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Winter Swimming

Translated by Guo Huarui and Helen Lewis, with Chen Xiaonan, and edited by Zhang Dongxiu

Read in Chinese here.

Sui Fei had agreed to go on a blind date with me. We were supposed to meet at 3:00 p.m. in a café located right behind Wanda Plaza. I was there half an hour early. The café had two floors: the upper floor and the lower one. It was Sunday and there was an event on: a movie was playing through a projector on the upper floor. I went upstairs and found it was all dark there. The curtains were tightly drawn. People sat on small benches, facing a white wall, their eyes staring intently, their bodies hunched over. The name of the movie was displayed on a small blackboard next to the stairs. I stared at it for a long time. It was composed of four words in total, three of which I couldn’t recognise. The only character I could read was “bird.” I stood at the back of the room, and after watching for less than five minutes, I walked out. It was stuffy and hot, and I had no idea what the movie was about. What’s worse, the violin soundtrack made my head throb.

I took off my coat and nestled into the sofa. The manageress in the shop came over, informing me that coffee beans from Ethiopia had just arrived and asking me whether I’d like to have a taste. I said no and told her I had a weak stomach. It wasn’t about the stomach; I just didn’t trust products from Africa. She then asked me what I would like to drink. I said, “I’m waiting for a friend and I’d rather order something when she arrives. Please could you bring me a cup of hot water for the time being? Don’t worry, I won’t sit here for nothing.”

The manageress took away the drinks menu and brought me a cup of hot water. I carefully cradled the cup edge and raised it to my mouth. It was too hot to drink, so I put the cup down and stared at it. The room was full of hot air. There weren’t many people in the room, but the air conditioner was on full power. I glanced at the movie posters hanging on the wall. They were all in foreign languages. I hadn’t seen any of them. I then took out my mobile phone and texted a message to Sui Fei: “I’ve arrived. I’m sitting on a sofa on the ground floor. No need to hurry.

After a long while I still had no message from her. My phone was nearly out of battery. I tucked it in my breast pocket and managed to find a book on the bookshelf. Leaning against the arm of the sofa, I began to read the book. No sooner had I read two pages than I started to feel sleepy and could hardly keep my eyes open. Half dreaming and half waking, I heard a young couple next to me talking to the woman boss. They seemed very familiar with her.

The man: “How’s business lately?”

The boss: “Only good on weekends, not on weekday nights.”

Then the girl added: “Can you break even on your investment?”

The boss: “It’s hard to say. The customers tend to be economical with their money here. Some of them would rather order a cup of coffee and then sit until midnight. Some ask me to refill their cup when they’ve only finished half their coffee. I tell them the coffee can’t be refilled and they say hot water’s fine because coffee in my shop is too sweet and they prefer a lighter taste.”

Time passed by and before I knew it, I heard the sharp sound of a chair moving opposite me. I tried to open my eyes. The light was very strong. For a while my eyes couldn’t adjust.

There seemed to be a black shadow sitting across from me which said, “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting for so long.”

I stretched, rubbed my eyes, and said, “No worries. What time is it, please?”

“About 3:30 p.m.”

I yawned, “The night shift makes me so sleepy.”

“What about carrying on sleeping and making up for last night?”

“I’ve perked up now. Let’s have a chat. I don’t want you to have come here for nothing. How about some drinks?”

Sui Fei kept questioning the manageress for some time, and decided to order a cup of Americano. I ordered the same.

“Do you like coffee?”

I hesitated for a moment and then said: “I love coffee, especially when I work at night. Coffee refreshes me and relieves the fatigue.”

“I love coffee, too.”

“So, does that mean we share the same hobby?”

“Are you a regular café-goer?”

I quickly responded, “Sure, life would be a disaster if I didn’t come to cafés several times a month.”

Every word I said was true. Once I passed the age of 35, arranging blind dates turned out to be the most urgent pursuit for my parents. My family situation is quite satisfactory: both of my parents are retired, I’m financially secure, in good health, and free of worries. However, my personal appearance is rather ordinary, with my major drawback being my short height – I barely reach 1.65 metres even with shoes on. In the past year, I’ve probably met around 20 girls – tall, short, plump or slender; graduates from vocational schools or junior colleges; a diverse collection of various personalities and styles, every type you could wish for. For me, blind dating has evolved into a routine. I’m becoming increasingly skillful, handling it masterfully. Yet for my parents, things have taken a turn. They’ve forgotten their original intentions, overlooking both the process and the results. Instead, they’ve become willingly ensnared in the game of coordinating and planning my dates. They’re deeply immersed in arranging my weekly schedule at specific times and locations, strategically avoiding rush-hour travel. They push me into going on dates; sometimes, even two dates a day.

A café at half past two in the afternoon is the prime choice for a blind date - an insight gained from my year of experience. During this time frame, both individuals, having already had their lunch, sit for a while, enjoying a couple of beverages, without incurring extra expenses and within manageable costs. If no mutual attraction occurs, the two will simply part ways, without any loss. Alternatively, if the conversation goes well and continues until four or five o’clock, they can proceed directly to having dinner together to deepen their understanding. But I have only had two dinners with my dates since I started blind dating. After one of them, we split right away because she disliked how frequently I smoked. For the other dinner, things went smoothly at the beginning with pleasant conversation. The girl managed her relative’s fishpond business. We dated for more than a month, meeting two more times and enjoying cold beverages together. I even bought a fishing rod to go angling with her. We exchanged text messages every day and shared whatever we could. Given the circumstances, I believed it was time to take things further, perhaps even considering marriage. However, unexpectedly, the other party informed me that our dating journey had come to an end, and it was time to call it off.

Sui Fei looked older than in her photo, with distinct wrinkles creasing around her eyes and sporting slightly wavy hair. While it seemed to have layers from a distance, upon a closer look, it seemed as if it might have gone unwashed for a few days. She was dressed in a dark-coloured wool jumper paired with a bright grey jacket, very plain. Underneath, she wore a leather skirt and knee-high leather boots that clung tightly to her calves. Between the skirt and the boots, a short section of grey leggings could be seen, a bit stretchy, like long johns.

Sui Fei said, “I wasn’t particularly keen on coming. It was my mom who forced me.”

“Me too. You don’t need to feel obligated. This is just a formality, sitting for a while will be fine. I don’t have specific expectations for this date.

“What you just said takes off the pressure a bit. I haven’t figured out who on earth arranged this match for us? Do you have a clear idea?"

“I know. There’s a vendor who sells milk on Xingshun Street. She’s quite inconspicuous, always wearing a long gauzy scarf. Around four o’clock every day, she rides a tricycle loaded with two milk churns. My Ma always buys milk from her because it’s freshly milked on the day it’s sold. Your Ma also occasionally buys milk there. Both of them are acquainted with the vendor, and over time, she’s got to know about the two of us. That’s how the matchmaker did her thing."

Sui Fei nodded, saying, “So where you live is close to my Ma’s.”

“It shouldn’t be too far. Do you live with your family?”


“Great. You’re free, you can do whatever you want.”

“Not really. I couldn’t live with my Ma. We always argue and can’t seem to get along.”

“You still need to find a way to deal with each other even if you can’t get along well. You’re bound together, and that bond lasts until death separates you, that’s how blood ties work.”

Sui Fei said with a smile, “A pretty smart summary. D’you know my situation?”

“I’ve got a rough idea.”

“I’m divorced, and my child lives with my ex-husband.”

Boy or girl?”

A girl, she’s about to start school.”

“That’s nice. As the saying goes, a daughter is a mother’s little cotton jacket.”

“She doesn’t feel close to me at all, she’s into fashion. She sticks to whoever buys her clothes. She’s always around her dad, it annoys me.”

“The child is still young; she’ll grow out of it. No one can be closer to her than her Ma. Mother-daughter bonds matter a lot.”

“What about you? I don’t know much about you.”

