The Interminable Suffering Of Mysterious Mr Wu
Mr Wu is crying upstairs again. I can hear him as I lie on my bed, the broken sobs clear, distinct. It is as if he were here in the same room as me, as if he is crying directly into my ears. He never stays still for long though, and now he is pacing and the boards above me creak. Fine grains of dust and sand float down from cracks in the ceiling, through the sunlight, tiny white particles and I tell myself that they are angels. Little angels coming down to see me, while Mr Wu’s sobs become a high pitched wail. Mr Wu suffers and whines. Nobody seems to know why Mr Wu suffers. No one seems to know very much at all about Mr Wu.
Mr Wu is, in fact, quite mysterious.
It is mid afternoon, but he won’t start until past midnight: perhaps one or two, but usually between three or four. First will come the banging and the hammering, the sound of bits of metal being nailed together. Then there will be silence. You can’t hear him weld, but that’s what I imagine him doing: making his contraption with hammer and nails, welding it together. Then the power-tool will begin: a high whine that merges with Mr Wu’s wailing. Finally, toward the end of his work, I will hear the splashing of liquid, as if he is pouring buckets of water over something. The splashing, and then perhaps at five or six in the morning, Mr Wu will stop working and for the only time in the day there will be silence. The soft weeping will start again at ten o’clock when Mr Wu awakes.
For those four or five hours Mr Wu will leave me all alone, with nothing to do. I can’t sleep. Sometimes I’ll watch the television; I like the catholic shows the best. Those and the shopping channels where some guy sits in front of an audience and demonstrates how good his memory is, and that you can have a good memory too if you buy his book: Lucas Meldible’s Method For A Perfect Memory. I have a copy on the bookshelf opposite me. And two of his tapes, but one of them got stuck in the old tape machine and I broke it trying to pry it out. Pity, I want to remember everything – all my days. Some people would think that this is a silly idea, seeing as all I do is listen to Mr Wu. But I think if I could really study him, really remember each day, each of his cries and wails, the tone, the pitch, the volume, if I could correlate and cross-reference, then I might be able to understand his suffering. That’s why I bought the book. Not because I like reading: actually I hate it. I hate reading just as I hate listening to music.
The only art that interests me is Mr Wu’s, for that is surely what he is occupied with upstairs: some delicate art form, some esoteric form of sculpture. And he cries because he has to make it just so: a delicate, fragile piece. He is tormented because he can never get it right. That is why Mr Wu suffers.
But at other times I think that’s wrong. And when I think hard about it all, Mr Wu loses all form and shape and becomes a blankness, and in those moments I’m not sure whether I’m imagining him up there or me – for in my mind it is me who is working up there. At these times I think that Mr Wu is just a fragment of my imagination, something I have summoned up to pass the time. But then Mr Wu will let out a particularly pitiful cry and I will be shocked back into the world from my reverie. I reprimand myself for being inhumane: how could I believe that such suffering was imaginary? Have I no humanity at all?
The truth is, sometimes I enjoy Mr Wu’s pain. Sometimes I take glee in it; it is comforting to think that someone is suffering more than yourself, that there are people hurting in ways of which you have not conceived. Sometimes I am so happy that I almost laugh, and then some time later I am so sickened at myself that I am thrown into the depths of depression. I am, I realise, evil. I have no right to exist.
Mr Wu, at such times, is the only real human in the world. He is the only one who is real, who has truth and humanity. Mr Wu has the rights I have forsaken.
Perhaps he is an angel, sent to rescue me, to lead me from purgatory. But that, I know, is ridiculous. I am, I guess, a dreamer.
Mr Wu has stopped pacing now, and I can hear the bed creaking and shaking. It is almost time for him to come down. I turn my head. Yes, the clock says four p.m. Soon Mr Wu will come down for his daily visit. No sooner do I think this than I can hear him coming down the stairs, one foot after another, in a slow almost hopeless gait. The front door is thrown open and in comes Mr Wu. He knows that the door will be unlocked; I always keep it unlocked. Mr Wu crosses the room and lies on the bed. He rests his head on my chest and seems calmed by the rising and falling as I breathe. Occasionally he utters small words, to himself: why and oh, sometimes oh no, and always, please. Sometimes he wants me to suck his dick. Sometimes I do. I don’t mind. I’m not doing anything anyway. But today he doesn’t. Today he’s content to listen to my breathing.
We lie there for an hour and then he begins his journey back upstairs. It takes him longer to climb back to his room, as if he doesn’t want to return, as if there’s something there that he would rather avoid. Finally he arrives and it is time for me to go out.
Mrs McCawber meets me on the stairs, her apron is covered with flour and bits of brown sticky stuff. “We’ve got to get rid of him.” She challenges me, wiping her hands on her massive hips.
“Yes, we do.” I say meekly.
“He’s mad, utterly and absolutely mad.” And then she gives out a little giggle, as if excited by the idea.
“I’d say so.”
“I mean what’s he building up there? He makes sounds, noises, all the night. And do you know, I fancy I heard voices the other night. And Mr McCawber says there was a exotic bird up there.”
“Fancy that,” I say.
“It’ll come to trouble,” she says.
“Keep your eyes open,” I say.
“You’re his friend,” she says, “you’ll let us know won’t you?”
And I’m out onto the street.
Mr McCawber will be home soon and they can begin their fighting. Sometimes I’m still at home for it, and I hear the pans being thrown across the room, plates and glasses smashing. Mr McCawber really gets it. He works day shift and she works night. In the morning, if I listen closely, I can hear a vibrator humming. But I’m never sure who is using it.
