By: Lu Min
Translated by: Helen Wang
Lu Min’s short stories and novels have won her accolades and prizes, and the honour of being the youngest vice-chair of the Jiangsu Writers Association. She has also been selected by Unitas as one of its “20 Under 40” Sinophone authors.
Nanjing is an old city. It was the capital city for six dynasties, and there are many little lanes and place-names from the old times. I was walking in one of the little lanes one day when the story of Xie Bomao came to me. I wanted to convey a city resident’s loss of bearings as the old lanes and place-names of his city disappear around him, and an inexplicable need to search comes over him. So I created this man with an honourable reputation, and then mercilessly let him wither and die.
This is the sad tale of Li Fu, model worker turned laughing stock. The world is changing around him, and he must adapt. But he doesn’t know how to, and the longer he persists with his tried-and-trusted ways, the more ridiculous he looks. Lu Min creates characters who are clinging on to their dignity, and writes about them with sympathy and understanding, and a wicked sense of humour. At times, her writing reminds me of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian and other novels by Marina Lewycka.
This translation was first published in Chinese Arts and Letters, vol. 1, no. 2, Autumn 2014. It is reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor, Yang Haocheng. Chinese Arts and Lettters is a biannual, based in the School of Foreign Languages and Cultures of Nanjing Normal University, publishing works by writers from Jiangsu province.
Another letter arrived for Xie Bomao. The neatly written characters—in a small, regular script written with brush and ink—were instantly recognisable. And there, as always, were the same four characters at the bottom of the envelope: “Sent by Chen, Nanjing.”
Li Fu held it in his hand and stared at it. These letters troubled him. He tossed it carefully into the pigeonhole on the left, where he reckoned there must be another twenty, maybe thirty, dead letters addressed to Xie Bomao, all from this same person. Some were due for disposal, but Li Fu wouldn’t let anyone touch them. He hadn’t given up hope yet.
A “dead letter” is one that can’t be delivered, forwarded or returned, either because the name and address isn’t clear or because there’s some other kind of problem. The technical term is “undeliverable mail”, which is as good as saying they’re dead. All the dead letters in this city came here, to Li Fu, and his job was to try to rescue them. He’d been a postman for almost thirty years, and in the eighties, during the flood of Taiwanese and overseas Chinese searching for relatives on the mainland, he’d rescued countless dead letters. His delivery section had been festooned with silk banners presented by tottering old folk, spreading even into the corridor leading to the toilets, covering every inch of the wall. He was elected a Provincial Level Model Worker, and his current position of “Letter Rescuer” had been created specifically for him, with the dual intention of using his expertise and of looking after him in his old age.
It was Li Fu’s habit to carry a small notebook around with him, and to record in it his search for each letter—how many leads he had got and where each of them ended up; which household registration officer he had sought at which police station; which streets he had visited; which people he had questioned. Over the years he had filled more than ten notebooks. He was still doing it now: as soon as he came across anyone who looked as though they might know something, he’d take his notebook out of his little green bag, look the person in the eye and try to get to the bottom of the dubious address. In the eighties his sense of purpose had been very touching, but by the nineties it was almost painful to witness, and now, well, it was pathetic to see such tenacity over some dead letters. Even he found it difficult to explain; perhaps it was just the postman in him. He’d probably throw himself into his work whatever he was. Lottery ticket seller, bike repairman or cook, he’d be much the same.
Li Fu treated his dead letters with more care than a top surgeon affords the terminally ill, and it was a shame the dead letters that had been placed in his hands these last few years had become more and more ridiculous. All too often, the envelopes were printed or had transparent windows, and were items of bulk mail franked Postage Paid, containing a random letter confirming admission to some private school, a VIP card for a beauty salon, a survey from a tourism website or some other junk mail. Eighty to ninety per cent had false names or incorrect addresses, and even if he went to a great deal of trouble to find them, he could forget about a silk banner or a Thank You; he’d be lucky if people opened the door and were polite enough to wait until he’d left before tossing the letter into the bin. He told himself not to mind—after all, when a doctor saves someone’s life, there’s no guarantee that the patient won’t go and kill himself, is there?
