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About the Author
The Speaker of Mandarin
About the Author
Classic British crime fiction is the best in the world—and Ruth Rendell is crime fiction at its very best. Ingenious and meticulous plots, subtle and penetrating characterizations, beguiling storylines and wry observations have all combined to put her at the very top of her craft.
Her first novel, From Doon with Death, appeared in 1964, and since then her reputation and readership have grown steadily with each new book. She has now received eight major awards for her work: three Edgars from the Mystery Writers of America; the Crime Writers’ Gold Dagger Award for 1976’s best crime novel for A Demon in My View; the Arts Council National Book Award for Genre Fiction in 1981 for Lake of Darkness; the Crime Writers’ Silver Dagger Award for 1985’s best crime novel for The Tree of Hands; the Crime Writers’ Gold Dagger Award for 1986’s best crime novel for Live Flesh, and in 1987 the Crime Writers’ Gold Dagger Award for A Fatal Inversion, written under the name Barbara Vine.
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Epub ISBN: 9781409068846
Arrow Books Limited
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An imprint of the Random Century Group
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Johannesburg and agencies throughout the world
First published by Hutchinson 1983
Arrow edition 1984
Reprinted 1984, 1985, 1987, 1988 (twice), 1989 (twice), 1990 (twice) and 1991
© Kingsmarkham Enterprises Ltd 1983
This book is sold subject to the condition that it shall not, by way of trade or otherwise, be lent, resold, hired out, or otherwise circulated without the publisher’s prior consent in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition including this condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser
Printed and bound in Great Britain by
Cox & Wyman Ltd, Reading, Berkshire
ISBN 0 09 932810 0
For the transcribing of Chinese words and Chinese proper names into English I have used both the Wade-Giles and the Pinyin systems. While Pinyin is the officially endorsed system in the People’s Republic, Wade-Giles, which was evolved in the nineteenth century, remains more familiar to Western readers. So I have used each where I felt it to be more appropriate and acceptable; e.g. the modern Pinyin for Lu Xing She, the Chinese International Travel Service, but Ching rather than Xing for the name of the last Imperial Dynasty, and I have used Mao Tse Tung in preference to the Pinyin Mao Zedong.
The poem quoted on p. 69, ‘To Wang Lun’ by Li Po, the poem quoted on pp. 109 and 119, ‘Drinking Song’ by Shen Hsun, and the two lines on p. 189 from ‘Song of a Chaste Wife’ by Chang Chi, are all from the Penguin Book of Chinese Verse, translated by Robert Kotewall and Norman L. Smith, translation © Norman L. Smith and Robert Kotewall, 1962, and are reprinted here by permission of Penguin Books Ltd.
The perfectly preserved body of the woman they call the Marquise of Tai lay, sheathed in glass, some feet below them on the lower level. Two thousand odd years ago when she died she had been about fifty. A white shift covered her thin seventy-five-pound body from neck to thighs. Her legs were a fish-like pinkish-white much marked with striations, her right arm, on account of a mended fracture, was rather shorter than her left. Her face was white, puffy, the bridge of the nose encaved, the mouth open and the tongue protruding, the whole face bearing an expression of extreme agony as if she had died from strangulation.
This, however, was not the case. According to the museum’s brochure and Mr Sung, the Marquise had suffered from tuberculosis and a diseased gall bladder. Just before she died of some kind of heart attack she had consumed a hundred and twenty water melon seeds.
‘She have myocardial infarction, you know,’ said Mr Sung, quoting from memory out of the brochure, a habit of his. ‘Very sick, you know, bad heart, bad insides. Let’s go.’
They moved along to look down through a second aperture at the Marquise’s internal organs and dura mater preserved in bottles of formaldehyde. Mr Sung looked inquiringly into the face of his companion, hoping perhaps to see there signs of nausea or dismay. But the other man’s expression was as inscrutable as his own. Mr Sung gave a little sigh.
‘I wish you wouldn’t keep saying that,’ said Wexford irritably. ‘If I may suggest it, you should say, “Shall we go?” or “Are you ready?”’
Mr Sung said earnestly, ‘You may suggest. Thank you. I am anxious to speak good. Shall we go? Are you leady?’
‘Oh, yes, certainly.’
‘Don’t reply, please. I practise. Shall we go? Are you leady? Good, I have got it. Come, let’s go. Are you leady to go to the site? Reply now, please.’
They got back into the taxi. Between the air-conditioned building and the air-conditioned car the temperature seemed that of a moderate oven, set for the slow cooking of a casserole. The driver took them across the city to the excavation where archaeologists had found the bodies of the Marquise, her husband and her son, clay figures of servants, provisions, artefacts to accompany them on their journey beyond the grave. The other bodies had been skeletons, their clothing fallen to dust. Only the Marquise, hideous, grotesque, staring from sightless empty eyes, had retained the waxen lineaments of life, wrapped in her painted gown, her twenty layers of silk robes.
Wexford and Mr Sung looked through the wooden grille at the great deep rectangular burial shaft and Mr Sung quoted almost verbatim a considerable chunk from Fodor’s Guide to the People’s Republic of China. He had a retentive memory and seemed to believe that Wexford, because he couldn’t decipher ideographs, was unable to read his own language. It was even Wexford’s Fodor’s he was quoting from, artlessly borrowed the night before. Wexford didn’t listen. He would have given a good deal to have been rid of baby-faced pink-cheeked slant-eyed Mr Sung. In any other country on earth a bribe equivalent to a month’s wages – and here that would easily have been within Wexford’s means – would have freed him for good of his guide-interpreter. Not in China, where even tipping was banned. Mr Sung was incorruptible. In spite of his youth, he was already a party member. A fanatical light came into his eyes and his flabby muscles tautened when he spoke of the great statesmen, Mao Tse Tung included, his own native place of Hunan Province had produced. Wexford sometimes wondered if the day would come, twenty years hence perhaps, when if he still lived he would open his Times and read that the new Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party was one Sung Lao Zhong, aged forty-seven, from Chang-sha. It was more than possible. Mr Sung came to the end of his memorized paragraph, sighed at the call of duty but refused to shirk it.
‘Light,’ he said. ‘Shall we go? We visit now porcelain factory and before evening meal teacher training college.’
‘No, we don’t,’ said Wexford. A mosquito bit him just above the ankle bone. The heat was enormous. Like the imagined casserole, he was slowly cooking, a gravy-like viscous sweat trickling stickily all over his body. It was the humidity as much as the ninety-eight degree temperature that did it. ‘No, we don’t. We go to the hotel and have a shower and a siesta.’
‘There will be no other time for porcelain factory.’
‘I can’t help that.’
‘It is most necessary to see college attended by Chairman Mao.’
‘Not today,’ said Wexford. The ice-cold atmosphere in the car stimulated a gush rather than a trickle of sweat. He mopped his face.
‘Velly well. I hope you not leglet,’ said Mr Sung, indignation, as any emotion did, causing acute confusion in the pronunciation of liquids. ‘I aflaid you be solly.’ His voice was vaguely threatening. Much more rebellion on the part of this obstinate visitor, Wexford thought, and Mr Sung might even insist that no such omissions were open to him. If Lu Xing She, the Chinese Tourist Board, whose vicar on earth, so to speak, Mr Sung was, required Wexford to see factories, kindergartens, colleges and oil refineries, these institutions he would see and no doubt about it.
Mr Sung turned away and looked out of the window. His face seldom expressed anything but a ruthless affability. The top of his head came approximately to Wexford’s shoulder, though for a Southern Chinese he wasn’t particularly short. He wore a cotton shirt, white as driven snow, a pair of olive green baggy cotton trousers and sandals of chestnut brown moulded plastic. His father, he had told Wexford, was a party cadre, his mother a doctor, his sister and own wife doctors. They all lived together in a two-roomed apartment in one of the city’s grey barrack-like blocks with Mr Sung’s baby son, Tsu Ken.
Hooting at pedestrians, at cyclists who carried on their bikes anything from a couple of live fat piglets and a chicken to a suite of furniture, the car made its way through drab streets to the Xiangjiang Hotel. There were very few buildings in Chang-sha that pre-dated the Revolution of 1949, only the Kuomintang general’s house with green curly roofs just by the hotel and a ruined European church of grey stucco whose provenance no one seemed to know anything of. Mr Sung got out of the car and came into the lobby with him. There he shook hands. Any more casual mode of behaviour wouldn’t have satisfied his sense of duty. It was all Wexford could do to prevent his accompanying him to the eighth floor in the lift. He would be ready, please, by seven, said Mr Sung, for an open-air showing of a film about the history of the Revolution.
‘Oh, no, thank you,’ said Wexford. ‘Too many mosquitos.’
‘You take anti-malaria pill evly Fliday, I hope?’
‘I still don’t like being bitten.’ Wexford’s ankle bone felt twice its normal size. ‘Mysteriously enough –’ he caught sight in a rare mirror of his sweat-washed, sunburnt, never even adequately handsome face, ‘– I am particularly attractive to anopheles but the passion isn’t mutual.’ Mr Sung looked at him with uncomprehending relentless amiability. ‘And I won’t sit in the open inviting them to vampirize me.’
‘I see. Light. You come to cinema in hotel and see Shanghai Girl and Charlie Chaplin in Great Dictator. Shanghai Girl very good Chinese film about construction workers. I sit next so you don’t miss storly.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your wife and your baby?’
Mr Sung gave an enigmatic smile. He shook Wexford’s hand once more. ‘I do my job, light?’
Wexford lay on his iron-hard bed on a thin quilt. The undersheet, for some quaint reason, was a blue and white checked tablecloth. Cold air blew unevenly over him from the Japanese air conditioner, while outside the window the general’s house and the brown pantiled roofs of Chang-sha lay baking in moist sizzling heat. He had made himself, with water from the thermos flask that was one of the amenities of his room, half a pint of green tea in a cherry-blossom painted cup with a lid. They made you eat dinner here at six (breakfast at seven, lunch, appallingly, at eleven-thirty) but there was still an hour and a half to go. He couldn’t stomach the lemonade and strawberry pop and Cassia fizz you were expected to pour hourly into yourself to combat dehydration. He drank green tea all the time, making it himself and making it strong, or else he bought it from the street stalls for a single fen, something like a third of a penny, a glass.
Presently, after a second cup of tea, he dozed, but then it was time to shower and put on a fresh shirt for dinner. He would write to his wife later, there wasn’t time now. Hong Kong, where she was staying, waiting for him, seemed infinitely far away. He went down to the dining room where he would eat at a table by himself with his own private fan, discreetly half-concealed from the only other foreign contingent, Italians sitting at the next broad round table by a bamboo screen. He sat down and asked the girl for a bottle of beer.
