'THIS MAN HAVE COME FROM CHINA TO FIND HIS DAUGHTER WHO HAVE SOME TROUBLE. HE DOES NOT SPEAK ENGLISH.'
Jian walked into Leeds University and handed his message, written for him on the back of an airplane boarding pass, to the front desk security guard. This was the first black person he had ever met and he noted the paleness of the man's palms and the brown tea in his mug. It seemed to have milk in it, the way Mongolians liked it.
The guard took his time, turning the boarding pass over and considering the flight number - AR574 from Beijing Capital Airport - and Jian gritted his teeth with impatience. When the man looked up the whites of his eyes seemed to shine out of his face. He beckoned for Jian to follow.
The corridors were clean and bright and painted in what seemed rather an informal yellow. Back home they'd be green and dim. Students bustled round. There were a lot of different races but everyone seemed to be getting along. Jian was used to towering over people but it wasn't going to happen here, a lot of these guys were over one eighty. Some of the girls too.
He was led to an office where a middle aged woman addressed him in a witter as meaningless as birdsong.
He replied, in Mandarin Chinese, 'wo zhao wo de nu'er... I'm looking for my daughter.' No one would understand, but it satisfied a need to hear his own voice and words he could comprehend, it soothed away the unfamiliarity.
The guard and the woman babbled, and he said - surely it was obvious - 'Get a translator.'
At home he had rank and status but it counted for nothing here, he was just a nuisance. If he wanted things done he'd have to do them himself. He stalked back to the cheery corridors and the guard followed, hanging one pace behind.
When he stopped a passing Asian girl and asked her if she spoke Chinese she just shook her head in bafflement and clutched books to her chest. On second glance she looked too dark, she was maybe Thai or Vietnamese. He got the same blank looks from a couple of Asian guys. He didn't have time for this.
The guard didn't seem to like what he was doing but hung back, for now. He came to a busy canteen, noisy with the alien clamour of metal cutlery on plates. He stood on a chair and stepped up from it onto a table. A girl twirling yellow noodles onto a fork looked at him with alarm and slid her tray away.
He cleared his throat, and yelled, 'You ren hui shuo zhong guo hua ma?... Does anybody here speak Mandarin Chinese?'
And when he'd got their attention he bellowed it again, so even the queue over by the vending machines in the corner shut up and looked at him.
The noodles slipped off the fork. A hush fell. Someone laughed nervously. Making a scene didn't worry him, he didn't feel any pull of social convention here. These people weren't his people, he could make monkey noises and it wouldn't matter.
He scanned the crowd, picking out the Asian faces. All he saw was curiosity or alarm. Perhaps no one could help him, perhaps there was no one he could speak to in this whole peculiar city.
Another security guard was hurrying over, this one portly and white. The guards looked at each other and Jian recognised the silent communication that passed between them, he knew it well - citizen acting up, placate and eject. The black guard put a hand on his leg.
Jian told him, 'You don't understand. My daughter is in trouble.' But of course no one was listening.
The call had come thirty six hours earlier, at around 11pm, Chinese time.
Jian was pouring Chivas Regal into a crystal glass. When the mobile trilled he winced theatrically for the benefit of the girl opposite, to show how much he resented the interruption.
He finished pouring, making sure her measure was the more generous, and topped up the glasses with a green tea mixer. The trick was to pick the most sugary brand available, then the girl tended not to notice how drunk she was getting.
The mobile trilled on. If she complained about how much whisky he'd given her, he'd blame it on the distraction.
This was her first visit to the flat in the new housing development and he was anxious she find it pleasing. It was just the sort of chic little penthouse, he hoped, that a classy mistress of a certain age might like to be shacked up in, but you could never second guess the tastes of these modern girls.
So far it was going well. She'd admired the equestrian statue above the compoundﾕs arched entrance and the portico with the name of the development in English, 'UBBER WEST SIDE'. She'd even commented that when the water feature was working properly, youﾕd be able to see the moon reflected in it.
All the buildings were named after foreign cities. They were in 'Lisbon', and he'd looked it up on a map in case she asked about it. Ah yes, he knew Portugal, home of the indomitable Figo, a nation that generally performed well in the group stages then flopped in the quarter finals.
Inside the flat, the gold effect taps and western toilet had met the lady's approval, as had the glass coffee table held up by bronze-effect lions. She talked of completing the place with modern art type pictures and European historical style chairs.
When she'd wondered aloud how much he paid he had deflected her curiosity with an airy wave of the hand.
It would not do for her to find out that the lease was free, a reward from the developer for helping to smooth the project through. As well as introducing its financiers to the more flexible local politicians, he had overseen, in his official capacity, the requisition of the land from those peasants who had been under the impression that because they'd farmed it for generations, it belonged to them.
Now, he felt, all he had to do was get her a bit tipsy then manoeuvre her into the bedroom - to admire the black sheets perhaps.
When she saw the erotic print above the bed he would smile, making an effort to look twinkling rather than wolfish. It was important that she didn't look out of the window so he had already drawn the curtains and fastened them with the tasselled gold rope.
