Tim Hayes, Misinterpreter
Beijing is always foggy and yet it goes for months without rain. The fog, more accurately termed “smog”, is made up of toxic gases. That is not to say it lacks poetry. Seeing it, a Tang dynasty scholar might have been inspired to publish a small collection of poems, titled Eternal Smog, that in their subtle critique of Tang governance would have had him exiled. A keen Sinologist might liken it to the figurative smog that deludes the self-serving man. Tim Hayes, who was now sifting his way through said smog in a mask that was purely ornamental, drew from it no inspiration. The majority of his attention was concerned with a text message he had received that afternoon. (The remainder of his attention, twelve seventy-fourths of it, was busy failing to remember the lyrics of a distant 90’s pop song ). The blue light of his phone adorned the smog at his shoulders.
IF THIS IS TIM HAYES, ENGLISH-CHINESE INTERPRETER, PLEASE READ. IF THIS NOT TIM HAYES, ENGLISH-CHINESE INTERPRETER, IGNORE THIS MESSAGE. TIM HAYES: JOB FOR YOU, PAY 200,000 RMB CASH. REPLY “YES” TO ACCEPT JOB AND RECEIVE FURTHER DETAIL.
There were a number of things about this message that put Tim Hayes, English-Chinese interpreter, on edge. The generous use of caps-lock, for a start. Tim, the only child of two divorcees, did not react well to a raised voice, even one that was implied. And if his modest education in film had taught him anything, it was that large sums of money paid in cash never amounted to anything wholesome. The most unsettling thing, however, was the complete lack of detail.
He scrolled down to reveal his own timid reply.
This is Tim H., English-Chinese interpreter. It would be of great help if you were to elaborate further. Otherwise, I may be inclined to refuse your offer.
He had avoided, with great caution, the use of the word “YES” or any word containing letters in that order (namely, his own surname). Below this text was another, sent minutes later (14:18), a translation of the previous text in Chinese characters. He wanted to provide an early sample of his interpretive skills.
It was now a few minutes past nine and he had not received a reply.
The Tim of a few months ago would have deleted the text, buried it in his subconcious and continued with his life. The Tim of today is an altogether different Tim. To recycle a metaphor, smog had enveloped his mind.
He had typed the words “Did you receive my” and was about to delete them when the swerve of a bicycle followed by a northern Chinese swearword forced him to look up. He had somehow arrived at his destination—a karaoke lounge.
Two hours later, Tim Hayes found himself, as he often did, sat snugly between two plump businessmen. To his left was the hefty George Granville, proprietor of the Granville cotton plantations, Texas, and to his right the unassuming Mr. Hou of Hou Textiles, Beijing. Tim’s diet of late consisted of cauliflower and rice, thanks to a old lamb skewer, so his dwindling frame looked particularly snug tonight.
George Granville reached over Tim’s lap to pat Mr. Hou respectfully on the thigh. He turned a watery gaze to Tim and, raising his voice over mistimed karaoke, said, “Tell Mr. Who that I’ve had a hell of a time doing business with ya’ll and an even heller of a time tonight!” He laughed with the gusto of his Texan forefathers.
Tim turned to Mr. Hou, “He has very much enjoyed his time here in Beijing”.
Mr. Hou had come to learn that Americans liked to laugh without reason. He gave his new friend, who had not yet finished laughing, a thumbs up and mimicked laughter.
“Won’t you join us for a drink, young Timothy?” gargled George Granville, pushing a glass into Tim’s chin and Mr. Hou offered an encouraging elbow.
“Oh, that’s ok. I’m really having a great time as it is,” (he wasn’t), “And I prefer to keep my mind clear on the job.”
“Never mind that! At this rate, there’ll be nothing but burps and ‘excuse mes’ left for you to translate. Now, how would you say…” he took a moment to burp impressively, “… in Chinese?”
“I’m not quite sure that’s translatable.”
“Well I’m damned sure that Mr. Ham will have an answer for me.”
Tim looked hopelessly at Mr. Hou.
“He wants to know how to say…” he swallowed some air, felt sick and gave up. “How do you say ‘bwahhh’?”
