They called themselves saviours of burning houses, though none of the six women, their ages ranging from mid-fifties to early seventies, had had much experience outside the worlds of their employment before they retired: small cubicles behind barred windows for the two bank tellers; large offices shared by too many people for the three secretaries; and a front room in a six-storey university building, where for many years Mrs Lu had guarded the door to a girls’ dorm.
The six women, friends and comrades for about two years now, had first met at a local park, where mothers, keen for their children’s marriages to happen met other equally anxious mothers. Between them the six women had four sons and four daughters, all of them unhurried by the ticking of the clock that kept their mothers sleepless at night. Hitting it off from the beginning, the women made ingenious plans in the hope that some of them would become connected by marriages and then by shared grandchildren. Meetings of their children were arranged, coerced in some cases. In the end, none of the matches produced any fruitful results. Still, the six women remained close, and when Mrs Fan, the youngest among them, realized that her husband was having an affair with a woman whose identity he refused to reveal, the other five women, enraged by the audacity of the husband who was approaching sixty yet behaving like a foolish boy without a heart or brain, appointed themselves detectives to find out the truth.
Their success in uncovering the mistress’ name, address and place of work did little to save Mrs Fan’s marriage. ‘An old man in love is like a house on fire,’ went a popular joke, that circulated for a while as a text message from one cell phone to another around the city. The joke must have been made up by some young, carefree soul, but how sadly true it was. Mrs Fan was taken aback by the intensity of the fire that engulfed her marriage: three decades of trivial arguments and unimportant disagreements all turned out to be flammable material. More appalling was the simple procedure for divorce. In the old days the employers of both parties, the neighbourhood association, the local workers’ union and the women’s union would all be involved in the mediation, and the court, as the last resort, would not grant the divorce without making a lengthy effort of its own to save the marriage. After all, any assistance in breaking up a marriage was more sinful than destroying seven temples, but such a belief no longer held in the new era: an application speedily granted by the district courthouse soon left Mrs Fan a single woman and released her husband to become the bridegroom of an immoral intruder.
The six friends declared war against love outside marriage. They did not need to look far before they found another woman suspecting a cheating husband, and with their previous experience, and a talent that seemed to come naturally to them, they identified the mistress within two weeks. It dawned upon Mrs Guan, whose son was a recent graduate from a top MBA programme in America, that they could turn their skills into a business, and soon, through word of mouth, their clientele expanded. As agreed by the six friends, they would work for the principle of cleansing society and fighting against deteriorating morals, so they charged less than other firms and only accepted cases in which wives were endangered by disloyal husbands and conniving mistresses. Saviours of burning houses, they called themselves, their belief being that, discovered early enough, a fire could be put out before more harm was done.
The story of six older women working as successful private investigators was, against their will and without their consent, reported by a local newspaper in a gossipy column called ‘Odd People at This Unique Time’. What transgressor would have thought that an old granny in the street had a mini walkie-talkie hidden in her palm, or that her most innocent conversation with your acquaintances would reveal your secrets to your enemy? The story was soon picked up by a woman’s magazine, and when the city TV channel proposed a short documentary on them as part of a month-long series on family values in the new era, the six friends decided to welcome the opportunity.
The anxiously awaited filming took place on a blustery day in early spring. Their complexions, Mrs Tang explained to the woman in charge of make-up, ranged from raisins to months-old apples, so she might just as well save her powder and rouge for other women with better reasons for looking desirable. Such self-mockery amused the TV people. Even more surprising to them was how relaxed and natural the six women acted in front of the cameras, but when complimented, several of the friends looked confused. She had no idea what the director was talking about, said Mrs Cheng, the oldest and the loudest. If they were expected to be themselves, why the comment on their acting?
The documentary aired on a Saturday night and the six women became instant celebrities to their neighbours, relatives and acquaintances. Soon it became a routine for the six friends to watch a tape of the programme in Mrs Mo’s flat, which also served as the headquarters of their sleuthing business. Mrs Mo had been widowed for twenty years, losing her husband in a traffic accident in a snowstorm, and at sixty-five she played tennis, belonged to a ballroom dancing club and had a full collection of Agatha Christie novels on her shelf. With the looks of a Hong Kong film star from the 1940s, Mrs Mo seemed not to belong to the group, yet it was she who had organized the friends, inviting the other women to her flat whenever she had a day off from tennis and dancing, and later offering her home phone number as the contact for their business.