The sky outside is brutally bright, and I squint the whole time I’m out there. Today I have nothing to do. I have enough food so I don’t go shopping. My dole form isn’t due for another few days. In fact, I curse myself for going out; I hate going out, but I make myself go every day.
For the whole time I am thinking of Mr Wu and his suffering. I know of no equivalents to him. I remember a boy at school who suffered horribly. He was the butt of everyone’s jokes, he was regularly beaten, he had a snotty nose and his shirts were always dirty. He was the foundation upon which we could build our happiness. He was the thing that reminded us that we were happy, normal. One day he came to school with a great bandage on his head. Later they took the bandage off and he showed us his great scar, thick and red, on which no hair would grow. His attendance at school was irregular, and then one day he never came back. I think of him, sometimes in the same terms as I think of Mr Wu.
I have known Mr Wu for ten years. For ten years he has suffered, and for ten years I have watched him. For ten years he has been my object of study, the meaning of my life, and I don’t know what I’d do without Mr Wu. You might think that I’m exaggerating, but let me tell you, Mr Wu is my life. Once Mr Wu left the units without telling anyone. I had been out shopping and when I returned there was just silence in the unit above. Where was Mr Wu? I was afraid. It was as if I had lost my hearing, as if that entire sense was dead in me. The feeling that something was profoundly wrong with the world overwhelmed me. Things appeared as shadowy replicas, fakes of the real world. Someone had suddenly replaced everything I knew, everything I understood, with cardboard cutouts and second hand ideas. I was seized with panic.
So now, as I walk along the streets in the bright light, I fear that I might return to find Mr Wu gone. My body is tense and I walk slightly hunched. What will happen if Mr Wu disappears?
The fear will only leave me when I slip back into my unit and hear above me the weeping of Mr Wu, and then I will know that everything is right with the world. I will be able to relax.
But I am not there yet. Now I am reaching the park, with its trees, still green, despite the oppressive heat of summer. There are people strewn about in the shade: couples lying side by side, a man reading Thoreau, a couple of dogs playing. It’s always the same in the park.
I make my way around the pond in the middle of the park. There are ducks floating lazily about. When I am around it I begin my walk home. My duty is almost over.
I arrive home and there is Mr McCawber, a tall thin man with a sallow complexion. He’s grinning at me as if he’s told a joke.
“Have you heard?” He says.
“Mr Wu is going to be evicted,” he says.
“He hasn’t paid his rent,” he says.
“But he’s been here ten years.”
“Ten years or not,” he says, “you have to pay your rent.” Then he says, “Rent after all has to be paid.”
“Surely there’s something that can be done.”
He doesn’t hear me and continues: “It’s the nature of things really, isn’t it? I mean, give and take.”
“We could help him out.”
“But then what would we get by helping him?”
“I have to lie down,” I say suddenly.
“You can’t just help everybody, can you? I mean if everybody helped everybody, where would we be?”
I hurry into my room and close the door. I throw myself onto the bed. I have to think, so I have to lie down; the bed is the only place where I can really think.
They’re going to evict Mr Wu. They’re going to make him leave; then what will I do? I try to think of a plan, of something that I might be able to do to stop this madness, but nothing comes to mind. I can’t pay his rent; after all I haven’t a job. Perhaps I could manage to get him an extension, or maybe Mr Wu could sell some of his artwork. I must. I simply must talk to him.
I stay on the bed and listen to Mr Wu’s soft weeping.
When I awake I am in the dark, and above me Mr Wu is hammering. Occasionally he lets out a wail. His crying had lulled me to sleep, but I feel no better than before. I have too much sleep to catch up on, and now I am unlikely to sleep for days: that is the penalty. Mr Wu has started a drill, and its high pitched whine slows down and drops in tone as he begins to drill.
I decide that something must be done: I will confront Mr Wu.
The stairs are made of wood and have been worn by the passing of many feet. I climb them quietly. For some reason I don’t want Mr Wu to hear me coming up. I feel embarrassed. At the top of the stairs is the door, closed, but I can see flickering light coming from under it. I knock softly, as if I’m afraid to disturb him.
The sound of the power drill continues.
I turn the doorknob, and the door opens.
Mr Wu is standing in the middle of the room. He is drilling into the head of another Mr Wu. The other Mr Wu, who is tied down calls out: “why?” I can see now, that he has only one arm, and from the shoulder a metal rod in the shape of a bone juts out. There are wires and tubes that surround it.
Both Mr Wu’s are crying, for Mr Wu is remaking himself.
But now I notice a third Mr Wu, just a bundle of arms and legs and a head in one corner, and a fourth Mr Wu is picking up sections of the body from the floor. But this fourth Mr Wu’s movements are jerky and there is a whine as he moves.
Mr Wu stops drilling and speaks to me: “Ah, you’ve finally come home, Mr Wu.”
“Yes Mr Wu,” I say and begin to cross the floor.
“Sit down Mr Wu.” He gestures to a seat next to the seated Mr Wu.
“I need your arm, Mr Wu” he says to me.
He begins to drill and I bite my tongue to distract me from the pain. But it is no use. Pretty soon I begin to cry.
In one corner a parrot is hopping from one perch to another, its wings are bright and multicoloured. I marvel at the blues and reds and oranges.
“Is that your bird Mr Wu?” I ask.
“Yes it’s yours.”
“Ah,” I say, as my arm comes off.
“What about the eviction?” I say.
“Now that you’re back, Mr Wu, we can afford the rent.”
I nod my head. The Mr Wu in the corner kicks a head across the floor like a soccer ball.
“Do you need your other arm?” Mr Wu asks.
“Only if you don’t need it,” I say.
All right, he says, and begins to work, this time with a hammer and chisel. I grimace, little groans coming from my throat. And in the background the bird leaps up and down as if it wants to say something.