- Translated by
- Michelle Deeter
Shi Yu, a dissatisfied housewife, and Zhu Xiyan, a young beautician, cross paths against the backdrop of a rapidly transforming Shenzhen in this short story by Wu Jun. While initially dismissive of Zhu Xiyan, Shi Yu is intrigued by the younger woman’s optimism and begins to warm to her – with unexpected consequences.
Shi Yu changed into a pink slip then lay down on the massage table. She hadn’t seen Zhu Xiyan this time. When she closed her eyes, the beauty treatment finally began. Just as the beautician was preparing the massage oil, Shi Yu felt a vibration on her right, followed by a song wafting out.
“Gazing at the rising moon…” Shi Yu rushed to answer the phone before the moon could reach its peak. It was the Environmental Protection Society. Shi Yu realised sadly that those were the only calls she expected that year. There was a time when everyone had made eyes at her and told her their news, but that was over now.
Shi Yu had been notified about the Environmental Protection Society meeting two weeks ago, but she had forgotten about it. She wordlessly communicated to the beautician not to make a sound, then pulled herself together and said “I’m on my way! I’m nearly there, don’t worry. Don’t wait, start without me!”
She turned over and got off the bed before she had finished speaking. She got dressed, ignoring the half-open door. Then she grabbed her expensive glasses from the shelf and put them on. As she left, she turned to fix her hair and practise a smile in the mirror. Downstairs, she didn’t look up as she said, “Something’s come up so I have to go. Save my spot, I’ll be back soon!” She didn't even feel a twinge of guilt about her attitude. It wasn’t an act. She had tried to book many times before, and the reply had always been that they were too busy, that they only had a few girls working there, that they were fully booked. Try again another time. We’ll let you know when we can fit you in. What bad luck that this should happen when her turn had finally come around.
Two hours later, Shi Yu was back on the massage bed. The Environmental Protection Society meeting had finished ages ago, but there were building works for the metro everywhere. Towering cranes were dotted over the roads like pins in a map that just made people lose their way. The roads there and back were jammed, so she lost time taking a detour. They hadn’t put up road signs and she went down several dead ends. At first she couldn't reverse, and she sweated profusely for a moment as she tried to back out.
She was late in the end, but luckily no one waited for her at that kind of meeting. The last item on the agenda was putting forward ideas. She had arrived late, so she didn’t say anything. She might otherwise have proposed that the city of Shenzhen stop renovating the metro. Things weren’t bad before the metro. Now it was a nuisance and it was damaging the environment and the original landscape. Shenzhen is an unmissable landmark in the progress of Chinese civilisation as well as an essential stopping point for people of distinction. Why mess that up? Seeing everyone else speaking out confidently, she was too embarrassed to interrupt, and so when it was time for her to say her piece, all she could muster was that she had no opinion.
At the end of the meeting, a few women stuffing imported grapes into their mouths greeted her. They were friendly but all they talked about was how pretty everyone looked, how their clothes suited them, and where they had bought them from.
Men nodded and waved at her from across the room. They gathered up their documents and left one after another. One of them, Yu Zhong, stared at her longingly, waiting to say something. Shi Yu noticed but didn’t want to go over. He was fat and had some sort of eye problem. He always stared at her. He liked talking about politics and the latest hot topics of conversation. Yu Zhong asked her out to dinner every time there was a meeting. Shi Yu hung back to avoid him and watched as everyone got into their cars or got lifts one by one, so in the end she had to drive back herself. As she started the engine, Shi Yu looked back at the building. Damn it! She berated herself and hit the gas.
There had been over two dozen of these meetings. They rented a different room every time, so Shi Yu had visited quite a few hotel and office meeting rooms. In her opinion, most of the participants had nothing better to do. They were either retired support personnel or hung around because they were unemployed like her. The fact that they rented meeting rooms made her think that none of them actually cared about the environment, or that they had no idea about real conservation. Most of the attendees just complained and made cynical comments about the environment. Despite this fact, very few people ever missed a meeting. Once, Shi Yu was put in charge of taking photographs. She did a few rounds of the room to take photos of people giving speeches. When she got back to her seat and looked at the pictures, she was dismayed. Everyone, even those sitting round the rostrum, was doodling stick figures or practising their signatures instead of taking notes.
