A letter arrived for Bo, in a small, non-regulation-size envelope with a foreign stamp on it. It was from his pen-pal, and also in the envelope was a photo of her. The photo showed that she was a slim black woman of about twenty who wore a pair of gold-rimmed glasses. Her name was Rebecca and she had written the letter by hand in short, excited sentences in a curving script that bounced with questions and exclamations. It was the first time Bo had seen handwritten English.
Bo had been paired up with Rebecca because the Central Party encouraged the learning and practising of foreign languages as part of its programme of modernisation, according to the principle of trimadte. Bo had been assigned English and attended classes two evenings a week in a spare room at the district gym, after his shift at the factory. Nga, Bo’s wife, had been assigned Portuguese, and had received a letter from a woman in her forties called Debora. Bo encouraged her to reply to it.
One of the things that Rebecca’s letter said was this:
“Do you live in the country? It bet it’s beautiful there. I love going for hiking weekends with my boyfriend in – (and here she named a famous national park that was four hours’ drive from the university town where she lived).
“I bet foreigners (and here Rebecca used the word from Bo’s language that meant foreigners, usually European and American ones, and he wondered why) always say this, but I love (and here she named a film from Bo’s country that had been nominated for several awards across the world about thirty years before). It had not been very successful in Bo’s country, as the old ruling party felt that it had little educational or aesthetic value.
“I must have seen it about twenty times! Do you like it?”
Bo asked Nga if she understood, and she shrugged. What do I care? she said. It’s your letter, not mine.
Bo finished the letter, which told him that Rebecca was a student, studying – a word that he didn’t know. She asked if he was married and what his job was, and signed off with a smiling face, saying that she hoped to receive a letter from him soon.
Bo did not know that in Rebecca’s country there was a number of young people, mainly in high school or university (they called it college) who thought that Bo’s country was fascinating, and that Rebecca was one of them. Mostly, this fascination stemmed from the films and TV shows that Bo’s country was famous for. Bo and Nga did not have a television, and the broadcast of all cinema had been put on hold for the best part of the year whilst the Ministry for Cultural Education decided which films accorded to the principles of trimadte.
“Dear Rebecca,” Bo replied;
“I commend your studies. Education is very important. I work in a factory where makes –
It is worth paraphrasing Bo’s letter, as he made a lot of English mistakes, some of which were quite confusing for a reader who does not speak the language of Bo’s country.
“I work in a factory that works according to the principles of education trimadte.”
There is no word that can explain trimadte in English, so Bo wrote it in his own language, then added “education”.
“I make nipples for mannequins. All mannequins are to be fitted with nipples, and navels, and pupils in their eyes.”
The reason for Bo’s job was ideological. According to the principles of trimadte, if it were known that even mannequins were anatomically correct, it would reinforce the accurate dissemination of information in everyday life, which would help Bo’s country to modernise. Bo did not want Rebecca to misunderstand the Central Party Committee’s intentions through his poor English, so he did not explain this.
The international news stations that were permitted to broadcast from Bo’s country (which were few; foreign residents had left quickly and in great numbers in recent months, following the ascension of the new party) did not understand the meaning of trimadte, so they said the reason why factories were making mannequins anatomically correct was a surplus of unskilled labour.
The mannequins, which were mainly busts, gained nipples, navels, irises and pupils: someone, bored, suggested making the irises in a variety of colours, and the supervisor for the province approved his suggestion. The irises, which were brittle plastic contact lenses that went on the mannequins’ eyes, were made in brown and blue and green, and even a deep indigo, until the mistake was found out, and the people involved were punished and did not return to any kind of work. It was also joked that some mannequins had been given sex organs, and Bo thought that it might be true. Bo used a highly specialised mechanical saw to carve tiny bits of a hard polymer into nipple shapes. He had been in his job for a month when Rebecca’s letter arrived, and he was good at it. He put the nipples in a basket and then they were attached to the mannequins with a colourless adhesive. That was someone else’s job. He felt that it was improper to mention nipples and navels in a letter to a young unmarried woman, but then delusions of propriety were one of the things that had made Bo’s country backward.
