The dinner-guests had departed.
In the pallid light of pre-dawn, the colours of the feast hall, so splendorous at the beginning of the night, now were cast in shades of nausea. Sweeping silks in dulled gold, ochre, beige and saffron ran the length of the walls and made glimmering waterfalls from ceiling to floor. The tables lay in a state of abandoned disarray. Dotted across the room, the servants toiled to fold the great table-cloths for washing; to collect the crockery and carry it to the kitchen where it would be soaked in vats of steaming water; and to replace the wilting centrepieces with fresh festoons of orchids, peonies, hydrangeas and lotus flowers.
The servants had propped open the garden doors. Crisp, startling air spilled from the lake into the hall like a blue tide, chasing away the smells of food and tainted breath and perspiration. The room came anew with space and swirls of light.
At the other side of the hall, Wen-Qian had sunk wearily onto the top of the wide marble steps. She surveyed the slow bustle of the household workers with her chin propped in her hands.
He did not come at all.
“Stop fretting,” said her mother, watching both her daughter and the servants with her keen gaze. “He is likely tired from his journey and resting in his chambers. We are not to bother him, Wen-Qian. He is a guest in our house.”
“I’m not fretting,” said Wen, with quiet irritation, and returned her chin to her hands.
“Sit up straight, Wen. You look unattractive with bad posture.”
In truth, Wen-Qian did not really look unattractive, slouching or no. She was pleasing to the observer in the manner of a well-kept lady. Although she was older than many of the other unmarried girls from prosperous families, her age did not show—not physically, at least. She had the pale, untouched skin of the rich: translucent upon her cheeks except where they rose into a faint sprinkle of pink along her cheekbones. Her eyebrows were bold, thin, arched; her hair black and fragrant; her nails shaped and clean.
She did not wonder so much about the man that she was to marry. Why should she? She had understood, from the age when she could still crawl up onto her mother’s lap, that this was what was expected of her. It would not be exceptionally hard, she thought. She would have to live with him, yes—but there was nothing so difficult about co-existing for a joint purpose. And although they might not be able to communicate at first, she was paying more attention to her English lessons than ever before—in fact, she thought herself rather accomplished in speaking—and surely they would be conversing fluently by the time they had children.
Her mother left the room, and returned not a minute later.
“Wen-Qian, he is here.”
Ah. So now he arrived, upon the bare edge of dawn, when the feast hall was in tatters, the glowing guests all but gone and the servants dragging their feet between the stain-spattered landscape of tables and upturned chairs. Wen rose slowly, feeling the ache of the long night in the taut muscles of her neck and the crick of her knees.
Her mother came through the door first, head bowed in practised modesty, her body following a half-step behind. Her lipstick glimmered red on her secret smile. Then, a serving-boy held the door for Wen’s father, Cheng-Lei. In Cheng’s footsteps came another man, a young man with short, black hair and skin the colour of polished wood. He did not look Hungarian.
“I take after my mother,” explained the young man, once they had been introduced, and Wen had risen from her curtsey.
The English flew over Wen’s head, too fast, the words skipping and running into one another. Take? But he had not taken anything from her yet. She dared not look at him directly, but let her gaze slide curiously towards his translator, who quickly interpreted.
“Oh,” said Wen, nodding with understanding. “Yes, you look like Chinaman.” She did not like standing here, trying to welcome this man but unable to speak his language—not just a man, though, but her husband-upon-tomorrow—with her mother and father and half the household servants and his personal servants, too, all looking on like eager theatregoers.
She decided she would show him what she had learnt. She said, in halting English, “I study lesson of language for talking to you, sir.”
The son of the Molnar family looked surprised. He smiled, very barely. “You are…quite good.”
“You like room, sir? You are comfort or not, sir?”
He looked at her, closely. Now that there was no one else between them, Wen thought that he seemed very nervous too—could it be that he was more nervous than she was? “I am comfortable, thank you, Wen-Qian. Please, do not call me sir. My name is Ferenc Molnar.”
He certainly sounded like a foreigner, even if he did not look like one. This Ferenc Molnar—he was a thin, browned young fellow with bright black eyes, in trousers of a fine, wool-spun grey and an embroidered shirt, and the lapel of his silk-lined suit pressed with the insignia of his family.
“Ferenc,” said Wen, cautiously.
He took another step closer. Now when he spoke, his words were trapped between their two bodies and no further. “I am honoured that you learnt English for me.” And then, in a voice that was thick with accent, yet resonated with a note of familiarity—he spoke in Chinese: “But I also learnt your language, for you.”
Wen was so astonished that she forgot herself and stared at him—for a second, only, then quickly returned her gaze to the ground. Her heart was bursting. Who ever heard of a husband learning a language for a wife? Granted, his Chinese was terrible, but she would not complain. She swore to the powers above that she would never complain again.
Whilst Wen-Qian stared at her slippers and smiled powerfully to herself, Chi Jun-Ying stood opposite her and studied her with a careful gaze. She really had no idea. He had cut his hair, put on Ferenc’s clothes, practiced his deliberately awful Chinese, all the while with Ferenc chattering incessantly in his ear about the relations and associates that Jun ought to keep track of, and the many nuances of running a business skilfully, and the absolutely crucial fact that Jun must never, ever consent to the idea of returning to Hungary as Ferenc Molnar.
