The Real Irene
The girl had been alone and friendless in that gray metropolis before she had met Mrs. Kelly. She had been sent to an aunt who lived there by distant relatives after her father’s death, but when she had arrived at the given address, the aunt had moved, and no one knew where. The girl had written to her relatives and expected a letter but none came.
She was forced to contact an agency which placed governesses. She entered an opulent household due to her command of languages, acquired from her father who had been a philologist. The girl, however, was beautiful, though she was not aware of it, and soon drew attention to herself. Before she knew it, she was ruined. She found a little pension close by, but her money ran out. When she returned to the agency, she found its doors closed to her. She knew how penniless girls ended up when turned out on the streets. Then, by chance, she was approached by Mrs. Kelly. The year was 1878, the city, Paris, the girl’s name, Irina Vladimirovna Alexeyeva.
The day had been a balmy one, but toward evening the wind had turned and now the night was foggy and cool.
‘Number 12, Rue Chabanais,’ the older of the two gentleman ordered the cab. The older man was tall, well dressed and heavyset. Years of good living had left his once handsome face florid and bloated. Still, behind the good natured facade, he retained a keen intelligence. He was accompanied by a younger man, who stood a little over six feet and was so excessively slender as to appear a good deal taller. His dark hair, piercing gaze, firm chin and sharp nose gave him the air of a brilliant bird of prey. The younger man seemed both amused by, and detached from, the circumstances.
His nephew had a fine mind but a cold nature, the older man thought, but it was so with the English. This outing was just what was needed to thaw him out.
The two men disembarked in front of an undistinguished and unassuming facade, but passing through its doors found themselves in a grotto, met by a black man in a Moorish costume. He ushered them past a second set of doors where they were met by Mrs. Kelly.
‘This way, please,’ she said, leading them to a mirrored and excessively rich salon where gentlemen dallied with young women in various states of repose.
‘Hmmm,’ Mrs. Kelly said, looking over the younger man who met her gaze unflinchingly, ‘I think, yes, he would suit the Persian room.’ She glanced over at the uncle who was already being entertained by two scantily dressed young women. ‘Do follow me,’ she said to the young man, leading him up the stairs.
‘Will he know what to do?’ one of the women asked the uncle while tickling his beard.
‘He is English, my dear, but I don’t suppose one act is too different from the other,’ the uncle replied, as the two girls burst into laughter.
The young man was left alone in the room. He seated himself and crossing his legs, took a cigarette from a case and put it in a holder.
‘Ha!’ he exclaimed, looking around him at the mock Persian décor. He sat, smoking, seemingly preoccupied by personal thoughts, indifferent to his surroundings.
A dark woman entered the room. She was veiled apart from her glittering eyes, which were amber in hue, and wore a long embroidered coat over sheer trousers. Persian slippers, and many rings on her fine fingers completed her outfit. She ascertained at once that the young man had an acetic temperament. Generally that type developed rarefied tastes in time, she thought wearily. But he was still young, and so without hesitation, she lit a hookah that had been prepared with hashish, passed it to him, and sat on a cushion at his feet.
As the young man smoked, she said:
‘In Persia there was a sultan, who, betrayed by his wife, made a vow never to trust a woman again. True to his word, whenever he would spend the night with one of his concubines, he would have her beheaded in the morning to avoid emotional entanglements.
In his harem there was a clever girl named Shahrazad, who determined she would live, hatched a plan to keep the sultan’s interest. She would begin a story to entertain him, but before it was finished, it would lead into another story and another, and so she fascinated him for one thousand and one nights, until he had fallen in love with her and decided to spare her.’
The young man raised his brows. The girl had a lovely voice, clear as a bell, though her consonants, save her rolling R’s were soft. Not Persian, he surmised, though she was from the east.
‘This is the story of the golden apples,’ said the girl, and proceeded to tell the tale of a sultan and his vizier, who down by the dockyards, where they had gone among the common people, had found the body of a beautiful woman who had been rolled into a rug and thrown into the sea. Who could have done such a thing, they wondered, when a grieving man appeared to tell the tale.
The woman was his wife, he said, and had been ill and craving apples, and he so in love with her that he would have gratified her every wish. He sneaked into the sultan’s orchards, and there risking his life, had stolen three golden apples and brought them back to her.
But the next day, as he was returning from his shop, for he was a merchant, he saw a slave tossing one of the golden apples in the air. “Oh, where did you get that golden apple?” a passer-by asked. “I have gotten them from my lover, a beautiful woman who would do anything to please me,” the slave replied.
And so the merchant came home and saw his wife still abed and two of the apples next to her and the third missing. And so in his madness, he fell upon her, and when he had killed her, he rolled her in the carpet and threw her in the sea.
When he returned home, he saw his young son weeping and asked what had passed that ailed him so. And his son told him, “I stole one of the golden apples from my mother, but when I went outdoors to play, a slave snatched it away from me.”
And so, weeping and lamenting, the merchant asked the sultan to punish him for the murder of his wife. But the Sultan said, “Let us hear from the slave, for it is surely he who set the events in motion.” And so a search was instigated, until the man was found.
As the merchant prepared for death, he kissed his children goodbye, and as he kissed them, he found a golden apple in his little daughter’s pocket. “How came this to be in your possession?” he asked. “I bought it from a slave,” she said, “who sold it to me for three dinars.”
Then the slave was found, and weeping, confessed to the sultan that he had made up the story of the lover and had stolen the apple from a boy, and yet had sold it for three dinars to a little girl who was craving apples. And the sultan said in awe, “Was any tale more strange than this?”
“If you spare the merchant and the slave, then I will tell you a tale more wondrous,” said the vizier. And so Shahrazad launched into a new tale.’
The story ended as his pipe was done. ‘The merchant acted rashly before he had all the facts in hand,’ the young man said.
‘Indeed he did.’ The woman stood and made to remove her veil, which was attached to a tiny flat hat.
‘Leave it,’ he said.
He watched her remove her garland of flowers, he watched as she took off her garment of rain. He saw her through a haze of blue smoke, an expanse of whittled whiteness, imprinted by braided rope, like a tattoo, where she had lain. But the Englishman was unused to affection, and as the girl approached him, he was crippled with shame.
‘Why did you tell me that story?’ he asked.
The girl shrugged, releasing her hair. ‘I don’t know. I suppose that for some men it enhances the fantasy of the Persian room. And, of course, there is the element of death, of the beautiful innocent wife, and the potential death of Shahrazad, which may heighten arousal – in some men,’ she added. She didn’t know why she was speaking to him this way, but he had made her feel self-conscious and strange.
‘And what story would you tell me, if we weren’t in this room?’ he asked.
Well, he really is strange, she thought, lying back on the silk pillows that were scattered about the carpet. She propped herself up on one elbow.
‘I would tell you of wolves in a snowy land, where the wind blows all winter and the trees creak when frost is upon them, and the nights are so dark, dark as the blackest tunnel, dark as death itself. I would tell you of the white maiden, who was abandoned in the forest by her wicked stepmother and left to fend for herself, and of the wolf, who ran alone, separated from his pack, until he grew wild and solitary, roaming the great forest, watching with his brilliant, intelligent eyes, indifferent to human pain.’
The young man’s lip twitched and formed a semblance of a smile. ‘The wolf becomes the maiden’s lover?’
‘Yes, because not even a lone wolf can remain so eternally.’
‘Can he not?’
‘He becomes the maiden’s lover for a short time, yes.’
‘And then he leaves her?’
‘He is a wolf. It would be his nature to rip out her throat and leave her bleeding in the snow.’
‘But before he does that?’
‘Before he does that, he would cast off his pelt and wrap it around them, and he would lie next to the maiden in the cold, cold snow.’
The young man removed his jacket, vest and tie, and mirroring her pose, lay next to her, observing the length of her body.
She sank back onto the pillows. ‘The wolf, attracted to the maiden’s hair would take hold of it,’ she said.
‘Like this?’ The man ran his fingers through her dark auburn hair. His touch was unexpectedly delicate, and though the girl shivered almost imperceptibly, he noticed. He traced his finger across her brow and the bridge of her nose, stopping short of the veil.