Sherlock Holmes was more to her husband’s taste, commented Mrs Tang, who was married to a retired army officer. Mrs Mo smiled tolerantly. She was aware that some of her friends envied her freedom. Now and then Mrs Cheng and Mrs Lu discussed Mrs Mo’s long-widowed situation with her, asking why she had not thought of remarrying, expressing admiration at her bringing up a daughter all by herself. Mrs Tang, the least tactful of the six women, never missed the opportunity in these conversations to mention her own healthy and well-pensioned husband. Such petty competition, which also occurred when the women brought up their children’s incomes, usually amounted to nothing more than harmless bantering. They were not about to give up the friendship that had made them famous late in their lives.
After the programme was broadcast, however, their business slowed down. Perhaps prospective clients feared that the women’s covers had been broken and it was unwise to hire them now, Mrs Guan wondered aloud; or else they thought they could not afford the celebrity price, Mrs Lu added. There was no real pressure for them to make money in any case, said Mrs Tang, and Mrs Fan agreed, adding that their main goal was to raise the awareness of out-of-wedlock immorality, and that their TV documentary had made their stand known to more people than their fieldwork ever could. Such rounds of talk to ease any worry and doubt were repeated every day, though none of the six friends would admit that she was upset or disappointed by the fact that they were not sought out as they had been. While the talk went on, Mrs Mo would brew tea and come round with a plate of nuts: green tea and pistachios on some days, red tea and cashews on others, since the tastes of the group were divided on many small things. The nuts were ground and taken in small spoonfuls, as several of the members had dentures, and when all was settled, Mrs Mo would put the tape into the VCR player and turn on the TV.
After days and now weeks of watching, rewinding, and watching again, Mrs Guan still felt a thrill the moment the blue screen flickered and the theme music started. Such a joy was shared by all six friends, and every viewing was accompanied by new comments and laughter. Familiar by now with every shot, they watched the programme more for random glimpses of themselves. See Mrs Cheng chat up two guards at an upscale apartment complex, her cheerful nosiness not eliciting any suspicion on the young men’s part. See Mrs Lu hovering patiently over a pot of watered-down tea on a bench outside a Starbucks where the cheating husband is holding an intimate conversation with a chic young woman. Thirty years of guarding the girls’ dorm had taught Mrs Lu a few things about shameless females, and every time she saw the young actress’s hand covered by the middle-aged actor’s hand, Mrs Lu would relate yet another story about one of the girls from the past who had come back to the dorm after lights-out, lips too wet and cheeks flushed unnaturally. The girls would knock on her window and beg her to let them in, and often she yelled at them and said any day now she would report them to the university and they had better be prepared to move into the street with the rest of the whores.
The discussion of the degenerating morals of the younger generation was then replaced by laughter over Mrs Fan’s secretive phone call to a wife about the cheating husband’s whereabouts. Their little hen had some visitor in her nest, Mrs Fan said over her cell phone, a cheap, bulky model that few people used any more, her coat flapping in the wind, while in the background could be seen a blurred image of a man entering his mistress’ building. Where on earth had the TV people got that hen line from the friends laughed, as they had never used such codes in their work, and had been given a script to follow. Amid the laughter, Mrs Fan sighed. No wonder her ex-husband wanted a younger woman, she said, pointing at the fine lines in her face magnified by the close-up shot, which she had paused for the friends to see. The other women stopped laughing, and Mrs Mo, the one who dealt with any uneasiness with a perfect gesture, broke the silence and said that husband or not, it was more important to have a fun life of one’s own than to serve a king at home. Mrs Fan nodded, and then reported that she had heard from her children that their father had just lost his new wife to a younger man and they wondered if she would be willing to go back to him for everybody’s sake. But why would she want to have anything to do with that man twice divorced by now, Mrs Fan said. It was not totally untrue, though her children’s suggestion of a reunion had been rejected not by Mrs Fan but by her ex-husband.
The five women studied Mrs Fan, who smiled back and reassured them that she had long passed the heartbroken stage; she might have to go out and find a younger man so that her husband would stop daydreaming about a reunion. The joke was hesitantly received and then Mrs Mo hit the play button, and more of their glorious moments lulled them back into happy oblivion.
