‘The Human Phonograph’ won the overall 2015 Commonwealth Short Story Prize, and the regional prize for Europe.
And as a figure in reflective helmet and articulated suit half-walks, half-floats over the unreal surface, she make-believes he is her husband – and the moon itself could perfectly well be Qinghai province for all anybody can tell. One of the other translators, who specializes in English, says Mr Armstrong is saying, ‘A small step for man; a large step for man’ and she shades her eyes with her hands so nobody can see her cry.
It has been seven years.
There are thoughts that cannot be spoken but can only be sung.
The summons comes in the form of a telegram to the secretary of her work unit. She has a week in which to pack.
They met in 1961 when she was a senior majoring in Russian at the Foreign Studies University and he was finishing his PhD in geology. They married and less than a year later he received the order. He was being sent to the far northwest to investigate a certain terrain – as much as he could say. He would remain there indefinitely. She was forbidden to accompany him. As if he were being sent into exile, or they both were, but it was presented as a reward, an opportunity to Serve the People … And in October 1964, Year of the Dragon, Mao proclaimed that China has exploded the Bomb.
There is a photograph (it would not be made public till years later, after his death, and by then she would be back in Beijing) of scientists in identical suits raising their clenched left fists in a loyalty salute, on an open plain, under a bright sun. He is third from the left, over-exposed. Posed, of course. In reality they would have been cowering in a shelter, plugs in their ears and goggles over their eyes, while the earth shuddered.
The Bomb is a defence against the Soviet Union, and the irony is they helped us make it in the first place. As a schoolgirl she was taught to honour our fraternal ally. The class sang ‘Katyusha’ and ‘My Land’. By the time she went to university, Russian was the language of the enemy. We understand them in order to defeat them.
Once a week she sends a letter to the base’s deliberately bland address: Factory 221, Mining Area 210, Qinghai. He replies when he can. He is forbidden to describe his work; he is forbidden even to describe the rocks beneath his feet. He writes about the weather. Today the temperature dropped to -20º. We are keeping warm in our goose down coats. (He is thinking of putting his arms around her, warming her!) … Today is a typical summer day, which is about the same temperature as spring in Beijing. (Here in the city the heat is oppressive … He is thinking of spring!)
Let the long grey boulevards of Beijing be memorials to themselves. Already the herds of cyclists, blurry on their Phoenixes and their Forevers, creak like ghosts. It is the final morning. In the courtyard of her collective housing the children are playing a game in which they hide, making themselves as silent and invisible as possible. She is permitted to take one suitcase.
28 July 1969.
She sets out from Beijing Railway Station, and it is a five-day journey to Lánzhōu in Gansu province. From there she is transferred to a special military train that goes to Qinghai. Everyone else is male and in uniform. The windows of the cars are shuttered so the passing land cannot be seen. She might as well be blind. If only she’d brought a novel or poetry … but she didn’t dare take any book apart from the Chairman’s thoughts. By day she sweats; by night she huddles under her quilt. She listens … The engine’s rhythmic clanking and energetic shushing. Sometimes for no apparent reason the train pauses for hours. The burble of a river. A dog’s bark. A bleating and a human shout … And on the eighth morning she wakes and she is the only passenger in her car, and she hears and feels the shift as she is shunted onto a track leading to the secret base, and that afternoon at last her doors are opened and here she is.
Grassland, stretching forever. A shocking blue sky. Squat cement buildings that look as if they were put up yesterday and will crumble tomorrow. Soldiers in a chain unload crates from the train and transfer them to parked trucks, each man passing his burden to the next man along.
She is being observed by a thin, hatless man in canvas army shoes and a creased blue suit. His face is sunburnt. He says her full name, as if approaching a stranger. His voice is strained, yet he has an unexpected air of authority.
Not to be outdone in formality, she greets him – prefacing his name with the salutation ‘Comrade’.
He scarcely resembles the photo of him that she carries everywhere, next to her identity card.