Jun examined the sweep of Wen’s snow-white jaw, which was as refined as cut alabaster; he saw the way her painted lashes settled on her cheeks as she blinked. He thought he could easily make a life with this woman, this Meng Wen-Qian. It would not be so difficult, after all, to become a Molnar. He was already beginning to feel like a rich man.
The city was a henhouse.
Ferenc navigated the dusty streets like a lone boatman virtuously poling his vessel against an all-powerful current. Around him, strange folk squawked at one another in their bizarre tongue: the silk vendor at the haggling housewife; the cake-maker at his hapless kitchen-hand; the street musician at the stingy businessman. Ferenc walked in the tattered shoes of another man, and he felt freedom on his skin like a hot, exuberant wind.
It took him most of the day to reach Jun’s apartment. This was not because he got lost—the Molnars, as a general lot, had an impeccable sense of direction—but because he could not resist the seduction of the alien city; she beckoned him into her twists and turns, her nooks and crannies, and he wandered them with delight. These clothes he wore, this cheap cloth, these old pants, they made him all the more bold—a bold and brilliant man, a vagabond, a pioneer!
Ferenc hummed to himself as he ascended the narrow steps to the apartment. He smiled as he sidled past an elderly man, loose-jowled cheeks deeply folded with wrinkles like etches in soft clay, along the agonising corridor. He saw the cat droppings in their rotting corner and thought it a decrepit pile of art.
The door to Jun’s apartment had been left ajar; to Ferenc this seemed extraordinarily dangerous in such a foul neighbourhood, but perhaps there was nothing within to tempt even the most beggarly thief. He nudged the door with his toe and it swung gradually open, the panorama of the room beyond widening as though through the shifting lens of a camera. He found himself facing a cramped, old space with peeling walls. Against the right-hand wall stood a battered stove; beside that, a hearth that belched forth copious dunes of dead ashes. (it served as both cooking-fire and source of heat). There was a threadbare lounge-couch in the middle of the room that Ferenc regarded with the sentimental eye of an artist, already adoring its withered cushions and unravelling holes. Various family items were arranged around the room neatly but with no sense of decoration: an altar with joss-sticks and a plate of oranges; several precise line portraits; rough wooden instruments that counted numbers, made unfanciful music, or measured physical properties.
There were two doors other than the front door. One led into a laundry. The other gave access to a dark hallway with a ceiling that sagged and creaked. Ferenc imagined an obese giant sitting on the roof, his monstrous buttocks crushing the building under their ponderous, flabby weight. He hurried along the short hallway and peeked into the first room he came to: an artist’s workshop, equipped with desk and easel, charcoals and paints, brushes, blank and used canvasses, paper. The far wall opened into a mouldy balcony that overlooked the city.
The next room was a bedroom, and here lay a shrivelled woman underneath a pile of grey blankets. Ferenc came forward with a faint feeling of horror, his wild mood suddenly dampened. He peered down at the dry, brown shape. Surely this could not be—no. Ferenc would have hardly believed that this was anyone’s grandmother, let alone Jun’s mother. He had seen elderly people before, of course—but he had never seen anyone like this. She seemed to be the fleshly embodiment of Age itself, in all its feebleness and frailty.
“How do you do,” he said quietly. But he knew that she was near completely blind and deaf—Jun had told him that much.
On a sudden impulse, Ferenc reached for the old lady’s hand and held it like a butterfly, afraid it would crumble to dust in his grasp. He felt a painful surge of pity for this dying stranger. He leaned close to her ear, smelling the sour smells of old age in her clothes and the very pores of her weary skin. “Can you hear me, woman?” he whispered. Her utter helplessness rendered him equally powerless.
Her fingers fluttered against his; he pressed her hand in reply, swallowing a rising nausea at the mounting belief that he was in the impending presence of death.
Something clattered behind him and he smothered a yell. He spun to see a Chinese girl in the doorway. She was holding a long stick of bamboo like a whip.
“Who are you?” she shrieked.
“Don’t you dare touch her, you perverted demon!”
“Get out of this house! Get out—out, out!”
“I don’t understand you—I don’t speak Chinese—ouch!”
The bamboo caught him in the thigh. It stung like an angry jellyfish. Ferenc swallowed a bellowing curse and waved his arms desperately. “Jun sent me here. I’m Jun’s friend!”
The girl backed down a step and spoke a questioning word.
“Jun,” said Ferenc emphatically. “Jun, Jun!”
He kept his eyes nervously on the bamboo whip.
“I can speak English,” said the girl, abruptly. “Did you say Jun sent you?”
Not a day into his new identity and, in his panic, he had already made a mess of it. “Ah…” he said.
His nobility-bred eloquence was lost on the Oriental foreigner. “Answer me! Have you or have you not spoken to Jun?”
“Yes, I have.”