‘The wolf had never seen a human girl before and was curious, and so he touched that delicate part of her neck where he knew her blood ran,’ she said, moving his hand to the spot. He gripped her neck, stopped and stroked it, and watched the mild throbbing of her pulse accelerate. He touched her ear, a small pink shell, and ran his fingers across her chin and her marble shoulders. He crossed her arms, her long thin palms, and began again at the central river of tiny golden hairs that lie between her breasts, growing downward, which sprang to life before his fingers. And then he stopped short, hesitating.
She saw his pupils dilate, and rolled over on her belly, boldly gazing at him. The wolf was swift and merciless. Grabbing the girl’s hair and sinking his teeth into her shoulder, he covered her body with his.
The woods were dark, the snow was cold, three drops of blood upon it. He rent her veil, he bit her lips, her breasts were marked with bruises. He held her down, he turned her around, soundlessly, his green eyes open. He shattered her and split her lengthwise, he rolled on her until they lay crosswise; he entered her, their mutual eternities suspended. Three gypsies on a road, a flash of knife, their footprints told of two remaining, illicit lovers, who had become bold. In Babylon, he had her stoned, and wept alone amidst his gold. And near a Hindu temple she stepped on his foot; she, the creeper, he, the root. In Florence, he played the mandolin and sang, to turn her head, dissatisfied until she lay dead, at her husband’s hand. In feudal Japan, she was the daimyo and he, the concubine; in Africa, child lovers who were sold eastward into Arabia. Once, she was his mother on the steppe. In a cave in Spain, they huddled together and watched a magician, with antlers on his head, whirl about before a great hunt.
The girl opened her lips to him; he was a wolf, he was a snake, he was a seed planted deep within her. She was the sea, he was the wave, rocking the girl away from that vulgar room, away from that monstrous house of pleasure.
‘I have to pee,’ she said.
‘Pee on me.’
‘I couldn’t,’ she smiled, and disappearing behind a screen for an instant, expelled a hot golden rush of water, the absence of which made her feel empty and abandoned.
The young man was waiting for her on the bed, his arms outstretched, pale and slender as a white ash. Astride him, she held him in, employing the thousand and one tricks of the orient she had learned. ‘Don’t move,’ she said. The young man observed her with his brilliant hawk’s eyes: her haloed crown and grave expression, and her rippling belly, as she tightened and moiled. He moved her hair from her face, and brought his mouth to hers. Swiftly sitting up, he cradled the girl on his lap. He wrapped his arms around her; he enfolded her in his embrace. The girl’s heart broke, she softened and became tender, pressing her lips to his head.
He laid her back among the pillows, he clasped his hands about her hips. He crushed her soul with his pressure, he wrenched her body with his grip. He leveled her and breaking her, drew her together, until they were once again face to face. The girl entwined her legs around him, she clasped her hands about his neck. He assaulted her with a fervor and pierced her shrouded space. Between agony and rapture, and the slow circumlocution of time, the memory of the evening’s delirium folded itself within them, long before they were prepared to separate.
The boy remained within her, the wolf was under her skin, and the ash impaled her, until they were ready to begin again. She caressed him with her gaze, touching him gently. Slowly, stealthily, she stroked him to a frenzy. The two lovers lay side by side, looking into each other’s eyes, the pull of an unknown spirit between them. Her legs about him, entangled, they met the morning light, and the man kissed her lips, her eyes, her hair, with the mournfulness of an elegy that had long been sung, and made love to her with a sadness that was beyond death, beyond his inviolate solitude, beyond anything that had happened since or would happen again. When they fell apart, he clasped her fingers between his.
‘And when the wolf had finished, he left the maiden in the snow,’ she said.
‘It is his nature to be alone.’ The young man rose swiftly and put on his clothes. But the girl couldn’t look at him and closed her eyes.
‘We’ve received an invitation from the Somervilles’ for the weekend,’ the stout gentleman said to his companion, a thin man, who sat looking out the window of their shared rooms.
‘Not another dull house party.’ The thin man was clouded in a shroud of smoke. ‘Go alone, I have no patience for that sort of thing.’
‘You’ve been cooped up in here for weeks, bored silly. It would do you good to get out.’
The thin man harrumphed and continued to smoke.
‘They’ve invited someone new whom I’d like to meet. I’ve quite enjoyed his short stories.’
‘Oh, and who might that be?’
‘A Frenchman; writes under the name of I.V. Alexandre. The stories are unusual. Light, even. Seemingly nothing happens during the course of the story, and yet it does,’ the stout man paused, thinking aloud.
‘I.V.? Alexander? The name would suggest a Russian.’
‘Yes, that would account for the melancholic nature of the tales. Well, perhaps you are right, and he is one of those Frenchified Russians. Still, I would like to get a closer look at him.’
‘Why, then you shall,’ the thin man rose from his chair swiftly and unexpectedly.
‘You’ve changed your mind?’
The thin man smiled, ‘Pack your bags!’ he said.
‘Who would have said that I.V. was a woman, and a very attractive one at that,’ the stout man mused as he and his companion took a turn about the Somervilles’ park.
‘Is she? I hadn’t noticed,’ the thin man was preoccupied by his own musings. ‘Lady writers,’ he added with disdain.
‘That’s quite unfair of you, particularly as you are unfamiliar with her work.’
‘Is it? Well, perhaps it is!’ he said. But his companion noted the thin man was unusually agitated though no one but himself would have known it. Inexplicably, he felt like goading the thin man. ‘It’s 1898. The world is changing. Women are now entering its ranks.’
The thin man walked on swiftly but said nothing. He was about to point out an unusual flowering hedge, but a distant form appearing on the path made him hesitate. A tall, dark haired woman wearing a lavender gray costume approached. It had just rained, and the leaves were beginning to prematurely yellow. Somehow the slick wet walk, and the gray and yellow colors made an impression on the stout man, which he considered charming and a bit sad. His companion looked away.
‘Ah! Miss Alexandre,’ said the stout man, ‘We were just discussing you.’
The woman started and put her gloved hand to her throat, and then caught hold of herself.
‘And what were you saying, Mister Johnson?’ she asked the stout man.
‘Norwood thought you might be a Russian.’
‘That is true enough, but I have lived these twenty years in France,’ she said quietly, sensing Johnson was sympathetic towards her. Johnson pointed out a hidden path with his walking stick, and they followed Norwood who walked slightly ahead of them.
‘And how came you to live in France?’ Johnson seemed unusually inquisitive for an Englishman, but she was used to answering questions from admirers of her work.
‘I was sent to an aunt in Paris after the death of my parents. Unfortunately, the lady was old and infirm and perished shortly after my arrival. I went to work as a governess, and then later through the patronage of a lady to whom I gave language lessons, I made the acquaintance of my publisher.’
‘And you found over-night success?’
‘Not at all. I gave lessons for many years and sold my early stories to newspapers.’
‘A paragon,’ Norwood trilled.
The woman colored and lowered her head. Johnson sensed she was hurt by this remark and took her elbow to steer her around a puddle. ‘I understand you’ll be giving a reading tonight. I’m very much looking forward to it.’
‘Yes. I will be.’ The woman had regained her composure almost instantaneously.
‘Is it something new that you’ve been working on?’ he asked.
‘Yes, yes it is.’ Her eyes sparkled brightly. ‘I’m rather excited about it. I don’t often think highly of my work, but even I think it might be good.’
‘Well, I’m sure your many fans think very highly of your work,’ Johnson said pleasantly and continued chatting in a light hearted vein until they reached the conservatory leading back to the main house.
‘Until tonight, then,’ he said, taking the lady’s hand. His companion said nothing.
‘Really, Norwood, I know you have a low opinion of women, but you might at least try to be civil,’ he said.
‘It seems that you, my dear Johnson, are civil enough for the both of us,’ Norwood replied.
The guests were gathered in the salon where the hostess had assembled a number of chairs in rows. I.V. Alexandre sat toward the side, waiting for them to take their places, and after a brief introduction by their hostess, Beryl Somerville, she mounted a dais at the head of the room, facing the audience.
‘This is a new story that I have been working on,’ she said. ‘I hope you enjoy it.’
‘Irena Pavlova Ushakovskaya’s left shoe was pinching her foot as she hurried down the alee of trees, hop- limping a bit to make up for it. Two men, new arrivals in Bad Urwald were approaching in the opposite direction. She slowed down, realizing she must look absurd. She would have to be late meeting her aunt, Maria Federovna, a formidable old lady, who was having a treatment at the spa that day.
