41  JPD - The Nail Girl

The Nail Girl       by Jessie Dunton

 

This short story was written by Jessie in 2008-9 following visits to China. The first included seeing me in Xi’an  - and therefore visiting the Warriors, whose page you could read - and the second was specifically to work with me in Nanjing, which included a visit to the massacre museum.

I include this here with Jessie’s express permission. That said, you do NOT have permission to copy the story, nor to print it,  only to read it.



The Nail Girl  by Jessie Dunton


My wife is reading with the light on. When we were first married, the filthy hole in the train floor that passes for a toilet and the sign above the bin saying ‘recycling/unrecycling’ would have made her giggle and she would have rushed out as soon as nature allowed to sample the experience for herself. She would have travelled in old jeans and a shirt with the sleeves rolled up and her hair in a plait and she would have carried her own bags. Her shoes would have given her blisters the size of the one yuan pieces I have in my pocket (utterly useless, even the locals can’t tell me what I can buy with these) and she would have declared her shoes to be traitorous and thrown them away after two days and haggled for replacements in a market somewhere, in a language of gesturing and facial contortions that I do not speak. She would have woken me in the middle of the night and I would not have minded. She does not look up as I enter the carriage.

“OK?” she says. She turns the page. “A bit tired after the flight.” “You slept the whole way.” I had my eyes closed at least, while she chattered to the woman

next to her about how expensive everything is. She waved away the eye-mask the stewardesses offered her, saying she had brought her own.

“The toilet is medieval.” Her breasts are swaying in time with the motion of the train.

“I told you the food wouldn’t agree with you.” She is doubly right (she did tell me, and it doesn’t agree with me) and so I hate her twice.

“What are you reading about?”

“The hot springs.” She quotes from the guidebook. “Yang Guifei, one of the celebrated Four Beauties, spent the winters bathing in the Crabapple Pool at Huaqing.” She pronounces Huaqing like a whipcrack – an inhalation as the rope loops up –hwah– and then the bell of an old-fashioned till as it snaps –ching! “I thought we’d go to the hot springs on the Tuesday. There’s a picture of her statue.” She flashes the book at me like an eyespot, so that my only impression of Yang Guifei is that she is naked and surrounded by people. “The emperor bathed in the Star Pool at night so that he would not be seen by his subjects. When he was sixty years old, he fell in love with Yang Guifei, who was his son’s concubine.” How dry guidebooks are. She goes on, “Yang Guifei died when the emperor’s guards refused to defend him unless she was executed. She hanged herself to save his life.” I don’t know whether the hanged beauty shocks me as much as my wife’s jaunty tone.

I remove my urine-splashed shoes. “Don’t leave those on the floor,” she says. “It is probably offensive,” and she turns the page to indicate that she has finished speaking. My wife was in the debating society at university. I witnessed her savaging the then Foreign Secretary when he came to address the union on the subject of apartheid (or nuclear disarmament, or women’s rights, or the invasion of the Falklands). She wore her hair longer in those days, coiled into a bun stuck through with pencils. He called her darling when she stood up and her smile became sweeter and sweeter as the teeth of the bear trap closed around his trouser-leg. She was magnificent. I never argue with her and perhaps that is why she seems less magnificent to me now. I wedge my shoes at the foot of my bunk and she continues to read and eventually I fall into something that might be called sleep and we jog onwards into China.

A tiny woman in a mask smears something over my wife’s fingernails. I have read about the pollution and the bicycles and yet it seems too much to add these two things together and conclude that she has cycled to work through Dickensian pestilence and forgotten to remove her mask. Once she has understood my question, there is a twittering of laughter from all the nail girls, who all wear these masks and who all hide the space where their mouths should be behind their hands. No, she says, it is

for the dust and fumes from the nails. My wife clucks. Should she have something painted on her natural nails? Should she choose from the catalogue of plastic Flo-Jo talons? Should she have her cuticles pushed back? This sounds painful and I shake my head knowledgably. We are too stupid to haggle and my wife makes it impossible by smiling and nodding and muttering in her over-loud undertone that everything is so cheap here, really such good value, remember the thing she bought in that place? I am insufficiently enthusiastic and she exclaims that she likes the plastic talons and it has been such a long time since she spent money on herself and anyway we are on holiday.

