Skip to main content

Rainbow's Boutique

By Liang Hong. Translated by Dave Haysom and first published in Pathlight magazine, 2016, issue 4.

Read in Chinese.

There was something not quite right, that summer morning. They felt it deep down in their stomachs, the people passing by the post office at the old crossroads on their way to market. After a swift double-take, they realised what it was: the door of Rainbow’s Boutique was shut.

This was a remarkable moment in the history of Wuzhen. Unprecedented, in fact. Since 1988, come rain or shine, the doors of Rainbow’s Boutique always opened at eight in the morning and closed at ten in the evening, and nothing – not the birth of a child, the wedding of a sister, the execution of a brother, or the death of a father – was ever going to change that.

Caihong – the eponymous Rainbow – was sitting on the bench outside the operating theatre in the Wuzhen local clinic. Her husband, Luo Jianshe, was unconscious inside. Some time after seven o’clock that morning he had tumbled head-first from the roof of their new house, smashing his legs against a pile of cement slabs. A crowd of people surrounded Caihong: her mother, fat and perpetually out of breath; her mother-in-law, with her grey hair and fear-spangled eyes; a few other semi-distant relatives who had come along for the ride; and Hongguo, Luo Jianshe’s pal, who was the one she got the call from. They were all arguing loudly, dividing their attention between Caihong and the other girl who was sitting a little way apart, with her hair all mussed up and her face unwashed. They narrowed their eyes at her and she bowed her head, bleary with tears, scratching at the strap of her little black bag.

“He only has himself to blame, messing around so early in the morning,” said Caihong’s mother. Her gargantuan body dwarfed the tiny cosmetics bag that she was periodically pummelling, furious that this scandal was now out in the open. “What a disgrace.”

“That’s not exactly it, miss, the thing is…” Hongguo attempted to explain, but Rainbow’s mother swiftly cut him off.

“The thing is what? Who are you to talk? Jianshe would never have gotten into this mess if it weren’t for you and the rest of his cronies.” She turned her attention back to the other girl, whom she had already given a good slapping. “No one’s going anywhere. If Jianshe doesn’t come out of there alive then we’ll be seeing you in court.”

Chuckling nervously, Hongguo struggled to formulate a response. All this adultery was hardly his fault – it had been Luo Jianshe’s idea in the first place.

Caihong sat there, unresponsive. She didn’t try to quieten the clamour around her, nor did she seem overly concerned about the man in there on the operating table. Wang Huan had been planning to come in from Lizhuang today to buy some hair-thickening shampoo and vaginal ointment; she could make some money on the old record-player cartridge that Old Missus Chen from Wangying was bringing in to replace; yesterday’s new stock had still not been put out on the shelves; the latest satchels were all hanging askew; and the poster advertising disposable nappies was peeling off the wall. It was chaos, absolute chaos: loosed from their proper positions, the products were gamboling around the shop, getting so muddled up they would never be able to find their way back where they belonged. The anxiety was overwhelming. She must find a way to get back there, to tidy things up, restore order, calm them down. She looked up at the people around her, all of whom were gazing at her expectantly. Glancing over at the other girl, she understood: she was being kept here so that they could enjoy the spectacle of Caihong tearing into her.

Shortly after six o’clock that morning, Luo Jianshe had leapt out of bed and jumped into his clothes. The workers were coming early today, he said, and he had to go and supervise. Caihong’s family had just bought one of the new European-style properties that had been built in two rows alongside the highway. Rainbow had not been to see it in person at any point in the process. Inspecting the property, making the purchase, fitting the place out – Luo Jianshe had been in charge of it all. She wasn’t even sure exactly which house was theirs. She watched Luo, his posture as stiff as ever, rushing to find his clothes and tucking his shirt into his trousers, and listened to his punctilious explanations, and Caihong felt suffocated. Whenever he spoke to her with such an earnest look on his face, she knew, it meant he was off to see some girl.

