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SUN WEI

 

 

 

 

Sun Wei

Sun Wei is a Chinese novelist, short-story writer and essayist. She was born in 1973 in Shanghai and grew up in a family of intellectuals. She received her B.A. in Journalism from Fudan University in 1996 and her Master’s degree in International Business Administration from Shanghai University of Finance and Economics in 2001. She started writing fairy tales and novels in her teenage years. In her 20s, she worked as a director at Shanghai Television Station and later as the General Manager of a state-owned media company specialized in documentary and TV column production. In 2003, she quit her job and became a full-time writer and then she went into a period of maturation and high productivity. She regards writing as her fate and believes that a writer has an obligation to truthfully describe the times he/she lives in with his/her individual judgment.

 

 

Sun was writer in residence in Cork in 2011 as part of a literary exchange between the Munster Literature Centre and the Shanghai Writers' Association which saw the Irish poet Colm Breathnach take up simultaneous residence in Shanghai. The Munster Literature Centre is grateful to Cork City Council for the special funding which makes this annual exchange possible.

 

 

 

Ignition

 

 

 

It was Tuesday, but by the time he left the office, the traffic was no longer busy. All the annoying inconsequentials of the day five internal meetings, two international phone calls, and the talk he gave to three incompetent subordinates swirled in his head. The key was swirling in front of the Toyota dashboard. His empty stomach also felt as if it was swirling inside him.

On the way from Plaza 66 back to Hongqiao, the neon of restaurants pulsed all around him. He counted himself lucky to be able to shut out the bustle of the day, the hustle of his surroundings: though his stomach was empty, his mind was still filled with troubles. Finally he arrived home, drove into the underground parking lot; and switched off the ignition. In the elevator he heard his stomach make a loud plaintive sound. He straightened the lapel of his suit, lifted his chin a bit, and turned away from his reflection in the mirror.

 

He tried to think only about the dumplings he had been looking forward to for hours. He liked to sneak into the kitchen to see her prepare them. He liked to hear the sound of minor explosions the instant the frozen dumplings plopped into the boiling water. She pulled her hand back after each throw. This brought back memories from his childhood of spring festivals where he would always take big steps back each time he ignited a firecracker and threw it on the ground. Perhaps there would be scrambled egg with tomato for dinner. The previous night when he went downstairs for a beer he spotted in the fridge, besides the milk she had just bought two tomatoes, wrapped in film, with price tags still on.

 

The elevator door opened straight onto his duplex apartment. There was light in the kitchen downstairs, but the living room was dark. The TV was off. She was asleep on the sofa, still wearing her work suit, her handbag lay awkwardly under her head.

 

As he approached her she opened her eyes, looking a little panicked, as if she was trying to work out who he was. In a second she was wide-awake. She sat up, ruffled her hair and said, ‘the gas cooker has stopped working’.

 

‘How come?’ he dropped his bag on the floor, and went to sit on the sofa beside her.

 

‘It was that way when I came in. The ignition makes a noise, but it just won’t light.’

 

‘How come?’ he said again, frowning, making no move.

 

She poked him, ‘Go and take a look.’

 

Slowly he stood up, looked around, as if he were lost. She dragged him towards the kitchen, left him at the cooker, stepped back, and, leaning on the microwave, watched him. He reached out and with his fingers on the knob; hesitated.

 

‘Press then turn, that’s right, just like that,’ she said.

 

The knob clicked when he turned it. A spark leapt up, then was gone without a blue circle of flame materialising. He tried again. He exerted a little more force on the third attempt. But still there was just a spark.

 

‘What is the problem?’ she asked him.

 

‘How should I know!’ His tone was stiff. He stayed standing in front of the cooker, studying it intently and brooding over it. He couldn’t bring himself to try again and fail again in front of her. He felt her judging gaze questioning his very manhood.

 

He strutted out of the kitchen, and flipped on the light in the living room. She followed him as he fumbled along the wall until he found a door handle just under the staircase. He pushed open the small door, letting out a smell that was a mixture of rust and dust, revealing a cupboard. Along its wall ran a gas pipe with the valve visible. Right under the pipe was a Samsonite suitcase, medium size, dark green, the top of which was covered by rust flaking off the valve handle. He mumbled curses, dragged the suitcase out with one hand and chucked it on the floor behind him.

