The Waxworker, by Nick Marland

Nick Marland is an award-winning writer of fiction and non-fiction who has appeared in Tincture JournalGoing Down SwingingSeizureThe Lifted BrowGriffith REVIEWVoiceworksStories of Sydney, the UTS Writers’ Anthology and ABC’s The Drum. He once tripped up Woody Allen and spent three days as an illegal alien in Belarus.

This story first appeared in Issue Eighteen of Tincture Journal. Please support our work and buy a copy today.

All images: Collection of the Museum Rietberg Zürich

Helen Bao-Jin Lei was sure the attaché, who never introduced himself, frowned when she introduced herself in fluent Mandarin. He definitely gave the translator who stood next to him a bemused look, as though a grand joke had been played on the whole of China. I thought she was from Australia? he said in his native tongue, as though Helen wasn’t there. He was young, aloof—aloof? no, snotty, self-important, someone’s nephew—and barely gave Helen a second look. He thumbed at his phone while the translator, a small diffident woman with long straight black hair, stepped forward to help the new arrival with her luggage, asking in English her about her flight. Why had they bothered to assign her a translator? The name hadn’t been a giveaway? Although she spoke to them in Mandarin, Helen’s ancestral dialect was Cantonese. This was her first trip to China but it felt like a homecoming—that was, if you lived in the kind of home where you suspected people were crouched behind the furniture listening and watching. The whole flight from Honkers she’d been wondering why she’d taken the job. Well, besides the ridiculous money. There was that.

From the back seat of the town car she watched the city fringe ooze across the tinted windows. Inside the bounds of the Fourth Ring Road, in a thick clot of crawling traffic, the car repeatedly overtook and was overtaken by a man on a bicycle with a pyramid of mangoes teetering on its back pallet. Rickshaws disappeared down alleys into the slums that someone such as the attaché would inform you didn’t exist in Beijing. There he was still thumbing his phone, crushing candy at dizzying speeds. It didn’t quite look like the official, Western version of the game: a crow kept flapping across the screen dropping more infuriating candy, and clusters of hanzi characters keep popping up proclaiming things like EXCELLENT or FAILURE. The translator looked to be browsing a homewares website, via a browser Helen didn’t recognise. Out on the street low-slung powerlines lashed to buildings that looked as though the bricks had fallen out of the sky and landed by chance in passable structures. People could be glimpsed cooking outdoors on grills and in fire pits. Inside the car, she noticed now, the air was lightly scented with fake lavender.

The stop at the hotel was brief, a glorified bag drop and hot towel wipe. Not even time for a late lunch, and she was starving. At the politburo the attaché disappeared, never to be seen again, and Helen was introduced to another figure, Huáng Wěi, a senior adviser at the Ministry of Culture. Unlike the last guy, whose name she’d already forgotten, Mr Huáng spoke good English and welcomed her in a more fulsome way. “I know you must be weary, but we’d like you to visit him now, if you will accept?” he said. “Get a feel for the job. Then rest. Then tomorrow we begin.”

Outside the mausoleum the line looked to be several hundred metres long, any sense of scale diminished by the brutal building. Visitors were prevented entry while Helen, Huáng and the translator climbed the stairs and entered through a low doorway that forced them to stoop as though in deference. Rows of white chrysanthemums in black buckets filled the small entrance hall, seven yuan a piece. Huáng threw a clatter of coins into the dish, handed Helen a flower and took one for himself. Inside the chamber, he asked the translator to allow them a moment. “She is just for appearances,” he explained to Helen. Two abreast, they approached the body with the requisite solemnity. Mao was draped in a red shroud, eyes closed, jowls sagging in an eternal doughy frown. Metres away at the head of the crystal case, four brown-suited military men stood at attention, assault rifles held across their chests.

“It’s going to be a challenge, but not a problem,” said Helen, regarding the body as a carpenter might a piece of lumber. “I brought a dossier of photographs of him when he was alive, so I should be able to get a likeness—”

“Alive? No one has yet disclosed to you the purpose of your trip?”

