Translated by Nicky Harman and originally printed in Peregrine (2011). (It is a stand-alone short story, and also forms the first chapter of the novel 我们家, translated as The Chilli-Bean Paste Clan). Read the Chinese version here.
Listen in Chinese (read by the author)
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Listen in English (read by the translator)
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In Dad’s cell phone, Gran was listed as ‘Mother.’ From time to time, ‘Mother’ popped up on screen at peculiarly inappropriate moments. Sometimes it would be during a meeting at the factory when Dad was trying to call the laughing, chattering salesgirls to order. Or he was out drinking with friends, sharing three bottles of maotai liquor between five of them, the air thick with smoke. Or, worse still, Dad would be in bed, either with Mum or else some young woman of his acquaintance and, just when things were hotting up, A Pretty Sprig of Jasmine would ring out. Dad would feel himself going soft and, when his cell phone proved incontrovertibly that it was Gran, all the fight would go out of him. Floating gently to earth like a hen’s feather, he’d pick up the phone, walk out into the corridor, clear his throat and respond: ‘Yes, Mother’.
At the other end of the line, Gran would start to tug on Dad’s heart strings. ‘Hello, Shengqiang!’ ‘Yes, Mother, what’s up?’ He’d stand, propping himself against the wall, just four or five streets from Gran. ‘Mother, I know about that,’ he’d say. ‘Don’t you worry. I’ll deal with it.’
Then he’d hang up and go back into the room. But those few minutes had wrong-footed him. If he was with the salesgirls, they’d be gossiping away amongst themselves, if it was a get-together with his friends, they’d be texting or lighting up another cigarette. Or if he was with a woman, she’d be bent over scraping a callus off her heel. Still, Dad would give a cough, shut the door behind him and they’d get back down to where they’d left off. The only exception to this rule was if the woman in the bed happened to be Mum. In that case, he had to answer a few questions about Gran first. ‘What’s up with her now?’ Mum would ask. Dad would come across the room, take off his slippers, and dive under the bedcovers. ‘Oh, just forget it!’ And they’d get back down to where they’d left off.
Dad put on a maroon striped shirt over his trousers and went out into the passageway. He called Zhu Cheng, his driver. ‘Where are you?…Right…come and get me then.’
He started down the stairs. He had only got halfway down to the next floor when he paused, then gave voice to a stream of poetic obscenities. ‘A bunch of damned fools, the lot of you! Your old man’s gonna do you all in one of these days!’ When he reached the ground floor, he lit up a cigarette and smoked it until, far in the distance, he saw the shiny black Audi approaching. He threw down the cigarette, ground out the sparks under his foot, opened the car door and jumped in. ‘Cornucopia Court,’ he ordered.
Zhu Cheng turned the steering wheel and the car bowled along West Street towards the outskirts of town. As they crossed the intersection, Dad looked out of the window. The two streets were hideously thronged with people – no one paid attention to traffic regulations any more, not since the Tianmei Department Store had opened up here. One young couple, their arms draped around each other’s waists, made a reckless dash across the road in front of the car. A young mother had her hands so full of shopping bags she wasn’t holding her kid’s hand and he charged out and nearly pasted himself onto the car’s side-mirror. Zhu Cheng slammed on the brakes, just avoiding hitting them, then stuck his head out of the car window and shouted lengthy picturesque references to their ancestors.
‘Calm down, Zhu Cheng,’ said Dad from the back seat.
‘These people need a telling-off, boss. They think I won’t dare hit them!’ Zhu Cheng steered the car carefully through the crowds.
‘Nothing’s the same anymore,’ Dad said. ‘People with shoes are scared of people without, and car-drivers are scared of pedestrians.’
‘Absolutely! The Chinese are so ignorant!’ Zhu Cheng agreed.
They exchanged a few more remarks and passed the intersection with Shen Xian Bridge. Just three years ago, a new park had been built there and the original smelly ditch filled in and covered over. Dad could see a bunch of old people gathered in the park, some chatting, some just sitting. Gran wouldn’t be there though. He pulled out his cell phone and checked the time.
At the entrance to Cornucopia Court, Dad said: ‘Don’t bother to drive in, Zhu Cheng, just leave me here and you can be off. I won’t need the car this evening, I’ll walk home.’
‘I’ll wait for you, you can’t go home on foot,’ said Zhu Cheng solicitously.
‘It’s no distance. I can walk. And don’t take the car back to the factory, come straight to the house and pick me up at eight o’clock tomorrow morning,’ Dad instructed him. Then he got out.
His father had died two years previously and last spring their housekeeper announced her son wanted her back in the village to look after the grandchild, whereupon she upped sticks and left. Gran said she’d never find anyone else to suit and wasn’t going to try, so now she lived alone in the family’s old flat, with its three bedrooms and two reception rooms, without even an hourly-paid helper. She just wanted the peace and quiet, she said.
