In a nineteenth floor flat of a tenement block, Yangdi Li's tapered fingers cascaded down his upright piano towards the concluding cadence of the Chopin ballade. As his hands flew off the joyous final chord, he swung backwards, thrusted his chin heavenward.
Grey on grey clouds suffocated the city of Shenzhen. His mother cleared her throat and opened the window of the concrete room to change the air. The rude sounds of beeping, clanging, banging and shouting attacked their ears; Yangdi covered his to keep them fresh.
"It's already six," she said, stroking his back. "Let's go and get you measured up for a suit."
Yangdi stood up and stretched, tired from five hours of practice. "Are we going to Annie's?" he asked.
"Yes," Madam Li replied, and for a moment she thought she heard the creak of the squeaky doors of where Annie and Tailor Ma had first lived, in a cupboard under the fire exit stairs opposite her flat.
Yangdi had been two then, she and her husband had recently arrived from the countryside themselves. She remembered being in a noisy newly-opened shopping mall, Yangdi pulling her towards a blind musician who was accompanying himself on an accordion. The plaintive melody of Hui Niang Jia transported her straight back to the icy nights of her native village, and the sparks of fire as her grandmother poked the sullen embers of the brazier:
In my left hand, a chicken,
In my right hand, a duck,
How can I find my mother?
Her husband had tossed a few cents into a mud-soiled hat and the blind man had continued with an instrumental piece, his beatific face tilted, resting on his accordian like a weary laughing Buddha.
Her eyes had accidentally met a slip of a man's. He was wearing broken leather sandals, with dirty plastic bags in one hand, and a petite peasant woman in the other. Madam Li quickly averted her gaze to a poster of Deng Xiao Ping – defiant fist raised - proclaiming that to get rich was glorious. But Tailor Ma was beside her, there was a nudge of her elbow, and his gentle beseeching voice: "My wife hasn't eaten today," he said.
Madam Li's husband tried to shoo him away, but Tailor Ma wouldn't budge. "We arrived last week but have been cheated of our savings... two thousand yuan for a certificate to work as a tailor...it was a trick. Annie's found work, a waitress, starting tomorrow... we'll have some money tomorrow...we've nowhere to sleep...."
Yangdi had stopped sucking his sugar cane; he was shocked by the stream of tears furrowing down Annie's face. He reached out to hug her, grasped her legs, banged his front teeth on her knees. "Aunty crying," he said.
Madam Li knew her husband wouldn't agree, but offered anyway: "I know a place. Come back with us. And here's five yuan for some food."
Tailor Ma and his wife had moved in under the stairs that night. Madam Li didn't make a note of how long they stayed. Her instinct - that they were a good couple who had hit bad luck - proved correct when, one Chinese New Year a few years later, Tailor Ma had called to thank her and tell her they had set up a tailoring business in Lo Wu Shopping Mall. Madam Li's husband, recently returned from his work in Hubei for the festival, grudgingly wished them good fortune.
That evening, Tailor Ma was in 'Annie's', squatting on his haunches cutting a swathe of cotton. Their shop was one in a row of thirty, separated from each other by sheets of dirty glass and rows of headless mannequins.
"Fa cai le, we're rich,' Annie was saying. "Mrs Lola's order is worth three hundred thousand yuan. That's enough for a down payment on a flat."
Tailor Ma shook his head. "Five thousand shirts in one month? Impossible!"
"You turtle egg, we'll subcontract."
Tailor Ma stood up, fist clenched around scissors. "Where's the money for the material?"
"I've already accepted the deposit," Anne hissed, as Madam Li and her son approached.
Annie smiled. "Eiya, how he's grown! He's eighteen now, right? Still got those cute dimples!" Her permed hair bounced attractively off her shoulders and Yangdi's cheeks burned as two melodies twisted themselves seductively around his head.
"He's going to Poland to play in an international piano competition," Madam Li said.
"Poland. Where's that?" Annie asked, drawing up two plastic stools for them, ushering them inside.
