My name is Mr Thousands and I’ve worked in all sorts of jobs. Most recently, I’ve been spending my time at home writing, and in my spare time, helping my mother out picking vegetables. (With the recession, a good job’s hard to find.) Every time I introduce myself, ever so politely, to strangers, I get a box on the ears and they shout: ‘What decent person would ever choose a Japanese name like Yiqianji?’
I’m always flummoxed. As I finger my flaming cheek, I wonder why they don’t listen to my careful explanations. People nowadays are so restless. They listen to half of what you’re saying, they have half–marriages and even half–deaths: it’s not uncommon for someone on their death bed to crawl out and carry on picking vegetables.
I rub my stiff jaw and patiently carry on with what I was saying: I wasn’t called Mr Thousands a year ago, but a writer’s got to have a pen name. It’s like racing cyclists have to put on their helmets before they work those muscles. I wasn’t happy with my original name. Until I got the right pen name, I couldn’t get down to writing. I can’t get used to ordinary pen names so I chose Mr Thousands.
‘So what were you called before? Mr Hundreds?’
Clever fellow. He’ll be guessing my future pen name next. Keeping company with bright people saves a lot of trouble. When I was shivering outside the Writers’ Association building, standing right in a heap of snow to demonstrate my loyalty, in the hopes I could wangle a new set of woolly underwear out of them, I felt quite disconsolate. It was my fate to be one of thousands!
It was just past New Year that I made up my mind that I was going to be a writer. We’d had the New Year festivities, done all the eating and drinking, and then I came to the decision that I was going to start a new life as a writer, under the name Mr Thousands.
I used a bit of money I’d saved from work, together with what my mum had put by for medical expenses, and I got myself a nice desk and a high-backed chair, a stack of rough paper and a dozen pens.
To start with, I really was a Mr Hundreds man: I only wrote a hundred characters a week. My mum didn’t have many vegetables for me to pick either. So I followed the injunction of Ha Jin, the US-based Chinese writer; even if I didn’t write anything, I still had to sit at my desk for eight hours before I ‘left work’. A writer has to behave like a writer, just like a monk when he ‘goes to work’ has to sit in front of the Buddha. Even when you’ve had enough of going out to work, you’ve got to keep up your work at home.
I ran my hands around the edges of the desk, tidied the drawers, put the caps back on the pens and returned them to the pen stand.
I may have achieved purity of heart but the restless world outside would not leave me alone. The Writers’ Association asked me to give talks and the Federation of Literature and Art wanted to look into my ideology. I avoided them all and took the phone off the hook. I even locked the door which led to my mother’s flat and simply refused to go and see her.
But my mother wasn’t having any of it! She knew I hadn’t been to pick vegetables for two weeks, and she was worried about whether the kid was OK. I was out of work, and now I couldn’t be bothered to help her out. She came over to give me a piece of her mind.
A thousand–mile journey begins with a single step, son, she counselled me. Don’t sit there all day like a stone statue, or you’ll have me worried to death!
I was 35 years old, a grown man. I could run my own life and I wasn’t going to spend it picking vegetables. Just wait ’til you’re dead, then of course I’ll go and visit you.
My mum gave me the usual slap around the ears. The difference was that she was left-handed so it was my right cheek which had the good fortune to get the blow. That right cheek was ignored by everyone except my mother.
After that, in my novel, she passed away, with a scowl on her face, bequeathing her fat body to me.
Luckily, she still felt she had a maternal duty to look after me, and she left me a bowl of clear broth. As I sadly drank it, my belly felt the first stirrings of comfort since the New Year festivities. Beef bone broth! The bones butchered in Cattle Street in the authentic way from a fresh carcass. My mother had got on the train, then changed to the subway at Sihui East, exited at Guo Mao Station and ridden two bus routes, just to get the pick of the beef bones before the crowds swamped the market.
She knew what she was doing, my mum. There are only two bones on a carcass that you can make broth from.
Too bad that a bowl of broth was all she left me. She was as honest as the day, so there was nothing else. Just my luck! Once she’d gone up to heaven, taking with her fond memories of my sincerity and determination, my writing speed increased. Now I could write a thousand characters a week.
So I upgraded my pen name to Version 2.0 – Mr Thousands.
Towards evening, my friend Mozi came to visit. [translator’s note: Also written Mo Tzu (ca. 470 BC – ca. 391 BC ). Chinese ascetic philosopher and inventor, founder of the Mohist school of thought.]
