Sunday, 10 February 2008

Joy of water

The peacock jumps on to the bench beside me.

"Dong wo ma?" It says. "Do you understand me?"

"Yes." I reply in English. "I understand you." I pull out a small block of the treats I had purchased at the park entrance and hold it out to the bird. Its body does not seem so large when seen so close up but there is something terrifying in the way it looks at me with its black eyes, the multi-coloured skirt of its feathers cascading down over the edge of the bench. It takes the food from my hand with a carefully vicious stab and swallows it whole. As the chemicals and amino acids in the pellet quickly absorb into its bloodstream it receives both a pleasing kick of a positive behavioural feedback loop and the bootstrapping the next part of its program. It begins babbling about the history of these gardens, its expression of ancient arts and the mores of the scholarly class of old Beijing. The studious official, the good scholar. The bureaucrat as archetype.

The bird starts translating an old poem by Du Fu, fifteen hundred years old and still studied with a reverence that makes my own country's affair with Shakespeare positively healthy in comparison. An old woman walks up to me. A beggar, I realise, her face scarred and her hands broken and bent with arthritis or work. Even though China is undergoing its brightest blooming since the Tang and the age of Du Fu, there is still monstrous poverty. Too much even for the large scale bio-alchemical wizardry of the Chinese science gurus. The old woman holds out her hand and looks at me before realising with disgust that I am white, a scruffy foreigner, and unlikely to be able to offer her much at all. She curses and moves on, aiming for a young, professional-looking Chinese couple, hoping that the man will want to impress the young woman with his generosity.

There is a dampness to the air here that my skin is soaking up with a happiness after absence. Although the air in Beijing is normally as desiccating as the deserts around it the park clearly has mechanisms to raise the humidity to help the plants. After a month in the north I am grateful. Even in my home country, where it still rains regularly, there is a caution to wantonness with water since the droughts began. Memories of them pepper my childhood, the frustrations of the adults and the sense of a danger never quite understood or explained. So here is a good place to sit and wait for my friends, watching pretty girls walking past, listening to the drone of the guide-bird while I feel the joy of water in the air.

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