It was odd, the way Luo Jianshe invariably struck people as being somehow phony. He was always so earnest. Since he came from the countryside, from a village far away from Wuzhen, he always seemed to be trying too hard in his interactions with townspeople. Going for dinner, or drinks, or chasing skirt – he put the same degree of effort into them all. Sure, he was easy on the eye, and he had a combination of delicate cultivation and quick wit that was rare in Wuzheners. He liked to party hard. But he wasn’t popular here. He was too transparently two-faced, and it was when he tried to seem earnest that he was least convincing. The contrivance was written on his face, and the harder he tried to win you over, the more distance he put between you. Like a slippery mudfish, he shimmered on the outside but was impossible to pin down.

Back when Caihong had decided to marry him, her mother – a tough, shrewd woman of Wuzhen – warned her that this man was not reliable. He was too affected, and what’s more, he was from out in the sticks. Wuzhen itself was no great shakes, but the place where Luo had grown up was the poorest, most isolated village around. As far as the Wuzheners were concerned, Luo’s ilk were a bunch of raggedy crackpots, rattling around in their little mud huts.

But what woman could possibly have resisted the way Luo Jianshe had wooed her?

As a young girl, Caihong had had an ample posterior. It was large, it was heavy, it was wobbly, and it lent her the gait of a duck as she walked the streets, feet splayed. The top half of her body, however, was a thing of beauty: she had a slender waist; a neck that was long, straight, and pale; a little roundish face the colour of pink flowers in bloom, marbled with the faint blue of her veins; wide almonds of eyes, tawny and bright; a head of dense, long hair, pinned up above her head so that it swayed with the tempo of her walking pace. The vast discrepancy between these two halves of her body was a jarring discord. But this embodied discord only enhanced her staggering raw sex appeal.

In their third year of junior middle school, she, Wang Hong, Yanzi and Caixia were the stars of the campus. With their flushed cheeks, brazen desire and crystalline laughter, they were as goddesses, illuminating the dreary darkness of Wuzhen skies. All four girls had cleared puberty, and the boys lost no opportunity to get in their way, whistle after them, or pass them notes. They were the dashing sons of local bigwigs, these boys, or the scions of wealthy families, or the bad boys who didn’t care about good grades. Or else they were timid bumpkins who found themselves spurred by desire to act above their station.

Luo Jianshe fell into the last category. Eighteen years old, he still had the timid, abject, hapless eyes of a new arrival from the countryside. He fell at once for Caihong’s neck and almond eyes and hefty rump. On the way home from school one day, he crashed his bike into her, scraping a layer of skin off her leg. His face red with panic, he rushed her to the hospital.

From then on, a sound could be heard from Caihong’s bedroom every night, first at ten o’clock and then again at eleven, when she was getting ready to go to sleep. Neither too loud nor too faint, it was the sound of brick rapping respectfully against wall, and it seemed to be meant as a reminder: here I am. At six o’clock the following morning, Caihong would open the front door and see the stiff posture of his five-foot-nine silhouette under the willow across the pond. There stood Luo Jianshe, gazing lovingly at the girl who was slowly walking towards him. When he stooped down towards her and his grave dark eyes looked straight into hers, Caihong felt like there was nowhere she could run to.

Looking back on it now, she realised that she knew at the time that there was something not quite right. Despite the fervour with which he had pursued her, luring her in with those eyes, she never felt she could really get a grip on him when they were together.

There was no way Caihong was going to go and beat the other girl. That might be her mother’s go-to response, but it wasn’t hers. She wasn’t worth hitting, the scrawny, flat-chested thing. She was so obviously just another of the clueless, virtuous girls who were susceptible to Luo Jianshe’s blandishments, and he would have had no qualms about tossing her aside when he was done with her. Caihong had no time for her agitated, trouble-stirring relatives. It was the details of the shop that were crowding her brain.

She sent the girl on her way, signed everything that needed to be signed, arranged everything that needed to be arranged, and sat there to wait for Luo Jianshe to leave the operating table.

She was not angry and she was not sorrowful. She refused to cry or make a scene, and in doing so she terrified everyone into submission. Caihong did not realise that her calm silence was where her power lay. The family was far more scared of her than of her mother.

