The Chilli Bean Paste Clan, Chapter 1
The Chilli Bean Paste Clan 《 我们家 》by Yan Ge, is translated by Nicky Harman and published by Balestier Press. The excerpt below was originally posted here as ‘Dad’s Not Dead’, and was printed in Peregrine (2011).
Read the Chinese version here.
In Dad’s cell phone, Gran was listed as ‘Mother.’ From time to time, ‘Mother’ popped up on screen at peculiarly inappropriate moments.
Sometimes it would be during a meeting at the factory when Dad was trying to call the laughing, chattering salesgirls to order. Or he was out drinking with his bros, knocking back the maotai, the air thick with smoke. Or, worse still, Dad would be in bed, either with Mum or else some young woman of his acquaintance and, just when things were getting lively, A Pretty Sprig of Jasmine would ring out. Dad would feel himself going soft and, when his cell phone proved incontrovertibly that it was Gran, all the fight would go out of him. Floating gently to earth like a hen’s feather, he’d pick up the phone, walk out into the corridor, clear his throat and respond: ‘Yes, Mother’.
At the other end of the line, Gran would start to tug on Dad’s heartstrings. ‘Hello, Shengqiang!’ ‘Yes, Mother, what’s up?’ He’d stand, propping himself against the wall, just four or five streets from Gran. ‘Mother, I know about that. Don’t you worry. I’ll deal with it.’
Then he’d hang up and go back into the room. But those few minutes had wrong-footed him. If he was with the salesgirls, they’d be gossiping away amongst themselves, if it was a get-together with his bros, they’d be texting or lighting up another cigarette. Or if he was with a woman, she’d be bent over scraping a callus off her heel. Still, Dad would give a cough, shut the door behind him and they’d get back down to where they’d left off.
The only exception to this rule was if the woman in the bed happened to be Mum. In that case, he had to answer a few questions about Gran first. ‘What’s up with that mother of yours now?’ Mum would ask. Dad would come across the room, take off his slippers, and dive under the bedcovers. ‘Oh, just forget it!’ And they’d get back down to where they’d left off.
Dad put on a maroon striped shirt over his trousers and went out into the passageway. He called Zhu Cheng. ‘Where are you? … Right, come and get me then.’
He started down the stairs. He had only got halfway down to the next floor when he paused, then gave voice to a stream of poetic obscenities. ‘You’re vermin, the lot of you! Son-of-a-bitch, I’m gonna murder you all one of these days!’ When he reached the ground floor, he lit up a cigarette and smoked it until, far in the distance, he saw the shiny black Audi approaching. Then he hurled his cigarette down, ground out the sparks under his foot, pulled open the car door and jumped in. ‘Cornucopia Court,’ he ordered.
Zhu Cheng turned the steering wheel and the car bowled along West Street towards the outskirts of town. As they crossed the intersection, Dad looked out of the window. The two streets were hideously thronged with people. No one paid attention to traffic regulations any more, not since the Tianmei Department Store had opened up here. One young couple, their arms draped around each other’s waists, made a reckless dash across the road in front of the car. A young mother had her hands so full of shopping bags she wasn’t holding her kid’s hand and he charged out and nearly pasted himself onto the car’s side-mirror. Zhu Cheng slammed on the brakes, just avoiding hitting them, then stuck his head out of the car window and shouted lengthy picturesque references to their ancestors.
‘Calm down, Zhu Cheng,’ said Dad from the back seat.
‘These people need a telling-off, boss. They think I won’t dare hit them!’ Zhu Cheng steered the car through the crowds.
‘Nothing’s the same any more,’ Dad said. ‘People with shoes are scared of people without, and car-drivers are scared of pedestrians.’
‘Absolutely! Chinese people are a bunch of idiots!’ Zhu Cheng agreed.
They crossed Celestials Bridge on West Street. Just three years ago, a new park had been built there and the original smelly ditch filled in and covered over. Dad could see a bunch of old people gathered in the park, some chatting, some just sitting. Gran wouldn’t be there though. He pulled out his cell phone and checked the time.
At the entrance to Cornucopia Court, Dad said: ‘Don’t bother to drive in, Zhu Cheng, just leave me here and you can be off. I won’t need the car this evening, I’ll walk home.’
‘I’ll wait for you, you can’t go home on foot,’ said Zhu Cheng solicitously.
‘It’s no distance. I can walk. And don’t take the car back to the factory, come straight to the house and pick me up at eight o’clock tomorrow morning,’ Dad instructed him. Then he got out.
Granddad had died two years previously and last spring their housekeeper announced her son wanted her back in the village to look after the grandchild, whereupon she upped sticks and left. Gran said she’d never find anyone else to suit and wasn’t going to try, so now she lived alone in the family’s old apartment, with its three bedrooms and two reception rooms, without even an hourly-paid helper. She just wanted the peace and quiet, she said.
