The Short Guy
by Helen Wing
The short guy has no borders. He is as round as he is tall. He rolls like a ball along the smooth corridors of international business, slipping easily into myriad cultures between day and night, taking the red-eye east, cutting deals in silver and chairing blusterous conferences in five star hotels with his eager, sweaty-handed Latin American sidekick who is shorter and poorer than him and whom he calls his friend. He is affable with the menial, and flirtatious with the dull, and secretly vicious with anyone who threatens, with intelligence or high-mindedness, to disturb the easy flow of personal success that sticks to him like static as he jets around the corporate universe.
Bashir realized early on that, in order to be rich, he had to look rich and mix with the rich and this he has done with panache, if not style. He is a high maintenance guy who claims to have no recall of the hungrier, thinner world he used to come from. Those who remember depend on his continued goodwill too much to reminisce with him about their youth spent kicking footballs around the derelict, bombed-out spaces in Beirut and the nights spent selling ass down by the port.
Bashir uses call girls wherever he is, except home. This he does as a matter of course and he pays well, he thinks. And although he displays a lip-curling contempt as he sets his rates, when he finds himself alone with these girls, he is a gentle lamb who rarely completes the hideous acts to which he has made them agree, but sits in the dark with them holding their inevitably tiny hands crooning love songs from the seventies into their uncomprehending ears.
He is neither lazy nor stupid. Deep inside him he has a tough knot of focused energy that drives him on, unrelentingly, towards his financial goals. He is grateful for its force and cannot understand its absence in other people. He is only vaguely aware of a lack of choice and fondly calls the knot, for that is how he sees it, his permanent indigestion. And, indeed, its bilious presence in his life rises up like nausea wherever he encounters obstacles or delays or problems in the complex machinery of the company he says he has built from scratch with his blood and tears and that apparently no one else is competent to run.
His anger, when it comes, unmans him as his hard won education drops away from him like a reptilian skin. His genteel whisper, that cultivated proof of power and the delight afforded by the bending suppliant ears of his underlings, shrinks off in a second to be replaced by a coarseness and brutality of tone that reveals the slum that is his soul.
He enjoys the fear he instills. It reassures him. He feels no shame at his ability to bring forth tears from pretty girls or to lower eyes and chins in his young executives. He feels that this is how the world works and that his employees all have clean clothes and beds to sleep in. When his rage is spent he calmly announces that tonight the staff will go to karaoke, on him.
Recently he has started to get pains in his legs and no longer has the urge to dance in the clubs he visits nightly with Daniel, his simpering friend. Bashir supports Daniel whilst depriving him of status. Daniel is his negative shadow. He embodies all the failure he fears and, like all clever men, Bashir keeps his enemy close. An orphan too and diminutive like the poor, Bashir rescued Daniel from a failing venture and has kept him as his lapdog for the last decade. Daniel is a frightened man and Bashir associates loyalty with fear and so the relationship works for him.
This morning Bashir wakes up in Beijing. He drinks a quart of coffee whilst still in bed and dozes through the CNN news. He checks the news sites on his laptop and logs into his stocks. He makes a point of never talking about his constant research into current affairs. Every move he makes is calculated but he likes his competitors to think of him as someone who just has tremendous luck, as someone who is capable of false moves. There are of course huge gaps in his knowledge. Only recently has he learnt about dinosaurs for instance, but considering the lack of business advantage to be had in that tidbit, he is not overly bothered by what he does not know. He is careful only to deal in his areas of expertise and he knows he would never have made Jurassic Park without checking whether dinosaur images could be patented.
