By Lu Min, translated by Nicky Harman and Helen Wang and published by Balestier Press, November 2022.
Read in Chinese here.
Part I. The Exercise Books
The Air in the factory zone was where it all began. It was the starter, the yeast, that brewed up all the emotions. It was also the pigment and preservative that would pickle the past.
The factory zone was in the northernmost outskirts of the city, like an enclave that has been flung out into the open. But the air itself was anything but open; it was heavy and close, with a tendency to wrap itself around everything, to embrace with passion, and inveigle its way into your nostrils and throat and down into your lungs. Sometimes it stank of hydrogen sulphide, as though a clutch of rotten eggs had taken to the sky. Or the cloying smell of rust. Or the rotten fish stench of nitrogen. Or, worst of all, xylene, which has that hard burnt-oil smell that makes your throat feel tight, as though someone has grabbed your neck from behind. Depending on which way the wind was blowing, and which factory was upwind, there might be one smell in the morning and another in the evening, or a combination of two or more smells, as though an engineer was being slapdash with the chemicals.
When a strong wind blew, the fulsome air of the factory zone would journey into town, where its passion and devotion were unrequited. And when the city people had to venture out into the sprawling factory zone in the back of beyond for work, the all-embracing smell turned their stomachs. They cursed in silent disgust, held their breath, and hoped they could make a quick getaway. They couldn’t bear to see children playing in the dirt at Crossroads, or the fried snacks and steamed buns set out in front of the shops exposed to the wind. To them, that was living like animals.
When the cars came to take them back to the city centre, they couldn’t get in fast enough. Their pale, frowning faces were a blur in the car windows as they sped away. The factory zone people saw them off, quietly relieved and reassured. The air in the factory zone was like your parents: you can’t leave them or hate them, so you find a way to get along.
Young Ash couldn’t find a way to get along with other people. It was probably because he was obese.
Everyone in the factory zone knew the fat boy. It was a label that stayed with him all his life. Even years later, in the humid tropical climate of the South, standing in front of the mirror as a tall, slim adult in a black T-shirt and close-fitting jacket, it was his childhood self that he saw in his reflection.
He had a triple chin and no neck to speak of, his eyes were reduced to small slits, he had rolls of fat around his middle, and his chubby thighs rubbed together, which meant that he walked with a waddle. He’d never had a school uniform that fitted properly, and even the longest watch-strap was too short for his wrist. Whenever the local radio station organised sports events, the teacher would tell him to take the day off. His classmates didn’t want to be seen with him.
Fate had cruelly assigned a mediocre script to this sensitive and precocious boy, whose thought processes were as intricate as the twists and turns of an art-house film. But Ash himself would direct that script, his experiences in life shaping his mind as much as his body. I should go back a little – to his father’s death, three years before the start of this story. The traffic signal was unmistakeable. The Almighty stood there waving his arms like a white-gloved traffic policeman. That was the moment Ash’s destiny began to unravel – when he was eight, and his sister Marina was twelve.
I won’t go into detail about their father, but after he died, eight-year-old Ash became a poor little thing. The news spread in hushed whispers. Human kindness is like shit and spit, it has to come out. Compassion, nobility and kindness have a positive physical effect, like an appetite stimulant or a detox. That was important in a place like the factory zone, where you felt the lack of family, where you were always meeting new people, and you had to be familiar with unfamiliarity. Everyone in the factory zone became family: you could be as rude as only close friends and family can be, you could snoop into someone’s fertility problems, you could laugh out loud at people’s physical defects. Such rich vulgarity complemented the air in the factory zone perfectly.
Compassion requires an object, and the women in the factory zone went out of their way to look after the poor little thing. The moment they spotted him, their hands shot out, jostling to stroke his head, his ears, his skinny little arms, his back, right down to his little bottom and his thighs. If they could, they would have taken off his shoes and nibbled his toes.
“Such a poor little thing, losing his father so young.”
“His skin is so soft!”
Their hearts went out to him as they caressed him. At that point, Ash was only a tiny bit plumper than other children. While the women in the factory zone drooled over his peachy skin and dimples, his cute little tummy and bum cheeks, his mother, the newly-widowed Mrs Su, was expected to look fragile and hesitant. She would stand there, squeezing her hands together, looking forward to the future when their intense interest in her family’s well-being, and their charity, would cease.
