A Small Bag of Fruit, Lonely Mountain Roads, and the Fragility of Life

The Buddha said: “The trouble is you think you have time’ and we go through life with little, if any, thought to how fragile life can be and how in an instant life changing events can happen instantaneously.

China’s huge population brings people into close contact with one and another far more than most sparsely populated western countries and as a result of close proximity to one another the consequence of that contact can be catastrophic.

And as a result of the constant closeness to other people, China as evolved some different ways to cope with death and dying and accidents in general.

Buddha Think You Have timeSociety is stratified into circles of relationship – family being the inner circle where people not only spend most time, but have no inhibitions or hidden emotions.  As the circles of stratification widen – through classmates, to workmates, to casual acquaintances and finally to the ‘all the other people in the world that I do not know’ the degree of empathy and concern diminishes and the ability to totally ignore those outside increases.

This means that there is a different standard about things like bodies being left on the road after accidents, or horrendous scenes being shown on TV of accidents, murders, bombing victims and other areas that there is a high degree of sensibility towards in western countries.

The western concept of donor fatigue exists in China as the outcome of a society that has endured wars, threats of wars, civil wars, famines, plagues and chaos, over and over again in its history. What seems to be indifference is perhaps a manifestation of the inurement of people’s souls to the regular and large scale disasters that have happened in the past and the constant rubbing of shoulders with each other in the heavily populated country.

I had hardly even seen a dead person before coming to China in 1994 and brought with me a naivety to seeing life in its most brutal end and its most tragic circumstances.

So coming up close to death in China was a novel experience and sadly one that did not remain a novelty for long and equally sadly, one that also saw me become toughened to appalling happenings.

My first experience was riding my bike happily along the 2nd Ring Road not far from home when I noticed a pair of feet sitting on the road.

Literally a pair of feet. Shod, but not wearing socks. Sitting in a small pool of blood. My heart jumped as I took in the whole scene. There as a policeman about 20 meters further up the road with a measuring tape, and at his feet was a body of a man somewhere between middle and old age, footless.

I guess that if it had been his arms I could have made the old joke about him being ‘harmless’ but a man separated from his feet is another matter. It appeared that he had been run over by a large truck, which had caused the damage.

I was surprised to say the least because there was no attempt to hide the man’s body – no polite ambulance blanket for this person, he lay in exactly the same position as he had died, uncovered and unalive. The policeman was measuring the distance between the man’s feet and his body, being careful not to step into the massive pool of blood that lay around the stumps of his legs at his ankles.

He was measured in his work – carefully noting down each and every measurement that he was required to take. Distance from feet to body 20.3 meters I imagined him writing. Distance from body to where truck made impact 7.4 meters, distance from body to where truck ended up 15.8 meters. It seemed to me this man’s last minute on this good earth was being defined by a set of distances and numbers.

The 2nd Ring Road is a very busy thoroughfare and it seemed that the man, who was dressed in the full dark blue Mao suit uniform that was worn by nearly every one of his age at that time, had tried to get across the road and had misjudged either the speed of the truck or the distance to travel and thus he met his lonely end.

Man in a  Zhongshan or Mao suit

Man in an old style Mao Suit

Later I was to learn that on the road from Chengdu to the airport, a distance of only 15 km one such accident occurred every day. Whether each day had its allotment or whether they averaged the number of people killed crossing this road each year and found it tallied to one a day I wasn’t sure, but such a statistic was shocking.

More shocking since I had seen firsthand the effect of such a collision. The driver of the truck was nowhere to be seen – I imagine he was looking for something stiff in the way of alcoholic liquor to steady his nerves after such an experience. He was having a bad day, just as the footless man himself had had the worst kind of bad day imaginable.

I discussed this accident with my friend Shi Dan, who had lived in China for two years and he related a similar, if not more shocking story that had occurred to him previously. He had been walking down Peoples South Road when a truck carrying sheets of glass was involved in an accident. To be honest I don’t remember the exact way in which this accident happened as described to me, but I certainly remember the result. A large sheet of glass flew from the back of the truck and neatly decapitated a man on the road, like something from the movie ‘Damien’. Shi Dan was almost too shocked to think and he ran towards the headless body and was about to place the head of the man beside the body when he was stopped quite aggressively by his Chinese friend.

