BEWARE OF THE CHINESE

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As usual Blister woke up very early. The weather forecast on the telly had predicted a luminous sky, but the chilliness of the previous day was still there, making him shiver under the blankets. Of the new day merely a faint grey line was visible along the pole of the heavy curtains.
He felt old and sick and it appeared to him he had just managed to stay alive during the night. His bones, especially his loins, were aching. The pain worked like an alarm. By dawn it grew so violent it started ringing.
Not until the afternoon he began to feel a bit better.
"I don't feel very well today, Jacinte," he said, looking sideways at the pillow on which the head of his wife had been resting for nearly fifty years. Over two years ago she had passed away in her sleep. That very morning she had not reacted to his usual complaints and since then he had grown familiar to getting no answers from her. Besides, Jacinte never had been very talkative and in fact, when you turned to God, He didn't answer either.
A painful thought passed his blurred mind. Today he couldn't go out for his usual walk. His daughter Rose had arranged that the brothers would arrive with their car at about eleven to take him to one of the aged persons' bungalows.
Moaning he looked around in the scantily furnished room where the light was still dull and grey. Besides the double bedstead there were just a chair with his clothes on it and a cardboard box with rubbish the dustlorry presently would collect.
He put his thin legs outside of the bed. In stead of the soft rug he felt the splintery roughness of the boarded floor. He cursed and for some time didn't move, sitting on the edge of the bed, his head leaning on his folded hands.
"That's what they call democracy, dear," he said and spat on the floor. "We've got to move, mind you."
The previous year the Senate had passed the Act of Aged Persons (AAP). One of the vehemently disputed articles said that aged persons requiring help, after having been examined by a geriatrist, even against their will could be removed to a home consigned for that purpose. There they would receive all care including medical attendance. So a few months earlier Blister was ejected as medically unfit for ordinary life and sentenced to a lifelong attendance by others.
"It's your heart," the geriatrist had coldly declared, an irritably smooth-skinned young man who could have been his grandson. "And your legs show all phenomena of arteriosclerosis. Quite possible that within half a year you won't be able tot walk anymore." And that was that.
"You know, Jacinte," Blister mumbled, "for the last few days I've been wondering if you really want to go to that damned bungalow. You've seen for yourself what kind of room we'll get there, just a furnished loo all shiny white.
Just now he realised that for a good while he had been hearing thundering sounds far away. They seemed to advance and sounded more like a continuous series of explosions than like a thunderstorm in summer.
"Do your hear? Must be one of those manoeuvres because of that Chinese menace they're talking about all the time."
Suddenly - just above his head - a great many jetfighters skimmed the roofs, tearing the sky apart en roaring like mad. A window next-door was flung open and he heard a shrill voice shouting something, apparently to neighbours at the other side of the street. Everyone was awake now. Dogs were barking, doors were opened, radio- and television reporters vomited their ominous news between the houses and seconds later the backyards were buzzing and bustling with life. The piercing cry of a child went up from below like a blow-pipe, seeming to anticipate the heavy explosion that followed.
"Must see what's on, Jacinte." Blister grabbed his slippers from under the bed, put them on his blue-veined feet and stumbled over to the curtains. The soft grey haze of the summer morning made the old, high-pitched houses seem unreal. Above the roofs the sky was blazing now and again and all porches and windows showed white motionless faces, getting sharp contours by each flash.
"Must be something wrong," he muttered. "Pity they've removed our telly set and radio. We don't know what's going on now. Maybe there's a war going on. Alright my dear, I'll get dressed."
Muttering and mumbling he went through the ritual of washing, shaving and dressing, the daily pursuits which exhausted him so badly that he had to rest for a while before putting the kettle on for his morning-coffee. He sat breathing heavily on one of the left over kitchen chairs to relax. In the backyards the talking went on and on - war, war, war - and by fits and starts the nervous voices of the reporters were audible with in the background unremitting thundering noises, remembering him of blankets once being beaten by him and his wife.
"Imagine dear, the two of us having to face another war! At our age! Yes dear, did I smile? Did I?" Blister's face expressed mystery as he turned the tap, pouring water into the kettle. "Coffee first, than I'll tell you."
To tease Jacinte he went slower than usual through all he had to do. Not until the steaming cup of coffee was standing before him on the unpainted deal table and only after having a first sip he turned round. "You know Jacinte, it's like this..."
