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For two weeks exploding ﬁrecrackers shredded the winter gloom at Shaoyang’s Number Two Space Rocket Factory. The fourteenth and last night was the Lantern Festival: hopeful lovers carried their hearts in moth-skin lanterns, bobbing like hooked ﬁsh on the ends of long canes. A river of stars ﬂowed through the night, the candles burned steadily down, and after midnight solitary spirits wandered the streets with increasing desperation – searching for their perfect match, who might never come.
The next morning the radio announced the end of the holiday as children searched in the frost for the last unexploded bangers and detonated them in a ragged battle of irregular gunﬁre. At 7-45 a.m., Beijing Time, Party Secretary Li woke suddenly from a cold green dream that had stranded him back in the year 1967, and which had left him perplexed and nervous. It was the fourth time in as many weeks that the same dream had blown confusion into his sleeping mind, and this time he lay and shivered and thought hard, testing himself for any signs of private insanity.
Next to him Autumn Cloud, his wife, lay wrapped in cotton quilts, her head tilted back and mouth open, asleep. Party Secretary Li got up and opened the window to feel the frost on his skin. There was a chill morning breeze; ﬁrecrackers were sporadically shattering the silence. He rubbed his eyes as the smell of gun powder smarted in his nostrils; opened them and saw the white snow sprinkled with the fallen petals of paper – cold and red.
Party Secretary Li tried to carry on his morning’s activities as if nothing at all had happened. He cleared his throat into the toilet, then sat to empty his bowels in one long ﬂuid motion, wiped away the excess with a strip of newspaper. He examined his old walnut-wrinkled face in the mirror and rubbed the chin of stubble that bristled defensively against the cold. He lit a cigarette and smoked; tried hard to be normal.
At breakfast Autumn Cloud steamed ﬁve bread buns full of date paste; and poured out two bowls of sweet rice gruel, patterned with red jujubes and white tremella. She slurped expansively, and he slurped in reply. Slurp, slurp went their morning conversation. Next door, from her concrete balcony, Madam Fan was serenading the world with Beijing Opera. Her voice was shrill and beautiful, every note of the arias perfectly delivered. This morning she sang the young nun’s soliloquy from The White Fur Coat:
A young nun am I, sixteen years of age,
My head was shaven in my young maidenhood
Party Secretary Li slurped, and his wife slurped back.
My head was shaven in my young maidenhood
When beauty is past and youth is lost
Who will marry an old crone?
‘She’s been a crone for years,’ Autumn Cloud muttered. ‘Who does she think she is?’
Party Secretary Li looked up from his breakfast and stared at his wife. Her eyes held his then turned away. The words of the aria seemed to him very beautiful for an instant.
They are not for my bridal chamber
These candles on the altar
They are not for my bridal chamber
He could picture Madam Fan with her sleeves blowing in the breeze, her shadow dancing on her concrete step next to her.
From where comes this suffocating ardour?
From where comes this strange, unearthly ardour?
The lonely words drifted across the skyline of grey concrete tenements and over the Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory’s roof of corrugated iron; across the river, beyond the East and North Pagoda, to the hillsides of bamboo and pine, where the north wind whispered back. Party Secretary Li sat for a moment, eyes closed, breathing in circles, in and out, and felt for an instant a canyon-deep calm.
A young nun am I, sixteen years of age
My head was shaven in my young maidenhood
For my father, he loves the Buddhist sutras
And my mother, she loves the Buddhist priests.
Party Secretary Li laughed suddenly. He stood up and put on his army greatcoat and Russian fur hat.
‘I’m going to the office,’ he said.
As he left his wife shouted, ‘I thought you retired!’
He ignored her as he always did, and walked outside.
‘What good’s a husband who is always away from the house?’ she cursed his footsteps, muttering as she cleared away the breakfast dishes. Party Secretary Li startled her so much by coming back and answering her this time that she dropped the blue bowl, which shattered, scattering shards across the white tiles, patterning them with fragments of blue and white. He stood for a moment in the doorway, sang to her the line ‘A young nun am I, sixteen years of age,’ and then turned and left.