He had a very high forehead, and wore an old, dark blue overcoat and a matching floppy hat with a brim. He looked pretty worn down, the spitting image of an old Beijinger from Cultural Revolution times. And just like we Chinese don’t know how far it is from Alaska to Las Vegas, he was equally vague about China’s recent history. He lived in a different era – sunless and gloomy, without electric lights or telephones – grubbing bits of cash here and there and dreaming of fulfilling a life-time ambition to go on a long journey to the future.
Mozi was a frugal man. He thought he’d take a train to 2009. Why 2009? Even he couldn’t tell you that. Just the luck of the draw, I suppose. He made a guess at any old date that sounded good. How was he to know his train was going to stop in 1971 where a swarm of Red Guards wanted a ride to Beijing’s Tian’anmen, to be inspected by Chairman Mao? Mozi was so excited at the sight of all these young people dressed in their dark blue coats and floppy hats that he took off his own linen gown and offered it to one of the boys. The boy took it and, instead of offering polite thanks, jabbed Mozi with the butt of his gun, making a dent in his belly. Luckily it didn’t bleed. Mozi was too old to bleed.
The train tooted and moved off, leaving Mozi standing naked on the platform, his ribs sticking out like a mule’s, his penis wrapped in a withered leaf and tied with a bit of string. He cut a comical figure, the absolute opposite of a dignified ancient. The Little Red Guards running to and fro were kids living in their own era and he was nothing to them. They kept treading on his toes and punching him on the arms ’til he was black and blue.
‘Ai, ai, ai!’ he cried. ‘I’m the inventor of the scale ladder!’ But no one paid any attention.
‘I’m… the… inventor… of… the… scale… ladder!’
At midnight on the third day, he was so hungry he started to groan and beg for a sip of water. What he got instead was a kick from a passenger in a hurry to get on the train. He flew down the platform and ended up sliding into the corner of the store–room. Here he came face to face with a dead Little Red Guard who, by the look of him, had been dead for some time.
There was nothing to fear from a corpse. Mozi had fought in a war and he knew how to deal with the dead.
He swiftly divested the body of its dark blue coat and hat, put them on, and got on the night train. Suddenly, people’s attitude to him changed. He was one of them, submerged in a sea of dark blue. He did not dare mention his invention of the scale ladder again. The scale ladder was a dangerous object, capable of taking you up Beijing’s Tian’anmen Gate and must on no account be mentioned!
Mozi was a philosopher, and in philosophy, you learn from your experiences.
My friend Mozi was not a Japanese; still less was he a woman. Women were hopeless they cut their hair in fringes, wore brassieres, and heaven knows what! He was a philosopher. Anyone who was well-read knew him. How did I end up with such a prestigious friend who’d been dead for so long? Well, that’s one of the advantages of being a novelist. You can be friends with anyone when you’re writing a book. If you don’t believe me, wait ’til I write about Bin Laden and Princess Diana. They’re my good friends too. That sounds like name-dropping (a crude habit) but I’m not ashamed. I’m an eccentric with lofty ambitions to write novels.
Unusual things did happen, such as when I lost the ten yuan my Mum gave me to go downstairs and buy vegetables. I insisted that it had gone down the crack in the vegetable cart. The old woman hawker was outraged that I should try and pull this trick on her. After that, she was cool towards my whole family. Even my wife suffered. The old hawker would charge other people fifty cents for a pound of tomatoes but made my wife pay fifty-five cents, which was quite unjust.
Talking of my wife, that was a sad business. I wrote her out of my life long before my mum’s disappearance.
That woman’s back was badly put together and she spent all day at home racketing around, and had PMT for thirty-five days every month. She was forever sending me out to buy her umeboshi juice or getting me to find a good doctor for her uncle’s tinnitus. I got fed up with it. As for our sex life, that had secretly been going wrong for ages. When I was on top getting on with it, she’d be underneath saying it hurt. I had to stop and get down and look at her but everything was fine down there, she was as wet as if a couple of gigolos had been at her. I was furious, and turned over and went to sleep. She kept getting more annoyed and harping on about divorce. Half the adults on our street were divorced. I had no intention of following that trend. But you couldn’t divorce a dead person, could you?
When finally I got absolutely livid, I got up, threw on my clothes, and went to my desk. I turned on the lamp, took a pen and, in a couple of strokes, wrote her out of my life.
