One morning, when Ferenc was buying vegetables at the market, he saw his own name everywhere. He saw it stamped on crates and cartons. He saw it written in the logbooks of traders. He went to the docks and saw Molnar cargo ships coming and going. The potatoes in his bag, the leeks and cabbages, the garlic, the choy sum—it all had belonged to Ferenc Molnar, the other Ferenc Molnar, before it belonged to him.
He bought vegetables more than meat, out of habit. His first few months in the city had been agonising. He had no income. His home was falling apart. Jun’s mother shook and creaked in her bed all day like a living corpse. At first he boiled potatoes and ate three a day—one apiece for breakfast, lunch and dinner; later, he boiled the potato skins and drank the watery soup. But he had painted, little by little, and that had been enough to see him through a season.
Then, he sold his first piece, to a private art collector—a rich man. A curator visiting the rich man’s home spotted the piece and sought Ferenc out to order more of his work. Within two months, he had a masterpiece hanging in the city gallery.
Ferenc didn’t move out of the little apartment yet. He was afraid that if he tried to shift Jun’s mother, she would crumble to ash. So he spent a portion of his income in renovating the small rooms, fixing the roof, building a new fireplace. He was not rich, but he was comfortable.
He would have asked Nu to come back and live there, too—after all, she had worked for the family for most of her life, and loved both Jun and his mother—but he did not know where she had gone, nor how to find her again.
A small part of Ferenc wanted Nu back because he no longer knew how to care for Jun’s mother. She was deathly. She coughed yellow pus and blood for several weeks, and then, when she no longer had the energy to cough, simply drooled it out of the corner of her mouth. Desperate, Ferenc began to write letters to Jun every day. Your mother is dying. Please, come and see her. Or at least send a doctor.
(A doctor would not come to the home of a common artist, for art was still a vulgar career in the eyes of the academic. But there was a private family doctor in the Meng household who would go wherever he was sent by the master.)
But a week had passed, and no doctor had come. There had been no reply from Jun.
Struggling with a large bag of leeks, Ferenc stopped at the local post office and asked if there had been any trouble with the post in recent days.
“The post-man has not come to your home?” replied the young clerk, scratching at a crusty boil on his jawline. He flicked off a scab and it began to bleed.
“He has,” answered Ferenc, warily. “But—”
“Then what is the problem?” A frown crumpled the clerk’s face into the countenance of a much older man.
“But I am expecting a letter that has not arrived,” said Ferenc in an impatient rush. He was not used to being interrupted.
The clerk shrugged. He was working at the boil now with an insistent finger, and Ferenc dearly hoped that the thing was not contagious. It seemed the clerk half-expected him to leave, but when he saw that Ferenc had no intention of departing, he sighed and pulled out a tattered logbook. The cloth-bound covers pounded open against the bench-top, raising a small cloud of dust.
“What’s in this book?” asked Ferenc, peering at it.
Disdainfully, the clerk snatched it out of Ferenc’s view. “Delivery reports.” He turned a few pages with the ponderous slowness of a child learning to read. “This letter you are expecting. Where is it coming from?”
“The Meng estates.”
“Sangloon District.” A pause; a scratch; the sound of skin flaking. “Sorry. There’s been no problems with the mail between here and Sangloon for the past four months. All the post-men working in that area are very efficient—the repercussions are harsher if you offend that sort of client.”
“No problems at all? A letter couldn’t have been…accidentally diverted to another address? Or simply lost in the sorting process?” Ferenc’s gaze flicked to the back room, where he could see at least a dozen sacks bursting with envelopes.
The clerk bristled. “We are an organised government institution, not a circus. Your letter was not lost. Your friend obviously did not bother to write you a reply.”
“I really don’t appreciate—”
“If you still don’t believe me, write him another letter,” said the clerk, and turned away.
Interrupted and dismissed without a polite goodbye! Ferenc smiled wryly as he hurried out of the building. The streets were dusty and broken into pieces with shafts of noonday light; the milling crowds seemed muted, as though they were only a backdrop of stage actors, and he the lead performer in the theatre of his mind.
As Ferenc turned towards home, however, the smile faded from his face as he pictured Jun’s mother still groaning in her bed. He had sent seven letters and received no reply. Where was Jun? What on earth was he doing all day, penned up within the beautiful rooms of the Meng estates?
There was a bird in the apple blossom tree.
There was a colourful bird darting amongst the paint-daubed petals.
Beneath the bird and the tree, a young lady in a dressing robe balanced on a wooden stool with pale arms outstretched, gracefully.
Her dressing robe was of silk, in the most vivid royal blue, splashed with white flowers. She shimmered like the lake. Her hair was pinned into thick ebony coils—tousled by the wind, they danced on the alabaster stage of her neck.
She was calling to the bird in low, musical tones.
The bird was green, with a tail like fireworks. It hopped from branch to branch, cocking its head now and again as though thoroughly confused to find itself in such a wondrous place.
“Coo,” said Wen-Qian, encouragingly.
The bird stared at her with disdain.