Gran had lost weight since last year, and was getting shorter inch by inch. Dad walked up three floors, took out his key and opened the door. As usual, he couldn’t see Gran at first. The flat was piled high with books, magazines and newspapers, and it looked as if no one had lived there for months. ‘Mother!’ he shouted. Then again, ‘Mother!’ with a note of anxiety in his voice.
‘Coming, coming!’ Gran called back, emerging from somewhere at the back. ‘Shengqiang… it’s you!’
‘Yes, it’s me,’ said Dad, going out to the veranda to retrieve the ashtray which Gran had put beside the potted eupatorium plant. He took it back into the sitting-room and put it down on the coffee table, lit a cigarette and sat down on the sofa.
‘Smoking again!’ Gran exclaimed from her rattan chair, shaking her head.
‘Oh, please, don’t go on at me!’
‘Well if I don’t, who’s going to?’ Gran shot back at him.
‘All right, all right,’ Dad said, with a puff on his cigarette.
Dad scrutinized his mother as she talked. Her hair had been completely white for a while now but she still had it neatly permed so that the waves undulated over her head. She wore a pale-green silk padded jacket over a knee-length grey silk skirt with a white pattern. Her calves were bare below the skirt and, above her flesh-coloured socks, the skin was pallid and drooped as if half-a-dozen weights were pulling it down.
Dad let his thoughts drift back to the exact moment he had realized that Gran was old.
It was 1996, or maybe 1995, in March or April, and Gran suddenly got it into her head that she wanted Dad to drive her to Chong Ning County see the pear blossom in Pear Blossom Gully. When they got there, the gully was crammed full of people. Gran sat in the car frowning at them. Zhu Cheng, who had just started as their driver and hadn’t quite got the hang of things, sat woodenly in the driver’s seat and Dad had to help Gran out of the car. He took her left hand, and put his other hand on her shoulder to guide her out.
That was the moment it struck him Gran was old. Through her clothes, Dad could feel the skin on her shoulders hanging in slack folds which actually quivered as she moved. He froze, appalled. Then Gran said: ‘Get out of my way, Shengqiang. If you stand in my way, how can I walk?’
Dad took a step back and watched as she made her way to Pear Blossom Gully. ‘Mother,’ he called.
Gran stopped and looked back. She looked just as normal, no different from a few minutes before, but Dad had to steel himself to look her in the face.
‘Come on!’ she said.
It can’t have been 1996, it must have been 1995. Back home in Pingle Town, Gran had said: ‘Don’t you go divorcing Anqin, it won’t be good for you. She did wrong, but now she’s got down on her knees and grovelled to you, just let it go. The pair of you should stop bickering and just get on with life.’
‘Are you listening to me, Shengqiang?’ demanded Gran now, after waiting for his response.
‘Yes, right,’ Dad said again, putting out his cigarette, lifting his eyes from her calves and nodding.
‘Off you go then. I’m going to read for a bit and then go to bed.’
‘Yes, you get an early night, Mum,’ said Dad stolidly.
Outside Gran’s flat, Dad paused a few moments, then went up to the fifth floor. The staircase ended here and just a blank, two-panelled door faced him. Dad took out his cell phone and made a call. It rang once then someone answered.
‘Open up,’ said Dad.
In a second, the door had opened. A pretty young woman stood in the doorway, her hair hanging in a gleaming black curtain around her dainty face.
Dad’s face finally cracked a smile. He went in, shutting the door behind him.
In Dad’s cell phone, Jasmine Zhong had gone under a variety of guises, all masculine. A few months ago, she had been listed as Zhong Zhong, then for a couple of weeks, it changed to Zhong Jun; recently Dad had decided to keep life simple, and he listed her as just Zhong.
Once, Dad had been at home eating dinner with his phone beside him on the table and it rang. Dad didn’t pick it up straightaway and Mum leaned over and took a look. ‘It’s old Zhong,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said Dad. ‘Hey, Zhong, old man’ he said into the phone. ‘I’m at home having dinner. A game of mahjong, eh?’
There was a gasp of surprise from Jasmine at the other end.
‘When I’ve finished eating,’ he went on with a smile, ‘I’ve got to do the washing up too.’
He put the phone down and Mum said: ‘It’s been a long time since old Zhong asked you over for a game of cards, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Dad, selecting a mouthful of pepper and aubergine with his chopsticks then raking some rice into his mouth. ‘When I’ve washed up, I’ll go round and see him.’
‘You go as soon as you’ve finished dinner,’ said Mum, looking sidelong at him. ‘Just the word mahjong drives you crazy, I know. I’ll wash the dishes.’