The early morning, when the business people of the world are sweating in the gym, is the only time he takes things slow. Bathing and dressing are Bashir’s religion and he considers them his salvation. His clothes are the nearest thing to a conscience for him. This morning he plans to wear a blue linen suit which he has had pressed along with a white, more than white, blue-white shirt. He draws a bath. China is one of the few places where he cannot seem to find a decent barber to give him a wet shave, so this he does himself and then sits in the tub for a while listening to the pipes that pump and churn through the hotel. As he soaps himself he plots the day ahead. Today, there will be no mercy. He has had enough of the fooling around that goes on in his China operation and he has come over to Beijing purely to kick ass. The business here is not important to him. It is an itch in his side, something he agreed to oversee for a lazy sheik with whom he has other larger business interests. So, the trip today is a sadist’s holiday but something, nevertheless, that requires a certain orchestration. He chuckles to himself as he imagines the preparations going on in the office. He knows that today dozens of people will awaken in a state of extreme stress, dreading the day ahead and wondering whether to prepare their families for the possible disaster ahead. He is amused by the way that his employees try to develop strategies with which to deal with him. They pretend to themselves that they have some leverage over him. His contempt of the powerless lies in their failure to recognize their powerlessness. He examines his toes at the end of the bath. His feet are swollen from the eleven hour flight. He wiggles them. One big toenail is dead; some fungus that he never treated has effectively killed the nail bed. It is of no matter. No-one sees his feet. His wife has good feet. He thinks this is because she does not use them, never takes them out of the house, except in a car. He loves the fact that she has rich feet. And they have always been so, silky, soft and sweet smelling. When he periodically arrives home, sweaty and smiling into the bosom of his cloth-bedecked family in the desert land he has adopted as home, his first thought is of her feet. He gets her to walk down his back and loosen up his muscles. This is their only sexual ritual and she wears bell-bestrewn anklets for the task. Bashir moans his seduction face down on the bed where he can speak to her without looking into her eyes. His wife drinks in his words and forgives him his absence, his size and his habits. When they were younger he used to paint her toenails with black varnish and then sit and wait for her toes to dry, watching her in her stillness, her eyes averted on the divan, watching her until finally it was time to take her to himself. To this day he still buys her exotic foot creams in the duty free airport shops which she takes as proof that he does indeed think of her from time to time on his almost permanent travels.
The phone by the bath rings and Bashir struggles up to answer it. His manicurist is on her way up. Bashir puts on sweat pants to receive the girl and lays out his shirt and underwear on the bed. It is still only 6am. He is almost in a work frame of mind now and is impatient with the girl until he sees that, for once, the message has filtered down to reception that she should come with new instruments. She has both new buffers and new clippers. The girl is swift and deft. His mind wanders to the day’s tasks as she works on his hands. She kneels before him as he lounges in the desk chair. He flips through his business sites on the web with one hand as the girl clips and shears at his cuticles on the other. He wishes all his employees could be like this girl. Competent, obedient, silent. He is tempted to take her with him today and make her general manager. The idea makes him laugh out loud. Ridiculous but gratifying. She is a girl and Chinese. He rings Daniel and arranges to meet him at 7.30am.
The suit swings sweetly as he lifts the hanger from the cupboard. It is perfection in a suit. Bashir preens and examines himself as each garment goes on. He is not an easy man to clothe being short, fat and easily unbalanced both physically and visually. He sends a silent thanks to Khalil, his tailor in Beirut, who even in the bad years seemed to be able to procure silks, linens, cottons and wools of exquisite quality that could be found nowhere else in the city. Each of his garments has his name embroidered in gold thread on the inside of the collar on the jacket and inside the waistline of the trousers. The blue of this particular suit brings out the blue of his eyes and although he does not deny that some might think him ugly, with his sagging jowls and bouncing paunch, first thing like this, shiny and new, he has to stop for a moment and admire all that he has made of himself. He sways contentedly in front of the mirror. He has navy blue tasseled shoes cut low on the arch and when he sits his blue silk socks peek out. Like many fat men he hates to wear a tie but does so at least for part of each day. He loses many ties because his custom is to take his tie off as soon as his meetings are over. Ties never seem to stay in his pocket. He fancies even that there are office-bound pickpockets who specialize in tie theft.
