The perfectly preserved body of the woman they call the Marquise of Tai lay, sheathed in glass, some feet below them on the lower level. Two thousand odd years ago when she died she had been about fifty. A white shift covered her thin seventy-five-pound body from neck to thighs. Her legs were a fish-like pinkish-white much marked with striations; her right arm, on account of a mended fracture, was rather shorter than her left. Her face was white, puffy, the bridge of the nose encaved, the mouth open and the tongue protruding, the whole face bearing an expression of extreme agony as if she had died from strangulation.
This, however, was not the case. According to the museum’s brochure and Mr Sung, the Marquise had suffered from tuberculosis and a diseased gall bladder. Just before she died of some kind of heart attack she had consumed a hundred and twenty watermelon seeds.
‘She have myocardial infarction, you know,’ said Mr Sung, quoting from memory out of the brochure, a habit of his. ‘Very sick, you know, bad heart, bad insides. Let’s go.’
They moved along to look down through a second aperture at the Marquise’s internal organs and dura mater preserved in bottles of formaldehyde. Mr Sung looked inquiringly into the face of his companion, hoping perhaps to see there signs of nausea or dismay. But the other man’s expression was as inscrutable as his own. Mr Sung gave a little sigh.
“I wish you wouldn’t keep saying that,’ said Wexford irritably. ‘If I may suggest it, you should say, “Shall we go?” or “Are you ready?” ’
Mr Sung said earnestly, ‘You may suggest. Thank you. I am anxious to speak good. Shall we go? Are you leady?’
‘Oh, yes, certainly.’
‘Don’t reply, please. I practise. Shall we go? Are you leady? Good, I have got it. Come, let’s go. Are you leady to go to the site? Reply now, please.”
They got back into the taxi. Between the air-conditioned building and the air-conditioned car the temperature seemed that of a moderate oven, set for the slow cooking of a casserole. The driver took them across the city to the excavation where archaeologists had found the bodies of the Marquise, her husband and her son, clay figures of servants, provisions, artefacts to accompany them on their journey beyond the grave. The other bodies had been skeletons, their clothing fallen to dust. Only the Marquise, hideous, grotesque, staring from sightless empty eyes, had retained the waxen lineaments of line, wrapped in her painted gown, her twenty layers of silk robes.
Wexford and Mr Sung looked through the wooden grille at the great deep rectangular burial shaft and Mr Sung quoted almost verbatim a considerable chunk from Fodor’s Guide to the People’s Republic of China. He had a retentive memory and seemed to believe that Wexford, because he couldn’t decipher ideographs, was unable to read his own language. It was even Wexford’s Fodor’s he was quoting from, artlessly borrowed the night before. Wexford didn’t listen. He would have given a good deal to have been rid of baby-faced pink-cheeked slant-eyed Mr Sung. In any other country on earth a bribe equivalent to a month’s wages—and here that would easily have been within Wexford’s means—would have freed him for good of his guide-interpreter. Not in China, where even tipping was banned. Mr Sung was incorruptible. In spite of his youth, he was already a party member. A fanatical light came into his eyes and his flabby muscles tautened when he spoke of the great statesmen, Mao Tse Tung included, his own native place of Hunan Province had produced. Wexford sometimes wondered if the day would come, twenty years hence perhaps, when if he still lived he would open his Times and read that the new Chairman of the Chinese Communist Party was one Sung Lao Zhong, aged forty-seven, from Chang-sha. It was more than possible. Mr Sung came to the end of his memorized paragraph, sighed at the call of duty but refused to shirk it.
“Light,’ he said. ‘Shall we go? We visit now porcelain factory and before evening meal teacher training college.’
‘No, we don’t,’ said Wexford. A mosquito bit him just above the ankle bone. The heat was enormous. Like the imagined casserole, he was slowly cooking, a gravy-like viscous sweat trickling stickily all over his body. It was the humidity as much as the ninety-eight degree temperature that did it. ‘No, we don’t. We go to the hotel and have a shower and a siesta.’
‘There will be no other time for porcelain factory.’
‘I can’t help that.’
‘It is most necessary to see college attended by Chairman Mao.’
‘Not today,’ said Wexford. The ice-cold atmosphere in the car stimulated a gush rather than a trickle of sweat. He mopped his face.
“Velly well. I hope you not leglet,’ said Mr Sung, indignation, as any emotion did, causing acute confusion in the pronunciation of liquids. ‘I aflaid you be solly.’ His voice was vaguely threatening. Much more rebellion on the part of this obstinate visitor, Wexford thought, and Mr Sung might even insist that no such omissions were open to him. If Lu Xing She, the Chinese Tourist Board, whose vicar on earth, so to speak, Mr Sung was, required Wexford to see factories, kindergartens, colleges and oil refineries, these institutions he would see and no doubt about it.
