THE COME CLATTERING down the stairwells and surge onto the platform around her: revoltingly young, for the most part, and energetic too, striding, laughing, chatting, texting, bouncing and bobbing to the music in their earphones. Marilyn feels exhausted just looking at them. She presses the manuscript to her chest as if it were an amulet.
She wishes the manuscript were about vampires. If it were, she′d be that much more confident that Xiaojun would like it. But it′s not. She wishes she were a vampire. If she were, she′d stick her fangs into one of these horrifying young people and suck up some of their appalling vitality. But she′s not. So she looks at her shoes instead.
She′d cleaned them before leaving her rented flat but the short trot to the subway station at Andingmen left them coated in a fine layer of yellow dust. They appear to her as hazy as the buildings across the street on a bad air day.
Marilyn believes in the power of positive thinking and visualisation. She does not think that the universe will shine her shoes. But she does think that, if she asks nicely enough, it will get Xiaojun to make her screenplay into a movie. She pictures an opening night, a red carpet, a cinema screen, a film, her name in the credits, applause. While she′s at it, she visualises her purse as containing more – much more – than the hundred and four yuan she has to get through the rest of the week. One hundred and two, now that she′s paid for her train ticket.
Pathetic. She is forty-seven and she has little more to her name than a bundle of dreams in a plastic folder. She thinks of the lyrics to that Chinese rock song popular back in the ′80s: But all you ever do is laugh at me,′cause I′ve got nothing to my name. It mocks her.
She′d first come to Beijing in 1985, to work as a 'foreign expert′ – a fancy name for an English teacher. She was twenty-two then, freshly graduated from a course in literature, clean of slate. She′d had nothing to her name, but no one else in China did either. Blond hair, youth and a smattering of Chinese had been currency enough. She drew crowds, attracted job offers, pulled invitations simply by buying a yoghurt, strolling through a park or waiting for a bus. Beijing′s cool kids, smart kids, its avant-garde – poets, musicians, artists, filmmakers – sought her out. Ordinary back home – an average university graduate of average grades, average looks and average blondness – Marilyn became special in a China hungry for the exotic, the new, the foreign, and she basked in that specialness.
She began hankering to become an artist herself. She sang in a little band with some Chinese girlfriends but it broke up; she tried drawing but couldn′t get the knack. She began keeping journals and, tentatively at first but with increasing confidence, started dropping phrases like 'the novel I′m writing′ and 'my screenplay′ into conversation. Her Chinese friends called her a writer and said they wished they read English so they could appreciate her writing.
And so a gap year abroad turned into two turned into three turned into four, and journals turned into tentative drafts. After the Beijing massacre of June 1989 she returned weeping and pale to Australia, but felt oddly lost, disoriented, invisible, just one more average blond in a sea of average blonds. Several pointless jobs, a marriage, a divorce and years later she decided to return to China, now generally acknowledged to be, if not quite the centre of the world, a very happening place. Six months ago she′d boarded a plane to Beijing with her savings, her computer, her drafts and her hopes crammed into a purse, a carry-on bag and 23.2 kilograms of checked luggage.
Marilyn was bewildered by the changes to 'her′ city, now brimming with possibility in a way no one could have foreseen back then.
She looked up old friends. Most of the poets had emigrated; one who hadn′t worked in advertising and was very busy but delighted to hear from her and wanted to do lunch. It was short. A muso whose rebellious lyrics, long hair and wiry physique used to make her faint with desire had grown paunchy and bald; as an enthusiastic new Christian, he was on a mission to bring Christian rock to the masses. She fled his attempts to convert her. Of her painter friends, those savvy enough to ride the art boom had built huge studio-residences in the suburbs, where they lived with their twenty-year-old mistress-assistants. After she′d admired their latest work and they′d all reheated some funny anecdotes from the ′80s, there wasn′t much left to say. As for the filmmakers, she couldn′t even get past the secretaries to their personal assistants.
Meanwhile, a new generation of cool kids had sprung up. They knew everything about social media but cared nothing for poetry. And there was a dismaying number of foreigners: entire settlements and malls and bar districts full of them. Blonds were myriad and mostly Chinese. Marilyn was almost as invisible in Beijing as in Sydney.
Xiaojun had seen her, though. He approached her that day in the wi-fi café on Nanluoguxiang: tall, good-looking and trendy, with a floppy lock of hair over one eye. She′d been job-hunting on the internet. He asked if he could sit down with her. If she were twenty, she might have thought he was flirting with her.
