GHOSTS

by Trevor Wadlow

When Wang stepped out of the elevator of the Hefei Hotel Harmony he saw that Reception was already busy. Most of the guests checking out were Chinese but there was a large foreign woman with wild blond hair checking in. Late fifties, maybe, perspiring and flustered in the summer heat. As Wang approached the desk she became a mere blond blip on his radar. Wang often felt this way around foreigners. He could chat with them, do business with them, have dinner with them but he never quite accepted them somehow. Outside of social or business contexts he avoided them. He often recalled that the Cantonese slang for foreigner was ‘ghost’. Flimsy, ethereal things that did not really exist. Even though he wasn’t Cantonese, ghosts was also how Wang thought of foreigners.

Now there was only her voice: high-pitched, agitated, fretful. “British Council . . . bloody passport, I know it’s here somewhere.” Keys clinking on the desk surface, papers being slapped down.

Wang checked out and handed back his key card to the pretty receptionist. He could tell by her accent that she was a local girl. Responding to her the Mandarin stuck in his throat, a language he only ever spoke when outside Shanghai. By this time the blond foreign lady was gone. As Wang leant to grab his bag, something caught his eye: an orange square of card, conspicuous on the brown surface of the desk top. The receptionists were busy with PC screens, guests fumbled and moved off. Without thinking further, Wang scooped up the ticket, shoved it in his pocket and headed off to the car park.

* * *

Turning onto the motorway, Wang lit up a Double Happiness cigarette and lowered the window to prevent the odour of smoke from permeating the upholstery. His ten year old daughter, Dan Dan, had a nose for cigarette smoke and was forever at him to quit smoking. He was touched by her concern but found it difficult to quit, especially as everyone he knew smoked at least a pack a day. He smiled now as he pictured Dan Dan waiting at home. She should be back from the dance studio by this time, hyped up from her exertions. Dancing had been his wife’s idea. Wei Wei worried that their daughter was overweight, but it was understandable considering the amount of food she put away. Of course she was their little princess, of course they indulged her. How was it possible not to indulge an only child?

All in all, life was good. He had his family and his guanxi— his network of close associates. His family gave him sanctuary, something to care about; his guanxi eased his path through life and made his wonderful family possible. Just a week earlier a friend/business associate, Hong Quan, had got into a disagreement with a security guard about double parking. The argument had ended with Hong hitting the security guard, knocking him unconscious. Police and ambulance were called. A lawyer made threats about having Hong sent to prison. Luckily, the chief of police was part of Wang’s guanxi. The charges were dropped and the security guard’s family settled for a cash sum. Hong was overwhelmed with gratitude. Wang was glad to be of assistance.

That was friendship. Wang recalled an article he had read recently in Shanghai Daily. A survey of foreigners had concluded that Chinese people were only friendly if they thought you might be useful, and promptly dropped you if you weren’t. Such articles made Wang angry. What the hell was wrong with these people? Wang often went to the same bars and restaurants as the foreigners, especially when he wanted to impress a new client from out of town. Many times he had observed the foreigners in the Shanghai Brewery, huddled around tables, drinking far too much and chatting endlessly about—what? It was a mystery to him. He never wasted time in such a manner. His potential client was there to be courted. This might involve moderate amounts of alcohol and a trip to the local massage parlour afterwards but the end point was always the same: business. What could be simpler than that?

The phone tucked into the dashboard suddenly flashed and bleeped. Wang recognized the number on the screen as that of the Hefei Hotel Harmony. He hit REPLY.

“Good evening, Mr Wang. This is the reception manager.”

“Ah yes?” His first thought was that he had left his phone charger in the room again.

“I’m sure it was an accident but when you were checking out today you picked up someone’s train ticket?”

“No I didn’t.” Wang heard his own voice speaking far too quickly.

“You were standing next to a foreign lady.”

“There were lots of people at reception. I can’t remember. Anyway, you must be mistaken. I didn’t take anyone’s train ticket.”

