The Children and the Witch – a short story from Beijing, China.
After a prolonged period of stabilisation and life-altering romance, I finally bid farewell to Belgium in the summer of 2009. Uninspired by life in grey, uneventful Brussels, my girl and I headed off to China for an unforgettable year of teaching and travelling.
“You wanna Jeans?” shrieked a faceless woman as we sauntered down the aisle. “Hello T-shirt!” barked another, as an anxious looking man abandoned his shoe stall to expertly step in front of me. “You like shoe, many shoe, hot brand cheap shoe best price” he said, barely even looking at me. “No thank you” I smiled, moving around him.
“This place is huge!” cooed S, the two of us stopping for a moment to get our bearings. Nearby a doddery old German couple, the dictionary definition of Born Yesterday, handed over 800 RMB for a woollen jumper. The seller, hardly able to keep a straight face, literally snatched the cash out of the man’s hands.
We were at Beijing’s gargantuan Yashow Clothing Market, an overwhelming extravaganza of seven hundred stalls spread out over six dizzying floors. It was a rough and ready old place, from its grimy, plastic-curtain-entrance to the verbally abusive vendors and their aggressive selling techniques. Pedalling mostly knock-off branded goods, Yashow boasted everything from underwear, socks, trainers, shirts, tailored suits and sportswear, to scarves, hats, sweaters, electronic goods, perfume, toys, paintings and high-end tea.
With the end of October just around the corner, and what had been a very pleasant autumn edging into more unforgiving temperatures, S and I had come to Yashow on a mission to seek out winter coats. Happily my experiences in India and Qatar had schooled me well in the art of negotiating and I was relishing the chance of going head-to-head with Yashow’s infamous merchants.
“You like-a coat?” asked the girl, virtually tripping over herself to reach me. I’d been checking out a black, knee-length number with a hoodie, but it was so puffy it looked more like a tent than a piece of clothing. “But is beautiful!!” she protested, before moving into the tedious territory of false flattery. “You so handsome, in this coat you look so goooood”.
“Do you have this one in blue?” S asked from another stall. “Yes!!!” cried the seller, darting off. Within a few minutes she was back with a box of coats. But it turned out she had every colour except blue, including a dreadful pink-purple-orange creation that made me want to stick needles in my eyes. S tried a few of them on while the girl drooled in anticipation. But when we ultimately decided to move on, she didn’t exactly accept the situation gracefully. “Hey! You try many coats but buy nothing. I work hard for you but you waste-a my time!! You give me something!!!” Turning the corner out of sight, I caught a glimpse of her actually pouting like a peeved cartoon character, hands on hips, eye bulging.
It was sometime after S had settled on an elegant Max Mara creation that I finally found something for myself, a grey, slim-fit cashmere coat that I knew I wanted the moment I saw it. And having sniffed around enough stalls to get a decent feeling for prices and wiggle room, I opted to immediately take control of the negotiations.
“I really like this coat but I only want to pay 230”.
“What?!?? Noooooo! Are you crazy? Look at this material… is a big quality!” (Seductively strokes the coat as if we were in some cable shopping channel nightmare).
“No, I only want to pay 230”.
“Ok, look-a look-a, I make special price 650”.
“No, I pay 230, final price”.
“Ok 500! Come on… for you cheap-a”.
“Ok never mind, we’re going now… goodbye..”
(Grabbing me by the arm) “Ok 250, just a little more for me… please… my profit soooo small”.
He actually scowled as I handed the money over, his shoulders hunched with a silent, admonishing Scooby Doo baddie finger wag. The poor guy had put so much effort into trying to rip me off. And he would have gotten away with too if it weren’t for us meddling kids.
It wasn’t long before we got the chance to debut our new Beijing fashion statements. “On Sunday I want take you to Xiang Shan” announced Trudy one day. “In English name is Fragrant Hills Park. Very beautiful, but big walk, bring your strength!” It was just the latest act of kindness from our school principal, who seemed to be pulling out all the stops in a bid to make us feel as welcome as possible.
It was a sunny but chilly afternoon when we arrived at Fragrant Hills Park and both S and I were immediately struck by the deceptiveness of the word park. In fact, it wasn’t a park at all, but another mountain that reunited us with our old friends the grey, stone steps. Basically a smaller Beijing version of Tai’an’s Tai Shan, Jinan’s Thousand Buddha Park and Qingdao’s Lao Shan, we were in familiar territory as we made the sixty minute slog up to the top, passing a number of little temples en route. “Many old men and women walk up and down here every day!” exclaimed Trudy, “so healthy for the body and mind”. And right enough we saw plenty of pensioners plodding along in both directions. “God, it must take them all day” whispered S with sincere concern.
At the top we were treated to yet another gorgeous panoramic of countryside, just another piece of Chinese heaven for the scrapbook. “Leighton, I am so excited about your play,” puffed Trudy, still getting her breath back from the exertions of the climb. “Halloween is a big night for our school. I hope everyone in the neighbourhood can come and watch. I think it could bring us more students!”
We’d been preparing for the school’s much hyped Halloween night for weeks. After the initial flurry of new students, the school’s intake had levelled out and Trudy was getting visibly nervous about the remaining holes in our teaching schedules. Calling an emergency meeting, she asked S, Lily, Nini and myself to put our heads together and brainstorm ideas for a kickass Halloween event.