“Me…I’ve never been married. I work at Xinhua Electrical Appliances as an ordinary shift worker.”

“The pay must be decent, right?”

“It’s not bad, I take home two thousand five hundred and eight yuan, but we have comprehensive insurance coverage, the company’s quite reputable.”

“That’s good, you can manage on your own.”

“It’s manageable.”

“What does your factory produce?”

“It’s a long story. When I first joined, we were making electric blankets and producing long electric heating elements. After a few years, the demand for heaters was high, so we stopped making blankets. I was transferred to the connector workshop where I worked on circuit boards, soldering spring claws. They’re widely used. In recent years, the factory has been expanding, taking on new projects. Some of our products are even used in weapons. We’re classified as a defence industry enterprise.”

“That’s a good company. Is there any need for secrecy?”

“Secrecy about what? Even if I wanted to tell someone, I wouldn’t know what to say. I’m there to work, and do as Im told.”

“That’s great, less hassle for you.”

“The matchmaker said that you used to work in a hospital.”

“Yes, I used to, at a hospital attached to a chemical factory. I was a nurse. But not any more, my health isn’t good. I’ve been on a long break, haven’t worked for six months.”

“That’s okay, you should take good care of yourself.”

As we were talking, there was a noise from upstairs. We looked up and saw more than a dozen people surging down the narrow staircase in silence, their expressions grave. Sui Fei looked at them and asked me, “What’s happening?” I said, “They hold events upstairs at the weekend. They were showing a movie, it must have finished.” Sui Fei asked me, “What movie was it? They all seem to look very serious.” I said, “It’s a four-word title. Something-bird-something-something.

I pushed open the door of the café and said goodbye to Sui Fei. The bell on the door jingled behind me, creating a pleasant sound. Sui Fei looked at her reflection in the glass door, running her fingers through her hair, then asked me where I was heading. I was quite interested in her; she was attractive, had a nice personality, and her conversation wasn’t annoying. So, I intentionally kept the conversation going, saying I didn’t have anywhere in particular to go, just wandering around, and asked if she had any recommendations. Sui Fei said she didn’t, and suggested, “Why don’t you come a bit further down the road with me? It’ll be easier to catch a taxi.” I agreed, and we walked to the junction. We waited for a taxi for a while, but none came. I suggested, “How about having dinner together? It’s always nicer to have company; we can order a few more dishes.” After thinking for a moment, Sui Fei said, “Sure, that sounds good.”

With two bottles of beer downed and a cigarette in hand, I was feeling good. I said to her, “You’re the third one.”

“What do you mean?”

“The third person I’ve had a meal with after meeting through matchmaking.”

“As far as I’m concerned, I come out mostly because I’m too lazy to cook at home.”

“After cooking, you still have to clean up; it’s a hassle, not worth it.”

Sui Fei asked, “Can you cook?”

“I can’t do many things, but I can cook. I can make sour cabbage stewed beef, tender fried pork, and home-cooked three-layer fish. Those are my specialities.”

“Did you train as a chef?”

“No, I just like trying different recipes. But I don’t enjoy eating my own food. I’d rather watch others eat.”

“I’d like to taste it sometime.”

“You’re not serious. I kind of understand what’s on your mind. Let’s enjoy our meal. After that, if we part ways and don’t bother each other again, that’s fine. If I were to go to your place, or you came to mine to cook a meal, that would be too much. Our relationship hasn’t reached that level of intimacy yet.”

Sui Fei said, “You’re quite realistic, huh? You’re not interested in me, are you?”

“Yes, I am. But the words you said when we first met were quite discouraging. “I didn’t feel like coming at all” sounded like you weren’t interested in me at all. I’m an easy-going person and I accept things the way they are. I won’t chase after someone who’s not interested in me. I say it as I see it.”

“So how do you see it?”

“I want to say that I don’t actually like drinking coffee. It keeps me awake. I prefer Old Snow beer - you know, “Sloshed Donkey”, it’s stronger in flavour. After drinking, I’ll go home and sleep under a thick blanket. Fuck the world.”

Sui Fei laughed and covered her mouth. I asked, “What’s so funny?” Sui Fei shook her head and said, “Is it really that good?” I said, “It’s good. This beer has a lingering taste. After drinking it, your mouth feels dry and you want more of it.”

She continued to laugh and then waved to the waiter, saying, “Bring two more, I’ll have another bottle with you.”

When I took Sui Fei home in a taxi, it was already midnight. I had drunk quite a bit and was feeling a bit lightheaded. Her apartment complex was relatively new, and the local area was quite deserted. There were few residents and hardly any lights on. As we came near her place, Sui Fei asked the driver to stop, and I got out of the car too.

She turned to me and asked,

 “Why are you getting out? You could have just gone straight home in the taxi.” 

“Just to walk a few steps with you. I’ve drunk a bit too much and I need some fresh air. It’ll make me feel better.”

“Don’t try any tricks.”

I assured her, “You can trust me, I’m not that kind of person.”

“Then what kind of person are you?”

“Can’t you tell?”

“No, I can’t.”

“Your judgement isn’t very good then.”

“Seriously, I’m home now, you can go back.”

I asked, “How much did we spend on dinner tonight?”

“It’s fine, my treat.”

“That’s not good. Eating and spending your money, I feel like I’ve taken advantage of you.”

“You’ll have a chance to pay me back.”

“Really? Are you serious?”

Sui Fei smiled and said, “Now go back.”

I stopped under a streetlight, watching her cross the road and enter the apartment complex. Then, she turned back, waved at me, and I waved back. I wanted to shout something to her, and to the darkness behind her, but I opened my mouth and couldn’t find the words.

After I got home, I felt extremely dizzy. I didn’t even go to the bathroom to freshen up; I just went straight to bed, ready to sleep. My Ma heard the commotion, came into my room, frowning, and said, “You’ve been drinking a lot.”

“It’s fine, I’m a bit tired, just going to sleep.”

“No. How did it go tonight?”


“How did it really go? Tell me.”

“It went okay. Can we talk about it tomorrow?”

My Ma pulled out the pillow from under my head and said, “No, you have to tell me now. Otherwise, I won’t be able to sleep. How did she feel about you?”

I sat up, leaning against the headboard, thinking for a moment, and then said, “How should I put it... not unfavourable.”

“So, how do you feel?”

I said, “I’ve got nothing against her.”

“You can’t be serious.”

“Why not?”

My Ma said, “What? She's been married before and has a child. It was just that you have no other plans this week. I sent you to meet her to practise your social skills. What am I going to do if you two get along well? “

“What’s there to practise for a blind date? Ma, what are you plotting, day after day?”

“What if I tell you not to go?”

“Don’t worry about it. This is fine. Maybe it will work out. I’m not going on any more blind dates in the near future. I’m going to sleep now; we can talk about it tomorrow.”

My Ma looked regretful. She sighed, turned around, and slowly walked out of the room, muttering under her breath, “What have I gotten us into, what have I gotten us into...”

Sui Fei asked me, “How do you think I look?” 

I said, “Do you want me to be honest?” 

“Tell me the truth.” 

“A few years younger, you’d be considered quite attractive, charming even. Now, you’re average. But for me, it’s more than enough.” 

“You sure as hell think highly of yourself.” 

“If you don’t value yourself, how can you expect others to?”

Sui Fei said, “I need a favour.” 

“I’ll do what I can.” 

“I miss my daughter.” 

“Then go and see her.” 

“My ex-husband and his family won’t allow it.” 

“That’s tough. Why not go to the police station? Could that work?” 

“Fat chance! The police won’t interfere.” 

“What can you do then?” 

“Could you help me? Go to the kindergarten, take a few photos during their lunch break, and show them to me.” 

“Is that possible?” 

“Why not? It’s not illegal to take photos if you’re not stealing or kidnapping. I just want to see my daughter.” 

“Why don’t you do it yourself?” 

“I’m afraid of running into his family. It’s happened before. If they transfer her to another kindergarten, it'll be even harder to find her in the future.”