The two men passed her, nodding in her direction. The elder was a portly gentleman, evidently used to good living; the taller man was young and sleek as a whippet. Irena lowered her chin but looked at them shyly. She had not had much society in her young life. Her father was a scholar and had retired to the country due to ill health when she had been very young. Last year after a sudden illness, he had died, and Irena had gone to live with her aunt in Moscow. Maria Federovna was always ailing but that did not dampen her irascible temper, nor her indefatigable quest for treatments which would alleviate her discomfort and restore her to good health.
No sooner had Irena Pavlova come to live with her than they were off to a distant monastery to seek a miraculous cure from a penitent monk who failed to ameliorate whatever it was that ailed the old lady. Then they had gone to Yalta, and now they were here. Maria Federovna drank the waters and was rolled in mud up to her neck and hosed off on a regular basis. Though she claimed to feel somewhat better, she nevertheless complained incessantly of her aches, and would send Irena Pavlova running half way across town to retrieve her pills whenever she forgot them.
Irena Pavlova arrived at the main building, a historicist mish-mash that was pleasantly yellowed and trimmed with cream paint. Her aunt was being wheeled out by the attendant and already had a sour look on her face. Irena took hold of her chair and pushed her forward.
“I have the most painful headache. It’s been tormenting me since last night,” her aunt said, continuing to complain, while Irena clucked sympathetically.
Miss Alexandre continued to read. Her audience was charmed by the naiveté of her protagonist, her humanity in the face of poverty, her lack of social standing, and her enormous hope. All this was described in the most ordinary way: the cheap too tight-shoes, the cut-down dress, her angularity and social awkwardness. They listened as she described Irena’s growing fascination with the two new arrivals, the older gentleman and his young English nephew. They listened as Irena allowed her imagination to run away with her.
Norwood was expressionless, listening with his eyes closed. Irina Vladimirovna continued:
The Englishman was sitting on the terrace with his back toward her, smoking and looking at the setting sun. The land was lush and green, and the sky had turned a lilac hue. Irena Pavlova became quite chilled, but she did not step inside to fetch a wrap. She sat there imagining how she would say something brilliant to him that would fascinate him and make him love her.
The Englishman finished smoking and rose to leave. She stumbled after him, and in her rush, inadvertently dropped a glove. He immediately observed it and stooped, handing it over to her. They stood side by side for a moment looking at the evening; at the rosy darkening sky and the blue clouds approaching from a distance. But Irena Pavlova could not think of a single thing to say; she was mortified by the shabbiness of the glove that she now held in her hand, which spoke to the enormous distance between them.
“Well, goodnight,” the Englishman said, touching the rim of his hat.
Irina Pavlova looked at his receding form; she looked at him walking out of her life, (for they were to depart the next morning for Moscow), and thought, he’ll never know me; he’ll never know all the things I have inside of me that have never come to expression. And then she thought, it’s worse than that, much worse. He never noticed me at all.’
Norwood was one of the last to leave the room. ‘He noticed her, Miss Alexandre. I’m certain of it,’ he said as he passed, leaving his hosts wondering exactly what he meant by that statement.
In the year 1922, Norwood was passing a London bookshop when he caught sight of the photograph of a woman in the window. No doubt they thought her face would sell the new book. He estimated she would be fifty-seven or eight now, but she was still lovely. He normally did not care for literature, but he had followed her career, and now he stopped and purchased a copy.
Arriving in his rooms, he ordered a pot of black coffee and changing into his dressing gown and slippers, lit the first of many Egyptian cigarettes he would smoke that evening.
The book was odd in a sense, since he found himself immediately immersed in the running monologue of the protagonist, a woman who had lost her son in the war. While she fantasized about the potential futures the boy missed by his brutal and untimely death, she recalled her own lost opportunities. It was different in style from her previous work, but not in substance, Norwood thought, and all her characters were unable to overcome their own limitations in the face of an indifferent world. He read into evening, until he came to the following passage.
“I’m unable to release the memory of that single incident from my life, she thought. I keep going back to it, and revolving around it, eternally. It haunts me, not for the loss of any significant status that I might have had up to that time, or the loss of good opinion. I’ve never cared for those things and have made my own way in the world, in spite of them.
And yet how could he and I come together in such a way and then part, knowing that a connection was made, a connection that, despite its brevity, touched me to the core of my being and rattled me forever after. My son, an extension of myself, lived out my own unspoken life to some degree, but despite that closeness, even as a child, he retained his own inviolate space and individuality and had hidden thoughts that I could never share, though I was content to watch him in his secret world, his play land of invisible friends and terrifying monsters, which he conquered daily. Even when he would rush into my lap for comfort, and bury his head in my skirts, it would only be for momentary reassurance, and then he would be off again, to slay dragons and fight knights.
What soul’s moment, though fleeting, was captured in that encounter? Not the familiarity of a lifetime’s common utterances, not the shattered brilliance of shared thought, nor the anxiety of growing sentiment, nor its painful and premature loss. What could it have possibly meant, and why did it seem more significant and real than thousands of days that were lived out in the closeness of our little family circle, the excursions and holidays, the planned menus, the school lessons and conversations, the mud on our shoes, the soggy umbrellas in the stand near the door, the books that lie open on the divan?
And I have to wonder, what could it have meant to him, a man entirely unused to love, though robust in his physicality. Was it just another experience to be tried on, simply for the sake of experience, or did he feel something too? The body, I fear, has its own essence, its own being, and its own messages to impart to us. It’s no dumb thing to be willed and conquered, but something that is magical and divine in itself, and yet we despise the love that arises from the body and call it coarse and commonplace, and regard it as less lofty than the love imbued by chilly spirit or sentimental soul. But to a man of science, who lived for the most part in his mind, could it have been anything but a tawdry encounter in a provincial town with an awkward and lonely girl, who had nothing to offer but herself?’
Norwood put the book down. Three references to him in thirty years’ time. The first had been in an odd book of tales within tales she had written under an assumed name for a collector of erotica, a friend of Mrs. Kelly’s, taking place in a house of pleasure, which he had come across by chance in a Parisian bookstall. The second, in a grouping of short stories set on the continent featuring the girl and the thin Englishman: in a spa; in the household of his uncle where she was a governess; in a small seaside town where he betrayed and abandoned her; on a tour of Italy, where she spurned him to follow an uninspired artistic career; and now this. Of course, he knew she had never had children or married, just as he himself had not. Irina, he thought, he noticed you. He was not indifferent, but he made a mistake, though you yourself were not blameless.
He waited for your imminent arrival that autumn, after he had seen you again at the Somervilles’. Every moment he spent waiting was a joy and a torment to him; and the lakes had never seemed as beautiful, and nature never as filled with wonder. He knew you would come, and he would bury his face in your skirts, and erase the years of loneliness that had meant little compared to that final night that had turned to morning. He had been fully alive and awake then. But you did not come, just as he had not when you waited for him all those years ago when you were both young, waited for him in the dying twilight of day at bottom of the agreed upon lane, waiting until night fell. He realized that his fear of life had caused him to make that grave mistake, one which you could never forgive.
Norwood crumpled the paper. He knew he would never write about what he had felt, nor what had happened between them. He knew he would never tell her that she was the most real thing that had ever happened to him or would ever happen to him again.
Shanghai, August 1937
In the morning light, Shanghai, modern and bright, a European city, arises on the River Whangpoo, off the South China Sea. On the yellow water, picked clean by scavenger boats, junks, steam ships and yachts drift past, and unload their passengers and wares. Chinese coolies, stripped to the waist, work the docks and haul great loads from daybreak to dusk.
On the Bund, where the British have built their hotels and their palaces dedicated to business and banking, and in the International Settlement where they live in enormous houses, and in their smoky, whiskey and cigar filled clubs, on their cricket lawns, racecourse and tennis courts, life moves at a slow privileged pace.
In the French Concession, which is not inhabited by the French but by Russians, stores open, bakeries display their wares, and dance hall girls and musicians crawl into bed in the early morning after long nights playing the clubs.
And there are things which are unspeakable, animals and people who have died on the streets at night, child prostitutes, boys, girls, and women, Chinese, Korean and white, who cater to any taste, any depravity imagined by the human race.