And so, the first time he saw one of these letters—addressed to “Xie Bomao, 21 Bamboo Lattice Lane, Qinhuai District, Nanjing 210006. Sent by Chen, Nanjing”—and saw those exquisite characters, written with such mastery, on what was clearly a genuinely worthwhile personal letter, Li Fu the Letter Rescuer was overcome with emotion, with a surge of gratitude quite disproportionate to his job description. He’d spent all those years, a lifetime, in the company of letters, and now his very last search promised at least to be enjoyable, and maybe even rewarding.
Li Fu worked his way through his entire checklist: the local administration office, the police station, the street, the residents’ committee, the residents who’d lived there longest. He checked the spelling of every personal name and every place name, and tried substituting the characters with new ones that looked or sounded the same. His efforts were met with curiosity, with indifference, with impatience, with a shake of the head, with a nonchalant sneer in his face. But Li Fu didn’t care. Everything he tried was recorded in his notebook with the same diligence of the previous thirty years. And he was careful not to reveal his personal judgement—that all signs showed that these letters sent to Xie Bomao were indeed terminally ill and there was no hope of recovery.
So it came as a surprise and a shock when another dead letter to Xie Bomao arrived in his office about two weeks later, the first letter still unresolved. And after that, the small, regular characters written with brush and ink continued to arrive at an interval of two or three weeks with one impossible address after another: One Hundred Cats Square, Mr Qin-the-Top Scholar’s Lane, Welcome-the-Flute Port, The Gallery of Gems and Treasures, The Temple of Peace and Pleasure, Oil-Market Avenue, Sweeping-the-Petals House. Was this person called Chen leading him on a wild goose chase? Or desperately searching for a person of no fixed abode?
Xie Bomao was Chen Yixin’s friend. “Friend” is a widely-used and tricky word. When we’re little, we’re called “my little friend”; to TV presenters we’re “our friends in the audience”; in shopping centres we’re “our friends, the customers”, to strangers we’re “my new found friends.” And how often do we talk about going to watch a football match, or to have tea, with “a friend”? Even if we are defrauding or taking advantage of each other, we are still “business friends.” Youths on the street will slap “my friend” on the shoulder before getting into a fight. Then, of course, there’s sex and boyfriends and girlfriends. Oh, and I almost forgot about “old friends”, like those famous “old friends” Chiang Kai-shek and Mao Zedong. And so it goes on. All told, Chen Yixin had rather a lot of friends.
But Xie Bomao was a special friend… thanks to his five-year-old daughter. She had an invisible friend, though he couldn’t see this friend, and didn’t know if it was human or not, male or female, or how old it was. What he did know was that she called it Flying Fish, and that he envied their intimacy. When she had her yoghurt drink, got up after sleeping, played with her toys, went to kindergarten, went to the toilet, or walked round the zoo, she would whisper and share her feelings with Flying Fish.
Then one day, a devil of an idea struck him. In the middle of his afternoon nap, he opened his eyes and saw the curtains fluttering, casting deathly shadows on the sofa. Two comrades were giggling at something online across the room. There were bursts of excitement from the card players next door. There were some unread messages on his mobile, probably his wife checking who was collecting their daughter from kindergarten, or some company promoting financial products. On QQ his classmates, workmates and hometown groups flashed endlessly. On Weibo a stream of new messages rolled down the screen. Everything was like it always was, friendly bits of mediocrity bobbing about the world, islands in the drift… then his mind filled with childish desire: “I want a Flying Fish too!” A friend who no one else could see, a friend who would always know what he was feeling and would always be there with him.
Xie Bomao. The name came to him as he twisted himself off the sofa. It was a spur of the moment name, of no particular significance, though naturally he’d be delighted if his new friend turned out to be a descendent of Xie An, the calm and honourable statesman, or Xie Lingyun, the great landscape poet, both of the fourth to fifth centuries, who just happened to be living in Nanjing today.
For the next few hours Chen Yixin felt invigorated. He worked and chatted as normal, but every now and then he and Xie Bomao would exchange views, and somehow everything seemed bearable. Now and again he thought about his daughter and it made him smile, feeling as happy as she was.
At meetings during the day, at drinking sessions in the evening, and at night when he couldn’t sleep, Chen Yixin got to know Xie Bomao a whole lot better. He was about the same age. He was troubled by a frozen shoulder. He liked unofficial histories and blue movies from Europe, because both made him feel alive. He was sick to death of conversations about online sensations, consumer price indexes, horoscopes and things like that. He smoked, and drank a bit. He didn’t like it when people dressed in traditional Chinese garments on formal occasions, or used the word “brainstorm” at meetings.