I regretted it straightaway. It’s not easy to find a wife. I’d had to propose three times and it was tough making her agree. Writing her out took five minutes. I did regret it but we had no sex life to speak of and I regretted that even more. But I couldn’t find her again no matter how hard I searched. Six years of marriage and she was gone. I was desolate. My mum asked after her and I muttered something about her going home to look after her sick mother. Then my mum asked where our five-year-old son was. I stammered something else. I always stammer when I’m nervous. It looked suspicious that all the important people in my family had gone. My mum had never got on with my wife but she was very close to her grandson. She asked after him every day. There was nothing I could say.
If my son didn’t go with his mother, I couldn’t look after him.
If I’d chucked him at my mum, she would have been fed up.
Just now the two women were probably having a good time up there in space.
Luckily, since I’d written my mum out of my life as well, granny and grandson could have a happy re-union in space.
Space was a free-and-easy place where you owned nothing so there was nothing to lose as the Daoists say, and chaos reigned. Adults didn’t need to see each other, so mother-in-law and daughter-in-law never need meet. The daily melodramas could stop.
That was the reason why I was now living alone.
I’d better get to the point.
All three of my nearest and dearest had gone and I hadn’t had to go to the hospital once, or the cemetery, or fork out 888 yuan on a casket. Even if they did ‘buy two, get a third free’, and threw in the child’s casket for good measure, that would still have come to 1,776 yuan. Our poor family didn’t even have 1,000 yuan to rub together.
Heaven must have taken pity on poor, lonely me.
The house was quite quiet and the early autumn sunshine blazed in making the dust motes glitter, when I got up in the morning. I folded the quilt on the bed, put my wife’s pillow back in its place on the bed, and left the old dent made by her body. To keep fond memories alive, I lined up three pairs of slippers under the bed, with my son’s small pair in the middle, his parents’ on either side, so we could be together. No, wait, I still needed to put my normal slippers on to go and take a shower.
More than half the white tiles were missing from the bathroom walls. Where had they gone to all these years? I’d asked my wife a number of times but she never gave me a straight answer. She would lie about anything, that woman. Well, one shouldn’t talk ill of the dead. I faced the messy walls and got under the shower, yelling as I did so.
That should tell you that the shower water was cold.
It cost quite a bit to heat the water. Besides, we needed to be motivated to be writers. So the cushy life wasn’t for us. Murakami runs marathons, Tolstoy rode a bicycle. Sadaam Hussein the novelist was still working out up ’til the day before he went to the scaffold. Most of his body was constrained by his body suit, but he could still swivel his eyeballs. They wept as they looked at the prison, making his jailers tremble.
For writers, swivelling the eye balls is a crucial form of exercise. If you can do that, it means you’re still connected to this world. Look at the physicist Stephen Hawkins. He must have so many stories swimming around in his head. I saw him on TV once, and I just knew, from his expression, that he was full of stories.
However, people think when he swivels his eyes and blinks, it’s astrophysical motion.
An astronomical error!
Under cover of the icy cold shower water, I gave a quick roll of my eyes and a few yelps. My first emission of the day spurted out like pee and was washed away down the plug-hole. That way I could sit in peace for the rest of the day, the only movement left in the universe the pen tip rustling as it came into contact with the paper.
See how simple it is to be a writer compared with waiting desperately in the office for the work bus or riding my son to school through the snow. Six months went by like that and I produced a draft written on both sides of a stack of paper. I had no money for more paper so the novel came to a temporary halt. I felt like giving myself a couple of days off, like a real white-collar worker.
Once on holiday, I began to feel lonely. I missed my fellow human beings, their talk, their cheerful teasing, the way they patted me on the head. It was true, I hadn’t been face-to-face with a living being for a very long time.
Then that very day my friend Mozi came to visit.
It was obvious what he had come for. He had no money. He may have been a great thinker but he was usually broke. As I had nothing to do, he asked me to write a begging note on the off chance some rich person might want to show his sincere regard for us. What rich person? I only knew two: Bill Gates and the Hong Kong businessman, Sir Li Ka–shing. But why not play for big stakes and go for Mr Moneybags himself – Bill Gates?
It was midday and you could have heard a pin drop in my flat. It was a million miles from the outside world. I was on the seventh floor and there was no lift. Let Bill Gates pay a visit, top-secret. There was no need to bother with the transport network, business class flights or the media.
I felt incredibly cheerful. I had a good friend to visit. Not like when my mum was there, refusing to take no for an answer. I got Mozi to sit down quietly and brought him the remains of the broth. He licked the bowl clean and waited while I prepared the text. It was much shorter than his Thousand Characters Classic, just 150 characters.
I found a cigarette box in the drawer, pulled it apart, smoothed it flat and wrote.
