To the guest in his Denizen apartment, Zhang told his story simply, connectedly. It was the perfect tale to recount on the benighted site of Taylor Wimpey’s Golden Lane luxury apartment development. The foundations of the new building had disturbed an old plague pit, and The Denizen had been constructed right opposite the old city mortuary.
He began with a quick survey of his early years—the years of drudgery and emotional privation. If he’d been 15 years older he could have had fun with the Red Guards. He’d always liked girls but they didn’t like him. He was incapable of a romantic relationship. That’s why sex toys had become his master-passion. He would have sold his soul for a factory in which to make the sex toys he designed! It was in him—he could not remember when it had not been his deepest-seated instinct. As the years passed it became a morbid, relentless obsession—yet with every year the material conditions were more and more against it. He felt himself growing middle-aged and he’d achieved nothing!
At this point in his narrative Zhang stood up, and went to lean against the wall, looking down at Yao, who had not moved from his seat, or changed his attitude of rigid fascinated attention.
“Then came the summer when we went to Austin to be near old Huang—my mother’s cousin, as you know. Some of the family always mounted guard over him—generally a niece or so. But that year they were all scattered, and one of the nieces offered to lend us her pad if we’d relieve her of duty for two months. It was a nuisance for me, of course, for Austin is a long way from Shanghai; but my mother, who was a slave to family observances, had always been good to the old man, so it was natural we should be called on—and there was the saving of rent. So we went.
“You never knew Huang Feng? Well, picture to yourself an amoeba or some primitive organism of that sort, under a Titan’s microscope. He was large, undifferentiated, inert—since I could remember him he had done nothing but take his temperature and read Stalag fiction. He claimed he used those pornographic novels to improve his Hebrew and Yiddish but the fact is he only took up those languages to read tales of allied prisoners being tortured by female camp guards, until at the conclusion the tables were turned and the victimizers were raped and tortured. He would translate the titles for me, many consisted of the word Stalag with a different number after it to denote different books, although there was also I Was Colonel Schultz’s Private Bitch and Torture Stalag.
“Huang’s life apathetic and motionless, hung in a net of gold, in an equable warm ventilated atmosphere, high above sordid earthly worries. The cardinal rule of his existence was not to let himself be ‘worried.’ . . I remember his advising me to try it myself, one day when I spoke to him of my bad health and need of a change. ‘I never let myself worry,’ he said complacently. ‘It’s the worst thing for the liver—and you look to me as if you have a liver. Take my advice and be cheerful. You’ll make yourself happier and others too.’ And all he had to do was to write a cheque and send me off for a holiday in Bangkok or Manila or some other destination favoured by sex tourists! But instead he wanted to talk to me about stocking clad Nazi death squad bitches!
“The hardest part of it was that the money half-belonged to me already. The old skinflint only had it for life, in trust for me. But his life was a good deal sounder than mine—and I could picture him taking extra care of it for the joke of keeping me waiting. I always felt that the sight of my hungry eyes was a tonic to him.
“Well, I tried to see if I couldn’t reach him through his vanity. I flattered him, feigned a passionate interest in his Stalag novels. And he was taken in, and used to discourse on them by the hour. When he bragged to me of the expense of obtaining original paperback copies of Stalag fiction he was simply a hideous old Lothario bragging of what his pleasures cost. And the resemblance was completed by the fact that he couldn’t get an erection no matter what he did—Viagra had no effect on him. ‘But, after all, it’s my only hobby—why shouldn’t I indulge it?’ he said sentimentally. As if I’d ever been able to indulge any of mine! For what he paid for those pornographic softbacks I could have lived like a god…
“One day toward the end of the summer, I entered cousin Feng’s hideous black walnut library. He sat in his usual seat, behind the darkened windows, his fat hands folded on his protuberant waistcoat, a Stalag fiction at his elbow, and looking down at his trousers I could see he finally had an erection. I congratulated myself on finding him in such an aroused state, since I had made up my mind to ask him a favour. Then I noticed that his face, instead of looking as calm as an egg-shell, was distorted and whimpering—and without stopping to greet me he pointed passionately at an old Israeli paperback laid before him.
