by Titus Green
It began at Nanjing Central Railway Station. The boarding process had been neither smooth nor pleasant, but had involved sitting morosely in the main departure area on a row of functionally comfortable seats not ideal for hosting hours of brooding introspection. The interior concourse of Nanjing Station was essentially an extended department store offering high-cost designer watches, jewellery, iPhones and other vulgar tokens of accelerated affluence. It was as though a part of Dubai had been loaned out to modern China.
He had been squinting at the illuminated departure notice boards and the incomprehensible Chinese pictographs to make absolutely certain that his train was leaving at the place and time that the ticket claimed it would. Clueless, monolingual Caucasians had to be constantly prepared for beguiling messages and myriad scams in China that were often expensive. For example, just to amplify his misery, he’d “misunderstood” the room-charging structure at the hotel he’d stayed at for two nights, just like he’d misread the signals of the woman he’d placed on the doomed Skype conversation pedestal for the last three months.
When was he ever going to know better? When would he learn from his terrible track-record in long-distance cyber wooing? The emphatic thumbs down from Tracy burned like mustard gas on the raw skin of his self-esteem. At forty-five, he’d been on the receiving end of the silent you’re just not my type message too many times. During dates, it was always communicated with crossed legs, folded arms, and furtive yet blatant glances at watches, iPhones or the door. He was a master of awkward moments and provider of wine-bar seduction dialogue so miserably inept that he could not decide whether it was better suited to a psychiatric counselling session or in a Seinfield episode, milked for laughs.
The gate announcement revealed his as lucky number thirteen. He shuffled over to join the growing queue of waiting passengers. Behind their stereotypically ‘inscrutable’ facial expressions, described so prosaically in the narrative of orientalist writers of the past, there was a desperate impatience and detestation of waiting that would have resulted in a lethal stampede and potentially grim BBC World headline had the station guards not exerted their authority forcefully. British Man Killed in Chinese Station Stampede.
After he got through the ticket barrier, he couldn’t stop himself from doling out violence on his luggage. He tossed his small black plastic grip down the stairs and onto the platform, where it rattled in protest. A wizened-faced, stooping old hag swivelled her head and judged his behaviour with a witch’s laugh. He glanced back at her and muttered profane insults bitterly at the station, the city and everybody in it. He couldn’t wait to leave Nanjing and was never coming back.
He walked to the train, boarded the sleek tube of metal and glass and settled himself into his seat. The carriage was packed with passengers conspicuously more affluent than their grandparents of the Deng Xiaoping years. Most of the seats accommodated customers of Hugo Boss, Armani or check-patterned Burberry. Their ancestors had probably made a similar journey early in the last century, sanguine and dopey on the charity opium of the British Empire. Today, however, the opiates were digital, and the passengers’ iPhones and tablet screens comprehensively monopolised attention.
“We would like to welcome you onto this train,” said the English public address with commendable sincerity, as the train accelerated smoothly away from the station. Within minutes, the train was slicing through patchwork swathes of rural China and thick smog soon draped itself over the rice fields and conurbations.
The fog provided the perfect metaphor for his state of mind, and possibly the rest of his life. The future was a mysterious mist concealing monstrous uncertainties he did not want to see or attempt to preview with crystal balls or telephone astrology consultations at twenty five pounds a go. What had gone so wrong with Tracy? Why was she now certain to surgically remove him from her Skype and Facebook contact list as though he were an abscess? Had his fumbling, timid words been the decisive turn-off during their meeting? Or some neglected aspect of his grooming? He forced himself to review the words he had used in the chrome-packed karaoke bar in the central nightlife district of Nanjing. Although this post-mortem on the corpse of his romantic prospects was not going to be pleasant, it had to be done. The cause of death of potential intimacy with Tracy had to be established.
