My neck prickles with sweat as I wander alone through an ancient, mystical Shanghai street. A column of red robed monks weaves through the crowds, their low chants and finger bells hypnotic in the muggy September air.
A tiny, wrinkled woman crouches in the gutter and fans a bundle of smouldering incense sprouting from the shrine she has built from empty bottles and plastic cartons. The framed photo of an old silver-haired man rests against the pathetic pile and I pause to imagine the hardships they must have endured.
Fifty paces on, I turn into a broad, bustling Westernised avenue and I’m sucked into a vast, vibrant throng of shoppers and traders. I am stunned by the contrast but tonight I have neither obligation nor responsibility and I drink from the sounds and smells of this fascinating city. I’m in another universe, free and alone with my thoughts, alone that is until they’re invaded by a shrill, urgent voice just below my left ear.
‘You want Worex mister? Cheap – five dorrar! You come, now!’
He can’t be more than fifteen, sixteen at most, and barely reaches my shoulder. I’ve been warned and keep walking, eyes fixed on the familiar yellow ‘M’ sitting atop a McDonald’s somewhere in the distance.
He dances round behind me and pops up once more, dodging the waves of tourists and locals. ‘No want Worex? Reevi jean then? Real fing!’ I walk on, steadfastly ignoring his pleas.
But he’s still here, persistent as a wasp at a picnic.
Stupidly, spurred by a pang of pity, I forget the advice from the concierge and turn to courteously swot him. ‘No thank you.’ A big mistake. Now we are communicating and he senses a sale.
‘Ah, American!’ he grins. ‘You want Worex? Tree dorrar! No fake!’ I shake my head and quicken my pace, but in a second he’s bobbing up and down again right in front of me.
At the same moment, an arm links mine and I turn to find a new face beaming up. Somebody’s great-grandmother has attached herself to me and is trying to steer me towards an alleyway between an Apple store and a Starbucks. The salesman has changed tack and has deftly linked into my other arm. I am being Shanghai’d!
His enthusiasm is undented but the goods on offer have swiftly changed. ‘You want sexy massage mister? Very good, nice girls! Do anyting! You want, yes?’
‘No!’ I shout, loudly enough for heads to turn, and with some difficulty, break free from their clutches. I head off at speed, without a glance back. I hear other voices aimed at me, new ones, offering jewellery or flesh, or both, but keep going.
After ten minutes, maybe fifteen, my assailants are nowhere to be seen and I feel safe enough to slow my pace and carry on exploring. I’ve stumbled across a beautiful old cobbled street, lined with artisan booths and antique shops crammed with Buddhas of every shape and size. A monk sitting cross-legged on the pavement smiles toothlessly at me. This is a peaceful place and for the first time this evening I relax and start to enjoy my exotic surroundings. But it doesn’t last.
In front of me suddenly dances a pretty teenage girl in white blouse, short skirt, ankle socks and trainers. She carries a leather satchel on her shoulder and her innocent young face glows with enthusiasm. I keep walking, unconvinced.
‘Sir!’ she calls after me as I brush past her. ‘Sir! I student at corridge, you prease help wit Engrish study?’ As she hops from one foot to the other, her pigtails bounce wildly on her shoulders. For a moment I hesitate, touched by her simple request and reminded of my own daughter. But, still smarting from the last encounter, I walk swiftly on.
She’s back in front of me again, her bag open, bundles of exercise books waving in her hand. ‘See sir – you help wit Engrish practice, prease!’ but I’ve learned my lesson.
I push her arm gently away and slip into the nearest shop, a gloomy emporium whose teak and ebony carvings are piled from floor to ceiling.
I buy a small green Buddha and some time later, emerge into the still evening. I start back towards the metro station, reflecting on my day, pleased with the treasures I’ll be taking home. I’m almost there when, without warning, pigtails is back, skipping lightly beside me.
But there’s something about her fresh, youthful demeanour that touches me and I start to feel guilty at having earlier dismissed her simple appeal. Images of a hopeless, wretched life flash before me, of a single shanty room shared with a huge starving family, denied encouragement or support and yet still managing to keep alive the flickering dream of one day becoming a doctor or a lawyer.
I am overwhelmed with a new desire to help this poor girl in some small way, to polish her English skills.
I stop, turn to face her and smile broadly. ‘Well OK,’ I say slowly, ‘What would you like me to do – go over some verbs and tenses maybe, they’re always a challenge aren’t they?’
She has stopped hopping and is stuffing the books back into her bag. A pen falls to the ground. She looks at it lying there amongst the incense sticks and the cigarette ends, tilts her head to catch my eye and slowly snaps the elastic band from a pigtail.
‘You want sexy massage mister?’