When they got a phone call from a man who called himself Dao, the six women hadn’t had any cases for a while. Not that they minded the chance to relax, the friends had been reminding one another, though after the phone call even Mrs Mo, the calmest of the six, showed unusual animation. They had never accepted a case from a man before, but in his call he mentioned their TV documentary, and that alone was enough for them to make an exception.
The women invited Dao to the teashop where they met all their clients, in a room separated from the main hall by a bamboo curtain, and by now the young girls who served their tea regarded them with awe and studied the newcomer across the big table with open curiosity. Start your own business to satisfy your nosiness, Mrs Cheng whispered, but it came out loud and unfriendly. Mrs Mo nudged Mrs Cheng to keep her voice down, though the man, who looked deeply distressed, seemed to detect nothing out of the ordinary, nor did he seem to find the seating arrangement bizarre, positioned as he was across the table from the six interrogators. Dao thanked the women for their kindness in seeing him, and then he did something odd that annoyed Mrs Tang: he drank up the tea in a gulp and lifted the translucent cup to the window as if to check the quality of the china. Mrs Tang coughed dryly; she wished she was the man’s mother so she could give him a talking to about manners, as she often did with her own children, despite their being established in their own companies.
For a long time Dao seemed preoccupied, placing his teacup on the green checked tablecloth, then moving it a few squares down as if trying to position a chess piece, never looking up at the six women. Mrs Cheng and Mrs Tang shifted in their chairs and Mrs Lu exchanged a look with Mrs Guan. Many of their female clients had sounded hesitant when they had first called, but once they had made up their minds to come to see the women, their stories had gushed out before an invitation had even been issued.
‘If you feel it easier to answer questions than just talk, we will certainly help,’ Mrs Mo offered, her voice gentle and soothing. There was a girlish excitement in Mrs Mo that Mrs Tang was sure only she had detected. She thought of reporting this to her husband, as had been her habit for the past forty years, but more and more now the old soldier immersed himself in conversations with Sherlock Holmes, as if senility had turned him into a close friend of the famous detective. Her husband’s obsession had been a major motive for Mrs Tang to become a detective herself, hoping for more attention and respect, but the doctors warned her that her husband’s condition might worsen; that memory loss and personality change were to be expected. She might as well enjoy her days with her friends instead of gathering topics diligently to discuss later with a husband who had always been too stingy to participate in conversations and who had, by now, stopped listening.
Dao looked up at Mrs Mo and then at Mrs Fan, who was talking about a painful experience of her own with an encouraging smile. It was natural to be angry with the cheating spouse as well as the perpetrator, Mrs Fan said, using the words of the marriage expert her children had paid for her to visit—something she would never have admitted to her friends, as they congratulated themselves as the sole agents of her recovery. Natural, too, to be confused and ashamed, Mrs Fan continued, yet he should know that such emotions were unhealthy in the long run.
‘Thanks, aunties,’ Dao finally said, and Mrs Mo thought that despite his vagueness, he respected their ages and addressed them properly; such old-fashioned manners were less common in his generation. ‘My problem is, I don’t know where to start.’
‘Start with your wife,’ Mrs Lu said. ‘Does she still live with you or has she left for someone else?’
The man thought about the question for an excruciatingly long time. Mrs Cheng, already losing patience, picked peanuts from the plate and lined them up in front of her in formations.
‘There must have been something in your mind that we could do for you when you called us,’ Mrs Mo ventured.
‘We specialize in marriage crises, as you may or may not know,’ Mrs Tang said. ‘And trust me, we’ve seen all sorts of marriage problems in our business.’
‘And we keep secrets well,’ Mrs Guan added, and sent away the girls from the shop who had come in with newly boiled water. ‘And there are things we can do better than younger people. You’ve seen the documentary. We’re successful for good reasons.’
‘Look at it this way, young man,’ Mrs Cheng said with a grin. ‘How old are you, by the way?’
‘In the old days I would be your grandmother’s age,’ Mrs Cheng said. It had been a lifelong regret of hers that she had married late—she had been dazzled by all the possibilities and had forgotten that time acted against a woman. At seventy-two, all she wanted was to see a grandchild, though neither of her two sons was in a hurry to marry and produce a baby for her to dote on; in the old days women her age would be holding a great-grandchild by now. ‘Look at it this way. You can tell us your problem as you would tell your grandmother. We’ve seen so much that nothing surprises us.’