The gangs run the city and control the drug trade, and people come from all over the world seeking adventure and escape.
Everywhere the odor is rank and unmistakable. It is of the unwashed bodies of the poor, the stench of cooking oil that lingers in the air, the pervasive and revolting smell of shit that is inescapable; and always the damp, which crawls into each and every corner.
The day was promising to be hot and sticky as Tatiana Alexeyevna Zhukova walked down the Bund. She was a slight, dark woman of twenty-five. She had designed her own costume, an asymmetrical bone colored gabardine that recalled the silhouette of the city itself. The skirt was pencil thin, hindering her stride, which was further hobbled by high heels. Her hat, a glazed straw concoction, recalled the hats of coolies who worked in the fields under the blazing sun. She was easily more stylish than any of the white women, or many of the rich Chinese in the city, yet despite her attention to design, she was a mix of bravado, shyness, self-criticism and ambition, yet was oblivious to the effect her manner and beauty had on other people since she could not see it in herself.
She was in a rush that morning after an early office meeting with her employer, the architect, Ladislav Hrbek. She had to get to the villa of their new client which was also in the International Settlement. The trouble was that Tanya had known him before and recognized the ball of tension welling up inside her, but that was how it had always been with him. Hellyer. George Richard Arthur Hellyer; she repeated his name.
It was not the first time she would be seeing the villa. Ladislav had taken her to see the site and the building in progress many times. Unaware of their past, he had sent her to see Hellyer, who was waiting, seated in a planter’s chair with his legs crossed, a superior smile on his lips, amused at her discomfort, though anyone who did not know her well would not have recognized it. She had fumbled with her portfolio, but then they had sat side by side, and he had grown quiet once he had seen what she intended to do with the interior of his new house. Hellyer was decidedly coming up in the world, but she was not sure she liked it.
They had been equals in the beginning, she thought. Well, not quite equals, never that, but his status had not been as high then, and he had been somehow more approachable. I work for him now, she reasoned. I am employed by him. It put them on a different footing, and her skin began to prickle at the thought of it.
It’s the heat, she said to herself, but knew it was a sense of anxiety, the same anxiety which drove her forward; the anxiety that she felt when she thought about herself and her future, and the past. The feeling followed her because she knew she had no real place in Shanghai, that her position was precarious and depended not as much on her talent as her ability to please and get along.
Ladislav had hired her for her looks, though she did not know it and thought it was because she came cheap and was willing to put in endless hours, toiling away on ideas he would throw her way, expecting her to refine and finish them. All the credit went to him, of course. She was considered merely a pretty appendage by male clients, and perhaps they even thought Ladislav brought her along to meetings as an incentive, and that they would be able to prevail upon her after kissing her hand and saying what a charming young lady she was.
All the while she knew what they were thinking. To them, she was another impoverished Russian, not really all that white, not European in any sense, one step up from the Chinese, one step up from being a woman they could hire.
It had been different when she was young. She still believed something would happen, or someone would come along and restore her to a respectable life, a safe life, where things that were too frightening wouldn’t touch her. And then she had realized that she had never had a rightful position of any sort, that her father had died soon after she was born, and that her family was ruined even before the revolution – before all their friends were, before she had had chance to taste life.
Hellyer had never promised her anything, and eventually she had stopped expecting anything from him. He wasn’t like the other Englishmen who had come out to the big trading houses as griffons and aspired to become tai-pans. He had been different.
She hadn’t been able to place him at first, and then after she had heard his story, that he had been born in St. Petersberg where his father had been working at the time, and that they had only been back to England for a short time only before his father had gotten ill and had to move ever southward to France and Italy for his health, had she understood that he was as rootless as she was.
But they had not been alike. He was wild and where she was afraid of things touching her, he had wanted to experience everything, to see everything in all the raw ugliness that was so terrifying to her, and it was that was what stimulated him and made him feel alive.
It was all those things which had attracted and intrigued her, that and his tales of places she had dreamed of in her imaginings, not just France and Italy, but Oxford where he had been educated, and Greece, and Turkey, and Arabia where he had traveled. He had lived in Africa before he had shipped out to India, before transferring to Shanghai, where there was a place for promising men with his talents and languages. She had loved those stories, and his rooms with all their collections, the African masks and Turkish carpets, the Persian tiles, the carved ivory, and Mogul miniatures.
‘That kind of man is dangerous,’ her landlady Natalia Ivanovna had said, eyeing him up and down once when he had stopped for a moment to collect her. But later that evening when Tanya had insisted she knew how to take care of herself, Natalia Ivanovna had lit a cigar, and letting her eternally present robe carelessly fall open to expose her soiled slip, replied, ‘I’m speaking of the danger to your heart, my dear.’
And she had replied that she expected nothing, that she had had such a pinched little life, and that she liked his stories, and Natalia had just laughed, opening her mouth to reveal red lipstick smeared over her yellowed teeth.
Eventually, there had come a time in those rooms when she did come to expect something, not a declaration, nor a proposal, but some show of feeling which she suspected he might have for her. When it didn’t come, when he started to change, becoming more serious about his work and how he appeared to others, she had withdrawn from his life.
Stop thinking about that, Tanya commanded herself, and she did. It’s just business. You will meet him once more and you will be on your way, leaving him to his own fate. She knew it was impossible to make her appointment on time and remain cool and crisp, and so she hailed a cab which dropped her off in front of the white villa with its curving facade and linear overhangs. It was a lovely house, she thought, but she refused to speculate what might have been, though her heart had begun beating in an irregular way.
She paid the driver and walked down the drive, up two steps to the front door. She saw the door was ajar, and she opened it and stepped into the house, knowing that she shouldn’t.
The new furniture hadn’t yet arrived. His rugs were still rolled up, his collections were in crates, half unpacked, not yet displayed, and everything was eerie and still. She called for the servants, and when no one came she called for him by name. She went to the back of the house, stepping down into the kitchen and saw a pot of water on the stove, and fresh vegetables, and a whole fish on the chopping block. The work had been interrupted, though the stove was cold and the rear entrance closed. For a moment she thought to run out of the house and call for help, but something propelled her up the stairs to the second floor bedrooms. Now, the only thing she heard in the stillness of the afternoon was the sound of her own blood coursing through her veins. The street was silent despite the open windows where the curtains had been pushed aside. No breeze came through, just the oppressive afternoon heat, though the fan swirling overhead made a soft whirring sound.
The unmade bed was rumpled and reminded her of a long afternoon of love making, though she couldn’t be sure why she would have that impression. Perhaps it was envy, she thought. She walked through the entire second floor, but there was nothing and no one to be seen. The open door was reason enough to be suspicious but what could it possibly mean? A crime, a robbery? She wouldn’t know if anything was missing, in any case.
She thought about calling the police but then reconsidered. Corruption was rife among the department, and who knew how they would deal with her. No, she would telephone Ladislav and ask for his advice. It would be better to let him handle it the way he saw fit. He was a rational man, and she was certain he would have a reasonable explanation. But the whole time, she knew something was terribly amiss and she was doing the wrong thing. She tried the telephone but the line was dead. It was only then that she heard the explosions. It could only mean one thing. The Japanese had arrived in Shanghai.
Shanghai, August 1966
Li Kong entered the shabby courtyard where he lived with his old aunt. His heart was pounding, and although he could hear the chanting and shouts of the students he had been with earlier that evening receding in the distance, he was still afraid. He didn’t understand what had compelled him to retrieve the notebooks that were slated for the bonfire they had made that evening.
It had all started with a march and a raid on the house of a class enemy. He had been consumed with anger when the speeches were being made, but when they reached their destination he had been shocked. Another group of Red Guards was already present. They had overturned the entire contents of the house, piling books, clothing, and household items into the middle of rooms. One of the boys was shattering vases and screaming they were remnants of bourgeois culture.
‘Out with the old, in with the new,’ he shouted.
Li Kong had seen a girl pocket a gold watch she found when she was shaking out the bedroom drawers and had said nothing, turning his head away. By the time the two groups were finished, the house, which had been lovely, was in shambles, and feathers from torn mattresses floated about and settled all over it like dirty snow.
The whole time, the woman who lived there stood on the side, guarded by a boy and a girl, saying nothing, not even when they had shattered her vases, not even when they had confiscated her photographs.