Chen Yixin kept thinking about his daughter. Whenever she wanted more time on the computer, or another Ferrero Rocher, or wanted to wear her favourite sundress, she would have a quiet discussion with Flying Fish, and then, with all seriousness, present their shared point-of-view.
Then he thought about himself and shook his head with a knowing smile. No wonder Xie Bomao and he got on so well; he was practically his clone.
Li Fu had been to check place names at the local admin office so often that they were getting fed up with him. Each letter to Xie Bomao had a different address, most of which belonged to the days of yore. The locations had either been obsolete even before the Republic or had been flattened in recent decades to make wide new roads or vocational schools, government complexes or Carrefour supermarkets. All of the old places had become new places.
Was there anything on Xie Bomao? The young woman in the registration office who never smiled did a search on the computer for Li Fu. There were four people with the name Xie Bomao in Nanjing. She saw the disappointment on his face, and shook her head at him.
“Well, can you tell me… does he have an online name, a Weibo account or something? How about a class graduation photo? Any lead’ll do, something solid to flesh him out. You can find anyone if you can flesh them out a bit.”
Li Fu didn’t entirely understand what she meant, so expressed his gratitude reservedly and noted down the four addresses, which he planned to check out one by one.
The first Xie Bomao was away on business, and his wife—brandishing a stirfry turner and in a resentful, acerbic tone of voice—insisted that he couldn’t possibly have any friends, and slammed the door in his face.
The next Xie Bomao was the assistant manager of a famous sportswear store. He had a golden headset over his ears, and looked ready to engage in secret communication at any moment. He fingered the letter lightly and winked at the pretty sales assistant: “Is this some kind of a joke!” But when he heard that Li Fu’s son had just started working, he changed track, humouring him with attention and encouraging him to buy a pair of “the latest basketball shoes, launched in step with the American market, limited edition, with built-in Bluetooth, calorie-counter and air cushion,” which he could let him have with a manager’s discount of 22 per cent.
The third Xie Bomao was a primary school pupil with merit stripes on his shoulders. He was trudging across the playground, pulling a big book bag on wheels when he heard there was a letter for him. He slowed down, and though his face went red, he tried his best to maintain a serious composure. He glanced at his classmates nearby, and asked loudly: “From Yao Ming? Or Liu Xiang? I wrote to them both at the same time, and said I bet the other would reply first! But… I sent them emails.”
The last Xie Bomao was also the furthest away, in an industrial area north of the city. Li Fu made the long journey after work, when it was getting dark, and found him washing a Samoyed. As the hairdryer whirred around the dog, the man’s worldly wise tone of voice conveyed a hatred which he directed at Li Fu: “Well, aren’t conmen getting clever! These days they even write letters! With a fucking calligraphy brush! Ingenious! Now, if you wouldn’t mind ripping that up for me…!”
Li Fu was worried, but there was no one he could talk to. His wife was always having a go at him for being “crazy”. Forget his son, he was too embarrassed to tell anyone about his father’s job and… in this dog-eat-dog world, having a Model Worker for a father put him right at the bottom of the shit-heap, didn’t it? He couldn’t talk to his colleagues either: they were all so much younger than him and liked to talk about the UEFA Champions League, online games, and the quarterly bonus. If he went and told them about this Xie Bomao business, they’d flap their wings and fly away.
He decided to take a different approach. He’d put Xie Bomao to the side for the time being and look for Chen instead.
He looked at the addresses again and again. He ran his fingers over them—the brushwritten characters on the envelopes were easy on the eye—not too big, not too small. He tried to work out what was inside, maybe two or three sheets of paper. He held them up to the light but the brown envelopes were too thick and he couldn’t make anything out.
“Just open it and have a look!” his colleagues mocked as they walked past.
Of course he could open it and see what was inside. He knew how to open a letter without leaving any evidence; he could open a letter and leave the postmark stamped over the seal perfectly intact. Obviously, it would not be a case of inappropriately “Using one’s position to destroy or conceal a letter” or anything like that. But, at the end of the day, a dead letter was still a letter, with all the dignity and regulations that a letter has. Opening it might provide a lead, but it would be tantamount to cheating, and that would be shameful, and he would not do it.