And Dad went off happily, congratulating himself on having cleverly listed both the girl and his old friend under ‘Zhong’. It had been an inspired choice.
A little later that evening, Jasmine asked him: ‘So I’ve become ‘old Zhong’ now, have I?’
‘Uh-huh,’ said Dad, who was engrossed in caressing her breasts. They were not big breasts, but, under his caress, they were cool and weighed in his hand like antique jade.
‘Then call me by that name!’ Jasmine ordered him with a giggle.
‘Hey, Zhong!’ he said.
‘Oh, what a good little boy!’ she responded with delight, sticking her bottom in the air then grinding herself against him.
To be perfectly honest, it was this foolishness that Dad really liked about Jasmine. When they were making love, he liked to yell: ‘Stupid cow!’ at her. Jasmine never got angry at being called names, in fact she liked to act up to it.
She and Dad had been an item for nearly two years now and, it has to be said, Granddad could take some of the credit for the affair.
It all started just three months before Granddad died… Granddad was 84, coming up 85, and Gran had had her 78th birthday. It was a fortnight after New Year when Dad’s cell phone rang early one morning.
The shrill ring woke him and Mum.
Only half-awake, Dad reached out and saw Gran’s name on the screen. He stifled his irritation and shouted into the phone: ‘Yes, Mother.’
Gran was weeping down the line. Dad rolled over and sat upright. ‘What’s the matter, Mother?’
‘I want to divorce your Dad! I want to divorce your Dad!’ she wailed.
Mum and Dad got dressed and rushed over to Gran’s. Mum took her car. ‘Are you sure you weren’t mistaken, she really wants a divorce?’ she asked as she drove.
But there was no mistake. They got to Cornucopia Court, and Mum went to park the car while Dad took the stairs two at a time and let himself into the flat. Gran was in the sitting-room, her tear-streaked face hidden in her hands.
‘Mother, don’t cry,’ said Dad going over to Gran. ‘Just tell me what’s happened.’
‘Ask your Dad!’ said Gran, with a jab of her finger in the direction of the balcony.
Granddad was sitting out there in a rattan chair, wearing a leather overcoat over his vest and long-johns to ward off the cold, puffing away at a cigarette and dropping cigarette ash all over his coat collar.
‘Dad, what have you done?’ Dad asked going out onto the balcony.
Granddad shook his head but said nothing.
‘Your Dad’s got a woman on the side!’ Gran’s voice came from the sitting room.
Dad didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He exchanged complicit glances with his father and said: ‘You’re quite a one, Dad! Still up to it at your age!’
Granddad gave a dry laugh. Mum came stomping up the stairs to the flat. Gran set up a wail as if someone was trampling her underfoot.
‘Mother!’ Mum cried, hesitating in the doorway and looking through to Dad on the balcony.
Dad gestured nonchalantly and Mum crouched down by Gran and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Softly she said: ‘Mother, don’t cry. Tell me all about it.’
‘I can’t go on like this,’ said Gran. ‘I told him, I’ve had enough of being his nanny. Let him go off with whoever he wants, I just want peace and quiet.’
Their housekeeper had gone back home for the New Year a few days before. So Mum got busy heating up the previous day’s chicken soup, and preparing noodles and pickled vegetables, so that at least they could have some breakfast.
‘Shengqiang, after breakfast I’m phoning your sister and getting her over here. I’m going to divorce your Dad today. I’ve been a decent woman all my life. I’m not going to force him into anything, he can go off and have his fun, but he’s not going to force me to go along with it.’
Granddad buried his face in his bowl and said nothing. Dad was about to say something but Mum tugged quietly at his sleeve.
Gran never did phone Aunt Lily and Dad thought that it had all blown over.
But three months later, Granddad’s blood pressure shot up and he was admitted to Pingle Hospital. And right up until the day he died, Gran refused to step outside the door of their flat. Everyone had a go at persuading her – Mum, Dad, Aunt Lily, the housekeeper – but she wouldn’t go and see Granddad.
‘No!’ she said. ‘Get that cow to go and see him instead.’
After much thought, Dad felt he should broach the subject with the old man. He sat down at his bedside and asked him: ‘Is there anything you’d like me to take care of? I can do it for you.’
Granddad looked at Dad, took a last breath, shook his head and, gripping Dad’s hand, passed away.
It was the end of the road for a hero and sadness welled up in Dad. He held back the tears, but he couldn’t help being angry. Damn it, Gran should have been there for her husband. Less than two months later, Dad took up with Jasmine Zhong, a salesgirl at Longteng Telecoms City, and installed her upstairs from Gran’s flat.