Shi Yu was determined not to go again after that, but when they contacted her for the next meeting she couldn’t resist. She berated herself again as she turned onto the overpass. Before they had started work on the metro, she could take this main road all the way to her door and be home in under fifteen minutes.
Perhaps the argument was bound to happen. The same beautician was waiting for her. Her smile wasn’t as friendly as before, though. Clearly Shi Yu had held her up and made her lose money.
“You’re back,” she said with a blank expression, and went upstairs. Shi Yu didn’t look at her. She put on a pair of pink slippers and followed her up the narrow staircase into the room from before, then got undressed again and lay down. She was really tired this time and couldn’t keep her eyes open. She heard the sound of the face mask being mixed together and screwed her eyes shut. Last time, the face cream had got into her eyes and they had gone all red. She’d had a hard time eating dinner that evening because she felt like the women at the table were all staring at her. One of them even asked her if she was okay, as though to draw attention to the fact that Shi Yu had been crying.
Some went in her eyes again this time. And this was just the start. Shi Yu didn’t have any dinner plans that evening so she kept quiet. She would just wear her pyjamas or even an old vest and shorts she had had since before she was married, and sit in front of the television and eat as much as she wanted. In any case, no one cared what she did so she could always just pay to lose weight later. Shi Yu was used to whiling away the time like that. She was very rational when it came to beauty treatments and knew that they were pretty pointless. If she slept badly or got depressed, then everything would go down the drain and she would be back at square one.
When Shi Yu was a teacher, she once heard some of her male colleagues talking about a well-known female politician, who was a member of the People’s Political Consultative Committee. One of her colleagues and this woman had been on the same flight. He said that when she woke up she looked just like his grandmother, with big bags under her eyes and more than a few white hairs. The woman didn’t look anything like she usually did on TV, but everyone goes to a beauty salon and gets a makeover before they go on. In the end, he quietly put away the autograph book he had got out and left. On hearing this, Shi Yu walked up and said “You lot are too harsh. You’ve just downloaded her MP3 and now you’re criticising her.” The woman had sent it to the school as a present for Teachers’ Day.
Her colleagues smiled. “You’re right. But you needn’t worry, you’re still young and beautiful!” Shi Yu smiled in spite of herself, but she felt upset. So that’s what men think of women, then. From then on, she understood that everyone gets old, and having beauty treatments and putting on makeup are just ways to lie to yourself. Of course, sometimes you’ve got to lie to yourself.
Shi Yu moved even though the face mask was only half on. She wasn’t happy. The beautician had clearly skipped the massage part of the treatment. She might have just forgotten, or perhaps she had done it deliberately to punish Shi Yu for wasting two hours of her time. This beauty salon was very successful. The beautician noticed that Shi Yu wasn’t asleep and asked whether she had heard of French-made shapewear.
The beautician went on about on the benefits of wearing such underwear, and added that a single pair cost 1900 yuan. From behind the mask, Shi Yu curled her lip.
“1900 yuan! Only an idiot would buy that. It’s clearly a pyramid scheme!”
Shi Yu peered through narrowed eyes and saw that the beautician was standing by her head and glaring at her. Shi Yu didn’t like her and tried to avoid looking at her. She had tried to book this appointment three times. The previous two times, they had said that they didn’t have any spaces available. Their response on the phone was very thorough. “Lots of people are off on Saturdays and Sundays. People pay a lot of money for appointments at the weekend. They’re all diamond level members who want the full treatment.”
The third time, Shi Yu went to the salon in person. She took no notice of the employee offering her water and walked up to the reception desk and said, “I came to your establishment two years ago, you know. Not to get a treatment though. I was carrying out an inspection.” It was true. She and members of the Environmental Protection Society had taken journalists there to look into the pollution from beauty salons. Shi Yu noticed that, upon hearing this, the employees still looked just as indifferent. The owner sitting nearby looked up and smiled politely but then went straight back to looking over the accounts. No one paid any attention to what Shi Yu had said. To business owners, if you’re not a customer, you’re nobody.
