I was in a police car chase once. In China in 1997, while returning to Beijing from a photography assignment in the boonies.
I had just spent two tiring days travelling to and from a rural high school sponsored by a corporate giant that had thrown pocket change at the local school to fix it up. In return, impoverished country kids arrived every day to the logo of the world’s most famous tooth-rotting, hyperactivity-generating sugar drink emblazoned on the outside of their house of learning.
The day of the chase started very early, with a last few hours of numbingly boring photography squeezed in before climbing back aboard the client’s ageing Toyota Crown for the four-hour haul back to Beijing.
Like most drivers, I know from personal experience how dangerously easy it is to fall asleep behind the wheel. But make me a passenger, and even a moment’s slumber is an impossibility – all the more so when the driver has all the road safety concerns of a fifteen-year-old drunk behind the wheel of a stolen car. And so, three hours into the journey and despite fatigue falling over me like a narcotic fog, I was wide awake when we sailed through an intersection the size of a small town at what I immediately construed to be an ill-advised rate of knots.
Sure enough, at the other side, a fat man in green raised an imperious gloved hand in a signal to pull over. In China in the mid-90s, only politicians, proud capitalists and traffic cops were fat, and, at about a hundred pounds overweight and wrapped in green polyester, this guy was the archetypal fat Chinese traffic policeman.
We pulled to the side of the busy road and my driver reached dejectedly for his wallet while Fat Cop waddled to meet us. Then his attention latched onto something. He blew his whistle and waved furiously just as he was forced to leap quickly sideways. The sudden and unlikely feat of agility was born out of necessity. He only just got out of the way of a jeep that fired past him at speed.
My driver by now had his window lowered and his license out, but the cop ignored it, wrenched open the rear passenger door, and threw himself, voluminous arse first, directly onto my lap.
‘Follow that car!’
My Mandarin wasn’t at all up to the task, but from the way he pointed through the front windscreen at the jeep disappearing into the distance I got the message, and my driver didn’t have to be told twice. In the space of a few seconds a high-speed car chase was on, with us in the role of pursuit car. Soon we were weaving through increasingly dense urban traffic at nearly ninety miles an hour, my driver doing his valiant best to persuade Fat Cop of the undisputed sincerity of his belief in the pursuit of justice.
By now it must have occurred to Fat Cop that he was sitting on someone, but I knew that the last thing he might do was turn around. There was too much loss of face involved. Instead, he levered his considerable bulk forwards and elevated his elephantine rump by a millimetre or three. The message to me was plain: the right and respectful thing to do was to prise myself out from under his gigantic arse.
I stayed exactly where I was and did my best to keep the giggling to a minimum.
He kept his eyes front, ostensibly watching a pursuit my driver had embraced with terrifying zeal, and let his full weight back down onto my thighs. That would teach me. This went on for several increasingly uncomfortable minutes before it became apparent that the jeep had shaken us. Our disgruntled Fat Cop ordered us back to the Precinct House – sorry, the intersection where he had parked his powerful cruiser – sorry, rust-covered moped.
Doubtless angered by the failure to apprehend a fleeing fugitive, he turned around to focus his ire on the disrespectful pillock who had made not the slightest effort to get out from under him.
I met his ill-tempered gaze with a huge smile and a cheery Nihau! (Hello!), and the look of shock on his face when he realised he was straddling the lap of a foreigner was one of those comic moments that stay with you forever – and that makes me smile even as I type this, more than fifteen years later.
He shuffled sideways onto the seat, and victory was mine, even if by this point my thighs were as flat as sausage skins. For the few minutes it took to return to our starting point, I busied myself creating the illusion that circulation returning to my legs involved no agony whatsoever, while Fat Cop did his best to pretend he was alone in the back seat.
When at last we stopped, he was in such a hurry to escape the car that he forgot to gouge a bribe out of the driver. That’s how embarrassed he was.