The woman was older, though of indeterminate age, and Li Kong thought her still quite lovely. She had removed herself emotionally from the scene and looked on as if it was happening to someone else. When an angry girl shouted that the woman was living in a house that could be occupied by several families, she lowered her head and looked at the floor. She couldn’t be aroused in any way, though she winced when they twisted her arm and forced her to kneel.
Li Kong had wondered what would happen to her, but none of them knew. They would leave it to the authorities to decide. They had made their point. They had shown her what was expected in the new society they were building. There would be no room for the luxury she was used to. No place for her collections or her scrolls. All that was obsolete was going to be swept away. And so he had followed a group into the garden where they had piled her books and recordings together and made a bonfire, and he had stood there looking at it, wondering if he should throw the notebooks he had found into the fire, but he hadn’t. Now he was afraid they would find him out before he got a chance to look at them thoroughly. I shouldn’t have done it, he berated himself. But what harm could it do, he wondered. None, unless someone found out. I’ll burn them afterward, he told himself.
Li Kong had come from a provincial town to live with his aunt in Shanghai after his parents had died. He didn’t remember them very well, but his aunt was a kind and generous person, who loved him. Sometimes he was happy to have had the opportunity to be in the city and felt guilty for thinking so, because he knew had his parents lived, he would have ended life where he had begun it.
He was a brilliant student, and knew he would have more opportunities in Shanghai. He would go to university, study medicine, and perhaps become a specialist. Sometimes he daydreamed of becoming a pure researcher and finding cures for the terrible diseases that afflicted mankind. In all likelihood, he would be sent to a drab and provincial town, or even worse, to a village, to administer to the people there. Perhaps he would be fortunate enough to be able to remain in Shanghai. Still, that was many years away.
His aunt was asleep, but she had left food for him in a pot. He lifted the lid, but remembering the notebooks, went up the ladder to the loft where he slept and slipped them under the bed. Looking around, he thought he would have to find a better hiding place after he had the chance to look through them. Then I’ll throw them away, he promised himself.
He climbed down and ate quietly by the dim light of a single bulb. His aunt stirred and in a half sleep murmured his name.
‘I am home. All is well,’ he assured her.
He glanced out the window and saw a light was on in the room opposite their courtyard. The Director lived there, alone. Li Kong had often wondered why this tall man with patrician bearing was living in their part of town, and after he had first come to live with his aunt he had screwed up enough courage to ask, only to be hushed. It was only after some time, overhearing the gossip of the old women, that he discovered the Director had once been a famous figure in the Shanghai film industry and that his career had ended during the purges of the late nineteen- fifties when he had been accused of being a Rightist, which was compounded by the fact that he had been educated in Paris and gone to film school in the Soviet Union.
He had for a moment wondered if it could be true, that such man was still living among them, but his aunt had discouraged all conversation on the topic. Once he had overheard her saying, poor man, when speaking to her neighbor, another old woman, who sometimes brought food to the Director when she could spare it.
The Director, he knew, made his living as a cleaner now, but it was not nearly enough to sustain him. Still, Li Kong thought, the state was benevolent, and even provided for those who were its enemies. He finished his meal and set the dishes and utensils to the side. His aunt would wash up in the morning. He climbed back into the loft, and lighting a candle, took off his jacket and trousers. Lying down, he reached for the notebooks.
The fantastical drawings which had caught his eye initially now sprang to life. In the first, a woman wearing a green ball gown floated amid beds of seaweed filled with cockleshells and starfish. She seemed to have the body of a jellyfish, and yet her face and hair were those of a lovely maiden. Carp, bug-eyed and curious, swam about her. In the next drawing, she floated among the stars, a winged fairy, surrounded by white moths and creatures of the night. This time her dress was flounced and littered with stars. In another, she rode a seahorse, a trident in her hand, a helmet of coral on her head. In the following, she danced with butterfly wings, partnered by a dove; then floated like a swan on a glistening pond set in a park with waterfalls and willows. These fantasies were soft and lovely, as if the dark haired creature could not bear the world and wanted to escape far above it, dancing, floating in realms of inner space that were completely of her own making. Li Kong couldn’t help but smile. He had not opened the other notebooks, and now he did so. The one he held in his hand was filled with marvelous drawings of gems that were set in clever arrangements echoing the architecture of the nineteen thirties which was prevalent throughout the city. He had never seen anything quite like them. Each finished drawing was accompanied by tiny notes in a sharp slanting script he could not make out but knew was western.
The third and fourth notebooks were written in the same hand with scratched out portions, as if the writer had gone back to revise them. On the leaf of the first book, a photographic portrait of the girl in the drawings was pasted in. She was Caucasian, dark, and very pretty. She was also holding up a starfish which was irreverently threaded through her hair. She looked at the viewer enigmatically as if to say, well, what do you think of that?
What sort of girl could she have been? Li Kong wondered, still smiling. Frivolous, no doubt, but lovely and strange. He flipped through the pages, and those of the other notebooks, hoping to see other photographs of her but there were none. He shook the books out, hoping he had missed something, and he had, because a small photograph of a man fell out. Li Kong brought it closer in order to make out the features. He was a wild looking barbarian, with short cropped hair and high cheekbones, who looked at the camera and at the world with a supercilious expression. Li Kong tucked the photo back into the book. He looked around for a hiding place, but finding none, placed the notebooks between the wall and the bed, with the intention of borrowing some tools and loosening the floorboards the next day to create a nook for them. He knew that he should throw them away, but he just wanted to look at the enchanted drawings a few more times.
He had unsettling dreams all night long but could not recall them in the morning, though he knew that they had something to do with water and finding a way to get to it. The first thing he did was to pull out the second notebook and have a look at the photograph of the man again. In the morning light, the man’s expression seemed more mocking than superior, a bit amused, intelligent and questioning. He put it up next to the portrait of the girl. She was much softer, of course, but it Li Kong thought, they are so alike it is almost as if they are of one mind. His aunt was calling him, and he rushed downstairs to wash and eat before going to school.
There was a great commotion when he arrived at the schoolyard and banners painted in huge red characters had been hung from the gates of the building. Students were in disarray and shouting. He pushed his way through the crowd, only to see one of his teachers, Mr. Po, being hauled out with a rope about his neck. A girl Red Guard had taken off her belt and was screaming in a shrill voice that Po was a reactionary before proceeding to beat him. Students formed in a circle around the teacher and forced him to kneel. Li Kong was pushed to the back of the crowd, but could hear them calling Po an imperialist dog and an enemy of the state. Could it be possible? Li Kong wondered. Po was one of the best and most popular teachers in his school.
‘You are making a mistake,’ he heard Po saying.
‘Shut up, stupid shit. You have no right to speak unless we give you permission,’ a husky voice that belonged to one of the worst students there, Zhang Bojing, commanded. Li Kong knew that Zhang’s father was an important party functionary, and that was how Zhang was able to get through school.
‘The State does not make errors,’ a cold shrill voice that belonged to the school’s Party Secretary, Chen Aiguo, a man who had been seconded from a Shanghai shoe factory, resounded. Chen then proceeded to check off a litany of accusations against the teacher, amid the taunts and curses of the students. Po was finally given a chance to refute them, but each time he would begin to point out the logical fallacies in Chen’s arguments, Chen would twist his words against him. Po was dragged away and locked in a class room, until it was decided what to do with him.
Students were chanting party slogans and raising their fists in defiance. Li Kong overheard that classes were canceled indefinitely but that he was expected to report each day for discussions. He also saw on a list on the wall that he, along with a few other good students, was assigned to write slogans.
‘How long will this last?’ he asked a tall gangling boy, who he knew had won the top prize for high school mathematics in Shanghai the previous spring. Before the boy could answer, Chen was standing next to them.
‘You think a revolution can be made from inside a class room?’ he demanded.
Li Kong shook his head, not certain what to respond.
‘You boys are so soft and spoiled. A revolution is made from the blood of its martyrs,’ Chen said. ‘And we will be watching all of you to see how well you fulfill your duty to the Party.’
It was only in the days that followed as Li Kong and the other boy toiled side by side painting huge banners and trying to come up with slogans such as, ‘Scatter the old world, bring in the new!’, ‘Smash the Four Olds!’, ‘To Rebel is Justified!’, that they realized Chen was illiterate and seemed to approve their banners by their size and color.