‘Damned stupid cows. Your old man’s gonna do you all in one of these days!’ Dad used to say. That’s right. That’s the kind of weird thing Dad used to say when he was having sex.
Actually, Dad was not a bad man. He’d worked hard all his life, starting just two months after his 17th birthday when Gran got him his first job in the bean-paste factory. Master Chen, the manager, was also not a bad sort, just a bit lazy and fond of his tobacco. Every day when Dad left the flat in Cornucopia Court to walk to work, he had to stop off and buy him a packet of Tianxiaxiu cigarettes. Master Chen would accept them with a beaming smile and put Dad to work. If he hadn’t taken the cigarettes, no doubt he would have called him names like ‘snot-nose kid’ – and still put him to work.
Mum used to tell me that that first year at the bean-paste factory Dad’s job was to keep watch on the fermentation vats. It was the end of May, nearly June, the air was full of flies and sparrows and the ground crawled with jiuxiang bugs and mole crickets. The time of year when the blossom was out and the trees were in leaf was also when all the townsfolk had to get busy fermenting the bean-paste in the sunshine. Gran pointed with her slender white hand and Dad was taken off by Master Chen and left to kick his heels all day in the fermentation yard.
Fermenting the bean-paste in Pingle Town was an esoteric art; few outsiders had seen it, while Dad had seen enough to make him sick of it. Serried ranks of earthenware vats, three or four feet tall and with a girth as big as two arm spans, held a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy, to which were added crushed ‘Red Sea’ peppers and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves, and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers steamed and fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour. Sometimes the sun was so strong that the brick-red paste in the vats boiled up and started to bubble. Then Dad had to take a stout length of wood as tall as he was and, vat by vat, stir the contents. It was vital to stir the beans and Master Chen spent a lot of time instructing Dad and clipping him around the ears to get the message across. ‘Slowly, slowly,’ he would shout, standing to one side, cigarette between his lips, making pressing down motions with his hands. So Dad slowed down, manipulating the stirring pole as if it was a spoon, but still Master Chen was not satisfied. ‘Now quicker!’ he would shout. ‘Get some speed up!’
As the pole went around, the chilli oil vapour rushed up Dad’s nostrils. It was so pungent it seemed to reach right down his guts and turn them bright red. Finally Dad had had enough and, flinging the pole at the vat, shouted: ‘You want it slow or quick? Stop messing with me!’
‘Your Dad thought he’d get a beating for that!’ Mum told me.
But he didn’t. Instead, Master Chen pensively finished his cigarette, threw the butt to the ground and ground it under his heel then, his face all smiles, went and picked up the pole and demonstrated to Dad how to do it.
‘Xue Shengqiang, you watch carefully. Hold the pole tight but relax your wrist, and move the pole from side to side. And remember something else, I’m only going to tell you once: you stir the beans the way you fuck a woman, you get me? The vat’s the woman’s cunt, and if you make her happy, then you’re stirring properly.’ Dad hadn’t fucked any woman yet, in fact he still hadn’t figured out what those bits of a woman even looked like, and he watched the manager, agog.
Master Chen rhythmically stirred the beans as if this was a witches’ brew: slow, slow, quicker, a flick of both wrists, slowing down again, until the stirring pole made the beans give off liquid moans and the flaming red chilli oil leached out, releasing a glorious smell. And Dad, as he stood staring in the fermentation yard, got an erection.
Needless to say, in the fullness of time, Dad became a pretty good stirrer. He reckoned he was pretty good at fucking women too.
I haven’t said just how Dad was a good man. It wasn’t nearly as glorious as the way he learnt to stir the beans, and Mum didn’t tell me about it either, but in Pingle Town everything leaked out sooner or later.
Dad never spoke about it but he cannot have forgotten how that summer he nearly drove himself mad thinking about women.
It was all the fault of that fucking Master Chen. Dad lay drenched in sweat on his bamboo sleeping mat, jerking off and cursing the man. In between whiles, he also found time to think about some of the girls in town that he found the prettiest, wondering what they looked like naked and so on and so forth.
But Dad kept his wits about him. The way he figured it, he was very unlikely to get a girl to fool around with, at least without the other townsfolk or Gran finding out. So after he’d spent a week wanking he decided to go off to Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street, and pay a reasonable price to get a woman naked.
Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street doesn’t exist anymore, or rather it appears no longer to be there. But if you know the password, you can find the way in. The bums and petty criminals of Chengdu society all know exactly where it is, in other words, all the townsfolk are only pretending not to know. In actual fact, if you head out of town on West Street, as you get near to Factory 372, there is an inconspicuous little road with osmanthus bushes dotted along it and ropes strung from the branches on which towels and wet clothes sometimes hang. This is the famous Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street. When Dad was young, you could get a woman there for 15 yuan. But when Dad paid another visit, sometime in 2002, the woman put out her hand: ‘150 yuan.’ And that was when Dad felt that the good times really were gone for good.