Bashir knows that without Khalil he would still be a wheeler-dealer in Beirut, a small time con man with bold ideas and no real bollocks. The day he cut his first deal with Khalil he had been no more than a scruffy kid. Khalil, who had known his father, had seen him hanging around the tea stall at the end of the street and had called him over to ask about his mother and sisters. Khalil must have been about thirty at the time but he seemed older. Unlike an elder though he was slow to judge and even though he surely knew of Bashir’s angry, wild ways, he never alluded to them. Bashir had recently helped locate some silk carpets that had been stolen from his Khalil’s aunt’s house. Khalil had not asked how he had done this, but he had known enough to make the request for information. Khalil was a Sunni Muslim who supported his huge family from his tailor shop. He was also a Lebanese who, though caught in the feuding clan mesh of the era, still believed in the oneness of the Lebanese people. He made an especial effort with Bashir whose Christian father had been a true believer in Arabism. In the seventies it was still possible to cross cultural boundaries with anyone who considered Arab countries and particularly Lebanon their spiritual home and, after all, business required such elisions of difference. Bashir stepped inside his shop and started to handle the fabrics. Bashir was a tough guy but in the shop, away from the crowd he ran with, he could indulge in a little luxuriant fantasy. He fondled the cloth with parted lips and opened out successive bolts of cloth onto the tailors’ table. Khalil said, ‘I have a customer at four, but you can stay ‘til then. Here, drink tea with me.’ Bashir sipped mint tea and looked at the floor.
‘I want you to make me a suit.’
Khalil laughed. ‘Bashir, do you know who I make suits for? Members of the President’s family come to me.’
‘So, you can make Christian suits, then,’ said Bashir.
‘No, I make for everyone Muslim, Jew, Christian … but they are none of them like you. You could never afford these suits.’
‘Khalil, I cannot pay you now, but if you make me a suit one day I will repay you a hundredfold’.
‘That is a big promise, Bashir’
‘It is my promise and your wager. One thing is sure Khalil, with a suit I can change my future. If I make it rich I will pay you one hundred times over. If I don’t, you lose a suit, but if you do not make me a suit, you stand to lose a fortune.’
Khalil stroked his beard and looked at the gaunt bright-eyed rascal that his friend had bred. He was certain that life would have been different if his father had lived. He had no-one to point him in the right direction. His uncles who had left Beirut now, had offered to take Bashir with them. But the uncles on his father’s side had offered only him this thing and Bashir had said that his mother would be alone if he went. His mother thought him mad. His uncles were in furniture and trade was looking good. And Bashir’s loyalty to his mother had proved a sham for when he remained in school in Beirut he brought nothing but heartache home to his mother. When he came home that is, hungry and hollow-eyed. Khalil had taught Bashir chess as a child and by the time he was eight, the kid beat him every time. They both loved chess and thought it a truly Arab game made for crystal clear intelligence, for blue-skied intelligence.
‘So, you have a plan?’
‘It is one suit, Kahlil.’
Kahlil took his measuring tape from around his collar and started to measure Bashir up.
This story has gone down in the annals of his family’s myths and Khalil is still his family’s favoured friend and Bashir is still his client. The Pascalian wager paid off for him and is still a favoured negotiation method of Bashir’s, though now he uses it from a position of power that reduces the scheme to simple blackmail. Without the constraints of family and shared culture Bashir has proved adept at sidestepping the loaded demands of honour. But even though the tale feels now like a fairytale to him, he still tells the story to Daniel to show him how much bigger he is than him and to taunt him about his dependency.
‘Hey, big guy!’ greets Bashir as his slides across the hotel foyer towards Daniel. There should be a sort of short guy solidarity going on between these two but there isn’t. Bashir insists that Daniel is the shorter and as Daniel is clearly the slimmer of the two, it is obvious who has the slighter persona. Like minority political parties who fight amongst themselves instead of fighting the true opposition, the short guys in the world bicker with each other for millimetres of height whilst ignoring the fact that to everyone else they are all short. ‘Let’s sit here,’ Bashir gestures to the easy chairs by the main doors. ‘I have a few things to go over.’ Both men sit sideways to disguise the fact that their feet lift slightly off the ground as they sink into the huge foyer armchairs.
Daniel has the boredom of a eunuch in the business world of Bashir and at first he listens with half an ear to the day’s plan. He is Latin American and his main aim this morning is to procure a decent coffee, if not Colombian then at least French. Coffee and sanitation are to Daniel the two main arbiters of class and high civilization and so far today only one has been achieved. Consequently he is still only half-awake as he pretends attention to Bashir’s ‘We can’t let these guys hold us to ransom just because they have the ‘guanxi’….they’ve got all their brothers, sisters and cousins working in here and it’s time to cull. No-one is bringing in any business and we cannot afford all these freeloaders. I am going to sack 50.’