A loud clanking at the front door prevented him from telling what is was like.
"Dear me! Why doesn't he give the bell a ring, I'd say. We've got a bell." Blister got to his feet and crossing the hall, which looked rather bare and dusty without floor-covering, shuffled to the front door.
"Rose?" Surprise in his grating voice. "What are you here for so early? Yesterday you said..."
She was awfully nervous and looked as if she had slept with all her clothes on. Her uncombed hair curled wildly around her white gleaming face. "The bell, it isn't working!"
"Gone west, to China I suppose," he said dryly.
"Oh Dad!" She put her arms around him and with her head on his shoulders sobbed her heart out. "Dad! It's war! The Chinese... Terrible. Around the corner houses aflame. And Janek... he has been called up. It came trough the telly. He... he..."
Gently he disengaged her arms and took his daughter by the elbow. "Come on in, baby, come on in. Yes, I heard something. Just came out of bed. Thundering noises. Thought they were training..."
In the kitchen she flopped down on a chair. "Training? Did you really think it was training?" With a cloak-and-daggery touch she lifted both her thick arms towards the scaling ceiling. "Didn't I tell you, Dad? You're too old to live on your own. You're not of this world anymore. Didn't you hear the explosions, the planes, those horrifying bangs? Ohhh, Oh Janek... Janek!"
Her head banged down on the table and made the cup which he had put there jingling on its saucer.
Blister's old stained hand stroked her broad back and with a weary smile he looked down on her. Poor old Rose. If anyone had grown old it was Rose. That strange fat woman, was she really the little girl he remembered to have seen tripping into the room with her first ballet suit on? He had been able to span her waist with his thumbs and middle fingers then.
"Everything will be alright again, Rose, believe me," he said gently, but the tears were running into his throat because Rose would never be alright again, small and delicate as she once had been.
"Everything all right? You don't know what you're talking about, Dad! Those Chinese, millions of them are dropping from the sky, just like clouds of grasshoppers." She sat up, pulled a large hanky out of her tasteless dress and started rubbing her patchy face.
"Drink your coffee Rose, drink your coffee babe. It's getting cold."
She stared over his right shoulder, probably at some theatre of war, and casually put the gruff white cup at her mouth. "They should come at eleven, shouldn't they, the brothers," she said.
"Yes, at eleven," he assented. "I hope they'll come. You never know now."
Rose straightened, breathed a deep sigh which made her weighty bosom heave. "I'll call them again, Dad. Don't worry... Oh..." She slammed her hand over her face and started crying again.
He thought himself cruel, looking so silently at her without a word of comfort. In fact he resented all of her, the quivering mouth, the twitching of her face, her square body without any curve between upper part and hips.
"You've got to go Rose, you've got to go home dear if you want to give them a ring." He pushed her gently out of the kitchen and willingly she let him guide her to the front door. Gathering himself he kissed her on the wet cheek and waved her goodbye until she disappeared, wobbling round the corner.
"That was our Rose, Jacinte, can you imagine?" he mumbled passing their bed on his way back to the kitchen. "But they won't come at eleven dear, definitely not. We'll stay here, the two of us, won't we?"
He muddled along through the house to inspect the furniture. "Not much, but we can manage I suppose." He counted on his fingers to show her. "A bedstead, a table to eat at, three ordinary chairs, some knifes, spoons, forks, just enough plates and cups. Must be careful not to drop anything! But no telly and that's a pity really. Otherwise we could have watched the war. Now I've got to get out for it."
He rubbed his bony hands. "Yes, I'm alright. I feel better than in months. I'm off dear. Won't be long."
At the front door he watched with quiet amusement the people in the street. They didn't look at each other but stared stone-eyed at the direction where the flat scorched countryside began. Finally one of them saw him and nodded automatically.
Doddering he filled his pipe and went carefully down the three stairs of the doorstep, putting one foot down, seeking support for his cane on the next stair and then putting the other one down. Foot by foot he shuffled beyond the men and women towards the main road. One of the women shouted: "Grandpa, did you hear the news?"
A weary smile creased his cheeks and he shook his head as if to say: Dear oh dear, isn't it hard having to face another war at my age.