The nail girl’s own fingernails are natural and neat, a brownish-pink colour with a thin rim of white. She doesn’t wear a wedding ring (but then nobody seems to anymore). There is a pale green bangle lying on a desk at the back and I wonder if it is hers. There is nowhere for me to sit and so I stand out of the way and swing the shopping bag from side to side and try to pretend that the nail girls aren’t staring at my bare legs. I think of The Witches and their clawed hands and toeless feet (my wife has very short toes). When the nail girl has finished with my wife, she removes her mask and pushes her chair back and I see that she is pregnant. She is so tiny that her pregnancy does not look real, as if she really does have a beach ball huddled under her clothes. My wife asks her name and the nail girl says that her name is Daffodil (a hitherto unmusical word) and my wife laughs and says, “No, your Chinese name,” and makes her write the characters on the flyleaf of the guidebook (the pictogram is not unlike the splatter pattern on the back of the guidebook where I used it to mash a troubling mosquito). She pronounces it charmingly, with the final syllable sounding almost like ‘dew’, the ‘l’ is so soft. Daffodil prints her name neatly next to the pictogram and explains that all the girls in her class were named after flowers. My wife nods and offers her congratulations (pointing at Daffodil’s distended abdomen so there is no mistake) and tries to tip her. Daffodil gives us our exact change and smiles and puts her mask back on for the next customer and we go back out into the shopping mall to be stared at.

Later, I sit up flicking through my wife’s guidebook while she uses the shower, exclaiming about the softness of the water (or the smell, or the soap, or how difficult her new hooves are making her ablutions). It tells me that some men affect a pinkie fingernail of impractical length to indicate that they do not work in the fields (my wife has never worked in our garden at home, which she recently paved over and furnished with urns). It tells me that when we visit the terracotta warriors (I see from a coloured post-it that we will be doing this on the same day as the hot springs), we can purchase a book about the warriors, and, for a few extra yuan, we can have it signed by one of the farmers who discovered them while digging a well, and who now presumably lives a life of supreme monotony in a gift-shop. It tells me that the cheapest Shanghai prostitutes were referred to as nail girls because the sex was so brief it was like driving in a nail and I think of the girls today, like so many black-headed birds. There is the picture of Yang Guifei again, marked with a post-it on which my wife has scribbled a question mark. She is pure white. Later still, we mate vigorously on the hard mattress because my wife is ovulating and she scratches my back with her plastic nails and afterwards she sighs and says how much she loves China.

I can’t remember how we decided on China. I suggested Japan, and my wife said that would be hopeless because I am picky about my food. We did not think this through. The buffet in the hotel at dinner, for instance, includes three dishes that consist entirely of heads. There is also a bucket – sampled for the last two nights with great enthusiasm by a square gentleman in a double-breasted suit, one of the few Chinese men I have seen with grey hair – containing dried cockroaches, dyed a dark and vengeful red. I pass over these horrors like God passing over the Jews. On the anniversary itself, she insists that I take her out to eat. She says that this can be instead of a present and although I have already paid for a jade bangle and a map of Asia that does not show Tibet and a terracotta warrior the size of my head and innumerable red shiny trinkets that will dip and jingle in our cars forever, I say this

is a lovely idea and we dress for dinner. My wife has been shopping and squeezes into something red that does not match her shoes.

“It’s a traditional Chinese dress,” she says in response to a question that I haven’t asked. “I haggled quite successfully.” She puts in her amber earrings (also new, and also unmatched by her shoes). Her dress, although a fiery colour, is made from that thick silk that always feels cold to the touch.

