by Royston Tester
"Screw the imam of Niujie Mosque," said Yang Gao, dodging in and out of the city's ancient wall.
Straightforward as this August afternoon should have been—Tomasz Zaleski on an overnight express from Shanghai, Gao meeting him at a Beijing station—something was deeply wrong as the Sanlitun barber, hollow-eyed, defiant, crept stone by stone toward the Dongbianmen railway terminus.
"I'm son of Han," Gao muttered, coalsmoke in his rheumy glances. "I shall see Tomasz."
Gao peered right now, in fact, from a Dun Tai buttress; one of many blind angles constructed to deceive an invader. Kung Fu toes up and out, Gao springboard bounced over round-the-capital train tracks. An impossible, swaggering lightness of step. A seven foot six basketball player's leap? Chinese jumping vampire? Yao Ming! From the secret nook in a wall to this clockfaced turret above Dongbianmen railway plaza.
What on earth was going on?
How disoriented Gao felt. Last night's tears on his grimy face. No wonder, when he woke this morning, Gao found himself at eighty-one Chaonei Dajie, Beijing's dowdiest building. Fitting launch to a "wrong part" day. Where does someone so distraught end up?
Even now, as he quite literally, so it felt, swooped into Waiting Hall Number One and engaged a barren couple whose newly adopted son would arrive from Shanghai. Alongside, a young Sichuan woman expecting her Chinese betrothed, sight unseen.
Lurching, soaring, was Gao a madman or ghost?
"You wait outside," he said helpfully, after listening to their questions and stories, "for arrivals, from anywhere, including Shanghai."
They looked about—firewagon-ready.
"We're in the wrong part of the station?"
This huddle observed him. Childless woman Sun Mee and adolescent bride Guan Dai-tai particularly gloomy—in mistaken places—about men in their lives, so they confided. As though Gao were of the same kidney; about a man in his life. Which, to be frank, was right.
Alive, dead? What am I? Crouching tiger, hidden fucking dragon.
What on earth happened to Tomasz—and to me?
"You are a student?" said Yang Gao, in Mandarin, twelve years before.
"I'm a coach," replied the German-looking customer, a couple of textbooks under his arm.
Name a foreigner in Beijing who was not interpreting, teaching or colonising something.
"I don't read, but I know how to take care of myself," Gao explained, patting the arm-rest.
Heavyset, square-jawed Tomasz "Fadi" Zaleski parked himself in the barber's chair and laid aside his books—along with a Muslim cap.
"My wife and son of course," said Gao.
Tomasz looked baffled, his Chinese at a limit.
"I take care of my wife and son too," Gao emphasised. "As well as myself."
The young German nodded, glancing at a crane-bird photograph alongside.
"And my parents," he concluded shyly, fastening-up his client's neck—as two Aryan arms emerged from beneath the gown.
Tomasz tried to run fingers through knotted ringlets—then made a scissoring gesture. Westerners are the daftest lot. Snip, snip, snip. Why else visit a hair salon? Vasectomy or triple bypass, Herr Hand Signals? Why don't you rehearse a phrase or two?
Gao adjusted the chair-support. Tomasz's head fell sharply back—parachute losing its breath, shroud lines cut. You want a Yang Gao hair-do, Porky Pie?
"You speak with Intelligent Man," Gao whispered in English, a language he knew inside out.
Earth to Germany.
Tomasz Lazybones blushed—above the snow-white wrap. Nothing began like this friendship of a lifetime. Somehow the two men thrived.
For twelve years Earth circled the sun.
Then, a week ago, Tomasz hit Shanghai to fix his chin.
"La-ilaha ella Allah."
You encourage a dying Muslim to say the Shahada. There is no God but Allah.
You wash the body of a dead Muslim.
"Bismil-lah," you say, the washer. One of three. "In the name of Allah." Trustworthy, honest, grown-up Muslim males. You make no comment on the body.
You hold pieces of cloth.
This clean, secluded, private place.
"Bismil-lah," you say again.
You lay the corpse upon a table. Remove his clothes.
Al-Ghusul. Here is washing the body of a dead Muslim.
Raise his upper body slightly.
In Gao's Sanlitun barber-shop opposite the Workers' Stadium, Gao had it all wrong about the German with a Muslim kufie. That quiet May morning, twelve years ago. So much for appearances—and he a hairdresser.
Stout, yes. But Tomasz was an athlete, or rather a diver. An ambitious one. Twenty-eight-year-old diving instructor at Tsinghua University. Star hire to train the stars.
"I specialise at forward dive," he told Gao, in English. "Pike position."
Tomasz shrugged, as though accustomed to the question—and the impossibility of reply—untied his gown and clambered from the chair.
Flat on his back, effortlessly he folded his torso, legs straight up, thighs clasped tightly to his chest, forehead to shins. Toes pointed like the headdress of a bird.
Gao's habitually bored assistants stood by—then trickled into applause, commentary…and, finally, stitches.
There was no stopping this alien.
Tomasz stood and explained the diver's sole ambition: "Rip entry," as though it were a new home.
"Flawless dive into a pool," he added. "Sounds like the ripping of paper, and the water looks like it's boiling."