“Don’t touch anything’ he was sternly warned. Don’t you understand what will happen to you when the family of the man discover you are a foreigner and therefore considered rich. The family will see you as a meal ticket – they will start to say – ‘Well, our family member was doing ok until you interfered’ – how on earth a man with no head could be considered doing ok was beyond all comprehension to me, and to my friend, but this is how China is among the ‘farming’ population. Logic and sense do not have any place when it comes to compensation and money.

The family would have seized on this opportunity with alacrity and determination and for nothing less that removing the extreme nuisance of the family and the trouble they would make for the hapless foreigner he would have ended up with a ‘payment’ to make up for the perceived intervention in their family members death. The rules in China are different.

When you are one of maybe only a few thousand people in a population of around 16 million, when you are far from home and support, and where the average education of the farmers is somewhere around 4th grade things you take for granted in western countries simply don’t apply.

Later I was to learn how this operated. Sometime after the very first real bar opened in Chengdu (as opposed to a karaoke bar), – the Newcastle Bar – modelled on a very large version of an English pub and which features elsewhere in this narrative – there occurred a very unfortunate incident. A young man entered into a dispute with one of the managers who proceeded to call the security guards to remove him the premises.

I was in the bar at the time and saw this young man tumble down the stairs from the first floor and dragged out onto the street. The assistant manager was not without friends at the bar and it was spread around that the drunken young man has assaulted the assistant manager and a group grabbed this guy outside and proceeded to beat him to death in front of all us, before taking off before the police could arrive.

The body of the man was taken away by the police and the next day released to his family, who it was thought would proceed to bury him. Not so. The man came from a farming family – and farming families stick together through thick and thin. A large group of his relatives and fellow villagers broke the door down at the bar, which had been closed by the police pending investigation, and ensconced themselves in the bar with the body of the young man.

Their aim was to seek adequate compensation for their loss and there asking price was 800,000 RMB which was around 100,000 USD at the time. The standoff went on for several days – by which time the body of the young man was certainly not a pretty sight nor a bouquet of roses. Eventually the bar owners paid up – not the amount being asked for but around 300,000 RMB which represented a huge sum of money for the relatives – more money that they could possibly imagine in 5 lifetimes. Such compensatory payments are considered normal in China – transgress and pay.  Transgress big and pay big. The culprits were never brought to justice.

Having now seen a footless man and a man being beaten to death I had hoped that would be the end of my experiences with death, but unfortunately it was not to be so.

In 1997 when we were operating a business consultancy we were hosting a businessman from the US by the name of Scott Plischke.

Things were going well and although the weather left much to be desired, on a cold, rainy, and miserable night we were in a taxi on our way to a popular karaoke venue from an evening of singing and carousing. We were driving on the 1st Ring Road, which is one of the main roads in the city proper and encircles the entire city.

The night was dark and wet but that had no effect on the way in which the taxi drivers drove their little Chinese versions of the Suzuki Alto, if anything it encouraged them to drive faster so they would get to their destinations quicker – and I suppose in their minds, safer.  Suddenly from the side of the road a couple on one of the old communist era bicycles that we likened tractors shot out from the side of the road and tried to cross in front of the traffic. The taxi in front of us tried to stop in time but there was honestly no chance at all and the bike was hit squarely by a taxi going about 70kms an hour.

Our taxi slid to a halt and we stopped about the width of a gnats leg from the back of the taxi in front. The man riding the bike took the full force of the collision and was knocked flying across the road ending up in a heap.

Chengdu Taxi

Chengdu Taxi of the ’90’s

After hitting the road, he immediately stood up as if he as alright. We lept out of the taxi by which time the man had dropped like a stone onto the road again. I took off my leather jacket to keep him warm and dry and we started trying to assess the damage and figure out what first-aid we could apply.

The girl on the back started screaming at the top of her voice and ran around like a mad woman – it was truly disturbing. A large crowd materialised out of the rain like magic and three men grabbed the guy and started putting him into the taxi that had hit him to get him to hospital as fast as possible, I was yelling at them to lift him properly – to support his neck and pushed them aside just as they managed to get him onto the back seat of the taxi. As I was trying to lay him down properly and support his neck he gave an almighty shudder and wet himself and died.  A man had just died in my arms and I wasn’t able to do anything.

The group of people yelled at the taxi driver, not knowing what had just happened and the taxi shot off with me trying to close the back door. I turned to look at the group of people who had no idea of what I had been trying to do in administering first aid and trying to protect his neck in case it had been broken and I stopped to gather my leather jacket and it was gone.

