She sells her body to save her mother's life. If they made her the star of a reality show, that would be the tagline. The series would end with the mother's funeral; or else with a wedding: the heroine marries a perfect man, and the mother is magically restored to health. She breathes in and out, holding her smile, as she struts along the catwalk which is not really a catwalk - just a zone indicated with masking tape on the hardwood floor of a loft in a warehouse in north-east Beijing.
The dress feels tight in places, gripping and releasing her as she moves. She knows she looks good in it; more to the point, it looks good on her.
The call was unexpected. She was at home, scrubbing algae off an aquarium ornament in the shape of a pagoda. An extended grunt, then, 'Hey! It's me.'
'Who are you?'
'It's me. Guoqing. I need you.'
'No bullshit. Remember me?' The whiny voice is distinctive.
'Ah, I remember you, Guoqing. You should go through my agent.'
'Fuck your agent! What's your agent ever done for you?'
Actually, her agent has done a great deal for her, though little recently. She's twenty-five, which in model-years is equivalent to seventy-five in human years. Guoqing hired her a few times, a while back. She's aware of his reputation as an independent designer, innovative, a freelancer for fashion houses. He goes by just his personal name, as if he had no family, as if like the Monkey King he was born from a stone.
'Listen,' he said. 'I want you. I don't want some skinny teenager who looks fabulous but has no idea how to play the game. I don't care about your wrinkles. I don't care if you've put on weight around the hips. I know you know how to make my clothing look like a million dollars.'
'You sure know how to flatter a girl.'
'I'll pay you the same I paid you when you were twenty-one.'
If her agent got to hear of this, he could stop representing her. But this was an opportunity she couldn't afford to pass up. Guoqing explained: he has a new line coming out. He was planning to give an ultra-private showing – just a single dress presented to a few select buyers. A teaser. Don't show everything at once. Show enough to hook them, and they'll come back for more.
And here she is, on the catwalk that is not really a catwalk, in an industrial building out beyond the fifth ring road. She's done this so often before. Doing it again is like going back to a place you used to live in as a child.
It's strange. Normally there'd be applause, music, loud conversation. But there's almost silence here, apart from the muted roar of the fan-heater and a few wintry coughs. No camera-flashes, either. Cameras and phones are banned. Nobody is going to rip off Guoqing's design and bring a copy to market before the real thing comes out.
She turns her head as she advances, taking in the scene. Guoqing in a double-breasted tweed suit and brilliant shoes. Eight buyers on folding chairs, leaning forward. Big windows with gray clouds beyond. She concentrates on her task ... the audience vanishes, the building itself vanishes, all that exists is herself walking along this strip of wood raised high in the sky.
The designer holds up his hand. That's it.
Decent applause, after all.
He shoos her away to the changing room. Which is not a real changing room, either – just a corner of the loft, screened off with a sheet suspended from a rope.
She asked the doctor about the options; nearby, her mother was having dialysis. He was quite young, with a mole at the corner of his mouth that she couldn't help focusing on.
'A kidney transplant?' the doctor said, leaning closer than was necessary. 'Is that what you're thinking of? Well, you could donate one of yours, or find a peasant to sell his. The operation's not cheap, either way. Anyway I don't recommend it. Your mother, she's got problems with her heart and her lungs, and there's her liver too ... Even if you spent a million yuan on her healthcare, we can't do miracles.'
Dialysis takes time. It's a slow process, the cleansing of the blood, the impurities being filtered out of it. Meanwhile Lan stays in the waiting area. She knows it all too well. There's a food concession that sells soy milk, another for skewered meat. There's a counter to buy traditional herbal medicine, and a counter for modern medicine. There's a Mickey Mouse and a qilin and a dragon big enough for a young child to sit on; if a parent drops a coin in the slot, a mythical creature rocks to and fro and an electronic jingle plays.
In this changing room which is not a changing room, the only furnishing is a plastic chair; she left her street clothes and her handbag on it. They're not here now. Somebody – Guoqing, presumably – moved her belongings. He's so inconsiderate. They're all inconsiderate. She's had it up to here with the world of fashion. It's like a landlord exploiting the peasants. She can't march out and ask for her things. She can't come out at all, until the buyers have left. It's her job, now, to be unseen and unheard.
She hears his voice through the sheet. 'Give me the dress!'
'Guoqing, where are my–?'
'Give me the dress now. I need it to show the clients.'
'Give me the fucking dress! I put your shit in the closet for safekeeping.'
She strips off the dress. She has nothing on underneath. She pushes the dress over the top of the sheet, and it is instantly yanked away.
