DE: Do you like duck?
AS: Duck or ducks?
DE: Duck. Like eating duck. As a meal.
AS: I’m actually vegetarian.
DE: I like this passage “The shrunken head lay at one end of the artfully presented slices, the skin shriveled around the sunken eye-sockets. It had been sliced in half and fell open to display the roasted brain, surrounded by little shavings of neck meat.”
AS: Could you not tell from that that there was some sort of aversion there?
DE: Ok, I guess that’s actually pretty obvious.
AS: I mean it’s partly because I’m vegetarian but also partly because I wanted to describe the character’s physical discomfort.
DE: It seemed quite ominous, yea. And she identifies with the lobster too.
AS: Actually, that came from a real visit to a restaurant. My first visit to a Beijing duck restaurant and I went with my friends who all eat duck. I just had the pancakes and the cucumber and stuff. But there was a seafood buffet in the lobby as we came in, and I remember this lobster just kind of sat there on the plate with its claws bound together and looking very miserable.
DE: I’m a meat eater, but it never increases my appetite when I see the creature I’m about to eat bound and struggling.
AS: I just felt sorry for it.
DE: So did you see this duck with its sunken eyeballs and shaved brain and all that?
AS: Yes, they did a very elaborate performance and they’d come in and they’d cut the duck in half and they’d slice all the meat and they’d arrange it on the platter. And they’d left the head but they’d shaved all the neck meat off and they just laid the spinal column and the head on the plate and they put the neck meat around it like a little sunflower.
DE: I didn’t think this story was set in China though, was it?
AS: It was set in China, yea. I didn’t send you the full story. But the full story is about a couple who go on a tour to China and the husband is very cautious, he’s not very adventurous, and insists on going on an organized tour. And his wife would much rather just explore by herself. So they’re already in this kind of captive situation, and then she’s having doubts about their marriage, and then she finds out that she’s pregnant, which makes her rethink her entire relationship with him. In the confines of this tour—the tour bus, the hotel room, the restaurant—she always feels very caged.
DE: Ah, that really puts this strange dinner into context. I love the husband, Henry. In the excerpt I read, there’s a passage where he goes up to get her wedding ring. It’s so passive aggressive the way he abandons her in a noticeable way so she’s stranded. And yet he’s so concerned with the ring’s symbolism. It’s like this cognitive dissonance.
AS: Yea, Henry’s a very complex character because I think he does care. And he’s so obsessed with the way things should be. And he’s also a devout Catholic and that really affects his view of the relationship and what is permissible and what he should enjoy or not enjoy. And he’s a very conflicted character inside, and he ends up taking it out on Jane in this passive aggressive way. He’s secretly disgusted with himself, but it all comes out against her.
This was based on a friend of mine actually, who was in a relationship with a Catholic man for several years, and she completely changed in this time. I found the psychological impact it had on her so interesting that I wanted to explore it.
DE: Knowing that they’re on some kind of packaged tour together is also interesting for how the characters relate to each other. I always hate forced interactions in these situations. Like for me, bed and breakfasts are a total nightmare. I hate the idea of having to interact with total strangers at breakfast, especially before coffee. Which is kind of like what this duck dinner is.
AS: Exactly. You have to talk to the other people on the tour bus. They’re people you wouldn’t normally associate with at home. You have to make conversation, otherwise it’s considered rude or you would create an uncomfortable situation for the rest of the trip. And I love uncomfortable situations. That’s what I write about. I love it when people are under pressure. I find it extremely interesting to see how they will react in that sort of situation. So in this story, the fact that they’re on the tour at all is because Jane gave in to Henry. She starts to realize that she’s given in to almost everything and she can’t do it anymore. I like the fact that the tour maximizes their discomfort.
DE: And that awkward abortion conversation…
AS: Another favorite topic of mine.
DE: Awkward abortion conversations?
DE: I did notice in the short stories you sent me, a thread of troubled or imperfect relationships.
AS: I just find it fascinating what situations people manage to get themselves into without really meaning to. I’ve met so many people in relationships that they’ve never even meant to be in in the first place, and then years later they’re still in them and they don’t understand why. They can’t get out of them. But there’s nothing physically stopping them from leaving.
DE: Although in “A Family Matter” there’s nothing physically stopping him from leaving, and yet he does find this very dramatic physical way of leaving the relationship.
AS: That story was my first real “China story.” I started focusing exclusively on Chinese people and their reactions to things. Because after four years of teaching English I had had so many very personal conversations with my students. And I’d heard so many amazing stories. Some incredibly shocking stories. Some just strange or uncomfortable. But I’d logged them all in my mind or I’d written them down. I wanted to use them, so that’s what the novel is about. It’s sort of a way to put all of these stories together into a coherent narrative. And show how they all relate to each other and to the pressures of society.
DE: You say a novel. Is “A Family Matter” (which appeared in the first issue of Spittoon Magazine as a short story) part of a larger work?