I rode my bicycle along the railway tracks. Previously, this area was overgrown with weeds, and nearby residents had their own plots for growing vegetables. In recent years, theyd been under governmental management and a row of small trees had been planted. It might have been a nice plan, but nobody took care of the trees; with all the coming and going they were in a desolate condition. Under the trees, there were still many weeds. In this season, both the grass and the trees had withered, devoid of any greenery. I rode through the gaps between them, taking a shortcut, sometimes speeding up, sometimes slowing down. Occasionally, I looked up at the sky - there was a gentle breeze and light cloud. Next to me, a train roared by, pulling several oil tanks. It wasn’t moving very fast. I counted the number of carriages from the corner of my eye. I got confused halfway through, so I stopped and turned my head, watching the train pass by carriage by carriage. It stirred up a gentle breeze, carrying the scent of stones and railway tracks. The breeze wafted over, smelling quite pleasant.

After the train had passed, I noticed someone on the opposite side of the railway tracks staring at me. He was dressed in military green police uniform, wearing a broad-brimmed hat and had a moustache. He was short and thin, his shoulders were hunched, saliva dripping from his mouth, and he glared at me intently. We locked eyes for a few seconds and initially I thought he was a policeman. However, the way he looked at me seemed abnormal. I shifted my gaze away and continued riding forward. He remained silent on the other side of the tracks, walking parallel to me, keeping the same pace. I gradually began to accelerate, and he started to jog on the other side.

It was then I noticed he was holding an old traffic control baton, painted in red and white, very worn out. As I rode faster, he kept accelerating too, even starting to run, crossing the railway tracks and chasing after me. He pointed the baton at me, shouting strange, harsh words. His voice was loud, terrifying, like he was chasing a criminal. I panicked and turned into another lane, frantically riding along another path. His shouts followed me, more urgent and piercing. I didn’t dare look back, but I could sense he was only a few metres behind me, closing in step by step. A flock of birds took flight as I rode through them.  I felt like I had become one of them, flying forwards. I pedalled hard, not daring to relax.

I passed by a cluster of buildings and turned onto a main road, gradually slowing down. When I finally glanced back, there was no one following me anymore. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was drenched in sweat, thirsty and exhausted. I felt completely dishevelled. I unbuttoned my shirt and stood by the roadside, taking a long breather. After a while, I continued my journey. As I rode, I couldn’t help but wonder, how the hell did I get myself into such a situation? I couldn’t figure it out.

I waited by the small playground of the kindergarten with several parents, looking in through the railings. The kindergarten, converted from two-storey commercial buildings, was not large in size. The playground was inside the residential community, well-equipped with slides, swivel chairs, swings, and basketball hoops. During the break, music played, and about a dozen children ran down from the first floor, tumbling and falling over each other like a boiling pot of dumplings. They followed the teacher’s exercises, stretching their arms and kicking their legs, jumping and bouncing adorably but calmly. Parents took out their phones to take pictures, and I did the same. Sui Fei had described her daughter’s appearance to me before—long hair, big eyes, slightly dark skin, a perky nose, a mole beside her eyebrow, very well-behaved, not very sociable, preferring to play alone. There was some distance between me and the children, and the mole was not visible. After spending some time observing them carefully, I finally found one child that matched some of the descriptions. She was wearing a light yellow jacket, her eyes were bright, and she was attentive in doing the exercises, although her movements were always a bit slow. I took several pictures, capturing various poses, and she looked very cute. After the exercises, a few kids ran to our side of the railing to talk to their parents. Some of them had even prepared home-cut fruits. The little girl glanced in my direction but didn’t come over. I watched her silently walk to the elephant slide, circle around it from the back, climb to the top, slide down the elephant’s trunk, and carefully adjust her clothes, with an air of calmness. Then, she circled around to the back again and slid down once more. I held up my phone and took a few more shots. Back home I spent quite a while admiring the photos. The more I looked, the more interesting she seemed—a lovely daughter.

That evening, I arranged to go to a barbecue restaurant with Sui Fei. I ordered two plates of grilled beef, one plate of crispy chicken bones, one plate of inkfish, and a mixed vegetable dish. After waiting there for nearly half an hour again Sui Fei arrived, looking tired. As soon as she entered, she asked me for my phone. I opened two bottles of beer, poured them out, and handed her the phone. I said, “I watched for ages. Among all the kids in the kindergarten, your daughter looks the best. She seems like such a lovely, well-behaved girl.” Sui Fei flipped through the photos quickly. I added, “You know what, she really looks like you. There’s a certain heroic spirit about her.” I had still not touched my glass. She took a gulp as she looked at the phone, then looked up, asking me, “Who is the little girl in the yellow dress?”

I was stunned for a moment and said, “Isn’t that your daughter?” She held up the phone, zoomed in, and pointed to a child in a red sweater next to the girl in yellow, saying, “This is my daughter. Out of over thirty photos, you only got two side shots.” 

I replied, “But this girl has short hair.” 

“She’s had a hair cut..” 

Feeling embarrassed, I apologised, “I made a mistake, I just finished my night shift, I’m a bit distracted. I’ll go another day to take more pictures for you.” 

Sui Fei waved her hand, feeling disappointed, and said, “Forget about it. It’s frustrating when I can’t see her and just as frustrating when I can.” 

I told a white lie, “I did see your daughter, she’s doing well, growing up healthy.”

“Who picked her up, you didn’t see her Dad, did you?” 

After a moment’s thought, I said, “I didn’t pay attention to that.” 

“If there’s a next time, pay attention. There’s a scar on the right side of his face, quite deep.” 

“Sure, that’s a distinctive feature. I won’t mistake it.” 

She said, “It was me who left that scar.”

Sui Fei was dressed in layers, which were not immediately visible. She had on multiple sweaters, and it took me a while to undress her. I kept sweating while clothes piled up on the chair one after another until there was no room left and they fell to the floor. Sui Fei huddled in one corner of the bed. Although the light was not turned on, the curtains were undrawn, casting a dim, soft glow on her. She looked small and thin. Sitting on the edge of the bed, wiping off sweat, I asked, “Why are you wearing so much?” Sui Fei grabbed my arm, saying, “Mind your own business. Hurry up and come here to me.” Fired up by alcohol, I leaned over her, changed positions a couple of times. We had sex for quite a while. I was panting and feeling satisfied with my performance, but Sui Fei didn’t utter a sound the whole time, and that started to bother me. Throughout, she held onto my waist tightly, legs entwined. In the end I was excited, and I came inside her. After we finished, she remained silent. I didn’t dare move or say anything. I lay rigidly on the bed, wanting to smoke but hesitant to mention it, feeling uneasy and pretending to cough. After a while, Sui Fei sighed and said, “If you want to smoke, just go ahead.” I grunted in reply, quickly got off the bed, and took my last cigarette from the pack. I lit it, and, in the light of the flame, saw that Sui Fei was lying beside me with her eyes closed. Her right hand was on her forehead, and her chest rising and falling noticeably. She was too thin; even her ribs were visible.

Sui Fei said, “Do you intend to be serious with me?” 

“Of course. Although I drank a bit today, I didn’t drink much.” 

“How many girls have you been with before?” 

“I’ve had one and a half girlfriends, and it didn’t work out with any of them.” 

“Why a half?” 

“Me and that girl, we didn’t even hold hands before we broke up.”

“How many times have you had sex?” 

“It’s hard to say.”

“Just be honest.”

“Well, for a while, I danced with a few girls in the dark.”

“What do you mean by that?”

“About four or five times. Then, I found it boring and stopped going. Don’t ask for details; if I tell you, then there will be no way forward for us.”

“No problem, but what about my past?” 

I quickly took over, saying, “I won’t ask either. If we want to be together, we should look ahead. I’m a straightforward sort of person. My Ma wants me to keep it secret for now, but I must tell you: we actually have another property, a relocation building, 60 square metres, with two bedrooms and one living room, near the Eighth Hospital. It’s never been occupied. If we’re getting married, there’s no need to rent a place. It can be decorated the way you like it. I’ve saved up for this.”