Wen hoisted herself from the stool onto a low branch and edged into the apple blossoms. She laughed to herself, quietly, delighting in the sunrise and the rosy crispness of the empty morning. Her bare feet dangled in midair.
At the same time, a household servant was striding briskly across the lawn: a small black figure trekking through a sea of green. Wen noticed his approach and, immediately, her stomach turned over. She glanced up at the house: her husband was at his window, his face as black as his suit. Suddenly the morning tasted bitter, like an oncoming storm.
Wen climbed carefully down from the tree.
The servant reached her and asked that she allow herself to be escorted back to the house.
Wen said, yes, and they trekked back across the wide green. The servant was a man of about forty-five. He was distinguished in his profession; he likely had a degree in accounting or economics. He helped in tending to the financial matters of the house. Wen walked behind him and noticed that he was balding severely at the crown of his head. She could see that his scalp was flaky and spotted.
They passed through the main rooms of the house and entered the master’s quarters. The man Wen knew as Ferenc Molnar—her husband—turned from the window and commanded, “Leave.”
The servant walked out. Wen had to stop herself from bolting.
I’m sorry, Wen mouthed, but the words would not form into sounds. She stared down at her feet—her soft, white feet with soft, green grass-stains—and let her husband’s angry words wash over her. Don’t listen too closely, she told herself. He does not mean what he says. He is under much pressure from his work. He is stressed.
Her husband marched forward and yanked her chin up with one rough jerk. “Are you listening to me or not, Wen?”
Wen felt her jaw crack. She dared not look at his face; only at his hands—those dark hands with smoothened calluses and wide, flat nails; hands that had touched her gently, but only a few times, and perfunctorily. Enough to fulfil his nuptial duties, and no more.
“Yes, I am, my love,” she said.
Jun’s face twisted into a deep scowl. “Are you mocking me? Have you not learned your place, wife? You are woman; I am king of this household—no, I am more than that. I am god of this estate—your powerful and loving god! I give you food and money and all earthly comforts, and I do not even demand your worship—I demand only your respect. But do you give me respect? No! You do not even possess the sense to maintain my dignity—instead, you, the wife of a Molnar, climb trees and chase birds in a half-attired state. You are disgraceful! Disgraceful! Disgraceful! Disgraceful!”
With each word he shook her slightly by the shoulders—but Wen was not shocked by his violence. She had been gaping at him open-mouthed for a minute now, bewildered to the core, trembling with a dreadful feeling of disquiet.
“Husband,” she whispered. “You are shouting in perfect Chinese. When did your Chinese become so good?”
Jun stepped back. He released his wife and shook his head to himself. Ah, idiot. It was not like him to be so careless. But she had driven him to such anger—white-skinned, powdery-sweet Wen, his foolish and lovely wife, to whom he devoted all his efforts, and still she only repaid him with her senseless capers and indecent displays. He could not have her running around the gardens with her robes hitched up like a loose woman. It was ghastly.
“You know I love you,” he said sharply, in Chinese.
Slowly, Wen shook her head. “No—you only love this,” she pointed to his account books, “and this,” she waved at his expensive furnishings, “and this!” And she picked up a handful of coins and began to fling them at him, one by one. One pelted his chest; another struck him square in the forehead. “Here: these are your lovers, Ferenc! Embrace them, for money is all you are talented at and all you will ever know!”
Jun tried to shield himself. “Stop it, you fool.”
“Less of a fool than you,” said Wen, and put down the money, and walked out of the room with her robe fluttering around her slender ankles. She did not love him—there was nothing there for her—but with perseverance, she would endure here until the end of her days.
The city gallery was closing for the day when a young man in commoner’s clothes slipped through the door and approached the reception. His fingers twitched as he spoke and he peeked nervously at the curator from beneath a shaggy fringe of hair.
“Sorry to bother you, sir, especially at such a late hour—it is a little inconvenient, my running in like this, isn’t it?—but I am looking for a painting by the artist Chi Ying-Jun, please, if you can find it; last I heard it had been acquired by this gallery and was hanging in the Nightingale Room. I am an art student, you see, and my teacher asked us to write a reflective essay on an artist we have long admired…”
The curator yawned pointedly and the boy shut up.
“Well, I’ll have a look through the records for you, but the name does not ring a bell. Chi Ying-Jun, did you say?”
“Y-yes, that was it—Chi being the last name, and Ying-Jun…”
“I heard you.” The curator rifled through a book and scanned a list of names. “Sorry, lad. I can’t find him.”
The boy shifted from foot to foot. “Could you look again, please? I’m sure he was here. His most famous painting was called the Glass Lake.”
“The Glass Lake? Now that you mention it, that does sound a little familiar. Let me check our older archives.” The curator withdrew a second book and ran his finger down a page. “Ah. Chi Ying-Jun. Of course. One of his first pieces, the Glass Lake was critically acclaimed as a progressive and hyper-creative work of art. It has been described as absurdist, bizarre and frightening, and yet darkly realistic and moving the viewer to deep contemplation. It hung in the Nightingale Room for nine months before being removed to storage.”
“Why was it removed?”