During his lunch break, Li Fu took his little green bag and cycled to the southern part of the city to look for stationery shops. There was one on Jinshajing Road, with lots of students inside, choosing all kinds of pens—erasable pens, highlighter pens, colour-changing pens, scented pens, and so on—and there were lots of cute stickers, notebooks and writing pads, which even he found attractive. There were girls picking up this and that, trying to decide which things to keep and which to put back. Li Fu drew a blank. He couldn’t find what he was looking for, and had to ask the salesperson, who directed him to the back of the shop, where, on the lowest shelf, he found envelopes and letter paper. There wasn’t much of a choice, just one or two types, all very ordinary, very…ugly. But there was the very same type of brown envelope that Chen used.
Li Fu realised how unpleasant and awkward it must be for Chen to have to crouch down in order to select these ugly envelopes. He crouched in that cold corner for a while, long enough for his legs to go numb, but didn’t bump into another customer. That’s right, he didn’t “bump into” anyone. He’d been obsessed with finding a way to “bump into” Chen, and was still trying to think of places where that might happen.
He studied the postmarks on the letters. With one exception, they all were postmarked Zhonghuamen Post Office. Above the postmark was a tiny serial number, indicating that the letters had been posted in the letterbox at the main entrance to the Post Office, or in the one in the Business Hall.
The next letter was imminent, so Li Fu spent several days hanging around the Zhonghuamen Post Office. He sat quietly at the desk in the Business Hall, watching people come and go. Or he stood across the road, staring at the tall letterbox at the entrance. Neither approach was effective. It could have been any, or none, of these people—you can’t tell at sight if a person writes letters with a calligraphy brush. And, in any case, hardly anyone posted letters in a letterbox nowadays. One day, he waited until half past five, and watched as the letterbox was opened and emptied of two pitiful letters. One was addressed to the “Petition Office of the CPC Committee, the Government, the Political Consultative Conference and the People’s Congress of Jiangsu Province”, written with characters the size of broad beans and two of them written incorrectly. The other envelope, which had not been sealed, had a wad of out-of-date lottery tickets stuffed inside it.
He sighed and thought about Chen, who took such care and was so persistent in writing to Xie Bomao about what could only be a very serious and difficult matter. He would do his absolute best for this person.
The more he thought about it, the less he liked the idea of “bumping into” Chen. The thought of having to return that pile of letters was just too sad.
Chen Yixin’s picking up his brush to write to Xie Bomao also had something to do with his daughter. Her kindergarten had recently been promoting the Montessori Method, encouraging our little friends not to study and practice but to develop completely naturally, to the extent that today’s homework required the parents to provide their child with paper, a brush and twelve colours of paint, and then let the child express him/herself. So that evening, they had covered the floor with newspaper and his daughter and Flying Fish had spent ages playing at painting. When she was tired, his wife went to put her to bed while he tidied up. He picked up a paintbrush, smoothed down the hairs, and started to write in indigo paint in the white space of the newspaper.
Chen Yixin had studied calligraphy at university, practising the small, regular script with a fellow student for two and a half years. Afterwards, he’d been busy with his career and marriage, and it had fallen by the wayside. Writing a few characters now brought back some of those old feelings—yet they were not thoughts of university nor the springtime of youth, but of growing old and weak in the autumn of one’s life. It felt very strange.
As he was throwing out the newspaper, he was shocked to discover what he had written: Xie Bomao, Xie Bomao, Xie Bomao. It seemed that he was thinking about his friend all the time, wherever he was, and that he had so much to tell him. After this shocking thought, he made a decision: he would tell him everything.
The next day he went to buy envelopes and letter paper. They were of poor quality and not ideal, but they would do. After all, he’d seen too many things with a fine outward appearance that were rotten on the inside. During his lunch break, he lay back on the sofa, a bit restless and fidgety, as he thought about what he should write to Xie Bomao. He got up a few times, put his mobile on silent, changed his status on QQ to “invisible”, turned off email and Weibo, and put the phone to one side. But none of this seemed to help; his mind was still a complete blank. He gripped the armrest of the sofa, scrunching up the real leather—perhaps he wouldn’t be able to write anything? Maybe there were too many things on his mind to write? Or maybe there was nothing on his mind at all. Hmm, his daughter didn’t seem to have this problem…
In the end, Chen Yixin accepted this state of uncertainty, took the couple of sheets of letter paper that he had prepared earlier, folded them carefully and slipped them into the envelope. Never mind, he thought, Xie Bomao was his friend, and he’d “understand” what he had just “written.”