“You’re thinking too far ahead. There’s something I need to tell you first. See if you can accept it.” 

“Go ahead.” 

“I can’t conceive. After giving birth to my first child, my body got messed up, so that’s why I didn’t mind letting you finish inside just now.” 

I paused for a moment, took two deep puffs in the darkness, and asked her, “Is it definite?” 

“The hospital confirmed it. Take your time to consider. I won’t force you; it doesn’t matter.” 

After thinking for a moment, I stubbed out the cigarette and told her, “It’s no big deal. Just don’t scar me for life in the future.”

“You can go now. It’s a bit awkward with two people in bed, hard to sleep. Don’t let it affect your work.”

I turned on the bedside lamp, got up. Her room was plainly decorated, with only a bed, a simple wardrobe, a desk, and two chairs. After getting dressed, I started gathering the scattered clothes from the floor and neatly stacked them at the end of the bed. Sui Fei had been watching me while I did this. As I was about to leave, she told me, “The door’s a bit tight; twist it to the right and give it a shove.” Following her instructions, I used my body to push the door open and stepped outside. I closed the door behind me, but instead of immediately going downstairs, I stood in the corridor, listening to the sound of her getting out of bed, slippers feebly shuffling across the floor. When she approached the door, my heart raced. I heard her turn the lock in the opposite direction, the latch clicking twice, as if delivering a cold and indifferent farewell.

My Ma asked me, “Are you two officially dating?” 

“It’s getting there.” 

“What do you mean?” 

“According to common social experience, if a girl is willing to go eat grilled beef with you alone, the relationship is pretty much established.”

“So, you really are dating!” 

“Well, why not? Didn’t you introduce her to me?” 

“What’s so good about her?” 

“Hard to explain, but she has a certain energy about her that attracts me.” 

“Don’t be taken in. Remember that she has a child.” 

“Yes, a girl. I’ve met her before. She doesn't have custody. It’s not like she’s hiding anything. Why would anyone take advantage of me? I've got nothing.”

“You never know. This Sunday, I’ll introduce you to someone I know from the morning market. The girl’s a bit chubby, but hardworking. She sells everyday stuff on her stall. She’s diligent and industrious. I think she’s fair to middling. Maybe you're riding a donkey to look for a donkey. Go and meet her; it won’t hurt. You’ve got nothing to lose” 

I’m not going. I’ve got to work overtime this Sunday; the office supervision has been strict recently.” 

My Ma insisted, “Then go next week.”

Actually, I didn’t need to work on Sunday. After finishing my night shift, I rode my bike straight to the open-air swimming pool at the cultural centre. It was already well into autumn, but there were still a few days left for swimming; they were about to close for the season. I arrived at the swimming pool, paid five yuan for a ticket, and was in the midst of changing into swimming trunks when Sui Fei called me asking where I was and saying she had something to discuss. I told her I was at the cultural centre swimming. Sui Fei asked, “Can you still swim outdoors at this time of year?” I replied, “As long as you’re not afraid of the cold, it’s fine. It’s the last few days.” Sui Fei said, “When will you be done swimming?” I said, “Normally, I spend the whole day here, from morning to evening. I even eat my meals here. Anyway, there’s no time limit. If you’ve got something you need to do today, I can leave early.” Sui Fei said, “No need, just wait there. I’ll come over to find you in a while.”

Wrapped in a towel, I approached the swimming pool. Despite it being the weekend, due to the cooler weather only a few people were in the water. They stood there, intermittently bobbing up and down, observing each other without doing much swimming. The water in the pool appeared greener than the previous few days, with a strong smell of bleach. A few worn-out, folding lounge chairs were arranged on the side. After putting on my goggles and placing the towel on the back of a chair, I walked to the edge of the pool, testing the temperature of the water. It was chilly, and I gritted my teeth. Taking a deep breath, I plunged in. My limbs were stiff at first; after swimming about ten metres, I gradually loosened up. The surface of the water was like a mirror, and as I moved my hands it felt as if I was breaking through ice. I continued to swim forwards, undulating up and down. The sounds around me grew louder, with the roaring noise of water in my ears. I dived under, held my breath, and swam towards a dark corner. Upon reaching the smooth pool wall, I turned around and resurfaced. With hands gripping the railing, all the noise suddenly disappeared, and my surroundings seemed to freeze, with only a few dry leaves spinning on the water’s surface.

When Sui Fei arrived, it was already noon, the sun high in the sky, drying the ground, and water vapour dancing in the air. I was sitting on a bench with my towel wrapped tightly around me. Sui Fei tapped me on the shoulder, and then walked around to sit beside me. I asked her if she had eaten, and she said she hadn’t. I said “Wait a moment” while I went to the nearby stall and bought two egg pancakes. As I handed them to her, I said, “It’s a speciality of the cultural centre, been sold here for over ten years. Generously brushed with sauce, and I’ve added an extra sausage for you.”

Sui Fei looked at the egg pancakes and told me, “I had a dream this morning before I called you.” 

“Dreamt about me, right?” 


“Then what was the dream about?” 

“I dreamt that I was pregnant.” 


“Technically, it shouldn’t happen.” 

“Any physical symptoms?” 

“Initially, no. But now I’m not sure.” 

“It’s just a dream; don’t scare yourself. Even if you are pregnant, we’ve got nothing to worry about.” 

“I’m afraid.” 

“Afraid of what?” 

“Afraid someone will snatch it away again.” 

“Who would snatch it?” 

“My ex-husband. I still dream about him monitoring my every move, sneaking back to the flat. Sometimes, I wake up in the middle of the night, and feel there’s someone else in the house.”

“Stop it! If you keep talking like this, I won’t dare to come over in the future.” 

Sui Fei paused for a moment and said, “Let me see your phone again.” 

I went back to the changing room, brought her the phone, and she looked through the photos I had taken. Then she said to me, “The one in the yellow clothes is actually my daughter. I didn’t tell you that day, but you took the right photos.” 

I looked at her and said, “How can I trust a word you say?”

I threw aside the towel, turned around, and jumped into the swimming pool. As the noontime swimmers gradually increased, the pool became lively. It was actually warmer in the water than on the poolside. I was drifting in the pool, with the sunlight streaming in and the water glittering – it was very pleasant. I counted and muttered to myself, “In less than a week this place will close again. They say that next year this area will be acquired by the government, I wonder where I will go to swim then.” Sui Fei was on the side, silently walking towards another pool. It was one metre deep, mainly for children in the summertime. Now, with no one around, it was deserted and would be drained in a few days. She stood alone at the edge of it, looking down at the slowly floating green algae. I walked barefoot up the diving platform and stood on the top board, overlooking the people below. Sui Fei was at the farthest point, blending into her own shadow. I shouted loudly, drawing people’s attention. Then, taking a step forward, I straightened my body and dived down. The intense sound of rushing air filled my ears. My arms entered the water, stirring up waves which drove apart the surface of the pool. This was the first dive of the day. Underwater, the cacophony returned. If I heard correctly, some people were applauding me, and others were shouting, probably because the water splashed onto their faces. Cars passed on the road, continuously honking their horns. I closed my eyes but could still feel the movement of light and clouds, and the trace of the sun. At that moment, I suddenly remembered an old song I hadn’t heard in a long time: “Standing alone on this dancefloor, hearing the applause begin.” 