Shi Yu was from Chaozhou, a notoriously conservative place. She had never left Guangdong province so she was a real local. Shi Yu had played musical instruments and studied at the College of Music Affiliated School when she was young. She later gave it up but her personality and way of thinking had changed completely. When she quit her job, everyone said that she had finally got some guts. It might have only been a village-run school, but there was always a chance of becoming a state teacher one day. But she didn’t just think, she knew that her personality was incompatible with that profession. Besides, teaching graduating classes was tiring.
Shi Yu had heard that they were laying people off, but she didn’t mind. She knew what men liked. She knew that they liked her style, which was something that other local girls didn’t have. A rich man and a pretty woman make for a perfect couple, so she might as well just go home and be a full-time housewife. Her decision was met with applause, of course. She was totally unlike a normal Guangdong girl, especially one from Chaozhou. Even the director of the board said so, but she hadn’t even lasted a year there. She regretted it. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have got mixed up with the Environmental Protection Society. When Shi Yu thought about how she used to be someone of importance, she hated herself and her husband. She still blamed him for not stopping her. Of course, she couldn’t tell him that she hated him, but she had to admit it to herself. She wanted to get in shape and have kids. She used to live life to the full and her body had paid the price. Fortunately, her husband wasn’t bothered. His ex-wife had given him two children, which made Shi Yu want to have a child of her own even more, to put their minds at ease. But it seemed that the more she wanted one, the less inclined the heavens were to help her.
When the beautician started to peddle the salon’s 5000 yuan gold loyalty card, Shi Yu suddenly sat up and shouted “Are you done?”
The masseuse jumped but swiftly regained her composure. “Sorry, I didn’t know you were awake.”
“Why talk to me if you thought I was asleep, then? You lot are so desperate for commission that you’re deliberately stopping me from sleeping.”
It was clear that the beautician had been in similar situations before. She hurried over to get the water and moved everything out of the way, as though to make room for her client’s anger. She stood in the doorway and watched as Shi Yu peeled the face mask off her face bit by bit, even though it hadn’t dried completely, and threw it on the floor.
“I’m sorry, Miss Shi.”
“Don’t call me Miss. I’m going to get changed, so get out. Go downstairs and get me my money back. I didn’t want to have to do this, you know.” She pointed at the green mould covering the walls and went on. “Doing facials, washing feet, and cooking all in the same room is really unhygienic and violates health and safety regulations. A few days ago there was water dripping off the ceiling, but it turns out it wasn’t water – it was oil. It dirtied my clothes. Hurry up and settle up and give me my money back. I’m never coming back here!”
The beautician was dumbfounded. She wanted to explain herself but didn’t know what to say so she simply left. Zhu Xiyan came in as Shi Yu was straightening her trouser hems.
“Your breasts are so big, Miss! It’s enough to make a girl jealous,” she said, beaming.
Shi Yu stood up straight and saw a very young woman. She was wearing a uniform too, but she was so short and the clothes so long that they trailed under her feet. Shi Yu was still furious. She was about to go downstairs and argue with the owner. Her husband had originally bought a flat in the area so as to avoid friends, acquaintances, and his ex-wife. There wasn't a single place around there to have fun. To make matters worse, the area around the flat had turned into a building site just a few days after they had moved, and the noise stopped them sleeping.
Later on they were supposedly carrying out repairs on the metro, and prices immediately skyrocketed. Shi Yu was happy for a few days because she thought that her husband really had thought ahead by becoming an engineer. She stopped complaining and in the evenings made soup for him as a way to make amends. After all, in the past she had criticised him a lot, mostly because they lived too far from the city centre. The cinema was over half an hour’s drive away. Besides, she felt uncomfortable frequenting the same markets as those migrant worker girls. Were it not for the fact that this was the only beauty salon in this remote part of town, she would never have come, or at least she wouldn’t get so worked up about it.
Zhu Xiyan stepped forwards and removed a piece of the face mask that Shi Yu hadn’t wiped off her face. She showed it to Shi Yu.
“Look, all the yellow qi has been drained out.”
Shi Yu had lost her temper before and now she didn’t know what to say. Zhu Xiyan looked at her and laughed.
“Miss, go ahead and lie down. I’m going to get some ointment for you that eliminates yellow qi and can even lighten those blemishes.” She pointed to Shi Yu’s face. Shi Yu hesitated, and Zhu Xiyan handed her some new clothes, saying, “Put this on, it suits your figure. Get changed and I’ll go and get the products.”
