Elisabeth Hallett lived in China (Beijing and Hunan province) for many years, working as a teacher and editor. She met her Chinese husband in Beijing and returns frequently on family visits. She now lives in Oxford. Mouse-wolf is her first published novel.
On the Eve of the Beijing Olympics, August 2008
I sit in a quiet room
Escaping the midday heat,
Fanning myself to keep cool,
Thinking with apprehension
Of the days and weeks to come.
Geraniums blaze on the balcony,
Helicopters cruise above,
An unfamiliar drone
In a sky that’s fierce and pale.
These are new and anxious times,
Times full of hope and of hate.
Last night I could not sleep
So I stood on the balcony,
The city was wide awake
From low in the western suburbs
A giant beam scanned the sky
And lights on top of buildings
Tossing and turning on my mat of bamboo
These days I rarely sleep
The whole night through.
The message on the banners
Proclaims: ‘One World, One Dream’
Red lanterns hang from lampposts
The streets are swept and clean.
The brand-new buildings down the road
Are decorated black and gold.
The big names have moved in -
Starbucks, Adidas and Apple -
Life on the street no longer matters.
The fruit and vegetable man is gone,
The little stalls are all moved on.
This latest extravaganza
Has driven a culture mad
But powerful propaganda
Allows no room for the mad.
The critics bleat their message
But none want to hear what they say
For we’re anxious about survival
And making do for another day
And pride swells in our bosoms
For soon we too will be great -
On the eighth of the eighth of oh-eight!
Can pain become a habit
Buried too deep for words?
You cannot tell your children
If memory is banned,
You cannot show your children
The house where once you lived
For your house, your street, your neighbourhood
Is a patch of empty land -
Just a piece of real estate -
All you can feel is nothingness
Not bitterness, not hate.
‘One World, One Dream’ – who says
Whose world, whose dream?
The world I see around me now
Is not the world of my dreams.
A terrible homogeneity
Is spreading across the earth.
The joys of things being various
Is a dangerous thing to believe
Unless I agree that variety
Is determined by you, not by me.
And as long as I mutter no curse.
The athletes are arriving,
Presidents and heads of state
Are pouring in to our Beijing,
A robot mascot’s standing
Guard at the airport gate.
Empty eyes scan one and all
As they throng through the arrival hall
Tanned and tall, fit and strong
But why does it feel wrong?
Have I been here too long?
I drink my Starbucks tea and turn away.
The smiling youthful volunteers
Know little of their fathers’ tears.
Under the blue Olympian sky
We’re living our romantic lie
In a world of insanity.
These days you’re one or the other
Cynical or naïve,
Rejecting both illusions
Taking up my pen to write
I seek ironic points of light.
When fireworks blaze over the city
Illuminating the sky
In red and gold and white
I’ll rush out to my balcony
To witness the splendid sight
And bending double with laughter
I’ll shout to the heavens my name
And hope that some poor bastard
Will go and do the same
And in desperate consolation
Show an affirming flame.
With thanks to W.H. Auden’s September 1, 1939