At this Daniel pales. This is heavy even for Bashir. Half the workforce.
Bashir says, ‘This is no time for being soft. Business is business. Friends are friends. You must always keep them separate. Here as anywhere. In fact, more here. It’s a Communist country and all business is theft. They are just robbing me blind.’
Daniel wonders how expensive these workers really are. He reckons Bashir’s kids get in pocket money enough to pay ten workers at Beijing rates and with zero severance rights he knows the office is going to stink of sweat and fear today.
Daniel has been with Bashir so long that he finds it hard to distinguish between his embarrassment at Bashir’s management style and shame at being associated with him at all. He likes China. It has a Latin feel to it, in a sort of oppressed Communist way. He secretly thinks the Chinese will be great dancers when they stop having to take their bosses with them to the clubs that are starting to spring up all over the cities. He knows Bashir likes the place because he can exploit the currency of fear here and Daniel knows he likes it for everything that is not to do with fear, for the easy smiles and gentility of sensibility that may one day win through. This is the key to Daniel’s failure. He is not just a bad copycat bully. He genuinely has no heart for it. Only last night he went for a stroll in the hutong behind the hotel and stood wonderingly below a huge yellow tree as it started to shed its leaves. As the leaves swirled around his waiting feet a small crowd of people gathered around him and kept him company as he watched the dwindling light play through the branches. He saw a swinging red flag on a long, long pole as it called the pigeon fancier’s flock back to their rooftop dovecote. As he wandered through the night the moon was a crisp white Eucharist crisscrossed with the tangled power-lines of the godless dust-filled alleyways.
Daniel’s difficulty with Bashir’s ‘business is business’ stance comes down to the fact that he likes the people here. He senses that like in the troubled times of the Lebanon, the cut-throat approach is useless. People need each other here. He thinks Bashir does not really understand ‘guanxi’ and thinks that this more than anything else is why the business fails. That and the fact that the reptilian responses of the staff who respond only to hunger and fear are hardly the makings of today’s successful technological industries. Daniel knows better than to advise Bashir and, anyway, he knows Bashir has no real interest in the project’s success. The company is just a bet on a future presence here. ‘What’s your approach?’ he asks as, finally, he receives his expresso.
‘I need to get rid of all the top guys and all but the key sales people. It’s too expensive to train up new analysts and they are part of the machine. I want to interview them all and we’ll make changes tomorrow, before we leave for Singapore.’ The ‘we’ll’ both comforts and chills Daniel. He is compromised and despised already and he thanks god he will be gone by tomorrow evening. Only one night out here at karaoke. Daniel had never liked the girl thing with Bashir. The fact that he too is expected to take part in these fleshy dealings, just because his boss says so, leaves him desperate and hopeless. He suspects his employees make jokes about the fact that his boss even has control of his bodily functions. The hatred he sometimes feels for his financial saviour is all to do with his manhood and his Latin American heart. Daniel has always wanted to be a good man and, as the years have gone by and he has proved himself ineffectual in the business world, he has become ever more romantic about the world that is free of Bashir. Bashir, who would not care anyway, does not know that Daniel has a pretty young wife at home and a soon-to-be christened baby boy. Daniel wants his wife to stay in love with him and he increasingly loathes the petty, and fleshly peccadilloes that erode his sense of self to which Bashir subjects him. He feels both trapped and bored, a panda in Bashir’s zoo.
‘Come on, let’s do this,’ says Bashir. ‘There are 100 employees here in Beijing….half of them know their days are numbered … today is the day we sort the wheat from the chaff, Daniel. Carry my computer will you.’
Bashir marches off to the revolving doors leaving Daniel swallowing down his hot expresso. The wind is up. Bashir feels the chill and signals for a cab. He feels in his pocket for his handkerchief and, once in the cab, wipes his face. Even for him, he feels unusually hot, especially given the chill wind. No matter. He will simply be slightly more impatient than usual if he feels off-colour and today is not a day for diplomacy. Daniel looks up at the office block as they draw up to it. He fancies he can see Edith, the company accountant, at the window. He knows there will be a lookout. His mouth feels dry and he wishes he had taken water with his expresso.