At three o’clock that afternoon, Caihong pulled up the shutter of Rainbow’s Boutique.

A warm gust of torpid air drifted out. Those myriad familiar scents rushed for Caihong’s nostrils, tussling to coil around her breath, crowding and clamouring and competing to occupy prime position within her nose. She was the only one who could distinguish the subtle differences between them all.

Caihong passed row after gleaming row of shelves, running her hand absently across them and lingering on each product in turn for the briefest of nanoseconds. This was love; this was tender reassurance. The oily tang of Lux and Safeguard soap; the piquancy of Tide and the phosphorus bite of Diaopai; the brazenness of sulphur soap. Variations on the smell of clean. The toothbrushes, hanging in their varicoloured packages – red, green, blue – and beside them the Colgates, the Heimeis, the Zhonghuas, the Liangmianzhens, the Lesenings. Bright. Graceful. Mint, green tea, spearmint, strawberry, rock salt: their flavours permeated their cold tin tubes and cardboard boxes and flung themselves towards Caihong’s eyes. The coolness of Head and Shoulders; the thick greasiness of Rejoice; fruity L’Oreal and medicinal Bee and Flower; the springtime buds of Clairol; the chemical hauteur of Vidal Sassoon; and the stinky-foot whiff of Johnson’s. The fine aromas of assorted day creams, night creams, essential oils, detergents, shower gels, ointments, hair gels, and colognes. These were the products on the central shelves, the dearest to Caihong’s heart and the mainstay of Rainbow’s boutique.

Then there were the glass shelves lining the walls on either side. The most precious products – the expensive or famous brand-name cosmetics – were kept behind sliding glass doors. Below them were two deeper shelves stacked with plastic teapots, double-sided tape, mosquito repellents, air fresheners, power strips, folding stools, buckets, bedpans, toilet brushes, coasters, clothes brushes, sewing kits, electric scales, hot water bottles, screwdrivers, double-A batteries and triple-A batteries. Crammed together, they sat there on the shelves, doltish but uncomplaining, bathed in a faint odour of plastic, and leather, and some other ineffable pong.

A little further inside was a recessed alcove, about ten square metres, containing toilet roll, tissues, wet wipes, nappies for the young, nappies for the elderly, little plastic toys, and picture books. From the ceiling hung little satchels and leather handbags and canvas knapsacks and briefcases. And at the very back was an inconspicuous display of pirated DVDs. Throughout the shop, little spotlights accentuated the bright colours and intensified the confusing clash of thick, delectable smells. All these products – more than a thousand of them – were lined up and waiting for the soft touch of Caihong, their scents jockeying for position as they wreathed her body, waiting to be inhaled.

They had missed each other, though it had only been half a day.

Caihong’s first encounter with these scents was the year her younger brother, Caitang, had been executed.

Caitang had quite the reputation in Wuzhen, back in those days. Their parents were constantly bickering, but they were united in their indulgence of their son. They spent all their money on him, and whenever he got into trouble – a fight, or an expulsion, or complaints from teachers or other parents – his mother was always ready to defend his honour. After he got expelled, Caitang got involved with a gang. They called themselves the Flying Dragon Gang, though they were really just a bunch of bored kids, barely in their teens, hanging out, hurtling around town, hooting and whistling at cute girls, and spending their nights in the cinema watching Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui.

The year he turned seventeen, Caitang and a few of his underlings set off for Beijing to set themselves up in the capital. Their precise intentions were shrouded in murk and mystery. All the folk back in Wuzhen knew was that it involved scalping tickets at Beijing train station. This was how all the youths from their county got started when they first arrived, relying on local connections to establish themselves, and helping the new arrivals in turn once they had settled in.

