“You’re stepping on my shadow, please back off,” she said.

Sun Yisheng / Nicky Harman

Night Train, by Wen Zhen

1

By the time Lao Song left the hospital, he knew the score. He said he wanted us to travel together, to somewhere faraway, and I agreed without a moment’s hesitation. He requested that we go by train, and I didn’t even ask whether this was for old time’s sake – we threw some belongings together, bought tickets, and were on the train by evening.

Riding a night train, I always have the sense I’m galloping through the dreams of strangers. The distant points of light flashing past the windows are reminders of other people’s tranquil lives, fleetingly inverted in our own rippling waters. We went to splash our faces and rinse our mouths before lights out, then lay on our bunks like two top-tailing fish in an icebox. We listened to the rumble of the train along the tracks, eyes closed to the phantoms flitting past behind the curtains. Our hands clung together through the safety railings.

We were on one of the green trains, the K497 to Jiagedaqi. It wasn’t yet Spring Festival season, and the carriage was almost empty. The outside temperature must have been around minus fifteen and air was leaking in from somewhere, making the carriage feel cold, even with blankets on top of our coats. Every so often, a gust of wind blew open the flimsy curtains, and the distant mountain peaks suddenly loomed right over us, like the wide-open jaws of a wild animal. Unsettled, I squeezed Lao Song’s hand a little tighter, and caught him watching me through the darkness, his eyes gleaming.

“Want to get down and go for a smoke at the end of the carriage,” he said, softly.

I felt reluctant to move. I thought it over, then said: “Sure.”

An old man was already out there, having a cigarette. He glanced at us without interest, then continued standing guard by the ashtray. There were no curtains over the vestibule windows, and outside it was pitch black.

We lit our cigarettes and started smoking. For a moment, the three of us puffed away in unison, white cigarette smoke curling its way around the vestibule. Someone – a woman – coughed inside the toilet. Lao Song gave me a look, his eyes bright. I knew what he was thinking. We’d watched a foreign porn film together once, set in a train toilet. It wouldn’t have worked here, though; it was too dirty, and there were people everywhere. Whatever China might lack, one thing it isn’t short of is people. As far as that uptight grandpa was concerned, for example, the two of us were nothing but an annoyance, and the best he could hope was that we’d leave as soon as possible if he ignored us.

A loud flush sounded inside the toilet. Soon after, a woman came out, her hair in disarray. I recognised her as the forty-something year-old woman who’d been sitting at the table in our compartment, with a boy of about seven or eight. She’d spent the whole journey looking at her phone, speaking only to give out orders: drink some water! Eat an apple! Sit down and stop fidgeting! She was very strict.

I’d asked Lao Song, in a whisper, whether he thought she could be a child trafficker. He’d said no, because the child was too old. He was fairer than the average country kid, but didn’t look Westernised enough to be from the city. Neither did he seem particularly frightened.

And now, here was the suspected child trafficker exiting the toilet. The toilet window was cracked open, so the second she opened the door we were assaulted by a rush of fiercely cold, foul-smelling air. I shuddered. It would be madness to get intimate in that kind of a toilet.

I glanced at Lao Song, and he understood. We stubbed out our cigarettes and returned to our bunks, which were shrouded in the stench of feet and instant noodles. I climbed up first into the darkness, groping around to check my bag was still on my pillow. I heard the rustle of movement behind me, as he climbed up, too.

This time, we didn’t hold hands. “Let’s sleep,” he said to me, under his breath.

My blanket had a smell to it that I couldn’t quite place. I lowered it a little, so that it wouldn’t touch my mouth. “Yes,” I said.

2

I awoke the next morning to brilliant sunshine. The kind of piercing light that made me sure it must have snowed. People were yelling from the vestibule that there was no water left. I looked across at Lao Song, lying curled up with his back to me. I had the sudden thought that he had died, and I poked at him, my blood cold, until finally he turned a sleepy-eyed head towards me and asked, “Are we there?”

“No,” I said. “I just wanted to see whether you were awake.”

There were another two hours before we would arrive at the station. The towns and villages we’d passed in the night were all far behind us. In the daylight, it was as though they’d never existed, or else as though they were part of something that had happened a long time ago, in the very distant past. The woman was not at the table; I assumed she must have left with the child in the middle of the night.

I hadn’t undressed to go to sleep, and now I had the yeasty body odour of a night spent in my clothes. The early morning heating in the carriage was set especially high, and I could feel my feet sweating inside my socks, and beads of sweat running down my back. I looked helplessly through the window as our metal box snaked across a minus twenty-five degree wonderland of ice and snow, which offered not the slightest relief from the sweltering heat inside the carriage.

“Lao Song, it snowed.”

He ignored me. After he got up, he went straight to the window and flicked exuberantly through his guidebook. “Take a look at this!” he exclaimed.

Jiagedaqi shares a border with Oroqen Autonomous Banner in the south and west, and Heilongjiang’s Songling district in the north.

I read it aloud.

“It’s a pretty ordinary introduction. What about it?”

“You don’t see the problem?”

“What problem?”

“Read this part.”

Jiagedaqi is located in the north-west of Heilongjiang province, on the south-eastern slopes of the Daxing’anling mountain range, within the borders of Inner Mongolia’s Oroqen Autonomous Banner.

“So, is this place in Heilongjiang or Inner Mongolia?”

I finally understood the fuss.

“It’s an extremely unusual city. Technically speaking, it’s an enormous enclave, lying unequivocally within the borders of Inner Mongolia, yet belonging to Heilongjiang. It’s the capital of Daxing’aning prefecture.”

