Thursday, January 14, 2010

Excerpt from The Ming Bowl by Jennifer Bushman

Just when I thought we were beginning to put our past in Peking behind us, or at least learn to cope with what had happened to us, Mr. Varley arrived at the Bauman residence.

I was in my room, thinking I should wash for dinner soon, when I heard a horn toot on the drive, and the purr of an engine, followed by a light patter in the front hall, and the dogs barking as the Number One Boy ran to open the door.

I went out into the upper hall and listened to the murmur of voices from below. I inched forward and peered over the balcony just in time to see Ambrose Varley step through the front door, bundled up in Western-style warm clothing – a hat and a woolen coat.

“Mr. Varley,” I called out before I could stop myself. Below me, Varley’s tall, stooped figure, foreshortened by my view almost directly over him, stopped abruptly. He had just stepped forward to hand his hat to the boy. He paused and looked up, still clutching his hat. “Jane?”

“Oh, Mr. Varley.” Something both painful and pleasurable moved in my chest. I was so glad to see him, yet he reminded me of my parents and my lost-forever home in Peking. I hurried around to the head of the stairs and started down, nearly stumbling in my eagerness.

“Careful,” said Varley. He put out his arms as if to catch me. The boy grabbed at Varley’s hat with great skill and cupped it in his small hands. Seeing Varley’s outstretched hands, I ran down the remaining steps and threw my arms around his neck. “I’m so glad to see you,” I whispered. He smelled of garlic, the cold, and coal smoke.

His arms tightened around me, then he quickly let me go. He grabbed my arms and held me back so he could study me. “You’ve grown up! If you were Chinese, they’d have you married off by now.”

He straightened up and studied me some more. “Yes, you look much better. They must be taking good care of you. That haunted look is gone from your eyes.”

“You saw me in those awful days just after…”

He nodded.

Just then the library door opened and Donald came into the entrance hall. His eyebrows rose when he saw his visitor. “Varley,” he said, using the name as a greeting. His small mouth twitched downward in his characteristic half-amused smile. “This is a surprise. I don’t think you’ve ever come here before.”

“I’m sorry for dropping in like this. I won’t disturb you for long. I must talk to you.”

“Certainly. Can I offer you something? Whiskey? Tea? Coffee? What are you doing in Shanghai?”

“Chinese tea, please.” Varley towered over Donald. “I’ve been coming from time to time to oversea shipping out some of my antiques.”

“A pragmatic man, eh?”

“I don’t see any sense in letting the Japanese do what they want with my things.”

Donald turned to me. “Jane, if you will excuse us, please – “

Varley intervened before he could finish. “Let her listen too. It concerns her parents. Find young Will, if he’s here. Both children should hear this.”

My heart started beating fast. I stood by the staircase and didn’t move, while Donald sent the Number One Boy to find Will and to tell Electra that Varley was here. I heard Donald say, “Tea, in the library. Chop-chop.”

The Number One Boy nodded and hurried out of the room. “Notice how their expressions never change?” Donald said to Varley. “Spooks me sometimes. I’ve been in China twenty years and I still don’t understand them.”

Varley watched the retreating figure of the Number One Boy and didn’t reply.

“But then you speak the lingo, don’t you?” Donald said. “I never really bothered to learn. Wonder now if that wasn’t a mistake?”

Will came out into the hall then and greeted Varley. Electra appeared at the head of the stairs, peered over the railing, then came down, hesitantly, dragging the train of a green silk, feather-trimmed housecoat from step to step, eyeing Varley as if not sure this was a visitor she would welcome in her home. By the time she reached the bottom of the stairs, she had summoned up some dignity, and put out a white arm and hand to greet Varley with some of her former style.

He bowed over her hand, formally, and unsmilingly.

Electra took my arm as we all moved into the library. “What is all this?” she whispered. I could feel her trembling.

I patted her hand. “Shhh. It’s all right.” I caught Will sending Varley curious glances. “He says he wants to tell us something.”

It hadn’t taken me or Will long to discover Electra was addicted to opium. She took long naps in the afternoons, then appeared at dinner, often febrile. As the months passed, she napped for longer periods. She had aged visibly in a short time; her face pouched and sagged. Once, I heard Donald scolding her, saying the opium would kill her. This wasn’t the woman he had married. Electra had cried, and Donald had stomped off in exasperation. I felt terribly sorry for her. Having inadvertently peeped in Electra’s bedroom that night and found her dancing with a fantasy partner and talking of a dead child, I saw my benefactor in a whole new light. It made me feel protective. I decided that my mother would have tried to help her, if she’d known.

