Sarah Bower's royal wedding


The Princess Speaks Mandarin

The first time Fei Yen hears the princess’ voice is a mid-morning in January. Strip lights blaze above the work benches, and she wishes she could hold her hands up to their heat; even in the white cotton gloves, they are frozen. Mr Li has just done his rounds, pausing, as usual, at Fei Yen’s work station. She didn’t look up, it isn’t permitted in case the work slows down, but she could feel him, as if the air was suddenly pressing more heavily on her back, and smell the aniseed on his breath.

Aniseed means he will want her to go to his office in the meal break. The anticipation shrivels her belly, which is just as well because she hadn’t been able to eat any breakfast before coming to work. She dreads her encounters with Mr. Li now, even though his breath smells of aniseed and he has clean fingernails. Secrets have come between them.

‘So don’t go,’ says the princess, in perfect mandarin.

Fei Yen starts and, without lifting her head, flicks a rapid glance at the women seated opposite and to either side of her. This part of the factory, where the women apply photographic transfers to the centres of plates whose borders are already decorated with hearts and ribbons and gilded crowns, is quiet. Surely the others must have heard the princess’ voice. But only Mei gives her a brief, tight smile. No-one else even looks up.
Fei Yen isn’t popular; perhaps she’s hearing voices because so few people speak to her. They pretend not to understand her accent, and say she smells of dried fish because that’s all they eat where she comes from. She’s given up trying to tell them her husband’s a farmer, and that they eat mostly cabbage and turnips at home. She’s realised that, for her work colleagues, the city is all they know. Countryside is just what is suggested to them by the comedy shows they devour on TV, a place where people have slow wits and thick accents, and live on dried fish. Some of this is true.

‘Don’t go,’ repeats the princess. ‘Why are you ignoring me?’

It must, Fei Yen supposes, be very bad manners to ignore a princess. When the chairman of the company brought his wife to see the work being done to fulfill the important order from the Queen of England, the production line was stopped long enough for the women to rise from their work stations and bow to the chairman and his wife. Neither of them has their image on a plate.

‘I’m sorry,’ Fei Yen whispers.

‘Talking to yourself now, are you, country girl?’ mocks Lin. Fei Yen feels her cheeks begin to burn and imagines picking up two of the cool white plates from the conveyor and pressing them to her hot skin. It’s getting worse; now she’s imagining herself cheek to cheek with the princess.

‘It’s OK,’ says the princess. ‘I’m getting used to people not hearing what I say.’
Fei Yen finds this hard to believe; the princess gazes out from her photograph with such confidence. She has round, blue eyes and good teeth; any words that line up to be spoken behind those teeth must surely be worth hearing.

Anyway, says Fei Yen, though she doesn’t speak aloud this time, I can’t not go. He’d sack me.

‘You could find another job. I bet the city’s full to bursting of factories making plates with my face on. And his of course.’

Fei Yen looks at the other face she is smoothing on to the plate with her white gloved hands. He is handsome, she tells the princess.

‘You don’t mean that.’

Fei Yen is shocked. Surely everything you say to a princess becomes true, merely by virtue of being said.
  
‘No-one else can hear us,’ says the princess. Fei Yen fancies she has raised her eyebrows a little, as if she has asked a question and awaits a reply.
  
He is…

‘To you he looks like roast pork. He is too large and too pink.’
   
Fei Yen passes the flat of her hand across the princess’ face and wishes she would shut up. She is drawing Fei Yen into an impossible situation. As the plate wobbles away along the conveyor, and she peels a new transfer off the sheet at her elbow, ready for the next plate, she says,
   
You are putting words in my mouth. That is your prerogative, but I wish you wouldn’t.
   
‘Aha!’ says the princess, ‘Got you! That’s what you need to say to Mr. Li. If you dare say it to me, you dare say it to him.’
   
It’s not that simple. I’m pregnant.
   
‘I know. And that it can’t be your husband’s.’
   
Fei Yen’s eyes fill with tears in response to the princess’ bare and brutal exposition of her circumstances. You don’t understand, she says.
   
‘You think? You still have choices. We all have choices, just not always the ones we expect to have. Life, Fei Yen. Life’s a bitch. It’s got me on a plate and you over a barrel.’