Caitang was a natural fit for this sort of shady activity. He was a known troublemaker back in Wuzhen, and he didn’t hold back when the fighting started. Those young men of Wuzhen had spent their lives toiling away in factories to produce iron, aluminium, cement, lime, or chickens, whose bodies bore the scars of spattered molten steel and their lungs had been steeped in caustic chemicals; those young ones who got sent back, found homestays, or ran from authorities – when they come to Beijing, they found Caitang. They sent their first pay cheque home to Wuzhen, and after that they blew everything on food, booze, and debauchery. They were caught, and they were beaten, and they escaped. They did whatever the hell they liked. Until they sunk to depths that were too horrible to even imagine. Apparently they had attacked someone in a dark alley, with knife and cudgel and dagger and chain and nunchuks. Then they suffocated him, so the stories went, and after they chopped up the body they divided the bits between the river and the rubbish dump.

Over twenty youths had been arrested. All from Wuzhen. Three of the ringleaders were executed by gunshot, five were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the rest got regular jail sentences. Caihong remembered how quiet Wuzhen had been in those days. It seemed as though every village in the area had at least one or two children who had been involved, and everyone had some degree of familial connection to those young men. Their homes were constantly thronging with people, some of whom were acting concerned, some trying to glean information, some wallowing in schadenfreude, and some who were genuinely grieved. The men sat sighing inside while the women sat in the yard, hands in sleeves, looking at each other until lunchtime came and they quietly prepared the meal and then ate the meal. Telephones were still rare in those days, so the parents would get someone to write a letter to their son in Beijing to ask them how they were doing and tell them not to do anything rash, to come home as soon as they could. Whenever Caihong saw someone slink past the shop with head bowed, sticking close to the wall, she knew that their family and hers shared the same plight.

It had been Luo Jianhe who went to Beijing to collect the ashes. Caihong’s mother had not risen from bed since the day she heard her son had been jailed. Their father had taken the opportunity to move to a new factory, miles away, and had not been back since.

Then their mother became fixated on getting Caitang a new urn. She rushed out to buy the biggest and most expensive she could find. She wanted to put the one urn inside the other, but it wouldn’t fit. Whose idea had it been to open up the original urn and tip the ashes out into the new one? Caihong had forgotten.

What she could never forget was the smell that hit the air in the moment they opened the casket. It was an acrid, acerbic smell, with a note of decay, like eggs that had gone slightly off, like a disused lime pit, and – so it seemed to Caihong – like the smell that had filled the air whenever her baby brother used to take a piss. She saw her brother, in an olfactory apparition, and it was terrifying. Then the sound of wailing sent a nascent sneeze back up into Caihong’s nose. Her mother was reaching out her hands, coating them in ash and a few small flakes of pale bone, before she slumped to the ground. “My boy,” she moaned, “oh my boy.”

Caihong raced downstairs. She was going to be sick. She had to get away from the sound of her keening mother. She didn’t want to tune into her grief. She loathed the sound, had always loathed her mother’s histrionics.

The moment she stepped into the store, Caihong was surrounded by countless fragrances of every conceivable depth, height and length. Plastic and wood and moth balls and canvas and nylon and cement, surging towards her, encircling her, territorialising her. And when customers sauntered into the store, they brought their own scents too. The village women, with their carefully ironed clothes concealing unwashed collars, the smell of accumulated grease rising from their hair. Then there was the faint scent of soap from the ones who came from Songzhuang, the new suburb, whose status was elevated a couple of notches by their proximity to the town. And the mouths of some of those old codgers and biddies who came in to buy paper (or records, or folding chairs, or torches) spouted a fetid odour so sickening it could knock you right out. But Caihong always managed to remain upright. She looked upon them as her own kin, as close to her as her own mother. She greedily inhaled, differentiating between all these smells, and her body felt limber and warm. Her breath became calm; she was home.

She immediately got busy processing transactions and updating accounts, patiently dealing with all the queries of customers, reordering the products they had jumbled up, and whispering all the while to the scents in a language only they could understand, heaving sighs that only they could hear.