Tailor Ma shifted the cotton to clear a space in their tiny shop. He studied Yangdi as he entered; as tall as him now, shy. He recalled lying on the concrete floor of the stuffy store cupboard under the stairs, swigging rice wine, drunk with the pleasure of the boy's piano-playing. The only music he had heard before was the wailing of suonas at funerals. Yangdi's melodies had been the backdrop of nightly lovemaking with Annie; after all, what else could they do in six-square feet and no electricity? His wife usually fell asleep quickly, leaving him to travel to a peaceful place where rice grew tall and willow trees swayed. How he longed to escape back into that world, that small simple world where they didn't argue all the time!
"An international competition? Wah, incredible!" Annie chunnered on, picking some stray threads off a pin cushion.
Tailor Ma laid down the scissors and stood up. "Yangdi, I'm going to make you the finest suit you've ever seen," he said. "And Madam Li, you're to have an exquisite evening dress."
"Oh thank you, but I really don't need one," Madam Li said.
"You're not going to Poland too?" Annie asked.
"No, my work unit won't give me time off...I don't have a passport... Yangdi's piano teacher is accompanying him. It'd be so expensive," she added wistfully.
For a week, Tailor Ma's Singer sewing machine clickety-clacked from dawn to dusk. He had chosen cashmere wool from Xinjiang for Yangdi's suit and the softest cotton available for a matching shirt. He lined the jacket and trousers with silk from Hangzhou, and a piece of starched fabric deftly inserted into the collar made it stand up as stiff as a warlord's. He added darts to the back of the shirt and, as an afterthought, covered all the buttons so they matched the cuffs.
He hadn't measured Madam Li but his expert eye could estimate her proportions and the tucks and pleats of the silk gown he designed for her would hide any slight mismatch.
Every night on the way home he passed their old tenement building. Musical notes spilled from a brightly lit window on the nineteenth floor – their message of struggle and resolution resonated in his bones
On a cloudy, humid day, Yangdi went for his fitting. The guard at the lobby of their building was swearing because his filthy fan wasn't working; Madam Li frowned at his bad words. The cleaner hadn't yet arrived so the street was strewn with polystyrene lunch boxes, plastic water bottles, snack wrappers and spit. The jackhammers had started their daily battle with the tarmac to create another underground station. But Yangdi pedalled his bicycle to the tempo of a Mozart rondo that gave music to the blackness of Annie's hair, the sadness in Tailor Ma's eyes.
At the pre-arranged time, Tailor Ma was nowhere to be seen. Annie's hair was screwed back in a ponytail and her eyes were red and puffy. "We've been cheated!" she snivelled, when Madam Li eventually persuaded her to talk. "Mrs Lola cancelled the order... two thousand shirts have already been made...don't know how we are going to pay for them... when I told husband, he was mad to death."
"Where is he?" Madam Li asked.
"I don't know, we've received a few funny phone calls. But he's finished your outfits," said Annie, managing a crooked smile. With a bamboo stick, she hooked three hangers suspended from a pole on the ceiling – one with the suit on, one with a shirt and the other with a sapphire blue silk qi pao embroidered with golden thread.
All the clothes fitted perfectly. "Tailor Ma won't accept payment for it," Annie said, as Madam Li fondled her gown lovingly.
"How can I repay you?"
Annie shrugged her shoulders. "Ask Tailor Ma," she said miserably.
It was the Dragon Boat Festival and Madam Li cycled to Lo Wu Shopping Centre with a bag of home-made zongzi dumplings swinging on her handlebars. She took the lift to the fifth floor, waving off the usual crowd of sellers who tried to pull her towards their wares.
Is their shop open? she wondered; it appeared a little dark. She peered inside: no one was there. The owner next door was sitting on a three-legged stool slurping a bowl of noodles. "Closed since Monday," she said, turning to swat a fly.
Madam Li cycled home and told Yangdi, who firmly closed the door of the piano room and didn't come out until dinner time. Anger and anxiety for Tailor Ma and Annie's safety swirled around his head. Since leaving school to prepare for the competition, his social circle had shrunk to his mother and them, plus his piano teacher.
