The Last Gold Single
by Eliane Boey
On the last stretch of highway before it slithered into the gorge, I saw the green shimmer of the exit sign. I lifted a hand from the wheel and palmed my eye in its socket. It was a mistake to tag the visit to the end of my trip. A graver mistake, to have stayed long after they shut their laptops and lit the pipe, thinking it would gain me ground with the Southeast Asia desk head. I might have rescheduled, but the Nightingale’s voice, arresting on the phone, cut the words from my mouth and I confirmed the interview. My colleagues and I heard, and wrote, of the Nightingale, but few can claim to have seen the mansion in the jagged shadows of her mountain estate. None, since her disappearance after the disastrous reception of her last single twenty years ago.
The Nightingale flew from south of the border, where the colonial period bungalows, often smaller, ran to more embellishment. The black and white house before me was a classic block that stretched on both sides, beyond the mournful watch of the grey light thrown by the lamps on the horseshoe driveway. It tapered at the edges where, instead of a clipped lawn, the jungle extended its tendrils and fingered the windows. I took it for a plantation bungalow, from the wrap-around verandah with fine iron latticework, and the upper floors of balconies that breathed through geometric cut-outs in the low whitewashed walls. It was only later, when I felt the smoothness of the wall, that I remembered. This stretch of the valley was secondary jungle before the singer Bao Ying, known as the Nightingale, purchased it at the turn of the 21st century. The private road, grounds, and the fantastic house were all new, in the design of the woman who now stood cast in the light of her verandah.
I apologized, I expected I interrupted her dinner. I was happy to wait outside, I said. The Nightingale blinked. Curled lashes dropped to cheeks like crushed paper. Where her jaw ended, its outline still sharp at 75 years, the high collar of a cheongsam began. It was fitted at the shoulders and chest but let out at the waist. The traditional Cantonese dress was cut in black velvet and covered in geometric shapes of bright fuchsia. She moved, and red sequins threw the light. I picked up the scent of night jasmine.
She said, “No matter, you are here now, and we shall talk over supper.” I sucked in my breath. She had to have smelled the loamy pungency of the afternoon on me. But I was famished, and my mouth dry and gummed from nothing but sour coffee from the last auto café in the town, hours ago.
Past a foyer tiled in red and brown, I blinked in the musty, almost granular air. The hall was a clutter of furniture in dark woods, and none of recent nor western manufacture. Broad rosewood desks the colour of blood sausage and inlaid with mother-of-pearl, mincing clawfoot mahogany coffee tables, carved teak altars, varnished patina sideboards set with marble tops, stout camphor chests with sharp brass handles, and tall black lacquer cabinets with gold accents. Blue and white China vases, whites like milk and tall as small children perched everywhere on their surfaces. Still more waited their turn on the floor. Glazed bowls, and potbellied earthen water vessels squatted by their daintified cousins. In every vessel were flowers on the stem. Giant heliconia with winkled claws, peace lilies under stiffened hoods, birds of paradise with feathers like bent nails. Suspended from the ceiling like giant winged insects, punkah fans of rattan circulated dried pollen, and the sweet scent of early death. I expected concert posters and photographs but nothing of the Nightingale’s own productive career hung on the walls. Instead, there were framed original large print advertisements and political campaigns of the region from the 1960s.
A formal long table was set, under spotlights which struggled to illuminate it from the high ceiling. I took a seat at the Nightingale’s right elbow and ignored the other empty places at the table. At the sound of my test recording, the Nightingale’s eyes met mine for the first time since our meeting on the verandah. I stowed my phone in silence, and readied my pen.
“You must not think me rude for not joining you. My appetite is very peculiar.”
She waved a hand to the table. What I took for decoration was our repast. Between us was a black and red lacquered box with eight compartments. There were melon seeds, dried dates and figs, sugared cross-sections of lotus root, blood red slivers of hawthorn like communion wafer, and glacéed dragon fruit glistening like live organs. Beside the box were bowls of steamed baby yams, amber jellies of chrysanthemum petals and goji, giant segments of pomelo, and steamed double-horned water caltrops, known as devil’s head nuts. A narrow blue and white vase loomed over the spread. From it, frail stalks of dried osmanthus and night jasmine breathed their heady perfume onto a tower of golden baked mooncakes, eight high and twice as many across. I leaned in for a closer look, and saw that the floral motifs and words of blessing stamped on them were dulled and the edges of the round cakes were oddly softened with a downy white fur. My heart shivered and curled against my ribs. In the heat of April, the elaborate mid-autumn festival supper looked like a ghoulish offering.
The Nightingale held a bone China cup at the level of lips, which did not touch it. The other hand pinched a curl from her coif and pulled it down to her ear. I saw that the one-sided smile I took to be wryness was a slight paralysis of the right side of her face. I hadn’t known she had a stroke. No one knew what happened to the Nightingale, only that she faded after the last single, and would grant no interviews. Until now. At the head of the table, she sat in the halo of a trio of framed records. I recognised the iconic gold in black setting of ‘Eternal Peony’, 1964. ‘Butterfly Lovers’, 1971. Yet the two prestigious awards served only to flank a plain black record sleeve, perched on a ledge of its own.