Dao nodded in gratitude. He opened his mouth but a deep sigh came before the words. ‘My wife, she still lives in our house,’ he said.
‘A positive sign, no? Do you have children? Still share a bed?’ Mrs Cheng said. ‘Well, don’t let me interrupt you. Go on, go on.’
Mrs Lu and Mrs Guan exchanged a smile, but they did not stop Mrs Cheng. The same words would have come out wrong from a different mouth, yet Mrs Cheng, the most harmlessly nosy person one would meet in life, seemed to have a talent for turning even the most offensive question into an invitation.
‘We have a son,’ the man said. ‘He just turned one.’
‘How is your bedroom business after your son’s birth?’ Mrs Cheng said.
‘Sometimes she says she is tired when I ask, but once in a while it is good.’
Men were creatures ignorant of women’s pains, Mrs Fan thought. In her mind she was ready to dismiss the case as an inconsiderate husband unable to share a new mother’s burden and casting unfounded blame on her. Mrs Fan’s husband had complained about her lack of enthusiasm in bedroom business after both her children’s births, and she wondered why she had never seen through his cold-hearted selfishness back then.
‘Sometimes it takes a while for the new mother to return to her old self,’ Mrs Mo said.
‘But isn’t a year too long?’ Mrs Tang asked. ‘Young women these days are pampered and way too delicate, if you ask my opinion. I don’t know about you, but I served as a good wife once my baby was a month old.’
‘Let’s not distract our guest here with an irrelevant discussion,’ Mrs Guan said, and then turned to the man. ‘Please forgive us, young man. You must have heard that three women are enough to make a theatre troupe, and among us we have two troupes. But don’t let us distract you.’
Dao looked from one woman to the other and returned to his study of the tablecloth. He seemed unable to grasp what had been said to him, and the thought occurred simultaneously to several of the six women that perhaps he had a problem with his brain, but before anyone said a word, he looked up again, this time with a tear-streaked face. He did not mean to be rude or waste their precious time, he said, but his problem was more than unsuccessful bedroom business between husband and wife—there was another man between him and his wife, and he did not know what to do about the situation.
‘So you know the man?’ Mrs Cheng asked. It came as a pang of disappointment that there might not be any puzzle for her to solve.
‘My father,’ Dao said. ‘He’s lived with us for two years now.’
‘Your father?’ the women exclaimed at the same time, all sitting up and leaning forward.
‘You mean, your father and your wife?’ Mrs Tang said. ‘If your claim is baseless I’m ready to spank you.’
‘Let him finish,’ Mrs Guan said.
Dao looked down at his hands folded on the tablecloth and said it was only a feeling. The reason that he had come to them, he said, was to ask the women’s help to determine if his wife and his father had in fact maintained an improper relationship.
‘Your father, how old is he?’ Mrs Tang said.
‘And why do you suspect him and your wife of having any improper relationship?’ Mrs Cheng said.
‘Do you have siblings?’ Mrs Lu said. ‘Where’s your mother?’
Dao winced as if each question were a bullet he was unable to dodge. Mrs Mo sighed and with a gesture she begged her friends to keep quiet, even though her own hands shook from excitement as she poured a new cup of tea for Dao and told him to take his time. The story came out haltingly: the man had been born the youngest of five siblings, the only boy of the family. His parents had been the traditional husband and wife of the older generation, he the king of the household and governing his wife and children with unquestionable authority, she serving him wholeheartedly. The four older sisters had been married off when they had reached marriageable ages, three to men picked out by the father, but the youngest sister, a few years older than the little brother, had chosen her own husband against the father’s will. She had become an outcast from all family affairs, a punishment from their father and a precaution from the rest of the family, as they would not risk the father’s anger to remain in touch with the estranged sister. A few years ago, the mother had been diagnosed with liver cancer. By then Dao was over thirty and, shy person as he was, he had not had a date. The mother, in her sickbed, begged the father to help their son secure a bride so that she could take a look at her future daughter-in-law before she exited the world. An arrangement was made and he was introduced to his wife, a pretty woman though not a virgin, as she had been widowed once and had left her only son for her in-laws to raise.