 

She all of a sudden had this impression that it was she who was being dragged by the hair and hurled out of a door, completely regardless of the ungraceful manner she hit the ground.

 

How could she have forgotten the existence of this cupboard? she asked herself. It was weird, as the suitcase was hers, and it was she herself who had put it there. In the first two months they moved in here, this suitcase was in the cloakroom upstairs, for there was enough room. Somehow they discovered this cupboard, and the suitcase found its way there. Then she just forgot about this cupboard altogether, and the suitcase. And she cleaned the whole place every week.

 

With the suitcase gone, he had ample room to pull the valve. Both hands grasping the red hand-wheel, he took a deep breath, then swivelled it to the left. The handle loosened. ‘What are you waiting for? Go to the kitchen and see if it’s ok now,’ he said to her.

 

Long-faced, she moved in that direction.

 

He stopped when the valve could not turn anymore and shouted, ‘OK. Try the ignition.’

 

‘No, still not working.’ Her voice came from the kitchen.

 

He turned the valve in the opposite direction, called out, ‘Again?’

 

‘No flame!’

 

‘All right,’ he wiped his hands on his trousers, before he remembered they were his good work-clothes. Cursing under his breath, he went into the bathroom. ‘Looks like it’s not about the main switch,’ he said to himself. Of course it was not. Could she be getting up in the middle of every night to turn that off? He was just letting her know that he was doing something.

 

Coming out of the kitchen, she saw the door to the cupboard was still open, and the suitcase still lying on the floor. He emerged from the bathroom, drying his hands on a towel. He shrugged his shoulders at the sight of her: ‘There is really nothing more I can do.’

 

‘But we have to figure out something. It has to be fixed,’ she said.

 

‘It beats me,’ he took off his suit and tossed it onto one side of the sofa; letting out a heavy sigh, before slumping onto the other side.

 

She was hungry. Actually she had been hungry while still at work. Before dozing off on the sofa, she had been in the kitchen meaning to make something for herself, only to discover the cooker was broken. She felt as if the apartment was no longer responding to her demands. Now this impression became more intense. She stood in front of him, arms crossed, legs apart, feeling her dress tightening on her thighs and her suit tightening on her back. She raised her voice: ‘You are sitting on my handbag.’

 

He lifted his eyelids, and dug the bag out from behind his back. He made no move to pick up his suit so she could sit down. She set her mind on just standing there, until he cleared some space for her. She was not going to do it for him. Neither was she going to sit down without an invitation, of some sort.

 

‘We must fix the gas cooker!’ she announced, not moving. He got the remote, and then the television set lit up behind her: perhaps the signal transmitted under her armpit or between her legs.

 

She stepped even closer, ‘Can’t you hear me? We must fix the gas cooker!’ She could sense that behind her the channels were changing rapidly. With her standing in the way, he stretched his neck in different directions, which was the only sign that she was, after all, not transparent.

 

‘You’re not fixing it, are you? You’re just going to leave it like that for good?’ Her frustration grew and grew and she felt the gears in her head grinding to a halt.

 

‘Look, can’t you just get me something to eat? I’m starving,’ he said, tenderly and earnestly, as if that nothing had happened.

 

‘How can I? With the cooker down?’ The gear wheels still felt stuck.

 

‘What about the microwave?’

 

‘That’ll take someone smarter than me.’

 

He sighed. She noticed and snapped at him, ‘That’s why we’ve got to fix the cooker now!’

 

He said, ‘Let’s not discuss this now. We’ll just eat out tonight. I’m so hungry that I think my blood sugar’s running low.’ He was a man who already had one failed marriage in his past and knew it was inviting unhappiness upon himself to talk about anything with a woman. Quickly he turned off the television, and rose to his feet; then he put on his suit, and fetched his wallet and keys from his briefcase. When he noticed she was not moving, he held her shoulders from behind, and pushed her towards the door.

 

Before switching off the light, she pointed at the pendant lamp and said, ‘That’s broken too. How many times have I told you that? You just turn a blind eye to everything.’ It was an antique bronze-coloured lamp, resembling a flower with six petals, each hosting a bulb. Two out of the six stayed dark.