It was true, he reflected, that women made you feel younger. He felt about fourteen, all nerves, uncertainty and plans.
No one rang him after ten.
Teasingly she said, 'Is it a girlfriend?'
He worried that it was. But no.
'It's my daughter.'
He went into the kitchen to answer it. This was Mei Ling's second call today. When she'd phoned earlier she'd sounded downbeat, and had told him her marks were slipping.
It had not been a convenient time, he had been at a noisy banquet with portly dignitaries, he had downed a lot of toasts, and now he guiltily reflected that perhaps his attempts to jolly her along had seemed brusque and formulaic.
He yawned. Certainly he had drunk rather too much at the banquet, and he hoped that he would be up to his later duties. Well, he had his bottle of blue pills. The problem was the pounding headache they gave you in the morning.
With his mouth still wide, he pressed 'start call'.
'Dad, help me, help me,' sobbed Mei Ling, above background clamour. 'Help me. Help.'
He snapped his mouth shut. A clatter, a clunk, a gurgle, and the phone was silent.
He reeled, looked at the mobile as if were some horrific object, then pressed it hard to his head.
'Mei Ling? Is that you? Mei Ling? Mei Ling?'
But there was only a flat drone, the connection had been severed. He shook the mobile as if that would make it work, then looked for last number redial.
It did not feel appropriate somehow, to be, at a time of crisis, navigating chirpy graphics and menus on a tiny screen.
He called her back. After eight rings she said something curt and upbeat in English.
'Mei Ling? Is that you? What happened?'
But it was just her voicemail. He said, 'What's going on? Call me back now.' then hung up.
He rang back again, but this time the call was not connected. An incongruously calm recorded voice, not his daughter, said something in English. He tried again and again, and got only that infuriating message.
Baba bang wo - Dad, help me. Her words reverberated like an echo. He leaned his forehead against the cold metal of the extractor fan and ordered himself to go over what had happened before forming interpretations.
Plea, noises, silence, the impossibility of reconnection. His daughter had called, in a state of distress, and begged for help. Then she'd dropped the phone or perhaps it had been ripped from her grasp.
He shuddered at this, and slapped a palm against the wall, and the windowframe rattled.
Then the battery had run out, or been taken out, or the phone had broken. Perhaps it had been hurled away and shattered. No - then it would have clunked more.
His forehead was cold but his cheeks were heating up.
And what about that background bawling? Babies crying, rubber squeaking, pumps pumping? It had could even have been mocking laughter. It was impossible to know, the noises were so ambiguous and already his memory was compromised by his interpretations.
What now? What now? He pressed his head harder against the unyielding metal. He felt something give, and the whole fan came away from the wall. He caught it and pushed it back.
Did he have any other numbers for her? No. Why, he did not even have an email address to write to her at, nor know the address where she lived. How ridiculous, how remiss, to have no way of contacting your own daughter but one mobile number.
He stepped back, the extractor fan clattered to the floor and screws pinged about the kitchen.
The only connection he had to her life in England was the address of her college, which would be on the prospectus, in her room.
He walked into the lounge, hardly noticing the absence of the girl, and barked his shin on the edge of the coffee table.
Perhaps it was a joke, perhaps she was just having a bad day, there was every chance it would prove a false alarm and another line would be added to the already lengthy text on how his daughter caused him stress.
He'd catch the first flight to Beijing in the morning but he would have to get busy now, pulling in some serious favours to arrange an express British visa. Hopefully he could be met at the airport by an official from the embassy, then he could be on a flight to London tomorrow afternoon.
He gathered up keys, wallet and cigarettes and though he felt better at least to be active, a cold stone of dread had settled in his stomach.
The girl called from the bedroom. 'Darling, all you can see from here are the slagheaps. I didn't realise we were so close. There'll be filthy coal dust blowing in. It's hardly ideal.'
He opened the front door.
Jian heard a word he understood and turned sharply. A skinny white youth was hurrying up. The lad said, 'Wo hui shuo zhong wen yi dian'r... I can speak little Chinese.' His tones were flat, but comprehensible.
Jian looked at him with open mouthed astonishment. A white person speaking Chinese was like a dog walking on two legs, a good trick but there was something unnatural about it.
'I am learn Chinese here. I can help you.' Jian stepped off the table and the security guard let go. He kept it simple.
'I have come to find my daughter, she's studying here.' 'Then let us go and find her teacher. What her name?' 'Mei Ling.' He told her she was twenty one and studying tourism and leisure. The banal facts seemed as poignant as a lock of her hair.
He expected at any moment to see her breeze around a corner, and the vision was achingly accurate - that fake Louis Vuitton bag hanging off one shoulder, hair swinging, chatting on a mobile, some no-good lad following at her heels.
Back in the office there was more of the clack and cluck of the English language. Jian wondered if he could smoke but couldn't see an ashtray and he didn't want to distract them by trying to ask for one. He was given a manila folder with a passport photo of his daughter clipped to it. He touched the edge, careful not to put a coarse finger across her face.
