By Dorothy Tse, translated by Natascha Bruce, and written for Antipodean China: Reflections of Literary Exchange, Giramondo Publishing in Australia, forthcoming in 2020.
Read in Chinese here.
For quite some time, the police commissioner had been at the viewing window, looking down on the restless, dark, spherical things piled on the transformation room floor. His hands were thrust deep into his trouser pockets and his gaze was distant and unfocused, much like the strains of Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata filtering through from the other side of the glass. Music could not tame them; that much was clear. Most likely, they would end up dumped in the ocean, and the commissioner felt saddened by the thought – even if, at the same time, the prospect of their eradication was not entirely displeasing.
His sorrow was genuine. After all, they had once belonged to his specially-groomed ‘elite unit’ and had successfully put down the recent spate of disturbances in the city. Well, except if he were to put it like that during one of his daily 4 pm press conferences, in front of the ranks of camera lenses and all those ferocious, bloodshot eyes, it was doubtful any of them would agree.
At one of those conferences, the commissioner had stepped into the lights, smiled a cocktail party smile, and adjusted his suit. He had given every impression of being about to speak, only to find that before the tense, combative stares of his audience, his mouth refused to open. The questioners were poised, ready for the attack. They had no idea how vehemently, or how frequently, he had aired his views at private gatherings. He had praised the front-line riot police, causing their necks to extend proudly from their sweaty, body-armoured torsos, supporting their up-turned heads, and as the sun shone down on their perfectly straight noses, made of bones that had not been smashed, and they opened wide their sparkling eyes, eyes that had not been ruptured by bullets – well, they were true heroes! And yet, at the press conference, under the red-hot scrutiny of the crowd, the commissioner felt a residual flicker of shame. Unlike his subordinates, he couldn’t quite bring himself to go around talking brazenly of women’s chests as offensive weapons, or kicking elderly men aside as though they were merely obstacles in his path.
He tended to keep his distance from those lower-ranking officers. Most of them didn’t even read the morning papers, and after work they either went to loiter around casinos or headed for a sauna, frequently embarrassing him with rapes and corruption scandals. When he first took the job, he had arrived with intentions of straightening things up, but then, as it turned out, their deranged thuggery had come in handy. It was a time when cowering senior government officials sneaked into the mayor’s air-conditioned residence every day, to sit around and prattle endlessly about ‘measures’ for putting down the ‘disturbances’. Truth be told, if it hadn’t been for his elite unit, escorting those officials in through secret back alleys, none of them would have had the courage to set foot outside their homes.
A shameful, difficult period and yet also the most glorious moment of the commissioner’s life. He would never forget how the mayor had only ever spoken to him in whispers, under her breath. Once, when there was no one else around, she went so far as to place a hand lightly on top of his and say, ‘Apart from you, I have nothing.’
Now, the city was more or less stable again. The newly-appointed mayor had officially assumed the role and the slogans daubed all over the streets had been covered with fresh coats of paint; the city looked redecorated, like a new shop ready to open for business. The government had more or less regained control of the media, scrubbing internet footage of policemen ripping open young women’s clothing, or jamming their knees into the necks of youngsters lying prostrate on the ground, or barging into train carriages to beat passengers at random. The police PR team had proposed a total reform, by which they meant: uniform redesigns, new propaganda clips. The commissioner had given them the go-ahead, despite knowing it would all come to nothing when the men were out on patrol and caught sight of some nubile young girl, because no PR trick could prevent their mouths twisting into lascivious grins, or fix the blank insensitivity in their eyes.
The city had returned to ‘normal’, but was that really something to be happy about? The commissioner marvelled at his subordinates, who seemed not to have realised that with the disturbances quietened down and not one of them a hero, slain and immortalised in the process, they were more unattractive and superfluous than ever. They really didn’t get it: they were demons now, walking landmines, liable to cause eruptions of memory and hatred wherever they went.
The other day, inside the refurbished great hall of the mayor’s residence, foreign dignitaries had assembled around a dining table covered in a smooth white tablecloth and vases of freshly-cut flowers. The minister of foreign affairs for Country X raised his spoon to his mouth and then froze, failing to lower it again, and everyone turned to see what it was that prevented him from enjoying his food. In that moment, the commissioner could not bear the sight of the attendant police – all those craning heads, stretched high and mighty above their uniforms, with their haughty down-nosed glances. He wanted nothing better than to tie ropes around their necks and drag them all outside.
‘Replace them,’ the newly-appointed mayor whispered furiously into his ear, once the guests were looking down at their plates again, concentrating on their chestnut foam soup.
He reflected on this as he stood at the viewing window. Behind him hung a print of ‘The Legend of the Baker of Eeklo’. In the painting, pale green cabbages act as temporary heads, producing a cooling effect on the necks of their wearers, who are assembled quietly in a room waiting for the master baker to roll out new faces for them. Their original, inadequately dignified heads have been tossed aside, piled up like cabbages in a large wicker basket. How many will return to the necks of their original owners after their transformations, it’s hard to say.
