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Forbidden City


On the morning of his visit to the Forbidden City, the last day of his China trip, James woke exhausted, as he had almost every day he had been there. First, in Shanghai, because of jetlag and the excitement of being in China; then — as the evenings got later, the drinks drunk more numerous, and the morning commitments earlier — from not having enough time to sleep; finally, here in Beijing, from lag-derived insomnia, a potent combination of all of the above.

There was no time for breakfast. There was never time for breakfast. Min, the chaperone from his Chinese publisher, was waiting for him in reception, pre-punctual as always, never tired, always smiling and happy — but often with an air of harriedness beneath that smile as she asked if he had slept well.

“Wonderfully,” he said. It was the easiest thing to do when you had slept terribly: to say whatever required the least effort or explanation. They shook hands — they had somehow got stuck at the pre-embrace stage of their relationship — and stepped outside. It was boiling already, at eight in the morning. The driver was standing by the car in a white shirt, his hair slicked back, smoking. James couldn’t remember his name. Actually, it wasn’t the name but the face that was causing him trouble: the driver’s name was Feng, he knew that, but he was unsure if this driver was Feng or someone new. So, whereas yesterday he’d said, “Hello, Feng,” today he just said, “Hi there,” conscious that if this was Feng then he might be offended by the downgrade to anonymity. Was that why the driver wasn’t smiling? No, no, it couldn’t be Feng, he was sure. That was the thing about being so tired, you forgot things you should have remembered — things like people’s faces — and then whirred away worrying about them, exhausting yourself still further.

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’s many books include Jeff in Venice, Death in Varanasi; Zona; and But Beautiful. His article “Stop Time” appeared in the June 2014 issue of Harper’s Magazine.

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