“It’s beautiful material,” I say. “Beautiful fabric, darling.” “How much did you pay?” “Less than they wanted me to.” She taps her nose and winds her hair into what she imagines to

be a Chinese style. I choose a restaurant at random (she does not want to eat at the hotel, having said two days ago

that the food was the best we had eaten in China and how clever I was to have picked it) and we are shown to our table by a girl wearing a dress identical to the one my wife has bought with such thrift. We choose our food by pointing at photographs. I select a dish with dark meat that looks like duck, and my wife hisses across the table that it is probably dog.

“Why are you whispering?” I ask her. She waggles her eyebrows, which I take as a sign to order some dumplings with a questionable filling.

China is a country of pointless tasks. There are road sweepers cleaning roads that throb with taxis and buses, and cleaners wiping down the steps of our hotel as guests arrive. There are people pruning bushes that are clearly stunted and planting roadside flowerbeds with wilting petunias. The hotel corridors are clogged with cleaning staff and the towels are replaced every day. Here, in a half- empty restaurant, there are two tall girls employed to open the door, greet visitors and wave them towards the middle-sized waitresses. When she has taken our order, our waitress stands patiently at our table. A smaller waitress rushes forwards every time my ravenous wife drains her tea and fills it again. Presumably, after the diners have gone, these tiny teapot girls break in half and girls no bigger than dogs stack the plates and turn off the lights.

My wife has mastered chopsticks with ease. Our food is as slippery as her dress and yet she scoops up vast, slug-like strips of jellyfish (clear except for the chilli seeds, lethal and bloody) and slurps them into her red mouth. Her chopsticks are like the beak of a heron, stabbing into the boiling stew for chunks of sausage-meat fish, bristling with bones. She has adopted the Chinese custom of leaving the inedible parts of a meal on the table and because she is herself, she arranges the bones into a sort of grisly bonfire. Every year she mocks me for dismantling the dry sticks of the charity bonfire to check for hedgehogs, and every year I tell her that, just because there wasn’t one last year, that doesn’t mean there won’t be one this year, and then she mocks me some more and talks about The Wicker Man. I half expect to see hedgehog on the menu here, served whole on a bed of rice, with cheese and pineapple impaled on the spines for a cheap children’s party.

We have ordered peanuts in spiced vinegar and the concentration required to pick up the nuts calms me a little. When I come back from another horrible encounter with a Chinese toilet (upon leaving my body, my stool is one of the cleaner items in the room), she is speaking in slow, careful English with a Chinese couple that have stopped to admire her golden hair. I say the one word that I have mastered (nihau) and she pretends to slap my wrist.

“No, darling,” she says. They all laugh mightily. “Third tone.” When we get back to our room, she crushes me into the door and runs her nails through my hair. “I can keep the dress on if you like,” she says, pressing her cold, shiny body against me.

The next day we go to the supermarket and she shudders and clutches my arm at the frightened terrapins and the gulping catfish and the awful net. These creatures are boxed in bright blue transparent tanks that I think I saw at a contemporary art show, filled with flowers or coloured-headed pins or

condom wrappers. The claws of the terrapins skitter uselessly over the glass. One or two seem to have difficulty accepting their fate and clamber about in a hopeless fashion, while the rest lie in a heap of dark toads. It is not clear how one transports the captive from net to kitchen – a paper bag? A folding coffin-like box marked variously ‘CRAB, ‘TOAD’ or ‘MISERABLE FISH’? Just as they are, trapped in the plastic basket, spreading despair over one’s other shopping? It is also not clear to me whether the animal is murdered at the counter, or whether one is expected to take it home still kicking. There is no obvious means of dispatch (boiling water? A quick jab with a sharpened chopstick? The top shelf of the freezer, after which the edible parts can be prised off?). I linger a little by a display of unidentified dried things, hoping and not hoping that someone will dip into a tank and solve the mystery, but nobody does and we proceed round the corner, into an aisle of drinkable yoghurt and weird cheese. At night, I am haunted by the terrible sad toads, crouched in their tank like deflated black basketballs. I dream that they are heaved up out of our bath, as from a deep well, in one of the coloured perforated plastic baskets we saw holding broken pieces of terracotta warriors. The sulphurous water is bright yellow, to match its smell. A couple of toads push their feet though the holes and flail them about uselessly as the buttery water pours over them. The toads are tipped onto the floor, glistening like soaked lentils, and pursued around a twilight kitchen by a panting Mandarin housewife with a cleaver. Her black hair hangs down her back and the toads hop desperately around her ankles as she hacks at them.

