Following in the footsteps of the many writers who have found inspiration in Raffles, Suzanne Joinson created this short story after a visit to Raffles Beijing
The man explained that he was Armenian. His eyes were the colour of the whisky he was drinking and he spoke in melancholy bursts through his moustache. She touched her hair. Once it had been cut in stylish arrangements but it was now straggly, dulled by the dust of too many geographically variable cities. It was cold, even in this old world hotel bar. The smart bartender announced that the famous Beijing snowstorms were coming. She had not yet ventured outside.
“Have you heard of the Père David’s deer?” He spoke in a familiar way, as if the official update of the weather status had given him permission to do so. She said she had not. “Oh, they are too beautiful.” He shook his head, took a long drink from his glass. His sadness was comfortable, non-threatening, so she smiled and nodded, did not protest as his chair moved marginally closer to hers. “They live in the Milu Park in Beijing, you must go.”
Since being in Beijing her body had stopped trying to understand where it was in the world. In theory she was in transit on her way back to London, but when she tried to recall her home city after all these years away all she could summon was a stream of incoherent images: dark roads and rainy bus stops, or abstract memories of cycling along canal paths. Beijing, by contrast a place she barely knew, felt like well-known territory, although perhaps it was the process of travelling rather than the city itself that seemed so oddly welcoming.
Jet lag was dislodging her faculties, slowly dismembering her. She had floated through the airport as if she were weightless, a cluster of separated atoms barely held together, vibrating in the cold Beijing air. Her hotel room was deep oak flooring, luxurious draped curtains and an impressive list of Chinese teas: Silver Needle White. Jasmine Pearl.
Dragon Well. Gunpower. Flowering Osmanthus. She had showered, opened the elegant wardrobe doors, slept on the world’s largest bed for what felt like days in a blackout stupor. She had missed, perhaps on purpose, her connecting flight. She was in no rush to return to her few friends and family, to admit that they had been right and that in the end it had all come to nothing.
“Have you been to that park?” she asked the sad-eyed Armenian. “I went today.” He had, she noticed, a very beautiful ring on his right hand, a golden amber stone that bobbed up and down as it dipped his fingers into a bowl of pistachio nuts. He cracked the shells in his mouth with squirrel-like neatness. “I was supposed to …” he lowered his voice, glanced about, tapped his watch as if it meant something, “to have smuggled out a deer, there are people who are prepared to pay big money for the rare pure-breeds.” “Shoot one, you mean?” “A dead deer is easier to transport.”
She had floated through the airport as if she were weightless, a cluster of separated atoms barely held together, vibrating in the cold Beijing air
“Why didn’t you?” She did not remotely believe him. Real smugglers don’t talk about such things to strangers in bars, but still, he had a nice accent. She liked listening to it. On the plane to Beijing she had been given a fortune cookie. Its message read: “All the effort you are making will ultimately pay off.” She screwed it up and threw it away, asked for another and received: “Love is like sweet nectarine, good to the last drop.” She had thrown that one away, too, but the scrappy little message of endurance and faith somehow clung on to her person, travelled with her, ended up on the pillowcase next to the complimentary chocolate which she slept on, so that the chocolate melted into her hair and made a mess of the fortune-cookie slip. She had woken, dressed, and here she was. With an Armenian, drinking a gin and tonic for what was possibly breakfast. A loop. A stuck bit of paper.
He was rummaging around in his coat pocket as if looking for something. “Let me show you,” he said. He pulled out a slim pouch, took out a few photographs and laid them in a row on the table. Strange looking deer, with complicated branched antlers and far-off expressions in their eyes, peered at the lens from behind bare trees. They looked intruded upon, exposed. “They were too beautiful. I could not in the end take a dead one back to Armenia.”
“Well, that sounds like a sensible choice,” she said, and flirted with the possibility of flirting with him, though she was long out of practice. Also, she probably looked a mess. She had been on a rolling series of assignments forever, constantly arriving at a new city, hunting out the story, finding the epicentre of the crisis, capturing it quickly in abruptly fired words. Along the way she had lost the knack of worrying what she looked like. Attracting the Armenian seemed like an endeavour that would require tremendous effort. She picked up one of the pictures, admired it. He talked about the deer, and pulled out a leather-covered notebook. He opened it and showed her his sketches of the animals
Strange looking deer, with complicated branched antlers and far-off expressions in their eyes, peered at the lens from behind bare trees
“They used to be kept behind the guarded walls of the Imperial Hunting Grounds and people were unable to even look at them.” Around the sketches were snatches of text, what she took to be a combination of Chinese characters and Armenian script. The pages were full of doodles of hooves, wispy tails, cursive letters, calligraphic prettiness. She ran her finger over marks, wishing she understood the magic behind the symbols.
He said, “If you are not in a rush through Beijing – as I am, you know, this is my only night, sadly I must fly tomorrow – if you are staying and exploring then I want to give you this.” He held his book towards her. She could have sworn it glowed, in the bar light, and a line of red paper lanterns hanging from golden strings swayed above them in the breeze from the AC outlet. “Oh, I couldn’t,” she said, wanting his book very much. The Armenian put it into her hands and curled her fingers around it. The cover was well-worn leather and it had an elastic band around it which snapped tight and kept the book safe and closed.“It’s yours. It’s yours.” He then sighed, and continued with his drinking. “It was going to make me a lot of money.”
Later, a jazz band that had materialised from nowhere struck up, low instrumental music, the kind of songs that encourage a person to dance. She accepted his hand. They were the only dancers in the bar and they swayed together, out of time, her head on his shoulder and glints of light, bouncing off the low-hanging chandelier, glanced across them at intervals. She was loosely aware of people coming and going. Possibly she fell asleep as she leant on him and she never knew how or when he left, nor how she was safely back in her hotel room when she woke up, but there she was and his notebook was with her.
They were the only dancers in the bar and they swayed together, out of time, her head on his shoulder
Suzanne Joinson’s second novel The Photographer’s Wife will be published by Bloomsbury USA/UK in May 2016. Her debut novel A Lady Cyclist’s Guide to Kashgar was a US bestseller, translated into 16 languages and long-listed for the International IMPAC Dublin Literary Award.