Gran had lost weight since last year, and was getting shorter inch by inch, Dad reflected, as he walked up three floors, took out his key and opened the door. As usual, he couldn’t see Gran at first. The apartment was piled high with books, magazines and newspapers, and it looked as if no one had lived there for months. ‘Mother!’ he shouted. Then again, ‘Mother!’ Had Gran lost her voice?
‘Coming, coming!’ Gran called back, emerging from somewhere at the back. ‘Shengqiang … it’s you!’
‘Yes, it’s me,’ said Dad, going out to the balcony to retrieve the ashtray which Gran had put beside the potted orchid. He took it back into the sitting-room and put it down on the coffee table, lit a cigarette and sat down on the sofa.
‘Smoking again!’ Gran exclaimed from her rattan chair, shaking her head.
‘Ai-ya! Don’t go on at me!’
‘Well if I don’t, who’s going to?’
‘All right, all right,’ Dad said, with a puff on his cigarette.
‘There’s something I want to talk to you about,’ said Gran.
Dad scrutinized his mother as she talked. Her hair had been completely white for a while now but she still had it neatly permed so that the waves undulated over her head. She wore a pale-green silk padded jacket over a knee-length grey silk skirt with white flowers on it. Her calves were bare below the skirt and, above her flesh-coloured socks, the skin was pallid and drooped as if half-a-dozen weights were pulling it down.
Dad let his thoughts drift back to the exact moment when he realized that Gran was old.
It was 1996, or maybe 1995, in March or April, and Gran suddenly got it into her head that she wanted Dad to take her to Chongning County see the pear blossom in Pear Blossom Gully. When they got there, the gully and all around it was crammed full of people. Gran sat in the car frowning at them.
Zhu Cheng, who had just started as their driver and hadn’t quite got the hang of things, sat woodenly in the driver’s seat and Dad had to help Gran out of the car. He took her left hand, and put his other hand on her shoulder to guide her out.
That was the moment it struck him Gran was old. Through her clothes, Dad could feel the skin on her shoulders hanging in slack folds which actually quivered as she moved. He froze, appalled. Then Gran said: ‘Get out of my way, Shengqiang. If you stand in my way, how can I walk?’
Dad took a step back and watched as she made her way to Pear Blossom Gully. ‘Mother,’ he called.
Gran stopped and looked back. She looked just as normal, no different from a few minutes before, but Dad had to steel himself to look her in the face.
‘Come on!’ She said.
On their way back to Pingle Town, Gran had said: ‘Don’t you go divorcing Anqin, there’s too much at stake. She did wrong, but now she’s got down on her knees and grovelled to you, just let it go. The pair of you should stop bickering and just muddle along together.’
Dad gave a non-committal grunt. His right hand still tingled.
‘Are you listening to me, Shengqiang?’ demanded Gran now, after waiting in vain for his response.
‘Yes, right,’ Dad said again, putting out his cigarette, lifting his eyes from her calves and nodding.
‘Off you go then. I’m going to read for a bit and then go to bed.’
‘Yes, you get an early night, Mother,’ said Dad stolidly.
Outside Gran’s apartment, Dad paused for a moment, then went up to the fifth floor. Here, the staircase ended and two lonely doors faced each other. Dad took out his cell phone and made a call. It rang just once, then someone answered.
‘Open up,’ said Dad.
In a second, the door had opened. Pretty Jasmine Zhong stood there, her hair hanging in a gleaming black curtain around her dainty face.
Dad’s face finally cracked a smile. He went in, shutting the door behind him.
In Dad’s cell phone, Jasmine Zhong had gone under a variety of guises, all masculine. A few months ago, she’d been listed as Zhong Zhong, then for a couple of weeks, it changed to Zhong Jun; recently Dad had decided to keep life simple, and he listed her as just Zhong. Once, Dad had been at home eating dinner with his phone beside him on the table and it rang. Dad didn’t pick it up straightaway and Mum leaned over and took a look. ‘It’s your friend Zhong,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ said Dad. ‘Hey, bro,’ he said into the phone. ‘I’m at home having dinner. A game of mahjong, eh?’
There was a gasp of surprise from Jasmine at the other end.
‘When I’ve finished eating,’ he went on with a smile, ‘I’ve got to do the washing-up too.’
He put the phone down and Mum said: ‘It’s been a long time since Zhong asked you over for a game of mahjong, isn’t it?’
‘Yes,’ said Dad, selecting some pepper and aubergine with his chopsticks then raking some rice into his mouth. ‘When I’ve washed up, I’ll go round and see him.’
‘You go as soon as you’ve finished dinner,’ said Mum, looking sidelong at him. ‘Any mention of mahjong drives you crazy, I know. I’ll wash the dishes.’