Twenty minutes later, the doorbell rang. Bill Gates hadn’t wasted a moment – here he was. He looked just like in the newspapers and on TV with his side parting and his slightly foolish face, dressed in an orange checked shirt and Levi jeans. He strode in with typical American friendliness, and we didn’t even have to broach the subject. He just asked us straight up how much we wanted.
I glanced at Mozi, who said nothing.
At critical moments like this, philosophers always go quiet. It’s really irritating!
I hazarded a figure.
Just hearing that figure made us bite our tongues in shock and the blood gushed from our mouths.
Was this real human blood? Bill Gates seemed incredulous. He reached for Mozi’s empty soup bowl, made us press our faces together and held the bowl underneath to catch the fluid. Once the bowl had filled half-way, the bleeding from our tongues finally stopped. In good, honest American English, Bill said how sorry he was that we’d hurt ourselves.
It was too bad our English was so poor we couldn’t make head or tail of what he said.
We must have looked astonished, like cartoon characters – mouths agape and the words coming out in a balloon.
Mozi was ready to run and ask his ancient friends for help but I stopped him. Even if he found one, he’d only understand archaic English, pre-Shakespeare. Even when Mozi himself was talking, I sometimes had to look up what he was saying in the Ci Hai dictionary. Sometimes he didn’t use any punctuation, and he used old words. It drove me mad.
Anyway, after a bit of discussion, we decided to leave the trifling matter of communication for the moment. We took the cheque and went to the window, where the light was better, and took a good look: on it there was a “5”, written in Arabic numerals, followed by eight noughts.
It really was 500 million! And it was in American dollars. In front of the string of figures was a symbol any idiot could understand: $.
Mozi poked me. Bill Gates was still looking around the room, apparently filled with curiosity at the first ordinary Chinese flat he’d seen. He knocked on the partition walls, felt the matting on the bed, and hefted the vegetable basket in the kitchen to see how heavy it was.
I thought he might ask me next where all my family were. But foreigners are always very polite and maybe he thought he didn’t know me well enough to go prying into my family background.
I certainly wouldn’t welcome that. Imagine if the FBI and CSI were to turn up with all their advanced equipment and their testing powders and their blue and red handsets, poking their noses in here and there. They’d soon discover my mother and wife and son had been here until recently, and had suddenly disappeared.
I was in absolutely no doubt that this was to be avoided at all costs.
I gave Mozi a meaningful look.
I’d always been close to Mozi. We had no need for words. We were like the Brokeback Mountain lover boys in Sandy, Utah, in the sixties. Sandy was a pretty reactionary town actually. They refused to allow the film Brokeback Mountain to be shown there.
Of course, there wasn’t anything iffy about my relationship with Mozi. If I wrote just so that good–looking men could hang out together into my stories, that would be so superficial, and besides, Mozi wasn’t even handsome. My mum wouldn’t have stood for it either. She used to box the ears of all the college mates I brought home, ’til they felt so uncomfortable they all sneaked off and never came back.
And she used to tell me off for bringing these young men home just to show off my stamp collection.
Well anyway, Mozi gave me a poke and, while Bill Gates was in the toilet, I quickly went to the table, took my pen and scribbled a few words. In no time at all, there was the sound of the toilet flushing and I went in to take a look. Well I never! There wasn’t a sign of Bill Gates. He’d vanished just like a hard turd disappears round the S–bend.
How very appropriate! The toilet faced in the direction of the great wide western world.
I still held that cheque signed by Bill Gates in my hand. What should we do with it? Was there a bank nearby with the funds to cover it? Mozi asked me how modern banks worked. He knew the classics – they dated from the Spring and Autumn period – and he told me he’d seen the prophecy in the bamboo scrolls which said, in a very convoluted way, that in the future, people will be able to save their money in public institutions, like grain stores, and when you deposit your money, the manager will give you a slip of paper proving your money is with him.
Any age has plenty of bright people, bright prophets amongst them, and how they chatter. I seriously regretted that I, Mr Thousands, hadn’t been born back then in Mozi’s time. I could have been a prophet too, and told everyone all about banks and savings and what-not. After all, I knew today’s society inside-out, didn’t I? Mozi actually said (and this was not just a made-up story): The prophet used to get paid a salary, and at the end of each year, would be rewarded by the king with a new young wife. Since he got a new wife every year, his wife was always sixteen years old. She’d retire at seventeen.