Immensely pleased with himself, Lao Song continued reading:

To this day, Daxing’anling is the only “prefecture” in the Dongbei region of northeast China. Its capital, Jiagedaqi, is the seat of the local government offices. With a population of over 120,000, Jiagedaqi is the size of a prefecture-level city, but urban development in the area has proven difficult. A major reason for this is that Daxing’anling prefecture straddles two provinces. Jiagedaqi and Songling, two districts under its jurisdiction, ought to form part of Heilongjiang province but, in fact, both are located in Inner Mongolia. This has resulted in the creation of an unofficial “two-track” structure… As Jiagedaqi and Songling, from a geographical perspective, belong to the Oroqen Autonomous Banner, the Heilongjiang provincial government is required to pay a fixed, yearly sum to the government of Inner Mongolia… Hulunbuir city and Oroqen Autonomous Banner have made repeated requests to the government for the return of the two territories. However, due to issues of historical legacy, as well as disputes concerning forested areas and the interests of the national logging industry, it looks set to remain a thorny situation for the immediate future…

“This is really confusing.” I licked my lips. “You thirsty?”

Lao Song snapped back from his grand foray into the oddities of China’s national geography, and turned feebly to face me, clutching his throat.

“Really thirsty. I’m so parched I’m breathing smoke.”

We had finished the two bottles of mineral water I’d brought with us. Back when I was at university, I’d known to bring a thermos mug with me every time I travelled by train, but I hadn’t thought about that for a long time. Not that it would have been much use, even if I had remembered, based on those shouts I’d heard from my bunk: No water, no water! If there wasn’t any cold water, there was unlikely to be any hot water, either – that many thirsty people, and someone would have thought to cool the hot water, and use it to wash and drink. There wouldn’t be a drop left.

We’d have to wait for the train attendant to come past with the refreshment cart, and buy two more bottles then. I watched Lao Song’s cracked purple lips with concern; his complexion looked worse than it had the day before, when we’d boarded the train.

To forget my worries about what this might mean, I wanted to go and lie with him in his bunk. I wanted to push the window wide open and let the bracing air of China’s northern plains come pouring in, abundant and free of charge. We would be as safe and happy as two grizzly bears, rocking back and forth beneath our quilt.

Then came a rumbling sound, nearing us from afar: the refreshment trolley was finally on its way.

3

It was three thirty in the afternoon when we left the train at Jiagedaqi. It was freezing cold on the platform. When I first stepped out, it felt pleasantly cool; then I took a deep breath of air, the chill pierced the thick down of my coat, and I felt my whole body transform into a heavy iron anchor, frozen stiff, every step a struggle. Lao Song, for his part, looked to have become suddenly obese, swaddled in his overstuffed winter jacket.

Jiagedaqi is an administrative enclave, occupying over 1,200 square kilometres, upon which some 120,000 people eke out a living.

He kept up his spiel, even after we’d left the train.

“I wonder whether they introduce themselves to people as from the Northeast or Inner Mongolia?”

I interrupted him: “Why were you so keen on coming to this strange in-between place?”

“Perhaps precisely because it’s an in-between place. Just like me.”

He began cheerfully reciting a poem from our high school text book: “Some people live, but are already dead… Some people die, but carry on living.”

“Save it,” I said. “Let’s go.”

“This place controls the whole of Daxing’anling.” He pointed: “Follow this road north, and you get to Mohe county. The northernmost point in the country. You can see the northern lights.”

He had never before expressed any desire to visit Mohe. I should have guessed that he’d be desperate to go, now it had become a possibility.

The K7108 to Mudanjiang came to a halt alongside the platform. Lao Song, still in the middle of talking, looked at it in wonder.

“Now you want to go to Mudanjiang, too?” I said. “All because of that Nan Quan Mama pop song? It’s been over a decade since I heard that.”

All around us, people were coming and going, carrying bags and dragging suitcases. Quick as a flash, Lao Song put his head down and started to croon: Who’s at the door singing Mudanjiang, I listen sadly to your soft voice…

This was the chorus, which was a girl’s part. He made his voice high, getting into the role. Then he switched back to the slightly lower man’s part, singing: Can’t get back to the place called far away, ooo, can’t go back to the place called home…

I paid no attention, and waited for him to finish. Since his illness, Lao Song had morphed from a science-y computer nerd into this travel-addicted jokester. It was quite the transformation, and I still wasn’t used to it. He seemed to be suddenly rediscovering all the wonderful places the world had to offer. He also seemed to have suddenly rediscovered my existence.

In this rush of nostalgia, Lao Song had gone to the special effort of booking a place for us to stay online: an old Soviet-style house, renovated into a family guesthouse. We arrived at the station at three-thirty and then spent forever checking in at the hotel, only to discover there was an abundance of atmosphere, but not much in the way of central heating. The tiny bit of stuffy dry heat we’d carried with us off the train had long since dissipated in the freezing winter air. Luckily, there was at least hot water in the bathroom. I had a fleeting shower, almost boiling off a layer of skin, then dived into the bed, which was cold as an icehouse and made me want to scream in shock. Lao Song gave his body a few quick wipes and came to join me, ice-cold from head to toe.

“It’s fucking freezing, what the hell happened to central heating? We have to change rooms. How can we stay here if we’re frozen to death? Fuck, I’m dying fast enough as it is.”

Lao Song was furious, playing the tough man and spewing complaints in his adopted Beijing accent. His voice was shaking with cold; I was shivering just as hard. He put his arms around me. He had been battling out life in Beijing for over a decade, ever since he arrived as a student. Originally from Zhejiang, by now his voice was pure Beijinger. I thought of the Nan Quan Mama song he’d been singing when we’d just left the train: perhaps home really was a place we couldn’t go back to. For some inexplicable reason, I found myself crying.

When Lao Song saw, he panicked. Shaking, he tried to kiss away the tears. The attraction between us was like an animal frozen inside a block of ice, and the ice was melting, gradually revealing the outline within. Then, speeding up, the ice turned to steam, became a cauldron of piping hot soup. The central heating, too, had gradually come to life. Most likely the hotel had only just turned it on; they must have kept it switched off when there were no guests around, to save on bills.

And so one thing led to another. We made the most of this thaw and, afterwards, lay sprawled on the bed, contented.