“I’m afraid I’m not, sir. You see, we have cameras over the reception area. The footage shows you taking the ticket. One of my colleagues identified you.”

Wang instinctively patted his jacket pocket until he felt the outline of the small, orange square of card.

“I must have picked it up by accident. Like you said.”

“The thing is, the foreign lady needs that ticket in order to get back to Shanghai. The trains are now full so it’s too late to book another one.”

“So what do you suggest I do?”

“In the circumstances I feel you should bring the ticket back to the hotel.”

Wang himself was amazed at what came out of his mouth next. “Out of the question. I’m miles away.”

Wang could hear the manager covering the mouthpiece and mumbling to someone. When he finally returned he said, “How about I send someone to meet you to collect the ticket?”

“You’ll have to be quick. I need to get home.”

Arrangements were made. This involved Wang backtracking a few miles to the nearest town but this was a minor hindrance. Returning to the Hotel Harmony was unthinkable. Other attendees at the Wind and Water Pump Conference— slogan “Better pumps, better life”—might still be checking out. The possible loss of face was too much to bear.

* * *

It was a small town that was identical to many other small Chinese towns, not much more than a High Street with a KFC and a McDonald’s, a row of shabby noodle bars billowing steam, a hardware store, and a Family Mart. A warehouse whose Chinese name suggested hotel outfitters announced in English, HOTEL THING CONFLUENCE. If he hadn’t seen the road sign he wouldn’t know exactly where he was.

Wang brought his BMW to a halt outside the Hotel 168, leaned back, lit up another Double Happiness and punched a number into his phone. After two rings his wife picked up. “Jie?”

“I’m running late, darling. I left something at the hotel. I have to go back.”

“Not your phone charger again?”

The lie came fully-formed on his lips. “An important document belonging to a client. There’s no time to have it sent on.”

“OK, darling. What time will you be home?”

“Around nine.”

“I won’t start cooking till you’re well on the way then.”

Wang had only just slipped the phone back into its holder when lights flashed in the rear view mirror. A small, black minibus, the kind used for hospitality trips by hotels, pulled up behind Wang’s BMW. Wang pushed open the door and got out. By this time the driver, a tall, wiry young man wearing a uniform that bore the Hilton logo, was standing at the kerb, staring down at the pavement as if showing respect at a passing funeral cortege. Wang handed him the train ticket.

“Thank you, sir.” The young man nodded without looking at him and got back into the van.

* * *

Janice Henderson stared uncomprehendingly at the train ticket. “But I don’t understand how he could have taken it in the first place.”

“Maybe he thought it belonged to a friend,” said the receptionist, clearly keen to have the matter over with.

“But the camera showed that there were only two of us at the desk at that time.”

The receptionist smiled. “The most important thing is that we got the ticket back.”

“Yes, but—“

The receptionist was already busy with another guest. “Can I help you?”

* * *

As Wang’s BMW rejoined the motorway he realized that he was angry with himself. When he went over that moment of madness at the reception it was as though another person had taken over, a man who saw the chance to get something for nothing. The worst kind of peasant. With a nod and a wink he could have got a refund for that ticket, even though he didn’t need the money, which made his actions even more mysterious. Would he have taken the ticket if it had belonged to a Chinese guest? He couldn’t help thinking about those pathetic young men who spent a fortune on the grabber machine in the hope of winning a cheap packet of cigarettes: something for nothing, even though it wasn’t. And yet that wasn’t it.

Over and over he described the event to himself as though doing so would solve the mystery: I was checking out. At first reception was busy but soon there were just two of us. Me and a foreign lady. A flimsy, ethereal thing. Not really there. A ghost.

______________________________

Trevor Wadlow was born in the UK in 1954. He now lives in Shanghai where he teaches English for Academic Purposes at Donghua University. In 2001 House of Stratus published his novel, TOUCHED, and in 1999 a graphic children’s book, WINNERS AND LOSERS, was published by A&C Black. His short fiction has appeared in Ambit, Eclectica, and London Magazine.