So To Bed
I am summoned to the crumbling parental estate on an urgent mission. Bath-time has gone wrong. The old man needs lifting. His naked body is parked in the tub and cannot get enough purchase or lifting power to elevate. The various mats, handles, steps and supports have not been properly applied or utilised and we are returned to the primal fundamentals of younger lifting power.
Other relatives have heeded the distress call – sister and cousin are there, both experienced in the humane arts of child-rearing and parent-caring. Two sisters of mercy who regularly deal in the naked realm of bodies infantile and geriatric. So why me? Dear God, why me? I am the cerebral second son, he of the ivory tower, one who would much prefer to be incarnated as a Byzantine goblet than a thing of flesh.
It's because I'm a bloke. The old lady is insisting that it is my task in order to preserve the modesty of the old man. He's well down the road to Alzheimer oblivion and wouldn't really mind who hoiks him out of the tub, but the old lady's gimlet eye is pinning me like a sprawling butterfly to the arm chair as she shrieks at me to ascend the stairs to face my inner demons.
So up I go. The sisters of mercy are standing by waiting to receive the towel-shrouded Lazarus from the enamelled coffin. As with most traumatic moments, it goes by in a trance, the inner man departing to leave some memories to be dealt with at a stronger time. Of course I botch it and nearly injure the poor old fellow. But finally he is wrapped and upright so the women waiting outside can come into the bathroom to take over. Foolishly, I linger outside taking deep breaths. Suddenly the old man emerges naked save for his incontinence pants.
We read about the most terrible outcomes for human beings both historical and contemporary. Bodies have been burned at the stake, sliced apart, blown to pieces, vaporised, trashed in their millions. In an age of information even the most insensitive mind cannot help but be affected by the knowledge of what people do to each other. But these are only things on the printed page or tv screen. There must be a lot of fragile guys like me who would rather read about the worst horrors in the world than see their father in his clinical underwear.
Although his mind has gone I guess the old man's benign essence will remain until the day he finally departs. He is part of what has now become known as the Golden Generation – those too young to be chewed up by the last world war but old enough to have enjoyed the fruits of Keynes followed by the Big Give-away of Monetarism - decent teaching salaries with only moderate bureaucracy to hinder the dignified work, large affordable houses, nice pensions, early retirement and so to bed. He had the best of post-war culture, too – a time when the arts flourished in the abandonment of their Edwardian shackles but had not yet slipped into the terminal decline brought about by Arts Council Protectionism, Consumerism and the emergence of the Trash Culture.
It was a time when a moderately good poet might be published by Chatto, as he was. But was it all a bit too easy? For the last ten years or so of his cognitive life he seemed to spend a lot of time gazing at his hens at the end of the garden, perhaps removing himself from the stark ferocity of the wifely realm. In early retirement he had found himself at a bit of a loose end, like a schoolboy finding the gleefully-awaited summer holidays a bit too long. As a child I remember him sat in his study at composition in a cloud of Henri Wintermans cigar smoke, until the wife removed that little pleasure along with the bacon breakfasts and fish suppers. He was always gazing into the distance in search of a Good Line until finally he lost his thread and started to drift.
When sat on a bus with the youth of today plugged into their i-phones, I tend to return to the thoughts of H. G. Wells - my boy-hood Influence-in-Chief. The Time Traveller visits a world where the human race has evolved into two separate species – the effete but affectionate Eloi mess around in a seeming earthly paradise, but come bed-time are cannibalised by the Morlocks, the underground descendants of the working classes.
The internet could be the means by which the post-golden generation is pacified. Left with nothing to inherit, the only world remaining to them is the artificial paradise of endless gaming and deletable friendships, a world they are encouraged to inhabit by the wealthy 1% who treat them as disposable labour and click-bait.
When Trump-ets sound and the walls come tumbling down, will the nouveau-Eloi respond by casting off their shackles of unreality and building something more tangible in the old Green and Pleasant Land? After so much time spent in cyber-space, will they have the experience and psychic cohesion to cope with the coming crisis? Or will the Yankee Piper of the Dispossessed serenade bed-time for Humanity?
A few days later I am sat with my parents in their garden on a splendid, blazing autumn day. A good friend of mine is here with us, experiencing the on-set of a depressive episode. He is at that stage in the process where you experience a “pain so utter it swallows substance up” (Emily Dickinson). It is the sort of pain that people like my Dad always managed to avoid, being one who “as in a swoon goes safely where an open eye would drop him bone by bone”.
For a moment my friend's face fills with tears. The old man's face assumes an expression that I have not seen in it for a long time – a look of infinite concern.
“Don't...don't...there's no need to be so...it's a lovely day.”
