Roxana Robinson Reads from Life and Death in Shanghai by Nien Cheng
As I followed the female guard, I breathed deeply the sweet night air. We walked around the main building, passed through a peeling and faded red gate with a feeble light, and entered a smaller courtyard where I saw a two-storey structure. This was where the women prisoners were housed.
From a room near the entrance, another female guard emerged yawning. I was handed over to her in silence.
‘Come along,’ she said sleepily, leading me through a passage lined with bolted, heavily padlocked doors. My first sight of the prison corridor was something I have never been able to forget. In subsequent years, in my dreams and nightmares, I saw it again and again, in the dim light, the long line of doors with sinister-looking bolts and padlocks outside, and felt again and again the helplessness and frustration of being locked inside.
When we reached the end of the corridor, the guard unlocked a door on the left to reveal an empty cell.
‘Get in,’ she said. ‘Have you any belongings?’
I shook my head.
‘We’ll notify your family in the morning and get them to send you your belongings. Now go to sleep!’
I asked her whether I could go to the toilet. She pointed to a cement fixture in the left-hand corner of the room and said, ‘I’ll lend you some toilet paper.’
She pushed the bolt in place with a loud clang and locked the door. I heard her moving away down the corridor.
I looked around the room, and my heart sank. Cobwebs dangled from the ceiling; the once whitewashed walls were yellow with age and streaked with dust. The singly bulb was coated with grime and extremely dim. Patches of the cement floor were black with dampness. A strong musty smell pervaded the air. I hastened to open the only small window, with its rust-pitted iron bars. To reach it, I had to stand on tiptoe. When I succeeded in pulling the knob and the window swung open, flakes of peeling paint as well as a shower of dust fell to the floor. The only furniture in the room was three narrow beds of rough wooden planks, one against the wall, the other two stacked one on top of the other. Never in my life had I been in or even imagined a place so primitive and filthy.
The guard came back with several sheets of toilet paper of the roughest kind, which she handed to me through a small square window in the door of the cell, saying, ‘There you are! When you get your supply, you must return to the government the same number of sheets. Now go to sleep. Lie with your head towards the door. That’s the regulation.
I could not bring myself to touch the dust-covered bed. But I needed to lie down, as my legs were badly swollen. I pulled the bed away from the dirty wall and wiped it with the toilet paper …. Then I lay down anyhow and closed my eyes.
The next day
The dirt in the cell was intolerable. I simply, had to deal with it if I was going to live in that cell for another night. Besides, I had always found physical work soothing for frayed nerves. I asked the guard whether I could borrow a broom to sweep the floor.
‘You are allowed to borrow a broom on Sundays only. But since you have just come, I’ll lend you one today.’
A few moments later she came back with an old, worn broom, which she squeezed through the small window to me. I pulled the bed around the cell and stood on it to reach the cobwebs. When I brushed the walls, the cell was enveloped in a cloud of dust.
I decided to tackle the dirty room. What I needed was some water.
‘Report!’ I went to the door and called.
It was another female guard who pushed open the shutter and said sternly,
‘You don’t have to shout! Now what do you want?’
I knew from her tone of voice that she would probably refuse whatever I might request. To forestall such a possibility, I quickly recited a quotation from Mao that said, ‘To be hygienic is glorious; to be unclean is a shame.’ Then I asked, ‘May I have some water to clean the cell?’
She walked away without saying a word. I waited and waited. Eventually the Labour Reform girl came and gave me enough water to fill the new washbasin as well as the one brought from home with my things. First I washed the bed thoroughly; then I climbed onto my rolled-up bedding to wipe the dust-smeared windowpanes so that more light could come into the room. After I had washed the cement toilet built into the corner of the cell, I still had enough cold water left to bathe myself and rinse out my dirty blouse. When hot water for drinking was issued, I sat on the clean bed and drank it with enjoyment. Plain boiled water had never tasted so good.