Far From Ordinary
Gina, bored with Ma and her rheumatism, bored with housework and chickens, had taken the bus into Mapleton. Now she sat in a corner of the coffee shop watching a red-haired man shovel pie into his mouth. She wished something interesting would happen.
“Coffee?” asked the waitress, pausing beside her.
“Please,” said Gina, “and a donut.”
“Haven’t come in yet – there’s apple pie.”
“Is it fresh?”
“No thanks then.”
“One coffee coming up.”
“It’s good pie,” the man called.
Gina frowned at him.
He grinned broadly revealing broken teeth. His hair grew to a widow’s peak high on his long thin face; he had sun-lines round up-turned green eyes.
“Would you like to join me?”
“Are you sure?”
“I can always use company,” he replied.
The waitress slopped a coffee onto the table in front of Gina.
The word ‘company’ caught her attention.
“I’m with you on that one,” she said, willing to be friendly but not wanting to seem an easy pick-up.
“Bring your coffee over,” the man said.
Gina got up slowly, unsure of him.
“I only eat people for breakfast,” he said smiling. His eyes twinkled like sunlight on deep water.
Gina laughed, relaxed, and sat down opposite him.
“What kind of people do you eat?”
“Only the ones that fire me.”
Gina nodded. “That’s the way to treat them.”
“I’m not kidding,” the man said.
Gina shifted in her seat. “What’s your name?” she asked.
“Ford. What’s yours?”
Ford ate another mouthful of pie and Gina noticed black grease embedded round and under his nails.
“You’re a mechanic?” she asked.
“I can fix anything, anywhere,” Ford said.
“Who fired you?”
Ford nodded to the garage across the street. “Dumb bastard.”
“Not enough work for a mechanic?”
“Too much fire at night for the boss,” Ford said.
“Booze?” Gina asked.
“Dancing on chimney pots.”
What did that mean? Gina wondered as she sipped a mouthful of lukewarm coffee.
“What’re you going to do today?” Ford asked.
“Wander … look in store windows … ” Gina hesitated.
“Want to go on an adventure?”
“What kind?” Gina hoped he wasn’t implying she should jump into bed with him.
“Anywhere in the world and beyond,” Ford said, wiping ice-cream from his plate with the last of the pie.
“What do you mean?” Gina put her cup down.
“I’m also a travel-guide, ready to take you to the other side of beyond.”
“What on earth does that mean?”
“I’ll show you.” Ford looked her in the eye and stood up. Gina got to her feet slowly, mesmerized by Ford’s green eyes. She was taller than him by six inches.
“Come on.” He caught her hand and pulled her towards the door.
“Hey, you’ve not paid,” the waitress called.
Gina pulled a dollar from her pocket and put it on the counter as she passed. Ford tossed a fiver towards the waitress. He pulled the door open.
Gina felt a quiver of fear and tried to free her hand from Ford’s, but he held her tighter and said, “Adventures come to those who go through the door.”
She followed him onto the street. A rickshaw brushed past. Three cyclists dodged her. Horns blared, people shouted. She cowered against the wall, pulling Ford back beside her.
“Where are we?” she asked, dazzled by colour and sound, the smell of spices, lilies, jasmine, and an undercurrent of perfume that she couldn’t name. Signs in Chinese, tiled roofs, narrow store-fronts, neon lights, everything she saw and heard bewildered her.
“Where … am … I?” Gina asked.
Ford laughed. “China. Where else?”
“But how? How did we get here?” Gina glanced over her shoulder. The open door behind led into a dark, cramped room with ledges along the walls, some occupied. She turned back to the street and saw a Chinese child dart through the parade of legs and wheels. He disappeared down a side-street, a dog hard on his heels.
“Adventure, is how,” Ford said.
“But … I don’t understand.”
“I can’t say I do but it’s dangerous and it’s fun.” Ford released her hand. Gina reached for him, terrified of being alone in this strange place. She caught his arm.
“Tea,” she said, “that’s what I can smell … a different kind of tea.”
“Do you want some?”
“Not now,” Gina said, afraid and confused. Ford took her hand from his arm, held it, and Gina felt a strong surge of delight, a burst of courage, run through her from his touch.
“Let’s explore,” said Ford. He laughed and swung her hand.
“Have you been here before?”
“Don’t think so.” Ford headed for the side-street that had swallowed the child. It was a narrow alley with square paving stones underfoot. Ancient bicycles leaned against cramped house fronts. Gina wanted to stop and look through open doors: she caught a glimpse of a woman cooking, another sewing under the light from the single window.
She decided she was asleep and dreaming. The dream excited her, fulfilled her longing to break out of everyday routines.
Ford pulled her into a maze of alleys. During the next hours, Gina saw trishaw men, silk robes, smelled opium, heard the chime of Buddhist monastery bells, and peeked into private tea-gardens. She ate pickled octopus from one street stall and fried sardines from another. Ford bought her a tiny corsage that she pinned to her jacket.
How had she come to this place? Gina wondered. If it was a dream, it was the best she’d ever had.
Gina reached for Ford’s hand, swung him towards her and asked, “Who are you? Tell me the truth.”
“I’m the one who guides people into the reality of dream,” Ford said.
Gina shook her head: that didn’t make sense.
“And where are we exactly?” she asked.
Ford shrugged. “Beijing I think.”
“How will we get home?”
“Go back through the door.”
