The Chinaman – a short story

The first time I saw the Chinaman, he stood in the middle of the Peters’ dining room table. Immediately I sensed something special about him. I don’t mean special in the artistic sense, although even someone as ignorant about ceramics as I am could tell that he was an unusual piece, no, I mean special in another sense. He seemed animate. His entire eighteen inches radiated life and a spell-like beauty, while his face had an arresting look of exalted malevolence. I never saw such an enigmatic countenance; even the Mona Lisa’s mystery is one of goodness, a hinted smile. But this face’s depth lay in its veil of sweetness, so fragile that evil appeared to be lurking, indefinable, in all his features; in the dark piercing eyes, on the hollow yellow cheeks, and around the half-smiling mouth.

The Peters’ home in Durham City is full of valuable ‘objets d’art’. Professor Peters, part of the Durham University Faculty of Arts and Humanities, collects oriental artifacts, and Mrs. Peters, anything old and beautiful. The Chinaman stood, at that moment, on a priceless Chippendale table, so highly polished that his reflection curved away from him almost as perfect as himself, while above, on a pastel green wall, hung an original oil painting of a young girl who gazed down, questioningly, upon him. He stood aloof from all this as though alive. His vitality was not exclusive to his face; it began at the top of his close-fitting skullcap and extended to the tip of his tiny feet in their black pointed shoes, peeping roguishly out from under his robe. He stood with his back slightly bent, wearing a yellow and green robe covered in rich oriental designs; an exotic fish slung over one shoulder. The fish looked wet and scaly as though freshly caught, and yet seemed oddly in keeping with his expensive garb, which I am sure, could never have smelt fishy. At a first casual glance, he momentarily reminded me of the old Chinaman in Cannery Row as he daily shuffled up from the beach, making a characteristic flap-flapping sound with his feet. Steinbeck wrote: People sleeping heard his flapping shoe go by and they awakened for a moment. It had been happening for years but no one ever got used to him. Some people thought that he was God, and very old people thought he was Death ……. for he carried a little cloud of fear about with him.

This Chinaman on the table brought back the memory of the soft flap-flapping sound of feet shuffling between street and shore. Even his hair hanging in a black pigtail to his waist and his long droopy Chinese moustache and beard seemed to fall from his head like symbols of feigned repentant sadness, weirdly serving to emphasize his malice.

It was the spring of 1965 and I, an aspiring young architect, traveled on my way from London to the firm’s Edinburgh office to act as the field representative on a new hospital we had designed. The new position challenged and excited me, even though, up until then, I had regarded anywhere north of Watford as part of the “Black Industrial North,” stretching in a state of uncultured wilderness to the Outer Hebrides. I had already been up a couple of times to visit the site and get things ready for my move. On both occasions I had enjoyed a magnificent view of Durham City from the train and saw it as a medieval town that looked neither black nor industrial. This view aroused my architectural curiosity and tempted me to break my journey to have a closer look at the famous cathedral. On an impulse, I telephoned the Peters, who are remote cousins of my mother’s. They greeted my call with such warmth that I accepted their invitation to come to dinner. As I needed to make an early start the next day, I turned down their offer to spend the night and booked myself into the County Hotel.

They met me at the station, and my visit started with a tour of Durham. If the cathedral is beautiful from the railway, it is many times lovelier at close quarters. On this day its sandstone glowed a pinkish yellow in the late afternoon sun, while its majestic Norman interior impressed me with its proportions and detailing. My tour of the Peters’ home was no less interesting. It began in Professor Peters’ library. Here the grey-haired professor with his bushy beard and sparking blue-grey eyes started by opening his drink’s cabinet and made me one of his special concoctions, the “Gin and It”. This drink consisted of a liberal mix of gin and Italian vermouths, lovingly stirred with lemon rind and ice. While we drank, he fondled his glass in his long well manicured fingers and told me about his lifelong passion for oriental artifacts. His collection included a stalwart pair of T’ang Dynasty tomb figures which stood in a lighted silk lined corner cabinet. He told me that the dynasty ran from 680-907 making the figures older than the Norman cathedral which we had just visited. As I admired his museum-like treasures I shared his special regard for an exquisite white china Quan Yen with delicate fingers and flowing china robes. He had her standing on an open display table in a corner opposite the door so that she would be the first thing to be seen on entering the room.