“You are hungry. Eat, eat. Don’t let me stop you,” she said.
I helped myself to nuts and the candied fruit.
“Madam Bao Ying, I am grateful for your time. You might have seen the questions I sent ahead of my arrival.” I coughed. The nuts were dry and brittle.
“I’m afraid I don’t read any of my correspondence.” She did not blink.
“Questions regarding,” my chest heaved as I quelled a choke, “the 50th anniversary remaster of your highest grossing live performances.”
“Have the wine. Osmanthus and honey are such a help to the throat.”
My lips tensed on the lip of the cup, but the warmed wine was sweet and soothing.
“Your loyal fans waited years for this album. I especially look forward to hearing ‘A Chrysanthemum for My Heart’ live at the Neptune Theater.” That it was really my mother who felt any stirrings of anticipation, I left unsaid.
“The management of the Neptune would not release me to sign with EC Records. Leeches every one of them, who lived off me for years. I locked myself in the dressing room, and when Jimmy Bey forced his way in, I hit him with a gin bottle. Right here.” She tapped the eyebrow of the frozen side of her own face. Her lip twitched at the irony.
“The album will close with the extended version of ‘Eternal Peony’. No doubt you know how special this song has been, and still is, to many couples.”
I should clarify at this point that, while we conversed in English, for the names and lyrics of songs she switched to a crisp Mandarin rarely heard this far from the Bund, and in this day.
“Sentimental rubbish,” she said now. “‘Eternal Peony’ is a simple love song of simple people who look for beauty with their eyes. A love like that costs nothing.”
It was the first thing she said which I agreed with. I sat up in my chair. From her right, I believed I saw the Nightingale more acutely for the struggle under the taut face.
“Nonetheless,” I said, “The fans heard love, and made it theirs.”
She reached for a single sheet of paper, and pivoted it my way, with a turn of the wrist.
“As early as Jimmy Bey and the Neptune, I wanted to sing different songs. About what love did to me. About the way it possessed. ‘Who is your audience, Bao Ying?’ Jimmy said to me. Think of the simpering souls who weep at ‘A Chrysanthemum for My Heart’, or play ‘Eternal Peony’ at wedding anniversaries. You can bet our career that’s not what they want to hear.”
I sipped the wine. “Let’s go with that. Did your relationships influence your music?”
“Neither is it quite as simple as aping the tunes they listen to, if they refuse to see you as anything else. You’re caught in a trap.” She touched her lip with the paper.
“Which songs might you have written different?”
“There is no turning back.” The paper came away from her face as she hurled it at me. “Let me hear you read this.”
The Nightingale was on her feet and the record sleeve was off the wall. She threw open the doors of a lacquered cabinet to reveal a record player, and two box speakers. The vinyl positioned on the turntable, she lowered the stylus but did not step away from it. Her hands rested on the open doors of the cabinet, to receive the music.
It trickled, and then swelled with the gentle plucking of the pipa. Sweet and guileless like the opening of ‘Eternal Peony’. I thought it familiar. The Nightingale was classically trained, and traditional music blending into crooning pop tunes was her signature at her creative peak of the ‘60s and ‘70s, until she took up the keyboard. Not her best decision.
“Madam Bao Ying, do you mind if we return to the questions?”
She hung her head over the turntable. “You read, don’t you? Read the article.”
A different sound burst through the speakers, as the synthesiser joined the pipa. The effect was like electrified rain. I knew this song.
“Read, read,” she cried. Bony knuckles white on the cabinet doors.
“Last night, the Nightingale sang once more, to a small but loyal crowd at the refaced Capitol Theatre,” I read aloud from the script, typed in plain text, printed on heavy paper.
The synthesiser overtook the pipa and the rain became a torrent. It was ‘Night Song’, her last single, dismissed by critics as an incoherent turn of style that alienated her fans.
I felt you strike at curtain call
But no one saw me fall.
Only that I never rose
I never rose again.
“This writer had their reservations on the diva’s resurrection after a year’s hiatus on the tail of a diminishing star. We expected at best an evening reminiscent of a more innocent period of pop music, and at worst a damnable ear worm.” I knew who wrote it.
Although I lost, I did not die
But opened a new eye
In sleep your curse gifts me music,
But lost when I awake.
Lost when I awake.
“I’m lost in music,” she whispered to the turntable. I prayed she’d forgotten me. “They said that it was too dark; it was not me. But how could they have known that, if they never saw me? If I never saw myself, until it happened?”
I wanted to shred the paper, but I read on. “Instead, we were treated to what can only be described as mimicry of the last bloated, self-congratulatory days of disco, gyrating with disjointed singing, wholly unlike our melodious Nightingale.”