He sealed the envelope, vaguely recalling the many different ways of folding letter paper. You could fold it into three vertically, then in half horizontally. Or you could fold it in half horizontally, then in half vertically. At school there’d been a classmate who could fold a piece of paper into a crane. He remembered all the business with postage stamps too: a stamp upside down meant “I love you,” two stamps side by side meant “I miss you,” three stamps in a row meant “I’m waiting for your answer”, and so on. There’d been a girl who liked to press her lips on the flap of the envelope to show it was sealed with a kiss… But he wasn’t interested in things like that; they’d simply floated into his mind, remembrances of the past.
It was not until he came to write the address on the envelope that he felt the joy of ritual. Ah yes, a ritual! Nanjing had so many old place names that he liked, where the historical figures he liked had once walked. He closed his eyes and summoned up an old street or alley that had vanished long ago, and let his satisfaction flow through brush and ink on to the envelope, and into the obsolete address that would magnificently convey the entire content of the epistle.
The goat-hair brush in his hand was just about useable. It had been put aside for such a long time that insects had got to it. He could have bought a new one, but he liked its worn appearance, which matched his state of mind, with its loose ends and unspoken words.
The letter writing soon became a habit, although there was no content in the letters, and the only writing was of one random old address after another as they came into his mind… The bald brush snagged and glided over the rough brown paper with no more noise than some lovely form of life landing softly and leaving its tiny traces on the world.
Afterwards, he went out, and dropped the letter into the obviously empty letter box. In the hustle and bustle of the street, he pressed his ear to the opening and waited for the quiet echo, as though listening to a stone falling in a bottomless well. Down it fell, into the deepest place on earth, and continued its journey through this lonely spinning planet, before reappearing and circling the moon, Saturn and Jupiter, and entering space lit up by stars. Out there, somewhere, Xie Bomao was waiting for this letter.
The process of letter writing was amazingly liberating for Chen Yixin, and it brought him enormous pleasure.
Li Fu had never forgotten a letter he’d seen in ’87 or ’88 that was written in traditional full-form characters on a traditional vertical-style envelope, sent from Hualian in Taiwan, to “Ms Zhang, of Qin (childhood name: Ziying)”. On the back of the envelope was a message, written in a spidery hand, which said something like “With heartfelt gratitude from an old soldier in Taiwan for your kind help in seeking my relative”. But the address was old. It had long since been replaced with the Workers Cultural Palace, which itself had been closed for ages because there were plans to rebuild it as a fast food chain restaurant. The details were recorded in Li Fu’s little notebook: the search had taken him a full five months, and had been hard work. He had eventually found Ms Zhang at a hospice, thin as a loofah, with a constant dribble, and afflicted with senile dementia. By her side was her droopy-eyed, sloppily dressed son in his forties, who opened the letter for her. He read a few lines, then suddenly started to shake. “How could you lie to me?” he wailed, “it says here my father’s still alive.”
It was like a scene from a TV drama, and Li Fu sighed at the thought of it. Oh, these apparently ordinary human relationships—between husband and wife, between brothers, between father and son, between friends—were anything but ordinary. It was such a big, messy world; so much happens, and when it goes wrong things fall apart. He wondered how Chen had lost contact with Xie Bomao. Does Mr Xie know how hard you are trying to find him? he wondered. I really want to help you find him, you know.
That evening, Li Fu had a dream, a pretty good one too. In his dream there was a loudspeaker, the kind that were standard in factories, mines and production teams in the villages, and for some unknown reason, he heard his own voice being broadcast very loudly with a buzz echoing in the background: “Attention. Attention. Will Comrade Xie Bomao make his way quickly to the post office. Thank you …”
When he woke up, Li Fu thought he had the answer. If Xie Bomao didn’t appear in the local residents’ lists then he must be from out of town… it all seemed to make sense. Li Fu felt re-invigorated. He could still hope to resolve these letters before he retired.