Liu Li from the dance hall sent me a message, asking why I hadn’t been there recently. I lied, telling her I had gone but didn’t look for her. Liu Li complained that I was avoiding her and suggested we cut ties. I said I was just kidding and that the truth was I hadn’t been there lately due to work. Liu Li invited me to have dinner together that evening. Feeling a bit hesitant, but not really wanting to go home, I went straight to the cold noodle shop beneath her apartment building after work. I ordered a pack of beer and a few side dishes. We chatted as we drank, discussing various topics. During our conversation, Sui Fei called me, asking where I was. I told her I was out, having drinks with colleagues from work. She asked where I was going to stay tonight, and I said I hadn’t decided yet. Sui Fei mentioned missing her daughter, and I promised to accompany her another day to see her. Then Sui Fei said she’d had another dream, that she was bleeding down there. I tried to reassure her, saying not to scare herself. I promised to come over after finishing the drinks, if it wasn’t too late. After hanging up the phone, Liu Li asked who I was going to see. I said, “No one.” Liu Li suggested, “If there’s no one, come sing with me.” I refused, saying “It’s not fun with just the two of us.” Liu Li said she would invite a few more people, “Since you’re already here, and we haven’t finished drinking, where else would you go?”

I was a bit drunk, lying on the sofa in the private room, feeling dizzy and unable to gather my wits. Liu Li sang while eating from a fruit platter. Before long, Liu Li’s friends arrived - a man and a woman who seemed to have been drinking, their speech slightly slurred. I struggled to get up to greet them. The man, taller than me, bent down, shook my hand, and then sat beside me. He opened two bottles of beer. I said I couldn’t drink any more as I’d just finished half a dozen bottles.. He said I was disrespecting him. I said I didn’t mean to. Then he replied, “It’s our first meeting, so it’s only right that we should have a drink.” I nodded, took the beer, clinked bottles with him, and took a sip. Liu Li was singing joyfully. She switched off the main light and turned on a strobe light. She danced while singing, wanting to pull me onto the dance floor, but I waved my hand to refuse. The new couple got up to dance, embracing each other and caressing. I saw the man’s hand reaching into the woman’s neckline, exploring inside. After the song finished, the man sat down, and took a sip of beer. I handed him a cigarette. As I lit it, his face came closer, and a beam of light from my lighter illuminated his right cheek. I clearly saw a long scar.

I asked him what I should call him, and he said, “Just call me Chief Dong.” 

Chief Dong, how did your face get like that? It looks pretty cool.” 

Chief Dong didn’t respond, just gave me an unfriendly glance. After a pause, I followed up with another question, “Chief Dong, where do you live?” 

He told me an address, and I thought for a moment, saying, “There’s a railway line over there, right? Both sides have short trees. I’ve been there several times and I always run into a madman wearing a big-brimmed hat, carrying a stick, pretending to be a cop.”

“Yeah, seems like you’re quite familiar with him. He chases whoever he sees. In the summer, he comes out every day, less now. Isn’t it ridiculous? Even a lunatic knows hot from cold.” 

“It’s pretty funny. How do you usually deal with him?” 

“He doesn’t dare mess with me.” 

“Why not?” 

“He’s been beaten by me before. He knows I play rough.” 

“How do you play rough?” 

“Hey, pal, what d’you mean?” 

“Nothing Chief. I’ll put on  a Dick and Cowboy song for you, your voice suits his songs.”

“I can’t sing his songs.”

“Listen to the original, practise it, and when you’ve learnt it, you’ll bring the house down.” 

“Fuck you Shorty, I said I couldn’t. Don’t you get it?” 

“That’s fine. I’ll sing one for you, ‘Thirty Thousand Feet’. The lyrics are good: ‘The plane is resisting the earth, and I’m resisting you.’ ” 

Chief Dong leaned over, his arm round my shoulder, his face close to mine, furrowing his brow, and said, “No, pal. Now, what d’you really want tonight? I don’t quite understand.” 

I removed Chief Dong’s arm from my shoulder, saying, “What else could I mean? I just suddenly felt like singing.” 

Liu Li saw that something was off between us, and hurried over to separate us, while the other woman took Chief Dong away, whispering something to him. After a while, they said they had something to do and left. I took out my phone, wanting to take a photo of Dong, but the lighting was too dim. I tried a few times, but it was all pitch black, and nothing could be seen.

They had only just left and I followed close behind. Liu Li chased after me. By now, it was midnight, but Liu Li insisted that I go home with her. I said “Not tonight.” I pulled out two hundred yuan, handed it to her, and shooed her away. She wasn’t happy, and swore at me under her breath as she turned away. I paid her no mind, took a few steps, crossed the road, and closely followed Chief Dong and the woman. Not long after, I saw them enter a small hotel located on the first floor. The iron staircase leading to the hotel hung on the outside, narrow and rusty. They walked up one after the other, and the stairs echoed with every step, swaying as if they might collapse at any moment. When they reached the first floor, they opened a cotton curtain to enter the room. I moved to the other side of the building, hidden in the darkness. The wind echoed back and forth as if blowing through a wasteland and, as I lit a cigarette, I looked up at the first floor. I saw a light in one of the rooms, and a faint glow seeped through the cracks in the floor. After a while, it dimmed. I finished my cigarette, stamped out the butt, took a deep breath, and headed back home.

After swimming at the Cultural Palace that evening, it was already dusk. A cool breeze wafted by, and the sunlight turned the clouds golden. Sui Fei talked to me a lot, but my ears were still waterlogged, and I couldn’t hear everything clearly. After we came out, I suggested taking Sui Fei out to dinner, and she proposed having it at home. We pushed a bike to the Weigong Market to buy groceries. I bought green beans, pork ribs, and some cold dishes. When we came out, it was already getting dark, and I rode my bicycle with Sui Fei sitting behind me, our groceries hung from the handlebars.

As we were cycling through Weigong Street, Sui Fei said, “I wouldn’t normally dare to come to this area. This morning when you told me you were here I hung up and then hesitated for ages. I took a deep breath and found my way here.”

“What is there to be afraid of?”

“What’s that on your right?”

“It’s the Weigong Drain, what we used to call the ‘Stinky Ditch.’ I lived around here when I was a kid. My school was just up ahead, a typical State enterprise primary school. It’s turned into a restaurant now.”

“I didn’t live far away either; I attended Qigong Second Primary School.”

“It’s a good school, it used to be the largest in Asia.”

“Did you often come to the Weigong Drain when you were a kid?”

“Every day. In the summer, we’d catch fish to eat. There were lots of flying insects, and bugs which we could sell. In the winter, we’d ice skate and spin ice tops on it.”

“One winter break, a kid fell in. Do you remember?”

“I don’t.”

“How come? It caused quite a sensation at the time. The kid skated to the middle when the ice cracked, and he fell in. Nobody noticed it at the time, and it was only when the parents came back in the evening that people started searching. The water wasn’t clear; it was oily and wasn’t frozen solid. After that incident, no kids ever went there again.”

“The kids may have stopped going, but the adults haven’t. There are two opportunities every year, one in winter, one in summer.”

“What do you mean by ‘opportunities’?”

“People drown here every year. Well, not exactly drowning, they’re thrown in dead and disposed of here.”

“You’re quite familiar with this place.”

“Sort of. Back in the day, after dinner, sometimes I’d come over here to brainstorm and play some dice under the streetlights.”

“Last year, my dad was found dead here.”

“What happened?”

“It was around this time. Even before we could report it, the police came looking for us. It was the sanitation workers who found him; he’d floated up. The police told me he died after drinking too much and falling in.”

“My condolences.”

“I have my doubts.”

“Doubts about what?”

“My ex-husband and I were in the midst of our divorce, and our child’s custody wasn’t settled. That day my dad had a drink and then went to look for him.”

“Did they investigate him afterwards?”

“They did, and there’s proof he wasn’t there.”

“Then it probably wasn’t him.”

“It’s not that simple.”

“Trust the competence of the police in their investigation; don’t overthink it. I’ll cycle a bit faster; we need to get home soon and start simmering the green beans.”