 

‘Just leave it. It’ not going to kill us.’

 

He turned off the light; she hastened to say ‘The chain’s broken too’, before he opened the door. For a good few months they hadn’t the need to unfasten the chain to open the door. She used to adore this brass chain, like something one would find in a quaint inn.

 

‘I told you. Just let it go. There is no point in a door chain anyway.’ There was impatience in his voice.

 

He let her walk in front of him, before she thought of something else. For a while now, it had always been he who walked in front, with her following, like a traditional Chinese couple who had been together for ages. Today she felt as though he were seeing her off. It felt like a goodbye between two polite acquaintances who were not really close.

 

 

He drove the car past the front of the apartment, and onto another fork in the road. Before she even spoke, he chose a restaurant and pulled up in the car.

 

This restaurant had not been there for long. Most of the flowers in the bouquets at the door had withered, and the aquarium did not boast many fish. The front of desk was in mint condition, and four girls in high-necked chi-pao that split at the upper end of the thigh were teasing each other and having a good laugh.

 

He leafed through a few pages before handing the menu to her. The duty manager instantly moved towards her, and, with the ordering sheet in his hand, asked, ‘What do we want to eat tonight, my sister?’

 

She was a little bit put off by the saccharine male voice, and stopped going through the menu. The manager was a diminutive man, hair dishevelled, the collar of the white shirt revealing the slightly raised collarbone. He had thin eyebrows and tiny eyes, which were throwing anxious glances all around and showed affected enthusiasm when she turned her face to him. 

 

‘What school of cuisine do you do here?’ she asked.

 

‘Sister, what we have in this restaurant is the authentic Shanghai cuisine, but if you fancy cuisine from Hunan, Sichuan, Huangzhou, or from Northeast, stuff like that, we can do them as well.’ His neck swung to the cadence of his speech, as if he were truly devoted to every word he spoke.

 

All she could do now is lower her gaze and stare directly at the menu. ‘It’s quite late now, we shall have just a little dim sum.’ She turned to the last page: ‘Huntun with veg and meat filling … ’

 

‘Huntun’s sold out today.’

 

‘Noodle, then, with potherb mustard and shredded pork.’

 

‘Noodle’s sold out too, sister, how would you like a kilo of shrimp?’

 

She began to detest this manager, treachery written all over his face. She’d rather have those frozen dumplings: once outside work, she did not like the idea of having to deal with someone else’s calculating behaviour. She was fond of the promptness of the blue flame on the cooker, but of course it belonged in the past now. She was fond of the clamorous noise a dumpling made when dropped into boiling water. She was also fond of her partner engrossing himself in eating, and afterwards his satisfied, even grateful, brushing aside his plate before sinking into the sofa to watch TV.

 

From the other side of the table he interrupted. ‘Forget it. I’ll order.’ She observed when he took the menu the manager lost no time in bowing in the other direction, ever so ready to take note of his words.

 

His finger slid down on the page, ‘Pickled yellow croaker, sautéed pumpkin with lily bulbs, stuffed lotus roots with sugared glutinous rice, duck tongues.’

 

He paused for a second. ‘Four cold dishes, already, sir’, the manager turned his head and glanced sideways at her; she sensed there was something demonstrative in his arched eyebrows.

 

‘Braised pork in soy sauce and braised bamboo shoots.’

 

‘Can we eat that much?’ This time it was she who interrupted him. She stared at him, fingernails scratching the tablecloth.

 

He raised his eyes, utterly uncomprehending of the reason why she got cross. He gently said to her, ‘Day after day we’ve been having dumplings. It’s not often we go out and have some nice stuff. Also I’m really, really hungry.’

 

‘Do you want fish? A fresh one.’

 

‘You mentioned shrimps?’ He put his palms together and said this surprisingly in a tender tone.

 

‘Yeah … sure …’

 

‘But I don’t see where you could be keeping them?’ he chuckled, through his nose.

 

‘Don’t worry sir, if you want shrimps, we’ll take care of that, and you can be sure they’ll be the freshest.’

 

‘OK then, half a kilo of stir-fried shrimps. Hurry up, please.’