The Italians came in and said hallo to him. The girl turned their fan on, tucked their screen round them and began bringing Wexford’s platters. Chicken and bamboo shoots in ginger sauce tonight, peanuts fried in oil, bright green nearly raw spinach, fried pumpkin and fried fish. Setting off with his nephew Howard and those other police officers who all ranked so much higher than he, he had brought a spoon and fork in his suitcase because he was afraid the Peking Hotel might not have Western cutlery. How green he had been, as green as the tea! The Peking Hotel was like an austere Ritz with arctic air-conditioning and a huge shopping arcade and curtains that drew and undrew electrically. But somehow none of them had ever bothered with the silver that was offered them but had eaten from the first as the Chinese eat, and now he was as proficient with chopsticks as might have been any dignitary in the Forbidden City. He could even, he now discovered, pick up a slippery oil-coated peanut with chopsticks, so skilful had he become. The girl brought him a bowl of rice and the big green bottle of Tsing-tao beer.
A feeling of tremendous well-being invaded him as he began to eat. He could still hardly believe after two weeks in China that he, Reg Wexford, a country policeman, was here in Tartary, in Cathay, had walked on the Great Wall, set foot on the Stone Boat in the Summer Palace, touched the scarlet columns in the Temple of Heaven, and was now touring southwards, seeing as many marvels and experiencing as many delights as Lu Xing She would permit.
When Chief Superintendent Howard Fortune of Scotland Yard, who was Wexford’s dead sister’s son, had first told a family gathering he was going to China in the summer of 1980, his uncle had felt something he wasn’t usually a prey to – envy. Howard would spend a good deal of time, of course, over the conference table. The particular branch of the Chinese Government who were his hosts wanted advice on crime prevention and crime detection and they would no doubt want to indulge in that favourite communist pastime of showing off national institutions – in this case, probably, police stations, courts, prisons. But Howard and his team would still have leisure to see the Imperial Palaces, Coal Hill and the Marco Polo Bridge. All his life Wexford had wanted to see the Forbidden City and been pretty sure he never would. But he had said nothing of this and had jollied Howard along and told him, as everyone else did, to be sure to buy jade and silk and to bring back a fragment of the Great Wall as a souvenir.
A week after that Howard had rung up to say he had to go to Brighton and would call in on his uncle in Kingsmarkham on the way back. He walked in at about six on a Saturday night, a cadaverous giant of a man who, though perfectly healthy, had always contrived to look twenty years older than he actually was. His parents-in-law lived in Hong Kong. After the China trip he would be joining his wife in Hong Kong. What would his aunt Dora think of joining Denise out there for two or three weeks?
‘Reg too?’ Dora had said quickly. She was used to being left for long hours, days, by him. But she would never go off and leave him of her own accord.
‘Can’t be done,’ Howard said, shaking his head. ‘He’ll be occupied elsewhere.’
Wexford thought he meant Kingsmarkham. He cocked an eyebrow at his nephew, though, at this curious choice of words.
‘I shall need him in Peking,’ said Howard.
There was a silence. Wexford said, ‘You have to be serious, don’t you, Howard?’
‘Of course I’m serious. I’ve got carte blanche to pick my own team and I’m picking you as about the best detection expert I know, bar none. And I’m giving you plenty of notice so that you can get your own visa. These group visas are such a bore if you want to go wandering off on your own round China, which I’m sure you will.’
And that was what he was doing now while Howard, the amateur antiquarian, prowled about the yellow roofed pavilions of Peking at his ecstatic leisure, and the other team members, nursing incipient coronaries, hastened back over the skies of Asia to British worries and British crime. It was two weeks of his own annual holiday Wexford was taking now. He had flown down from Peking three days before and been met at Chang-sha airport by Mr Sung. He would never forget that flight, the stewardess bringing a strange meal of hard-boiled eggs and sponge cake and dried plums wrapped up like toffees, and the passengers – he had been the only Caucasian – the boys and girls in blue cotton, the high-ranking Korean army officers, military and correct in khaki-green uniforms, yet fanning themselves with fans of black silk trimmed with gold.
Wexford was disturbed in his reverie by a discreet cough. Mr Sung was standing over him, waiting no doubt to take him to the cinema. Wexford asked him to sit down and have a beer but Mr Sung wouldn’t do that, he was a teetotaller. He did, however, sit down and began lecturing Wexford on higher education in China with particular reference to the Peking Institute of Foreign Languages which he referred to as his alma mater. Had Wexford visited the university while there? No? That was strange, he would certainly regret it, he would be sorry. Wexford drank two cups of green tea, ate four lichees and a piece of water melon.
‘Mind you not swallow seeds like two thousand-year-old lady,’ said Mr Sung, who had a sense of humour of a kind.
The Great Dictator was dubbed in Chinese. Wexford stuck it for ten minutes. It seemed to him that all the children in Chang-sha must be in the cinema, all laughing so much that they nearly fell off their mothers’ laps. He excused himself to Mr Sung, saying with perfect if strange truth that he was cold. The air conditioning was blasting away over his left shoulder and down his neck. He strolled out into the street where the air had a warm furry dusty feel to it like the inside of a muff. Opposite was a shop where they sold tea. Wexford thought he would buy more tea there in the morning, he had almost exhausted the packet the hotel supplied.
He walked. He had a good sense of direction which was as well since the ideographs in which the street signs were written rendered him illiterate. The city was dimly lit, a warren, exotic and fantastic without the least pretension to beauty. In a broad intersecting highway people were playing cards on the pavement by the light of street lamps. Remembering what the hotel’s name meant, he headed back for the river. Crowds thronged the streets, friendly people too polite to stare, though their children looked and pointed and giggled at this blue-eyed giant. Ten o’clock is the middle of the night when you have to be up again at six. Wexford made himself a cup of tea, went to bed and to sleep and plunged soon after into the kind of dream he never had, or hadn’t had for years.
A nightmare. He was in China but it was the China of his own youth, before the Communists came to power, long before the Cultural Revolution destroyed the temples of Taoists and Buddha and Confucius, when the cities were still walled-in clusters of pagodas. And he was a young man, Chinese perhaps. At any rate he knew he was on the run – from the Nationalist soldiers, it could have been, or the Communists or the Japanese. He was walking barefoot and with a pack on his back along a path to the north of the city, outside the city walls.
The stone door in the hillside stood a little open. He went inside as into a place to shelter for the night, finding himself in a cavernous passage that seemed to lead into the heart of the hill. It was cold in the passage and close with a dank, ancient kind of smell, the smell of the Han Dynasty perhaps. On and on he walked, not exactly afraid, no more than apprehensive. The passage was dark, yet he had no difficulty in finding his way into the big rectangular chamber, its walls shored up with wood, its dimness relieved by the light from a single small oil lamp of green bronze.
The lamp burned by the side of a wooden table or bench that looked to him like a bed provided for his own night’s rest. He went over to it, lifted off the painted silk cloth which covered it and looked down upon the Marquise of Tai. It was a sarcophagus that he had uncovered, set in a burial chamber. The dead woman’s face was convulsed in a grimace of agony, the cheeks puffed, the eyes black and protruding, the lips curled back from shrunken gums and sparse yellowed teeth and swollen tongue. He recoiled and started back, for there came from the misty, gloomy depths of the coffin a sweetish smell of putrefaction. But as he took hold of the silk to cover once more that hideous dead thing, a shudder seemed to pass along the striated limbs and the Marquise rose up and laid her icy arms about his neck.
Wexford fought his way out of the dream and awoke with a cry. He sat up and put the light on and came round to the roar of the air conditioner and the beating of his own heart. What a fool! Was it going to the cinema or eating fried fish spiced with ginger or the heat that had brought him a dream straight out of Curse of the Mummy’s Tomb? It certainly wasn’t as if he had never seen a woman’s corpse before, and most of those he had seen had been a good deal less well-preserved than that of the Marquise. He drank some water and put out the light.
It was on the following day that he first saw the woman with the bound feet.
She wasn’t the first woman of her kind he had seen since coming to China. The first had been in Peking on one of the marble bridges that cross the moat towards the Gate of Heavenly Peace. She was a tiny little old woman, very shrunken as the Chinese become with age, dressed in a black jacket and trousers, clasping a stick in one hand and with the other holding the arm of her daughter or daughter-in-law, for she could do no more than hobble. Her feet were like nothing so much as hooves, dainty hooves perhaps when she was young, shuffling club feet now in pinkish stockings and black slippers the size for a five-year-old.
Wexford had felt fascination, then a rush of revulsion. Foot-binding had come in about AD 500, hadn’t it, and gone out with the Kuomintang? At first only aristocrats had practised it but the fashion had caught on even among peasants, so that you could scarcely have found a girl in China with normal unrestricted feet. He wondered how old the woman was who crossed the marble bridge on her daughter’s arm. Perhaps no more than sixty. They used to begin the tight bandaging of feet, turning the toes under and up into the sole, when a girl was little more than a baby and the bones were pliable. Such was the power of fashion that no man would have wanted a wife with normal feet, a wife who could walk with ease. In the nineteen thirties the custom had been banned by law and feet that were not beyond remedy unbound. Fascination conquered revulsion, pity and distaste, and Wexford stared. After all, everyone stared at him.
How would that woman feel now? What would she feel? Self-pity, resentment, envy of her freer descendants and, worse, her liberated near-coevals? Wexford didn’t think so. Human nature wasn’t like that. For all the pain she had suffered, the curtailment of movement, the daily agony of dressing and cleansing and rebandaging, no doubt she looked with scorn on those girls who ran across the bridge on large whole healthy feet, and with a sniff of snobbish contempt shuffled the more proudly on her own tiny pointed deformities.
She was the first of several such women he had seen, maybe ten in all. They had caused him to look with curiosity at the shapely flexed feet of the Marquise of Tai, even though he knew she had been born centuries before the custom came into vogue. His dream seemed to him ridiculous when he reviewed it in the morning. He didn’t have nightmares, never had, and had no intention of starting on them now. It must have been the food.
Breakfast was by far the least palatable meal he got and he viewed the spread before him with resignation. Fried bread rolls, sliced soda bread, rancid butter, plum jam, chocolate cream cake and coconut biscuits. Tea was brought in an aluminium kettle and he drank two cups of it. Mr Sung was hovering before he had finished.
He had a fresh pink shirt on – he was one of the cleanest-looking people Wexford had ever seen – and his black hair was still damp from its morning wash. How could you achieve that sort of thing when you shared a bathroom not only with four or five members of your family but with the other tenants on the same floor besides? It was wholly admirable. Wexford now recalled uneasily how it was said that Westerners smelt bad to the Chinese, owing to their consumption of dairy products. If this was true his own smell must lately be much improved, he thought, pushing away the nearly liquid greenish butter.
‘You will not mind come on bus with party?’
‘Not at all. Why should I?’
As if Wexford had protested rather than concurred, Mr Sung said in a repressive scolding way, ‘It is not economic drive bus fifty kilometre for one man. This is very wasteful. Much better you come with party, very nice Europe and American people. Light?’