Was it because he had meekly churned out one tasteless plate of meaningless, pussy-footing waffle cakes after the next as he tried desperately to assemble aphrodisiac sentences to drop onto her with confidence? He already knew the answer: he had failed the challenge that this beguiling creature, with her delicate features and arsenal of coquettishness, had set him. As a result, all he had succeeded in doing for three hours was avoid flirtation. He’d been on the retreat during the entire date and hadn’t been bold enough to make a heterosexual stand like the men and movie actors of his father’s generation. Her initial discouraging signals had blasted him, and the masts on his lilting galleon of confidence had creaked conspicuously as they crashed into the colossal waves of Tracy’s increasing resistance. He had been stunned and disorientated by the mercurial transformation in her feelings towards him. What had happened to the friendly, flirtatious digital female whose face had broken into laughter at his bland jokes and whose syrupy tone of voice had suggested the two of them had a future? Where had that angel framed by the dense black background of the Skype screen gone?
However, he felt that there had been omens he had ignored. Sometimes, during their late night exploratory chats, the calls had constantly broken down with the irritating “water splash” sound effects from the software. As the bandwidth became depleted, her face would fleetingly lose its beauty and become a sinister, pixelated mess. Surely that was a sign of poor future reception between us, he said to the coffee cup gripped in his hand.
He peered at the factories and fields that appeared on one edge of the train window’s visual boundary, then drifted past like a mobile tapestry of the exterior world that so often baffled and threatened him. He shifted his gaze to the other passengers, their eyes fixed on the depressingly ubiquitous tablets and smartphones. Their eyes had a vacant look of mental surrender, as if the electronics were going to take care of everything. He reckoned there was not a single hand on the train not gripping the buccaneering intellectual property of Samsung or Apple and not a single pair of eyes not completely possessed by the screens. The tips of fingers danced on the screens like the legs of agitated spiders as gaming decisions were made, messages sent or doses of virtual experience purchased. Even the saggy-skinned old timers in the carriage, incongruous in their musty clothes, clasped the pricey plastic wedges in their hands and took their doses of sweet binary distraction.
“So this is what it means to cool and connected in 2013,” he said in a tone of thick disgust that prompted him to spit into the bottom of his cup.
“Do you come here often?” He cringed as he recalled the question he had resorted to in the bar. How on earth was this conversation going to compel her to undress? Or gaze at him with desire?
The train hurtled on, and the passengers around him either slurped foul-smelling noodles or stared gormlessly into their devices and watched agog as little bright coloured blocks moved around their screens. Other passengers were asleep and snorted like nasally congested pigs at regular intervals.
“Do you come here often?” He had mumbled the fumbling words of men who never got laid. No wonder she had started to fidget, to fold her arms and grasp her elbows in a non-verbal SOS. No wonder the subtle start of a grimace had formed in the contours of her cheeks as she turned to look away from him. No wonder she had started to look around her, just after the overpriced drinks arrived from Chinese bartenders who didn’t know that ice was obligatory in a glass of Baileys, or that customers’ drinks should ideally arrive within half an hour of being ordered. His desperation had been uncomfortably apparent to everybody but him, like an unzipped fly people chose not to mention.
Desperation is the world’s worst cologne.
He winced as he recalled the brash, cocky tag-line of the Australian pick-up vampire who’d tried to mentor him in seduction back when he’d lived in South Korea and taught English. He recalled the lessons in bar-stool nonchalance the man had tried to teach him over pitchers of beer in noisy Kangnam bars long before the western world associated that district of Seoul with a pudgy man in sunglasses and a garish tuxedo prancing around a techno music video set.
“Dude, even the fat ugly chicks and plain Janes will reject you if you show them you’re too eager.” He had listened to his companion’s words of advice as Britney Spears’ lyrics sent young Koreans into a drunken frenzy. The man’s eyes had then done a quick, casual survey of the girls who were drunk, alone and attractive enough to qualify for his skills. His eyes settled on a woozy-looking girl with a face so symmetrical that the cheekbones were worthy of an A-list fashion model.
The train was at full speed. He winced again at his eternal gaucheness. The humiliation hits had stacked up quickly in the bar, and as if there hadn’t been enough clear signs, her attention had started shifting away from him with a depressing lack of subtlety. She averted her gaze and treated eye-contact as a hazardous activity. To make matters worse, she attended to iPhone business—how totally humiliating was that?—no doubt sending out SMS (Save my Soul) messages to friends or alternative lovers who could perhaps help stage a rescue operation.