‘Did your father know your wife before you met her?’ Mrs Cheng said, thinking fast and sensing shadiness in the arrangements. What kind of father would foist a second-hand woman on his own son as a wife?
He did not know, Dao said. He had been nervous when he was introduced to his wife, and in any case he had not thought to question the woman and his father back then.
‘Did you love her when you married her?’ Mrs Cheng said.
Dao said that he supposed he loved her, or else he would not have agreed to marry her. Mrs Tang thought that he sounded uncertain, and what a despicable thing it was for a man to be so passive.
Dao continued, calmer now, as if he had got over the initial shock of hearing his own voice. The six friends listened, all bursting with questions they tried hard to hold back so the easily intimidated man would not drown in their curiosity. Life after the wedding was quiet and eventless, he continued, until six months later his mother passed away, and as was common practice, the newly-weds invited the father to come and live with them; Dao was the only son and it was a son’s duty to support the father, even though at sixty he was still strong and healthy as a bull. For more than a year now Dao had been plagued by the fear that his father had cuckolded him. Such a thought he could not share with his sisters, and the birth of the baby, a boy who looked just like himself when he had been a bald baby, did not release him from the grip of suspicion.
‘You mean the baby could be your half-brother?’ Mrs Lu said.
Had he known the answer, Dao replied, he would not have approached the six friends. There was little evidence, but his wife worked odd shifts as a nurse, and there were always stretches of time when she and his father were at home together without him.
‘But that doesn’t mean they would cuckold you,’ Mrs Cheng said.
It was a nagging fear, Dao said apologetically and hung his head low.
‘How does she treat you?’ Mrs Fan asked.
His wife treated him like a good wife should, Dao said. She cooked good meals, cleaned the house and did not ask for expensive clothes. She put her earnings in their joint account and let him control the finances of the household. What else could a man expect from a wife, Dao asked unconvincingly.
Mrs Cheng cleared her throat. ‘Back to my original question,’ she said, deciding by now that Dao must have some hidden illness he was too ashamed to share. ‘How is your bedroom business? Do you satisfy each other?’
Dao blushed and mumbled a yes. Mrs Mo looked at him with sympathy and poured fresh tea to distract him from his own embarrassment. The world was intolerant of men with sensitive hearts, but how many people would bother to look deeper into their souls, lonely for unspeakable reasons? Her own husband, dead for twenty years now, had been nicknamed ‘Soft Yam’ by his colleagues; he was a regular target for bullying; the first to be taken advantage of in promotions. When she married him, her family and friends had thought her crazy; she had been an attractive girl, with better options than the man she had chosen for herself. He was a kind man was the reason she had given, but it was his sadness that had moved her. She had made herself an ally to his parents when she had courted him, and she had thought herself capable of liberating him from the sadness she could not understand. Such an innocent criminal she had made herself into, she thought, when she discovered his love affair of two decades with another man. She had always assumed that the traffic accident in the snow was a cover for a long-planned suicide, but their only daughter, then eight, adored her father, and Mrs Mo had taken it upon herself to uphold the image of the idol in her daughter’s heart and to reject all offers for another marriage. People admired her virtue and loyalty, but people are easily deceived by all kinds of facades.
‘I don’t understand now,’ Mrs Tang said. ‘You do all right in bed and she treats you well. Then why do you suspect her of anything? If I were you, I would be celebrating my good fortune to have found such a wife.’
‘And why on earth your father?’ Mrs Cheng added. ‘Just because the baby looks like your father’s grandson?’
‘Let’s not intrude with our own opinions,’ Mrs Guan said, trying to save Dao from further embarrassment. Mrs Guan was finding some of her companions annoying today, their attitude unbusinesslike; but on second thoughts, these women had always been like this and she had enjoyed them well enough. Perhaps she was the one running out of patience. Mr and Mrs Guan were well maintained by their pensions from their civil servants’ jobs and an annual remittance from their son in America. Still, they were witnessing a historic economic boom in the country, and it hurt Mrs Guan not to be part of it. She had previously sold cosmetics and tonics to neighbours and friends, and perhaps it was time to invent another business now.
‘But we need to understand his situation,’ Mrs Cheng said. ‘I, for one, don’t see a problem unless the young man here is hiding something from us.’