Was this a trick question? The offer had been to make a waxwork replica of Mao Zedong for a display. “More or less,” said Huáng. He reached out as though he wanted to touch the case, but merely twinkled his fingers at it. “This is the display.”

“I’m sorry?”

“I’ve seen pictures of your handiwork for Tussauds. You’ll do a superb job.” He made a light fist. “It must be superb.”

“What has to be?” she said, although she understood exactly what he was saying.

For decades the body on display in the crystal case at the mausoleum in Tiananmen Square had been rumoured to be a waxwork. In fact, it had been his preserved body lying there all along—lit a little strangely, perhaps, although you try anything you can to give mortified flesh the unnatural orange glow of life when it’s been dormant for forty years. It was unclear what had precipitated the recent rapid disintegration of Mao’s corpse. Those in the inner circle speculated that Beijing’s atrocious air had somehow seeped into the case and accelerated the degradation. “We have make-up artists with putty in here every second or third night just to hold him together,” said Huáng. “Underneath the shroud he’s just… no, it is a grim sight. Like a petrified tree, if you know of this, or perhaps some kind of sea urchin. In an odd way we should be glad, perhaps. It is fitting the deterioration of the Great Helmsman’s body owes a lot to the progress of China as a result of his legacy.”

Um, that was one way to spin it. To Helen, Mao’s legacy was the death of tens of millions, and people such as her grandparents fleeing to Australia. She hadn’t wanted to touch the job and venerate such a man, but the pay was too good for someone who was looking to scale back her work and spend more time on her own sculpting. So what, she figured: give them a dummy to chuck in the Beijing Tussauds, what’s the real harm, and maybe you can sneak a little subversive joke or two in there somewhere, a tiny dollar symbol in his iris, a hair for every thousand dead. But this? Now she realised why the pay was so good. They were really paying her twice: once for her exceptional skills, and once for her silence. It was too late to say no though, wasn’t it, nearly 10,000 km from home, in a place where people disappeared all the time.

§

The preparatory work had to be done at night. She was secreted into the mausoleum to take casts of his face and body, as well as photographs and sketches. She couldn’t work from historical photos. It was essential the Chairman had the same squashed desiccated features, the same eerie colouring, rather than any nostalgic allusions to blood in his veins. Millions of people visited each year. Nobody could be the wiser.

Speaking of eerie, the first night’s work was exactly that. Huáng showed her to the door, past the military guards, unmoved except for their eyes stalking her. He ushered her inside, locking the door behind them. Their torchlights panicked on the glass like those of thieves. She took some photographs of Mao in situ, Huáng pointing out the 禁止闪光灯摄影 sign several times until she asked with strained politeness how exactly she was meant to take photographs of him lying there, past midnight, without a flash. Didn’t matter: most of the shots were ruined by the flash’s flare on the crystal case. She wondered whether she had the pull, as a visiting ‘expert’, to request the case be removed. Before she had the chance to ask, Huáng clapped his hands and a half-dozen of the soldiers stomped in to remove the case, placing it down nearby before retiring to parts unknown.

It was time to make a death mask. Huáng promised to stay well out of her way, which lasted all of five minutes before he began asking Helen about her homeland. Why didn’t countries like Australia venerate their leaders the way China, or Russia, or Vietnam—“communist countries” he said, by way of belated encapsulation—did theirs? Suggesting that embalming some old dead man and placing him on public display was not the sign of a healthy collectivised mind didn’t seem appropriate for the circumstances. “Australia doesn’t take its leaders very seriously,” she said instead, the most diplomatic response she could summon in haste. Huáng wanted to probe her on why she thought that was but, really, she wasn’t interested, although she made a good fist of answers that would satisfy him: because we’re irreverent; because we don’t take politics seriously, sort of repeating herself there; because the last thing we want is to honour a politician; and, lazily, because we’re lazy. This last answer was delivered with the harrumph of a woman who had work to do, although within moments the application of the plaster to Mao’s face was complete and she had forty-five minutes spare to wait around, something that somebody like Huáng seemed to have a sixth sense for detecting. He was ready with photographs of his family and their home, a palatial two storeys replete with porte-cochère and fountain, dragons vomiting water into koi-filled ponds, the sort of house you’d almost expect a Chinese government official might live in. He talked about his son beyond the point where there was anything to say, and Helen realised she was meant to talk about herself. Which, oh, would you look at that, forty-five minutes were up and it was time to remove the death mask.