A sultry Fillipino singer punctuated deafening, illiterate rap songs played over the bar’s PA system with whiney karaoke numbers on a raised platform stage out front. So this is the cabaret of the twenty-first century? he thought to himself. He momentarily forgot Tracy’s indifference and dwelled on his life, which amounted to nothing more than jaded, thrown-away years and a sense of general redundancy on Planet Earth. Time was moving, and the decades were abandoning him.
The “chemistry” had become so desperately bad that it seemed she preferred looking at faces of fading fame to him. She was staring at the portrait photographs mounted on the walls of yesterday’s A-list list Hollywood royalty, who had once ruled the glossy pages of Hello magazine in the nineties like pharaohs of an ancient celebrity dynasty. Here they were now, being drunkenly adored by Chinese yuppies unable to pronounce their names. From the wall, a young Sharon Stone was still setting global gonads on fire when the booze flowed.
Tracy’s body language told him what her words were reluctant to. He would never run his hands over the naked flesh of her thighs or caress her breasts in any future encounters of fantasy wish-fulfilment. Only in his foolish, sleazy, peep-show ten-dime sex dreams would such delicious theatre occur. She sat at a ninety-degree angle to him, with legs crossed and facing the bar. “Don’t touch,”, said the position. “Don’t come closer.”
The train slithered like a bloated snake and stopped briefly at a forgettable, remote station called Yixing, where it excreted passengers. Indeed, lavatory concerns seemed integral to the smooth progression of the journey.
“Please do not block the vehicle urinal, or dispose of large foreign objects in the commode,” implored the American accented public announcement at regular intervals.
“My love life is a toilet, and I am the foreign object,” he muttered in a rueful tone. The people around him did not stir from their android-guided comas. They represented something he never wanted to become, and he was determined to maintain his boycott of the iPhone salesmen for as long as possible.
After the karaoke bar, they had gone on to a plusher bar on the main street of the entertainment district. The place had five-star hotel room standard sofas, ambient house playing, lime green lighting and an intimate atmosphere conducive to seduction. However, Tracy had made it immediately clear after they were seated that any amorous moves would not be reciprocated.
“Do you mind if I sit over there?” she said, indicating the blood red loveseat on the opposite side of the table. “It’s just that I like to see the bar,” she offered by way of explanation. Sure, he thought with bitterness. So that you can find better prospects. There was a cosmopolitan crowd of customers with Russians, Africans and South Americans mingling with well-heeled young Chinese not shy about flaunting the fruits of their income.
A well-built, foreign waiter came to take their drink orders. He spoke English with a Slavonic accent and wore his shirt very causally, with the top button undone. Probably hired to make the foreign clientele happy, he thought. The waiter produced a tablet PC on which a digital menu beamed a range of alcoholic choices that you selected by tapping your finger on them.
You’re past it dude, and you’re not going to get a woman without a smartphone, he thought he heard the device sneer in a vaguely feminine electronic voice. He wanted to bring out a hammer and smash the thing into a hundred pieces. However, he controlled himself and ordered an eight dollar Jack Daniels and Coke. Tracy ordered an equally lavishly priced sex on the beach.
He paid for the drinks, and she buried all notions of romance by constructing small talk about the Nanjing expatriate nightlife. He sighed to himself as he pretended to be interested in where most Americans went clubbing, or where the Brits in the city held court with their tribal pub worship. He realised making any advances wouldn’t only be futile, but possibly risky. “Scenes” could ensue. Moments he wouldn’t care to take back to Shanghai with the shame of his failure and the howl of his libido. He wasn’t even going to try sitting next to her. After the stale, pointless conversation stalled, Tracey withdrew any further interest in communication and dived into her iPhone while the waiter did his rounds with the glowing electronic menu.
Life’s become just like a Phillip K. Dick novel. The comment had met his ears when he had been working in the Middle East. It had come from an ex-colleague who had a PhD in world weariness, and it was the perfect caption for this moment.
The next station was Huzhou. “As the stop is short, please do not get out of the train and walk around”, said the announcement. He was beginning to like this train’s personality more and more. Its concern for careless, forgotten passengers was heartfelt and sincere in a way that the UK trains, with their appalling service and gruff-toned announcements, never were. The high definition television screens in the carriage continued playing non-stop advertising, and the LCD stimulation addicts steadfastly maintained their presence in the virtual world.