The midnight honks of the mad taxi drivers wake me. I pad over to the balcony and watch the flickering lights through the glass. There is a drunk wending his way home, lurching from cherry tree to cherry tree. He reminds me of Mary Poppins and Cherry Tree Lane and the two horribly credulous children. Spit spot, and so on. Each tree sheds a flurry of blossom as he jars the trunk, so that he seems to move down the road inside one of those snow-globes one brings back from skiing trips on the continent.

We visit the warriors. We visit the Great Wall. We take a boat trip on grey water with hordes of German backpackers. We fly on to a new city when the current one palls. We photograph the decorated shop-fronts and markets and satin balloons and old men flying kites and we eat our food with sticks. I continue to read the guidebook, and I learn about the Three Gorges Dam and the Cultural Revolution and women with tiny feet. I think of Daffodil, once when someone with similar features passes us, and once when I see a coloured scarf in a museum gift shop that reminds me of the abandoned bangle that might not have been hers after all. At one of the museums, we get separated and I walk around for an hour or more looking at paintings of lakes and mountains, tumbling waterfalls, blossom, birds and monasteries. A crowd of Canadian students in identical plastic jackets follow me around talking about the boys they like and it is quiet for a while.

The lack of squeamishness about bodily functions does not extend to sex. The guidebook mentions a network of caves, discovered in recent years and then hurriedly sealed up, when they were found to contain primitive paintings several thousand years old, showing sexual acts too shocking to be shown to the public. Homosexuality is still illegal and so taboo as to be unthinkable. I see a pair of teenaged boys taking turns to sit on each other’s lap, women walking arm-in-arm, girls stroking each other’s hair thoughtfully while they read. I point the two boys out to my wife on the train, as a peace offering after an awkward breakfast (this was due to her observation that, if our continued efforts at reproduction were unsuccessful, we could just to do like the Rosenbergs in room four hundred and five and purchase a Chinese baby from an orphanage. “At least we’d get a girl that way,” she said thoughtfully. She was eating horrible spiced prawn-speckled porridge, which looked uncannily like baby sick). She thinks the cuddly boys are captivating and spends the rest of the train journey trying to photograph them between the chairs.

“For Neil at the book club,” she says. “He simply won’t believe it!” Is Neil a person of prodigious incredulity? Does he have strong pre-conceived opinions about Chinese teenagers on trains? And who is Neil? “He simply won’t!” she repeats, rather than explaining. She flicks back through the pictures she has taken, but none of them satisfy her and she fakes getting her bag out of the overhead compartment to try again, all the time smothering a simmering giggle. Perhaps if I visit the swaying, shit-splattered toilet I will come back to find my wife deep in conversation with them about the dead children that we don’t have. The two boys are wearing T-shirts with the sleeves cut off – apparently with their sisters’ nail scissors – and both have wild writing on them. The boy currently in the top bunk has ‘JUST DO I’ scrawled across his chest in a sort of gum-coloured pink.

“Look!” She thrusts the camera under my nose. “Don’t they look sweet?” It is going to be an unbearable day.