She made another mould of Mao’s face, in case the first hadn’t taken quite right. Best to be safe. She wasn’t sure how many opportunities she’d get to be with the… corpse? Could you even call it a corpse anymore, after forty years? He’d been embalmed, chemically treated, made up, spotlighted, tended to with putties. It recalled the story of the ship of Theseus, which she’d heard invoked at a university bar once in relation to some or other famous plastic surgery addict. As she smoothed the wet plaster with her fingers she noticed the curious silence. Huáng was asleep, leaning upright against the nearside wall. She was alone with Mao. For whatever reason, she hadn’t imagined she’d be this close, let alone have a private audience. A strange impulse began as tautness in her stomach and searched upwards towards her mouth, seeming to gain momentum at every step. She leaned over the former ruler.

“You prick,” she whispered. Where was she going with this? “Forty-five million people. I had great uncles and grandmothers who died because of you. And to you it was progress.” Was she chastising a corpse for genocide? No, she wasn’t sure if it was even a corpse any longer, and it wasn’t technically genocide, but the result of a program of societal makeover, in the worst of all possible euphemisms. “I want to spit on you,” she said to Mao, intended as one final condemnation before she resumed her professional demeanour.

That’s about the extent of what she said: venting at a body for acts it committed over half a century earlier. She did literally want to spit on him, but the thought of the sleeping Huáng metres away and the soldiers in the shadows gave her pause. So she waited another five minutes before slowly lifting the plaster mask from his face. The plaster had stuck around the brow and eyes, despite the petroleum jelly she’d rubbed into the brows and cheekbones to prevent this. When she pulled the mask free it looked as though the Chairman winked at her. Briefly alarmed as the long-dead flesh resettled into place, she wanted to laugh. Her eye wandered down the corpse a little and she noticed, on the breast of his tunic suit, peeking out over the hem of the shroud, a small microphone.

Jesus. She looked around panicked, although on some level also wanting confirmation. Well, maybe it was a microphone. She didn’t know. It could have been… what, a thermostat? A humidity monitor? You can’t have a corpse being humid. The thing winked at her!

When she calmed down a little, she realised how stupid it was thinking the twitch was a reaction to her quiet invective, rather than the tacky plaster bonding with the embalmed flesh. The human mind found the most bizarre explanations. When sanity resumed control, it was a sanity buffeted by near-constant waves of panic. She put the fateful second mask on the airing rack next to the first, then picked up the camera and took a few more shots of Mao from different angles, as though nothing was wrong. Each photo showed up on the screen as blurred and resonant, full of ghostly vibrations, quivering light and dark eddies of paranoia.

§

Back in her hotel room, Helen paced from door to window and back, no sound except the tamping of her feet on the pale carpet, until she startled herself with the thought that the room might be fitted out with cameras. So she readied for bed, outwardly cool but trembling, brushing her teeth, changing out of her clothes only as far as her underwear and hastily throwing on a silk robe, clambering into bed as though it were a womb and lying there awake for hours, faking sleep. Shadows moved across the curtain. Dry-mouthed, she got up and looked at the membrane of light beneath the door because she thought she heard footsteps in the hall.

She awoke to thunderous knocking at the door. Morning. A bellboy stood outside with a hooded plate of breakfast. She hadn’t ordered any. She sat alone staring at the plate of Eggs Benedict as it went cold, trying to discern any signs of tampering. How would you know if a piece of smoked salmon had been doused with poison? No, no, this was ridiculous: the Chinese state apparatus might be many things, but it wasn’t bumping off waxwork sculptors for whispering emotional late-night thoughts to a corpse. She hadn’t publicly denounced him, for Christ’s sake. She wasn’t out demonstrating. She was just here to do a job. They didn’t care what a foreign sculptor thought. She ate the meal, washing it down with a cup of green tea. Then, thinking better of it, she entered the bathroom without fuss, closed the door behind her, prostrated herself over the toilet and jammed her fingers down her throat.