In 2002, coughing up 150 yuan was nothing to Dad. But a dozen or so years before, things had been very different. He spent a long time racking his brains over how to get hold of 15 yuan.
Every day, Dad ate breakfast at home, then went to work at the bean-paste factory, where he would eat his lunch and dinner. Apart from the money he bought Master Chen’s cigarettes with, he had no other pocket money. So Dad just had to use Master Chen’s cigarette money as the basis for his calculations. The Tianxiaxiu brand cost 2 yuan a packet, but a packet of Baifurong brand was only 1 yuan. He could save 1 yuan a day that way, and in 15 days he’d have enough to go to Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street. There was another, even bolder, plan: Tianxiaxiu brand cost 2 yuan a packet, but a packet of Jiaxiu brand was only 40 cents. That way, he could save 1 yuan 60 a day and could make it to Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street in ten days’ time.
Dad did the sums on a scrap of paper three times and turned them over in his mind for five days as he stood in front of the tobacconists eyeing the cigarette packets on display, his head full of those women. Finally, he steeled himself and said to the shop-owner: ‘A packet of Jiaxiu.’
Master Chen didn’t say anything however, just took the packet, squinted at it and grunted. After all, a smoke was a smoke. At the height of summer, he’d sit under a big eucalyptus in his sleeveless vest, half a cigarette hanging from his lips. The sun was sizzlingly hot and Dad went off, head bowed, to give his beans a stir.
The sound of the bubbling beans nearly fucking finished Dad off back then, so that even now when Dad passes the fermentation yard, he can’t help sneaking glances at those perfectly aligned rows of bean-paste vats which had once overflowed with his first love.
To cut a long story short, Dad stuck it out and, every day for ten days bought Master Chen Jiaxiu cigarettes. Finally he had scraped together 15 yuan and that very day marched proudly off to Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street, head held high, to lose his virginity. His memories of that day are a bit hazy but he does remember that the woman’s moans and cries had to be heard to be believed, whether because she was good at her job or because he was just a natural, he’s still not sure. When he’d finished, he gave her every cent he had.
‘You’ve given me one yuan too much, kid,’ she said kindly.
‘That’s for you,’ Dad said, modestly playing down his generosity.
So in the end, the earnest maxims that Gran had drummed into him from boyhood had had an effect; they had turned Dad into a young philanthropist.
This evening, Dad was eating at the Piaoxianghui Restaurant with his friends Gao Tao and ‘old Zhong’ and somehow the conversation turned to Baby Girl, Dad’s first woman in Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street. Gao Tao took a last puff on his cigarette and stubbed it out on the tail of the duck in the dish. He shook his finger at Dad and said in a slurred voice: ‘You remember Baby Girl, Zhong? That was Shengqiang’s first love!’
‘‘First love’, be buggered!’ Dad spat out angrily. There was no way he was going to admit that Baby Girl had been the one to take his virginity.
‘Well, anyway, as I remember, you were forever running off to Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street as a young lad. You even stole a rabbit from the Huangs and sold it so you could sleep with Baby Girl, do you remember that time?’
I don’t know when it started but Dad and his friends were at an age when, with a drop of wine in them, they’d start reminiscing about the good old days.
‘You bet I do!’ said Zhong. ‘He made his mother so angry, he came over to my house and stayed two nights, the little squirt!
‘You two old farts! That was a lifetime ago! Can’t you think of anything else to talk about?’ Dad grabbed a half-empty pack of cigarettes from the table and threw it at Zhong’s head; Zhong gaily caught the pack, shook a cigarette out of it and lit it. Their waitress looked faintly embarrassed and suppressed a smile.
‘Anyway,’ old Zhong took a couple of puffs and pulled himself together, ‘how is the old lady, your mother?’
‘She’s very lively!’ said Dad. ‘She had me over the day before yesterday to talk about her eightieth birthday celebrations.’
‘A-ya!’ Gao Tao exclaimed, clapping him on the shoulder. ‘It’s a big deal, an eightieth birthday! You’d better do a good job of organizing it!’
‘Of course I will!’ Dad picked up a piece of duck with his chopsticks and crunched it up, bone and all. ‘The old lady says she wants the whole family to be there, my big sister, my big brother, everyone. Then there are relatives who live in the Pingle Town, and friends, it’s going to be a big occasion, and me, I’m the one who has to sort it all out, while my revered siblings, who normally we don’t see hide nor hair of, just float along when it suits them!’ he complained.
‘A-ya!’ Gao Tao said again. ‘ But Shengqiang, you’re so capable, besides you live close to the old lady. You’re the right person to take it on.’