Lao Shaoqiang, the thin boy, pressed his lips together and murmured something about Chen having had a difficult life. Then he suggested that since it was not known when classes would resume, he and Li Kong might study together so as to not fall behind when it came to taking the entrance exams for university. Li Kong was honored. Lao had mentioned his father was a physicist and his mother taught languages at the university.
They were both satisfied and set about painting another sign, when several breathless girls rushed into the room.
‘Have you heard the news?’ they inquired.
The boys shook their heads.
‘Teacher Po has hung himself.’
‘This proves he was a class enemy,’ Lao said. The girls seemed satisfied with his response and went on their way. Li Kong resumed writing a character poster without looking up or commenting. Teacher Po had been his favorite.
On the way home, Li Kong was silent. Lao sensed his mood. ‘I heard he was taken to a cow shed. The Red Guards beat him almost every day. They say he finally confessed.’
Li Kong looked toward the sky. The day was sunny and cool.
‘You say nothing?’ Lao asked. After a while he said, ‘It’s better that way.’ Regretting he had said too much, he swerved off to walk on his own. Li Kong was left behind, gawping after him.
When he came home, he went to the loft and took out the notebooks from under the floorboards where he had hidden them. It had become a habit, a guilty pleasure, to look at the man and the woman and the delightful drawings. I am also reactionary for finding pleasure in such frivolous and foreign things, he thought.
He knew what the foreigners had done to China, exploiting her people to open markets in Asia. I need to be rid of these, he thought, but did nothing. He knew he would do nothing until he was able to decipher the script and find out what the entries were about.
‘What are you doing?’ Li Kong asked. He had arrived at Lao’s house to study chemistry at the agreed upon time.
‘Nothing.’ Lao had his back to Li Kong but was packing something into a suitcase. Li Kong stepped closer.
‘My mother has been detained. I’m getting rid of her books in case the Red Guards come here.’
‘What sort of books?’ He asked.
‘Mostly Russian language books.’
Li Kong put his hand out and picked up one of the books, ‘Russian?’ He asked.
‘No, this one is Russian,’ Lao said, handing over a thick volume.
Li Kong grew excited. In the margins notes were written a hand that resembled the one in his notebooks. He tried to conceal his pleasure at this discovery. ‘What’s it about?’ he asked.
‘It’s about a student who kills an old pawnbroker and then feels guilty afterward.’
‘It sounds revolutionary.’
‘Well, it’s far from that.’
‘Have you read it?’
‘Of course not. It is reactionary.’
‘Can you read it?’
‘No,’ Lao said. ‘Are you going to help me get rid of these?’
The boys hauled the books in the suitcase until they reached a dump. Lao looked through them once again, tearing out any pages which could link the books to his mother. While he was occupied, Li Kong pocketed the thick book about the student. He hoped that Lao would not notice the bulge in his pocket, but Lao was more concerned with ripping up the incriminating loose pages and tearing them to shreds.
They were gone most of the day, but Lao said they would resume their studies tomorrow. Li Kong wondered what he was going to do with the book, since he could not read it. By the time he got home, he had decided to ask the Director for Russian lessons in exchange for food. It was dangerous for them both, but if anyone discovered them, he would say that he only wanted to keep his mind occupied while the schools were closed. He wouldn’t mention the notebooks to the Director, of course.
Sun Mu gazed out through the dirty windowpane across the courtyard to where that boy lived with his aunt. What had he really been after, and what could he be thinking asking for lessons in Russian in order to read a forbidden book in this highly charged political atmosphere? Sun Mu wondered. He had turned him away, and rightly so. Perhaps he was merely a gauche boy whose naivety would soon get him into trouble, but perhaps he was one of those terrible young people who ran through the streets creating chaos without moral compunction and without compassion for the lives they were destroying. Perhaps he had been sent to root out those who had fallen under suspicion, those who like himself had been purged and lost their place in the world, to see whether their ideas had changed or not, because as everyone knew all the vestiges of the old must be wiped away, and the old still harbored recalcitrant ways, even if those views were hidden somewhere deep down inside of themselves.
Still, as he looked at the courtyard, he remembered the sudden thrill he had experienced at the sight of that book, which he had read when he had not been much younger than the boy. It had been years since he had spoken Russian and even longer since he had spoken French. He glanced at the callouses on his hands and the deep cracks that gave him so much pain during the cooler months. It had been years since he had used his mind at all, that he had even thought about anything other than getting through another day.
He had believed, truly believed, in the New China, and he had not run away to Taiwan or Hong Kong like many of his contemporaries had. He had stayed, been purged in 1958, and his films had been banned and his name blacklisted. That was his life. That was all there was. Now there would be the winter to get through, and the cold wind coupled with the humidity always gave him arthritic pains. He would have to scrape together enough money to buy ointment and perhaps that would help a bit, at least with the cracks in his skin.
At least I lived my life, he said to himself, thinking of the boy and his prospects. He momentarily felt sad, and sad that he had turned the boy away, for what would he learn now in his young life, to march and write slogans on posters? There would be nothing of the beauty and refinement that had so inspired Sun Mu in his formative years. He thought back to himself as he had been then, at seventeen, at eighteen, at twenty and remembered the things he had surrounded himself with, the ideas he had had, and the money he had squandered. All that has passed, and there is nothing more to think about, he said to himself. But for the rest of the day he could not help but recall his days in Paris and his film training in Moscow, afterward. He had been adept at languages and had picked them up quite easily, like a collector, from his Russian friends in Paris and Shanghai, and from the lessons which his father had caved in and paid for, after he, the adored brilliant only son, had exhibited his temper.
Ah, he had been quite the dandy then, a friend of Cocteau and his circle, and so many others who were not quite friends but whom he had met, Picasso, and the strange Americans who were drinking themselves to death in Paris at the time. What did that boy have to look forward to? he asked once again before unscrewing the single bulb that illuminated his barren room so he would not waste it. And then he sat in the darkness until his mind was at rest and he could fall asleep.
Li Kong was thoroughly shaken. He had never seen anyone murdered before. But it had happened, the thing he had dreaded most and was afraid he would one day witness. An older woman had intervened when the Red Guards had dragged her husband, an oil engineer, out of his house. He had worked for the British, and the British were class enemies and had exploited his people. The man had been pulled along the streets, half stumbling, unable to use his legs, as the Red Guards beat him, forcing him to keep moving. The woman had come running after them, begging them to stop, saying he was ill, that his heart would give out, that he needed his medicine. They had not listened, and he had fallen, unable to get up, like an old cart horse, but they had kept whipping him with their thick belts. And then they had stopped. He was already dead, and the woman had fallen on her knees next to his body and rocked back and forth, and then he heard her wail, a sound that was inhuman, that had come from a terrible and far older place that was wild and uncivilized, as uncivilized as they themselves had been that day.
He had hung back as he always did, but he had seen, and the sight was terrible to him. Afterward when they had dispersed, on the empty street, empty save for the woman who was still weeping, a cold rain had fallen down in sheets, and he had been soaked through his padded jacket, through his clothes, down to his skin.
He was still shivering in his room, and he could not stop, even after his aunt had seen him looking so wild and frightened and had made him tea and forced him to drink it down. She had surmised what had happened but did not ask and turned away from him, until, not knowing what to do, he had climbed up into his loft, and seeking comfort and the obliteration of the images that were still in his mind, that threatened to engulf him, pulled out the notebooks and looked at the pictures of the enchanted girl. Each day, he thought about her more and more, and sometimes he longed to step into her world, and be done with everything that was happening within his. He had managed to acquire a Russian language primer by meticulously searching through the piles of materials they had confiscated from the houses they had raided, but it was no good, he had no facility and could not learn on his own.
The Director had turned him away, and Li Kong knew it was because of his fear and did not blame him, but he vowed not to give in so easily, and to try again. Perhaps if the Director saw the drawings in the books he would relent, he reasoned.
The next day, he brought his own dinner to the Director, rapping lightly on his door, until he was admitted. The room was even poorer than theirs, shabby and moldering, dark and close. He had sat silently watching the Director eat, refusing to take anything for himself. And then he had pulled out the book with the pictures and slid it over the broken down table, over to the Director, who looked at it blankly.