It was fortified by alcohol and imbibed with culture that I first saw the Chinaman. Looking back, I cannot be sure whether it was his face which initially disconcerted me or whether it was his strange presence in the middle of the table, presiding uncannily over the meal and directly obstructing my view of the Peters’ pretty teenage daughter, Vivien. The food itself was a disaster: the prawns in the cocktail were still slightly frozen, the chicken burnt, and the strawberry mousse had separated into a thick pink jelly floating on a sloppy red sauce.

Mrs. Peters kept nervously catching a stray lock and pushing it behind her ears to get closer to her brown bun, as she interrupted the conversation to interject her profuse apologies, “I’m terribly sorry, Michael. I just can’t imagine what could have happened. It is simply dreadful! Please don’t let this put you off, will you? You must visit us again! Viv, my dear, are you sure that you waited until the gelatin was almost set?”

To keep the faltering conversation going, I asked about the Chinaman. Mrs. Peters’ face lit up as she launched into the conversation like a galleon with a sudden trade wind, her eyes aglow with pleasure. The Chinaman was hers.

“Yes, Michael, he is a beautiful piece,” she said. “I inherited him from Father when he died a few years ago. But I first saw him in my Mother’s older brother Uncle Charlie’s rooms in Cambridge. It was during the war when I worked as a nurse at St. Thomas’, nursing bomb casualties. One day Mother, incapacitated due to a broken leg, implored me to go to his bedside. I remembered Uncle Charlie as an outgoing, fun-loving person who always had time for me when he visited. So I asked for some leave and hastened to Cambridge. When I got there I found things far worse than we expected. Uncle Charlie, although only fifty, lay alone and clearly dying and had already stopped eating. His high living and profligate lifestyle left him bereft of friends and possessions. His bare rooms gaped in their emptiness. The only thing of beauty was the Chinaman who stood serenely aloof from the squalor around him.

“I did what I could to make him comfortable. He even seemed to rally a little and became more coherent. It was during one of his better spells that he tried to tell me about the Chinaman. I honestly didn’t catch everything that he told me, for he spoke in jumbled, confused snippets. However, he did manage to impress upon me that he wished to bequeath the Chinaman to my Mother as he believed him to be a harbinger of good luck.”

At this point her narration was interrupted while she and the professor served cheese, crackers and port as a much-needed closure to the meal. It gave me a chance to muse to myself that it seemed strange that a dying man who had lost everything to gambling should assert that anything brought him good luck.

As we ate our cheese and sipped port, Mrs. Peters continued. “Well, as I said, Uncle Charlie wished the Chinaman to go to Mother, so after he died and I had finished taking care of his affairs and funeral, I hurried back to London, taking him with me. When I got back I placed him on my bedside table.

“Now here’s where I got proof that he is a harbinger of good luck. Every night the Blitz raged with bombs and sirens. Each day we had more casualties and so I nightly fell into bed exhausted. Generally I slept through the raids and rarely took refuge in the underground. One night it was especially bad, and a bomb hit the adjacent building. The impact was so forceful that the floor above me collapsed, sending a beam into my room. It fell across the floor and narrowly missed both the Chinaman and me. I knew right then that I owed my escape to the Chinaman!”

Mrs. Peters looked flushed as she mused about her narrow escape. I wondered about the significance of both Mrs. Peters and the Chinaman being saved.

After our meal we withdrew into the sitting room and there, while Mrs. Peters busily made coffee and the Professor rushed off to give a student a late tutorial, Vivien told me the rest of the story, “Mummy generally skips this part,” she said. “Grandmother died soon after the end of the war and left all her possessions to Grandfather. He associated the Chinaman with her death and had him wrapped and put away in the attic. Sometime later Grandfather had a stroke and Mother had to rush down to Sussex to visit him. When she got there she was surprised to find the Chinaman had been rescued from the attic and was standing on his bedside table. Sometime later Grandfather had a second stroke and died. Mother inherited all his possessions, including the Chinaman.”

The next day I went on to Edinburgh and took up my assignment with little thought of the Peters in Durham. About a month later a beautiful young woman came to Edinburgh to provide some interior consultation on the hospital. I showed her around the City and took her to dinner. We hit it off immediately, and began a long distance romance. The urgency of our courtship and my work schedule kept me preoccupied, which meant that any trips which I did make to London were by train to maximize my time with Katrina. The closest I got to Durham was the magnificent view from the railway. However, when Katrina invited me to visit her parents in Oxford, I decided to combine a business trip with a long weekend and felt that, for such a trip, a car would be invaluable. I visited the Peters on my return journey.