‘Capable!’ That somehow made Dad furious. ‘Sodding “capable”! It’s not as if I had any choice in the matter. The country forces me to do things, society forces me to do things…’ He lifted his cup and the three of them clinked and swallowed their maotai. ‘Mother forces me to do things!’
This wasn’t just mouthing off, it was actually true. When Dad was honest with himself, he had to admit that the reason he hadn’t ended up fucking his brains out with the girls of Yao Wu Yi Tiao Street, that he was doing well for himself now, that he was a man of some importance in Pingle Town, was all down to Gran forcing him to do things.
‘Good people come from gold rods,’ as Gran always said. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Dad remembered Gran saying this every time she picked up the feather duster to beat his bottom with. He remembered perfectly well, though of course he wasn’t going to admit it, that right up until he was in his early 20s and was going out with Mum, when Gran caught him playing mahjong she was quite capable of having his trousers off him and making him lean over the table in his long-johns for a beating.
Gran had always insisted on the proprieties, and had been thorough in everything she did. All Dad’s life, she had been a refined figure at Dad’s side, landing blow upon blow on his long-john-clad buttocks, repeating in level tones: ‘Look, Shengqiang, you must obey me. The whole Xue family depends on you. Don’t blame me for beating you. Spare the rod and spoil the child.’
‘Nonsense!’ Dad had spent his whole life muttering angrily to himself: ‘How come you never beat my older brother or sister then?’
For over 20 years, Dad had never dared say this out loud but he was pretty clear in his own mind that ever since he’d emerged after nine months in Gran’s womb, he’d been the family whipping boy.
‘Open another for us, Miss!’ Dad bellowed, pointing at the maotai liquor. What was money anyway? Just so much paper! And once it was gone, it was gone. He’d earned a lot of money for the Xue family, and he spent it freely.
In Dad’s mobile, his elder brother ‘Duan Zhiming’ came right at the top. This was annoying because, when he looked up a name, ‘Duan Zhiming’ always seemed to catch his eye. Sometimes he just ignored it, other times it filled him with an obscure fury. Once he nearly deleted the surname, so that he could fucking move it from D for Duan to Z for Zhiming. What the eye doesn’t see, the heart doesn’t grieve over. But then he didn’t. Having only his brother’s given name in his address book gave the impression they were close. No, he’d rather put up with the annoyance of seeing that creep’s name a few more times.
Dad was more respectful about Aunt Lily. He very properly saved her name under ‘Sis’. Every time he called Aunt Lily, he also very properly went somewhere quiet, like the passageway or the balcony, before keying it in. She would answer it after a few rings with a light: ‘Hello, Shengqiang.’
For as long as Dad could remember, Aunt Lily had always spoken mandarin rather than the dialect of Pingle Town, and for that reason alone, Dad made an effort to speak nicely to Aunt Lily. Her voice came over the phone line – sounding just like she sounded on TV – ‘Has anything happened at home, Shengqiang?’
And Dad suppressed all the snide things he wanted to say and pronounced, in the way he might have reported to the Production Team head: ‘Nothing’s happened. It’s just that Mum’s eightieth birthday’s coming up next month and she’d like everyone to come over and celebrate it with her.’
‘Oh, yes of course!’ Aunt Lily sounded a bit surprised. ‘I almost forgot! Of course I must come. You set the date and I’ll be there.’
‘Right,’ Dad assented. It was Aunt Lily he was talking to. If it had been his brother, he would have muttered sotto voce: ‘So, Duan Zhiming, you want me to fix the date, book the restaurant, and you just come back to eat and drink once I’ve got everything ready for you!’
‘Is everybody well?’ Aunt Lily asked. ‘How is Anqin? And how’s Xingxing been lately?’
‘Everyone’s fine,’ Dad put warmth into his answer.
‘That’s good, then,’ said Aunt Lily.
Aunt Lily’s question effectively stopped up the words on the tip of Dad’s tongue. No one else knew, probably not even Gran, but Dad knew very well, that if it wasn’t for Aunt Lily, he and Mum wouldn’t be together any more – it was Aunt Lily who had dissuaded him from getting a divorce, not Gran.
That was the first time ever that she had given Dad a call of her own volition: ‘Shengqiang, are you really set on divorcing Anqin?’
Dad said nothing. The day before, he had made repeated promises to Gran, but he couldn’t swallow his anger all the same.
Aunt Lily understood perfectly well what his silence meant. She sighed, and went on: ‘Shengqiang, I know once this kind of thing happens and you want a divorce, it’s difficult for anyone to dissuade you, but I introduced you to each other and I want to say a couple of things. Will you listen to what your sister says and take it in?’
‘Yes I will,’ said Dad earnestly and sat down on the sofa, his eyes fixed on the front door at the end of the entrance hall.