He asked what she was doing, and she bluffed: 'Working on my screenplay.′ It turned out Xiaojun was in film. His company, Young Lion, had a few projects in production. She should come talk to them. He dealt her his name card and punched her number into his phone. He had to be older than he looked, she guessed, for he projected confidence and authority.
Xiaojun called later that afternoon, and the day after, chasing an appointment. She′d feigned a busy schedule, in truth needing a few days to polish her draft. It had all been very random. It was also the most exciting thing that had happened since her return. It could be – she visualised – it was, her big break.
SHE DOUBLE-CHECKS THAT she is on the correct side of the platform: one track on the circle line, the Number 2, traces the route of the old city wall clockwise, the other counter-clockwise. Xiaojun′s office is five stops counter-clockwise.
A shudder, a muted roar, a breeze and the train arrives in sync with its digital timetable and aligns with the markings on the platform. The doors slide open, and the packed carriage expels passengers who instantly gain in volume, like decompressing files. A dozen people who had been behind Marilyn a second ago stream into the car in front of her. She injects herself into the mass. On board, as the doors hiss closed, she inhales the fruity perfume of the girl next to her, the garlic breath of the man behind and her own trickling sweat. She feels her lipstick feather. She dishevels.
On the flat-screen TV by the door, chopstick-thin models swing down a catwalk in wok-shaped skirts. A friend who was a model once told her that the trick to staying cool while being photographed in winter clothes on a beach under the summer sun was to curl your tongue and breathe in. She tries this but senses two young men staring at her – an eccentric foreigner making funny faces. An eccentric old foreigner. She hugs the manuscript tighter.
Her sweaty thoughts fly back to Xiaojun.
Something a Chinese girlfriend said when she′d mentioned Xiaojun: 'Maybe he′s looking for a sugar mama.′
'No way,′ she′d said, stung.
'Well, he′s probably after something. Besides, who is he? What do you know about him?′
'He′s cool.′ Marilyn was not going to admit she knew nothing.
'Just be careful.′
The train sidles into the station at Fuchengmen. She follows Xiojun′s directions, stumbling along side streets, the view blurred by construction, until she finds the address. She checks it. She isn′t sure what she was expecting. She tells herself that the place is – she scrabbles for the right word – edgy. There is no sign but a door pushes open. She finds herself in a courtyard where a boy in a T-shirt advertising his taste for the indie band Brain Failure stands smoking a cigarette and staring into the distance.
He eyeballs her, pulls on his cigarette and in the choked voice of inhale drawls, 'Zhao shei?′ Who′re you looking for?
She notices a table behind him, at which are seated four or five other apparently aimless and affected young people. Xiaojun is not among them. They swivel their necks to look at her with incurious expressions. One of the girls manages half a smile. 'Ayi,′ she says. 'You shi ma?′ Something we can do for you, ayi?
Marilyn has never been called ayi before. Auntie. She flounders, winded. When she first arrived in China, she learned the word as meaning either 'maid′ or 'auntie′ and serving as a respectful but familiar address for older women, the sort who have stepped off the path of life to rest on its park benches, occasionally handing out snacks or cheering on those still racing ahead.
'Zhao shei?′ the standing boy repeats, as though to someone of limited intelligence.
'Xiaojun,′ she answers, wavering. Is she even in the right place?
'Xiaojun!′ the boy bellows up at the building.
Xiaojun comes clattering down unseen steps. He seems younger here, as he shakes her hand with an uncertain expression and urges her to sit down while falling into another chair. He fails to introduce the others.
No one speaks. She wonders if she is the only one who finds this awkward. After a few minutes Xiaojun stands and invites her to come inside. There are several signs inside the office. She is reassured to see that one indicates it is the headquarters of the Young Lions. An eclectic series of film posters is tacked to the walls: The Matrix, Toy Story 2, Breathless, Rashômon and Lust, Caution. She is still wondering what Young Lion might have to do with any of these when he leads her up wooden steps to a mezzanine. A fleet of desks occupies one end of the room. Another inexplicable selection of young people sit at these, staring into computer screens or eating instant noodles. One or two glance their way but don′t say anything. A conference room with a view of the computer crew runs along the other side and tinted windows at the back demarcate a closed office. He shows her into the conference room and they seat themselves at the long table. 'So,′ he begins.
