Thursday 18 May 2023

Tone Deaf by Cathleen Davies, white coffee

 Giles no longer found white women attractive. Their shoulders were too wide, their voices too loud, and their ideologies detestable. It seemed to him that white women, and English women in particular, now expected a subservience that Giles absolutely refused to cow down to, and rightly so, as the complete obedience they craved they still seemed to leave them unsatisfied. No. They were spoilt, ungrateful, and entitled, with completely inflated senses of self-importance which repelled him entirely, repelling him across oceans and continents, no less.

He hadn’t always felt this way. In his first marriage Giles was vaguely happy with his wife. She was conservative and loyal with a sense of common decency. That affection had faded as the years went on, and after gaining twenty pounds and losing all her sex appeal, she’d left. Two years later after a string of awful courting attempts, Giles left too. He hadn’t stepped foot on British soil in over 15 years. The women in Chengdu were much more manageable. They were sweeter, with quiet, soft-spoken voices. Their frames were slight, dainty and girlish in a way that Giles had always found appealing.

Moving had been a snap decision, so ‘snap’ that many of his friends and family equated it to a mid-life crisis.

            ‘To China? You’re kidding! Well, I suppose he likes travelling. And after the divorce, and all. It does seem strange, going all that way. And the language barrier…’

But the East had always held an exotic appeal to him. It started on his honeymoon, travelling with Taiwan Airlines, seeing the dainty, young women in their blue uniforms and red lipstick. He liked the way they served him whisky and insisted on calling him ‘sir’ in their darling, incorrect accents. The happy couple were on their way to Bangkok via Taipei. Giles found the flight-attendants so utterly charming, although his wife was completely oblivious, her own, round eyes drilling the in-flight magazine for duty-free perfumes. Giles worried then that getting married so young may have perhaps been a mistake. 

After the initial TEFL training, in which Giles was thrust into a sweaty room with awful people in their early twenties, Giles created the framework for his new life. The teaching was somewhat enjoyable, and the children certainly behaved themselves appropriately. In a few years, he’d managed to build his own English school, hiring a number of wonderful Western and Chinese staff alike. His apartment was extensive – white walls and carpeted floors, with huge glass windows overlooking the winter smog. Winter was his favourite part of the year. He never had to worry about sweating through his shirts. More importantly, in winter there were food-stalls outside his apartment block, selling unbearably spicy kebab sticks to warm up stomachs during the freezing nights. Over the years Giles had grown fond of the stall, particularly of the young girl who worked there. He could not be quite certain, but he thought her name was Newar.

In China, one could split the women into categories quite easily: chubby babies, young children, shy teens, ambitious twenty and thirty year olds, and elderly women, heavily lined in the forehead and jowls, but stoic and strong, (although at this point in their lives utterly sexless, of course). The food stall was a family business, and it was delightful to see the mother’s pride grow as she stooped further forward each year while the daughter served customers with an increasing amount of competence. It was a wonder she didn’t have a beau, Giles often thought, being as charming as she was. Then again, the girl was likely tentative to leave her family unit -- something very common in these parts, community society and all that -- at least not until there was a rich husband to save her. Giles thought he may be able to offer such a chance at liberation.

She wasn’t exactly the most beautiful woman he’d ever seen, but still, she was pretty. There was an honesty to her stubby nose and crooked teeth. Giles remembered with embarrassment the first time he’d properly spoken to her. He’d grabbed the spices from her hand before she could tip them onto his food, and gestured with an emphatic shake of his arms.


‘Bu yao la ma’ she had responded, something he supposed indicated a lack of comprehension because her eyes were so wide and shocked. He pointed again to the spice, shook his head slowly and deliberately, making it as easy as possible for her to follow.


She nodded, her lips pressed tightly together, and turned around his plain kebab sticks on the grill. This technique would never have worked with her mother, who often batted him away when he tried to insist on what he wanted. Of course with the mother he never would have grabbed the spice from her hand outright. Though she was small and decrepit, Giles imagined she might be able to cause some damage.  

The next time he went to the stall, he brought the basket of kebab sticks up to the mother, and as she went to pick up the spices her daughter rushed over and did the explaining for him. They chattered away like musical clocks until eventually the mother shrugged her daughter off and placed the spices down, reluctant but willing to follow his instructions, (although they were presumably offensive considering her facial expression as she later handed him the box of plain meat). The daughter turned to Giles and smiled, thumbs-up and grinning like a child. For some reason, despite never having thought much of her before, Giles’ heart swelled. They were on a team, it seemed, being a little mischievous.

            That night she visited him in his apartment. How she had known it was his, he couldn’t be sure, but he imagined that she’d been thinking about him for some time, had been keen to see where all that money and sophistication hung its hat. Surprisingly to him, she spoke fluent English, although her accent was still somewhat tainted by her upbringing. He opened a bottle of wine for them to share.

            ‘And does your mother know where you are?’ he asked her. She looked at him and shrugged.

            ‘I could be in worse places.’

            Later, they made love on the leather sofa under silver lamp-light. Giles was in awe at the way her breasts, so small and delicate, held themselves up entirely, soft and firm to the touch. Her waist dipped inwards, the perfect placement for his hands as he moved her up and down, up and down, feeling her warmth. She was enthusiastic, moaned gorgeously, and often seemed shocked by the sensations, as though she couldn’t believe such pleasure were occurring.