“Before all this, I had no idea what I was missing,” said Lao Song. “We could have been having so much fun. It’s so much better when we don’t argue. There are still a million places I want to take you – Mohe, Mudanjiang, Istanbul, Kashgar, Cambodia, Luang Prabang… I was an idiot, I really was. I thought I had my whole life ahead of me, that I could take things slow.”

I had my head resting on his arm, and was studying a round fixture on the ceiling, trying to decide whether it was a light, or something else. I’ve never been able to figure this out for sure, and yet they’re on every hotel ceiling, standard issue.

After this outpouring of emotion, Lao Song was suddenly gloomy.

“You haven’t truly forgiven me, have you? You just think I’ll be gone soon, so you take pity on me. Indulge me. Isn’t that so?”

“We’ve been through this. Don’t say things like that.” I turned my back to him, so that my head was no longer on his arm.

“For a long time, I hated you,” he said, under his breath, as though talking to himself. “I hated that you never had any time for me. I hated that you were always threatening to leave, that you preferred to go out to eat with your friends, that you’d go watch a film instead of coming home. I did everything I could to try to provoke you, but it was useless. Sometimes, I did feel like I’d let you down. When I was in business, drinking too much and making my liver hurt, I used to think to myself that life was too exhausting, and I’d be better off dead. If I died, I thought, then you’d be sorry you hadn’t treated me better. It’s funny, isn’t it: all of that just because I wanted you to be sorry, to feel torn apart with regret. And now it’s all come true and I find out, too late, that the fucker most torn apart with regret is me.”

I was still angry at him for what he’d said earlier, about being gone soon. He hauled me around to face him, and made me look straight in his eyes. “I’m telling the truth,” he said. “Really.”

There’s something slightly ridiculous about a man’s face when he cries. I steeled myself, and said: “What do I have to regret? I’m not the one who did anything wrong. I was always there. I didn’t go anywhere.”

He fell silent and slowly stretched out his arm, inviting me to rest my head again. I tensed my neck, and stayed where I was.

“You’re angry.” He sounded cheerful again.

“You’re psycho,” I said.

“Don’t be too nice to me all of a sudden. Don’t be nice to me just because I’m dying.”

I clenched my teeth. “You’re scum. You don’t deserve people being nice to you.”

I thought this would make him angry. But when I turned to look at him, he simply looked deep in thought.

“Do you think that, deep down, perhaps everyone enjoys being scum?” he asked. “What if we’re all just incapable of being good to our partners?

4

Jiagedaqi was not a big city. It may have been a regional capital, but the whole place was falling apart. Cities usually liven up at night, but in Jiagedaqi the narrow, muddy streets stayed just the same, rising and falling beneath the yellow glow of the streetlights. It felt more like a city from the 70s or 80s. Apparently, there had already been quite a few snowfalls, and we were due for another that evening. We stopped in a little restaurant nearby for some noodles, and Lao Song declared himself certain we’d wake up to a beautiful snowscape. But with 120,000 people scattered over one thousand and something square kilometres, I found it a horrifying prospect: we’d be just a couple of black specks in a vast expanse of white.

I slightly regretted agreeing to accompany Lao Song to such a desolate place. It clearly wasn’t going to do his health any good, with the cold, the snow, and the damp. But he was in good spirits, saying it was only natural that the place was a bit backward. Since Heilongjiang couldn’t assume control of a city in annexed territory, and Inner Mongolia kept shouting about wanting it back, neither side was willing to invest in developing the region, for fear that all the benefits would be reaped by the other.

“It’s important to have a sense of belonging, not to feel torn between two sides.” Lao Song kept talking as we made our way back to the guesthouse. “We should respect what’s been put down on paper.”

I pretended not to catch the implied meaning behind his statement. “But who cares about all that red tape nowadays?” I said. “It gets oppressive, don’t you think?”

“It finally makes sense,” he carried on. “We need people to take care of us, to be with us at the end.”

“I knew that’s what you were after.”

“I’m not!” he said. “Not only that, anyway.”

The next morning, we went for a short stroll through the city centre, back to being as stiff with one another as insects trapped in amber. With our hands stuffed in the pockets of his down overcoat, we looked as we had when we’d first started dating. Except, this time, his hands were ice cubes. One touch and we were both shivering.

After asking around at the front desk, we finally established there was only one thing that merited the title “local specialty”: sesame sauce noodles. We found a busy restaurant in the city centre, and ordered two bowls. They were very dry, and didn’t seem all that special to us; Lao Song gave up after one mouthful, which he swallowed with some difficulty. The doctor had told me this was not uncommon and that, as far as possible, he should be eating nourishing, liquid foods. But Lao Song was not willing to live off rice porridge – he wanted to eat roasted kidneys and meat cooked on the bone. He really wanted to, but the reality was that he couldn’t get them down: he would simply sit there staring, watching the steam thin out as the meat turned cold.

Jiagedaqi also had a Yang Guofu spicy soup outlet and a Wu Ming Yuan rice noodle joint. These made it seem just like any other nondescript northern city, where the fanciest brands around were low-end high street names like Guirenniao sports, Yishion fashion, Jeanswest and K-Boxing men’s outfitters. Every provincial town in China was the same, right down to the salesgirls standing bored senseless at the entrance to every store, looking like they’d been popped from the exact same mould. The locals rushing past never cast so much as a second glance inside.

The barbecue stands were quiet in the afternoons. Two women were cracking pumpkin seeds and chatting about family matters, playing with an over-swaddled little kid from a neighbouring stall. Neither was there any daytime trade for the hairdresser’s next door; the insulating curtain over its door swooshed to one side and a girl walked out, her clothes bundled up against the cold, a gormless expression on her face.

They were all laughing, adults and children alike. And it seemed to me that they would live like that for all the rest of the days under the sun. Cooking, falling in love, strolling around, having children, attending funeral services when someone died, then carrying on eating and drinking, just as before. My chest tightened. It didn’t seem fair.