AS: Yea, that was the first chapter of the novel. I didn’t tell anybody, but at the time I didn’t really have a short story to submit, but I really wanted to send something to Spittoon. So I edited it down to 2,000 words and sent it in.
So he chooses to exit the relationship that way I think because if he ended his relationship, then it would have been his last relationship. He was 40. In China there is a last chance, and if that train leaves, you are a leftover, and it’s quite a harsh fact of life. I think he was just panicking.
DE: Was this story based on a specific person that you met? Or just a general societal thing?
AS: It was actually based on a newspaper article that I read quite a few years ago. It was very, very short which allowed me to imagine what had happened. All it had said was that there was a couple in a shopping mall. I think it was in Jinan? They were fighting and she accused him of being cheap. And he killed himself; he jumped off the railing. I was really moved by this. I looked, I did some research and I found pictures. Somebody had filmed it—obviously—someone always films a thing like this if you’re in China.
DE: Multiple people…
AS: Some quite horrific photos. There were a couple of other news articles but they were all short and they were all different. So nobody had got this man’s name right.
AS: Yeah, they were all different. Nobody got the age right. No one could agree on the details of his life but they all agreed on the details of the fight and the suicide.
AS: Very strange. So I don’t know who this man really was, but he intrigued me and I wanted to write from his point of view.
Anna Sowley is a Beijing-based freelance writer and journalist. She writes fiction and poetry and is currently working on a novel. She has a great love of trees.
He sat down in the room’s only armchair to wait for Jane to finish making-up in the bathroom. He could hear muffled, choked sounds of retching, followed by running water and the scrubbing of a toothbrush. If it was not bad enough to see a doctor, he reasoned, then it was surely not that bad. Jane emerged five minutes later. She was wearing more make-up than usual, he noted with disapproval, especially around her eyes, which seemed a little puffy. She had on a black dress which reached down to her feet but that plunged rather sharply down at the neck. It was only after they had left the room and were descending in the lift to the lobby where the coach party awaited them, that he noticed she was not wearing her wedding ring.
‘Where is it?’ he asked, rather sharply, gesturing towards her left hand.
‘Where is what?’ she replied, vaguely, looking down. ‘Oh! I must have left it in the bathroom. Shall I run back and get it, or is it too late? Are we late?’
‘We’re always late,’ he said irritably. ‘Always. We’re always the last ones to arrive. How do you think I feel turning up and knowing that we’ve kept everyone waiting?’
‘I’m sorry, Henry. I made a special effort to come out tonight. You know I’m not feeling well.’
‘Special effort? You weren’t even ready when I came back! You had the whole day to get ready. I was the one who had to wait to use the bathroom because you couldn’t be bothered to get ready in time.’ His voice has raised itself both in volume and in pitch. Suddenly the doors opened at the ground floor and he blushed scarlet, thinking that everybody in the lobby must have heard him. As it happened, nobody turned around, too busy chatting and clumping in the little groups they had formed at the very beginning of the holiday. Henry and Jane had somehow not been subsumed into any of these little detachments. There had been encounters, much as an iceberg might be struck by an unfortunate ship, but others would quickly sense something rather frigid about the couple – especially Jane, who made it perfectly clear she would prefer not to engage in conversation with any of ‘those people’ – and would redirect their course into less icy waters.
‘Wait here,’ he instructed her, in a sharp whisper. ‘I’ll get it.’ And he quickly vanished back into the lift. Jane stood in the lobby clutching her canvas bag, aware of eyes now glancing her way. A woman alone, it seemed, attracted more attention than a rowing couple. She did not even have to do anything; just to stand there was enough, an object exuding the desire to be looked at. Except she wanted nothing more than for everybody else to disappear. A few of them, she thought bitterly, could bloody well go and die. That fat Austrian woman with the beady eyes sunken in deep folds of wrinkled skin, who kept staring at her, just staring, as if she were waiting for the floor show to start. The young couple from Essex who worked in human resources, who took photos of everything to upload onto Facebook the same evening. The Reynolds. That awful pseudo-intellectual couple that Henry had tried so hard to ingratiate himself with, who clearly thought him a bore but who would smile unctuously whenever he approached. Henry. He had a ridiculous camera, a large, clunky thing, with a satchel full of lenses he had no idea how to use. The pictures would be nothing special because he never took the time to learn the art of taking them, but he always spent an inordinately long time pretending to operate the light meter and frame the shot, and set up his stupid tripod. Henry.
The ring was not on the basin. It was not in the bathroom at all as far as Henry could see, and he performed a thorough search. He did not like to consider the possibility that it may have fallen down the plug-hole, because it was an original, and a replacement, while looking the same, would not carry the same meaning, or symbolise the same things as its predecessor. It was as if all the vows they had ever spoken, the very essence of their relationship, had suddenly been contained in this one wedding ring. A very plain band of gold, very small to fit Jane’s slim finger, and engraved on the inside with a discreet ‘H & J’. Henry and Jane.
