The Gecko’s Tale
‘Jesus Christ,’ says Jerry, ‘the little bastard bit me.’
Eli doesn’t look up straight away but keeps his eyes on the workbench. His neck is hunched into his narrow shoulders and his complexion is more than usually grey. ‘I’d watch my mouth if I were you. The boss don’t care for that kind of language. Outed someone two days ago. Heard it down the canteen.’
Jerry is using his long, bony thumb to squeeze the fleshy pad of his finger. His angular features convey a mixture of indignation and pain.
‘Look,’ he says, ‘it’s bleeding. It didn’t oughta be allowed.’ He inserts his finger into his mouth and sucks on the wound.
‘We oughtta have gloves,’ he says. ‘They should issue us with gloves. Anyways, why are we doing this? What’s the point of it all? Forty eight hours and they’ll all be dead and stinking to high heaven.’
It occurs to Eli that that Jerry might well have a point. Eli has worked at the depot for a much longer time than Jerry and, in the course of his experience he has had to deal with some very strange job sheets. Once it was two truckloads of turtle doves, another time three thousand white mice. There had been trouble over that one, a lot of bad feeling. Three thousand mice, whatever their colour, don’t amount to no rose garden. Some of the guys got all worked up and took it into their heads to complain.
‘I ever tell you about the walk-out?’ says Eli, ‘There was this really big guy. Name of Luke.’
Jerry looks blank and shakes his head so Eli goes ahead and tells him. He tells how the boss is under pressure that day and in no mood to listen and how, eventually, voices are raised and the all guys walk out. For a while, it feels good, like back in the old days, before they changed the regulations. But then next morning the boss comes around wearing this big, sticky smile. The boss takes Big Luke and a couple of others upstairs to the office and when they come back they’re all buddy-buddy and grinning fit to bust. Then the boss says he’s glad they’ve cleared the air and how he’s sorry for the misunderstanding. He raises the daily rate and everybody smiles.
‘So?’ says Jerry. ‘What’s your point? What’s this got to do with me?’
Eli sucks in his cheeks and purses his lips.‘Well,’ he says, ‘when the boss has gone, the guys make a fuss of Big Luke. They slap him on the back and make thumbs up and pump away at his hand. And, when Luke says it ain’t nothing at all, they say he is just being modest. Luke makes like he don’t want to hear it but, all the same, he’s pretty damned pleased.’
Eli narrows his eyes and fixes them on Jerry. He wants to be completely sure that his audience is paying attention.
‘Thing is,’ says Eli, ‘about eight months later Big Luke goes missing from the depot. Word goes round that he’s put in for a transfer and maybe he did. Fact is, though, no one knows for sure. No one knows nothing. There ain’t no one I know of, not man or woman, ever saw Big Luke again.’
Eli sees that the point of his story has not been lost on Jerry who returns to the conveyor belt but no longer has his mind on his work. For two or three minutes, he sifts through the lizards, sorting them for size and colour. Some of them are dead already, others are plainly too big. Finally, he turns to face Eli with the air of a man who wants answers. A thirteen inch gecko hangs limply from his fingers. He holds it by the tip of its tail.
‘So you are saying’ he says, ‘that I shouldn’t complain.’ He makes the gecko swing about a little and seems to be studying it real close. ‘In short, you’re telling me to hush my mouth lessin’ I get what’s coming and end up like this little fella with no bark or bite.’
Eli shrugs his shoulders and turns back to the belt.‘I ain’t telling you nothing,’ he says. ‘Plain truth is, I ain’t rightly talking at all. What I is doing is minding my business and working my way through this job sheet. Maybe it’s about time you was doing the same.’
Jerry looks at Eli quizzical like and then they turn back to the belt. Lizards of all species, all colours and all sizes, are still trundling by. On the platform that stands to Eli’s left there is a growing pile of corpses. Funny thing is, it just so happens nearly all of them are geckos.
About two hours later the lizards are done. Eli is finishing the paper work and Jerry is sluicing down the belt. It has been a hard day but Eli is happy that the job didn’t drag on till morning. He likes it best when he can come in early knowing they are up to date.
‘When you’ve finished that,’ Eli says to Jerry, ‘don’t forget to spray. That stink will be ten times worse once the place has been shut up for the night.’