He spent time researching the place names presented as Xie Bomao’s addresses. The Confucius Temple, the Prosecutor’s Office, East of the Gate, and West of the Gate were all located in the southern part of the old city, so it looked as though that was Comrade Xie Bomao’s haunt. A loudspeaker was out of the question, of course. But you always saw people at the bus or railway station holding up name boards to meet people, and salespeople by the roadside with placards advertising fridges and TVs. It was an idea—anyway it was not something to be ashamed of. Li Fu made himself two cardboard placards, about 30-40 cm2, wrote “Xie Bomao” with a black permanent marker on each one, made two small holes at the top corners, and threaded some string through the holes so the whole thing could hang over his shoulders like a vest. This way, the three large characters would be visible far away, from the front and the back.
Li Fu walked down Changle Road, Sanshan Street, Shuiguan Bridge and Zhanyuan Road. He stuck out like a sore thumb, but either people were immune to the visual distractions around them, or were no longer curious enough to bother asking. But he didn’t lose heart. After all, if Xie Bomao hadn’t been so hard to find, Chen wouldn’t have written so many letters!
As he walked, he tried his best to imagine how someone here would live. Where he would go shopping, what he would buy, what he would eat, what he would see, what he would do for fun… Various thoughts came to mind: Home Inn, Giordano, SG, the 24-hour self-serve banking centre, the snack bar selling duck blood soup with glass noodles, the subway entrance, the No.1 Hospital, the Hai Di Lao Hotpot Restaurant, China Unicom 3G.
When he thought of a place, he would go and take a look, all the time trying to stay within the southern part of the city. Every evening after work, he’d take advantage of the last hour or so of daylight to take a walk around. “Dripping water wears through rock”—this saying described him so well, he thought. As a child, he used to spend ages crouching under the eaves of the house, quietly watching the hollow in the stone as the drops of water fell.
Sometimes, his strings would get caught in the wind and his name cards would flip over. By the time he realised that the blank sides were showing, he’d have already walked down several streets. He thought about his wife, and how she called him crazy, and couldn’t help laughing. Perhaps she was right.
He understood quite clearly that his search for Xie Bomao and his mission to rescue these dead letters were not the full story. There was some inexplicable pent-up sentiment that he felt, like a pain deep in his heart that made him need to walk about with his little green bag over his shoulder, to keep wandering up and down and in and out of streets old and new.
Chen Yixin was in the teahouse waiting for an old school friend who he hadn’t seen for fifteen years. He’d been his best friend in the dorm for such a long time, and he was coming from out of town. But his flight was delayed, and Chen found himself killing time.
There was a blank memo pad on the table. Without thinking, he moved it towards him and started doodling, just like the “Montessori teaching method” at his daughter’s kindergarten. It was something he did to pass the time, during meetings, at lectures, waiting in line at the bank, waiting for planes, and so on. He didn’t like playing on his mobile, he couldn’t stand those thick, heavy, strange-smelling magazines full of adverts, and good old-fashioned reading seemed a bit pretentious these days.
All that waiting. Life was just a series of waiting, he sighed. Waiting for people. Waiting for things. Waiting for contacts. Waiting for explanations. Waiting for things to start. Waiting for things to end. It might look as though waiting is subjective behaviour, a democratic participation in and consultation with fate, when, in fact, all the endings are… well… predetermined, predestined. When the time comes, the results are quietly sitting there waiting for you; it’s certainly not a question of you waiting for the results.
He doodled for a while until his friend turned up. They greeted each other enthusiastically, talked about the old days, ordered some food, had a good sigh, a good moan, just shooting the breeze. They could carry on, or they could bring the conversation to an abrupt end. Either way, it didn’t make much difference. As they both had to work that afternoon, they arranged to hang out with the guys that evening.
After his friend left, Chen Yixin sat for a while, and felt the emptiness in his heart gape wider than before. This much anticipated meeting with his best friend from all those years ago had been a bit of a let down. Oh, never mind. He asked the waitress to bring the bill.
She had short hair and black-rimmed glasses. She gave him the print-out: “Lunch with 12% discount. Total 145 yuan. Are you paying cash or by card, Sir?”
Chen Yixin gave her the once-over. The yellow scarf looked good with the dark waistcoat, and there was a green bowtie at her neck. He liked to look at restaurant uniforms, to see the different uniforms in their different settings, from the rustic local styles at the door to the fashionable Western style hosts in the Karaoke.