But the policemen’s heads were more than just inadequately dignified. There were so many of them, all gathered together like that, and the commissioner was struck by an image of them as a grisly, ink-black ball pit, fit for a concentration camp. He removed a hand from one of his trouser pockets, a button was pressed, and the kind of mechanical arm usually seen in arcade games (only several times larger) slowly lowered, sending the heads into an instant frenzy. They surged towards the sides, shaping the pit into a funnel. The arm effortlessly seized two of them, and one had the misfortune of being flung into a metal shoot, clattering down it like a child might a slide, and then emerging at the other end, right by the commissioner’s feet. Without so much as putting on a pair of gloves, he bent down and lifted the head by its ears, inspecting first the left cheek and then the right, satisfying himself that it was sufficiently round. There was only one problem: the face was a little too familiar.
‘Tell me, are you 34218?’
The head did not answer. It simply stared back at him, eyes wide. When the disturbances had first broken out, the commissioner had permitted his underlings to wear face masks while out on law enforcement activities, and made it non-mandatory to display identification numbers; he wanted them unencumbered by fear of future repercussions. Could it be that the head had completely forgotten its own identification number? Watching the bloody news clips on his television screen, the commissioner had had to admit that he couldn’t say with any certainty whether the figures clubbing passersby in the streets and laying fires around the city were gangsters, protesters, or his own subordinates.
Looking at the head was making him nauseous. He pulled a white handkerchief from his pocket and draped it over the face, knotting it at the back.
‘Much better,’ he thought, turning to survey the observation room. He noticed a new recruit sitting in one corner, tasked with keeping watch.
‘You there! Time for a game of football!’
The recruit seemed reluctant. His legs did not immediately spring into action.
‘They’ve got no arms and no legs, they’re not going anywhere! If anything happens, it’s on me,’ said the commissioner, impatiently.
The recruit nodded meekly and followed the commissioner out of the room. He had such a young, innocent face that the commissioner felt briefly moved, almost called to reminisce about his own entry into the force, and his bright, noble ideals – for a fleeting moment his lips even parted, but then they sealed shut once again.
On the training ground outside the police station, the commissioner placed the head down on the rough concrete. One good, hard kick would be just the thing to shake his gloomy mood! But the head didn’t launch with the kick, and the commissioner erupted into loud shrieks.
Standing to one side, the recruit had a clear view of the head as it opened wide its mouth and bit down on the commissioner’s shoe. It was so ferocious that perhaps its teeth had even punctured the commissioner’s flesh? And yet the recruit was slow to intervene. Eventually, he pulled something from his waist and aimed it at the head. The head looked pained, the teeth unclamped, and the whole thing dropped to the ground.
‘Are you crazy? Pepper spray out here?!’
The commissioner’s face was screwed up in agony. He reached into his pocket for his handkerchief, only to discover that it was no longer there. The recruit passed him a towel. While the commissioner was busy wiping the unfamiliar liquid off his face (who knew what they mixed in with the pepper spray?), and before he’d had the chance to open his eyes, the recruit gave a vicious kick to their stand-in football. The head flew high into the air and quickly vanished from sight.
‘Sir, shall I get another head … football, get another football, or—?’
The commissioner finally battled his eyes open and made his way to a nearby bench. He waved, indicating that the recruit should go back to his post. The pain in his eyes and foot had not abated and he felt shaken, but he managed a grim chuckle, even while tears leaked from the corners of his eyes.
That would be his last day as commissioner, but where would he go next? It had recently become clear that he could not continue to live there, in the same place where he had grown up. Once, at a public event, a protester had thrown an egg at him, but it wasn’t until he was barred from entering the little noodle shop he had been going to all his life, and saw the look in the boss lady’s eyes, that he understood the extent of the city’s hatred for him. Not long ago, as a token of appreciation for his success subduing the unrest, the mayor had presented him with a shiny gold badge. Thinking about it now, he couldn’t help but wonder what malice had been lurking behind the mayor’s innocuous smile.
As for the heads in the transformation room, he decided not to give them another glance. For some time he had suspected that those dark black things would never pass inspection. They would have to be secretly transported to the reclaimed land by the harbour and dropped in the deepest part of the sea, to be covered in sand at the bottom. When the time came, there would be no national anthem, no flag-raising ceremony. If the matter ever came to light, he could imagine the fierce protests of nearby residents, furious at such deadly pollutants being dumped so near to their homes. In the end, the head kicked away by the recruit (most likely belonging to 34218) had been lucky. Perhaps it had ended up in the river? By now it would be a silent stone, lying perfectly still as shoals of little fish swam back and forth across its cheeks. The gentle current would eventually peel back the white handkerchief over its eyes and rinse them clean, smoothing out the creases of its face.