Bo saw that Rebecca had talked about his country in the letter, so first he had to look up the word “bet”, which confused him. He replied that his country was very beautiful, and that he thought that hers probably was too. In fact, Rebecca was thinking of one of the peripheral regions, where people spoke a different language and did not consider themselves part of Bo’s country at all. Bo did not realise that. He had left his city twice, as a teenager, once to visit an ancient monument and once to go to the province capital.
I have a very happy marriage, he wrote. We satisfy all of the criteria. He realised that Rebecca probably did not know about the six criteria for a happy marriage, which were new developments in Bo’s country according the principle of Social Harmony. This was the law that had paired up the unmarried Bo, twenty-six, and Nga, twenty. Bo knew that he was lucky; most of his friends were already married, and he was not far off the dreaded age of twenty-eight, when it became crucial to marry as soon as possible, or not at all, and Nga was a thoughtful, intelligent woman. After her shifts at the factory (where she put frozen vegetables into bags) she spent as much time as she could with her best friend from school. Bo asked her how she found her colleagues at work. Nga looked confused as to why he wanted to know, and said that she talked to them, but they were not especially interesting. Bo, who liked his colleagues, nodded. He wished that she would smile more often.
The six criteria were:
- Husband and wife must work for the good of the nation and divide the housework evenly. Bo and Nga fulfilled this criterion.
- Husband and wife must have intercourse every day and try to conceive, and if they miss a day, they must make it up the next time. Bo and Nga told the local office that they did this, although they more usually had sex two or three times in a good week.
- A husband must not beat his wife. Later, Bo and Nga’s contribution to the new society led to their being awarded a bronze gong as the municipality’s Civil Couple of the Year, an event they would both find irksome, even humiliating. The presenter would say, as a joke, “And I understand that she does not beat you either!” “Beat” was not a synonym for sex in their country, nor for masturbation. And nobody would laugh, because the joke was not funny.
- Husband and wife must not distract one another from their civic duties. Bo and Nga fulfilled this criterion.
- Husband and wife must raise their children to be productive members of the new society. This did not apply to Bo and Nga, who had no children.
- Husband and wife must report each other to the police if they suspect one another of seditious activity. Of course, this did not apply either.
I wish you well and hope that your boyfriend is a good husband to you soon, Bo finished. He hoped to receive a new letter from Rebecca soon. Her letters were interesting. He put the address of the pen-pal office on the envelope. He would post it on the way to the nipple factory, or the district’s Scientific Accuracy Workshop, as the superintendent called it. The old name of the plastics company still stood on the sign at the front.
Rebecca’s next letter took over a month and a half to reach Bo. She took her time in replying, partly because she was confused by Bo’s message and partly because she had two pieces of coursework to write. Since he said that he made nipples for mannequins, she thought he might be a pervert, or perhaps an artist. But she gave him the benefit of the doubt and sent him another letter full of questions, exclamations and laughter, written as “hahaha!”, in the same bouncing script.
Before that letter came, Nga was arrested on suspicion of seditious activity. She was imprisoned for three weeks, during which Bo either went to visit her or went to the police station to protest her innocence every day before his shift. After a few days of it, he found that he was able to build a rapport with the police officers, smiling self-effacingly and saying “Back again!”, but a few days after that, they became far less friendly and told him that if he kept bothering them, Nga’s interviews could become more frequent, and more thorough. Finally, one of the guards took Bo to see the prisoners who had been found guilty of sedition and asked them if he would like to join them. Nga was not among them. Bo said, politely, that he would not.
Then one day Bo came home and found Nga in their flat, twisting a strand of her hair between her fingers. When Bo came in she blinked several times, and they looked at each other in silence. She had been found innocent, dropped off at the front door of their block and told to take the day off work. One of her colleagues had been executed.
