges through me. I don’t even look at Jackson as I throw off his jacket and grab the Russian’s wrist, allowing him to draw me up, shivering and burning, onto the table between the glasses. His teammates leap up beside him. They are shiny with sweat. Yuri holds me steady under one armpit and a team-mate takes my other arm and a third is at my feet. A fourth stands behind me.
‘ Ahdeen… Dvah … Tree…’ says Yuri. And I am raised.