Zhu Xiyan came back carrying an aromatherapy lamp. She turned off the main light then lit the lamp. Shi Yu didn’t know whether it was the aromatherapy, or because she was very tired, but she quickly fell into a deep sleep. She slept until after seven o’clock in the evening, when everyone was watching the Hong Kong news on TV. It was very loud and the sound came in from the street. They said that the Hong Kong stocks had fallen sharply, and that a second global financial crisis could be imminent. Obama was concerned about the governor of the People’s Bank of China, Zhou Xiaochuan’s financial adjustment policies.
She went to the beauty salon a second time five days later. Zhu Xiyan told Shi Yu her name, and that she was born in 1983. She asked Shi Yu if she was born in the eighties too.
“Born in the eighties! You must be joking. I’m ten years older than you. Did your boss tell you to say that?”
Zhu Xiyan laughed and replied, “She didn’t. She just does the accounts and looks after her children. She doesn’t tell us anything, Miss.”
Then she said that she was Hunanese and to help Shi Yu remember, she added that it was where there had been a terrible blizzard the year before. “I’m sure you donated money. Thank you on behalf of my family.”
Shi Yu smiled and asked, “Were you in your hometown at the time?”
“No, I was in Harbin then,” said Zhu Xiyan offhandedly.
“Where? Harbin – isn’t that in the northeast?” asked Shi Yu with surprise.
“Yes, I’d found a job and the company sent me there to promote beauty products. It’s so cold there, I got frostbite on my hands and feet.” To illustrate her point, she put her left hand in front of Shi Yu’s face. Shi Yu saw a slender palm.
“You’ve been through a lot.” Shi Yu felt that this young girl had had a difficult youth.
“Not really. The people there are really nice, and the food is great. We don’t get to eat anything tasty at home. And the ice sculptures are like something from a fairy tale.”
Shi Yu stared at Zhu Xiyan and said, “You don’t get those in your hometown and it doesn’t snow there. So how come there was a blizzard?”
“It wasn’t in my hometown. There was a blizzard though, but we don't have those lovely ice sculptures. I’m from a small village, and it’s just as cold inside the house as it is outside. The winters are torture.”
“So you came to the south, because the climate is warmer and better for your health.” Shi Yu felt satisfied with her explanation.
“Actually, no. I came here with my boyfriend. He was the best thing about going to Harbin. I met up with his sister and that’s how I met him.”
“How come you already have a boyfriend at such a young age?” Shi Yu feigned surprise. She imagined some stupid great hulk of a man, or a skinny, shrivelled up biker type.
“I’m not that young. Lots of my classmates already have children!”
“Is he in Guangdong too?” Shi Yu asked indifferently.
“He’s an engineer working on Metro Line Five, actually.” She laughed slightly awkwardly.
Shi Yu laughed too, and she thought that the girl must be rather uneducated because she clearly didn’t even know what an engineer was. Seeing how happy Zhu Xiyan looked, Shi Yu thought to herself that from afar those workmen looked rather like locusts in their identical yellow uniforms and hats.
That evening, Shi Yu told her husband what had happened at the beauty salon.
“An engineer! Unless she’s exaggerating to show off, she doesn’t know what an engineer even is!” Shi Yu noticed that her husband hadn’t reacted and added, “They follow the metro. They go wherever they build the metro.”
Shi Yu thought about how she had cursed herself earlier. The metro had been extended right up to her door, and now every time she went home she had to hunt for a parking space. The people on the building site made a lot of noise talking and laughing as they got off work, and even made a racket when they were queueing to shower.
“The builders of Shenzhen.” That was the kind of headline she saw in the Shenzhen Special Zone Daily.
“It must be hard on the building site. I’ve seen them eating huddled together and it looked like there was nothing in their bowls but a few vegetables,” she said to Zhu Xiyan. She had gone to complain in the name of the Environmental Protection Society’s campaign against noise pollution.