Big dark eyes looked blankly out. In pictures she cultivated a model's vacuity and this image was giving nothing away. Sleek hair flowed from a centre parting. She'd bleached the ends brown. Last time he'd seen her, it had been dark red. Her mouth was closed, as always in pictures, to cover the gap between her front teeth. She was so self conscious about that gap, she didn't understand that the small imperfection didn't mar her beauty but completed it.
'That's her.' And now, the student explained, they were going to the tourism and leisure department to talk to her tutor. He made it sound like they were on some guided tour. Clearly he was enjoying this practical use for all his effort.
The student asked where he was from.
'The north east.' 'It must be very beautiful up in there,' said the lad. 'But cold yes?' 'Ugly and cold.' Jian was in no mood for chit chat. But this lad was useful, and had to be treated with respect.
'What do you do?'
'I'm a policeman.'
'Do you have any friends in this country?'
'Do you have a place to stay?'
Jian was carrying a suitcase, which made him list as he walked. He'd sort out a hotel when this was done with. He'd also get something to eat, shave, and have a shit. But he couldn't think about mundane details now, not until his mind was put at rest.
After his daughter's phone call he had used his clout to get himself attached as technical advisor to a delegation from Daqing oil extraction facility number three, on a junket to the United Kingdom to explore new refining techniques.
The oil men had been drinking on the plane and expected him to join them. He'd explained that he had a stomach upset and they'd assumed he was afraid of flying and ribbed him about it. He hadn't slept at all on the twelve hour flight.
When they had landed in London he'd taken the group translator aside and made her write him the note, and promise not to talk about it.
Unable to read a single sign, he'd got lost in the underground on the way from Heathrow to King's Cross.
Getting a train ticket to Leeds hadn't been easy either, and had involved soliciting aid from strangers, as had finding the right platform and even opening the train door. Just about every single thing was different from home and it was infuriating to be made so helpless.
He'd assumed there'd be hot food on the train but all he could get was pricey sandwiches. The bread had tasted like foam, and had grease smeared on it, and the filling was not tofu, as he'd thought, but hard yellow cheese which made him feel ill. Now he was tired, hungry and jet lagged.
In another office he paced while a functionary tapped on a keyboard. A display of portrait photos hung on the wall. He guessed they were the members of staff for the department, they had the same thing back at the station.
The student said, 'She have found your daughter on the computer. Your daughter teacher Mister Delaware.'
'Where is he?'
'Let us go and see.' There were five in his little group - two curious women, the wary black security guard, the student exalting in his usefulness. They stopped outside a classroom and through a glass panel in the door a man could be seen lecturing students.
'Teacher Delaware will be finish in about twenty minutes.'
Jian opened the door and strode up to Delaware and thirty or so surprised faces watched him brandish the folder, jabbing at the passport picture.
'Please, I need to find my daughter, where is this girl?' The others came in and a discussion began, with people talking over each other and the women looking flustered and students craning forward to watch the show. These people used a lot of hand gestures, it made them look excitable.
Delaware dressed very casually for a teacher. He made a placating gesture - hands raised then lowered - said something to his class and studied the passport photo. He didn't recognise her, Jian could tell, and he began to dislike the man, knowing in his stomach that he would bear no good news.
He dug folders from a briefcase and showed a list of names with rows of ticks next to them, and the student translated.
'Here her name, see? These the records of the classes she go to. She here at start of course, in September last year.' All the names had a rows of ticks beside them, extending all the way to the edge of the form. Except Mei Ling's. There were only three ticks by her name.
'She here only three week,' continued the student, and now a faltering tone showed that he thought of his language skills as a curse, he was to deliver ill tidings. 'She no go to lecture or hand in work since after that time.' 'No no no. She rings me every week and she tells me how her studies are going, has done for months. There's a mistake.' 'These records say she no here.' The student was mumbling now. 'She go, long time ago. She no come here for... eight months. Eight month no come here. Sorry.'
Jian realised his mouth was open, and closed it.
'She said she was learning about the hotel trade and all that kind of thing. She was a member of the East Asian student society and she was going to act in a play. She was here. She was learning here, and he was her teacher.'
Jian pointed at Delaware, who raised his eyebrows at the security guard.
'No here,' said the student. 'She no come here. I very sorry.'
The room seemed to be tipping up so Jian put his hand on the whiteboard for support.
Suddenly the world was a strange place, he was in the territory of dreams, everything seemed normal but the details were all wrong. He was surrounded by words but he couldn't read them, the faces around him were the wrong shape and a man with blue eyes was telling him he didn't know his own daughter.
'You're telling me that my daughter rang me every week to lie to me?'
He pressed his hands against his eyes. He felt ashamed of her, then of himself.
'Let us now go out.'
'Go where? That's it. Where am I going to go? Where?'
He kicked a chair, and the security guard put a hand on his arm.
'Now how am I going to find her?'