The first thing that I noticed when I went into the professor’s library was the Chinaman, standing, still bent slightly under his fish load, in the exact spot where the professor’s treasured QuanYen had stood. The professor caught my eye and sighed:

“Yes, we had them both there for some time! But, then, one day, the Quan Yen fell over, and broke to smithereens. I’ve kept the pieces, but I cannot bear the thought of cracks across her. I loved her perfection, her slender white fragility. We all wonder how it happened as nobody was in that day and nobody confesses to have even been near the room.” He shook his grey head and sighed. “We will never know what it was just one of life’s little mysteries.”

“And now, how about the other half?” he asked as he stretched out his hand to replenish my drink.

The rest of the visit was highly successful. We had a delicious meal. I enjoyed their company so much that I stayed longer than I had intended and arrived back in Edinburgh after midnight. I, therefore, decided that the next time I had to go through Durham, I should not stop. Fate had things worked out otherwise, and coming back from a weekend visit when Katrina and I met half way in York, my car broke down about fifteen miles south of Durham City. Marooned, I decided to stay in the area overnight so that I could talk to the garage personally in the morning. I called the Peters, who seemed delighted to hear from me and insisted that I spend the night. We again had a superb meal. This time I did not see the Chinaman and said nothing thinking that they had perhaps banished him to the attic. But he still greeted me on this, my unlucky day. First a broken down car and now, when they ushered me into my room, I found him standing next to my bed.

The attractive room had pale yellow walls, the color of the Chinaman’s robes, and scarlet Titian red velvet curtains with matching bedspread. It had Venetian cut-glass light fittings which gave an oriental cast harmonizing remarkably well with the Chinaman. Being very tired I tried to ignore the Chinaman and fell asleep.

I dreamt that I drove along a red road through a town of pagoda-like houses. The upturned eaves laughed at me as I drove. Then they morphed and stretched themselves out like hands trying to halt my progress. As I drove faster and faster, they became more and more agile, stripping off parts of my car in their attempts to stop me. I pushed my foot so hard on the accelerator that it ached. I began to panic, and then, in my frenzy, I heard an unmistakable noise behind me. Coming towards me I heard a flap-flapping sound accompanied by big thuds as though something large and flat were being struck forcibly on the road. I looked around to see how close the Chinaman could be while still urging the limping car to go faster. But he gained on me, loping as a giraffe runs, with no apparent effort and great speed and, as he approached, he flailed the road with his fish. He grew bigger and bigger. He got so close that his figure filled the sky and it began to get difficult to see. I could still hear him coming and now realized that the car had evaporated and that I stood paralyzed, like a frightened rabbit, waiting to be encompassed by his billowing robe and flattened by the huge fish which I heard swishing through the air toward me. I struggled, frantically waving my arms, and awoke to find that the eiderdown had worked itself up over my face. It was good to be back to reality.

The following morning, over toast and marmalade, I could not resist mentioning that I had dreamt about the Chinaman. The professor gave me a mischievous wink.

“Yes,” he said, “I don’t seem to get on with him either. Hey, Viv, did you hear that? The Chinaman has been upsetting our guest!”

“Only a dream,” I said, but the professor continued unabashed.

“Viv, couldn’t you get your mother to put him somewhere else? He is not the right sort of ornament for a bedroom.”

“But Daddy, you know that we’ve tried everywhere else! There is nowhere suitable for him in the dining room. He is so odd on the table, and you said that you don’t like him in the library, and the drawing room looks like a junk shop when he is in there!”

“I know you are right. I’ll have to have a word with your mother. Perhaps we can sort something out!”

My next visit was not until after Easter. This time I was surprised to find a much-altered household. Mrs. Peters was critically ill. In February she had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Now she lay in her upstairs bedroom, surrounded by books and sweet-smelling flowers, looking serene. I couldn’t help but notice that there, by her bedside, stood the Chinaman. I gasped as I remembered that all her close family members had died with him by their sides. I again privately wondered whether this could be the source of his enigmatic countenance.