The very nice European and American people were trooping off to the bus as he came out of the hotel. They looked weary and somewhat dishevelled and as if the last thing they wanted was to be driven out into the scorching Chinese countryside to the scenes of Mao Tse Tung’s birth and infancy. However, they had little choice about that. Their guide, with whom his own was chatting in rapid Mandarin over a post-breakfast menthol cigarette, looked as relentless, determined, cheerful and clean as Mr Sung. He was a little taller, a little thinner, his English a little worse, and was introduced to Wexford as Mr Yu. They shook hands. It turned out he was a fellow alumnus of Mr Sung’s from the alma mater of foreign languages.
Of all green growing things the greenest is rice. Wexford looked out of the window at rice seedlings, rice half-grown, rice near to harvest. This was the very quintessence of greenness, perhaps Aristotle’s perfect green which all other greens must emulate and strive for. Men and women in the age-old Chinese blue cotton and conical straw hats worked in the fields with lumbering grey water buffalos. To distract Mr Sung and Mr Yu from their enthusiastic disquisitions on Mao’s political career, Wexford asked what the crops were and was told peanuts, aubergines, castor oil plants, cassava, taro and soya beans. Sheets of water – ponds, lakes, canals – studded the neat landscape like jewels on patterned silk.
After a while Mr Yu got up and went to the front of the bus and began translating items from a newspaper into bad English for the benefit of the tourists. Wexford was trying to decide what was meant by a pirates’ strike in Hungary and measles in Afghanistan when one of the men from the party came and sat in the seat next to him. He was a small man with a lined red face and a shock of sandy hair.
‘Mind if I join you?’
What could he say but that he didn’t mind?
‘My name’s Lewis Fanning. It was either coming to sit with you or jumping screaming off the bloody bus. You can’t be worse than that lot and there’s a chance you’re better.’
‘Thanks very much.’ Wexford introduced himself and asked for an explanation of Mr Yu’s news disclosures.
‘He means pilots and missiles. If I’d known he was coming on this jaunt I wouldn’t have myself. I’d have stayed in my room and got pissed. As it is I don’t reckon I’ll make it sane to Canton.’
Wexford asked him why he had come if he hated it so much.
‘Dear God in heaven, I’m not on my hols. I’m working. I’m the tour leader. I brought this lot here by train. D’you wonder I’m going bananas?’
‘On the train from where?’
‘Calais,’ said Fanning. He seemed cheered by Wexford’s incredulity. ‘Thirty-six days I’ve been in trains, the Trans-Siberian Railway among others. Ten lunatics to shepherd across Asia. I nearly lost one of them at the Berlin Wall. They uncoupled the carriage and she got left in the other bit. She jumped out yelling and came running up along the track, it’s a miracle she’s still here. There’s another one an alcoholic and one who can’t leave the men alone. To my certain knowledge she’s had four in various wagons-lits en route.’
Wexford couldn’t help laughing. ‘Where’s your destination?’
‘Hong Kong. We leave tomorrow night on the train via Kweilin. I’m sharing sleeping quarters with two guys who haven’t been on speaking terms since Irkutsk.’
Wexford too would be on that train, sharing his four-berth compartment, as far as he knew, only with Mr Sung. But he hesitated over inviting Lewis Fanning to join them and in the end he didn’t. Instead he listened to a long account of the alcoholic tourist’s propensities, how she had drunk a bottle of whisky a day and had had to be carried by four men back on to the train at Ulan Bator. This lasted until they reached Shao-shan and were drinking tea before climbing the hill to the Mao farmstead. The countryside here had that fresh sparkling look you occasionally see in England on a rare fine day after a long spell of rain. In front of the house the lotus reared its round sunshade leaves and pink lily flowers out of a shallow pond. The rice was the soft tender green of imperial jade. But for all that the heat was intense. Thirty-nine degrees, said Mr Yu, which Wexford, multiplying by nine, dividing by five and adding thirty-two, made out to be a formidable hundred and two Fahrenheit. In the shade it became suddenly and shockingly cool, but they weren’t in the shade much and when they walked back down the hill, their heads stuffed with Maoism, they still had the museum of Maoiana to inspect, before lunch in the hotel.
Wexford was one of those Englishmen who aver they find a hot drink more cooling and refreshing than a cold one. Once they were in the dining room of the hotel he drank about a pint of hot strong tea. Mr Sung sat with Mr Yu at a table with two local guides. The train party, for some inscrutable, Chinese, culinary reason, were placed behind a screen and once more Wexford found himself alone.
He was rather annoyed at being so affected by the heat. He misquoted to himself, ‘My mother bore me in a northern clime’. Was that the reason for his feeling felled and bludgeoned in this temperature? Behind him a fan moved the warm heavy air about. Two girls brought a banquet in to him, no less than seven platters. Hard-boiled eggs, battered and fried, lotus buds, pork and pineapple, duck with beansprouts, mushrooms and bamboo shoots, prawns with peas and raw sliced tomatoes. He asked for more tea. From the moment he picked up the carved wooden chopsticks and began to eat the sweat rolled off him, wetting the back of his chair through his shirt.
Across the room the guides were eating fried bread rolls and hundred-year-old eggs and what Wexford thought might be snake.
‘As long as it moves they’ll eat it,’ Lewis Fanning had muttered to him on entering the room. ‘They’ll eat mice if they can catch them.’
A murmur of soft giggling voices came from the girls. It was like the twittering of birds at sundown. The men’s voices rose and fell in the strange purity of ancient Mandarin. Wexford wondered how it had come about that Europeans called the Chinese yellow. The skins of those four were a clear translucent ivory, a red flush on their cheeks, their hands thin and brown. He turned away, compelling himself not to stare, and looking instead into the shadowy part of the room from which the waitresses emerged where he saw an old woman standing by the doorway.
She was looking at him intently. Her face was pale and pouchy, her eyes black as raisins. Chinese hair scarcely ever turns white, remains black indeed long into middle age, and hers, though her age seemed great, was only just touched with grey. She wore a grey jacket over black trousers and her bound feet were tiny and wedge-shaped in their grey stockings and black child’s slippers. She stood erect enough but nevertheless supported herself on a cane.
The mother of the proprietor or the cook, Wexford supposed. Her stare was almost disconcerting. It was as if she wanted to speak to him, was girding herself up to find the courage to speak to him. But that was absurd. The over-whelming probability was that she spoke nothing but Chinese. Their eyes met once more. Wexford put down his chopsticks, wiped his mouth and got up. He would go to Mr Sung and ask him to interpret for them, so evident was it that she wished to communicate something.
But before he reached Mr Sung’s table the woman was gone. He looked back to where she had stood and there was no longer anyone there. No doubt he had imagined her need. He wasn’t in Kingsmarkham now, he reminded himself, where he was so often consulted, grumbled at, even pleaded with.
Lunch over, they went once again into the relentless sunshine to visit the school Mao had attended and the pond where he had swum. On the way back to the bus Wexford looked again for the old woman. He peered into the dim lobby of the hotel on the chance she might be there, but there was no sign of her. Very likely she had gazed so intently at him only from the same motive as the children’s – because his height and size, his clothes, ruddy skin and scanty fair hair were as remarkable here as a unicorn galloping down the street.
‘Now,’ said Mr Sung, ‘we go to Number One Normal School, Chairman Mao’s house, Clear Water Pond.’ He jumped on to the bus with buoyant step.
Wexford’s last day in Chang-sha was spent at Orange Island and in the museum where artefacts from the tombs at Mawangdui were on show. There, reproduced in wax this time, lay the Marquise of Tai, still protected by glass but available for a closer scrutiny. Wexford drank a pint of green tea in the museum shop, bought some jade for Dora, a fan for his younger daughter made of buffalo bone that looked like ivory – Sheila the conservationist wouldn’t have approved of ivory – and a painting of bamboo stems and grasshoppers with the painter’s seal in red and his signature in black calligraphy.
There was an English air about the old houses on the island with their walled gardens, their flowers and vegetables, the river flowing by. Their walls were of wattle and daub like cottages in Sewingbury. But the air was scented with ginger and the canna lilies burned brick red in the hazy heat. Off the point where Mao had once swum, boys and girls were bathing in the river. Mr Sung took the opportunity to give Wexford a lecture on Chinese political structure to which he didn’t listen. In order to get his visa he had had to put down on the application form his religion and politics. He had selected, not without humour, the most stolid options: Conservative, Church of England. Sometimes he wondered if these reactionary entries had been made known by a form of red grapevine to his guide. He sat down in the shade and gazed appreciatively at the arch with its green pointed roof, delicate and jewel-like against a silvery blue sky.
Through the arch, supported this time on a walking stick with a carved buffalo-bone handle, came the old woman with bound feet he had seen at the hotel in Shao-shan. Wexford gave an exclamation. Mr Sung stopped talking and said sharply, ‘Something is wrong?’
‘No. It just seems extraordinary. That woman over there, I saw her in Shao-san yesterday. Small world.’
‘Small?’ said Mr Sung. ‘China is very big country. Why lady from Shao-shan not come Chang-sha? She come, go, just as she like, all Chinese people liberated, all Chinese people flee. Light? I see no lady. Where she go?’
The sun was in Wexford’s eyes, making him blink. ‘Over by the gate. A little woman in black with bound feet.’
Mr Sung shook his head vehemently. ‘Very bad feudal custom, very few now have, all dead.’ He added, with a ruthless disregard for truth, ‘Cannot walk, all stay home.’
The woman had gone. Back through the arch? Down one of the paved walks between the canna lily beds? Wexford decided to take the initiative.
‘If you’re ready, shall we go?’
Astonishment spread over Mr Sung’s bland face. Wexford surmised that no other tourist had ever dared anything but submit meekly to him.
‘OK, light. Now we go to Yunlu Palace.’
Leaving the island, they met the train party under the leadership of Mr Yu. Lewis Fanning was nowhere to be seen, and walking alongside Mr Yu, in earnest conversation with him, was the younger and better-looking of the two men who had quarrelled on the Trans-Siberian Railway. His enemy, a tall man with a Humpty-Dumpty-ish shape, brought up the rear of the party and gazed about him with a nervous unhappy air. The women’s clothes had suffered irremediably from those thirty-six days in a train. They were either bleached and worn from too frequent washing or dirty and creased from not having been washed at all.
Already, and without difficulty, Wexford had decided which was the nymphomaniac and which the alcoholic: a highly-coloured woman and a drab one respectively. Apart from these four apparently single people, the party consisted of another lone, and much older, woman, and two elderly married couples, one set of whom were accompanied by their middle-aged daughter. On the whole, Wexford reflected, it would seem that the young and the beautiful couldn’t afford five-week long tours across Asia.