The waitress saw his smile, hesitated a little, then pointed to the memo pad at the corner of the table, and said: “Do you still need that, Sir? Xie Bomao…”
“Oh, it’s nothing.” Chen Yixin tore the note up and scrunched it into a ball. He hadn’t realised what he had written. “That’s my, er, a friend,” he explained.
“Does he live round here then?” The way she asked was a little strange.
Chen Yixin nodded abstractedly as he took out his money. In his mind he was thinking that maybe in his next letter to Xie Bomao he’d “write” something about waiting.
“Well, I guess he must be the same person. Everyone here knows Xie Bomao. He walks down this road every evening,” she said, pointing her chin towards the French windows. Chen Yixin’s heart skipped a beat, as he slowly followed her line of vision. Outside, the leaves of the plane trees were falling to the ground, on to a scruffy newsstand, on to an old bike. He hadn’t noticed that it was the middle of autumn already.
Chen Yixin made a quick calculation. He’d been writing letters to Xie Bomao for over a year now. He’d written about a passion that had been sealed in dust and buried in time, about a loved one so distant she might as well be dead. He’d written about a hushed scream. He’d written about ants—how people were like ants, and would climb here, there and everywhere for a granule of sugar. He’d written about African animals mating in the wild—how the television masturbated silently at night.
Was it really possible that he had brought this Xie Bomao into being?
“How do you know he’s Xie Bomao?”
“Well, he wears a placard on his chest, doesn’t he? For months now, he’s been coming and walking along this road at about six o’clock.” She smiled. She had long slim fingers, and it was nice watching her clear the table.
All afternoon Chen Yixin felt completely out of sorts. He seemed to see everything double or as an illusion, enough for one of the women at work to worry that he looked off colour. He struggled through to the end of the day, which was more or less the time the girl had said, and went round to the teahouse. He stood across the road, sort of waiting for a taxi. He was going to be drinking that evening, so he couldn’t drive. While he was waiting, he bought a weekly at the newsstand.
When he looked up again, sure enough there was a “Xie Bomao” sign bobbing about in the crowd across the road. Three awkward looking characters on a filthy piece of cardboard, swinging on the back of an oldish man. Chen Yixin watched him the whole time, with eyes so wide they were almost popping out of their sockets. He could have called out to him, or gone after him, but for some reason, his legs felt heavy as lead, and worse, he felt shy and panicky. So he just stared with open eyes as “Xie Bomao” turned the corner into the next street.
Then he hurried as fast as he could to the bar in the western part of the city. His friend from out of town and the other guys had been hanging there a while. There were some women too—old school friends and family—quite a sight, and excited to be there. Chen Yixin joined in the drinking, and it was all very lively. Then they went to the Karaoke where they sang and danced and carried on drinking until it was almost dawn when they went their separate ways. When they stepped outside they huddled by the door, none of them quite in control of their hands and feet. Chen Yixin looked at them, and then at his own reflection in the glass wall. They were all as chaotic as each other, a motley group of lonely souls and wild ghosts.
On the way home, Chen Yixin,breathing alcohol, slurred at the taxi driver: “Haha, I met an old friend today.”
“Ah, an old friend, that’s great,” came the exhausted driver’s perfunctory response, as he wound down the window and turned up the radio.
Chen Yixin stretched his mouth and turned his burning face to the window. As the late autumn wind whooshed past, he could see a few faces hurrying along. He rested his hand softly on the window, and suddenly felt sad as he remembered the “Xie Bomao” cardboard sign, bobbing along on the other side of the road. It didn’t matter if it was a man or a woman, human or ghost, or how stupid or thick it was, he might as well go and find it.
He thought about the stories he told his daughter every night before she went to sleep—so many fairy tales and myths, so many impossible yet beautiful things. But the Old Man up there only made fairy tales.
Li Fu walked down the road to the teahouse wearing his “Xie Bomao” placard. Night was drawing in, and he was tired. The end of another day, he thought, and nothing had changed.
That morning he had received his Model Worker Retirement Payment, which the union had awarded him in advance. It was a thick stack. His boss patted him on the shoulder: “After your honourable retirement, we plan to abolish the post of ‘Dead Letter Rescuer,”’ he said.
Li Fu was in total agreement, “Good,” he said, “it should be abolished. It’s no use.”