“I’m just one tiny, insignificant little person,” said Lao Song, placidly. “When I die, the earth will keep turning, as it always does. If you want to keep going, you’ll just have to find a way to forget me.”

I was shaken. How had he known what I was thinking?

He pulled me to him, the knuckles on his thin hand protruding sharply. He stroked me. I lowered my eyes, and stopped watching the passers-by.

“You’re sad again,” Lao Song chuckled. “You’re burying your head in the sand. The situation is what it is, what will be will be. Even if I’m not always good to you, at least you can be glad I’m not hiding anything from you.”

After a long pause, I said: “And you’ve never considered that this is its own form of cruelty? Telling me everything, no matter what, without ever pausing to think whether I can handle it.”

“But you can handle it,” he said. “I know you. I can handle it, too. This is real life, it happens all the time.”

“Can we talk about something else?” I was practically begging him. “Let’s talk about something happy, not always this same old thing.”

“But there’s really nothing to get upset about. We’re just strolling about, taking in the sights. To tell the truth, everyone gets a little impatient sometimes. Waiting around is a frustrating business. It hurts. Sometimes, I think to myself that life is so tiring, I’m lucky I won’t make it to old age. You, on the other hand, will have to keep on fighting.”

“I’m giving you one last chance.” I pulled away my hand. “Another word of this morbid talk, and I’m leaving. Immediately. Right away. Don’t think I won’t do it!”

He smiled and looked at me indulgently, as though regarding a petulant child. I hated it when he looked at me like that. It made me feel as though he were already a ghost, gazing down from on high, watching affectionately as I continued to stumble my way along this mortal coil, decades in the future.

At the farmer’s market across the road, Lao Song had a sudden craving, and decided to buy half a kilo of oranges. He held one of the jewel-bright fruits in his hand, raising it proudly aloft. He said the colour was especially impressive when it caught the sunlight, like a Repin painting.

“How about we go back and eat oranges in bed?” He lowered his voice, meaningfully. Rather than sounding romantic, it came off as slightly sleazy, but I welcomed this burst of playfulness.

“Before we’ve even had dinner?” I said, equally meaningfully.

“A little indulgence won’t kill you. And we’re running out of chances,” he replied.

This sounded eerily familiar. In the early years of our relationship, we’d had a seemingly never-ending series of break-ups. The way you do when you’re young, the second things were a little difficult, we’d declare it over, saying that it simply wasn’t meant to be. Then he’d fight like a tiger to get me back and, every time, once we were lying there in bed, he’d fume with anger: “Keep acting like this, and who knows who you’ll end up with in future! We’re running out of chances.”

The first few dozen times, he kept count; then he lost track and stopped counting altogether. We still argued, but the frequency gradually decreased. And so it went on, for years. Longer than the eight-year War of Resistance against Japan.

We’d made a pact never to mention the illness. I kept my side of the bargain, but he was always breaking his. I hadn’t expected a cancer patient to have such a strong libido – perhaps because the liver is a reasonable distance from the prostate, the cancer didn’t seem to affect it too much. And after seeing his medical report, I decided to go with it; I wasn’t going to turn him down. Perhaps I also thought: we’re running out of chances.

In reality, I didn’t have to do much, just wrap my arms around this body I knew so well, its flesh frailer by the day. I pretended not to notice how his complexion grew ever more grey and sunken, or how the chemotherapy left big handfuls of his hair on the pillow. I carried painkillers around with me, to give him whenever he complained of pain in his liver, fighting one poison with another. He was especially fond of oranges, so when he wouldn’t take his medicine, I’d buy oranges and give him one for each dose. Once, I tasted the medicine and, to be honest, it wasn’t all that bitter. Perhaps he just felt like throwing a tantrum. And I felt like indulging him. It had never been this way before – in the past, it was all about fighting, sex, making up.

Our families knew nothing of what was going on. We didn’t dare tell his mother the truth, instead maintaining it was benign, and treatable. Otherwise, she’d never have let him step foot outside the hospital and would have come over wailing and banging her head on the floor. And the thing is, even when you’re in the hospital to die, they still put you through ten, twenty rounds of chemotherapy, so that in the end you barely resemble a human anymore. And then you die anyway. I hadn’t said anything to my parents, either. They couldn’t have done anything to help. It didn’t seem worth it.

So, in the end, it became our secret. A secret that seemed both as big as the sky and like some sort of children’s game. Sometimes, I felt like I was stupid to go along with it. But the doctor said Lao Song had left things too long and, treatment or no treatment, it wouldn’t make much difference. We’d been broken up a little over six months. He’d thought the pain in his liver was a manifestation of his anger towards me, and hadn’t gone to get it checked. By the time it was discovered, it was too late.

I’d imagined what would happen if he were to die while we were in bed. Calm, despite my obvious grief, I’d go by myself to call the doctor, and make a report to the police. But, in the end, no such thing ever happened. Every time, once we were done, he’d somehow manage to haul himself up, even mustering the strength to get out of bed for paper towels, to clean up.

“Maybe there’s been a mistake,” I said. “You don’t seem ill at all. You’ll live as long as one thousand tortoises and ten thousand turtles, all put together. Millions of years! I’ll be ashes, and you’ll still be walking this earth, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.”

“Don’t talk like that,” said Lao Song. “I had hundreds of tests and it’s truly hopeless. Besides, I never used to go this crazy for sex before I was diagnosed, did I?

The heating in the room had ramped up to the point it was starting to feel like the train, hot and stuffy enough to drive a person mad. I forced open the locked window and a few snowflakes drifted in on the draft, landing on my arm like a series of icy kisses. As the sky darkened, we kissed, then kissed again. A floundering moth appeared from somewhere – most likely the corridor, rather than outdoors. I wanted to chase it through the window but Lao Song stopped me, saying, “No, it’s minus twenty out there.”

“But I’m scared of moths,” I said. “They drop dust.”

“It might drop dust but it’s still a life,” he replied. “If we put it out, it’ll die for sure.”