We settled ourselves in the library. The Number One Boy brought in a tea tray, poured and passed it around, then lingered, drawing the curtains and switching on lamps until Donald asked him to leave.

As soon as the boy closed the door behind him, Donald said, “Well, Varley?”

Varley sat perfectly still, his hands folded on his lap. “You remember the day you came to my house to pick up Jane?” he said to Donald.

Donald nodded. He pulled a cigarette case out of his breast pocket, offered one to Varley, who shook his head, and to Will, who took one. Electra slipped her own case out of the folds of her robe. There was a short silence, broken by soft clicking sounds as they all lit their cigarettes – Will somewhat inexpertly. Donald exhaled smoke and said, “I remember well. What about it?”

Varley’s smooth face looked ageless in the lamplight. For the first time, I noticed he had the same kind of round-face handsomeness Will had, and realized suddenly just how grown up Will had become.

I wondered how it was Varley could take opium and seem none the worse for wear, while Electra was falling apart. I hardly thought it was fair. He must have been about the same age as Donald and Electra. I looked at Varley, waiting for him to speak. My stomach churned. I clenched my fists and crossed my legs. Will, Donald, and Electra dragged on their cigarettes, inhaled, blew out smoke, and leaned forward to knock the ashes against the ashtray.

Only Varley sat still. Without shifting position, he said, “We spoke a little then about the police report and how little real information there had been.”

Donald said, “I remember thinking it was a damned shame. Case stunk to high heaven, and the police seemed so eager to close it up. It was politics, I know. I understand. But these were my friends, damn it.”

Varley nodded. “I remember you saying so at the time. Now, I’ve heard something new. There was more, after all.”

Everyone stirred. Electra leaned forward to put out her cigarette. Donald lit another. Will smashed out his half-smoked cigarette and stared at Varley. His face, partly in the shadows, had taken on its sulky uncommunicative look, as if he resented Varley’s presence and whatever it was the man was going to say.

“I make no pretense, no apologies, for my habits,” Varley said. “You all must know I sometimes go to opium dens. I find it soothing to lie back on a couch in a hazy room and know there are others present who might be sharing my dreams.”

Donald moved his shoulders impatiently. “Yes, yes, man, get on with it. You know there’s a young girl present.”

Varley’s expression didn’t change. He glanced at me, and then at Electra and Will. “It was in one of these opium dens that I heard the information I’m talking about. One of the policemen who worked the McPherson case stops in there from time to time. We had quite an interesting conversation the last time I was there.”

No one said a word, and Varley went on. “You could see the man had fallen on hard times. He no longer worked for the police. But I won’t go into that now. It isn’t relevant.”

We all waited. Will crossed his legs again. I heard the click of Donald’s lighter as he lit yet another cigarette. He got up and lit one for Electra too. He showed the lighter to Will and Varley and raised his eyebrows. Both shook their heads and he sat down again.

As if he had been waiting for Donald to settle himself, Varley said, “This was one of the two policemen who first showed up at the house that morning after Cyrus and Della were murdered. The man said it had been so easy, tracing Little Gao to his house. Then, of course, Little Gao hanged himself.”

I had imagined Little Gao’s hanging body too many times to want to think about it anymore.

“The policeman fellow let me know that they’d had a chance to rough up Little Gao a bit first.” Electra made a convulsive movement and Varley said, “I doubt they did much to him. He apparently was very frightened.” Varley held out his hands as if beseeching the silent group that sat listening to him.

“So Little Gao talked after all,” Donald held his cigarette close to his lips and stared out across the room.

No one spoke or moved. Varley said, “A little. He was hysterical, sobbing and pleading. He said the murders hadn’t been his idea, not his fault. Then he said something very strange – and I’m quoting the ex-policeman here – that it was the baby’s fault.”

I jerked my head up. Electra gasped. Donald said, “Baby? What baby?”

“I don’t know what baby. I’m only repeating what the policeman told me.”

There was another silence, deeper this time. Varley took out his pocket watch and glanced at it. “I have to hurry,” he said. “But let me finish.”

Varley went on to say the policeman had also spoken about the broken Ming bowl. It was one he had given to my mother, his voice and eyes grave as he told us this. It was a rare and beautiful bowl.

Donald nodded impatiently and tapped his foot. He opened this mouth to say something, but Varley forestalled him. “We all thought the bowl had been broken in the struggle.” He glanced at me and then Will. “Excuse me. This is painful. On one end of the room, where it all happened, there was an overturned chair, other signs of struggle.”

“We know all that,” Donald said.

Varley went on as if Donald hadn’t spoken. ‘We assumed the bowl was broken accidentally, but it wasn’t. It was deliberately smashed.”