The women’s hands, overly familiar and unrestrained, left indelible imprints on Ash. Long after the physical sensations creeping up and down his body had faded, they sent octopus-like tentacles deep into his brain that were knobbly, sticky, and impossible to shake off. This unpleasant feeling grew like a mould on his childhood, silently permeating his entire youth. Even when he took the overnight train to a city in the South, it went with him as a recurrent nightmare in the early days of that unfamiliar place. It would develop into a lifelong wariness of the female of his species.
Later, in the South, each time Ash sat in one of those consulting rooms with the blinds pulled shut and miserably recalled those details, the drowsy psychologists would spring to life, and exclaim, “That’s it!” followed by something incomprehensible in English. With a look of relief, they’d scribble a few words in their notebooks, circling them a few times, as if to justify their hefty fee.
Shortly after his father died, Ash started to hang his head on his chest like a rotten gourd. He became very proficient at this submissive gesture. Indeed, it was the bowed head that Lao Shan would spot in the crowd some years later in the city in the South, that would draw him to the twenty-year-old Ash and be the cause of a beautiful misunderstanding.
Ash’s childhood experiences shaped him, but they did not nourish him. As I said at the beginning, it was the unique air of the factory zone that nourished eleven-year-old Ash.
Imagine the fat boy on his way home from school, the book bag banging on his buttocks his only companion, going home to a broken and dysfunctional family. He had no father, a mother who was always out, and a sister who kept her head buried in her books. So Ash looked around, swivelling his head on his invisible neck. He felt incomplete, as though he was missing an arm or a leg. He looked out of the window and saw black smoke curling from the chimney in the distance. It was next to the long stretch of rusty iron buildings and the grey giant that was the electricity substation. A little closer, a heavy goods truck crawled along the road, ugly and proud, emitting exhaust fumes that smelled of diesel oil about to ignite. He felt lonelier than a bedbug, more abandoned than an orphan. Why, when there were so many people in the factory zone and so many families in the world, was he so alone?
He stared anxiously at the horizon, wishing that someone would appear. Someone he could rely on, someone strong, whose role was to protect him. But no one came. The air laughed raucously around him, baring its fangs and extending its claws. Each time the wind changed direction, the air somersaulted and mocked this forlorn, lonely figure. Ash decided to make the air his companion and protector, and to write about it every day in his journal in as much detail as he could.
Friday, 31st May 1991
Marina ignored me all day, as though I didn’t exist. She was in a bad mood because I deliberately threw away one of her workbooks. She doesn’t love me at all. I only did it to get some attention, but I won’t do it again. It’s not worth it.
The air was good. It smelled like rubber boots and plastic washbasins were cooking in a massive wok with someone stirring in sugar and perhaps some vinegar, and making a thick liquid like tar or dark honey that might drip from the sky at any time, like milk dripping from a breast, not that I remember.
Wednesday, 11th September 1991
Mum is so mean. She never buys prawns. Every now and then she buys fish, but they’re always tiny ones that are about to go off. She’s a terrible cook. She’s always forgetting to add salt, or burning things.
Today the air smelled like dead fish, or rather dead prawns, dead squid, dead blue whale, dead swordfish and dead ambergris humpback whale (I saw a photo of one in Marina’s encyclopaedia and they’re really ugly). It smelled like our factory zone was at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean and all the water had gone. The teacher told us that the Pacific Ocean is the biggest ocean in the world.
I’m walking about in the biggest ocean in the world, and there are dead fish all around me.
Thursday 12th March 1992
The teacher took us to plant trees. I’m strong, so I dug holes for all the girls in the class, and planted the trees. They ignored me like they always do. So, I went back after school and pulled them all out again. That made me feel better, though I scratched my hand on one of the tree trunks and it hurts.
Today the air smelled really strong, like the smelly water we poured on the trees, or bits of tofu that have been sitting around for a week. It was like having a wet dishcloth shoved in your face all the time.
After school the wind changed direction, and the air smelled of the electron tube factory next door, which was nice. It was like that lovely warm feeling of being next to a very hot TV, like someone was holding my willy. I get that nice tight feeling in my willy every time the wind blows in this direction.
The air in the factory zone had a big influence on Ash, affecting his mood and giving him ideas which, although they appeared to be harmless, would have an impact as colossal as a nuclear blast.