Mr Sung turned away and looked out of the window. His face seldom expressed anything but a ruthless affability. The top of his head came approximately to Wexford’s shoulder, though for a Southern Chinese he wasn’t particularly short. He wore a cotton shirt, white as driven snow, a pair of olive green baggy cotton trousers and sandals of chestnut brown moulded plastic. His father, he had told Wexford, was a party cadre, his mother a doctor, his sister and own wife doctors. They all lived together in a two-roomed apartment in one of the city’s grey barrack-like blocks with Mr Sung’s baby son, Tsu Ken.
Hooting at pedestrians, at cyclists who carried on their bikes anything from a couple of live fat piglets and a chicken to a suite of furniture, the car made its way through drab streets to the Xiangjiang Hotel. There were very few buildings in Chang-sha that pre-dated the Revolution of 1949, only the Kuomintang general’s house with green curly roofs just by the hotel and a ruined European church of grey stucco whose provenance no one seemed to know anything of. Mr Sung got out of the car and came into the lobby with him. There he shook hands. Any more casual mode of behaviour wouldn’t have satisfied his sense of duty. It was all Wexford could do to prevent his accompanying him to the eighth floor in the lift. He would be ready, please, by seven, said Mr Sung, for an open-air showing of a film about the history of the Revolution.
“Oh, no, thank you,’ said Wexford. ‘Too many mosquitos.’
‘You take anti-malaria pill evly Fliday, I hope?’
‘I still don’t like being bitten.’ Wexford’s ankle bone felt twice its normal size. ‘Mysteriously enough—’ he caught sight in a rare mirror of his sweat-washed, sunburnt, never even adequately handsome face, “—I am particularly attractive to anopheles but the passion isn’t mutual.’ Mr Sung looked at him with uncomprehending relentless amiability. ‘And I won’t sit in the open inviting them to vampirize me.”
“I see. Light. You come to cinema in hotel and see Shanghai Girl and Charlie Chaplin in Great Dictator. Shanghai Girl very good Chinese film about construction workers. I sit next so you don’t miss storly.’
‘Wouldn’t you rather be at home with your wife and your baby?’
Mr Sung gave an enigmatic smile. He shook Wexford’s hand once more. ‘I do my job, light?”
Wexford lay on his iron-hard bed on a thin quilt. The undersheet, for some quaint reason, was a blue and white checked tablecloth. Cold air blew unevenly over him from the Japanese air conditioner, while outside the window the general’s house and the brown pantiled roofs of Chang-sha lay baking in moist sizzling heat. He had made himself, with water from the thermos flask that was one of the amenities of his room, half a pint of green tea in a cherry-blossom-painted cup with a lid. They made you eat dinner here at six (breakfast at seven; lunch, appallingly, at eleven-thirty) but there was still an hour and a half to go. He couldn’t stomach the lemonade and strawberry pop and Cassia fizz you were expected to pour hourly into yourself to combat dehydration. He drank green tea all the time, making it himself and making it strong, or else he bought it from the street stalls for a single fen, something like a third of a penny, a glass.
Presently, after a second cup of tea, he dozed, but then it was time to shower and put on a fresh shirt for dinner. He would write to his wife later, there wasn’t time now. Hong Kong, where she was staying, waiting for him, seemed infinitely far away. He went down to the dining room where he would eat at a table by himself with his own private fan, discreetly half-concealed from the only other foreign contingent, Italians sitting at the next broad round table by a bamboo screen. He sat down and asked the girl for a bottle of beer.
The Italians came in and said hallo to him. The girl turned their fan on, tucked their screen round them and began bringing Wexford’s platters. Chicken and bamboo shoots in ginger sauce tonight, peanuts fried in oil, bright green nearly raw spinach, fried pumpkin and fried fish. Setting off with his nephew Howard and those other police officers who all ranked so much higher than he, he had brought a spoon and fork in his suitcase because he was afraid the Peking Hotel might not have Western cutlery. How green he had been, as green as the tea! The Peking Hotel was like an austere Ritz with arctic air-conditioning and a huge shopping arcade and curtains that drew and undrew electrically. But somehow none of them had ever bothered with the silver that was offered them but had eaten from the first as the Chinese eat, and now he was as proficient with chopsticks as might have been any dignitary in the Forbidden City. He could even, he now discovered, pick up a slippery oil-coated peanut with chopsticks, so skilful had he become. The girl brought him a bowl of rice and the big green bottle of Tsing-tao beer.
A feeling of tremendous well-being invaded him as he began to eat. He could still hardly believe after two weeks in China that he, Reg Wexford, a country policeman, was here in Tartary, in Cathay, had walked on the Great Wall, set foot on the Stone Boat in the Summer Palace, touched the scarlet columns in the Temple of Heaven, and was now touring southwards, seeing as many marvels and experiencing as many delights as Lu Xing She would permit.
Copyright © 2012 by Ruth Rendell. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.