Autumn Cloud hurried to the door to watch him. Who did he think he was? What if word got around that her husband was singing the lines of a young girl?
The offices were closed, so Party Secretary Li walked around the back of Number 7 block of ﬂats. He stood and surveyed the black soil of the allotments. Old Zhu was there, raking up dead leaves into a heap. His white hair, gap-toothed smile and skin of a baby.
‘How was Spring Festival?’ Party Secretary Li asked.
‘Good!’ Zhu answered. ‘Good!’
‘Did your son come back?’
‘No, too far. Too far. And yours?’
‘No. Had no time off.’
They stood in silence for a while. Young people never came back to Shaoyang, not even to die. There was nothing for them here, except memories. Party Secretary Li watched Old Zhu rake up another pile of leaves. There were now two piles of leaves, two tumbled mosaics of russet and black and brown. He lit a cigarette.
Old Zhu shook his head.
Party Secretary Li lit his own, breathed in and then out in a long plume of smoke. It tasted stale. He threw it away, burrowed his hands deep into his trouser pockets. He watched Old Zhu rake up a third pile of leaves. The three piles made up the shape of a triangle. Three was a lucky number, but in each pile of leaves he could feel the chill of his dream: it was in the cigarettes he smoked, the food he ate, and it coloured his sleep.
‘Did you hear?’ Old Zhu asked, as he straightened his back and leant on his rake’s shaft.
‘They’re closing the factory,’ Old Zhu said.
‘They’re doing what?’ he asked.
‘Closing the factory.’
‘It can’t be.’
Old Zhu looked up into the thicket of branches above his head that rained the leaves that he raked into piles. He thought of the factory, scratched his head, and said simply, ‘It is.’
Party Secretary Li’s seventy-eight-year-old heart palpitated as he hurried home. They couldn’t close the factory, he told himself, not this factory. He opened the front door and called out to his wife. There was no answer. He checked in the kitchen, she wasn’t there. He went to the bedroom door and opened it, but apart for the pale winter sunlight that stretched across the ﬂoor, the room was deserted.
The wooden chair creaked in protest as Party Secretary Li sat down at his desk, creaked again as he shuffled closer to the desk. He picked out his ﬁnest brush and squirted some ink from a plastic bottle onto a white chipped plate. The ink settled across one half of the plate, black and white, yin and yang. He dipped his brush into the ink and settled his mind. Madam Fan was still practising her Beijing Opera, she had a tape player on in the background. Fan and tape mixed up so that he could no longer tell which was which. Outside he could smell the smoke that drifted up from Old Zhu’s burning leaves, as they crumbled into ash.
Party Secretary Li leant over a long sheet and the world went very silent, except for the whisper of brush on paper. He wrote the strokes of each character out carefully, stood back to survey his work. He took out his seal and printed his red square stamp at the end, then hung the ﬁrst banner from his study window.
Our Leaders are Drunk on the Taste of Corruption
He returned to his desk and drew another sheet of paper from the pile. He dipped his brush into the ink and wiped away the excess.
The Immortals are Jealous of the Lifestyle of Our ‘Officials’
He stamped it with his seal of red.
The Privileged Officials Masturbate Over Blue Movies
And pulled another sheet from the pile. Autumn Cloud spent the morning shopping in the market. She bought pork and spinach, beansprouts and a square of dofu. On the way back she met Mrs Cao who invited her to go and play mah-jong.
‘We’re betting,’ Mrs Cao said with a wink.
Autumn Cloud screwed up her face.
‘Come on, I’ll carry your shopping!’ Mrs Cao insisted. ‘We need a fourth person.’
They joined Madam Fan’s husband and sister who were playing mah-jong in the kitchen. There was a brazier of glowing coals under the table that kept their feet warm, while their ﬁngertips were still icy cold. Madam Fan sang on the balcony, occasionally casting disapproving glances at them through the window. Her arias and the clicking sound of the tiles being shuffled ﬁlled the morning. Autumn Cloud was nervous because she was starting to lose money. She pretended it was of no matter.