That evening the screens were drawn closely around their table and he had no further sight of the party until he and they were boarding the bus for Zhuzhou where they would pick up the Shanghai to Kweilin train.
It would have been easier and quicker to fly. Fanning’s party, of course, had to make every leg of their journey by train but Wexford would happily have gone on by air. It wasn’t a matter of his will, though, but the will of Lu Xing She and Mr Sung.
He had a double seat to himself on the bus. Silently he observed his fellow passengers. A couple of days in the hotel at Chang-sha had gone a long way towards reviving them and they looked less as if they had been pulled through a hedge backwards.
Each of the enemies had also secured a double seat, one of them behind the driver, the other on the opposite side of the aisle to Wexford. Out of the corner of his eye Wexford read the label tied to the older man’s handcase. A. H. Purbank, and an address somewhere in Essex. Purbank was perhaps forty-five, unhealthy-looking, thin, dressed in baggy jeans and an open-necked pale green shirt. His sprucer, dark-haired adversary was also in jeans, but a snugly fitting pair of denims which looked smart and suitable with a ‘friendship’ tee shirt. He had swivelled round in his seat and was talking to the woman in the seat behind him. This was the daughter of one of the elderly couples and after a little while Wexford saw her get up and sit in the empty place beside him. Wexford, with another glance at Purbank, thought how uncomfortable it must have been travelling all those miles from Irkutsk away up there on Lake Baikal with a man with whom you weren’t on speaking terms. What quarrel had sprung up between these inoffensive-seeming travellers? Both were English, both middle-class, prosperous presumably, adventurously inclined surely, having a fair bit in common, yet they had fallen out so bitterly as purposely not to have exchanged a word across all those vast stretches of eastern Asia. At table in the hotels they must have sat, if not together, near enough to each other, perhaps have been allotted adjoining rooms. Now they were to share a sleeping space some eight feet by five and lie breathing the same warm air in the rattling darkness for eight or nine hours. It was grotesque.
Was one of them or perhaps each of them among the four men with whom Fanning alleged that pretty, painted, ageing creature in the spotted blouse and white pants had engaged in sexual relations during the trip? Fanning, of course, exaggerated wildly. Certainly he couldn’t have been indicating as among her partners the fair woman’s father, asleep now with his white cotton hat drooped over his eyes, or the austere silver-haired man with the ugly wife. Of course, Wexford reflected, he hadn’t exactly specified members of the party and presumably there had been plenty of other men in the Trans-Siberian train.
The bright sky had clouded over and a little warm rain had begun to fall. It was still raining lightly when they came on to the station platform. By each door of the train stood a girl attendant in grey uniform and with the red star of the People’s Republic on her cap. Wexford was shown to the carriage that was to be his for the night. Though clean and with comfortable-looking berths it was insufferably hot, the thermometer on the wall telling him the temperature was two degrees short of a hundred. Once the train started, he opened the window and switched on the fan. A very slightly cooler air blew in through the fly screen.
As soon as they were off Mr Sung came in. Wexford, who had discovered a thermos flask and was busy with the Silver Leaf he had bought in Chang-sha, offered him a cup of tea but Mr Sung refused. Here, as elsewhere, he contrived to give the impression of always being busy and involved. The restaurant car would open at eight, he said, and drinks would be available: beer, red and white wine, Maotai, maybe Japanese whisky.
Wexford drank tea and read his Fodor’s. It was dusk now, growing dark, and was no longer unpleasantly hot, though smuts came in through the fine mesh of the screen. Hunan Province, blanketed in darkness, fled past as the train reached a steady speed. After a while he went out into the corridor to establish the whereabouts of lavatory and bathroom.
Next to the bathroom, in the first compartment of the carriage, four Hong-Kong Chinese in Palm Beach shirts and white trousers sat playing cards. The door of the next one was opened as Wexford passed it and a voice said, ‘Oh, excuse me. I wonder if we could possibly trouble you a moment?’
Wexford went in, not entirely reluctantly. He had been curious enough about these two women to want to make a closer personal estimate. The one he had privately styled the alcoholic was lying in one of the lower berths, her shoes tumbled on the floor and her swollen feet raised up on two pillows. She gave him a wan smile.
‘It’s so awful constantly trying to make oneself understood to these Chinese,’ said the other, ‘and that beastly Yu has disappeared again. He always disappears when you want him. I suppose he thinks playing hard to get makes him more desirable, do you think? Oh, by the way, I’m Lois Knox and this is Hilda Avory – I already know your name, I spied on your luggage – and now, please, please, do you think you could be awfully sweet and make our fan work?’
The attendant who had shown Wexford to his carriage had worked his fan for him, so he had no difficulty in finding the switch which was rather cunningly hidden under the back of the table.
Lois Knox clasped her hands together girlishly.
‘And since you’re so clever, could you be even more of an angel and find out how to suppress that bloody radio?’
The martial music which had greeted him on entering the compartment – interrupted now for what was presumably a political harangue – Wexford had supposed to be on at the desire of the occupants.
‘Oh, no, we hate it, don’t we, Hilda? There should be a knob under there but it’s broken and it won’t move. How shall we ever get a wink of sleep?’ Her eyes were a brilliant sea-blue, large beautiful eyes which she fixed intensely on his face. The muscles of her face sagged rather and her jawline was no longer firm but she had something of a youthful look as the gyrating fan fluttered her black hair about. It was dyed hair, greyish-brown at the roots after five weeks away from a hairdresser.
‘You’re all by yourself, aren’t you?’ She didn’t wait for confirmation. ‘We’re on that beastly train tour but never again, so help us God. How we should love an aircraft or even a humble bus for a change, shouldn’t we, Hilda?’
Hilda Avory made no reply. She put out a hand for her teacup and drank from it with a shudder. She had a damp look, skin glistening, tendrils of hair clinging to her forehead, portions of her dress adhering to thin flesh, as if she had been out in the rain or had sweated profusely.
Wexford set about hunting for the controls of the radio. ‘I could fix it for you if I had a pair of pliers.’
‘Imagine trying to explain pliers to that inscrutable little Yu! Do have a cup of tea, won’t you? Or some laoshan?’
‘That’s Chinese for mineral water,’ said Hilda Avory, speaking for the first time. She had a gravelly voice, unexpectedly deep.
‘I’m terribly afraid we haven’t anything stronger but the fact is Hilda is drying out, aren’t you, darling? And she doesn’t feel it’s very wise to have spirits about, such an awful temptation, you know.’
There seemed no answer to make to this. He accepted a cup of tea. The music burst forth once more in a kind of Chinese version of ‘Washington Post’.
‘What shall we do?’ cried Lois Knox. She brought her hands together appealingly. The red nails were as long as a Manchu’s. ‘We shall be found stark raving mad in the morning.’
‘How about cutting the wires?’ said Wexford.
The deep voice from the other berth said, ‘Not a good idea. I heard of someone who did that in China and they had to pay to have the whole train rewired. It cost them thousands of yuan.’
‘I’ll see what I can do,’ said Wexford. He drank up his tea and went off down the corridor to find an attendant.
The only one he came upon, a very young boy, had nodded off to sleep, his head against the hard wall, in a little cubby-hole next to the bathroom. Wexford went on over the intersection into the next carriage, the sweat gathering on his body now and breaking out on his forehead and upper lip. Away from the fans the heat was as great as ever. There was nothing but dense blackness to be seen outside now and, dimly through the upper part of the windows, a few faint stars. In a compartment with Mr Yu and another young Chinese sat Mr Sung, the three of them poring over a map of the Li River spread out on the table.
‘Restaurant will open eight o’clock,’ said Mr Sung as soon as he saw him. All the guides seemed to think that visitors from the west needed to eat and drink all day long in order to maintain equilibrium, and that any requests they received from tourists must necessarily be for food or tea or beer. ‘I come fetch you when restaurant open.’
‘I want a pair of pliers,’ said Wexford.
Mr Sung, Mr Yu and the other man looked at him in blank inquiry. Wexford recalled how, in Peking, he had asked an interpreter where he could buy a packet of aspirin and had been directed to an ice-cream shop.
‘Players,’ said Mr Sung at last.
‘You want cigarettes?’ said Mr Yu. ‘You get plenty cigarettes when restaurant open.’
‘I don’t want cigarettes, I want pliers.’ Wexford made pinching movements with his fingers, he mimed pulling a nail out of the wall. Mr Sung stared amiably at him. Mr Yu stared and then laughed. The other man handed him a large shabby book which turned out to be an English-Chinese dictionary. Wexford indicated ‘pliers’ and its ideograph with his fingertip. Everyone smiled and nodded, Mr Sung went off down the corridor and came back with a girl train attendant who handed Wexford a pair of eyebrow tweezers.
Wexford gave up. It was a quarter to eight and he began to look forward to a beer. In the intersection he met the little elderly woman who was travelling in what he had mentally dubbed – though it certainly was not – a ménage à rois. She was carrying a packet of teabags.
‘Oh, good evening,’ she said. ‘This is quite an adventure, isn’t it?’ Wexford wasn’t sure if she spoke with seriousness or irony, still less so when she went on to say, her head a little on one side, ‘We English must stick together, is what I always say.’
He knew at once then, he intuited, he hardly knew how, that she was getting at him. It was neither witty nor particularly clever, though she intended it to be both, and she was referring to his brief association with Lois Knox which she had perhaps observed from the corridor. Her expression was dry, her mouth quirked a little. She was as small and thin as a Chinese and the dark blue trouser suit she wore unsexed her. What was she to the man Fanning had told him was a retired barrister? Sister? Sister-in-law? Wife’s confidante or best friend’s widow? As she went on her way into the next compartment he observed that her left hand was ringless.
In the cubby-hole next to the bathroom the boy was still asleep with his head against the wall. Wexford saw what he hadn’t noticed before, a cloth toolbag lying beside the boy’s legs on the floor. He went in, opened the toolbag and helped himself to a pair of pliers.
Outside the windows a few feeble clusters of light showed. They were passing a village or small town. For a moment the outline of a mountain could be seen and then the darkness closed in once more as the train gathered speed. Wexford stood in the doorway of Lois Knox’s compartment. The radio was still on, playing a selection from Swan Lake. Hilda Avory still lay in the lower berth and on the end of it, beside her feet, sat Purbank. He seemed to be addressing them on the very subject which had been the reason for Wexford’s visit to China in the first place, crime prevention. Lois’s face wore the expression of a woman who has been taught from childhood that men must at all costs be flattered. Hilda’s eyes were closed and slightly screwed up.
‘These Communists make a lot of high-flown claims about how they’ve got rid of crime. Now that’s all very well but we know in practice it just isn’t true. I mean, where did I have my watch pinched and my Diners Club card and all that currency? Not in Europe, oh, no. In the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. And that, mark you, was in a train. Now why should it be any different here? Same lack of material possessions – worse, if anything – so you can bet your life they can’t wait to get their hot little hands on rich capitalists’ property – and that means yours. So don’t leave it in the compartment, carry it with you, and when you . . .’