Lao Song had been especially gloomy and sentimental since his diagnosis. I tended not to say anything when he came out with comments like this. I leaned against the headboard of the bed, watching the moth flap in lonely circles around the room, imagining the invisible dust raining down on me from its wings. My whole body itched. I wished it wasn’t there.

“But what good is it for any future generations?” I couldn’t resist asking Lao Song. “Even if it makes it to spring, it’ll be in here all by itself.”

“Perhaps it had a partner, and the partner’s dead.”

“Dead and gone,” I said. “This one left alive must be unbearably lonely. It probably wants to die.”

He stared at the moth with a sudden intensity. “You know what? I’m so happy we never had a child together.”

He certainly hadn’t felt that way before. Lao Song was always accusing me of not wanting kids. He piled on the pressure, telling me things his mother had said, making pointed remarks about how his family were crawling the walls with worry, saying I didn’t love him, that I was taking birth control behind his back. This was another of the things we argued about, over and over again. Later, a doctor sent him for some men’s health check-ups and the matter was finally cleared up: his sperm mobility was substandard. It makes sense, when you think about it: he was the sick one.

And now it was coming to an end. All that remained was the two of us, in this enclave where we knew no one at all, in a little guesthouse without any other guests. No children, no lovers, no past, no future – only one solitary moth, spiralling overhead. I rarely gave much thought to eternity but, in that moment, I wished time would stop where it was.

He broke the silence: “When the time comes… don’t be too sad.”

“What will it matter to you?”

“In all the books and films and TV shows, dying people act a little mean, so that when they’re really dead, it’s easier on the people they leave behind. But I can’t bring myself to do it. I want you to miss me. I don’t want you to be too sad, but I don’t want you to be completely not sad, either. Don’t spend all your time missing me, but don’t forget me. I lived. I loved. Am I being selfish? Is it wrong of me to drag you around with me, to be talking to you like this?”

I was on my guard.

“Don’t be stupid about this,” I said. “Don’t go off and die somewhere far away, where I can’t find you. Don’t make me turn the world upside-down looking for you.”

“Are you joking?” said Lao Song. “While I’m still capable of seeing you, I want to see you − every chance I can get.”

To tell the truth, I didn’t like him when he went all sincere and affectionate. To put an end to it, we had sex again, only this time I didn’t feel any desire at all. Perhaps he didn’t, either. It just felt like something we should do, to confirm to ourselves the physical existence of the other. But something sounded wrong. Several times, he paused for a while, panting, then started again.

“Okay?” I asked.

He grit his teeth.

“Yes,” he said.

During that interminable process, I opened my eyes, and saw the sky still darkening outside the window. The last few snowflakes fluttered in the glow of the streetlights, whirling gently, then disappearing. That night, we seemed cut off from the rest of the world. I felt like I’d been dead a long time, and that it turned out dead people, too, made laborious, pointless love. And so it dragged on.

5

Originally, we had agreed to keep going until we reached a remote, snowy part of the Daxing’anling countryside. The idea was that we’d pick wild snow lotus, catch a pheasant, and cook up a restorative stew for Lao Song’s health. Ever since reading a newspaper article about the last Daxing’anling woodsman giving in and changing profession, and the hundreds of little log cabins abandoned out there in the snowy wastes, Lao Song had been like a man possessed: he wanted to go into the forest, dig for pine mushrooms, trap hares, build bonfires, and live in a little log cabin. He wanted to be a man of nature. Perhaps then he could escape the cycle of rebirth, and live forever.

And this was why we had set off into the frigid winter. I’d taken annual leave from my work. He hadn’t told his family about his illness, but he’d taken his doctor’s certificate in to show his boss. He returned, beaming, to tell me: “You’ll never guess what, he looked as though he were already attending my funeral.”

Such a lighthearted attitude to life and death was not something I’d have expected from Lao Song. After I found out what happened, we were estranged, locked in a cold war for over six months, and it was during those six months that the symptoms first appeared – and rapidly worsened. Lao Song said it was payback, a kind of instant karmic retribution for the way he’d mistreated me. He laughed, and said, “It’ll be worth it, if I die in your arms. Just like we used to promise.”

It was true that, when we were first dating, I liked to ask him what he would do if I died. To start with, he’d say, “If you died, I’d run to the roof of the teaching block, and throw myself off.” I asked him again, a few years later, and he said, most likely, he’d weep for a while, then find another partner, a couple of years down the line. “I’d tell her how fond I was of you”, he said, “you’d never be forgotten”. Later still, I asked again, and he said, “Stop going on about it, it’s annoying.”

Smashing things over the most trivial of issues. Storming out of the house. No sooner were we married than it felt like it was over, and we floundered − terrified − in the swamp of our marriage. Because I expected too much of him, I was easily disappointed. I’d make things up, just to provoke him and watch him suffer; I kept announcing that I wanted to leave the country. But I never got any further than memorising foreign vocab on my subway rides. How was I ever really going to work up the nerve to go and struggle as a second-class citizen in some other country? Only some enormous, insurmountable calamity would have prompted me to go ahead with such a move. And, in peacetime, such an earth-shattering event seemed unlikely.

But then there really was an insurmountable calamity. Not Lao Song’s illness, but Lao Song’s affair.

It was a year when our arguments were particularly frequent. It had started fairly well − we were still travelling to and from work together, even scrolling through group-discount sites together from time to time, ordering in bargain gourmet foods. It was our fourth year of being married; our seventh of being together. We were together three years before we married, so perhaps it all came down to some kind of seven-year itch. I don’t know the exact day it started, but he suddenly accused me of being too stubborn, saying I would never admit to being wrong. I asked him whether he’d been infected by some kind of macho man cancer, demanding to know where this sudden bout of male chauvinism had sprung from?

We went out for a walk, and he messed up again. “It’s funny,” he said. “Holding your hand feels just like holding my own.”

At first, I thought he was being sweet, but later I realised that he was saying he didn’t feel anything.

