Private Eyes

Translated by: 
Anna Holmwood

After I left my teaching job I faded out of my marriage, which really existed in name only, and sold the flat in Xindian. I distanced myself from the theatre circle where I’d made a sort of name for myself and began refusing invitations to drink and play mahjong with the lecherous pigs I had come to call my friends. Once packed, my meagre belongings were barely enough to fill a small van, and so I passed through the gloomy Xinhai tunnel to set up shop as a private investigator in Wulong Street, a godforsaken place of unmarked graves that not even the birds would deign to shit on.

I hung out a sign and had some business cards printed, one side embossed with my name in Chinese and the other with ‘Wu Chen, Private Investigator’ in English. The more I played with them the prouder I felt, and before long I’d used up two boxes, not because there was a stream of people requesting them or because I was on the streets handing them out to motorists stopped at traffic lights, but because I’d shuffle them like cards while waiting for clients, or flick them like martial-arts weapons across the room. Otherwise, they were mostly used as toothpicks.

I had let the idea of becoming a private investigator brew for six months before acting on it, much like a prisoner planning his escape. I was waiting for the right moment to tell my friends and family. As expected, the objections came swarming at me like hornets whose nest I had disturbed. I tried to swat them away in vain.

But I deserved it and, anyway, I was used to mass condemnation.

The moon hung high and bright, and there I stood, alone in the wilderness, my flowing white robe fluttering in the wind as those philistines crouched in the bushes, clutching their swords. When the moment arrived their blades pierced my heart and there they left me, lying in a pool of my own blood. I’d had no weapon to defend myself, only a puny torch.

OK, that was an exaggeration. I’ve spent years in the theatre so I’ll admit to having a penchant for creating movies in my head, ones with chillingly bloody scenes that take place in majestic landscapes and follow the trials of a bumbling young hero.

This time, however, I was determined to play the hero and play him well: a lonely, cracked boat on a vast ocean letting in more water than it can hold back.

For the most part life is completely mediocre. Scream and howl at tempests, or choose to retire quietly from the public eye? I’d chosen the latter. Never again would I let myself be suffocated and squeezed so that the blood no longer pumped in my chest. Never again would I wait, so full of expectation, only to end up empty-handed, or seesaw back and forth in indecision. I was saying goodbye to the old me, the sissy; I was throwing off the shackles and cutting myself free from the world to live life as I wanted to live it.

Drop out? Quit the complex entanglements of life? Was I crazy?

My ageing mother was the last to find out and she took it the worst. ‘You can’t resign! You can’t take early retirement! Don’t be so reckless!’

I mumbled my explanations while she, in response, shouted until her throat hurt, all the while beating at her chest. My mother’s performances were first rate; my talent for theatrics must have been passed down in the womb. Then the tears arrived. She threatened to drag me to the university president’s office and plead for him to take me back. She would have kneeled at his feet if she’d had to!

‘There’s no point,’ I told her. The head of the faculty, the dean of the college and even the president of the university himself had all received my letter of resignation with trembling hands as if it were a gift bestowed from heaven. All three levels of bureaucracy had accepted it, and made the necessary arrangements before the day was through. Never in all my ten years of teaching had I witnessed such a stunning act of bureaucratic efficiency. True, they did make a few lacklustre attempts at persuading me to stay, but they practically formed a guard of honour to escort me off the premises to the accompaniment of fireworks and drums. Of course, I’m exaggerating. I realize that I may not be the easiest guy to get along with but I’m not so awful that people would be popping champagne corks at my heels as I left. How the three of them regarded my impromptu departure I never did find out, but I was embellishing the moment in order to kill off any last remains of hope my mother might be harbouring.

It worked. Her crooked body crumbled and she steadied herself against the door frame, her gaze darting between her much admired imported Italian floor tiles and Father’s portrait hanging in the living room. She looked suddenly much older, but I turned and left before she could start up again. As I went, I threw one last remark behind me: ‘I’ll keep sending the monthly payments.’


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