I know some people will want to blame my parents but I don’t think that’s right. It’s true they were liberal but it wasn’t their fault; it was the way they were raised. My grandparents came of age under Xiong Ling so maybe you should blame her, or the whole Xinyang Dynasty. It was a different world back then. They fell for all the leftist propaganda – on my mother’s side, particularly. They believed in it fervently, and took great care to instil those warped values in their children. Even when times changed they clung to the old ideas. They never accepted the evidence of Empress Xiong Ling’s sorcery, and would often mutter darkly about a vast right-wing conspiracy. On my father’s side they were less extreme, but my mother never had a chance. She was a headstrong woman, brainwashed from an early age into wilfulness and radical thinking. Is it any wonder then, that she passed the disease on to me? These things run in families. In a way we are all victims of the dark legacy of the Xinyang liberals.
Brought up in a toxic environment, my mind was poisoned from an early age. There’s no sense in denying it. Professor Tau has explained to me about leftist brainwashing, how it works insidiously to subvert the mind and dissolve the moral fibre of the human soul. It took him a long time to get though to me but at last I understand what he means. Brainwashing is a subtle thing, he says; it’s not what people think. It’s born of repetition. You don’t notice it; it feels natural so you don’t question it, but the process feeds back on itself and you slowly lose touch with reality. And it’s true – people can be brainwashed very easily. It happened to me.
Professor Tau says he’s been appointed by the Court to find out if I’m insane. In our first session he asked me what I thought about that, and I had to tell him I didn’t know. He asked me if I realised I had committed a crime; I said I wasn’t sure. Then he asked what I remembered about Jiao-Bai.
Everything, I told him. I remember everything.
Professor Tau seemed pleased with this, and asked me to write it all down. He said if I did it might go in my favour. I think by this he meant the magistrate will be more lenient if I confess to my crimes and show remorse. I know that’s the rational thing to do but it still feels wrong to me. It’s hard to fight the brainwashing. It wears you down. But Tau thinks it will help, and I trust him. So I will try to tell what happened.
I met Jiao-Bai three years ago on the ice-harvester Xuanzang. It was the first trip out for both of us; six days out to rendezvous, then a week of EVA to place charges and netting, followed by detonation and the harvest itself. The whole thing took just over a month.
It was hard work but there was a lot of downtime, and facilities were minimal. There wasn’t much to do, and there was little privacy so it was easy to socialise. But there were only twelve of us and most of them were loud and messy and boring. They all seemed to fart constantly and laugh at the tops of their voices. And some of them were just weird.
There was one girl there, Qiaolian, who liked to tell jokes. She knew three different ones, and in her mind they never got old. Also, she would pick her nose and eat it openly, which made me feel sick. And one of the guys was so creepy! He had this slithery way of looking at you, and he’d always stand too close – just slightly. He had a funny smell too. Not bad, exactly; it’s hard to explain, but he smelled wrong.
Socially speaking, it was my idea of hell. I felt completely out of place. When the others would get together in the galley after work to play cards, I would hide in my bunk and read. It was quieter there, and I had brought a good book; for a few hours a day, I could escape.
The day before we arrived at the comet I was in quarters sitting on my bed reading when there came a knock on the door. I had no right to close it so I’d left it open a crack. I could still hear muffled laughter and occasional shrieks of excitement coming from the galley now and then, but it shut out the worst of the noise. I was lost in a fictional world of mountains, oceans, wild men of the forest and strange talking animals, so immersed it took me a few seconds to respond. I looked up.
The crack in the doorway widened to reveal a face – one of the boys, whose name I couldn’t remember. “Hi there,” he said. “Sorry to disturb you.”
“It’s okay,” I said. It wasn’t quite a lie.
“Can I come in?”
“Sure,” I said. It was nice of him to ask. He didn’t have to.
He began to close the door behind him, then thought again and left it open. “What you doing?”
“Reading.” I held up the book.
“Can I see?”
“Yeah.” I flicked a finger across the parchment to bring up the cover image, then held it out to him.
He stepped forward tentatively to take it. “The Last Voyage of Doremi,” he read. Then he pointed at the picture. ‘Is that a spaceship?”
“No – an ultrawhale. A giant creature that lives in the ocean.”
“A huge body of water. Size of a planet, almost.”