He caught sight of the bedside table where a pad of paper lay next to the telephone. In the waste basket were a few crumpled pages, and next to it, wedged between the table and the bed, was a glint of gold. He bent down to retrieve the ring, and as he did so noticed that the telephone pad bore the imprint of some heavy scrawling. Several things had been scribbled out and scored through so violently that the page underneath bore a tear. He hesitated, and then, as if conducting a forbidden ritual, fished the balls of paper out of the bin, smoothed them out, and lay them gently on the bed like a child. All he could make out after peering hard for several minutes, was a name and several random digits, obviously part of a bigger number. He threw them back, momentarily disgusted with himself for having stooped so low as to sift through rubbish for information which did not concern him. But he knew somehow that it did concern him.
They did not speak on the way to the restaurant. The coach was babbling with voices, and Jane watched the bright neon illuminated signs drift by the window in the dark. Then they were there, and they waited in the marble foyer to be shown to their table, waiters milling about in white jackets and little black caps, a trolley of live seafood on display, ready for cooking, everything so very fresh. A blue lobster struggled helplessly on ice, its huge front claws bound together with two strong elastic bands. Jane looked at it sympathetically.
The whole party processed as a military column to the large round table, blanketed like the waiters in a snowy cloth. The table, in spite of its inclusive shape, really was too big to facilitate conversation; voices launched across its vast expanse were lost in the general hubbub of the dining room, so people turned to their immediate neighbours. Henry had deliberately seated himself next to Colin Reynolds, though that gentleman did not show his annoyance except in a discreet roll of the eyes in the direction of his wife, Pru. This was not lost on Jane, and she carefully skirted the couple to sit on the other side of Henry, next to an accountant from Bath who had travelled on his own. She tried her best to make small-talk, and make herself agreeable, but her attention was riveted on the duck.
Three waiters had wheeled the glazed and crispy bird out on a trolley, and they stood ceremoniously sharpening their knives. The operation – and it was performed with surgical precision – took less than ten minutes, and everybody clapped as the last sliver of flesh was expertly cut away from the bone, leaving just the naked carcase exposed on the silver platter. It was almost indecent, Henry thought, and he was glad when the meat was placed on the table, and the skeleton was wheeled out again, to the kitchens. Apparently it would be boiled into the most delicious soup. Not one morsel wasted. Henry would approve, Jane thought. He approved of economy. The accountant was commenting on how wonderfully skilled the performance had been, and she replied mechanically that indeed it had been a very thorough job. Short of shaving it, you couldn’t have got any more from that animal. There was nothing left. He laughed, though she was not aware of having made a joke.
The shrunken head lay at one end of the artfully presented slices, the skin shrivelled around the sunken eye-sockets. It had been sliced in half and fell open to display the roasted brain, surrounded by little shavings of neck meat. It seemed to stare at Jane with reproach, its half-beak half-open in a plea for life, or a death-cry of pain. She shuddered and instinctively put her hand to her stomach, imagining it to be swollen and moving. Nothing had begun to show yet, but she felt changed nevertheless, as if something had invaded her body and set itself up to destroy her from the inside out. Abruptly she brought her napkin to her lips to step the involuntary flow of bile, and pushing her chair back with such violence that it toppled over, she ran unsteadily through the crowded restaurant towards the toilets.
Henry watched her with a mixture of surprise and horror. He blushed scarlet as the others looked to him for an explanation.
‘We thought she was much better… been going on quite a few days now… well, perhaps a week or more now I come to think of it… I must insist she sees a doctor, perhaps find a good international hospital… but we’re home in a few days. We’ll sort it out in London I’m sure.’
Pru Reynolds nodded sympathetically. ‘Do you know, I was exactly the same. Couldn’t keep anything down. Not even tea in the mornings. Awful time. In the end I decided I simply couldn’t go on, so I got rid of it. Very sad, but there it is. Sometimes your body just can’t take the strain. Some women aren’t built for it. I’m quite delicate, you know, internally.’
Henry looked at her stupidly, not making the connection. ‘And which hospital did you go to?’ he asked finally.
‘For the termination? Oh my dear, you don’t have to go to the hospital these days. It’s all done in such a civilised way in a private clinic. Very discreet, very convenient. Comfortable, you know. I don’t know what I would have done without it. Colin was such a darling about the whole thing. Brought me a packed lunch and everything, although of course I couldn’t eat it.’
Henry swallowed with difficulty and said, ‘I don’t think…’ but his voice trailed off, and he felt his hands start to tremble under the tablecloth.
‘Well, I’m sure it won’t come to that,’ Pru added, ‘It doesn’t always last long, so I’m told.’
In an impressive display of self-mastery, Henry concealed his bewilderment with a smile. He drew the conversation carefully back to the duck. In a moment, Jane was forgotten, and all eyes were, once again, riveted greedily on the meat. Henry dipped a slice into the dark plum sauce, and forcing himself to simulate pleasure, he chewed enthusiastically and kept up a steady stream of commentary – the exquisite flavours, the tenderness of the meat, the succulent juiciness, the delicious crispness. His praises rang hollow in his ears.