By: Fan Xiaoqing
Translated by: Helen Wang
Fan Xiaoqing is Chair of the Jiangsu Writers Association and known especially for her beautiful descriptions of life in the little lanes of Suzhou.
I was researching the people and customs of my hometown, Suzhou, and by chance came across the story of a Mrs Zhang Taiyan in a historical document. The account was very short. It said that she was once the campus queen of a girls’ school in Shanghai, and that she was clever as well as beautiful. Grandma Tang is based on her. No one else was mentioned in the document. I added the other old ladies and Mr Mai, who came looking for her. They are fictional characters. I am familiar with life in the little streets of Suzhou, and I wanted to show through the story that behind very ordinary things there have often been great waves. This old lady in her twilight years, tucked away in the little lanes of Suzhou, quietly chatting with a group of people of her age… who would imagine she once had such a dazzling youth! And yet she had! — Fan Xiaoqing
Fan Xiaoqing was the featured author in the latest issue of the journal Chinese Arts and Letters no. 2, 2015. This story is one of three that were published, and the quote above is from an interview in the same journal. Both are reproduced here with the kind permission of the editor, Mr Yang Haocheng 杨昊成.
Illustration by Zhang Ruihua
The sun was shining warmly on the walls and on the ground, and three old ladies were in the yard enjoying the sunshine. As their faces turned a rosy pink, a small child ran in, saying,
“Grandma Tang, you’ve got a visitor.”
“A visitor for me?” said Grandma Tang, “Now who could that be?”
“I don’t know”, said the child, “it’s an old man.”
One of the ladies giggled, with a toothless grin, like a child.
The old man had already come inside. He was wearing a peaked cap, like a young man, and he stood in front of the old ladies, not quite sure what to do with his hands and feet, and squinting in the sunlight.
The ladies cast their somewhat blurry eyes at his face. He blushed a little.
“I’m looking for Mr Huang’s wife,” he said, “she’s called Tang. Tang’s her family name.”
One of the ladies laughed.
Grandma Tang felt a bit awkward too. “You’re looking for me?” she said. “My name’s Tang.”
“Oh,” the old man said happily, “then I’ve found you. You must be Mr Huang’s wife.”
Grandma Tang didn’t recognize him.
“Where are you from?” she asked.
“Me?” said the old man. “I came from the train station.”
“You just got off the train?”
“Yes.” He pulled a name-card out of his pocket, and handed it to Grandma Tang, “Here’s my name-card. My name’s Mai.”
“Oh.” Grandma Tang looked at the name-card, but she couldn’t see the characters clearly. “I’ll go and fetch my glasses,” she said. “Take a seat inside.”
“My? Are there people called My?” asked one of the ladies.
The old man followed Grandma Tang inside the house.
“It’s going to snow,” said one of the ladies.
“Do you think so? When the sun is so lovely?” asked the other lady.
“Yes,” said the other, “it always snows in winter.”
Grandma Tang put on her glasses. She read the old man’s name. “I afraid I don’t remember who you are.” She was quite apologetic. “I’m old now, and my memory’s not so good.”
“You don’t know me,” said the old man, “we’ve never met, and you wouldn’t know my name.”
“Oh,” said Grandma Tang, “You said that you’d just got off the train. Where have you come from?”
“From the south.”
“Where are you going?”
“To the north.”
“Do you mean Beijing?” said Grandma Tang.
“Yes, Beijing, I’m on a work trip to Beijing. I’ve got some work to do there, so I took the train.”
“When I was young, I moved to Beijing with my husband,” said Grandma Tang. “Beijing’s a big place, and it doesn’t get too cold in winter.”
“I know,” said the old man, “I know that the two of you lived in Beijing.”
At first Grandma Tang was a bit bewildered, and then she worked it out. “Ah, you must have known our Mr Huang back then,” she said.
“I didn’t know him,” said the old man, “actually, I never met him. I admired him greatly, but our paths never crossed.”
“He’s been gone a long time,” said Grandma Tang, “over forty years now.”
“You say you’re taking the train to Beijing,” said Grandma Tang, “so you broke your journey to come here?”
“You got off the train specially to come and visit me?” asked Grandma Tang, a little suspiciously.
“I had to find out your address first,” said the old man. “I’d known for a long time that you’d gone back home, but I never knew where that was. I had to make some enquiries.”
“There are lots of little streets here, it’s not easy to find,” said Grandma Tang, “not easy at all.”
“It wasn’t so difficult,” said the old man, “lots of people knew of Ying Yang Alley, and could remember where Mr Huang lived.”
“Have some tea,” Grandma Tang pushed a teacup in front of the old man. “Have some tea.”
“This looks like Biluochun, gunpowder tea,” said the old man, “I don’t know very much about tea. I don’t really understand it. I can’t tell what’s good and what’s not.”
“I do know about tea,” said Grandma Tang, “I’m very particular about tea, I can tell by looking whether it’s good or not.”
“I know,” said the old man, “you knew a lot about tea when you were young too.”
Grandma Tang was a bit embarrassed, and smiled. “It’s still the same, I only drink good tea,” she said, “if it’s not good, I won’t drink it.”
There was a noise in the yard. Grandma Tang went out to see what it was, then came back inside and said, “It’s a beggar.”