She is alone, naked, apart from her high-heels. Which should feel weird, but it seems familiar. Like a medical examination, she thinks.
She's spent too much of her life visiting hospitals. Her father died of cancer when she was twelve. He lagged pipes, for a living; if hadn't been for the Cultural Revolution he'd have gone to university. If he'd survived, and encouraged her in school, perhaps she'd have a proper education herself. The only gift she has from him is his genes: the height and bone structure, the shape of the eyes.
White noise. The blast of the fan heater seems to conceal a musical beat. An overlay of several voices, one of them Guoqing's, which she can't quite disentangle. Fashion talk? A negotiation? An argument?
The house she grew up in, the entire neighbourhood, was demolished the year after her father died. She and her mother were obliged to move to an anonymous apartment building in Fengtai. More than to her daughter, her mother speaks to the goldfish; she whispers I love you into the tank.
The voices can no longer be heard.
The fan heater also has stopped; the absence of that noise is eerie.
She calls out, 'Guoqing?'
Louder, 'Guoqing? Where are you?'
She snatches at the sheet, pulling it down. She drapes it over her body.
Nobody and nothing is here. The entire loft is empty. There is no indication that a fashion show just took place; even the masking tape has been pulled from the floor.
She is stranded, all but naked, on the fifth floor of a warehouse. She has no phone, no money. She looks out at the low sky. Dirty snow on roofs and on the streets.
Guoqing, that bastard! Why did he do it? What was his scheme? And then: how can be sure it was him? A voice, sounding something like his, called to her, asked for the dress. Perhaps it was one of the buyers, imitating Guoqing's voice? Yes, one of the buyers stole the dress, and stole her belongings too, so she can't escape and raise the alarm!
A saying comes to mind, the call-and-response greeting of the Communist Children's Corps. Are you prepared? ... Always be prepared!
She lets the useless sheet fall. The heater is no longer on; the loft will soon get cold. She flicks a light switch, to no effect. The electricity is not working.
She kicks off her painful shoes.
The emptiness of the place is almost absolute, a desolation. She roams the confines, not troubling to avoid splinters. In one corner there is a life-size stuffed panda, its face to the wall like a naughty child. On the opposite wall, a closet. She tugs the door. Several plastic coat hangers jostle on a rail. Her street-clothing? Her handbag? No. Of all things, a terracotta warrior. It gazes out at her from the dimness, like a child playing eluding-the-cat, its head at the level of her breasts.
She guesses this space is used for photo shoots. The panda and the warrior – these would be props, left behind.
She holds the panda in her arms. It is light.
The warrior is grimy. She grips it around the shoulders, as if wrestling with it. It is heavier than it looks, and seems to be made of plaster.
The panda, again. A zip at the back. As she undoes it, nuggets of styrofoam fall out. She can't help stepping on them; they squeak under her soles like dry, synthetic mice.
The panda is actually a costume, she realises. She pours out its stuffing. The paws and head are attached with velcro, and she detaches them. She enters it. She manages to pull up the zip. Now she puts the head back on; she can see well enough through the eyeholes. The paws, finally. She notices a plastic camellia abandoned on the floor of the closet, and she winds the stem around the neck, accessorising her outfit.
She presses the elevator button; no light goes on.
In the panda suit, carrying the plaster warrior, she walks down the emergency stairs, all five flights.
At the bottom: a fire exit. She tries to push the bar. Locked.
A small window next to it, not big enough to squirm through.
Using the warrior as a battering ram, she attacks the window.
The warrior's head dissolves into shards of plaster and dust, revealing a rusted steel armature within. The pane is intact.
Harder this time, yelling as if performing a martial art, she smashes the armature into the window frame, and at last the glass shatters. An icy gust. She reaches through the gap, and gropes for a knob which she succeeds in turning.
She's in a parking lot. Slush on the ground. A yellow patch where a dog or pedestrian pissed. A few cars and vans, but no human within sight. On the far side of the lot, traffic speeds by. She knows roughly where she is. (She came by taxi.) She's in an industrial area many kilometres from the center. She can't walk far in her costume. And where would she go anyway? She can't go home like this. (Those nosy old biddies on the Residents Committee – they'd interrogate her before letting her in. There'd be no end of gossip.) She can't go to the police. Then she thinks of one person in the whole of Beijing who might be able and willing to help her.
Among the vans and trucks and pickups in the lot, there's an electric bicycle. She gets on it. It starts up. She has no idea who it belongs to. She doesn't know how much juice the battery's got, but there's no alternative. It will take her as far as it will take her.
