Nick Marland is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction who has appeared in Tincture Journal, Going Down Swinging, Seizure, The Lifted Brow, Griffith REVIEW, Voiceworks, Stories of Sydney, the UTS Writers’ Anthology and ABC’s The Drum. He once tripped up Woody Allen and spent three days as an illegal alien in Belarus.
This story first appeared in Issue Eighteen of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.
All images: Collection of the Museum Rietberg Zürich
Helen Bao-Jin Lei was sure the attaché, who never introduced himself, frowned when she introduced herself in fluent Mandarin. He definitely gave the translator who stood next to him a bemused look, as though a grand joke had been played on the whole of China. I thought she was from Australia? he said in his native tongue, as though Helen wasn’t there. He was young, aloof—aloof? no, snotty, self-important, someone’s nephew—and barely gave Helen a second look. He thumbed at his phone while the translator, a small diffident woman with long straight black hair, stepped forward to help the new arrival with her luggage, asking in English her about her flight. Why had they bothered to assign her a translator? The name hadn’t been a giveaway? Although she spoke to them in Mandarin, Helen’s ancestral dialect was Cantonese. This was her first trip to China but it felt like a homecoming—that was, if you lived in the kind of home where you suspected people were crouched behind the furniture listening and watching. The whole flight from Honkers she’d been wondering why she’d taken the job. Well, besides the ridiculous money. There was that.
From the back seat of the town car she watched the city fringe ooze across the tinted windows. Inside the bounds of the Fourth Ring Road, in a thick clot of crawling traffic, the car repeatedly overtook and was overtaken by a man on a bicycle with a pyramid of mangoes teetering on its back pallet. Rickshaws disappeared down alleys into the slums that someone such as the attaché would inform you didn’t exist in Beijing. There he was still thumbing his phone, crushing candy at dizzying speeds. It didn’t quite look like the official, Western version of the game: a crow kept flapping across the screen dropping more infuriating candy, and clusters of hanzi characters keep popping up proclaiming things like EXCELLENT or FAILURE. The translator looked to be browsing a homewares website, via a browser Helen didn’t recognise. Out on the street low-slung powerlines lashed to buildings that looked as though the bricks had fallen out of the sky and landed by chance in passable structures. People could be glimpsed cooking outdoors on grills and in fire pits. Inside the car, she noticed now, the air was lightly scented with fake lavender.