Mr. Hou, always one to put the company before himself, had secured an amiable deal hoped to make an amiable impression.
“Daaa-gehhh!” he exclaimed.
“Does that mean ‘burp’?” asked George.
“Aha, yes it does!”
George threw his arms up in uncalled for celebration. “Daaaaa-geeeehhhh! Da-geehhhh! DAAAA-GEEEHHH!”
That concluded Tim’s job for the night.
It was a quarter past one when Tim collapsed onto the only chair in his high-rise apartment and picked up a translation of The Book of Changes. He had made a habit of consulting ancient divinatory texts in times of distress. He opened the bookmarked page and read.
Thunder roars at the guilty and sings to the meek.
Success lies across the great waters.
Success lies across the great waters.
He wondered whether “great waters” was a term for Pacific Ocean. Perhaps the sages of old want me to book flights out of here, he thought.
At this dizzy hour, he decided that only a large sum of money (paid in cash) could change his fate.
The next morning, Beijing was its usual smoggy self when Tim Hayes, clutching cauliflower from the market, had concluded just how important the occasional spot of rain was to an Englishman.
Rain serves as a gentle reminder that things generally lie beyond our control, he thought, entering the lift. No, that’s not right. Rain is the great purifier. A chance for death and rebirth. And the lack of rain in my life probably symbolises something.
He abandoned these thoughts at the sight of a package on his doorstep. The words “TIM HAYES OPEN IMMEDIATELY” were scrawled on it in black marker. He remembered the half-conscious text of the previous night and checked his phone again.
The unopened package sat menacingly on the counter as he made a cup of tea. The Tim of a few months ago had resurfaced and was cursing the Tim of today for disrupting the status quo.
He tore open the package. A heavy black shirt and a note fell to the floor.
MEET 10 PM TONIGHT AT THE GOLDEN PHOENIX RESTAURANT, XIZHIMEN ROAD. PUT ON THE VEST – 龙
The letter had been signed off with the Chinese character for dragon, long, which, Tim guessed, was a fitting name for his employer.
He picked up the vest and found that it resembled one of those vests that FBI agents put on before they infiltrated mobs and such. Had Tim Hayes been a Chinese emperor and had he consulted his priest on the matter, the priest would likely have told him that there were a number of unfavourable portents and that he should remain still, for the sparrow that attempts to catch the mantis in a thunderstorm faces certain failure.
Tim clenched and unclenched his hands and would have also been pacing the apartment had there been room to pace. He considered quitting his job and crossing the “great waters” but these people had managed to find him here; surely they would be able to track him down elsewhere. God knows how much information they might have on him. It was clear running away was not an option. No. He had to meet this Mr. Long, have a stern word with him and firmly stand his ground on the matter. Tim reckoned there existed within his own dwindling exterior a man capable of giving men like Mr. Long a stern word or two. He felt a brief surge of machismo before falling back onto his only chair and taking a sip of tea.
It was in this same chair that the dwindling Tim Hayes, at eight o’clock, could be found sweating in an oversized bulletproof vest at a safe distance from the window to avoid snipers and such. He had run through every possible scenario and the most believable involved him bridging the gap between Chinese and American opium traders. He could see the headlines.
BEMUSED INTERPRETER BRIDGES GAP BETWEEN U.S. –CHINA DRUG TRADE
By a quarter to nine, he had surrendered to life as a criminal and prepared to leave. He would find his way to the Golden Phoenix on foot and have one final “breather”, if in Beijing you could really call it that, in the hopes that there was an epiphany under his sleeve. He stood up and, like a man on death row, took a long, resolute sip of tea and began his slow march.
He had walked halfway to the restaurant, epiphany-less, when an unexpected sound shook his bones. He had heard a single, apocalyptic crack of thunder. Somewhere above the smog, real clouds, clouds thick with real moisture, were busying themselves like an orchestra. Tim shuddered and kept his head down. He was in no mood for an apocalypse.
All but one of the lamps that usually lit up the Golden Phoenix’s grand arches had been extinguished for the night. The remaining lamp, a weak red glow on Xizhimen Road, looked to Tim like another of a series of bad omens. He knocked on the glass door, peeking in at the empty tables.