‘Open it, please,’ Li Kong said.
The Director did as he was asked, and Li Kong saw something change in his expression, but he could not read what it was.
‘Where did you get this?’ the Director asked after a few moments.
Li Kong watched him finger the pages delicately as if he was stroking a live thing. He thought for a moment to lie to the old man, but something inside him broke and he said, ‘On a raid. We came into the house of a woman. It was a beautiful house. She had so many priceless things, vases and scrolls. They were beautiful, but we shattered and slashed everything we could find. I picked this off a pile that was going into a bonfire.’
The Director stared into space, and Li Kong could not tell what he was thinking. He had been too frank, too direct and now he was afraid of the things he had said.
‘Do you know who the woman was?’ the Director asked.
‘No. I remember what she looked like, but who she was or what happened to her, that I don’t know.’
‘And the street she lived on?’
Li Kong tried to remember, but it was no use. They had marched through streets he had never seen before and it had been dark and he had not been paying attention, swept up as he was by the speeches that had gone on beforehand. ‘I can’t recall it.’
‘Who else knows about this?’
‘No one. No one knows,’ Li Kong assured him.
The Director looked straight at him, ‘Are you sure about that?’
‘Tell me something, then. Of all the priceless objects you found so lovely, why would you save this, an old Russian notebook?’
Li Kong reached over for the book and flipped to the page where the girl was holding a starfish up to her hair. He showed it to the Director, and said, ‘There’s something about the girl…’ but he could not finish his thought.
Oh yes, the Director thought to himself, there is something about the girl, but said nothing.
‘Please, I must know what it says. Won’t you read it to me?’
And so the Director began to read, curious about what the girl had written, all the while knowing that there were things that he would need to explain to the boy along with the reading, all the while knowing there would be things he would conceal.
Shanghai, April 1932
Some days that begin badly, through fortuitous circumstances, can end up happily and well, and I must always remember that and never let myself despair.
Anya had been at me for some time. Sometimes I think she genuinely wants to help and other times when I see the look she gives me, a mix of exasperation and disbelief, I really wonder if she doesn’t resent me. She has taken me on, nevertheless. I am her burden, and she bears it. I can’t help the way I am I want to tell her, but she’d just say that my aunt had prepared me for nothing, and that I was not capable of dealing with real life.
This real life of Anya’s is coarse and brutal, and it’s filled with pettiness and grubbing for every bit of cash she can get her hands on. It’s competitive and rough, and she is always ready to take it on. What value is there in a life lived like that? We are all living in reduced circumstances here, but there is still beauty, and kindness, and the good things we have in ourselves that can bring joy to our fellow creatures on earth.
‘She’s nice,’ Li Kong interrupted, ‘and thoughtful.’
‘Hmmm,’ The Director mused. ‘We’ll see. Save your own thoughts for later and don’t interrupt me, please. It’s hard for me to translate directly. I haven’t done it for a long, long time.’
‘Of course. Very sorry,’ Li Kong apologized. In truth, he could hardly wait to hear the rest.
Anya says I can still afford to think like that because I haven’t been on the edge, that I have been cushioned, that I haven’t come to the end of the line. She mocked my aunt, even on the day of her funeral, saying she was the one who put all those airy ideas into my head. I knew they weren’t true, I want to tell Anya. I just didn’t have the heart to point out the obvious facts to my aunt.
‘No one will save you, Tanya,’ Anya says, ‘so look out for yourself.’
Later, Anya bought over some crepe de Chine that a man had given her, and I was able to cut two evening dresses from it.
‘Is this how they pay you, nowadays?’ Natalia Ivanovna, our landlady, sneered at Anya.
Natalia can’t get over the fact that Anya sometimes goes with Chinese men. Natalia has a house and rents out rooms, but Anya has never had advantages.
‘Mind your own business, old woman,’ Anya says, and just being called old puts Natalia in a huff, so she uses a few choice words before slamming her door.
‘Take one for yourself and come down to the club,’ Anya says.
The club is where Anya works most nights as a dancer. She comes home dead tired and sleeps half the day away, and that life is beginning to show on her face, in the dark circles around her eyes and the downward pull of her mouth.
‘No. It’s okay,’ I say, but she has other ideas.
‘Look, you don’t have to do what I do, but if you come down wearing that dress, the other girls will see what you can do and hire you to make dresses for them.’ Anya knows that I have been looking for work as a dressmaker, but that no one will hire me since Chinese are willing to work so cheaply.
‘All right,’ I agree, hoping something else will come up, but it doesn’t.
So when she comes to pick me up, I am ready, though I feel a fool in the dress, which I have cut for Anya who is tall and flat chested. Anya takes one look at me and tells me to stop tugging at the bodice, and that I look fantastic.
‘I feel naked,’ I say, as Natalia Ivanovna steps out on the landing to look me over. That’s how it begins, her look seems to suggest.
Li Kong was already squirming. He had questions to ask, but a sharp look from the Director put a stop to his agitation, and he stopped fidgeting and settled down.
At the club, the manager, a burly Russian named Yevgeny Borisovich, takes one look at me, and kissing my hand, whisks me to his table. All night long, people approach him with various business matters, but he won’t let me leave. And so I sit there and watch the program, and after that is over, Yevgeny Borisovich asks me to dance, and while we are dancing, he offers me a job. When I balk, he says it will be in the chorus, and I will not have to dance with customers at all.
‘Come tomorrow afternoon, and let me see what you can do,’ he says, kissing my hand again.
I don’t know what to do, but Anya is happy for me and says not to worry, Yevgeny Borisovich isn’t the kind of man who messes about with his employees. I was so nervous, I couldn’t wait until the appointed time, so I took my pad and went out to make some sketches. I was still debating what to do, until I decided that I might as well go and see him.
Yevgeny Borisovich was busy when I got there, and directed me to sit at a table and wait. When he was finished, he called a Chinese man over to the piano and put me in front and told me to show him what I could do.
The absurdity of this hit me. I was always the worst dancer in ballet class, always moving in the opposite direction of everyone else, but my aunt wanted me to have lessons to develop poise and a good silhouette so I stuck to it. The pianist, not looking up, began a jazzy piece, so I flapped my arms a bit and did the Charleston with my feet, and Yevgeny Borisovich laughed and shook his head.
I picked up my sketchpad and was about to leave when he called me over and asked me to sit.
‘What do you have there?’ he asked.
I thought he must have felt bad for making fun of me, but I was a bit angry at him as well, so I shrugged and didn’t say anything.
He reached over and started leafing through the pad. He paused at the portrait I had done of Anya.
‘Oh, you’ve caught our girl, all right. Tough as leather on the outside, pure mush on the inside.’
‘She has a good heart,’ I said mechanically, though I did not think that was particularly true.
‘I meant that if one more thing goes wrong in her life, she’ll go over the edge,’ he said. I was thinking about this when he stopped at my fanciful drawings. He whistled. ‘Now this is something,’ he said, tapping on the one with me walking through a field of flowers which were transforming into butterflies before soaring to the sky.
‘Can you do one like this, only large scale? I’d like it as a backdrop for a number we’re rehearsing.’
I said yes, though I had never done anything like that before, and he gave me the money for the materials and said I could use the back room for a studio.
‘Don’t let it go to your head. It’s just one job. He didn’t even say how much he was going to pay,’ Anya said.
But I didn’t care. It was a job! A real job doing something I was good at!
‘Oh, she’s funny. And nice!’ Li Kong exclaimed, when the Director paused. ‘And she’s not a prostitute like the other.’
‘Few of them were really,’ the Director said. ‘They were desperate to survive. They’d lost their homeland, and they had to fall back on what they had, and the only thing most of them had was their beauty, youth and charm.’
‘They could have stayed. They chose to leave Russia,’ Li Kong countered. He knew a bit about what had happened to White Russians after the Revolution.
‘You will have to learn that not everyone thinks alike, and besides these women would have been young girls when their parents made the decision to leave. They had nothing to do with it themselves.’
‘Oh, well, I’m certain the state would have taken much better care of them had they stayed,’ Li Kong said.
‘Possibly,’ The Director countered. ‘Shall I go on?’
‘Oh yes, please.’