These last few days, as he’d walked up and down the streets, he’d seen people rushing along, yelling furiously into their mobiles, or crouching by the curb, furrowing their brows. The way they looked and moved filled him with disturbing associations. He thought about the evening paper he’d read, about the quirks of human relations that filled one with dismay, and pessimistically predicted that there’d be an irreparable regret—if these letters really were dead, they would be destroyed, pulped, and whatever the person called Chen had to say to Xie Bomao would be lost forever and ever. Oh… he wanted with all his heart to help.
He stopped at the corner of the road with the teahouse, and thought about buying a bottle of water from the newsstand on the other side, but then decided not to. He’d rather his lips were dry. He had a strange way of looking at life, as though the harder it was, the more likely he was to reap rewards. In the past, when he’d chased up dead letters, he’d stumbled and fallen, sprained his foot, ripped his trousers, pushed his bike for miles with a flat tyre—but in the end, he had rescued every single one of those dead letters.
The autumn wind stung his face. Winter was on its way. He’d walk round once more. After that, it’d get dark earlier and earlier and there’d be even fewer people who noticed his “Xie Bomao” signs.
“Hey! Xie Bomao?” he heard someone call out to him. There was a question in the tone, an ordinary voice that was just audible.
Li Fu turned around, and saw a middle-aged man with no remarkable features behind his glasses. He was the fifth one. He’d been walking round for so many days, and this was only the fifth person to ask about “Xie Bomao”. As with the previous four, he had no intention of telling the whole story starting with the “dead letters” lest the inquirer lose patience.
Li Fu beamed, held the placard straight, and felt vindicated. You see, he was right not to buy that bottle of water just now.
“Oh, I’m not Xie Bomao. I’m looking for him, for Xie Bomao. Are you…?” he said.
“How long have you been looking for him?” It was getting dark, and the trees cast long shadows over his face.
Li Fu thought for a moment, and decided to start from the time of the first dead letter, “A year and two months.”
The middle-aged man inched forward out of the shadows. “Since last autumn?” His chin tilted upward. “And does he know you’re looking for him?” The middle-aged man’s face looked strained. His eyes skimmed over the grimy cardboard and then back to Li Fu’s face.
“No. And he doesn’t know me either.” Li Fu knew this sounded ridiculous, and was anxious to keep it short, “Do you know him? This Xie Bomao?”
“No, I’m sorry, I don’t know him. I was just asking.” The middle-aged man nodded very politely and breathed out softly. Li Fu detected a sudden detachment which also looked like sadness. Maybe he thinks I’m mad, he wondered.
“The thing is, I’m helping someone who’s looking for him…” Li Fu saw the man was about to walk away, and was in two minds as to whether to tell him the whole story.
“Who are you helping, may I ask?” the middle-aged man halted, and something elusive began to flicker in his eyes again.
“Who am I helping? Well… I don’t know that person either,” said Li Fu, “but I know that this one’s looking for that one, and maybe he’s been looking for him longer than I have.” He used his hands to demonstrate, nodding his head first to his left hand, then to his right, and then back again.
The street lamps came on, and in the light, he could see that the middle-aged man had closed his eyes, as though he was closing something down inside. Then the man looked towards the road, and said very quietly, “You won’t find him.”
Well now, thought Li Fu, maybe this man really did know something about Xie Bomao. He pushed the placard to one side and fumbled inside his green shoulder bag for his little notebook. He’d tucked the stack of money he’d received earlier inside the notebook, and he was trying to remove it without taking it out of the bag.
The middle-aged man looked at Li Fu’s green shoulder bag, and stopped in his tracks. Suddenly everything fell into place. A faint mocking smile crept over his face, and without saying a word, he turned and walked away. It happened so fast that Li Fu didn’t have time to say anything.
Li Fu’s hand went still; he looked down at the green shoulder bag, and tried as hard as he could to work out what had gone wrong…
It would soon be completely dark. Li Fu looked around him, shook his head, and carefully removed the “Xie Bomao” sign. He looked at it for a while, then folded the white cardboard over and over into a small square, which took some effort, and then struggled to shove it into a wastebin at the side of the road. I’m sorry, Xie Bomao, I can’t help you any more.
Li Fu slowly headed home. Having taken off the “Xie Bomao” sign, he felt the icy northwest wind on his chest, but never mind, this was his last winter’s day as the last Letter Rescuer. He felt the cash inside his green shoulder bag. He would try his best to be happy.
Illustration by Zhang Ruihua