When they heard that Luo Jianshe’s philandering had left him with a broken leg, Wang Hong and Yanzi rushed over as soon as they could. Caihong was sitting in the little storeroom out the back of the shop, taking an inventory of stock. A mountain of products it was, a huge heap all around her, every colour, shape and application, hundreds of varieties, and Caihong had to sort them out, check the inventory for cost and price and profit margin and quantity, then put them out on the shelves and check them all again. After going through everything twice she could recall the details of every product without the slightest deviation.

Caihong looked solemn and attentive in the lamplight. She sat in her kingdom, and the rolling heaps around her were the mountains and rivers of her territory. She was the queen, systematically dealing with the affairs of state. Her memory grew ever more accurate, ever more precise. Take toothpaste, for example: she could effortless recall the price of every different variety, and she could mentally tabulate the profit margin for each of them, including how the price had fluctuated, how big a cut the supplier took, how it was selling, what kind of reception it got from the customers, and so on, and so on. Every furrow, every cell in her brain was fully engaged. The heat of uninterrupted thought produced a cloud of steam over this vast network, dense and deep and efficient, closely knitted in weft and warp. Each product was a nexus in the web, a numeral that had carved out its own space, and all these strands were constantly colliding, fusing, diverging, flowing. Her brain was a precisely calibrated little universe, boundless and perfectly ordered.

Wang Hong and Yanzi felt snubbed. The three of them were still close, even if Caixiang rarely came back since she had gone off to university in Nanyang and found herself a husband there. Wang Hong had opened a boutique of her own in town too – setting herself up as Caihong’s rival – but neither of them ever really tried too hard to gain a competitive edge over the other. Yanzi had married into the family that owned the local chilli broth joint. Her new nickname, now that she spent every morning stirring the pot, compared to her to one of the Four Great Beauties of Chinese antiquity: she was Xishi of the Chilli Broth.

“Ease up, Caihong, and come tell us what happened with Luo Jianshe. Honestly, that guy, he isn’t ever going to come good.”

The three of them had shared all their secrets, ever since they were young. Yanzi was still in the habit of reporting everything, regardless of importance, to her closest girlfriends (including conjugal incompatibilities in the bedroom), while Wang Hong – always the strong one – assumed the role of the indefatigable Big Sister.

Caihong poked her head out from the mound of products, as though travelling back across aeons of time. She widened her distant, beautiful almond eyes and looked at her two friends, staring at her like tigers ravenous for secrets and sustenance. Half the people in Wuzhen would be whispering to one another about her now, gloating and snickering, fanning the flames and blowing everything out of proportion. Wang Hong and Yanzi were merely their envoys.

“There’s nothing to tell. He fell while he was checking the new house.” She muttered an invitation for them to have something to drink, then got back to work. She had to get everything inventoried and out on the shelves that night. Tomorrow was market day, which meant the shop would be full of customers, and she could not face that battle without making adequate preparations in advance. For years now, Luo Jianshe had always gone out first thing in the morning and returned at about four in the afternoon. But the shop would stop functioning if Caihong left for even three minutes. People didn’t tend to stick price labels on the products themselves back in those days – everything depended on Caihong’s brain. Meanwhile, Wang Hong and Yanzi got into a heated debate about how to castigate and subjugate the Luo Jianshes of the world.

“You know what we should do?” said Wang Hong, pulling Caihong over. “We should go on holiday.”

“Excellent idea,” said Yanzi, clapping her hands. “We’ll leave them in charge of the home and see how they like it.”

A holiday? Caihong had been to Nanyang and Zhengzhou to purchase new stock, and her impression of big cities was entirely unfavourable. Dizzying, dazzling, and chaotic. She always went directly to her destination and then turned around and came straight back home again. Eventually, Luo Jianshe took over.

“Where’s the fun in that? A big clump of buildings and streets so rammed you can barely move. It makes your head hurt.” Caihong looked up at these two companions of her youth. “And besides – you go off for a few days, and with food and board and shopping you end up spending two or three hundred a day, and before you know it the cost of the trip has run into the thousands. You never buy anything you really want. And I’d have to close the shop, which means losing a few hundred kuai a day. So the actual cost of the trip would be more like five or six thousand. It’s not worth it.”