He laughed. “That’s a lot of water!”
“So it’s fantasy, right?”
“Cool. Are there elephants in it?”
His smile faded. “Shame,” he said. “I like elephants.”
“Yeah,” I admitted. “Me too. I prefer monkeys, though.”
“Monkeys are cool,” he allowed.
“They’re the best,” I said firmly. “Can’t beat em.”
“Fair enough,” he said, laughing. “My name’s Jiao-Bai.”
We shook hands. At last we had met; our friendship had begun.
Jiao-Bai liked books. He was not loud and he smelled normal. He was a liberal, too. He talked to me like I mattered, listened like my opinion was worthwhile. He made me feel interesting, even funny. I wasn’t, of course, but thanks to Jiao-Bai I began to believe I was. He was like no-one else I had ever met.
It was natural that tongues would wag, and it did not take long. By our second week on the Xuangzang, the general assumption among our crewmates was that me and Jiao-Bai were romantically involved. Of course, they put it less delicately than that, often in the form of crude drawings on the walls of the ship’s lavatory. And I would be lying if I said it had never occurred to me that Jiao-Bai might make a good boyfriend or even husband. I never doubted he would – but not for me. I knew instinctively that it would never work for us, that it was wrong somehow, that it was not our destiny. Attractive as he was, I simply never thought of him that way.
Professor Tau finds this hard to understand, and has questioned me closely on this point; he keeps looking for a rational explanation, a reason for my so-called ‘rejection’ of Jiao-Bai as a potential mate. But I don’t have a reason, at least not one I can articulate, and I never saw it as a rejection; quite the contrary. Jiao-Bai was a friend, yes – but to me a friend is not less than a lover, only different, and perhaps of greater significance – especially a friend of the opposite sex. His friendship meant a great deal to me, and I thought myself lucky to have received that gift.
Of course, we had to talk about it, but it was surprisingly painless. It was one evening about halfway through the mining trip when Jiao-Bai turned to me and said:
“Have you heard what they’re saying?”
“About us? Of course I have.” I put down my book. “Don’t worry about it. They’re idiots.”
“Yeah.” Jiao-Bai frowned. “Still, maybe…”
“I don’t know. Nothing, I guess.” He looked embarrassed. “It’s just… Guozhi really pissed me off earlier.”
“What did he say?”
“It doesn’t matter.”
“What did he say?”
“He asked me if I’d fucked you yet.” Jiao-Bai looked away. “The prick.”
“Yeah,” I laughed, “what a total wanker! What did you tell him?”
“What do you think?” He shrugged. “I told him we were just friends, and he should mind his own business.”
“Too fucking right.”
“Yeah,” said Jiao-Bai. “But he laughed at me! He said I was gay!”
“I’m not gay.”
“So what if you were?”
“Yeah. But I’m not, am I?”
“What does it matter?” I told him. “We’re friends, Jiao-Bai. There’s nothing wrong with that, is there?”
“Course not.” He sighed. “I dunno, just… it pisses me off, that’s all.”
“The fact that we’re friends?”
“No!” he cried. “I wouldn’t change that for the world.”
“Neither would I,” I told him. “It means a lot to me, you know.”
“Yeah… Yeah, me too.”
“Don’t let it get to you. Guozhi’s a narrow-minded little turd-muncher. You can’t expect him to understand.”
“He is a turd-muncher.” Jiao-Bai nodded. “You’re right.”
And that was that. We never talked about it again – there was no need. For the next two weeks we ignored the jibes and sniggers of our crewmates, and averted our eyes from their graffiti.
Our friendship flourished. When we returned from the comet, we kept in touch, writing often and meeting up whenever we could, though we never again shared a posting. We would exchange books frequently – he introduced me to Cao Shian-Shu and the Strugatsky brothers, while I persuaded him to give Fe Lan Kubate a try and created a monster; for the rest of the year he read nothing else. By the time he had finished the series, our Imperial Service was over, and our real lives had begun.
We both ended up in the Sphere of the Black Rhinoceros; Jiao-Bai found a houseshare on the Third Cropship, while I was lucky enough to find an apartment of my own on the Fifth, situated above a shoe shop in the market place. It was small and sometimes the roof leaked, but it was mine. I grew to love the early-morning bustle and noise of the traders setting up their stalls, the beeping and squawking of the various droids as they went about their tasks. That was something Jiao-Bai could never get used to, though he visited often.