Wexford coughed. Lois saw him and jumped up, clasping her hands. In his absence she had put on more lipstick and eyeshadow and had changed into a low-necked dress of thin yellow material with a black pattern on it.
‘Oh, what a fright you gave me! Tony has been scaring us out of our wits with tales of robbery and murder.’
Purbank gave a very macho, reassuring-the-little-woman haw-haw of a laugh. ‘When did I mention murder now? I never said a word about murder. I merely counselled the inadvisability of leaving valuables around.’
‘Quite right too,’ said Wexford.
He groped under the table, got a grip on the broken knob with the pliers and wrenched it anticlockwise. The music stopped.
‘Oh, you wonderful, wonderful man!’ cried Lois. ‘Listen to the blessed silence. Peace at last! Don’t you adore the masterful way he strode into the compartment? You couldn’t do that, Tony. All you could do was say we’d have to put up with it all night and get robbed as well.’
‘Give the man a cup of tea,’ muttered Hilda into her pillow.
‘I’ll give him anything he wants!’ She extended the teacup to Wexford, holding it in both hands and bowing over it in what she perhaps thought was the manner of an emperor’s concubine. ‘Oh, if only you hadn’t drunk up all the Scotch, Hilda!’
But at that moment Mr Yu appeared in the doorway, announced that the restaurant was open and please to follow him. Mindful perhaps of Purbank’s warning, Lois gathered up purse, handbag, hand case and what looked like a jewel box. Wexford gulped down the by now lukewarm tea, realizing he was about to be trapped into a foursome with the two women and Purbank. This being China, though, the restaurant would hardly be open for long. Everywhere he had been so far what night life there was came to a halt at about ten. But was there much chance of sleep in this stuffy train? He felt himself being overtaken by those sensations which result from an insufficiency of sleep, not so much tiredness as a lightness in the head and a feeling of unreality.
They walked down the corridor, Wexford at the rear with Lois immediately in front of him. The boy was still asleep, his head having slid down the wall and come to rest on the table. Wexford slipped in to replace the pliers in the toolbag. Lois hadn’t noticed his absence and had gone on in the wake of the others. Wexford stood a moment by the window, trying to make out some indication of the terrain in the darkness that rushed past. He heard a footstep not far from him, the way they had come, turned round and saw approaching him, though still some yards away, the old woman with the bound feet.
This time she was without her stick. Had she followed him on to the train? He closed his eyes, opened them again and she was gone. Had she turned aside into one of the compartments? A hand, red-taloned, was laid on his arm, he smelt Lois Knox’s perfume.
‘Reg? Do come along, darling, we thought we’d lost you.’
He followed her down the corridor to the restaurant car.
Blue velvet curtains, lace curtains, and on the seats those dun-coloured cotton covers with pleated valances that cover the chairs all over China in waiting rooms and trains and airports and even aircraft. Lois patted the chair next to hers and he had no choice but to sit there. On the table were a plate of wrapped sweets, a plate of wedges of sponge cake, a wine bottle which contained, according to Purbank, spirit and a spirit bottle containing wine. Both liquids were the colour of a Riesling. Wexford asked the waiter for a bottle of beer. Purbank, lighting a cigar, began to talk about the frequent incidence of burglaries in metropolitan Essex.
The restaurant car was full. Chinese passengers sat eating noodles and vegetables out of earthenware bowls. The guides were drinking tea, whispering softly together in Pu Tong Hua. Behind Wexford the two married couples shared a table and the older of the men, in the high-pitched, jovially insensitive voice common to many surgeons, was instructing his companions in the ancient art of foot-binding. A gasp of revulsion came from the barrister’s wife as he described toes atrophying.
The beer arrived. It was warm and sweetish. Wexford made a face and signalled to the waiter who was walking round with a tea kettle. Under the tablecloth Lois’s knee touched his. ‘Excuse me,’ Wexford said and he got up and walked over to Mr Sung’s table. ‘Let me know when you’re ready for bed. I don’t want to keep you up.’
One of those complex misunderstandings now arose. Why did Wexford want him, Mr Sung, to go to bed? He was not ill. It was (in Mr Sung’s words) only twenty-one hundred hours. The dictionary was again produced. Mr Yu smiled benignly, smoking a cigarette. At length it transpired that Mr Sung was not sharing Wexford’s compartment for the night, had never intended to share his compartment, would instead be sharing with Mr Yu and the other man whom he introduced as Mr Wong. Because the train wasn’t crowded Wexford had his accommodation to himself. He went over to Lewis Fanning and offered him one of the spare berths in his compartment.
But Fanning rejoined in a fashion very interesting to those who are students of character.
‘Good God in heaven, I couldn’t leave those two alone together! They’d be at each other’s throats in two shakes of a turkey’s tail. They’d tear each other to pieces. No, I’m frightfully grateful and all that but it’d be more than my life’s worth.’
From which Wexford gathered that Fanning was by no means dreading the night ahead and looked forward to extracting from it the maximum of dramatic value for the delectation of those willing to listen to him. Mr Sung, Mr Yu and Mr Wong had begun to play cards. The surgeon was drawing diagrams of the metatarsals, before and after binding, on a table napkin. Wexford sat down again. His teacup had been refilled. Having apparently postponed her drying out, Hilda Avory was drinking steadily from a tumbler filled out of the wine bottle Purbank said held the Chinese spirit Maotai, while Purbank himself told anecdotes of thefts and break-ins he had known. Lois Knox’s knee came back against Wexford’s and he felt her bare toes nudge his ankle, her sandal having been kicked off under the table. The train ran on through impenetrable darkness, through a dark that showed no demarcation between land and sky and which was punctured by not a single light.
The little woman in the blue trouser suit came into the restaurant car and hesitated for a moment before making for the table where the two married couples sat. The barrister jumped up and pulled out a chair for her. And then Wexford understood it was she he had seen. It was she who had been coming down the corridor when he turned away from the window, she who, while his eyes were closed, had vanished into her own compartment. She too was a small slight creature, she too was dressed in a dark-coloured pair of trousers and a jacket, and though her feet had certainly never been subjected to binding, they were not much bigger than a child’s and they too were encased in the black Chinese slippers on sale everywhere. He laughed inwardly at himself. He must be very weary and light-headed if he really believed that the Chinese woman he had seen in Shao-shan and then on Orange Island was following him by train to Kweilin. He drank his tea, accepted a glass of Maotai. Who knew? It might help him to sleep.
Hilda Avory got unsteadily to her feet. She said in a shaky tone, ‘I think I could get a little sleep if I try now. Please don’t be long, Lois. You’ll wake me up if you come bursting in at midnight.’
‘Darling, I never burst,’ said Lois. She edged a little closer to Wexford. ‘Be an angel and give her a hand, Tony, this awful awful train does jerk so.’
Purbank hesitated, torn between being a gentleman and ordering another bottle of laurel flower wine before the bar closed. Fanning, alerted, had half-risen from his seat. ‘Allow me,’ said Wexford, seizing his opportunity. Lois made a petulant little sound. He smiled at her, rather as one might at a difficult child who, after all, is not one’s own and whom one may never meet again, and taking Hilda’s arm, shepherded her away between the tables and out into the corridor.
She was sweating profusely, deodorized, French-perfumed sweat, that trickled down her arm and soaked through his own shirt sleeve. Outside the window a box of a building, studded all over with points of light, flashed out of the darkness and receded as the train passed. Wexford slid open the door of the compartment next to his own and helped her in. It was silent in there now. The fan had been switched off so that the air was heavy and thick and densely hot with a faint smell of soot. The thermometer read ninety-five degrees or thirty-five Celsius. He switched the fan on again. Hilda fell on to the left-hand berth and lay face-downwards. Wexford stood there for a few moments, looking at her, wondering if there was anything more he could do and deciding there wasn’t, moistening his lips, passing his tongue over the dry roof of his mouth. The Maotai had set up a fresh thirst. He closed the door on Hilda and went into his own compartment.
The fan was off there too. Wexford switched it on and turned back the sheet on the lower left-hand berth. His thermos had been refilled and there were two teabags on the table. He had never cared for teabags. He put a big helping of Silver Leaf into the cup and poured on the near-boiling water. A pungent aromatic perfume came off the liquid, as unlike supermarket packet tea at home as could be. For a moment or two, drinking his tea, he peered into the shining, starless darkness that streamed past the window and then he pulled down the blind.
Lois Knox and Purbank were coming along the corridor together now. He could hear their voices but not what they said. Then Purbank spoke more loudly, ‘Good night to you, ladies.’ His footsteps pattered away.
Wexford waited for the corridor to empty. He made his way to the bathroom. The lavatory was vacant, the bathroom engaged, the barrister having stolen a march on him and got there first. In the lavatory it was hot and there was a nauseous smell of ammonia. The train rattled and sang. Wexford waited in the corridor, looking out of the window at nothing, saying goodnight to the doctor and his wife who passed him, waiting for the barrister to come out of the bathroom and leave it free. Purbank’s enemy and the doctor’s daughter, he reflected, hadn’t been with the rest in the restaurant car. A holiday romance? The bathroom door opened, the barrister came out, said rather curtly, ‘Good night to you,’ and walked off, carrying his dark brown towel and tartan sponge bag.
Wexford washed his hands and face and cleaned his teeth, trying not to swallow any of the water. Of course he should have brought some of the water from the thermos flask with him.
All the compartment doors were shut. The light that burned in the corridor wasn’t very powerful. Wexford wondered, not for the first time, if there were such a thing as a hundred-watt bulb in the whole of China. He slid open the door to his compartment.
In the right-hand berth, on her back, her striated pinkish-white legs splaying from under the white shift, her face white and puffy, the bridge of the nose encaved, the mouth open and the tongue protruding, lay the Marquise of Tai.
He didn’t cry out or even gasp. He closed his eyes and held his fists tightly clenched. Without looking again at the dead thing, the mummified, two-thousand-year-old thing, he turned swiftly and went out into the corridor. He didn’t know whether he shut the door behind him or not.
He walked down the corridor. The bathroom window was open and he went in, inhaling the cooler air. He put his head out of the window into the rushing darkness. None knew better than he that this was an unwise thing to do. Years ago, when he was young, he had been to an inquest on a man who put his head out of a train window and was decapitated as the train entered a tunnel. He breathed deeply, closed his eyes again. Any attempts at thinking were impossible. He would have to go back there and do something.
The bathroom door opened and someone said, ‘Oh, sorry.’ It was the old doctor.
‘I’m just going,’ said Wexford.