I remember the opening lines of Marguerite Duras’ novel The Lovers, where the heroine cries: ‘I grew old at eighteen’. Huh! The prophet’s wife beat you to it. She got old before you.
We chatted about strange tales of olden times as we went to the nearest bank to draw the money.
It was the first time I’d gone any distance from home for six months or so.
It was a small commercial bank with only two rows of seats for customers, all occupied.
I took a number from the machine at the door. On the way I’d impressed on Mozi that he should keep his mouth shut in public. Spouting on about inventing the scale ladder, it wouldn’t work in today’s honest-to-goodness society. In fact, I told him, someone would probably dial 110 and the police would be along. The police had inherited some things from the Red Guards, like their dark blue uniforms.
So of course, Mozi didn’t dare open his mouth. He just sat there gazing around him with that ancient guileless expression, savouring the atmosphere of a modern bank. One by one, the people in front of us were called to the window. I noticed that no one was drawing anything like the amount we were taking out. With that kind of money, we could buy the whole bank building and all its be-suited employees and still have money left over.
I couldn’t help smiling. When he caught my smile, Mozi burst into speech. It drives an ancient mad if he hasn’t been allowed to speak in the public arena for a long time. There were so many new things, even the two women sitting opposite us, effing and blinding in the modern way.
‘What are you smiling at?’ he asked.
‘At how we cornered Bill Gates and flushed him down the toilet.’
‘He wouldn’t have died, would he?’
‘Oh no. I’m quite sure that anyone past or present is still alive, just in another space. You used to be dead too, but now you’re as alive as I am, sitting in a queue, waiting for your number to be called, to withdraw money. How can we explain that?’
From my point of view, killing someone isn’t a crime, it’s just pushing them into a temporary existence in an adjoining space. Maybe in the process a bit of blood’s spilled, someone gets a bit less air, gets their neck broken, but they also get a bit of a rest, and can take care of themselves. In our space, everyone is so desperately tired. Dead, they could go and see scenery that was out-of-this-world, experience the lack of pressure, the stillness, the relaxed pace of life in the next door world. They could watch the daily rhythm of the sun and the stars, and the sandpipers preening themselves on the river shore.
And they even might marry a man or woman also on the other side, and have children and create a great dynasty.
Though that old pater familias, given half a chance, might sneak back to this world and impregnate some woman or other, and make that womb swell up and become a baby. Having a baby, a new human, beats anything in the other world. Maybe it’s in our narcissistic nature to feel that the most delectable thing is what we hold in our own arms.
As I talked, Mozi sank into deep thought. He really could not understand the ins and outs of what I was saying. He would never be able to, he was just too ancient in his way of thinking.
He didn’t even understand why customers kept getting up one by one and going to the window, receiving a bit of money or giving it to the cashier. What actually was this all about?
I’m sorry, dear Mr Mozi, I really haven’t the patience to explain it all to you. What we had to do now was to withdraw our money, then get a taxi home and carry all this money secretly upstairs without letting the taxi–driver know. Otherwise, all the ordinary folks in Beijing, and even those in Beijing on business, would all know about it that very afternoon. Then we’d go out with a stash of the cash on us and take another taxi, still making absolutely sure the taxi–driver didn’t get wind of it. We’d keep our faces expressionless as we chatted to him about the goings–on in the Communist Party as we got him to take us to the Lichang Seafood Restaurant near the Third Ringroad for a meal.
We’d order an emperor crab with the biggest, fattest claws, a lobster sashimi and ten oysters, and devour all that fishy flesh with its delicious juices. We’d follow it up with barbecued leg of lamb, so succulent you just had to pluck a morsel with your chopsticks and put it between your lips for the fatty muttony meat to slide down to your belly. And we’d wash it all down with twelve pulls of freshly brewed draft beer.
Cold beer and barbecued lamb certainly go well together!
After we’d eaten, we’d belch comfortably as we walked along the street in search of ….Buddha have mercy on me, women is what I’m trying to say. And since now we’re so well off, why walk? We’d rent a plane and fly through the endless azure skies….
Until we found the most curvaceous, clear–skinned, most expensive…
I hadn’t taken into account the US dollar–RMB exchange rate. The 500 million dollars we were getting would make roughly 3,400 million RMB. With that kind of money, why bother renting one plane? We could rent a dozen, we could even, if the paperwork wasn’t too complicated, grit our teeth and buy them.
We could keep them in our parking lot and go out in them.