You marvelled the robust figure could model it—no splash?—slipping into liquid like a blade.
"Flat hand," he said. "One palm facing the water, thumbs interlocked, fingers wrapped around the hand that'll hit the surface. Squeeze tightly, arms pressed against your head."
He raised his palm, levelled a book upon it.
"Your arms, for a head first entry, should cover your ears, see?"
Tomasz covered them.
"When you enter, every muscle should be as tensed as your arm position, so that the water can't move you."
The hairstyling delayed a full five minutes.
"I'm Muslim, from Prague, Czechoslovakia," he went on, encouraged by the employees' reception. "I trained your Olympic divers."
Did Tomasz not have friends?
"Olympics man," whooped Gao. "Awesome."
"The students call me turkey neck," Tomasz added, jiggling the skin. "They mean it kindly."
Gao invited the client to resume his seat, wondering if he had enquired too much and triggered a party piece. How the barber frowned. Much about Gao was urgent and precise, as though hesitation—like any sideways glance—would expose him. As not entirely a boss, father or spouse at all.
Tomasz had brought the styling to a standstill. Gao was indeed awed—but by his own head-over-heels awe…at a flabby, miracle pike on the hair-strewn floor.
Pike pause, he would later call it. May day.
So Tomasz was not German after all. European—a Czech—"living my career" as he idly put it, while the grooming chittered on. Yet pursuing his life's work in China—far from any homeland, probably unsure of what the "living my career" bit meant exactly, other than moving away and getting on.
Tomasz did seem lonely. "Could you cut me like that?" he asked, pointing at one of many bird photographs on Gao's shop wall.
"Pica-pica," he replied. "The magpie?"
Tomasz grimaced. "No, that one," he said, indicating a pencil sketch taped to the mirror.
"Hm," Gao was dumbstruck that a customer might choose hairstyles from his birds. Fatty goes to China—to be a Chinese crested tern, rarest species of them all?
What kind of Czech was this?
"I've never spotted that particular bird," he told Tomasz. "So it's only a drawing."
"You're an artist as well as a barber?"
The master took a clutch of Tomasz's hair—and snipped—ignoring the question. Foreigners often spoke the obvious. Besides, Gao was far too excited that passions were on display.
Standing to attention, the silent aides observed.
Gao regaled his new acquaintance with the tale of Mao Zedong's 1958 war on songbirds.
"In Beijing, we beat pots and pans to keep every last sparrow on the move," Gao told him, "until they collapsed with exhaustion, like drops of rain, onto our streets."
"Why would you do such a thing?"
"Mao thought they were eating valuable grain."
"In a city?"
"His policy caused a plague of locusts the following year," Gao told him. "That helped bring on a famine."
"The birds knew better than Mao," laughed Tomasz.
"Most of us knew better than Mao," he added. "Yet we beat those kettles until we starved."
"In Prague we had giant Golem to protect us," the young man said. "Half monster, pure matter, he haunted our ghettos to protect citizens from injustice."
"Did he save you from the Russians in 1968?"
"I was born the year Moscow invaded," he explained.
"So you learned diving and how to run abroad?"
"I learned from being an orphan, Mr. Yang."
Gao massaged the scalp. "Tomorrow you must come to Beijing's Summer Palace," he said. "I will show you birds on Lake Kunming."
Tomasz sniffed, as though caught off guard.
"But not looking like a crested tern, my friend."
The Czech studied his mirror, and China's rarest bird aloft.
"I'll go with the magpie," he agreed, adjusting the white gown upon his thighs. "Lop it all off will you, Mr. Yang?"
Lop? Gao nodded.
"I can be here at nine," said the diver. "Call me Fadi."
Hands clasped tightly—in his lap.
"Bismil-lah," with a cloth about your fist, dipped in sidr of good-smelling lotus leaves, you press lightly the stomach of the deceased—wipe away impurities, discard the cloth. Taking up another, you clean his body.
Three times; five.
You wipe his nose and mouth—Wudu. At the last, you apply camphor to the cleaned flesh—remove the covering from his private parts—lay a white sheet upon the body.
At Dongbianmen station, the Shanghai train has pulled in.
To Yang Gao's delight, the barren couple—or at least, the wife Sun Mee—and Sichuan girl Guan Dai-tai have finally understood that from their Waiting Hall Shanghai passengers depart. In haste, they descend the escalator and run outside, amongst the crowds, to greet real arrivals.
Wolfing his Coca-Cola, the Sanlitun barber examines a massive screen in the station concourse—Yao Ming, the seven foot six basketball player, is also drinking a kekou kele, but grinning.
Yao Ming winks.
How betrayed Gao feels, desperate—like sails tangled in the rigging of a ship, beaten against ropes.
Where was his special friend Tomasz "Fadi" Zaleski?
Most weekends, Gao and he visited Fragrance Hills; played mahjong for hours in the alley behind Gao's salon. For twelve winters, without Gao's dutiful wife and son, they toured the Bawangling forest reserve on Hainan Island. Month-long quests, they said, for the Chinese crested tern.
How do I meet you now, Fadi?