“It’s not that bad at all! The food is really good. Sometimes I even go and eat there. When I’m off work, I sometimes cook for my boyfriend and he shares the food with his friends. They're always in a good mood, which cheers me up too. In any case, where his metro goes, I go too. See, you even have a beauty salon in this backwater. As long as there’s a beauty salon, I can put food on the table, and my boyfriend can enjoy the soup and spicy fish heads I make for him. He’s very fussy about fish – it has to be fresh.”
“Right, right…” Shi Yu laughed and said, “How about this. Why don’t you take me with you one day and show me your house.”
Shi Yu thought that Zhu Xiyan was a very optimistic girl. She had so little to eat she was lean and haggard, and yet she still said that her life was easy. Shi Yu had noticed that, to save money, Zhu Xiyan bought the cheapest packed lunches from the corner shop next door. When she thought of that shabby little house on the construction site, Shi Yu even felt a twinge of sadness. It had been a long time since she had felt sympathy towards anyone, so she was happy to find that she felt something. She asked Zhu Xiyan if her life had been hard, seeing as she had left home at such a young age to work, and her family was surely too poor to pay school fees. Shi Yu kept trying to find something that would make Zhu Xiyan aware of her plight, but the girl was too dim-witted to realise.
Zhu Xiyan laughed. “We might have been poor, but if I had wanted to study, I could have done. I just didn’t want to.”
Shi Yu suggested getting a new loyalty card despite having failed to go through with it several times. She proposed that one requirement be that Zhu Xiyan do all her treatments. The owner was very happy and said, “Okay, great. No problem. This private room will be reserved for you. There’s a lot of special offers at the moment. We’re giving away a package that lets you bring a friend to have their feet done, hair washed, and get a massage.”
Shi Yu slept badly and refused to be in the same room as other people. She particularly didn't want to see other women getting changed, or for others to see her. Besides, she had some odd habits, like the fact that she didn't like music. Whenever she walked and in heard that piano music, she would frown and tell them to turn it off. To her, listening to music in such a vile setting was akin to blasphemy.
“Some clients like it and tell us to put it on,” said an employee in response.
“They like it? They’re just putting on airs. Do you like listening to piano music whilst you’re having a pedicure or working out? It’s torture! Those pretentious yuppies,” Shi Yu grumbled and went upstairs.
“You’ve got such a great figure, Miss! You’re right not to let them see, they’d just die of jealousy. You’ve got such big breasts and a tiny waist! If those women see, they’ll hate themselves. Even I’m jealous.”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Shi Yu smiled to herself. So she still had her assets. She had relied on her enviable figure to create quite a few opportunities for herself that year. She’d also snatched a husband from someone else’s clutches – and not just any old husband. A rich one. He wasn’t as good-looking or as cultured as Shi Yu, but that didn’t matter. She didn’t want culture or looks. She wanted money. Shi Yu felt that, apart from the fact that they had been married for a few years and still hadn’t had children, her life was pretty much perfect.
“You’re not so bad yourself,” said Shi Yu to console Zhu Xiyan. “You’re dainty and delicate.” She felt a pang of sympathy for the girl before her as she spoke. She couldn’t actually think of a single nice thing to say. Zhu Xiyan was thin and sallow, and had a few blemishes under her eyes. Her large, lively eyes were obscured by her overly long fringe. Shi Yu started to feel sorry for this girl, who really didn’t have any assets to speak of apart from her way with words and her ability to put people at ease when she spoke.
However, she was a bit presumptuous. Once, Shi Yu answered the phone whilst lying on the massage bed. It was the Environmental Protection Society again. Shi Yu barely said a word because she didn’t want them to think that she did nothing all day. Zhu Xiyan suddenly bent down and spoke into the phone.
“She doesn’t have time for this, she’s got a meeting.”
At first, Shi Yu was indignant. She felt that Zhu Xiyan was too impudent and wilful. She had even repeated dirty jokes that other clients had told her. It was as though she thought of Shi Yu as a friend, and not a client.
“Miss, if it were something important, they wouldn’t put on airs like that. Besides, you’re not like them.” Shi Yu didn’t say anything, but she closed her eyes and thought that Zhu Xiyan was actually cute and unpretentious. People like that are few and far between these days. The people from the Environmental Protection Society always assumed airs as though their meetings were earth-shatteringly important. Shi Yu imagined their expressions and lay back down and smiled. She was amazed that Zhu Xiyan had hit the nail on the head. It had been a long time since she had felt so happy. She’s right, those people love putting on an act, she thought.
