Word count: 1,889
Estimated reading time: 7 minutes
St. James’s Park is in full summer bloom, but thankfully it’s the afternoon of a weekday and there’s not too many people around. We’re sitting by the lake under the cool shade of an oak tree. Our next destination, the London Eye, is visible in the distance, reflecting on the dark green water.
I got thirsty and Liang immediately went to fetch me a cold bottle of water. I watch him from a distance as he walks back, and for a second I have a feeling he’ll just walk past me and I will realise this whole day has just been a dream.
Because it can’t be real.
He told me his whole name is Baili Liang, Baili being the surname, Liang the name. He spelled it out for me with a stick in the earth and it looks like this: 亮
It means ‘bright’, ‘radiant’, and that’s exactly what he looks to me right now as he’s walking towards me, the sun warming his shoulders, looking fresh and with not a hair out of place or a crease in his shirt. I don’t know how some people do that.
At first he didn’t speak much, but when he started talking he told me everything about him. He grew up in Shanghai where he went to a private school, and he has a younger brother. Despite China’s one-child policy*, it was no problem for the Baili family to pay the fine for having a second child. His father owns several businesses, including the investment company Liang works for.
He’s lived by himself in an apartment in Shanghai ever since getting back from Harvard. Harvard, he told me, is only the place where he got his degree, and was never a big part of his life. An elite institution had always been in his destiny — his parents wanted him to be educated in the United States and would accept nothing less than Harvard, Yale or Stanford.
But he didn’t really fit in: the language was a barrier and his family wouldn’t allow him to live in dorms with other students. So he ended up spending most of his time travelling from Massachusetts to Shanghai and back, sometimes almost every weekend, studying on the airplane instead of sleeping.
“Nobody knows I wasn’t happy at Harvard. Everyone thinks that nothing ever goes wrong for me, that it’s always easy.” He pauses. “I don’t know why I’m telling you all of this. I never tell anybody anything, usually.”
“Don’t worry, you’re not exactly oversharing. Oversharing is me after half a bottle of wine.”
He chuckles. “You don’t find it boring?”
I shake my head. How can he think anybody would find him boring? I could just look at him breathing and I wouldn’t be bored.
I accepted his dinner invitation earlier and tried not to look too eager while doing it. Yes, I still feel nervous around him but it’s different. Before I felt stressed; now I feel giddy with adrenaline, but also relaxed, somehow, because there’s something about him that puts me at ease.
Although I am starting to feel nervous about my outfit — it was never intended to take me all the way through dinner in what I imagine will be an upscale London restaurant.
Liang cracks open the bottle of Evian before handing it to me. “So, we’re going up there soon?” he asks, looking at the London Eye.
Again, I try not to sound too eager. “I mean, only if you want to.”
“Yes, sure. Have you ever been?”
“No, actually. It’s more for tourists and I never had a good reason to go. But I do really want to!”
He gives me a rare smile and we start talking about Jessica, Amy and Iris: how I met them, what it’s like to have them as flatmates and everything in between.
I’m glad neither of us has mentioned Adam today and, as I think this, I realise I haven’t thought of him for the whole day, not once. He hasn’t contacted me either; didn’t even want to know if I was okay after he pushed me to the ground. But the truth is, I don’t really care.
As I’m telling Liang about the girls’ quirks — Jessica taking up to six hours to get ready, Amy refusing to think before letting words out of her mouth and Iris always diplomatically trying to smooth things out — the wind suddenly picks up. We look up at the sky, Liang lifting up his Prada sunglasses, and see that the clear blue sky that has firmly held its place over our heads for the past two weeks has been replaced by angry steel grey clouds, dark with heavy rain.
Thunder cracks so suddenly and loudly it feels like it’s just above our heads. I let out an involuntary scream.
Without saying a word, Liang grabs my backpack and my hand and we start running through the park as the first icy raindrops hit our bodies. In the space of just a couple of minutes, the city is flooded and we are plonking through mud, trying to get to the street. I’m cold and wet, but it smells like summer rain and Liang is holding my hand as we run. Life isn’t too bad.
By the time we see Terence and lunge into the car, I am soaked down to my socks. My shoes squeak as I shuffle around in my seat.
“Take us to the Mandarin Oriental, please, Terence,” orders Liang.
I am wide-eyed with astonishment.
“We need to get dry or we might get sick,” he explains, like it’s the only logic thing we could do to check into a five-star hotel in the middle of the afternoon. Does he want to share a room or something…?