And Dad went off happily, congratulating himself on having cleverly listed both the girl and his old friend under ‘Zhong’. It had been an inspired choice.
A little later that evening, Jasmine asked him: ‘So I’m your bro now, am I?’
‘Uh–huh,’ said Dad, who was engrossed in caressing her breasts. They were not big breasts, but, under his caress, they were cool and weighed in his hand like antique jade.
‘Then call me that!’ Jasmine ordered him with a giggle.
‘Hey, bro!’ he said.
‘Oh, what a good little boy!’ she responded with delight, sticking her bottom in the air then grinding herself against him.
To be perfectly honest, it was this foolishness that Dad really liked about Jasmine. When they were having sex, he liked to yell: ‘Stupid cow!’ at her. Jasmine never got angry at being called names, in fact she acted up to it.
She and Dad had been an item for nearly two years now and, it has to be said, Granddad could take some of the credit for the affair.
Just three months before Granddad died, a fortnight into the New Year—Granddad was then eighty-four, coming up eighty-five, and Gran had just turned seventy-eight—Dad’s phone rang early one morning.
The shrill ring startled him and Mum awake.
Dad fumbled for the phone and saw Gran’s name on the screen. He stifled his irritation and said: ‘Yes, Mother.’
Gran was weeping down the line. Dad rolled over and sat upright. ‘What’s the matter, Mother?’
‘I want to divorce your Dad! I want to divorce your Dad!’ she wailed.
Mum and Dad got dressed and Mum drove Dad there in her car. ‘Are you sure you weren’t mistaken, she really wants a divorce?’ she asked as she drove.
But there was no mistake. They got to Cornucopia Court, and Mum went to park the car while Dad took the stairs two at a time and let himself into the apartment. Gran was in the sitting room, her tear-streaked face hidden in her hands.
‘Mother, don’t cry,’ said Dad going over to Gran. ‘Just tell me what’s happened.’
‘Ask your father!’ said Gran, with a jab of her finger in the direction of the balcony.
Granddad was sitting out there in the cold, in a rattan chair, wearing a leather overcoat over his vest and long-johns, puffing away at a cigarette and dropping cigarette ash all over his fur collar.
‘What’s up?’ Dad asked, going out onto the balcony.
Granddad shook his head but said nothing.
‘Your father’s got a mistress!’ Gran’s voice came from the sitting room.
Dad didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. He exchanged complicit glances with his father and said: ‘You’re quite a one, Dad! Still up to it at your age!’
Granddad gave a dry laugh. Mum arrived at that point, and Gran set up a wail as if someone was trampling her underfoot.
‘Mother!’ Mum cried, hesitating in the doorway and looking through to Dad on the balcony.
He gave a careless wave. Mum gathered nothing terrible had happened. She approached Gran, crouched down, and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. Softly she said: ‘Mother, don’t cry. Tell me all about it.’
‘I can’t go on like this,’ said Gran. ‘I told him, I’ve had enough of house-keeping for him. Let him go off with whoever he wants, I just want peace and quiet.’
The housekeeper had gone back home for the New Year a few days before. So Mum heated up the previous day’s chicken soup, and prepared noodles and pickled vegetables, so that at least they could have some breakfast.
‘Shengqiang, after breakfast you can phone your sister and get her back here. I’m going to divorce your Dad today. I’ve always been a decent, honest woman and I won’t force him to stay with me, he can go off and have his fun, it wouldn’t be right for me to stand in his way.’
Granddad buried his face in his bowl and said nothing. Dad was about to speak but Mum tugged at his sleeve.
Gran never did talk to Aunt Coral and Dad thought that it had all blown over.
But three months later, Granddad’s blood pressure shot up and he was admitted to Pingle Hospital. And right up until the day he died, Gran refused to step outside the door of their apartment. Everyone had a go at persuading her—Mum, Dad, Aunt Coral, Uncle Liu too—but she wouldn’t go and see Granddad.
‘No!’ she said. ‘Get that cow to go and see him instead.’
After much thought, Dad felt he should broach the subject with the old man. He sat down at his bedside and asked him: ‘Is there anything you’d like me to take care of? I can do it for you.’
Granddad looked at Dad, took a last breath, shook his head and, gripping Dad’s hand, passed away.
It was the end of the road for a hero and sadness welled up in Dad. He suppressed the tears, but he couldn’t suppress his anger. Hell! Less than two months later, Dad took up with Jasmine Zhong, a salesgirl at Longteng Telecoms City, and installed her upstairs from Gran’s apartment. Son-of-a-bitch, these stupid cows. ‘I’ll murder you all one of these days!’ Dad used to say.
That’s right. Dad used to pepper his love-making with a lot of swearing.