The girl cast aside the bamboo stick with a violent motion that surprised Ferenc. Now that her weapon had been eliminated, he mustered the courage to look at the girl properly. She was tan, and had coarse but attractive features: large eyes, full lips, rough hair pulled back and tied with a string. At Ferenc’s reply, she grew white with repressed emotion.
“Where on earth is Jun?”
“Ah, I don’t know…”
“You must know if you spoke to him!” Ferenc heard the frenetic desperation that edged her voice. “He owes me wages! I care for his mother and mind the house without asking for much in return, but I too must live on more than plain rice. I am not a slave! Where is he? He is coming back, isn’t he? Is he?”
Ferenc did not know how to deal with this hysterical girl. He sent a silent curse in Jun’s direction for failing to mention that he employed a vivacious and vicious young housekeeper. He brushed at his clothes—hardly the mannerism of a poor man, but it came of habit—and said, “I’m not sure. What is your name?”
The girl drew herself up to her full height—she was not tall—and, at last, apparently deemed him worthy of her attention. Ferenc could have laughed at the irony: a subtle reversal of the peasant and the upperclassman. “Nu-Ying. I am Nu-Ying.”
“Nu-Ying,” began Ferenc, but the girl shook her head sharply.
“You make an ugly belch of my name. Just call me Nu.”
“Nu,” Ferenc tried again. “I will write a letter to Jun for you—will that do for now? I will ask him to send your wages. Go home, and come back in a week’s time. I will give you your money then.”
“What about Mother?”
He realised she meant Jun’s mother. “I will take care of her. Jun has asked me to.”
Nu’s next words came in an explosive torrent of Chinese. “You are stealing my job? White devil! Long-nosed, witch-eyed, Western devil!”
“I will write to Jun,” said Ferenc, politely, uncomprehending.
“I don’t trust you! I want Mother to come with me.”
“I swear on my life I will care for her. Look, I have Jun’s things—his pendant, his bracelet, his shoes. They are symbols that he regards me as a friend.”
“Or evidence that you murdered him.”
Ferenc touched his forehead. “Why would I be here if I killed him?”
“I don’t know. I don’t trust you.”
“I must ask you to leave, Nu. This is not your house, either. Come back in a week, and I will have your money.”
“I will be back tomorrow. If Mother is worse, I will cut your toes off.”
She ran out of the apartment.
Ferenc stood still for a moment, and then shook himself and began to tidy up: he picked up the bamboo whip; he straightened the dusty books on their single shelf and the dusty face-powders and eye-paints on the dusty dressing table. Gently, he rearranged the grey sheets around Jun’s mother. He felt a curiosity to touch the old woman’s ashen cheek—it crinkled like rice-paper beneath his fingers.
After a while, when the apartment was acquainted with its new occupant, Ferenc went into the workshop and picked up a pencil.
The next day, Ferenc sent a letter to himself. It was an odd feeling to put his name upon the envelope and seal it with plain wax, and walk to the post-office and mail it to the man who had taken his name.
A reply arrived after two weeks. Ferenc and Nu sat on the scratchy floor of the apartment with the cold seeping into their bones, soaking up what meagre warmth they could derive from the pitiful fire, and Ferenc read the letter to her. When he finished, he hardly dared look at her face.
But instead of the anger he had expected, there was only a pale quietness.
“He is dismissing me?”
Ferenc bent hastily over the letter. “He promises to send you payments for several months until you find a new job—”
“He has fired me.”
“He will take care of you—”
“I don’t need his pity!” Nu leapt to her feet in a sudden spasm of frustration. Hurt was livid upon her face. She marched to the bedroom door and stared in at Jun’s mother for a long time, fists clenched in motionless fury. She muttered something in a poisonous tone, and then pivoted sharply and came back to Ferenc.
“What did you say to her?” Ferenc asked when, not much later, Nu decided to leave.
Nu shrugged on her cloak. “Your son is a bastard.” She touched Ferenc’s face briefly with her quick, wide gaze. “Goodbye, Western devil.”
She ran down the stairs. The door slammed shut behind her with the sound of a great shattering.
The young master of the Molnar household was a sleek, Oriental-looking gentleman with a brisk manner. His associates liked him for his quick and sensible mind; his servants liked him for his rationality. Every morning he took his breakfast on a private balcony adjoining his office. Sometimes his wife ate with him. Other times he wished to be alone.
Today he was reading the newspaper with a pot of black coffee at his elbow. He came across an article on the fifth page that sent him into a burst of laughter. So surprised were his servants by this unusual noise that several came running at once.
“Look at this!” cried their master. “Look at what they’ve hung in the main foyer of the city gallery!”
One of his servants peered at the newspaper. “A progressive and genre-defying piece of modern painting by the previously little-known Chinese artist, Chi Ying-Jun…”
The young master laughed again and slapped his knee. “It’s preposterous! It’s wonderful!”
The servants glanced at one another. “Yes, sir. It’s wonderful.”
He no longer heard them. He finished off his coffee with a smack of relish, and pushed his breakfast aside. He folded the newspaper, tucked it under one arm and rose from his lounge chair, the flaps of his velvet dressing gown fluttering. A full day of business awaited him, and Jun was not one to waste time.