In the past, I’d picked on him, but that year it was him picking on me, over every little thing − my habits, my hobbies − until I lost my temper. He didn’t try to calm me down when I was angry; if I opened the car door and ran off, he’d simply drive on without me. And there I’d be again, eyes streaming tears, left to make my own way home via a series of buses. Back then, divorce still seemed the most terrifying of outcomes, but we both brought it up, not having any idea what to do for the best. Every time, though, we each had our reasons not to. And so it dragged on. My first thought every morning was: “Why is he treating me like this?” I hated him. To tell the truth, I wished him dead on more than one occasion.

Every so often, we’d both be home, and I’d be in the mood for cooking. He’d barely eat, and before he’d said so much as a couple of sentences, we’d be arguing again. Once, I opened the door and told him to get out, hurling all his untouched food onto the floor in front of him. Then he really did get out. The most ridiculous time was when we made a point of leaving the house at separate times, only to come face to face outside the public library. He looked slightly pleased to see me there, announcing: “I’m returning some books, then I’ve plans to be elsewhere, so you’ll have the house to yourself tonight. Maybe you can reflect on how you’ve treated me.”

“Funny,” I replied, “why is it you never feel the need to reflect on how you’re treating me?”

For a year, we battled on like this. During the Spring Festival, my family could see he wasn’t treating me the way he used to − he wasn’t listening to a word I said, and we were bickering over every tiny thing.

“Let’s get a divorce,” I said to him, once we’d made it through the celebrations.

He asked why.

“This is a waste of time,” I replied. “We’re wearing away each other’s self-esteem, getting more and more dissatisfied, losing all hope for the future, and it doesn’t have to be this way. We don’t have children, so let’s make the most it and cut our losses now. Let’s offer each other a way out of all this.”

It just so happened to be Valentine’s Day. In the lamplight, he looked at me for a long while. I just so happened to be wearing a pair of pyjamas he’d bought for me back when we were dating, featuring two little bears holding hands, sniffing sweetly at some flowers. A hint of emotion crept into his expression. A little while later, he said: “I think you’ve found someone else.”

“That’s psycho,” I said.

“Last year, I read your diary.” He seemed to have made up his mind. He had the air of someone throwing down their trump card.

I was shocked. I had written about someone in my diary, but it was a total work of fiction. I wasn’t a writer, but I’d loved literature for years and when married life proved uninspiring, I’d fantasised about an adoring boyfriend, in the first rush of love. I’d forgotten all about him; it was just one of those things I’d vented in my diary.

“You wrote about him with such tenderness and adoration… and everything was so vivid. What happened, the time, the place, the atmosphere. That’s when I knew for sure that you didn’t love me anymore, not even a little bit.”

Lao Song sounded heart-broken.

“And so I found someone else, too. I think she truly cares for me. And I… I care for her, too.”

There’s no need to describe what happened next. The evening of that Valentine’s Day was utterly ruined by that one, single sentence. The man in my diary was a work of fiction; I had never had an affair, not in all those years. That “her” Lao Song was talking about, on the other hand, was a living, breathing human being. She was a client of his, and every few weeks they had the opportunity to meet in person. I grabbed his phone, and discovered that they had been texting back and forth that very evening. They were those kind of messages that are intentionally vague but loaded with hidden meaning. When I finished reading, I threw the phone out of the window. Twelfth floor. We were still in the first month of the lunar new year, and there were people setting off fireworks outside. As the phone hit the ground, a firework shot up with a loud bang. It was quite magnificent to behold, and seemed only fitting.

I bit him, kicked him, slapped him around the face, screeched hysterically. He put up with the attack until he could stand it no more, then he fought back, although without much force. I hadn’t known I was capable of crying like that. I felt like the world was ending. I ran downstairs to retrieve the phone, desperately searching through for that woman’s phone number. It was no use: Lao Song snatched it away from me, and I was no match for his strength.

“Why not keep writing her messages?” I asked. “It’s Valentine’s Day, after all. Go on, keep on sending them, why not? Why not keep sending them all night?”

“You’re crazy,” was all he said in response. And yet there was a glimmer of happiness in his eyes. Perhaps he was the crazy one.

After staying up fighting all night, he went to work as usual the next morning. I wept as I started to tidy up, and found myself crouched on the bathroom floor, crying so hard it felt impossible to move. My eyes in the mirror looked as red as those of an albino rabbit. Since the onset of our cold war, Lao Song had criticised me constantly for being slack about housework. This time, I made sure there was not a single item dirty or out of place: I mopped the floors, washed our clothes, changed the bed sheets, scrubbed the toilet bowl. I wanted to make him feel sorrier than he ever had in his life. For some reason, that was a theme of our relationship − each of us going mad trying to make the other feel sorry. The whole of our courtship and marriage had been geared around it, and we were prepared to do whatever it took to achieve that aim.

I scrubbed the toilet so clean it could have just left the factory. Then, still crying, I threw together a few changes of clothes, some books, and some toiletries, and I left. I requested leave from work and removed the SIM card from my phone, throwing it in my bag and switching in a new one. I took the high-speed train to Tianjin, then the ferry from Tanggu harbour to the Penglai peninsula. During the crossing, I cried into the sea, gazing out to the horizon, planning how I’d find myself a deserted cliff and jump off.

But by the time we came ashore I was hungry. I’d heard the seafood there was especially good. I found a little restaurant and, still crying, ordered myself a drink. I drank two big bottles of Qingdao beer, and polished off a pile of seafood: cuttlefish, oysters, sea hares. It all came to less than two hundred kuai. I swayed drunkenly back to the hotel and, when I woke the next morning, found I no longer felt so much like killing myself. Was it really worth it, over that asshole? But I still struggled to make sense of what had gone wrong over the last seven years, for us to have come to this.

That seafood would be my last dinner on the peninsula; after that evening, I didn’t leave the hotel for one week straight. Every so often I’d go downstairs for the free breakfast but, aside from that, I slept, and when I woke up I cried, and when I tired of crying I turned on the television to watch some news, and then I slept again. After seven days, I’d finally had enough of my grieving ritual, and decided it was time for my rebirth. I was ready to go back into battle and face the world once again. I would put in my old SIM card, return to work, file for divorce, and flit back to the way things used to be, in the old days.