Someone had stolen my leather jacket from the roadway.

Words failed me.

There was nothing more to do than leave, leaving the girl behind still screaming and still unaware that her boyfriend had died in the back of that taxi, had died because he hadn’t been intelligent enough not to try and play chicken with the traffic on a major road on a wet and slippery night.

There have been many drinks I have enjoyed in my life. None have had the same impact as the drink I had to have when to we got to the bar. And I had experienced death at first hand. To this day I can recall that shudder. I can feel the trembling of his body as he moved from life to death.

Accidents occur in China with monotonous regularity. Sometimes they occur to other people and sometimes they occur to me.

It was on a lonely, cold, and high mountain pass, about 5 hours’ drive from Chongqing, in Sichuan’s east that one of my China accident experiences unfolded.

We were heavily involved in business negotiations for a USD40 million joint-venture between one of China’s largest chemical factories and a German company called Messer Griesheim. It was a very important deal for us and one that took nearly two years to bring to fruition.

The chemical factory was in fact a self-contained and quite large town of about 40,000 people, all of whom lived and worked in the factory. It had been built in line with the ‘Third-Line’ policy of the fifties whereby China sited all its strategic and key industries far inland, mostly in Sichuan province, in lonely and hard-to-find places since they realised that the Japanese invasion of China had been unable to penetrate so far inland, and by extension would be safe in any future conflict. Bearing in mind this decision was made before the advent of ballistic missiles and other long rage means distributing death and destruction.

We were visiting this factory on a regular basis for discussions and negotiations and normally took a river ferry from Chongqing city up the ‘Long River’ – the Chang Jiang, but which is better known in the west as the Yangtze, to the boat wharf belonging to the factory itself. It was a pleasant trip up the river but after a while we decided that we had never gone by road and it may make a nice drive, perhaps.

We drove by expressway from Chengdu to Chongqing which is like any other expressway in the world. Fast. Efficient. Boring.

But from Chongqing we headed into the countryside of rice straw fields (it was autumn), water buffalo ploughing fields for the winter crop of brassicas and green leafy vegetables, the smell of burning straw curling into the autumn air, children playing around thatched cottages situated behind stands of tall bamboo, chickens running around  looking for worms and chasing hopping insects, and the odd pig snorting in the fields where they had been led for feeding until we reached higher ground and the fields became terraces carved out of the hillside, and in place of rice corn and maize were still ripening and being made ready to harvest.

Where the ground became visibly less fertile and drier the houses became shabbier.

And then we stopped.

A line of cars that we were to discover was 14 kms long stretched out around the winding road to some far off and yet undiscovered place where some impediment to our progress lay.

Sometimes when we set off on a journey full of confidence and excitement and anticipation of the arrival we are disappointed when we are delayed and our best laid plans go awry, but I think the opposite. It is often the times when we are delayed that we discover things about ourselves and we take time to ponder and we grow inside.

With a cooler autumn sun shining in the sky, where we have climbed above the cloud cover that is the defining feature of the Sichuan Basin, and can look down upon fields in the distance, and where by no fault of our own we are released from the daily pressure of business or life we can sit back and relax and simply take in the scene and the scenery, there is a calmness that descends on your soul.

The soul may be calm but not the bladder. Sitting in a car hour after hour enjoying the ambience doesn’t stop the kidneys or the digestive process from working and thus I got to visit the worst toilet in the world, a toilet that was so bad that it has bought its very own line in this narrative. Up until this day I had never had the displeasure of visiting a toilet belonging to a large and obviously very digestively active family, but when nature called and my dear wife said not to worry, there was a farm house beside the road who would be only too glad to offer their sumptuous bathroom facilities to a foreigner.

I was beguiled by the ease of it and the release from the burden of having to drop one’s pants on the side of the road in full view of the other 47,000 cars who were also stopped by the hitherto unknown impediment to our progress.

A word for the reader – this is not for the squeamish. By farm in China it is generally meant ‘vegetable garden’ the concept of a western farm with little baa-lambs gamboling in the meadow, or the poddy calf bleating happily in a field full of rich grass, is not what a farm is in China. A farm is an area of land suitable for growing things. Every square inch is taken up with something green to eat. When a new motorway is built within a day and a half there are fresh cabbages planted on the median strip in the middle.