Truth be told, Dad was not a bad man. Just two months after his seventeenth birthday, Gran got him his first job in the chilli bean paste factory, where Chen Xiuliang became his shifu and taught him his trade. Chen Xiuliang was also not a bad sort, just a bit lazy and fond of his tobacco. Every day when Dad left his home to walk to work, he had to stop off and buy him a packet of Peony cigarettes. Chen would accept them with a beaming smile and put Dad to work. Without the cigarettes, no doubt he would have indulged in a bit of bad language—and still put Dad to work.
Thinking back, it must have been 1983, or perhaps 84, and the way Mum told it, it was Dad’s job was to keep watch on the fermentation vats. It was the end of May, nearly June. The sap was rising, the air was full of flies and sparrows and the ground crawled with jiuxiang bugs and mole crickets. But this was also the time when the townsfolk had to get busy fermenting the bean paste in the sunshine. Gran pointed with her slender white hand and Dad was taken off by Chen and left to kick his heels all day in the fermentation yard.
Fermenting the bean paste in Pingle Town was an esoteric art; few outsiders had seen it, while Dad had seen enough to make him sick of it. Serried ranks of earthenware vats, three or four feet tall and with a girth as big as two arm spans, held a bubbling mixture of broad beans which had been left to go mouldy, to which were added crushed chilli peppers and seasonings like star anise, bay leaves, and great handfuls of salt. As the days went by in the hot sunshine, the chilli peppers fermented, releasing their oil and a smell which was at first fragrant, then sour. Sometimes the sun was so strong that the brick–red paste in the vats boiled up and started to bubble. Then Dad had to take a stout length of wood as tall as he was and, vat by vat, stir the contents. It was vital to stir the mixture and Chen spent a lot of time instructing Dad and clipping him around the head to get the message across. ‘Slowly, slowly,’ he would shout, standing to one side, cigarette between his lips, making pressing-down motions with his hands. So Dad slowed down, manipulating the stirring pole as if it was a spoon, but Chen was annoyed again. ‘Quicker!’ he shouted. ‘Get some speed up!’
As the pole went around, the chilli oil vapour rushed up Dad’s nostrils. It was so pungent it seemed to reach right down his guts and turn them bright red. Finally Dad had had enough and, flinging the pole into the vat, shouted: ‘You want it slow or quick? Stop messing with me!’
‘Your Dad thought he’d get a beating for that!’ Mum told me.
But he didn’t. Instead, Chen pensively finished his cigarette, threw the butt to the ground and ground it under his heel then, all smiles, he went and picked up the pole and demonstrated to Dad how to do it.
‘Xue Shengqiang, you watch carefully. Hold the pole tight but relax your wrist, and move the pole from side to side. And remember something else, I’m only going to tell you once: you stir the beans the way you fuck a woman, you get me? Think of the vat as a woman’s cunt, if you make her happy, then you’re stirring properly.’ Dad hadn’t fucked any woman yet, in fact he still hadn’t figured out what those bits of a woman even looked like, and he watched his shifu, agog.
Chen rhythmically stirred the beans as if this was a witches’ brew: slow, slow, quicker, a couple of flicks of the wrist, slowing down again, until the sludge gave off liquid moans and exuded flaming red chilli oil. A strong musky odour rose into the air and Dad, as he stood staring in the fermentation yard, got an erection.
Needless to say, in the fullness of time, Dad became a pretty good stirrer. He reckoned he was pretty good at fucking women too.
I haven’t said just how Dad was a good man. It wasn’t nearly as glorious as the way he learnt to stir the beans, and Mum didn’t tell me about it either, but in Pingle Town everything leaked out sooner or later.
Dad never spoke about it but he can’t have forgotten how that summer he nearly drove himself mad thinking about women.
It was all the fault of that fucking Chen. Dad lay drenched in sweat on his bamboo sleeping mat, cursing the man as he jerked off and fantasized about the prettiest girls in town, wondering what they looked like naked and so on and so forth.
But Dad kept his wits about him. The way he figured it, he was very unlikely to get a girl to fool around with, at least without the other townsfolk or Gran finding out. So after he’d spent a week wanking he decided to go off to Fifteen Yuan Street, and pay a reasonable price to get a woman naked.