 

After the manager left, quiet descended on the table. He lowered his head to look at his fingers, locked them, pressed them, then unlocked them. A few minutes later, he stood up and walked towards the door. She watched him. He picked two newspapers from the stand, returned to his seat, and began to read. She too made her way to the stand, and took a good look at what it presented. On one of the smaller shelves there were many commercial postcards. Biting her nails, she casually took half a dozen, and walked back to her seat.

 

She pushed a postcard in front of his face, between his eyes and the paper he was reading. The postcard had the logo of the Four Seasons Hotel. ‘What would you say if I apply for lessons in the culinary arts?’ she asked. She felt that she was being sarcastic.

 

He did not lift his head, two syllables tumbled out of his throat: ‘No need’.

 

‘Just there you said day after day you’ve been eating dumplings and how you want to have something nice, didn’t you?’ She hunched over the table, tapped the newspaper in his hands, said in a lowered voice, ‘You could have told me if you didn’t like it.’

 

‘I didn’t say …’ he lifted his head, refocused his eyes, and hastened to recover, ‘Well, I did say we can sometimes improve on that. But you don’t have to do it yourself. We can hire a housekeeper.’

 

‘Housekeeper?’ she glared at him. He again immersed his face in the newspaper.

 

‘Hey!’ she said, ‘Who’ll do the hiring? You or me? Do you know how difficult it is to find the right person, and to manage her? Especially someone who’s not educated. Do you have any idea?’

 

He knew. Despite that he said, ‘What’s so difficult about it? Don’t you supervise ten or more people? Not to mention you majored in business administration … wouldn’t that be enough training for facing a housekeeper?’

 

‘Do we let her go to the market too?’

 

‘That would be fine.’

 

‘What if she bought something unhygienic? Or was dodgy with money?’

 

‘It is not really worth bothering.’

 

‘When will she come to work? We never get home on time, so who’ll open the door for her?’

 

‘Give her the keys.’ He’s still reading the paper, his voice floats like the mumblings in his sleep.

 

‘It doesn’t bother you letting a stranger have our keys?’

 

‘I don’t care.’

 

She felt a lump in her throat, choking her words. She took a deep breath. He had no clue that their conversation was suspended, he might even have forgotten her presence at that end of the table. She took another deep breath, rapped the table a few times, as if she were giving a lecture to her subordinates at work.

 

‘I’ve thought it over. I don’t like housekeepers. I don’t like having a stranger in our house. I don’t like, apart from my job, wearing out my brain trying to outwit a housekeeper. I don’t like letting a stranger have our keys.’

 

There was no response from him.

 

‘What’s more, we can’t hire a housekeeper: our cooker is down.’

 

Still no response.

 

‘Did you hear me! We must fix the gas cooker!’ That old gearwheel just stuck there, tapping in her temple back and forth.

 

‘Just leave me alone!’ he abruptly waved his hand, to shake off something that he assumed to be her postcard brushing the back of his hand, but it was a corner of the newspaper blown up by a breeze from the front door. He knocked over a cup of water. She leapt up with her handbag. He jumped to his feet too, holding the dripping paper.

 

That was when the dishes were being served. A waiter was standing there, holding a tray. The manager was in a fluster, wiping the spilled water, with facetious agility. She was not vexed by the slight brush of the mop on her stockings. She had now entered a space where nothing could irritate her. 

 

The cold dishes resembled blocks of wax. Not until they were in her mouth did she realize how hungry she was. Quite soon the steaming braised pork and braised bamboo shoots arrived. He helped her to some. They just carried on eating. For a long while no words were exchanged.

 

He had been through one unsuccessful marriage; was transferred from Beijing to Shanghai. She had once lived with a man before separating. And then the same thing had happened again, after which she lived alone for two years.

 

As lone individuals each had hated choosing restaurants just by their neon displays or looking through windows. Each hated going through the motion of looking for an empty parking space, or sitting alone at a gigantic table, and facing the affected warmth in the eyes of the staff. They found each other through a Dinner Pal scheme advertised on an online social network. They had not found the ‘Dinner Pal’ idea, drawn up by the office workers of that area, very attractive or ideal: strangers don’t have much to say to one another. But they had found it the lesser of two evils.  