At the side of the road the edges of the drainage ditches all sport a covering of something edible. You do not have to teach the Chinese farmer the value of an inch of ground. It represents one more cabbage, another row of beans or a stand of corn.  If animals are raised at all they are raised on the ground floor of the raised houses – a house is not only a house for the people, it is also a house for the little snorting animals that become sweet and sour pork when they grow up.

The character itself in Chinese writing to denote ‘family’ is made of the radicals or elements of a roof, a man and a few little piggies. Animals are not made to roam the fields. Animals are made to eat and stay inside unless you are lucky water buffalo whose job it is to drag a heavy plough year in year out serving several farmers plots, until it is time to be turned into beef stew – and stew is about all water buffalo can be turned into after a lifetime of hard labour helping to grow vegetables.

Vegetable require fertiliser. Fertiliser costs money. Farmers do not have money to spend on fertiliser when perfectly good fertiliser is produced on a daily basis by the entire family. Good old raw sewerage.

Here is what the farmer’s toilet looks like:

A small wooden or thatched hut with a large dark pit dug beneath it, leading off to another visible pond for fermenting the produce. The hut is dark but not so dark that you cannot see the contents of the inner pit. The pond is not only visible but it is tangible. Tangible to the fifteen million nerve endings that act as smell receptors in your nose. So much so that these receptors shriek and cry out to be allowed to commit suicide rather than feel the tangibility of the fermented shit pond.

So you enter the hut and force your stomach but sheer willpower to stop turning itself inside out and adding to the already pungent mess with the upper remnants of your lunch. You unbuckle as fast as you can and look for the seat. Don’t be silly – there is no seat. There is a small board that you stand on that forces your buttocks out over the stinking heaving mess of the inner pond and you ‘do your business’ with as much speed as your sphincter muscles will allow you. Beware the splashes.

And then you remember you didn’t bring any ‘ce suo zi’ toilet paper with you and cry plaintively for someone, anyone to bring it but bring it quickly. But of course it never comes quick enough for your nostrils which by this time are no longer nostrils because they have turned themselves inside out trying to escape the torture you are imposing on them.

Ah! a countryside toilet. May I never see the inside of one them ever again.

I would like to know how the farmers decide on the person to do the ‘fertiliser factory’ list of chores. The hapless person who has to go and turn the fermenting fertiliser regularly to aerate it and keep it bubbling. The poor soul whose job it is to empty the inner pit into the outer pond when the outer pond has been used up. The miscreant who has to bucket the fully fermented fertiliser into two buckets hung by a bamboo pole and stagger the 100 metres to the vegetable garden and then apply liberally to all growing things. How are these decisions made?

Does the father come home from the fields and ask the mother for a list of misdemeanours from the children and assess who was naughtiest, who was laziest and on that basis assign the various tasks? Do they take turns? Do they find the ugliest person and say ‘well you won’t find anyone to marry you anyway, so you may as well be the one to stink like a sewerage pond for the rest of your life? How on earth do they get anyone to do such a job? This is beyond my knowledge.

After visiting this house of horror I never quite looked at a farmer again without a trace of a mixture of admiration and disgust coming to mind and my nostrils curling up into a ball at the mere idea of thinking about such things again.

But enough digression.

On this sunny autumn day, we crept along at snail’s pace for a more than 7 hours along a 14 km traffic jam pondering on the verities of life and engaging in happy and thoughtful conversation. It was only after this long by time but short by distance journey that we discovered the reason for the delay – nothing less than a new bridge being built over a small stream, where the workers were letting one car through every now and then when the impulse struck them and for whom it was just another day at the office.

It was three weary travellers who finally arrived at the hotel after travelling for 19 hours. The meetings at the chemical factory went extremely well – a couple of days of intense discussions interspersed with long and liquid lunches followed by that wonderful Chinese invention – the afternoon sleep.

A couple of evenings spent at dinner where the most delicious delicacies as bull frog and fried crickets (actually both these dishes are delicious and my words should not be taken as sarcastic) were offered, washed down with that fiery rice wine that is usually used to power the Chinese aviation industry. In fact, the people at this huge industrial complex were urbane and delightful and very much the perfect hosts, and it was with some regret that we took our goodbyes on the last evening, ready to face what we hoped would be a somewhat quicker trip home the next morning.