The best thing about it was the freedom, of course. Nobody bothered me about anything – not even the landlady, Mrs Pan. As long as I paid the rent she was happy, though she did look in from time to time to ask if I needed anything, and once she gave me a wooly hat she said had been knitted by her niece. It was a lurid pink colour, festooned with golden sparkles and topped with a giant pom-pom – not my usual kind of thing, but from the twinkle in Pan Tai-tai’s eye I think she knew that very well, and for that reason I wore it often.
It attracted men, too; often they would stop me in the street to tell me how cute it was, while fondling the pom-pom suggestively. I wouldn’t have minded but they never asked permission to touch the hat; it was as though the mere fact of my wearing it was invitation enough. I never complained though – I failed to see the point. It was easy enough to smile sweetly and push my annoyance to one side. And I would giggle politely through the inane smalltalk that inevitably preceded a dinner invitation – which, despite the feminist brainwashing of my early years, I did not always refuse. Some of the men were very nice, after all. And it was only a hat. Jiao-Bai hated it; he said it made me look silly, like a little girl. He was right, of course – it was silly. I think that’s why I liked it.
After a string of dates that for various reasons went nowhere I ended up seeing a young pork vat technician and aspiring pingshu artist by the name of Venyamin Hung Bu. We met when he came to perform at Zhu’s Teahouse, where I was working as a waitress at the time. From the moment he came onstage I was spellbound; Venya’s narrative abilities were second to none. Almost no-one was there to witness it, but that didn’t matter – it was clear he was a born storyteller. When he asked me out the following week I could hardly believe my luck!
He was a good-looking man, and he made me laugh. I liked him a lot, and after a couple of months he became my first proper boyfriend. It was a big deal at the time, and I really made an effort to please him. Here, my leftist upbringing put me at a disadvantage. My mother had always believed sa jiao was against feminist principles and kept it to an absolute minimum. She almost never stamped her feet or spoke to my father in a babyish voice; even a pout was a rare and precious thing, and for the most part the poor man had to go without. It must have been hard for him, but he never complained. Instead he would spout feminist slogans! But it was a strange marriage.
Growing up in a household like that left me so ignorant of the romantic art of sa jiao that I had to ask my friend Lijuan for advice on how to throw a proper tantrum! Fortunately she’s always been a pragmatist, and was happy to help. Under her tutelage, I learned at times to be as childish and annoying as any man could wish, but I could never get past my suspicion the whole idea was ridiculous, and that my mother had been right all along. That’s the trouble with feminism; the damage lasts a lifetime. I understand that now, thanks to my work with Professor Tau. But back then with Venya I had no idea; despite some minor concessions to reality, I remained an active feminist.
This was partly due to Jiao-Bai; he strongly disapproved of sa jiao, which he felt was degrading for women. He was having trouble with his own relationship – if you can call it that – and put much of the blame on sa jiao and other aspects of what he called ‘performative femininity’. He said that patriarchal notions of gender were oppressive not only to women, but men as well. For men, such ideas hindered the development of human virtues like compassion and empathy, and encouraged egotism, greed and ultimately violence. Jiao-Bai saw no reason for me to change my behaviour just to catch a good man. I was a strong, independent woman, he said, and ought to stay that way. He went on and on about it until eventually I felt forced to agree just to shut him up. But with Venya I continued my flirtatious behaviour. He seemed to enjoy it, and I wanted to make him happy. I had fallen in love, and this was my choice. How could it be degrading?
About six months into the relationship, Venya was promoted to Senior Executive Vat Technician at the pork factory. His new position was much more demanding, and his responsibilities considerable. As a result he began to spend more time at work or socialising with important people to build up his guanxi. By this time he had gained a small reputation as a storyteller, having performed to widespread acclaim at the Night of Sevens, and again at the Mid-Autumn Festival. His show on Chrysanthemum Day was less well-received, however. Venya put his poor performance down to executive stress, and decided to take some time out. He cancelled a prestigious booking at the Water Lantern Festival the following month, and never went back to it. I tried to persuade him but it made no difference; despite his talent, he had lost interest in pingshu.