‘For good or ill, Anqin and I were colleagues for two years and I know she’s a good woman, otherwise I wouldn’t have introduced you. And now that I’ve seen you together I really hate to see you split up. So today I’m going to beg you on her behalf, will you listen to me?’
‘Go on,’ Dad said, his eyes still fixed on the front door.
‘I’m not saying that Anqin’s right or Anqin’s wrong. I’m just saying that if you divorce her, what will you do? What will Xingxing do? Every family’s got to have a home-maker. At your age and with your abilities, it’ll be easy for you to find someone else for yourself, but where will you find another mother for Xingxing? If you find someone your own age, then she’ll come with a past, and that’ll mean a stack of problems. If you get someone much younger than you, it’ll be quite improper. I’m your sister, I know you, and I know you’re good at running the factory and you’re a popular man with lots of young girlfriends but they’re just for fun, you can’t take any of them home. Think about it, Shengqiang, can you find one to take back home?’ Her manner of speaking reminded Dad of seeing his sister on TV. She might as well have been reciting her lines from the autocue.
Dad stared at the flat door, unable to answer his sister’s question. What it boiled down to was: this ‘Can you find someone to take back home?’
He hadn’t had the answer to that question back when he was going to marry Mum, and he didn’t have it now, so he had just taken the easy way and married Mum, and in no time at all a dozen or so years had passed.
‘All right, Sis,’ he said finally.
They talked a bit more and, just as Dad finished the call, Mum put the key in the lock and pushed the front door open. She was carrying some vegetables in one hand and, hesitantly, her head bowed and avoiding looking at Dad, she went into the kitchen.
‘Anqin,’ Dad called her back.
‘Huh?’ said Mum, trembling all over as if terrified out of her wits. She turned to look at Dad. Dad was aware that, even after all these years, she was still an attractive middle-aged woman who had kept her looks, her pale, oval face adorned with a delicate nose and bright eyes.
‘What are we having for dinner?’ asked Dad, retrieving the TV control from behind the sofa to turn on the TV, just as if this was any old evening.
It was to be many years later before Mum finally rallied, began to stand straight and take possession of her position in the family again, like poacher turned gamekeeper, and relax a bit. Finally, home was home, bright and clean, the family was the family, and all was peace and harmony. Dad knew that this was thanks to Aunt Lily’s words all those years ago, and he almost didn’t say the words that came to his lips.
‘Mother wants Uncle Liu and Xingchen to come too.’ Dad said it now. There was no taking it back.
‘Is that what she said?’ came Aunt Lily’s voice, down the line.
‘Yes, the old lady wants us all there, with no one missing,’ Dad said. ‘She says she’s going to be 80 and she wants a really lively party.’
‘I understand. So you fix the date as soon as possible.’ And she briefed him: ‘A weekend is best. Xingchen and Zhao have busy jobs, and Diandian’s at kindergarten.’
‘Fine, I’ll let you know in the next day or two,’ said Dad. Then he went on hurriedly: ‘Sis, if this is going to make things difficult for you, I can have a word with Mother.’
‘Forget it,’ said Aunt Lily, cutting him short. ‘Don’t worry about it, Shengqiang. A family is a family, no matter what.’
He’d grown up with his sister for nearly 20 years before she married and left home, and Dad was well aware that Aunt Lily was a tough cookie. So he said nothing more and was about to hang up when Aunt Lily suddenly mentioned their brother. ‘And Zhiming? Have you called him?’
‘I know I need to phone him,’ said Dad. ‘Sis, you don’t need to worry about anything.’
He said goodbye, then opened his Contacts list again and saw Duan Zhiming. Dad stared at the name for a few seconds. He was on the point of calling it when he changed his mind.
Now’s not the right time, he thought to himself. I’ll call tomorrow.
He scrolled through the Contacts until he came to old Zhong’s number. Once he got him on the line, he said: ‘Hey, lad, what about going out to eat?’… ‘You’re eating right now? Then chuck your chopsticks down and get out of the house!…Nonsense! It’ll be delicious! It’s on me, I’ll get Zhu Cheng to go and get us three bottles of maotai, lets celebrate tonight!’ He knew his friend; a drinker like him would never be able to resist the invitation. Zhong did agree, but suggested calling Gao Tao too.
‘All right, all right!’ Dad knew quite well what Zhong was up to; Gao Tao was counting on his advertising company getting the contract from the chilli bean-paste factory next year, and was constantly on the phone and sending gifts. This had been going on for two weeks. Old Zhong was fond of Gao Tao and was keen to give him a helping hand by getting Dad and Gao together.