She has changed too. Who’s to say that she isn’t an impostor herself?
They get into an open-framed vehicle, and a sergeant drives them. Her husband behaves like a considerate stranger. Is she hot? Is she cold? No and no. Is she tired from the journey? She is. Would she like some water? Not really, but she replies she is thirsty, to be polite, and he raises a flask in a camouflage cover, and she sips, her lip touching where his lip has been. A sparrowhawk wheels high above them.
The vehicle brakes sharply; husband and wife are jolted against each other. This is the married quarters, he says. And before she can ask her question, he answers it, You are the only civilian wife.
He leads her in. A small room, which she could use as a study, if she likes, and another room with little more than a bed in it. The sergeant deposits her suitcase, and leaves them.
They look slightly past each other.
He draws the improvised curtain – blackout cloth suspended from a string.
The dry air will crack your lips, he says. It is advisable to wear lipstick at all times.
Lipstick? Lipstick is bourgeois deviationism; it hasn’t been obtainable in Beijing for years.
He points with his foot at a cardboard box containing steel tubes of lipstick that resemble bullets. Hundreds of tubes. Enough for a lifetime of red lips.
They sit on the bed, at opposite ends. They’d had nine months of married life until he was exiled; they’d addressed each other as old wifey and old hubby, playing at marriage.
She unscrews a tube, and applies it, wriggling her lips and pouting to spread the redness evenly. It tastes like perfumed machine oil, and perhaps it is.
He undresses her.
His fingers consider her, inscribing target areas on her skin.
For the first year or so after he left, she dreamed of him every night, and she would wake to the astonishment of his absence. And then, gradually, like stars in an urban dawn, he faded out of her dreams.
She has no specific memory of making love to him; it wasn’t something separate from their life: it was their life.
He has her lie down; her head is where feet would normally be. Eyes closed, she watches him through her nostrils. Qinghai stretches from the great saltwater lake in the south to the plateau on the Tibetan border. The geologist sets out on an exploratory trip. He examines her, investigates her, takes a core sample … and as Qinghai thrashes and screams, she is a tiny figure within the province of herself … she is cast back to Beijing, to her desk at the Institute, with its precious window looking out to the north – but this version of the city is ecstatic, distorted: instead of a flat street with cyclists, there is a broad highway lifted high in the air along with extra highways looping around, all rich with candy-coloured cars, and instead of a vista of a horizontal apartment building, glittery towers stretch up into a misty heaven, and passers-by dressed in bright wisps stare back, not seeing her … Once again she is the terrain of Qinghai … She yearns for impossible Beijing … She is a wife on a hard bed, a husband’s weight holding her where she is.
The following morning she reports to her job, the one he found for her. She is not here as a wife (there is no such category) but as essential technical support. She has a chair and a desk of her own, army issue, with the characters for ‘librarian’ painted in red on the underside. The collection is excellent. The textbooks are mostly in Russian, from the 1950s. In the geology section she notices a much-thumbed Classification and Identification of Metamorphic Rocks by the great Davidovich himself, who taught her husband. Also there are journals and preprints; there are blueprints and technical specifications with Cyrillic markings; there is a file of secret photographs of Soviet installations. And she is astonished to find, on an open stack, an entire bookshelf loaded with classic literature: Tang dynasty poems, in which the male author speaks in a female voice; the erotic novellas of Li Yu; Pu Songling’s horror stories, composed in the decadence of the Ming dynasty … Foreign books too, in several languages: English, French, German … and yes, her beloved Russian; here is Pushkin (once she was Tatiana, besotted with Evgeny) and Gogol and Dostoevsky … How did these books find their way here? And how come they’re still permitted? Anywhere else in China, anybody caught reading these would be denounced. So she learns that Factory 221 is not like anywhere else in China. Ringed with barbed wire and guarded by T-59 tanks, it is the securest of prisons and paradoxically it has the most freedom. The Cultural Revolution does not apply here. The scientists are privileged exceptions – more valuable than giant pandas. They are supplied with their special diet, whatever is needed to nourish their rare brains.