Caihong explained herself as seriously and clearly as she could; she had reason on her side, obviously. Wang Hong and Yanzi gawped at her, at Caihong the stunner with those eyes and those long slender eyebrows. They were temporarily rendered speechless.

“It’s not really the money,” she explained. “It’s really not worth it. It’s not like you haven’t been to other towns, you know it’s true. All you do is see some buildings and amble round a few shopping malls, and where’s the fun in that? Can’t we do the same thing here in Wuzhen?”

When Luo Jianshe came out of hospital with a leg in plaster, he discovered Caihong was spending her nights in the storeroom. In those first few days, Caihong would still go upstairs and get her pyjamas and other bits and pieces, and inform Luo that she was too busy tonight and she would be staying downstairs. But after a few days she stopped going upstairs altogether. During the daytime, Luo Jianshe listened intently to Caihong’s slightly husky, unemotional voice rising up from the shop floor: “What are you after?” “Two kuai.” “One kuai fifty.” “Twenty kuai.” “Seventeen kuai and no lower.” “Well feel free to look elsewhere.” From eight in the morning until four in the afternoon, Caihong barely uttered a single word that was not somehow connected with a numeral. When people tried to engage her in chit-chat, asking how Luo Jianshe was getting along, she’d close them down with a terse reply: “He’s getting along.” When they remarked on how well the business was going, she said, “What’s that supposed to mean?” And that was as far as the conversation went. Luo had never realised how taciturn his wife could be.

She occasionally came upstairs to bring him a glass of water and check on his plaster, but soon hurried off again. Luo Jianshe followed Caihong with his eyes, waiting for her to speak, waiting for her to look at him, to make insinuations about his conduct, or vent her grievances while shedding silent tears. He had prepared for this scenario: he would box his own ears in order to demonstrate the depth of his remorse. But Caihong never gave him the opportunity. Her eyes never found the time to look directly into his.

One day, Luo managed to hobble down into the storeroom. The smell down there was so thick it made him feel like he was going to faint. He saw the mountain of products surrounding a little bed, and on the bedside table a heap of ledgers, dense with hand-written digits. Caihong sprawled limply across the bed, eyes shut, face flushed, looking exhausted but content. He drew closer, and snuggled in alongside her. Without opening her eyes, Caihong rolled over and put her arm around him. She seemed responsive. Luo Jianshe, who had been expecting her to push him away, was puzzled. But also aroused.

Caihong clambered onto Luo’s body, her eyes still closed, her mouth ajar. The occasional wrinkling of her forehead or flaring of her nostrils made her seem like she was in pursuit of something. Tensing. Relaxing. Luo moved with her, doing his best to synchronise their motions. He was proud, at first, that he was providing satisfaction, until he realised that Caihong’s state of arousal had little to do with him. The two of them were on completely different wavelengths.

During Luo Jianshe’s period of convalescence, Caihong made phonecalls to the suppliers in Nanyang and Zhengzhou and told them that she would pay the shipping costs if they could find a regular long-distance bus route to transport the goods. She discovered that getting her stock delivered this way was actually much cheaper than having Luo Jianshe go and fetch them in person. And on top of that, the suppliers threw in a few free samples of new products for her put on the shelves.

It was around then that she started selling luxury goods from Japan, South Korea, and Europe. She put out a dedicated display cabinet for all the best and newest products. The women who had seen something of the world beyond Wuzhen enjoyed demonstrating their cultivation by critiquing the sumptuous packaging, the incomprehensible lettering, and the exquisite fragrances. The women who had never left town would linger behind, listening intently, waiting for them to leave so they could come and inspect the foreign products for themselves. These were the women who actually ended up making a purchase.

These tasteful products made their way into every corner of Wuzhen. To belong to the clientele of Rainbow’s Boutique was a way to show off, to acquire emblems of status that signified something akin to class.

