I have a layover in Shanghai for a night which I mainly spend getting on and off the metro and walking, sweating in crowds, buffeted by warm bodies. I sleep in a pleasant, air-conditioned hotel room and leave midmorning. The airport bus goes past the dead Expo site and I regret only catching glimpses of the space. My flight to Hohhot is uneventful, half full of silent businessmen and businesswomen, half empty.
I have no idea why Mr Wang has invited me to redesign his city. I am twenty-three, only a couple of years out of Honours. After an internship, I started my own company and have done a couple of renovation jobs for parents of friends, the odd work for the local council. I filled out the tender as an exercise, really. It was a surprise when contracts, visa forms and flight details began to arrive in my inbox.
When I get off the plane in Hohhot there is a man there to greet me, not Mr Wang but a man who works for him, and this man rolls my suitcase to a black car. ‘Welcome, Miss Bourne,’ the man says. His suit is not a uniform but something about him gives me the impression he’s a security guard. He smiles at my questions but doesn’t answer any of them as he drives me to the city.
The city is four hours from the capital. Four hours of empty grass plains, a lawn-ish wilderness that fades to brown and grey. When I look out at the plains I think about dust storms moving in, about desertification. The city isn’t signposted. It has no name as yet.
We enter from an eight-lane overpass, sweep through some gracefully curved freeway exits into the empty CBD. There is a good park with a lake. I can see swans, or maybe geese, floating on the lake. They might be plastic. We pull up at the glass and brass of a five-star hotel, my accommodation for the duration of my contract. Mr Wang’s employee doesn’t get out of the car. A member of the hotel’s staff takes my bags, pours tea, escorts me in the elevator to my suite on the eleventh floor. It has a good view over the curved urban streetscape. Between tall apartment buildings I can see through to the fine symmetry of the surrounding city, and then beyond to its edges where it dissolves into empty plains.
I applied for the job of building a city, but the city is already here. Actually I am the thirteenth architect to come to work on the city as a whole, not counting the many others who have designed various individual buildings, parks and streets. Mr Wang insists it is not finished, though he tells me that his office is bombarded with enquiries from real estate investors every day. He isn’t ready to sell anything just yet. He wants the place to be perfect. Billions are at stake. Perfecting it is in my hands. He makes this introductory speech over the phone shortly after I arrive and it turns out to be as voluble as he gets.
Initially I am daunted by the responsibility but excited by the challenge too. I work long hours alone in the hotel room. When I am hungry I ring downstairs for sandwiches. That’s all they have, sandwiches. In the evenings, I Skype or Facebook my friends back home – the hotel has a foreign IP to dodge the firewall – or read up on feng shui and local weather patterns. Mr Wang calls me every Friday afternoon to check on my progress. I am very grateful to have this job, I tell him, expecting another speech.
‘Australia,’ he says, ‘good universities, good architects.’
I have the impression that Mr Wang is the director of a Hong Kong company with several government contracts for this kind of thing, or possibly a government official who orders such contracts from an office in Hong Kong, but I’m not sure and I don’t ask. He almost always calls from Hong Kong. He doesn’t seem to have many spare hours to fly up here. But given that he is in charge of so much future, he must be a party official too. I don’t enquire too deeply. From what I’ve read, relationships here are often vague.
When I need a break I walk around the empty streets, finding disconnects and flaws. There are some good buildings here, some exciting new work. There’s an opera house in the shape of an egg with its top cracked off, a winding artificial river that culminates in the lake, an elegant mall set back in carefully cultivated gardens. Automated streetlights go on and off to guide my way. It is only a small city, intended for a population of about five million. Enough for a small public transport system – there is a fine elevated network of electric trains which don’t run yet, though I like the way the rail sweeps between the buildings. It is quite futuristic in design, even avant-garde in places, with a nod to the classical European styles of some of the buildings I saw in Shanghai. The integration could be better. There are a few Dutch-looking clock towers that should really go.
Back in the office that I have made out of one half of my suite, I pore over the plans. Since I don’t read Chinese, I have had to ask for English versions to be made up for me. Until then I look at the overall patterns, the arches and circles, sort through the symmetries, trying to identify areas where the flow of the place might be perfected.
The English plans take a few weeks to arrive. My Friday conversations with Mr Wang are somewhat stilted; I am working fourteen-hour days, but I don’t feel busy enough. When the concierge downstairs hands me the postal roll I am happy, thinking my real work can now begin. Back upstairs, I take a can of coffee from the restocked fridge and open the roll.