It seemed that wisdom could be found even amongst the least cultured people. Sometimes they could even come out with really insightful statements. Shi Yu discovered for herself that one can be happy and uneducated, and wanted to tell her husband about what she had learnt. Of course, she was also trying to flatter him, as he had worked hard to make a living since he was a young man and had never attended school. He was coarse and self-abasing. Shi Yu just happened to dislike poor and pedantic scholarly types. Up until now, only money had held any attraction for her. Engineers can earn a lot of money. He also got some work from the metro works on his doorstep.
Zhu Xiyan pretended to be angry and said, “Miss, I wish I had a camera to record the face you just made.”
Shi Yu gave a start. “What? Record what?”
“To film your ugly face! Your facial expression changed so much when you were speaking to them, I thought I’d have to re-apply your face mask.”
Shi Yu knew she was joking, so she replied, “Go ahead and film me, I’ll wait.” She thought it was funny. It was the kind of joke she would never make.
Shi Yu promptly fell asleep again. Zhu Xiyan still had that rather angry look on her face. She’s funny, thought Shi Yu. She oversteps sometimes, but she’s very interesting indeed.
She thought about the Environmental Protection Society again before she fell asleep. What kind of organisation were they anyway? They were all bores who took themselves far too seriously. Shi Yu felt like she alone saw them for what they really were. They had never bothered to research the facts. They didn’t even discuss stuff they’d found online – they argued about agenda items from two meetings ago until they were blue in the face. She filled out the form for the membership card as she got changed. The gold card was 6800 yuan.
“The diamond card is over 20,000 yuan. You can bring your husband along for a free hair and face wash,” Zhu Xiyan offered.
“Oh, I talked to him about it, but he said that this place was just for women and there’s too much female qi here, so he didn’t want to come,” Shi Yu replied gratefully.
“Too much female qi?! What’s that about? That’s disrespectful.” Zhu Xiyan pouted and continued. “But you Guangdong folk are like that. Miss, your handwriting is so nice. Just now, another client said so too.”
“It’s alright, I suppose,” Shi Yu replied indifferently. She felt very pleased with herself. Her husband had complimented her penmanship too. She still knew how to write beautifully on a blackboard.
Once, Zhu Xiyan left to answer her phone when she was in the middle of doing Shi Yu’s nails. The owner came over to help, and, embarrassed, said, “Looks like you’re too easy on her. That won’t do – she’ll get spoilt.”
“It’s okay. She’s got a date.”
“Right, but you having to wait around for her is a step too far. She should be grateful for what she’s got.”
When she went downstairs, Shi Yu saw a tall man wearing glasses standing with Zhu Xiyan in the doorway. It was pouring with rain, and the droplets drummed against the eaves. There was an advert for the beauty salon behind them. Zhu Xiyan looked different. She smiled at Shi Yu, then turned around to face the man again and continued talking. Shi Yu noticed that he was over a head taller than Zhu Xiyan. He was only about three years younger than Shi Yu. So Zhu Xiyan had told the truth about her boyfriend.
He really had been to university, and he really was an engineer. Shi Yu was reminded of the old school campus. When she was a teacher, she had paid close attention to guys like him, so he felt familiar. On the way home, Shi Yu wondered what he saw in Zhu Xiyan, especially as an engineering graduate.
Shi Yu never discussed love and marriage or anything like that with Zhu Xiyan again after that. She had suddenly lost interest. Zhu Xiyan never brought it up either. Once, as she was leaving, Shi Yu was pleased to see that Zhu Xiyan was crying. She went over to comfort her only to find that Zhu Xiyan’s boyfriend’s family had agreed to their engagement. She was crying tears of joy.
It was autumn when Zhu Xiyan came to Shi Yu’s house to look after her. Shi Yu had had another miscarriage. She was still weak and didn’t want to lift a finger. She wouldn’t even cook and always ordered food in instead. Zhu Xiyan was dripping with sweat and looked as though she had had to make two journeys to bring everything over.
“I’ll give you another ten yuan.”