Along the main road there were the inquisitive, the brave ones and the sensation mongers. They all watched the West where the horizon continually was marked by fierce flashes and now and again flaming objects were curving towards the earth.
"Where do you go, grandpa?" he heard a man's voice shouting. "Come back! It's too dangerous!"
Blister turned round and staggering on his feet he pointed with his cane at the horizon as if that gesture explained everything.
"You're senile, man!" shouted the same man. "They're coming this way!"
"Senile?" he muttered and once more pointed at the horizon. If only they wouldn't come after him.
He knew precisely where to go, to the canal which had been used for irrigation in his youth. Since many years there was no water in it and he was convinced that the Chinese would march both along the main road and the dry concrete bed. They were as sneaky as the Vietcong he had been fighting long ago. He let himself down on the bank of the dry canal and refilled his pipe.
After some time the reward for his patience and insight came along. Not very far off a machinegun started sputtering and above the bed a tenuous smoke was rising, riddled with red flashes. As the shooting grew to a full orchestra and the shell fire and bombing-attacks made the earth shake on which he sat and filled the air with screeching noises, he was breathing a bit faster. Barely at a distance of some hundred yards dingy fountains of sand and stones began to darken the frail sunlight.
Suddenly out of the cloud of dust and smoke emerged some jeep with two or three countryman in it, tearing along the concrete bed. More cars of all different kinds of shape and size followed, manned by besmeared, exhausted soldiers, looking back in terror and searching the slopes on both sides. On top speed some tanks came rolling along, roaring and rumbling, making Blister's pipe rattling between his false teeth.
None of them seemed to notice him.
There was a gap of ten minutes or more. The smoke lifted slowly and the sun began to shine a shade brighter than before. So the flat strange vehicle was already visible when it was still a long way off. It was nearly eleven now, he saw on his wrist.
Hardly ten yards from the place where Blister was sitting the vehicle stopped and the Chinese jumped out. The first minute they didn't see him and he could observe them at ease. Small men they were with flat faces doing silently and efficiently what they had to do. The driver parked his car in an inlet of the bank as two others - there were four of them - were looking for cover at the other side of the canal. The tallest, probably an officer, climbed the slope at Blister's side, his field glasses ready, and suddenly became aware of the old man.
Laboriously Blister scrambled to his feet and before he had managed to straighten he was surrounded. They produced strange sounds and gesticulated in a puzzling way.
Blister nodded with a smile and began to shake hands. He had to grab them really. "Chinese good," he said, "Chinese very good. Bravo!"
They smiled back and again they shook hands. The officer unbuckled one of his bags, grabbed a colourless packet of cigarettes out of it and offered him one.
"Thank you." Blister shook his head, showed his pipe and smiled again.
Once more they started gesticulating, pointing at the sky. "Bang, bang!" One of them dropped himself in the yellow grass and simulated with a flat hand a plane skimming his helmet.
"Yes, yes." He got the idea, pointed at himself and then in the direction of his home. "Chinese good," he said again. "May I go now?"
They waved him away.
Barely half an hour later he was back in the built-up area. Cars with Chinese soldiers patrolled along the streets, chasing everyone into their houses. They shouted at him as well, commanding him with loud strange voices.
He nodded smilingly, raising his cane into the air by way of salute.
Eventually at home he crawled into his bed, exhausted by the firm walk, his limbs trembling vigorously. With a smile around his lips he fell asleep.
"You like it, Jacinte, still being in our own house?" he said the following morning. "We owe that to those Chinese, don't we? By the way, do you happen to know where I left my comb? Oh yes, indeed, on the window-sill."
He tried to get his sparing hairs into fashion. "For years I hadn't such a good laugh as yesterday I think," he said to the mirror that twitched his face in a grotesque way every time he moved. "Nice boys, very nice boys they were." And then louder: "They even offered me a cigarette, Jacinte!"
Blister didn't complain about the Chinese occupation. His needs were limited - a bit of tobacco, three slices of bread and a well-sized bowl of soup a day. Oh yes, and coffee of course.
When the people were allowed to go outside again there had been a run on the supermarkets and at last they hadn't left a grain of rice for the mice.
Rose appeared to be very useful now. With her mighty elbows she had digged into the ribs of meticulously dressed gentlemen, had pushed ladies aside and even saleswomen who had tried to tell her they'd run out of everything. So she had managed to get hold of a considerable stock and she let him share in a generous way: tobacco for a month and coffee ditto.