The moment I switched SIM cards, I received a barrage of messages, mostly advertisements, or work notifications. And some from him. “Where are you, come back soon, come back so we can talk,” that kind of thing. No “I’m sorry.” No “I love you.”

I didn’t reply.

I felt oddly calm on the ferry crossing, looking out on the blue-grey sea. I hadn’t killed myself and I didn’t think I’d feel the urge again in the future, either. It was as though I’d left a version of myself behind on Penglai, and been reborn into a new body. Life, death, rebirth, so the cycle carries on. I didn’t feel bitter, but neither did I feel I could ever believe in love again. Or, I should say, believe in the thing I once thought was love.

Back in Beijing, I rented a little room close to work. Lao Song called me from time to time, but I never picked up, just let it ring. He’d wait a few days, then try again. Sometimes, in a fit of desperation, he’d call two or three times in a row, but I still wouldn’t answer. He called my office phone, but I hung up as soon as I heard his voice.

He sent me a text message, saying he was sorry. “I know you can never forgive me, but I hope we can meet one more time, to talk this through.”

I deleted the message, and did not write back. A few days later, I sent him the divorce papers. At long last, he left me alone.

He left me alone for seven or eight months. In October, when I’d finally weaned myself off sleeping pills and started to make it through the night without waking up from a nightmare in tears, I received a message from Lao Song: “I’m dying. I’d like to see you one last time before I go.”

“He always has to be so melodramatic,” I thought, with disgust.

Two days later, he appeared at the entrance to my office as I was finishing work. I was shocked at the state of him: he was thin as a ghost − a ghost with a waxy yellow complexion. I’d also lost some weight, but it was clear he’d lost a lot more. If we’d been competing to see who suffered the most over the course of our cold war, he’d have won this round.

He stood watching me from the doorway, unable to tear his eyes away. It was as though he hadn’t seen me for years, and he needed to make absolutely sure I were really there. He was holding a piece of paper and looking slightly pleased with himself.

I went over. Icily, I took the piece of paper from him, assuming it was our divorce contract.

“Did you sign it?” I asked. Then I looked down, read through, and laughed. “Lao Song, where the hell did you get this grisly thing. You’re taking this whole act of yours a little too far.”

He didn’t answer. “You’re much thinner,” he said.

I couldn’t help myself; I burst into tears. Not because of my feelings for him, but because of his tenderness towards me. I managed to keep smiling. I looked up at him, and through the haze of the tears all I could see were his trembling lips.

“It’s a shame you never made it to the Oscars, big guy,” I said. “You got me, you win. Happy?”

He said nothing, just carried on staring at me blankly, with that horrendous colour to his face.

I kept a stiff smile plastered to my face but gradually it stopped being a smile, and I started to shake. I shook so violently that I alarmed even myself; my knees were knocking together, and my whole body lurching from side to side. The hand holding the sheet of paper trembled uncontrollably. The two of us stood there in the late autumn dusk, shaking like two Parkinson’s sufferers, unable to get a word out.

“Do you know what I was thinking, in that moment?” I asked Lao Song, later on. “I was thinking that saying you never want to see another person ever again isn’t the kind of thing to throw around lightly.”

6

We travelled from Jiagedaqi to Yi’ershi, then on to the Daxing’anling border. We hadn’t quite made it into the Axlan forest park proper when Lao Song deteriorated dramatically. The pain in his liver was agonising and, when it was at its worst, his hands and feet turned violet. He writhed on the bed, everything proceeding just as it does in books: “a waxen complexion, beads of sweat the size of beans”. Any further intimacy was out of the question: his abdomen swelled up and could not be touched; one gentle knock and it erupted into an enormous purple bruise. One evening, he lost consciousness for twenty minutes or so, and when he woke up he coughed blood. It was a small quantity, and a dark, purplish-red, suggesting it came from a bleed somewhere in his digestive tract. He had constant diarrhoea, despite the fact there was surely nothing left for his body to expel − he hadn’t had a proper meal in days.

We travelled through the night to get him to a hospital. The doctor looked as though he was seeing a ghost.

“What are you doing running around outside with an illness this serious?” He asked. “Do you want to die out there?” Then he laid into me, too: “Are you his family or his mortal enemy? How could you let him do this?”

“I know,” I said. “In two days, he’ll be back in the hospital in Beijing. We’re not going to Daxing’anling.”

The doctor rolled his eyes at me, as though I were the most negligent family member he’d ever come across. He walked to the other end of the hospital ward, leaving us to ourselves.

“I didn’t take you to see the little log cabin,” said Lao Song, lying back on his pillow. “Now we’ll have to wait for the next life.”

For a while, I was crying too hard to speak. He carried on: “Remember we used to do that personality quiz, where we had to pick our dream house? I always chose a little log cabin, and you always went for a seaside villa. I used to think we wouldn’t make it very far as a couple, if we wanted such different things in life. No wonder you packed your bags and headed for Penglai, after we broke up. In those days you were gone, I tracked down details of your ferry tickets. Of course you were in Penglai, just as I’d thought. So at least I knew you weren’t punishing yourself. You ate seafood, right? You had a few drinks?”

I laughed, in spite of myself. “Yes, I ate seafood. Two hundred kuai of seafood. I was stuffed.”

“I thought you’d never come back,” he said. “I finally realised, I really… I really… you know. Fuck, how come I never had trouble getting my words out with anyone else.”

“I was planning to jump off a cliff once I was done with the seafood,” I said. “You have no idea how good those mantis shrimp were. And you have no idea how much of a bastard you were back then.”

He stretched out his hand, straining to cover my mouth, to stop me saying anymore, but he couldn’t reach. His bony hand clutched vainly in the gloomy evening light. I brought my mouth closer, and let him cover it. He slowly turned away. I guessed he was crying.