Making her way along less busy roads, she heads toward the centre. Some honks and stares, but no more than she gets walking down the street on any normal day. Maybe in some other city a panda on a bicycle would be a marvel; the traffic would halt and a wide-eyed crowd would shout and snap photos; it would become an excuse for a mini-carnival, with food vendors and skipping children and a skateboarder performing twisty jumps and men singing a patriotic song in chorus and elderly women waltzing with each other ... people would project their hopes and fears on it, as on an Immortal – but Beijingers temper curiosity with blaséness: we've seen it all before.
A mother is laden with shopping. A little girl tugs the mother's arm. 'Look! Look!' The mother drags the child onward, and does not look.
A seeing-eye dog woofs at her.
Labourers shovelling snow pay her no attention.
Bears in general are taken to be masculine. That's the thing about being male, even a male panda, you can go about in public in relative anonymity.
At the same time as she's gliding through the city on her electric bicycle, she feels that she's outside herself, viewing the image from afar. The present is a kind of memory.
She follows the signs for the Haidian district, going west, and then the particular neighbourhood. Ah, the route is looking familiar, though it's almost a year since she last came here. Yes, the dumpling place; yes, the barber shop; there's a demolition site where there used to be a car showroom ... She slows, and steers onto the sidewalk. She swerves to avoid a snow drift. And there, where you wouldn't expect it, a surviving old-fashioned house, with an arch in front, and traditional eaves. (The neighbouring houses were knocked down years ago.) She walks around the back to a modern addition with French windows. A desk; beyond it a man is typing at a computer, his fingers pausing then skittering across the keyboard, like a cat pouncing on a mouse.
She raps at the glass. 'Help me! Help me, Mr Kong! I'm so sorry to inconvenience you!'
The man gets up, waddles over, and, grinning, lets the stranger in.
'Friend or foe?' he says. 'You're welcome, either way!'
She tells him who she is.
'Ah, Lan,' he says. 'What an unexpected pleasure! You look gorgeous in the costume. But you look gorgeous in everything.'
Soon, with her head and paws off, the panda is on the couch, drinking a gin and tonic, and telling her story. The man, short and fat as Buddha, huddles on the swivel chair with his feet off the ground, inhaling his gin, and he listens intently.
Kong is a journalist, with a reputation for being a muckraker. The publications he writes for tend to get shut down by the authorities. He's famous also for his salons. He invites an extraordinary mix of people: artists and writers and political activists, even foreigners sometimes, and of course a sprinkling of beautiful women. The name he goes by is a pen name, and though he passes for a Beijinger he actually came to the capital as a young man, and never left. She remembers Kong once boasting about having exposed a corrupt politician, who sent him death threats. Somebody asked Kong if he was scared, and he snorted, 'If the bastard meant to kill me, I'd be dead already.' She used to go there every month, before her mother became sick. It was an education for her, the nearest she got to attending university.
He hardly questions or comments, tugging an earlobe from time to time.
When she comes to the part about being naked in the warehouse, he smiles. She's aware of what he's visualising, and she's aware that he's aware that she's aware. She's striking rather than pretty – tall with a square jaw – so she was hit on by drunken intellectuals at his salons more rarely than some of the other models. Kong himself made passes at her every time – at all the beautiful women, but especially at her. The fact that they'd make such an absurd couple – the dwarfish man and the statuesque woman - she guesses this is part of the attraction, for him. The princess kisses a toad ... but that's a European fairy tale. In Chinese legends, beautiful women are either paragons who end up committing suicide, or they are courtesans who bring about the fall of a kingdom.
She tells him her theory that one of the buyers stole the dress.
He laughs. A slow, deep, intentional chuckle.
She's shocked. How can he make a joke of her suffering? She stammers, 'I could have died in there!'
He laughs again, sneering, relishing the moment.
'Ah, you're so innocent, Lan! Such a sweet, innocent girl!'
'I could have frozen to death!'
'I'll tell you what really happened, Little Lan. A buyer didn't steal the dress. You did!'
'What are you saying!?'
'That's what Guoqing wants people to believe.' In his intensity, he almost falls off the swivel chair; he looks like one of those toys which when knocked over rights itself. 'Don't you get it, my darling Lan? Guoqing set you up! You're the patsy, the fall guy! He's going to sell his dress to some fashion house, and at the same time he's going to steal it from himself.'
'I don't understand.'
'He's going to sell it twice. First to the company he has an official contract with, and second unofficially to another company who'll produce a pirate version. And when the first company finds out, he'll need somebody to blame. "Oh no, it wasn't me who pirated myself, it was that thieving model, Lan."'