 

 

After a few months the Dinner Pals in their particular group dispersed; everyone else found their particular pal, leaving only these two. He worked in Plaza 66; she in Westgate Tower.

 

Every day they made appointments before finishing work; they’d been to Jinting, Zen, Element Flesh, had tried almost all the outlets in Food Republic; one could see them also in Yonghe Soybean, Guilin Rice-Noodle, Jiabi Buns, Old Duck Rice-Noodle & Soup, and in the queues for Shengjian on Wujiang Road. They usually stuffed themselves to avoid midnight hunger, went Dutch on the bill, and then each drove to their own homes.

 

When her office moved to Ryan Plaza, almost on the other side of town, he did not care for another dinner-time companion; neither did she. There was too much traffic between Huaihai Road and Nanjing Road, in view of which he suggested looking for a place somewhere between their houses. He lived in Hongqiao, and she Nandan Road: as a matter of fact, they did not live that far away from each other.

 

They established their dining venue at Chrysanthemum Ramen and had been dining there for several months. One day she received a circulating email, written by a disgruntled former employee, alleging spoilt, potentially poisonous dishes were frequently served there; she forwarded him the pictures, which were stomach-churning. I will never set my foot in there again, she said. They then found another, more satisfying, favourite place, which was a Canton-style ‘Tea Restaurant’. They had to stop going there after that restaurant went out of business. For a while their diet consisted only of roast fish in a particular Hunan-style restaurant. It was not very clear whether the end of that period was brought about by his discovery that particular diet led to cancer, or her complaint that her whole wardrobe began to stink of roast fish. They’d fallen in love with the braised meat done in Shanghai style, only to find, at the beginning of summer, the waists of their trousers had tightened. One place that did Sichuan cuisine had Boiling Spicy Fish-slices on sale for three months, they sold an enormous ‘basin’ of fish for 38 Yuan. They ate that for two months and stopped at the appearance of ulcers in their mouths. They happened to drop by at a hotpot venue, which presented them with a 50 yuan coupon for their 150 yuan meal. And they kept coming back in order to make use of the 50 yuan coupon they received at the end of every visit. They did not use the coupon they received the sixth time.

 

Frequently they found themselves quarrelling with a waiter or a manager. There was the time that beef pot containing enoki mushrooms was more sour than plum candy. Once they saw plainly that their dish was mistakenly served to another table and, after the diners there had two or three helpings of the Corn and Apricots, was removed and delivered to their table. On another occasion the supposedly steamed grayling turned out to be braised, and offensively salty; and the barely faint taste of rancidness did not help either. Each time one of them raised the roof, while the other remained unusually reserved. They never lost their tempers together.

 

It was always his over-ordering that she picked upon. ‘Your eyes are always bigger than your belly.’ She knew that bolting down too much interfered with one’s sleep, but she did not want to leave food behind on the table; she found that wasteful. So she ended up again and again stuffed to the gills, except for that time in the Thai restaurant when they ordered some prawns that cost an extortionate 58 yuan and they turned out to be six miserable, grilled shrimp presented on a vast plate.

 

On the other hand, he was not too happy with her fastidiousness. She habitually examined the bowls and plates against the light, in the manner of an antique connoisseur, and invariably demanded them to be changed if they were anything less than immaculate. She never touched the puff pastry in desserts, which according to her contained trans-fatty acids. She would umpteen times stress to the waiter to inform the chef that there should be no MSG – absolutely none – otherwise she would be drinking water the whole night long and still feel thirsty. One more thing: she would never set foot again in a restaurant where a waiter had once stepped on her toes.

 

Now, with their gas cooker broken, they were back in a restaurant. After a few minutes of observing table manners, they each ate silently and efficiently, in an undeclared competition, just like before. In the old days, the rule was that each would pay half of the bill no matter how much he/she had shovelled down, so there was no point in holding back.

 

            She suddenly had the impression that after the dinner each would open their wallet to split the bill, then say goodbye. He would drive away in his Toyota, she in her Nissanbut to different homes. The only difference was that, this time, she’d have to pack everything she owned in the apartment into a medium-sized suitcase, open the trunk to the car, and put the suitcase in it. Which seemed as simple as boiling a packet of instant frozen dumplings. She was frightened.