Twelve planes. I’d command the lead plane and Mozi would come with me. Under my command I’d have twelve properly trained pilots, flying in changing formations into the great blue yonder, in search of a whole pack of the most curvaceous, clear–skinned, most expensive…
…women… and once we found them, we’d drive them like sheep from the shore.
They’d be shrieking madly and fleeing barefoot, covered in sand, their perfect buttocks twinkling as they ran, their hair flying out behind them.
Our forces would cover 300 kilometres in a flash and drive them towards the cliff face.
Down below us would be an immense, dizzying cliff–face and, in the distance, a sea of clouds.
Patiently, we’d take the plane down and we’d drive them, one by one, over the cliff edge. Actually, they’d leap stark naked, plummeting down. Quite the opposite of our cool piloting.
Finally, in the solitude of the cliff–top, it would be quite desolate.
Then we’d throw the planes into a 180 degree turn.
‘Number 124, please go to window number five, Number 124, please go to window number five.’
Mozi poked me again. I was annoyed that he communicated everything by poking me. But I couldn’t be bothered to correct him.
Anyway, it was our turn.
I stood up and smoothed down my jacket. It was the only suit I owned, the one I’d got married in. My mum had paid for it.
The girl sitting at window number five was so fat that not even the most severely–cut cashier’s outfit could cover the flab.
‘What can I do for you?’ she asked, her eyes fixed on her computer screen.
I pushed the cheque through the opening at the bottom of the window.
Then I stood on one leg, resting my other leg against it to form a triangle, one hand on my hip, the other placed on the marble counter, feeling the cold stone surface with my index and middle fingers. If you’ve ever watched American films, you’ll be familiar with this posture.
That’s the way the luckless hero stands when he’s expecting good news.
Fatty took the cheque and scrutinized it.
‘What’s this?’ she asked.
‘A cheque.’ My answer was calm, brief and to the point. I was completely self–confident.
‘Where’s it from? I can’t make head or tail of it.’
‘Do you read English?’
‘Not a word. I’ve never seen anything like this before.’
I gave a slight smile. I wasn’t worried. I waited for the girl to call over the manager who was walking back and forth behind her.
The manager was a young man, still with a full head of hair.
He came over and scrutinised the cheque with the girl.
After a few moments, he spoke to me through the microphone.
‘Could I trouble you to come round to the VIP room, sir?’
It didn’t surprise me that a matter such as this had to be dealt with in the VIP room.
I looked over at Mozi, who was staring the security man in the face. He seemed to find the man’s outfit and truncheon fascinating. Mozi was fixated on uniforms!
I ignored him and went straight for the VIP room, where the manager ushered me in.
It was clean and spacious. It held a writing desk covered in dark brown leather, pots of lucky bamboo and a twelve–filter drinking water dispenser. I used to sell these machines, so I knew just how it was designed and worked.
The manager asked me to sit down and filled a disposable cup with water for me.
‘Would you mind telling me how you got hold of this cheque?’
‘It’s got Bill Gates’ signature on it. It’s quite clear.’
‘Did he mail it to you? Where’s the envelope?’
I said nothing. It wouldn’t do me any good to answer detailed questions too soon. If I told lies and didn’t convince them, it would mean no end of trouble. I had to put it off till the crucial moment, then tell them.
‘Have you been to the USA?’
I hadn’t been to the USA. It was easy enough for them to check, as I didn’t even have a passport. So I just shook my head.
‘So did Microsoft mail the cheque to you?’
I was forced to nod.
‘Why did Mr Bill Gates bestow this huge sum of money on you?’
‘Surely you must have clients who prefer to keep these things confidential?’ I retaliated.
The manager smiled apologetically. ‘I’m sorry. It’s such an astronomical sum of money. If the General Manager hadn’t gone to a meeting today, he’d be the one to see you. By the way, for foreign currency remittances you’ll have to go to the Chang’An Avenue Head office, and even so, you won’t be able to withdraw the money today. So we’re just having a chat.’
‘Well I’m sorry but why do I have the impression you’re investigating a fraudster?’
I assumed the fretful air of someone who’s rolling in money. The more money people have, the more impatient they are.
‘There’s no getting around the fact this is a large sum of money. If it’s a genuine cheque, you’ll have to go through the proper procedures and that’ll take eighteen months.’
Eighteen months! I had no idea it would take that long. Would Mozi and I still be going to the Lichang Seafood Restaurant tonight? What about the lobster sashimi and that succulent barbecued lamb? Would we still rent a plane for a night flight? None of these things could wait. At the very least, I couldn’t take another cold shower tomorrow morning. Tomorrow morning I should be waking up in the Beijing Hilton with two pearly–skinned young girls lying next to me and two more on the floor. Maybe there’d be another couple in the bathroom or the built–in wardrobe, though I was hazy on that.