Caihong moved the kitchen upstairs and converted the room into a beauty parlour, recruiting a pair of girls to work as beauticians. The cosmetics companies provided training for free. On the first day, the two beauticians – Jiaojiao and Lanlan – stood outside Rainbow’s Boutique. Caihong hadn’t made any kind of official announcement, or handed out any fliers, but just by putting those two girls out there in their pink uniforms, she had reinforced her position at the vanguard of Wuzhen civic life.

Once Luo Jianshe’s leg was better, he reappeared on the streets of Wuzhen. But he sensed a shift in the way people responded to him. Had his wife excoriated him for his sins, then he would have been suitably punished. Had he shoved her into a corner and used his fists to show her who was boss, then he would have emerged triumphant. But since the situation remained unresolved, Luo Jianshe was an unpopped pimple, a vector of pestilence. He had been quarantined, and he had no idea what to do about it. He forced himself to stick to his old routine, staying out until four in the afternoon for no good reason. When he came back and saw Caihong, always still busy, he frowned as though angered by some invisible presence, and hurried upstairs. Eventually he would creep back down and stand at the back of the shop, watching the customers. Sometimes he was mistaken for the boss by new customers, and he answered their queries without correcting the misimpression.

When evening came, Caihong sprawled across the little bed as usual, waiting for Luo Jianshe to attend to her. As he looked upon her almond eyes and humongous buttocks, he fumed with rage but remained meekly obedient, as though this nightly service were some kind of inexplicable nightmare. A duty that could not be shirked.

Their pyjamas, changes of clothing, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and slippers, all found their way to the storeroom. In the end, Caihong decided to partition the upstairs bedroom and turn it into another beauty parlour.

At the end of that year, Luo Jianshe made a trip to South Korea, Japan, and France. Every year, Rainbow’s Boutique was selling out of brand-name cosmetics, and the companies had invited the two of them on a free holiday as a reward. But Caihong, of course, did not go.

“What’s there to see in Korea or Japan? Backward places. And Paris? A ramshackle old relic. Sure, they might have the odd decent building here or there, but they’ve got nothing on Wuzhen.”

Luo Jianshe sat at the entrance of the shop, spat a gob of phlegm out the door, and picked up the little clay teapot to moisten his throat. “The plane tickets and hotels and food might have been paid for,” he said to his pals Yi Zhi and Hongguo, “but you can barely call it food. A few lumps of meat, a few slices of potato, a plate of greens and that’s all you get. I had to spend a good few thousand myself. Such a waste of time.”

He wasn’t just complaining for effect. Luo had truly been left unimpressed: it was just a bunch of old buildings that paled in comparison to the splendour of a place like Zhengzhou. And you had to spend a dozen exhausting hours in a plane. Yi Zhi and Hongguo nodded in enthusiastic agreement while he was talking, then slagged him off as soon his back was turned. What an arsehole, they said, showing off like that. He may as well have stayed here, for all the good a trip abroad did him.

Luo Jianshe and Cai Hong now occupied an exalted position, despite their complete absence of class. Everyone was jealous of them. Somehow, their loneliness had ended up uniting them, and transformed them into a loving couple. They worked hard, buying and selling, adding and subtracting, completing calculations. They rallied together against the hostile forces beyond the two hundred square metres of their shop, and they were content.

Wang Hong and Yanzi had contracted a passion for aerobics. They led a group of women who spent every evening diligently aping their actions. The old crossroads shook with the thundering sound of their boombox. Thus they tried to reassert their status as shapers of Wuzhen fashion. By day, Wang Hong stood in her shop, primped and preened in eight-inch heels, simpering and flirting with the men who came in to buy cigarettes or liquor. This was her way of attracting regular customers. The rivalry between her shop and Rainbow’s Boutique had gotten serious, and she was doing everything she could to try and gain an edge.

Caihong went nowhere. Her rump was becoming heavier and heavier, droopier and droopier, protruding further than it ever had before. Waddling the streets with feet splayed, her resemblance to a duck was increasingly pronounced. Those gyrating buttocks were the root of her primal power, the manifestation of a fierce lust for life. Her movements were incomprehensibly sluggish, as though she were stuck in some dream state from which she refused to wake up.