Fifteen Yuan Street doesn’t exist anymore, or rather it appears no longer to be there. But if you know the password, you can find the way in. The bums and petty criminals of Pingle Town all know exactly where it is, in other words, all the townsfolk are only pretending not to know. In actual fact, if you head out of town on South Street, as you get near to Factory 372, there is an inconspicuous little road with osmanthus bushes dotted along it and ropes strung from the branches on which towels and wet clothes sometimes hang. This is the famous Fifteen Yuan Street. It wasn’t called that when Dad was young, in fact, it wasn’t even a street, it was where Baby Girl lived and did a bit of business in her home. Dad had heard she charged five yuan, or four yuan 50 if you were lucky. It took ten years for this to turn into the famous Fifteen Yuan Street—that became the going rate after a whole bunch of other women moved in as Baby Girl’s neighbours. Business boomed, with some vermin even catching the one yuan 50 minibus from Yong’An City, to get themselves a woman. But when Dad paid another visit, in 2000, or perhaps it was 2002, the woman put out her hand: ‘150 yuan.’ And that was when Dad felt that the good times really were gone for good.
In the year 2000, or 2002, coughing up 150 yuan was nothing to Dad. But a dozen or so years before, things had been very different. He spent a long time racking his brains over how to get hold of five yuan.
Every day, Dad ate breakfast at home, then went to work at the chilli bean paste factory, where he had his lunch and dinner. Apart from the money he bought Chen’s cigarettes with, he had no other pocket money. So he devised a plan based on Chen’s cigarette money. A pack of Peony brand cost 53 cents, but a pack of Jiaxiu cost 24 cents, so he could save 29 cents a day and in 18 days he’d have enough to go and see Baby Girl. There was another, even bolder, plan: a pack of Peony brand cost 53 cents, but a pack of Silver Fir was only 13 cents. That way, he could save 40 cents a day and could make it in thirteen days’ time.
Dad did the sums on a scrap of paper three times and pondered that five days’ difference as he stood in front of the tobacconists eyeing the cigarette packets on display, his head full of those women. Finally, he steeled himself and said to the shop-owner: ‘A packet of Silver Fir.’
Chen didn’t say anything, just took the packet, squinted at it and grunted. After all, a smoke was a smoke. It was the height of summer, and he sat under the big eucalyptus in his sleeveless vest, half a Silver Fir dangling from his lips. The sun was so dazzling, Dad could not see anything, so he stopped looking at Chen Xiuliang and went off, head bowed, to give his beans a stir.
The sound of the bubbling beans nearly fucking finished Dad off when he was a young man. Even now when Dad passes the fermentation yard, he can’t help sneaking glances at those perfectly aligned rows of bean-paste vats where he had had his sexual awakening.
To cut a long story short, Dad bought Chen Xiuliang Silver Fir for thirteen days, and finally scraped together five yuan 20. That day he marched proudly off to Fifteen Yuan Street, head held high, to lose his virginity. His memories of that day are a bit hazy, whether because Baby Girl was so professional or he was just a natural, he’s not too sure. He’s never forgotten her ecstatic cries however. They were something else. When he’d finished, he gave her every cent he had.
‘You’ve given me 20 cents too much, kid,’ she said kindly.
‘That’s for you,’ Dad said, modestly playing down his generosity.
So in the end, the earnest maxims that Gran had drummed into him from boyhood had had an effect; they had turned Dad into a young philanthropist.
One evening, Dad was at the Floating Fragrance Restaurant with his bros Gao Tao and Zhong Shizhong and somehow the conversation turned to Baby Girl from Fifteen Yuan Street. Gao Tao took a last puff on his cigarette and stubbed it out on the tail of the duck in the dish. He shook his finger at Dad and said in a slurred voice: ‘You remember Baby Girl, Zhong? That was Shengqiang’s first love!’ ‘“First love”, be buggered!’ Dad spat out angrily. There was no way he was going to admit that Baby Girl had been the one to take his virginity. Zhong carried on regardless: ‘As I remember, you were forever running off to Fifteen Yuan Street as a young lad. You even stole a rabbit from the Huangs and sold it to pay for Baby Girl, do you remember?’ Dad and his friends had somehow arrived at an age when, with a drop of drink in them, they’d start reminiscing about the good old days. ‘I remember it like it was yesterday!’ Zhong was getting into his stride. ‘His mother was so angry with him, the wee prawn had to come and stay two nights with me!’
‘You two old farts! That was a lifetime ago! Can’t you think of anything else to talk about?’ Dad grabbed a half-empty pack of cigarettes from the table and threw it at Zhong’s head; Zhong gaily caught the pack, shook a cigarette out of it and lit it. Their waitress giggled behind her hand.
‘Anyway,’ Zhong took a couple of puffs and pulled himself together, ‘how is the old lady, your mother?’
‘She’s very lively!’ said Dad. ‘She had me over the day before yesterday to talk about her eightieth birthday celebrations.’
‘Ai-ya!’ Gao Tao exclaimed, clapping his hands together. ‘It’s a big deal, an eightieth birthday! You’d better do a good job of organizing it!’