The door swept inwards to reveal a man in a black suit of exactly the size that Tim had dreaded. This was not a man who could be swayed by stern words, reflected Tim. He adjusted his body language to resemble the alpha male.
“You must be Mr. Long,” he squeaked, “I’ve thought this whole business over and –”
The man gestured towards the far end of the restaurant where Tim could make out two ominous shadows under a dim bulb. He supposed that this man was a henchman and that the shadows were tonight’s company. The last thing in the world he wanted was to join two ominous shadows for a chat.
Mr. Long, known to many as the Green Dragon, in his fifty-two years in the business, knew enough English to get by. But the old man felt it clashed with his windpipes and hurt his tongue. If the language was not going to adapt for him, he was certainly not going to adapt for it. Hence, when dealing with foreigners he employed an interpreter. Always at random and never the same interpreter twice.
The interpreter for tonight had arrived and looked to Mr. Long’s eyes much like a newborn calf. The American and Tim Hayes noticed each other and exchanged a range of looks, from confusion to fear to sudden disinterest.
Mr. Long, eager to proceed, looked at Tim and, speaking his mother tongue, said, “I am Long. You must be… Tim Hayes, the interpreter.” He had paused a moment before saying Tim’s name; the English intonation unsettled his throat.
Tim, as we know, has a tendency to overthink things. And he had taken Mr. Long’s pause as a sign of disgust towards himself. He had also taken the hooked and headless meats that surrounded them, a common sight in Beijing restaurants, as a sign of his own proximity to death. And he had not even begun to process the sight of old George Granville. George, who apparently doubled as an international drug dealer in his spare time, had pretended not to recognise Tim. Tim thought it best to play along. He shifted his attention to Mr. Long and replied in a manner that he hoped was not panicky, “Indeed, I am… And who is our friend?”
Mr. Long waved a hand towards the American who now appeared to be texting. “This is Mr… Brunsmith,” the English words sat uncomfortably in Mr. Long’s mouth and so he switched to his mother tongue, “He is the man with whom I will be conducting tonight’s business with. And, of course, you will be our tongue. I will pay you in full once the business is concluded.”
Tim took offense at the frustrating lack of detail. Had he not been invited into their ominous circle?
“Could I ask exactly what you mean by business?” he asked.
Mr. Long did not have time for inquisitive interpreters. “Ask Mr. Brunsmith to excuse me for a moment,” he said to Tim. “Tell him I will shortly return with the… item.”
He smiled at them both, stood up and left the room, henchman close behind.
“Mr. Gran-… Mr. Brunsmith, sir. Mr. Long will be back in a moment. He’s gone to fetch something,” said Tim. George, eyes fixed on his phone, grunted.
George Granville was not texting. He was scrolling up and down aimlessly with feigned captivation. His mind, like Tim’s, was troubled and he needed a moment to collect himself. The American took great pride in his double life. Over time, he had carefully sculpted two distinct characters like an obsessive author. By day he was George Granville, cotton tycoon, and by night he was Gregory Brunsmith, private collector. He was also known to very few as The Collector, a title that he had tried and failed to popularise. The cotton tycoon, he hoped, was aloof and jolly, with whom it was a pleasure to do business. The Collector was mysterious and sombre and struck awe in people’s hearts. Although both characters were, in their way, reflections of himself, the true George Granville, whom perhaps only his late mother had known well, had vanished in the process. Until now, not a soul in the world knew him as both cotton tycoon and collector. This Tim Hayes fellow was, in short, ruining the fun. He finally looked up at the Englishman, who was staring at a suspended pork shoulder fearfully.
“I’m gonna need you to refer to me as Mr. Brunsmith,” he growled, “and refrain from mentioning your old buddy George Granville. In fact, don’t mention any Georges or Granvilles or cotton or karaoke. Just keep your mouth shut.” He paused. “Stick to translating what I say and what Mr. Long says and don’t confuse it all with your own damned opinion. That’s an interpreter’s job, am I right?”
Tim was intimidated. He nodded at the mysterious American.