“‘It’s the most perverted thing I’ve ever read!’ It was as if he had said ‘she’ instead of ‘it,’ and when he put out his senile hand and touched the book I positively had to look the other way. “‘But the last few pages are missing and I can’t find another copy for love or money!’
“The old man’s rage was fearful in its impotence—he shook, spluttered and strangled with it. He wanted to have the book dealer who’d sold him the item without mentioning a few end pages were missing, locked up. ‘By God, and I’ll do it—I’ll write to Washington—I’ll have the pauper scoundrel deported! I’ll show him what money can do!’ He meant to have the police look into it… And then he grew frightened at his own excitement. ‘But I must calm myself,’ he said. He took his temperature, rang for his drops, and turned to his computer. He called up an English translation of a Stalag novel and asked me to read it to him, which I did for an hour, in the dim close room.
“All the while one phrase of the old man’s buzzed in my brain. ‘I’ll show him what money can do!’ By Nie Yuanzi! If I could but show the old man! If I could make him see his power of giving happiness as a new outlet for his monstrous egotism! I tried to tell him something about my situation—spoke of my ill-health, my unsuccessful drudgery, my longing to go into the sex toy business, to make myself a name—I stammered out an entreaty for a loan. ‘I can guarantee to repay you, sir—I could assign you the patents on my sex toy designs as security…’
“I shall never forget his glassy stare. His face had grown as smooth as an eggshell again—his eyes peered over his fat cheeks like sentinels over a slippery rampart.
“‘Patents—patents for sex toys as security?’ He looked at me almost fearfully, as if detecting the first symptoms of insanity. ‘Do you understand anything of business?’ he enquired mildly. I laughed and answered: ‘No, not much.’
“He leaned back with closed lids. ‘All this excitement has been too much for me,’ he said. ‘If you’ll excuse me, I’ll prepare for my nap.’ And I stumbled out of the room, blindly.”
Zhang moved away from the wall, and walked across to the tray set out with decanters and soda-water. He poured himself a tall glass of soda-water, emptied it.
Then Zhang went on with his tale. He told of his mounting obsession—how the murderous impulse had waked in him on the instant of his cousin’s refusal, and he had muttered to himself: “By Mao, if you won’t, I’ll make you.” He spoke more tranquilly as the narrative proceeded, as though his rage had died down once the resolve to act on it was taken. He applied his whole mind to the question of how the old man was to be “disposed of.” Suddenly he remembered the outcry. But no definite project presented itself: he simply waited for an inspiration.
Unable to find a complete copy of the Stalag that had so aroused him, cousin Feng, languished, had “nerves,” and lost his appetite. The doctor called in a colleague, and the consultation amused and excited the old man—he became once more an important figure. The medical men reassured the family—too completely!—and to the patient they recommended a more varied diet: advised him to take whatever “tempted him.” And so one day, tremulously, prayerfully, he decided on a tiny bit of melon. It was brought up with ceremony, and consumed in the presence of the house-keeper and a hovering cousin; and twenty minutes later he was dead…
Zhang paused. He had dropped into a chair opposite the lawyer’s, and he sat for a moment, his head thrown back, looking about the familiar room in his Denizen apartment. Everything in it had grown grimacing and alien, and each strange insistent object seemed craning forward from its place to hear him.
“It was I who put the stuff in the melon,” he said. “And I don’t want you to think I’m sorry for it. This isn’t ‘remorse,’ understand. I’m glad the old skinflint is dead. But my money is no use to me any more. I’m not happy with what it bought me.”
Yao continued to stare; then he said: “What on earth was your object, then?”
“Why, to get what I wanted—what I fancied was in reach! I wanted change, rest, life—wanted, above all, the chance to make it in the sex toy business! I travelled, got back my health, and came home to tie myself up to my work. And I’ve slaved at it steadily for ten years without reward! Making sex toys is a waste of time! It gives me no pleasure! I’m fifty, and I’m beaten, and I know it.” His chin dropped forward on his breast. “I want to chuck the whole business,” he ended.