‘Ok, ok, I know,’ says Jerry and you can tell he’s kind of touchy but he goes off to get the spray and his boots make muddy marks on the floor. Anyway, Jerry comes back and you can see he isn’t happy. He has the freshener spray in one hand and his mop in the other. He is fairly stomping along.
‘Shoot,’ he says as he is retracing his steps, ‘wouldn’t you damn well know it? Hey, you know, I just bumped in to one the guys from upstairs. You ain’t gonna believe what he told me.’
Jerry is in the act of pitching the air freshener canister to Eli when the double doors open and in walks the boss. He has on this very sorrowful look like he has just heard someone’s died and Jerry watches with horror as the canister strikes the floor. Everybody else kind of freezes on the spot but the boss just raises his eyebrows and makes with this great big cheesy smile as if to say that everything’s ok. Then the smile is kind of wiped away and the sorrowful look clicks back into place. The effect, Jerry thinks, is as if one clown mask is being worn over another.
‘Eli,’ says the boss, ‘I am glad I have caught you. I’ve been mulling things over. I think we may be wrong about the lizards. It’s too much like the frogs. Fact is, I’m pulling the plug on this one. We need to start afresh.’
Eli is taken aback. His mouth sags a little. On the other hand, he is a wily old fox and too long in the tooth to let on.
‘Yes, Sir’ he says, ‘I’ll pick up the job sheet first thing in the morning.’
‘No,’ says the boss, ‘you misunderstand me. I need this attended to now.’
Eli and Jerry exchange looks but the boss doesn’t see this. He is too busy checking on the figures that he keeps in his little leather book. He doesn’t see Eli raise his hand in warning or Jerry’s eyes narrow. He doesn’t feel the tension between one man and the next that tightens like a net across the room.
The boss closes his notebook and puts it in his breast pocket. He pats the pocket as if to satisfy himself that everything is in order. ‘Two thousand ought to be enough,’ he says. ‘Shall we say not later than seven?’
He doesn’t wait for an answer but is already half way out the door. But then he pauses and stands in the doorway, his head cocked to one side. He looks like a man who has just forgotten the very thing he came there to say.
’By the way, Jerry, it almost slipped my mind. I wonder if you can give me a minute. There’s something I’d like to discuss with you — in the office upstairs.’
Jerry looks at Eli and Eli looks at the boss. Then he shrugs his shoulders, a movement so small you can hardly see it at all. As the door closes behind Jerry, Eli is starting up the conveyor belt.
‘Mice,’ he says. ‘Friggin’ mice.
The Long March Home
(Chiang Ching speaks)
Even for me, the heat is oppressive. It must be more than eighty degrees and the air is humid and still. I lie here silenced, hearing the silence, listening for the footfall of the nurses. I am carried along by the ebb and flow of an ocean of delirium and pain. In the wake of each wave I struggle for breath and my poor throat swells and then closes. Between my empty, shrivelled breasts, sweat collects in a pool.
Here in China the women are like flowers, slender and delicately made. We have small breasts, not ripe and round like the ones so much admired in the West. My own breasts were pale and tipped with fire like the unfolding petals of the lotus. My lover made my nipples sing and my heart beat like the wings of a bird.
This was in the time of Li Yunhe when I thought to find my freedom in the heavens. I was deceived in that. I was a fledgling thing but my aspirations soared. I looked for the safety I had never had and sold myself lightly for a songbird. Instead, it was a poor dumb thing that fell sullen and silent in its cage. So much has happened that has brought me here to the end of all my flying. Still, I have slipped through their bars at last and I will not let them cage me again.
In the meantime, the pain threatens. It gathers power like a wave on the horizon. I must prepare myself as I did in childbirth to straddle its glittering peak. As much as death, life is pain: everything is sorrow and anguish. Each one of us, woman or man, comes at last to the long march home.
Now I am waking to my other life and the face I peeled away when it suited. My lips are full, rouged and pouting, my eyes sultry and large. My high, arched brows are pencilled in; my skin is pink and translucent. This is the face that my lover loved and my second husband despised. He could not bear that he could not buy what he knew I gave so freely. It ate away at his narrow heart and drove him to madness and despair. There have been those who have blamed and reviled me for it but my face was always my fortune. Now the pain melts away and, as the fog clears, that pale, pretty, delicate mask hangs before me again.