It was the beginning of the end for us. Venya became increasingly grumpy and we began to argue – not sa jiao, but real arguments – mostly about nothing. I had started to get on his nerves, though I could never understand why; I was only being myself, but though once he had enjoyed my company, something had changed. I had become a burden. Bit by bit he seemed to lose interest in me. He would no longer talk to me about his feelings. He never seemed to look me in the eye, and would answer questions with non-committal grunts. He had no time for stories.
When we stopped having sex, I asked Lijuan for advice.
She was horrified. “You had sex with him?”
“Oh, Yinjue!” gasped Lijuan. “Why?”
“What do you mean, why? Cos I wanted to.”
“Are you serious?”
“It was nice, Lijuan! You should try it.”
“No, I shouldn’t. Not til I’m married. And neither should you.”
“It’s too late now.”
“Oh, Yinjue! What have you done?”
“You want a list?”
“Great Heavens!” cried Lijuan. She clapped her hands over her ears. “No!”
“I thought you were a feminist.”
“What’s that got to do with it?”
“A woman should be free to choose what to do with her body,” I told her. “She shouldn’t be judged by society.”
“Are you crazy? This is the real world, Yinjue.” She shook her head in exasperation. “Maybe in some distant utopian future you’d be right. But we don’t live in a hypothetical universe. We live here, in the Long Yu Empire. And here, sure – a woman can choose what to do with her body. It’s up to her – in theory, at least. But society? That’s not up to you. Of course you’ll be judged! And harshly. Honestly, Yinjue! How could you be so stupid?”
“I’m not stupid,” I told her. “And you’re not helping.”
“I’m sorry. But I really don’t think I can. It’s too late.”
“So you think I should leave him?”
“What?” exclaimed Lijuan. “No! That would only make things worse.”
“Think about it, Yinjue – you’re a broken shoe. What kind of man will want you now? You should stick with what you’ve got. After all, he’s got a good job at the pork factory, hasn’t he?”
“I don’t care about that,” I snapped. “It’s boring.”
Lijuan shrugged. “Maybe that’s a good thing.”
“You have to grow up, Yinjue. Don’t you want children?”
“Actually,” I told her. “I’m not sure I do.”
“What’s wrong with you?” She stared at me in astonishment. “You’re a woman, aren’t you?”
“That doesn’t mean…” I trailed off, and my face hardened. Suddenly I felt betrayed. “Never mind,” I said. “Fuck you, Lijuan. I thought we were friends.”
“Yes, of course we are!”
“I don’t think so. Not any more.”
“I think I’d better go. Have a good life.”
“Goodbye, Lijuan,” I said, walking out. Then I slammed the door behind me.
At the weekend I met up with Jiao-Bai; he was more sympathetic.
“You should probably dump him,” he said. “He’s no good for you. But have you considered the possibility you could be annoying him with the sa jiao stuff?” He shrugged. “I know it annoys me.”
“I don’t do it to you.”
“Yeah, I know. Maybe that’s why we get on so well.”
“It’s a different situation,” I pointed out. “Anyway, the truth is I thought of that already. I hardly even see him anymore. I haven’t thrown a tantrum for ages.”
“What about the baby voice?”
“Not much. But I’m telling you, he likes it! It usually leads to sex. At least it used to.”
“Hm.” Jiao-Bai frowned.
“You’re not gonna like it. But I just had a thought.”
“Spit it out, then.”
“It’s the broken shoe thing. Maybe he’s one of those men who believe in that stuff. He’s quite traditional, isn’t he? If he likes that sa jiao shit.”
“That doesn’t mean anything. Most men do.”
“Most men are sexists,” he observed. “So, statistically…”
“Yeah, well – statistically, you’re a sexist.”
“The point is, it’s not ridiculous to suggest your boyfriend might have some deeply ingrained regressive ideas about women who have sex before marriage. Especially if they enjoy it.”
“You’re saying he thinks I’m a whore?”
“It’s just a thought.” Jiao-Bai shrugged. “It would make sense though, wouldn’t it?”
“Not really. No-one forced him to fuck me.”
“Nobody stopped him, either.”
“It was his idea!”
“Sure. But that’s not how it works is it? Not for someone like him. In his mind, it’s expected that he’ll try and fuck you. It would be improper not to pressure you; it would imply he was gay, see? But for you – well, your job is to fight him off, isn’t it? To prove your virtue.”
