Shu Ke climbed out of bed and drank some water. She lit a cigarette before burrowing back under the blanket, bringing the ashtray with her, pressing close to the man's body. They were silent for a while, slowly coming back to themselves. They had gone further than ever before while making love, two bodies in the grip of obsession, endlessly trying to find ways to get closer– so close that their faces and voices vanished. Frightening. When she made love to him, Shu Ke could see her past lives, one after another. Each time she went through the pain of reincarnation, it seemed to be for this:
I was re-born for only one thing, waiting for you to come and fuck me, Shu Ke said.
That's right, said the man.
I love you, Shu Ke said.
I love you too, said the man.
Don't leave me, Shu Ke said.
How could I bear to, my darling, said the man.
Shu Ke didn't speak again. Instead, she began to weep.
In the candle-bright tent, he was the visitor she lovingly tended. In the grassy wilderness, the little widow he eloped with. On a plane, in a pool, in the inner sanctum of a Tang dynasty palace, in the ancient Roman arena, in the envy-red eyes of her love-rival, through the betrayals unforgiveable in this world. The narrow tube of the body can be a kaleidoscope, but in all her life, no one else had been able to show Shu Ke this magic.
As the man sped up, Shu Ke counted days quickly in her head. It was safe. So she clutched the man tightly and panted, "Come inside me, I want to make a baby for you."
The man grunted in reply, but at the last minute, nonetheless pulled back from her body and flung himself aside. Shu Ke stared blankly for some time, before shuffling to the edge of the mattress to grab a tissue from the bedside table, with which she wiped the cooling semen from her belly.
The man lit a cigarette too. She moved the ashtray to the slight swell of his belly, and they began to talk. The man asked how a recent blind date went. She said, so-so. Each time they finished making love, the man turned into her father, telling her in a serious voice it was about time she found someone to marry.
"Don't judge too quickly. Take the time to get to know him."
"That's why I agreed to see a movie with him this weekend."
"That's good." The man nodded in approval.
They were quiet for a while. The man stubbed out his cigarette, caressed her face with the back of his hand. "What are you thinking?"
"I don't know." Shu Ke smiled innocently. This conversation always went the same way, always plunged quickly into silence, awkwardly punctuated each time with identical words, WhatareyouthinkingIdon'tknow.
"My dear girl, don't make me worry about you." The man patted Shu Ke's rump, then stood to put on his trousers. Shu Ke found his socks on the floor and pulled them onto his feet.
"Where's your comb?" asked the man. After so many visits, he still asked this every time. He clearly had no intention of ever learning where anything was kept in this room.
Shu Ke handed it to him, and the man combed his hair smooth.
"I can't have dinner with you, we have a houseguest."
"That's fine. I'm not hungry."
"Have I filled you up?" the man laughed filthily. "It's going to rain."
She handed him her umbrella. The man kissed her cheek as he accepted it. "Business trip next week, I can't come on Wednesday. I'll see you when I'm back."
"All right," Shu Ke said. She stood naked in the doorway, her eyes following the man to the lift. A freezing wind blew straight into the apartment, and she ran to get dressed.
Ah Fen was changing the bed sheets when the phone rang. She ran out and grabbed the receiver, thinking it was the woman, phoning with instructions, more fuss, which clothes to hand-wash, which to iron, how to bleach the bathtub, cut a little – just a little, not too much! – off the lily stems when changing the vase water.
Every time Ah Fen arrived, the woman would be standing by the door, reminding her what to do that day. She didn't mind this – the woman wasn't picky out of meanness, but boredom. Micromanaging Ah Fen gave her a sense of purpose. Otherwise, all she did was watch television, flick through fashion magazines. Every few months, when the bright, glossy piles got too high, the junk collector came to take them away. The woman didn't seem interested in the money for this, so Ah Fen kept it.
It was a man on the phone. "Why aren't you answering your cell?"
"She's gone out. I'm the cleaner," Ah Fen said with some embarrassment.