In her forward to The Complete Novels, Diana Athill stated that Rhys was always preoccupied by getting it right : invoking the truth as much as possible. And yet no matter how precise the language, evocative the mood, authentic the speech, Rhys fails at truth since she fails to develop a most important characteristic in her neurasthenic heroines, which were all based on herself. And that truth is- her writing was her saving grace. Rhys lived a writer’s life, inasmuch as it was alcohol fueled and tawdry, and that in itself didn’t make her quite the hopeless, helpless, pathetic creature she depicts in these short novels.
Taken from first to last:
1. Voyage in the Dark: Anna leaves the Caribbean, becomes a chorine, then the mistress of a older man who she doesn’t particularly like, though she certainly likes the security and allowance he provides. After she commits the inexcusable faux pas of socially embarrassing him, he dumps her, and she fails to do anything to uplift herself going from one meaningless sexual encounter to another. This was Rhys’ first work, although the manuscript was put away for years before she returned to it. The language is gorgeous, the insights into humanity and hypocrisy, and even the highly unpleasant aspects of her own character. are remarkable.
2. Quartet: A lightly veiled account of Rhys’ affair with Ford Maddox Ford, in which she comes off as badly as he does. This is the weakest of the five books, and though the heroine is supposed to be the victim of the callous man in question and his nasty wife, she appears to be one of those poor, poor victims to whom everyone is soooo nasty, while in reality she creates havoc wherever she goes.
3. After Leaving Mr McKenzie: Penniless Julia, after leaving the boorish Mr McKenzie goes back to London in search of another protector. Here the heroine is older, the story more insightful, and there are some wonderful passages between Julia and her sister who has sacrificed her youth to look after their ailing mother while Julia lived in Paris.
4. Good Morning, Midnight: The best of the four first novels. There’s no pity here. She is what she is -and finally we get a glimpse of the fact that she did work, that her marriage failed and her child died, that she did not rely exclusively on men (whom she barely liked) to supply her with money in exchange for sexual favors, and that jobs went terribly badly for her quite often because she is sensed to be an outsider, a weakling, one to whom bad things can happen and often do.
Back in Paris, Sasha, after a stint of trying to drink herself to death in London, recalls the sad and horrible events in her life that have brought her so low while dallying with a young man who is in as a precarious potion as she.
5. The Wide Sargasso Sea: A masterpiece. I have read it many times since I discovered it in 1993 following release of the eponymous film. It is the tale of the first Mrs. Rochester, the mad woman in the attic in Jane Eyre. It’s all here: the neurasthenia that developed of neglect and poverty in childhood, the blighted family and racial history of the island, the unloving mother, the relatives that seek to fob off the heroine by marrying her to a stanger, the cold unloving Englishman who shatters her and brings her so low.
‘Some of my most vivid childhood memories are of a 65,000 acre cattle ranch on the edge of the Wasatch Range in a valley called Strawberry. That’s where my father was a hired hand and our family lived for most of the summers … in a two room cabin that sat proudly in an open meadow, miles from our nearest neighbor. We were completely off the grid.’ Thus begins Kenvin, an Artist’s Kitchen, Kenvin Lyman’s cookbook and memoir.
There is something intensely magical about a rural childhood lived prior to mechanization and industrial farming. It’s where the land meets the imagination and the deepest appreciation for nature and life begins. Out of this, sometimes, with very sensitive and talented people, true art is born.
Through friends of friends, I became aware of Kenvin Lyman’s work on Facebook. I began following his page, The Utah Kid, because I was charmed by his artwork: beautiful illustrations of the rural landscape and of the table. I soon realized that these works would appear in a cookbook, and eagerly anticipated its publication, which was delayed by Mr Lyman’s untimely and tragic death. I bought and finally received the book this past Saturday and have been pouring over it since.
This is so much more than a cookbook. It’s a beautiful work of art, a memoir, a philosophy of natural farming and animal husbandry, a poem dedicated to the land and its bounty, and an elegy for the loss and disappearance of nature, and all its beauty, to suburban sprawl. It is also a celebration of family, love, friendship and good times, of the garden, food that is locally grown and organic, and simple, beautiful ingredients cooked to maximize their greatest potential and flavor.
The beginner will find the recipes easy to follow, there is nothing intimidating here. And the experienced cook will appreciate the simplicity and intensity of the ingredients and will be able to make substitutions and changes, if and when necessary, to render the recipes their own. Though I am an experienced cook, I have always struggled with wine pairings–so I was thrilled to see that Mr Lyman made beverage suggestions for almost every recipe.
I’ll close with a quote: ‘Until the federal farm bill is untangled from its political web of favoritism and shortsighted goals, the small farmer in America is in real jeopardy of extinction, and the local food movement is largely a romanticized fantasy struggling to survive on a badly slanted playing field against much larger players.’ Thankfully, Mr Lyman followed his passion, despite the challenges and meager financial rewards to bring us this amazing work.
A monumental undertaking by the author, who was working from original materials, to bring light to a forgotten period in English history immediately prior to the Civil War.
When Janet opens her late father’s trunk, a whole world of intellectual and spiritual adventure is revealed behind the taciturn façade he presented to her and the world in his later years.
The story revolves about a young man’s almost accidental quest to understand the world he lives in, which is imbued with spirit and fermenting with new and forbidden ideas.
When Matthew takes a job with his namesake, Brierley, a minister, he is exposed to Brierley’s radical notion that man can commune directly in mystical union with God with no intervention from ecclesiastical authority to achieve a perfection which will lead to the attainment of both paradise on earth and a meaningful afterlife.
To be near Brierley and learn from him, Matthew takes on menial work and is exposed, not only to forbidden texts, which will expand his worldview, but to Brierely’s lovely young wife for who he harbors a subdued but very real passion.
The novel follows Matthew through his initial infatuation with all things that pertain to the Brierleys through his inevitable disappointment in their all too human failings, to his passion for the knowledge found in forbidden texts to his sojourn in London, where he is exposed to clandestine groups meeting to discuss new ideas coming from the continent. In time, seeing through their corruption, he will turn his back on them as well and return to Brierley in order to make amends. He will, however, meet his own destiny in Janet, Brierley’s clever and resourceful servant who will become his life partner as they forge a unique way of living in a remote and isolated spot in the far north of England.
CMoP in many ways is a genre defying achievement. On one level it is a purely historical work, one in which the author strictly and bravely adheres to documented events, reverting to imagination only to fill in the lacunae in the historical record. It can also work as a bildungsroman, the story of a young man’s education and progress, or an exciting intellectual mystery, with an inter-textual historiography, and finally a mature man’s assessment about the influences in his life; his mistakes and misunderstanding of so many factors which had shaped his life for better or worse.
I had no knowledge of this historical period when I was given an advance copy of this book to read in exchange for an unbiased review, and found it fascinating. However, in as much as I understand that the background to Brierley’s development, his sermons, the author’s reconstruction of events, and the books which inspired Brierley will be the main draw for most readers, I loved the intimate, small details in the book even more. The pages spring to life with the female characters: strong and determined Anne, Brierley’s wife; his mother, a fiercely independent and violent woman; the highly intelligent and loyal Janet, and her namesake, their daughter, a woman who is making her way alone in a harsh and remote corner of the world. Likewise the author’s descriptions of intimate, and occasionally claustrophobic domestic scenes contrasted with the wild unforgiving landscape of the north, which is imbued with a spirit of its own, are most remarkable and quite beautiful, as is the motif of interior darkness suddenly illuminated by light, as Matthew himself is gradually enlightened.
Among those who are interested in the period, this will be hailed as an important work, since Brierley’s influence, though he is long forgotten, shaped the character of the North of England and had an influence in the Quaker communities beyond England’s shores. It’s not the easiest book to read, given the wealth of detail and insistence on historical accuracy, but, I think, given its exposition of the influence of an obscure minister during a little known period, an important one.
The God of Rock is novella composed of interlocking short stories, in which the destinies of a rock guitarist and a fledgling painter become intertwined. Brought together initially by desire, they are parted by life’s circumstance. Through dreams, memories and a long process whereby the ego unravels and allows the soul to lead, the two are eventually reunited many years later.
This collection also includes The Burial, six tales of the Sarmations, the great horsemen of the steppe, which span from 500 BCE to 1400 CE. The merger of historiography and archaeology produce a fictional reconstruction of a preliterate people, always illuminating the eternal human condition.