The Sentinel

Wuhan river

There’s a special beauty to the Chinese smog. It’s not only the shades of pink and grey, but the way it affects our perception of these old cities – from a distance, it blurs away the wrinkles.

I chose to live not far from the river. I try to walk there every day, sometimes in the morning, sometimes at sunset. Surprisingly, not many people seem to do that. The few friends I’ve taken along all found it peaceful and relaxing, yet they would never come on their own. Most of the riverside people are regulars, elderly couples, women with dogs, probably locals.

One of them I call ‘the sentinel’: a short man with a square face, in his late fifties or early sixties. He sits on a bench opposite the TV tower, wears tinted glasses, and looks out across the Yangtze to the towers of Hankou. I’ve seen him before sunrise, and I’ve seen him after sunset, but I’ve never seen him in the broad daylight. Sometimes, he plays traditional music from a small radio, and once he was practicing Tai Chi, but most of the time, he’s just sitting there, watching.

Is this man a corrupt official who made his fortune selling construction permits, and looks across the river at a real estate empire that his pen authorized? Is he the local mafia boss dispatching orders across the gambling underworld from this inconspicuous riverside bench? Or is he living a peaceful retirement funded by a rich son, cosmetic surgeon in Phoenix, who returns home once a year with a suitcase full of dollars? Every time I see the sentinel, I make up a different story for him, and let my shapeless fantasies of China cristallise on his static figure. Today, I’ve decided he was a retired public servant enjoying the contemplative pleasures of an early State pension after a lifetime pushing papers at the marriage registry.

The reason I think about this man so much is sheer loneliness. I build imaginary worlds around him, because if they were true, then I would be part of the local story, even as its anonymous narrator. And this illusion keeps me sane.

It’s a sad story, but it’s not an original one. I came to Wuhan two years ago. I teach maths in international schools, and after years in Latin America, I wanted to try something different. Central China wasn’t my first choice, but the conditions were good: high salary, reasonable working hours, and a three-year contract. Shanghai and Singapore both rejected my application, Wuhan was the best offer, and I moved here.

I didn’t have any friends in this part of China, but I’m sociable, and thought I would quickly meet people through the school and on the local expat scene. I was thirty-two when I landed, single, and looking for no more than casual company. I didn’t expect I would fall in love, especially with an expat. It was months of extreme happiness. We met after class, and walked along the river holding hands, kissing in the soft pink light. We took the metro to Hankou for late-night snacks, went boating on the lake, and visited nearby cities on the week-end: Jingmen, Ezhou, Huangshi. But her studies ended, she couldn’t get her visa renewed, and she flew back to Bologna.

That’s when my depression started.

I’ve been an expat teacher for the last eight years. It’s a good life: good money, good work, and a sense of adventure. When you’re tired of a place, you move on: and it’s a new culture, a new language, a new landscape. New bars, new friends. But after Giulia left, I suddenly felt old and empty.

I thought of doing the romantic thing, leave my job in Wuhan and follow her to Bologna. But there was nothing for me there. ‘Italy’s hard’, she repeated, ‘I’ve got friends with two, three Masters’ degrees, and they can’t find a teaching job.’ We calculated, cost of living, rent, average salary: the figures didn’t add up, and I didn’t have the courage to risk all my savings on this relationship. So she left, and I stayed. New bars, new friends – but nobody like her.

Slowly, I retreated from the expat scene. I stayed home after class, reading everything I could find about China: travel books, history books, novels; blogs and wikipedia pages. I spent all my week ends inside museums, trying to memorize every sign, remember the details of every piece on display. Giulia was gone, but if I could absorb China, then staying in the country would make sense.

After six months of this routine, on a Monday morning, I woke up from a Chinese dream: for a moment in my sleep, I had become a Chinese person. I was an old scholar sitting at the top of a mountain, under a pine tree, listening to the songs of birds. Then I was inside a pavilion, with painted red pillars and a phoenix on the roof. A slender cage hung from a rafter, and inside, there was a mechanical bird of shining gold, who spoke words I didn’t understand, but sounded like human language.

I started noticing new things around me that day – the crispy sound of cooking crepes on the street, the smell of chilli, the shrill mix of women’s voices. There were still clouds in the sky, but the worst of darkness had passed. That evening, for the first time since Giulia left, I walked along the river. That’s when I first saw the sentinel.

I remember him very precisely: the brown fabric of his jacket, the square shape of his face, the tinted glasses, and the closed wide lips. He sat on a bench, facing the TV tower, perfectly still. I stood behind him, and started telling myself stories about his life. That first time, fragments of my dream merged in with his figure: I imagined him as a bird-seller from the nearby pet-market, training jays and magpies to greet their future owners with a clear ‘ni hao’.

I slept well that night, and woke up with an appetite for life. I came to the river again before class, and he was there. This time, I thought of him as a former air-traffic controller for the Chinese army, projecting complex ballets of landings and take-offs on the pink empty sky – then, anxiously picturing enemy planes invading the landscape from the North, dropping bombs on the new constructions, erasing in a day the physical traces of Wuhan’s modernity.

I’m standing behind him now, very close. He’s mumbling something in the local dialect, which I don’t understand. He doesn’t seem to notice my presence. It’s the first time I’ve been so close to him, and I can feel a strange sort of cold coming from his body.

Then I hear a woman call me ‘foreigner’. I turn around: she’s one of the regulars, a middle-aged woman with short wavy hair and a round face. Her dog is pulling the leash, growling. ‘Come here’, she says, ‘It’s dangerous’. Then again, more insistent, as I hesitate ‘Come’. I walk over to her, and she grabs my arm, very strong: ‘Don’t get close to him, he’s dangerous.’

Then to my question ‘why’, reluctantly, she replies with a single word: ‘ghost’, and walks away. The sentinel hasn’t moved. Now I expect him to dissolve into the mist, or turn into something terrifying and run towards me with a gaping mouth, but he doesn’t. I wait a while, then I smile at him, and mumble: ‘See you tomorrow, buddy’.

NOTE: This story is the fourth in a planned series of #52, recomposing my memories of a term in China through fiction. All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. This story was written with the help of DraftQuest. Image and story are copyright @julienleyre.

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