"Where is she?"
"She didn't say."
A grunt, and then he hung up.
Ah Fen kept working. The house was not large, but still took a lot of energy to clean. Whenever she opened a closet, clothes poured out of it like floodwater. The woman tried on every neatly folded garment several times a day. She had a mania for changing her clothes, even though she rarely left the house. Although never in a hurry, she didn't take the time to close bottles and jars tightly, smearing the inside of her cosmetics drawer with moisturising creams and nail polish. Ah Fen had to remove each item individually and wipe its sticky surface.
Two hours later, the woman returned. Ah Fen was almost finished, just putting the rubbish outside. The woman placed two boxes of food on the table. "There was so much food left over, I got a doggy bag. This has hardly been touched – you have it. One is fish, the other's broccoli." Then she took off her coat, and collapsed onto the sofa. Her face was flushed. She must have been drinking.
Ah Fen thanked her, and then remembered: "There was a call for you – a man. I said you weren't in—"
"Who told you to answer the phone?" The woman was suddenly on her feet, her voice sharp and trembling.
"I thought it was you calling."
"What could be so important it wouldn't wait till I got back? Who gave you permission to answer the phone?"
It seemed best that Ah Fen say nothing.
The woman picked up the receiver. Her fingers flew as she quickly jabbed out a number. Without even saying hello, she started explaining. "I was at the drugstore, I needed some cold medicine. I must have caught a cold last night, I've had no energy all day. The cleaner just told me you called earlier." Her voice was low, and actually did sound weak. "My cell phone? It's on silent. I've been asleep all afternoon. ...Don't believe me? Come and see for yourself. How could I have gone out like this? It's not like I have anyone to go out with. ...I took the wrong pills, the night ones instead of day. I've been drowsy all afternoon. I need to lie down again. Are you coming over? ...Don't be like that. Come over. ...Okay, I'll be waiting."
The woman hung up and went into the bathroom.
Ah Fen stood in the doorway for a moment, listening to the thunder. Rain was starting to come down. She took a small umbrella from her bag, and called out, "I'm going."
The woman emerged, her make-up only half off. Her eyes were huge black circles. She took some money from her purse. "Not yet. I need you to get two boxes of cold medicine for me. Those day-and-night pills."
If she hadn't been curious about how they had arranged the lilies, Liang Lin would never have stepped into the restaurant, would never have run into Lihan.
She passed by this place every week, on her way from delivering flowers to a nearby boutique. Peering through the display window, she saw square tables covered in cloths the colour of rice. White plates, dull silver cutlery. Round-bellied vases with narrow openings, a single white gentian in each one. She thought this clever of them – gentians were pretty and inexpensive, easy to have one on every table. The room was divided down the centre by a narrow Ming dynasty table, on it a wide-mouthed container full of lilies. It was an excellent use of an antique piece, but the curtains and tables got in her way, she couldn't quite make out how they had arranged the lilies, and didn't want to press her face against the glass.
Walking past again today, she decided to go in and look. Her assistant was watching the shop, there was no hurry to get back. Still, she hesitated – it was lunchtime, would it seem strange just to have a coffee? But then she noticed a foreign man on the corner sofa, coffee cup in front of him, perfectly natural. She pushed the door and went in.
She sat by the window and ordered the cheapest cup of coffee on the menu. Lihan was just a couple of tables away, talking in English to another foreigner. She didn't recognise him straight away, or maybe she hadn't expected to meet anyone she knew in a place like this. All her attention was on the centrepiece vase. She got up as if to go to the restroom and wandered past the long table. Six or seven tall lilies rested in a clear glass vase that looked ordinary, but even without touching she knew it was expensive. The thickness of the glass, the dull blue glow of its transparency – it was a superior product. Her little wholesale warehouse had never seen anything like this. Everything her contractors produced came out unsophisticated, fussy instead of simple – legs on a snake – and whenever she went to replenish her stock, she always got into an argument with the sellers.