Electra put her hands to her mouth. “Why?” she asked.

“I can’t begin to imagine.”

“I don’t understand,” Donald looked around at the rest. “What is this supposed to mean?”

“The ex-policeman told me the bowl had been on a table at one end of the room. That end of the room wasn’t affected by the struggle. The table wasn’t even overturned. But the bowl was badly broken. The policeman believes someone picked it up and threw it down deliberately.”

I shut my eyes, remembering the pieces of blue-and-white porcelain on the sitting room floor. When I had seen the pieces again, they had been spread out across Varley’s desk. I could still picture his long fingers pushing and arranging them. I shivered, remembering he had offered me the mended vase.

“There was a piece missing,” Varley said. “I remember telling Jane about it. I thought it had just been misplaced, perhaps mistakenly thrown out, but it seems this wasn’t the case. You remember Little Gao stepped on the broken pieces of the bowl and cut his foot? That’s how the police found him? When they asked him about his cut foot, he said, - and again I quote the policeman who was quoting Little Gao, a very frightened and not very coherent young man – he said, ‘Wanted the bowl but couldn’t have it. So broke it and took a piece of it.”

Donald stared at him, open-mouthed. “I’m absolutely in the dark. What was he talking about?”

“Either he smashed the bowl and picked up the extra piece or someone else did.”

‘Who? The other murderer?”

“I would assume so.”

“But why?” Again, Donald looked at the rest of us as if for confirmation. No one else said anything. “Why does this mean anything at all? You said yourself the bowl wasn’t broken in the struggle. Why couldn’t it just have broken on its own?”

“Then where’s the extra piece?” Varley spoke calmly. “I asked and asked again when I talked to the McPherson servants. They all claimed that no one had touched anything in that room. And why would anyone deliberately steal a small piece of broken porcelain – especially when all the rest of it was left lying there?”

“I think you’re making too much of this,” Donald said.

Varley stared at him. “But this particular bowl – “

Donald sat up straighter. “My dear Varley, most people wouldn’t know about a bowl like this.”

Varley frowned slightly.

“You’re making too much out of this,” Donald repeated.

There was silence. No street sounds, no sounds from within the household. I looked around the room, trying to avoid the others’ faces. Books in glass cases lined the walls; their surfaces reflected the lamplight. My eyes came to rest on Varley’s face once more. He caught my eye and nodded almost imperceptibly. I nodded stiffly in return. I wasn’t sure why.

Both Donald and Electra had asked Varley to stay for dinner, but it was a perfunctory invitation and Varley treated it as such. All of us, except maybe Donald who still acted as if he heard such tales every day – and maybe he did – were silenced by what Varley had had to say.

We had seen him to the door, all of us crowding out onto the front steps, where the taxi Varley had hired waited under the branches of a pine tree. The driver sprawled on the front seat, dozing, the doors closed against the chilly weather. The Number One Boy knocked on the taxi window and laughed. The driver stirred, then sat up, looking dazed and stupid because he had just awakened. He shook his head as if to clear it and hurriedly started the engine. Varley said good night to each of us in turn and then headed for the car. I ran after him.

“Mr. Varley!” I shouted. He turned to me but when I reached him I kept my voice low. “You don’t think Han had anything to do with my parent’s murders, do you? Mrs. Appleton told me she thought that he might. That’s why I ran away from her and came to you in those days in Peking after all that happened.”

He smiled down at me, but his eyes were grave. “I wouldn’t think Han would do such a thing.” Varley climbed into the back seat of the taxi not once looking me in the eyes. Before he could shut his door, I whispered, “But there’s still so many unanswered questions.”

As soon as Varley’s taxi pulled away, Donald, herding everyone back into the house, said, “What a strange fellow. Was he always like this?” No one answered and he went on. “Makes me wonder why he bothered to come here. And then making such a fuss over that smashed bowl.”

Will said, “You don’t think what he had to say was important, sir?”

Donald shook his head. “None of what he said made any sense. None of it.”
Jennifer Bushman lives in Oakville with her husband and two children. Recently, she and her family embarked on a unique journey of eating a cuisine from every country in the world. In her blog, Eat Planet. Discover the World, she chronicles their gastronomic adventures. Check out Jennifer’s blog here.

Jennifer also journeys into China’s past in her book The Ming Bowl, in which we travel back to the turmoil and romance of 1930s Peking and Shanghai. She read the above excepter on December 8 at CJ’s CafĂ©.  She read another excerpt, “Han’s Wedding,” at CJ's on June 10.  Read that excerpt here.

Note: For information about Brian Henry’s upcoming writing workshops and classes see here.

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