Read an Extract - Oneworld Publications

Read an Extract - Oneworld Publications
A Yi
Translated by
Anna Holmwood
A Oneworld Book
First published in English in North America, Great Britain & Australia by Oneworld
Publications, 2015
Originally published in Chinese as 猫和老鼠
by Zhejiang Literary and Arts Press in 2012
Copyright © A Yi 2012
English translation copyright © Anna Holmwood 2014
The moral right of A Yi to be identified as the author
of this work has been asserted by him in accordance with the
Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988
All rights reserved
Copyright under Berne Convention
A CIP record for this title is available from the British Library
ISBN 978-1-78074-705-7
ISBN 978-1-78074-706-4 (eBook)
Printed and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, organisations, places and
events are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any
resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Oneworld Publications
10 Bloomsbury Street
London WC1B 3SR
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A Beginning
On the Run I
On the Run II
On the Run III
The Ending
The Interrogation
The Game
In Prison
On Trial
The Appeal
The Verdict
Last Words
A Beginning
went to buy glasses today. I reached for a pair of sunglasses first, but the more you try to disguise yourself,
the more you stick out, so I chose a pair of normal ones
instead. Much better for diverting people’s attention.
They’d think I was short-sighted, and short-sighted
people seem trustworthy.
I also bought some duct tape, which I wrapped
around my hand. It was sticky stuff. It took ages for me
to tear it off and get my hand clean again.
The day’s plans didn’t originally include buying
clothes, but somehow I found myself entering a shop,
having taken pity on the owner. She was in her thirties,
short, with a face grey like dried orange peel. She’d just
been humiliated by a handsome customer. Everyone
likes beautiful things, why shouldn’t she want her own
boutique? Well, that’s what I thought, anyway. But I
regretted it as soon as she looked up. Her eyes were
submissive, unbearably so, and they trailed after me
wherever I went. Just as I was about to leave she
addressed me in a funny voice:‘Uncle, I do a good price.
Elsewhere it might cost over a thousand. I sell it for a
few hundred. Exactly the same stuff. I’ve got everything
A Yi
you could want.’ She pulled out a T-shirt and continued.
‘Try this on. If you don’t, how’ll you know what it looks
like? Try it first, we can talk money afterwards.’
There was an edge to her voice. I headed for the
mirror and held it up, but I couldn’t see any noticeable
difference to how I normally looked.
‘It really suits you,’ she said as I tossed it aside. ‘What
are you after, then?’
‘You don’t have what I’m after.’
I made for the door.
‘Try me.’
‘I can’t explain.’
I walked out and she followed like a disappointed
dog. Just at that moment, a suit walked past decked out
in the latest fashions from the West, a pair of shiny
leather shoes and a briefcase under his arm.
‘Do you have something like that?’ I said.
‘Yes, yes,’ she breathed.
‘Including the shoes and the briefcase?’
‘The whole outfit.’
I figured if I looked professional I’d be trusted. I
wouldn’t get caught.
She went in and riffled around in a cardboard box,
watching me all the while, scared that I might leave
again. It was all there. She wasn’t lying. Only the briefcase was brown. I carried the items into the changing
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room, tried them on and emerged to check how I
looked in the mirror. I spotted some gel on the table.
‘Can I borrow a bit?’
‘Of course. Go ahead.’
I squeezed a blob into my hand and spread it through
my hair so that it shone.
‘How old do I look now?’
‘Tell me the truth.’
‘Twenty-six, twenty-seven.’
She couldn’t decide if I was satisfied with her answer
and looked on anxiously as I headed back to the changing room. The truth was I was still in school. I’d be
lucky to be taken for twenty-six.
I came out again and dumped the clothes to one side.
I stared at her for about five seconds and then asked,
‘How much?’
She jumped up as if I’d just thrown her a life jacket
and started tapping on her calculator.
‘I’ll give you the best discount. Usually it’d be six
hundred for the lot, but for you I’ll do five eighty.’
‘Too much.’
‘The best I can do is knock off another twenty, otherwise I won’t make any profit.’
‘Still too much. I can’t afford that.’
‘Then you name a price.’
A Yi
I remembered Ma’s instructions: always cut the price
in half. But I was even tougher.
‘Two hundred.’
‘Too little.’
‘Two hundred.’
‘Uncle, be reasonable.They’re yours for four hundred.’
‘I’ve only got two hundred.’
‘If I sold all of that for two hundred I wouldn’t have
a business left. If you only want to buy one item, we
can talk.’