‘I wish she’d give up on her rotten singing!’ Madam Fan’s husband cursed.
Autumn Cloud laughed louder than the rest.
‘The factory’s going to be closed,’ Mrs Cao mentioned.
‘Good,’ Madam Fan’s husband replied.
‘Good,’ Autumn Cloud echoed, not meaning to say good at all. They shuffled the tiles around the centre of the table as she sat worrying. ‘What will happen to our pensions?’ she asked at last.
‘Oh, they’ll still pay them,’ Mrs Cao said.
Autumn Cloud nodded, trying to hide her relief. ‘And what about the workers?’
‘I don’t think there are any workers left are there?’ Madam Fan’s husband replied.
‘A hundred I think,’ Mrs Cao said.
Autumn Cloud nodded to back up this piece of information.
Madam Fan’s husband was unconcerned. ‘Serves them right. They should have found another job. Set up in business. Have to move with the times. What about the Four Modernisations? What about the Open Door Policy? What about the Socialist Market Economy? Don’t they know the world has changed?.’
Autumn Cloud nodded. Yes, yes, serve them right. Have to move with the times.
She was still losing money when Peach, Madam Fan’s daughter, ran in. Peach looked white, she was so white that she looked unhealthy.
‘Mrs Li come quickly,’ Peach gasped.
Mrs Cao scowled at Peach because she was on a winning streak.
‘Mrs Li come quickly,’ Peach gasped again, then giggled and put her hand over her mouth. ‘There are bad words hanging out of your windows!’
Autumn Cloud went as quickly as she could, but her left leg was stiff and it didn’t like to hurry. She went down the steps and followed Peach out of the door. Peach pointed up.
‘Look Mrs Li.’
Autumn Cloud looked up.
The Party Officials are Screwing Our Daughters hung from the bathroom window.
The Fifth Modernisation – Democracy wasdraped overthe balcony railings.
Fuck the Communist Party wafted gently on the breeze.
‘Oh heavens!’ she gasped, and held her left hand. ‘Oh heavens!’ she said again, and her left hand began to shake.
The community gathered in Old Zhu’s house to discuss what to do. Old Zhu held up a torn banner that he had managed to pull off the Li family’s balcony. He held it up:
The Mercedes Benz Stops Nightly at the Red Light District.
‘What does it mean?’ Peach asked.
Old Zhu cleared his throat. ‘It means Party Secretary Li is sick,’ he said. Everyone nodded.
‘What can we do about this?’ Madam Fan asked, moving forward into the centre of the room.
‘Yes, we don’t want trouble.’
Faces turned to Autumn Cloud who sat in the corner, small and shaking like a frightened child in the arms of Old Zhu’s white-haired wife. They hoped for a reaction from her, but she gave none. She just sat and shivered. Old Zhu’s wife smoothed her hair back from her face.
‘So what will we do?’ Madam Fan asked.
Everyone turned to Old Zhu. He was the most senior person there. It was his decision. They looked to his white hair and gap-toothed mouth for the words of guidance.
‘He’s locked the door,’ Peach put in.
Old Zhu nodded at this piece of intelligence and everyone watched him think. Autumn Cloud shivered in the corner, as Old Zhu’s wife held her close and wiped away the sweat from her forehead.
‘Party Secretary Li has been upset by the factory closing,’ Old Zhu said at last. People held their breaths as they waited for more. Old Zhu scratched his head.
‘He has worked all his life to build the Motherland. He was a shining light to all of us – we learnt from his example.’ Someone cleared their throat. ‘All his life he has been an exemplary Party Member. And Autumn Cloud was a model worker too.’ People turned to offer sympathetic looks to Autumn Cloud but she didn’t hear or see anything in the room. ‘We have to help him. We must help him understand that the closure of the factory is good for the country. We must help build the Socialist Market Economy!’