He wondered if his face was as white as it felt. The doctor didn’t seem to notice anything. Humming to himself, he began to wash his hands. Wexford walked swiftly back down the corridor the way he had come, blindly as well as fast, for he almost collided with Lois Knox who was sliding open the door to her own compartment. She wore a short, white, crumpled negligee of broderie anglaise and her face had the stripped look women’s faces have that are usually coated with make-up.
He apologized. She said nothing but drew the door across with a slam. Drawing breath, tensing himself, he opened his own door and looked at the berth. It was empty.
Wexford sat down. He closed his eyes and opened them and looked at the berth and saw it was still empty. He would dearly have liked a stiff whisky or even a glass of Maotai, but he was pretty sure he wouldn’t get either at this hour – it was after eleven – even if he knew how to summon an attendant, which he didn’t. He scattered Silver Leaf into a clean cup and poured hot, no longer boiling, water on to it.
There was no doubt of what he had seen. The corpse had been lying there. And what he had seen had been precisely what he had seen when he had looked down through the cavity in the museum floor at the glass sarcophagus below. It had been the same even to the shortened right arm, the flexed feet, the yawning tongue-filled mouth. He knew he had seen it. And now, gingerly, then more firmly, touching the opposite berth, he saw that something had indeed lain there. There was a distinct indentation in the pillow and a creasing of the upper sheet. Something had lain there, been put there, and in his absence had been removed.
He found there was no way of locking his door, but it was possible by stuffing the side into which the door slid with the Peking Blue News, to prevent anyone’s opening it from the outside. He drank his tea. The fan had gone off for the night and, in spite of the open window, a close heavy warmth filled the compartment. A nasty thought came to Wexford as he undressed. By means of the metal step which let down out of the wall, he climbed up and checked there was nothing in either of the upper berths. He had just recalled a particularly unpleasant story by F. Marion Crawford in which a traveller at sea finds a drowned corpse, or the ghost of a drowned corpse, in the upper berth of his cabin.
When he had had a second cup of tea he put out the light. After several hours of tossing and turning he got about an hour’s sleep but no more. It was still only three when he awoke and he knew he wouldn’t get any more sleep that night.
He sat up, switched the light on and asked himself a question. Was it possible that what he had seen lying in that berth was Lois Knox?
Wexford was a modest man with a humble idea of his own attractions insofar as he ever thought about them. To his own wife he seemed to be unfailingly attractive after thirty years of marriage, but this was something to be thankful for and dismissed rather than speculated about. His life hadn’t been devoid of feminine admiration; he had taken none of it very seriously. He hadn’t taken Lois Knox seriously at all, yet now he came to think of it . . . if what Fanning said was true, or even partly true, this holiday was for her a kind of sex tour. Wexford knew very well that a woman of this sort need not even find her selected partner attractive; it would be enough that he were a man and accessible, someone to boost her drooping ego, for an evening or an hour, someone to quell her panic, push old age and death an inch or two further away.
Foolishly, he had smiled at her on leaving the restaurant car. Had she taken this smile for an invitation? She had been in the corridor when he came back from the bathroom. She had been wearing a short white shift or at any rate a short white dressing gown, and she had seemed offended with him, in high dudgeon. Had it been she, then, lying in that berth, waiting for him? What must she have felt when he recoiled, closed his eyes in horror and stumbled out without a word?
Wexford was aware that a good many people would have found this funny. After all, the woman, no longer young, no longer attractive, but as forward and brazen as any young beauty, had only got what she deserved. At least, thank God, she didn’t know he had mistaken her for a two-thousand-year-old, diseased, disembowelled corpse. But had he? Again, closing his eyes in the dim warm jogging compartment, he saw what he had seen. The Marquise of Tai. The face wasn’t Lois’s face – God preserve him! And that shortened right arm? Those thighs, scored with deep striations?
Perhaps he needed glasses for daily wear, not just for reading. Perhaps he was going mad. Presumably if you developed schizophrenia – which was quite possible, there was such a thing as spontaneous schizophrenia coming on in middle age – presumably then you had hallucinations and didn’t know they were hallucinations and behaved, in short, just as he had. Don’t be a fool, he told himself. Get some sleep. No wonder you see visions when you never get any sleep. Towards morning he dozed, until the sunrise came in and the fan came on again.
Things always seem different in the morning. We reiterate this truism always with wonder perhaps because it is such a remarkable truth. It is invariably so. The fearful, the anxious, the monstrous, the macabre, all are washed away in the cool practical morning light. The light which filled Wexford’s compartment wasn’t particularly cool but it performed the same cleansing function. He wasn’t mad, he could see perfectly, and no doubt he shouldn’t have drunk that big glass of Maotai on the previous evening.
Events quickly confirmed that it had been Lois Knox in the lower berth. In the restaurant car she and Hilda Avory were sharing their table with the barrister, his wife and the wife’s friend, and all but Lois looked up to say good morning to him. Lois, who had been reading aloud from her guide to Kweilin, paused, stared out of the window, and once he had passed on, continued in a gushing voice.
Wexford took a seat opposite Fanning.
‘How was your night? I see they haven’t killed each other.’
‘Mr Purbank and I slept soundly, thank you. Mr Vinald didn’t honour us with his presence, thank God. As far as I can gather, and I can’t say the subject fascinates me, he had the vacant berth in Dr Baumann’s compartment.’
‘Unconventional,’ said Wexford.
‘There’s nothing like a few days on the Trans-Siberian Railway to make you forget all the dearest tenets of your upbringing. Not that there’d be anything like that with the Baumanns and Mr Vinald. Daddy and Gordon up top, Mummy and Margery down below.’
Wexford glanced at the plump fair-haired woman who now sat next to her father and opposite Gordon Vinald, eating the Chinese version of a Spanish omelette which always appeared under the sweeping generic title of ‘eggs’ and which was served up without fail each breakfast time wherever he had been. She was pleasant-looking with a serene face and she hadn’t made the mistake which Lois had of cramming an hour-glass shape into trousers and tee shirt. His glance now fell upon Lois herself. Her hair was carefully dressed, her face painted to a passable imitation of youth. She bore not the least resemblance to the Marquise of Tai and it would have been a cruel libel to suggest it. Her eyes met his and she looked away in calculated disdain.
‘Mrs Knox given you the old heave-ho yet?’ asked Fanning innocently.
‘Good God, no,’ said Wexford.
‘I only wondered.’
Mr Sung, Mr Yu and Mr Wong were eating with chopsticks from bowls of noodles with rice and vegetables. Purbank came in and Wong immediately got up to speak to him. Whatever it was he said, it brought an expression of edginess to Purbank’s face, for a moment he looked almost panicky. He walked away from the Chinese and sat at a table by himself.
Wexford felt relieved. He was noticing people’s behaviour again, he was himself again, he had cleansed his thoughts of what hadn’t, after all, been a corpse in the berth. He held out his cup as the waiter came by with the tea kettle.
Another grey barrack of a hotel, its design so uninspired that Wexford felt sure no true architect had had a hand in its building. But when he crossed his room and looked out of the window the view was enough to dispel any speculations about man-made things. The mountains that formed the skyline, and in front of the skyline a long ridge, were so fantastic in shape as to resemble almost anything but the karst formations the guidebook said they were. These mountains were shaped like cones, like cypress trees, like toadstools. They rose, tree-studded, vertically out of the plain, their sides straight and their peaks rounded curves. They were the mountains of Chinese paintings that Wexford had until now believed to be artists’ stylizations. While you gazed at them you could forget the grey blocks, very like this hotel, that had sprung up too frequently all over the town, and see only those curvy cone mountains and the little red-brown roofs and the water everywhere in ponds and lakes and the Li River twining silver amongst it all.
It was unusual in China for one’s guide to accompany one on a train journey. Generally, Mr Sung would have parted from him at Chang-sha station and would have been met by a fresh guide at Kweilin. It appeared, though, that Mr Sung was a native of Kweilin and hadn’t been above fiddling this trip for reasons of his own. Mr Yu, in company with Mr Wong, had disappeared at Kweilin station and Fanning’s party were now in the charge of a cadaverous man, exceptionally tall for a Chinese, called T’chung. This new guide had relentlessly organized his tourists into an excursion to caves.
They had only two days here. No doubt they had to make the most of it. Wexford eluded Mr Sung and took himself for a quiet walk about the town, under the cassia trees. You could get knocked down by the bicycles which thronged the streets here just as you could in Peking. Men with bowed shoulders and straining muscles pulled carts laden with concrete blocks while women, wearing the yoke pole with a loaded basket at each end of it, jogged by with their curious coolie trot. Among the cassia leaves flew green and black butterflies. Wexford paid a few fen to look at an exhibition of paintings and brush calligraphy and to walk in a bonsai garden. He went into one of the dark spice-scented grocery stores, stacked with sweet jars, and bought more green tea. In there he lingered, examining the wares, dried seaweed in bundles and barrels of rice, pickled fish, root ginger, casks of soya sauce, tofu in tanks of water. When he turned round to look at the cakes and pastries displayed under glass, he saw across the shop, leaning on her stick, peering as he had just been doing into a drum of rice, the old woman with the bound feet.
It was no more than a split second before he realized that this wasn’t the same woman. She straightened and turned her head and he saw a face like a brown nut, scored with a hundred wrinkles, spectacles on her tiny snub nose. Her eyes passed indifferently over him, or at least there was no more in them than a spark of natural curiosity, and then she began speaking in a rapid sing-song to the assistant she had called over to her. The shops here were like they had been in England forty years ago, Wexford thought. This was the way they had been in his early youth. Assistants were polite to you, served you patiently, took trouble, made you into the customer who was always right. How times had changed! The old woman bought her rice, her two pastries, her bag of roasted soya beans, and set off at the clumping pony trot which is how you have to walk if you have no toes and your instep is bowed like a U.
At dinner he was glad they continued the discreet custom of giving him a fan and a carefully screened table to himself. On the other side of the screen he could hear Purbank and Lois Knox grumbling about the miles they had been expected to walk in those caves, and on top of that train journey too. The waitresses brought him fried carp, pork and aubergines in ginger sauce, glass noodles with mushrooms, slices of duck, boiled eggs dipped in batter and fried. They made the tea very strong here and aromatic. When he had finished he went up on to the roof to the new bar the hotel seemed so proud of.
It was evident that its creators had never seen any sort of bar in the west. Perhaps they had read of bars or seen old films. The effect was of a mixture of a bunfight in an English village hall and a one-horse town saloon in a Western movie of the thirties. On the concrete of the roof with its concrete parapet, large bare trestle tables had been set out and folding wooden chairs. Light came from bare bulbs and the moon. At the counter you could buy fireworks and on a distant unlit part of the roof a group of Chinese were setting off firecrackers.