Bashir is a whirlwind in the office. He needs no training in the art of humiliation and destruction. He is nothing if not diligent in these areas. He blasts into the office, swinging an empty brown leather briefcase and takes control of the manager’s office, staking an immediate claim to authority and signaling to the staff that any loyalty to their line manager is misplaced and dangerous. As if this act alone were not enough to throw the staff into a mute frenzy of anxiety, he stages a magnificent berating of the manager himself. Bashir loves open plan offices especially for this feature, for their ability to provide the perfect forum for public humiliation. There is no cover. Who shouts loudest wins, simply because everyone from the cleaner to the accountant hears it. No matter that the manager is himself a polite, measured and fair-handed individual who has done all in his power to bring the company on and to protect the staff.
By 9.15am the war is already won. The manager has lost face and face has nothing to do with the heart in China. So, even though the sales girls and analysts are fond of the manager, he has been eternally diminished in their eyes. He himself had heard the storm coming and the previous evening he had told his uncomprehending staff that they were to distance themselves from him as his authority was on the wane. At the time, as they were just wrapping up for the windy sprint to the bus stop, they had each thought how strange it was that he should indulge in a self-criticism like this when he was indubitably still the boss. By 9.15am the next day they understand better. And by lunchtime Bashir has reduced all but one of the sales staff to tears. They sit nervously at their computers with one hand under their desks texting their men and each other about what they should and should not say. At 11am Bashir is momentarily phased by the prettiest girl. She is unusually tall and has the aristocratic bearing of a tango dancer which fortunately goes some way to assuaging the infantilizing effect of her chosen English name: Snow White. Snow has a secret weapon in that she is perhaps the only one of the sales staff whose husband has a good party job and she will be not unhappy to resume her Chinese name and stay at home. When Bashir slams his hand down in front of her and accuses her of plotting her excuses with her colleagues, she lifts her smokey eyes to him and asks, ‘Are you ok Mr. Bashir? You do not seem happy today and we had so fun with you when you came last time.’ Bashir feels a wave of nausea come over him and he reaches for his glass of water. ‘I bring you Chinese tea Mr. Bashir, ok?’ She girl starts to rise but Bashir waves her down again. Bashir remembers her as the girl who sings Mao anthems at the company karaoke nights and says to her, ‘It is not my job to be happy today.’ As he lets her leave she turns and says, ‘Mr. Bashir we all work hard for you, ok.’ As the glass door clicks shut Bashir chuckles to himself, ‘Damned if she doesn’t think hard work is enough.’ He wants to think this girl is stupid but something in her bearing and in her smokey eyes reminds him of his wife and he knows he will not sack her tomorrow.
By lunch, everyone has lost weight and everyone is isolated. No-one knows who is a friend and who is not. Daniel, who has spent the morning hiding with Edith, the accountant, hands Bashir the analysts’ work reports and the month’s accounts. Bashir slips the papers into his briefcase and announces that lunch is back at the hotel, in a private room and that all the staff should attend. This compulsory invitation is part of his strategy and he loves to draw out the suffering. Many of the staff have never eaten in a five star hotel and on any other occasion they would have delighted in the buffet spread and the golden cloths and napkins. Daniel feels sick for them all. Torture by luxury is one of the shackles Bashir has on him and he bristles inwardly as he sees the younger girls hesitating over the sushi, wondering how much, if anything, they should eat. Bashir relaxes with a good Bordeaux and notes with satisfaction that the staff are all too storm-damaged to confer with each other. When at last the clink of cutlery on china becomes too loud even for his comfort, he asks the air what qualities are needed for good business. There is a flicker of hope in one girl’s eyes. Maybe all is not lost. She puts down her fork and says in faltering English, ‘One should know how long are one’s chopsticks.’ Bashir guffaws and slaps Daniel on the back. The girl lowers her eyes, throwing glances left and right to her companions, trying to understand the big boss’s reaction. ‘What do you think of that Daniel? Brilliant, eh? What do you say to that, eh?’ Daniel holds no illusions like the girl and even though he knows the Chinese definition of heaven and hell, he too looks down at his plate and says, barely above a whisper, ‘I say, we are using knives and forks.’