“So, you finally moved him in here,” I said, indicating the figure with a nod of my head.

“Yes,” she said, her face lighting up attractively in spite of her illness. “He didn’t fit anywhere else, so I decided to have him in here beside me.” She glanced over to the table where he stood. “Flowers always seem to wilt on that table. Anyway, he looks better on his own. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind putting the flowers on the other table?”

After that I avoided visiting them again, as clearly the dying Mrs. Peters needed to be left in the hands of her close friends and family. I felt that it would have been presumptuous of me to barge in on their privacy. My personal life had also taken a wonderful turn when Katina had accepted my proposal of marriage and we began to make plans for my move back to London and our wedding.

In July, I heard of Mrs. Peters’ death and private funeral, and shared my condolences with the grieving family. Things were moving fast between Katrina and me, and we decided that we should get married as soon as my Edinburgh assignment was completed. By September I returned to London. Katrina and I spent our weekends getting to know the city, visiting museums and walking. On one of our long, meandering walks we ended up going to Sands in New Bond Street for coffee and cake and then, walking up Piccadilly, happened to pass Sotheby’s auction house. I had never been in the saleroom before, although I had often seen the catalogues which my mother collected, so we grabbed the opportunity and went inside.

I saw him the moment we entered the China and Ceramics department. I gazed at him for some time, mesmerized by his countenance, and then went and got a catalogue. There was little about him in the catalogue, just a short description and a listing of an anonymous vendor. I looked at him again; surely there could be only one such figure. He stood alone, as usual, on a display shelf with his body still bent slightly under his fish. He still maliciously, enigmatically, half smiled, half frowned, his wicked eyes still flashed strangely in tune with his black moustache, which still hung, almost sadly, from his mouth. I knew that I recognized him and that Professor Peters and Vivien disliked him, so I suspected that they were selling him to ostracize his malice from their home. Katrina seemed to enjoy my fascination and watched me with a happy, almost smug, smile as I gazed, questioningly, at him.

Soon afterward the headaches began. At first, infrequent, but then they gathered in momentum. Katrina and I surmised that they must be stress-induced due to the move and the wedding preparations. I am unconvinced, as I have never suffered from headaches and weathered the stress of architecture school unscathed. Christmas approached and Katrina and I had neatly wrapped gifts for each other nestled under our Christmas tree. The excited Katrina claimed to have found the ‘perfect’ gift for me. On Christmas Eve, I opened her present, as I watched her eyes dance with excitement.

“Michael, my darling, it took some doing to get him without your knowledge, but when I saw how much you like him. I knew that you’d love him. He is perfect, isn’t he?”

My hands tremble, my head aches, and I wonder what I should do next.

9 thoughts on “The Chinaman – a short story

  1. I saw the title and just had to visit this page to read the story. Having spent 30 + years working in Asia I could visualize your statue as I saw it for real in the traditional enclaves of what is now a very modern Asia. I loved your use of words. That made the picture even grander to me. Thank you for this contribution. Oh, and as an after thought. I have some of those statues from my wanderings.

    • So kind of you Ian. I am glad that the description is evocative. Of course the ceramic was a real piece which my siblings and I thought to be an omen of bad luck. We did sell it – hope that it didn’t end up in your collection!

      • I just re-read your marvellous story. You perfectly described an article we really did purchase in Singapore and unfortunately it was broken by one of our grandchildren on a visit. During his time with us he did not bring any bad vibes into the home. We do have our sages peering down on us from an elevated shelf and would not part with them for any amount of money. Maybe they are not antiques but they are part of our history. On my last trip to Hong Kong two of our former students insisted on adding an expensive piece to our Chinese collection. Maybe to a westerner it would prove unattractive but greatly valued to Chinese. We value all our accumulated treasures from the long Asian experience.

        • Thank you for your visit and comments. I am glad to hear that his counterparts are benign, if not downright good. It could be that this is the same with people! Cheerio, Jane.

  2. Excellent story, Jane and very well written. I greatly enjoyed reading it and laughed at the account of the meal. I think perhaps it is less fashionable these days but like you I also like to try and tie things up at the end with a twist and this one was unexpected. I am also noting that several of your stories – the bird, the girl behind the yellow curtain, the rookery and this one – have a supernatural/haunting/haunted aspect to them which might help them to be bound together as a collection….

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