I started to leave. Behind me, nothing but silence. It
was a strange feeling, like a nasty break-up after which
no one is happy. The further I walked the more I
believed her, but by then I was too embarrassed to look
back. Just as I was about to turn the corner, just as I was
certain I’d lost my chance, I heard her call: ‘Wait, wait!
OK, for you two hundred.’
I saw her waving at me. I waved back at her, smiled
sardonically and then walked away.
I got what I wanted. I only had ten yuan on me
6.30 that evening, I returned to the military
academy compound where I was living with my aunt
and uncle. Mr He, our idiot neighbour, was just coming
back. Thanks to the state’s military benefits, he lived a
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miserable life. The whole base was an empty tomb. Me
and old Mr He were seemingly the only ones living
there and yet the gate was guarded 24/7. The academy
sent the latest recruits here as part of their military
training and they executed their duties well, keeping
their backs and limbs ironed stiff. I had been worried
that the guards or Mr He might catch me, but they were
all robotic fools anyway.
I followed old Mr He upstairs, waited until he shut
his door and eased my aunt’s open. The shady spirits
inside pounced, though I knew the apartment was filled
only with nothingness.
I sat staring into space, not sure what to do next to
execute my plan. I imagined how in three or five or
fifty days I might be in prison. Apparently prisoners are
taught a vocation.They spend their time inside working
so that when they get out they’ve got a trade – as cobblers or carpenters, tailors or carvers. All I’d ever learned
to do was to masturbate. I went to my room and pulled
across the curtains. It was over pretty quickly.
I drifted off, but before long I was awake and couldn’t
get back to sleep again. I had to find something to do.
Deciding to take my chances, I turned on the light,
pushed aside an empty cardboard box, moved some
flowerpots, magazines and a vase with fake flowers and
finally pulled away the tablecloth to reveal my aunt’s
A Yi
safe. I stuck the key in and tried to unlock it. After a
while I switched off the light and kept trying: darkness
sharpens my focus.
Auntie would go mad when she found out the safe
had been emptied, of course, but I was going to need
money if I was to have any hope of carrying it off.
Maybe she’d cry. Mind you, my aunt deserved it. Me
and my family didn’t owe her or my uncle a cent. The
day it had been decided that I was to come to the city
to live with them marked one of the most important
business deals to have ever been struck in the history of
our family. When they were young, Pa did better at
school than my uncle, but only one of them could
attend university and Pa let his brother go. While he
ended up down a mine, getting lung cancer and dying.
Someone had to shoulder the guilt, but my aunt was
only ever a bus conductor. It’s not like she could really
take care of me. She always thought of herself as better
than us just because she was born in the capital of our
province. Ma sent me to live with her with bags full of
presents from our home town, but Auntie gave them
back, all proud, saying, ‘Keep them, keep them. Things
are difficult for you lot.’ I wanted to shout at her, ‘My
ma’s got more money than you!’ After I moved in, I
used to spend my days curled up on the balcony. The
whole thing was so humiliating, I wished I was dead.
A Pe r f e c t C ri m e
She would turn off the gas when I showered. Sometimes
she would promenade up and down in her high heels
while I was watching television. She didn’t say I couldn’t
sit on the sofa exactly, but as soon as I got up she would
be there, wiping it down. She was like a farmer looking
for cow pats to fertilise her fields, and that’s exactly what
I was to her: a pile of shit.
Her attention had been diverted away from me
recently, though. She and my uncle were building a
new house and Auntie had to oversee it. Uncle, meanwhile, had been posted to another base, so I was often
left on my own, which I’d thought was going to be
great. It would be a relief not to have my aunt breathing down my neck. But I quickly realised it doesn’t
matter where or how you live, the house always wins
over you in the end.
I was still jiggling the key. It was stuck and time was
slipping away. Suddenly, I heard footsteps outside. They
stopped at the door.Then the jangle of keys. Something
was being inserted into the lock. The outer metal door
clanged. I continued jigging until I realised with a pulse
of frustration, pulling at it wildly, that I couldn’t get it
out. It broke. Auntie was now opening the inner door
and I just managed to flip the cloth back over the safe
in time, pulling the corner straight. She closed the doors
as I put the old magazines and vase back on top. They
A Yi
weren’t in the right position, so I shuffled them around
before lifting the flowerpot up off the floor. My hands
were shaking so violently I nearly dropped it. The
curtain was pulled across the doorway, thank God.