The plans are identical, apart from the copy. I spread them out on my light box and set about transferring some of my ideas onto new sheets, tracing over the Chinese and English cities. I sketch roughly at first and then concentrate on the finer details. When I do, I begin to notice that some of the names on the plans are familiar. There are signatures on several of the buildings. Curious, I start to look up some of the names. It seems the cracked-egg opera house was designed by someone I knew at university, a star student who transferred to the States in third year. It’s an uncanny coincidence, I think. Then I see another familiar name. The artificial river was built by an engineering firm that belongs to my high school boyfriend’s father. I believe he works there now, though we haven’t spoken since we dated. And the elevated railway is by the woman who taught me Civil in third year. I eat a Snickers from the minibar and sleep on these coincidences.
On Friday afternoon the phone rings, and I answer it.
‘Mr Wang, how are you?’
‘Very good. How is my city?’
‘Working hard,’ I say. ‘Mr Wang, I have a question.’
‘Shoot,’ he says.
‘How did you choose me for this position?’
There is a nervous silence down the phone and for a minute I assume he is not going to answer the question at all. I listen to his breathing, oddly personal through the land line in a way that breaths never are through mobile phones.
‘I mean, I don’t have a lot of experience. How did you select me?’ I say, in case he has not understood.
‘Facebook,’ he says.
‘But how many applicants did you have?’
‘You were the only one invited to tender,’ he says.
Then Mr Wang explains his theory: ‘There is an elite in each country. In Australia it is very small. So all the professionals are connected. We find you by looking at who you know. Every employer does this now,’ he says. ‘It doesn’t matter what you have done, it matters to whom you belong.’
I want to tell him that I no longer belong to Damien, the high school boyfriend-engineer, or Dr Jahangir, the third-year Civil lecturer. But he interrupts my thoughts.
‘I am coming down in a fortnight,’ he says. ‘To see your progress. Please be ready Friday.’
‘Certainly, Mr Wang,’ I say. He hangs up halfway through his own name.
I work extra hard over the following fortnight, though I get a bit distracted. I can’t stop Googling the other people who have also worked on the city. Every time I look someone up I find there is some connection. Most of the urban shopping areas were designed by the company I did my internship with. The lake plantings were arranged through a horticulturalist friend of my uncle’s whose holiday house we used to stay in when we were kids. I suppose the architecture world is small, and Mr Wang says he can trust Australians. And those connected to us. After a while I stop finding it spooky and start to see this as part of my inevitable participation in the urban plan. A kind of fate.
Two weeks later, Mr Wang and I are driving around the empty city in a golf buggy. He is smaller and older than I imagined. He takes me on a tour of the golf course, part of a leisure complex designed by my former babysitter who, more Googling reveals, is now working for a sports science consultancy that had secured a bunch of Olympics contracts. The place seems loosely based on the park she used to take me to when I was a kid, though that park has long since been turned into high-rise apartments. On closer inspection, the element of memory is illusory, something I am projecting on to the place. It’s entirely fresh, entirely itself.
We pull up by the lake. The geese, which are indeed real, scatter noisily into the water, making a rough scratch in the plane of perfect silence.
We return to my office, or to the office part of my suite. I am embarrassed by the bed, though the hotel staff have discreetly remade it in my absence.
‘My suggestions,’ I say as I show Mr Wang the unfurled plans.
‘It is all fine, fine,’ he says, barely glancing at them. He stands at the window adjusting his tie, then does something on an iPad.
‘We will have another meeting in one month,’ he says.
‘Sure,’ I say.
I work even harder, straining my eyes under fluorescent lamps to find the right redesigns that will iron out all the flaws I can find. The high school should be moved closer to the park, and the high-rise car park further away from the bus terminal. I make a fresh plan of the city, then another. Thoroughfares need to be connected to transport hubs. Railway lines need to intersect, not disappear.
After one month, I am convinced I have found every error, every potential accident blackspot and design flaw in the place. I am glad I have done so in time for Mr Wang’s next visit.
‘It is all going very well,’ he says, leaning over my work. I feel proud, though I know he is only skim reading it.
‘But really, Mr Wang, the city is fine already. It will work as it is. You could bring the people in. Start selling.’
‘I know it is fine,’ he says, calmly.
‘Then why change it?’ I say. I blush then, realising I might be talking myself out of six months’ work.
‘It is all here, but it’s not perfect. It lacks something.’
I look down on the empty streets. ‘The people?’ I say.