‘Of course I will!’ Dad picked up a piece of duck with his chopsticks and crunched it up, bone and all. ‘The old lady says she wants the whole family to be there, my big sister, my big brother, everyone. Then there are relatives who live in the Pingle Town, and friends, it’s going to be a big occasion. And me, I’m the one who has to sort it all out, while my revered siblings, who normally we don’t see hide nor hair of, just float along when it suits them!’ he complained.
‘Ai-ya!’ Gao Tao could tell Dad was annoyed. ‘But Shengqiang, you’re so capable, besides you live close to the old lady. You’re the right person to take it on.’
‘Capable!’ That somehow made Dad furious. ‘Sodding “capable”! It’s not as if I had any choice in the matter. The country forces me to do things, society forces me to do things.’ He lifted his cup and the three of them clinked and swallowed their maotai. ‘Mother forces me to do things!’
This wasn’t just mouthing off, it was actually true. When Dad was honest with himself, he had to admit that the reason he hadn’t ended up fucking his brains out with the girls of Fifteen Yuan Street, that he was doing well for himself now, that he was a man of some importance in Pingle Town, was all down to Gran forcing him to do things.
‘Good people come from gold rods,’ Gran always said. ‘Spare the rod and spoil the child.’ Dad remembered Gran saying this every time she picked up the cane to beat his bottom with. He remembered perfectly well, though of course he wasn’t going to admit it, that right up until he was in his early twenties and was going out with Mum, when Gran caught him playing mahjong she was quite capable of having his trousers off him and making him lean over the table in his long-johns for a beating.
Gran had always insisted on the proprieties, and if a thing was worth doing, it was worth doing well. All Dad’s life, she had been a refined figure at his side, landing blow upon blow on his long-john-clad buttocks, repeating in level tones: ‘Look, Shengqiang, you must obey me. The whole Xue family depends on you. Don’t blame me for beating you. Spare the rod and spoil the child.’
Nonsense! Dad had spent his whole life muttering angrily to himself. How come you never beat my older brother or sister then?
For over twenty years, Dad had never dared say this out loud but he was pretty clear in his own mind that ever since he’d emerged after nine months in Gran’s womb, he’d been the family whipping boy.
‘Open another for us, Miss!’ Dad bellowed, pointing at the maotai liquor. What was money anyway? Just so much paper! And once it was gone, it was gone. It made Dad very happy to spend the factory’s money.
In Dad’s phone Contacts, his elder brother ‘Duan Zhiming’ came right at the top. This was annoying because, when he looked up a name, ‘Duan Zhiming’ always seemed to catch his eye. Sometimes he just ignored it, other times it filled him with an obscure fury. Once he nearly deleted the surname, so that he could fucking move it from D for Duan to Z for Zhiming. Out of sight, out of mind. But then he didn’t. Having only his brother’s given name in his address book gave the impression they were close. No, he’d bloody well put up with the annoyance of seeing that creep’s name a few more times.
Dad was more respectful about Aunt Coral. He very properly saved her name under ‘Sis’. Every time he called Aunt Coral, he also very properly went somewhere quiet, like the corridor or the balcony, before pressing her number.
The morning of the dinner with Zhong and Gao Tao, he had called her. She answered after a couple of rings with a light: ‘Hello, Shengqiang.’
For as long as Dad could remember, Aunt Coral had always spoken mandarin rather than the dialect of Pingle Town, and for that reason alone, Dad made an effort to speak nicely to Aunt Coral. Her voice came over the phone line, sounding just like she sounded on TV: ‘Has anything happened at home, Shengqiang?’
And Dad moderated his usual bad language and pronounced, in the way he might have reported to the Production Team head: ‘Nothing’s happened. It’s just that Mum’s eightieth birthday’s coming up next month and she’d like everyone to come and celebrate it with her.’
‘Is it really?’ Aunt Coral sounded a bit surprised. ‘I almost forgot! Well, I should come back for that. You set the date and I’ll be there.’
‘Right,’ Dad assented. It was Aunt Coral he was talking to. If it had been his brother, he would have muttered sotto voce: So, Duan Zhiming, you want me to fix the date, book the restaurant, and you just come back to eat and drink once I’ve got everything ready for you!
‘Is everybody well?’ Aunt Coral asked. ‘How is Anqin? And how’s Xingxing been lately?’
‘Everyone’s fine,’ Dad responded, disingenuously.
‘That’s good, then,’ said Aunt Coral.
Aunt Coral’s question effectively stopped up the words on the tip of Dad’s tongue. No one else knew, probably not even Gran, but Dad knew very well, that if it wasn’t for Aunt Coral, he and Mum wouldn’t be together any more. It was Aunt Coral who had dissuaded him from getting a divorce, not Gran.
That was the first time ever that she had given Dad a call of her own volition: ‘Shengqiang, are you really set on divorcing Anqin?’
Dad said nothing. The day before, he had made repeated promises to Gran, but he was still seething with anger.