It was how his father had changed, Dao said. A tyrant all his life, the older man had handed over his rule to his daughter-in-law ever since he had moved in with them. And how happy she was, Dao added. There was little reason for her, a widow who had given up her son to be remarried to a shy and quiet man, to be contented. They had never overstepped any limits in front of him, but he felt there was a secret from which he was excluded. ‘Like they built a house within my house, and they live in it,’ Dao said, shamelessly weeping now.
What sadness, Mrs Mo thought, and wondered if Dao would ever be able to reclaim his life. It had taken her years, but it might be different for him. Men were less resilient than women, and in any case, some sons never escaped their fathers’ shadows.
‘Aunties, I saw your programme. You’re all experienced with men and women. Could you go meet them and find out for me?’
‘But how?’ Mrs Cheng said. ‘It’s different from locating a mistress. Shall we move into your house and make a nest for ourselves underneath your father’s bed? Would you divorce your wife? Would you give up the baby to your father? Tell me, young man, what would you do if everything is true as you imagine?’
As if Dao had never thought about that possibility, he looked down at his hands in agony and did not reply.
‘You want us to find out for you that they’re innocent so you can live in peace, no?’ Mrs Lu said. ‘Let me tell you, if you suspect a ghost is sitting next to your pillow, the ghost will always be there; if you imagine a god, a god will look after you from above.’
The vehemence of Mrs Lu’s words shocked not only Dao but also the five women. Mrs Lu bit the inside of her cheek and told herself to shut up. Peace came from within, she often said to herself, and she had taken up the detective work with her friends in the hope that by saving other people’s marriages she would finally dispel the phantom of a long dead girl, but such hope had turned out to be in vain. She had done nothing wrong in reporting the girl, Mrs Lu repeatedly reminded herself over the years—she had found the girl naked in bed with a male classmate and both had been expelled from the university by the end of the week. The girl had snuck into the dorm building a month later when Mrs Lu had been busy with the mail and had jumped from the top floor. The thud, ten years later, still made Mrs Lu shiver at night.
‘Mrs Lu has a point,’ Mrs Fan said. ‘We could work for you but you have to make up your mind first. What we find out could make you more miserable than you are now, you see?’
Dao looked down at his hands, folding and unfolding on the table. ‘I wouldn’t do anything,’ he said finally. ‘There’s nothing for me to do. After all, he is my father. All I want to know is if they’ve cheated on me.’
Such a spineless man, Mrs Tang thought. Her husband would have picked up an axe and demanded the truth from the wife and the father instead of crying to some strangers. Her husband had always been the quickest to react, and how unfair it was that he, the most virile among his friends, was the first to be defeated by age.
The only truth for Dao to know, Mrs Fan thought, was that he would be locked in his unhappiness forever, as she herself would be. It did not matter any more if he was cuckolded, as it did not matter to her that her husband had been deserted by the second wife. For some people punishment came as a consequence of their mistakes; for others, punishment came before anything wrong had been done. Welcome to the land of the unfortunate and the deserted, Mrs Fan said, almost relishing the unfairness of her fate, and Dao’s.
Mrs Guan looked at her friends. Already she could tell that they would not be able to take the case as a group, as they showed little of the sympathy towards Dao that they had shown to the other wronged women. She would find an excuse to speak to him after this meeting, she thought, about the possibility of working on the case by herself. A similar plan took shape in Mrs Cheng’s mind, too, though it was not money she was after but to satisfy her own curiosity—Dao’s description of his wife and his father intrigued Mrs Cheng: what kind of love had they fallen into that caused the father to scheme against his own son, and the wife to entertain her lover’s son out of necessity? As much as she had seen in her life, Mrs Cheng still worried that she would miss something interesting before she left this world.
Mrs Mo observed her companions. She knew that it was her responsibility now to reject Dao gently and, despite her curiosity, she would not let his case break the friendship she had created for the lonely days she would otherwise have to pass by herself. Even as she was thinking up excuses to dismiss him, her mind wandered to the bi-weekly session of the dancing club that afternoon. She had discovered dancing late in her life, and had been addicted to it ever since, whirling in her partner’s arm, their bodies touching each other in the most innocently erotic way. It was not a simple task to maintain an intimacy with another human being by the mere touch of bodies, and to accomplish it she needed her total concentration to keep her soul beyond the reach of the large and small flames of all the passions in this treacherous world.