Whatever amenities the rooftop bar lacked was made up for by the view. The sky glowed with moonlight and above the river’s thread the mountains floated like black storm-clouds. As Wexford, a glass of cassia wine beside him on the parapet, leaned over to gaze at the town and the mountains, music burst forth from a record player set up on a card table. It was an LP of Christmas music they were playing. The syrupy voices of an angel choir began with ‘Silent Night’, went on to ‘Santa Claus is Coming’ and then Bing Crosby started his soft crooning of ‘White Christmas’. It was hotter here than in Chang-sha, stickily humid, the treetops rich with foliage, a bright June moon illuminating it all. As the record went relentlessly on, the Americans at the next table to Wexford’s began laughing. The neat smiling Chinese boy who supervised the player and had put the record on beamed at them with gratification. He had made the foreign tourists happy, he would make them even happier by starting it all over again.
As ‘Silent Night’, with all its evocations of bitter cold, of church bells, of the star of Bethlehem, crept for the second time over the still, hot air, Lois Knox came up the stairs from the floor below. She came from under the concrete canopy which sheltered the bar out on to the roof and she was accompanied by a large paunchy Australian with whom Wexford had gone down to dinner in the lift. Lois’s make-up was fresh, she had at some time contrived to visit the hotel hairdresser, and she was wearing a newly pressed blue linen dress and high-heeled blue shoes. She was looking better than he had ever seen her and the Australian seemed smitten already. Wexford understood that he was forgiven, she could afford to forgive him now. She waved, calling out, ‘We won’t intrude on your reverie!’ The Australian took her arm and led her away to a part of the roof where neither the moon nor the lights penetrated.
He sat down at a table alone. After last night it might be wise not to drink too much. Besides, the cassia wine was sweet to the point of cloyingness. Presently Gordon Vinald and Margery Baumann came up on to the roof together. He talked to them for a while and then he went off to green tea and bed.
Going out of the hotel in the morning was a little like walking into a cloud of steam. Already, at a quarter to eight, the temperature was soaring into the eighties. To Wexford it seemed absurd to board a bus for a three- or four-hundred-yard journey to the landing stage. He walked, attempting to shake off the light-headed unreal feeling that was still with him. The roar of his air conditioner had awakened him at two, and when he turned it off the oven temperature returned, closing in like a thick soft blanket. Moreover, the bed was the hardest he had ever attempted to sleep on, a wooden cot with a thin layer of cotton wadding over it. He had lain there, reading, shifting his aching limbs about. Having already got through most of what he had brought with him, Vanity Fair (a third reading), the poetry of Lu Yu (because he was coming to China) and last year’s Booker winner, he had started on a weighty anthology called Masterpieces of the Supernatural. The first story in the collection was ‘The Upper Berth’ and he was glad he hadn’t tried to read it in the train.
Gradually coming round, shaking off the miseries of the night, he walked along the avenue of cassia trees. The boat was in and the American party and the Australian businessmen were already going on board. As Wexford started to follow them the minibus drew up and Mr Sung came bounding out, cross and pompous.
‘This is very bad. Must not go alone. Why not wait bus like I say? Cannot board ship without tickets.’
He thrust a piece of coloured cardboard at Wexford. Mr T’chung gathered up the train party by waving his arms like one making semaphore signals. Wexford took the ticket stub that was handed back to him. It had a map of the Li River on it and their route down to Yang-shuo marked, a number of ideographs in pink ink and the somewhat pretentious words printed: Ship’s papers. But the boat itself was nice enough, a typical river boat, with a saloon and a big upper deck with deckchairs.
‘Good scenery begin ten-thirty,’ said Mr Sung.
‘Isn’t this good scenery?’ Wexford asked as the gangway went up and they cast off. The Li River, broad and bronze-coloured, wound out of the town between green cone mountains.
‘Ten-thirty,’ said Mr Sung. ‘Then you take photographs.’
Wexford was tired of explaining to him that he didn’t have a camera. Impossible to make Mr Sung understand that to be without a camera was to be free. Gordon Vinald, the barrister’s wife and her friend were already up on deck, grumbling, changing films, struggling with telescopic lenses. Wexford sat at a table in the saloon with Margery Baumann, drinking tea that was just being served. Sometimes it is possible for a middle-aged woman to look as fresh as a girl and that was how Margery Baumann, in blue and white checked cotton and with her fair hair newly washed, looked at eight-thirty in the morning on the Li River.
‘I’m looking forward to this trip,’ she said. ‘It’s going to be wonderful. And after that – well, we can’t get home soon enough for me.’
‘I don’t imagine you’re doing the homeward trip by train as well?’
‘Oh, no, thank goodness.’ She had a nice light laugh and laughed a good deal but not, Wexford thought, from any sort of nervousness. ‘Train to Canton, train out of China to Hong Kong, then the flight home with dear old comfy Swissair.’
‘You haven’t enjoyed your holiday?’
‘In some ways tremendously.’ For a moment her eyes had a dreamy look as of delightful, perhaps romantic, things remembered. She became practical. ‘But I’ve had enough, six weeks is too much really. And then I’m needed at home. I’m beginning to feel guilty.’
‘What job do you have, Miss Baumann?’
‘I’m a GP.’ He didn’t know why he was so surprised. The children of doctors are often doctors themselves. But she looked so much more the sort of woman who had devoted a gentle life to her old parents. ‘I hadn’t taken a holiday, not more than a long weekend, in three years. So I got a locum and took the lot owing to me in one – well, not fell, but super swoop!’ She laughed.
‘The practice is in London?’ He really mustn’t ask so many questions. It was the habit of an investigating officer. She didn’t seem to mind.
‘Really? I’m not far away in Kingsmarkham.’
‘Then the Knightons are even nearer to you. They come from a place called Sewingbury.’
‘Those people,’ she said, as the barrister and his wife walked past the windows. Lois Knox came into the saloon with her Australian. She introduced him as Bruce. Wexford, keeping a straight face, shook hands. Bruce began to talk loudly and vituperatively about Chinese double-think, the way everything was the people’s – the people’s money, the people’s hotel, the people’s school – while the people themselves had nothing. He buttonholed Mr T’chung who was peaceably drinking tea with Mr Sung.
‘You say it was slave labour built the Ming Tombs, right? It’s wrong to force men to build a grandiose tomb for some lousy emperor?’
‘Of course,’ said Mr T’chung.
‘But it’s OK to make men build a damn great tomb for Mao Tse Tung in Tien An Men Square, is it? What’s the difference?’
Mr T’chung looked at him calmly. ‘That is a question,’ he said in his little clipped voice, ‘no one can answer.’
Bruce threw up his hands and gave a bark of laughter.
‘Don’t let’s talk dreary dreary politics,’ said Lois.
Wexford went up on deck. The Knightons’ friend and Hilda Avory were sitting in deckchairs, drinking tea and Maotai respectively. Hilda said in her gravelly voice with its dying fall, ‘Some people who did the trip yesterday told me the boat broke down in midstream and they were three hours repairing it.’
‘Then the odds are against its breaking down today.’
‘It’s not a matter of odds, it’s a question of efficiency. My only comfort is this place isn’t quite so bad as Russia.’
There were boys swimming in the river on one side and water buffalo on the other. High up on the cliffside, against the limestone, wheeled a pair of birds that might have been eagles. Wexford sat in silence, watching the life of the river go by, a village in which was a little curved bridge over an inlet, a temple with a blue roof that the Cultural Revolution had managed to miss, men fishing with cormorants . . .
He stayed up there in the sun for as long as he could stand the heat. Mrs Knighton came up on deck and indefatigably took pictures of everything she saw, water buffalo, cormorants, peasant farmers in the fields, boats with square orange sails, even a utilitarian building Wexford suspected might be a sewage works. By the time it was ten-thirty he had gone below, scorched off the deck. But it was true what Mr Sung had predicted. The scenery suddenly became spectacular, the mountains looping like fantastic clouds, the water clear as glass but with a fierce current running.
Lunch was served at the favourite Chinese time of eleven-thirty and it was the worst meal Wexford had so far eaten, the main course being mainly those organs and entrails which in the west are not eaten by human beings. It amused him to consider how Chinese food, which is usually thought of in Rupert Street or at Poon’s as crisp and delicate, may have its slime and lights side too.
It was during lunch that, looking round, Wexford saw the man who had been introduced to him in the train as Mr Wong. He was very surprised. But perhaps it wasn’t Mr Wong, perhaps he was confusing him with someone else. But he didn’t think so. To say that all Chinese look alike to Europeans was as great a fallacy as that all Chinese had yellow skins. Ah, well, there must be some reason for his being there, not mysterious at all probably to Lu Xing She.
There was just room to wedge a chair into one of the shady companionways. He sat there sleepily while the boat chugged along from Kao Ping to Hua Shan through the deep water, past the drifting boats on which whole families lived, past the cormorant fishermen, between the domed mountains on which trees grew like moss on boulders. When he didn’t want to sleep he couldn’t keep awake . . .
A commotion awoke him to an immediate awareness that the boat was no longer moving. Normally, his was a quick rousing from sleep, but after so many white nights and in the slumbrous steamy heat he came to gradually and slowly. His first thought was that Hilda Avory had been right and the boat had broken down. But the engine room was just behind where he was sitting and, turning round, he saw it was deserted.
Then he saw the heads bobbing on the water. He got up and tried to go forward but after a few yards his passage was blocked by the press of people. The saloon was empty, twenty or thirty people were in the bows. Wexford turned back and made his way up on to the upper deck. Here too was a similar craning crowd but the river could be seen. He could see Mr Sung swimming, fully clothed, and what seemed like the entire crew of the boat in the water. And not only the crew – Margery Baumann, Gordon Vinald, Tony Purbank, all swimming or treading water, searching for something, someone . . .
Mrs Knighton, holding her camera in thick red hands, said to him, ‘A man went overboard. He couldn’t swim, they can’t find him.’
‘Who is it?’
She began to take pictures, and said with indifference, ‘Not one of us. A Chinese.’
It was an hour before they gave up trying. Before that they had put one of the crew ashore and he had set off to walk, a distance of four or five miles, to the nearest place where there would be a telephone. Wexford watched the little figure in the blue shirt walking along between the river bank and the ricefields until it was swallowed up by the richer blue and the green.
Margery Baumann was the first of the would-be rescuers to reboard the boat. She was in a one-piece black swimsuit. Wexford thought she was exactly the sort of woman who would never take this sort of trip without wearing a bathing costume under her clothes. She said nothing, went down to the bathroom to get dried and dressed. Purbank came next, shivering in spite of the heat. The crew member who had stayed on board – young, though older than the others, who all looked to Wexford about eighteen – seemed to be the captain. He helped haul Purbank aboard, tried to say something to him in very halting English, failed, and shrugged, holding up his hands.