At university, we were always taking the train somewhere. And we always argued on the train, and getting off the train, and once we arrived at our destination. Although, of course, the good times did still slightly outnumber the bad. Back then, we quite often couldn’t afford to travel sleeper; we might save up for two hard sleeper tickets on the way out, but on the return journey we’d be in the hard seat carriage. I thought about how, on those hard seater journeys, the sickly white lights were never turned out, making everyone in the carriage look grey and defeated. Just as Lao Song did, now. For fear of pickpockets, we used to sleep in shifts, leaning against one another for support. Once, he drooled onto my shoulder while he was sleeping. I wiped it off and then looked down at his slack, peaceful eyebrows, his nose, his mouth − all things I’d seen before − and had the sudden thought: “This is the closest I’ll be to any person in my life.”

I teased him about it when he woke up.

“And you think you never drool!” he said. “Last time, when you were lying with your head in my lap, my crotch was almost completely soaked! It looked as though I’d peed my pants.”

We giggled about that for a long time. That was a journey when we didn’t fight. I’ll always remember it for that; it was especially good.

We went back to Beijing. At Lao Song’s insistence, we took the train again. We even ended up on the same train as before, the K498. Two top bunks.

This time, I remembered to buy a mug from the supermarket. But Lao Song said he wanted Fanta. He had always loved orange-flavoured things. It didn’t matter whether they were real oranges or fizzy drinks.

“Do you ever ask yourself why, when there are so many people, and when you’re so young… why this had to happen to you?” I asked him, out of the blue. “Do you ever think, Why me? What did I do wrong?”

“Perhaps because I was in sales so long, and I drank heavily,” said Lao Song. “Perhaps because I was so angry with you.”

“So you’re still blaming me.”

“You’re right, I shouldn’t blame you.” He paused to think. “When all is said and done, I’m the one who messed up, and I let you down. I have always regretted it.”

“I also made mistakes,” I said. “I…”

He bent his head to drink some Fanta. He drank in minute little sips. One small bottle lasted him for hours. “I just… I just can’t talk about it anymore.”

The train back was also a night train. Once again, a never-ending series of lights flashed past the window. Sometimes they were yellow, sometimes white. Sometimes they were green, like weak phosphorescence. I was afraid of the many unknown things lurking out there in darkness. Perhaps Lao Song was, too. I didn’t know how to ease his fears, other than to clasp his hand a little tighter.

“We’ll never know whether or not that moth died,” said Lao Song, abruptly, the two of us staring fixedly out of the window.

7

The girl showed up at Lao Song’s funeral. That “her” of his. She stood a long way off, a little apart from the crowd, wearing a pair of oversized sunglasses. I’d never seen her before but, even from a distance, I knew who she was the moment I laid eyes on her.

In that instant, the flickering shapes of the other people, the sounds of their talking and weeping, all faded into the background. Even the matter of Lao Song’s death seemed very far away. She was the only thing left in focus. She wasn’t as beautiful as I’d imagined. She was just an ordinary person, although one thing was for sure: there was something of the old university-era me about her, right down to the way she wore her hair. A sharp, jaw-length bob. Lao Song always had liked the taste of oranges, whether it was Fanta or the real thing.

I left the crowd and went to stand right in front of her. She had been looking down, but when she saw me approaching she quickly looked up, as though afraid I’d hit her. But of course I didn’t hit her. I even took the time to notice her outfit. She was not dressed all in black. Her woollen overcoat was a kind of dark mauve colour, and she was wearing a fake pearl brooch in place of a white flower. I, on the other hand, was wearing orange. Lao Song had so loved to eat oranges, my reasoning ran, that the last thing he saw should be just as sweet.

We must have been a strange sight, two women standing face to face like that, not saying a word. She spoke first. She said: “Sorry.”

I said: “It’s okay. I don’t blame you.”

I couldn’t make out whether she had single or double eyelids, but I watched as two lines of tears leaked behind her sunglasses and ran down her cheeks. My face was reflected in her lenses, blank and slightly distorted.

“After you left… we never saw one another again,” she said. “Was he in a lot of pain, at the end?”

“When you were together, how could you not have noticed something was wrong?” I replied, unable to resist the dig. “If he’d gone to the doctor earlier, maybe he’d still be here.”

She avoided answering, biting down hard on her lip.

“We only ever met two or three times outside of work. He used to talk about you a lot. He said you were very beautiful. Now I’ve seen you, and you’re even more beautiful than I imagined.”

I wanted to thank her but, at the same time, the idea made me slightly sick. I thought about it, and in the end I said nothing.

She wiped the tears behind her glasses, and said she should be going. As she was leaving, she turned to say: “The last time I heard from Lao Song, he said he felt like he didn’t understand himself at all, and neither did he understand me. But he felt you were the one person he truly knew in this life, and you were the only one who knew him. I don’t understand why he told me this, but I thought you should know.”

I watched the dark mauve woollen overcoat retreat into the distance. I didn’t understand why she’d told me this. Perhaps it was simply an attempt to comfort me. She didn’t seem even a little jealous of me. And the strange thing was, I didn’t feel even a little jealous of her, either. The man was dead, after all. Everything is always, always changing.

After Lao Song passed away, I kept dreaming of that log cabin we never visited, in the middle of the woods. There was always dazzling sunshine, although it was gently spitting with rain, and the sky was a brilliant blue. Lao Song would walk over from a snowy little lane behind the cabin, chuckling to himself, holding something − sometimes it’d be a snowcock, sometimes a hare. In the dream, he had finally achieved immortality. Sometimes, I’d glimpse her flashing past in the background, her face still hidden behind her sunglasses. When it came to the question of who Lao Song had loved the most, neither of us had any way of ever knowing the truth. Perhaps even he had never been sure. But that’s the way things are: to love, not to love, to win, to lose − in the end, it doesn’t really matter. And so it often is, with these mortal affairs of ours.

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