Story — From the December 2014 issue

Forbidden City

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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.

Photograph by Jasper James

Photograph by Jasper James

“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.

He settled into his seat as the car began its dreadful journey to the Forbidden City. The traffic was dreadful. Beijing was a nightmare city, more crowded than anywhere he’d ever been, combining the intensity of New York with the vastness of L.A. They were on an eight-lane freeway, barely moving. Fine by James: it would give him a chance to snatch the first of what he hoped would be multiple naps in the course of what Min had already warned would be a “very tiring day.”

He closed his eyes, and was jolted awake as the car, having accelerated into an opening, braked and swerved. He’d been asleep for twenty minutes — getting to sleep in a moving car in daylight was so easy, far easier than in a luxurious bed in a hotel at night. And these twenty-minute naps were incredibly reviving — for about twenty minutes. Min, as usual, was on one of her two phones, sorting out the day’s constantly changing schedule. She’d arranged a guide, she said, to show them round the Forbidden City. His heart sank. His heart was prone to sinking, and although few words had the capacity to make his heart sink as rapidly or deeply as the word “guide,” plenty of others made it sink like a slow stone: words like “having to” or “listen to,” as in having to listen to a guide tell him stuff about the Forbidden City he could read about in a book, back in London, by which time any desire to do so would have sunk without a trace.

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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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