Lan Ping, Blue Apple. I make no excuses. I grew up where life hurt and my business was only to survive. It was my lover who tore the scales from my eyes and gave me to my greater purpose. He set me on my proper path when I signed the party oath at his side. I did not know then what part I would play; I was full of fire and fervour. When I gave my heart to the revolution, I left Lan Ping behind.
It is evening now and the corridors are still. I can hear the hushed exchanges of the nurses. My throat is closing and my mouth is so dry that if I could sleep again I would. But a body dying by slow degrees is apt to lose its instinct for obedience so I stare instead into the shifting dark where his broad, flat face watches over me, floating and disembodied in the air above my bed.
Its features are outlined in violet light, a ghastly, shimmering spectre. His eyes seem to challenge me, all accusation and reproach. I am too weak to shake my head but I wonder how he dares to reproach me. I only did what he did himself. Did he think that a woman could not be cruel, would falter and lack the strength? In the old days, he sometimes made that mistake, overlooking the trials of my girlhood. Though I lived for so long in the shadow of his greatness, I was not without ambition of my own.
After his lust for my body subsided, it is true that our quarrels grew spiteful. It is also true that we made a good team, both apart and side by side. He was a great man. I saw his greatness. That was the reason I chose him. Our love affair was no happy chance. It was all by my design.
First, I flattered him. I went to his lectures and sat in the very first row. I gazed at him with tender eyes; I nodded; I smiled. Then, at the end, I would clap and clap till my palms were red and tingling. When I knew his eyes were on me, I would turn my face away. In the next stage, I would visit his cave, carrying with me some paper or some question. After I had prepared his meal, I would sit like a dog at his feet. ‘I do not understand,’ I told him and he would stroke my hair and instruct me. I would not say I did not care for him at all but I felt most the passion of my power.
What does he think, I wonder, when he comes to me now and finds me so shrivelled and so wasted? Does he remember the curve of my thigh? Does he guess at the contents of my heart?
There are those who have said I was cruel and vindictive, that I looked for a personal revenge. But if I did – and I don’t say that I did – who was it who taught me?
‘The more people you kill,’ he said once, ‘the more revolutionary you are.’ Another time, ‘All bad persons are bad; if they are beaten to death, it doesn’t matter.’ These are political lessons I learned at his knee. I persecuted my enemies, I made them suffer. I killed them when I had a mind to. But he, he killed thousands – he tortured them and killed them – while others found release in suicide. It’s a viable solution. There is always the long march home.
Now the plotting and the killing and the key-note speeches have drifted into distant memory. Always, it was all about death and death will always be there. We distracted ourselves with our high-sounding phrases and the glory of our ‘Cultural Revolution’. ‘To read too many books is harmful’ our painted posters proclaimed.
But now it seems to me that we somehow missed the point. Our ancestors knew it. Their literature, their ‘pernicious’ art, gave death its proper place. Our glory, as much as our cruelty, is a thin and pitiful clamouring. Always, it comes down in the end to the long and weary march home.
It is chilly here and the light is too bright. I can hear the nurses talking. Here is the rope that will take me back to the feet of my beloved Chairman Mao.
Abigail Elizabeth Ottley (formerly Wyatt) writes poetry – and some short fiction – from her home in Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009, her work has appeared in more than 150 journals, magazines and anthologies including The Blue Nib, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Atrium Poetry and Words With Jam. She was also one of the poets featured in Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall (2014) edited by Dr Alan M Kent and published by Francis Boutle. In 2019, 12 of her poems were translated into Romanian for Pro Saeculum and Banchetul. For this, much gratitude to translator and bilingual poet, Mariana Gardner. In the same year, Abigail’s poem ‘Bull Male, Sleeping’ was chosen for ‘Poems on the Move’ at the Guernsey Literary Festival. (formerly Wyatt) writes poetry – and some short fiction – from her home in Penzance in Cornwall. Since 2009, her work has appeared in more than 150 journals, magazines and anthologies including The Blue Nib, Ink, Sweat & Tears, Atrium Poetry and Words With Jam. She was also one of the poets featured in Wave Hub: new poetry from Cornwall (2014) edited by Dr Alan M Kent and published by Francis Boutle. In 2019, 12 of her poems were translated into Romanian for Pro Saeculum and Banchetul. For this, much gratitude to translator and bilingual poet, Mariana Gardner. In the same year, Abigail’s poem ‘Bull Male, Sleeping’ was chosen for ‘Poems on the Move’ at the Guernsey Literary Festival.