About three days a week, I stayed at Sui Fei’s place. She wasn't always home because she occasionally took some home-nursing jobs, like changing dressings, removing stitches, catheterisation and tube feeding. She could handle all of that, starting at thirty yuan per session, which was a reasonable fee. When winter came, she had quite a few patients waiting, and sometimes she was busy from morning to night. I usually came over after my night shift, bought some groceries, and cooked her two meals. Sui Fei really enjoyed my cooking. After dinner, I usually made her a cup of instant coffee, and then we would watch a movie together. Typically, I fell asleep not long after the movie started, only waking at midnight when the movie ended.

Sui Fei woke me up and said, “I need your help.”

“About what?”

“My dad’s death. I wonder whether it’s related to my ex-husband. I think it is.” 

“The police said it wasn’t, and even if it was, it would be an indirect connection that’s hard to prove.” 

“My dad definitely went to look for him that night.” 

“Maybe, but what were you doing that night? Why didn’t you call the police at the time?” 

Sui Fei kept silent.

I continued, “Why are you silent?” 

 “I went to a hotel with a doctor in the same hospital.” 

I lit a cigarette, and Sui Fei went on, “When they fished him out, he had a lighter and half a pack of cigarettes in his pocket. His money was still there, and so was his phone. It wasn’t about money.” 

“It might have been an accident. Elderly people are fragile, and a fall could lead to a cerebral haemorrhage. If he couldn’t get up, he might have fallen in and couldn’t climb out.” 

“For the past year, I’ve been thinking about these things every day, and I keep having dreams. I feel like I’m not normal anymore.” 

“Don’t dwell on the past, don’t overthink it. Like what I said before, let’s be together and move forward together. By the way, just out of curiosity, what’s your ex-husband’s name?” 

“Why that question? It’s Liu Xiaodong.” 

“Nothing. Was he cheating on you?” 

“No kidding! If he wasn’t, I wouldn’t have divorced him. He was hardly ever at home.”

“I see.” 

“Why do you bring him up?” 

“No reason, I just feel like I know him from somewhere.” 

“Have you met him before?” 

“No, I guess not.”

At the weekend, my Ma made dumplings and I bought some cooked food and went over to visit her. From the moment I entered the house, my Ma didn’t give me a friendly look, and I didn’t say a word. When the dumplings were cooked, I’d just picked one up when she used her chopsticks to knock it off and said to me, “When are you going to split up with her?” I said, “Why? we’re getting along fine.” My Ma said, “What’s the rush, are you planning to get married?” I said, “Just living together, to get by.” My Ma said, “Shameless.” I said, “If you keep talking like that, I’ll leave.” My Ma’s tone softened, and she said to me, “Son, Ma went to a fortune-teller, and this girl’s bazi* clashes with yours. It’s bad luck. Ma will introduce someone else to you, plenty of options.” I said, “Too much trouble, I really can’t be bothered.” My Ma said, “One last time, then I won’t pressure you any more. This nice girl who runs a stall has been waiting for three weeks, and she hasn’t complained once. She’s very sincere. Just spare some time to meet her, it’s all I want.” I said, “I won’t go.” My Ma said, “It’s already arranged, it’s today. Please, Ma is begging you.” I had no choice when it came to my Ma; if I didn’t agree, I couldn’t even eat this meal. So I reluctantly asked, “Where is it, and what time? I’ll take a quick look and leave.” My Ma said, “It’s not far. You can eat the dumplings now; this whole plate is yours. After you finish, just go and meet her. Remember to chat nicely.”

When I arrived at the café, the plump girl was already sitting in a chair, her sleeves rolled up to her forearms. When she saw me enter, she enthusiastically waved and greeted me. Her arms were chubby and her gestures were quite powerful. I sat down across from her, and she was proactive, asking me what I’d like to drink. I said, “Just plain water,” and she ordered a glass of water for me. She was dressed in clothes with cartoon patterns all over them and her face was rosy and smooth. In comparison, I looked more like her uncle. After chatting for a few minutes, we realised we had very little in common. After we finished our coffee, I quickly said goodbye. When we got outside, she mentioned that she was a bit hungry. I said, “How about I buy you a sandwich or a sausage?” She didn’t say anything and just turned and walked away.

I rode my bike back to Sui Fei’s place, parked it at the entrance of the residential area, and locked it to the railing. I turned into a supermarket to buy a pack of cigarettes. As I stepped out and lit a cigarette, I saw a figure flash past me. The person was wearing a leather jacket, corduroy pants, looking quite unkempt. In that brief moment when the right part of his face passed by me, I noticed a long scar on his face, which startled me. I immediately followed behind. After walking a few steps, the person suddenly stopped and also lit a cigarette. He turned to look back, and I pretended not to notice him, continuing to walk forwards.

Just as I passed by him, he grabbed me by the collar from behind, exhaled a puff of smoke towards me, and asked, “What’s your name?”

I pretended to have just recognised him and said, “Oh, it’s you, Chief Dong.”

“Do you live here?”

“I’m visiting a friend.”

“Is it a guy or a girl?”

“It’s a girl, we met playing mahjong.”

He seemed to be reminiscing and hesitated before saying, “Let’s catch up sometime; you can bring her too so I can see her.”


Dong took a couple more drags of his cigarette, patted me on the back, and said, “Let’s go. Now I remember; you’re Liu Li’s guy, right?”

“Not exactly, we just know each other. Chief Dong, d’you live in this residential community?”

“No, I don’t live here. I’ve come to sort something out.”

I entered another building and kept watch from a window on the second floor. Half an hour later, Chief Dong walked out from the building’s courtyard. As he left, I turned around and went back to Sui Fei’s place.

She had a panicked look in her eyes, and I asked, “What’s going on? Someone must have come over.”

“No one has.”

“That’s not true.”

Sui Fei remained silent. I said, “I came back a bit late today. My Ma made some delicious dumplings, and I ended up eating them all. I didn’t bring you any.”

“It’s ok.”

“Let me make you a bowl of wonton soup then.”

“No need.”

“It’s not a hassle. There are some dried shrimp in the fridge; I’ll add a few more. It’ll definitely be tasty.”

I had just opened the fridge when suddenly someone started banging on the door from the outside with their fists. The sound was alarming, and Sui Fei looked nervous. She didn’t say anything. The banging and shouting continued for a while, but then the noise abruptly stopped. Shortly after, Sui Fei’s phone rang loudly, and she quickly hung up. The person outside the door began making a big fuss. I walked towards the door and Sui Fei grabbed my arm. I shook her off, opened the door, and there was Chief Dong standing outside. When he saw me, he froze for a moment and then said, “Oh, it’s you.” I didn’t say anything. He turned to Sui Fei and said, “So you’re dating this guy, huh, this little prick.”

I asked, “What’s going on, Chief Dong?”

“Alright, from now on, I’ll ask you for child support.”

“Sure, Chief Dong, let’s talk this over tomorrow. It’s too late now, and we’re disturbing the neighbours.”

“If you don’t give it to me, I’ll find Liu Li. I’ll definitely track you down.”

Sui Fei stared at me. My head was pounding, and I felt like it was about to explode. I forced myself to ask, “Chief Dong, how much is it?”

“Three months’ worth, 2,400 yuan. Actually, if she hadn’t had a new lover, I might not have asked for it, but since she does, I have to.”

“I’ll give it to you.”

“The hell you will!” said Sui Fei. What’s it to do with you?”

“I don’t have that much cash on me. Here’s what we’ll do, Chief. I’ll take you to an ATM, withdraw the money and give it to you. Is that okay?”

He looked at Sui Fei and patted my shoulder, saying, “That’s fine. Sui Fei, you’ve found someone who knows how to handle things.”

I put on my shoes and gently closed the door behind me. I heard Sui Fei rushing over and locking it twice. The hallway was empty, and the echoes reverberated. I stood on the stairs, cleared my throat, lit a cigarette for Dong, and whispered, “Chief, don’t get angry. We can always have a talk over problems.” Dong didn’t say anything, he just looked at me, with a cigarette in his mouth. I walked ahead, and he followed behind me. We left the building, and Dong said, “You seem to have a clear mind about what you’re doing.” I replied, “Chief Dong, it’s not that I have clear ideas. It’s just a blind date arranged by my parents. I’m embarrassed, too.” Dong remained silent. I continued, “There’s a bank not far ahead. I’m not sure how you got here, but I have a bicycle; I can take you there in a jiffy.” Chief Dong said, “No need, it’s just a short walk away.” I said, “Alright.”