She asked him why he had tried to get her out every day. Bo had a variety of reasons, but he did not think Nga really wanted to hear any of them. So he told her that he did not believe that she had done anything wrong, which was true. Later that evening, he tickled her and whispered “sedition, sedition, sedition!” and made her laugh. She laughed until Bo thought that she might hurt herself, and then she cried for a long time.
Two weeks after Nga’s release, she and Bo were declared the best civil couple in the municipality, praised for their patience and presented with an award. He mentioned this in his letter to Rebecca, leaving out the fact that, on the spur of the moment, he had taken it upon himself to make an acceptance speech. The awards ceremony had ended early when the security team had found it necessary to shut it down, shooing out the audience and the compère.
Bo did tell Rebecca that his job at the nipple factory had changed. Since Nga’s arrest, there had been several changes in the Central Party Committee, who now decreed that mannequins were not a blank model of the ideal worker but a vanity, and that over the following months all clothes would be replaced with dark unisex tunics, leggings and jackets. Bo’s job was changed to melting down the mannequins for plastic, to be reused in the manufacture of objects as yet unspecified. The new job did not last long, though; weeks later, there was another change and it was decided that brightly coloured clothes would improve morale in a country in the process of modernisation, and the mannequins were needed once again. Under the new principle of National Trimadte (for the new Party Committee concluded that trimadte was a good idea, but not properly attuned to national sensitivities) it was decreed that all mannequins be changed to resemble the people of Bo and Nga’s country. For some reason, mannequins had always looked like Western, Caucasian people. Bo’s new job was changing the facial features of the mannequins.
The letter that Rebecca received read like this:
“Many thanks for your last letter, which I enjoyed very much. I hope that you pass your examinations with flying colours and go well-prepared into a hardworking, fulfilling career.
“My wife Nga and I received an award from the Municipal Party Committee wishing us felicitations on our successful marriage. I am pumped.
“Furthermore my job recently changed due to National Trimadte. I assure you I am not an artist as you suggested in your last letter but rather work in a factory.
“I look forward to hearing from you again soon.
“With fond regards, Bo.”
The improvement in Bo’s grammar and his faltering use of American slang both went unexplained to Rebecca, who also noticed that Bo’s handwriting had changed. The reason was simple; Bo had found it necessary to dictate his words to his English teacher, who corrected Bo’s syntax and paraphrased liberally. Bo would have happily written the letter himself, but in a lapse of concentration at work (which was most out of character) Bo had seriously injured his right hand the day after the award ceremony, whilst working on the shape of a mannequin’s nose.
Bo was not the only worker to have suffered a lapse of concentration. On a floor of 140 workers and eight supervisors, not one of them reported the incident, which had to be described to them in detail on the following day by a dissatisfied factory inspector. Until he described Bo’s accident, showing how raggedly Bo’s fingernails had been shorn off by his poor handling of the saw, none of them remembered seeing it at all. One loudly-spoken, prematurely greying man told the inspector that he clearly remembered that Bo had been absent from work that day. Of course, this was impossible. Bo stood in front of them, mute, eyes fixed on a patch of floor several feet ahead of him. At the end, the inspector berated everyone for their carelessness, reminded them of the importance of National Trimadte and told them that Bo would be back at work in three days’ time.
The inspector gave Bo a lift home. Important people often did things like that for ordinary workers, because under National Trimadte, there was no difference between them. In the car, the inspector reminded Bo of his great achievement in his marriage to Nga, and impressed on him that in the future, when this was publicly recognised, he should express his satisfaction more clearly, and avoid wording his feelings in a way that could be misinterpreted. Bo listened, determined to take in the inspector’s advice. Bo should count himself lucky that Nga had not been harmed when the security had regrettably shut the awards ceremony down early, and doubly lucky that he would be able to return to work soon, where he must be more careful with the saw. He didn’t need his fingernails to operate it anyway. Pronounced it “tri-math”.