“Don’t worry, they’ve already paid me.” If it wasn’t convenient for the clients to come in, or if they requested it, the salon would send someone over to them. The owner had gone with her the first time to help her carry everything. She sighed. “It’s bad for business.”
Shi Yu and Zhu Xiyan had run out of things to talk about. If they did talk, it was often just one of them carrying the conversation. Shi Yu liked talking about the past, about how songs used to be better written, and people used to care about each other. Not like now. Now people would delete someone’s number if they hadn’t been in touch for a few days.
Zhu Xiyan only cared about the metro. She talked about it at length. “I don’t know if you know this, but once we were working on the metro at Liantian village by Luohu Lake and scared the villagers, because they thought we were going to dig up their ancestors’ graves. They came out on the road with kitchen knives ready to fight. Luckily our people were used to that sort of thing, so they sent people over to explain. It was fine in the end. We actually did dig up their ancestral graves after all that but when we found the bones no one dared say anything.”
Sometimes Zhu Xiyan would do a few chores around the house once she had finished giving Shi Yu a massage. She would help Shi Yu mop the floor, clear up the stuff on the sofa, or take the rubbish out. Shi Yu always wanted to give her something as thanks. Sometimes it would be a bottle of imported spirits that cost fifty yuan. On other occasions she would give her old clothes.
“How come I’ve never seen you wear the clothes I gave you? Don't you like them?”
“I do, but I have to wear my uniform when I’m on the clock.” Shi Yu didn’t say anything, but she had seen other employees wearing normal clothes at work. Another time, Shi Yu gave Zhu Xiyan an old painting for the house. It was a present she had been given years ago, before she was married. It had two angelic children on it, a boy and a girl. Zhu Xiyan said she liked it, but Shi Yu found it in the rubbish the next day.
Uncultured people are all the same; they don’t appreciate nice things, Shi Yu thought to herself. She hesitated over whether to take it out, then saw that her name was written on it. She didn’t feel so angry after that, because it’s quite bad to give someone something that has your own name on it.
Shi Yu noticed that Zhu Xiyan was working hard so she told her to help herself to the ice cream in the freezer. As Shi Yu drank her coffee, Zhu Xiyan sat next to her wolfing down ice cream.
“Here, drink something. That stuff will make you fat if you’re not careful.” Shi Yu gestured at the bowl of soup. She made it for her husband but always ate it before he got home.
“Who cares? My mum complains that I’m too thin. Parents always worry over nothing. My boyfriend says so too. He says that he’d still love me if I were a fat pig. And you’ve got to have some fat on you to breastfeed.”
“That’s true, parents do worry over nothing. You know, when my husband and I got married, my mum said that I was a homewrecker. Old people are so old-fashioned. They don’t realise that loveless marriages are what’s truly shameful. Homewrecker, huh! You should have seen his first wife. She was common as muck. Hadn’t even been to primary school and she was so fat.” Shi Yu measured out twice her size with her hands. It was the first time Shi Yu had ever talked about it to anyone. She had been repressing it for so long.
“What do you do for a living, Miss?” Zhu Xiyan changed the subject. The other girls from the salon always asked the same question when they had nothing to say, but Shi Yu brushed them off and wouldn’t even tell them her name.
Zhu Xiyan thought long and hard before replying. “You’re a doctor or a teacher.” Shi Yu was surprised, but not unpleasantly so. At the very least, that meant that she seemed cultured.
“Why a teacher? Do I seem very strict?” Shi Yu pretended to be cross.
“No, no,” Zhu Xiyan said hurriedly. “It’s because you make me turn the music off. Teachers do that too. It’s just white collar office workers who always say that they want to listen to Beethoven or something. It’s like they just come to show off, not to get a beauty treatment. You’re not a show-off, Miss.”
Shi Yu gasped. She had never thought that Zhu Xiyan could be so perceptive. That and the business with the painting made Shi Yu think that Zhu Xiyan was completely unlike other girls, and that she shouldn’t be underestimated.
Zhu Xiyan brought the conversation around to the metro again.
“Once, we extended the metro to a fishing village. The fishermen had just come back from sea. When they saw that the village didn’t look the same as when they had left, their faces dropped. They looked like sad little orphans. But when they found out that they would get good money for the requisitioned land, they were so happy. Otherwise, the land was useless. It was neither sea water nor fresh water and it stank. Now it’s great, they’re rich, and they can buy a new house and give some money to their kids so they can get married and still have some left over for their old age.”