Gordon Vinald was still swimming among the reefs which reached in places almost to the surface of the water. But as, one by one, the Chinese gave up the search, he too swam reluctantly towards the boat in a slow crawl and allowed himself to be hauled in. Now the search had been abandoned, almost everyone had either gone up on deck or retreated into the saloon. The river was empty, a shining sheet of turquoise under a pale blue sky, the mountains behind making a horizon of misted blue loops. Such a beautiful, gently smiling river! A river artists had been painting for two thousand years and would paint, no doubt, for a thousand more. Under its silken rippling surface, trapped in the teeth of one of those reefs, hung a drowned corpse, small, thin, white as a root.
‘What happened?’ Wexford said to Purbank. ‘I was asleep.’
Purbank, in blue underpants, the sun drying him, pushed his fingers through his wet hair. ‘Nobody knows really. It’s always like that, isn’t it, when someone goes overboard? This chap was up here in the bows where we are now. He must have been alone and he was sitting on his haunches, I reckon, the way they all do, and somehow or other he toppled in. Couldn’t swim, of course. Captain Ma got everyone who could swim to go in after him but he’d gone before I was even in the water.’
‘Who was it?’
‘Who was what?’
‘The man who was drowned. Who was he?’
‘God knows. To tell you the truth I never asked. I mean, we wouldn’t know anyway, would we? He was Chinese.’
‘Not one of the crew?’
‘I wouldn’t know. Anyone would think you were a policeman, the questions you ask. I daresay we shall get enough of that from the Chinese cops when we get to what’s it called, Yang Shuo.’
But Captain Ma, apparently, had no intention of continuing the journey to Yang Shuo. They were within a bend of the river of a village with a landing stage and it was to there, Mr Sung told Wexford, that they were now heading. The engines started up and the boat began to move. A bus would come and pick them up. It was best, there was nothing to worry about, the incident was unfortunate, that was all.
‘Who was the drowned man?’ Wexford asked. ‘One of the crew?’
Mr Sung hesitated. He seemed to be considering and he looked far from happy. Wexford, from long practice in studying the reactions of men, thought that what he saw in Mr Sung’s face was not so much sorrow at the death of a fellow human being as fear for his own skin. Eventually he said with reluctance, ‘His name Wong T’ien Shui.’
Mr Sung nodded. He stood looking over the side at the reefs, one of which the boat’s bottom had slightly scraped. ‘Impossible navigate here at all January, February,’ he said brightly.
Wexford shrugged. He went into the saloon and helped himself to one, then a second, cup of green tea. The pungent tea revived him with almost the stimulus of alcohol. The passengers were gathering up their belongings – bags, carriers, raincoats, umbrellas, maps – preparatory to landing.
‘What the hell was that Wong doing on this trip anyway?’ grumbled Fanning to Wexford. ‘I thought he was supposed to be a student? I thought he was supposed to be at university in Chang-sha? Chinese can’t just run about the country like that, going where they please. They’re not free. I bet you fifty yuan there’s going to be hell to pay. Heads will roll over this. Thank God I’m whizzing my little lot off to Canton tomorrow.’
They went ashore. On a little beach sat an old man with a sparse beard and two strands of moustache. Three small children played about him in the sand. The beach was also populated by a hundred or so chickens and ducks and two white goats. The old man looked at the people from the West with a kind of impassive polite curiosity. He put a few words to Captain Ma and nodded his head.
The village lay above them, at the top of a sloping lane. It was the hottest part of the day. Wexford had never before experienced the sun as an enemy, something to retreat from, to fear. The party wound its way up the street where mirages danced ahead of them in the light. The ground was thick with reddish-brown dust which rose in spirals at their tread. Dust coated everything, the hovels that lined the lane, the walls, the grass, even the legs and arms and faces of the children who came out of their houses, chewing on handfuls of glutinous rice, to stare at the visitors.
At the top of the hill half a dozen men and a girl were building an apartment block. The smell of the river and the dust gave place to a pleasanter one of sandalwood. There was a shop next door into which the entire party, with the exception of Wexford and Fanning, immediately disappeared, and at the end of the village a big house with a walled-in court which had perhaps once been the home of the local warlord. Fanning squatted, oriental fashion, on the broad veranda of the shop and lit a cigarette.
‘I make call Yang Shuo,’ said Mr Sung. ‘Bus come very soon.’
‘I make call,’ Mr T’chung corrected him in a very admonitory voice. He began lecturing the other guide in a hectoring sing-song, wagging his finger. Wexford began to think that if it were to be a question of finding a new Chairman from this part of the world, T’chung Bei Ling might stand a better chance than Sung Lao Zhong.
It was too hot to explore the village, though Wexford walked down one or two narrow little lanes. Children followed him in a giggling huddle. As he returned once more to the square or market place where the shop was he saw an old woman standing in the deep shadow of an overhanging roof. He stood still and looked at her, from her black hair laced with grey, her white puffy face – the Marquise of Tai’s face – down to her tiny wedge-shaped feet in child’s slippers. He approached till he was no more than a yard from her.
‘You want to speak to me?’ he said, enunciating clearly.
She made no answer. He repeated what he had said. She seemed to shrink, from shyness or fear. From the other side of the square Mr T’chung began calling, ‘Bus has come. Please come quick down hill to bus. Come along, bus has come.’
When Wexford turned from the voice and looked where the old woman had been she was gone. Into the house? It was impossible she should keep vanishing into the abodes of strangers. He went up to the dark doorway and looked inside. It was a dirty hovel in which a child sat eating rice on the floor and a small pig rooted in the far corner. No old woman and no other exit for her to have departed through. If for one moment he were prepared to entertain the idea of the supernatural . . .
Talking excitedly about their purchases, the drowned Wong for the time being forgotten, the train party and the Australians made their way down the hill to where the bus waited. It was parked by the beach and beside it was what was very evidently a police car. Police were on the boat, talking to Captain Ma. An officer came up to Mr T’chung and fired a string of questions at him.
‘People’s police will come to hotel this evening,’ said Mr T’chung.
All this would normally have interested Wexford very much. The reason it didn’t was that he had been aware, all the way down the hill, of the old woman with the bound feet following him at a distance. He turned round once or twice, like Shelley’s traveller, he told himself, and saw not exactly a frightful fiend but this old creature, hobbling on her stick, who was becoming fiendish enough to him. Now about to enter the bus, the heat thick and gleaming, radiated off the still blue water in a dazzling glare, he made himself turn round and face behind him boldly. She was gone. There was nowhere for her to disappear to but she was gone.
For the rest of the passengers the bus ride back was as rewarding as the boat trip had been on account of the scenery through which the route passed. They drove along lush valleys, green with young rice. Wexford thought about the old woman whom he had now seen three, or possibly four, times. Was she real? Was she a real woman who, incredible as it might be, was for some reason following him across China? Or was she a hallucination such as he supposed schizophrenics might have?
He was sitting next to Tony Purbank who was as silent as he. Purbank was also a fair-skinned person who reacted badly to the sun and his face hadn’t been protected as Wexford’s had. Moreover, he had a big bald patch on top of his head. His forehead and his bald pate began to glow a fiery red as soon as he was in the air-conditioned shelter of the bus. He spoke not a word, he looked as if he were suffering from a mild degree of heatstroke. Mr Sung too made the return journey in total silence. From the back seats, where Lois Knox sat with Bruce and the Knightons, Wexford could hear a continuous hum of speculation as to how Mr Wong had come to fall overboard.
Wexford expected to see the old woman get off the bus after him but she didn’t. It was an absurd relief. He went straight off upstairs and made himself a cup of Silver Leaf. He lay on the bed, thinking about schizophrenia, wondering what he was going to do if she moved in with him, if she came into his room in the night and lay down in the other bed. Presumably, the truth was that she had never existed at all. He thought back. At Chang-sha he had heard the tap of her stick, her voice as she spoke to her companion. Besides, if his mind was going to produce figments to haunt him, why produce her? Out of what recesses of experience, unconscious processes, even trauma, was his mind conjuring an old Chinese woman?
The tea, as always, made him feel better. Could he convince himself it was a mirage he had seen in that river village, a trick of the heat and light?
‘People’s police say no need talk with you,’ said Mr Sung, coming up to his table as dinner was being served. ‘No need ask questions any tourists, ship’s crew only.’ He paused, said, carefully choosing his words, ‘They have find dead body Wong T’ien Shui.’
‘Poor chap,’ said Wexford. ‘He can’t have been more than twenty or so.’
‘Age I don’t know,’ said Mr Sung. ‘Very young, yes. Body cut and – what you say? – brushed very bad by rocks.’
‘Bruised, yes. Thank you. Many bad rocks there under river so body all cut and bad bruise.’
There was as usual a screen between Wexford and the table at which the train party sat. From beyond it he could only hear a general buzz of conversation. The girl came round with the tea kettle and he had two cups, strangely disturbed now by the death of Wong T’ien Shui. It was still only seven and the sun was just setting. He walked out of the hotel, crossed the road and took the little causeway to the island in the middle of the lake. Somehow – sentimentally, no doubt – he couldn’t help imagining Wong as he must have been when a little boy, not so long ago, attending the kindergarten, being met by his mother with her hair in two braids, having a doughnut bought for him in a dark scented grocer’s shop, flying a kite shaped like a butterfly or a dragon, going home to loving grandparents. It was a very young life to have been cut short like that.
It should have been pleasant out on the island but because of the weighty thickening humidity, it wasn’t. The undulations of mountains looked blue now, veiled in mist, and the air hung full of sluggishly moving mosquitos. After being bitten for the second time he went back to the hotel. Malaria and dengue fever might now be avoidable, but you could still have a leg or an arm swell up like a balloon.
Up on the roof it was too high for the mosquitos. He knew he shouldn’t drink, because of his blood pressure and an ever threatening weight problem, but he had to get some sleep somehow. He bought a smallish bottle of cassia wine. The Baumanns, the Knightons and Gordon Vinald called him over to the table they were sharing, only a second before he was similarly summoned to the other – necessarily a few yards away because of the Purbank-Vinald feud – shared by Lois Knox, Hilda Avory and Purbank. There was no sign of the Australians, Fanning or Mrs Knighton’s friend. Lois looked sour and Hilda ill, and it was a relief to Wexford to follow the rule of first come, first served.
The people at the table he joined were indulging in the favourite tourist pastime of showing off to each other the souvenirs they had bought that day. As Gordon Vinald began talking, Mrs Baumann whispered to Wexford that he was an antique dealer.
‘Jade is always cold to the touch,’ he was saying. ‘That’s one of the best ways for the amateur to tell if it’s jade or not. If it stays cold in a hot room or against the skin the chances are it’s jade.’
He told them of various jade frauds. How the unscrupulous dealers of Hong Kong would arrange a display with five items of plastic to one of jade, five items of plastic to one of ivory. China was safe, though. The Chinese were either too high-principled to deceive or too innocent to understand the mechanics of deception. But if, of course, the jade they were selling had been imported into China they might themselves have been deceived . . . Wexford thought of the little pieces he had bought for Dora and Denise and hi