“Yeah, so he knows you’re not some dirty little whore who’ll open her legs for just anyone.”
“Sorry,” said Jiao-Bai. “But you know what I mean.”
“All that sa jiao stuff? It’s the same thing. It’s all symbolic – it promotes the stereotypes. Women look pretty and smell nice but they’re weak and illogical and driven by crazy emotions. That’s why you have to be controlled. Cos you’re dangerous, see?”
I shook my head. “I don’t get it.”
“I know. Neither do I. I think the whole thing’s stupid. But the fact is, for most men… well, what can I say? These ideas are mostly unconscious, I think. But they’re there.”
“Shit,” I said. “Maybe you’re right.”
“Dump him,” said Jiao-Bai. “You could do much better.”
After a couple more weeks of trying to make it work, I finally broke it off with Venya. He didn’t take it well. He demanded to know if there was ‘someone else’, and when I denied it he got angry and threatened to tell Mrs Pan what kind of woman I really was. That shocked me. Pan Tai-tai was shrewd enough to make up her own mind so I wasn’t particularly worried, but Venya had revealed his true colours. I had never expected this from him, despite what Jiao-Bai had said about men and their ingrained regressive ideas. I’d given him the benefit of the doubt. There were problems in our relationship, yes – but that did not make my boyfriend a sexist. Now, I decided, that’s exactly what he was. And Jiao-Bai was right. I deserved better. After all, I thought – who didn’t?
Such was my contempt, at the time, for tradition and moral decency. I never stopped to consider Venya’s feelings at all, or the needs of society. It was as though the whole world revolved around me. It feels shameful now, looking back on it. But that’s how it was at the time.
After the breakup, Venya stuck to his word, as I found out a few days later when there was a knock on the door. By then I had finished crying, and the anger had begun to fade.
“Yes?” I said.
“Hello, dearie,” said a tiny voice. “It’s me, Pan Tai-tai.”
I got up to open the door. “Hello, Mrs Pan. How are you? Please come in.”
The little old lady shuffled forward, her face crinkling into a smile. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I won’t stay long.”
“Oh, Pan Tai-tai! Stay as long as you like. It’s your place, after all.”
Mrs Pan nodded. “Mind if I sit down? Them stairs is a bugger.”
She lowered herself gingerly onto the bed. Her feet barely reached the floor. “Ooh, that’s better,” she sighed. “Take my advice, love – make the most of bein’ young while you’ve got the chance.” She chuckled. “It won’t last long. I’ve spent most of my life as an old lady, believe it or not. Life don’t get better with age, I can tell you that!” Her eyes twinkled.
I laughed politely. “I’ll remember. Would you like a cuppa?”
She flapped an arm at me. “No need. I said I ain’t staying. But I thought I’d come and talk to you a minute. In person, like.”
“Someone came to see me earlier. Called himself Hung Bu. Big boss up the pork factory, or so he said. Very respectful he was, bowin’ and scrapin’ like I got some clout.” She chuckled. “I could see right away he was after something.” She gazed at me levelly. “He said he was your boyfriend.”
“Until recently, he was.”
“So he weren’t lying, then.”
“Mrs Pan, I don’t know what he said. But if—” I stopped suddenly as she shot me with a fierce glare.
“It don’t matter what he said,” said Pan Tai-tai. “What matters is his intention.” She gave me a meaningful stare. “Now, I understand you’ve broken it off with this Mr Hung.”
“Well, that seems like a wise decision to me. But he ain’t happy about it, and he’s out to make trouble. So I thought I’d come and see you myself. See how you’re doing.”
“I’m fine, Pan Tai-tai,” I told her. “I’ve been hurt and betrayed by the man I love – or used to love. But I’m alright, really.”
The old lady nodded. “You got some strength in you. That’s good.” She looked around the room. “You’ve made it nice in here,” she observed. “Very cozy.”
“This is my home,” I said.
“Course it is. That’s why I came to see you. To let you know you’re still welcome. It don’t matter what no-one says. You’ll always have a place here, Yinjue.” She laughed. “Long as you pay the rent, o’ course! You ain’t having trouble, are you?”
“No, Pan Tai-tai.”