In 2004, Ash, now twenty-four, returned from the South to the factory zone he had left ten years earlier. As the train approached the station, he opened the window and took a deep breath of the outside air. The smell brought hot tears to his eyes, and he recalled every single word of those journal entries steeped in loneliness that he’d written a decade ago.
When the girl beside him poked him to check if he was all right, he sniffed a couple of times and mumbled vaguely, by way of explanation, “It’s just that I did something bad when I was about your age.”
“Are you crying because people were angry with you?”
“No . . . I’m crying because they still don’t know about it.”
Ash’s journals were actually maths exercise books, the kind with a pink cover and green-lined paper inside. A neighbour who was a teacher had given them to him, a stack of twenty to thirty books that she didn’t have any use for. They were faded and limp with age, and if you wrote in them with a fountain pen, the ink always smudged.
After his father died, the neighbours kept gifting Ash and his mother things that were well-intentioned but turned out to be useless. His mother had thanked the neighbour and accepted the exercise books, but tossed them to Ash as soon as she’d gone.
“Use them as scrap paper, or throw them away if they’re no good,” she said coldly as though the neighbour had offended her. But that was as far as she went. She was still dealing with the situation as best she could. Since her husband’s death, she’d become an outsider. Men greeted her more briefly than before, whereas women greeted her at length. It seemed very difficult to have a natural relationship with anyone.
Ash didn’t throw them away. The ugly, floppy exercise books reminded him of himself. He decided to use them as his journal.
One night after Ash returned from the South, he had a long conversation with Marina, now pregnant but separated from her husband. He told her about Lao Shan and brought out the old exercise books that he’d taken with him to the South and brought back again. It was the first time he had shown them to anyone.
Marina was gobsmacked to see Ash’s journals. After sixteen years, they were battered and yellowing with age. She found his old handwriting difficult to read, but discovered that his journal about the air was, shall we say, very dramatic: sometimes vicious, foul-mouthed and sarcastic; sometimes affectionate (with long strings of metaphors about the spring wind slapping his face); sometimes anthropomorphic (with a lot of exaggerated accounts of him grappling for power). Marina tried to laugh about it with Ash, to mask how sad it made her. If he had continued to write about the air in the factory zone like that, who knows what might have happened – sooner or later he would have gone crazy. Fortunately, a few months after he started the journal, the air was replaced by something else. A real protagonist appeared on the scene: Over There.
When Marina saw those two words, she cracked. The tears she’d held back all those years, tears hardened with resolve, came flooding out. She sobbed so hard that the baby inside her started kicking, as if in sympathy.
“Over There” was an interesting way of putting it. It was a simple descriptor, and Ash had probably not given it a second thought, but the euphemism was just as loaded as “doing it”, “that kind of money”, “that kind of place” and “that kind of woman”.
It had all happened so quickly. Suddenly, there was Over There, and Mum had a man. For Ash, preoccupied by his weight and the air in the factory zone, it came like a bolt from the blue.
The first Ash knew of the man’s existence was when they were on their way Over There to meet him, he on the back of Mum’s bike, and Marina riding her own. He had tried to hold Marina’s hand in the dark, but she’d brushed him away. He had looked to her for reassurance, but she was sixteen and thought she was an adult. She had totally ignored him.
Once again, Ash was left to his own devices. Why couldn’t anyone be patient with him, or kind? Going Over There was another mountain he had to climb on his own.
Viewed from above, Over There wasn’t that far. It was within the perimeter of the factory zone. From Ash’s home by the alkylbenzene factory, they went around the L-shaped plastic chemical factory as far as the back gate and turned right to where the electron tube factory workers lived. The factories were like neighbours, sharing facilities like the bathhouse, shops, employees’ cinema, canteen, clinic, and primary school. These essential components were like drawing pins stuck on a map in no apparent order. Together, Ash, his mother and his sister wove their way through these random drawing pins, twisting and turning for about twenty minutes.
Ash soon realised that Mum knew this route very well. In an instant the penny dropped. Mum had been going out in the evening for a while now. She’d been vague about where she was headed, then had started staying out all night. She must have been going Over There, which meant that Over There wasn’t a bolt out of the blue, it was a great big cloud that had been floating overhead for some time.
When they reached the building, Mum fussed like she had when they set out.