He started playing. Hard sonorities splashed like water over stone. Harmonies thickened into thick dissonances and melodies clashed in contrasting keys. He hammered the keys with such force he thought his fingers would break.
Four days later, there was still no answer from the Ma's and their shop remained closed. When it was reported on the TV news that gangsters had shot two people in the back of the head and dumped their bodies in a ditch, Yangdi banged his chopsticks down on uneaten noodles. "I'm not going to Poland until Tailor Ma and Annie are found," he said.
That night when Madam Li went to drop off the rubbish at the back stairs she smelt a strong whiff of rice wine. She stopped and listened. A few seconds later there was a scraping sound, was it a rat? No, hard on hard, stone against stone, maybe. It was coming from under the stairs. Her instinct was to call the police until a suspicious thought entered her mind. "Tailor Ma?" she whispered nervously. "Tailor Ma, is that you?"
The door opened and Tailor Ma's stooping head and shoulders appeared. His hair was neatly parted at the centre and he wore a clean well-fitting shirt. Inside she saw a half-empty bottle of gaoliang liquor, a glass and a flattened cardboard box on which he had been sitting.
"Did the qipao fit?" he asked, as if it was quite normal for tailors to appear from store cupboards.
"Yes, thank you," she replied. Before she could say anything more, Yangdi was at the front door of the flat. His lips cracked into a smile when he saw Tailor Ma. "Where's Annie? Is she OK too?" he asked.
Tailor Ma told them that Annie was hiding in their flat. "We're being chased by debt-collectors...someone splashed red paint on our front door...we've managed to pay off most of the debt ... we'll reopen our shop once we've paid everything off."
Madam Li knew her husband definitely wouldn't approve, but he wasn't in Shenzhen. "Yangdi is leaving for Poland next Tuesday. Why don't you and your wife come to dinner on the night of the finale? Yangdi's piano teacher will call me to tell me how he does."
"Tai hao le, very good," Tailor Ma replied. Even if the loan sharks hadn't swum away by then, he would come.
It was the final round of the competition. The previous ones had gone better than expected. The television cameras were whirring, the orchestra finished tuning, and the audience decrescendoed to an excited hum, all waiting for the young Chinese prodigy to enter the concert hall.
Yangdi peered out of the small window of the backstage door to check where his piano teacher was sitting. Caressing a button on his jacket, he conjured up the sweet smell of his mother's freshly steamed pork and spicy Mapo tofu, of Tailor Ma and Annie sitting at his dining table eating to their fill. His mother's eyes were bright with laughter; the golden butterflies were drinking nectar from the peonies embroidered on her gown.
With a flick of his curly hair, he followed his legs to the piano.
To Yangdi, poised on the piano stool, dazzled by the stage lights, I am in the hush of the audience, the cold chill of the pipes in the organ loft.
I am the swish of the conductor's baton, the smoothness of the ivory keys, the thud of the clarinet's soft felt pads, the vibrations of gut strings.
I speak to him in tailored phrases, poignant chords, subtle enharmonic shifts. Like a river flowing to the sea, so my sweet sounds surge, gush, rush.
Yangdi plays to the blind man's song, the mysterious fullness of Annie's hair, the drooping eyebrows of Tailor Ma.
He sings with the sweep of the streetsweeper, the clamour of the shopping mall, the chattering of sewing machines, the tinkle of his mother's laughter, her thirsty butterflies.
I am Yangdi's voice, the melodies and rhythms that twist around his head.
I thrum to him, even in the ugly city of Shenzhen.
I thrummed to Tailor Ma too. He heard me.
And I thrum to you, dear writer. I was the sweat of your musical labour, your mother's vocation, your father's downfall. We have celebrated in concert halls, worshipped gods in cathedrals, rejoiced with the young lovers on their wedding day, pacified the old as they departed.
I am your kernal, the pulp of the fruit that gives your life beauty, the skin that surrounds and contains.
I will sing to you on the lonely nights when your lover has parted. I will serenade you with the lute of Orpheus from the heavenly spheres.
I am the inspiration for this story. I entreat you to listen.
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