We arrive in Nanjing in a state of temporary truce. My wife has finished ovulating for another month; her plastic nails have fallen off; and I have arranged for us to have lunch with an old friend from university. My wife has never met him and I suddenly feel in command of what I am doing. We navigate our way to the hotel successfully and then find the restaurant he has named, again without mishap. We are intrepid, seasoned travellers and I slap Geoffrey on the back triumphantly when he comes into the restaurant. He shakes my hand with enormous enthusiasm and laughs at nothing at all. All of his conversation is directed at me.

“Terrapin?” he demands. The laminated menu makes an aboriginal wobble-board sound. I wonder, for the first time in all the years I have known him, what his Chinese name is.

“No, thank you.” I say this quickly before my wife can tell him how keen we are to sample local cuisine. Geoffrey thinks this terribly funny and orders the rest of the food without consulting either of us. A disturbing amount of it comes from animals that I can’t identify. I tell Geoffrey about a report on the English language channel this morning that some monks were having the greatest difficulty in persuading the local people not to kill and eat an elderly turtle they consider to be sacred. Geoffrey is chasing a deep-fried pigeon’s head around his plate.

“Chinese eat everything with four legs that is not a table,” he says happily, wedging the pigeon’s head onto his chopsticks. I want to ask him about the guidebook’s claims that twenty-seven people were expelled from the communist party in the 1960s for consuming the local peasantry (not shot or imprisoned, just expelled from the party), but the right moment never arises. When my wife smiles and makes her way to the bathroom at a ladylike trot, Geoffrey winks at me over the table and nods several times, like a lizard.

After lunch, my wife asks Geoffrey to take us to the Nanjing Museum. Geoffrey barks at the taxi driver – he sounds furious, but Mandarin so often does – and she chatters the whole way there about jadework and sedan chairs and bronzes. Geoffrey shows her a jade pendant that he is wearing around his neck on a red cord. It looks like a heavily-sucked gummy bear, but is probably supposed to be a panda. We get out of the taxi beside the vast form of a weeping woman with a dead child in her arms.

“Museum,” Geoffrey says, gesturing at the woman. We pass through a gravely space, hot as hell, with a black wall running around it and into a room filled with origami and a box of what I assume (wrongly) are fake human bones. My wife stays to examine the piles of coloured paper and, following a group of chirruping Japanese schoolchildren, I pass through into another room and stop, slightly stunned by the darkness. My first thought is that I am back in England, in the rocks and minerals room at the Natural History Museum. The room is lit by a string of fairy lights coiling across a fenced-off area in the middle, and by glowing boxes around the walls. My night vision is very bad and it takes me several minutes to work out what I am looking at.

About an hour later, we are back in our hotel. My wife has taken herself out to dinner in the hotel dining room without a word. I am lying in the bath with the English language channel playing on the enormous television.

“The lakes of eastern China are the most beautiful in the world,” a comforting voiceover woman informs me during the advert break. My clothes, which are crusting together as they dry, are heaped on the bathroom floor. She rambles on about someone called Yu the Great, and then it’s back to the news. “Today was the first day of the annual cultural exchange with France,” the news announcer is saying, in a bizarre accent somewhere between Shanghai and Oregon. “The National Chinese Opera Company arrived in Paris today for the first of three performances.” I manage to blot out the terrible caterwauling with splashing, but it’s too much like the thrashing of a drowning creature and I end up half-climbing out of the bath and onto the cold floor, panting. The newsreader says cheerfully, “Meanwhile, in Beijing the authorities are still discussing whether to open the corresponding French exhibition of black-and-white pornographic photography to the public.” From his tone, I think he might be laughing at me.

