“T” Today. Ta-da!
Treats and tinsel, turkey and trifle, telly then time for bed
Tests (of patience): Funny how almost every Christmas article I come across mentions the need to be extra careful to get along with people at this time of year – especially family, of course, who, according to these same articles, seem to become extra irritating when you’re stressed out over the Yuletide arrangements.
* ***************Liu Zhang groaned as he stretched his back. He had crouched for perhaps a minute by the shrine before standing upright again and pulling his coat tightly across his chest. The shrine, almost overgrown by the side of the road, had some dried flowers placed by it, some offerings of sweets and parcels of food. Liu Zhang had left one thing only, recently acquired. And he had muttered two newly-learned words to his ling ‘ai – his beautiful daughter.
The sun was blood red, creeping over the distant mountains and the sky was already much lighter than when he had left the house a few minutes ago. His wife didn’t sleep well nowadays and had been up tending the fire. She handed him his cup of tea in silence and they sat impassively opposite each other in the darkened house, listening to the coughs and scuffles of their neighbours, also preparing for the day, and the trucks rumbling on the main road. Then Liu Zhang began his walk to work, passing the shrine as always.
The mine, some six kilometres away arose like the remains of a smouldering city in the midst of the sprawl of houses. It operated day and night and only once he was over the brow of the hill would Liu be able to see the searing floodlights fading into the frosty morning. Liu felt fortunate to have these minutes climbing the long hill, breathing more easily. Walking could also be part of a Buddhist’s devotion.
Yesterday, at the mine, there had been a group of visitors. They had arrived from Zhengzhou in a cavalcade of jeeps. Mostly Chinese, there were also two Sai Yan, Europeans, amongst them. One tall and wearing spectacles, the other shorter and bald. They had travelled, Liu guessed, three hundred kilometres just to look at the mine
After a month of rain the Municipal Government had ordered the mine stopped until the water subsided. Last week four hundred men had been told not to come back, but Liu Zhang had been lucky. At the surface he operated the machinery that was grinding the gangue, the mess of rock that came up from the mine, and there was a mountain of it still to be processed to feed the calcination plant.
The two Europeans carried expensive briefcases and wore clean boots. Their shirts looked expensive. Liu was right there when they stopped to look at the crushing machinery and, beyond it, towards the broad crater into which the pits were sunk.
There was laughter from the group and excited questions. The two visitors wanted to see the zinc. Where was the zinc?
The mine boss came over to Liu and surprised him by bowing, slightly, something he would never normally do. He introduced Liu to the Europeans in English and then translated their question. “They want to see the zinc” he explained with a slight smile.
Liu Zheng looked round. He knew some English. He cleared his throat.
“It is here” He indicated the gangue. “And also Lead, Nickel…”
He hesitated. There was a list of chemicals he knew from the leaflet handed out by the WHO medical team.
“And …Ars-en-ick” he offered. “And…Ma….Mercu…cu-Ry” He stumbled on the English R sound.
The taller European smiled. “You speak good English” He said and shook Liu’s hand. “Well. Happy Christmas!”
Liu must have looked puzzled. Christmas? The bald man laughed and said something Liu couldn’t make out. Then he reached into his expensive briefcase.
The tall man began speaking again. “AngloAmerican Mining and Plastics.” He said, holding out a card, plastic of course, with metallic writing in both English and Cantonese. “We’re buying all the zinc you can produce.”
The man in glasses continued. “Your zinc is what helps stabilise our plastic film. You know, plastic?”
The mine boss nodded vigorously.
“And we use it to make the metallic coating.” Liu looked at the tall man uncertainly.
“P-Lastic” he murmured, taking care with the ‘L’ sound. Zinc and calcium and all the other heavy, poisonous metals were used to make computers, airplanes… medical equipment. Weren’t they?
“Take it” The bald man was offering something from his briefcase to Liu. Under the frosty morning sun, it was shimmering, sending sparks of light out in all directions. “It’s a gift.”
The bundle was almost like a living thing, like the feathers of a bird or the impossibly fine petals of an alien flower and it shivered and glittered in the slightest breeze. A rainbow of colours like the surface of the water that seeped from the calcination plant, but far brighter, danced on the slivers of plastic that twisted and twirled. Above all, Liu saw the sunlight bouncing and splintering and it was almost too much to look at; mesmerising, mystifying.
The tall man with glasses was smiling again. “You can take that home for your kids. Decorate the house or something. Hang it on a tree.”
Liu Zhen thanked him and bowed.
Of course he’d left the tinsel as an offering to Buddha at the shrine where he always remembered his beloved daughter.
Then he’d whispered “Happy Christmas, ling ‘ai.”
Train set: When I was little my Auntie Nancy bought me a train set. It wasn’t an extensive electric set with sidings and tunnels, just a little tin windup thing with a circular track that could fit on a medium sized coffee table. I played with it all morning, as happy as a pig in poo, until my brother Robert overwound and broke it. I can still remember the sound it made – a sudden PING! as the key cranked uselessly through dead air and a grumbling ratchety sound as the small spring of flattened stainless steel that drove it uncoiled like a slinky within its guts. I cried, I remember, but not as hard as Robert cried when I jumped on the Scalextric he had received from mum and dad as his main present. I had just turned six, so crying was okay. Robert was only a month shy of ten – WHAT A BABY!
- The trouble is, it’s not cold enough.
- The trouble is, Aunt Betty can’t come round til 2pm.
- The trouble is, it’s out of stock until Monday.
- The trouble is, it’s on at the same time as Dr Who.
- The trouble is, I’ve had too much to drink now.
- The trouble is, the sprouts were ready ages ago.
- The trouble is, Charlie’s been sick.
- The trouble is, the car won’t start.
Featured Writer: Philip Holden (Tinseltown). Additional Contributors: Carolyn Gray, Peppy Scott, David Smith, Karen Tucker.