The End of an Error

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Monday 13th October

We’re on the M56 heading for Manchester airport. The sun is shining bright and the air has a little bite to it. The traffic isn’t too bad and I head up the exit towards terminal 2. I park on the multi-storey and head through the automatic doors into the arrivals section.

The weekend went too fast for my liking. It seems like all we did was prepare for her mother’s arrival. It was not enjoyable. The sleepless nights didn’t help.

The terminal is busy. Her mother’s flight had departed from Guangzhou in China almost twenty hours ago before arriving at Paris and then heading on to Manchester. The board says they’re at baggage collection.

That sinking feeling comes, a bit like butterflies, but not the pleasant kind. It’s more like stomach acid. Mei is waiting with me, excited and with a large grin across her face, like she can sense my trepidation and she’s trying to change it.

We’re waiting at the barrier between other eager relations watching the arrival doors.

I just want this to be over now so we can go home. She’s coming and nothing I do or think will change that.

Five minutes later the doors open and a wave of people walk through.

One by one the families around us disappear, broad smiles on their faces. I swear this should be a happy time.

And then the moment I wished would never happen, happens. She arrives, walking through the doors with confidence. She’s the same height as Mei but her hair is short while Mei’s is long.

Mei runs over and flings her arms around her. When she lets go, she looks at me as if to say ‘Get over here and get her suitcase’. I do this, meandering over like I have all the time in the world.

Her mother doesn’t even acknowledge me as I take the case from her. Her gaze is at Mei and nothing else. The case isn’t heavy; it’s just awkward because the handle is broken. There are stickers all over it and a stocking tied where the handle used to be so she can spot it on the conveyor belt.

We take her mother out for a meal. She didn’t like the airplane food and I can’t say I blame her. The first time I went to China was also the first time I’d been on an airplane. The seats were uncomfortable and the food was crap.

We choose a Chinese restaurant a mile or so into Manchester just off the A57. Wu’s is its name and it’s the same one we came to the last time her mum visited. It sells some of the nicest dim sum she’d ever eaten on our shores.

On a Wednesday afternoon like this it isn’t very busy, which we were all thankful for.

I park up and we head over to the entrance.

There’s a car in a disabled bay that shouldn’t be there. A black BMW. And it’s parked askew taking part of the neighbouring bay with it. I’m willing to bet there’s no blue badge on the dashboard.

There isn’t.

Mei’s mother heads inside, oblivious to my sudden change of mood. Mei watches my face with concern.

I grab my keys and walk over to the car. I think I’ll scratch ‘Selfish Prick’ on the side when Mei pulls me back.

‘Don’t do that,’ she says, embarrassed.

I smile at her, a cheeky smile of a devilish boy. I can sense eyes on me suddenly even although I know there are none.

I decide to ignore the car for Mei’s sake and we head inside.

The restaurant looks the same red and warm decorated Chinese banquet kind of place it always has. There’s an empty waiting area to the right of the till with the main seating area behind. The tables are all round, which I hate, and only a handful are taken.

I hate round tables because I feel out of place. I like to have my back to a wall with the table square in front of me so I can see everywhere but on a round table I don’t feel like I can do that somehow. And don’t get me started on when they put us on one in the middle of the room where I can feel piercing eyes on my back. It makes me anxious, almost paranoid. I get a similar feeling when walking down the street. I know nobody is watching me but I can’t shake the feeling that somewhere there is likely to be a pair of eyes on me. I feel the same at home with the flats over the road emphasizing the feeling even more. I think it’s true when they say the greatest prison a person lives in is the fear of what other people think.

A Chinese gentleman manning the till greets us with a smile and a handful of menus: one for dim sum and another for the main courses. There’s an English version and Chinese version.

‘Do you know there’s a black BMW parked on two of your disabled bays outside?’ I ask.

Mei nudges me. I don’t look at her. I know what her face will look like: frowny with her eyes open wide. I’ve seen it a hundred times.

Her mother notices us.

The Chinese gentleman looks at us and shrugs it away before escorting us towards the tables.

I ask him if we can have on by the window.

He nods and leads us to a round table by the window.

We take our seats and I look outside while Mei and her mother look over the menu. I’m not bothered what they order as long as it’s not chicken feet or pig trotter or cow’s stomach. But they do. They order cow’s stomach and chicken feet. And some Chinese green tea. I don’t mind that, though, because I like green tea. Especially the kind with jasmine. The first time I went to China I seemed to live on the stuff, the only problem was finding a toilet every ten minutes. But my skin was clear of blemishes.

Mei looks at me and smiles. ‘Don’t you know that if you eat chicken feet then it’s good for your feet?’

‘That’s stupid’ I think to myself but I don’t say it out loud.

She says, ‘Don’t worry, we ordered you some Vietnamese spring rolls and prawn wontons.’

Deep fried goodness. I smile back and look out of the window at the BMW that is still parked in the disabled bays. It has really annoyed me. How can someone be so ignorant?

After ten minutes of listening to them talk to each other in Cantonese, our food arrives. There are five different plates, most of which I don’t have a clue of. I recognise the spring rolls and wontons, but the others? They can have them.

‘Why order so much?’ I ask.

Mei reminds me that four is an unlucky number, so it’s three or five.

Whatever makes them happy.

They take hold of their bowls and dig in. I’m not particularly hungry but I take a spring roll anyway and dip it in the garlic and chilli dip that accompanies it. And as usual, it burns the hell out of my mouth. But in a good way.

I breathe in and out fast and look like a nutter pulling a funny face. Mei and her mother laugh at me and I turn red, feeling those eyes again on me. I look around and there’s nobody taking any notice of a stupid Englishman who doesn’t know how to eat properly.

I do like these kinds of spring rolls, they’re smaller and tastier than the usual kinds I’ve had before. And this is the only restaurant I’ve ever eaten them in.

Those two carry on with their talk. I only understand some of it, like the swear words and how to tell if they’re talking about me, but most of the time it’s just white noise. It’s like when we’re at home and Mei has some Chinese show on her laptop or phone when we go to bed. I can sleep easily while she watches it but as soon as any English is spoken I’m awake and intrigued.

I take some more risky bites of the stupid face inducing spring rolls and finish them off. They’ve cooled down now and go down a treat.

Mei and her mum are still rabbiting on with each other and I feel a little bit like a lost sheep on an island. And this is only day one. I just have keep to telling myself that it’s her mother and they rarely see each other.

Then I see him. The owner of the black BMW. I don’t recognise him from the restaurant. I don’t think he even dined here.

Mei watches him through the window and then looks at me. I can tell that she’s getting angry looking at my miserable face.

The man must be in his forties. And I think he should know better. He walks like he owns the world in his suit and open collar white shirt. He looks like a salesman. And they piss me off too.

God I’m a miserable bastard at times.

He sees me watching him and smiles. I just want to punch him in his smug face. I can feel eyes on me again and this time I know they’re there and not a figment of my imagination. I don’t turn around, I just watch the guy open the car door and sink into the seats. He doesn’t look at me but he knows I’m watching, and he knows why.

I just sit here thinking wanker.

I want to raise my middle finger to him but that would bring a whole world of shit on me from the wife, so I just turn around and focus on the food. I don’t raise my eyes to Mei or her mother. I just eat the wontons that come with a salad cream dip and wash it down with some green tea.

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