In the studio, she worked up an armature of clay and chicken wire, the work doing something to soothe her. Huáng arrived, with little to say, not his chatty self of the previous evening. At one point he asked her what she thought of the workspace, and this civil question alone amid all the silences was enough to put her mind at ease, to make her think all the invisible armies out for her had been summoned back to their barracks, their poisons sealed, garrottes furled, guns holstered. Shortly after, he excused himself and left. The threats crackled anew within her. Perhaps he’d been softening her up? Or perhaps Huáng was lower-echelon, not even privy to the real power, secret police acting on instructions from the highest reaches of the state? She redoubled her efforts on the Chairman-Golem recumbent on the wooden slab before her, his head depressed with fontanelles where the clay had not been worked through or the armature needed strengthening.

On the second full day of work Huáng returned, this time with the translator and a cadre of five in military uniforms with fat, many-starred epaulettes. The generals from the Central Military Commission had a few general questions, but far from an interrogation their enquiries via the translator took the form of polite inanities—how was she enjoying her stay, did she have all the materials she needed and so forth. Helen bowed and nodded as they spoke, but surely they sensed her unease. Slick mud coated her hands. Before they left they saluted Mao, the unfinished clay Mao, and one of them told Helen in an upright, martial posture that such a great man deserves a noble likeness. She made some response, regrettably in English, about doing him justice, thinking it a facile remark sure to please them. But as she listened to the translator she was sure her meaning had been expropriated, that words had been transposed and her forced tone of respect recast as barbed sarcasm. Huáng showed the party out without so much as a glance back in her direction.

Days passed as she continued her work. Shadows loured across her curtain at night. She had no appetite. A cyclist nearly knocked her down outside the Forbidden City. Had the woman been aiming at her? Looking for a new coat in the Sun Dong An Plaza, she was sure she noticed a man frequenting the same women’s fashion stores she did.

Taking a break from working Mao’s jowls with a chrome spatula, she sent a message to a girlfriend back in London: I feel like I’m being watched. Not long after, Huáng visited, a broad smile and bouncy demeanour. He apologised for his brusqueness days earlier when showing through the chieftains. “Nerves, you understand. Those were some very important people within the Party.” Well then. Was this genuine remorse, or a fake-out to entrap her? Huáng said he thought she seemed perturbed. Had he intercepted her text? What could she say? Are people following me? Even the thought seemed a risk. Why had she even sent that message? Was that why he’d suddenly shown up? Mao’s disembodied head on its stand seemed to scowl at her even with its eyes sculpted closed.

She oversaw the waxwork rendering at a factory outside Beijing. The whole floor had been cleared and the building locked down, save for her and a man who poured the hot wax into the head moulds under her direction. Their eyes frequently met over the rim of their breathing apparatus. She wondered whether he’d signed clauses ensuring his silence, or whether as a resident his silence was assumed. Was he selected on the basis of being a family man with much to lose? The process was such—the head moulds set piece by piece and assembled later, back in the studio—that he could have been oblivious to the identity of the subject, his suspicions piqued only by the empty factory and preponderance of Party functionaries and apparatchiks talking into their sleeves. Once the wax cooled she almost shouldered him out of the way to pry them into their plastic sleeves and pack them in her case, lest he be exposed to the sculpture’s identity and compromised. At the workshop she cradled the fat waxen head in her hands, fitting it to the reinforced plaster body. The moment felt almost tender.

There was no ceremony. The last of the crowds filed past the body in the late afternoon, the unhealthy sky glowing cerise. The next morning his waxwork likeness, Helen’s labour of loathing, was at eternal rest behind a layer of polished crystal, viewed by thousands who had come in pilgrimage from all over the country and all across the world. Helen agreed to go and view him in situ, she didn’t know why, and from every angle he made her feel hypocritical. Never mind. She was only a day from flying out to Hong Kong, and then on home to Sydney to visit her family. The supposed plots had come to nothing. She had to restrain herself from imagining the feeling of relief she would feel buckled into her seat, cup of wine in hand, watching the ground fall away.

