by Laura Besley
Another day dawns. Outside the artificially darkened hotel room the sun has pushed its way up over steely skyscrapers into a smoggy sky. The sheets are cool from the air-conditioning. I turn over and check the time, the best part of the day already gone. A remote control opens the curtains, another turns on the television.
I walk, naked, to the bathroom, a room white and bright like a hospital operating theatre. Standing under the jet, I wonder how to fill the hours until dinner at eight (local time). Usually there are familiar faces on these trips; the husbands at the same meetings, the wives in the spa, at long lunches, bemoaning the strains of international life. Today, no one is here, just me and Ted.
Several dresses hang in the wardrobe, all bland and without personalities. When did I get so old? So boring? I pull the least drab one off its hanger, apply makeup and blow dry my hair. My watch tells me it’s just after noon.
Marble and chandeliers fill the lobby.
‘Can you recommend somewhere for lunch?’ I ask the concierge.
‘Of course. There are many fantastic places here in the business district, or you can cross to The Bund.’ His accent is almost flawless.
‘I’ll do that.’
He hails a taxi and tells the driver where to take me in a dialect of Mandarin I will never understand, let alone speak.
As the taxi speeds across the Huangpu river, a wide water that unconsciously divides the city into old and new, I try to remember the last time I ventured out into a city, breached the walls of the hotel complex.
We stop outside the low European-styled buildings and I pay the driver double the fare. He smiles, teeth yellowed and uneven. I start walking, away from the opulence of the embankment, large streets giving way to side streets, the sun warming my back. The buildings become smaller, until they are like toy houses. Women sit outside, knitting, peeling potatoes, chatting.
I buy a bun from a steaming bamboo basket. The hot, sticky bread is filled with barbequed pork. I nibble around the edges, then my bites grow bigger and bigger. I buy another bun, a third.
My phone beeps. A message from Ted: Bob and Francis joining us for dinner.
The sun is falling fast. My legs and feet throb. I descend into the depths of the nearest underground station, check the map, buy a ticket and join the crowds of people squashed into the train. A few minutes later I emerge onto a corner of Shanghai, somewhere near the hotel. I stare at the fast food restaurants, the shops, the bus stop. A moped whizzes past, balancing several passengers. An old man on a rusty bike. It all looks familiar, and I stand, transfixed, until someone walks into me.
‘It was really weird,’ I say, over dinner that evening. ‘I really felt like I’d been there before.’
Ted smiles, all teeth and no eyes, and pats my hand. ‘It’s not possible, darling. We’ve never been to Shanghai before.’
‘I know,’ I say, leaning back in my chair. ‘That’s what’s so strange.’
‘Maybe it was déjà vu,’ Bob says, mouth chewing on medium-rare steak.
‘According to an article I read once,’ Francis says, ‘déjà vu is something to do with the long-term and short-term memory getting confused.’
I take a sip of wine. ‘Déjà vu, you’re probably right.’
The identical suits all nod and the conversation moves on.
Ted presses the button for the top floor and exhales as the lift doors close. ‘Are you alright?’
‘I don’t know. I woke up this morning and felt so old.’
He sighs. ‘We’re all getting older.’
‘It’s not just that. I didn’t recognize myself. What’s happened to us? When you first got this job we were going to explore together, go sightseeing, eat local food, become true world citizens. Remember?’
‘We tried, but it was just so tiring.’
‘You know what I’m tired of? This half-life; living out of a suitcase, waking up in a different city every week. I want a job, my own friends, a normal life.’
‘And what about me? Us?’
‘When I stood on that street corner this afternoon, I knew I hadn’t been there before, but I think my brain was trying to tell me something: that I was everywhere and nowhere all at the same time.’ I look at Ted, the crow’s feet nestled around his eyes. ‘I want the you-and-me that we used to be.’
The lift doors open. Ted and I walk down the corridor, he half a stride ahead of me. He slots the key card into the door and says, ‘The you-and-me that we used to be doesn’t exist anymore. We grew up.’ He pauses for a beat and then walks into the room, leaving me standing on a strangely patterned carpet that I know I’ve seen somewhere else, but can’t remember where.