 

‘Really, we should see to the cooker as soon as possible’, she was saying that to herself.

 

‘Mmmm’, with some food in his mouth, he unexpectedly lifted his head and replied.

 

She almost forgot how softly he used to talk to her, when she was some strange ‘Dinner Pal’ woman.

 

She put down her chopsticks, feeling worn out, and leant back for a while. ‘Can you, maybe, try to work something out, try to repair the thing?’ Her voice was thin and weak, carrying even an element of sobbing, which surprised herself.

 

He laid down his chopsticks, yawned, rubbed his temples with his thumbs and said, ‘I almost fell asleep. God, do we have to talk about this now?’

 

She nodded. And then nodding again with more gravity she asked, ‘What can we do, you think?’

 

The last time they had dined out, it was at a restaurant of North Eastern cuisine. He was just back from the suburb that day, appetite destroyed by fatigue. He asked if they could just have dumplings. That would be much quicker. She said fine, and that she wanted to go to bed early anyway.

 

Her seat was just outside the kitchen, and behind her, she could see the wok used for the dumplings through a crack in the door. She nudged him, and said that the dumplings were not made in the restaurant; they were frozen dumplings bought from a supermarket. When served, four or five of them fell apart. She said, she’d have done a much better job boiling these dumplings herself.

 

He said he heard that instant frozen dumplings were the least ‘corpse-like’ of all the instant foods. He had one, and felt it didn’t taste terrible. She agreed. He said how about next time you come to my house and make the dumplings? I’ll buy the dumplings.

 

She went to his home to boil the dumplings. They quietly ate plenty of them. She liked the procedure of cooking the dumplings, simple and orderly, everything under control, though admittedly she was a little fearful when it came to dropping the dumplings into the boiling water. She loved that gas cooker, a completely western-style import, easy to ignite, also incorporating an elevated and slim frame, and the elegant rings, all of which made it stand out from other cookers like a ballerina does from ordinary women. 

 

She also loved his apartment, a duplex for single people. Downstairs were kitchen, guest lav, tall and capacious living room, LCD TV and computer desk just under the window; upstairs were a bedroom that conveyed a sort of tranquillity and ease, a main bathroom with a tub and a commodious and bright cloakroom. All the design and details of the furniture, electric appliances and the curtains were choice, including even a towel stand in the guest lav, and an organizing caddy for bathroom wares. There she thought it was great she could gain some insight into his inner world. This was a man of taste, of tranquillity and depth, who had an appetite for the exquisiteness of life. He actually was not the silly guy he appeared to be.

 

She also noticed the crumpled bed sheet, the bundled dirty shirts under the stool in the cloakroom, the muddy footprints on the floor of the main bathroom. Tenderness welled up in her. It appeared that he had been dispirited recently; he needed someone to take care of him.

 

Their dinner-buddying was thus relocated to his apartment, although it sounded ridiculous for two people with five-figure incomes each to have every day a pack of dumplings that cost them just 24 yuan.

 

She boiled the dumplings, and left in the morning. She went to her own place to change her clothes before rushing to the office. They did not meet at weekends, which was the tradition inherited from the ‘Dinner Pal’ period, until one Saturday afternoon he called: ‘I’ve just been to Carrefour, and got 14 packs of dumplings. My fridge’s crammed now … Why don’t you come live here and cope with them?’

 

‘Damn the gas cooker.’ She was biting her nails again.

 

‘You could look for the company that gave the guarantee. It must be on the internet. Easy.’ He put down the chopsticks, and burped. This thing must be promptly ended, and he wanted to go home and sleep.

 

She was delighted they had returned to this subject and said, ‘I’d imagine it would be pretty tricky trying to find the company who are responsible; even if we can dig them up on a foreign site, it would be impossible for them to come over.’

 

‘How come …’ He frowned, tapping out a rhythm on the table, looking not anxious, but bored.

 

‘It is not made or assembled in China. It’s imported’, she explained.

 

‘Awful business. Couldn’t you try to contact the property management?’

 

‘The property management don’t know I exist. Sir.’