“Good.” She shuffled forward on the bed, then, after a brief struggle, successfully levered herself into a standing position. I watched nervously, poised to catch her if she fell. Mrs Pan shooed me away. “I’m not that far gone,” she said. “But I appreciate the thought.” She winked. “Take care o’ yourself, won’t you, love? And remember what I said.”
This is more or less what I had expected from Pan Tai-tai. After all, she was old enough to be my grandmother. She too had spent her formative years in the Xinyang Dynasty, and her mind had been shaped by leftist theories. Still, she remains harmless enough despite her old-fashioned ideas. I’m sure she’s a good woman at heart.
Mr Kao took a different view. When I arrived at Zhu’s the following afternoon he called me into the office.
“Yinjue,” he said. “I heard you broke up with Hung Bu. I’m very sorry.”
“Don’t be. He’s an arsehole.”
Mr Kao shrugged. “Perhaps. But—”
“He tried to get me in trouble with the landlady. What kind of man does that? It’s pathetic. Anyway, it didn’t work. I think she likes me. She gave me a hat.”
“Oh, good.” Mr Kao looked pained. “Good. Now, I’m sorry, Yinjue… but I have a problem. The customers have been talking.” He sighed. “It’s business. Nothing personal.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m very sorry. You’ve been a good worker. I have no complaints.” He shrugged again, raising his palms in the air: what could he do? “I’ll give you a good reference,” he said.
“Are you firing me?”
“No, I wouldn’t put it like that. But yes.” He looked at the floor. “I’m very sorry.”
“What did he tell you? Did he call me a whore?”
Mr Kao flinched. “It’s nothing personal, Yinjue. I don’t— ”
“I don’t know what he said. I haven’t seen him. But the customers are talking. Mr Tung from the market—”
“The chicken-feet guy?”
“Yes, he was talking to Mrs Foo. And later I heard Mr Wei discussing it with his friends. You know how people like to talk.”
“What were they saying?”
“Well, it’s only gossip. Who knows what’s true? I don’t judge you, Yinjue.” Kao shrugged. “But they feel bad for Hung Bu. They don’t want to see you.” He lowered his voice. “They think you’re an immoral influence. They worry about their children. I’m sorry, Yinjue. But it’s bad for business.” He sighed. “I’ll pay you for the week, alright? But you may as well go home now.” He picked up an envelope from the desk and passed it over to me. “No hard feelings.”
I stared at him in disbelief. For a moment, I considered telling him to stuff his money up his arse. It felt like a long moment. But eventually I thought better of it, and reached out to take the envelope. I needed the cash, after all. And Mr Kao had always been good to me.
“Alright then,” I said. “Thanks, I guess.”
“Good luck, Yinjue. I’ve always liked you.” He smiled. “It’s nothing personal.”
I walked back through the marketplace in a daze. When I passed by Mr Tung’s stall I didn’t dare look at him. I knew he would only turn away, pretending not to notice me. I could confront him, of course – but what would be the point? It would only make a scene. Then he and his customers would really have something to talk about.
The way I saw it, it wasn’t Mr Tung’s fault. He was a product of his culture, and could not be blamed for his bigotry. For such is the contradiction at the heart of the liberal ideology: it preaches individualism, while absolving the individual of responsibility for his actions. It values freedom above all else. But too much freedom leads to a society where there is no real distinction between right and wrong – only various points of view. For a liberal, the only true crime is to lack compassion.
So I did not blame Mr Tung for spreading the rumours. And I tried not to blame Venya for starting them. I was angry, yes. He had been vindictive and childish, and dishonoured his ancestors. But I had hurt the poor man’s feelings. What did I expect?
Rather than confront Mr Tung, I made my way to Mrs Tam’s Sweetmeat Pagoda. I needed cheering up, and had set my heart on a large box of her chocolate yummies and a handful of apple dust. After that, I went to the bookshop to pick up the latest epic by Ong Shihong, and spent the rest of the day binge-reading and nibbling on sweets.
I sent Jiao-Bai a message via courier, and that evening we met up for a few drinks and a meal at Chao’s. I was a regular drinker, and had developed both a taste and tolerance for alcoholic beverages; I was particularly fond of huangjiu. Jiao-Bai insisted on paying for everything; he said I deserved it, and I did not complain. After the meal, we continued drinking. At the time it did not seem excessive, but the wine must have been stronger than I thought. By the end of the night I was drunk, and Jiao-Bai had to all but carry me home.