Bashir has just taken a long draught of red wine and he splutters it forth onto the table in his mirth. His laughter makes his eyes water and his face turn red, but even in his callous joy he dabs protectively at his shirt and lapels with his napkin, concerned as ever for his garb.
He rises from his seat, signaling that the lunch is over. As he does so he feels the familiar stab of indigestion and holds the back of the chair for a moment to steady himself. He waves a generous arm around in the air making a sweeping movement towards the golden door as if to usher his staff back into the eye of the storm.
Daniel glances out of the window as a single yellow leaf slaps onto the glass. It is raining. As he turns back into the room he sees Bashir sink to the floor with a great whooshing sound as if a big ball has just been punctured. Bashir’s arms are flapping uselessly at his side trying gain a purchase on the carpet. Daniel sees that for Bashir the floor is moving and that he is in a deathly faint. The briefcase has spilled open on the floor beside him and the Snow bends swiftly, gracefully down to sweep the papers back into place. No-one else moves. No-one else dare move.
Daniel turns back to the table and pours a glass of the remaining Bordeaux and takes a long slow slug. He watches the yellow leaf lift itself from the window pane and float on. He knows everyone is watching him, looking for leadership, watching him and glancing from time to time at the big blue upturned turtle on the floor. They are uncertain and scared. Daniel bends down to Bashir’s ear and whispers,
‘Bashir, I know some things you don’t know about China. In China, who rings the ambulance, pays the ambulance. Which of your hundred staff do you bet will call for help?’
Bashir’s eyes turn to Daniel. He is trying to focus and his left hand is grabbing at Daniel’s jacket. Daniel kneels down further and takes Bashir’s hand in his,
‘How much ‘guanxi’ do you have here, Bashir?’ Daniel raises his brows as if he is making a simple business query in a routine board meeting. Bashir struggles to speak, ‘You …. call,’ he rasps.
‘Daniel whispers, ‘Do you perhaps think your staff will believe that you will repay them a hundred fold if they call for help? If they save your life?’
Even as Bashir struggles to remain conscious, Daniel can see the impotent rage rising in his face. Bashir tugs again at his hand, his blue eyes fearful now.
‘I want payment up front Bashir. Give me your account code. I want one thousand RMB bonus for each of the staff here in Beijing and I want one hundred k US for myself. Tell the accountant to give me the code.’
Hearing herself mentioned Edith steps forward, mechanically responding to authority. Daniel waves her back. Bashir can feel his blood running away from his brain and is unable to focus his eyes on Daniel. Daniel breathes gently, deeply as if he is meditating, slowly counting the seconds. He waits. Bashir rasps, ‘Do it,’ and as he does so a dribble of spittle falls slowly onto his beautiful blue lapel.
Daniel steps back to his seat and picks up Bashir’s computer and hands it to Edith. He sits at the table finishing his boss’s wine as he waits for the web transfer to take place. He feels at that moment so tall that he does not need to stand as, with unaccustomed authority, he tells the staff to go back to the office, assuring them that Bashir will be well cared for and that he himself will go with him in the ambulance. And, indeed, as they are all still drifting out through the foyer, a team of white-clad ambulance men run in through the side doors with a stretcher.
Daniel is as good as his word and goes with Bashir to the Beijing United Family Hospital. As Bashir drifts in and out of consciousness he sees his wife’s pretty feet dancing for him on his return to the desert that is his home. Then, as he is being lowered from the ambulance, he hears Daniel repeating Bashir’s favourite maxim like a lullaby, ‘Business is business, you understand, and friends are friends and you must not mix the two.’ And then, ‘Goodbye Bashir, you are not only right as usual about business, but you are right too about your wife’s feet: they are uncommonly soft.’
© Helen Wing
Helen Wing is a British writer living in Beijing. She has recently been a finalist in the 2008 Mississippi Prize Review with her story Stone Woman. The Short Guy is part of a growing collection of China stories. Previous to her life as a trailing spouse to a journalist in China she was a lecturer in Hispanic Studies (poetry mainly) in the UK.