Satire from the lazy susan – new fiction by Arthur Meursault
AN EXCERPT FROM THE NOVEL PARTY MEMBERS
Between Little Qi’s gloating at work and their current taxi ride, it had been a woeful day. Yet again, Party official Yang Wei had experienced misfortune on public transport during his journey home when a particularly sharp-elbowed grandmother had succeeded in pushing him off the crowded bus just before the doors closed, forcing him to wait another thirty minutes in the rain. While standing by the bus stop an entrepreneurial shoe-shiner had thrown mud on his shoes in an attempt to drum up some impromptu business. The crowd of fellow commuters had laughed at him as he tried to clean his soiled shoes in a puddle of dirty water, and when he returned home he discovered that the shoe-shiner had spat on the back of his jacket for failing to take up his kind offer of a twenty-yuan shoeshine. Yang Wei was dreading dinner.
Though the weekend had not yet arrived, the Five Harmonies Delicious Gourmet Seafood Restaurant was bursting with customers. Seafood restaurants were popular in Huaishi. In the evenings, the main roads of the city were lined with desperate young men in cheap tuxedos trying to drag patrons into their deserted establishments. The Five Harmonies Delicious Gourmet Seafood Restaurant succeeded in business better than most of its competitors because it had a reputation for not cutting corners. Everybody knew the owner had a passion for quality and was a man who refused to buy cheap recycled cooking oil collected from the gutters of backstreet eateries; instead he increased his profits by selling his own recycled gutter oil to the kitchens of other restaurants. People respected that.
Stepping into the restaurant, Yang Wei and his wife looked around for Little Qi. At the cashier counter, half a dozen fat, red-faced men full of drink engaged in mock argument over who would be allowed to foot the bill, while dead-eyed young women recently lured away from the countryside stood shivering in their revealing qipaos, holding the doors open for the never-moving customers. The windows were still adorned with paper decorations of cartoon animals from the previous Spring Festival. Between the animals and gaudy slogans in red, the customers within could be seen eating, drinking, toasting each other, and engaging in the important social rituals of reciprocal boasting and grovelling. Here was a middle-aged couple with their morbidly obese son offering false compliments and seafood bribes to an equally overweight headmaster: rictuses of desperation and sycophancy stretched across their faces while their progeny bashed away on his iPad. Next to them was a young couple on a parent-arranged date: the weak-chinned suitor playing nervously with his chopsticks, his date contemptuously texting her married lover. A thuggish man sat alone at the rear, pretending to eat his food but in reality closely observing a group of businessmen on the table next to him. All forms of life in its infinite beauty were to be found here.
An attractive waitress led them around the tables, through the piles of discarded bones and lobster shells lying on the floor, and into a relatively secluded side room. It wasn’t completely closed off, so the noise and action of the main dining area was still present to maintain the atmosphere, but a decorated wooden screen afforded the area some privacy. Little Qi and his wife were already seated and rose when they saw their two guests arrive.
“Welcome, welcome!” Little Qi slapped his arm hard around Yang Wei’s shoulder. His wife — similar to Yang Wei’s in looks, build, and age but better dressed and with paler skin — flashed a short smile and nodded her head to the couple. Although Yang Wei had met Little Qi’s wife several times before, he could never remember the names of his friends’ partners, nor could he recall if his own wife had ever met Little Qi’s previously. Regardless, neither of the wives were introduced and both took their seats without an exchange of address. Yang Wei also sat down and steadied himself for an evening of insincerity.
“It’s really good to see both of you,” began Little Qi pleasantly. “Please, order whatever you like. You’re both my guests tonight!”
Again, Yang Wei shifted uncomfortably in his seat but maintained his lifeless smile. Well, if the little bastard was going to foot the bill, then he might as well enjoy the process and order the most expensive thing on the menu. His eyes scanned through the pages and locked automatically onto those items carrying the numerically and financially pleasing price tag of a number ending in 88 yuan. Lobster, crab, tuna … good, but not quite what he wanted. What he was really looking for was —.
“Waitress! Come over here now!”
Little Qi shouted to the waitress in a pitch approaching a scream. His hand waved fussily and contemptuously in the air, but his eyes remained focused on his guests – not even bothering to make eye contact with the timid farmer girl in the oversized qipao.
“We want the abalone – two each! None of that shit trash that you serve up normally. We want the best Australian abalone that you have. Do you understand?”
He glared at the girl. She could have been no older than twenty, and she hung her head so that her long fringe covered most of her face. A weak “yes, sir” emitted from beneath the dangling hair. Her feet made to leave, but before she could do so Little Qi had already grabbed her by the arm. Throughout the conversation, a single Little Panda cigarette had been burning away expertly between his lips until it was now no more than a stubby filter poking the air defiantly like a fat government official’s finger. With a quick shake of his head he let the cigarette stub fall out of his lips and land onto the floor beside him, where it extinguished in a small puddle of beer that had spilled earlier.
“We’ll be needing an ashtray for the table. You really should have brought one earlier.”
Suddenly, Yang Wei felt very small and self-conscious beneath his cheap jacket. Not only had Little Qi successfully undermined his effort of sabotage by preordering the abalone, but his handling of the waitress had also been masterful. Yang Wei had witnessed such astonishing social grace only during the few times he had dined with the Ministry Chief or the local Party Secretary at New Year banquets – never in one so young as Little Qi. There was not a single flicker of politeness or weakness to be seen. A warm smile of admiration was glowing from Little Qi’s wife, and if he had cared to turn around to his own wife, Yang Wei was quite sure that he would see one there too.
That’s how you should treat a waitress.
For a moment, Yang Wei thought that he heard Little Qi mention something, but his counterpart was still studying the menu as before.