Shi Yu’s husband came home earlier than expected as she was talking. Shi Yu smiled and stood up. She introduced him to Zhu Xiyan in the fashionable way. “This is my ex-boyfriend.”
Zhu Xiyan just nodded and didn’t get up. She looked out of the window and shovelled ice cream into her mouth. Shi Yu’s husband blushed. Having a stranger in his house was so unusual. He turned to Shi Yu. “I came back to get some clothes. I’m going away on a business trip for a few days.”
Once, when Shi Yu couldn’t sleep, she nudged her husband awake. “Isn’t it weird? She looks like that, she never even finished middle school and her boyfriend is an engineering graduate from a good university.”
The argument happened one afternoon. At first, she didn’t think anything of it when she saw Zhu Xiyan’s bridal photos. She heard another beautician talking about it. Zhu Xiyan had got a hefty commission when Shi Yu got her gold card.
“How much did this photoshoot cost?”
When Shi Yu got married, she didn’t even wear a wedding dress. She felt a little despondent.
“4800 yuan, she said so herself,” said the owner. “And some of the other clients chipped in.”
Shi Yu was furious. She felt as though Zhu Xiyan had tricked her. I thought she was from the countryside and had given up her chance to go to school so that her younger brothers could go instead. I thought her whole family was dependent on her. I only got the gold card because I felt sorry for her, so that she could afford to put food on the table. Little did I know that she would spend it on a bridal photo shoot.
She wasn’t going to make a complaint, but all of a sudden she felt as though she’d been deceived. The situation was past saving when she found her husband and Zhu Xiyan in bed together. She decided to track down Zhu Xiyan to talk things through and try to salvage what remained of her dignity. Even if he left her, she didn't want to seem like a spurned woman. She had arranged to meet Yu Zhong from the Environmental Protection Society before she saw Zhu Xiyan. Not ten minutes into the date, he asked her to lend him some money. She even had to pay for the coffee. Shi Yu felt like she was on the verge of collapse.
“Seeing as you’re happy, you can keep him,” Shi Yu told Zhu Xiyan. “I don't want him anymore. I haven’t wanted him for a while. I quit my job for him. I put my heart and soul into being a good housewife for him and I still couldn’t hold onto him. That’s all in the past, of course. I don’t care about him anymore. What hurt is that you didn’t just take my money. You had to do this to me, too.” Shi Yu didn’t want to seem pathetic, but she couldn't help saying it.
Zhu Xiyan was like a different person in normal clothes. She laughed cruelly and said, “Of course I took a cut. I’d been pushing it for so long and sucking up to you and all of that costs money. The salon calculates our cut by the second. You keep your husband. I don’t want your leftovers. I only slept with him for his money.”
Shi Yu felt herself tearing up, but as soon as she saw Zhu Xiyan’s completely indifferent expression, she smiled coldly instead and said, “Don’t be so modest. You make a great couple. You’re perfect for each other!”
Zhu Xiyan got straight to the point. “Listen, if I hadn’t taken the money then someone else would. If you hadn't gone to the salon to complain, and lost me a big chunk of my money, I wouldn’t have gone after him. I can’t stand people who make a bit of money and then think they’re amazing.”
“You can’t stand them? You're just as bad.” Shi Yu said bitingly.
Zhu Xiyan looked away. “Anyway, it was just to make money. I wouldn't marry just anyone though. My dream was to find someone cultured. I want him to keep face and set his mind at ease so that he can repair the metro. Oh, I forgot to tell you! I’m pregnant. It’s my boyfriend’s, of course. I want my son to study hard and become an engineer when he grows up, not a migrant worker. We’ll take him back to Shenzhen to see the metro, and he’ll be so proud of us. I know he will.”
The builders packed up and left in the middle of the night. There had been complaints about the noise so they laid down strict rules and left quietly. Most of the neighbours didn’t even wake up. It wasn’t until Shi Yu went to the market after breakfast the next morning that she saw the road. Apart from the metro exit bulging out onto the road, it looked exactly the way it had the year before.