Suddenly, Gao recalls stories of the legendary Golem in Prague's alleys. Phantom defending the innocent. Never troubled about his chin, I bet.
"Can you hear me, Golem?" he croons into his 可口可乐 can. "Have you seen the Czech diver?" Of course not. "I am so dead!" Gao cries, tossing aside the Coca-Cola.
"Dead drunk," grumbles a passerby, dodging the middle-aged hairdresser.
No extravagance, no gold, silk. Al-Kafan. We shroud the corpse of this dead Muslim. Tie ropes around: near the top of the head, at the feet and two for the body.
Gao had heard nothing for seven days. Surprisingly, one of Tomasz's students dropped by the barber's shop—and enquired discretely about the "absent coach." Yesterday, Gao telephoned South Korean cosmetic surgeon Dr. Kyung-mo Park—at Number Nine People's Hospital in Shanghai—to ask after Tomasz and his ludicrous odyssey to "correct" his chin. "Turkey neck" had, over the years, expanded some.
"Mr. Zaleski suffered a seizure during the operation, Mr. Yang. We could not save him."
Gao was speechless.
"His body is being held here." The distinguished physician cleared his throat.
"I will come immediately, doctor."
Gao was peering at the birds around his salon mirror—and could not see.
Bond severed—of twelve years' standing.
Never had Gao received news so devastating.
"What exactly is your relationship to him, Mr. Yang?"
"There is no-one," the barber replied. "He was raised in an orphanage in Czechoslovakia."
"You are his employer?"
"I am his family now."
Dr. Park was not coughing, or clearing, anymore. "You are Muslim?"
"I am next of kin," Gao declared.
"We have no record of you, or of any family here or in Prague, Mr. Yang," he told him. "Our hospital and the embassy have been searching for a week."
"No?" he heard pots and pans near Dr. Park.
"Mr. Zaleski identified the imam of Niujie Mosque in Beijing as kin," the physician went on. "The imam has requested an interment in the cemetery there."
"In Xuanwu District?"
"Beijing is not my city, sir."
"The body will be transported from Shanghai station tomorrow afternoon."
"By train?" said Gao. "It takes twelve hours!"
"There are refrigeration facilities on board, Mr. Yang," replied the physician. "We do this by preference."
"How can I see him?" he asked, feeling bolder. "We are very close."
"The imam's delegate in Shanghai and our state counsel visited my office this morning, Mr. Yang," he said. "Mr. Zaleski's body was ritually prepared yesterday before it could be released for Beijing."
"I would like to see him." It was as far as Gao dared go.
"You are not a Muslim, Mr. Yang, and you are in Beijing," he told the barber. "Here is a toll-free number to explain the obsequies we followed."
"United Arab Emirates."
Gao's face flushed. "Did the imam's delegate and state counsel see the body?"
"We had grossly delayed, Mr. Yang."
"Was there a post-mortem?"
Dr. Park sighed. "It was a seizure."
"Call the Niujie Mosque," the doctor added. "But I advise you that a non-Muslim cannot attend funerals."
Fearing the worst about Number Nine People's Hospital in Shanghai—and his own courage—Gao closed the handset as you might replace a bolt.
Barber Yang has found a staff entrance and is illegally on platform four at Beijing station. Arriving Shanghai passengers bustle toward the stairs. Gao is swaying dangerously near the edge. Alongside Tomasz's train, stands a group of porters and an official—smoking cigarettes.
Gao dons a Muslim prayer cap—the one of May, that pike-pause day—so large, sitting gamefully above his eyebrows. "Screw Dr. Kyung-mo Park also," he mutters, striding toward the front of the train. He is breathing tight and fast. "Go-lem am I!"
All night in Beijing's not-so-secret underground city, accessed from Qianmen, south of Tiananmen Square—along its tunnels, past fading slogans, "Accumulate Grain"—cellphone at his ear to wife, son and the United Arab Emirates, Gao envisaged this awful pass.
Reunited, all too briefly, with his imprudent friend.
Outside the express train's first carriage, he waves an identity card—and scoots inside.
"You!" one of the railway workers yells.
Gao runs through the compartments, tugging at one door then the next. Reaching a baggage car, he stumbles in and locates a refrigerated container. Lifting a heavy latch—and in the draught of chill air—he finds a blue, synthetic bag which he undoes.
A porter knocks him aside.
Gao kicks hard.
The man staggers to a shelf of parcels.
Tomasz, bound in white sheet, lies like a seahorse—and Gao reaches forward. With his razor held high.
Several employees and a supervisor burst into the coach.
Gao slashes at them—closer—lunging right and left.
"They stole from him!" he screeches, until the men retreat onto platform four where an alarm now sounds.
A horde of police swarms the train.
Gao slams the door and rushes back to Tomasz.
"Forgive me, Fadi," he whispers, slicing away cotton over the belly, camphor at his nostrils. Gao wrenches apart this Muslim shroud.
Gently, he raises Tomasz's upper body.
There at the diver's groin, an encrusted smirk.
Editors' note: This is the title story from Royston Tester's collection Fatty Goes to China (Tightrope Books).