With temperatures at sub-zero, the pools of phlegm that pedestrians suck up from the depths of their lungs and spit out with vigour are now refusing to dry out, and even freezing over. Street vendors pile bobble hats and leather gloves on the pavement, and on a no-smog day the technicolour light design on the skyscrapers outside our window cut through the cold air and make my eyes water.
There’s one particular building that I look at every day, twice. Standing 60-odd floors tall on the far end of the opposite block, it seems intended as an office building but the rooms are completely empty. Every day at around 6pm, a solitary dark shadow walks through the cavernous rooms flicking the light switch on, disappears, then emerges a minute later on the floor above and does the same again, so that by the end, the building has become a tower of blinding neon white. Then at around midnight, a dark figure walks across each floor turning the lights off, disappearing into darkness and reappearing into the light over and over. Sometimes there are two black silhouettes, walking in sync one floor above the other. Some days they do the lights on every single floor, while other days they do about ten floors up from ground level, ten floors down from the top, and a few random floors in between.
I’m a bit sad that by the time I come back from the UK in the New Year, the building might have filled up with tenants and furniture, blocking patches of the light and breaking the eerie spell. But in a city of sparsely populated shopping malls and empty office spaces, it’s unlikely.
For tonight, our last night of 2013 together in Beijing, I chose the Disney classic “Peter Pan”, a charmingly drawn animation with a comforting rose-tinted picture of Victorian England. As I sat in nostalgic reverie, DD patiently watched it with me, only interrupting now and then with “He’s a bit reckless,” “A bit anarchic isn’t it?” and “Why don’t they just fly off?” Valid concerns, I concede, and fitting of a civil servant.
It’s unusual to be going to London and packing for warmer weather, using a large suitcase kept half-empty so that I can bring back PG Tips and After Eights for friends here, as well as lots of other stuff I won’t get round to buying. It feels slightly indulgent that I’m going back so soon after we moved. Others who came out at the same time, including first-time parents with a six-month-old baby, are riding Christmas out in Beijing. It’s been good getting to know new friends, partly helped by a big night out when my bag was stolen, probably, we all concluded, by the rickshaw driver. It’s these little dramas, as well as shared difficulties and cheery gossip, that helps make Beijing feel a bit like home. It’s also what makes me confident, to DD’s relief, that in the New Year I’ll feel OK about coming back to this city, if only to take up my post by the window to watch the dark shadows cast their magic.
Copyright © 2013 followingdrdippy