“Oh,” said the old man, “this courtyard house of yours must be a hundred years old.”
“More or less a hundred,” said Grandma Tang.
“I read about it in a book,” said the old man, “it was in a book of essays that was unputdownable.”
“So you got off the train specially to come and visit me,” said Grandma Tang.
“But the street is not called Ying Yang Alley in that book. And it took me a while to work it out.”
“It used to be called Yin-Yang Alley,” said Grandma Tang.
The old man and Grandma Tang both laughed. “Yin-Yang, it’s quite an unusual name for an alley,” said the old man.
“Then the name was changed and it became Ying Yang Alley [Majestic Eagle Alley]. It sounds much the same when you say it, but the written characters are completely different.”
The small child ran in again. “Grandma Tang, Grandma Tang, the rag-and-bone man is here. He wants to know if you have any newspapers to sell.”
“Not today,” said Grandma Tang, “tell him to come another time. I’ve got a visitor today.”
The child looked at the old man. “You’re a visitor,” the child said, then ran out again.
The old man took a sip of tea.
“The tea’s gone cold,” said Grandma Tang, “let me pour a bit out and fill it up, so it will be hot.”
“There’s no need,” said the old man.
“Lukewarm tea’s not nice. Tea should be drunk boiling hot. That’s when it tastes best,” said Grandma Tang. “You got off the train specially to come and visit me.”
“You used to go to Zhenhua Girls’ School in Shanghai. I was at Wutong School next door,” said the old man, “just the other side of the wall.”
“Wutong”, said the old lady, “Wutong was a very good school, but they didn’t take girls in those days.”
“That’s why you didn’t know me,” said the old man, “but I knew you. You were the most beautiful girl in the school. All the boys knew you. We would hang around the gates of Zhenhua Girls’ School, hoping to see you.”
Grandma Tang was a bit embarrassed. “Is that so?,” she said, “I wasn’t really aware of it.”
“That’s how it was,” said the old man, “I wanted to see you for ages, but I never had the chance. When all the girls came out of school, I didn’t know which one was you.”
“Is that so?” Grandma Tang was blushing a little. “It was such a long time ago.”
“It was a long time ago,” said the old man, “a very long time ago.”
“Where did you go afterwards?” said Grandma Tang.
“Afterwards I went to many places,” said the old man. “I learnt that you and Mr Huang had tied the knot. We all knew Mr Huang was a clever young man. It was a perfect match: truly, ‘wit and beauty.’”
“Afterwards, my husband opened a school,” said Grandma Tang, “and I was his assistant.”
“I know,” said the old man, “actually, it was more than ‘wit and beauty.’ You were a clever young woman; you had brains as well as beauty.”
Grandma Tang smiled, and the old man smiled. For a while neither of them said anything. Noises from the yard and from the street came and went, and the atmosphere in the room seemed to open.
“Have some tea,” said Grandma Tang.
“I’m fine,” said the old man.
“Such a long time ago,” said Grandma Tang.
“Such a long time ago,” said the old man, “I’ve held this wish in my heart all these years. That’s why I’m here. Nothing was going to stop me getting off the train, specially to come and visit you.”
“You got off the train. That means you’ll have to catch another one,” said Grandma Tang. “Is it a lot of trouble to change trains?”
“It’s no trouble.”
“You’ll have to buy a ticket for the onward journey,” said Grandma Tang.
“Yes, they’ve already bought it for me,” said the old man.
“The two colleagues who are going to Beijing with me.”
“They got off with you?”
“They had to buy tickets for the onward journey too?”
“Oh,” said Grandma Tang.
“I’m so happy,” said the old man.
“I’m happy too,” said Grandma Tang.
“Grandma Tang! Grandma Tang!” A voice called from outside, then hurried in.
“What is it, Auntie Lin?” asked Grandma Tang.
“You’ve got a visitor,” said Auntie Lin, “would you like me to buy you something for dinner?”
“There’s no need,” said the old man.
“But you must stay and eat,” said Auntie Lin.
“They’re waiting for me at the station,” said the old man, “I’d better say goodbye.”
The old man got up. Grandma Tang got up too. The old man said, “I’d better say goodbye.”
“You’re leaving? But you must stay!” said Auntie Lin.
“Thank you,” said the old man, “but I have to go.”
Grandma Tang saw him off at the door. The old man glanced back at the yard, “It’s almost exactly as I imagined,” he said.
“Is that so?”
“Yes,” said the old man, “I always imagined you would live in a place like this.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes,” said the old man, “I always imagined you like this.”
A tricycle came along. “Grandma Tang, is this your visitor?” asked the driver.
“Does he need a trike?”
“The train station.”
“Oh,” said the driver, “you’re taking the train. Where are you going?”
“Oh, that’s a long way.”
The old man got into the tricycle, looked back at Grandma Tang and waved. “I’m going now,” he said.
Grandma Tang nodded, and the tricycle headed off into the distance.
Grandma Tang went back inside. “Who was he?” everyone asked.
“An old friend.”
“He’s a friend from the past,” said Grandma Tang.
“What’s his name?”
“He’s called…” Grandma Tang had to think for a moment, “he’s called Mai.”
“My?” said one of the old ladies, “are there people called My?”