‘The three of us haven’t seen each other for ages, lets have a good night out!’ said Dad down the phone, though what he was really thinking was: Gao Tao’s business is chicken feed. He’s got a nerve to call it an advertising company and want to do business with me!
‘I’ll come back drunk as a skunk! Drunk as a skunk!’’ said Dad, as he walked out of the front door of the flat.
That evening, as Dad, Gao and Zhong were on the third bottle of maotai, and Dad sat at the table, breathing heavily and thinking that their waitress was turning into a fairy before their very eyes, his phone suddenly rang.
It was nearly 11 o’clock at night. ‘Is that your old lady wanting you home?’ asked old Zhong, startled.
‘Her?!’ Dad grunted, but he picked up the phone anyway.
He could see the name ‘Zhong’ clearly on the screen. Jasmine. Dad sneaked a look at old Zhong and went out into the corridor, then took the call. ‘It’s the middle of the night,’ he slurred. ‘Has someone died?’
He was startled at his own words. Perhaps something had happened to Gran? He leaned against the wall as Jasmine talked into his ear, but this terrifying thought reduced him to silence. Once Gran died, the family would fall apart at the seams. How would he ever manage to pick up the pieces? He was filled with gut-wrenching fear.
Then he calmed himself. It was all right. From what Jasmine was saying, nothing major had happened. She’d just got some foolish fancy into her head and was tearfully begging him to go over.
‘I’m out drinking, how can I?’ Dad attempted to placate his ‘silly cow’ but recently she’d been seized by strange thoughts and was getting a bit uppity.
‘I don’t care! You’ve got to come now!’ came her voice down the phone.
‘Really, I can’t. I’ll come tomorrow and we’ll be together, OK?’ Dad carried on talking gently into the phone. Jasmine really was too young, he thought to himself. Using all these words like ‘must’ and ‘don’t care’? Who’d been getting her into bad habits?
‘No! I want you here now!’ Jasmine surprised him by sounding distinctly unfriendly.
Dad leant against the wall and scrutinized a piece of the wallpaper which was curling up at one corner on the wall opposite. This was a scene he was extraordinarily familiar with; it was just like every time Gran phoned him up.
At this thought, Dad suddenly felt an overwhelming surge of anger. A young girl like Jasmine making a scene and harassing him like this! And to think that when he first saw her, she was a maroon-uniformed slip of a girl in Longteng Telecoms City, bowing demurely and saying Yes Sir, No Sir to the customers.
Dad was about to spit out both the anger and the phlegm stuck in his throat when he heard Jasmine say: ‘If you don’t come now I’m going downstairs to your Mum’s flat and I’m going to knock on her door. Just you see if I don’t! I’m going to get her out of bed and tell her everything about you and me. We’ll see what she says then!
It was just like having the hand-brake slammed on when he was about to have sex. Dad winced. He was getting older, it wasn’t surprising he sometimes felt emasculated.
He went back into the side-room to face the inevitable ribbing from Gao and Zhong. ‘The fire alarm’s gone off at home. He’s got to go and douse the flames!’
Dad put his arm around the waitress’s waist and said: ‘Take me to pay the bill!’
The girl made a token effort to push his arm away: ‘Mr Gao’s already paid it, Sir!’
Even though he’d expected this, Dad gave a polite exclamation of surprise. While he was at it, he gave the waitress’s waist a pinch or two and discovered she was wearing tights, above which a roll of fat protruded. He kneaded it between his fingers, and felt an expected fondness for her.
Now he was in the mood, Dad decided to make it a long night and rushed off to Cornucopia Court. There, in Jasmine’s bed, he indulged in amorous activities one more time. It was the only way. Otherwise, in the middle of the night he would feel a surge of anger and wonder how he was ever going to extricate himself.
Dad was keenly aware that he was not having a good time because he was so drunk. But Jasmine gave sibilant cries of pleasure until Dad hushed her: ‘Keep your voice down. It’s the middle of the night.’ From underneath, Jasmine looked up at him: ‘What’s up? Who are afraid you will hear?’
Dad gave her a couple of savage thrusts. He felt extremely aggrieved. It was hard just being human, let alone being a man. It was ever thus. There were the work-horses of this life, always needed to do the hard graft. So he, Xue Shengqing was fated always to be the butt of criticism, working himself to the bone to give his old mother a comfortable life and keep his mistress. And then there were the sages – always solitary and never putting themselves out for anyone.
Tomorrow morning… Dad thought to himself as he made love to his lover Jasmine Zhong for the last time. Tomorrow morning I’ll get things sorted out, I’ll give my brother a call, and settle down to arranging Mum’s eightieth birthday party. No more messing around…
Excerpted from the novel 我们家 (The Chilli Bean Paste Clan), published in Chinese in May 2013 by Zhejiang Literature Press.