Men wander in and find excuses to chat with her. So you’re the librarian, they say. You’re just what we need. There are a handful of other women here, scientists in their own right. When they come into the library they avoid her, or abbreviate their conversations. The library here is not hushed like those at the Institute or the university; men smile at her and reminisce about the heroic era in the early history of the base, when the scientists lived in army tents and survived on mutton and barley buns.
A fluid dynamicist, Jin, reminisces about the 1950s. Mao and Stalin shook hands and behold, the Friendship Hotel in Beijing (Hotel Druzhba) was filled with Soviet advisors. Jin was friends with Vanyushin, whom he jokingly nicknamed Wang Yuqin; they went on long walks together, and talked about poetry. Then Mao quarrelled with Stalin, and all the advisors had to leave. Jin is short with poor teeth; he shows her a photograph of himself and Vanyushin, a tall blonde man, in the Temple of Heaven.
That evening there is a concert in the dining room. Under the portrait of Mao, a physicist plays Chopin. Followed by a string quartet – the violinists are mathematicians, the violist is an electrical engineer and the cellist, with his shock of white hair, studied at Harvard in the 1930s and brought nuclear chemistry to China. Afterwards, drinks are served. Not alcohol, of course, which is forbidden on the base, but an instant sour plum juice made from a powder dissolved in water.
The name of the first Bomb test was Operation Qilin. The qilin is a mythical creature with the body of a deer, the tail of an ox, the hooves of a horse and a single horn. And indeed there is just such a creature, rather bedraggled, created by a taxidermist, just inside the main entrance to the dining room. To the scientists it is so familiar they pay it no special attention; there’s a scarf on the horn and somebody’s coat is draped over its haunch. According to legend, if you burn the horn (what is it really – an antelope’s?) like a torch, you will see the future. The qilin is said to manifest only in the reign of a benevolent emperor.
She is an object of fascination. Perhaps one day she too will become as unremarkable as this qilin.
How come her husband is not more fascinated? Or say that he is, but he doesn’t show it. That night, in their bedroom, he brushes his teeth and makes love to her. Soon he goes to sleep, flat on his back, his arms at his sides. There is a little red on his chin and nose – lipstick transferred from her lips. He does not snore. His eyelids do not flicker. He does not exclude her from the bed, but there is no natural way to arrange her body next to his either. A not-very-married man.
This goes on for weeks. Nothing is the matter, exactly. He mentions that he is not in the best of health, but he seems fit enough. Most of the scientists are a little overweight (the food is not tasty but plentiful) but he remains skinny, no matter how much he consumes.
He has secrets, of course. There are things he cannot even whisper in bed.
And then he tells her he’s going on an expedition. He’ll be leaving at dawn, and will be back before dusk. The privilege of geology. Nobody else is allowed to go off base. He’ll be exploring possible sites for … But already he’s said too much.
She gets up early and sees him off. He’s driving a Soviet motorcycle, a Ural M-72, a vintage model from the war. In the sidecar is his assistant, a short dark man, locally recruited, named Chodrak, or, in Chinese, Kuohui. The assistant carries a rock-hammer. Her husband fastens his goggles, the engine roars, and away the men go.
She spends the day in the library stacks, arranging the books. There is rumoured to be a cat that roams the base, a wild creature the physicists have named ‘Schrödinger’. Pussy, pussy, pussy … she whispers.
He returns after midnight. What happened? she asks, and he offers some explanation that is not quite an explanation, how there was a delay in a mountain pass … There’s more work to be done; he’ll have to go back soon. He has a blaze of pale dust on his forehead, and seems both weaker and more excited, feverish. You should take care of yourself, she says. Is there anything I can do for you? But all he wants now is her body. Despite his tiredness he must have her. She keeps her eyes open this time, and sees the thin, sunburnt man caressing her, and she feels that somehow he is cheating on her even as he makes love to her, until finally she closes her eyes, and sees again that impossible Beijing with its luminous billboards and hears a throbbing music unlike any that exists in real life, a rhythmic skeleton of a song bedecked with a jangle of rhymes.