The morning was cold and misty. On the lower ground it has been raining and the roads were wet and muddy, as most countryside roads in China are. But because we left at an early hour the roads weren’t busy and we made good time getting to the mountains. The mountain was around 3000 meters in height and we had to drive over a mountain pass on a road that goats had probably made a few thousand years ago. The road could have been said to be snaking its way around the bluffs and precipices but that would be being too unkind to snakes unless you know if a snake that ties itself in knots. The road was treacherous in the extreme, it was icy because we were above the ice line, it was slippery because huge logging trucks had dropped mud over the road, and it was steep. And it was in these conditions that we rounded a corner and my dear partner lost control on the ice and we were hit by a truck coming up the other way.

Sichuan MountainsProvidence itself smiled on us that day because instead of being pushed off the edge we were pushed into the side of the mountain. The collision was severe, both my partner and I, foolishly not wearing seat-belts, went through the windscreen. Literally we went through the windscreen and both of us landed on the road in front of the car. My partners head had struck the glass first but without breaking it – the windscreen itself came out of its socket and also landed on the road. I followed him about 5 milliseconds later and as I went through the gap smashed my knee on the dashboard causing various fractures. Xiaomei was sitting in the back and hit the back of the front seat and as the car had turned when it hit the side of the mountain and came to final rest with the back end to the mountain side, she ended up with severe whiplash.

It was the worst car accident I had ever been in and I was dazed and a bit incoherent when I came around and assessed what had happened. Mr Jiang, my partner, had cut his head open when he hit the windscreen and blood was pouring down his face and into his eyes and he was literally crying – he was so devastated that he had hurt me.

The people in the truck were wonderful. Of course being a whopping great truck meant that there was barely a scratch on their vehicle while our little Suzuki Alto clone was smashed up and sitting forlornly against the embankment. To our left was a sheer drop of a few hundred metres and had we gone that way this narrative would never have been written.

Adrenaline is wonderful invention of the body. It kills the pain for the first 5-6 minutes after an injury but then it wears off and the pains makes its presence felt – I couldn’t walk, I couldn’t stand, and had to lie on the roadside in the freezing cold. I don’t think I have ever felt as cold as that day. The cold was like an invasive disease. It seeped unashamedly into every bone in my body but took a particular delight in seeping into my broken knee.

We were all stunned. It was really difficult to come to terms as to what we had to do – the people in the truck were trying to get the road open again so that traffic could start moving. Almost like magic a group of farmers appeared –to this day I don’t know from where and started assisting us. Someone found a blanket and I was able to keep the cold at bay.

As I was sitting on the roadside a minibus with about 20 people came past – slowed down to a crawl – as all the passing traffic was doing – and then stopped. Someone from inside jumped off run back towards us and grabbed my briefcase what had flown out of the car and was lying on the road.

My God! An opportunistic thief at 3000 metres.

The guys from the truck reacted when I yelled at the thief and took off after him and grabbed him just as he was trying to get on the bus – they didn’t beat him, although he certainly deserved a jolly good beating, because there were 20 of them and only a few of us and most of us were injured, but they did recover the briefcase.

The group of farmers who had appeared as if by magic sent for the police, and we settled into wait for a policeman to come and assess that fault and the damage. For once an accident didn’t result in a shouting match. It was actually very clear where the fault lay – Mr Jiang had lost control of the car in the ice and had run into the truck. The truck driver was blameless and it was a measure of Mr Jiang’s stature that he accepted full blame in front of everyone for what had happened. A lesser man would have tried to blame the truck driver and we would have spent however many hours arguing on the lonely mountainside about the blame.

It took the police about 2 hours to get to the accident site, so we had a couple of hours sitting on the roadside waiting for him to arrive.

He assessed the situation and thought of how much criticism he would come in for if he left a foreigner to die of exposure on a mountain road, so his first arrangement was to get someone to drive my wife and I to the nearest hospital which was on the outskirts of Chongqing.

As they were loading me into the car – which incidentally was the car of a bystander who had stopped to see what was going on – the group of farmers were enticed with the promise of a 100 RMB note to LIFT the car onto the back of the truck to be taken to the police yard for a final assessment of blame and damage. It was quite a sight seeing a pile of able bodied men simply bend down and lift the car straight up and put it on the back of the truck.