I had a tight schedule, which the manager was ignoring. He just stared at me and waited for an answer.
‘Can’t you do it quicker?’
He shook his head. ‘Besides, we need to establish whether the cheque is genuine first, and that costs a lot of money for that, as we liaise with Microsoft, make long–distance calls, send international faxes, everything’s international. We might even have to send someone over there. It all incurs expenses.’
It sounded complicated and I frowned, my stomach knotting with anxiety.
‘So if you want to get your hands on this money, you’ll have to pay a service charge up front.’
Outraged, I nearly sprang to my feet. He sounded like one of those swindlers from Fujian who call your mobile and tell you you’ve won a prize, but you have to pay income tax on it in advance. Who would have thought that a regular national bank, housed in a fancy high–street office building, would slap a service charge on ordinary folks like us?
‘Approximately… how much?’ I asked, beginning to consider our family home.
‘I’ll have to work it out, but I can guarantee it won’t be more than five per cent of the cheque amount.’
‘How much is five per cent?’
‘Just a moment, I’ll tell you.’
The manager got a tiny, worn–looking Casio calculator from his drawer.
Everything in the bank was new except this old calculator, which had obviously seen much use.
I swallowed nervously. I knew it was going to be a lot of money.
‘Er… twenty five million dollars. Do you want me to convert it into RMB?’
‘No need, really, no need.’
My voice wobbled slightly. It was hopeless. My family’s 1989 two–bedroomed flat, at the top of the building and not insulated, was worth not 25 million dollars but more like 25 million cents.
The manager relapsed into silence and we sat in our two black suits across from one other.
The scene was filled with tension, but it was all for nothing.
What did I think I was doing wearing a black suit to get married in?
It had been very unlucky!
When I said goodbye to the manager, he was immediately all professional smiles. He saw me out of the room and reminded me courteously to collect my cheque back from the cashier. I did as he suggested. After all, I may not have been able to collect the cash, but the cheque was still an object of value. I could donate it to an IT museum as a proof of Sino–American friendship.
Mozi, who had been sitting waiting for me so long he looked cross–eyed and was on the point of nodding off, rushed eagerly up to me.
‘Lets go home. We can’t get the money today. We have to pay a fee up–front first.’
‘I knew it. We might as well just spend a few cents on a bowl of noodles when we get home,’ Mozi muttered, and I felt even gloomier. That 500 million dollar windfall had just gone and blown right away.
So that night, Mozi and I sat down, under the bare electric light bulb, with the dinner table between us, and ate a bowl each of instant noodles. I put down my chopsticks and heaved a sigh. I could feel what it was going to be like to starve. The noodle cartoon was almost empty.
I wanted to get rid of Mozi but I couldn’t face the emptiness of my flat. I hadn’t paid the cable TV bills in ages and Gehua Cable TV Co. had sent someone to cut the signal wires. I’m quite self–reliant so I forced open the box and re–attached the wires with insulating tape. They sent someone to cut the wires again.
This carried on for a while until finally the company got fed up and came and pulled out the signal transmission core and took it away.
Then we really didn’t have a signal at home.
Go online? In your dreams.
The ancients have more imagination than us and they love nature; Mozi suggested we go for a stroll along the river.
He had seen it in the distance from my balcony – a foul, stinking waterway which, however, had a nicely-built embankment.
I told him this was the old Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal, built during the Sui Dynasty, but it had fallen into disuse and stank to high heaven.
‘Huh!’ he said. ‘The Sui Dynasty, eh? It was nothing but hassle with those later dynasties.’
Mozi had an instinct for fortifications, and he must have thought the embankment was a defensive city wall.
He wanted to go and reconnoitre. One day we might go to war again and need to use his damned scale ladder.
Well anyway, a stroll would help us digest our food. I’d had enough stress for today. I’d been up on cloud nine and in the depths of depression. It was all too much drama for ordinary folks like me.
There was a chilly wind along the embankment but Mozi actually bought a couple of cans of frozen Qingdao beers from the kiosk at the entrance to our flats. The ancients are a mysterious bunch. When I asked him where he got the money from he didn’t answer, except to say that his family might have been a frugal lot, but they always had a bit put by for when they needed it.
The exchange rate between ancient currency and RMB must be even higher than between dollars and RMB.