The first thing we agreed on were themed lessons. S and Lily created a bunch of ghoulish flashcards featuring the key vocab, while I put together a YouTube playlist of spooky kid-friendly songs and Nini printed out colouring sheets. Trudy went on a mad shopping spree and came to school one day armed with a huge box of pumpkins, a bag of apples, buckets of candy and a treasure trove of Halloween costumes and props.
And as if custom-made lessons, group singing, fancy dress, apple-bobbing, pumpkin carving and sugar overload wasn’t enough of a fun-packed schedule, the main draw would be a live theatrical performance featuring all staff members and three handpicked students. I hammered out the script for The Children and the Witch one evening back at the apartment over beers and takeaway. The plot was very much a slave to the target vocabulary, something every kid could follow with ease. My Academy award it seemed would have to wait.
With Trudy’s’s genius son Happy (political decision), Louis (standing closest to me at the time) and Krista (gender equality) taking the student roles, rehearsal sessions were held on Saturday afternoons while S and Lily began work on set design and a huge poster for the wall in the play area. Being the so-called director was tough work, from Krista’s poor sense of positioning and Louis’ dodgy pronunciation to Happy’s short attention span and my own sense of increasing impatience. But nevertheless we plugged away and at the end of each painfully short sixty-minute session I was just about satisfied the production was moving forward.
When Halloween finally rolled around the school was buzzing, with kids swarming around in all directions munching on candy. “Vampire!!” screamed Tom randomly, beating his fists against the wall. Happy meanwhile had carved himself an excellent pumpkin and Krista had reacted to my skeleton costume by renaming me Ske-Leighton, a tag that caused much hilarity throughout the school.
“Are you ready?” whispered Trudy, poking her head through the door. She was literally shaking with excitement, much like Happy and my little charges huddled together around the classroom table like twitching dormice. “Teacher, I’m nervous!” croaked Tim, who’d stepped in at the last minute to replace Louis. Beyond the door the school was unspeakably packed with kids, parents, grandmothers, a large dog and some passing locals who’d been kidnapped by Nini and thrown inside. And then we were underway (!) as narrator Lily launched into the opening blurb, Nini standing dutifully by her side flaunting picture cards as the front row of the audience oohed and aahed.
Creeping tentatively onto the stage, Krista, Tim and Happy arrive as the play’s loveable trio of trick or treating children out for a fun time on Halloween night. Knocking on the door of a house, the kids are greeted by a kind lady (S), who wishes them a twinkle-eyed “Happy Halloween!” with a handful of assorted sweets. “Thank you and good night” cry our heroes in unison. “TRICK OR TREAT?” they bellow, with an audibly swelling confidence upon arrival at the next house. The imaginary door swings open to reveal another amiable lady (Trudy), who presents them with stickers and badges before sending them on their merry way.
But then… (evil music) … the children are faced with an altogether different proposition at house number three. “Trick or treat?” they cry hopefully, only to come face to face with an ugly old witch played by yours truly. “Go away!” I cackle, stealing their candy haul and pushing them away before slamming the door. It was at this point that the kids in the audience erupted!!! There was booing, jeering and genuine anger, while little Sonia had to be physically restrained by her mother from storming the stage!
But of course the tables were about to be turned. Hatching a genius plan, the children return to the house, place a banana skin on the step and knock on the door before hiding out of sight. And so it plays out that in the most triumphant closing scene since Rocky, I slip on the banana skin, hit the floor, fail to get back up and the kids storm the stage to reclaim the candy and dance on my carcass. Curtain falls.
My silly little play won us a lot of admirers that night. I lost count of the number of hands I shook and the amount of kids who tried to attack me, clearly struggling to separate art from reality. “Aha ha ha, that banana skin!!!” hooted one goofy father, slapping me on the back. Trudy was positively beaming, insisting that all staff stay behind for drinks and pizza. “I have wonderful news!” she told us, “we already have a new demo class next week for three girls. Their mothers loved the play!”
High on the adrenalin of a fruitful night’s work, the Halloween vibe flowed firmly into the weekend with a journey across town for a night of Karaoke at one of Beijing’s biggest KTV centres. It’d been weeks since we’d seen Richard, Risa, Marc and Amy and there was so much to catch up on. Dressed in Halloween clobber, we overloaded our plates at the buffet station and piled into our private room, a waiter arriving moments later with an icy bucket of Heinekens. It was one of those rare nights where everyone was totally up for it. We sang The Beatles, Cyndi Lauper, The Beach Boys, Nirvana, Springsteen, Blur and Stevie Wonder.
The mood was positively buoyant, with everyone dancing, joking and laughing late into the night. Whenever I look back on the photos of that evening I marvel at how young we all were, our spirits yet to be damaged by life’s harsh, inescapable realities. If only it had been possible to bottle some of that atmosphere for the tough times ahead. Winter was coming… storm clouds were gathering… and we had no idea.
‘The Children and The Witch’ is the twelfth chapter of my short story series Challenged in China.
You can also take a look at my location reports from all around Beijing.
Why not also check out my stacks of bite-sized travel reports from all over China.