“Remember to say hello to everyone. Manners are important,” she told Ash again. Then she turned to Marina, and said, “Please be polite.” Why had she repeated herself? Once would have been enough. And why had she said these things in that strange tone of voice, which suggested there might be a reason for them not to be polite?
They went up the stairs and stood in front of the door. Mum gave them the once-over, but there was no life in her eyes, as though she was only doing all this because she thought she had to. Finally, she knocked on the door.
The door was opened by a coarse-looking man in the factory zone’s standard navy-blue overalls. He rubbed his hands together and grinned. His bald head shone like a yellow lightbulb and his red nose lit up in front of them. It was clear to Ash that he was a drinker. He was shocked.
“Say hello to Uncle Ding,” Mum said.
In the living room, there was a two-seater imitation leather sofa that was splitting at the seams. On it sat a good-looking boy (though his overgrown fringe covered half his face and any expression that might have been on it) and an unattractive girl (whose over-wide grin made her jaw look enormous). They stood up awkwardly out of sync with each other.
“Hello, Auntie Su,” they said as their eyes shifted robotically from Ash to Marina and back. In return, Ash and Marina scrutinised the brother and sister as much as they dared without being rude. Then Ash spotted a photograph draped in black gauze: it was the siblings’ late mother, peering at the guests from behind the glass frame.
Moving her hand, Mum directed Ash’s attention to the sofa, and told him to say hello to his big brother, Victor, and his big sister Pearl. Ash did as he was told. Marina said hello to Uncle Ding and brother Victor, but couldn’t bring herself to call Pearl her big sister. As Marina’s lips twisted defiantly, Mum had a flash of inspiration. She laughed and started discussing the ages of the two girls with Uncle Ding. They worked out the month and year each girl was born, in the solar calendar and the lunar calendar. After exploring every possibility, they finally established that Pearl was older by three and a half months, and concluded that Marina should call Pearl her “big sister”. Then they laughed in satisfaction, as though they had just worked out an extremely complicated mathematical problem.
Mum asked Marina to say hello to Pearl again. This time, Marina turned her head to one side, her lips pursed as if she was trying to hold too many sweets in her mouth, and blurted, “Hello, big sister Pearl.” Her words received a simple acknowledgement, tinged with a small sense of victory. Pearl would enjoy that feeling of elevated status again, in the future, under very different circumstances for all of them.
Time is like sugarcane: sweet on one end, bitter on the other, and you never know which it will be. In that moment, in that apartment, when those two adults and four children from two different families came together, not one of them had any idea that with these introductions the tracks for the future would be laid. All they would remember from that awkward first meeting was that until the introductions and greetings were over, they had all stood as stiff as tree stumps in their predetermined spots in a predetermined circle with varying degrees of rigidity.
That night, Ash stroked his floppy exercise book, then rolled it into a tube, flattened it out, and rolled it up again. His brain felt like a blocked drain. He couldn’t figure it out. What did Over There mean to him?
He pondered the conundrum every which way, then quietly wrote down some of the set phrases he’d learned at school that week to shift the troublesome thoughts that were weighing so heavily on him: Devote yourself to your country. Pure in blood, pure in heart. Care for the country, care for the people. A mighty spirit lasts an eternity. He wrote each one three times, and by the time he was finished, he had forgotten his troubles and felt much better. Ash loved set phrases. Literary writers might think they were common and restrictive, but to Ash they were amazingly accurate and full of potential, the perfect way to pour his heart out to the world.
As soon as he put down his pen, something went “ping” in his head: every day on his way home from school he had wished for a lovely warm home and a lovely warm family, and now his wish had come true. Of course, Uncle Ding’s bald head and red face were awful. And Pearl was just like Mum and Marina. But in Victor he saw a brother, a big brother, a firstborn, a guardian he could rely on, someone who would look out for him. He could stop hanging his head like a gourd on the vine.
Although he was a big, heavy boy, he felt like a soft, mushy fruit, like a willow trembling in the wind. His thoughts about support and protection at that moment would have set the psychologists’ pens wagging.
Ash felt hopeful as he closed his journal, but deep in the creases of his triple chin something niggled at him. After the introductions, his “big brother Vic” had gone to his bedroom and stayed there. He’d shown his face for only a few minutes. His indifference was painfully obvious.