With his help, I staggered up the stairs and through the door. Jiao-Bai deposited me on the bed and went to make tea.
“Don’t bother,” I mumbled. “I just wanna sleep.”
“You really should sober up a bit,” he said, filling the samovar. “You’ll get a hangover.”
“I’ll be fine.”
“At least take some headache powder.”
“Alright,” I sighed. “If you insist.”
“And some kudzu jelly.”
“I’ll stir it in.”
I dozed off, but Jiao-Bai nudged me awake when the tea was ready, then forced me to sit up and drink it slowly. I could barely keep my eyes open, and don’t remember finishing the cup. I suppose I must have conked out halfway through.
I had strange dreams. I remember a writhing nest of creatures I recognised as snakes; their bodies parted to reveal a giant ball of sticky rice in the shape of an egg. The ball disintegrated and the grains of rice became maggots that spread out to devour the snakes, which cried out in pain and terror. At one point, I got the impression there were numerous figures gathered around the bed – small in stature and completely hairless – all of them looking down at me and passing judgement. They spoke in babbling voices, in what seemed to be an ancient language I could not understand. Jiao-Bai was nowhere to be seen. Present instead was a man with the head of a pig. He wore the fine robes and hat of a gentleman, and held in his hand a bloody cleaver. He was smiling.
I woke up in bed, with Jiao-Bai lying next to me, still asleep. This was unusual as he normally slept on the sofa if he had to stay over. I assumed he had dozed off shortly after me – or maybe before – and not moved since. Technically this was improper even for a liberal, but I didn’t mind too much. There was nothing really to worry about. Jiao-Bai was my friend and I trusted him. Whatever went on, it was nobody’s business but ours.
I’d woken up with a full bladder, and needed to empty it urgently. As I began to get up, I realised that under the quilt I was naked. Now I was shocked; I could not remember taking off my clothes. Had Jiao-Bai taken them off for me? Surely not. I must have blacked out somehow; after all, the last thing I remembered was sipping tea. I didn’t remember getting into bed; I must have done so unconsciously. As I got up and padded into the bathroom, I decided I would never drink like that again. Clearly I was getting too old for it – after all, I had never blacked out before. It was an experience I did not wish to repeat.
In the bathroom I brushed my teeth and quickly washed my face. I pulled a used set of pyjamas from the washing basket, gave them a tentative sniff, then decided to put them on. I had a clean pair in the living room but did not want to wake up Jiao-Bai while rummaging around naked. He did not need to see me like that. At least, not again. And not sober.
It was still early, and the air was cold. After I’d finished in the bathroom I slipped softly back into bed next to him. He mumbled in his sleep and rolled over. His leg brushed against mine, and I jerked away. Suddenly I felt sick. Jiao-Bai was naked too. And between us on the bed, I had just put my hand in a damp patch. My mind began to race. There had to be an explanation. An alternative to the obvious.
But I could not find it.
I sat frozen, staring ahead at the wall, for what seemed like a long time; several minutes, at least. I tried to clear my mind, concentrating on my breathing. Finally, I lifted my hand slowly to my face and sniffed my fingers. I don’t know what I was expecting to learn from this. I smelled sex, of course, but that in itself proved nothing. There were numerous ways such a damp patch could form in the night. There had to be. So there was no need to jump to conclusions. It sounds ridiculous now, but that’s what I told myself. It was a way of coping, I think. I realise now I was in shock.
I looked down at Jiao-Bai, still sleeping soundly. I considered waking him up. I thought about asking him what had happened between us. If anything had happened. He would remember, surely. And he would tell me the truth. I could trust him. Whatever might’ve happened, we had been very very drunk. And he was still my friend. So we could talk about it; we could deal with it together. I thought about waking him up. Then I decided to make tea.