The music played on.
Sometimes it’s hard to feel the fire
And not fear it as a pyre
“What did it say? No, I remember. ‘On the tail of a falling star’. How can I forget?”
Now it’s grown cold
This phoenix only burned,
It only burned.
Horror was a slow trickle of cold water, from the back of my ears, down my spine. Horror was finally seeing a wrong, long after it might be corrected. The song, heard again, nigh on two decades after the show at the Capitol, was more than good. It electrified me and reached in me, found something that spoke to it, and teased it out. I gasped and a tendril of gold escaped my lips. It solidified like a snaking vine and touched the cabinet where the song continued to charm it. The vine found anchor on the black lacquer.
“What they so delicately called a ‘hiatus’ was in fact my struggle for life.” She turned, not looking at me, and touched the right side of her face with her left hand. “I judged it best to keep it silent. You didn’t talk about such things in my time. Chin up, and take it in your stride.” She let her hand fall. “Not anymore.”
I read, compelled by fear and disgust. “After the embarrassment of pandering to a league best left her juniors, the Nightingale was persuaded to return to her repertoire, with a rendition of ‘Eternal Peony’, excellent as your niece’s cover at a high school recital.”
I groaned, and a seizure gripped my chest as the gold vine creeped and latched, past the cabinet and up the wall where the records were mounted.
“Allow me to finish,” said the Nightingale, and she stepped back from the cabinet. “In summary, the new single is neither for the fans of the crooner of old, nor stalwart worshippers of disco and electronica. It is hard to imagine the Nightingale’s expectations of such a song, but one can only hope that it is not repeated.”
I had forgotten how cruel I’d been. I was twenty-two years old at the time. She regarded the records on the wall. I struggled to speak. I wanted to say that I was wrong, so wrong. That I hadn’t known. That I knew now what I took from her. But only a gurgle escaped my throat as the vine fattened. It crept up the wall, tendrils seeking, probing, holding, sucking and then breaking away, to advance still further.
The Nightingale said, “Won’t you have the mooncakes? They were the finest I could have flown in for mid-autumn supper. Such bother, but it was worth it. It was to be an exclusive moonlight performance of ‘Night Song’ for friends, the new CEO of EC, and some of your kind. You never saw pastry so thin with such fine prints. And pure white lotus paste, like ivory. I was ready for them; ready to let them see me, and to listen—really listen this time—to ‘Night Song’. Then it happened, the end of everything.”
Still the vine shifted, uncoiled and exited my throat. It’d split by now, trunk roots into capillaries, each feeling its way as it consumed the records and spread across the white walls. Was this how she felt, in the darkest struggle with her stroke? The Nightingale leaned close to me, as the song reached its climax. When she sang, her voice was woolly with a melancholic beauty, like a broken bowl enjoined with gold. Reborn.
I’ll sleep to wake at your cue
Dreams of songs I won’t sing
I’ll sleep to wake at your cue
A nightmare to which I cling.
She beckoned to me to join her, both hands in the air like a conductor to the refrain. The gold vine split in still finer hairs that now touched the ceiling and hung down like aerial roots. She stepped to the wall, hands seeming to reach for the vine. Could she see it?
A nightmare to which I cling.
A nightmare to which I cling.
“My last single. They will never return to me. Nor will I.”
Red sequins shimmered under distant spotlights. The sparkle shattered my trance, and I tore myself from my seat. My legs were roots in the floor, but with effort I hurled myself clean across the table. My arm strained and I felt the stretch of resistance in my trunk. But my fingers touched the record. I pressed down on it, and spun it backwards. The tonearm juddered, and then dipped into the vinyl. What poured from the speakers sounded like yowls and twisted, flatulent laughter. It made my skin lift off my flesh and curl away. The Nightingale gave a low moan and steadied herself against the cabinet. But the golden vine was broken. I was free.
The last thing I remembered, I was running on green and white tile, past the priceless vases fragrant with abandonment and death. The song played again, its chorus looping with an unearthly synthetic twist at the end of the last line. As I screeched the car out of the driveway, I thought I saw the Nightingale, back in her chair, eyes fixed on her tower of mooncakes. It is only now, my advanced boarding pass in my pocket, that I realise it was impossible for me to have seen her through the length of the house. My hands tremble, but I take out my phone to type a hurried message to my desk head, about a new angle on the Nightingale’s last single. It was my pen that cursed the Nightingale to the echoes of the fantastic colonial house in the mountain gorge. I will spend the next years undoing the wrong, if I can ever return what I took from her.
Eliane Boey is a Chinese Singaporean writer of speculative, science fiction, and contemporary fiction. She has a working background in maritime fleet management, port logistics, and mining, which has brought her to some of the largest ships and ore mining operations of the world, and continues to influence her writing. She has dark and speculative stories in the Mekong Review, the Penn Review, and Clarkesworld.