'So,′ she echoes. She sets her folder down on the table. A silence blows in like the breeze heralding a train′s arrival on the platform. Please mind the gap, she thinks, taking in the movie posters that here too are plastered around the walls: Clueless, The Mummy, Flashdance, Casablanca. She pushes the folder a centimetre in his direction.
He opens his mouth to say something and a pop song bursts forth from his pocket. Meile meile meile, wo zuile zuile zuile. Beauty beauty beauty, you make me drunk drunk drunk. He tosses her an apologetic glance and answers the call. He listens for a moment and, mumbling something about being in a production meeting, hangs up.
'Perhaps you could tell me something about your company,′ she says, wondering if the boss will emerge to join them. 'Then we can talk about ways we might work together. As you know, I′m a writer...′
'We have writers,′ he assures her.
'I′m thinking something bigger.′
Her hopes soar.
'Co-production,′ he says.
She is confused.
'We′re looking for investors.′
He does not seem to comprehend what she tells him about her interests and her finances. She is not sure whether this is the fault of her patchy Chinese or something more fundamental. He switches tack, proposes to be her agent and to sell her work for huge amounts of money. He claims to be the agent of three famous pop stars whose names mean nothing to her. When she doesn′t respond, uncertain as to what she could possibly say, he asks her if she is married, if she has a boyfriend. Panic rises in her chest; the room is stuffy and she feels beads of sweat forming on her upper lip.
She is still trying to think of what she should say when Xiaojun suddenly deflates. Bravado escapes him like a gas. Even his gaze appears to collapse inward. He stares at the table.
'Whatever happens, it′s fate that we met,′ he tells his hands, glancing up at her with suddenly pathetic eyes. 'It′s karma. And we′ll be friends forever, won′t we?′
'Of course we will,′ she answers, feeling guilty at her insincerity. She realises that he has an accent from somewhere in the south, in the countryside. She realises he′s probably one of those kids who has come to Beijing chasing dreams that haven′t quite come good. They are not wholly dissimilar, she and him. The thought is not comforting.
Best of friends. He holds out his right hand with the pinkie extended. Numbly, she hooks her own pinkie around his and they bring the flat of their thumbs together, as though stamping and sealing the promise. She tries to smile.
'Look. It′s like this,′ he blurts. 'Could you loan me a hundred yuan? I can′t pay my phone bill.′
ON THE TRAIN home, Marilyn finds a seat, a small miracle in a day in which wine has turned to water. Her mind feels both empty and full, a zen koan with no hands clapping. Her manuscript rests, unclutched, on her lap. No one is looking at her and she is grateful for her invisibility. The next stop is Xuanwumen, says the recorded announcement, and she realises she′s going in the wrong direction. She doesn′t have the energy to disembark. She decides to ride the circle line the long way back to Andingmen.
On the television screen, a cartoon blob imparts cheerful aphorisms on the subject of courtesy and manners. The train slides into Qianmen and an old couple gets on. As though from a different universe, they are tiny, their clothes patched and threadbare. The man′s eyes are gone from their sockets, and they both bear terrible burn scars. The old woman grips her husband′s thin arm with a three-fingered hand. In the other hand nests a small collection of worn one-yuan notes. There is scarcely enough for a bowl of noodles.
Passengers focus on their phones, their books, their iPods, their laps. Some brusquely add a note or coin to the pile and quickly avert their gaze, accepting the woman′s thanks and blessing with impatient smiles.
Marilyn, staring at her dusty shoes, senses the moment the old woman spots her: the atmosphere shifts.
'Money, money, sank you, sank you.′
Marilyn is aware that she has become the focus of the entire carriage. Cheeks flushing, she fumbles her wallet out of her bag and opens it without thinking. The woman′s eyes brighten at the sight of the red banknote with Chairman Mao′s face. The hundred-yuan banknote. Marilyn does not know what to do except hand it to the old woman. The woman bows low, and bows again.
'Sank you, sank you, sank you, sank you.′
They shuffle off, but the carriage′s attention lingers on Marilyn. Marilyn feels foolish, certain that everyone is thinking that foreigners are too rich for their own good, gullible, dumb. When she glances around, she sees all that but she also sees friendliness, empathy, and small nods of sympathy and recognition. She is visible. She is special. She breathes. She will be okay. The circle line will take her home.