The lighting on the road was poor, and the shops nearby were all closed. The wind was so strong that it made my face sting. I pulled up my collar, tucked my chin in, and put my hands in my pockets. Dong was by my side, shivering from the cold as he was dressed lightly. When we reached the intersection, a few snowflakes began to fall from the sky. Under the dim streetlights, they danced and fluttered.

I said, “Chief, look at the snow.”

“A little snow is good, it kills germs.”

“Yes, there are too many colds going around recently.”

“Have you got a cold?”

“No, Sui Fei has been busy these last few days. She’s been giving her patients home visits.”

Dong sighed and said conscientiously, “Brother, you need to understand me. I don’t need this money for myself, but it’s for my child, you see?”

I nodded and said, “Yes, that’s true.”

“Everything I do is for the child, for the child I do everything.”

“Life isn’t easy.”

“Brother, I’ve been wanting to ask you something.”

“Go ahead, Chief.”

“How do you feel about Sui Fei?”

“What do you mean?”

“Don’t bullshit with me.”

“She’s doing pretty well, in every aspect.”

“Right, sometimes I miss her, I mean, she’s got that air about her.”

I remained silent.

Dong continued, “But don’t worry, I don’t mean anything else by it. I’ve been fed up with fucking her.”

I still said nothing.

Dong then asked, “One more thing I’d like to know, which one of you is taller?”

“I don’t know.”

“Why not measure it?”

“No need.”

Dong insisted, “Just a quick measurement won’t hurt. You’re about 1.6 metres without shoes, and I think she might be slightly taller than you. Can you reach her on the kang*? If not, you could use a pillow.”

“Dong, there’s an ATM here. I’ll go inside to withdraw some money, and you’d better wait for me here.”

I pushed the door and entered. I inserted my bank card, entered the PIN, checked the balance, and then removed the card. The ATM machine made a clicking sound, as if it was having a conversation with someone. I went out and told Dong, “The machine’s out of cash. Let’s find another one. There’s an Agricultural Bank branch up ahead. I’ll make a cross-bank withdrawal.” Dong asked, “But won’t there be extra fees for that?” I reassured him, “It’s okay. I won’t feel at ease if the money doesn’t get into your hands.” So, I led him forward for another ten minutes. The Agricultural Bank was on the corner of a dark street. I walked in and withdrew 2,400 yuan. Once the machine spat out the money, I stayed inside to double check the amount. Dong watched me through the glass. After coming out, I handed the money to him and said, “Please, count it yourself.” Dong took the money and put it in his pocket, saying, “No need to check. We’ll meet again. Someday, let’s invite Liu Li out for hot pot.” I replied, “Let’s see about that, Chief Dong. And please, don’t mention Liu Li in the future, okay?” Dong looked at me, chuckled, and said, “You gutless idiot!” Then he pulled his jacket more tightly around him, turned around, and walked away, as the snow fell more and more heavily.

I turned around and walked a few steps, then turned aside, not in the direction of home. I leaned against the wall and lit a cigarette, but it was soaked by the falling snow even before I finished half of it. I tossed the cigarette away, picked up a triangular brick with a pointed edge from the ground, and gave it a few swings to test its weight. It felt quite handy, so I tucked it into my pocket. I turned back again, but Dong had disappeared. I walked faster and spotted him at a T-junction. I followed closely behind him. He was hunched over, talking on the phone. He went into an old residential complex ahead. When he entered through the iron gate, he slipped and fell, ending up on one knee, then he cursed loudly into the phone, slowly got up and lowered his head to brush the snow off his trousers.

Just then, I sprinted a few steps, tightly gripping the brick with the pointed side up. Without waiting for him to turn around, I jumped up and smashed the back of his head with the brick. The force was strong, and he immediately fell to the ground, clutching his head, looking back at me. He said, “What the hell?” in a tone filled with disbelief, as if he couldn’t comprehend it. Then he told the person on the phone, “I’ll get back to you in a minute.”

I thought to myself, ‘He’s quite resilient. I put in so much effort, and he’s still alive. So, without waiting for him to get up, I pounced on him again. Even though he was almost a head taller than me, he was in much worse shape physically. He was utterly useless. I held the brick and beat him about the head left, right, left, right, alternating in a relentless assault until my palms were numb. At first, he struggled with his hands, but soon he became limp. His arms hung down, and he began to retch continuously. I stood up, saw him clutching his head, vomiting a disgusting mixture of tears, blood, alcohol and food onto the ground. The smell was unbearable.

After he finished vomiting, he lay motionless on the ground, groaning incessantly. It took almost no effort to drag him into the gap behind the local substation, where I hit him a few more times. Then I hurled the brick away, and walked off. After taking a few steps, I turned around to look back. He still lay there, motionless, his nostrils emitting white puffs of breath, shallow and sporadic. Occasionally, his body twitched slightly, and his eye sockets were beaten so badly that I couldn’t tell if his eyes were open or closed.

I returned to Sui Fei’s place. She looked at me without saying a word. I took off my clothes and had sex with her from behind, quite roughly. Sui Fei screamed loudly, and later, her voice carried a hint of crying. After we were done, I went to the bathroom and washed my clothes thoroughly. Chief Dong had spat on my trousers, and I scrubbed them for a long time. While I washed the clothes, Sui Fei stood at the bathroom door, looking as though she wanted to ask me something but was reluctant to. I said, “You’d better go to sleep. There probably isn’t anything significant going on, and if there is, it doesn’t concern you. Relax.” Sui Fei said, “Tomorrow, I want to bring my daughter over.” I replied, “I’ll go with you.” I hung my clothes on the heater, then got into bed. I couldn’t get to sleep for a while. Sui Fei turned away from me, and muttered, “Did you give him the money?” I didn’t answer. She went on to ask, “Who is Liu Li?” Again, I didn’t answer. She said, “Who are you?” Still, I didn’t respond.

I lay in bed unable to sleep the entire night. Closing my eyes had no effect either. In front of me were snowflake-like dots, flickering like a TV with no signal. Sui Fei was beside me, her head resting on her arm, her hair cascading down with a captivating curve. Her breathing was gentle, and her eyelids trembled, possibly indicating that she was once again dreaming.  In the early hours of the morning, the snow outside illuminated the sky, casting a soft glow. I quietly got out of bed, pulled back a corner of the curtain, and saw that a thick layer of snow had accumulated on the ground. Someone with a fur hat was riding a cycle rickshaw, and struggling to move ahead with a forward-leaning position. There were no reflections on the snow-covered ground. I watched for a long while until the figure disappeared from sight, and only then turned back. Sui Fei was still lying in bed, in the same position, but her eyes were now open, fixed straight on me, like a pool of freshly melted snow water.

While Sui Fei was washing up, I cleaned up the fridge and turned on the stove. I made two bowls of stir-fried noodles, garnished with green onions. I was extremely hungry and devoured my meal, while Sui Fei seemed to have little appetite, most of the time just watching me eat. I said, “I have the night shift today. After dinner, I’ll accompany you to pick up the child.” Sui Fei replied, “It’s a bit early. Let’s go in the afternoon. She’s just been dropped off at school, and it’s not convenient to pick her up right now.” I said, “Alright. Let’s go out for a while and then pick her up.”