They had sat in difficult silence for some moments before Mr. Long and his henchman returned. The latter, wearing gloves, was carrying a book in a protective film with oddly maternal concentration. George had sat up and leaned forward at the sight of it. The henchman placed it on the table in front of them and stepped back theatrically into the shadows.
“This…” said Mr. Long, “is the complete record of Qingzi’s life research. As per your request, Mr. Brunsmith.”
Tim translated his words obediently. He was relieved not to be faced with a bag full of heroin cakes but now desperately wanted to know what it was that this Qingzi had researched.
“I had acquired this with great difficulty,” continued Mr. Long. “As you know, the book was supposed to have been burned during Mao’s cultural purge,” he said these words with forbidden distaste, “but it had somehow escaped the fires. It is considered one of the most illegal and sought-after documents in China.”
George Granville listened to Tim’s translation greedily. Some months ago, he had been told of a certain Daoist monk that had achieved supernatural powers and a book that contained all his secrets. Since then, he had twisted every arm and pulled every string to acquire it. The old businessman did not care to achieve superpowers, especially not if attaining them meant vigorous meditation, penance, detachment from worldly shackles etc. Nor had he any genuine interest in Daoist monks. He simply wanted to own the damn thing. Among countless other artifacts that amount to a respectable museum, the Granville estate is home to one of the largest collections of first-edition superhero comics on the planet. Qingzi’s origin story, in all its forbidden glory, was the superhero comic to end all superhero comics. He could already picture it sitting proudly in a glass case in his vaulted library next his first edition Wonder Woman. He smiled like a kid.
Tim smiled too. Partly because George appeared to be back to his old self and partly because his anxiety had been replaced with the sudden feeling that this was all very absurd. Mr. Long, soon to be a few million yuan richer, also smiled.
Thunder shook the glass-encased Golden Phoenix and its tables and chairs hummed. The three men, now discussing prices in a considerably better mood, paid this act of god no heed. Very large sums of money were being thrown around and Tim’s curiosity had peaked. He pulled his chair closer and squinted at the ancient front cover. He could make out a few faint Chinese characters. There was “Sichuan”, a province in China, and “xiang”, either meaning “incense” or “fragrant”, and below it…
“Mr. Hayes. Did you hear what I said?” said Mr. Long irritably. “Mr. Brunsmith will be required to –”
“La… jiao? Does that say ‘pepper’?” said Tim aloofly, in English. “Sichuan peppers? Who was this Qingzi?”
Mr. Long shuffled in his chair.
“What do you mean ‘Seyshwan peppers’?” asked George. “What exactly does it say there, Tim?”
“The aroma of Sichuan peppers,” Tim read slowly, always happy to oblige a non-Chinese speaker. “Was Qingzi a chef?”
George stood up, a formidable man. “You were gonna sell me an old recipe book?! You sly son-of-a-”
Mr. Long clicked his fingers and the henchman appeared, gun in hand.
“Leave,” he said in clear-cut English and pointed out to the storm.
At around midnight, Tim Hayes and George Granville were looking out at a magnificent display from the shelter of a bus stop. A river had formed on Xizhimen Road carrying branches of trees and motorbike parts. Lightning flashed and it was day and then night once again. A shudder of relief ran through Beijing as it heaved and hoed to the storm’s will. Tim, in need of a rebirth, was deciding whether or not he wanted to step in and get involved.
“That old crook almost had me fooled,” George laughed and began unbuttoning his shirt. “Staged the whole damn thing.” He wrestled out off an undersized bulletproof vest. “He even had this delivered to my hotel room!”
Tim took his vest off too, feeling a weight lift.
“I suppose he was trying to distract us,” he grinned. “Clever bugger.”
Thunder joined in on George’s laughter.
“I owe you one, Timothy my boy,” he slapped Tim on the back. “I was about to drop a small fortune on a cookbook.”
“Happy to help. Who was Qingzi anyway?”
“Some old monk,” George sighed. “He probably never existed.”
Tim made up his mind and stepped into the storm.
“What are you doing?” yelled George through the noise. “There’s poison in this rain!”
“Just a moment.”
Tim closed his eyes and let the clouds soak him through. Thunder cracked and he remained still.