We arrived at the hospital bout 2pm and being a foreigner was given some preferential treatment. My money was taken first. I was ushered – by this time I was hopping on one leg – into the ‘emergency’ doctors room. The doctor was an oldish man of indeterminate age but of obvious dissipation in his life. Careworn and weary, or perhaps weary of drinking too much, his first act on entering his little cubicle was to light up a cigarette and offer me one. I guess I wouldn’t have been so shocked if he had smoked it properly, but he didn’t use any hands – stuck it in his mouth and puffed away as he was examining me. He believed I had broken my patella – this was worked out by the rough edges of bone poking underneath the skin, and by the sound level of the scream he tried to manipulate it. This man was a veritable genius. I had also figured out about 5 minutes after the accident that something was well and truly broken in the knee department.

Chinese Doctor

Whether it was the burst of nicotine or last nights ‘jet fuel’ he was inspired to send me to the orthopedic department for an X-Ray. We are getting somewhere I thought, until Xiaomei advised me that the orthopedic department was on the fourth floor.

No problem, thinks I, let’s take a wheelchair and an elevator. No wheelchair, no elevator. At least the poor old bugger was apologetic. ‘This is only a small hospital’ he said, ‘we don’t have the funds for fancy equipment. I’m terribly sorry’. So, broken knee, no wheelchair, no elevator, orthopaedic department on the fourth floor, what are we waiting for.

To be fair my lovely but very slender wife tried desperately to get me up the stairs for the X-ray and the treatment but at my stupendous bulk of 110kgs there was no way that was going to happen. I did make it up half a flight of stairs before I made the executive decision that we would seek treatment back in Chengdu and we only had to get back there and all would be well.

At least the hospital had a pair of crutches which changed hands for a tidy sum of money.

Rural Hospital

We had to wait at the police station while the car was being brought back and the police were extremely kind – they set us up in an office and chatted and brought us lots of cups of tea and food. It was a long wait. We had managed to call a friend in Chengdu – the manager of the company on whose behalf we were attending the meetings for and he kindly sent a car and delegation of staff from Chengdu to get us and drive us back. Such generosity and kindness I am eternally grateful for. We arrived back in Chengdu the following morning at 6am and got to the main hospital in Chengdu not long after that.

We had an excellent doctor who had worked in Boston and was an orthopaedic specialist. After an X-ray he concurred with what we already knew and advised a special brace for the knee for 6 weeks while the bone healed. Only problem was he said was that there were none of these special braces available at the moment but I would get the first one that came in when the last person had finished using it.

He passed a very pertinent comment at that time – he said good Chinese doctors are among the best in the world and there were plenty of good doctors at this hospital, but he said the system was terrible.

To be honest by that time I was sick of the whole affair, I was tired, lonely and depressed and all I wanted to do was crawl into a warm bed and feel sorry for myself, so we got him to bind the knee in the right position as tightly as possible and I hobbled off to spend the next 6 weeks on crutches.

Mr Jiang was fined a very hefty sum for ‘driving out of control’, the car cost a fortune to fix and was never the same again. The truck drivers drove from Chongqing to come and see me and offer their commiserations, which I thought was extremely nice of them, and to this day when the cold weather comes my knee gets sore again and I am once again sitting on the roadside in the freezing cold waiting for help to arrive.

And but for the application of the laws of physics working my way and the car hitting the mountainside rather than plunging off the edge, I would be another statistic and example of the fragility of life.

Providence was kind that day.

Not all stories about accidents are so serious – and in the spirit of lightening the mood there is a somewhat amusing tale of another mishap that causes mirth and laughter today every time we think about it.

‘Denis’ –   not his real name to spare his embarrassment –  was a close foreign friend, who was teaching English in Chengdu at the time.

Denis was a tall gangly young fellow at the time, very popular with the female population in Chengdu with his easy manner and gentle ways.

At the time we were having a quiet afternoon in the apartment playing computer games after having been at a huge party the evening before. We had all decided that the keg of beer that no-one was drinking would have been better served in our apartment – after all, it was only 7 flights of stairs to carry it, and the night was but young. The security guard who chased us up the stairs didn’t necessarily agree with us but he was persuaded by a few notes bearing Chairman Mao’s picture and we were set for an evening’s imbibing.

The next day we were all feeling as though we had a family of Frenchmen living in our heads we were not worth much apart from playing a few computer games to while away the time.

Denis was so thirsty he was constantly drinking water and foolishly put his glass on the empty chair beside where we were sitting. In a moment of glee when his army destroyed mine he leapt from his chair in sheer delight and excitement and landed on the chair beside himself.