            It became a regular arrangement. If he didn’t visit the stall, she wouldn’t come. If he did, she would smile at him, and later they would have their fun. At night, he lay awake with visions of her panting face as she bounced on top of him, and Giles felt a comfort almost akin to love. He looked over at the stall from the height of his apartment and analysed her crooked teeth, her stubby nose, her sleek, black hair, and pockmarked skin. She was so very beautiful. Giles’ interest in his staff disintegrated and he found himself indifferent to the way his secretary would lean over his desk to point out issues in the school calendar, something he usually admired. This accidental monogamy became something like love. Yes, it was almost like love.

            In his apartment she would speak to him:

            ‘I don’t like to use English so much in front of my mother. It unsettles her.’

            ‘It does?’

            ‘Of course! Not everyone appreciates the beauty of such a language. Mandarin is all the same sounds, repeating and clanking like machinery. English represents itself so proudly. I think that many are afraid of that.’

            ‘Yes,’ Giles answered, ‘I wholeheartedly agree,’ - for he had never deigned to learn Mandarin, finding the whole thing impossible. He initially thought that if he persisted living here for long enough it would soak in his mind through osmosis, but in the end there was no need. There were enough translators in his company, and as the boss he could live as he pleased.

            His darling girl, Newar, shared his sentiment. Indeed, he often taught her new words, read her English poems as they lay together under thick blankets. She would point to the sentences that she hadn’t fully understood, and he’d explain them to her gently, meticulously, while she looked at him with the same wide-eyed, uncomprehending expression he’d grown to adore. Teaching English was never his passion more than in these moments.

            Soon, Giles ate kebab sticks every day, staring from the window, waiting for the stall to close so that his little sweetheart could scuttle up the stairs and knock on his apartment door. Giles was spending more and more of his time brooding by the glass window. He knew that English women could never make him feel this excitement, could never inspire in him such curiosity; for white women who knew poetry presumed they knew it all, and those who didn’t care for it were vapid and yet equally as arrogant.

            One day, staring out of the apartment window he watched her at the stall. She was talking to another customer, some Asian man with a black fleece jacket and bad teeth. He was younger than Giles, but uglier too. She laughed at his jokes, touched his arm, and this would have all been acceptable were it not for the mother. The mother detested the thought of flirtation. Giles could tell by the way she’d been intervening between them as of late. Here too, she was discouraging their nonsense. She got in between the two youngsters, reallocated her daughter to another task. It occurred to Giles then that this young man was not a customer. He too was grabbing baskets, pouring spices onto barbecue sticks. A brother, perhaps? But no, the way they always caught each-others’ eyes was apparent even from so many storeys up.

 Giles was incensed. He grabbed his jacket to storm across the road and demand an explanation from her. Her secret lessons would no longer be kept secret. He would reveal their activities. She would be ashamed.   

            The elevator had never before seemed quite so creaking and untrustworthy. The journey down seemed longer than usual. Across the road, he could see her, but as he stormed over for confrontation, his impatience led him straight into a line of traffic where a motor scooter knocked him down. When he hit his head on the concrete, he saw orange fireworks. The scooter drove on unashamedly amidst the shouts. The stall owners rushed across the road, the mother first as she crouched down to speak to him, the same incoherent Chinese warbling.

            ‘Your daughter,’ he tried to say. ‘I need your daughter.’

            ‘Ting bu dong,’ the mother said, one of the only expressions he’d learned in Chinese, and one that always brought him intense frustration.

            The daughter took over from her mother’s place.

            ‘Hello,’ she said in a stronger accent than he’d remembered. ‘You want hospital?’

            ‘Oh stop that,’ he’d said, moaning as he sat up. ‘I know your English is fluent. You can speak better than that.’

            ‘Ting bu dong,’ she said again to her mother. Why did her voice sound so different now? The accent was strange. In his apartment, had she been more Taiwanese-sounding? He caught a glimpse of her breasts under her jumper. Somehow, they seemed larger today.  

            ‘You speak English!’ he accused her.

            ‘A little,’ she admitted. ‘You want hospital?’

            It wasn’t the same girl. That he was sure of. She had the same face, stood in the same place by the stall, wore the same apron, but this girl knew nothing of poetry.  

            ‘I should confront you,’ he said, waving a finger at her. His head was hot where he’d hit it, and blood was dripping down. Where was he exactly? What was happening? A crowd was starting to gather around. This was the last thing Giles had wanted.

            ‘I know you speak English,’ he implored. The girl looked at him with the same wide eyes he remembered, but this time he could sense she felt he was stupid. There was an awkward smirk across her face, revealing her second-hand embarrassment.

            ‘English,’ she said ‘yes. A little.’ She called over to the Asian youth with the bad teeth, who’d stayed behind to watch the stall. They chattered together in Chinese for a while before turning back to Giles.

            ‘Do you need help?’ he said, and his accent was slightly more natural, which Giles resented. It could not be the same girl.

He stood up on shaking legs. Slowly, he turned back to his apartment feeling his age for the first time. He heard the girl say to her mother behind her.

            ‘Ta ting bu dong,’ but Giles knew how wrong they were. He understood. He understood perfectly.  


Mother, daughter, boyfriend shrugged together, confused and unsure. Eventually, the mother ushered them back over to the stall. The fire was still going and their meat was burning. The customers were waiting. There was nothing more they could have done to help the man after all. Why try to help someone who didn’t want the help? Why try to help someone who just wouldn’t understand?


About the author

Cathleen Davies is currently completing their Creative Writing PhD at the University of East Anglia. Her work has appeared in a number of magazines and anthologies, and her two collections 'And Marvel' and 'Cheeky, Bloody Articles' have been published by 4Horseman Press. 
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