A girl in the seat in front of him had her iPod playing a contemporary-sounding pop song at maximum volume. In fact, it was so loud that he could not tell whether it was in English or Chinese, but it scarcely mattered: all pop songs of the twenty-first century, whatever their language, had become so aurally generic that it seemed each song—he tried to recall when they had stopped being called “records”—merely parodied the other. The singers’ words no longer sounded like human utterances, but more like the garbled syllables of android clones from a hostile parallel universe. Their voices had become so heavily processed that they no longer had any warmth or concern for the meaning in the lyrics. Besides, what had lyrics been reduced to anyway? Now all the studio whores and harlots shouted about in their videos was scoring cocaine and fucking in the shadows. Charisma and creativity had died with vinyl. Over thirty years into his past, The Buggles had told the world video had killed the radio star, but he felt iTunes and the “Idol” franchises were mounting a slow, subtle genocide against the lyric. The stanzas that stopped you thinking ruled now.
The train crawled to a standstill at Xaoshing, where the PA once again reminded passengers that the stopping time was short and that it was a no-smoking train. Indeed, the train had not been stationary for more than a minute before it moved off again in the direction of Shanghai.
From the seat in front of him, the iPod noise blared out even more loudly than before. What exactly was it about the X-Factor generation that made them believe they were entitled to punish your ear-drums and deprive you of peace like Guantanamo Bay sleep deprivation sadists? He glared at the back of the black-haired head in front of him. He wanted to reach around the headrest with a pair of pliers in each hand and achieve tranquillity by snipping her headphones. “Wanna be deaf before you’re thirty? At least deafen yourself with decent music instead of this crap!” he muttered, wishing he could replace her playlist with Roxy Music.
“Fuck you shorty, you can’t even be naughty even though you’re over forty and haughty as an uptight motherfucker!” His jaw dropped and his mouth opened and expelled a gasp. He wasn’t imagining things, or demented. The iPod, and not the girl, had responded rudely in gangsta rap verses loud enough to be audible in the tinny rasp of headphone sound.
He became indignant. “How dare you insult me in a public place with your odious gibberish!” he shouted. He’d never taken to rap in his adult life, ever since he could remember it slithering into the music charts under the guise of brash but harmless “boyz from the hood” acts in ridiculous reversed baseball caps and lurid bling in the late nineteen eighties.
Over twenty years, he felt, it had become an ultimate monster menacing its listeners, and he loathed it. Now it was returning the contempt with interest.
“Suck my dick you prick/Cos for pussy I’ve got my pick/I’ll kick your head in the ditch/then fuck my bitch/This is our time, not yours/So go throw your ass out those fuckin’ train doors/Or go back to the bar and that bitch who thinks you’re a little fucking small dick jelly baby.”
He sprang up from this seat, terrified by this torrent of visceral invective, and rushed towards an empty seat at the back of the carriage. The rap continued to taunt him, and the guttural, growling beat-box voice continued its attack like a sparking arc of malicious current reaching across space. Even more spookily, the source of the voice seemed to have shifted from the back of the girl’s head and now seemed to be coming from everywhere, including the speakers in the panels at the sides of the carriage and from the tiny “mighty mouse” mikes in the multitude of smart phones resting in the palms of passengers around him.
“I’ve got a silver tongue/I run it down my honey’s back/But you’ve got a mumbling mouth that’ll never taste her crack/But I’ll taste her sweet coozy/Then waste you with my gold-plated Uzi.”
The words sliced through him: hard, masculine punches of derision and threat that thrust him back in time to helpless moments in the jungle of the school playing field when his pride had been sacrificed for the exultation of another’s time and time again. He covered his ears, desperate to escape the malevolent chanting’s reach. He detested the voice, and all the sneering, phony ghetto machismo behind it that drove the drivel and its iTunes sales returns. Crappy, puerile rap was his cultural enemy, and clearly one that could not be taken lightly. It had proved that it had the power to find and bully him wherever he went.