 

‘They don’t know I exist either. I go to work too early and come back too late.’ He laughed, trying to change the subject.

 

‘So what are we gonna do?’ She did not feel she had the strength to carry on.

 

‘We’ll just go out to eat. What do you think?’ He touched his chin.

 

As a matter of fact, he did not like this suggestion of his. For quite a while now, they did not change the location of dinner; dumplings in the living room had been their most consistent fixture ever since they’d met. These days had been like a smooth and endless highway, on which they might just run on and on, if there was no reason for them to hit the brake.

 

‘Do you think we’ll never fix the cooker?’ she sighed.

 

He suddenly felt sad. He wanted to console her.

 

‘Perhaps … I can ask the landlord. But’, he remembered, ‘this apartment was rented for me by the company, I don’t know the landlord. Also the lease ends in two months, when the company will arrange another apartment for me. You know, I’m too busy to sort out this sort of thing. They take care of these things for me.’ He felt he was panting at the end of this speech. He felt life in general made him pant. He felt like an idiot.

 

The waitress approached timidly, carrying the tray. The manager, with his mouth ajar, was gesturing her to quickly draw nearer. ‘Sir, that is all you’ve ordered.’ The manager gingerly placed a plate in the centre of the table, and smiled to the right at him, and to the left at her, his face wizened by the effort.

 

In the plate was a golden hairtail, deep-fried, beaming.

 

‘Didn’t I order stir-fried shrimp?’ He banged the table, rattling all the plates.

 

‘Let me explain, our purchaser saw in market the hairtail was much fresher than the shrimp, so he just bought the hairtail for you. Hairtail is as nutritious as the shrimp; it is also the specialty of our restaurant. If you really like stir-fried shrimp, you would be most welcome to drop by tomorrow, only please come a little earlier, otherwise the market will be closed.’ The manager spoke fluently and volubly, with a great deal of neck movement, which after his spiel twisted a couple of times possibly from inertia. Then he shut his mouth, eyes twinkling.

 

He stood up, without saying a word, overturned the table. All the golden, the white, the crimson and whatnot, were joined by the tablecloth into a big mess on the floor.

 

 

When they got back to the apartment, the brass door chain was still broken, and two out of the six bulbs in the living room lamp were still dark. They would be leaving all this behind in two months’ time. For her, it could be earlier.

 

He was on the sofa pressing the remote-control, the channels changed so quickly that even the visuals could hardly keep up.

 

She asked, ‘Do you want me to enrol in the culinary arts class?’

 

A number of bizarre syllables were produced in his throat, then he stood up beside her, went to the kitchen to get some water to drink. On his way to the bookshelf, he stumbled over her suitcase, making a groan; after that his knee bumped into the opened door to the cupboard. She heard a hard kick, then some relieved panting.

 

He took down from the shelf the bottle of sleeping pills, swallowed two, and gulped the greater part of a glass of iced water. He walked back to the sofa, put down the glass, uttered a barely intelligible ‘I’m going to bed’, and staggered upstairs, leaving the television on.

 

She sat in front of the TV, her aching shoulder and neck hugged by the sofa, and began to watch the programme that happened to be on the screen.

 

A bird was feeding his chicks in the nest.

 

Two squirrels, facing each other, were munching some fruit.

 

In the jungle, a number of tribesmen were building houses with twigs and digging a water channel with shovels.

 

They piled firewood, lit the fire, and sat around it to pray.

 

She stood up, walked to the kitchen. In the darkness, she took hold of the knob, pressed down, gently twiddled with it; a hoop of blue flame shot up, like festival fireworks in the night sky. She twiddled again, the flame went out.

 

She went to the door of the cupboard, with both her hands she gripped the red wheel, turned it to the left, and felt it loosen. With all her strength, she swivelled it as far as it would go. She made sure it could not swivel any further left. Even then she did not mind giving it another push, for it would not be turned in the other direction again.

 

©2012 Sun Wei

 

 

Author Links

 

Sun Wei home page

'My Portrait of Our Time': Lecture by Sun Wei given at UCC (PDF)

'Chinese writer Sun Wei on the benefits of lightening up' (Colette Sheridan, Irish Examiner, 28.02.12)

 

 

 

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©2009 Southword Editions
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