“Was it that particular door, of the coffee shop?” Gina rubbed the bamboo wall beside her, liking the smoothness.
“You’ll find it, don’t worry,” Ford said.
“But how, when we’re in another country?” Gina doubted that she wanted to go back, everything here appealed: the exotic, exciting.
“It’s here, somewhere unexpected.” He turned and went down the street. Gina noticed how his pointed ears poked through his unruly hair. For a few moments his head gleamed bright red amongst the dark-haired throng. Then he disappeared: he was there, then simply not there.
Gina ran, thrusting her way through, to catch up: he had vanished. She scurried, terrified, darting this way and that down side-streets, tiny lanes, into a vast covered market. She dashed along aisles, wanting to stop and look at ivory Buddhas, glass beads, embroidered bags, but needing to find Ford. She rushed on. She peered into faces, searching for his brilliant green eyes and creased mouth.
“Ford! Ford!” She ran. She shouted. She ran.
She got caught in a mass of people all going one way. They chanted. They sang. Gina‘s bewilderment fed the fear that threatened to overwhelm her. Dream had become nightmare, if it was indeed a dream.
She asked a bespectacled girl, “What’s happening?”
“We protest,” the girl said, “not enough speech.”
“Where are you going?”
“To make protest, be heard,” the girl replied. “Not happy with silence. We protest.”
Gina stayed close to the girl who paid her no more attention. The crowd streamed along the streets, gathering people as it went. Long white banners surged above them with characters drawn in purple or gold paint.
Gina tried to understand, then gave up. She was with people who knew what they were doing even if she didn’t. She was afraid to stay with the crowd, more afraid to leave and be alone in the alien streets.
The crowd marched and chanted into a vast open space. There were grey government-style buildings with soldiers on roofs. It was too much to take in. Gina sat down on a stone step in front of a building, leaned forward and wept. Then she looked up at the darkening sky.
“I don’t know where I am,” she whispered. “Perhaps I don’t know who I am. And I don’t know how to get home.”
A voice within her said, Go through the door.
Gina stood up, angry. “And I’m fed up with someone, Ford, whoever it is, saying ‘go through the door’. What damn door? Which damn door?”
Ford had said, “You’ll find it,” not “We’ll find it.”
How would she find it?
Someone pulled at her sleeve. She turned round. A man said, “No English. Is better no English.”
“But that’s all I know.” Gina’s fear doubled. She flung her hands wide in desperation.
“No speak English,” the man said. “English get jail.”
“Jail?” Gina was astonished. “Don’t be silly.” They wouldn’t put her in jail because she spoke English.
The man gave her a strange look and disappeared into the crowd. No one round Gina spoke English. Everyone moved away, leaving space round her. Where was Ford? Why and how had he left her?
Gina tried to become part of the crowd again but it seemed that she had a disease. She remained isolated until four soldiers parted the crowd as if it didn’t exist. Two of them grabbed her arms and frog-marched her away. Gina struggled, churned her shoulders, pulled, kicked, tried to bite, wept and screamed, “Let me go. I’ve done nothing.”
“You come,” one said.
It had to be a dream. They dragged her to a grey van and tossed her in as if she were garbage. She landed on other bodies. Someone kicked her off his, or her, legs. She could smell urine. Before the doors were slammed shut she saw five or six faces. Then the van moved off.
“Where’s the door?” Gina yelled.
“For God’s sake,” a man said. “You came in through the door, didn’t you?”
“Who are you?” Gina asked, struggling over the bodies until she could lean against a side wall.
“A poor misbegotten tourist from England, name of Mike.”
“I’m Gina … Does everyone in here speak English?”
“Why are you here?” Gina asked.
“Because I spoke English in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
“That’s silly … people don’t get jailed because they speak English.”
“They do if they get caught in a pro-democratic protest around Tiananmen Square.”
“And those soldiers are carrying guns.”
“They won’t shoot unarmed people.” Gina was horrified.
Terror clenched her stomach. She wanted to be sick, wanted to pee. She desperately wanted to go home.
Gina wriggled onto her hands and knees against the sway of the van. She leaned on and bumped into the bodies around her. Someone swore, a hand grabbed and held her until she tore away, leaving her jacket. Someone else groaned as, shivering, she crawled to the back. She clawed and pushed herself to her feet and banged on the doors.
“Let me out. Let me out,” she yelled.
“That’ll do no good,” Mike sneered.
Gina put her hands flat against one door and leaned against it, drained of hope, tears falling unheeded.
“I want to go home,” she wailed.
She found the door-handle. She grasped and turned it. The door opened. She stepped into the Mapleton café. The waitress was wiping tables with a dirty cloth.
Gina looked behind her and, through the glass door, saw the empty street. She stared, baffled, then turned round.
A red-haired man sat at a table, shoveling pie into his mouth. His hair grew to a widow’s peak high on his long thin face.
“Ford?” she asked uncertainly.
He smiled, showing broken teeth. He had sun-lines round up-turned green eyes.
“Oh my God,” Gina said.
“Coffee?” the waitress said.
The man Gina knew as Ford said, “Try the pie, it’s good.”
“No. Not you. Not you again.”
Gina stepped back. Who was the man? Who was Ford? She didn’t want to know.
She was afraid to open the door, afraid of where she would be, or what would happen. But she thrust her shoulder against the door and walked out, terrified that the man would speak to her, would take her outside her safe, ordinary life. She wanted Ma.