I got up and walked over to the kitchen area. I topped up the samovar with water and set it to boil, then opened the teapot and peered in. It was almost empty, so I picked it up to tip the spent tea into the compost bowl. A clump of wet brown leaves fell out with a splat, landing on a pile of onion skins and a few bits of discarded turnip. I stared at them dumbly as the leaves settled, and a trail of dark brown liquid snaked down and dripped from the edge of a small mushroom. I frowned. Mushroom? Where had that come from? I couldn’t imagine, but there were more of them, I noticed, among the tea leaves. I peered closer. What was this? Had they been mixed in with the tea? I looked in the pot, which I had not yet rinsed out. A few dark leaves remained, and with them were paler things. I fished one out; it confirmed my suspicions. Jiao-Bai had added these little mushrooms to the tea.
Why? What were they? And why hadn’t he told me? Had he made this brew for me? Or for himself, while I was asleep? But I did not ask myself these questions; not seriously. I realise now I should have, but I didn’t; that’s the truth. I could have given Jiao-Bai the benefit of the doubt. But instead I jumped to conclusions: last night we had been drunk, yes. And we had had sex, which I couldn’t remember. That was bad enough. But if he had drugged me, it was not harmless fun. It was no longer an accident; Jiao-Biao had done this intentionally. He hadn’t wanted my consent. No wonder I couldn’t remember. He had made sure of it.
The soft hiss of the samovar shook me from my thoughts as it reached the boil. Mindlessly, I rinsed out the teapot with hot water, spooned in dried leaves and set them to brew. When it was ready I poured myself a cup and sat on the sofa to drink it. Jiao-Bai did not stir. When I had finished, I got up and walked quietly back to the kitchen area. I put down my cup, and spent a minute or two looking through the knife rack. At last I selected a small fruit knife, serrated and very sharp. It was one of my favourites. I poured myself another cup of tea and drank it slowly, standing up at the worktop. Then I walked over to the bed where Jiao-Bai was still sleeping, and I slit his throat.
It was messy, and it wasn’t as quick as I’d expected. He woke up, and got a confused look on his face when he saw all the blood. He clapped a hand to his throat and made a gurgling sound. He tried to sit up, but he didn’t quite manage it; he fell back as he lost consciousness, the wound in his throat gaping and still pulsing weakly with blood. After a few more seconds it stopped squirting completely. The gurgling sound died away as he stopped breathing, and I dropped the knife. Jiao-Bai was dead.
The blood dripped gradually down through the floorboards to spread across the ceiling of the shoe shop, where it was noticed eventually by the proprietor, Mr Jin. I’m told he ran out into the street and flagged down a small boy, who in exchange for a few fen went to fetch the police. Two constables rolled up around mid-day and went to inspect the red stain on Mr Jin’s ceiling, which by now had begun to drip. This piqued their interest, and they immediately called for backup. An armed response team arrived within minutes to storm the apartment. When they broke open the door, I was sitting on the bed with Jiao-Bai’s head resting in my lap. I was reading to him, apparently. Of course, there was blood everywhere. I was drenched in it. But I don’t remember that.
I was interviewed at the police station. I’ve heard the recording. It’s hard to believe it’s really my voice; I sound so weird, but Professor Tau assures me that’s normal – our own voice that we hear when we speak is distorted by the mechanics of sound transmission through the skull. He says my true voice is the one on the recording. Once I got over the initial shock and began to listen more carefully, I knew he was right. I recognised that voice. It was me.
The police asked a lot of questions, and I answered them all. I was very co-operative. I was calm. Inspector Lam did not feel the need to beat me, and he did not scream or shout. I confessed immediately. It was all very straightforward and matter-of-fact. But on one point, Inspector Lam remained uncertain: motive. Even in that initial interview, it’s a point he keeps returning to, and each time I give the same answer: because he was my friend.
They questioned me again several times, and eventually a magistrate was appointed, a man named Wong Xiyang, who questioned me further. Magistrate Wong I remember quite well – a large man in his fifties with a pot belly and a lisp, he had a face made for laughing, yet in his dealings with me he was always very stern. I don’t remember the details, but ultimately he summoned Professor Tau and ordered him to prepare a psychiatric report.
I’ve been working with Professor Tau for three months now, which is probably longer than Wong would prefer. But Tau says I shouldn’t worry; these things take time. Anyway, the report’s nearly ready; he says he’ll be done by the end of the week. He’s promised to let me see it – though only after Magistrate Wong, of course, and subject to his approval. Not that he thinks there’ll be a problem; he says that just to cover himself. But I can hardly wait.