神秘女郎

神秘女郎, said Amy.

I can see that, I said.

And indeed ‘神秘女郎’ was newly inscribed in red and gold paint on the fascia of Great Secret Miss.

Tell me again, I said. Tell me in pinyin.

Shén mì nǚ láng, said Amy. Means ‘Great Secret Miss’, of course.

I had guessed that. In fact the previous, English, name was still visible, in smaller lettering, on the glass. My task, self-imposed, had been to identify what it sounded like.

You like it?

I considered.

It’s more classy, I said. On the other hand it’s going to be a bugger for taxi drivers.

A cloud crossed Amy’s face. I should not have said ‘a bugger for taxi drivers’. She didn’t understand the phrase. Until recently she would have asked me to explain but now she has a translation app on her iPhone, which I saw her consult. This left her no wiser and visibly alarmed.

I explained what I had meant.

More to the point, I said, why are you and your girls and indeed your entire staff standing on the pavement outside 神秘女郎? Should you not be inside plying your customers with intoxicating and oneiroferous kefir? Can we go in? Indeed, where are your customers?

One customer very smelly. Had to come outside.

Was he incontinent?

I cursed myself. Out came the iPhone again.

No. Just very smelly man.

She looked infinitely distasteful, and so did her girls. One of them had lit some joss sticks and had ventured in with them.

What you call those things? Amy said.

Which things?

Things look like tapers. Don’t show dead people under the ground, but cover up smells. A girl buys them.

‘Joss sticks’, I said.

The iPhone came out.

J-O-S-S, I said. And ‘sticks’.

Ah, Amy said, apparently satisfied.

The joss sticks seemed to work well enough because the girls filed back inside. I stayed on the street for the length of a cigarette. I didn’t smoke a cigarette because I don’t; nevertheless the time that a cigarette takes to be smoked is a useful unit, and that is the amount of time that I lingered outside 神秘女郎 on the pavement, unwilling to confront the unacceptable smell of the very smelly customer.

I thought about how the gauge of the most modern railway is famously calculated in multiples of the width of a horse’s bottom, since that was the measure by which the size of a Roman road was calculated (two horses per carriage, or cart, so two bottoms’ worth for a one-way street and four with a bit to spare for two-way streets) and roads in the Eighteenth Century were still the same width as Roman ones, nothing in the essential nature of travel having changed in the intervening fifteen or so centuries; and railway gauges, proudly emerging in the Nineteenth Century as an apparently entirely new problem to be wrestled with, are based on them.

It is a story – the horses’ bottoms – from which lessons are often derived by motivational speakers. My thoughts, as I stood on the pavement outside 神秘女郎, cigarette-free, were however not nuanced in a way that a motivational speaker would approve. I simply wondered whether in the remote future, long after we have found something completely different to soothe and poison ourselves with, we will still time our natural breaks from quotidian responsibility by reference to the duration of a normal cigarette, smoked in a normally leisurely way and absent unusual wind conditions.

These musings did not take up the full cigarette-break-unit of time that I had allotted to myself, so I thought about something else too; a disinterested observer would have characterised me as resourceful. I thought of the ecology of 神秘女郎, so precious and so fragile, and how it had been traumatised, how all its denizens had been literally driven out. I thought of the very smelly man. He had done nothing grossly irruptive. He had not been incontinent as regards any of his bodily functions. By his own lights no doubt he simply took an unfussy approach to the matter of hygiene. And yet the consequences had been devastating. The parallels with anthropogenic climate change were inescapable.

I went in.

I have to say that the smell was barely noticeable. Maybe the joss sticks – and the healing passage of time – were already doing their work; maybe Amy and her girls had different standards in these things from me. In any event, it was for them to decide. They had to work there: I didn’t.

In retrospect it was thoughtless not to have realised that she was busy. I strode across the room to her.

Amy, I said. Your very smelly customer. The parallels with anthropogenic climate change are inescapable.

She stared at me for a moment with undisguised contempt.

Anthropogenic climate change, she said. Pft! You help me with joss sticks or you bugger off.

She learns fast.

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