And I recalled the last lines of The Time Machine:
“And I have by me, for my comfort, two strange white flowers - shrivelled now, and brown and flat and brittle - to witness that even when mind and strength had gone, gratitude and a mutual tenderness still lived on in the heart of man.”
I write to record the beginning of my end. End of life if not of living. My life as a choreographer. It is 1982; I am Li Jun … Jun to those who know and care about me; Master Li to my company. But I am master no more. I led the first visit to the West of a Chinese ballet company since … well, nobody is really sure. I am returning to my homeland, my home city after a brief meeting in Beijing, and being replaced by another – it doesn’t matter who. I am in disgrace. I fell in love.
It is ironic that I called my ballet Peony Autumn. The peony is a symbol of Spring, a metaphor for feminine beauty and reproduction … and it symbolizes peace. By autumn it has lost its colour, its flower; it has become withered, brittle … but hidden beneath its shrivelled dishevelment it is perennial. It is considered hard to grow but only if you do not have the will to make it grow.
If I had not accepted an invitation from a business acquaintance to attend a ballet and if I had not acceded to the pressure to attend the after-party I would never have met Li Jun. But there I was and so was he and he mistook me for someone else that he had been instructed to talk to. I had no idea who he was - a young man in a suit and tie; I assumed he was an administrator with the company. He was formal and self-effacing. And he had astonishing eyes.
If I could have foreseen what would happen I would have walked away then and there. That isn’t true; I would have recognised the desperation of his situation and tried anything – everything – to make it all happen differently. He was the artist. I was the audience; I think part of me assumed that this was just a fling to bring excitement to his new-found temporary freedom in the West. Or maybe that was just my rationalisation to try to deal with the feelings I had. He was young, after all.
In Beijing I was given choices. To deny love and be consigned to a teaching post in a remote town north west of Harbin, close to the Russian border or … some other unspecified alternative that would be found. Along with denying love I must also denounce it; nothing specific, you understand. I must simply make it clear that I was seduced and corrupted by Western decadence and had returned to China to save myself. I was put on the plane. I was met off the plane. I was driven to a nondescript government building for questioning.
Choice did not figure large in this swift turn of affairs. And with every step I longed for his touch on my body. To fall in love with a western woman would have been betrayal; to fall for a man was debauchery.
“I thought it was incredibly moving … and the staging was stunning … beautiful. Blending East and West was really clever … I’m not a ballet aficionado but …..my god, so much talent. The choreographer is clearly highly creative,” I declared.
“Thank you … I am so glad you enjoyed it. I will pass on your kind words to the dancers – and musicians.”
“Is the choreographer here? Please tell him I loved it.”
That’s when I realised he was rather more than an administrator. I felt stupid and shook my head. He smiled shyly.
“I am honoured by your compliment. Let me get you more wine”. I became conscious that some people were watching us, no doubt aware of who he was and equally unaware of who I was: a stranger, an audience member certainly, but not part of this world, not someone to be recognised and acknowledged. Perhaps they thought I was a sponsor – money.
As he handed me another glass from the table, he brushed his hand against mine and I saw in his eyes the connection that had been hiding since the moment of meeting, gliding secretly between us, encircling us, bringing us to the moment when the connection was unfolded before us. He saw it too.
In Beijing I was interrogated for three hours. Then there was silence for much longer. I sat on a chair and waited, ignored if I spoke. My request for water went unheeded. The room was grim, spare. Another official appeared and questioned me: personal details … name, province, where I studied, my degree, my work record. Then there was another long wait. Water and a little food arrived and then the ultimatum: I must deny – to the officer in charge – that there had ever been love between us. And publicly I must declare that I have returned home to further my political education and to turn my back upon the corrupt western decadence that had threatened my love for my homeland. Was I corrupted? Is it decadence?
He had told me of China’s history, of noblemen who had their male lovers, of how beautiful boys began with the Yellow Emperor. Such a long history, conveniently erased by the Cultural Revolution. I never knew. Others must have.
But, worse than anything … can I deny love? And my lover? Ten intoxicating days, a thousand secret moments, a million deceits in order to meet. His ingenuity exceeded mine.
Now I just wanted sleep.
We had been talking for perhaps twenty minutes or so. “One moment,” he said. He walked purposefully toward one of the auditorium staff, spoke briefly, hunched over and then quickly returned. He picked up a glass of wine; until that moment I hadn’t noticed that he didn’t have one. As he did so, he slyly deposited a piece of paper on the table and he nodded for me to take it, all the while looking around and smiling politely. Then he made a show of having to move on, talk to others, and left me standing there. Palming the paper, I looked down and read it. It was his hotel, and telephone number. Two words written underneath: Leave yours. I didn’t understand the subterfuge but assumed it was connected to his situation as a representative of his country as well as a visiting performer.