Aunt Coral understood perfectly well what his silence meant. She sighed, and went on: ‘Shengqiang, I know once this kind of thing happens and you want a divorce, it’s difficult for anyone to dissuade you, but I introduced you to each other and I want to say a couple of things. Will you listen to what your sister says and take it in?’
‘Go ahead, Sis,’ said Dad earnestly and sat down on the sofa, his eyes fixed on the front door at the end of the entrance lobby.
‘For good or ill, Anqin and I worked together for two years and I know she’s a good woman, otherwise I wouldn’t have introduced you. And now that I’ve seen you together I really hate to see you split up. So today I’m going to beg you on her behalf, will you listen to me?’
‘I’m listening, Sis,’ Dad said, his eyes still fixed on the front door.
‘I’m not saying that Anqin’s right or Anqin’s wrong. I’m just saying that if you divorce her, what will you do? What will Xingxing do? Every family’s got to have a home-maker. At your age and with your abilities, it’ll be easy for you to find someone else for yourself, but where will you find another mother for Xingxing? If you find someone your own age, then she’ll come with a past, and that’ll mean all sorts of problems. If you get someone much younger than you, it’ll be quite improper. I’m your sister, I know you, and I know the factory’s doing well and you’re a popular man, so the girls are always after you, but they’re just for fun, you can’t take them home. With a family like ours, how will you find one to take home, Shengqiang?’ Her manner of speaking reminded Dad of seeing his sister on TV. She might as well have been reciting her lines from the autocue.
Dad stared at the apartment door as he listened to his sister. Her words certainly had an impact—after all, she made her living from speaking. Her questions beat on his chest, and he had no answers to them: ‘Where will you find another mother for Xingxing? What will happen to the family?’
However badly his wife had behaved, she really did love the kid.
‘All right, Sis,’ he said finally.
They talked a bit more and, just as Dad finished the call, Mum put the key in the lock and pushed the front door open. She was carrying some vegetables in one hand and, hesitantly, her head bowed and avoiding looking at Dad, she went into the kitchen.
‘Anqin,’ Dad called her back.
‘Huh?’ said Mum, quivering like a frightened rabbit. She turned to look at Dad. Dad had to admit that, even as a middle-aged woman, she had kept her looks, with her pale, oval face adorned with a delicate nose and bright eyes.
‘What are we having for dinner?’ asked Dad, leaning back into the sofa and picking up the TV remote to turn on the TV, just as if this was any old evening.
Years later, Mum finally rallied, stood tall and assumed her rightful place in the family again. Then, finally, home was home, bright and clean, the family was the family, and all was peace and harmony. Dad knew that this was thanks to Aunt Coral’s intervention all those years ago, and he almost didn’t say the words that came to his lips.
‘Mother wants Liu, Xingchen and all of them to come too.’ He’d said it now. There was no taking it back.
‘Is that what she said?’ came Aunt Coral’s voice, down the line.
‘Yes, the old lady wants us all there, with no one missing,’ Dad said. ‘She says she’s going to be eighty and she wants a really lively party.’
‘I understand. So you fix the date as soon as possible.’ And she informed him: ‘A weekend is best. Xingchen and Zhao are busy during the week, and Diandian’s at kindergarten.’
‘Fine, I’ll let you know tomorrow or the next day,’ said Dad quickly. Then: ‘Sis, if this is going to make life difficult for you, I can have a word with Mother.’
‘Forget it,’ said Auntie, cutting him short. ‘Don’t worry about it, Shengqiang. Family is family, no matter what.’
He’d grown up with his sister for nearly twenty years before she married and left home, and Dad was well aware that Aunt Coral was a tough cookie. So he said nothing more and was about to hang up when Aunt Coral suddenly mentioned their brother. ‘And Zhiming? Have you called him?’
‘I know I need to phone him,’ said Dad. ‘Sis, you don’t need to worry about anything.’
He cut the call, then opened his Contacts list again and saw Duan Zhiming at the top of the list. Dad stared at the name for a few seconds. He was on the point of calling when he changed his mind.
Now’s not the right time, he thought to himself. I’ll call tomorrow.
Instead, he scrolled through the Contacts until he came to Zhong’s number. Once he got him on the line, he said: ‘Hey, bro, what about going out to eat?’ … ‘You’re eating right now? Then chuck your chopsticks down and get out of the house!’ … ‘Nonsense! At the Floating Fragrance! It’s on me, I’ll get Zhu Cheng to go and get us three bottles of maotai, let’s have a real booze-up tonight!’ He knew his friend; a drinker like him would never be able to resist the invitation. Zhong did agree, but suggested calling Gao Tao too.