“Well—you know: with the scandal that came to surround Chi, we simply couldn’t have the piece on public display any longer. It would have been only a matter of time before it was vandalised by fundamentalists.”
“Oh,” said the twitchy boy, a little sadly. “Yes, I suppose that’s true. He did degenerate, didn’t he?”
“Chi Ying-Jun? He descended into artistic anarchy—a sort of madness, in other words. You must have heard of the works he attempted to pass off as fine art.”
The boy flushed tomato-red. “Yes, I read about some things, in books—“
“There’s no need to look so embarrassed; we all have our perversions. Some of us more than others, I suppose. Did you know—“
“I’ve read about him,” said the boy, again. He hesitated. “I know where he lives, nowadays. Perhaps he wouldn’t be impartial to a visit from a creative admirer.”
“You?” laughed the curator. “I doubt it. He has only time for whores and paints, nowadays. You are no whore, though you are a pretty boy. Hm–I dare say, if you turn up on his doorstep, he may let you in for a few minutes. Say, I’ll give you a couple of documents that were left for him—he never came back to the gallery to pick them up. If you do make up your mind to see him, drop them off, all right? Oh—and tell him that I greatly admired the Glass Lake. It always struck me as a very erotic piece.”
“Right,” said the boy, mildly stunned. He took the pile of papers and stumbled out of the city gallery, digging in his trouser pocket to find the scrap of paper on which he had scrawled Chi Ying-Jun’s address.
It took him an hour to find the apartment block. A shabby part of town—peeling balconies festooned with stained laundry rose in teetering stacks to the sky. The doorway was crumbling; the threshold smelled like piss. The boy climbed the stairs with a mounting sense of nausea.
On the sixth floor he steadied himself against the wall and caught his breath. He found apartment 6B: from within floated the tinny sound of a radio. He knocked on the door and paint flakes came off on his knuckles.
There was no reply for a minute, but the radio clicked off. Hopeful, he knocked again.
“Come in!” A man’s shout, and as the boy edged gingerly into the apartment, he heard female giggles from another room. He almost tripped on a stack of empty paint pots. More paint pots, some half filled, most opened and in a state of disarray, were strewn over a white canvas that covered the entire floor. The canvas itself overflowed with a vivid menagerie of shapes: eyes, bodies, legs, lips, breasts, stomachs, backs, hands, arms—places where people had rolled and lain and left their mark.
The boy ventured, “Mr Chi?”
“Who is it?”
He faltered, coming into the next room. This was no artist—this was just a man. A hairy, giddy-drunk, odorous man.
“Yes, lassie? What is it?”
The women laughed.
“I, uh, have some letters and things to deliver to you, Mr. Chi. Will you have them?”
“Ah, what a pain in the arse.” He staggered from the mattress and took the documents from the boy. “What in hell are these? Invoices? What’s this? An envelope. No one’s written me a letter in a while. I wonder who this is from? My valentine?” He leered delightedly at the boy, his deranged grin almost engulfing his entire face.
The boy took an anxious step back.
“Dear Ferenc. I am sorry to not have replied your letters sooner. How is Mother doing? I hope she is not worse. I have sent our doctor to your apartments; he also carries a payment for Jun. Tell Mother I love her. Keep yourself well too, Ferenc. You shall visit us at the estate soon, will you not? And we will have a chat on the balcony, to relive old times. Regards, Jun.”
Ferenc paused. His eyes flicked back and forth over the page, his mouth moving silently as he reread the letter.
He let out a great, raucous bark of a laugh. “He sent it last week. Last week! Tell Mother I love her! Idiot of a man, your mother’s been dead for four months! Oh, that is a joke. A joke! Oh,” and he dissolved into a renewed fit of laughter, “a tragic and terrible joke. I am profoundly amused, are you not, lassie?”
The boy took another step back. “I do not think it very funny.”
“That’s because you did not hear the joke, lass. Would you like to hear the joke? Then you will understand the punchline. The joke is that I am Ferenc Molnar! Me! I am the great businessman, and he is the artist. Chi Ying-Jun sits in the Meng Estates, sleeps with his sweet Chinese heir, and reaps Molnar money! Is that not hilarious?”
“You are the only one laughing.”
“Ah, tsk.” Ferenc pulled a few notes out of the envelope. “Here, you can have this money. I don’t know where Jun is, anyway. Off you go, lass. Laugh more, no? Life is a pathetic comedy.”
“Life is better outside these dank walls,” muttered the boy, and fled from the apartment. Clutching the banister, he nearly tripped down six flights of stairs and burst out onto the streets. He gasped for fresh air. Disillusionment was a bitter draught.
Once he had composed himself, he walked briskly out of the neighbourhood. Only when he had emptied his mind of the artist’s words did he unfurl his fist and smooth out the money in his palm. Twenty yuan. He would put it into the bank and earn interest, he decided. When he had doubled it, he would give some of it to his mother, and some to the girl he loved, and he would earn more interest with the rest—until he became a rich man.
He would quit the art school tomorrow. Art, he now knew, was a selfish and ugly pursuit.