And promptly shot several metres into the air. Yep. He had come straight down on the glass which broke and which sent large shards of glass into his posterior. He was sort of alright until he saw the large piece of glass sticking out of his bottom, and were not for the blood that was now pouring from his nether regions the whole affair would have been quite funny. Seeing the glass had a very immediate effect on poor old Denis – he fainted. Straight away fainted and was stretched out on the floor, white in the face and quietly moaning.

Broken Glass

It was my task to deal with the problem and what a problem to deal with. Looking a hairy bum pouring blood isn’t the very best of things to do on a quiet Saturday afternoon, but that’s what we had to do. We took the largest piece of glass out before pulling down his trousers so we could inspect the damage. Deep but not too long were three or four cuts in the fleshy cheeks of his bottom.

Denis was by this time wondering if he would bleed to death and was not a happy-chappie at all. The only way to stop the bleeding was to hold a pressure pad against his bottom very hard and sit there while nature took its course and started the clotting business. I can’t say we didn’t laugh at Denis.

Once we knew he was going to live and probably didn’t need a trip to hospital we all started to see the funny side of things.

Not so Denis, and when he reads this he will probably remember that afternoon with the curl of a regret on his lips and I predict that to this day Denis checks every chair before he sits down.  Glass in your arse – a most unfortunate experience.

Over the years I have seen dozens of accident – have come across bodies lying on the road several times and have been struck at how life is here one minute and gone the next.

Riding a bike late at night seeing a woman hit by a car because she thought he would stop and being thrown right across the road and dying there, and me having my 7-year-old son with me and having to console his nightmares for months afterwards.

Happening on a young girl of around 18-19 years old being hit by a right-turning car at 7am in the morning, the driver turning against the red traffic light. And seeing her lying dead on the road without a visible mark on her, while the policeman started his note taking and assessment.  Lying there so peacefully and calm that is was almost impossible to imagine that she was dead, and thinking of such a young life taken in the morning when the day is young and full of hope.,

And one day, just a couple of years ago, shortly after lunch, being the first person on the scene of a collision between an elderly man on his electric bike and a speeding BMW on the newly renovated 2nd Ring Road.

The man, of an age where I would say he had recently retired, had tried to beat the traffic and scoot across the really busy road. There was a pedestrian crossing marked but no actual lights, and it is usually a matter of who gets 1 cm in front of the other that determines whose right of way it is.

The BMW was speeding and the man wasn’t paying attention and there was a hell of a bang and the man was hit hard.

The car wheel ran over his head and he was killed absolutely instantly. The next sentence is not pleasant – his brains were all over the road and I was forced to stop right beside him, and I had the unpleasant experience of having to sit there in the car and realise that this was now another new experience in life that I would have given anything not to have had.

The police were on the scene in an instant – being a busy road there are hundreds of traffic police stationed at pretty much each corner, whose job it is to keep the traffic flowing – and they stopped all the traffic including me, while they got control of the situation.

There was nothing to be done apart from calling the ambulance to take away the body and as I waited for the ambulance’s arrival I was struck by the fact the man had a small bag of fruit in the carrier basket on the front of his electric bike.

cooking, diet, vegetarian food and healthy eating concept - clos

A small bag of fruit. It was just after lunch. And the story of what happened filtered through my consciousness.

The man and his wife had probably just finished lunch and I imagined the man saying to his wife:

“I’ll go to the market dear, and get us some after-lunch fruit. Won’t be long. I’ll get something nice for you. You relax and have a cup of tea”

And those words or words similar would have been the last words he exchanged with the love of his life. The woman with whom he had shared the tumult of the 20th century in China. The woman who had been beside him through the Cultural Revolution – maybe the Great Famine. The woman with whom he witnessed the rise of China from its past ignominy. The woman who was looking forward to their remaining twilight years with anticipation and joy, to be able to spend time with her husband and relax and enjoy, make trips into the countryside, play with the grandchildren, dance in the park, drink tea in the teahouse and hold hands like young lovers.

And in his hurry to get back home the man forgot to look, or misjudged the speed of the car, or maybe he was simply day-dreaming. What is certain though, is that he was not preparing for death. He was not ready to make that voyage across the dark river. He was not aware that the trouble is we think we have time.

In an instant, all the lives of all the people around him changed, and no matter what happened after that day of tragedy, their lives would never be the same again, there would be no twilight of gladness, only the dark night of sorrow.

A small bag of fruit, a trip to the market, a moments lack of attention, and the fragile thread we call our life is severed.

Rest in Peace old fellow. Rest in Peace.





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