So I go back to work. I have already solved all the significant issues I can find, but I keep looking for more. There is actually plenty to do, when I look for it. There are tiny improvements on every corner. Mr Wang won’t send in construction teams until I am finished, and I am not finished until I say I am. But the following Friday, he calls to tell me we have to expand: homes for another five hundred thousand inhabitants. The local government has just approved it.
After another month I am tired of sourcing exactly the right kind of non-slip handrail for the bus stop outside the retirement village, tired of replanting the park with low-allergenic, water-saving plants. I feel like I am almost ready and I think Mr Wang is too. Our Friday conversations are energised with this sense of urgency. But after several more weeks, I begin to get impatient.
‘When are the people moving in?’
‘Soon,’ he says.
My next question is indelicate, so I begin it with: ‘Sir, how much … Are there limits to what we can do here?’
‘No,’ he says. ‘There are no limits. I am in rare earths. The region is monetising. We’ve even been green-lighted to grow this project. We have a deeply motivated investment sector. They will wait.’
So he is a businessman, I think, if there is a distinction here.
‘But rewiring the power underground for the new sector –’ I say – ‘it is going to cost a fortune.’
‘There are many fortunes,’ he says. ‘More money than you can imagine.’
‘Maybe that is the problem,’ I say.
‘I knew you had the vision to make the connections,’ he says. ‘I could see that from the beginning. Good network skills.’ I can hear a slight agitation in his voice and I know that I have already asked too much.
‘I mean, there is no problem,’ I say. ‘I will carry on.’
And I do, and it goes on. I order the redirection of special ribbed pavers at a major intersection to reduce trip hazards for the blind. I decide a small factory should be relocated half a mile north away from the wind range of a primary school. I redraw and redraw. But I am getting slower.
In the evenings, as I update my Facebook status with news on the various reconstructions, I start to think about what Mr Wang says about networks. I think about my friends – all young professionals who went to top-ranking schools – and whether we have a sense of ourselves outside our hundreds of friends and followers. The more elite friends I have, the stronger my sense of destiny. I look at the lists, think of the interests and connections we share. When I update my status I imagine how Mr Wang might see me from the outside. He probably sees me as more competent, more motivated and involved than I really am. I suppose that’s how I want people to see me.
But even though my status updates remain enthusiastic, I start to get tired of the work. I grow bored with living in a hotel. With the permission of Mr Wang I move into an apartment building across the street; the staff come with me. On the inside, the apartment looks a bit like the home of a girl I played with when I was about ten, a girl named Brianna. Further searching reveals that she is now working as an interior designer: pictures of my new apartment are in her online portfolio. I realise I have stopped being surprised by this stuff.
The apartment building has a pool, and in my plans I quickly add one to the hotel. I spend long hours swimming laps. The water has the kind of silence I can bear. The pool is enormous, like the one we used for our high school swimming carnivals, and as I swim I imagine hundreds of girls in the stands, dressed in house colours, cheering me on.
I begin to sleep in, spend hours in front of karaoke dating shows on the flat screen, eating too many sandwiches. I go for long walks through the empty city and feed my crusts to the geese. I go entire days without working at all.
Mr Wang still calls me every Friday.
‘We are close,’ he says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘Almost there.’ I feel slightly annoyed.
‘I am thinking about names,’ he says. ‘I am thinking about Simena. Ubar. Helike.’
‘I like those,’ I say.
‘How are your designs going?’
I have done nothing for days. ‘Well,’ I say, ‘I am still working on the bike paths. I can get a full plan to you later this week.’
‘Take your time,’ he says, ‘I want everything to be perfect.’
‘Okay,’ I say.
‘Also, we have the go-ahead for another industrial zone in the north-west.’
It will need workers, transport, retail zones, utilities. I sweep the chocolate bar wrappers from my desk and unroll a new sheet of paper. I begin to suspect that Mr Wang wants the city to stay empty. That we both do. With this thought I feel a shudder in my spine. I know I am going to be here forever. There is no function to this work except its destiny of growth, no purpose to my being here except as a prisoner.
After staring at the fresh sheet for a while, I ring downstairs to the concierge. There is a wave of static on the line and then a voice says, ‘Miss Bourne, what would you like?’
‘Listen,’ I say in a low, urgent voice, ‘what was here before?’
There is silence on the end of the line. Then a hushing sound, tinny and close. A machine.
‘No past,’ she says. ‘Only future.’
I think about this for a moment. I lift the phone over my head to stretch my arm, then return it to my ear. When I return it the splashing static sound has cleared.
‘Can I get a massage?’ I say.