Word count: 1,834
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
After going through every single excuse I can think of in my head, including humiliating myself and telling him I have diarrhoea, or that I have to move to another country today, I realise I have no way out of it. I don’t have his phone number and Jessica, who does, is sleeping, and the idea of having to endure her fury at being woken up before 10 AM is definitely scarier than spending the day with Liang.
Realising I have no way of telling him not to come, and being way too chicken to even think of saying it to his face when he shows up, I get up and start getting ready. The least I can do is wash my hair, have some coffee and eat something.
Maybe Liang won’t even show up. Maybe he will miss his alarm. Or maybe he went out last night and is now bedridden with an atrocious hangover. Or, more likely, he got home and started wondering what on earth was wrong with him when he decided to spend the day with a random, unremarkable girl, and has by now completely forgotten about me.
But no, punctual as a Swiss clock, at nine AM I hear the doorbell ring. I wait a few seconds before I answer it just so he doesn’t think I’m standing right behind the door (which I am), my heart beating in my throat, as nervous as I was in second grade when my choir teacher made me sing a solo in front of the whole school despite the fact that I can barely hit a note.
As soon as I see him, I regret my choice of outfit. He looks effortless and elegant like he just stepped out of a Polo Ralph Lauren spring/summer advert, with beige trousers, a light blue linen shirt and suede Tod’s driving shoes. Behind him, a gleaming black car and a driver in full uniform.
He smiles imperceptibly when he says hello to me, almost like he let it out by mistake, and my heart, already in tumult, feels like it’s going to stop beating. Damn Jessica for making me do this. I’m not strong enough. It didn’t feel like this on my first date with Adam. I was, what, maybe a little excited? A little curious? But I definitely didn’t feel like an army of monarch butterflies had crawled into my stomach.
The driver opens and closed the door behind me, and I realise it’s not a regular cabbie or an Uber, it’s a proper chauffeur-driven car with chilled water bottles, a fridge and TV screens. The seats are made of soft, supple leather, and would fit a family of elephants.
When we drive past the station and on to the motorway, I realise we’re probably going to be taken all the way into Central London.
Liang confirms it without me having to ask. “Do you mind? Terence ;-) can drive us around today. He’s my driver here in London.”
I have so many questions already. Why does he have a chauffeur? Why is he staying in our little stupid university town twenty miles from London? Why does he want to spend a day with me before going back home? Where is back home? Who is he?
But the conversation flows naturally between us and, as the suburbs of London roll by outside the car’s tinted windows, I no longer feel the need to ask those questions which suddenly seem superfluous. It’s so easy to talk to him and, halfway through our journey, I find myself telling him about my mum and dad, and a little about my granny, too, and the fact that I won’t be going back home over the summer.
He tells me his paternal grandfather suffered the same disease and died two years ago, peacefully, in his home. He grew up with him and misses him every day.
“That’s part of the problem, though, I don’t think my grandma will be able to stay home much longer. It’s the home where she lived with my grandpa so it’s going to break her heart but my mum and auntie are going to have to put her somewhere.” He looks confused. “Like a care home for old people.”
“Because it’s gotten to the point where she needs someone with her all the time. Someone professional Day and night, seven days a week. My auntie can’t do it anymore, and we can’t afford to pay for somebody else to do it,” I say matter-of-factly. “Also her house has all these staircases… it’s a total mess.” Without realising it, I’m tearing up a bit.
“Do you want to go and visit her now? We can ask Terence. I’d be happy to.”
I can’t help laughing. “That’s really nice but Cornwall is, like, five hours away. And then back. I’d rather keep my promise and be your tour guide today. Although I can’t promise I’ll be any good at it, I don’t really know any of the dates or facts or… anything really. Except where things are and how not to get lost, I guess.”
“You don’t? Then why am I wasting my time with you?” he teases, and suddenly I don’t want this car ride to end, ever.
But it does when Terence drops us off in Covent Garden. I can feel people’s eyes on us as he opens the door for me and Liang and out we come, a short, skinny girl in cheap denim and old trainers and a Ralph Lauren-clad deity.