She memorised its appearance and decided to search the warehouse for one – she would give it to a good customer, like the boutique, which was well-appointed with a high-status clientele. The vase wouldn't earn her much money, but its wide mouth required at least six large stalks. This way, they'd have to buy a couple more lilies from her every week.
She lingered in the restroom for a little while. There was another little white vase with a gentian in it, by the sink. Unobserved, she was able to pick it up and examine it closely.
When Lihan walked over, she had just sat back down and was scrutinising the room, staring at the black metal pendant lamps dangling from the high ceiling, thinking: When will I be able to open a restaurant like this? Then Lihan appeared, smiling broadly, and sat opposite her.
"As soon as you came in, I knew it was you."
"You are--?" Liang Lin looked at him carefully.
"Zheng Lihan," said the man across from her.
"You've changed a lot. I couldn't tell it was you," she said. Had he changed a lot? She searched her memory, trying to remember what he looked like before.
"Waiting for someone?" Lihan enquired.
"No, I'm on my own. I was tired from walking and came in for a rest."
"Been shopping? There are some pretty good boutiques nearby."
"And you? You were with a friend?"
"He stopped by for a chat."
"Oh." Liang Lin didn't know what to say next.
Lihan was silent for a moment too, then: "How are you these days?"
"Same here." Lihan shrugged. More silence. "Have you had dinner?"
"Not yet. I had a late lunch." Having decided that the sandwich she'd just gobbled down didn't count as dinner.
"Then eat with me. We'll eat here. It's my restaurant, by the way. What do you think?"
"Not bad." Liang Lin assessed her surroundings with a new awareness.
"Make yourself at home. I'm just going to say a few more words to my friend. Back in a minute."
He walked away. She allowed him a few minutes before casually raising her head to glance at the next table. He looked very young, seemed polite, and of course there was money here. As he was getting up from her table, she'd noticed that his suit jacket was satin-lined, printed with a charmingly erotic image. She'd seen something like this in a magazine before, some Japanese designer, expensive. More importantly, it was his restaurant. When he let that slip, her first thought was: maybe I could get him to order his flowers from me. But then she felt an instant shame – this was, after all, a man who had pursued her in the early days, when she'd been proud as a peacock.
It began raining. Liang Lin looked out of the window, abruptly melancholy. That year, was it Lihan who'd waited for her every day outside the student hostel, or was that one of the others? There'd been so many. She'd been on lukewarm dates with most of them, a movie, maybe dinner, and then nothing. She'd felt she was watching them from high above, none of them good enough, no one worth settling for. She was blessed with a talent for ambiguity, circling gently around them, never quite rejecting them. And when it became imperative to reject, she'd think up the most fitting excuses, so the boys continued to be infatuated with her. No one ever complained. It had been the same with Lihan, but he still liked her, you could tell, even after more than ten years he recognised her instantly, and there was a kind of longing in the way he spoke.
She allowed various possibilities to run through her head. In the beginning, she hadn't realised the importance of material wealth, choosing men blindly. Then she'd hit a wall. Now she knew better. She liked this restaurant. She imagined sitting here every afternoon, arranging flowers in the sunlight. But he was so many rungs ahead of her. He'd be shocked if he knew how badly she was really doing. She began to hate the dress she had on. There was nothing at all special about it – but then, at least it was simple enough not to look obviously cheap.
Which excuse had she used to break up with Lihan? She could no longer remember. Things had been so easy when she was young, the lies came so readily to her. She never thought of consequences – like a burst of rain in sunlight, disappearing without a trace. Now she sat in this restaurant, so many years later, and those old lies came back to confront her. To get close to Lihan, she'd have to bring up the painful event, maybe make out that she'd been going through some rough times. She needed to remember what she'd said back then, that would have to be her starting point.