Can I come with you on your next trip? she asks him, the following morning.
You don’t have permission. Besides, there’s only room for one passenger in the sidecar.
But why can’t I be your assistant, instead of Chodrak? You could train me. How difficult can it be?
You’re needed at the library.
I’m needed with you.
She touches his narrow chest. His bony ribs.
He changes into everyday clothes.
I’ll be going on an expedition again next week …
You mean, I can come with? I can come with or I cannot come with? What do I have to learn? Teach me, old hubby.
He scratches his chest. He says, Sing for me.
Sing me a song. Any song.
A weird request. Music? From her? He knows perfectly well she has no voice. Well, if her husband wants her to sing, then sing she must. What, then? There are those songs she’s heard over and over again, played through the loudspeakers at the Institute: ‘Rely on the Helmsman while Sailing the Sea’ … ‘The Red Army Crosses a Thousand Mountains and Ten Thousand Rivers, Yearning for a Moment of Rest’ … But surely he’d prefer something more personal. It’s not as if they ever had a song that was their song. Unlike other courting couples, they had never listened to jazz together, back when it was permitted; they never went ballroom dancing. She chooses something she was taught in Russian class, ‘The Song of the Volga Boatmen.’ Yo heave ho. Once more, once more again, still once more. Yo heave ho …
He lowers his gaze. He says with conviction, No, you do not have the talent to be my assistant.
Over the following weeks he, accompanied by Chodrak, goes on several expeditions. Sometimes he even stays away overnight. Always he comes back weaker and yet refreshed; always he insists on making love to her immediately. What could she complain about? He is attentive, considerate, and he obviously finds her physically attractive. Yet he is not quite present, like a dissatisfied ghost.
In early September for the first time there is frost on the ground. The winter is about to begin: a poor season for a geologist. That afternoon he leads her into his laboratory. It is a sectioned-off portion of what had once been a hangar, high with an angled ceiling, and with no natural light. The storage bins are repurposed from ammunition containers. An array of scoops and picks and chisels and pry-bars hang upside-down like bats. She sits on a stool next to a polarizing microscope, her head bowed as if imitating its posture. The assistant is in the corner, squatting, removing rock samples from a bin and sorting them.
Her husband addresses her as if delivering an ethnographic lecture. He describes the varied peoples of Qinghai: those of Han Chinese, Mongolian and (a glance at Chodrak) Tibetan descent, as well as indigenous tribes such as the Tu (whose language is related to Mongolian but whose customs are similar to Tibetans’) and the Sala who are Muslim.
What’s this to do with geology? she thinks.
The peoples interact, he says. They influence each other. In the course of my exploration, I encounter peasants. We exchange food and drink. They give me directions. They understand the earth on which they live.
He adds, Sometimes they sing.
The men and the women, they sing to each other.
Folksong? Is this what you mean?
Like the songs we were taught in school?
Not like the songs we were taught in school. It’s called Hua’er. A man sings it to a woman; a woman sings it to a man. They keep it up all night long. He confesses, I cannot sing myself. I have no memory for music. But my assistant, I call him The Human Phonograph.
He raises a finger, like a conductor.
Chodrak – without getting up, without adjusting his squat, without any change of expression – sings. His dark face is as opaque as ever. She cannot understand the words (whatever language this is, it’s not Chinese), but the tune is remarkable, soaring and tumbling like the mountains of Qinghai. It does not last long. In silence he continues sorting rocks.
The conductor raises his finger again.
