“Oh, you come back again, right?”
“Uh, yeah. Unintentionally.”
I believe in the power of signs. If I see something, anything really, that I feel could be interpreted as a sign or portent leading me somewhere, I tend to follow it. I’m aware that it’s a dubious practice. Life is a random series of uncontrollable events, and some have accused me of outright insanity for trying to impose a narrative structure on anything as chaotic as my own human life. Nevertheless, when I saw a (very literal) sign that said:
I thought, “Sure, why the hell not.”
Back in my salad days of substance abuse and Bacchinalian excess, I used to hang out with a brilliant but troubled young poet. We used to chat pseudo-philosophy, exchange pub physics Judo moves, read work to each other; all that sort of rakish, no-homo, lower middle class stuff. I’ve still no idea if I was Dante to his Virgil or if it was the other way round, but either way the seven circles of Northampton’s Abington Street were pretty much our oyster. We were often greeted at the Penny Whistle with a weak grin and a “You guys, again?”
One night we visited a strip club. My poet friend correctly pointed out that every bloke should visit a strip club so that they have at least an inkling of what it’s like to be constantly harassed by attractive people who just want your money but won’t actually stoop to petty theft. I didn’t know it at the time, but that night was a perfect training ground for Beijing’s legendary Silk Street market.
Everyone here speaks a single, perfectly-rehearsed sentence of English. Like doe-eyed, heavily accented automata programmed to say things like “Hi, you want suit?” or “Hey, you really want tablecloth, right?” or, in the case of one poor bastard in a toy shop whose job seems to be sitting behind a spinning, whirring neon something for who knows how many hours a day, “Hello… uh… UFO?”
If Daedalus, master craftsman of the ancient world, had fallen through a tear in the space/time continuum and found himself in modern China, perhaps he would have been set the task of designing this place (possibly with the devious assistance of HH Holmes), before being exiled to a little tea shop somewhere deep inside.
The entrance itself warns of the labyrinthine horrors within, like the psychic barriers of Cirith Ungol: A Hall of Fame displaying huge photos of Christine LeGarde, George H.W. Bush (who’s face appears spattered with a mysterious creamy white substance), and other people described simply as ‘Celebrated Businessman’ or ‘Former Estonia First Lady’. Whether these people ever solved the multicursal mystery and lived to tell the tale is undocumented, but I would not be surprised to find a spent Belgian ex-Prime Minister quietly touting Mao t-shirts somewhere inside.
A display case promising ‘High Quality Goods’ stands tellingly empty. This is a Kafka story. An Escher painting. A Quay Brothers film. One of those Christopher Priest novels where the geography just doesn’t add up.
I lasted twenty minutes before confessing all of my earthly sins to a complete stranger, pulling the ripcord on my wax wings and riding the thermals to the nearest coffee shop. I sat shivering over a very strong Americano at a table overlooking others entering Silk Street, soon to abandon all hope.