So we sat down on top of the embankment with the stink of the canal in our nostrils and drank the beers. I made mine last, taking small sips.
I looked at Mozi in the twilight. He was staring down in a daze at the duckweed and not drinking his beer.
‘Why are you not drinking?’
‘I don’t drink. I bought it for you.’
And he pushed his can over to me.
I pushed it back and he pushed it back again.
Life was full of such tussles.
‘OK, I’ll drink it!’ I yelled, fed up with his idiotic manners.
There were a few sparse clumps of trees at the other end of the embankment. It was October, and the ochre–yellow leaves skittered off the trees as the wind caught them. Mozi gave a sigh in the silence. It was a sigh of complete exhaustion, a degree of exhaustion which only someone who had been buried for many years could feel. It must have been the earth pressing down too hard on him, keeping out even a breath of air.
‘You got a wife and kids?’ I asked him.
‘I did have.’
‘What do you think?’
‘Was she pretty? Did she look after you well?’
Mozi fell silent. He didn’t seem to want to talk about his wife.
I didn’t want to talk about mine either. After all, I’d killed her off.
‘Have you seen the film about you? Mozi’s Cheat Code?’
He shook his head.
‘I haven’t seen it either. But don’t worry, we all remember that it was you who invented the scale ladder.’
When I looked at him again, he was still not drinking but tears were actually trickling down each cheek. The ancients were so sentimental, especially when their achievements were recognised by subsequent generations. I wanted to lighten his mood. After all, no matter how poor you were, you had the right to sit on top of a towering embankment with a beer. That was a basic human right and it didn’t change no matter where or when you lived.
I had another sip of beer, thought for a moment, then said:
‘You know what I’d most like to do? Drive an iceberg from the North Pole all the way to the South Pole.’
‘What’s the North Pole? What’s the South Pole?’
‘Basically, after your day, they discovered the earth was round. The earth under our feet is a big ball. The North Pole is at the north and the South Pole’s at the south. But I’m being long–winded again. Lets go back to what I most want to do.’
‘OK,’ Mozi threw a stone into the water.
‘It’s like this: I’d like to wake up at the North Pole one morning in a snug, warm tent. Of course, it would be cold outside, freezing cold and snowy. But in the tent, we’ve got food and drink and a big bundle of reindeer jerky strips. It’s tastier than donkey meat. There’s no problem with getting enough to drink – you just melt some ice and heat it on the stove. Outside the tent, it’s all white as far as the eye can see. This bit of land has gradually come adrift from the continent, a square kilometre of it, and it belongs to me. I live on it. I go out and patrol my domain and when I’m cold I go back in the tent and have a good sleep and just let it drift all the way down to the South Pole. Wouldn’t that be good?’
Mozi nodded but he hadn’t really understood.
‘Oh, and no polar bears, no no no!’ I added.
‘Near the equator – you probably don’t know – it’s pretty hot and the people who live there are black from being in the sun. I haven’t really worked out what’ll happen to the iceberg when we get near the equator. Will it melt away? Lets be optimistic. Obviously it would melt down quite small but still there’d be enough left for me and my tent. The sun’s shining down and I’m lying on the floating ice forking in the grilled tropical fish. Gimme another can of beer and it’s perfect.’
‘Do you spend all day thinking about that?’
‘You got to think positive. Thinking about bad things makes them worse.’
‘If I write my wife back in, should change her for a better model? What do you think?’
‘No, you’d better stick with the old one.’
‘Huh,’ I was lost in thought. If I got my old wife back, my son would be bound to come too, and my mother would come clattering along behind. They came as a package, plonked down in front of me just like a can with its contents sealed inside. Our small flat would be crammed full of people again and every morning I’d have to ride my son to nursery, and every time I got to the door, he’d be clinging to my neck and refusing to go inside and I’d cave in and take him back home and my wife would be furious with me and we’d have a fight. Within the space of a day, just taking my son to nursery would make us quarrel, and they’d soon be gone again. Right away, it would be winter, and when the evening wind got up, the place would be deserted. I’d go down to the entrance to the flats, spit a gob of phlegm, do my belt up tight and go and buy some cabbage from the back of a farmer’s truck.
Just as I was imagining all this, something big and white loomed up in the darkness of the night. Mozi was a sharp-eyed fellow and spotted it before me. He gave a shout, and I thought he was going to jab me again so I dived away to the left.
The white thing got closer. It was big – big enough to hold a two-bedroomed house. It was an iceberg, floating silently up to us, its boundless silence tinged with sadness as it approached. Now who’d sent us a present?