The Woman I Remember

Visible Ink

AFTER passing through throngs of poor Chinese outside the station and negotiating queues of rich Chinese in the ticket hall, you and I finally make it onto the train platform, which is crowded with both groups. Men, women and children are packed so tightly together they have become one seething mass of human flesh.

I imagine this entity as a person who is both male and female, old and young. The person is wearing a rich man’s jacket and a schoolgirl’s dress. Begrimed beggar’s fingers protrude from sleeves adorned with gold cufflinks. One of the person’s thighs is brown and cracked, desiccated like a dried-up riverbed, and the other is milky-white and youthful. The person’s skin is wrinkled under the chin and taut on the cheeks.

A train screeches into the station. We become swept up in the tide of bodies clambering for the carriage door. Somehow, we keep our heads above the surface of jostling shoulders, paddle past the flailing limbs and make it onto the train without being crushed alive.

I look at your shocked expression and know what you’re thinking. I had the same thought the first time I found myself part of a desperate mob in China. How can there be this many arms and legs in the one place? This many kicking feet, jabbing elbows and clawing hands?

As we fight our way to the dining carriage I note that you have not yet complained about the constant shoving. I broach the subject, almost apologising on China’s behalf. Rudeness is a necessity here, I explain. With so many people competing for so few resources, one needs to be pushy to survive. Politeness is a luxury enjoyed in rich and roomy nations.

A boy scampers past carrying a bowl of steaming noodles. Suddenly he slips, sending pasta tendrils snaking across the linoleum floor. From the volume of his crying, I assume he won’t be getting another bowl tonight. I know that you have a spare noodle packet and, given the circumstances, I expect you to hand it to him. Instead, your head morphs into a carnival clown’s and the carriage booms with cackling.

That was an extract from the full story, available here.