Party Secretary Li hunched over his desk and looked into his cup of tea. A single jasmine ﬂower swirled slowly on its surface, round and round. He could hear the crowd of voices outside his doorway. They were discussing what to do. Old Zhu was there, all of the neighbours as well. They discussed between themselves for a while, and then they resumed banging on his door. The thunder of all their ﬁsts on the metal door boomed through the ﬂat; then there was a moment of stillness, like gentle rain.
‘Comrade!’ Old Zhu called. ‘Comrade!’
Party Secretary Li didn’t answer. He was out of paper, but he still had the bed sheets.
‘Comrade Li! We have a doctor here.’
‘Neighbour Li!’ another voice called.
‘Brother-in-law Li!’ So they’d got Autumn Cloud’s sister here as well.
‘It’s no use,’ Old Zhu told the conference that evening. ‘We will have to call his family. Where are his children?’
‘Does she know?’ Madam Fan asked, pointing to Autumn Cloud.
‘Where are your children?’ Madam Fan’s husband shouted into her left ear. ‘Your children!’ Madam Fan shouted into her right ear. Old Zhu took her hand, and looked her in the face. ‘Comrade. Autumn Cloud, where are your children. We are trying to help you. Where are your children? Your children? Children.’
They’d given up on getting an answer, and some of them had actually left to go home when Autumn Cloud spoke.
‘Seven, six, ﬁve, two, two, eight, eight, eight.’
‘Can you say that again?’ someone asked.
Autumn Cloud repeated. ‘Seven, six, ﬁve, two, two, eight, eight, eight.’ Old Zhu reached for a pen and wrote down her words.
‘It must be a telephone number.’
‘Yes but where?’ Madam Fan said. ‘It’s not a Shaoyang number. Her children aren’t in Shaoyang. They’ve gone south.’
‘We’ll try every city in China,’ Old Zhu declared with conﬁdence. He smiled as he announced, ‘We’ll save the duck by stealing her eggs!’
As the residents of Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory gossiped about the scandal of the Li family, Old Zhu sat on the phone and diligently tracked down each of Party Secretary Li’s four children. Two were in Guangzhou, one was working in a factory in Shanghai, and the fourth was a teacher in a nearby middle school. He conﬁded to each of them that their father was seriously ill, and that their mother had had a relapse. They all packed immediately and set off on the long journey home.
Each banner Party Secretary Li hung from his window the residents of Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory had torn down by using long poles and canes with hooks on the ends. His neighbours had even managed to tear the ﬂapping white blankets off the railings while he was trying to stop anyone getting the banner that hung from the bathroom window. But Party Secretary Li was too old and wise for all of them; he still had one sheet left. It was enough for his ﬁnal protest.
He walked into the bedroom and felt his hands tremble as he pulled the top sheet off the bed. It resisted for a moment, so he yanked violently. Its folds ripped out from under the mattress and it swirled in the air before falling prone across the ﬂoor, one end still clamped in Party Secretary Li’s ﬁst. He pulled it across the ﬂoor and jammed it under the bed leg so that it was rammed down tight, then began walking backwards, step by slow step. He twisted the sheet round and round, determined hands continuing the torture till the sheet was a white cotton rope. He kept twisting till the ﬁbres groaned in protest, then he twisted it one more turn and the end of the rope began to bend into a noose.
When he was satisﬁed, Party Secretary Li climbed onto the bed and reached up to tug on the fan shaft. It felt solid enough. He tied the rope onto the fan with a knot the size of a skull, then climbed down. There were four dirty footprints embedded into the cotton quilt, that still smelt freshly washed. He imagined his wife having to re-wash the sheet, and silently rebuked himself.
Party Secretary Li’s shaking hands patted out his last footsteps and smoothed back the hair from his head as he took a deep breath. His wife’s face haunted him for a moment
– she would understand, he thought, she knew what the factory meant to him – then he took another deep breath. It didn’t calm his nerves. He looked around the room, on the desk lay his brush and the ink-smeared plate. Yes, that’s what he had to do. He took the brush and wrote huge black characters across his bedroom wall, reaching up high for the top characters and bending down low for the bottom ones. As he wrote the ink dripped one huge character into another, like they were banding together for solidarity.