‘All right, all right!’ Dad knew quite well what Zhong was up to; Gao Tao was counting on his advertising company getting the contract from the chilli bean paste factory next year, and was constantly on the phone and sending gifts. This had been going on for two weeks. Zhong and Gao Tao were in-laws, and Zhong was keen to give Gao a helping hand by getting him and Dad together.
‘The three of us haven’t seen each other for ages, let’s have a good night out!’ Dad said into the phone, though what he was really thinking was: Gao Tao’s business is chicken feed. He’s got a nerve to call it an advertising company and want to do business with me!
‘I’ll be back drunk as a skunk! Drunk as a skunk!’’ said Dad, as he walked out of the front door of the apartment.
That evening, as Dad, Gao and Zhong were on the third bottle of maotai, and Dad sat at the table, breathing heavily and imagining their waitress turning into a fairy before his very eyes, his phone suddenly rang.
It was nearly 11 o’clock at night. ‘Is that your old lady wanting you home?’ asked Zhong, startled.
‘Her?!’ Dad grunted, but he picked up the phone anyway.
He could see the name ‘Zhong’ clearly on the screen. Jasmine. Dad sneaked a look at his friend and went out into the corridor, then took the call. ‘It’s the middle of the night,’ he slurred. ‘Has someone died?’
He was startled at his own words. Perhaps something had happened to Gran? He leaned against the wall, so scared at the thought that he stopped listening to Jasmine. Once Gran died, the family would fall apart at the seams. How would he ever manage to pick up the pieces? He was filled with gut-wrenching fear.
He pulled himself together and gathered that nothing major had happened. Jasmine had just got some foolish fancy into her head and was tearfully begging him to go over.
‘I’m out drinking, how can I?’ Dad attempted to placate his ‘stupid cow’ but recently she’d been seized by strange fancies and was getting a bit uppity.
‘I don’t care! You’ve got to come now!’ came her voice down the phone.
‘Really, I can’t. I’ll come tomorrow first thing, OK?’ Dad carried on talking gently into the phone. Jasmine really was too childish, he thought to himself. Using all these words like ‘got to’ and ‘don’t care’? Who’d been getting her into bad habits?
‘No! I want you here now!’ Jasmine surprised him by sounding distinctly unfriendly. Dad leant against the wall and scrutinized a piece of the wallpaper which was curling up at one corner on the wall opposite. This was a scene he was extraordinarily familiar with. It was just like every time Gran phoned him up.
The thought made him furious. A young girl like Jasmine making a scene and harassing him like this! And to think that when he first saw her, she was a maroon-uniformed slip of a girl in Longteng Telecoms City, bowing demurely and saying Yes Sir, No Sir to the customers.
Choked by anger and phlegm, Dad was about to spit both out when he heard Jasmine say: ‘If you don’t come now, I’m going downstairs to your mother’s apartment and I’m going to knock on her door. Just you see if I don’t! I’m going to get her out of bed and tell her everything about you and me. We’ll see what she says then!’
Dad sagged, as if the hand brake had been slammed on when he was about to have sex. He was getting older, it wasn’t surprising that sometimes all the fire went out of him.
He went back into the side-room to face the inevitable ribbing from Gao and Zhong: ‘His fire alarm’s gone off. He’s got to go and douse the flames!’
All Dad could do was to grab their waitress around the waist and bellow: ‘Take me to pay the bill!’
The girl made a token effort to push his arm away: ‘Mr Gao’s already paid it, Sir!’
Even though he’d expected this, Dad gave a polite exclamation of surprise. While he was at it, he gave the waitress’s waist a pinch or two and discovered she was wearing tights, above which a roll of fat protruded. He kneaded it between his fingers, and a sudden rush of affection for her.
Now he was in the mood, Dad decided to make it a long night and rushed off to Cornucopia Court to indulge in amorous activities with Jasmine. He had to. Otherwise, he’d wake up furious in the middle of the night and wonder how he was ever going to get out of this mess.
He was keenly aware that he wasn’t giving his best performance because he was so drunk. All the same, Jasmine moaned and groaned happily until Dad hushed her: ‘Keep your voice down. It’s the middle of the night.’ From underneath, Jasmine looked up at him: ‘What’s up? Who are you afraid will hear?’
Dad gave her a couple of savage thrusts. He felt extremely aggrieved. It was hard just being human, let alone being a man. It was ever thus. He was one of the workhorses of this life, always needed to do the hard graft. He was fated to be the doormat, working himself to the bone to satisfy his mistress, and so give his old mother a good night’s sleep. Saints and sages were always lonely and misunderstood, always put upon, always working.
Tomorrow morning … Dad thought to himself as he made love to Jasmine Zhong for the last time. Tomorrow morning I’ll get things sorted out, I’ll give my brother a call, and settle down to arranging Mum’s eightieth birthday party. Let’s get it sorted …