During the meal break, as Fei Yen makes her way as slowly as she can to Mr. Li’s office, she thinks about the princess’ words, and the more she thinks, the more choices seem to pop up before her. It is as if they had been planted in the soil of her life, like cabbages or turnips, and were now, suddenly, coming up as the earth turned towards the princess’ sun. She takes out and dusts off her memories of home, of her husband who has dirt beneath his fingernails and ingrained in his palms, and the spine of a man who spends his days stooped over the earth, and of her daughter whose eyes are bright as spring rain and who still smells like something new born. Her daughter in whom all her love and disappointment meet like streams coming together at the head waters of a river.
   
She will go home, and be a proper mother to her little girl, who does not need the money Fei Yen sends home so much as she needs someone to guide her through all the choices open to a woman nowadays, someone who has discussed these matters with a princess. Besides, she doubts whether the money gets further than her mother-in-law, who likes to drink Japanese whisky and gamble on pigeon races. As for this new baby Fei Yen is carrying, she will go to the hospital this afternoon, as soon as she finishes work. She may need one day off, but Mr. Li won’t sack her for that, and if he tries, she’ll make it very clear to him that her discretion depends on his not doing so.
   
‘At a girl,’ says the princess, though her voice is weak now, as Fei Yen climbs the steel steps to Mr. Li’s glass box suspended above the factory floor. She is aware of faces turned towards her, of eyes and mouths and noses emerging disembodied from the shadows of the steps. She knows the other women are jealous of the favour shown her by Mr. Li, but that doesn’t make her feel any less of a traitor. She is sick with nerves and also with lust as her tender nipples rub against her blouse. How can she return to her husband, to his foul breath in her face and her mother-in-law’s ear to the curtain behind which they make love? Mr. Li owns a car. Sometimes he makes love to her on its back seat, and the memory of his clean, wise hands on her body is all mixed up with the smell of petrol and turtle wax polish.

She closes the office door behind her but remains leaning against it, reluctant to move away from the threshold where all possibilities remain open. Mr. Li steps out from behind his desk and begins to close the blinds; his skin seems to glow in the light of his desk lamp, as if fired and glazed like the porcelain whose manufacture he supervises. Fei Yen wonders what he used to do before he became manager of this production line. She will ask him, she thinks, but there are other words that need to be spoken first.

‘Come in, come in,’ says Mr. Li, beckoning impatiently with his hand.

Fei Yen takes a step forward. She opens her mouth. She thinks of the princess’ frank blue eyes and her bold smile. ‘Mr. Li, I am pregnant,’ she says, all in a rush, and squeezes her eyes shut like a child who does not know if her outstretched hand will be strapped or filled with candy. Silence. Then Mr. Li lets out a whoop, as if he is in an American cowboy film. Fei Yen opens her eyes, to see if this is the belt or the candy.

Mr. Li’s face is split in a grin, his eyes twinkle like coal chips above his smooth cheeks. He claps his hands once, then clasps them together as if they are birds about to fly away. He says not a word but begins to jump up and down with excitement so Fei Yen is afraid the glass box will begin to sway and come tumbling down on to the factory floor.

Mr. Li swoops on the visitor’s chair and pulls it away from his desk. ‘Sit, sit,’ he urges Fei Yen. ‘This is such news, such news. My wife and I have no children, no son. You will give me a son, Fei Yen. You will stop work immediately and concentrate on the baby. You must have a comfortable place to stay, plenty of good food. I will arrange everything. I will take good care of you.’

Fei Yen sits in silence. Her heart is too full for speech. The glass box seems to be transformed into a giant Yuan Xiao lantern in which she is floating towards a golden future of ease and luxury. Mr. Li continues to talk, emphasising his words with wide, fluttering hand gestures, but Fei Yen isn’t really listening. Then the klaxon marks the end of the break and it is as though the lantern has been snuffed out and fallen to earth.

‘I will speak to my wife tonight,’ Mr. Li is saying. ‘She will be thrilled. She will prepare you a room, you can move in tomorrow. And of course you will want for nothing afterwards, we will see to it. We are honourable people.’

