The Love Of My Life
"She was a dancer,
With dreams of her own;
He was a dreamer,
She danced all alone…."
She is, not was, a dancer.
Technically a retired dancer. In China, at the very highest level, you retire at twenty-three. She had attended a specialist dance school from the age of ten, become a professional dancer at fifteen, and had retired at the top.
After that she studied, and practised, choreography, and practised it at the highest possible level. But she remains a dancer; it is her life, her body and her soul. When she dies, the flames which consume her will coalesce into one lithe and lambent spirit of the dance, to burn forever above her resting place.
One afternoon, at the very cusp of the millennium, we managed to escape to Thailand. I drove my car just out of sight of my workplace, and she arrived exactly at the agreed time. All my experience told me that women turned up late in exact correlation to their beauty; if a woman was beautiful enough, she knew men would forgive her anything. But this most beautiful of women was never late: her commitment was absolute. She had stood me up precisely once; this was before the age of mobile phones, and it was only later that I discovered that her sister had died in her arms two hours before our planned rendezvous.
The flight was full, and we could not get properly adjacent seats – an aisle was between us. Nonetheless we could still hold hands as the plane took off.
On arrival in Bangkok she was in my hands, and delighted to be so. She had, of course, travelled frequently in the context of official cultural exchanges, but only as part of a closely managed group. But now, I could see a whole carapace disintegrating, as for once she knew that no eyes were upon her. Except mine.
Three years of obfuscating our relationship – neither of us could afford to allow any suspicion to develop – and now complete freedom. We walked through the airport, arm in arm for the first time ever. We each knew what the other was thinking, and it was exactly the same.
I took her to our hotel – a simple but clean and decent one. Neither of us would have been impressed by luxury; we both knew it well as a concomitant of our official lives, and we had no need of it in private. Besides, luxury would have embarrassed her. For the first time she was relying on me to pay all expenses. As a well-paid professional she had always been meticulous about paying her share, knowing that I had a family to support.
Not that there had been much of a share to pay. As we were both married, and as a Western / Chinese couple was horribly conspicuous, we would usually make a lunchtime appointment. More often than not I would come to her place, we would leap into bed, and never make it to lunch at all.
But, married to a man who earned perhaps a tenth of her income, she had set up a joint account to spare his blushes. And she could never have taken anything like the cost of this trip out of it. She was, after all, supposed to be on an official, all-expenses-paid, trip to the far west of China.
But that didn't matter. All we needed was to be together. These four nights were to be the only nights we would spend together in the fifteen years of our relationship.
So, there we are in Bangkok, in the early evening; what are we to do? Take her to a gogo bar, of course. She wanted to see dancing; it was what she knew and understood. Of course Nana Plaza did not offer much in the way of style or technique; but that was all right, as the erotic charge would, and did, serve us well later.
Next day we went into the city. She was overwhelmed by the sudden possibility, after a lifetime of concealment, of openly displayed love and sensuality. For once, a Western male with an oriental woman was the norm, or at least could not be challenged by anyone. One thing was comical. She was from the far South-West of China, her birthplace being perhaps 200 miles from Chiang Mai, and her features could easily have been Northern Thai-Chinese. So when a Thai tout clocked my farang appearance and thought he could sell us something, it was she who was usually approached. As she speaks neither Thai nor English, the tout had to be diverted to me. Of course, if there was any sign that I might be getting talked into any dubious deal, she would be right back in there, having spotted immediately that I was no good at bargaining. Gender will always trump language in these cases.
But Thai scammers are stronger than both, and at some expense I went with the flow. We allowed ourselves to be taken along to a jewellery shop. She was happy, and made the wide-open-eyed gesture that no man can resist. Yes, I bought her a ring at a ridiculous price. If you like, I was ripped off. But when she now shows me that ring as aide-memoire, I know it was worth it at ten times the price.