“You can just take me home, if you want,” I say. “I probably need a change of clothes, anyway.”
“But then we would miss going on the London Eye and dinner,” he says, and I must admit to myself I don’t really want to, either.
But I also don’t want him to see just how happy I am, so I spend the rest of the car short ride in silence, looking out of the window at the city I’ve grown up in, quivering in the midst of a tropical-like thunderstorm, and I think of how it has never seemed so beautiful.
I must have driven past this hotel a million times, but I never really paid it any attention until now. The grand, red brickwork façade overlooks Hyde Park, where the trees are swaying violently and people with upside-down umbrellas are running towards the tube station. The guest entrance in at the back. Terence stops the car and the porters usher us into a spacious, decadent lobby that smells like expensive air freshener.
The only time I’ve ever been in a place like this was for a few years ago for my uncle Paul’s wedding, when I mistook the fish knife for a serving spoon and started serving myself out of one of our family friends’ soups, thinking it was a sharing bowl. We haven’t heard from Uncle Paul since.
Th lobby is all marble, grecian columns, expensive carpets and soft leather. Liang walks confidently to the front desk as I totter behind him, leaving a trail of small puddles of water. I imagine the front-desk clerk giving me a slow, haughty loot, top to bottom and back up again, and saying, “Miss, the youth hostel is next door. Please leave the premises immediately.”
His name-tag reads ‘Antony’. He has a small, close-shaven moustache and slightly oily skin, and he does indeed give us a slightly haughty look, although it somewhat subsides when he sees Liang’s Rolex, but only somewhat.
“Good evening,” says Liang. “Two rooms, please. With a nice view.”
Two rooms? Part of me is relieved, another part wonders how he can afford it.
Antony seems taken aback at Liang’s attitude. Then he studies me for a second, looking unimpressed.
“Do you have a reservation, sir?”
“No.” I’ve seen enough of Liang interacting with the driver, waiters and shopping assistants throughout the day to know that his curtness doesn’t come out of rudeness; he always says ‘please’ and ‘thank you’. It comes from the difference in our cultures. But Antony doesn’t seem to take it the same way. His thin lips curl up into a complacent smile.
“I’m afraid we don’t have any vacancies, sir. Now, if you’ll excuse me, other guests are waiting behind you.”
I want a sinkhole to open up under my feet and to bury me in the expensive marble. Liang isn’t getting a room and it’s obviously because of me, because I’m wearing cheap clothes and because nobody like me ever walks through that door unless they work here.
“You don’t have any vacancies? Not even one of the suites?” Liang insists. He doesn’t tend to show a lot of emotions, positive or negative ones, but I sense an edge in his voice.
“No, sir. Now, may I ask you to step aside, please.” Antony is still wearing his smug little smirk, and this time he directs it at me.
“Maybe we should just leave…” I mumble. What if our Western-Eastern differences are preventing Liang from understanding that stuck-up Antony is not being polite? He’s just politely telling us that he is about ten seconds away from calling security.
But Liang doesn’t budge. Facing Antony squarely — or towering over him, should I say; he’s so tall the counter barely reaches his hip — he pulls his passport out of his wallet and places it open on the counter, staring the front-desk clerk down with such an intensity that I momentarily forget everything and feel myself flushing.
Antony’s stuttering, however, as he takes the passport up to his face, quickly brings me back to here and now. “What— wh—” He handles the document, turning it upside down, closing it to examine at the cover, then looking back at the information page. What’s going on?
His eyes open wide as he looks at Liang, then at me, and then back at Liang. He composes himself. “Mr. Baili, please do forgive my earlier bluntness. I would like to offer you and this lovely young lady my most sincere welcome to the Mandarin Oriental Hyde Park.”
Liang keeps staring him down, the intensity in his gaze unrelenting.
Antony clears his throat. “You said two rooms with a nice view, if I’m correct, sir? I will make sure you get the very best view, Mr Baili.” He furiously types on his computer then gestures at a porter.“Someone will show you and the lady to your rooms. If there’s anything I can do to make your stay more comfortable, it would be my honour to—”
But Liang doesn’t even wait for him to finish. He turns around, puts his hand on my shoulder ever so lightly, and we follow the porter upstairs, our wet feet sinking into the soft, thick hotel carpets.
* From 1976 to 2015, Chinese families were subject to a ‘one-child policy’ designed to control the size of the rapidly growing population. It limited the number of children each family could have to one, with heavy fines for those who disobeyed.