‘Afterwards,’ Fei Yen repeats, rising from the chair and pulling on her white cotton gloves. ‘I must go back to work now, Mr. Li.’

‘Of course, of course. But today is your last day, Fei Yen. I will send word to the guest workers’ dormitory tonight. Better still I will come myself, in the car, to collect you.’

‘What are you doing?’ demands the princess. Her voice is a well-bred hiss, the voice, thinks Fei Yen, of an angry swan.

Leaving, she replies.

‘You can’t,’ hisses the princess, as a plate rocks by on the conveyor, its centre as pristine white as the moment it came out of the kiln. ‘Mr. Li made a fair offer. If the baby’s a boy he’ll take it off your hands and you’ll have enough money to buy a house separate from your mother-in-law.’

Fei Yen picks up her bag and slings it over her shoulder. ‘I need the bathroom,’ she says to Mei, who sucks in air sharply between her teeth but says nothing in return. And if it’s a girl? she asks the princess.

The blue eyes of the princess follow Fei Yen across the workshop. She can feel them, endlessly reproduced, like a thousand matches applied to her back. She is incandescent. Mr. Li will see her from his glass box, he will know her intentions and dismiss her. She will find herself back in her mother-in-law’s house with nothing to show for her months at the factory but Mr. Li’s child in her belly. Once her husband finds out about that, even her daughter will be taken from her.

She falters, seeing her daughter in her mind’s eye, carrying water, her feet bare and calloused like an old woman’s, her bony ankles coated in dust. Choices. You still have choices, the princess had said, just not the ones you expect. Fei Yen squares her shoulders and walks on, and the princess’ eyes feel, now, like a cloak of invisibility. Their blue blaze will dazzle Mr. Li.

A window above the wash basin gives on to the street. It is high and small and, reflects Fei Yen as she hauls herself up on to the lip of the basin, another couple of weeks and her waist would be too thick for her to fit through it. Thanks, she says to the princess, though she isn’t sure the princess can hear her from the bathroom. She drops down heavily into the narrow lane which runs between their factory and the one next door, and turns her ankle. She manages a hobbling run, however, until the lane ends in a street thronged with workers changing shift, and she can adapt herself to their pace, go with their flow, one among thousands. No-one looks at her, no-one sees the image of the princess transferred to her heart or the child turning somersaults in her belly.

There is a television in the guesthouse, for the visitors from Europe and America. Usually they eschew it, with lofty remarks about being at one with the mountains and ‘finding themselves’. Old, fat, rich people so solid in the world Fei Yen wonders how they ever managed to lose themselves. But today they are all crowded around, sitting, standing, balanced on the arms of chairs, straining the walls with their solidity, all peering at the grainy picture and talking over the tinny sound. The women coo like doves, the men burst out in sudden shouts of laughter and drink beer from cans. Fei Yen shifts the weight of the baby on her back and leans against the door, her tray of cleaning things wedged between her feet. She pushes a strand of hair out of her eyes with the back of her hand.
   

And there, suddenly, is the princess, smiling and waving from an open coach. Beside her the prince who reminds Fei Yen of roast pork does likewise. Sunlight glitters off the accoutrements of horses and soldiers, and the princess’ jewelled wedding veil, like notes played on the guzheng. The cooing and laughter of the guests fades as the princess looks right into Fei Yen’s eyes. Perhaps it is the poor quality of the picture, or her distance from the small screen, but Fei Yen fancies she sees a shadow behind the princess’ eyes, like when the sky over the mountains is clear blue, but you can feel snow coming. She waits for the princess to speak; she owes her that much.
   
But the princess looks away, to wave at the crowds on the other side of her coach, and Fei Yen feels the baby begin to stir against her back. Not wanting to disturb the guests, she goes outside. She stands on the roof of the world and surveys its intricate array of peaks and ridges silhouetted against a sky which, this moment, is without threat or promise but pale and cloudless and snapping with prayer flags. She will grow old here, she thinks, in the margin between earth and sky where everything remains possible, and one day, when he has laid out her body for the birds, her son will take the money she has saved and go to find his sister.

*Sarah Bower is a novelist and short story writer. Her first novel, The Needle in the Blood, was Susan Hill’s Book of the Year 2007.

Artwork by Helen Ivory

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