A second later, Auntie switched the light on and
made for my room. I was lying on the floor, breathing
heavily, counting out loud: ‘Forty-four, forty-five.’ She
scooped the curtain up in her hand and poked her head
through, not seeing my foot pushing the cardboard box
back into place.
‘Why have you got the light off?’
She pulled the curtain back, letting the yellow glow
flood in.
‘I’m doing my push-ups.’
‘Wasting your time instead of studying, in other
She forced me to my feet and appeared to be looking
for something.Then she casually pushed aside the cardboard box and grabbed the vase. She was probably about
to move the flowerpot and magazines, pull off the cloth
and check inside the safe. I needed to say something
urgently, anything.
But at that moment she turned and said, ‘What’s the
matter? Didn’t I tell you to go and study?’
At once my face turned red, but I didn’t move.
A Pe r f e c t C ri m e
The order had been issued and I left, wet with sweat.
I sat on the edge of the sofa like a prisoner with his head
laid out on the guillotine, waiting for her to storm back
out and let me have it.
I imagined choking her to death. I wasn’t yet sure
who I was going to kill, but if anyone, why not her? It
would be too easy, though, too expected. I hated her.
But she wasn’t worth the energy.
When she emerged she was merely stuffing some old
clothes into a bag.
‘I’m going to visit your uncle and mother tomorrow.
Do you need me to bring back some money?’ she asked.
‘No,’ I said.
I collapsed and she left. For a long time afterwards it
felt as if she was still there. I went to my room, but it
didn’t look as if the cloth had been touched.
he next morning I checked again on the key
broken off in the lock. It looked like a little dick
caught in the jaws of a vagina. It struck me that I
needed a pair of pliers. I’d buy some on the way back
from school.
Today we were having our graduation pictures taken.
The light was soft and dappled, which made the
campus look cleaner than usual, cheerful even.The pictures were being done under a row of trees. Everyone
was gathered together, chatting. I stood by myself. First
we were to have our individual shots, then the group
photo. I watched my classmate Kong Jie. She was
wearing one of her stage outfits, made from white silk,
a pink skirt and a blue necktie. She kept running her
hands through her sweaty hair. The sun was beating
down on us, making her look even whiter, as if she was
being photographed in a winter wonderland.
When Kong Jie wasn’t in school, her mother followed her everywhere like a pathetic mutt. At least,
that’s what she told me.After her father died, she became
her mother’s sole property, locked up indoors, made to
repeat scales on the piano like on a production line. Her
A Yi
mother installed herself in the front row of Kong Jie’s
every performance, examining the audience’s reaction
at the end before leading her daughter away. Until one
time when the entire audience gave Kong Jie a standing
ovation and her mother finally pulled her into her arms
and wept with happiness.
The only secret Kong Jie ever kept from her mother
was the purchase of a little puppy. Or at least it was
while she tried to find a way to broach the subject with
her. But by the next morning she realised she was never
going to be allowed to keep it. Every day she gave it to
a different friend to look after, until she came to me.
My aunt was away so much she’d barely notice. It was
perfect. That is, until I ended up killing it. I got so mad
I kicked it, and it died in Kong Jie’s arms. She dug it a
grave using a spoon, the tears dribbling down her
cheeks. I told her someone else did it.
Just then she caught me looking at her and came
over, thinking I wanted to speak to her. There was a
sweet empathy in her eyes, like a mute gazing on
another mute, a deaf person gazing on another deaf
person. We’d both lost our fathers. Maybe that was it.
‘You look unhappy,’ she said.
‘It’s my aunt.’
I imagined her laid out in the snow, legs open, me
hovering over her. My heart thumped. I couldn’t bear
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to look straight into her charcoal eyes, but I tried to
stay casual.
‘I can’t take it any more,’ I said, then I walked off.
They’d tacked up some white cloth where the
photos were being taken and put a chair in front of it.
Someone would sit down and everyone saluted them
with their eyes. Then it was my turn. I was already
feeling pretty awkward when the photographer looked
up over the camera and said, ‘You need to brush your
hair. It’s a mess.’
Laughter erupted around me. My lip quivered, my
cheeks flushed, but I straightened up and pointed my
chin fuzz right at the lens, clenched my cheeks and
stared it down, cold and mean. I wanted this to look like
a mugshot. I wasn’t trying to look good, this was going
to be the image everyone would remember me by. The
picture that would be plastered all over the papers. For
my aunt and my mother.
When they were done I walked away. I was never
going to see this place again.