She just sat there in her store, dressed carelessly in black. No make-up. Plain black flats instead of eight-inch heels. Never smiling at her customers. Her hair was tied back casually behind her head, and a silver chain glittered around her slender neck. Those eyes were not as lively as they had once been. A hint of sorrow, perhaps, or just the accumulated exhaustion of the daily grind. But this change in demeanour was not unbecoming. Her innate beauty would still prompt the men and women of Wuzhen to follow wherever she led.

As far as they were concerned, she was a riddle: quiet, mysterious, haughty, but also callous, vulgar, and manipulative. A riddle just like the incongruity of her body. Her lack of transparency only added to her intrigue. Only Luo Jianshe knew that this riddle was a façade.

His decline had been precipitous. The head of black hair, once a point of such pride, had now receded to a black half-hoop, an oddly unappealing shape that recalled the contours of a wineglass. Gauzy and insubstantial, his hair was as unctuous as the look in his eyes. Whenever he saw customers come into the shop he would scuttle over and then stare at them; when they reached for a product he would grab it for them and press it obsequiously into their hands.

Four o’clock in the afternoon was when Caihong finally had a chance to grab a moment’s rest. She flopped into a massage chair, lightly running her hands along the shelves at her side. Deep breaths. The shop smells filled her nostrils and her soul. Her gaze flitted absently across the shelves, immediately registering that they were short two rows of Colgate and missing a handful of Safeguard soaps, an unsightly absence that she could not tolerate. Within her kingdom – within her world – she demanded perfection.

Qiaoqiao stepped out of the beauty salon. Luo Jianshe remained expressionless as his gaze slid quickly up along her bare legs. Caihong knew all about his wandering eye. She almost felt sorry for him, seeing these sorry dregs of his lust. He was too old, too creepy, even if he never acted untowardly. He was spending more and more time in the shop, becoming ever more knowledgeable about the stock, but in Caihong’s mind he was an ever-diminishing presence. She didn’t want anyone else to enter into her world, to smell the scents that she smelled, to luxuriate in the numbers as she did. Numbers – constantly shifting yet governable – were the only truth in life. She could always depend on numbers.

Sometimes, Luo Jianshe jumped in to answer customer inquiries, glancing slyly back to see what kind of impression he had made on her, or proudly blocking her view with the back of his head. It made her hate him. But her hatred was thin and fleeting.

She looked outside. That was as far as she ever looked these days. You might find it hard to believe, but in these past dozen years Caihong had never even travelled as far as the fields one mile away from the crossroads. Her entire existence was contained within this one-mile radius. Out the door, left turn, a couple of hundred yards down the road to buy meat and vegetables; right turn, half a mile in the other direction to get steamed buns and noodles. She could find everything else she needed right there in the shop. She required nothing else.

Caihong slept. Her gaping mouth assumed the shape of a capital “O” with no end and no beginning, an eternal, seamless circle that absorbed all brightness and vigour and passion. Her snoring was even and relaxed, and her face had the smooth, pale lustre of a baby, pristine and beautiful.

Luo Jianshe stared at the one customer in the shop, who had been loitering for the last half hour, picking up soaps and cigarettes and razor blades and notebooks, inspecting them and then putting them back, seemingly without purpose. Just here to pass the time, Luo could tell. No intention of actually purchasing anything. But he continued to stare at him, making sure he knew that he was being watched. Staring and following, his commitment absolute.

But Luo’s posture betrayed his secret: he abhorred this place. The intensity of his stare matched the intensity of his disgust. A million hands sprouted from his body, sweeping away these unbearable, oppressive products. He wanted to fling them all to the floor and rip them to bits, he wanted to smash in the roof, he wanted to throw that ugly, naked old biddy off the bed and storm into the beauty parlour and take Qiaoqiao and Lanlan and throw them on a horse and ride off into the sunset like there was no tomorrow.

He sat down. He saw all this carnage, and a cold smile appeared on his face.

Caihong was still sound asleep, her nose snuffling, greedy and determined, as though it had managed to hunt down some new and unfamiliar scent.