"Dad," she said on the third day of the occupation, I've talked to those brothers, remember? Well, it's altogether out of the question for them to fetch you or to bring back your things from the bungalow. The Chines have requested all cars, they said. Do you hear, dad?"
"Yes, yes Rose, sure. What a mess Rose. What have I got left after all." He counted on his fingers to show her: "One bedstead, a table, two rickety chairs. Compare that with the well-furnished rooms I would get there!"
Once you'll get there, ad," she tried to comfort him. "Janek also did return, didn't he? And without having to shoot or something. So..."
"Once," he muttered.
"Dad," she said on the tenth day of the occupation, "I've got a surprise for you. No, I won't tell you. Tomorrow you'll see. No don't try, you won't guess."
When she had gone Blister started grumbling at himself. Rose might have told if he had pressed the point. What could it be? Let me see. The twenty-five-something year's celebration of their marriage. No, that was some years ago. The date he didn't remember. Horrible it had been! A dinner of at least seven or eight courses she had forced down his throat till he went sick.
"Jacinte!" he suddenly shouted panic-stricken. "She won't offer me that mezzanine room again, will she? She can't make me move into her house can she? Imagine that! Me with her and that flabby Janek of her in one house. Nothing I detest more."
Restless he began to shuffle around in the nearly empty house, putting the one burnt-out pipe in places after the other. "My God, blessed you are with a daughter like Rose."
That evening he smoked far to much and when he went tot the bedroom Blister felt more miserable than he had been in months. He tossed and tumbled about in his double, keeping Jacinte awake for hours at a stretch, hammering on the same subject, over and over again. "Jacinte, what could it be. Jacinte, what do you think, tell me." And eventually: "For God's sake, say something you bitch!"
Over two years he had behaved like a lamb, had never scowled or snarled at her. And all of a sudden... He was ashamed of himself, turned over on his other side and softly and with little squeaky sounds began to cry till he dozed off. Next morning he woke up with a nasty taste in his mouth and his loins hurt more badly than ever. The surprise! It flashed upon him.
"You don't think they can force me to do something I don't want, do you Jacinte? If they say: the mezzanine room, I'll tell them: sorry, not for me that blasted mezzanine room. Fortunately we live in a free country since the Chinese have arrived, where old people like us may decide what they do with themselves, ah!"
He sat on the edge of his bed, his bare feet shuffling over the rough boards and he had to admit it now felt more satisfying than the rug that used to be there.
At ten o'clock - washed, shaved and dressed - he smoked his first pipe and after some time there was a loud rattling at the front door. "Well, here we are," Rose said excitedly and followed by two tall men in dainty grey uniforms she loped past him into the hall. "There they are, the brothers. How's that?"
Frightened Blister watched the car at the kerb and still puzzled he followed them into the kitchen. "What do you mean, Rose?"
She smiled mysteriously and with a twinkle in her eyes casted a glance at the men, standing like statues at either side of the kitchen table. "Those Chinese are not so bad after all. They have provided they will uphold unabridged, I say unabridged, all our laws for the time being. Which means, Dad, everything will go on as usual, and you, Dad, today the brothers will ride you to one of those splendid bungalows. They've got their cars back, a bit blistered (she laughed as she said it) but functioning."
"That's great, Rose," he muttered, his lips trembling. "I think it's wonderful and eh... these things and all, the bed, the chairs, will they take them too?"
"Oh no, Dad, everything is brand-new there. All that rubbish you may leave behind."
"I... I..." Shyly he glanced at the two men standing motionless near the table. "I'd like to look around a bit before..."
"Of course, Dad, and take your time."
Foot by foot he shuffled across the nearly empty rooms, seeing all things through a mist of tears he tried to force back. The bed on which he had slept for fifty years of which forty years with Jacinte twitched strangely.
"Jacinte," he whispered, hardly moving his lips, his voice barely audible, "coming with me, dear?"
He saw the blankets at her side of the bed moving gently as she turned her back on him and for the first time since she had died he heard her whisper ever so softly: "I'm sorry for you, Blister, but I'd rather stay here. I'd die in that bungalow..."
And Blister turned round and docilely let them lead him to the car outside.

Ef Leonard