Maybe she could ask her college friends. There were a couple she'd been particularly close to, they might still remember. Not that she'd spoken to them for years – but this only caused a second's hesitation. She would call them. She carefully smoothed out her skirt, and strode to the restroom. Passing Lihan's table, just as she used to do all those years ago, she flashed a practised smile at him.
As Mao Mao tipped the bamboo shoots into the pot, Mr Yang appeared behind him without warning, grabbing his ass. "Is it ready? You can smell the meat from out there."
"Almost done. Do you have a bigger bowl?"
"I don't know where anything is. My wife will get it for you."
Mr Yang didn't go immediately. He stood with his body pressed the length of Mao Mao's back, his balding head wedged against Mao Mao's shoulder, his hands all over Mao Mao's face. Mao Mao gently pushed away his greasy smell, and smiled. "You're quite something. In your own kitchen."
"I don't care. I'm hard."
"Tonight. I'll take care of it tonight. Now go get me that bowl."
"Fine. I'll tell her we need to see another client after dinner." He trotted out.
Mao Mao breathed out. He opened the steamer and prodded the fish with chopsticks. Still not cooked. He rinsed the chopping board and began slicing ham. Mrs Yang came in and reached into a high cupboard for a large bowl. "Will this do?"
"That's good, thanks."
"Sure you don't need any help?" She was hovering behind him.
"It's fine, Mrs Yang. You just relax, dinner will be ready soon." Mao Mao turned and glanced at her. She had on a sweater the colour of ginger root, which made her round face look enormous. A gold necklace was twisted under her collar. Mr Yang had given it to her, Mao Mao had picked it out. Such an expensive necklace, and she wore it like it was market-stall trash. Her trousers were loose, but only along the legs – the waist was so tight that the grey zipper popped out. She was not yet forty-five, and already she had let herself go.
"You're so clever, Mao Mao. Young people don't know how to cook anymore. Even me, I'm nowhere near as good as you."
"Not possible. Mr Yang's always saying how capable you are around the house."
"I used to be okay, but now I hardly step into the kitchen. Meng stays so late at school, and my husband has so many business dinners. I can't be bothered cooking for myself."
"It's not easy, cooking for one." Mao Mao used oven gloves to move the steamer, replacing it with a white claypot. "Just the soup and vegetables now."
"Who taught you to cook? Your mother?"
"No one taught me. I started to cook for myself in primary school. My mother was too busy. I had to fend for myself."
"They divorced when I was little. I stuck with my mother."
"Independent from such a young age. No wonder you're doing so well. My husband says you're good to have along at business dinners. You drain his glass during toasts so he doesn't have to – it must be hard on you, those people get a little crazy when they drink."
"Mr Yang's good to me. If I were anyone else's assistant, I'd chauffeur them around, maybe do some typing. Mr Yang trusts me to take care of everything, and he's so patient with me. I've learned a lot from him."
"That's good. You'll have to come visit again. Treat this place like your home."
"I'll come often, then. Cook for you."
"And maybe you could help Meng with his assignments. His math is terrible."
"Of course." Mao Mao felt a flicker of despair as he said this. This job seemed to be expanding, and now he was serving every member of the Yang family.
Mrs Yang took an armful of plates and chopsticks from a drawer and went out.
Outside, the rain grew heavy. Mao Mao shut the kitchen window, and started chopping garlic. After a while, he heard Mrs Yang's voice from the living room.
"That Mao Mao, such a handsome boy, so sensible, and he can cook. Too bad his dad wasn't around."
"What's wrong with that?" Mr Yang wanted to know.
"Children of single parents always have a shadow across their lives. It's a shame, I wanted to introduce him to Meiyan."
"Meiyan's ugly and bad-tempered. Mao Mao could do better." Meng spoke distractedly, preoccupied by the video game he was playing.
"She's from a good family. He won't lose out, marrying her."
Mao Mao felt that she was talking about herself and Mr Yang. But you could no longer tell that Mrs Yang had come from a good family. Stuck in this house for a couple of decades, she no longer knew what the outside world held.