I had a hundred yuan left after buying the pliers. Might
as well buy the rope and knife while I was at it.You had
to get a certificate to buy a combat weapon, so at first
I thought of purchasing a fruit knife, but the shopkeeper
gave me a conspiratorial smile and I realised I needn’t
A Yi
be so careful. He led me into the back room and took
out a box of army switchblades. I chose the cheapest one.
I was going to strangle my victim with the rope, but if
they fought back I might need a knife. Plus, a switchblade would lend the whole event a ceremonial feel.
I hid it in my bag and threaded my way through the
crowds. As I walked I couldn’t resist the temptation to
slip my hand back into my bag and push the button.
Click, it flipped out; click, back in. It made me feel
dizzy. I’m the Angel of Death. I could kill any one of
these people. The way I saw it, those who get killed are
the ones who are worth the effort.These people weren’t
right. The spindly man walking towards me, combing
his hair? No, he wasn’t right. None of them were right.
Back at home I used the pliers to pinch hold of the
broken-off key, but no matter how hard I tugged and
yanked, it just wouldn’t budge. After an hour, I was
furious and began attacking the safe with the pliers
instead, until the bit between my thumb and forefinger
started throbbing and tears started rolling down my
cheeks. I had to keep at it. I couldn’t go through with
it without money.
At 1.30 the neighbour’s door banged shut. It was Old
He, heading out.Things may not have been going well,
but my plan wasn’t ruined yet. I grabbed my bag and
opened the door. I was going to follow him.
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Mr He had a worn-out hunting dog who walked by
lifting his legs in a languid, funny way, like a dignified
mare. Every once in a while they stopped, Mr He to
scratch his arm while the animal smeared his fleainfested back all over his master’s leg. He lay down
periodically, refusing to continue, to which the old man
responded with a gob full of phlegm and a kick to his
stomach: ‘Useless dog, hurry up and die.’ He snorted a
response and Mr He whipped the sorry mutt with his
leather belt before he pulled himself up onto his
unsteady feet. Mr He had to keep throwing biscuit
crumbs onto the road ahead just to get him to walk on.
I understood the guy’s particular kind of loneliness.
He was used to being someone important in the military academy, looking down on people. It wasn’t death
that scared him, more like the way time seemed to
stretch out endlessly. He hardly slept. He was up early
every morning walking the dog, coming back as the sun
rose, when he would make a big fuss over breakfast.
Then he would walk to the sentry box to collect the
newspaper, which he read fastidiously all morning,
taking in each and every word before launching into
the operation that was lunch.Then came the hour-long
nap and another walk with the old dog. Mr He wasn’t
a nice guy, no nicer than my aunt, but he wasn’t the
right victim either.
A Yi
I couldn’t be bothered to follow him any more so I
went home, shoved some soapy water in the lock and
had another go with the pliers. I stood there, anger
rising up in me like steam building in a bottle, slowly
expanding and pressing against me until I exploded
under the pressure. Gripping the pliers, I attacked the
lock, but it fought back.
I lay down on the bed and tried to calm myself, but
panic gripped me. I got up and lay back down again,
repeating the cycle, each time thinking I’d come up
with a solution, only to descend deeper into my anxiety.
The last time I got up I felt so impotent, all I could
think of was how much I wanted to punish it. So I
pissed into the lock. Then I grabbed the base, hunched
one shoulder up like a bull, roared three times and
turned it upside down. It crashed to the floor. It was too
much to hope that the force might’ve popped it open,
but I did notice that the underside had a plastic bag
glued tightly across it. I ripped away the bag and found
some bubble wrap and old newspapers, inside which
was a round, flat piece of jade carved with the image of
a Buddha. It was shiny like a mirror.The room was dark,
so I went to find some light and watched as the Buddha
danced under the rays. He laughed with his mouth, eyes
and eyebrows. Even the red birthmark on his temple
was laughing – laughing so that the rolls of fat and robes
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covering them were billowing like waves.
I too laughed, laughed so that tears gathered in my
eyes. I wanted to pick up the phone and tell someone,
anyone, about how I’d managed at least to unlock the
strange mind of my petty aunt and her secret hiding
place. She’d been almost stupidly clever. She didn’t trust
anyone, not even herself. She believed the most dangerous place to be the safest. She’d stuck her most precious
possession on the bottom of the safe.
Just then Old He returned and I checked the time
on my mobile: 6.30 – dinnertime exactly. That’s right,
fucking army guy.
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