Dishes were ordered, and dishes were served. The table soon began to creak beneath the weight of delicacies, soups, and dead animals. Enough food was ordered to feed a table of at least eight mid-ranking policemen, and it would be a sight greater than a thousand firecrackers simultaneously erupting when half of the food was untouched and thrown straight into the bin. No expense was spared on alcohol either. A bottle of maotai sat proudly next to a glass jug containing the finest and most expensive cabernet sauvignon from the menu, lovingly mixed with three cans of Sprite. Even the women were tasting the sparkling lemonade tang of the cabernet, though the maotai was left for the two men to engage in combative toasting. Cigarette stubs piled up in the duly-brought ashtray, although Yang Wei’s shiny but cheap red packet of Double Happiness cigarettes never once left his jacket pocket. As the fish turned to bones and the men’s faces reddened, conversation entered a more serious tone and moved away from the usual bland commentary on the food.
“Property prices are still going up,” observed Little Qi. “We were looking at a place last week in the Taigui District. I heard Director Liang bought a three-bedroom apartment there two years ago, and already the price has gone up sixty percent.” The opening shot of the battle was thus duly fired. Yang Wei steeled himself for the game of one-upmanship.
He leaned back nonchalantly. “Ah, you don’t need to tell me about property prices. We can’t open our mailbox without having to sift through dozens of notes asking if there are any available units in our area. They’re all offering cash too. I sometimes wonder if I should give one of them a call and see what they can offer.”
A pause. Little Qi’s wife looked at her husband expectantly.
“Fuck me, give them a call, Yang Wei! You’ll get a nice price for your place. Your parents chose well and just at the right time. I often think that if my parents hadn’t lived in such a cold place when we were younger they wouldn’t have had to fuck so much to keep warm and I never would have had that brother eating into my savings!”
Relieved, Little Qi’s wife playfully slapped her husband on the wrist.
He continued. “Seriously, why not sell? You’ll get a good price. If my parents hadn’t been forced to buy for both me and my brother, then I would have had a place just like yours – and I would think of selling. As it happens, we’re looking at buying a second place like yours to refurbish and sell later on. Why not let your good friend Little Qi take a look around your house and maybe we can both make some money?”
This was serious. Yang Wei hadn’t been as prepared as he had thought. He could see the mischievous smile on his opponent’s face, and he sensed the hard, loveless stare of his own wife burning into him. However, before he could stutter an appropriate reply, his wife’s phone conveniently interrupted the conversation. A high-pitched fake baby voice that repeated the phrase “Message coming! Quickly! Quickly!” exclaimed that the phone had received a text message. Luckily, his wife knew what to do.
“Aiya, sorry, sorry!” she smiled politely. “I bought this phone only last week and I haven’t figured out how to put it on silent yet.” Slowly and deliberately, she placed the phone on the table and with slightly exaggerated finger movements turned off the ringer.
“Is that the new iPhone?” asked Little Qi’s wife.
“Yes, it is. It’s only the black version though. It’s so ugly, but the white version won’t be available until next year.”
“I thought all the shops in town were sold out. I was told that there was a limited supply until after Spring Festival.”
“That’s right. But Yang Wei has a friend of his cousin who travels to America quite a lot, and he brought one back for me.”
“Are you sure it’s real? There’s a lot of fake ones on the market that look just like the real thing.”
“Oh, it’s definitely real. It came with a receipt from the main Apple store in California. I hope they’re not selling fakes!”
Silence hung over the table. Though the noise of the other diners could be heard loudly even in this semi-private enclave, there was still a distinctive chill that had suddenly dropped over the small party like the final round of an intense game of poker. If everything was to just stop here, thought Yang Wei, then he could go home with his face intact and work on further undermining a humiliated Little Qi at a later date. Unfortunately, he had underestimated his friend’s newfound confidence. Effortlessly, and with the air of a man who knew victory to be within his grasp, Little Qi turned to Yang Wei’s wife and smiled. It was the first time he had acknowledged her during the entire evening.
“Did you have to get the phone unlocked?” Simultaneously he eyed Yang Wei with narrowed eyes.
“Yes, it’s a foreign phone, so I had to unlock it. I had to find somebody at the electronics market who could do it for me.”
“So troublesome,” he continued. “Next time, you should call the computer guy who works in our office. He’ll unlock phones for anybody.” Little Qi turned to his wife. “Don’t you have Wenzhi’s number on your phone? Can you get it out for Yang Wei’s wife?”
Yang Wei sensed a trap and drew in his breath apprehensively. Both he and his wife had stiffened in their seats in dread anticipation of whatever secret weapon Little Qi was about to launch upon them. Even the attending waitresses seemed to lean forward with anticipation and looked surreptitiously at the table. In slow motion, Little Qi’s wife bent down and reached for the handbag that had lain out of view on the empty chair next to her. A hand was raised and appeared again above the table surface, then a brown strap, then the gleam of a golden buckle. Little Qi had played the game well, very well. Much better than Yang Wei could have achieved. Every single move since that afternoon had been moving towards this final flourish, every move had been calculated to remind Yang Wei that Little Qi was better than him. As the handbag finally appeared fully and was placed on the table, Yang Wei’s stomach fell, and he instantly regretted the mixture of maotai, red wine, and fizzy soda that he had been drinking all evening.
Neither Yang Wei nor his wife moved to acknowledge the designer handbag that Little Qi’s wife was busy making a show of rummaging through. Perhaps if they refused to accept that it was really there then it would not be mentioned. There were rules to the game, and it was considered untactful to draw attention to one’s success so directly. Surely even Little Qi wouldn’t —.
“It’s the latest Louis Vuitton luxury handbag,” said the victor without a trace of shame or emotion. “We bought it during our holiday to Paris last month, and it cost over twenty thousand yuan.”