We trek through the busy streets, hearing every language ever spoken under the sun, dodging semi-lost tourists and fast-paced Londoners. I point out a few places (“This is Piccadilly Circus.” “Why is it called ‘circus’? Is there a circus?” “Umm, let me get back to you on that one.”). When we pass Fortnum and Mason, Liang buys teas and hampers that cost more than I ever thought tea and hampers could cost. He phones Terence and two minutes later he’s outside with the car, ready to put Liang’s purchases in the boot so we can continue our walk unhindered.
I shake my head thinking of all the hikes from Central London on the tube, then train, then bus, carrying newly-purchased cheap acrylic clothes in overflowing paper bags that would tear apart at the tiniest smidge of rain. It’s crazy how some people live.
I’m starting to get hungry. Earlier in the car Liang told me he’s never had a full English breakfast and I insisted he can’t leave the UK without having one. But now that it’s coming to it, I start to wonder where does one like Liang go for a full English breakfast? The Ritz, maybe? It’s just round the corner, but I don’t even know how to walk into The Ritz. I have a feeling there’s some kind of invisible barrier for people like me that would prevent me from just walking into the lobby. Maybe Buckingham Palace?
“I don’t know where to take you,” I admit to him.
“You said it’s your favourite food. Let’s go somewhere that you like.”
“But I’m afraid somewhere that I like might not be your kind of place…”
“What do you mean, my kind of place?”
I don’t know what to say.
“My kind of place is somewhere you like,” he says. “You made it sound like you are quite the expert on the subject. I’m sure it will be great.”
So, as we’re approaching St. James’s Park, I take him on a little detour to one of my favourite places in London.
It’s a family-run all-day-breakfast joint that has been around since I can remember. The insides have never been refurbished: it looks outdated but in a comforting, old-London way; the kind of place with linoleum-topped tables, plastic menus and chunky mugs of tea, where the toast is exclusively white and the sugar comes in grimy glass dispensers with a metal dosing cap.
I order us both a full English breakfast with all the trimmings: fried eggs, pork sausages, smoked bacon, baked beans, mushrooms, grilled tomatoes and buttery toast. Being Chinese, Liang loves tea just as much as I do — and the quantity he just purchased at Fortnum and Mason’s proves it — so I order us both builder’s tea with milk and sugar.
Twenty minutes later he’s cleaned his plate up and leans back in his chair. “How can you eat this for breakfast every day? You’re too skinny.”
I laugh. “I don’t! Nobody does. We’d probably all get heart attacks by the age of thirty-five if we did. I guess it’s more like a weekend or special occasion thing. Did you like it?”
“It was delicious.” He looks like he’s being sincere, and I’m pleased.
“So, you’re from Shanghai.”
“Yes, born and bred,” he adds, somewhat proudly.
“Can I ask, what are you doing here? Not in London but, like, at university. What were you doing in Liquid? Are you on holiday with your friends or something?”
“Those are not my friends,” he says. Well, they sure looked like they were. “I’m here on business. My family owns an investment company and we’re thinking of investing in the medical research department of your university. I needed to spend some time there and attend some meetings.”
“Oh, an investment company.” I’m not sure I even know what that is, but it sounds fancy.
“But you look too young to be doing something so serious already. I mean, I for one don’t even know if I could hold down a part-time job as a pet-sitter right now.”
“I’ve been doing it all my life. And I’m not too young. I’m twenty-four, I graduated from Harvard last year and—”
“Harvard, like, Harvard Harvard?” I ask, wide-eyed.
He nods and looks a little amused.
“That’s why you speak such good English.”
“And I had a British nanny growing up. But she never made me this delicious full English breakfast.”
“What do you guys eat for breakfast in Shanghai?”
“Have you ever been to China?”
To be honest, I’ve barely been abroad. I went to Spain twice and Italy once, and I used to go to Wales almost every summer with my mum and dad in our camper van, although I’m not sure that counts as ‘abroad’. Oh yeah, and a school trip to Calais once.
“No, not yet,” I say trying to sound casual, like China is the one destination I haven’t crossed off my travel checklist.
“Then you should come and try it for yourself.”
I laugh. “One day.”
“Would you like to?” he insists.
“Of course, it would be a really cool trip.”
His eyes light up. “I can’t take you there tonight but I can give you a little taste.” He toys with the teaspoon in his cup. “Can you stay with me through dinner here in London? Or are you busy?”