The snow had stopped, and the piercing sunlight made it difficult to see clearly. It was still cold outside, and people on the streets were bundled up, moving clumsily, with tears in their eyes due to the cold. I took Sui Fei to a shopping mall, and we explored all three floors. I used my credit card to buy her a pair of grey snow boots, costing over a thousand yuan. They looked warm. At first, she refused to accept the gift, but I insisted. After all, I hadn’t given her any decent gifts, even after dating her for so long. Sui Fei said, “Well, I should get you something too.” I replied, “No need. I don’t need anything at the moment. Let’s talk about it another time.”

After leaving the shopping mall, it was already close to noon. I carried the pair of boots as Sui Fei and I took a bus. The bus floor was full of mud, and people shuffled around cautiously . We travelled four stops on this bus and then switched to another one to reach the entrance of the kindergarten. It was probably naptime, and the kindergarten was very quiet, both inside and out. Even the elephant-shaped slide was covered with a layer of white snow, looking like it had a white scarf draped over it. I waited outside, smoking a cigarette while Sui Fei went inside to pick up her daughter. It didn’t take long before the teacher brought them out. Sui Fei’s daughter was wearing a pink down jacket, all chubby and cute. She waved goodbye to her teacher and then bounced towards me. There were two small pom-poms on top of her hat, and as she walked they swayed back and forth. She was incredibly adorable, like a cartoon character. When she approached, she didn’t ask who I was; instead, she hid on the other side of Sui Fei, intentionally avoiding eye contact with me. We walked across the railway tracks together, unhurried and at a slow pace, like a typical family of three. It felt like we had our whole lives ahead of us, just waiting for us to pass through. The train slowly moved away behind us, making a loud rumble, shielding us from the snow that had just picked up. Sui Fei’s daughter said she wanted to eat candied hawthorns, so I crossed the street and bought her a cocktail stick. I held it up and walked through the traffic, like raising a torch, the only colour in the icy landscape. Sui Fei squatted down to adjust her daughter’s clothes, and both of their faces were bright red from the cold. Behind them, I spotted the man with the large brimmed hat again. He was wearing a green winter coat, huddled in a corner, staring at me with a stern face. I looked at him too, but this time, he didn’t have any weapons in his hand, and the pointer stick was nowhere to be seen. When I got closer, he suddenly raised one hand, pointing directly at me, his gaze fixed, as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. I turned away and didn’t look at him anymore. I said to Sui Fei, “Let’s find a mall and eat inside to get out of the cold wind.”

Sui Fei and I spent half a day having fun in the mall with her daughter. In the evening, we had hot pot together and ordered a lot of dishes, but we couldn’t finish them all. Sui Fei’s daughter asked her, “Are we going back to Dad’s house tonight?” Sui Fei said, “Not today. You stay with Ma tonight.” Her daughter asked her, “Then let’s hurry up and go, I’m feeling a bit sleepy.” Sui Fei said, “Today is the anniversary of your grandpa’s death. Let’s go burn some incense for him, and then we’ll go back.” Her daughter replied, “Okay, I miss my grandpa too.” Sui Fei said, “Think about what you want to say to your grandpa first.”

We went to the hospital entrance and bought some paper offerings for burning. Arriving at the side of the Weigong Drain, we walked down the bank. I took out a lighter and ignited the paper. Sui Fei and her daughter squatted by the bank, burning the paper money against the wind. The wind was strong, and the ashes scattered in all directions. As she worked, Sui Fei said, “Dad, everything is fine here, no need to worry. Your granddaughter has come to see you too.” Her daughter said, “Grandpa, I used to dream about you all the time. You took me down slides, led me up staircases, and you gave me warm milk to drink.” Sui Fei said, “Dad, send me a dream. Tell me if it was really Liu Xiaodong who did it. I haven’t settled the score with him.” Her daughter said, “Grandpa, I haven’t had milk in a long time.” Sui Fei said, “Dad, I got divorced, found someone else, he works in a factory, he’s quite hardworking, and he treats me well. You can rest assured.” Her daughter said, “Grandpa, do you miss me? I want to dream of you, but I haven’t been dreaming much lately.”

The voices faded behind me, gradually weakening. I walked forward, and the water surface was covered with thin ice, layered and wrinkled, swallowing the light. It could crack open at any moment. I walked to a dried-up old tree, and looked up at the opposite bank. The clouds hung like a dense fog, distant and viscous, almost covering the entire sky. I began to move my body, stretching, jumping, adjusting my breathing. I took off my clothes, one item at a time, and neatly folded them on the concrete pavement.

I walked into the water. The slopes on both sides were gentle, and there were dried branches and broken stones on the bottom, which were very sharp, so I had to be careful to avoid them. Under the ice, the water that had been still for years unexpectedly had a hint of warmth. I continued walking towards the centre, my legs immersed, and the deep water kept churning, as if there was a slow-turning vortex. Things on the shore also started to sway. At that moment, I suddenly heard a commotion behind me. Someone was shouting my name, two voices in total, one sharp, one child-like. I recalled many years ago; there was another child-like voice, panicked and urgent, calling my name while I clung to the shore, helpless, watching him fall onto the ice, sinking through it, never to surface again. The cries had vanished into the dark water, turning into a sob. For a long time, that sound echoed in my ears. Now I submerged myself in the water, hoping to disappear from it all. Unexpectedly, the water in the canal was even clearer than it had appeared, with a taste of wine, rich and intense, rushing straight to my head, intoxicating me. My eyes stung, tears kept flowing. It was profoundly dark, with sporadic lights flickering on both sides, as if snowflakes were falling again. The bottom of the pool and the surface of the water were the same colour. I went under and rose up again, surrounded by dim illusions. I saw someone running towards me on the shore, it looked like Sui Fei. The closer she got, the blurrier she became. Behind her, everything was crystal clear, as if a galaxy was rising, bright and warm. She ran to a position level with me, hands on her knees, her voice sharp, crying, “I’m pregnant,” and then blood kept flowing out from under her body. I was very anxious, diving back into the water, wanting to swim to her, but a gust of wind and waves blew me away. Instead, I drifted further and further from her. I lost my sense of direction, not knowing how long I had been swimming. I saw a corridor stretching out in front of me, and lots of people were walking through it. I looked up, captivated. Later, I found an old man underwater, standing side by side with me, staring at the corridor, too. His hair was soaked, as if it had just been dyed. His face was pale, lips tightly closed. I recognised him. One year ago we had played cards together under the streetlight. He sat next to me, reeking of alcohol. I silently played my cards, while he cursed beside me, never stopping from start to finish. When the game ended, everyone dispersed. I threw the last card in his face. He grabbed my collar, almost lifting me up, in front of everyone, dragging me into the darkness. The darkness was deep inside the cliff, boundless. At first, there were sounds of dragging and arguing. Later, almost simultaneously, we discovered that it was an extremely soporific darkness, emitting a safe and warm aura, like an endless warm current. We were deeply mired in it, without light or lamps. Embraced by layers of water plants, we both fell asleep.

I emerged from the water, naked. Looking back the way I’d come, I didn’t see Sui Fei and her daughter. The clouds were thin, the sky was barren and dim. I walked back, seeing neither trees, ashes, firelight nor galaxies. Except for me, there was no one else on the shore. The wind blew everything away, and even on the scorched ground, there were no traces to be found. But it didn’t matter. I thought, it’s like an afternoon stroll. I’ll keep walking forward, and as long as we are all on the shore, we will meet again someday.


'A daughter is a mother’s little cotton jacket' - referring to padded winter jackets, describing the intimacy between mothers and daughters

Bazi, date of birth - used for fortune-telling in China

Kang - a raised brick platform inside a house, with heating underneath, where people in rural northern China sleep

Relocation building - alternative accommodation which citizens are directed to live in after an area has been compulsorily acquired by the Chinese government

'Riding a donkey to look for a donkey' - proverb, meaning that what you are looking for is right under your nose

'State enterprise primary school' - In China, State-run enterprises often have/had schools and clinics provided on site

Paper offerings - small tissue-paper effigies which are burned at the graveside in order to honour the dead, usually of desirable items which might be of use in the after life, like money, food, mobile phones etc