'But surely –'
'Why do you think he chose you? Why didn't he hire a model through an agency?'
'He was trying to save the commission.'
'Guoqing doesn't care about saving a few yuan! He chose you just because everybody knows you're washed up and you've got a sick mother – exactly the kind of model who'd be tempted to steal.'
'What are you saying?'
'You mean, how many years will you spend in jail?'
She shivers in her warm costume. Kong mixes her another gin and tonic, and pushes it into her hand. He taps his own glass on the table.
'You've come to the right fellow, Little Panda. This is exactly the kind of injustice I love to write about.'
'Oh, please –'
'Don't worry. I won't splash the story of your disgrace all over the gutter press. I'll find a way to save your neck.'
She gulps the gin – a drink whose taste she dislikes – and begins to hope. She has faith in Kong's powers.
And what will he expect in return? If sex, she'll have to consent, at least to some degree. What else does she have to offer? There are only certain futures for a model on the brink of retirement. Acting, PR work ... and marriage, ideally. Or darker prospects. Her friend, Ying, once she was on the cover of Taiwan Vogue, and now she's the mistress of a tiling millionaire from Ningbo. Ying suggested she could fix Lan up with her lover's business partner. Lan didn't accept the offer, but she didn't exactly say no either. Ying will make the suggestion again, and how will Lan answer? She could live a luxurious lifestyle, and her mother would receive the best care. Ying said: It's better to have sex with an ugly man. That way, there's no confusion.
Kong opens a drawer, and takes out a bulky, professional camera.
He explains that she'll have to get fully suited up again, and they'll go outside and he'll take photos of her on the bicycle. 'I'll plant a story in one of the magazines – a short piece, the kind we call a "tofu cube" – how you were hired to do publicity at the opening of a shopping mall, dressed as a panda, and because it was so cold you wore the panda suit on the way home. We'll need some pics of you in full costume, and some with the head off, so you can be recognised.'
'But if Guoqing –'
'I'll change the clock on the camera, to give you an alibi. You can't have been the model in the warehouse. You were somewhere else at the time. It'll be Guoqing's word against the evidence of the pics. The camera doesn't lie!'
'In English they call this a human interest story. A kind of fiction, really.' He translates the idiom into Chinese, and smiles in a less obnoxious way. 'If pandas published newspapers, they'd call it a panda interest story.'
He puts on a tall fur hat and a down coat covered with a deep blue material, giving him the air of a Qing dynasty court official. They head out into the cold, and he leads her to a crossroads a short distance away.
She poses on the machine – many shots from many different angles. This at least she knows how to do. She attracts more attention from passers-by now than she did when she was on her own. The fact of the camera: this gives the image resonance, makes it stand outside its own moment.
A passing trucker rolls down his window, and hails her as Jingjing – the panda mascot in the Olympics. 'One world, one games!' he chants the slogan.
There was something on the internet about how scientists are observing pandas in the wild; to conceal themselves, the scientists themselves dress as pandas. She visualises panda-men among the bamboo ... And the scene dissolves into her mother in bed, the varicose veins on the legs like English writing.
She rides slowly, away from Kong and toward him along the street – distantly trailed by several small boys and a mutt.
He takes more pictures of her than anybody could possibly want.
Then back to his place.
There's a chest at the bottom of the stairwell where he keeps items left behind by guests at his salons. He burrows in the chest like a badger, and tosses out items of apparel. Sweatpants and a fisherman's jersey, a pair of sneakers – things she can fit into, and look normal enough.
She changes in the bathroom. She ceases being a panda. One day, conceivably, she'll think of this adventure with nostalgia. A grain of styrofoam bobs in the toilet. She rests the camellia on the ledge above the sink. Between outfits, naked, she regards herself in the mirror. If she doesn't look too carefully, her body is still perfect.
She returns to the writing room.
He phones for a cab.
There are words that men say when they want you; he offers only his detached smile.
Even to the last, she expects that he'll take her in his arms, and press his lips on hers. The very idea makes her shudder. But he never does.
He pays the driver in advance, and sends her away, back toward her dying mother and the goldfish.
As the taxi whisks her through the night streets of Beijing – silhouettes of roadside heaps of cabbage that will feed the poor through the winter, melding with dark, dirty snowdrifts – she understands that his satisfaction was in his laughter. He sneered at her weakness even as he took pity on her. And she knows that things will become harder before they become easier, but she will have the memory of the short, fat man laughing at her, to sustain her through the suffering that lies ahead.
'Year of the Panda' by Jonathan Tel was commended in the 2015 Australian Book Review Elizabeth Jolley Short Story Prize.