An hour later, he was deep in conversation with the principal dancer. Then he walked towards me swiftly and quietly as his friend tapped his glass to gain attention for the small speech of gratitude he was about to make. Jun stood next to me and tapped my fingers; I passed my phone number to him and he walked away. My heart was beating, racing, and I felt my throat tighten.
My phone rang.
“Pick me up … across the street from my hotel. A small shop on the corner.” And he hung up. It was 2am. I had been ready for bed.
I recall when I was younger – perhaps fourteen – going out to the small lake past the outskirts of the town where I lived, in the north eastern province near Dalian. It was beautiful: blue glass surrounded by the auburn sheen of autumn, the sunlight glinting on polished stones and the air warm and then chill. We went there swimming, my cousin and I.
I lay on the grass looking up through the leaves when he emerged from the water, naked and glistening. His laughter woke me from my reverie and I turned to see him, squatting to pick small stones from the water’s edge. He leaned forward, his back towards me; I could see his most secret parts exposed: intimate and vulnerable. I gazed in astonishment and felt a burning desire to reach out and touch. I knew instantly it would be reaching into a mystery from which I could never return. Fear gripped me and I remained still, even as my body stirred, in thrall to this secret knowledge that awaited me beyond fear. He turned and glanced at my exposed arousal and laughed. Then he ran back into the water, saying nothing. I never mentioned it either. Not to anyone … apart from a middle-aged Englishman in a room in a house in Liverpool, some sixteen years later.
It was a profoundly beautiful autumn. There were no peonies.
“There’s a letter for you … here.” My day care visitor, Janice, smiled and handed it to me. I was reading a newspaper. “It’s been lying there all day. Have you not been through to the hall? A little exercise is good for you, you know.”
“I’ve been out to the garden … sat there a while. And the kitchen. I haven’t sat all day, Janice. And I’ve been reading.”
“It’s from China.”
“Your letter. Aren’t you going to open it? Have you got a friend there?”
I glanced down at the letter that I had ignored. Yes I have someone in China, I thought. From so long ago … twenty years.
“Do you want a cup of tea while you read it?” she said, kindly. “you look like you’ve seen a ghost, suddenly. I hope it’s good news.”
It couldn’t be good news, not after all this time. And how had he found me? It had to be from him. Who else? Why now? China had declared in 2001 that it’s no longer on the list of psychiatric disorders. Does that make it acceptable? Can he suddenly come out of his closet? Does he truly expect that I am waiting? After all this time?
“Aren’t you going to read it?” asked Janice.
In China, hiding one’s perversions isn’t difficult; finding a kindred spirit is. During my student years, I met an older man. He took care of me. He taught me. We were discreet. Nobody knew. He died and part of me did too. I kept it from his family.
I opened the letter slowly, staring at the paper.
“Dear esteemed sir,
I have been asked to write to you by my good friend Li Jun, with whom I have worked for the last twenty years. I know I can write to you in confidence and therefore hide nothing from you, as he has told me everything about your time together in England. We were close friends indeed … so close yet never true companions in the way that you were. Though I harboured longings for my dear friend for many of those years.
His dying wish was that I should write and explain that he could never return to the West or contact you. He was a prisoner – in a prison without bars. It was a prison of isolation, a prison of the spirit. The party officials would never have let him travel again. He wanted you to know. He hoped you remember the performance you attended of his great ballet. Since then he has been allowed to work as a teacher in a school far from anywhere. I enclose a poem he wrote for you … to remind you.
My respectful regards,
Wu Li Ping”
I dropped the letter onto the sofa and closed my eyes, holding back tears – of loss, of anger, of guilt, of regret. How many times had I assumed that he’d simply changed his mind and renewed his life in China? How often had I blamed him?
“You look like you’ve had a shock … not bad news?” Janice was in front of me with the tea. “Let’s get you to bed. Oh …. There’s a piece of paper here, look. It must have fallen out.” I looked at the poem. Suddenly I am very, very tired.
“Exquisite Peony …
Most noble of all blooms, beyond value …
Adorning imperial palaces of the Sui and Tang Dynasties …
My betrayal is complete.”
Before you go to bed
listen to Aphex Twin;
not just any song,
but the Rhubarb hit.
Now let the air between your thoughts
become your only thought,
and let the fields somewhere afar
exist in your small room.
Your eyelids fall
as an embracing friend
and any troubled thought
becomes a friendly thought.
Tonight you win
because you sleep
among best friends.