Once again The Human Phonograph produces the same song, identical in every regard to his first performance. There are some odd pauses, places where he seems slightly out of tune, and she realizes these too are identical to his original rendition. Rather like when the Party reconstructed a schoolhouse in Hunan province where Mao studied as a young man, they restored the original crack in the roof through which rain dripped, and included a stuffed rat on the floor – so we should know what he went through, what made him who he is.
Silence again. Now she speaks out.
I want to hear it.
The song repeats a third time, precisely as before, with all the peaks and valleys.
In the middle of a bar, she barks, Stop!
The song stops.
The song resumes from where it left off, and completes itself.
Her husband says, It’s a Sala song. Which he translates: The red Morning Star Lily is blossoming; it blooms radiantly. The young woman is ravishing; she has gorgeous eyebrows.
He says, The way it works – the first half of a Hua’er song is a description. The second half is an explanation. He looks down at his feet. I made something of a study of these songs, while you were away in Beijing. My hobby, you see.
This is the nearest he’s come to telling her he loves her, that he missed her. And he was taking a risk for her sake too. Hua’er is surely illegal – bourgeois sentiment. The peasants are so isolated they don’t understand it’s against the law. But her husband knows. That’s why he can’t record them in any way except via The Human Phonograph. And Chodrak too, wouldn’t he be at risk? Might he betray his master? But he is too simple, too ignorant, to be aware of any danger.
Her husband signals The Human Phonograph, and a different song is heard. This time it’s in a Chinese dialect, which she can follow. For so long the thick grass has grown on the cliff; I could not cut it as the sickle is blunt. For so long I have been in love with my girl; I could not tell her as I am shy.
That night in bed, in the dark, she draws him to her. They lie side by side, and he tells her about his early days at Factory 221. How tough it was at first, the primitive conditions. But we had comradeship, everyone was in it together! He talks about the other geologists on his team, men like Four Eyes, and Badger, and Quartz and Uncle Xu …
The names mean nothing to her; they’re not here now. She asks what happened to them.
Ah, they’re gone.
She hears the tension in his voice.
What is he implying? That they were dismissed? Were they denounced and punished in some way? Were they accused of being counter-revolutionaries?
He clarifies, They got sick.
She realizes that the reason for his promotion, the reason he has the power to bring her here, is not because he is especially brilliant, but because he is the senior surviving geologist.
How come? she says, guessing the horrible answer even as she asks the question.
The usual thing.
What usual thing?
We observed Operation Qilin. We were too close. There was dust everywhere.
I’m lucky. The doctors say I could live for years.
Everyone waited for the lunar landing, in the lecture hall of the Institute. The English translator elucidated Mr Armstrong’s name; with his finger in the air he sketched the characters for arm and strong. And what about Mr Aldrin, somebody asked, is his name auspicious too? But his name, like most names, signifies nothing, neither good nor bad.
She hears his slow breathing. He’s fallen asleep. It wouldn’t be right to wake him, and she can’t sleep herself. She drifts along the edge, not quite dreaming … a snow-capped mountain … a mushroom cloud … a creature with the body of a man up to the neck and in place of a head the horn of an old-fashioned phonograph …
She wakes in the night. A sense of doom; and she recalls what her husband told her. What was she dreaming of? Not of him, so in that sense she was unfaithful.
Her dream is adapted from a story in Collected Short Stories of Anton Chekhov, Volume II, which she’s been reading in the library. It is about a bashful officer in the Tsarist army who is invited to a social gathering in a villa. He wanders into a dark room. A woman, supposing he’s someone else, kisses him … They never meet again.
In her dream version, she is the woman from that story. She is having an illicit affair. By mistake she kisses the shy, whiskery fellow … She is shocked; then repulsed; then, struck by her own power, goes in search of the original man she intended to kiss.
What a sadist the author is! It’s just a story; the author can give it any ending he wants. Let the hero meet an entirely suitable woman and they fall in love and they live happily ever after. But once it’s published, the ending can no longer be changed. When Chekhov wrote ‘The Kiss’, he was dying of tuberculosis. She understands him but does not forgive him.