I tried to explain to my wife, when I had finished throwing up, that the holocaust museum had taken me by surprise; that I had not expected to see a pile of skeletons festooned with multi-coloured fairy lights like a Christmas tree; and that I certainly hadn’t intended to vomit into the Pond of Peace or whatever it is called, or to be escorted out of the museum grounds by two shouting policeman, leaving Geoffrey and my wife adrift in a sea of Japanese schoolchildren (or so it seemed to me – perhaps they did another lap). My eyes had adjusted to the darkness with seeping slowness. What had at first been a mass of huddled shapes became something continually more detailed and more horrible. The shapes in the fenced off area are all skeletons and there are grisly tableaux everywhere: a mother skeleton curled over a child skeleton, maybe six years old; a couple reaching out to each other, both with broken arms; a skeleton off to one side on it’s own with a crushed skull. There are more coy, bland little cards telling me the number of dead (hundreds of thousands), the number of Japanese soldiers (about five) and some greyish photographs of the excavation. There is a diagram, showing the mass grave that I am looking at tapering away beneath me like an ice-cream cone – what I am looking at is merely the surface of a vast, impromptu catacomb. There are some estimates of the number of rapes that took place (these rapes within a rape make me think of Russian dolls unpacking themselves, each new atrocity clambering out of the wreckage of the one before). There is a card saying that, after being gang-raped, many pregnant Chinese women were killed with slivers of bamboo or iron nails driven into their bellies (“Two for the price of one,” my wife says helpfully.) Worst of all, there is an illuminated box containing a pile of the nails in question, huge and orange with rust, and another card, which says ‘these nails were hammered into the joints of civilians. They were then thrown into the pond.’ The boxes on the walls contain snail shells, with little postcards next to them saying things like ‘snail shells from pond’ as if it were a display of work on the creatures found in the school garden or similar. “How dreadful,” my wife says to Geoffrey, and they walk around the pile of dead people with the gait that one adopts in an art gallery, pausing for just the right amount of time in front of each work. I have stopped, one hand on the rail, to look at a pair of skeletons, embracing so tightly that their skulls are touching.

“How did this happen?” I say this into the darkness, not expecting a reply. Nanjing is a city of millions of people and there were several thousand Chinese soldiers present (I know this because one of the cards says so). As far as I can see, the Chinese exist today only because the Japanese soldiers got bored of killing them.

“Japanese soldiers tell Chinese soldiers, lay down your weapons.” Geoffrey places an imaginary gun on the railing. “Chinese soldiers, they do as they told.” That is all. He walks on after my wife. All the time, the coloured bulbs throw a weird disco light over the skeletons and children chatter and point and annoy the Chinese policeman by taking photographs on their mobile ’phones. A thousand questions, numerous as the dead, bubbled up in me (or so I thought – it turned out to be my lunch).

I snap the television off and lie naked and damp in the darkness. The television glows slightly in the corner as the life ebbs away from it.

On the morning of our last day, on the way to see a wall, we pass a young pregnant woman filling an underground tank with water. When we return to our hotel for lunch and luggage, she is still there, holding the hose with the same concentration that she had three hours earlier. I cannot decide if she is thinking very deeply or not at all. I feel the same way about the cows one passes at home, tearing at the grass and pushing out steaming olive-coloured cowpats and roaming about fields filled with nothing but more grass, more cows and more cowpats. Home seems green and distant and full of obvious, showy livestock. The largest live animal we have seen since our arrival is the chicken our host for the day insisted on killing in our honour and I wonder now where all the meat we have been eating comes from. I wonder if Chinese people point at cows and sheep in Britain and exclaim over them. I wonder whether they are thinking very deeply, or not at all.

As we pass, the girl shifts the hose from one hand to the other, and I think I recognise the nail girl. I did not expect to be able to tell Chinese people apart, but they are extraordinarily diverse – in some ways more different from each other than westerners, precisely because they are all small and dark and bespectacled. I stop to fiddle with my shoe and my wife strides on as usual and I find that I am mouthing her name, split into three separate syllables that sound like three separate words. Her heavy hair falls over her face and it occurs to me that we are hundreds of miles from the nail girl, as far from her city as our home is from Moscow. The water cascades endlessly into the dark, white and beautiful.

I feel no desire to speak to Daffodil – there is nothing to say and it is not her – but I glance over my shoulder several times as I catch up with my wife, hoping that she will look up.

© David Scoins 2017