And so to Phuket. I had promised her two days on the island. We had a little beach apartment at Patong. Yes, there's a lot of touristy rubbish at Patong. But, again, we just went with the flow and it was all adorable. Chinese people can't believe they're having a good time unless one can hardly breathe for the crush of people. Whereas we Westerners might describe a fun place as "cool", the Chinese expression combines the words for "hot" and "noisy". Wandering through the market and bar area, somebody tries to drape a snake around her neck for an attractive photograph: no! Real terror in those wide brown eyes.
And, of course, the ladyboy cabaret. The one thing that Chinese people all know about Thailand is the concept of the ladyboy. (Previously, I had told her sister, who was a good friend of mine but who knew nothing about our relationship, that I was going to Thailand. She had warned me not to pick up any strange women, as I might find out later that they were not women at all. I replied that she did not have to worry, although I didn't explain till afterwards exactly why not.)
She had to see them, as she had had to see the gogo dancers in Bangkok. No doubt she was mainly concentrating on the choreography, which was stylised in a manner not too dissimilar to that of the big spectaculars in China. (She was later to choreograph the closing ceremony for the Beijing Olympics.) She knew, as I knew, that this was all unbelievably naff, put on only for the tourists…yet, in her heart, she knew that the showpieces she was staging all over China were no different. She simply applied all her artistic spirit and professional know-how to it, as she could do no other. At the end she insisted on taking some "all boys together" photos of me with the dancers.
On Patong beach we set up camp, providing good business to the ubiquitous vendors, trying all day to sell us rubbish. I wanted to do nothing to interfere with the atmosphere between us – if that involved spending money on rubbish, so be it. We bought and bought and bought, largely coconuts with their tops sliced off and bottles of beer – for me. Though a non-drinker herself and married to an alcoholic, she valued my drinking as helping to maintain the atmosphere we had created for ourselves. No conflict must intervene…
A man in a motorboat hailed us. Did we want to sail around the bay? Of course we did. I haggled a little, purely to save a bit of face, and, probably overpaid, he took us offshore. All I remember from that trip was trying to teach her some English; she only knew three words of English, but they were the right three. I remember telling her "the sky is blue", and her attempt: "ze sur-gye iz bi-loo!" Chinese people simply cannot cope with two adjacent consonants.
We took loads of pictures that day. I made an album of them, pasted between lines from Mr. Tambourine Man:
"Y es, to dance beneath the diamond sky with one hand waving free,
Silhouetted by the sea,
Circled by the circus sands,
With all memory and fate
driven deep beneath the waves,
Let us forget about today until tomorrow"
Sadly, I can't post the pictures here. My hyper-jealous second wife found the album, and I never saw it again.
But we only had a day and a half, and then had to fly back to Bangkok. Those who know the territory will know that Patong beach is quite a long way from Phuket airport, and that one is reliant on the taxi mafia for transport. It was late on a Sunday evening, and we settled into the back of the taxi for the 40-45-minute journey. One thing led to another in the darkness, and it was fortunate that we had brought a blanket with us so that the barest outlines of decency could be maintained. I'm sure the taxi driver knew exactly what was going on, but equally sure that he'd seen it all before. Even I have never, before or since, made love in the back of a taxi. And for this highly respectable lady, with whom I could not even hold hands in the street in her own country….the magic of Thailand! As an erotic destination it can't be beaten, even if no Thai women are directly involved.
The morning of her departure (I stayed on for another three days) was, predictably, chaos. We almost missed the bus to the airport by spending too long making love. In the bus itself we lost all inhibitions – verbally, not physically this time – and said all the inappropriate things lovers save up for such moments, in the knowledge that no-one could overhear us speaking Chinese. It was hugely painful, and for once we felt free to express the fact.
When we got to the airport I discovered that I had mislaid her ticket, and had to get a new one made out. The whole enterprise had cost me an unbelievable amount of money, largely through relaxing every one of my anti-scam defences and just going with the irresistible flow. And if those four days had cost twenty times as much they would have been worth every penny.
" Ȏ mon amour….
Mon doux, mon tendre, mon merveilleux amour –
De l'aube claire jusqu'à la fin du jour,
Je t'aime encore, tu sais, je t'aime."
(Jacques Brel, Chanson des vieux amants)