He takes a turn for the worse. That September is the last time they make love, the last time he goes out on a geological expedition. He suffers during the long harsh winter; an oxygen cylinder hisses behind their bed. He is transferred to the base hospital.
She visits, and lies to him, as a wife should. She says, The doctors inform me you are getting better.
She thinks of Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who was so determined to live forever that he took an elixir of immortality which contained mercury, and so brought about his own death.
As she does her work now there is a hush about her, appropriate for a librarian. Her calligraphy, The earth is mutable; the sea becomes a mulberry orchard (from Mao’s ‘The People’s Liberation Army Captures Nanjing’), has pride of place in the exhibition in the dining room.
He feels better, and then not better. In the spring he loses the ability to speak. He cannot communicate in any way.
Is he capable of seeing me? she asks a doctor.
Can he hear me?
18 June 1970. Her husband is in a private room. There is another bed, not made up. She lies down on it, parallel to her husband.
His oxygen cylinder hiccups.
She was a girl gripping her grandmother’s hand when the ancient wall around Beijing was demolished. She gazed through the refractions of dust at the naked, vulnerable city; swarms of volunteers took the rubble away.
I have brought you a gift, she says.
Chodrak is standing between them, facing neither. Impassive as ever, the Human Phonograph sings:
Come to the orchard if you would like to taste the cherries; there are thousands of summer flowers blooming. Do not be sad because we are parting; in a few days we will meet.
She sees the figure in the middle – Kuohui, whatever he goes by. From this angle, he could be almost any man in a peaked cap, a dark blue jacket. His eyebrows meet in the middle. She reaches out. Between finger and thumb she rubs the cheap ‘patriotic wool’ of his jacket. She lifts a pocket flap; the concealed button is off-white.
She thinks of her husband, as he was on their wedding night.
She does not withdraw her touch.
Come to the orchard … he sings again.
She feels the warmth of the man, close by her face.
She shuts her eyes and enters her fabulous Beijing: she does not see a panorama of the steel-and-glass metropolis now, but rather a vast deep pit with many yellow-hatted workers swarming in and about it – where the foundations are to be established for the tallest of towers, that shall one day be built. And, playing in the background like film music, there is Hua’er. She hears another song … a third song … a fourth … in what might be Tibetan or Mongolian, Sala or Tu … any of the numerous languages she does not know.
Colonel Li is sympathetic but unrelenting. It is impossible for her to stay at Factory 221.
She understands. She expected nothing else. There is no place for a single female non-scientist here.
She thinks of the legendary ‘Peach Blossom Spring’ – the paradise that a fisherman once found by chance; he continued on his journey, and could never find it again.
She is given a week to pack.
On 21 August 1970 she is sent away. She is the passenger in a Fenghuang automobile, and she leaves along with other government vehicles. The convoy follows an indirect route across Qinghai, stopping at several military bases around Xining and a mining camp near Golmud. Through the rolled-up windows she sees the great saltwater lake, so vast it appears to be an ocean. She sees a mountain range to the north … She identifies geological features (her husband taught her this skill): pillow lava and basalt; also greenish serpentites and spilites: the ophiolites that prove this plateau was once an ocean floor, lifted up by subduction. Resting her hand on her belly she senses the motion within. She sees a flock of mountain sheep. She sees antelope who flee from the noise of the vehicles. She sees a distant shambling figure that might be a bear or a human. She sees a woman milking a yak, and wiping a little milk on her face, to whiten it. And at one point, along the pass that leads through to Gansu from where she will catch her train to Beijing, she sees a gathering of young people in traditional clothing; the women are carrying black umbrellas against the sun. The men and women pair off. She cannot hear through her window, but she supposes that each man is singing to his woman, and each woman to her man.
Subscribe for new writing
Sign up to receive new pieces of writing as soon as they are published.