He took his hands away from his ears. Thankfully, the phantom freestyler had stopped. Around him, just as before, his fellow passengers remained digitally entranced. Nobody had even noticed the foreigner become suddenly flustered and rush to another seat. The mobile “entertainment and communication centres” continued to stimulate seamlessly. He thought of the past, where such gratification was only available at amusement arcades where Space Invaders and Pac-Man could burn your time for a modest price. However, it seemed this twenty-first century constant mobile trance trend was entering an unprecedented phase of participation.
Looking at these people reminded him of rows of hospital patients on intravenous drips of saline fantasy. Phrases from his youth that mocked conformity rolled out of his memory. Follow the crowd. Follow the sheep. However, here in the present, these nineteen-eighties words were truly obsolete and not up to the task of naming a global behaviour change of this scale. He then recalled the words his father, when fondly describing the days of the hippies in the nineteen-sixties, had quoted from a man named Timothy Leary. Turn on. Tune in. Drop out. It seemed this had been a catchphrase for the wrong generation.
It was now growing dark as exterior China flashed past the windows in an indistinct, shadowy mass. He ordered another coffee. Shanghai, with its bars, noise and hustlers, was not far away, and with it, his expatriate existence. He dreaded returning to work on Monday and wondered how he could face his students and his tasks cheerfully after these experiences in Nanjing. However, he convinced himself a stoical outlook was essential. Besides, it wasn’t as though his students would ever know his fear, loneliness or despair. He never had a chance to communicate anything personal to them during breaks in the lessons because the “digital friends” that he referred to with such scorn were instantly liberated from their “prisons” and, like gangsters on day release, they robbed their victims of every dime of time.
His mind became even more morbid as he thought of home and an elderly mother who loved him, but whose membership in life was not going to last much longer. He became more depressed when he thought of the responsibilities that would soon drop out of the sky like meteors to crush him with their mass. He felt shame and failure as a son for never having brought a wife home to meet his mother—since he agreed with the idea that marriage was an important part of human fulfilment—and now he felt poised to deliver an even greater scale of future failures to her. His despondency turned to the wider world and countries burning while the internet worshipped Kim Kardashian’s buttocks with html psalm sheets and celebrity magazines fought bidding wars to pay smartphone-equipped witnesses millions for five second films of 2013 A-listers smoking crack pipes in lavatories and shitting non-discretely in back alleys. He had decided the media was now a mental patient, but who the hell was going to do the therapy?
He realized he was sometimes unduly hard on the younger generation, but their credulous confidence in the CPU amazed and disturbed him. Didn’t they recognize the glaring limitations of these “apps” that they lived by? Where was the app that would stop the genocides in Africa? Or rebuild Homs? Where could he download the app that stopped women rejecting him? That turned the futility of meeting the next dozen Tracys into hope?
The app. He had never known anything so vapid, so trivial and utterly unworthy of the sway it commanded on YouTube infomercials. Apps now had fans, for crying-out loud : hypnotized followers who constructed websites in their honour and devoted their lives to extolling their features. Apps now commanded loyalty and wielded the power of celebrity in a world he felt less able to grasp by the day, yet which he had a foreboding feeling would soon encroach upon him.
As the train approached Shanghai station, he flipped open his conventional phone with its tactile dialling pad, accessed his directory of numbers and, with a few thumb presses, severed all connection to Tracy. He shuddered when he saw a message in bright red letters on the LED display. Cease to hate us old man, or we will block all your paths and remove all your options, read the text. He was shaking slightly, but managed to pocket the phone and rise from his seat. He made a scrambling dash for his case as the train stopped at Shanghai. His breathing accelerated, and he shook with the fear of a cornered animal. As he exited the train, he heard its public address system say in a firm and authoritative voice: “The digital objector is fleeing the train, but he will not get far!”
For the past sixteen years, Titus Green has lived a nomadic lifestyle working as an English language teacher in North East Asia, North America and the Middle East. He is a latecomer to writing and was first published at the age of 42. His diverse influences include Brett Easton Ellis, Edgar Allen Poe, Don Dellilo, Ferdinand Louis Celine and Jorge Luis Borges, and his fiction has previously appeared in Empty Sink Publishing and Beyond Imagination. He currently lives in the United Kingdom and is grappling with a novel in progress.