On the morning she was to leave, a man and a woman, each in a black suit, stopped her in the hotel lobby. The woman she recognised as the translator, the one whose presence had been a fake-out to begin with, now standing there in front of Helen and asking her to accompany them. “Are you police?” asked the sculptor, her stomach hardening like clay in a kiln. “Madam, can you please come with us?” repeated the ‘translator’ in gangly English, her tone even. This was it. In a year her friends would be on the news demanding answers, the Foreign Affairs department firing off tersely worded diplomatic missives. Amnesty International would be calling it a human rights violation, while some Chinese official would spin stories about her obtaining state secrets and being held awaiting trial.

They took her to a three-storey building rendered in imitation porphyry. A small guard’s hut at the gate was the only clue the building was of any significance. Her escorts led her below street level to an office where Huáng sat waiting behind a small desk. A row of narrow windows ran along the cornice, the kind where you would have seen foot traffic crossing back and forth, were people ever allowed to get close enough to this building. She seated herself at his invitation, her chest rattling hot. He offered her a drink. Water was brought to her promptly without a further word exchanged. She sniffed at it and set the glass down on the floor.

He thanked her for the job she’d done. Not getting much of a reply, he asked what her experience had been like. “Be honest,” he said. With nothing to lose, with a quivering voice she began to list her grievances and fears, only making it as far as item two or three before Huáng burst into laughter. “Ms Lei,” he said, “that is a fertile mind you have.” She was kept tabs on as a matter of course, he said, but nobody had been actively following her, let alone trying to harm her.

“This was a business transaction,” he said. “You have a skill, and we have paid you for it. It’s not seditious to criticise a corpse. Modern China is many things, I am the first to acknowledge, but times have changed. This country won’t rule the twenty-first century on old cant. This is not to say we don’t deal with our share of dissenters,” said with such casualness that it made her shudder. “There are people, pustules on the rump of the state, who go around saying such things publicly, or questioning the way things are. Believe me, if you had announced such things in public as you whispered to him we would not be talking so civilly as we are now. But this is the point, miss. People might think these things, but they dare not say them or act on them. We don’t care a bit about what people think, but they will not defy the will of the state. Mao long ago ceased to be a hero to the Party. We live differently today. The Party outlived his ideology, but not his usefulness.”

He told her a story. During the 1960s, a visiting politician from Pakistan brought with him a case of mangoes. Mao, knowing an opportunity when he saw one, forwarded the fruit to workers at a university campus here in Beijing as a symbol of gratitude. Beside themselves, the workers distributed a piece of fruit to each of the nearby factories. They were handled as relics. One of them was sealed in wax to preserve it and placed on a pedestal for the workers to march past in bowed reverence. When the mango began to rot, it was boiled in water and the resulting weak juice was ladled into mouths as some succour-giving elixir. A symbol could always be boiled down, reconstituted, given new life and meaning no matter its form.

“Your sculpture will lie here another two hundred years watching over the people,” he said. “They will file past it pledging unyielding respect. It’s an advantage your captains of industry in the West wish they had: a unifying, venerated figure binding the people in work and obedience. Your society uses distractions, gadgets, sports and entertainments to keep the masses docile… but the people still have certain, how might you say, expectations. A strong sense of self. They are about the individual. There is no call to anything greater. China has all useful these distractions, too, but it also has the Great Helmsman.”

The real Mao’s body, Huáng informed her, had been cremated as per his long-ago wishes, the ashes interred in Shaoshan, the town of his birth. He urged her to visit the next time she returned, which she was certain would be never. “Not only the birthplace of Mao,” he said, “but Mao’s Family Restaurant. Very successful chain.” She wasn’t hearing him. She wanted to leave. The image came to her of the fumes seeping out of Mao’s crematorium, forty years’ worth of embalming-fluid vapours shimmering up into Beijing’s tar-thick air, seeding the wind with new fears and delusions.

 

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