"It's none of your business, Mao Mao doesn't need you to worry about him," Mr Yang finally spoke up.
Mrs Yang didn't respond. The living room was full of the sounds of carnage from Meng's hand-held video game. In front of Mao Mao, the boy had a kind of superiority complex. Earlier on, he'd ordered rather than asked him to pour a glass of water, as if Mao Mao were a servant. Yet he didn't look especially impressive, perhaps because he was so fat. He must get teased a lot at school.
Mao Mao brought out two plates – steamed bass and lightly poached chicken – and then two more – braised beef with bamboo shoots and a gleaming dish of asparagus. Finally, a claypot fish soup with vegetables.
"You've worked so hard! Come and sit down," said Mrs Yang.
"Here, let me." Mao Mao took the ladle from her and scooped rice into everyone's bowl.
"Not too much for me," said Mr Yang. "I can't eat a lot at dinner – I never do anything afterwards, and it all turns to belly fat."
"Meng, come and eat," Mrs Yang shouted, losing her patience. Meng's mouth hung open as he continued to slaughter his enemies. Mao Mao was amused at the sight of his hands, fat as pig trotters, flying back and forth on the console. Mrs Yang snatched it from him and replaced it with an enormous bowl of rice. They started eating.
"This beef is delicious." Mrs Yang helped herself to more, and put a piece on Meng's plate.
"Have some vegetables too, don't just eat the meat." Mr Yang reached over to put some asparagus on his wife's plate. As his outstretched arm hid his face from hers momentarily, he stuck out his tongue and wriggled it at Mao Mao in a facsimile of licking.
"Your house is so hot," said Mao Mao, unfastening another button on his shirt so it gaped open, revealing a few curls of chest hair.
The grandfather clock struck seven, the bright waves of sound shaking loose a stray tea leaf from the old man's chin. The wind started up; the setting sun hid its face. In the light of streetlamps, the shadows of trees trembled.
The old man sat on a cane chair. Rain drifted into the room through the open window, wetting his bent back. He sat face to face with the clock, watching the hand drift onto the seven. He hugged a transistor radio. Another hour till his programme started. The signal was weak here. He often heard no more than a piercing buzz mixed with a few words from the preacher: Jesus, spirit, glory. No matter, even if he could hear clearly, he'd forget it soon enough. His memory was going, these days he couldn't remember his address or what his grandsons were called. So he tried not to use their names, or to leave the house.
He didn't go to service any more. He used to go with Old Wang, every Sunday, getting a ride from Wang's daughter. But then Old Wang died, and now the only routine he had was the eight o'clock daily programme. He wasn't sure what time the programme actually ended. All he knew was to turn it on when the clock struck eight, and listen to the buzzing until his daughter came and told him it was time for bed.
Dong came out a few times to look at him. He kept popping up, the old man wasn't sure where from. Such a lot of movement. Dong was looking at the clock too. Still seven o'clock. He'd done it – he'd used what he'd learnt in physics class and cut the mainspring, so the pendulum slackened for the first time in decades.
"Ming, what's the time?" The old man was suspicious – time seemed to be moving slowly today.
"I'm Dong, not Ming. It's seven." Dong flickered by in front of him.
The old man lifted his cup and sipped some cold tea. He waited. The rain beat against the window with increasing force.
"Ming, what's the time?"
"It's a minute past seven." This time, Dong didn't bother to correct him. This game wasn't much fun any more. He took an ice-cream cone from the freezer and retreated to his room.
The old man looked at the clock again. The hand continued to point stubbornly at seven. After so much time, only a minute had gone by. As the wait lengthened, a bright streak of panic cut through his murky mind: Christ had forsaken him.
After looking at the clock countless times, countless disappointments, the old man allowed his eyelids to drift shut. He sat, completely still, shrinking little by little, curling into himself. He felt bound in layer after layer of sludgy time, as if he were a parcel being wrapped in preparation for a long journey.