They were still dripping as Party Secretary Li washed the ink from his brush and returned it to its porcelain holder. He put the lid on the ink bottle and then turned to face the bed. He checked his cigarettes in his breast pocket, took off his shoes, neatly arranged them next to each other, then stepped up. The soft mattress swallowed his feet and he swayed like a man aboard ship, hanging on to the rope to steady himself. When he was steady he lit his cigarette and put the noose around his neck, and it lay on his shoulders like the arm of a trusted friend.
As Party Secretary Li smoked his hands shook terribly. Half way down he threw his fag away. Closed his eyes. Took a deep breath.
Off the bed.
The noose tightened slowly and Party Secretary Li gasped for breath, his ﬁngers clawing at his neck. His feet kicked violently; his lips peeled back in a desperate grimace. His breathing became strangled gasps. Blood started out where his ﬁngers had scratched. After a few minutes the violence of his kicking slowed to an erratic waltz. Urine trickled down his legs as his bowels opened. His gasps changed to gurgles. His open mouth gaped like a beached ﬁsh. His eyes bulged.
There was a brief moment when the throttling pain lifted: the words on the wall swam together, and the last thing his straining eyes focused on was a single thread of ink, dripping down the wall.
The ink dried to a thin crust of black on the white plaster as a crowd gathered outside the door of Party Secretary Li’s ﬂat. Old Zhu directed them as they brought up a large hammer. Stand back, he shouted, stand back. The hammer swung and the empty rooms echoed with shouting voices and the thuds of the pounding hammer. Party Secretary Li heard nothing as he hung above the bed, his sporadic twitches stilled, his feet motionless.
When the metal door was bent and twisted it was kicked open, and the residents of Shaoyang Number Two Space Rocket Factory rushed inside. They spread through the ﬂat in a panicked crowd while Old Zhu walked straight to the closed bedroom door and pushed it open. Party Secretary Li’s body was suspended from the roof, feet swaying slightly in the draft from the door. Old Zhu stopped and shook his old head, felt shock clutch his throat. He gasped and shivered, felt tears build up in his stomach and start to rise.
Madam Fan’s husband helped Old Zhu pull the body down. They both ﬂinched as the warm head ﬂopped unnaturally on the stretched neck, and the legs left a cold smear of sewage on the bed. Madam Fan’s husband closed the staring eyes as Old Zhu wiped his hands in disgust. Madam Fan’s husband curled his lip when he saw that shit had landed on both his shoes. Old Zhu looked up through his tears and saw the black characters across the wall, Party Secretary Li’s ﬁnal message:
Honour and wealth are gusts of wind
That blow for a while then disappear.
That night the pale moon rose in the eastern sky, before the storm clouds rolled over it. Thick soaking clouds that dropped anchor over the factory and started to rain. The ﬁrst drops rang out loudly as they dashed against the windowpane. The individual rattles increased to a thunder like the ﬁrecrackers that had celebrated Spring Festival only ﬁfteen days before.
As the rain fell Autumn Cloud sat alone, sniffing in the cold azure candlelight, grief turning slowly in her gut. Tears of sleet built up a thousand layers of cold, a cold so ﬁerce it stunned the ﬂesh. To Old Zhu the world seemed unbearably damp, and he took a candle to melt his melancholy with a cup of wine. Madam Fan struggled to sing her lines of opera, A young nun am I, sixteen years of age; My head was shaven in my young maidenhood; her voice drowned out by the noise of the falling water.
All night the truculent heavens poured their anger down on the factory, swamping the nearby paddy ﬁelds and the streets alike. The gutters burst, the river ﬂooded; the streets were opaque with rain.
In the Li family ﬂat the ceiling sprang a leak. Water seeped through the roof and slithered down the shaft of the fan. It collected on the fan’s underside, the water gathered and swelled up to a droplet, and jumped. Unseen in the empty room of Party Secretary Li’s last lines, the water dripped that long night to pieces.